Josh ran a chunky finger over the embossed texture of the letters, examining them closely. He then lifted the cheque to his face and smelt it, not that he expected its smell to give anything away. The cheque had arrived in a plain white envelope without any return address. Inside, there was no letter of explanation, just his cheque for £10 000. It was a lot of money: the same amount he’d earned in the last ten months of freelance web-developing. He didn’t know why he’d chosen to become a freelance web developer. He had neither the business acumen nor the social networking skills to get the work flowing in, and it hadn’t. But now, he’d received a cheque from persons unknown for a tidy sum. He didn’t know quite what to make of it.
Even stranger was the fact it was his procrastination that had led to this gain. The trouble with working from home was that it was just too easy to wile away the hours playing games online. What Josh lacked in real world social skills, he made up for a thousand fold in his active membership of more multi-player gaming sites than he cared to enumerate. He played against people all around the world all the time. It was the anonymity of it that was golden: the fact that he could be whoever and wherever he wanted, all from his own kitchen table. In the online world, he was judged for his intelligence and stealth, not for the way he looked, dressed, or by his standards of personal hygiene or track record with women.
A week earlier, whilst hunting around the cybersphere for a new gaming challenge, a site called Gamedead.com had caught his eye. It was based on a rather unsettling premise, but somehow it had taken his fancy. The game’s objective, so the site said, was to track down and execute paedophiles: child rapists and murderers who had been released back into the community to do more damage when they should have been languishing behind bars indefinitely. There was something primal about revenge, Josh thought, something satisfying about hurting people who had hurt others, taking an eye for an eye, that made this simulation game work in theory. He signed up as a ‘Researcher’ and was paired with an ‘Executioner’, another real time gamer who would work alongside him to track down and execute an assigned ‘paedophile’.
The website stated: “the objective of this game is to hunt down and kill paedophiles that have been released into society to prey once more on our children. They may live in your street, even next door to you. It’s your job to keep our communities safe. For each paedophile killed, the winning pair of Researcher and Executioner will be paid the sum of ten thousand pounds each”.
Josh didn’t believe it meant real money, of course. It was a simulation game, all these types of things were. The coordinates were pre-programmed into the system and he had to use his sleuthing skills to solve pre-planned mysteries. The algorithms on which the game was constructed would ensure this was no easy feat and there would be plenty of twists and turns to keep Josh’s mind occupied and well away from his latest professional project – creating the back end of a website selling baby clothes. He didn’t know exactly how it worked, but then, you never quite did with these things, unless you were the coder. The challenge was the same: you were given a set of criteria and a mission to accomplish. Then, you achieved it. You won. That was all he cared about. That was his gratification.
Thomas James Altman was the name of the paedophile he was to track down. He didn’t know why he had done it at the time, but he had Googled the name, just to get rid of any niggling doubts. It wasn’t cool when simulations were based on real people as it left a bad taste in your mouth. Nothing of note came up. At least, nothing involving paedophiles. There were a lot of people with that name on Facebook and Linkedin, but they were all normal people: teenagers who’d posted images of themselves somewhere exotic whilst on a gap year or business men – one was Head of Investment Banking at Sun Group. But there were no news stories and nothing to suggest the character in the game was based on a real person.
Satisfied, Josh set about his job. Within the controlled, closeted world of the game, he was to ascertain the following information: where this man lived and whether he was close to schools and the like. Then, he had to monitor the house of the man, based on what he found out about his day-to-day movements. Did he go to work? Did people visit him – family, friends, parole officers? He did this by referring to ‘CCTV’ cameras in the man’s neighbourhood. They weren’t real CCTVs of course – they were just mock-ups on an interface that appeared rather like a cartoon. The characters in the game looked a little bit like PacMen, moving around like small aliens in a series of jerky movements, down streets and around corners, “checking in” for work or at the local pub, before bopping home and registering as “at home”. Once Josh had worked out all the relevant patterns based on this data, he was to communicate this to the Executioner, telling him when was the right time to commit the murder and how it should be done. It was up to Josh to give the command for the Executioner to enter the house and commit the crime.
It hadn’t been too hard to achieve the goal. Only four days after starting the game, Josh had pressed the ‘send in Executioner’ button. The next day, he had logged into Gamedead.com and been greeted with the news that he’d been successful. Thomas Altman was dead. The children in his neighbourhood were safe again. His research had been completed in record time and the Executioner had carried out the act. He hadn’t thought much about it as he’d had a project come in for a juice company – they wanted a three page website set up with a forty-eight hour turn-around and he had worked all night, delivering it only minutes before the 9am deadline on the same day as the cheque arrived.
Now, holding it in his hands, Josh swallowed nervously. He wasn’t an expert at getting paid, after all, and he almost laughed thinking he’d been duped into believing this was the real deal and that this cheque was for real money. It was a simulated game, so maybe the creators sent out realistic-looking cheques as part of their marketing plan. Realism wasn’t a bad tactic, he mused. He went back to the Gamedead.com website to look at the Ts and Cs at the bottom of the ‘About Us’ page. It didn’t give much away. It said, “Gamedead.com is run by a group of concerned citizens who wish to protect the children in our local communities. Ten thousand pounds is payable to each member of a successful execution team and is paid from moneys raised by our members.” It seemed to be saying the cheque was real, but he still couldn’t believe it. He’d have to take it to the bank to see.
But something still didn’t feel right. Josh’s fingers lingered nervously above the keyboard before he typed in the name again. Thomas James Altman. This time, as he pressed enter, the BBC News site sprang up followed by a few other sites including the Telegraph, the Metro and the Guardian. ‘Convicted child rapist found dead in Acton home’, the headlines announced. Josh’s throat contracted, his breath halted.
It couldn’t be true. All that data he had consulted was made-up. The CCTV footage wasn’t real camera footage, the address too was just a fake – based on Googlemaps perhaps – but it wasn’t real. He keyed in the address on Googlemaps now. When it came up, he went to Street View and stared in disbelief at the mid-terrace that he had indeed instructed the Executioner to go to. No, it couldn’t be real. He was just a gamer. He’d sat at his home computer playing a simulated game, a game where some gamemaster somewhere in the world had set clearly defined parameters – perhaps inspired by reality, but not actually real. After all, if that person had used actual data, they would first have to access to all the CCTV footage from all the nearby shops and local authorities in the whole of the area – in terms of investment, that would be nigh on impossible, even for an experienced hacker. Unless… Josh’s mind was now racing, running through all the weird and whacky conspiracy theories he’d ever heard. Was it the police? The government? Were they behind the game? Did they reward people for taking down paedophiles in a way that could then be presented as an unsolved crime, rather than having to sit tight whilst dangerous offenders made a mockery of the law? His heartbeat quickened and his mouth became ever drier as he skim read article after article that had come up in his search.
“Thomas Altman was released from prison four months ago and had been residing in a council home in Acton,” one news site said,
“Neighbours described a quiet and polite man, and families in the area were shocked firstly by his brutal murder, then devastated when they learned that he was a convicted paedophile”.
Another surmised that this was “a revenge attack, possibly by one of Altman’s early victims, now an adult. How they got information about his whereabouts is unknown. Though Altman was serving time for the rape and murder of a twelve-year-old boy, it is widely suspected that his offences go back decades. The fifty-five year old had no family and was said to be trying to get his life back on track after more than seven years behind bars.”
The articles explained that the murdered man had been “bludgeoned to death with a weapon akin to a crow-bar and had suffered post-mortem mutilation, though police declined to confirm the nature of the mutilation. He was found early this morning when an elderly female neighbour, who knew nothing of his past and had taken him under her wing, went to deliver him some eggs and found his front door was open.”
Josh felt sweat trickle down his temples as he shifted uncomfortably in his seat. A crow-bar was the weapon he had selected for his Executioner. He had agreed with his fellow gamer that as punishment for his sexual deviancy, the man should be mutilated post mortem. They had also agreed to dispose of the weapon in an industrial bin in a nearby estate. The news reports contained nothing about the weapon having been located. But then, it was too soon.
Josh felt ill. He would have been physically sick but he hadn’t eaten anything so instead he just swallowed against his increasing salivation. His head was spinning. He went back to Gamedead.com and logged in under his player identity. There was a message in his inbox. It was from ‘the Executioner’. It read: ‘Mission accomplished. Good work partner. I look forward to working with you again!’
The message had been sent at 11.55pm the night before.
On the homepage, there was already the promise of another jackpot to the team who could successfully knock-off the next target. ‘If society won’t punish these people adequately, we will’, one gamer had left in the comment box underneath this announcement. ‘Stop him before it’s too late’ read another.
The call to action was the same as that Josh had answered earlier that week: “Join the challenge. You are a researcher, enter your details to be paired with an ‘Executioner’. The winning pair will receive a jackpot. The jackpot is currently £7,000 and rising as we speak. Josh hadn’t noticed before that there was a little meter icon on the side of the page which showed the jackpot augmenting constantly by a few pounds. There were apparently people putting money on the head of the new paedophile as he was reading this. Who were they? Were they real punters, betting real money? Were they people who also believed it was just a game? And if so, what was in it for them?
Josh didn’t know what to do. But before he could do anything at all, his phone rang.
He hesitated for some moments, staring down at his mobile which was flashing and vibrating on the kitchen table. He hadn’t had to enter his mobile number on Gamedead.com. The call was from a private number.
He answered: ‘Hello?’
‘Did you get your cheque?’ It was a man’s low, gruff voice.
‘Who is this?’ Josh’s voice cracked.
Josh took a deep breath in and slumped down into his chair.
‘Did you get yours?’ Josh didn’t know what else to say.
‘Sure did. We make a good team you and me.’
‘How did you get my number?’
‘How did you get the bank details of that creep Thomas Altman?’
Josh felt suddenly ridiculous. There was no reason why the Executioners weren’t as good at hacking as he was. Just because he was the fat researcher who sat behind his computer screen at the end of his kitchen table all day, barely making a proper living and playing games to keep his mind of the fact, it didn’t mean he was alone. There were all types of people sitting behind their screens all day doing all sorts of activities, some of which were deadly.
‘What do you want?’ Josh said, trembling.
‘I just wanted to check that everything was alright, that you’re not in a panic now you realise what you’ve got yourself into. I mean, some people freak out. Some people are stupid. They say they thought it was just a game. But you knew better right? You understood that the game was real. Didn’t you?’
‘I don’t know, I mean, I guess, I…’ Josh’s brain was on overdrive. How could he have been so stupid? All sorts of terrible things happened on the internet. Pornographic images of children were circulated, killers and rapists groomed their victims, recipes for bomb-making were consulted by terrorists and sites instructing in suicide lured the lonely and vulnerable to untimely ends. How could he have been so naive as to think that just because it was a ‘game’, it could not have repercussions in the real world? It was clear from the information on the website that it was for vigilantes. Citizens who lamented the lax laws that turned killers and molesters loose after only a few years in a state of the art prison with better facilities than a lot of people lived in. But then again, it had seemed so unreal. The term ‘executioner’ had just seemed so over the top. That real people should actually put a price on the heads of modern day criminals as so alien to him that it had seemed impossible.
The facts were all so confused in his mind now. Josh was an A-class hacker. He could get into just about any system around. Morally, he wasn’t sure where he stood, but he knew he didn’t believe in people being given clean slates. Forgiveness, he supposed, was possible, but not a new identity, not peace of mind and protection from blame when someone, or many people, had died at your hands. He believed in accountability, in people saying, ‘Yes, I did that. But I’ve changed and I’m going to earn back the respect of society’. He didn’t believe in people hiding away and pretending nothing was wrong.
He’d assumed that was where his information went, onto a database of criminals, so that parents could check to see where not to let their kids play, so that young women would pack mace spray in their bags, knowing a convicted rapist lived in their block. He had hoped his research would perform this kind of social service. He had not really intended that his unknown partner would use the information to go around to the house and kill a man. Now it had happened, and all of Josh’s beliefs about accountability were squarely turned back onto him. He was going to have to own up to his own role in a brutal murder: an accessory before the fact.
‘Yes,’ Josh replied finally, ‘I knew what I was getting into.’
‘I was thinking that perhaps you wanted to meet up? Discuss strategy for next time? I mean, we seem to be a good pair, and this could net us some serious money. Have you seen what the stakes are at already?’
‘I was….’ Josh’s hand was trembling and he knew how palpable his fear was to this stranger, ‘I wasn’t thinking to enter into the next round, actually. I just needed some quick cash, you know. Now, I think I’m going to just focus on other stuff.’
‘But you can’t do that! We’re such a good team. We’ve committed a serious crime here, you know, and if you think that I’m just going to forget about it, you’re wrong. I’m not going to let you drop this. I want to keep winning. Understand?’
Josh felt the bile rising in his throat. It felt as if his body had been carried away from him, to a place from which he could not retrieve it.
‘I…’ his voice trailed off.
‘Good. So let’s meet. It’s time to put a face to the name, huh?’
‘Thursday at 10am, at that little café you go to near your house. Is it The Station Café?’
Josh felt his chest constrict tightly. He was being watched too wasn’t he? How many of them were there?
‘Ok’ he said, desperate to get off the phone. The phone went dead and Josh knew immediately he had to go to the police. He would tell them everything – everything he’d done, that is. He hadn’t killed a man – he hadn’t. He was too lazy, too shy, too self-conscious. He’d never even left his kitchen. He leapt up with a force his lethargic frame hadn’t experienced for many years. But before he could grab his coat and scarf, there was a knock at the door. Surely, it wasn’t the Executioner. They’d agreed to meet up, so he wouldn’t be here already. It was probably just the postman or a delivery man, a lost tourist … anything. Terrified, but hoping against the odds that it wasn’t who he thought it was and desperate to have contact with a real person, Josh went to his front door and opened it. Two tall, athletic looking men stood over him in the doorway.
“Are you Joshua Corben?” one of them asked.
Josh nodded, speechless.
“Police. You are under arrest for the murder of Thomas James Altman. You have the right to remain silent but anything you do say may be given in evidence against you in a court of law…”
The words faded into mute and Josh’s vision became a blur. He was on autopilot, his mind having cocooned itself, he was not listening to anything but the steady beating of his own heart. He heard his voice answering something in response to a question through the fog. He could barely hear himself explaining that he’d just had a call from the ‘Executioner’, the man responsible for this killing, this brutality.
‘That was my colleague calling from our offices. We’ve got it taped. You will be asked to review the tapes upon arrival back at the station. You may use this as part of your confession, should you wish to confess.’
‘But the killer was the Executioner… I mean, it wasn’t me… I admit I did the research…’
As he was bundled into the antiseptic smelling back of an unmarked police car, Josh heard them say: ‘We’ve been tracking you. There was no one else using the account, only you. There was no one else involved in this and we are not looking for anyone else in connection with this crime.’
Josh knew this wasn’t true. Didn’t the police know about the website? Hadn’t they read the rules? It was a two-person team, why weren’t they pursuing the Executioner?
The real world was a vile place, Josh thought as he sat in the back of the police car watching the streets and houses and people as they blurred past in the window. How he wished he had never entered it.