The Influencer

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Chapter 7

A Few Days Later

“Yo yo yo all you stupid-ass assholes, your boy Chet-ta here. Jay-kay, you know I love you. Seriously though, I hate you. Jay-kaaaaay! So you all know the drama between me and whatsherfaceIdon’tevenwanttosayhername EEW with a capital letter, like ALL of them. And I know I’ve lost viewers because of this and—” the blonde, shaggy haired human mop-dog feigned weeping in a pathetic display.

Karjiel waited in the wings. He and Carl had crossed the continental US in the blink of an eye to prey upon the City of Angels, and this man-child’s home was the first stop.

This show of emotion, this dramatic ensemble of distaste that the mop-dog played for his audience, continued. The grown man (still young, but an adult nonetheless) wiped his eyes and clearly wished there was snot to suck back when his nostrils pinched shut in an arid sniffle.

“I didn’t want to make this video. I know it’s not a normal video, bros and lady bros, but… I felt like I should like, have the opportunity to tell you why I’m getting sued and losing viewers and sponsors. I meant to be totally chill and give off good vibes, but yeah, behind the scenes of this very simple apartment of mine that I decorated just for yoooou... there was some very not so simple duh-rah-mah.

“And it’s been so much you guys, like SOOO MUCH for me to handle, and like Ewwhatsherface is a good person and all that stuff I have to say, but things happened. I’m not going to go into those things but like, I’m gonna be hoping my bros and lady bros write to my ex-sponsors, like threatening not to buy their stuff until they give me more mon—um…. listen to us!”

Chet continued his show, at one point pretending to be angry at some woman’s livestream. He became so “offended” that he was screaming. He paced around his domicile as though he had a destination in mind before insisting that his emotions were so out of control that he would “be dropped by more companies,” and abruptly ended his broadcast.

He rolled his eyes, yelling out to Karjiel, “Okay big man, I’m done with those losers, but I still like, crave their attention so… whatever. Now, let’s make a deal. And I have some questions.”

Karjiel Donomak didn’t know whether to admire Chet’s keen sense of which manipulation buttons to hit on the emotional-appeal BINGO card—or be outraged that a person could behave in such a manner. Eventually, he decided to be content that most of this YouBouber’s viewers probably deserved what would happen to them after their deal was complete.

Karjiel emerged from his stationary position in the hallway. He held the black box and looked from it to his mark. “Your problems, mop-dog—how disturbing. But I will take my leave for the night; I must reconsider our deal. Perhaps we will meet at a later date.”

Real tears ran a crooked path down Chet’s red face, a distortion caused by true indignation. And with a slight grin, Karjiel arranged to meet the following day, allowing the mop-dog a large enough slot in space and time to wallow in self-pity and non-manufactured indignation. Mop-dog would be begging to take the deal by tomorrow.

The suspense! Karjiel reveled in toying with these non-entities. It was worth a chuckle.

The Following Day—Santa Monica

Karjiel Donomak and the young man sat together next to a food stand—Hot Dog on a Stick. Chet had calmed and was ready to talk about their deal.

“Okay, just so I understand this right—if I use this phone, then I’ll get as many followers and viewers as Morgan-Amber and the others?”

“Yes,” Karjiel answered.

“Wow. That would be pretty sweet. But… why me? How did you even find me, bro?”

“Why you, huh?” Karjiel asked, eating his hotdog horizontally, dripping large amounts of ketchup, mustard, and diced onions in his beard.

Judging by the strange dress-like outfit the dude was wearing, Chet predicted that weirdo-beardo was gonna reek for weeks. “Yeaaaaaah.”

“Why do you care, mop-dog? You get hundreds of millions of followers. Why do you want to question this when it’s a good thing for you?”

“Huh. Good point. I never thought of it like that.”

Karjiel laughed—deep in his breast where it could remain a rumor—and muttered under his breath, “we will see how good the point is when all of your sheep are brainless fodder.”

“Huh?” the young man asked. “What was that you said?”

“Oh—uh—I was just-uh-just saying that… you will get more rating points from this practically painless process.”

“Cool-cool-cool-cool-cool. Yeah, I’m excited, broseph.”

“Yes, yes. I am excited for you, too. Like, Joseph.”

Chet wondered whether he should run. Weirdo-beardo had said something, and Chet had heard it, if even only on a subconscious level. His lizard brain told him to run.

Yet the allure of hundreds of millions of followers was too much.

Approximately 2,800 Miles East—Underneath the VFW

Hezekiah sat in front of the largest screen in the Cave, attentively combing through footage of the Cellheads. The initial attack in Greenpoint saw hundreds of those freaks. But now, the attacks came in drips and drabs; smaller, more diffuse.

Hezekiah tapped into the CCTV surveillance around the city.

What caught his attention was a man sitting alone on a park bench. The man held his phone in one hand, and a railroad spike in the other. Odd. Hezekiah zoomed in. The man placed his phone, screen-side facing out, onto his forehead. His movements were like a robotic arm in an assembly line—mechanical, methodical. The man held the spike out and aligned it with his phone. Then he rammed the spike into the phone. He held the spike steady with one hand while his other hand served as a bludgeoning tool—driving the spike through the phone, and into his cranium. The passersby either watched from a safe distance or bolted from the scene. A Cellhead was born. Baptized by the spurts of blood that flooded under the phone and over his face and body.

So that’s how it’s done… diabolical. What the hell was he looking at before he did it?

Hezekiah tried his damndest to see what that man had been viewing on the phone before the self-mutilation, but the footage had poor resolution—the phone’s screen just appeared as a blur of pixels. Frustrated, he moved on in his search.

He began looking for patterns. Over a matter of seconds, Hezekiah noticed that there was one group of New Yorkers who weren’t afflicted with possession—Hasidic Jews.

“Of course,” he whispered. They all have clamshell phones. No internet. And the rabbis keep strict order—no, the community keeps strict… well they don’t watch YouBoub. “Interesting…” Hezekiah picked up his red marker and wrote his observation on the very front of the manilla folder that he’d started on the Cellheads.

Who else can’t use cell phones? After some digging on the internet, he found a Pew poll. Okay…religious communities generally. No Twit-Tier, but more social networking than before. And—hmm, let’s see… if they’re active in their community, they’re active in social networking.

All this stood up to reason, of course. Technology had relocated many communities of faith onto the internet. This had been proved during the COVID-19 epidemic, when places of worship around the country saw strict limits on gathering sizes, and eventual shutdowns; in the end, only minimal pushback was heard from religious leaders. In truth, there was almost universal endorsement for the adoption of online faith services.

Hezekiah found that only between a fifth and a quarter of those who attended weekly services in their given denomination didn’t use a phone for social media or messaging at all. I’m going to bet those are the geezers like me.

But did any other community block cell phone usage outright? There were Anabaptists, of course. In their case it seemed like the ban on cell phone use wasn’t universal, but determined by each Ordnung. He chuckled when he read an article about Mennonites who were also Amazon Prime subscribers.

Nevertheless, Hezekiah noted that this was, overall, another anti-tech community.

He was surprised when he found an article on Wiley about Muslims using cell phones to proselytize (and for devotional purposes) in Nigeria. On the other hand, in the world at large, more and more people were using applications for remote sermonizing, learning, etcetera, especially after the epidemic.

Hezekiah recalled the previous administration’s targeting of certain non-profits. He pulled up the list of 426 non-profits that had met extra scrutiny and noted the faith-based organizations. Well, between the IRS and the NSA, there should be a healthy database of religious organizations…

He wrote down gov’t (IRS sc’ndl & NSA dt’bse)—able to spc’fclly mob’lz? Hezekiah was thinking that if this Cellhead spread ended up an epidemic, there would need to be a place with, for lack of a better term, herd immunity, that could be relied upon to… well, who knew what they might have to do?

Just as he was starting a metadata interdiction into several different databases, he heard the elevator opening and the doors sliding in their tracks.

“Yo, Hezzy!” Yoma yelled out. “Big takedown last night, ol’ man. Took down three whorehouses. Leveled three dens of siiiiiiinnnnn,” she drew out the last word for emphasis. Hezekiah said nothing, but she went on anyaway. “That last hustler shit himself. I almost cracked. Were you watchin’ that?”

She walked over, noting the old man’s preoccupation with an Excel layout and three different computer monitors running algorithms. Under the big rectangular stainless steel table where Hezekiah sat working, there was a new machine. There were a dozen different neon-light-encased circles with fan-housings covering them—it looked like little fairy lights trapped behind a porthole prison. The dozen lights were attached to sturdy metal frames; the guts of the thing were tightly packed inside and between what looked like CPUs.

“What are these?”

Hezekiah didn’t speak so much as he murmured back to Yoma, “Cryptocurrency mining rigs.”

“You trollin’ for bitcoin now?”

“Eh… not so much. I needed the processing power for surveillance.”

“Okay. Why?”

“I’m running a few dozen algorithms and combing just about every database there is to find out what these Cellheads have in common.”

“What about privacy? Don’t you say that liberty–”

“Privacy’s not an inherent right. In a perfect world, everyone is near-perfectly free—meaning I’m free to spy on people.”

“That kinda sounds like bullshit.”

Hezekiah sighed. “Yeah. Because it probably is…” He swiveled his chair toward Yoma and pulled out a cigarette, lighting it and leaving it on the edge of his lips as he spoke. “What’s up, kiddo?”

“I told you. Three ho-houses. Took ’em down.”

“Why bother? Are we here to eliminate vices from the world?”

“These women—they’re basically slaves, right?”

Hezekiah breathed smoke in through his nose and teetered his head from side to side, weighing the matter, before conceding with a bobbled nod. “Yeah, you got a point there.”

“Hez. Hezzy. You a’ight?” Yoma asked.

“Mmm-hmm,” he answered, looking up at the ceiling. At nothing.

“You sure?”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“You didn’t get herpes or nothin’?”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“And you know what’chu sayin’, not ignorin’ me?”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“So I should tell Smitty to go’n get checked for geriatric butt AIDS?”

“Mmm—hey, say what?”

“Yeah, it seemed like you were off somewhere. Just tryin’ to get your attention. You looked hypnotized, mesmerized. Like someone put you under a spell.”

Hezekiah broke away from his waking-dream state and focused in on his protégé. “What’d you say, Yoyo?”

“Smitty should get checked for butt AIDS?”

“No, mo-ron. After that. Just now.”

“You look like someone put you under a spell.”

Hezekiah picked up his secure line and punched in a number.

“Who you callin’?” Yoma asked.

“I’m calling Piotr out in San José. He’s contracted with—hey Piotr! How are ya, brother?” Hezekiah said, breaking away to focus on the conversation. “I was wondering if you could do me a favor? Mmm-hmm. Mmm-hmm. No, no. No, nothing like that. Actually, I’d give you my footage. I just wondered if you could use the machine-learning run-through to look for symbols or any recurrent imagery. For the Cellheads. You’ve run footage already? Really? No, no, I wouldn’t tell anyone. I’m going to send you the zip file now. If you could run through that pixelation thing and see if, at the same time, there’s any recurrent—yes, yes. No. Not action. More like symbols. Okay, cool. I’ll send it now. Yeah, you got it. Much love to Sarah and the little ones. Okay. Thank you. Bye.”

Hezekiah blazed through a run of keys and fired off an encrypted message to the computer engineering math wizard he knew from his post-grad days. Then, he whipped back around in his chair and said to Yoma, “Kiddo. I need you to keep your eyes open tonight.”

“What am I looking for?”

“If you see any of those Cellheads out tonight, we’re looking for… commonalities.”

“Behavioral?” Yoma asked.

“No. Think of it more like they don’t control—or… that they don’t possess themselves.”

“That’s a bit vague, don’cha think, Hezzy?”

“Okay. Hmm. Let’s see. Remember the Nightstalker? Ramirez?”

“Yeah, we talked about him.”

“Do you remember what he’d leave at the scene sometimes? Remember? Drawn in lipstick?”

“A pentagram,” Yoma answered.

“Yeah. So, the pentagram didn’t influence Ramirez to kill. It didn’t make him who he was. But it did appear when he had murdered.”

Yoma’s eyes flashed bright and Hezekiah could tell her gears were spinning. “I’ll keep an eye out,” she said.

“You going now?” Hezekiah asked. “The skell is recharged, reloaded, good to go.”

Yoma glanced at the surveillance monitor and saw that night had settled in over the city. “Yeah. Yeah, now’s as good-a-time as any.”

* * *

“How’d it go, boss?” Carl asked Donomak, holding the rear passenger door of the Maybach open for him.

“I will tell you as we make our way, Carl.”

“Yessir, Mr. D. Works for me,” Carl said as he closed the door behind Karjiel and walked around to the driver’s side to hop in.

All over the limo—in the front, the back; everywhere—there was memorabilia from Back to the Future. Carl had a collection of DVDs in one of those old polyurethane CD binders; Back to the Future I, II, and III were prominently displayed as the first three disks upon opening the binder.

During the road trip (they had already made just under two dozen stops), Karjiel was able to watch all three of the sci-fi adventures on the screen in the rear of the Maybach. Mr. Donomak had been taken—infatuated—by all three movies. Even now, he wore the single-piece, polarized wraparound sunglasses that Doc Brown—Karjiel’s now-favorite character—wore in the second installment of the series.

Carl turned around and stretched his body diagonally and sideways, placing his elbow up against his seat’s headrest. With a wicked smile, he asked, “Hey, Mr. D, which road should we take?”

Roads?” Karjiel answered in his thick Romanian accent. “Carl… where we are going, we don’t need roads! Hit it!

In response, Carl immediately pressed play on the car’s audio system, unpausing the song he’d had queued up for this very millisecond: Alan Silvestri’s theme music for Back to the Future.

And with that, Carl depressed his foot fully from the brake, bearing down on the accelerator. People scattered left and right, diving off the pier. Just as they were about to plow into the buildings and stalls that lined the opening of the amusement park on the pier, electricity started rippling around them. With amusement-goers screaming in bloody terror—and right before the Maybach hit them—the car dove into a wormhole that opened like a shield in front of the frightened civilians.

Inside the car, Karjiel was hooting and hollering, jumping his ass up and down on his seat like a toddler, his exuberance only enhanced by the Silvestri soundtrack playing in the background, continuously yelling—no, chanting: “We don’t need roads! We don’t need roads! We don’t need roads!” In the front, Carl was smiling wide, an unlit quarter-length remnant of a cigar stubby gripped between his teeth, the driver only wearing his wifebeater, his sky-blue boxers, and his black socks and sock-garters.

Carl screamed out, “88 fuckin’ MILES PER HOUR, BABYYYYYYY!

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