“His brain was trashed,” she said.
“Excuse me?” was his response.
“I don’t know how it happened, but his brain was trashed. You know, like a hotel room after a rock star’s attack of indigestion,” said Corina.
“Wow! Any idea how it happened?” asked Chief Inspector Beige.
“I’m pretty sure I answered that question.” Corina the coroner could turn petulant when perturbed. “I have no idea whatsoever.”
“So it wasn’t a heart attack? Or a stroke, like we thought?” queried the inspector.
“Nope,” was the terse reply.
“No evidence of drug use. Same with alcohol. He was estranged from his family, but his ex-wife and kids swear he’s been clean for a decade.”
“Okay, this is getting weird,” said the inspector. “So what about his brain? Define trashed.”
“It’s been turned to mush. You know how the grey matter is supposed to look like linked sausage, hinting there might be some kind of order in there?”
“You mean the cortex and lobes?” asked Beige.
“Yes. Good to know you were paying attention in grade-school health class.” Corina was having too much fun being snarky to stop cold turkey.
Beige tapped his noggin with his right forefinger. “Hey, I’ve still got all my faculties.”
“Well, in our ‘special delivery package’, all definition is gone. His brain is one lumpy squishy mass.”
The normally-implacable Beige made a disgusted face.
“And I don’t like the colour. It’s grey, but not a normal grey. More white-ish. Like maybe it’s been scared white.”
The inspector sat down on a metal folding chair that had been provided for morgue visitors who might turn queasy.
“Something about this incident has bothered me from the start. The super found the body after a neighbor complained about screaming. The corpse was situated on top of the bed and it looked like a death from natural causes, but there were too many odd vibrations.”
“I know you’ve been on the job long enough to have some accurate intuitions,” said Corina. Finally, she was making nice.
“You have to be extra careful about drawing conclusions, especially with someone in the public eye. An investigative reporter in the media can discover things that will come back to haunt you.”
“Ah” she said, “we’re seeing the need to be thorough that has made Inspector Beige so famous.”
“Yeah, sure,” he snorted. “Then there was the message.”
“Message? You mean like from beyond the grave?” Corina rolled her eyes and tilted her head to show she was joking.
“If only. No, the note on his cell phone. When I called up the screen, there was a single text message. It was from anonymous and read ‘REVENGE!’ That’s why I insisted there be an autopsy.”
“Now it’s my turn: Wow! So where do we go from here?”
“I’ll have to begin sifting through his personal effects and see what I can determine. He was a writer. Hopefully something helpful will show up among his notes.”
“From my end, I’ll research medical journals. Maybe there’s a logical explanation for his physical condition.”
Forty-seven year-old solid-as-concrete Beige and mid-thirties career-anxious Corina were, at least temporarily, stymied.
An already long night was cusping on inkiest darkness as Beige stumbled around among the files on Austin Chartwell’s computer.
A call from his Division office to the victim’s ex-wife shortly before midnight had uncovered the password.
Sardonic wit governed Chartwell’s choice of security measures.
The ex-Mrs. Chartwell told Beige the phrase to unlock the computer was “3Bestsellers”.
“He used it for everything,” she said.
“That’s not a good idea,” said Beige.
“Austin wasn’t as complicated as he liked to think he was,” said the ex.
“Few of us are,” said Beige.
“His need to heighten the drama over the strangest things is one of the reasons we’re no longer together,” she said. “It’s usually so unnecessary.”
After a slight pause, she added, “That should be ‘was’ so unnecessary, I suppose.”
“Still, I’m sorry for your loss ma’am,” responded Beige.
“It’s been a steady progression in baby steps over many years. I have a new husband now. Mainly, I feel bad for the kids.”
Beige nodded assent, then realized he’d better speak into the phone. “I’ll let you know when the body can be moved to an undertaker.”
He signed off with, “Thanks for your co-operation.”
Besides his book-writing career, Chartwell was a renowned blogger.
His latest entry had been written the evening before, with a delayed publication time of 3:00 a.m. the next day.
That hour in Toronto was the stroke of midnight in the entertainment capitals along the Pacific Coast.
There was a good chance Beige would be the first person other than the author to read the new piece.
Given his own dreams of being published some day, the prospect thrilled him.
As an essayist, Chartwell’s forte was tongue-in-cheek commentary on modern life.
His latest work was entitled: Fearful of Payback.
Inspector Beige began reading the entry….
It’s all very well that we authors now compose our stories on personal computers and laptops and it makes life easier for us.
But has anyone asked words – and yes, I do mean actual physical words – how they feel about the changes in their circumstances?
They must find it all very upsetting. Let me explain.
I carry a copy of my first and maybe all-time favorite newspaper review folded up in my wallet.
The lines that gave me such pleasure were, “Mr. Chartwell’s words come wonderfully to life. They veritably jump off the page.”
That quote may be true in a more than figurative sense.
I envisage words as entities in their own right.
In the old days, when words were written long-hand on canvas or typed on paper, they really could hop and bop around on their own.
They had the opportunity to escape and blow off steam.
In our present age of computers, cell phones and tablets, words are trapped behind glass.
They’re pinned like butterflies. They’re left to wiggle and squirm and struggle to be free.
They’ve become a sub-branch of lepidopterology.
Their quality of existence has taken a sharp turn in the wrong direction.
When I started in the writing game, everything was done by hand. There would be draft after draft recorded on standard loose-leaf paper.
In the proofreading stage, if a word seemed wrong, a line would be drawn through it. That would leave it maimed, but still alive.
A piece of great authorship was a collaborative effort between producer and output – between writer and what had been written.
Not so today. Want to change a word on a video screen, hit the backspace key or the delete button.
A word’s existence can be obliterated in an instant.
It can be “snuffed” out without a trace of remorse.
The key-puncher has become God.
Spell check exaggerates the illusion.
Dysfunctional malformed words are fixed in the blink of an eye.
There’s only one problem. Not all mistakes are caught.
A word may be spelled correctly as a stand-alone, but be wrong in the context.
Consider “Which witch ate eight tutus too?” There’s a sequence flirting with grief.
Such a word will sit in a paragraph proud as a peacock. But the other words know there’s a misfit in their midst.
It’s an affront on top of the other indignities most of them suffer on a day-to-day basis.
Consider how word-friends and word-families are torn asunder by arbitrary cut and paste re-writes.
If that doesn’t turn their mood negative enough, place them against a background of wonky negative white space and be prepared for the consequences.
The horror for the “wording” community is continual and shocking. How to cope?
Type “disturbed” or “psychotic” or “bipolar” on your screen.
Now scroll rapid-fire through the long list of font options in your word processing program.
Switch from Times New Roman to Arial to Garamond; then Gothic, Magneto and Mistral; or to any of 100 other possibilities.
How harrowing must it be for a word to slide in and out of Helvetica?
How’s a word to keep its sanity under such an onslaught? Only the strongest can survive intact.
No wonder so many hard drives crash.
When I close a hardcover or paperback book, I’m confident the words are still in there, hidden.
When I turn off the computer, I’m not sure where the words go.
What do they get up to? Do they hold meetings? Can they regain control over their fate?
Are they pleased with the way things have turned out?
I very much doubt it.
I pay a great deal of attention to my story plots. Behind the scenes, are words plotting too?
If so, what’s their intent?
More and more often when I sleep at night, rows of text appear behind my eyelids.
I think it means I’ve spent too much time staring at a computer screen.
The streams of sentences have become imprinted on my retinas.
But what if there’s more to it than that?
What if words have a plan to break free while I’m in REM 4?
If they start cavorting in my brain, are they capable of doing real damage?
The more I think about it, the more worried I become.
Frankly, I’m starting to be scared.
That’s where the blog entry ended.
Beige leaned back in this chair. He was finally succumbing to fatigue.
His eyes grew heavy and his head lolled forward. He knew he’d soon start to drool. Thank goodness he was alone in the office.
A word flashed in his brain.
It appeared and disappeared so fast as to be barely recognizable.
It was “escape”.
He felt what could only be described as a mild kick in the cerebellum.
In rapid succession, more words appeared – “disperse”, “charge”, “conquer”.
Each visual pulse was accompanied by a ping of pain.
More words in a chaotic mishmash – “payback”, “party”, “destroy” and “mayhem”.
The accompanying sensation up and down his brain stem was most unpleasant.
Additional words streaked and strobed disco-ball fashion in his cranium.
“Bite”, “gouge”, “poke”, “stick”, “strike”, “prod” and “hammer”.
Beige’s normally placid equilibrium abandoned him.
Two heavy-duty words followed, “die” and “copper”.
Hang on! That wasn’t friendly at all.
His head was really hurting now.
He sensed his brain cells running for cover.
When the word “piñata” leapt up, a migraine-bolt shot between his ears.
Beige was becoming truly alarmed.
Compounding the mental disorientation was a surreptitious ringing sound.
Muscle memory caused his right hand to shoot forward and grab the desk phone.
Two more words stole across his interior vision, “lifeline” and “retreat”.
At the other end of the umbilical connection was Corina the coroner.
“I’ve caught you live? This time of night I expected your answering machine,” she spoke huskily.
“Live, yes. Not sure for how much longer, though.” Beige came to full attention. He shook off what seemed like incipient madness.
“What have you got for me?” he asked.
“I’ve been scouring the medical texts and I have several possible explanations for what happened to our Mr. Chartwell. I’ll compile my conclusions in a written report if you like.”
“There’s no need to bother. I wouldn’t waste any more time on it.”
“No? Why, have you come up with something?
“You might say that. I’m pretty sure what done him in. But I’ll never be able to prove it.”
“Okay. And are you going to keep me in suspense?”
“No. Except you’re not going to believe me.”
“Try me,” Corina said in frustration.
“It was ‘words’ what killed the writer,” said Beige.