This story was inspired by two news reports. In one, a Wisconsin technology company asked its 85 employees to be voluntarily microchipped. Forty-one did. The implant allows them to log onto computers, open doors, and buy snacks in the commissary just by doing some Jedi thing with their hand. In the other report, while studying the brains of violent criminals, scientists noticed there was a difference between the structures of a killer’s gray matter, and that of non-violent people. Reading these news reports, I wondered what would happen if this microchip technology met a bad brain.
A Bad Brain
By Jason Offutt
Court leaned his forehead against the cool glass and looked down on the city. His breath fogged the window, hiding the long park the hospital overlooked.
“How long do I have to be here?” he asked, watching a woman in a bright yellow coat walk toward the park and disappear into the condensation that stuck to the heavy gauge glass. Most of the people walking below him were too small to pick out individually, it was the yellow coat that drew his eye.
A pencil scratch on paper answered him. The doctor sat behind Court in a black, hard-backed chair, watching him, he presumed. What else was she to do? He was a Bad Brain, after all. That’s what the cops found out after his arrest. DUI, night in the drunk tank, six-month’s probation for a first offense and a court-ordered brain scan. The scan found it, an imbalance in the front part of his brain, the part that controlled emotions, an imbalance that could have been caused by a myriad of things Court had no control over. The problem with a Bad Brain like Court’s, they were as unpredictable as the pattern of the people who walked below him in the park.
“How long do I have to be here?” Court repeated. The scratching stopped, replaced by the scraping hiss of the doctor flipping a page of her yellow legal pad. “Dr. Anderson?”
“You know the answer to that, Mr. Davies.” Dr. Anderson’s voice was flat, emotionless. The pencil scratch continued.
“I just had a DUI,” Court said, the thinning window fog thickened anew by his breath.
“And that’s not a serious offense?” she said, rather than asked. “You could have killed someone.”
The woman in the yellow coat emerged from Court’s fog, then disappeared beneath a canopy of leafless trees, their bows thick with snow. “Of course it’s serious,” he said, turning and leaning against the white window sill. “I screwed up. I know that. I–”
Dr. Anderson looked at Court over her half-moon glasses. “How many times have you done this?” she asked. “Driven drunk. How many times have you gotten behind the wheel of your vehicle with your blood-alcohol content above the legal limit?”
How many’s too many? Court leaned back against the window, crossing his arms over his chest. “I don’t know. A couple.”
The doctor made a note on her legal pad without taking her dark eyes off him. “A couple? Is that two? Is it two dozen? Is it two hundred?”
He punched his thigh with a closed fist. She scribbled more. Damn it. No emotion. NO emotion. Court took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“Probably closer to that,” he said, his voice soft, controlled; too much emotion would keep him in here. Bad Brains never got out of the hospital. ‘Mad is Bad,’ the online PSA preached, the video of a furious drunk throwing a fist seguing into a casket lowered into a grave. ‘Get your loved ones scanned before it’s too late.’ “The last one.”
Dr. Anderson rested the legal pad on her lap and stared at Court. “Thank you, Mr. Davies. Honesty will get you home.”
He unwrapped his hands and shoved them into his pockets, turning back to the window. “I am honest.” The words came out quietly.
“Excuse me?” Dr. Anderson asked.
Anger flared. She heard me. She HEARD me. Court took in another deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to bury the frustration building in him. He’d had a couple of beers at Wallbangers. That’s all, two beers, or maybe three. He’d been talking football with Denny, so he could have had four, but that was it. Four. Four beers and a California stop at a stop sign in front of a Kansas City, Missouri, cop, the patrol car obscured by a row of bushes, and BOOM, he was in this damn hospital with a Bad Brain scan and a doctor trying to push him into losing his cool. He turned toward her, his face emotionless. “I am honest,” Court repeated, no strain in his words. “This was my first offense. I don’t steal, I don’t make excessive noise in my apartment building and I didn’t cheat in school. I’ve never even hit anyone out of anger, or self-defense. I don’t put myself in those situations.”
Dr. Anderson folded her fingers over the top of the legal pad. “But you’re here now and I’m talking with you for a reason,” she said, rolling the pencil between the pad and her fingers. “Because of your—” she paused and frowned, her eyes biting into his, “—indiscretion, we have found a brain defect in your—.”
“Amygdala,” Court interrupted. “The part of my brain that controls emotion.” Damn you and damn your eyes. “I’m intelligent. I read, so don’t treat me like a chimp.” Court’s eyes shut. He immediately regretted the words. “People with an imbalanced amygdala have a better chance of committing violent crimes than people whose temporal lobes haven’t gone through a blender.” Court paused, pulling open his eyes. The doctor’s face was like stone. “But that’s not me. Just check my history. I’ve done nothing wrong. That is not me.”
Dr. Anderson shifted the pencil back to her left hand and prepared to write more, a smile with no joy touched her lips. “Let’s talk about your childhood.”
“What about my childhood?” Court said, choking back a snap. That’s what she wants. She wants me to lose my cool. That will prove everything. “What does that have to do with my brain?”
He immediately felt stupid for asking.
Dr. Anderson’s humorless smile never left her face. “Various issues in childhood could have led to your abnormality.” She reached a slim hand to a white end table and pulled a manila folder from the top of a stack, ‘Courtney Louis Davies: 08/01/1978’ clearly visible on the tab. She flipped back the cover and read. “Looks like your mother died of lung cancer. Is that right? A lifetime smoker?”
A tightness grabbed his stomach like he was ready for a punch. Memories rushed to the surface, his mother smoking in the car and young Court cracking the window, sniffing at the fresh air to keep from coughing. ‘Shut that damn window,’ his mother would yell in the winter, and Court rolled up the window in the Buick, confined to the hazy cab. Smoking is what his family did. People like Uncle Jim stood outside her visitation smoking and passing around a bottle of vodka. Just like Mom would have wanted.
“How do you know that?”
If Dr. Anderson heard Court, she ignored him. “Do you know if she smoked while she was pregnant with you?”
Pregnant? Maybe. No. Probably. “I don’t know, but yeah, she could have.”
The doctor made a note on the file. “Was she a drinker?”
Bottles of Windsor Canadian and McCormick vodka under the kitchen sink, a pitcher of screwdrivers in the refrigerator. Yeah. She was a drinker. Court nodded. “Yes.”
“Did she drink while she was pregnant with you?”
Mom. Oh, Mom. Helping Court with his homework, driving him to baseball practice, watching the Saturday afternoon Creature Feature on TV with him, teaching him to cook, slurring her words, the air thick with smoke. “My mom was good to me,” Court said. “What are you getting at?”
The doctor folded the file closed and rested her pencil on top. “Either of these activities could have caused the defect in your brain. Or a childhood trauma, such as physical or mental abuse, or even blunt force. Did you ever hit your head as a child, Mr. Davies?”
My head? Yeah. “Every kid smacks their head at some point, Dr. Anderson.”
She nodded. “Yes, of course, but most don’t cause permanent damage like—”
“Bad Brain,” Court said, cutting her off.
Dr. Anderson frowned. “Yes, of course. Bad Brain is what everyone’s calling it. It does get right to the point.”
Court sat back on the window sill, leaning on his hands. “And what’s the point in this, Doctor? To see if I’m going to flip out and go on some sort of killing rampage?”
She shook her head. “No. I don’t think you’re going to do something so dramatic, Mr. Davies.” She paused. “But with your brain structure, I know you’re capable of doing it. Do you see the difference?”
Yep. To the government I’m a ticking time bomb.
“Since you’ve now scanned positive,” she continued, “you’ll be in the police database. You’re a suspect now—for everything.” She paused, and looked at Court, her face somewhat sad. “Not that you’ll be convicted of something you didn’t do, of course. But the police will have to work their way through you and everyone else on the database, you understand. With your defect, you have a higher likelihood to commit a crime than, say—”
Dr. Anderson smiled, honestly this time. “Yes. Me. You may go through life never once raising your hand in violence.”
Court audibly exhaled. The effect wasn’t wasted on Dr. Anderson. She shifted in her seat.
“But the system is going to keep its eyes on me just in case,” he said. “This isn’t fair.”
The doctor nodded, her smile gone. “No. Not at all, but necessary for—”
“—a safe society,” Court finished for her. “I surf the Net, I watch TV. I’ve heard the PSAs.”
“Of course.” She stood, scooping up the folders. “Well, we’ll keep you one more night,” she said, looking into Court’s eyes. “I’m sorry. Procedure.”
Snow fell outside the hospital window. Court leaned against it as he had the previous morning, the cold glass felt good upon his forehead. He turned when Dr. Anderson entered the room.
“Did you have a good night’s sleep, Mr. Davies?” she asked, standing this morning, two white paper cups of coffee in her hands instead of manila folders. “Any angry thoughts? Any desire to do harm to yourself or others?” She held a coffee out to him.
Is that how it starts? “No,” he said, taking the cup. “Thank you.”
“I’m ready to sign you out,” she said. “From my observations and our discussions, I see no indication you offer any immediate threat to society.”
“No powder keg ready to blow?” he said.
She ignored his comment. “However, given the potentially deadly nature of your offense, and the legal ramifications, you won’t be allowed to drive for quite some time.”
Six months’ probation. Yeah, I know.
The soft buzz of the white double doors unlocking reached Court’s ears. His eyes shot to the back of the room where a male nurse and a large orderly shouldered into the room, the orderly pushed an aluminum cart.
“What’s going on?” Court started, but Dr. Anderson cut him off.
“Before I can sign your release papers, Mr. Davies,” she said flatly. “We need to insert a microchip at the base of your skull.”
Microchip? What the hell? “I didn’t sign anything that allows you to do this to me.”
Dr. Anderson frowned, an expression that looked natural on her. “Oh, don’t look so surprised, Mr. Davies. You yourself said you follow the news. Surely you’re aware of the President signing Senate Bill 1486.”
Anger grew in Court like a stoked fire. Yeah, he’d heard of it. The press called it the Bad Brain Bill. The Bad Brain Bill passed? He swallowed and took a deep breath, his anger fading just as quickly as it flared. Of course, the bill passed. It only made sense.
Dr. Anderson smiled her humorless smile. “It’s now standard procedure for people who have been diagnosed with a defective amygdala to have an RM chip inserted after an arrest.” She held up a hand and waved the nurse and orderly forward without looking at them. The orderly rumbled the aluminum cart forward, staring down Court. Whatever the cart held was covered by a white cloth. “Fortunately for you it’s nonobtrusive. Just a little prick and pop, in goes a device about the size of a toenail clipping. Oh, you’ll be able to feel it if you poke hard enough, I suppose, but you’ll forget about it in time. You’ll never know it’s there.”
The nurse pulled on the center of the cloth to reveal a hand-held stainless-steel device that looked like an earring gun.
“But why? Mr. Davies?” the doctor said. “That’s simple. If the police need to question you for a crime you may, or may not have committed, they need to know where to find you.”
Dr. Anderson offered to call a taxi, but Court refused. He wanted to disappear from this place and he wanted to do it now.
His apartment building was across the wide, snow-covered park from the hospital. Fat, wet flakes fell lazily about him as he stepped from the hospital awning and onto the sidewalk. People were out, rushing from building to building, pinching their coats close to their necks, but Court walked with his head up, enjoying his freedom.
The paperwork to release Court took little time; Dr. Anderson didn’t have a good bedside manner, but she was efficient. She didn’t try to shake his hand, and Court was glad. He didn’t want to touch her. ‘I intend no offense with my next statement,’ she told him, ‘but I hope we never have to see each other again. Have a nice life, Mr. Davies.’
Have a nice life. I had a nice life until I met you. Court stood at a red light waiting for the little traffic light man to tell him it was okay to cross the street. I’m screwed. Can’t drive. Work thinks I’m sick, but somebody will find out about this. The office gossipers always do. A flash of color in the blanket of white moved across his field of vision and he shifted his focus to the sidewalk across the street. The woman in the yellow coat, or at least a woman in a yellow coat, had emerged from a bus and turned onto the snow-covered trail through the park he was going to take home. Like Court, her coat collar was flat as if she enjoyed the cold.
She’s pretty, ran through his mind as the light turned green and he crossed the street. Since she was going his way, his tracks followed hers.
A splash of canary disappeared behind a bend in the path, the concrete hard beneath his feet through the wet snow. The woman in the yellow coat was still in front of him, but the only part that registered to Court was the occasional change in the park’s color scheme when yellow peeked through the trees. She may as well have been miles away.
“Bad Brain,” Court whispered, his breath turning into a white cloud before drifting into the afternoon. Court was born five days premature, his skin as blue as a “Star Trek” alien. Was that it? Did lack of oxygen fry my circuits? Was it Mom’s Marlboros? Or the accident? Nobody saw it coming. Hell, nobody at the Little League park, not the players, not the coaches, not the parents and bored siblings in the stands thought a kid that little could have hit a baseball that hard. The line drive grazed Court’s temple and he crumbled like a stack of blocks. He didn’t remember any of it. The next thing he knew he woke up in a hospital two days later. Was that—
The feeling came on Court quickly, too quickly. A wave of dizziness swept over him and he staggered, his breath gone as if he’d been punched in the stomach. The world lurched; brown, leafless trees, fuzzy in the haze of snowfall, spun in Court’s vision. “Wha—” His head swam, strength disappeared from his knees.
“Help,” he wheezed and fell face-first into the snow.
“Hey, buddy.” The words were small and far away.
Something pushed Court in the ribs. At least he through it was his ribs. His body was cold; his fingers and toes numb. It pushed again. Someone’s foot. That’s someone’s foot. Court moved his head, a spike of pain lanced through it and he may have cried out, although Court didn’t know if the sound was real or imagined. What happened? Hands grabbed him gently and rolled him onto his back. His face throbbed in pain. Court forced open his eyes, the gray and white world around him confusing at first, then a face appeared in front of his.
“Hey, buddy,” the voice repeated, closer this time. “You okay? What happened?”
Okay? Happened? Yeah, what happened? “I,” Court started, pain lanced through his jaw. He gritted his teeth before responding. “I don’t know.” The man held out a hand and Court’s right hand instinctively moved to grab it. This stranger pulled him to his feet, his left hand on Court’s shoulder, steadying him.
“Whoa, there. Can you stand, or do you need my shoulder?”
Court nodded, the shooting pain gone, the fuzz that covered his consciousness fading. “I can stand.” The man was shorter than him, dressed in a Navy pea coat and red stocking cap.
“You must have taken a hell of a hit,” the man said. “Your nose looks broken. You get mugged?”
Mugged? Did I get mugged? No. He didn’t think so. “I just felt dizzy and passed out, that’s all.” Is that what happened?
The man grinned. “Well, you did it in the right place, buddy. There’s a hospital about a hundred yards from here.” He reached out to grab Court’s elbow. “Come on. I’ll take you.”
Hospital? No. NO. Court jerked his arm away from the man in the pea coat and almost fell again. A small splat of frozen blood stained the snow where his face had landed. ‘Your nose looks broken.’ Damn it. My nose is broken. He reached a hand tentatively to his face, the nose he knew was swollen and throbbing. Another moment of dizziness threatened to take over Court, but it quickly faded.
“No,” he said, waving his hands in front of him partly for balance. “No, thank you. I’ll be fine. I just want to get home.”
“Do you nee—” the man began, but Court didn’t let him finish.
“No.” He stopped and sucked cold air through his teeth. “I just got dizzy, okay? I’m going to be fine. Thank you.”
Court’s feet felt like bricks as he shuffled from the pea coat man. How long was I out? he wondered, although he knew it couldn’t have been long. This was a big city, people walked this park all the time. The first person who saw him stopped to help, the tracks in the snow told him that. Court trudged on dead legs, the walkway through the park nearly bare of footprints except the woman in the yellow coat’s. But why did I pass out? Did the doctor drug me? Could that be it? Then there was the chip she’d put in his head. Did—
A second set of footprints in the new snow joined the woman in the yellow coat’s. Court slowed his already unsteady gait. The prints larger than the woman’s, the steps longer, came from the side of the trail behind a row of hedges. Court slowed. Something was wrong.
He lurched forward and rounded a bend. “Oh, no,” pushed from his lips. The woman in the yellow coat lay in a heap on the side of the trail, her blond hair matted with blood. The big footprints disappeared past her into the brush leaving red-stained footprints in the snow.
Dear god. Court’s heart hammered under his coat and he slid to his knees. I just saw her. When did— But Court had blacked out. How long was I out?
Voices came from somewhere behind him. Someone else was walking the park trail. Court’s breath came fast; his mouth started to form, ‘Help,’ but his mind killed the action. ‘You’re a suspect now—for everything,’ Dr. Anderson had told him. A suspect. I’m a suspect for this. Panic pulled at him, threatening to explode from his chest. “I’m a suspect,” he whispered.
Court forced himself his feet, pushing his stiff, wobbly legs around the woman and down the park path. By the time he’d rounded the next bend he was running.
He could hardly taste the whiskey as he swallowed his second glassful. The woman was dead. But what happened? Was it me? His hands shook as he poured two more fingers of cheap liquor into a rocks glass he’d stolen from Wallbangers. Was it my Bad Brain? Did I kill her? No. He knew he was passed out when—. Was I passed out? He reached a tentative hand to his face and winced, his formerly straight nose bent and swollen, the pain he had just started feeling now dampened by the liquor. She might have hit me during a fight.
But he knew that wasn’t right. It couldn’t be right. He’d passed out and when he came to she was dead. Court’s fingers flirted with the TV remote control he kept on top of the microwave oven. The news would know. Somebody, maybe the man in the pea coat, walked upon the bloody scene and snapped a picture on their cell phone. They posted it on social media and the network wonks smashed their fingertips on their keyboards to get the story on-air first. He grabbed the black controller, pointed it toward the television in the living room and clicked the power button.
A movie featuring Bruce Campbell. Court normally would have poured himself another glass and dropped on the couch to watch it, but not today. He clicked the TV to CNN. The president was in Poland. The ticker that ran along the bottom of the screen showed how the Dow Jones finished the day. Court tuned the TV to a local station. Where are you? You have to be here. The mayor is running for re-election. The FBI is investigating a suburb’s city manager for embezzlement. The ticker highlighted a Kansas City Chiefs player signing a new contract and tomorrow’s school closings.
“Where are you?” Court whispered as he lifted the bottle and bent it toward his glass, the liquid just started to pour when the doorbell rang and he sloshed whiskey onto the kitchen counter. Damn.
His hand instinctively threw a dishtowel over the amber pool and tried to cap the bottle, but someone pounded on the door and Court’s shaky hands sent the cap careening across the kitchen.
“Mr. Davies,” a tinny voice called through the cheap apartment door. Court’s breath froze in his chest. “This is Detective Morris, KCPD. We know you’re home.”
Court’s heart hammered like the engine of an old Dodge, his fist tight around the rocks glass. Damn it. The police. ‘You’re a suspect now—for everything.’ And damn you, Dr. Anderson. His chest tightened, his breath coming in short, pained bursts. Court’s eyes drifted to his drink, his shaking hands sending a storm of waves across the surface of the liquid. But I didn’t do anything. The knock came again. “I’m coming,” he said, trying to keep his voice steady, but it shook like the whiskey.
Court’s fingers ran across the small Band-Aid across the back of his neck. Of course, they’re here. I’m chipped. They know exactly where I am and exactly where I walked to get here. A spot of yellow, some white and red flashed across Court’s mind. He downed what little alcohol he’d been able to pour into the glass and walked toward the door.
The cop, about 50 and graying around the temples, wasn’t alone. A second police officer, a younger woman, stood in the hallway in street clothes. Each held their badge for Court to see, just like cops did on TV.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Davies,” the male officer said, tucking his badge in his jacket pocket. “This is Detective Allen. You know why we’re here, don’t you?”
Court nodded, his breathing dropping back to normal; the cops radiated calm.
“Good,” the officer said. “May we come in?”
Court nodded again and stepped out of the doorway. The police walked past him into the living room.
“Does this look familiar, Mr. Davies?” Detective Allen asked as she held her smartphone screen toward Court. It was a video that shook like the cameraman had been walking. The scene was a white forest.
“It’s snow,” Court said.
“Keep watching, please.” Detective Allen’s voice grew stern.
Court squinted. The forest may have been a park, he realized; the cameraman followed a well-defined path dotted with footprints.
“Where is—” Court began to ask, but Detective Allen cut him off.
“Just watch and tell us if it looks familiar,” she snapped.
It did look familiar. It looks like the park where I— The video stopped its shaky movement when a flood of yellow and red filled the frame. Court’s eyes grew wide. The video changed perspective as if the cameraman went to his knees. “Oh, my god,” came from the phone. It was Court’s voice. That’s me. That video came from me.
“It’s—” Court stopped. The question of a lawyer bounced around his head. Maybe that was just TV too.
“It’s what, Mr. Davies?” Detective Allen prompted.
“How did you get that video?” he said, his voice soft, weak. How is that even a video?
The detective tucked the phone into the inner pocket of her jacket. “I think you can figure that out.”
Detective Morris inhaled and folded his arms, trying to seem as big as possible before he spoke. “We know what happened. What we’re trying to figure out is if you had anything to do with it.”
Court’s legs grew unsteady again, the liquor in his stomach burned like he’d followed it with a match. They bugged me. They bugged my brain. They can see everything I do. Everything. He grabbed his easy chair for support, but didn’t have the strength to stay on his feet. He slid into the chair instead.
“Nothing.” The word came out in a whisper. “I had nothing to do with it.”
Detective Morris squatted on his haunches in front of Court and looked up at him. “Then why did you run, Mr. Davies? If you’re not guilty, why did you see a crime and not report it?”
“That’s a crime itself,” Detective Allen said, still standing, looming over him. “Please answer the question. If you didn’t commit the crime, why did you run?”
Because of this. “Because,” he said, then stopped and coughed. “I knew I’d be a suspect.” He looked up at Detective Allen, his eyes wet with tears. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“We don’t know that,” Detective Morris said, standing. “That’s why we’re here.”
Court swallowed hard, the whiskey had left his throat dry. This isn’t real. This can’t be happening. There’s got to be some proof. Some— Then he knew. “Wait. If you can see through my eyes, you can see what I was doing before this. I was just walking through the park.”
Detective Allen frowned. It looked like she did that often. “Your video went black for a few minutes before you encountered the body of the woman in the yellow coat. We don’t know what you were doing leading up to this woman’s death.”
The video went black when Court’s world went black. What happened? “Are you arresting me?”
“Not at this time,” Detective Morris said, nodding to his partner who pulled a small black leather case from her jacket. “Detective Allen is going to take samples from under your fingernails, then examine your gray coat and the pants you were wearing. Please make them available.”
The Kansas City, Missouri, cops were thorough, although the male detective watched his smartphone during the time his partner gave Court a criminal manicure. Probably checking my vital signs to see if I’m nervous, Court thought. Hell, yes, I’m nervous.
After Detective Allen bagged whatever she’d swabbed from beneath Court’s fingernails and inspected his pants and coat, the police left.
“I wished you’d relax, Mr. Davies. We’re not your enemy,” she said to Court as he held the door open for her. The detective’s eyes narrowed for a moment, just a moment. “By the way, what happened to your nose?”
He stared at her hard, fear and apprehension replaced by a rage that had begun to burrow through him. “I slipped.”
Monsters. Where do they get the goddamned right? Court drank another two fingers of whiskey before slamming the rocks glass down hard on the kitchen counter. “I know you’re watching,” he said, the words coming out in a hiss. “I know you’re listening. And I hate every last one of you.”
He stormed into the bathroom, pushing over a living room chair that had been in his way. The bathroom mirror wasn’t kind. Bruising had already started to form around his swollen nose. The cops could see him look at himself in the mirror. They could watch him eat, watch him at work, watch him pee. When did this kind of voodoo become real? he wondered.
It was the chip in his head. He reached behind him and pulled off the Band-Aid, a spot of blood stained the pad. Dr. Anderson told Court he would be able to feel the microchip beneath his skin. He ran his fingertips over the spot where the bandage had been. Nothing. No lumps, no bumps, no cuts, no butts, no coconuts.
‘In goes a device about the size of a toenail clipping,’ she’d said. ‘Oh, you’ll be able to feel it if you poke hard enough, I suppose, but you’ll forget about it in time. You’ll never know it’s there.’
I call BS on that, Doc. He pushed hard. Something moved under the skin as his finger slid across it, a bump that could have been a pimple, but Court knew it wasn’t. It was a chip that not only told the police where he was, it could show them everything he saw and tell them everything he said. Can you read my thoughts? he wondered, his face red, his body shaking from anger.
“I didn’t do it,” he said to his reflection and to the cops, his voice tight, controlled. “I didn’t hurt that woman. I didn’t touch her.” But it didn’t matter, did it? The cops had him at the scene and they had him running from a dead body. Doesn’t matter what I say. I’m going to jail for this.
It was the chip. The chip saw everything. But only when it’s in your head, Court. The thought came from nowhere. In my head. It can’t see me if it’s not in my head. He closed his eyes and steadied himself against the sink; his stomach doing flips. It has to come out. An option for someone with no options. Court reached his free hand to the wall and switched off the bathroom light.
The chip came out easily. Court fished in the pitch dark for scissors he knew were in the top drawer to the left of the sink. He kept his right index finger on the chip, pinning it as he opened the scissors and ran one metal blade across his skin, wincing soundlessly at the pain. The chip simply popped out.
Strength dropped from his legs and he would have fallen if he hadn’t fallen against the sink. Dizziness spun through him as it had done in the park. Connecting, ran through his head. I passed out when the chip connected to my brain. He ran cold water and splashed some on his face. “And it just disconnected.” He turned on the light, the chip pinched between his fingers.
“There you are,” he said, his voice hard. “My own personal spy.” Court sat it on the side of the white porcelain sink and pressed a towel on the back of his bleeding neck. He folded the scissors and raised them to crush the microchip that sat on the lip of the sink in a pool of his blood.
“No.” He lowered the scissors and sat them on sink. If the chip still worked, to the police he was still in his apartment. If he destroyed it, they’d know something was wrong. And you can’t trust someone with a Bad Brain. A tiny green light blinked on the device. Are you recording? Can you see without my eyes? A trickle of blood wormed its way down his neck. Court pulled a tissue from the box on the back of the toilet and pressed it hard to stop the bleeding.
“If you can, I’m screwed,” he said toward the still blinking chip. Court turned off the light and hurried out of the bathroom.
Anger drove him. Court pushed through the now-driving snow, a knit cap on his head, his coat buttoned tightly around his neck.
Three days ago, he’d sat at a high table in Wallbangers, a cold pint of lager in front of him. The sounds of laughter, the clack of pool balls and the din of Friday happy hour conversation all around. Denny was there, Denny from high school. At some point, they’d moved to different parts of town and grown apart, but one night Denny came over to Court’s table in Wallbangers.
‘I just moved in down the street,’ Denny had said a year ago, or was it two? ‘And this is where you hang out? Freakin’ amazing.’ They talked football that night, then Denny said he had to get home. His wife would be home from work any minute.
Wife? Ha. Court had never been married. Never dated much. He angered too easily for anyone to stay around for long. But I never hit anyone. I’d never kill anyone.
A KC cop pulled him over two blocks away from his apartment complex and hauled him in on a DUI. The Bad Brain scan came the next day. ‘Mad is Bad, Mad is Bad.’ Then the hospital. Then Dr. Anderson. Then the chip.
Dr. Anderson. The name burned in his mind.
Court walked past the park, continuing south on Buchannan Avenue. Street lamps cast yellow pools of light onto the snowy sidewalk every 50 yards, the tracks of everyone but the bundled people walking in front of Court obliterated by nature. The park. The snow. Yellow coat. Damn it. Court’s nose throbbed and a sour taste lingered in his mouth. He wished he’d brought the whiskey, but it was too late to go back for it. There was always more; he just had to get it.
Court approached his bank’s ATM two blocks from the apartment building, his hat pulled low, his eyes avoiding the camera that recorded every person who withdrew money. He knew he shouldn’t be here. The cops would know everything, unless—
He slowed his step. The cops. Court’s eyes scanned the street, a wave of paranoia slamming into him. They could be anywhere. The police had hacked his brain, what else had the hacked? Snow covered most of the cars along Buchannan, but some had just parked, the internal heat melting the falling snow. People could be inside those cars, watching him. Cops? Are they cops? It didn’t matter. He had $10 in his wallet. Court had to have money. He had to use the ATM because he wasn’t going home tonight. Maybe never.
A man in a tie and shoes inappropriate for this weather approached the ATM, pulling out his wallet to go for his bank card. The anger that had erupted in Court during the police visit sat smoldering. I don’t have time for this, he thought, and quickened his pace, stepping in front of the man and turning his back toward him.
“Hey,” the man shouted just steps behind him.
“Piss off,” Court said, his words abrupt and hard. He’d never spoken to a stranger that harshly before. His mother had raised him better.
“No,” the man shouted in the still night, the only sounds were the occasional far-off car horn and the underlying whistle of the wind. Side streets like Buchannan Avenue got little traffic in a snowstorm. “This is unacceptable.”
Court ignored him and pushed his card into the slot.
Withdrawal. Checking. How much? The limit was $500. He clicked $500 watched twenty-five $20 bills deal themselves from the front of the machine. He knew he may need more, but he didn’t have a choice.
A hand shoved his shoulder from behind and he almost fell into the ATM. Goddamnit.
“I need to see your face, asshole,” the man behind him shouted. “I’m going to post you all over social media.”
Court tucked the bills into his wallet and replaced his card. The rage boiling in his gut bubbled to the surface. He turned quickly, much more quickly than the impatient man expected, and landed a fist in the center of his face. Something crunched on impact. Court’s fingers or the man’s nose he didn’t know. The man’s head flew backward, blood spraying the front of the expensive winter coat. A sound, a cross between a curse and a grunt, escaped the man’s mouth as his legs gave way and dumped him onto the sidewalk.
“Wha? Wha?” the man shouted, blood running over his mouth.
A smile washed across Court’s face. “Hey, your nose looks like mine.”
“You assho,” the bloody man coughed and raised his mobile phone to take a picture, but Court kicked the device from his hand, sending it sliding through the snow.
Court shook his hand as he turned and walked away. It was slightly numb, but there was no pain. It wasn’t broken; the crunch had been the moron’s nose. The energy behind his smile faded, but the anger remained. He planted the heel of his boot on the man’s phone and ground it into the snowy sidewalk. Court stopped, took out his own cell phone and slammed it into the brick wall of the bank, then let the ruined phone drop to the sidewalk. The government could track him with that just as surely as they could with a microchip under the skin. He left the man moaning in the snow and disappeared into the snowy darkness knowing damn well Dr. Anderson had driven him to this.
Court knew he made a mistake the moment he walked into Wallbangers. This was his watering hole; the cops would expect him to go there. Or, he thought, maybe they’d think he was too smart to do something that stupid. But he had to talk with Denny and Denny’s Toyota was parked outside. Denny would help him. What are friends for, right?
“Hey, Court,” Janine said as the perky young blond in her tight uniform stopped him. All the waitresses at Wallbangers were young and perky. It was the restaurant’s shtick. “Haven’t seen you in a few days.” Then she noticed his nose and her face pinched. “Ooooh. Car accident?”
He nodded. “Something like that,” he replied, his eyes scanning the bar. “Have you seen Denny Stricklin?”
Janine smiled a shiny white smile. “You know, you’re the second person who’s asked me that question tonight.”
Court froze. Second? His eyes shifted from the pretty young waitress who put up with drunk old men to pay for nursing school. Nothing looked threatening; people drinking booze and eating supper, oblivious to the world. “Who was asking for Denny?” The words felt awkward as he spoke them.
“You think it was a cop?” she asked, her smile fading.
Yes. That’s exactly what I think. He shook his head and forced a smile of his own. “No. Denny’s a stand-up guy. I’m sure it was just the IRS.”
Janine paused, then laughed. “Yeah. Well, that’s where he was sitting,” she said, indicating a high table with a half-finished beer. “He must have gone to the bathroom or something.” She paused and pushed a thumb toward the bar. “Beer?”
“Yeah, sure,” Court mumbled as he made his way to Denny’s table.
Two seats were pulled out slightly. Two cardboard coasters sat on the table in front of each chair. One coaster held a beer, the other a water. ‘You’re the second person who’s asked me that question tonight,’ Janine had said. She didn’t say if that someone had found him, but Court knew he had.
Run, Court. Just run.
A sudden rush of panic grabbed him, but quickly melded into anger. ‘Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering,’ Master Yoda told Luke. After the last three days, Court realized he was fine with suffering.
Janine brought Court a beer and sat in on the table. She didn’t ask for money and Court didn’t offer. He didn’t intend to stay long; Denny could take care of his bill. Court’s head swiveled slowly, taking in the crowd. Some faces were familiar. Regulars. The other faces could belong to anybody, doctors, lawyers, or the police.
He wrapped both hands around the beer bottle until his knuckles turned white. Where are you, buddy? Seconds later, Denny emerged from the hallway by the bathrooms, a hallway that led to a back entrance to Wallbangers. Color dropped from Denny’s face as his eyes fell upon Court and Court knew he’d been right. This had all been a mistake.
“Hey, buddy,” Court said when Denny made his way to the table.
Denny tried to force his face into something casual and failed. “Yeah, hey.” His eyes darted, never landing on Court. Whatever they were looking for didn’t show. “What’s, uh, what’s going on?”
Heat flushed Court’s face. You bastard. “I heard somebody was in here looking for you tonight,” he said, his eyes boring into Denny. “Did they find you?”
Denny grabbed his beer bottle, the movement shifted the coaster slightly. “No,” he said then took a drink.
A sliver of white stuck from beneath the coaster. Court pinned the corner of the heavy stock paper with a fingernail and dragged it out. It was a business card.
“Detective Stanley Morris, Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department,” Court read. His eyes rose from the card and locked with Denny’s. “So, how is old Stanley, buddy? You guys have a nice chat?”
Denny sat the bottle down gently; his hands had begun to shake. “No, Courtney. I swear. I didn’t tell him anything.”
But you promised him something, didn’t you? Court’s brain swam, the anger welling inside him hurt his chest. “Of course not, bud-dy. Because you don’t know anything. But you would if I’d gotten here just a little bit earlier.” The panic was gone now, as if he had never felt it. “Did you tell him you’d call if I came in?”
Denny didn’t answer, his eyes wide as quarters.
Denny’s head started to shake, but stopped. Court’s eyes locked it in place.
“Where is he, old friend?” Court asked, ‘old friend,’ sharp as a saber. Denny’s eyes shot toward the back hall.
Denny had promised him to the cops. Court knew he had no one. Damn it. He swung the beer bottle at Denny too quickly for him to duck. Unlike the movies, the glass didn’t shatter when it struck his head. The full bottle hit with a dull thunk and Court’s friend started to fall backward. Court helped him by flipping the table on top of him. Shouts came from everywhere. Court was through the front door before anyone really knew what had happened.
The city turned from rich to poor quickly. Coffee shop corners gave way to cheap taco and fried chicken joints as Court walked south; the wide plate glass business fronts along the street were now lined with metal bars. Court couldn’t feel his fingers from the cold when he stepped into the lobby of a motel that smelled of tobacco, a small chain knock-off called Ultra 8. The clerk turned from a baseball game on the TV that hung from the ceiling and looked at Court who cradled a plastic grocery sack in the crook of his arm. In the sack were cans of Spam, sleeves of crackers, chips and whiskey he bought pushing money through a slot in bullet-proof glass at a convenience store down the street. Court handed over enough twenties to have a room for a week.
“Will that be all for you?” the clerk asked handing Court a well-worn key that hung on a ring with a green diamond shaped plastic fob, the name and address of the motel still visible in chipped gold lettering.
“Go to hell,” Court said and walked away. No questions, no answers.
The clerk shrugged and turned back to the baseball game. He probably got that a lot.
Court scratched his growing beard, now more from habit than need after a week; the itching was mostly gone. He’d sat in the moldy room of the cheap motel for more days than he felt were safe, spending his waking minutes staring at the television. It gave him nothing. The woman in the yellow coat never made the news. How is that possible? She was dead. Court had seen her head split open. Or did I? It was just bloody. She could be alive.
“No,” he hissed, slamming a fist into his leg. “She’s dead.” The last words too loud for a small room with thin walls. The woman had to be dead, or why else was Court here?
He took a deep breath in air that tasted like cigarettes. Dr. Anderson caused this. A thought deep in his conscious knew this wasn’t true. It was because of Senate Bill 1486. The author of that bill, the elected officials who debated it and voted for it, the president who signed it. These people were to blame for the Bad Brain Law. They did this to him, but the president wasn’t in the police station to scan his brain; he wasn’t in the hospital room giving orders when the nurse stuck a chip in his head. A chip that recorded everything. Even my thoughts?
It was Dr. Anderson. That damned Anderson.
Court stood and left the motel room, the television still on, the heater blowing full blast and empty tins of Spam on the floor.
He saw the tire tool in the bed of a rusty pickup and took it with no reservations. He slipped the L-shaped metal bar easily into the sleeve of his coat and walked back toward downtown. The weather had turned during the week, melting snow, putting more people on the street. To hell with them. Something was wrong and Court had paid the price. He’d spent days seething over it, punching the lumpy mattress of his motel room when the anger grew too great to contain. This is wrong. I’m a citizen of the goddamned United States of America.
The first corner Have-A-Java shop told Court he was getting close to his part of town. Poor people didn’t spend $5 on a cup of coffee. A police car drove by Court slowly, but he kept walking like he didn’t notice, the cold metal tool in his sleeve heavier now. The patrol cruiser turned on the street in front of him, the driver never looking in Court’s direction.
He reached the hospital mid-afternoon, the gray stone building rose into the air like a dungeon master’s dream. Traffic on the street behind him moved quickly, drivers honking, music thumping. Normal. Everything was normal, except that it wasn’t. Court knew the world would never be normal again.
A red and white striped barrier blocked the entrance from the street to the hospital’s parking garage, a pedestrian walkway passing on either side. Court entered the garage in full view of the street. No screams, no sirens, nothing. They’ve forgotten about me. I am a ghost. He took the stairs to the lowest level of the parking garage, BMWs, Mercedes, Lexus and at least one Jaguar telling him this is where the doctors parked. Something in the back of his head told him to run, but he couldn’t. It was too late for that. Court sat in the shadows of the basement stairwell, the elevator doors visible outside the open doorway, and he waited.
The sounds of conversation dragged him awake. In a dream, Detective Morris had come out of the back hall of Wallbangers, gun drawn storming toward Denny’s table in slow motion. Denny screamed and jumped backward.
“That can’t be why he’s here,” a voice not in his dream asked. The voice was a woman’s. Court had heard it before.
“Why else would he be here, at the hospital, in doctor’s parking?” This voice was a man’s. He’d heard it before, too.
Dream Detective Morris closed in on Court, revolver hammer pulled back.
Something nudged his foot; his eyes slid open. Dream Detective Morris merged with a Detective Morris standing backlit in a dim parking garage. There was no gun in his hand; he held his badge. Detective Allen stood beside him.
“Courtney Louis Davies,” Detective Morris said.
Court looked up, his dream vanishing. Damn it, ran through his head now fully awake. How did they find me? His hand crawled toward the tire tool tucked into his sleeve. “How did you find me?” He repeated, his voice rough from sleep.
“Security cameras, Mr. Davies,” Detective Allen said, now holding a Taser. “The hospital called us when they realized the vagrant in the stairwell was you.”
They were close, close enough he could reach them if—
“I know what you’re thinking, Mr. Davies,” Detective Morris said, his voice threatening. “And I’d advise against it. You’re not under arrest, but we’d like to take you in for a few questions.”
That’s it. That’s what they want. Take me in and I’ll disappear. Bastards want me to disappear. Court’s body shook as he lifted himself to his knees, hatred seething. Just one swing and he could take out Allen’s legs. His hand still inside his coat gripped the metal tool.
“Please remove your hand from your coat, Mr. Davies,” Detective Allen said, raising the stun gun. “I will not hesitate to incapacitate you.”
Incapacitate? Court barked a laugh. Is that what they’re calling it these days?
He yanked the tire tool from his coat and lunged for Allen, but he never reached her. What felt like an invisible bat struck Court and he dropped to the dirty concrete floor of the parking garage, his muscles rigid, his body stiff as 55,000 volts surged through him. No, his mind screamed, then he remembered nothing else.
The light in the white room hurt his eyes.
“He’s awake, doctor.” The voice came from behind him. Court tried to turn his head, but couldn’t.
“I’ll be right there,” another voice answered, although the person didn’t sound like they were in the room. It came from a speaker. “Call in the detectives.”
He tried to turn his head again, but it was held fast. By what? Why? “Where—” Court started to say, but his face hurt. Where am I?
The sound of a door opening, followed by footsteps came from the direction of the voices. A face appeared over him and he knew where he was. It was a nurse and he was back in the hospital.
“How are you feeling, Mr. Davies?” the nurse asked, snapping on a latex glove. Without waiting for him to answer the nurse pressed a thumb on Court’s lower eyelid and pulled down. A penlight appeared in the nurse’s other hand and waved across Court’s line of sight. “Any headaches? Dizziness? Nausea?”
Court tried to shake his head, but couldn’t. “No,” he wheezed through a dry throat. He tried to move, to sit up, but his wrists were bound and he couldn’t move his legs. He jerked his limbs against the bonds. Why am I tied down? he thought, although he knew.
The door opened again followed by more footsteps.
“His eyes look fine, Doctor,” the nurse said. “No sign of head trauma.”
Dr. Anderson’s face appeared next to the nurse’s. “You’re lucky, Mr. Davies,” the doctor said. “You hit that garage floor awfully hard.”
A rage like Court had never felt flared as he stared into the woman’s face. “You’re a goddamned monster,” he said, his sore jaw barely moving. “If I could, I’d choke you.”
The nurse stepped out of Court’s vision and was replaced by Detective Morris. Allen appeared on the opposite side. “Is that what you were doing in the parking garage with a tire tool, Mr. Davies,” Detective Allen asked. “Waiting to assault Dr. Anderson?”
Damn it. He pulled against his bonds, but knew it was a waste of energy. A strap across his midsection kept him motionless. “I didn’t do anything.”
“Like physically assault a—” Allen looked in a notebook. “—Craig D. Peterson in front of the First Midwest Credit Union?” She lowered the notebook out of Court’s vision. “Broke his nose and destroyed an iPhone 7. Mr. Peterson is pressing charges. Mr. Dennis Stricklin, however, is not. You hit him with a beer bottle.”
“You also violated a federal law by removing your monitoring chip,” Detective Morris said.
Morons. MORONS. They made me do it. “I never did anything illegal until she put that goddamned thing in me,” Court shouted, staring wide-eyed at Dr. Anderson. “Anything.”
“Your DUI would say otherwise,” Detective Morris said.
“But—” Court said, but stopped himself. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I know. But I didn’t kill that woman.”
“You mean Officer Parks?” Detective Morris smiled as he leaned over Court. “The woman in the yellow coat you found bludgeoned to death. It was a test. As was Officer Tillman, the man in the pea coat who found you in the snow.”
What? A test? “What do you mean a test?”
“Your Recidivist Monitoring Chip was the first one ever installed, Mr. Davies,” Dr. Anderson said, the look on her face so smug Court would have punched it if he weren’t tied down.
“No one knew how it would work,” Detective Morris said. “This was an exercise.”
The scream from Court’s lips came so suddenly the doctor and detectives jerked back a step. “I was your guinea pig? Your goddamned guinea pig?” They did this. They ALL did this. “You ruined me. You ruined me. I did nothing wrong and you pushed me. You pushed me until I cracked.” He took a long breath then screamed again, the roar coming from deep in his chest. “Get me out of here. Get me OUT.”
Dr. Anderson motioned out of Court’s vision. The nurse quickly came into view holding a hypodermic. Dr. Anderson nodded and the nurse injected something into Court’s arm. Immediately his head grew light, the strain against the straps became impossible and he sank into the bed.
“This one’s too bad,” Detective Allen said. “He’s right. He had no criminal record before this. What’s the best course? Psychiatric hospital?”
“Oh, no,” Dr. Anderson said. “When his trial goes to court, I’ll have to recommend prison to the judge. He has a Bad Brain.”