Mean

The man in the chair guesses that they might be in a basement room, somewhere. There is only one window, high up, and the glass looks thick and unyielding from where he’s sitting, with a lazy shaft of light pressing through it and down, diagonally, to the floor. The room rumbles from time to time with the passage of heavy traffic somewhere nearby.

“Do you know what the difference is between me and all of the other supernaturally powered vigilantes out there?” Asks the man in the mask.

The man in the chair doesn’t say anything, but his eyes dart about reflexively.

“You’ve only just realised quite how much trouble you’re in, haven’t you?” The upright man says, moving to the side to catch the other’s eye. “True enough, yes… you’re in a lot of trouble.”

This prompts the seated man to glare at him, meeting his eye defiantly for a few seconds.

He doesn’t know how he got here, or why he’s here, but he does know that he’s in trouble. He strains against the ropes, holding his arms behind him, but they are tied tight. When he was left alone for a few minutes earlier on, he screamed up to the street, but it doesn’t look like anybody heard him.

Shapes move on the other side of the glass, but they might as well be a million miles away. Every few seconds, something – a person or a vehicle or something else – will move close across the window, and the square of light will darken, shorten, shift and shine again. Only ever in one direction, as if the path above is only either the way to, or from, something, but not both.

The motion gives the strange illusion that it is this room – not the outside world – that is moving through space. The steady, rumbling intrusions that he can feel through the soles of his shoes make the notion complete.

“I don’t know who you are. I don’t know why I’m here.”

They could be underwater. They could be moving through space.

“That isn’t really true, is it?”

“I don’t. I don’t know how I got here.”

“Hm. I’m an engine of justice. Of punishment. You really don’t know why you’re here?”

“I don’t know anything. I haven’t done anything.”

“Well, now, I’m sure that isn’t true. Everybody has done something.”

The man paces. The other man sits.

“What would you say is the worst crime a person can commit? Murder? Child abuse?”

There is a flicker of emotion across the captive’s face. Something like disgust. Something like fear.

“I haven’t done anything. I haven’t. I haven’t hurt anyone.”

“Most people think those are the worst. Some people think robbery is the most heinous of crimes. Mostly the people whose things get stolen. Some people think that music piracy, of all things, is as bad as paedophilia. But it’s possible that those people are a little insane.” He allows a smile.

“Some vigilantes go after known criminals. People who have publicly evaded capture or prosecution. Or they have a connection to law enforcement that feeds them information. Others roam the streets, looking for crime in progress, or run their own investigations.”

The man in the chair watches intently, now. He can instinctively tell that the information being shared may have some direct impact on his situation. He is hoping for a way out.

“Some of us – like myself – have… the word ‘powers’ sounds fantastical, but it works the best. Insights, or instincts, that help us identify the guilty, and pass judgement.”

“That sounds… insane!

“Yes, it does, but there it is.” The man turns and looks at the window, watching the shapes shift there. “So, do you know what the difference is between me and my peers? The other ones with powers?”

“No.” The man lowers his head, in an attempt to hide his fear. “Until two minutes ago I didn’t even know there were enough lunatics roaming the streets illegally fighting crime to constitute a sub-culture.”

“Ha. Aha. Very good.” There is pacing going on. It doesn’t seem like a good sign. “I shall tell you what makes me different.

Most law enforcement, including vigilantism – illegal crime fighting, as you put it – concerns itself with the high impact event. The crimes with clear victims, and definitive, damaging outcomes.”

“Those… but what do you mean? Those are what crimes are. You mean, like stealing, or assault. That’s what crime is!” The prisoner tries to catch the other man’s eye again, and finds nothing there to reassure him. “I’m no criminal.”

“Well, it’s true that those are crimes, and something needs to be done about them. But to fixate on those events alone is to neglect much wrongdoing.

Most definitions of an evil act relate in some way to the consequences they impose on others – the hurt they do to the victims – don’t they?” He waits for a sign of agreement, and is rewarded with a slow nod and a low groan. “It’s fair to say, isn’t it, that a person who emotionally tortures each of their lovers throughout their own life, or persistently oversteps a moral line in the pursuit of their own success, or simply verbally bullies their associates for the sheer joy of it, is parcelling out small but regular parcels of hurt. Of evil.”

“Oh…” Says the man in the chair.

“And though the big and brutal moments of excess – the violent killing, or the burglary or rape – inflicts a tremendous, unforgivable and intense amount of pain and consequence on one individual, and perhaps the people immediately around them, the number of people affected is small…

…while those other crimes – the tiny ones, that go ignored – can be inflicted and inflicted again and again, throughout a lifetime.

I choose to believe that it all mounts up. That both criminals, on balance, are due the same amount of guilt. And that nobody else is vigilant on this front.”

“But… You don’t know me. You don’t know who I am. What I’ve done.”

“Oh, I know. But I have powers. I can ask you the right questions, in the right way, and watch your responses. I’ll work out how much badness there is in you. And if the evil in you doesn’t average out low enough across a lifetime, you’ll be punished.”

“That’s insane! How can you measure a thing like that? I haven’t ever done anything so bad – I haven’t! – why me? And who decides how bad is too bad? It’s totally subjective!”

“Oh, you’re right about that. But in this case, I’m afraid I decide. I assure you, I do have a level, that I consider pragmatic and fair. If you’re really a good person, I’ll know. I’ll let you go.

But can you honestly say that you believe that you’re a good enough person to go free?”

The man who is standing starts to ask the questions, and the man in the chair tries to answer them.

He tries, between words, to steal glances at the window.

They might as well be in space. They might as well be moving under the ocean.

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Nicolas Papaconstantinou
Nicolas Papaconstantinou is an enthusiastic amateur creative type, and the chap behind Elephant Words. Be nice to him. He growed up kinda wrong.

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