"There was video of the second shooter. There was video."
In the first reports of every mass shooting, there's always mention of a second shooter—two sets of gunshots, a figure seen fleeing the scene—and they always seem to evaporate as events are pieced together.
Commissioned by a fringe publisher to investigate the phenomenon, journalist Mike Karras finds himself tailed by drones, attacked by a talk radio host, badgered by his all-knowing (and maybe all-powerful) editor, and teaming up with an immigrant family of conspiracy buffs.
Together, they uncover something larger and stranger than anyone could imagine—a technomystical plot to 'murder America.'
Time for Karras to meet his deadline.
I like to think of Nick as the "Holden Caulfield of science fiction" and here he turns his attention on conspiracy theories with remarkable results – as only Nick Mamatas can! – Lavie Tidhar
"A smart, scary, mind-boggling ride."– Publishers Weekly
"Scathing commentary on gun violence and social media in a novel that is both smart and topical"– Financial Times
"A very thoughtful, funny and often exciting book."– SFX Magazine
"An entertaining thriller, amusing and disturbing by turns."– The Guardian
Mike Karras used to worry that his habit of flicking his pen would annoy his interview subjects, but none of them had ever seemed to care, so he felt free to indulge now. Ex-cops didn't seem to care about much. They indulged him too, but only to a certain extent.
Karras knew the script, the patter, the cliché.
How can I help you?
I didn't keep copies of my old case files or anything.
What is this you're working on again? Ex-cops had a dozen ways of asking that one, and tried it over and over again. Now about this book…? So, who is going to publish your study? and Well, which is it: a book, or a study? You got a publisher for your book?
But cops only had one way of saying that they'd given up.
I'm not a cop anymore.
Karras had developed a tic; two quick flicks of his pen when he heard that. He did it now.
"I'm not a cop anymore," Lurlene Grutzmacher said.
Karras flicked his pen twice. She licked her lips twice. Her kitchen smelled only a little like tobacco. Like the doctor had found a stain on an X-ray and told her to quit, so she had.
"It's a rough job," Karras said.
"It was a rough day," she said, shifting her weight as she spoke. "Even after Columbine, and Virginia Tech, you don't think about it. My beat was the public library downtown. I wasn't even supposed to roust the unhoused guys when they parked in front of the computer with their garbage bags to look at porno all day."
"The First Amendment," Karras said. "Freedom of speech."
"Something like that."
Lurlene Grutzmacher wouldn't have been much of a cop. The public library was her speed. She was a sausage-shaped woman, her face mannish except when it burst into a wide all-teeth-ten-hut smile. A lunch lady with a gun.
"I was there mostly to be the friendly face of the police for kids." That smile.
Karras smiled back. "You saved Da'shawn Kishimoto. Shielded him with your own body."
Lurlene casually lifted her shirt. She had a belly roll on her, and revealed a gibbous moon of plain white bra. Three bruises in a row on her flank. Yesterday's paintball game, or real bullets three years gone by. This was part of the script too; showing off old war wounds. Then…
"You ever been shot, Mister Karras?"
"Can't say that I have, Ms. Grutzmacher." He flicked his pen, knew that she was going to say…
"There's video of the second shooter," she said. "There was video."
Karras dropped his pen, then snatched it back up. She sneered for a moment, then said, "You can call me Grutz. Everyone does." She was back to the patter now. Finally. But what she was supposed to have said was Good, you keep it that way or I can't say I recommend getting shot.
Not that there was video of a second shooter. That there had been video of a second shooter.
"What did he look like?"
"I think Bill's nearly done with our steaks. Follow me."
Lurlene had definitely quit smoking only very recently, because Karras didn't smell the lighter fluid, or the steaks, until he followed her into the backyard. Husband Bill was dark-skinned, with an easy smile and a two-tined fork held aloft. "Hey, Mister Karras, I hope you like 'em raw inside and burnt outside," he said cheerfully.
"It's the only way I know how to grill, myself," Karras said.
"The male of the species is patently inferior," Lurlene Grutzmacher said, easing herself into a deck chair. She nodded for Karras to claim the one next to her.
"Look," she said quietly, leaning over. "See that?"
"Bill's apron?" he said, quietly as well. Bill could surely hear them anyway as he was no more than two yards away, but he politely declined to notice.
"The heat shimmer over the grill," she said.
"Well, yeah," she said. "That's what the second shooter looked like."
Karras turned and peered at Lurlene, at a loss. Whatever cop script she had been performing had been thrown out and a new coke-addled screenwriter brought in to punch up the third act with a high concept and a twist ending. Karras's knack for knowing what a person was about to say had failed him. Was Lurlene having a stroke now, right in front of him?
"Not just face to face. On the video, too. It's why they buried it."
Karras swallowed a smile. "Buried the video. You've seen the video?" Lurlene didn't smile back for a long moment, then she did.
"The bullets, too. Gone by the time I was brought in to the ER. How do you think I lived through that shit? You think I wore a bulletproof vest to the library?"
Bill spoke. "Steaks are up!"
Karras didn't mind keeping his mouth full for the next twenty minutes.
Lurlene Grutzmacher had cancer, definitely, Karras decided. That's why she had once smoked and no longer did. She must have been given massive amounts of chemotherapy, or had a tumor in her brain somewhere. Cognitive issues, even dementia, weren't unusual in such cases. Maybe she was in remission now, or just resigned to an early death and happy to munch on overgrilled steaks, but she wasn't a cop anymore, she was a nut.
It happened. Karras had been on the road for three months so far, researching what he called 'persistent believers' in second shooters. Almost all early media reports of mass shootings, whether the gunman was politically motivated or working through some personal psychosis to deadly effect—or both—included details about a second shooter.
There is almost never an actual second shooter. The fog and night of war in the microcosm explained nearly every sighting. Even police don't routinely face fire from an AR-15. Sounds echo, witnesses panic. Everyone looks like the perp. Any handbag or umbrella could be a gun. One assailant uses two guns of different calibers, so cops and civilian witnesses hear two shooters.
Plus, who wants to admit that in a deadly game of kill-'em-all, the home team of twenty—with huge advantages in coordination, communication, and firepower—so often fumbles against a solo player?
Second shooters vanish when the AP updates its story and sends the new version over the wires. Even the conspiracy theorists don't care overmuch for the phantom second gunmen. The whole phenomenon was just a massive false flag operation with no shooters, no victims, and an endgame of disarmed peasants trudging their way to the FEMA camps under the mournful whip-whip-whip of black helicopters hovering in the federally-owned sky.
But there were a handful of true believers. Eyewitnesses who wouldn't recant, despite facts and evidence. Even police officers. No, especially police officers, despite their training, the demands of their superior officers, and the widespread understanding that eyewitness testimony is unreliable. They were happy to talk, and Karras to listen. He was interested in the psychology of the believers more than the specifics of their claims.
Lurlene Grutzmacher had probably seen Predator on Netflix the night before. Bill looked like the kind of guy who would have voted for Jesse Ventura for President if given half a chance. Her story could be a sidebar: A Real Phantom Shooter.
Karras just had to decide whether Lurlene had been messing with him purposely or as an artifact of some mental problem. No, he didn't even have to do that. He could hear the voice of his editor in his head already.
When in doubt, Sharon Toynbee liked to say, cut it out. A surprisingly ethical stance for an editor pulling a paycheck from Little Round Bombs Books, an independent publisher specializing in books about ninja throat-strikes, Trilateralism, and 'radical composting,' among other topics. Then she'd wink and say Save it for later.
Three months of interviews, crisscrossing the country in an increasingly filthy Nissan Sentra, Mike Karras had cut out a lot more than he had kept. Karras kept himself busy and gas in the car with SEO work and borrowed Starbucks wifi. His advance was already budgeted for the cheapest motels along his sawtooth route across the middle of the country.
No coastal elites, Sharon had told him when assigning him the book. New York and LA only bought the weird shit on psychedelics, memoirs of obscure shoegaze musicians, and vegan cookbooks. True crime and conspiracy business was pure flyover territory stuff, so the book had to be focused there. Little Round Bombs Books was conveniently located in an old warehouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and had a foot in both Americas. Rumors of a Second Shooter needed to be middle-of-the-road gonzo: yes to near-pornographic descriptions of firearms and bodies chewed to pieces, yes to picking apart shooter manifestos and even invisible shooters and phantasmic bullets. No to anything that might upset Auntie Becky and her church group, but also nothing that would play to the far-right. We're college-town late-night stoner-conversation radical, the late publisher, known by his pseudonym Viktor Surge and for his Gandalfian beard, had written in Little Round Bombs's famously casual submissions guidelines. Keep it simple: a discussion of alienation under capitalism, or toxic masculinities, or even the ubiquity of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. If it's bullshit, make it deep. If it's deep, throw in some bullshit.
What Karras needed, he thought in darker moments, was another mass shooting, preferably one within three hundred miles of wherever he happened to be. Lurlene Grutzmacher lived right outside Dallas, and now Karras was stuck in rush-hour traffic. Bill's steak had alchemically transformed into something closer to mercury than meat, and it was filling up his GI tract.
This was one of his darker moments. Come on, special boy! Get angry! A slaughter close enough to drive to, with plenty of witnesses ready to talk about the tightly coordinated team of gunmen who had just torn through a school, or church, or shopping mall. He had the news on the radio, and the police scanner app running on his phone. Despite the shocking number of mass shootings out there, America was still a great big country, and on a daily basis a lot more people were dying of heart attacks and car accidents than they were at the hands of crazed gunmen.
He called Sharon, who answered. Little Round Bombs didn't have secretaries or a phone tree.
"Hey…" Karras said.
"Hello," Sharon said. She was all business. How are you might artificially extend the conversation.
"Just talked to a kook."
"These people are bound to be experiencing all sorts of mental difficulties after what they went through."
"Maybe," Karras said. "Or maybe she was just messing with me." He relayed Lurlene's claims.
"Huh." Then nothing. Karras was about to prod her for more when she said, "Could have been an ultrathin invisibility cloak."
"What?" he said.
"Scientists at UC Berkeley created one back in 2014. Volumetric distribution to bend light around an object under the cloak. Sort of like wearing a sheet made of a funhouse mirror. Or tiny fish-scale mirrors. Nanoantennae, if you understand what I mean."
"What? Well, if it's real why don't we see them…" Karras caught himself and laughed. "Why don't we hear about them all the time?"
"You know. Berkeley's just the tip of the iceberg. It was a tiny cloak—eighty nanometers in length—but that's what went public. It's not unusual to slowly reveal first-generation technology via press release while developing nth-generation technology in secret." Karras thought how strange it was to hear someone actually say nth. "You don't want to know what the President's smartphone is capable of," Sharon said.
"And the bullets?" Karras said.
"Does she have X-rays? Documentation from a physician?"
"JPC?" Karras said.
"Just Plain Crazy. Even if she encountered a shooter with a hyperadvanced invisibility cloak doesn't mean she isn't a kook."
"What are the chances of the Dallas Library Killer having a confederate with a hyperadvanced anything? David Wayne Cunningham was living out of his car," Karras said.
"Low," Sharon said. "But greater than zero. Sidebar it; save it for later. When in doubt…"
"This book is going to be seventy-five percent sidebars." Karras was joking but Sharon's voice went granite: "It had better not be, Michael."
The staff at cheap hotels still hadn't gotten used to someone walking into the lobby while using a Bluetooth so he said a quick good-bye, checked in and quickly retired to his room to type up his notes. The room service selection was just a bunch of local take-out place menus in a three-ring binder, and there was no free wifi, so Karras just organized his notes without Googling "invisibility cloak"+real. He could do it later, on his phone. Data overages were a write-off. Meat and heat got to him quickly enough, so he kicked off his shoes, stretched out on the planklike bed and closed his eyes.
Within Karras's laptop, which was not connected to the internet, or any private networks, or even plugged into a wall outlet, the pointer was removed from the file named lurlenenotes and then overwritten with near-identical information.