The Fatalists

Police poker by wwarby on Flickr
Poker chip photo by William Warby via Flickr Creative Commons

Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual places is purely coincidental. Generals, politicians, legendary heroes (or anti-heroes), eminent writers and philosophers may speak in the same manner as those whose names they share, with the same menacing lisp or stammer, the same frothiness or droning tone. They may even shake hands with the same draconian grip or have the same exact medals dangling from their breast pockets or take their coffee with the same half-tablespoon of sugar, but all of these details, however idiosyncratic, are ultimately imaginary. The setting, too, with its empty streets, its white skies, could resemble a real place at the edges of some event that is either truly wondrous or utterly cataclysmic. It could be Thebes after the murder of Laius. Or Saigon after the fall. Or Actium before the appearance of the Egyptian fleet. Time likewise doesn’t seem to flow with any clockwork regularity in the work, but the ravages of it can be witnessed nonetheless. Moss and sulfur stains run along the walls. A toxic patina coats the railing and gates. The sewers are overrun. A few soldiers stand on the corner. Any resemblance to a historical setting can be blamed solely on the fickle and devious machinations of history itself, which is notorious for attempting to imitate the imagination. Would you prefer that the setting or characters not be confused with historical entities? Undiscovered galaxies or ghosts lurking in the basement? A Minotaur conjuring a lethal spell? Armies of rebel angels? Then you would no doubt accuse the author(s) of hiding behind the phantasmagoric so as not to address the material concerns of working people.

Therefore, the work is located in a vaguely familiar time and place with beings that are for all intents and purposes human in aspect. If it’s verisimilitude you want, then by all means you will get it, but do not mistake it for reality or otherwise you will risk those very symptoms of madness reserved for the minor characters who inhabit the work: the dishwasher who gets insulted by the cook, the sleepless asphyxiophiliac prosecutor, the forensic analyst with delirium tremors, the marine who wanders into traffic foaming at the mouth, the grandmother who carries an empty fishing net along the canal, the boy with rosacea who shatters fluorescent tubes. Their respective conflicts might remind you of your own. You might relish in the redemption of the prosecutor when he wins the case of his career and nurses his wife back from a coma. You might cheer when the dishwasher pushes the cook in front of a bus or cringe when the boy is forced to scoop up the glass shards with his bare hands. All of it could be entertaining and cathartic and help you forget the life you will return to once the work is done, but any familiarity you sense can ultimately be attributable to your sentimental nature.

The peculiar odor wafting down the alley, the wallpaper of the nursery, the warlord’s vermillion robe, or the feathers of the nightingale perched on the barn, the unpolished shoes of the bank security guard, the sheet hanging from the clothesline, the stains on the upholstery in the lecherous mayor’s den, even if every one of these details corresponds exactly to a documented event, occurring on the same date and at the same time with the same geographic coordinates, all suspicion must be suspended for the sake of the work’s unimpeachable artificiality, the product of hours of concerted labor involving the use of metrics and consensus all intended for you to relate more to the work.

Indeed, the more you relate, the more profitable and critically successful the work will be, but whenever the face is just about to align with its reflection, it must withdraw from the frame before complete self-recognition occurs; otherwise, one risks being consumed by the mirror like some in Lovecraftian horror. This applies to the scene when three police officers are engaged in their weekly poker game in the garage of the character Lt. Barlow. Amidst their usual rehashing of war stories from their time spent in an imaginary country, the lieutenant derides the tendency among natives of that country to believe in predestination.

“Can you figure it?” he says. “Like a fella don’t ask for what’s comin’ to him.” Another officer, a one Sgt. Stanycz, asks the other two if they’re willing to wager whether predestination exists or not. “I say it does,” he tells them, setting three twenties on the plastic foldout table.

The rookie scoffs and swipes at the moths circling around his head. “I’m in,” he says. “I don’t see how we’re gonna settle it, though.”

The sergeant removes his pistol from his holster and sets it beside the cash, looking over at Barlow.

“Last chance.”

He cocks the pistol, flips the safety off, and raises it to his temple.

“What are you doin’? This is my house, Stan!”

The rookie reaches for his money: “I’m out!”

“I wager that tonight’s not my night to die. Whaddya say, fellas?”

He pulls the trigger, but it clicks. The other two laugh at him.

“It’s not loaded.”

“I knew it was a joke.”

“You think I’d last for seven years on the force if I carried it unloaded?” He lifts the gun and points it across the table, firing into the darkness just as a dog is pulling a boy down the street on a skateboard.

The boy cries out: “Buster! Buster!”

Barlow runs down the driveway and goes up to the boy, who’s kneeling next to his dead dog, and gives him all the money in his wallet. With the rookie, he lifts the dog up off the street and carries it back in the garage. After they lay it on the table, the lieutenant closes the automatic door.

The sergeant holsters his pistol.

“It wasn’t Buster’s night, boys,” he says.

“How am I gonna explain all this blood to my wife?”

“You’re lucky I didn’t hit the kid.”

Even if you encountered this particular incident in the news, and the author(s) are certain that you didn’t, and if all the details of it corresponded perfectly with the story—the age of the boy (13), the color of the rookie’s goatee (dirty blonde), the street name where the house was located (Perkins), the color of the mop bucket (blue), the number of garbage sacks used to transport the dog to the local landfill (6), the dog’s breed (Rottweiler), the temperature and weather (cloudy, 84° F)—this would nonetheless be a matter of pure coincidence.

The following week’s poker game is also based on nothing but fantasy. Since the other two officers still remain unconvinced that each life is written in the stars as it were, the sergeant proposes another wager: “Everyone out there, they don’t have a clue. Whether they got forty years or forty seconds left, the card’s been dealt.”

Barlow interrupts him: “I don’t want any part of it, Stan. Do you know how hard it was to get the bloodstains out of the driveway?”

“Too late. When you scooped that mutt’s brains up, you were an accomplice.”

The rules are simple. Bets will be placed on the souls of the citizenry. The less probable a death is of occurring, the lower the odds. Various interventions, as the sergeant calls them, will be set on the wheel of fate. What begins as rather indirect actions (slashed tires, scrambled traffic lights, etc.) escalates over the weeks into more direct ones (fires set to apartment buildings, dumbbells dropped from overpasses, etc.). Soon the officers coin a name for themselves: The Fatalists. Their duty, as they see it, is not only to serve and protect, but also to reveal the hidden vicissitudes of destiny. As rumors of their interventions circulate throughout the precinct, more officers join them. The amount in the pot increases sometimes by twentyfold. The sergeant, who never had much luck during the weekly poker games in Barlow’s garage, is now seen as a soothsayer of sorts on the force. He has such a hot run of it that his odds are getting lower, so he becomes more involved in the game by robbing liquor stores and committing home invasions and street attacks in broad daylight.

At this juncture the work is certainly too ridiculous to ever confuse with historical fact. Indeed, the author(s) encourage you to believe in its pure unreality. After all, this allows them to continue their work without being interrupted by the threat of litigation. The overturned eighteen-wheeler. The pile-ups. The dog dumped in the landfill. The family of four found bound and gagged in their living room. Perhaps the violence appears redundant and gratuitous, but the work wouldn’t be entertaining otherwise, much less believable.

After a few months of these interventions, bereaved families begin to gather in front of city hall, demanding an investigation. Two citizens in particular, a sister and brother, are skeptical of the police report detailing their mother’s death (carbon monoxide poisoning) as an accident. Their late mother’s neighbor tells them an unknown car had been parked on the street the morning leading up to the discovery of the body. The daughter happens to work for the local government and gains access to the city’s vehicle registry, easily cross-referencing the neighbor’s description of the vehicle with those in the database, narrowing down the search to three matches.

Let’s also consider the miraculous fact that the brother had intelligence training while serving in the same war as the three officers. Of course, it didn’t require specialized training to deduce who could’ve tampered with his mother’s gas pipes, considering the other two matches were an eighty-three year old woman who hadn’t driven in two years and a man with a verified alibi (business trip in Shanghai), leaving our antagonist, Sgt. Stanycz, as the only possible suspect. Surely such coincidences are too improbable to occur in the quotidian realm. They must be penned by hired fabricators who think themselves incredibly lucky to get paid to invent stories, all the while believing they’re earning a living based on the quality of their imagination while their employer is only waiting for an algorithm to replace them, one that’s presently in the beta stage.

The next scene is also not beyond an algorithm’s capabilities: the brother publicly denouncing the sergeant as he’s bidding at a charity auction for victims of the recent spate of violence (urged to do so by his more philanthropic wife). The Fatalists break into the brother’s apartment later that night and beat him to death. The brother, however, foresaw his fate and gave gas station surveillance footage of another intervention to his sister, who then mailed it to the local TV station. The nature of the crime is incidental to the purposes of this disclaimer, but the footage is incontrovertible enough to lead to the arrests and convictions of the Fatalists and to an internal investigation of the entire police department and D.A.’s office, leading to a key scene in which Sgt. Stanycz is led on a perp walk to the very building where he once worked, yelling at the cameras that he was certain of his own capture and that it was all predestined to end exactly the way it did.

Even as the city’s justice system goes through a complete purging, copycat crimes begin to appear over the following months. More total in their effect, they include cyanide in the water supply, gas leaks in grocery stores and hospitals (the few places where people still congregate), and random door-to-door massacres. As a consumer you can relish in the comfort of knowing that such violence is rarely as manifold as it’s portrayed by the diseased imaginations of the author(s). And when it does occur, it often does so without any resolution or sacrifice or sympathetic heroes (or anti-heroes) with all their evangelic sheen. The martial law being imposed is not real. The scorched cars, the secret prisons, the bones floating in the canals, the acid attacks and overrun hospitals. None of it is real. Even if the street being occupied by rogue soldiers resembles the one you’ve walked down the last eight years on your way to work, or the room being quarantined after an outbreak mirrors exactly the one where you sleep, or the man being tortured in his kitchen looks like your own brother, you can rest assured—after the initial throb of recognition subsides—that all of it is fake.

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