Keep Circulating The Tapes
rating: +18+x

The unseasonal Christmas tree lighting did little to hide the grime of Maloof's interior. Marlin Wexler stared at his whiskey on the rocks. A drink with two ingredients - and the bartender had managed to fuck it up.

He checked his Rolex. Fifteen minutes late.

Marlin hated this bar. How he had to drive to the other side of Atlanta. The jukebox that only played awful Greek guitar music. The eight swordfishes Maloof had mounted to the walls. The cute sign mounted by the register, "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash." The chairs that felt like they would fall apart at a moment's notice. He hated that he was here on a Tuesday afternoon like some goddamned booze hound.

Most of all, he hated the thrill he got from being here.

By rights, this meeting should be taking place in the CIVIL-TV offices. They should be right in Marlin's executive suite, with the wide windows overlooking Peachtree. Marlin should be reclining in his leather chair, peering over his mahogany desk. He would look big, despite his slight frame and receding hair. He would feel big. He could talk about how, in three years, he had built this company from nothing into the leading provider of what Marlin delicately called "exotic entertainment." Whoever came to see him had to supplicate themselves before him and the temple of his own success.

That was how it was done, with him calling the shots. But every time, Vadasz was the one who decided where they would meet. And every time he chose here.

Every time, it was absolutely worth it. The first time he had come to Maloof's, he had walked out with six hours of tapes of Argentinian secret police torturing some dissident. It had taken maybe ten minutes to leak his plans to run it on CIVIL-TV's subscriber-only satellite channel to Amnesty International.

What they said about no bad publicity was true. Amnesty could call him "callous" and a "merchant of misery" all they wanted, but CIVIL-TV saw over six thousand new subscribers, each popping fifty bucks a month to get their rocks off or maybe just indulge in a bit of car-wreck curiosity.

Truth be told, he needed something like that again. With overseas investors coming into town, he needed something to dazzle them with.

Some big, sexy, tasteless program that would show that CIVIL-TV was just around the corner from being profitable. He had taken a risk after ABN, leveraging everything he owned into a rinky dink satellite operation. After two years, it was still hemorrhaging money. Operating costs were rising, and subscriber numbers had peaked before beginning a slow decline to the baseline.

He wouldn't go back to the sticks. Crawling back to Pollensbee, proving everything everyone had said right. Puffed up white trash who washed out and got fired from the first big city job he held.

What he was getting now was product. What he needed was a miracle.

As he waited, Marlin checked the television set peering down from ceiling corner.

A black screen with a picture of Ronald Reagan. Caption: "LEADERSHIP THAT'S WORKING".

White letters on a muted purple background. "WXVA-15, ABN Atlanta." Wipe to smiling anchors sitting behind a biege desk. "News you can trust!" Wipe to smiling TV stars. "Laughs for the family!"

An old lady in a peach dress leaps in silent joy. Behind her, a board flashes with blinking yellow and blue lights. Several people run up to hug her. Cut to a shot of a hotel sitting atop a white-sanded beach.

Vadasz entered through the far door. He was a rumpled suit of a man, his eternal five o'clock shadow intersecting the latticework of splotches on his cheeks and neck. Maybe that was why he insisted meeting here with its red and green lights. His bald spot peeked from beneath his slicked back hair. He wore a Tech sweatshirt and blue jeans, a plastic satchel slung over his shoulder. With grunt, he slumped into the stool opposite Marlin.

"You're late," Marlin grumbled.

Vadasz gave a smile half full of disintegrating teeth. "Good to see you too," he said, beaming. Without hesitation, he took Marlin's whiskey and began to drink.

Marlin considered protesting, but remembered the taste. Let him have it, he thought.

"Do you have the tapes?" he asked. The sooner he could be out of Maloof's and away from Vadasz, the better.

Vadasz opened the satchel and produced three video cassettes in unmarked blue plastic boxes. He slid them across the table.

"As requested, Human Lab Rat Volumes One, Two, and Four. Three literally doesn't exist," he said. "My guy say it's intense stuff, though. And coming from him… might wanna run it by legal? Or a coroner first? I made it three minutes."

"Jesus Christ, would you keep your voice down," Marlin hissed, "Do you even know what discretion is?"

Vadasz shrugged as he took a sip from what was now his drink.

"It's fine," he said, gesturing around the half-empty bar. "Most of the people here don't even know what day it is, and the rest of them just don't care."

Marlin glanced around. He to agree. A couple of punks in a corner booth, a couple of already-soused retirees, and a bored-looking bartender were the only witnesses to the exchange.

Vadasz put the glass down.

"Besides," he said, "having the tapes isn't a crime, not really. Now, broadcasting 'em? Might get you in some hot water. Producing them? That can be hard time, depending. But for legal purposes, all I am is a humble procurer, a finder and a maker of connections."

He shrugged. "Besides, it's not like you're the only person I sell to."

"Who else do you even sell to?" Marlin asked.

"Not at liberty to divulge," Vadasz said, a smirk playing at his lips. Marlin idly considered punching him in the face before nixing the idea. No sense in burning a connection for a little wounded pride.

Instead, he reached inside his coat and pulled out a small brown envelope. Without a word, he tossed it on the table.

Vadasz grunted into his sip of watered-down whiskey. He swept the envelope into his lap.

Marlin wanted to be out of this place, out of the presence of Lazslo fucking Vadasz, dragging him down into the muck. A shudder of disgust traveled along his back.

He wanted out of this place, with these tapes safely in a machine where he would never have to see them again. But he couldn't let Vadasz get the last word in.

"You ever watch your videos?"

"For editing and quality? Sure. Or do you mean making sure they're real? Definitely."

Marlin shook his head. "No, for fun."

"What? No, of course not." Vadasz's face crinkled, halfway between confusion and disgust.

"Why do this, then?" A note of genuine curiosity colored Marlin's words.

Vadasz shrugged. "Why do anything? I'm good at it, for one. I've got a lot of friends of friends of friends kinda things. Plus you have the thrill of the chase, all that kind of stuff? Why? Why do you do this?"

"Because I own a business. One which relies on people like these," he motioned at the bar patrons, "watching videos like yours."

Marlin leaned back, the rickety chair creaking at the pressure. "Keep me posted on anything that comes down the pipe in the meantime, yeah?"

Vadasz nodded and left.

Marlin Wexler sat alone in the bar, three cassettes worth of unspeakable violence and the remains of a whiskey on the rocks.

"I don't pay you for 'can't," Marlin said, "I pay you for 'do.'"

"Right, no, I get it. It's just there's not anything to be done on our end. The problem is all on the customer's side," Paul replied. He shook his head, ponytail wagging behind. The light from the monitors flickered in the lenses of his coke bottle glasses.

A dirty man in a torn jacket nods his head as a reporter asks a silent question.

Blocky robots leap into the air and turn into cars.

Shots of Reagan. A shot of Mondale speaking. Yellow text across the bottom. "Sunday, October 7th. 8 PM" The blocky ABN logo in the corner.

A well-dressed man walks into a lavishly-appointed living room, says a line, and pauses, smiling.

A man mouths a wordless scream as a whip comes down across his back. Zoom in on his hands clenching and unclenching. The leather tears into his skin again and again.

Marlin flinched and looked back to Paul.

"It's like this," Paul said, flattening his left hand and angling it towards the control panel. "Beam comes down from the satellite, right?" The hand sloped downwards, passing over a half-eaten slice of pizza and a heap of cassette tapes.

Paul's right hand rose up, perpendicular to the control panel. The left hand bounced off it, then continued its downward trajectory.

"Now this," he said, motioning his right hand, "is a jet or a weather vane or a flock of geese. Enough to knock the signal out of wack for a few milliseconds. The signal makes its way to the dish, but now you've got two signals coming in, one timed right, one timed a little bit off."

He spread his hands with a flourish. "And that's where the ghost comes from. Tell them to check and see if there are any radio towers or tall trees in the area and that should solve the problem," he said, leaning back.

"I'm not going to tell a paying customer to just figure it out himself. You're going to fix it," Marlin said, standing up and making his way to the exit.

"Marlin, that's what I've been telling you - short of a miracle, there's nothing we can do for this guy," Paul protested, "Especially not without messing up the signal for every other customer we have!"

Marlin walked to the door of the engineering room. As he passed into the hallway, he turned to face Paul. "You make images appear on screens across an entire continent. I pay you to perform miracles. If you can't handle it, I'll pay someone who can."

Without waiting for a response, he turned and headed down the hallway towards his office.

Outside the executive office, Jeannine was takking away at the word processor. She looked up from her typing as he approached. "Morning, Mr. Wexler," she chirped, "A young man in your office. He said it was urgent."

Marlin stopped, looking at the closed office door. It wasn't uncommon for people to come in with tapes of animal abuse or clumsily staged sex videos. Things that filled up the hours in between essential programming. Still, Jeannine usually had them drop off the tapes.

"Didn't you tell him to wait?" he asked. It was a genuine question. Jeannine was in her late forties and five foot nothing, but Marlin had seen her shout down men twice her size. She hadn't even needed to get up from her chair.

"Yes," she said, "but he was quite insistent. Something about a new tape. I rescheduled your eleven o'clock for three, so you should have some time."

Marlin nodded. "Thanks, Jeannine," he said. He opened the office door and headed inside.

The young man had his back to the door. He faced the big-screen television Marlin kept at the end of his office.

As Marlin entered, the young man turned in his chair, scratching at his neck. It looked as though he hadn't slept for a week. His yellow shirt was torn and dirty. Next to buttoned-down suburban dads, kids like him were his most reliable suppliers for mundane content.

"So," Marlin said, his voice sharp, "you have a video. Impress me, kid. Wow me with whatever you have."

The young man was silent for a moment. He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a tape.

"I found it. It was hard, but I found it," he said hoarsely.

"So what is it?" Marlin asked. He sat down at his desk, propping his feet up. In his drawer, he had a Colt. Sometimes it was necessary for when the cranks came in to present. This kid didn't seem like the type.

"It wasn't special. But everything that it is, that's special," the kid continued, "It tells you - man, it tells you all you ever need to know!"

Marlin leaned back and lit a cigarette. This was how sales should go.

"That's great and all, but before we talk cash, I'll want to see it," Marlin said. He took a long drag, then leaned back and exhaled towards the ceiling. With a nod of his head, he motioned for the kid to pop the tape into VCR.

The young man inserted the cassette, standing beside the television set. He seemed self-conscious the screen went black.

Interior shot of a large church. The audience is at least a thousand people. Shots of smiling people standing shoulder to shoulder. Their lips move in unison to a silent hymn as triumphal organ music plays.

Medium shot, framing the whole of the congregation. On the wall is hung a huge cross. The frame shakes violently for several seconds, then is still. The camera lurches to the doors. Three burly men in masks enter, then bar the doors. The congregants don't seem to notice. The masks look like that old wrestler from the space movie.

Marlin nodded. "Okay, okay."

The young man looked from the TV to Marlin, back to the TV. His brow was knitted with concern.

The organ music dies down. The congregation is singing the same tune. The words are too forceful almost to make out. It sounds like "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" but the words aren't all right.

One of the men takes out a cordless drill. The frame moves drunkenly, drawing closer, as if the cameraman is loping towards the scene. The frame tightens on the drill bit. The head blurs into motion as it slowly descends into the young woman's skull. The frame shifts to get a better view. The drill is fully inserted into her.

Blood leaks from her eyes and nose. She doesn't seem to notice as she continues to sing. The masked man pulls the drill out and she slumps to the floor, liquefied brain leaking from the hole in her head. Her fingers twitch slightly as she lies there. All around here, everyone continues to sing.

"Holy shit," Marlin mumbled.

He had seen people die on tape many, many times. Executions, botched surgeries, assorted tragic and impersonal accidents. What was always evident was the sheer artlessness of death. How sudden and awful the real thing was.

He had also seen countless "murders" on tape as well. People torn apart by dogs, decapitated, burned to death. Mewling torture victims dismembered by their captors. Bound men disemboweled with power tools. There was a artifice to them, a spot where you could identify the boundary between human and prop. It was that jump, that slight change in angle, that made these scenes more bearable than the grainy footage of pedestrians being crushed by semis.

There was no jump here. It was a single, uninterrupted shot of a woman being murdered. Marlin felt some small part of himself shrivel and die.

"No, no," said the young man. He was shaking his head.

The camera swings around. One of the masked men knocks a young girl in a blue dress to the floor. She can't be more than seven or eight. He raises a boot and stomps on her back. Again and again and again. The shot doesn't include her face, but the floor is soon covered in blood.

"No, man, this isn't it," the young man protested, "That isn't what this is. It's beautiful and, man, it's profound!"

"Son," Marlin began, turning his gaze from the girl to the man, "I'm prepared to offer you $300 for this tape." The going rate was around $2,000 for a medium budget "snuff" film, but the young man seemed like the sort who'd measure his fortune in vials.

The young man shook his head. "No, no. It's lying, get it? It - it - it says it loves you, then this! Don't you get it!?"

A black kid, looks to be around eleven, convulses as one the assailants begins to strangle him with gloved hands. A brown finger hooks into the eye hole of the mask. As the kid falls to the floor, the mask comes off.

The face of Marlin Wexler is revealed. He turns to the camera. As the kid's convulsions stop, Marlin smiles and waves at the viewer.

The bottom fell out of the world. Marlin was looking at shapes, forms with no meaning. Light twisted and turned in front of him, but he refused to understand it.

Marlin worked hard to put the images he had seen into dollars and cents. If the Argentine tapes had brought six thousand, this would bring at least twice that.

Less lawyers, plus the revenue from the investors, less possibility of CIVIL-TV being shut down altogether, it still came out miles and miles and miles ahead of any other option he had. Miles and miles and miles, like the song.

Miles and miles, he thought, miles and miles. That wasn't him, couldn't be. That wasn't him. He stared at one of the shapes.

After what may have been seconds or minutes, he noticed the kid staring at him. He had backed himself into a corner next to the screen. The world came roaring back

"Kid," Marlin said in as even a voice as he could manage, "I need you to give me that tape."

The kid just continued to stare. Marlin refused to look at the screen. Silence.

"Give it to me," Marlin snarled.

With trembling hands, the kid hit the eject button on the VCR and pulled out the tape.

He made a dash for the door.

"Give it to me!" Marlin shouted. He lunged over the desk, but caught his leg on the chair. With a thud, his stomach slammed into the desk.

His half leap succeeded only in scattering a pile of papers to the floor. By the time he looked up, the young man was gone.

For a few moments, he laid in silence. Then, he burst into laughter.

Jeannine peaked her head in. "Is everything alright, Mr. Wexler?" she asked.

Marlin gave the smile of a man in on his own private joke. "Of course, Jeannine," he said, "Why wouldn't it be?"

He couldn't stop laughing.

By the time Marlin looked up from his desk, the shadows of the building across the street had swallowed the last of the day's light.

Balancing accounts, approving programming, reviewing invoices. Suddenly, he found that he couldn't get enough of it. Anything that kept his mind from wandering back to that woman. Thinking about what that kid's movie was. How that junkie piece of trash had found a dead ringer for Marlin and committed it to tape in his scum video. Just what the kid was trying to pull.

Marlin shook his head, trying to dislodge the thoughts. Marlin was the only game in town for content like that. The kid wouldn't be selling it, or worse yet, taking it to the cops.

All at once, he noticed the silence of the office, everyone else having long since gone home for the day. The TV was on, muted.

Closeup of a masked man in green fatigues gesturing with a rifle. Maybe somewhere in Lebanon. Behind him is a tinted car window. Medium shot of a rain-sodden field. So Ireland, then.

Marlin realized that he was walking down the hall from CIVIL-TV's offices. He wasn't sure if he had locked up, but knew it didn't matter. He felt the pressure of the Colt tucked into his belt.

He was in his car, acutely aware of each turn he was making to the young man's apartment. All kids like that lived in the exact same place in East Lake. The traffic drifted in and out of focus as he drove

A few minutes later, Marlin was at the door of the apartment. Inside, he could hear laughter.

He pounded at the door with an open palm. He hollered something inarticulate and obscene. No response. A well-aimed kick knocked the unlocked door back until it hung crooked on a single hinge.

The smell of rotting meat billowed from the apartment door. Marlin gagged, then put a crooked elbow to his nose as he stepped past the threshold. It didn't help.

Inside, the floor was strewn with heaps of clear plastic wrap, old magazines, half-eaten food. Other things Marlin couldn't or wouldn't recognize. The entryway dripped with anemic yellow light from the overhead, thrumming gently. The sense of disgust and unease began to seep into the corners of Marlin's rage.

The sound of laughing became louder. It was canned, recited. There was thunderous, tinny applause. Marlin realized he was hearing the TV in the next room.

"Kid," he shouted, "I know you're in there. Come out! Hand over the tapes and we can talk this through." No response but further applause. He turned the corner into the living room.

He saw the top of the kid's head peeking over the back of a green armchair. The chair was facing a TV set, tuned to some daytime show.

"Kid," Marlin yelled again. The audience roared as he stepped forward. His words caught in his throat.

The young man laid in the chair, his body distended almost beyond recognition, folded and re-folded in on itself. His flesh was a mass of sores and lumps, pulsing in time with the sickly light of the overhead. Puss seemed to ooze from every inch of his body.

Each labored breath from his emaciated chest seemed to draw a new round of applause from the TV audience. Marlin gagged at the reek of sickness.

It was the eyes of the man that caught Marlin's words, though. Bloodshot and lined, but pleading.

Fully aware.

The young man raised an impossibly infected hand, its meat tender and crusting, towards Marlin. The flesh on the arm remain stuck to the crusted fabric of the couch, stretching, then tearing with an unspeakable wetness. The kid seemed not to notice as the skin sloughed off.

His jaw was unhinged in a toothless scream. The holes where his teeth had been were impossibly widened, filling his mouth with a yawning blackness.

"J-J-Jes-" Marlin began. A sound came from the television. Marlin turned.

"Marlin!" the narrator shouts. Marlin appears on the screen, entering the set of a game show. He is grinning and waving

"Marlin! Marlin!" the audience chants in a unified voice. The host is saying something.

It isn't actually saying words, just stresses and pauses in the right places to make it seem like words.

The host smiles, every feature of his face wiped clean but the gaping, devouring grin.

"Marlin," he says in his tinny voice. He points out from the television set.

The glass begins to stretch and extend as the host reached out further, further, his hand grasping out from the cathode ray box. Reaching towards Marlin.

Marlin tried to run, but tripped. From his position on the floor, he could see the glowing hand grasping towards him with blind fingers. He lurched back, trying to distance himself, only to find himself face to face with the kid.

The young man's mouth grew and grew and grew as he began to scream the sound of static.

The static was everything.

Marlin started awake. He was lying in a green armchair. He lept out of it as the memory of the dream came back to him.

After a moment, he surveyed his surroundings. It was the apartment from the dream - the kid's apartment - but totally bare except for the chair and a television set tuned to a dead station. The only illumination was the blue of the static dancing across the screen.

After a quick sweep, Marlin confirmed the entire apartment was empty.

As he prepared to leave, Marlin noticed something perched on top of the television set. He crouched down, and saw it was a black cassette tape. On the spine was a strip of masking tape with something written on it. He held it in the light of the television static. He could make out the spidery black letters.

"SARKIC SERMONS" they said.

He felt his stomach turn, but he didn't know why.

Marlin tucked the VHS tape into his inside pocket. As he approached the door, he saw that it was half-kicked in. Gingerly, he stepped over the ruined frame.

Behind him, he could hear the static of the television roar to life. Blind and feral.

He dashed from the apartment and down the hall. The static was growing louder, nearer. He dared not look behind himself. Finally, he made it to the door, bursting into the warm July air.

The sounds of the Atlanta night were all around him.

But it was only when he was on 285, surrounded by a sea of headlights that he felt he could breath again.

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