The Sins of Ours and Others
“Nope, not good.”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “It’s too much.”
“No, too little.”
“Oh.” I was taken aback. I shouldn’t have been. They always want more. “Anything specific?”
“All of it. The more dirt the better. I don’t care how far back you have to go.”
“And then I want it everywhere: Chatmunk, Ampersign, LoKeee, Auglll. The business socials, too: Zetsett, Bearull, Posference.”
“Twitter, yeah, good one.” The client turned off his phrames and gave me an un-augmented glance. “Xruh, you can’t be serious? No one uses Twitter anymore. I don’t give a shit about Twitter.”
I’m not your ‘xruh,’ you Gen Ell tool, I thought.
“No, of course not.” I said. “Just being thorough.”
“Right,” he replied, winking his phrames back on. “Then, that’s all for now. Message me when you’re ready to post.”
“SmoldSine or Code-ooo?”
“Code-ooo. But just send an empty bubble. I don’t want a record of our interaction. Not even on an encrypted.”
“Alright, I’ll be in touch within the week. See y—”
The door shut before my farewell finished. I shrugged it off. It was par for the course. In-person manners are an obscure art form these days, especially for anyone under forty. It’s not surprising. Practice makes perfect and they get no practice. Where would they? We’re one of the few businesses that operate in-person, and only because we have to. People don’t want a digital trail connecting them to a forensic genealogist. No, no, no. People like hiring us face-to-face in tech-disabling lud-rooms. It makes them feel better, eases their anxiety, allows them to sleep at night knowing that their enemy, or coworker, or friend, or whoever the hell they decided to destroy, will never find out that they’re the one responsible. Of course that risk is low anyway. Our firm is one of a kind and it’s not like we advertise our unique services. We can’t. We have to reach out to clients directly and discreetly. Keep those in the know to a minimum.
“Jaylen, you want to grab a bite?”
I’d stepped out of the lud-room and into our communal workspace. Jaylen was on a chat but he gave me a thumbs up.
“Wyatt, Diaz, you two in?”
More thumbs up.
I slid on my coat and leaned against the wall. Thoughts of the last client ran through my head as I waited for my coworkers.
Ugh, what a dick. And his smug reaction to Twitter. Ha. It kills me every time. They all mock it, but it made this business. Okay, technically we made this business, but those early socials, they made it possible.
“Let’s roll” Diaz said, cinching the belt of her coat, Jaylen and Wyatt beside her.
I nodded and we headed out.
“Botto or walk?” Wyatt asked.
“Mexican or Indian?”
Jaylen winked up his biometrics. “Indian. My body needs fiber and curcumin. How about y’all?”
Diaz and Wyatt checked their data then agreed.
I agreed immediately. Not because my biometrics told me to, but because I wanted to walk by the doggy day care with the big show window and it’s on the way.
“So what’s everybody got on the Zielenski case?” I asked as we walked toward the restaurant. “Anything new?”
“Her paternal G6GF helped guard the Warsaw Ghetto,” Jaylen said. “Nothing too egregious, but anything Nazi-adjacent can hurt.”
“Yeah, but her paternal G5GF was part of the Zegota resistance.” Diaz countered. “He helped at least fifteen Jewish families get to safety. That muddies the narrative.”
“Agreed. Anything more recent?”
“Maternal G4GF and G4GM are Hutus.”
“Any connections to the genocide?”
“Records are spotty. They were definitely in Rwanda though. We could make a link.”
“Meh, we can do better.”
“Her paternal Great Grandfather and Great Grandmother were monogamists,” Wyatt said, an impish grin on his face.
“So?” Diaz was unimpressed. “Almost everyone’s G1Gs were monogamists.”
“True, but not many of them were on the board of the Anti-Poly League.”
“Oh shit, are you serious?”
“One hundred percent,” Wyatt grinned. “And it gets better.”
“Her maternal G1Gs are equally radioactive."
“Yes way. They were vocal bio-sex realists.”
“Get out of here. That’s impossible. We’d have caught that during our preliminary research.”
“Not if the target paid for a deep scrub.”
“Those things are crazy pricey.” I said, surprised and worried by the development. “No one pays to have the entire virtual world wiped unless there’s dirt on them directly.”
“I don’t know,” Wyatt shrugged. “That’s what she did.”
“You’re telling me Zielenski paid a hundred million to get a deep scrub even though her own personal past is clean?” I was astonished. “She did it all out of fear of an ancestry assassination.”
“Correct,” Wyatt confirmed. “I only found out because our contact over at Veskar tipped me off. And even with the inside info, it still took me over sixty hours to pick through the darkbin and piece together the datdust.”
“She must know about us.” I said. “That’s the only reason she’d go to that extreme.”
“No,” Diaz countered, her expression serious. “I’ve heard chatter about others doing the same.”
“Yeah. They’re doing it because our little enterprise has taken off. There’s real activists doing ancestral deep dives all on their own now.”
“And they’re doing the amplification work, too?” I asked, still processing the news. “They’re pushing it on all the socials in all the virtuals?”
“But that’s so much work.”
“It is, but what’s a little labor when you’re ‘making the earth as it ought to be.’ ” Diaz put air quotes around our most successful catch phrase. “Anyway, it’s not as much work as you think, at least on the amplification end. A lot of that is legitimately organic now.”
“That’s true,” Wyatt nodded. “I’ve been noticing the trend for over a year now. I was hoping it was an anomaly but it doesn’t look that way. Think about it, the last few targets haven’t been as tough. We haven’t had to till and harvest the clicks like we used to.”
“Nope, the crusaders are on it for us,” Diaz confirmed.
“Whoa,” I said. The revelation felt like a physical blow, a medicine ball tossed into my unflexed midsection. Our creation had left the nest.
“Alright then,” Jaylen said. “So what are we going to do about it?”
“This new reality. The fully organic ancestry assassinations.”
“Good question,” Wyatt replied. “The way I see it we have a few options. Option A…”
I only half listened to Wyatt, my eyes and mind wandering.
It’s funny, I thought. This all started as a side hustle, a way to make some spending money while we polished off our dissertations. Who knew it would spread like this and make us millions?
I glanced at the guy walking past us, his jaw clenched, his eyes narrowed, the indignant expression of a man actively rage-scrolling his socials.
Then it struck me: We knew.
A sour taste filled my mouth.
Dude, don’t worry about it. Y’all didn’t start the wind, you just read the weather vane.
I nodded to myself, affirming my own words of comfort.
Just think about something else.
I looked up and laid eyes on my favorite show window. It made me smile. Doggy daycares always do.
Although they could have done better with the name, I mused. ‘Pup, Pup and a Stay’ is mediocre at best. ‘Canine to Five’ maybe? Or ‘Doggy Brag’? Yeah, that’s good. Then I’d glam up the interior and send the pups home with treats in glittery take-out containers.
Smiling at the thought, I stopped at the window and stared inside. My colleagues kept walking. They were too busy troubleshooting to notice my absence.
I watched the dogs play in the big open room, the sun from the floor-to-ceiling show window bathing the space in light. Then I watched the guy working. He was all smiles. Scratching ears, throwing tennis balls, tugging ropes. I shook my head and walked away, doing my best to ignore the ‘Now Hiring’ sign posted on the glass.
It took me a couple minutes to catch up to everybody. I had stared through the window for longer than I realized. It didn’t matter though. My colleagues had yet to arrive at either the restaurant or an answer to our new problem.
“No, that won’t work,” Wyatt said, as I jogged up from behind.
“You’re right,” Diaz concurred.
“But maybe we’re looking at it wrong,” Jaylen posited. “Maybe it’s not really a problem. I mean so what, now there are some amateur genealogists out there digging through family trees and airing dirty laundry. That’s not going to change the demand for what we do. If anything, it’ll drive it up.”
“True,” Wyatt conceded. “Plus the digging is a lot of work. Only a few diehards will actually comb through the primary sources to get the goods, the rest will just be spreaders and amplifiers.”
“Yeah,” Diaz said, jumping on board. “And those people will be just as helpful to us.” She paused, told the virtual restaurant hostess that there were four of us, then continued talking, her tone increasingly confident. “And there’ll be no controlling that handful of activist genealogists. Their targets will be whoever is the click magnet of the moment. People who want to target someone specific will still need us.”
“That’s right,” Jaylen nodded. “Just think about our last few cases: Jackson, Okafor, Yamada, none of them would have been the target of an organic ancestry take-down. Shit, think about our current case. Zielinski’s as boring as they come. Wife of two, mom of two, upper middle-class upbringing. She made it rich off of brick and mortar storage spaces for god sake. I almost fell asleep just summarizing her bio. Nobody’s going to dig around in her family tree unless they’re paid to.”
Both Wyatt and Diaz enthusiastically agreed.
I couldn’t believe it. How did they not see how far off they were?
After we ordered our food, I voiced my opposition constructively: “Are you guys fucking nuts?”
Diaz laughed, “So Justin disagrees with our analysis.”
“Of course I disagree. I disagree because you’re all crazy. You’re all missing the most obvious point.”
“And what’s that?”
“That if ancestry assassinations proliferate they’ll stop working.”
I looked at them, mouth agape, unable to get how they didn’t get it.
“Come on you guys. We’ve been doing this for thirty-five years and we’ve never failed.”
“Yeah,” Wyatt shrugged. “So?”
“So how is that possible? How are we undefeated?”
“Because we’re good at our job.”
“Sure, but even people that are good at their jobs fail on occasion, especially if they have no evidence on their side.”
“But we always have evidence on our side.”
The group looked confused, so I elaborated.
“Don’t you see? Always having evidence is the problem. If everybody is guilty, then no one is. The whole thing is bullshit.”
“Well, duh,” Diaz laughed.
“Yeah, duh to us, but not to them.” I gestured vaguely at the world. “They don’t see the speciousness of it all. Not yet anyway. But as more people go down, they will. As more people go down, they’ll realize that they can go down, too. Because there’s evidence against everyone. And once people realize that little chestnut the whole jig is up.”
I waited, a smile on my face, excited to see the weight of my words crash down on my colleagues.
“Nah,” Diaz replied.
“‘Nah!’ What do you mean ‘nah?’ That’s a huge problem.”
“No,” she replied. “It’s not. You’re giving people way too much credit.”
“I mean people don’t do that. People don’t think. They choose a side, decide it’s the ‘good side,’ and call it a day. And the handful that do think about it don’t apply the same standards to themselves.”
“Yeah,” Wyatt concurred. “They’re too busy patting themselves on the back.”
“Exactly,” Diaz agreed.
“So then what?” I asked. “They’ll just let more and more people go down?”
I looked skeptical.
Diaz was unfazed.
“Think about it,” she said. “It’s always been this way.”
“Come on. Always?”
“Although the explosion of socials did kick it up a notch,” Jaylen added.
“True” Diaz concurred.
I shrugged, frowned thoughtfully, and bobbed my head, the body language of a person conceding a minor point. But it didn’t seem minor. It seemed major. Or whatever-the-fuck is above major.
I kept up my charade of nonchalance for the rest of the meal, then the rest of the walk back, then the rest of the work day. I only broke character once, on the way past the doggy daycare. The front door was propped open with a brick, so I could hear the playful barks of the dogs and the happy laughter of the man working, noises that compelled me to look through the show window once more. The sight tugged at the strings of my heart. It tugged at my brain, too. The former was expected, the latter something new.
Once we got back to the office I sat at my desk. I stayed there until everyone left. It looked like I was doing work, but I wasn’t. My mind was too preoccupied for productivity. It felt odd. Normally it’s too preoccupied with productivity.
Hours later the janitorial staff came and went. Another hour later the security guard did the same. Many hours later the sun broke the horizon. I had sat all night, but I had done nothing, finished nothing, concluded nothing.
Then all at once I took action.
Sitting up in my chair, I logged onto my computer, pulled up the website for the doggy daycare, pulled up the job application, completed it, printed it, grabbed it, and headed out. Obviously I could have submitted the application online, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to go down in person, get away from our business, get away from the virtual world.
When I arrived the door was locked and the window was empty, the dogs tucked away for the night.
No worries, I thought.
I sat on the ground with my back against the window and waited. Eyes closed I let the early morning light bathe my face. It felt warm. I felt hopeful. A few minutes passed in bliss.
Then I opened my eyes.
A woman was in front of me, typing into her phone with a grin of self-righteousness. A man was beside her gazing into his phrames, teeth grinding in anger. A teen stood behind them sneering as she scrolled through the socials on her hollo.
A hopeless laugh escaped my mouth.
I stood up, grabbed the brick by the front door of the doggy day care, and hurled it through the show window. The glass shattered but held its shape, billions of separate pieces hanging tenuously together. I walked over, pried one loose, slid it carefully into my breast pocket, and headed back to the office.
This story was written for the first round of the 2022 NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. The given prompts were --
Subject: A show window
Character: A genealogist