“‘Remember that narrative I was writing?’ he asked, and I nodded. ‘Well, it was going pretty well. I was posting chapters to a board I was running and I was getting a lot of hits. I’d opened it up for public access; people were acting out the parts, making up new stuff for the story. It was kind of like a game, you know? I was even starting to make some money from it — you know, people paying for instant access, licensing the characters and whatnot. The usual thing. Of course what was important was the community, the fans, you know? It was becoming a proper story zone, a real solid group was forming. Taking on a life of its own.’ He paused and breathed deep. ‘I guess that was the problem.’
“I didn’t really know what he was talking about — I don’t read much — but I smiled and he went on. ‘You saw how Mitch Doherty was chatting me up at Ultra-Sissons, right?’ I nodded again, hoping he’d hurry up and and get to it.
‘Well, we were mostly talking about The Sunshine Parade — that was the name of my story — and he seemed really into it. You know, talking about the process, about creating — all that. I don’t know a lot of other writers in the real world, you know? So it was really nice just to have someone listen, someone who seemed to understand. I thought we were friends, that he was just interested in me, in my story…’ He broke off, and I swore I saw him wipe a tear away from his cheek. I didn’t say anything, though. It was pretty intense.
“After a while he started talking again. ‘I didn’t know anything was going on until one day I tried to log into my admin account on the story’s board and I couldn’t get in. I figured I just forgot the password or something, you know, but it was Doherty. He didn’t even try to hide it.’
‘Hide what?” I asked.
‘He’d stolen the board, the story, the whole community.’
‘But how?’ I asked.
‘I still don’t really know,’ Johnny said, looking miserable. ‘From the little I got out of the hosting service I used, he somehow made it look like he owned the rights to the intellectual property of the plot and the name of the boardspace. I don’t know if he just bribed them or what, but they kicked me off and that was the end of it.’
“I asked him if he could complain or get some Security to deal with it, but he said no. ‘I went the whole way through the server’s complaints process and when I asked the Security at my employer, they just laughed. It doesn’t have anything to do with my work, so they didn’t give a shit. There was nothing I could do.’
“I didn’t know what to say. I’d never liked Doherty before, but I had no idea that he could do something like that. That it was even possible. That if it were possible that anyone would do it. It made me sick. But that was only the beginning.”
“Of course, Johnny didn’t just crawl off into his apartment and give up. He hung around outside Ultra-Sissons for a week, waiting for Doherty. Johnny’s a typical guy — young, skinny, a little ripped from all the pharma in the cheap food, but he’s not into physical stuff, not like me. But Doherty isn’t a scrapper either, so Johnny probably figured he had a chance. I bet he would’ve tried to make a play for Doherty even if he had no chance at all.
“I don’t think Johnny was lying when he said he didn’t do the old asshole a that much damage. I know how much it hurts to hit a guy, but I doubt Johnny was prepared for the knuckleful of pain he got when he decked Doherty on the chin. He sure as shit wasn’t prepared for the damages order he got a week later. From his own employer’s Security, no less!
“It turned out that Doherty had been recording when Johnny confronted him, and of course he turned in the vid to the goons at Ultra-Sissons Security. They sent it up the corporate chute, and somewhere near the top it got side swiped over to Johnny’s own employers. I guess the corporate higher-ups look after each other, because Johnny got his wages garnished for five years as a financial settlement to Doherty.
“That’s five years of no spending money beyond the minimum for food, water and transport to and from work. Of course he got an apartment with his contract, so he’d have a place to live and enough for food, but that was all. And he couldn’t even quit his job or he’d be liable for paying the full settlement out of pocket. He was stuck. Stuck paying a crooked settlement with his time and his money to the guy who fucked him over in the first place.
“Oh. Um, sorry about the language there. I guess it still makes me mad.
“Anyway, beyond buying him a round or two, there wasn’t anything I could do for Johnny. I didn’t have the kind of cash that would help him out, and I didn’t even know of any under the table work he wasn’t already tapped into. It was terrible.
“So I did the only think I could think of. I quit my job at Ultra-Sissons. It was time anyway, but I couldn’t bear to have to see Doherty’s face again. I ended up tending bar at the place where I’m working now. There’s no-one like Doherty there as far as I can tell.
“And one night on my day off, on delivery day at Ultra-Sissons, I was waiting for Doherty in the alley. You know I mentioned that I bareknuckle fight — for fitness and self-defense, right? Well, fighting’s good for more than just that. I pounded him good in that back alley, took all his ‘e’ too for good measure. Didn’t want him to waste all the pain I’d worked so hard to give him.
“I know it didn’t help Johnny any, and probably won’t stop Doherty from pulling that stunt on someone else. But it was all I could do. So it’s what I did.”