[CW: ABORTION; STALKING; ALL-AROUND SHITHEADERY.]
Serious, perhaps. This new lead was a doozy, and not in the way that had Petra running off crying like the last one. I said a little prayer and had another shot of whiskey before stepping away from the computer.
Lying in bed, my mind raced. I clutched my comforter tight, having to remember to relax my fingers now and again or I would wake up with them tight and aching. It was just so damn exciting! Tomorrow a day like Christmas, tonight feelin' like Christmas Eve. When would these girls learn?!
Who had the idea first, I couldn’t tell you. But as we wound our way through the justice system they started calling us the Texas Defenders. It was an alt-right title of renown, then a lefty Blue pejorative, then there were tee shirts calling to punch us in the face. My sister sent me one one time, all the way from Oregon.
I woke with a start, all knees and elbows fighting to get out of my sheets. I knocked my forehead on the bedstand, hollow IKEA MDF klonking dully. It didn’t slow me down, though. I had my iPhone in hand even before I wiped the sleep from my eyes. Christmas!
The AI had dug and dug and dug all night. I had reams of files to comb. I brushed my teeth. I let out the dog. All the while winnowing down the trail from the internet undergrowth, by the wan blue light of my phone in the dark of pre-morning. By breakfast time I had a pretty good idea of what to do. How long to wait. Grape-Nuts and oat milk with half a banana. I put the other half of the banana in the fridge.
So let’s back up.
Last night I
I mean, Caroline had sent me
No, no, I mean further back
A year ago
No, there. Yes.
In 2021 the Texas Legislature passed a law making it possible for any citizen to report on a woman who received an abortion and collect a bounty of ten thousand dollars. Yes, that’s where it started. No one really took them up on it at first. There were court challenges, lawsuits, civil suits, protesters, scandals. But when it all sorted out we had a method. And by we, I mean someone on the internet who claimed to have done it and gotten paid out in Ethereum from the state government and it was all untraceable. So there. That’s how it started. That’s how I got started.
The first few times, I was sloppy. I would be late to the chase or slip up and have the woke mob all over my sock puppets in seconds. Got shadow-banned. Doxx’d. But that only made me more determined, especially after a service in the chapel down Rayford Road. Since I’d been laid off I needed money and church only held Bible study four days a week so I had time.
Since Cindy left me, I’d had time to think. I still remember that last thing she said to me, “You don’t even know who you are.” That really stuck with me, y’know? And now I know who I am.
I bagged my first bounty a year ago. Since then I’ve expanded to Louisiana and Kansas too. Good amount of Ring cameras in Texas though and that makes it much easier. The quotas really help too. Sometimes you’ve got to give up on one in Waco when the quota is filled and you know the DA will drag their feet and the trail’ll go cold.
So you switch to somewhere else. The police departments all have pages on 8chan and they’re real good about making sure we Texas Defenders know when the end of the month is coming up and they haven’t hit their quotas yet. Go get us a good one, boys!, they’ll post. They barely even check our work and I do appreciate when I can take my bounty before the perp even gets the cuffs slapped on ‘em.
Caroline had sent me an anonymized list of cell phone numbers of who had googled the search term pennyroyal tea. I know, I know. It’s not like it used to be when you could just leave a bait search out there like the address of an abortion clinic in New Mexico or the words Plan B and the data mining companies would forward you the information daily like a retainer. Now they gettin’ crafty about it. The search terms change all the time, dark web message boards prolif’rate and twelve-year-olds know how to run Tor servers. Goin back to their witchy ways. Goddamn it I can’t believe some of ‘em—that’s what had Petra bawling, really. It was horrible.
So I had the list and ran it through a cross-analysis, juxtaposing specific hits with cheap lists sold and resold through social media networks, and was able to get some confirmed users. I picked off the Texas, Louisiana, and Kansas area codes and skimmed the dark web for hard intel from them, only to come up empty handed. So I did what came naturally and started spoofing text messages through an Indian call center out of Bangalore telling them they’d won a prize and to give their name and address to have their plushies mailed to them. That got me three addresses out of the whole lot of three thousand. Two of them were women over sixty so no-go. Maybe they were trying to listen to that old song. The third was an obscenity that the Indian call center worker clearly didn’t understand and was most certainly not a real address. Really, the nerve of some people.
So then I went back to combing the dark web but nothing going. I took a day off, went to see a movie. Had a very agreeable time. Ant-Man 5, it was. Pretty funny. So I get back and Petra had something for me, this is before that woman in Wichita drank bleach thinking it would induce labor, mind you, so Petra still had her senses about her. So Petra tells me that she’s got a lead on de-anonymizing location data from secondary accounts, usually students on a parents’ plan, and I take her up on it and well what’ya know, but I’ve got a good twenty new leads. I can tell what school they go to, if they go straight home after class or not, who they hang out with, and everything! So I comb back through the data and write a script to cross-ref with whoever on my list has been hanging out with a boy. I tap open feed city and town surveillance cameras on light poles and such and boom! Three good leads. I pay a darkweb broker to break into their Whatsapp pages—mind you you’ve got to have a good head on your shoulders cause they disappear if you don’t screenshot em right when they happen, and you can only see one side of the conversation—but shoot. It’s almost enough for a sheriff in Lubbock or wherever to deem it probable cause. Thank the Lord! I was on the way to another payday.
So this one girl in Kansas, she’s twenty-two. Prime age for hanky-panky and if she’s caught heavy pettin' with another individual in public and they ain’t married then a Wichita judge’d be likely to haul her in and make her take a test. Bingo. But the payout on that is only a thousand dollars, if you can prove she’s hidin’ it and thinkin’ about gettin’ rid of it is all. That’s not, as they say in Texas, The Real Deal. So I push that to the back burner and ask Petra to keep an eye on it and I’ll split it with her. She’s got a good way with the face ID so I tell her to scrape her Instagram and build a facial reconstruction and get to work on those loose passwords for Ring cameras near her address. I give Petra some known hangouts too.
Anyway, so I go back to another great lead I have. And I tell ya, it’s a doozy. She’s a real prize, this one. Her middle school is just surrounded by houses with Ring cameras and she walks to school every day. How’s that for convenient!
So I find her mother’s Facebook and scrape it for photos and I’ve got at least two hundred, I swear. Enough to build a 3D printed scale model if I’d wanted to. Anyway, so I tail her for a few days with the AIs and meanwhile I’m digging back, looking at where she’s been, how many times she been with this boy alone in the past two months, if she ever has to suddenly throw up, if she ever goes to CVS and what she bought, just to see if I can get any hints. It’s a lot of hard work, I tell ya. But as Pastor Troy likes to say, we do not know who God chooses to work through, so work as hard as if you are that one. Shucks. That really gets me. I really wanna be that one.
So I’m tryin’a see if I can call the Sugar Land police and see if I can get this girl picked up, see if they’ll take the evidence I have as probable cause. They haven’t hit their quota yet for September, I know that for sure. So I’m tryin’a get someone on the phone at the station and Petra keeps botherin' me on Whatsapp and it seems like I should talk to her so I hang up on the SLPD and I call her and she bawling.
“I can’t do this anymore,” and “I watched her do it,” and “I can’t live with myself,” and I’m all, C’mon, get a grip! She was a sinner and you are not. Don’t get dragged down to their level. Know that you are a soldier of God, a Texas Defender, and you defend this land from Evil. And she hangs up on me! Can you believe it?
So yeah, watching the footage Petra forwarded to me from the CCTV across the street from her apartment, even if it is a little grainy and at a funny angle, yeah, it’s pretty gruesome. I had to take a walk after that and clear my head. Walked right to bible study. By the time I got home it was time for bed and I had to clean dog crap offa my shoe cause I wasn’t there to walk Magus and he really made a mess of the rug. So I went to bed and I kinda slept but not really and when I woke up in the morning I was ready to go. Called Sugar Land Police first thing and whadya know but someone beat me to it. And just yesterday to boot! I wish there was a way to tell when someone is watching the same cameras that you are so you can tell that you’re both on the same trail. Shoot. It’s just common courtesy, y’know? To be stealin' a collar from me when I was so close? S’just not right.
So that ended my day before it even started. I went back to looking over my pennyroyal tea list but I just kept feeling like the trail was going cold. I grumbled around the house and stubbed my toe. I kicked Magus when he was too slow stepping out the back door. I went to Bible study and just didn’t have anything I could add to the conversation today. It was about John 3:5-7, which really is a good passage but I couldn’t muster the will to testify after all.
I got an idea.
I went back to the first three addresses I got from the sock puppet calls. And one of them I went for. I thought real hard about if this grandma looked like a rocker… or like a witch. And I prayed about it. And I went for it. And that’s what the AI has been crawlin' all over and through all night, it knows it inside and out by now, the data of a sixty-seven year old woman from South Houston who has three children. And four grandchildren. And she seems real nice and maybe she’s… helping. And you know what got me excited last night and I went to bed all wound up about and I’m still so excited about now?
If I wait
And watch her
And one of her granddaughters is real upset when she walkin' around as I see her through camera eyes on street corners and at the front step of friends’ homes she visits and in the mall and outside the grocery store and on her social media… wherever she goes... but she goes to see her grandma in South Houston and they turn off their phones and stay out of sight and I wait
Wait as long as I can stand to wait
Wait until I know there’ll be the evidence the Texas state government wants
An' the Harris County prosecutor
An' I know that they were so close
That she would do anything to help her
I can’t believe my luck
If grandma helps
And it happens
It pays out double.
Sean Morrissey Carroll has been an art critic, acid dealer, butcher, bookseller, cook, curator, hay baler, history teacher, museum guard, non-profit board member, political cartoonist, street food vendor, tagger, tarot reader, waiter, and vintage fashion grader. He grew up outside Buffalo, NY and currently lives in Houston, Texas.