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Realistic or Modern Cardinal Brood

Sub Genres
  1. Action
  2. Horror
  3. Mystery
  4. Realistic
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Viper

One Thousand Club
An RP between me and Toacho Toacho


The barn is clearly newer than the house, so much so that it is obvious. The barn is almost glowing in a nearly-fresh coat of red paint and walls that have been replaced or reinforced with something to keep them stable and keep out the elements. In fact, it is reinforced inside more than the outside. The outside is just wood, but on the inside is soundproofing material and metal structures used to make the inside inescapable and inaudible. The roof seems to be new as well. There is only one door to this place at the front, and it is heavily secure with several locks, and the cellar has received the same treatment. All of the windows leading to the outside are boarded up beside the window at the very top of the barn that can be opened or closed at will; this single revealed window is a sniping position, although no one would be able to tell from the outside. Inside of the cellar is basically a dungeon where victims are kept in between shoots, and the second floor of the barn is a storage place for torture tools. There is also a side room, but this room serves as a computer room where they monitor sound and video for any of their streams. The main room is curtained off and has been built so that it can chain someone against the wall or from the ceiling without leaving the space. Clearly, if a cop were to enter this place, their lives would have to be forfeit since the crimes are obvious thanks to the physical material scattered around and the bloodstains.
 
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Toacho

The ‘Friend of a Friend’
─◙─​

In early August, Daniel had a dream of choking. The suffocating kind, first beginning at the window outside his bedroom with soft puffs of white drifting in through the screen and collecting behind the pane of glass before eventually spilling through the edges to curl around the edges of the room. Eventually, the light cloudy grey darkened, and began to creep through the cracks under his doors — first the main door, then slowly into his bedroom — until it began to crawl up the ceiling. It is about then that he had truly begun to recognize it.

He took a few courses of action in this dream, namely poking shredded pieces from his precious books into the edges of his window and pushing his bedspreads to cover the crack of the door, carefully and carelessly blocking out each and every little crack in the room until there was not a single crevice for the smoke to seep out of.

The dream had ended as one would expect; a nightmare — with flames curling around the entirety of his room and him sharply awaking at the climax of the experience to discover that his heater's controls had apparently broken overnight.

These days, dreams and nightmares alike were not as common. A medicine swap a few months prior had almost completely snuffed away the potential to even stay asleep long enough to start dreaming. He didn't feel that he was losing out either, he preferred nights like these; when his own rustling through a plastic bag on the counter felt like it was the only sound to drift through the entire apartment and sleep was just a distant thought that he wouldn't need to worry about for at least a few more hours.

He put away the groceries one by one, balling up the plastic bags as he emptied them, occasionally taking a moment to shift a soda he'd placed in the fridge a few hours prior to the front as to not forget to remove it when he finished his task. When he'd remove a non-perishable item from the bag, which consisted of the majority of his groceries with quite a few snacks littered throughout the sparse meals, he'd simply set it onto the counter to put away later. When those were finished, he put away the snacks, his countertop completely cleared for the first time in a few weeks.

Next, when the bite of anxiety still hadn't yet settled, he cleaned out the sink; not that there was much to clean there, only a single bowl, a single plate, and a single spoon. Two meals, each shared alone. It hardly took him more then a couple of minutes to have them washed and sitting aside to dry for the night. Even as he scrubbed at them, he couldn't help but hold the bowl a little too tightly, eventually relaxing his grip out of the fear that it would shatter in his hands.

Useless.

Almost a quarter of a day later and he still was fighting the gnawing feeling in the back of his throat from the encounter. The delivery man must surely think him stupid, a hermit, or even both. Even with such a brief interaction, Daniel couldn't help but mule over the entire discussion. He'd taken too long to get to the door — he'd been too distracted by getting the groceries to even engage with the man's light conversation — he'd been too slow to get the joke when the man had mentioned that his parents sent their regards and that they were apparently thinking about changing his old bedroom into a personal gym, Daniel instead distracted with the thought that it'd be more reasonable for them to just get a gym membership considering nobody in their family was that physically oriented.

It was so fucking useless. He couldn't understand why he didn't just laugh at the joke, mention he was fine, and be done with the entire conversation instead of still being stuck on it so many hours later.

At the end of the day — or rather the start of the next one, he supposed it didn't matter that much, even if he couldn't sincerely believe that. The conversation was over, the delivery man had long said his goodbyes and left, and Daniel was now be back to being alone for at least another week, possibly two if he could stretch his groceries. With that said, he needed something to relax; pacing had hardly worked earlier, and cleaning served to be similarly unhelpful.

The rest of the night was his, he intended to spend it as he did many nights; online.

He retrieved the soda from the fridge and began to head back to his bedroom for the night. He turned the corner to enter his bedroom, a soft white light drifted across the entirety of the dark room, bathing the room in an electric glow from his monitor — and a single small red dot at the top center staring back at him from his camera that stopped him in his tracks.

He'd heard stories like this online. A couple learning that their webcam had unknowingly been on for days, broadcasting their personal activates to countless people. A woman finding out that her baby monitor had been hacked and was broadcasting footage every night. The countless horror stories of security cameras broadcasting the last moments of someone's life right before something sprung out of the shadows and killed them.

Daniel stared blankly at the red dot for a few more moments before sharply glancing behind him, only to be greeted with nothing.

Looking back to the camera, he watched it for a few more moments, watching it until the light flickered softly. Slowly, the pit in his stomach began to settle and he approached his desk. He fumbled with the chair for a moment, eyes trained on the camera as he slid the chair over his foot and winced, stepping back and pulling it out from under the desk before glancing back up to the red dot, watching it flicker again. Sitting down and placing his drink to the side, he picked up his headset and turned the microphone on.

"John," Daniel asked, falling silent as he stared back at the camera, waiting for an answer as he began to dig his nail into the wire connecting his headset unconsciously. When a few moments passed and the red light flickered again, he quietly began to speak again. "John, I know that's you, you're always breaking up on calls." More silence. A few moments passed and Daniel dug his thumb against the cord again, beginning to consider the possibility that it wasn't the person he believed it to be. "John?"

"Christ, give me a second, you're asking me to respond while my face is crammed full of noodles," A male voice responded from the other side, the tone of irritation both comforting Daniel as he recognized the voice and leading him to regret even opening his mouth.

"Sorry-" Daniel began.

Something thudded on the other side of the call, it sounding like something had been dropped. "Fuck it, you're getting me eating; ASMR version. Hope you enjoy," The voice responded, Daniel cringing as the next moment was spent turning down his audio to avoid listening to the other man eating for a full minute. Looking across his desktop, it appeared there was no easy way to forcibly disconnect himself from whatever invisible call the other man had linked him to, meaning that Daniel would just have to suffer through it.

"What are you doing with my camera? I can't see you," Daniel asked.

There was a grossly loud slurping sound, Daniel believing that it must have been intentional, then a snort of laughter from the person. "Eh, new trick I learned. Looks like my skills are better then yours again." When Daniel did not immediately respond, still trying to figure out how to disconnect him, the younger male continued. "So why haven't you gotten on room twelve recently?"

"Is that what this is about?"

"Nah, you're just the easiest person to contact from there. Plus Pedophile Pete hasn't logged on since I called him out on staring at me last time he was on. What a shame, I was going to scam the old man too, was thinking something like pulling foot pictures off the internet and charging him a few twenties for each picture." John said, sighing dully at the end. "Oh well. So you didn't answer me, why haven't you been on recently?" The audio crackled softly near the end, the red light flickering alongside it. For a moment, Daniel hoped that the kid's connection would drop and the call would be ended. Unfortunately, the dot became solid a moment late, indicating that his prayers had not been answered.

Daniel clicked his browser, beginning to work on getting into the site. "Uh, it's just not as — well — not as interesting and there's just not — " He mumbled. What was he supposed to say? 'I had a delivery person coming in a few days and I needed some personal time to psych myself up for it?' He'd rather avoid divulging more of his personal life then necessary. "You said there's nobody there, did the moderator leave too?" He asked, figuring he could just change the subject.

"No, he's still there, but you know he's not the most conversational. Pretty sure he's not even trying to get people to the room at this point, I keep seeing him wandering off the calls to go chat with his wife," The boy rambled. "You'd think he'd would show more then just his fucking shoulder during a call considering his own dumb rules too, but no. What a prick."

Daniel couldn't help but give a faint exhale of a laugh at the comment, his focus turning to the site as it finally began to load, Daniel clicking to the twelfth room available.

The kid gasped dramatically. "So you can laugh, huh? That's a surprise. I thought you just sat there staring blankly at dumb shit all the time. I stand corrected."

Daniel supposed he would have made some sort of witty comeback, but when none came to mind, and a few moments of silence turned the call somewhat awkward, he chose to let the moment pass. Eventually, he shifted to a different line of conversation. "So you know how to access web-cameras now?"

"Microphones too, and only cheap ones, but I'm in the process of working on getting into higher quality ones."

"My headset isn't that cheap."

"It's security is garbage, just like your entire system. I don't understand how everything you own isn't corrupted and completely unusable."

Somewhat of a fair point. Even if he was careful and took precautions to remain as invisible as possible online, he knew his security was awful once one could figure his system out. On the bright side, the only people who could really notice his trails tended to either be too old to be on the internet or too experienced to even bother looking for such a poor system. "How are you doing that though? Accessing my headset, I mean."

"That's for me to know and for you to worry about every time to look at your computer. I could be watching or listening at any moment," The kid said, the last sentence holding a somewhat sing-song tone.

Daniel frowned, glancing back up to the red dot. "My indicator is on. You're not exactly being discreet."

A pause of silence. "Fuck," After a few moments passed, Daniel smiled before he entered the room, his screen beginning to buffer as it transitioned to the dark screen of the chatrooms. Slowly, three video feeds came into view; one of an empty chair, one of a teenaged boy sitting with his legs kicked up on a desk currently eating a forkful of noodles that Daniel was forced to awkwardly listen to in present time, and himself staring back at him from the third feed. As his image appeared, he couldn't help but glance at it for a few moments, the boy also glancing at him and smiling before waving his hand with the fork. "Welcome back. Glad to not be the only one here for once."

The kid really wasn't lying. It was empty. Even the moderator appeared to have left his computer for a bit. "Where did everyone else go?"

"Dunno," The boy hummed, slurping another forkful of noodles. "Probably just 'didn't find it interesting'," John murmured, repeating Daniel's former words.

Daniel was left in silence for a bit, watching the boy for a moment before letting his gaze drift to himself, his own deep brown eyes staring back at him, the grainy darkness in his own background causing another slight twist of paranoia before he turned his head and looked behind him. Just as always, there was nothing in the darkness behind him, yet it didn't help to settle his concern that something could be there just out of sight..

"Oi," The kid shouted, causing Daniel to jump in his seat and slam his knee into the desk, sharply looking back at the camera. The boy howled with laughter for a few moments before wiping away a fake tear. "Okay, I'll admit, that was a little cruel, but I couldn't help it." The kid laughed, ignoring how Daniel gave him a slight glare in return while trying to ignore the pain in his knee. "Anyways, eh, you want to play one of our games while we wait for the moderator to come back?"

"One of.." Daniel began, trailing off a little. He remembered the games, they'd both used them as light competition. John typically won them, and they'd slowly stopped doing them about a month or two ago after Daniel had won a few of them in a row and John had taken his losses a little less then gracefully. He was genuinely surprised that the boy was trying to push for one now.

"Yeah, one of our games. Can just do a small one, I bet you I'll win this time," The boy said, grinning as he pulled his feet down and leaned forward in his chair, cradling his cup of noodles while waiting for an answer.

Daniel considered it. Their games rarely held any danger other then the kid potentially holding his losses against him for a few nights following any of Daniel's rare wins. Usually, they were actually pretty simple, and admittedly a little fun even when they erred on the more difficult side. It was just a way for them both to try out their skills, or use tricks they hadn't had a chance to test. Just a friendly competition where the only true loser was whoever hadn't taken the care to protect their systems against people like John and Daniel. "What kind of game?"

The boy grinned widely, seeming to have taken his question for an answer. There was a sharp thud as the boy set his noodles loudly to the side and began typing loudly, Daniel blankly staring at his video feed as he waited for a response. Eventually, the boy's loud typing began to settle and he leaned back, bringing a hand to his chin as he thought. "Hm, how about we try room eleven. Most of the shit there is usually pretty secure, I'm already seeing a few links here."

"Doesn't that room close soon?" Daniel murmured, beginning to work his way to the other chatroom, "I'm leaving this room." He didn't want o place any unnecessary stress on his own connection.

"Don't worry, I'll keep our personal call up. Also, yes, you're.. Central, right? It's 2:05 now so.. We've got about six minutes." Wonderful, so the kid would be able to see him and he couldn't see him. He supposed it was better that way because it also implied that he would not be able to see himself, meaning that if he looked or acted like a fool, then he wouldn't be able to worry as much about how he came off. Or, unfortunately, it could make it worse since now there was no way for him to realize if he looked- "Five minutes now," The boy's voice cut through the gap of silence.

"I'm getting on," Daniel mumbled, yanked out of his thoughts as he entered the hub room, thankfully not being forced to have his camera on for this one like in room twelve. "Which link are we using? I'm guessing we're just going to join now and then figure out the goal when we get there?"

There was a moment of thoughtful silence from the other end before the boy hummed. "Hm, how about the one from the 1:13 timestamp? I've checked it out and there's a paywall on it, the others are all either free to access or have already been taken down."

"You want me to pay for a stupid challenge?" Daniel asked, raising an eyebrow.

The boy laughed. "No, I want you to get in through any means possible. It's settled; tonight's challenge will begin with us getting in. We'll see what we can do once we're both in, but remember to hurry.." The boy said, chirping the last few words. "You have only four minutes to do so..."

Daniel frowned, copying the link as he heard John already beginning to tap away on his keyboard. "You only have four minutes too, you know.."

"I'll only need half that." The boy responded, tone dripping with a confidence that Daniel did not have.

Four minutes was not a lot of time, but it was enough for a lot to happen. Daniel's internet history could attest to that fact. Lives could be ruined, people could become misfortunately disfigured, entire families could be permanently changed in the blink of an eye. Anything could happen. For these four minutes, however, Daniel knew that he needed to work both quickly and carefully. Spending too much time working on one part of his system could lead to time being wasted and the game ending all-too-early. He already knew what he was going to use; a neat little trick he'd only recently learned of from one of the many books off in the corner of his room.

He set up the system, listening the the soft tapping from the other man's keyboard over the call before it eventually fell silent, Daniel glancing up occasionally to the red light, recognizing that silence implied that John had already either gotten in or was merely in the process of loading. When the typing resumed, he settled and went back to his own work, a minute having passed.

"Hmph," The kid hummed.

"What?"

There was a pause of silence before John resumed typing. "Tougher then I was expecting. You'll probably get stuck here."

"Right," Daniel mumbled, continuing to work on setting up his system and trying to ignore the boy's taunts.

A few more moments of silence passed. Two minutes until the chatroom closed and the link would be lost. Daniel was close to finishing setting it up, he was quickly approaching the waiting period. By setting up a dual connection between the chatroom and the link that had been provided, he had provided himself a secret passage into the site. At least, that was the idea. He had a few more tweaks to make, the narrowing time frame causing him to work a little faster.

"Something about this site," The kid murmured, their typing stopping again, Daniel figuring they're just waiting for something to load so they can continue. "The name.."

"What is the name?" Daniel asked, continuing his own work, trying to exploit the other's distraction.

"What, have you not even started yet? You're really hopeless, I hope you know that." The boy said with a chuckle. Daniel didn't need to click the link, it'd just waste time. He'd see it when he got in. "Cardinal Brood. Have you ever heard of it?"

Cardinal Brood? It didn't exactly sound pleasant, Daniel already beginning to piece through the different types of sites that it could be. Something with bugs, maybe, considering the 'brood' part? Or a hunting thing, though that certainly didn't seem like the type of site to be posted to this room. He supposed that the most likely option was that it was some sort of video feed for a body farm or something, it would support the bug theory and would also mesh well with the room's usual content. He'd seen a few types of sites like that before, there was just something morbidly interesting about it, not that he truly enjoyed that type of thing. Besides, it wasn't illegal or anything, body farms were operated by the government after all. "No, what is it?"

"Hm," The boy murmured. "I think I've heard of it somewhere. If I can recall distinctly.. Someone said it was rather good.. I guess I'll find out in a few seconds." He said, chuckling slightly after his last sentence. "By the way, I think I've beaten you. Loading now." Fuck, so he was behind and his original plan had not been executed fast enough. "Judging by the stupid look on your face, I'm going to guess you're not even close." Maybe he'd still be able to use his little trick to scam someone else and get in.

"I'm getting there, I just need a little more time," Daniel mumbled, finishing off the last part of his plan before hitting enter. He hated cutting it this close, just a little over a minute left until the chatroom would close and he'd be unable to access the link. "So if you're loaded, what is it?" Daniel asked, his eyes darting between the link, the camera, and the clock at the corner of his screen. He just needed someone to try and enter it and then he'd be able to execute his program. It was a simple trick but an uncommon one, designed to use anyone who clicked the link to bounce their admission to the room and instead process his as if he had been the one who paid. "How did you even get in anyways?" Daniel asked, noticing the odd silence on the other end and figuring that the kid must be finishing off his noodles. When he was only met with more silence, however, his eyes glued to the slowly ticking away timer, he couldn't help but feel apprehension beginning to ebb at him. Thirty seconds until the connection would be lost. "John?"

"You need to get in here."

"Yeah, I am trying," Daniel murmured. Twenty seconds.

"No," John said firmly, leading Daniel to freeze and briefly glance at the camera. "You need to get in here."

Daniel fell silent before looking back to the timer. Ten seconds. "I'm trying," He mumbled, resting his chin against his hand, knowing that it was out of his hands by now. Someone else needed to try to join, that's the only circumstance in which he'd be admitted.

Slowly, the timer began to tick down. Nine. Nothing. Eight. Still nothing. Seven. The link had been up for almost an hour already. Six. Everyone interested in it must have joined it already. Five. He'd lose the challenge, it's not that big of a deal. The kid would find a new one. Four. But he had been making such a big deal out of it. Whatever was on the site must be truly fascinating. Three-

His page buffered, the timer freezing before the screen darkened for a moment as it began to load. He sat up in his chair, lowering his hand slightly and watching the screen buffer. He cracked a small smile. "It worked," He said. Someone had tried to join and had fallen directly into his little trap which could be so easily excused as a bug on the link's side. "I'm loading right now, I'll be on in a few seconds." Some poor person out there was probably throwing a fit after paying and getting bounced and while Daniel felt somewhat bad for them, he couldn't help but feel excited at knowing that his trick had worked. "It'll be any second n-"

He fell silent as the screen finally loaded.


─◙─​
 

Viper

One Thousand Club
Covering nearly every inch of the dining table, four young men and a young woman were taking turns rolling dice, reading cards out loud, and placing tiles as they built the mansion of Betrayal at the House on the Hill one by one.

It was not Stephen’s turn, but he was using his long arms to stretch across the table to move a small green boy through the rooms. “Ooo, an omen room. You’re gonna kill us, Edward. None of us are ready for a haunt yet.”

“That’s the plan!” Laughed Edward, “Now give me that madman so I can betray you all.”

“So cruel…” Stephen pulled a card and smirked, “And unlucky. You got the mask. A somber mask to hide your intentions. Once during your turn, you can attempt a Sanity roll to use the Mask…” Stephen continued to read the card before passing it over to Robert who then gave it to Edward. “Now roll for haunt.”

“I’ll do it!” said Richy, scooping up a handful of dice.

Halfway through shaking his fist aggressively, Robert placed a hand on Richy's fist. “It’s not your turn to roll the dice,” he reminded.

“Aw let him,” Amelia said, looking rather bored but still playing as truly as she can. “Doesn’t matter who rolls.”

Glancing at Stephen, Robert waited to get a nod before removing his hand as Amelia suggested. Richy wasted no more time and sent the six dice across the table. Mere moments after, Stephen threw up his hands in mock anger. “And the haunt has begun. Look what you two did!”

Before the game could continue though, a deep male voice came from the hallway arch. The father of the household, Marc, with his long hair tied back in a pony and a comfortable but expensive looking sweater on. He, as always, did not look happy. “We have a stream in a half hour. Is this really the best use of time? You know that you're hosting today, Stephen, don’t you?”

Stephen held back a sigh and leaned back in his chair. “Of course I do. I did most of the prep work this morning so that I could play with everybody. All that’s left to do is bring Ducktape up and have you or Robert set up the stream. That’s like, ten minutes, tops.”

“Go do it now. The rest of you can clean up.”

“Aw come on, father!” exclaimed Richy who bounced from his seat. “We can leave the game on the table until they get back, can’t we? Please? We’ll make sure it is all done by dinner time!”

Marc just sighed and turned away, soon followed by the sound of the front door opening and shutting. Once he was sure he was long gone, Stephen let out a sigh and scratched his neck. “Well, you heard the man. I’ll be back after the stream. Although it depends on how long Ducktape lasts, I’m aiming for an hour. But if the fans wanna see me play with the cadaver, it will be two.”

“Edward, wanna come help out? I saved his legs so we could use them for props this time. You can play with them when I’m not.” Edward was up in a flash. Stephen continued his well-practiced bossy attitude. “Alright, Amelia, Richy, you two be good and Richy, guard the game. Don’t let Amelia cheat.”

“Ruined my plans,” she said, not meaning it but playing along. Richy on the other hand seemed to take it seriously and sat back down to do as he was told. Or rather, wait for a chance to play out the idea Stephen just gave him. He was going to cheat, and Amelia would let him. So would Stephen.

~~~~~

Two hundred feet away from the old, slightly run down house was a pristine scarlet barn that stood out from the empty grassed field and the distant tree line. Inside was more of a workroom than a barn. No hay, no stalls, just lines of stable and rolling tables as well as cabinets. And against the far wall was a film set, complete with large lighting and cameras.

There were two doors here. One leading into the side room where most of the tech were being housed, where father was likely sitting surrounded by monitors and humming equipment that served to moderate the stream quality and defend against any curious viewers. The other door was more of a hatch found almost adjacent to the film set. The hatch was heavy duty and led into the basement where the materials for tonight's stream and the remains of past streams were stored.

If the cops came in here without Faye getting a heads up, they would be screwed. There was no way to hide a set up this elaborate.

At the very least, the hatch to the “dungeon” had an extra lock on it. A simple key lock different than the one used to get inside of the barn, both of which there were only three copies of, one held by each of the parents and one by Stephen. Of course, any cop or enemy would just break the locks, but it kept the rest of the Kinne family out, so it did its job.

It took, just as Stephen expected, ten minutes to get the star of the show out of the basement and tied to a chair, the security and cameras tested and finalized, and for everyone to get in position. Father was in the back room, communicating with Stephen through a television screen that also served as a way for Stephen to watch himself.

“And the final touch,” Stephen said to Robert and Edward, both of whom were standing behind the eldest brother as he opened up a cabinet, revealing several rows of masks. Tossing the worn one with the blood-painted crossed out mouth to Robert and the stitch-like mask to Edward, Stephen fixed his own around his head. It was also worn, but rather than a crossed out mouth, there was a blood-painted smile.

Fixing the nylon straps of the mask to make sure it was snug, Stephen called out to the man in the other room. “Ready to go live, Father!”

~~~~~

After a simple countdown only visible to Stephen, the Cardinal Red Room went live to reveal a well built man wearing a mask and a man strapped to a chair covered head to knee in duct tape except for his legs, which were planted stiffly to the ground, free from any binding. Scattered across his body was crusted blood that had seeped through the lines and cracks of the silver-shining tape.

Stephen was standing behind the man, his elbows resting on the lightly wriggling form.

“Hey there,” Stephen started, casual but friendly in his presentation. He always was, and the viewers didn’t mind watching such casual displays of violence. Flicking his eyes to the side momentarily, Stephen glanced at the chat. “I see some familiar viewers. That’s good! Maybe then you guys will remember our friend here.” Circling around the chair, Stephen motioned at him. “I know he’s a little tied up at the moment, so it’s hard to tell, but maybe this will help.” Still looking at the camera, Stephen swung one of his feet to the side, hitting the man in the legs.

Without any resistance, the legs fell over domino like, already separated from the body a while ago based on the blood crusted duct tape covering where the knees used to be. The legs hit the ground with an audible thud, and if you had your audio up, a crack caused by the preserved frozen leg hitting a hard surface. Hearing this, the man seemed to protest, although he had no way of seeing that what produced the sound was his old legs.

Stephen let out a loud cackle, shifting from his spot to down on his knees beside the man. “This man was such a champ two weeks ago that I decided to give him one more episode. Sadly, our in-house doctor was out, so I had to fix him up myself.” Reaching over, Stephen put his fingers on the end of the tape around his knees. He pulled on the bloody strip, and immediately the man started to scream as much as he could through the tape over his mouth. His body twitched and tried to fail against the restraints. Stephen pulled another inch before he laughed again, a bit of fresh blood already starting to seep through the cracks of the tape. “Covering an open wound with tape this strong may not have been my best decision, and I went a bit overboard, but he’s alive, so I count that as a win.”

“Now... “ Standing up, Stephen motioned a head towards someone off screen. “I’m done with the legs, kid. Feel free to play with them while I continue.” A familiar sight on these streams, at the prompting, a boy not even five feet yet practically pranced on screen. Although he picked the large pair of legs in his arms, he could barely hold them both at the same time, but his physicality implied joy as he scampered off stage as if never there. “Tsk, you’re welcome,” Stephen said, shaking his head and sighing, “Kids.”

Clapping his hands, the man in the chair jumped, but Stephen did not even look. “Now, dear viewers, enough with the foreplay, let's get this started! So you tell me… where shall we start? At the legs, strip by strip reopening the worst of his wounds and seeing if they are infected, or shall we save the finale for later? Maybe we start with the mouth? I know plenty of you love to hear them scream.” Flicking his eyes back to the screen, Stephen waited for his lovely viewers to tell him the exact kind of torture they paid for. “Oh, and reminder for new viewers, we have plenty of tools off screen. Let your imaginations run cause Mother Red isn’t here today, and I’m more than happy to take requests.”

It was like he was hosting a YouTube stream, but the scene was too gruesome for that and the comments were far more gruesome as well.

~~~~~

As the stream started and picked up pace, in the other room overseeing the transfer of money, acting as moderator, and making sure their security was tight, was the eldest of the Kinne family. Marc, an experienced man who had been working with computer security and hacking for over three decades now. He was also the one who developed their entire computer set up, including the many engines and the six large screens to work on. On one screen was the stream from the viewer’s perspective, but on the other five was his end of the stream.

Typing a program he was developing for later, Marc’s phone rang, and he answered without losing focus on the code and the transferring money in front of him. “What do you want?” He asked, his words harsher than his tone but his meaning even harsher. “You know we are streaming right now.” Pausing his fingers, Marc focused on the words he was hearing. One of the Kinne family’s friends had tried to get in at the last moment, money ready, and he never got in but his money was taken. That was a problem because it implied active interference. Marc's links did not glitch, so that was the only other option in the father's head. “You’ll get a free link once I’m done dealing with this matter.”

Quickly hanging up, Marc got out of his hair and poked his head out of his computer room, motioning over Robert to join him. “We have a hacker, a skilled one if he got through,” he said in whisper once the boy was closer. “Watch, and learn.”

Marc began typing and clicking around his screens, searching for those who logged in around the type that the friend was bounced out. A short list. Then came the fun part. Tracing the computer of the targets until Marc found out not only how they got in, but where the criminal was in the world and who they were. Robert watched this all with close eyes, understanding some at first, but losing track at one key moment. After deciding that none of the more common hacks and online-money thefts were the cause of this incident, Marc moved onto the link itself as well as what may or may not have wormed its way into his own computer. It is there, buried in the link from some casual deep web diver forum called Chatroom 11, that Marc saw something he had not seen in a long time.

MAXIM coding in the form of a virus. Something long out of fashion, but certainly something Marc experienced as a younger man. Once figuring this out, the rest was as easy as riding a bike after ignoring it for a decade. There was a reason this type of coding and programming went out of style. Once identified, overriding it was far from a challenge.

But Marc did not finish the job right away.

“There we are. Found him.” Marc reported, his fingers still flying. “Go tell your brother. Have him put on a show; hackers are too troublesome not to make an example of, especially when an ally of ours was the one inconvenienced.”

With a silent nod, Robert exited the bright, burning hot room into one that was getting hotter by the minute.

~~~~~

Stephen was working hard. In the fifteen or so minutes since the stream started, the poor Ducktape was starting to be unraveled slowly. His mouth was free, chapped to the point that his screams actually caused bleeding at the corners, and now the audience could hear him scream. One of his eyes was also free, and the other had a long trail of dripping tape leading to Stephen’s hand where he was trying to get a blowtorch to spark and light the sticky trail to the man’s other eye.

Just as it lit, Robert stepped onto screen for the first time to whisper in Stephen’s ear. “Father has identified a hacker.”

“Oh…” Stephen said idly, almost with disinterest as he listened and lit the tape trail at the same time.

“He would like you to call him out. Make him regret his intrusion. He seemed ready to act following your words.”

“Oh! Yeah! I can do that!” More excited now, Stephen to everyone’s surprise and plenty of disapproval, Stephen actually reached forward and ripped the tape trail before it could reach the victim’s other eye. Without more fuel, the flame went out. Robert also left the screen again. “Sorry for pausing the show everybody! I was just told some fun news. It turns out that we have an unexpected visitor today! I thought it was only polite that they get some special attention!”

“Now let’s see who this man is! Do we have a name?” A very short pause, Marc already on it and flashing the words to Stephen on the teleprompter-like screen only Stephen could see. “Josh? No, that’s a scream name. It’s….” another name flashed as Marc dived deeper. “Daniel. Right?”

Waving a finger at the camera like a disappointed parent, Stephen cheerfully admonished the hacker. “Tsk tsk tsk, Daniel, didn’t you know that crashing a party is frowned upon. It’s not cheap to run these shows, you know.”

“Father! Why not show us a picture of the cheap ass who thinks that this is just some free-for-all peepshow.” Knowing that his father was watching, Stephen called out demands in a grandiose fashion, moving his arms as if he was presenting something himself. Within ten seconds, John’s control of Daniel’s camera was overridden, and the image of the old-fashioned hacker appeared on the stream for every viewer to see. Some messy looking young man in a messy dark room. Scruffy looking, if Stephen were being honest. Not very impressive in appearance either; column’t be too smart either if he was using a computer with a functional camera while he was trying to scam the very people into hardcore snuff. He was either overconfident or over his head.

“There’s Daniel! Daniel, why not wave?” Stephen did not expect this man to stay. If he was not already trying to when just his name was revealed, his face appearing on a snuff stream would certainly make him drop not only from the stream but likely from his computer as a whole. He'd destroy it all as soon as possible, microwave it all before Marc could figure out more. But that would only happen if he was smart and did not freeze.
 

Toacho

The ‘Friend of a Friend’
─◙─​

There's always that first few moments after you successfully get into something that was best left alone; those few seconds when the screen lingers black for a second as it loads, eventually flashing to a different screen that always needs a couple of seconds to take in. Sometimes, it doesn't take long to realize what you are seeing, it's not like it's that hard to tell when there's so much red in one frame.

Instead of the usual red or dodgy browns; however, silver was the first color to catch Daniel's eyes, the next detail being that he couldn't tell what that silver thing — it — was. It looked almost human, but with the thin layer of what Daniel slowly realized to be tape stretched across everything above the knee level, he wasn't quite sure.

His eyes flicked across the taped figure briefly before falling on the man behind them, the mask being the next feature to draw his eye. The painted eyes were too wide and yet the holes — Daniel supposed there must be holes somewhere, even if Daniel could not see them from this position — were too small and gave the mask a strangely inhuman appearance that the stretched painted smile certainly did nothing to ease. The scratches and blotches of red that stood out clearly from the plaster white material only served to give the mask a gruesomely 'worn in' feel to it.

"John, maybe we should try some other place." Daniel said after a moment of hesitation. This was too far, even for him. "Could see if there's anything new in room twelve?"

The boy on the other end gave a snort of laughter. "You're welcome to leave, but you'll lose our little game if you do," A dare in the form of a statement.

Daniel fell silent for a few moments before shifting to rest his chin on the back of his hand. With a slight exhale, he nudged his mouse to the small red x at the side of his screen, figuring that there was still plenty of time to go back and check the chatrooms for a different rabbit hole to fall into. Even as he glanced back to the focus of the live stream, he couldn't tell was exactly wrong with it. It was not nearly the most horrific thing to show up on the internet — it was just someone covered in duck tape — nor was it really his kind of thing. The initial shock of the screen that had first loaded was beginning to fade and while creative, someone covered in duck tape was hardly something that Daniel found to be that interesting.

As Daniel watched the masked individual stroll out from behind the taped figure, he couldn't help but turn his lip slightly. The taped figure's legs weren't even bound, it'd probably dart off as soon as the straps were undone and Daniel didn't particularly want to stick around a snuff room that may be scoured by police in the coming days.

“I know he’s a little tied up at the moment, so it’s hard to tell, but maybe this will help.” Daniel waited for the masked man to fulfill the cliché and rip off the tape from the man's face, it's not like it'd be the first unmasking on a-

The look of expectant distaste was immediately wiped off his face as the masked man moved sharply, slamming his leg into the man's legs and the pair falling over with a sharp clatter that made Daniel jump in his seat, staring at the screen in shock.

A few seconds of silence passed between the personal call, as if both John and Daniel were both piecing together the new twist in what had seemed to be showing itself as just another run of the mill snuff room. Eventually, it was Daniel who broke it. "This isn't something we need to be-"

"It's fake."

"What?"

There was a brief moment of silence from the other end of the call, Daniel's eyes fixated on the screen, watching the man begin to pull at the strips of tape. When there was no response, he glanced up to the soft red light and waited, his eyebrows knitted together. "It's obviously fake, don't be such a fucking idiot." When Daniel blinked and looked back down to the screen, John continued. "It's just practical effects, you ever see those Saw movies, of Friday the 13th? It's like that, they just use a bunch of dyed cornstarch."

"But their legs-"

"It's called an amputee, dumbass, they probably used a mannequin legs and just had them prop them up with their stumps. They're probably getting paid a shit ton. I'll bet that once this is over, the taped up guy and mask-man over there will go out and have a drink and laugh about how stupid everyone who believes this is real is. Why do you think they're wearing masks? It lets the actor get reused for later streams." John sharply replied. "That midget will probably even go with them!" John said as another smaller masked figure ran on screen, Daniel feeling a little more spooked at seeing the child scramble forward for the 'limbs', still puzzling through what John was saying.

"Well what about the payment requirement? The fake ones usually just load up on ads and make their content free," Daniel asked hesitantly.

John snorted with laughter again. "It's called a bluff. They're just trying to convince people it's the real deal." John said, voice breaking off a little at the end as the small webcam light flickered. "Fucking internet," Daniel heard him mumble under his breath, taking a little bit of the tension out of the air.

Daniel frowned again quickly though, shifting backwards in his chair as he watched the screen, viewing it from a faintly new light. Even if it was fake, it was sure convincing. The actor had seemed to be in genuine pain only moments ago when the masked man was peeling off the tape at an agonizing pace, Daniel supposed that maybe it was some form of method acting. He'd heard somewhere that a lot of actors could get those real and genuinely pained expression from sticking themselves with needles or glass just off camera, but it didn't look like the taped up man had much wiggle room.

Then there was the masked man himself. He was treating this all as casually as someone would treat an artwork that they were rather passionate about, or maybe a performance that they'd had countless practices with. The man seemed comfortable in his grim line of work; Daniel supposed that could come naturally if this was all just scripted. Even as the man asked for suggestions, he seemed so smoothly confident, another detail that threw Daniel off slightly.

A few moments passed, Daniel glancing between the chat as messages began to appear and the screen itself. "What about him asking for suggestions?"

"What about it? You have any ideas?" John asked, his tone taking on a slight tinge of boredom that Daniel was quick to pick up on.

"No, how could he ask for suggestions if it is scripted?" Daniel asks. "Someone could ask them to do something they're not prepared for."

There was a pause of silence, Daniel watching the chat before glancing off to the side of his room, then shifting to rest his chin back against his hand as he waited for one of John's usual explanations.

"Well," John said with a slight hum. "Could have people planted in the audience, a lot of performers do it. They'll ask for specific things and then he'll ignore anyone who asks for anything different with the excuse that he's busy doing the other things."

Daniel frowned lightly again. "That seems a little far-fetched." He supposed it made sense though.

There was another brief pause, this time with a slight crackle near the end, drawing Daniel to glance up at the camera again, nearly forgetting the one-sided view. "Did you say something? Your audio broke up for a moment there."

The soft light solidified after a few seconds, another brief crackle on the audio drifting through the headphones. "Yeah, said that there's a way to easily find out." Before John had even finished the sentence, Daniel could already hear his fingers tapping away on his keyboard.

"Wait- No!" Daniel said quickly, perking up a little, "Not while I'm here! Save that for later, I don't think I'm going to stay however long this will take."

The boy snickered, but the typing thankfully stopped. "What, I can't ask them to do something small just to prove it's the real deal? I figured if I ask them to cut off an eyelid or something, we'd be able to see how long the actor could go without blinking." The boy chirped. "Or, you know, they pretend to have not seen the message and keep on with their planned show."

"I would really prefer that you didn't," Daniel mumbled, resting his chin back on his hand.

John sighed. "Whatever helps you sleep at night. Next time I get a link to here, though, I'm going to see exactly how far I can push it." Daniel had no doubts that John would. It wouldn't be the first site to miraculously start having issues, both technical and personal, following one of John's visits. As long as John kept it to those sites and refrained from involving Daniel in it, then whatever happened outside of their calls was John's business.

As the stream continued, both Daniel and John fell into their own silences, Daniel occasionally hearing a soft tapping noise from John's end, indicating that he must be splitting his focus between this and whatever else his attention was unfortunately stuck on. Daniel, on the other hand, kept his gaze focused on the screen.

He had to hand it to whoever was running this whole thing, the so-called 'Cardinal Brood', they'd clearly poured a lot of time and effort into this. It all seemed so realistic; from the way the taped up actor shrieked as the tape was ripped from his mouth to how the masked actor maintained their same casual demeanor despite each fake trauma they were inflicting — even Daniel was unable to help but wince at a couple brief moments. He had to give it to them, the unsettling way the masked actor treated the whole thing with so much casual indifference served to only amplify the performance and make it much more creepy than Daniel had anticipated.

The masked man was hardly any different — behavior-wise — then a neighbor or someone Daniel would spot walking down the street, which only made him all the more unsettling.

Daniel watched, raising an eyebrow as he noticed the slight movement in the shadows at the edge of the screen a moment before another masked figure — similar in both shape and height to the one that seemed to be the leader — entered the frame. It seemed a little unusual to have someone join this late, Daniel considered as he glanced to the timer, noting that barely a quarter of an hour had passed since the stream had begun. Something seemed to have come up, judging by the slight 'oh' he heard from one of them — he assumed the one with the smile mask. Maybe someone had called the cops? If so, then Daniel figured he could just leave, cover his tracks, and call it a night then try to stave off sleep for a few more hours some other way, though he'd be admittedly a little disappointed to lose what was steadily becoming a rather interesting show; real or not.

At the second and more excited 'Oh!', Daniel couldn't help but raise his chin from his hand a half inch, finding the sudden tone change to be somewhat off putting as the tape is ripped from the other man's face. "Can do that?" Daniel repeated, mostly to himself. "Can do what?" He asked slightly louder in case John still had his attention buried elsewhere.

"It's probably- Huh?" John murmured, the sound of his mouse click drifting over the headphones, the boy falling silent alongside John as the masked man continued. "Unexpected visitor? What, did the fucking pope decide to hop in or something?"

The joke fell dryly, Daniel too busy staring at the screen in confusion to bother laughing as felt a chill beginning to settle at the base of his spine. Surely they were talking about someone else, Daniel had been careful, he'd even made sure they'd get a genuine payment. "A name?" Daniel repeated quietly to himself, frozen as he watched the man begin to unravel his identity right in front of him.

He heard John start to say something but his focus was solely on the stream, Daniel paling as the name 'Josh' is first raised, 'Daniel' following shortly after and choking any words he could possibly form down in his throat.

There was no way that they could have figured that out — Daniel had paid them! He had made sure that it would send, even if it wasn't his own money! Even the name Josh — a screen name — how in the hell could they figure out his actual name from that? Josh was a generic name, as was Daniel, surely it was just a one in a million coincidence. Watching the masked man wag his finger at the camera — Daniel couldn't help but freeze. Who the hell was this man?

Surely this was some kind of joke?

"Josh-" John began.

"Why aren't they going after you, you did the same thing as me!" Daniel asked sharply, cutting him off as he snapped at John, feeling panic steadily climbing as he jerked his chair forward and pulled up his console, hearing the masked man bark out an order to some off-screen individual. Surely he could figure out what they were using to break his security and shut it down? It wasn't exactly a strong point of MAXIM, but there must be some way that it could be done. "Why?" He asked again sharply. This had to be some kind of joke. If it was, it was sick and Daniel had no appreciation for it.

"Josh, I paid," John replied quickly, a faint crackle in his voice, as if John was trying to stave off a hesitant laugh. Daniel saw no humor in it. "It's not like we had a rule against paying for it! You're the one that apparently had to fuck it up some way, what did you even do?" John asked, his audio cracking softly near the end, the light blinking a little alongside the other man's poor internet.

Daniel did not immediately answer, instead racing through his system to figure out how and where they were getting this information. He'd been careful! He had covered his tracks!

"What the fuck are you doing, stop it! You're going to fuck up my system you asshole!" John shouted after the audio and light had stopped flickering. His tone had taken a sharp turn, jumping from finding the whole situation somewhat amusing to being downright pissed. "What is wrong with you! You could have just asked me to fucking disconnect it!"

It took a moment to understand what John was even saying, Daniel's mind and heart racing as he tried to pick apart where the breach was coming from. As it did sink in, however, Daniel felt his heart drop. "What are you talking-" Daniel began, finding his words to die in his throat as it truly sank in. John didn't lose the audio call, they were still talking, he'd only lost the video, and Daniel had not even located a source to where the breach was from — hardly even begun trying to shut anything down yet. Despite John's voice indicating that his internet had not kicked him, and Daniel's inaction indicating that it was not his actions to break the call, neither of the those facts was what made Daniel's heart drop.

Instead, it was the soft red light on his camera glowing from the center top of his monitor to indicate that it was still, very much, in use.

“There’s Daniel! Daniel, why not wave?”

No, no no! There was no way — it wasn't real!

It hadn't been fake. That was not an actor. All the trauma he had been so casually watching be inflicted on what he thought was just another 'actor' only moments ago had been genuine. He'd just been doxed live on a fucking snuff stream.

It must be cliché, to say he froze like a deer in headlights — he'd never even seen a deer after spending his childhood in the suburbs and his adulthood-so-far in a very urban city — but that didn't take away from the fact that for a moment there, maybe even a couple moments, Daniel couldn't help but freeze like a deer about to be hit by a semi going 70 miles per hour on a rural road with only it's inability to act damning it to a messy and bloody end.

When he did finally move, how many ever seconds later, it was a bit sharper then he intended and lacked any sort of grace to make up for it. What he intended to do was to drop to the floor and promptly yank out all the wires from their outlet, rendering his computer completely inaccessible. What actually happened was that he practically fell from his seat, the cord of his headphones tangled around his keyboard and causing them to fall onto the desk with a sharp crack, the outlet being tucked partly behind his desk and forcing him to twist them out sharply from an uncomfortable angle until they finally snapped free, drowning the room in pitch black as the electronic light from his monitor faded and the familiar whir of his computer fans came to a slow and silent stop.

"That-" He slowly began after a few moments of tightly gripping the cords, tucked under his desk in the pitch black room. What was he supposed to say? That was terrible? That was horrific? The very idea that his identity had just been nearly been leaked — scratch that — had been leaked to a room full of people like that was flat out terrifying?

What was he supposed to say? When only silence followed his brief stammer to himself in the darkness of his room, the answer had decidedly become a resounding nothing.

─◙─​
 

Viper

One Thousand Club
“Oh, no!” Stephen started, putting a coy hand over his painted mouth in mock shock. “It looks like Daniel is a little camera shy! Frozen stiff like the cadaver he is soon to be.” The threat rolled off his tongue with ease, knowing that even if he did not go through with it, his intimidation effect would increase on this-Daniel and the audience as a whole. And if he went through with it? Then the fear Cardinal Brood brought and its legitimacy would skyrocket.

Mom would be pleased.

Stephen was watching the screen when Daniel finally moved, electrified into action. The thing was, it looked like gravity did more of the work that Daniel did. As an older brother and someone with sadistic habits, when he saw someone fall, it was impossible to stop a single harsh “HA” from bursting out of him. Quickly though, he got back into character and walked until he was behind Ducktape. Grabbing the man by both sides of his head, Stephen twisted his face towards the television where Stephen was still looking at Daniel on the ground. In a loud, cheery voice, Stephen continued talking. “Did you see that, friend? He’s such a clutz; it’s hilarious! Go ahead and laugh, I know you want to. Laugh!”

Hearing what was clearly a command, the man covered in duck tape between his weeps and gasps let out only a few Hehe’s before he gave up and only cried out a few quiet pleases. Only he was not begging for life. The audio barely picked him up, but those listening closely heard the man beg for a quick death.

Stephen did not respond, he was still holding the man’s head towards the screen, looking at Daniel with an unseeable smirk. The smile fell, though, when the video of Daniel blacked out and disappeared from the screen. Aw, it was so fun to dox people in front of snuff fans. Still, that was the smart thing to do.

Hopefully, most likely, Father had time to collect plenty of information about this Daniel person.

“Well bye, Daniel. What a rude guy! Such a pity to lose connection since that scared look of his was so nice! Maybe I should find him, bring him here so that we can see that nice look again!” Stephen’s second threat towards a boy that could not even hear him anymore almost solidified that he needed to follow through on his taunts. Stephen didn’t mind, and his father was not communicating for him to stop these taunts in any way, so it had to have been fine. “Would you guys like that?”

Silence from Father was basically the same as permission, although silence could also mean disappointment, but Stephen’s gut said that it was approval this time.

Just like how he started the stream, Stephen suddenly clapped very loudly, making Ducktape jump. “Well, that’s for another week. Today we have our friend here, so let us get back to that! Where was I?” Stephen knew where he was, and so did Ducktape when he saw Stephen walk back towards him and pick up the oil-soaked strand leading to his eyes and a lighter.

~~~~~

The stream only lasted an hour and a half, but the man died at the hour mark. The last half hour was just Stephen fucking around with the body and letting Edward come in to play a bit too. Their fans always loved to see the younger family members on screen; really made them remember that this was a family of murderers, not just some average crew.

The stream ended with everyone happy, well, besides the dead guy. They were never happy though.

The first thing Stephen did was flip off his mask and toss it towards Robert who caught it. Stephen meanwhile wiped up the sweat that coated his face, smearing blood across his forehead in the process. “Aw, damn it,” he muttered when a bit of that smear dripped down his face almost into his eyes.

He went over to the nearby hose installed, which was normally used to clean up blood, but it was also convenient for cleaning their bodies. Stephen slipped off his shirt and tossed it back onto the set where it would be disposed of with the body. Once he did so, he doused himself with the freezing cold water.

As he specifically washed his hands, now shivering a bit, Marc came back out from the tech room looking as unpleasant as ever. He immediately strode towards Stephen. Stephen spoke first though. “The viewers were pleased. I did good on the show. I think I did good with the scammer too, wouldn't you say?”

“Fine enough. Your mother likely would support your boisterous actions…” Stephen knew she would be. “...assuming you intend to actually follow through with your taunts.”

“I don’t see why not… assuming you actually got enough information for me to act.” It was a taunt, a way to throw his own words back at him, and Stephen noticed right away that his words hit right, but being right on such a thing was wrong. Marc’s left eye narrowed a few millimeters, a clear microexpression that reflected Marc’s internal annoyance. Time to smooth it over before Marc had time to linger. “But yes, I intend to. I’m a bit itchy to get out of town, and I know that the fans love it when we actually target people that we threaten. He seemed like an easy target: inexperienced, easily frightened, and physically weak. It should be a quick job that will please a lot of people, including mom. A large net gain, based on my initial impression.”

A little bit of formal language, a calm outlook on the world, and Marc was placated. It wasn't even that he was buying Stephen’s words, that was not what this was about. Their relationship, Marc’s relationship with all of his kids, was control and one-sided respect towards the authority figure. As long as Stephen kept his attitude to himself, they were fine.

Marc’s dislike of kids, even his fully grown kids, was not up to debate, but it was hard to crave what you never had. Stephen cared about the man to some extent even if the feelings were not mutual or similar in nature.

“Do we have a last name? Location?”

“ His protections were mundane but there was not much on the computer to find, all I managed to gather in that short time was his name, state, and internet provider. I’ll have more details by the morning.” Meaning his home address and more.

Stephen nodded before returning to his crime scene without another word, cleaning up with the help of his siblings so that they could go back to their board game before dinner was ready.

~~~

The morning came, and when Marc gave Stephen a manila file with a dozen papers inside, the young twin was positively ecstatic as he started to go through the papers with Robert. They were in their bedroom, Robert sitting on his bed while he watched Stephen spin as he held up the folder as if it was something sent from heaven.

“Can you believe our luck?” Stephen said loudly. “Daniel Nicholas Harper’s name is so similar to Daniel Harding, don’t you think? Just take out the middle name and a few letters and bam, the copper the Spahalski twins killed during their escape is born! He even looks a bit like him, don’t you think? I mean, this Daniel is way thinner than the other one, but this scar under his eye looks kinda like the beauty marks Daniel Harding had, yeah?” Robert was just nodding with a small smile on his face. Stephen just kept talking. “I want him. Do you think mom and father will let me use him for a reenactment? He’s so perfect for it that I’d hate to just kill him without honoring our namesakes a bit!”

At this, Robert responded, “Our birthday is soon. Perhaps you can ask for this Daniel Harper for an early birthday present?”

The small suggestion made Stephen stop his spins and flop down on Robert's bed, the force and proximity of the motion making Robert almost fall sideways. Neither seemed to care though as Stephen rolled to his back and used Robert’s shoulder to hoist himself up into an identical sitting position of his twin. “Good thinking, Robert. We haven't asked for anything yet, so this is perfect. Come on, let’s go ask now.”

So they did. The twins left the room together, passing by all the other bedrooms of their siblings, each decorated for the room’s owners. Almost no one had their own room because, even though this was a large house, there were simply a lot of children. There were Robert and Stephen, Faye and Marc, the girls, Natasha and Amelia, Richard and Edward, and only Alfred was alone although he would start to room with Jesse as soon as Jesse was better behaved. To top it all off, there was a currently empty guest room.

All in all, it was a six-bedroom house with only three bathrooms on the whole property, so many of the men were forced to go outside out of necessity, and when in the barn, emergencies forced them into the basement. They’d just pee in the drain the victim’s filth dropped into.

It was the weekend, and mom was home for once. The twins did not try to be quiet as they pounded down the stairs towards the dining room where she was sitting with a cup of coffee and some work documents. The twins immediately surrounded her, one on her left and right.

Unlike Marc who tended to his children with open disinterest, Faye always wanted children, and her eldest boys held a special place in her heart. She immediately set down her coffee to give them both her attention. “Good morning, boys. You two seem quite alive today. Good news?” she said.

“Well, father told you about the hacker who scammed your friend, right?” She nodded. “Dad gave me some information and it turns out that this Daniel has a very similar name and look to Daniel Harding. I was wondering if I could catch and keep him for my birthday?”

She sighed openly, not saying no yet but also not too happy. “Stephen, are you going to do one of your silly little reenactments again? You know that those are far more time consuming and costly than any other stream we put on. It’s really a waste.” She paused considering her words and the impact. “You know I love your passion for all this, but you know keeping a victim around for however long it will take you to build and gather everything you need increases the risk of something bad happening.”

Stephen knew well that quick turnarounds improved the chances of them not being caught since no victim had time to get accustomed to their prison and figure out a way to escape, but that never stopped Stephen from keeping a single person around for months. It's what he enjoyed. Father would support his creative vision, but mom always got the final say, so Stephen always went right to the top except in the direst of situations where mom would never say yes and Stephen really wanted that answer.

“Aw come on. I’m turning twenty-one in just barely two weeks. That’s a big number! Don’t I deserve something special? Don’t we?” Stephen said, pulling Robert into this.

Faye didn’t even need to think. She just sighed and shrugged. “Well, who am I to say no to a birthday request?” She was often too soft when she was not being militarian. “I’m assuming you want to go get him as soon as possible? Not hire someone to get him for you?”

“Psh, of course, mom! Why leave the job to people worse than us!”

Faye laughed, leaning side to side in order to bump her boys. “Well, best get packing so that you can leave in the morning. I’ll make sure things are ready here for when you get back.’

Stephen leaned down and gave his mom a peck on the cheek. “You’re the best, mom. Love you.”

“Love you too. Now you two get out of here. Mom needs to figure out how to frame someone else for this missing person’s case.”

~~~

It turned out that Daniel lived a state away, which with low traffic ended up being about six hours away. A pretty short drive for a kidnapping venture, if they were being honest. The twins had been on the road for twenty hours once, but that was a personal vendetta hunt, so not the average kidnapping trip. In order to make sure they both were alert when they arrived, they split the drive.

The apartment was pathetically easy to get into. They just chilled nearby until they saw someone entering the building, and as manners dictated, when someone was just a few feet behind you, you held the door for them so that they did not need to unlock the door themselves. That was one witness, but it was nothing Stephen or Robert was worried about. They’d remember that they saw identical twins, but likely little more. Certainly nothing that would correlate them to the kidnapping that was going to occur.

More importantly was the fact that this place had no cameras. The pair were looking for anything of the sort, but there was nothing at all. There was the lock leading into the building then the lock into the individual apartments, nothing else. What a bad place to live while also diving into the deep web.

Stupidity made the twin’s job much easier.

“Masks on or off?” Robert whispered as they walked up the stairs and down the hall towards Daniel’s apartment, both already having gloves securely over their fingerprints.

Stephen’s response came just as quietly. “Off until the door is unlocked. Then on.” This was a stealth mission, meaning that they were trying to not only avoid detection from others but also Daniel who likely was on guard. Still, no matter his guard, the chance of him hearing someone lockpicking his door or seeing the lock turn from his end was unlikely. Until the door was open, Stephen did not see anything more than a minuscule chance that there would be trouble.

So that’s what they did. Robert stood guard near the steps and elevator, and Stephen quietly picked the lock until with a gentle click, it released, and all Stephen had to do was turn the handle and walk in slowly, slipping on his mask as he did so. The problem was, when he entered with his mask on and hood up, there was no sound from inside. No lights either.

The pair were being cautious so they could not talk, and the masks made it so they could not make expressions towards each other either. Despite the added struggles, a simple head flick from Stephen communicated everything.

Search the place.

But there was nothing to find. No Daniel, and no obvious signs of where he went. And they looked. Through drawers, in and out of rooms multiple times, underneath the bed, on top of shelves, as many places as they could think of, but in the end, there was nothing materialistic of note left behind.

“Well, at least I found five bucks,” Stephen said, his tone not backing up his attempt at optimism. “I was hoping we’d catch him before he had the chance to run off. You find any signs of where he went?”

“No, sorry.”

“Don’t be, hard to find anything among this junk.” The house was not clean, and in his frustration, Stephen kicked at some of the trash laying about, sending it to the ground. “I saw his computer in the other room, though; take a look for me?”

It took Robert minutes to plug the computer back in, let it boot up, and then access the base computer. At first, they did not see any reason to worry about the dark web. At least at first. There was nothing to see there, and Stephen got bored.

“Get onto the dark web. I wanna see if we can figure out whatever else this loser is checking into. I’m curious if we were this guy's first step into the big leagues.”

“It’s unlikely that we will find anything practical there,” Robert responded.

Stephen just smacked him in the back of the head. “You sound like Father. Daniel’s not here, so we have time. Now get on there.”

Robert always had been better than Stephen with the tech stuff, from hacking to defending. Anything more challenging than the bare basics would not click no matter what Stephen did, so eventually, Stephen gave up and truly did let Robert do anything that involved a computer. Today was no different.

With flying fingers, Robert got on the web and tried to find his way back to the place that Daniel used the link. All links contained information about where they were placed, or more accurately, where they were in the cyber-world when they were clicked on. It’s why Marc was able to track down any kind of information about Daniel’s username than Daniel himself.

They still wore their masks as Robert found his way to the various chat rooms. Robert sat in the chair directly in front of the camera, and Stephen was behind him, his head resting on Robert’s head and arms slumped over Robert’s shoulders. His body implied boredom, that he was relaxed, lethargic, which was in sharp contrast to his mask that openly declared his enthusiasm for this job.

“Things wipe here often. Not much to see about his history. It looks like a hub of sorts”

“This looks like a fluffy site. No creepy vibes or warning bells at all. ”

“I don’t think this site is meant to be. It doesn’t produce content, I think it just sends you to places that do.”

“That’s boring,” Stephen muttered, profoundly disappointed by this day so far, real-life and online. No Daniel, no danger, no fun. The fact that hubs like this were vital to a stream’s profits didn’t concern Stephen at this moment. “Maybe we should just unplug this thing and go find Daniel somewhere--” Stephen straightened back up, his eyes narrowing beneath his mask at the computer. “When did that red light turn on?”

Now that was not boring.

Robert stopped typing as he too looked up at the light, noticing for the first time too. It could have just turned on, or it could have been on for minutes. Neither could say, but Stephen adapted to this new development faster than Robert could.

He raised his hand and waved. “Well, hey there! Weird to be on camera without my consent for once.” Stephen paused, cocking his head to the side as he looked at the camera. Openly tapping Robert, Stephen motioned towards the computer, and Robert started clicking around the computer again. Looking for a way to block this person should the need arise. Robert did not attempt to hide that he was active again, and Stephen just kept chatting with a far-too-relaxed attitude. “Are you looking for Daniel too?”
 

Toacho

The ‘Friend of a Friend’
─◙─​

Daniel sat under the desk for a long time, clutching the wires with white knuckles and willing everything that had happened in the last few minutes to just stop existing -- to go back and for it all to have never happened. He wished that he'd just been a few seconds slower to get through to the room and that it had closed before he'd been able to get in, or that John would have decided to pester someone else, or even that his earlier interaction with the delivery man had been tiresome enough that he had just stayed offline that night.

'Frozen stiff like a cadaver..'

No, no. It was just an empty threat, meant to keep him from coming back. Anyone in that man's place would do the same -- would try to make sure that the experience was enough to keep him from returning and it would potentially scare off others like him. It was just a scare tactic, nothing that would actually matter or affect him. They just wanted him to back off.

Surely they'd leave him alone now, right? They had already frightened him off -- doxed him in the middle of a fucking snuff room for Pete's sake -- there was no point in returning. In fact, there was no point in them making due on their threats, right? It had already worked; he was gone and despite any remaining vague sense of curiosity, he had no intention of even humoring the thought of returning. No, of course they'd leave him alone. It was in their own benefit to do so, how else would the word spread that you shouldn't try anything on that room? They'd succeeded in that -- despite Daniel unfortunately not being the conversational type to spread the word real far -- but they'd still succeeded. It was over, right?

His grip tightened on the cables.

He'd been doxed. He'd been threatened. He'd been laughed at. He'd been too stupid to immediately leave. He'd stayed on there too long; they had already figured out his name, they could have gotten a whole array of other information. Bank details, contacts, his address.

No. No-no. No. They wouldn't actually go through with their threats. He was safe.

Unless he wasn't..

No, if he wasn't, it wouldn't be that bad. He could lock the door. He could put chairs in front of it -- hell -- even push the useless couch in the living room in front of it. He could barricade himself in his own apartment. He could wait -- however long it would take -- until he was sure that he was completely safe. He could stay there, in his apartment, for; days, weeks, months -- whatever it took. It wouldn't be a first -- he rarely left already -- what was a few more months of solitude? It's not like he minded the quiet -- it's not like he really regarded much beyond that damned screen.

But if he couldn't?

What if they broke in? They could just push the couch aside and forced their way into his apartment. No -- they wouldn't even be able to get into the apartment building itself. Unless they could, and then he would quickly lose one line of defense. Could they even get through the apartment door? Even still -- he knew that he would run out of medication at some point, even if he tried to ration it. He'd have no way to settle the seizures -- He knew his sleep would become even more disturbed -- It -- he -- there..

His eyes had adjusted to the darkness by now, staring in silence at the crack between the opposite edge of the desk where the wood me the carpet, focusing on a small point of cracked wood near the bottom that he'd never realized had been there. Even in his own silence, the volume of his thoughts choked out everything else.

He slowly moved, dropping the cords beside him as he dragged himself out from under his desk, throwing a quick glance at the outline of the monitor. Like a ghost, he briefly imagined that he could still see that awful smiling mask staring back at him; but the longer he stared, the blacker the screen became until he was thoroughly convinced that it had almost never been there in the first place.

When he finally broke his stare from the monitor, he sharply pulled the drawer to his desk open and fished around in it for a few moments in the dark before he felt the smooth plastic tube. It took a few seconds to get the childproof lock off, nearly laughing at his own panicked struggle, before finally popping it off and fishing through the pills until he found the already halved one from a few days prior.

He waited a few minutes after taking it, holding the pill bottle, his eyes falling back on the monitor.

No.

He couldn't stay here. Doing so would just invite any amount of horrible possibilities to happen. He knew that he had saved up a small amount of money that he had intended to be for a new computer or a better monitor without a stupid fucking built in camera, but it was better to be safe then to just ignore it an hope for the best. It wouldn't be enough for anything long term, but he could hide out for a few days and make sure that there were no immediate threats; that he stayed away. Besides, it was the city, as long as he got out of here, there were thousands of places he could hide. It's not like hotel rooms were in short supply.

He'd already frozen once before; he'd blame it on his condition, whether or not it was true. He wasn't going to freeze again, not when he had a chance to protect himself, as uncomfortable as leaving the apartment for the first time in so long would be. Regardless, he wasn't staying here.

Shoving his fist with the pill bottle into his pants pocket, he turned to his closet to begin packing lightly.

-----------


"You need to stop staying up so late past your curfew. I'm surprised mom and dad haven't come storming up to beat your ass, lord knows you're choking up the internet in the entire house. You're lucky that they were probably asleep," Eli hummed with a yawn, lazily dropping his backpack beside the door as he closed it behind his sister. "What have you even been doing?"

"Nothing," The girl snapped back at him.

Eli cracked a smile, watching his sister as she began to make her way towards the kitchen. "Ah, of course," He said, darting towards her before poking a sharp nail into her shoulder, making her jump and glare back at him. "Nothing." He repeated slowly, poking at her shoulder again before holding his hand out. The young girl sighed and pulled her own backpack off, dumping it into his grip.

"It's none of your business."

He gave a slight laugh at that, turning around and tossing her backpack to his lazily. "Right, just like your internet history is none of my business. What was that one, hm, three nights ago?" He asked, causing her to glare back at him again. "Ah, right, pirated games. You know that's illegal, right?"

"It's just a game. You're the one that told me nobody actually cared," She mumbled as she went to the cabinet to retrieve an after school snack. "Why do you care so much, you're supposed to be asleep only an hour after me!" She snapped as she finally found a small box of fruit snacks. "I should be asking what you are doing online that late."

Eli chuckled. "What, so are you admitting to being up for more then an hour later?" He faked a gasp, quick to throw the conversation back at her. "Horrible," He said sharply, bringing his hand back down and holding it out again as he leaned against the kitchen island.

She frowned, glancing inside the box, unwilling to give him it. "There's only one left, you're not getting it. You're also avoiding the question."

"Piracy is a federal offense, you could go to jail. Do you want to go to jail?" He asked, tilting his head with a blank expression, keeping his hand raised. "Do you even know what jail is?"

"You're not getting it. Go away."

Eli couldn't help but chuckle, closing his fingers over the palm of his hand before dropping it and sighing. "Well, I could tell mom and dad that you've been on late at night." The young girl began to open her mouth, only for him to sharply interrupt her. "Huh-uh. I know, you would immediately go and rat me out right back to them. However!" He said, drawing a single finger up in the air as he smiled. "My grades prove that my activities are not bothering my academic or personal life; I've never had a bad soccer game, my grades are glowing, and I certainly still happen to hold my position as the class president-"

"Vice president," She corrected, his expression souring in return.

"Vice president," He repeated. "But you -- on the other hand -- have no such claim, judging by the report card I found in the garbage a few weeks ago. I also know that despite what you keep telling mom and dad about being the secretary of the game club, a friend of mine has told me that such a position does not happen to exist there so therefore; maybe you should-"

"Take it," She said, sharply pushing the box into the boy's stomach as she turned and stomped off without another word.

Eli couldn't help but drop his previously devious smile into a disappointed frown. "Well that was less then satisfying," He quietly murmured to himself, eventually flicking his gaze to the inside of the box and letting all the disappointment immediately vanish as a smile returned.

He brought the snack and his backpack with him upstairs before ducking into his room, kicking the door shut behind him. He hummed softly as he dumped his backpack onto his bed, taking out a couple of textbooks and flicking them to his desk, pressing the space bar to wake up his monitors as he went to his closet to change out of his school uniform.

Once changed, he turned back to his desk, leaning over it briefly to inspect the left monitor. Nobody had been active, save for the moderator, as per usual, and Pete. "Hmph," He'd really need to figure out what to do with Pete. More importantly though, no sign of Daniel. "Who knew you could stay offline for three days? I'd figured you'd crack the first morning." Eli murmured softly to himself as he grabbed the small bag of fruit snacks, tearing them open as he brought up a more detailed panel, noting the few blips of activity here and there, nothing that was enough to pinpoint a location. "Well, almost offline." As nice as he'd had it the first night when he'd first tracked Daniel's phone, it was really turning out to be a disappointment considering the paranoid hacker hardly was on for more then a couple of minutes at a time these last few days. Still, it at least indicated that the man was alive.

On one monitor, he brought up an educational video on the history of Alsace-Lorain to aid with his foreign history class; on the other monitor, he left it open on the hub with a small box showing the hacker's phone number he'd managed to skim a while back. The homework went smoothly for the first hour or so, Eli occasionally shifting his mouse and typing a quick response that he was busy if anyone tried to contact him after other members started noticing that he was online. On a couple of occasions, he would think he saw a new notification pop up from the little box, indicating that Daniel had decided to show his face again after such an embarrassing interaction, but would always find it to just be nothing.

That was, until it wasn't.

He'd almost missed it, too busy splitting his attention between history and studying for an upcoming science quiz that he'd almost completely ignored the blip of activity. But as he noticed it, however, he also noted that it happened to be from Daniel's computer, rather than his phone as all of the most recent activities had been on. Eli couldn't help but crack a slight smirk. "Oh Daniel, you stupid little thing, back already, huh?" He murmured to himself as he brought up the command prompt and got to work forcing another connection.

After a bit of work, the textbook he'd had in his lap ending up neglected and tossed lazily into the floor beside him, he popped a fruit snack into his mouth as he waited for it to connect. He could fuck with Daniel a little, the poor guy was probably paranoid beyond belief right now. Maybe he could cup his homework around his mouth to give himself a slightly muffled sound and pretend to be one of those freaks with the masks hacking him again. Picking up his homework as he let out a giggle to himself, he couldn't help but freeze as he saw what was on the other side of the screen once it finally loaded.

Two masks, one with a wide smile and the other with an x-ed mouth. Both of which Eli knew to be remarkably familiar; precisely like the individuals from three nights prior.

As he watches them for a few moments, fingers still loosely weaved between the pages of homework, he noticed that they did not seem alarmed by his presence and -- after another moment -- he realized that they had not yet noticed their private and personal viewer. Eli blinked, watching them for a few more seconds, before turning his glance back to his other screen while he brought the homework up and lightly rested it over his mouth in contemplation. He'd improved his own security in the last few days. Hell, he'd been improving it even while one of the men before him had been slashing up the duck taped fellow.

His gaze flicked back to the hub as he noticed Daniel suddenly happen to appear online at the same time as these two toy around with the computer.

No; Eli smiled as he tapped the curled homework against his lip before leaning forward as he noticed one of their eyes drift up to the camera, undoubtedly spotting him. Eli -- John -- Had time to spare.

It took a few moments, Eli pleased to notice that the two on the other side were too busy fussing over the silly light, prompting the school boy to use the time wisely as he poked around a little more. All he needed was a few seconds before he'd wormed his way into their side of the computer and after considering adding a moment of dramatics before his little act, he decided that it was more amusing to be abrupt; with that, he disconnected them from the hub site.

It was hardly anything that would last, they could bring it back up just by refreshing the page, but it was a neat little trick that Eli would hate to spare from the red-roomers. Besides, he wasn't a fan of strangers poking around in places that they weren't supposed to be; even if he'd done the same only a few nights prior. If the twins tried to bring the page back up, he'd simply disconnect them again within a moment.

"Weird to be on camera without my consent for once."

"What, camera shy?" Eli asked, drawing out the words in a mirror of that night. "You sure don't act like it -- Mmm.. Leer, right? Or are you Whisper and the other is Leer?" Eli asked sharply, putting on his usual persona without a moments of hesitation. "I've never really understood the whole thing with those sorts of nicknames," John mused softly, setting his homework aside and resting his cheek on his hand with a smirk. "Didn't think you would be that upset with a little bit of paparazzi, specially not after a show like that."

At the mention of Daniel, however, he raised an eyebrow.

He'd already assumed the worst from the moment the two had appeared on the screen; figured that Daniel was dead and they were just sorting through his computer out of their own boredom. Apparently, he was wrong.

"He's not there?" John asked, a faint tinge of genuine surprise slipping into his tone. "Clever boy. I knew he ran off, wasn't sure how long he'd stay gone though." His smirk returned, "Hell, even I'd find a way to run off after something like that. Him and I were convinced that you were just skillful fakes, but I'll be the first to admit my mistake." John sat up in his seat before continuing. "So you're a family show, right? I'd heard about your little room a few months ago but I just chalked it up as one of those dull rumors that starts and spreads but has nothing to really back it. It's a nice idea, I have to hand that to you, even if the execution was absolute dog shit." He couldn't help it. He hated them. Despite his wide grin and excited tone, he loathed them for a single fact; he could.

Him and Daniel lived nowhere near each other, he'd knew that much already. His security was better, he was much more careful to. He wasn't isolated either, people would notice if he went missing. He'd have an entire search party dedicated to him the minute he vanished, all for the sole fact that he's just some 'innocent' kid with good grades, lots of friends, and a questionable internet history that he made sure to keep buried. There was a screen and seemingly infinite space between him and the two freaks on the other side. He was a world away from them and was completely untouchable.

John gave a dramatic sigh before he continued, popping another fruit snack into his mouth. "Smiley, you're too much of a fruitcake. You were prancing around the entire time and making snide comments, it's a distraction and does nothing more then pull your audience's attention away from what they're actually there for. Nobody was there to see you." His attention then drifted to the other male and he couldn't help but give a slight chuckle. "You -- X-man -- Well, I honestly barely remember seeing you even that one or two times you decided to make an appearance. While your brother or father or whatever was too busy prancing around like a fucking pony, you just kind of.. Well.. Existed." He said, sharply enunciating the last word.

He grinned and leaned closer to his screen. "If you ask me, I think that your potential is being wasted. It's clear who is directing who here. I think that you would be better off slitting his throat and taking on the show yourself."

John wasn't quite sure where he was going with this, he just let the words roll off his tongue and hopped one or two would stick. After all, he didn't actually care about their little show. Even if X-Man did heed his word and take the other man's place, John still wouldn't care. He was there for the drama, not for the show itself, and it just so happened that right now was the perfect opportunity to try and stir a little drama into his evening.

After finding his own words to be growing quickly more and more dull, he rested his chin back on his closed hand. "So what are you even doing on Daniel's computer, might I ask?" He said nonchalantly as if he hadn't just been trying to persuade one of them to kill the other. They were red-room hosts, he supposed their skin was pretty thick already. "Surely he wasn't stupid enough to leave behind any information on where he was disappearing off to?" He already knew the answer to that. Daniel hadn't been that stupid. At least not on his computer.

─◙─​
 

Viper

One Thousand Club
Stephen was an impatient person when he had the freedom to be one. Business, family, or otherwise? He was actually pretty good, but waiting for something he wanted rather than needed was always so much harder. He wanted immediate gratification, and not getting it was a pain in the ass. After all, when Steph got bored with that kind of thing, he tended to get in trouble.

So there he leaned, head resting on Robert’s head, arms almost hugging him were it not for Stephen’s relaxed arms. He was just sitting there, humming now and again while Robert typed and clicked away until he saw the camera light.

Robert on the other hand noticed that he was kicked. That kind of thing prompted something half-glare, half-confusion. He didn’t like it when people or things got in the way of the job he was given. And he was confused because being kicked was often hard to do, and he had just been kicked for no reason. His fingers were flying a touch faster when Stephen finally mentioned the light. The pieces came together, now Robert knew why he was kicked despite not doing anything wrong. Some sort of admin was watching them, and he had decided they were not fit to be there. Robert did not mention the kicking to Stephen, just kept working to fix the problem.

Although the real problem was that this Daniel fellow did not use anything like what Father did, so it made little sense.

Robert’s struggle though was overridden quickly by the banter between Stephen and this stranger who Robert really wanted to know more about.

Stephen on the other hand was surprised to even hear someone respond. Audibly, he let out a soft ‘huh’ in response. This person was bold too. Knew who they were yet still talked like that. It was almost funny if it didn’t imply that this person was either too confident about their online security or they were competent killers too.

Still, Stephen figured that he had no reason to lessen himself for this stranger.

“Nah, not camera shy. Just a bit surprised.” Stephen answered honestly. “And you don’t really sound like paparazzi. Aren’t paparazzi supposed to be, you know, a bit more friendly? Fans?”

At the question about which was which, Stephen leaned forward again and motioned in front of Robert’s face, his finger mimicking Robert’s X. “Isn’t it obvious? We didn’t draw the smile and X for nothing.” A pause as John commented on the nicknames. “It’s better for branding. Besides, we gotta call each other something when on camera. I’d get confusing otherwise. We’ve got too big of a family to just say ‘hey you’ whenever the cameras are rolling….And it is just more fun from our end.”

“What about you? Got a name?” Stephen didn’t expect an answer, but where was the harm in asking? He’d lie or give some sort of alias; both and neither worked.

It was the same when it came to asking about Daniel. This could be a friend of his or someone else who wanted to hurt Daniel. Just like the name, Stephen would take whatever lie or truth that came out.

Stephen was letting him talk without interruption until he said that he thought they were fakes and that the execution was shit. At this, Stephen dramatically gasped and placed a hand on his heart. “You thought it was fake? The horror. Well, I’m always happy to take suggestions about how we can make our shows more…. Stimulating. Got any ideas?”

To be honest, this kid's words bothered Stephen just a touch. He wasn’t showing it, but he didn’t like to hear that he was doing a bad job. He wasn’t; he knew he wasn’t bad at his job. Their fans made that clear. Still, Stephen welcomed pointers on how to improve. Well, most pointers. Stephen did not plan on shutting his mouth any time soon.

“Oh, my friend, you have no idea how many people come for me. You should see the comments I get!” Sure, most were requests for him to do something sexual with the victim or violent to himself, but hey, fans were fans. “It’s the appeal of our show! Different hosts offer different things. I’m chatty and, you’re right, more than a bit flamboyant, my father is quiet, and my mother is brutal, etcetera etcetera.” Stephen rolled his hand, his comment getting out before this stranger could move his focus to Robert. “Variety is the spice of life! Enjoy it!”

Robert was already paying very close attention. The moment he said Smiley and fruitcake in the same sentence, Robert’s fingers stopped moving. Just like how Stephen did not enjoy criticism, Robert hated to hear Stephen get ragged on. That happened enough at home. Stephen didn’t need it from this faceless, cocky stranger who clearly was just talking out of his ass. He didn’t even know that Stephen was the son, not the father. The idiot. The cock-sucking, rotten idiot.

Robert chose, more or less, to just exist in Stephen’s shadow. John said it like an insult, and that pissed Robert off. Nothing ever got under his skin as much as people shitting on Stephen or their relationship. It was practically a switch, normal Robert to angered Robert, calm and still to shaking in anger. This change was so rapid it may as well have been instinct.

Even still, Robert kept his mouth shut until John suggested that he kill Stephen. “I'd rather kill you,” Robert snapped, emotion clear and voice louder than it normally ever gets.

The hand that moments ago was waving in the air immediately lowered and gripped Robert’s shoulder. Tight, pushing Robert into the chair he was not trying to get out of in the first place, but not painful. Stephen leaned down and whispered, John would not hear them, a simple comforting sentence. “It’s okay, this is just banter.” This was not the first time Robert got unreasonably upset about something someone did or said to Stephen. It was a trait Stephen loved about his brother, but this level of love could be troublesome, not to mention sensitive. “Just keep doing what you were doing, alright?”

Robert was still shaking, but he went back to the computer. Now more determined than before to figure out something about this clearly experienced hacker. And John would notice it right away. Robert went from just doing his own thing, trying to get surface info about John and Daniel, to ignoring anything about Daniel and instead actively trying to hack John. Backdoor entrances, direct assaults, sometimes at the same time. Robert was trying hard, but he was hitting walls over and over. No matter.

This not being Robert’s system and normal programs be damned. He would see this rude man ruined.

Not even paying attention to what his brother was doing, Stephen clapped once loudly, drawing attention back to himself and his attention back to the stranger. “Let’s get back on topic now, yeah?”

“I said so, didn’t I? We’re looking for him.” No reason to deny that their intentions were ill. Stephen let out a long sigh. “Sadly, it seems like he wasn’t that stupid. Considering how he acted on the stream, I thought luck was on our side, but no. I’ll be honest, I’m at a loss here.”

“Don’t suppose you are able to figure out anything? I mean, considering that we are professionals and don’t have info, I doubt it.” Just like earlier, there was no real downside to this. If John had the info and didn’t share it, then things would be unchanged. If he did and shared, then they’d have a lead. And if John knew nothing, then the situation was still the same. It was a win or nothing. Besides, Stephen liked to be sassy. This stranger clearly was fine with banter, so a few digs at his skills should be fine.

So Stephen shrugged and spoke further, “Still... sometimes amateurs get lucky.”
 

Toacho

The ‘Friend of a Friend’
─◙─​

Eli couldn't help but give a soft giggle at Leer's comment. "Fans being friendly?" He asked, keeping his gaze between the screen showing their activity and the one showing them. "You'd have to be pretty deluded to think that fans are always perfect little angels. Surely you've heard the stories of celebrities with cheap security ending up locked in some super fan's basement?" He chimed with a smirk. "Ha, that'd be pretty ironic if it were to happen to you two, I guess it's a good thing I have no interest in that sort of thing." Why lie? It wasn't his kind of thing. "But no," He began, "I'll admit that I'm not a fan. I'm just someone who is... Mm.." He considered, watching them closely. "Just someone who's curious."

His eyes followed the small X drawn across the man in front's face, "I suppose that makes sense," He hummed softly.

As he considered it, however, he found himself mostly thinking back to his mention of it being too big of a family. That was the part that truly didn't make sense. He already knew that they were a family show in the most literal sense, he wasn't confused by that part, he merely didn't understand how their family could do that. After pondering it for only a moment, he smirked again and leaned forwards a little in his chair. "So, like, how do you do it? The whole family thing. I unfortunately was only able to tune in for that single stream so forgive me if I don't quite understand it, but how the hell can you all even tolerate each other?" He asked with a grin, knowing damn well that they wouldn't even see the smile. "After all, your family must be all kinds of fucked up too considering murder seems to be a 'family activity'."

It was mostly a rhetorical question, asked to try and poke for any sort of reaction, he knew that he wouldn't understand whatever they said anyways because he knew that his own family was too perfect to even come close to that monstrosity that they called a 'household'. Everything about his own family was perfect in almost every sense ─ a perfect dollhouse family. His dad was an accountant, his mom was a school teacher, he was a perfect star student, and while his sister needed a little work ─ at least she always did as he said with only a little prompting. There was nothing grim about his family.

The same couldn't exactly be said about the two on the other side of the stream. Their family must have tons of dirty little secrets and filth on them. Nobody just wakes up and decides to have their kid torture and maim someone over a broadcast to dozens of strangers over the internet. It wasn't the stream he was curious about, it was them.

His attention drifted back as he was asked for a name, prompting him to consider it for a moment before calmly responding. "Call me John." They'd clearly spent enough time on the internet to know that he wouldn't give them an honest answer, so he figured they were already expecting some sort of alias.

As the topic of suggestions came up, he straightened up a little in his chair, actually falling silent for a moment. In all honesty, he had not been anticipating the other to respond to the offhanded comment. After the moment of hesitation, however, his expression lit up and he leaned forward a little on the edge of his seat as he explained.

"Well," He began, taking another second to think. "First of all, I'll admit that the little eyelid addition was an exceptional addition to your display, as it's impossible for an actor to fake not being able to blink ─ unless of course you step in front of them briefly while doing your thing ─ which is difficult to avoid considering the angle that most people use for that sort of thing," He explained, a vague sort of excitement lingering in his tone as he spoke. "But you at least kept a bit of time between those little things, so I won't nitpick too much there. Oh! Not to mention the burning was an even better addition!" He leaned a little closer to the microphone, not even bothering to sate his excitement at this topic as he started to edge further and further away from a direct answer. "I'm sure that you know the whole trick that a lot of fakes use with using pig meat and disguising it as part of their actors? It's actually pretty neat, at least for things like cutting since it's almost impossible to tell the difference between cutting through human flesh and pig flesh from a simple video," He explained, continuing down his little factoid tangent that was seemingly getting more and more unrelated to the topic at hand. "It's really clever ─ that is ─ until people get into the area of burning. Considering pig skin has a few additional layers of fat than the average human, there's always a vague sort of meltiness to it that nobody really seems to pick up on unless they're specifically looking for it."

He took a moment to glance at the screen, then shifting back to the conversation.

"My point is," He continued, "Your show was obviously the real deal once you got to that bit, but I think any wary watchers would have clicked off by then. What I am saying is that you got to that part a little too late in the stream. I'm curious, what's your click-through rate? I don't recall seeing anyone leave that night ─ well ─ other than the obvious."

He soon realized he was getting a bit side tracked and decided to double back. "Anyways," He murmured. "You could do better in that department; making sure to cut to the chase some how. Of course, you can't really do the exact same thing each time either, but I'm sure you're a family of exceptionally creative individuals," He said, a slight tone in his words that made it difficult to tell whether he was being sarcastic or not.

He took another moment to glance at the other screen, his excitement starting to wear off a little as he realized that there weren't many suggestions that he could provide. Contrary to his words, it hadn't been the worst show he'd ever seen, regardless of whether he'd admit it.

Dully, he reached over and picked at his keyboard a little in silence before speaking again casually. "By the way, who was that? Was kind of hard to try and do a search without a face to go with it, but I'm assuming the duck tape hadn't been there in the last stream you were referencing?" He knew it was a somewhat odd question, but he considered it to be a valid one. Particularly after he'd spent over an hour that night scouring the internet for whatever he could find on the mystery victim and turning up empty handed. He figured that he deserved to know their name, at the very least. "It was kind difficult to really think of them as anything more than an object," He murmured offhandedly. "It just seemed a bit less... Mm.. Impactful? I mean, it wasn't even like you were playing with a person."

"Don't get me wrong!" He added quickly. "It's not like that's always a bad thing, but I mean, I think the thing that is most alluring about these sorts of things is the fact that it's a living and breathing person, someone with hopes and dreams and all that bullshit. It gets kind of hard to recognize that fact when someone's covered head to metaphorical toe in duck tape," He said. "But, again, I assume that you do differently for all your streams and that I just happened to catch you during one of your more dull ones."

He knew that it was a bit of a stretch to point that out, genuinely having to fish a little for how to dig into any possible insecurities. He figured that even if what he was saying was mostly just things blown way out of proportion, he knew that there was always the chance of a couple of them landing, regardless of whether they were true or not. What was he supposed to say? The show hadn't been that bad.

Well that topic went from interesting to boring real quick; moving on!

As Eli shifted to mocking Stephen, he was quick to pick up on how all activity he'd been watching from Whisper's side seemed to come to an abrupt spot, prompting him to grin a little. While it was difficult to notice any signs of aggression under the man's mask, Eli knew he was getting under his skin. Why else would he suddenly be eyeing him so closely and not even bothering to try and do anything on the computer?

Eli found it funny, how this stranger could get so worked up over the internet towards someone they didn't even have a chance at finding. So, after hearing the threat, he couldn't help but giggle softly. "Oh buddy, I'd love to see that," He said nonchalantly. What was he supposed to do? Get just as worked up when neither of these two could even find Daniel? Start cowering in a ball of fear and begging for his life? Nah, it was an empty threat. Daniel was an easy target and whatever happened to him was his own fault, Eli knew he was smarter.

"Besides, if you are the one killing me, then I certainly couldn't be upset." He said with a slight smirk. "After all, I'm sure that you would make a better show of it than him." Admittedly, he was only adding this to fish for a bit more of that anger, but he supposed it was similarly useless to say. "No matter, it's not going to happen anyways. But by all means, good luck!"

As he noticed Whisper getting to work on breaking down the defenses for his system, Eli was quick to lean forward again towards his keyboard and do his own part at maintaining these defenses. Contrary to what he'd been expecting, the man was actually somewhat decent at hacking, and it was genuinely a bit of challenge to keep up with the attacks. Nonetheless, Eli was quick to draw all his focus to it, his software beginning to gradually light up with warning signs as it started to detect all kinds of nasty tactics, Eli carefully countering each of them.

He figured that once the other man slowed down a little, he could throw a few things back at him. He knew Daniel's system anyways; old and garbage.

That, however, implied that he could get a few seconds in order to actually start working on those. Eli narrowed his eyes and kept working, figuring that Whisper would have to let up at some point.

His eyes briefly darted to the screen as the loud clap drew his attention back for a moment before he quickly directed his gaze back to the computer he was currently defending, wincing as he realized that it may have been a little more difficult than intended to stay both defensive and conversational. "Right, I don't think he has anything else to contribute anyways." He mumbled offhandedly after a distracted second, focus still torn between both the screen and the dialogue.

As the topic of Daniel slowly came up, he couldn't help but laugh slightly. "Honestly, I'm surprised that the man even had the guts to leave his room, it's sure a first for him." He murmured as he continued typing, a small gap in his words near the end as he continued to counter one of Whisper's attacks. "In fact, I can't honestly remember a single time when the man has mentioned stepping out of that dodgy little room, I was starting to get the impression that he was stuck there and that I'd need to call the fire department to come bust him out," He said and gave a small chuckle at the end. "I'd congratulate him on deciding to rejoin the real world, but I suppose that's not really an option right now. Hell, maybe if you see him, you could do it for me? I'm sure he would appreciate it." Present to hear it or not, Eli had no problem with poking fun at the hacker.

As the conversation continued, he noticed how the attacks continued just as brutally as before, seeming to have no signs of slowing. It was actually getting a bit tough to keep up with them, the times when Whisper would use multiple attacks at once being the most difficult since it broke his focus into three areas rather than the already tedious two. The conversation itself was doing nothing to help, Eli doing his best to keep up his usual façade of indifference and trying to illustrate just how unbothered he was by the entire situation, even if this façade crumbled a few times during a few awkward pauses from his side whenever Leer would speak and it would take Eli a few seconds to recognize the words while being mid-attack.

When the conversation shifted a little more and Leer pressed the question about Daniel, Eli finding himself directly in the middle of a particularly nasty attack from Whisper, he couldn't help but scoff at Leer's words. "Screw off," He mumbled, not quite directed to either Leer or Whisper in particular ─ perhaps intended for both. They were calling him an amateur? He was here, wasn't he! He had found Daniel first! He knew where Daniel was! He knew who Daniel talked to! He knew everything, all they had was a stupid fucking address! "Don't fucking call me an amateur," He said lowly as he continued working on countering the attack.

Christ, couldn't the stupid fucking hacker back off a little for just one second? Was it really necessary to keep trying the same stupid things over and over again? None of it was going to work!

"I'm not a fucking amateur," He continued. "All you know is his stupid address, any code kiddie can figure that out. I'll bet that you even had someone else do it for you because you're both so stupidly worthless!" He sneered a little as he kept working on countering the attack, feeling his hatred boil a little more, fueled by the ongoing battle between him and the other hacker. "I have his address too, you know! I could send an anonymous tip and have cops there in a heartbeat! Besides, not only do I have the address of where you're both standing, but I know exactly where he is and the last person he'd talked to, while both of you are sitting here like a couple of fucking chickens with your heads cut off ─ how the hell have you even been able to keep your stupid show running anyways if you're this awful at catching people!" His voice had gotten a little faster and louder, still rapidly typing away on his keyboard as he worked on preventing the attack from reaching him.

It was getting steadily more difficult. Whatever the hell Whisper was doing, it was brutal. Even John was starting to get out of his knowledge set and knew that he couldn't keep this up for much longer.

"Would you fuck off?" He growled a little loudly, typing as fast as he could to set up a way to keep defending, these words clearly directed at Whisper this time.

Why was he even bothering with this? This was just two stupid assholes who didn't even know half of what he could do. He was wasting his time sitting here talking and fighting with them. It was so pointless and as far as he could see, there was not a single reason for him to be wasting his time with them. He could just disconnect, turn off his computer off, destroy the hardrive so it couldn't be traced, and be done with it. He didn't actually care about whatever the hell happened to Daniel anyways. The man was just someone that he could go to for occasional entertainment, to enjoy their own little hacking sessions and be done with it; nothing like this stupid fucking full-out hacking war that Whisper was pushing and sucking all the fun right out of. He couldn't care in the slightest what happened to Daniel. Sure, he'd be interested in hearing afterwards, but that didn't mean he cared for Daniel.

"That's enough!" He finally snapped, ceasing his activity in defending immediately and turning his attention to something new. It was a neat little trick he'd learned a while back but hadn't had the chance to use, primarily considering he had no desire to use it since it was hell to try and reverse. No matter, he knew how to disable it, it'd just take him a few hours. So, after a few seconds of typing quickly and briefly drawing his gaze to his software's panel, he finished setting up the program and executed the first block.

The effect was nearly instantaneous for both sides.

The video feed froze the moment it was executed, frozen on whatever had been taking place on the other side in that moment, Eli's eyes locked on the image as he waited for it to start running it's course. On both computers, the screens would slow to a near complete stop. While Eli didn't try, if either side tried to open anything ─ whether a new tab or a new program ─ it simply wouldn't start, not even going as far to offer an error message. Daniel's computer appeared to be hit particularly hard by this, the fan seeming to pick up its speed a bit as the computer took on an awful electronic wheezing sound as if trying to keep up. On Eli's side, his own computer's fan started running a bit faster as well but was recent enough to not have that horrible audible wheeze.

It was, by all means, a stalemate.

"Are you still there or did you get disconnected?" Eli finally asked, shifting to sit back in his chair as he folded his arms. He glanced to the control panel, double checking that he had, in fact, left out the couple of lines intended to lock out the audio, knowing that the audio would likely be a bit less smooth but would remain intact.

He considered his next words for only a couple of moments before smirking after a small pause of silence from his own side. He didn't care what happened to Daniel. Sure, he'd be interested in hearing about it someday, but the old-school hacker meant nothing to him. He wanted to see exactly what these two would do with him once he dangled the hacker in front of them like a bone in front of dogs. "I'd get a paper and something to write with if I were you."

"About half an hour after he left, he made a single call, turned his phone off for a bit, and then reactivated it twenty minutes later for a few minutes before it was turned back off," He explained, closing his eyes and waving his hand slightly as he talked. "The number," He began, glancing back to the other monitor that had frozen with the tracking information still on it, leading him to simply read off the numbers. "399-767-2232," He said, then closing his eyes once more as he recalled the other information from memory. "The location was a little further downtown of where you are now, I think it was something like the Skyline? Skyway? I don't remember, but it had Sky in the name and was on Martha Avenue."

He opened his eyes again after rattling off the information, glancing back to the screen and frowning as he remembered that it was still frozen.

"If you still think that I'm such an amateur, then don't even bother. However, if you take my word for it, maybe you'll find yourselves pleasantly surprised?" He mused with a slight hum, his former anger seeming to have switched so casually back into indifference. To be fair, he knew he won, even if it'd ended in a stalemate. They had their information and soon they'd actually believe him. He smirked. "I've already criticized both of you enough, I think you deserve a compliment, even despite your little comment back there."

He straightened up a little in his seat and calmly continued, still smiling wide. "While your show is truly garbage in the whole area of 'recognizing your audience and what they came there for' department, you're certainly one of the more creative ones that I have seen," His smile widened a little as he glanced back to his frozen screens. "You can use that creativity of yours once you find Daniel and know that I was being honest to find a way to thank me. I'm sure that if it's good enough, then I'll hear about it one way or another.."

With that, he sat back with a satisfied grin. "Good luck," He hummed softly before reaching down and hitting the power button, leaving the two as the small camera light blinked off, the computer before them now completely useless as it sat frozen on the same screen it'd become stuck on.

─────

The last few days had not gone well for Daniel.

Time passed in his little closed off hotel room with the little 'do-not-disturb' sign having been fixed on the doorknob ever since he'd first stepped in. He knew the passage of days from the clock beside his bed that only served to count the hours and the thin outline peering out from the drawn curtains, drifting in a constant cycle between being the vaguely yellowish glint of daylight to the softer electronic blue glow of the dim lights outside. He'd opened the curtains briefly a couple of times since he'd arrived, both times being opened by only a few inches in the last couple of days as he'd slowly grown more comfortable with his surroundings, once finding himself greeted by the dimness of morning slowly approaching and the second time being in the dead of the night prior.

He'd tried a few forms of entertainment, refusing to use his phone but keeping it charged and resting on the bedside table for emergencies, having not even unplugged it once within the last few days just to be safe, but none of them had been satisfying enough to warrant much more then a small amount of thought. He'd given watching the television a try and had promptly lost interest considering the only broadcasts were either cheesy drama shows or outright stupid scripted reality TV shows. He had skimmed the little drawer-bible for a bit, recognizing some of the passages from his old Sunday school lectures before losing interest in that too. The majority of his time had annoyingly been wasted on the tourist-attractions book that had been sitting on the bedside table, which he had admittedly read nearly two and a half times now just as something to do.

If he slept at all ─ it had even been hard to tell before he'd cautiously isolated himself here considering how often his days tended to blend together ─ it was brief and only enough to keep him going.

He'd left his room three times; the first time had been in the evening, retrieving some things from the vending machine with the small amount of extra cash he had, having been trying to hold onto it in case he could scrounge up a little more money for an extra night but his hunger getting just a bit too uncomfortable for him to continue to try and ignore. The second time had been just before the afternoon after he'd realized that complimentary breakfasts were served, having resolved to put a few fruits into his pocket for later since the room fortunately came with a mini-fridge, as well as stocking up on some coffee for the evenings. It had been this small venture which had ended with him hurriedly returning to his room after being pressed into a conversation by one of the cheery staff members who had thankfully turned her attention away just long enough for Daniel to take some of the small complimentary instant coffee packets, a couple of apples, and leave. Despite being free, he had no intention of returning for breakfast.

The third time was now, having finally snapped from boredom and gone to retrieve a newspaper now tucked under his arm from one of the little paper dispensers he'd noticed a couple of blocks down on his trip here, having specifically chosen to take this small venture almost smack-dab at ten in the morning, figuring that the majority of people around the streets would have already gotten into work, leaving the streets mostly empty. Even despite his theory being true and the streets being just a tad bit more barren then usual and his growing recognition that he was likely in no danger at all and had spent his money on staying in the cheap hotel for nothing, he still kept a wary eye on anyone who passed a little too close to him, and kept his head down in the hope that the basketball cap he'd grabbed on his way out of the apartment would do anything to help keep him further hidden just in case.

He knew he was probably just being paranoid.

The last few days had been dull and uneventful and seemed outright pointless to him. Nothing was going to happen. It had just been a threat, and he was just overreacting to it.

As he reached the hotel, he gave a final glance to his surroundings as he ascended the steps, particularly scanning the ground below to ensure that nobody had trailed him. When he was greeted by nothing, he internally cursed himself a little for his paranoia and turned towards the direction of his room. He figured that with the last couple of hours before checkout, he could skim the newspaper, at least it would be a bit more entertaining then trying to distract himself with the television, not to mention that newspapers rarely shied away from covering the more graphic stories, even if most of their descriptions were just in passing.

─◙─​
 

Viper

One Thousand Club
Stephen hummed in response to the crazy fans that were out there and that this character had no interest in doing their crazy kidnapping because they love him display. “Yes, that is a good thing. I don’t think I’d enjoy that.” Stephen cocked his head when John said he was not a fan, but when he clarified his reasons for being here, Stephen nodded. “I can respect that. What else is our business for but for the perverted, sadistic, and/or curious.”

Stephen was sincerely surprised when John asked about his family. It likely showed in his physicality when his relaxed stance tightened in the neck for a moment, pulling back slightly for a second before allowing his entire neck to snap back in a laugh. “Fucked up is a bit strong of a phrase, don’t you think? I mean, I was raised with this shit so it’s normal to me. What’s your excuse?” Stephen was not accusing, he was asking; in this profession, no one could judge anyone for any level of interest in this kind of hobby despite their background.

“To be fair though, I get it. I’ve googled the same thing before. I suppose it helps that most of us kids like each other… more or less.” Stephen did not mention his parents. Most of the conflict in their family was between the adopted and the true or Father and anyone but Mom. Thinking of them, Stephen added a comment with a shrug. “The clear hierarchy helps too.”

“ I mean, how fucked up can we actually be in comparison to most families? We’ve not been caught, and you and I are having a perfectly normal, pleasant conversation... considering our interests. Our family just does killing nights rather than movie nights. No big.”

“All of us having dirt on each other certainly doesn’t hurt to…. Encourage us to get along.” Whether criminal or not, secrets were secrets, and most siblings had dirt on each other they could throw at some level of authority figure. Stephen and Robert were on a different level though. Stephen seemed to physically lean on Rober subconsciously, and Robert actively used his shoulder muscles to hold his brother up securely. When it came to secrets, Robert knew all of Stephen’s; the same could not be said the other way around though.

With a vague, average name like John, it was surely an alias. That was fine. “Well, nice to meet you, John. Always nice to meet a not-fan who does not plan to kill us.” With a flick of his wrist, Stephen made a mock salute as a greeting.

Although far from a perfectionist, Stephen had a lot to live up to, and he didn’t like to disappoint his parents whenever possible. Doing that was dangerous and also just unpleasant even in a normal child-parent relationship. In his life, there were worse things than just losing phone privileges. Only for these reasons did Stephen open up the suggestion box from this one-time watcher. Well, those reasons plus a bit of fun banter. Besides sis, not many siblings had a sharp tongue that could stand up against Stephen.

Rather than answer and interrupt, Stephen rolled his hand and bowed a bit as he received compliments. He knew they’d not last, but no reason not to enjoy it while it lasted. This kid had a point though; it was hard not to block the camera when doing that kind of torture. Anything eye-related was near impossible to do properly standing behind the victim. “Fire is always fun!” Stephen had to say. He wasn’t even a pyro but he did enjoy it.

Stephen nodded along with the comments about the pigs, but he didn’t nod out of understanding. It just made sense. “I did not know that,” Stephen admitted, once again resting his chin on Robert’s head to relax more. “What a fun fact! We’ve never actually had to kill an animal.”

“We’ve shot birds for practice before.” Robert corrected ideally. “And that one dog last year to draw out its owner.”

“Ahh…. right! Correction, we’ve killed some animals but we’ve never had to burn them before.” Stephen could write a book about how people burned though. How hair smelt, what fat looked like as it melted off the bone into a near-pool on the floor. That kind of stuff. No metaphors or comparisons for Stephen.

Stephen let out a soft ugh, “Aw, come on… I gotta give people time to get their lube, don’t I?” Mother often said the same thing as John was saying now, and Stephen hated it. He enjoyed putting on a show and the only reason his production value was not higher was because of mom. At least Father supported the idea of fewer but more interesting shows, a philosophy Stephen could relate to. “And the click-through rate is pretty low actually! The paywall helps people stay invested enough to stay, and even if people don’t like me, sometimes, they like the gore all the same.”

“It’s not bragging when I say that we are very popular in a lot of circles.”

The moment of silence threw Stephen off, and the murderer made a very obvious head tilt to communicate his confusion at the silence. The question though was one that made him grin under his mask. “Wouldn’t you like to know?” Stephen taunted before revealing the truth. “I honestly don’t remember his name. Not really something I need to worry about once we’ve got him, you know? How long was he in the basement, Whisper?”

“About three weeks. We got him in Ohio.” Robert reported aloud before muttering his opinion to himself but likely still audible to those paying attention. “He basically was an object by that point.”

Stephen did not hear these words and just kept talking. “Right, Ohio! Sorry, can’t give you more than that, friend. That should help though, yeah?” No harm in letting John know… at least no harm that Stephen could think of. Stephen liked to think that he was honest when around people ‘in the know’ aka in the dark web circles. “His name may have started with S though…. That rings a bell.”

“But you gotta understand buddy, duck tape is a classic torture device. I mean, imagine getting a cut, using tape instead of bandages, then peeling the tape off. It seems like fucking agony.” Stephen said. “And besides! How lame would it be if I only covered his major wounds with duck tape? No flare, no aesthetic! Go big or go home!”

Stephen did not act like it, but he thought a lot about his streams. He tried to be creative, to be more than just torture in a random warehouse by a random psycho. Elevating a situation or torture was just one way to make that happen. Truly, if people just wanted pain, then they could go to a cheaper stream. And may as well let this stranger know that fact.

“Hey, you’ve just got more mundane, crude tastes. That’s on you for not doing your research before paying. I know plenty of cheaper snuff places you could go to where limbs fly off by the hour without any flare or quality control.”

~~~
Robert lied a lot. He kept a lot of things to himself, more than Stephen who seemed to manipulate his family plenty just to see if he could. It was the price he paid for being the quiet twin dedicated to supporting the main twin. After all, lies of omission were still lies.

That being said, despite Stephen’s flamboyant and extroverted personality, Robert considered himself more emotional. It took a lot to trigger that emotion, but once it did, he did not forget as easily as Stephen. Normally they were balanced, a way for them to make up for the other’s faults, but right now it was only a fault.

It didn’t help that John was taunting Robert who was already triggered.

Robert notably did not respond to John’s taunts at this point. No comment about not being able to find him, no comment about Robert’s kills being better than Stephens. The only thing on Robert’s mind was simple; just find this person and make a personal trip to see him. No show, no stream, no flare. Just kill. That was all Robert needed and wanted. Just a single kill.

Stephen of course noticed the situation heating up between the two, and he felt left out. He also simply did not see the benefit of letting it continue. Certainly no personal benefit, so he stopped Robert just enough to refocus him on what was important. It wasn’t like Robert was going to refuse anything Stephen said. And Robert knew in comparison that Stephen would not care about any of the tech sides of things. Stephen would let Robert hack until time ran out. So Robert decided that he would do just that.

Just like lies, omission meant permission, and Stephen was not talking to him right now.

It was frustrating though. Anything Robert tried, this stranger could counter with ease. Too much ease. Robert partially blamed the computer he was on. It was not his, it was not built in a way that he was familiar with, and it was weakening his attacks. He often had to use code he could only guess what they would do, and he had to type up everything else on the fly.

If he were home, this would be almost nothing; he’d have his father’s programs at his fingertips that would do near everything for him automatically.

“You know, he looked like a shut-in. Gotta say he was worse than I’d thought he’d be.” Stephen spoke, at first not realizing that there was now a problem on John’s end that was distracting him. “Kinda pathetic if you ask me, but hey, it was supposed to make my job easier.”

“But yeah, no problem. I’ll pass on your message!” Stephen was laughing as he said this, enjoying this banter. He only started to enjoy it more as John’s responses started to come slower and without as much of a bite as before. He was distracted, and Stephen could put two and two together that the cause of this distraction was Robert’s flying fingers and the numbers and windows flashing on the screen.

Stephen wouldn't hesitate to take advantage of this hacking battle.

“You still there, John, my friend? ” Stephen said during one of the pauses where nothing but keys could be heard. “You’ve gotten awfully quiet all of a sudden.”

When he heard the Screw off words, Stephen put a dramatic hand to his ear. “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that.” He heard it perfectly. “You gotta speak up, man. Don’t you know how to have a conversation?”

“Touched a nerve, didn’t I?” Stephen giggled, his eyes under his mask widening as he latched onto this clear egotist. With familiar comfort, Stephen rested his arm on Robert’s head as his other hand continued to make large motions towards himself, Robert, and the air in general. This sudden contact only distracted Robert long enough for John to take a breath. Stephen continued. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Everyone has to start somewhere. I mean, in my family, Robert is the amateur, and he’s kinda your equal right now even while using foreign equipment. You’d last like two seconds with my family’s actual hacker, and maybe a minute with Robert on his computer…. That kinda makes you an amateur, doesn’t it?”

Robert knew Stephen was just being an ass, but he did like to hear those words even if not fully true. This stranger was good, not great, not father, but good. Robert had no natural talent for this field of work. It was just hard work, and he had a lot more hard work to put in before he could take over father’s role in full. The praise only made Robert type faster and become more determined than before.

Stephen was still talking. “But hey, no need to bring the cops into this! You seem upset? Did I say something?” Of course he did, and his tone dripped with fakeness to show that he knew it.

This time, when John cursed, it was Robert who started to smile under his mask. Stephen had enjoyed his from the start, but Robert now allowed himself to get some joy out of making this asshole mad. It’s what he deserved. Sure, his hands were starting to cramp and he was just repeating similar things over and over at this point because he reached his limit, but at least he got under the stranger’s skin and had a chance to dig a bit deeper. “Leer, is the hobbyist speaking to me now?” Another dig, not even directed at John but clearly said about him and because he was listening. Hobbyist was clearly just another way to say amateur, a not-professional. Although his words did not drip like Stephen’s did, there were traces of obvious faking and obvious sarcasm.

Disappointedly for the twins, when John said that it was enough, he meant it. Before Robert could even try to put up a wall, everything froze and any attempt to pop up a new window or to type seemed to do less than nothing. Frozen. Everything was frozen. “Damn,” Robert muttered, finally letting his hands fall from the keyboard, rubbing them under the table.

“Aw, what happened? Is this a loss or a draw?” Stephen asked, popping around the chair to get a better look at the screen, but it was just numbers and nonsense at that moment. Stephen would have to take time to decode what everything meant, which was just not worth anyone’s time. All he knew though was that he was disappointed this was not a pure victory. “But yeah, we’re still here. What the hell did you do? Daniel is gonna be mad when he gets home, and I’m not taking the blame.”

Perhaps it was curiosity, or maybe it was because the twins were both used to taking orders, when they were told to get paper out, both had a method of writing in their hands within the next two seconds. Stephen had his phone, and Robert found some sticky notes and a dull pencil just laying around. And they both took down the notes like good boys.

And what good notes it was! Now, assuming this was real information and not just a pissed boy spouting nonsense to waste their time, they didn’t need to call father! A true win-win!

“Hey, thanks for this!” Stephen said sincerely. “Now I don’t have to talk to our hacker, which is ideal. I’ll take it! If this all checks out, I’ll take back what I, well we, said!” He wouldn't, but you know, mainly he wouldn't because he never expected to talk to this guy ever again.

Just before John could click off, Stephen got one last comeback out. “I’ll make sure to get you a free link for all your help once Daniel is on the show, John, but watch the news over the next few weeks. I’ll be sure to let you know if your tip worked out.”

~~~

“Well that was fun,” was the first thing Stephen said when their connection broke. “You did well enough…. Need a bit more practice, but I’m sure you would have destroyed him on your own system.”

“Yeah, I would have.” Maybe, but Robert wasn’t going to say that.

“Well, I see two paths, yeah? Figure out where this number connects to or go to that Sky-whatever place…. Or both. Preferences? Opinions?”

Robert paused in thought, unplugging the computer just to make sure that John was actually gone and not just pretending to be. He knew that his brother was invested in this hunt. He wanted the man who had a name similar to a victim of their namesake; Stephen always cared about that kind of thing more than he did, but it was fun to watch his older twin get too excited, so Robert never even wanted to tell him to chill. And that meant it would be better if they got Daniel as soon as possible. That meant they needed to spit up.

He really didn’t want to be alone though. Really really did not. Despite this wish, Robert said, “Both. Cover more ground. Maybe check in with each other before moving in, though?”

Stephen nodded quickly, clearly that being the answer he wanted. Robert was right, Stephen was impatient. “Works for me. You take the number and the van, I’ll walk over to the Sky-whatever. See what I see. Call every two hours, yeah?” Just to be safe and make sure that nothing serious happened. Of course, their phones were on silent, but if everything was going right, then they would be able to answer.

So that’s what the pair did. Stephen walked out of the room and onto the street, mask tucked away into his large pockets, and Robert took the keys and went to the car.

First thing was first. He had to talk to his father. The phone rung once, twice, and eventually reached five times before a cold voice answered simply. “What?”

“I need the location of the owner of a phone number. I don’t have access to a computer.” Straight to the point, emotionless, just how father liked it and just how Robert often acted.

“Give me five,” Robert was put on hold, and almost on the dot, five minutes later Father was back on the phone asking for the number, and not long after that, he was giving a report. “It’s the residence of your target’s parents. The address is 135 Hemingway Street, about a half-hour drive away.” A small pause. “Are we done?”

“Yes.”

“Good.” Both went to hang up before Marc stopped his son. “Oh, and one more thing. Your mother is almost out of Crown Royal. Pick her up some on the way home.”

“Will do.” Robert made a mental note, knowing how furious his father would be if they forgot something like that. Sure, it was just whiskey, but it was a gift for mom. That would be unforgivable and would surely result in unpleasant punishments for everyone involved.

Thankfully, that was a later problem.

The problem right now was that he had to go see Daniel’s parents. During the dive, Robert considered his options. He could go in there aggressively, break-in, threaten for information, kill them to hide evidence; all messy unnecessarily. Possible dead ends. Then there was the opposite choice, manipulation and social ventures. The very idea made Robert sneer a bit. That kind of thing was more Stephen’s venue, Robert rarely had a need for it, but he could do it. Mom and father always made sure to make sure that their kids could lie to the cops, to seem like stupid teens rather than skilled killers, so Robert could do it. It just wasn’t ideal, although it made the most sense. Pretending to be a friend of Daniel’s would be a bit out of character for Daniel, but it could work if the parents were normal, good-natured people who hoped their son had a friend.

Guess that was the plan.

Their house was normal once Robert pulled up, looking like some silly sitcom movie in the midday sun. It was a good sign.

Pushing his mask into his large pocket just in case, Robert climbed out of the car and approached the house as a normal citizen, hands in his pocket where he was gripping a switch blade just in case. If he was caught with it, then he was fucked. But better to take that risk than be empty-handed and a reason to kill came up. Knowing Stephen, he would have taken the risk and not brought a weapon, but Robert didn’t have enough confidence to rely on his words alone.

Still on the sidewalk, Robert cleared his throat and ran a hand through his hair, butterflies in his stomach. Maybe that would make him come off as sincere.

He knocked three times, loudly but only using his knuckles so as not to be rude. Then he waited.

The moment the door opened, Robert blurted out his reason for being here in a rush born from social inexperience. "Hi. I'm sorry to bother you, but is Daniel here?" Immediately Robert cursed himself. That was not proper decorum, and he wasn't even making eye contact yet. Almost painfully, Robert's eyes slowly down so that he could make eye contact with the person who answered the door. Slowly he smiled and let out a gentle ha under his breath, really hoping the awkwardness he felt came off as someone anti-social rather than suspicious.

So much for pretending to be Stephen. Robert should have known that a half-hour was not enough time for him to work up the nerves and practice the "act" of being someone friendly. At least with cops he could be cold and lie. Being friendly and lie was too much to ask of him.
~~~

Meanwhile, downtown, Stephen was also walking around with a knife and mask in his pockets, but he felt no nerves at all. He loved the wild city. The chaos that was a highly-populated area. It was like the smog entered his lungs and filled him with life. Stephen’s feet started to move faster as energy filled him, drawing him to Skyward Hotel.

A quick Google search revealed that this was a fairly cheap hotel, or at least cheap for being mid-city, but what mattered was that it was a hotel. Stephen could handle that. It wouldn’t be the first time Stephen had to break into a hotel to find someone. Normally he was working with their room number, but right now, he didn’t even have that. Thankfully, most hotels were the same. There were always maids and lobby-hosts, and both often had access to all or most rooms. Maids to clean, and hosts to help someone whenever there was a problem. Getting his hands on one of them or their locker would make maneuvering around this place far easier. No secretary knew the faces of everyone who worked in the building, after all.

Stephen didn’t like to admit it, but unless he was actively pursuing his target, meaning they were interacting, hunting was boring as well. It was so much waiting! Waiting for the host and the secretary to walk away at the same time so he could slip into the clearly labeled “Staff only” room that served as a lobby and employee bathroom for the staff.

Truly, the benefit of this room was that people had lockers, and within those lockers were often spare name tags and access cards. Truly, it was foolish, but every business had spare key cards to hand out to those who forgot to bring theirs, and those guilty of constant forgetfulness tended to collect the spares like pokemon cards. Stephen took advantage of this fact, swiping a spare card that was just sitting on a shelf.

He was just working on a locker in the hopes of finding a spare uniform when someone walked inside. It was risky to lockpick here, but maybe he’d be lucky!

“What are you doing?” Said a male voice just as this thought crossed Stephen’s mind. Shit, of fucking course. Stephen had no choice but to glance at him even though his head was still pressed against the locker in an attempt to hear the dial-lock click.

Pulling away from the door, Sterling smiled at the stranger, knowing he was caught. “Yo! Just trying to get into my locker! I’m new and the code is not working.”

“That’s my locker.”

Of fucking course it was. “Oh yeah? I thought I was told locker 124, but maybe it was five. My bad.” The man in his uniform was looking like he didn’t fully believe the obvious lie, but he also didn’t seem to want to deal with it. It was remarkable how much criminals could get away with as long as they acted confident and encountered lazy staff who couldn’t be bothered. It was a very common trait, thankfully.

Sterling got out of the way as this actual worker moved to his locker and opened it; Sterling meanwhile just moved to the next-door locker and played with the dial, trying to appear frustrated by cursing now and again.

To say that the murder came out of nowhere was an understatement.

The male stranger was trying to ignore the young man who may or may not belong there, and without a warning from either of them, he had the point of a knife sticking out from the front of his neck, having been pushed through all the way from the back with so much force that the man was drowning in his own blood before he even registered the pain. Stephen held the knife and still wore the same, awkward smile from before like this crime and trying to get into the wrong locker was truly the same level of illegality.

His body fell forward as Stephen dug the knife all the way through until the hilt was pressing against the nape of the neck. “Thanks for unlocking that. I needed a uniform.” Stephen was slightly holding the man up, just enough so that all the blood pooled into the locker rather than onto the floor. He tried to keep his contact with the stranger minimal, but it did take a bit of work to get the still-warm corpse into the locker, and a bit more work to get the uniform off of the man. These efforts were made harder by the knife still in his neck, acting as a plug so that blood didn’t spill enough to drip out of the locker where others would see it.

Sadly, the uniform was tight. The now-dead man locked in his own locker was smaller than Stephen in a few key ways. His shoulders and his hips, both of twitch Stephen had bulk in that this random minimum wage worker did not. But it was on, and it would do. As quickly as possible, Stephen removed his prints from the scene using acidic air freshener he found in the bathroom and a wipe.

And, as a final show of flare, Stephen found a pen and roughly wrote a single message on the dead man’s forehead. “John” with a simple cartoon smiley face on the victim’s cheek.

Just as Stephen capped the marker, he heard the knob jiggle. Pen in pocket, locker slammed, and then the door opened to reveal a pair of women wearing the same uniform walked in. There was nowhere to hide, so Stephen didn’t try to. He just pulled out his phone and started towards the door, head down.

As he passed, he raised his head for a second, made brief eye contact, and with a nod and half-smile, walked past them before they could question anything and before they could put his face into their long-term memory. Ideally, they would forget his face and this encounter by the end of the week, before the body was found.

Ideally, the same would happen with the woman at the front desk, but that was a bit less likely. Still, it was call Father or go ask where Daniel was, so go ask it was.

Stephen waited until the front desk was free from any customers and only one staff was behind the desk, which thankfully was not long. “Hey there,” Stephen started, getting their attention. “How’s your day going?”

Stephen could almost see this woman try to remember who he was before manners dictated that she respond and pretend that she recognized him. “Oh, hey! Not bad. How are you?”

“I was doing good until this asshole cornered me. Apparently, he’s convinced that his room hasn’t gotten cleaned since he got here. He was throwing the biggest tantrum, I swear.”

“Seriously? Entitled guests are always the worst.”

“No kidding! I don’t wanna deal with him again, though, so I was gonna go up there and just neat things up enough to get him off our asses. Maybe if I make his bed, you won’t have to have your eardrums busted too.” Stephen paused and sighed a touch too dramatically. “Problem is, the idiot didn’t even tell me his room number. Just kept saying ‘I’m Daniel Harper, I don’t have to put up with such piss poor service’ or something. Idiot.”

Stephen laughed and as the woman moved onto the computer, she laughed too. “Alright, here we go. Room 305. Good luck. Hopefully, he’s not there.”

“Hope not,” Stephen lied, turning on his heels and scampering away once he found a cleaning cart.

It was a quick elevator ride to room 305 where Stephen immediately noticed the “Do not disturb” sign, which he quickly rolled his eyes at and ignored it. The badge from the dead guy, Simon Fletch, let him in the room quickly. No one there.

Guess Stephen had time to kill.

Tossing the “Do not disturb” sign onto the nearest end table, Stephen got comfy on the bed. For the first half-hour, he watched TV, but when that proved boring, he got up and started to do his “job.” There was nothing else to do, and it let him wear gloves without being suspicious, which was ideal.

Good thing too because after ten minutes of trying to make the bed properly, the door opened. Perhaps he should have frozen, pretended to be shocked or at least a touch paranoid, but Stephen didn’t flinch. He kept smoothing out the bed like it was nothing. However, as the older, messy figure walked into the room, Stephen did glance up and smile.

“Oh, hello, sir.” He started. “I’m just about done here. I’ll be out of your hair in no time.”

“How you doing? I hope your stay here has been pristine.” Cause it would be the last pleasant time he ever had.
 

Toacho

The ‘Friend of a Friend’
─◙─​

‘We got him in Ohio.’

John couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow at that, considering it for a few moments before taking a nearby pencil and scribbling two things on the edge of a nearby sheet of homework, ‘Ohio’ and ‘S’.

He read it over a few times as the other man rambled on about duct tape, giving a slight chuckle at the imagery that the other man was painting, but his eyes remained fixed solely on the note. “Mm, fine. I’ll agree with you there, that does sound pretty disgusting,” John chirped as he pushed the paper back inside the textbook, the last word coming out a bit more chipper in tone then one really should when discussing such things.

Why wouldn’t he be chipper? He just learned something very interesting, and it wasn’t about the uses of duct tape…

----------

As the rest of the conversation drifted by, the initial excitement of the little note quickly wearing off as their little challenge began, he nearly completely forgot about the note. Right up until he officially ended their little hacking-match, John sneering a little at the other man’s final comment as they were both disconnected.

A few seconds passed with John staring at his screen before his gaze flickered back over to the edge of the paper sticking faintly out from the textbook. Gently, he reached over and slid the paper out, looking at the note for a few moments before his gaze flickered back to the black screen. With a small sigh, he set the paper back aside.

Before he could do anything with that information, he would need to get his system back up and running.

----------

Nancy Harper had been busy cooking when the steady knock drew her focus away from the meal she was preparing and to the door. Distracted by the noise, she craned her neck to try and peer through the hallway and to it, she heard a soft splash and drew her gaze sharply back down before softly cursing herself, grabbing a pair of tongs and fishing the spoon back out of the pot of soup before setting it at the side.

“Michael,” She shouted as she dusted her hands off on the apron. “Michael?” She shouted again, looking towards the opposite hallway and she pulled the apron off, waiting expectantly.

“Yes?” A voice called from the living room.

“Could you come watch the soup, someone is at the door.” She waited for a few moments before hearing a slight sigh from the living room and then footsteps coming towards the kitchen. “Thanks dear.”

“Just don’t blame me if it burns,” The man hummed as he walked over, giving her a gentle smile as she passed him and went to the door.

After opening it, she was a little surprised to see the man standing outside. He didn’t look familiar at all, seeming to be only about Daniel’s age, perhaps a few years younger. Perhaps he was a new resident of the neighborhood? He looked a little young to be moving into this neighborhood though..

After he spoke, she couldn’t help but be a little surprised. After all, it wasn’t everyday that people came looking for her son. “Oh, my apologies, but he hasn’t lived here for a while,” She finally said after forcing back her initial surprise. “He should be over in the city, I can give him a call and tell him that you’re looking for him if you would like?”

Surely Daniel wasn’t in trouble? Just like this person did not seem like the type to live here, he wasn’t in any kind of uniform, so it didn’t seem that her son was in any kind of danger or trouble either… “I’m sorry,” She quickly said, “Are you a friend of his?” She asked after a small pause, the words sounding a little odd even from her own mouth.

There was nothing wrong with Daniel to make it so weird for him to have a friend, she reminded herself, he was just shy. That was why she was surprised about this stranger looking for him. Nobody ever really came looking for her son.

----------

The first thing that Daniel noticed as he reached for the doorknob was the distinct lack of a sign hanging from it. He couldn’t help but freeze for a moment, blinking at it in confusion. He could have sworn that he had put it up before leaving, maybe even long before that? He couldn’t recall taking it off the knob even once during his stay.

His eyes briefly scanned the ground, expecting to find it sitting somewhere nearby, likely having just gotten pushed off by some passerby on accident, but as he found nothing, he found his eyes drifting back up to the doorknob.

He could still leave…

He’d be leaving everything currently sitting in that room, which thankfully wasn’t much more than just some clothes and his phone.

Daniel hesitated again, taking a small step away from the door and blinking at it. Perhaps he was wrong. He could have just forgotten to put the sign up. Some kid could have stolen it as some sort of joke -- come to think of it there were only a couple of signs hanging from the knobs on the way here so it could have just been a ‘joke on the entire floor’ kind of thing.

Or -- he was wrong and there was a murderer on the other side of the door.



It was a hotel in the middle of the city… Sure, it was a cheap one, but there were still countless people around who would hear anything the moment anything happened… There was no way that anyone would try anything here of all places.

So, after a final moment of hesitation, he stepped back towards the door and opened it.

After entering, he immediately froze in the doorway, his entire body tensing as he saw the person standing off by the bed, the wall of the entryway preventing him from seeing much more than the edge of the uniform that the individual was wearing.

The uniform -- which Daniel had momentarily not even recognized until it sank in that he had seen it a couple of times around the hotel during his short time here so far.

Unfortunately, it did little to ease the horrible sense of dread at the fact that there was currently someone just wandering around the room.

Taking a couple more hesitant steps forwards, he was finally able to round the corner of the small wall in front the the entryway, gaining a better view of the person.

As he slowly turned around the corner, his eyes first flickering to the man’s face, he took in the various details for only a few seconds. Black feathery hair, somewhat reminding Daniel of the sleek black of a crow’s feathers, pale skin that stood in a sharp contrast to the hair. In the brief moment that Daniel’s eyes fell on the other man’s, he couldn’t help but note the strange eyes as well.

Grey, bright, sharp; there were thousands of things that they could be either described by or compared to -- the murky water left behind in street puddles after rain -- the strange colorless eyes of some roadkill that had long-since died and started rotting -- or most accurately, they could be described as being simply smokey.

His eyes did not linger long and quickly tore themselves to the side as he took another small step closer, instead turning his gaze to his phone sitting still plugged in on the bedside table.

How the hell was he supposed to handle this situation? It was just a staff member, clearly there was some sort of misunderstanding?

As he edged far enough into the room to no longer by shying back by the doorway, uncertain as to whether proper manners would dictate him to greet the other person or treat them as many people treated staff with little more than a glance -- he could just grab his phone and leave until he were done -- but instead he was pulled sharply out of his thoughts and nearly jumped as the other man addressed him.

“Oh, hello, sir. I’m just about done here. I’ll be out of your hair in no time.”

Daniel blinked, unsure of how to respond. Clearly it would be odd for him to just remain silent -- or even to just grab his phone and leave considering the fact that he’d only have a minute or two to waste while the staff member finished up.

“I-” He began after a small pause, unsure of where this train of thought was going, the gap of silence feeling much too long. What was he supposed to say? ‘Take your time?’ He felt that would be disgenuine considering he really wished the staff member wasn’t here in the first place. “Okay.” He finally settled with mumbling as he took another small step inside the room, setting his goal on just retrieving his phone even if he knew it would be best to not use it.

At the very least, it could be something to distract himself and seem busy with.

As he approached the bedside table, he couldn’t help but notice something strange; the small ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign sitting neatly on the bedside table. Blinking in confusion, he picked it up just as the other person spoke again, Daniel nearly dropping the sign. Christ, why was he feeling so jumpy?

‘How you doing? I hope your stay here has been pristine.’

“I’ve been doing fine,” Daniel said quickly, momentarily bringing his glance back to the man before drawing it back to the sign, noting that something just felt off about this entire situation. “It’s been fine, thanks,” He added in a small mumble at the last part.

As he stood there looking at the sign with confusion, he couldn’t help but realize another fact that he had failed to truly notice when entering…

The room didn’t look that clean.

In fact, besides the bed, it looked like nothing had even been touched in the room.

Maybe he was mistaken though?...

Blinking again, he slowly set the sign back down, turning his attention instead to the phone as he pulled it from the cord a little sharply.

Something felt sincerely and awfully wrong about even existing in the same room as the other man, as if his very presence could stain Daniel in some sort of horrific way.

Perhaps it was just his imagination making this entire situation seem so… Unsettling… After all, this was just some random staff member, there was probably just some sort of policy about staff members needing to clean regularly regardless of the wish to not be disturbed, he knew that some of the cheaper motels outside of the city had that sort of thing just to make sure nobody ended up overdosing in their rooms and rotting into the furniture.

Still, something about this entire situation was just rubbing him the wrong way.

Despite what he assumed would be considered more typical of just waiting for the staff member to finish, he wanted to just get his phone and get out of the room as soon as possible. Something about being around this person just seemed genuinely suffocating.

“Uhm, I’ll just come back when you’re finished,” Daniel mumbled quickly. Placing the phone in his pocket, he turned to take his leave as quickly as possible.

─◙─​
 

Viper

One Thousand Club
Stephen mentioned Ohio and the initial without hesitation. Robert silently questioned whether that was wise, but he did not mention it due to not wanting to question Stephan’s authority. Besides, the damage was done as long as Stephen did not say more.

“I’ll take that,” Stephen submitted, figuring disgusting was the best he was going to get out of this guy when it came to duck tape. He seemed oddly chipper about it, but the moment passed quick enough for Stephen to ignore it.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Across town, butterflies were biting the insides of Robert’s stomach. They were not just fluttering in there, they were taking chunks out one nibble at a time, and it physically hurt. Robert was prone to nerves when alone. He was so rarely alone, so rarely alone and doing something illegal and something important and really far from any familial backup. And on top of all that, this was impromptu. All in all, a recipe for nerves that made Robert sweat and cramp up.

But his face, at the very least, was calm albeit very distracted. Her looking so surprised didn’t help anything either. Made him think that this friend angle was the wrong way to go. Not that he could go back now… well, maybe he could back pedal a little.

Was there a reason not to call? Well, yeah. Daniel knew that he didn’t have any friends, so someone being here right after such an incident and while he is running away would be suspicious. If he answered, he could tell his mom to call the cops. But if he said no, he wouldn’t really get anymore information out of this encounter. And besides, he could just kill her before she called the cops. Yeah. He could just do that. He was much better at killing than all of this deception stuff, although neither were much fun.

With the comfort of knowing murder was an option, Robert managed to look her in the eye and say with decent confidence. “Yes, please, that would be great.”

And here was the chance to back peddle. When she asked if he was Daniel's friend. “Yeah, well, kinda.” An intentional pause for dramatic effect. “We chat online sometimes, but that’s mostly it. Still… I care enough about him to make sure that he is ignoring me rather than something else, you know?” That was a bit too sweet, at least to Robert, but at least it explained why he was here. And when she called and, hopefully, Daniel answered, she would know that nothing was wrong and her son was just ignoring this stranger.

And when Daniel was gone, maybe she’d think for a while that Daniel was ignoring her too.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Stephen was so bored. After all, how bored did he have to be to choose to try to make a bed rather than watch more TV. And wow, it was hard! Stephen had only slept on a twin bed all his life, and although he once or twice helped his father make the bed in their room, he was never alone. This was annoying! Twins were so much easier! Why did anyone even need a bed this big? Two people, if they didn’t mind touching and maybe a bit of overlap, could sleep perfectly fine in one twin if it was long enough.

Besides, why would you sleep in the same bed with someone unless you wanted to touch in the first place?

Stephen heard the door click before he saw it swing. He had good ears like that. The ears of a hunter with the face of an angel. The same could not be said about Daniel though. Just look at him. Messy, oiled hair, a beard that didn’t know how to be trimmed. To be honest, he looked worse in person to Stephen. Although, maybe, he just looked so bad because of the kind of stressful week he had, knowing that he was being hunted.

Yeah, that was it. He looked like a victim already, only one who was temporarily out of his cage. Now that fact almost made him cute.

Stephen noticed him looking towards the phone. He must have been nervous having someone in his room. Shame Daniel would never get to the phone before Stephen did, unless Stephen let him. Not that Daniel was making it hard. A snail could have beaten him to the phone based on the slow pace Daniel was walking. He just looked so scared!

It made Stephen smile a subconscious, closed smile as he momentarily paused in his “work” to stare. Daniel noticing the sign and then jumping so dramatically wasn’t helping Stephen not have distracting fun here. The ruse was always so entertaining, especially when the target knew that something was wrong yet didn’t have enough to go off of to act on it for fear of being wrong or making matters worse.

“Good, good, I’m glad to hear that! We strive to make this hotel feel like home!” Stephen was just talking nonsense, but it was good nonsense because he could totally see that being in some stupid hotels mission statement of customer shpeel.

Although not surprising, Daniel was trying to run away. How dull, although predictable. “No need for that, sir,” Stephen said, trying to stop him with his words. He also stopped messing with the bed right then, now just leaning on it mid-action but in a perfect pose to propel himself into a lunge across the room. “Like I said, I’ll be done soon. You seem nervous? Is everything alright? Or are you just shy?”

Stephen paused for dramatic timing, sending a shiver of excitement up his own spine as he said his next words. “You don’t need to worry. I don’t bite, Daniel. I’m just doing my job.” The job just wasn’t cleaning.

Daniel could run, fight, or freeze like he did while on the stream, they all would be plenty fun because they would end the same way, more or less. Stephen would get to him before he could even make it fully out the door, and after that? Well, Robert could bring him a suitcase to check out with if need be. Or Stephen could let Daniel leave, he’d leave before any cops showed up, and a trap could be laid somewhere more convenient.

The would-be chase or fight never occurred though, because seconds after that moment, Daniel’s pocket rang loudly in the silence Stephen’s words likely produced.

The smile was the same as before, as if he said nothing wrong or suspicious, and Stephen started making the bed again, casually walking around it to work on the other corner. He was now closer to Daniel, and even though Stephen had no idea that Robert was on the other line, he didn’t stop Daniel from answering the call.

“Do you want to get that? I’ll do my best not to listen, I promise.” Daniel may not have fully realized it yet, but neither of them were leaving this room just yet, and although nothing in Stephen’s words or mannerisms communicated that, his eyes were locked onto Daniel even as he kept making the bed. "So please, answer it."
 

Toacho

The ‘Friend of a Friend’
─◙─​

Nancy offered the man on the doorstep a polite smile, “Of course, let me just go grab my phone. You’re welcome to come in while you wait if you’d like,” She said as she stepped to the side to give him room to enter if he desired.

She couldn’t help but give a small laugh at his comment about them talking online. “That makes sense. He rarely does get off those video games, at least he’s making some friends through it though,” She mused out loud, passing through the hall and retrieving her phone before returning. “I’m sure he’s just forgotten to get on or something, but there’s no harm in checking.”

With that, Nancy found his contact and hit ‘call’.

----------

Everything about this was screaming at Daniel to simply run.

The sign. The fact that the rest of the room looked like it had barely been touched. The strange overly saccharine smile. Everything.

He just needed to get out. Daniel didn’t care if it meant leaving the few things that he had packed behind -- he could get new things. He technically had everything that he needed; his phone was in his left pocket, his wallet was in the right one, and his medication was in his jacket’s breast pocket.

As the other man tried to assure him that there was no need for Daniel to leave, he couldn’t help but feel even less at ease. “I... I actually forgot something in my car,” Daniel mumbled, searching for the first lie that popped into his head as that uneasy feeling began to grow in the back of his throat, his words coming out in an anxious mumble as he forced himself to quicken his pace a little towards the door.

Halfway across the room, however; he couldn’t help but stop in place at the odd questions.

‘You seem nervous. Is everything alright? Or are you just shy?’

“I-” Daniel began as he stopped in his tracks, glancing back in shock at the strange choice of words. That hadn’t seemed like anything that someone in customer service would ever ask. Almost condescending in nature, it seemed like he was being criticized for trying to leave. “What?” Daniel stuttered, his eyebrows furrowing a little, trying to reason some sort of explanation for why the other man would ask such invasive questions.

After the other man spoke again, Daniel opened his mouth to respond but quickly fell silent as realization began to sink in and the uneasy feeling grew tenfold, freezing him in place like a deer in headlights.

‘I don’t bite, Daniel.’

Daniel had never had a particular attachment to his name. It was generic. Kind of dull even. Only there to serve the purpose of being on his bank information and the rare instances in which his parents needed to address him.

After so many years of neglecting the name in favor of his particular online alias, he’d even come to somewhat dislike his own natural name. It held no significance, no meaning, nothing.

When he had first heard it on the stream only a few nights ago, that was the exact moment that he had come to downright despise it.

It must have just been something about the way that it had been said.

‘It’s… Daniel, right?’

Said with just as much showmanship and flair by the masked man as had been shown while the same man had been peeling at those disgusting strips of tape, burning the man on the stream bit by bit, and nearly every little action that the man had done during the entire part of the stream that Daniel had witnessed. With no real face to put to the masked person, the voice had been the one thing haunting Daniel ever since that exact moment.

It sounded exactly the same here as it had only a few nights ago.

He needed to get out.

He needed to run.

But just like that night, Daniel couldn’t help but freeze.

It was as he finally was able to get a good look at the man without trying to nervously turn his gaze elsewhere that he began to realize many of the details that he had been missing. The dark hair looked similar -- no -- exactly the same as the masked man’s from the stream. The height was the same. The weight was the same. Everything was the same.

He felt his blood run cold.

There was no doubt about it. Daniel was looking directly at the man that he had been trying desperately to avoid.

It was only when his phone rang that he was able to regain a small bearing on his surroundings. It was a hotel. There was no way that anything could happen to him here. There would be too many people that would hear something. Someone would hear him. He was close to the door, surely he could get out and into the hallway before the man could reach him?

Unfortunately, Daniel knew that if he ran, then this could just happen again. The man clearly knew how to find him. He could follow him back to the apartment, or intercept him between the hotel and there. Even if he was able to successfully run, it wasn't like he had the money to check-in somewhere else.

The only option that Daniel had was to figure out some sort of way to stop this here. Even if it meant getting the authorities involved, he figured that there would be some sort of way to still get out in less trouble than he would be in if he remained stuck here with the other man -- or potentially ended up on the other side of the stream.

After a moment or two of hesitation, Daniel remained locked in place only a few short paces from the door, refusing to look away from the other man, he pulled the phone from his pocket and answered it.

“Hello, we were starting to worry that you wouldn’t pick up! How are you doing?” His mother said cheerily from the other end, her voice carrying a natural loudness that Daniel desperately wished would settle down just this once.

He shifted back another step towards the door, watching carefully when the other man moved to the closer corner of the bed while fixing the sheets and feigning innocence.

He needed to tell her. Tell her to call the police. Tell her to bring dad and come help him. Tell her to do anything.

Instead, he hesitated, and felt a crushing feeling in his chest at her next words.

“One of your online friends is here and wants to check-in on you, is everything going alright? Do you want me to pass the phone to him? Here, one second --” The phone began to rustle a little as it was moved, clearly about to be handed off to someone else.

Daniel didn’t have online friends. Not even John could be considered a friend and he would surely never be bothered to make the trip out just to check on him.

There had, of course, been more than one person operating the stream that night...

“No!” Daniel said sharply, prompting a pause of silence over the phone. “I- don’t,” He said, stumbling over his words, eyes still locked on the other man in the room as his only option of escape began to quickly drift away. “I don’t want to talk to him,” Daniel bit out sharply, eyes wide as he tried to step back closer to the door.

He was getting so close.

He just needed to get out and go somewhere where he couldn’t be targeted. Someplace dreadfully crowded. Or at least some other place to get out of this confined space where anything could happen. Once he could do that, then he could do something to get help to his parents.

“Daniel, are you sure?” His mom asked from the other side, a touch of disappointment in her tone, clearly let down by his refusal to talk to whoever the hell was on the other side of that call. “Would you like me to at least take his phone number down for you s-”

“No, I don’t want to talk to him,” Daniel said sharply again, taking another careful step back towards the door.

He felt his heel bump into it. He was right there.

“But surely y-” His mom began before Daniel quickly jerked the phone down and hit the ‘end call button’, grabbing the door handle and tugging it open. This was his chance, he was so close, he just needed to make it outside the door and he would be safe!

─◙─​
 

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