Editor's Note: The Quail Bell Crew finds this story particularly timely given the recent publication of Rolling Stone's article on rape at the University of Virginia. Please also consider this a trigger warning.
“Please.” The word was uttered in perfect clarity between bruised lips, the rabbit-like teeth smeared in red. “Please, help me.”
Whoever was holding the camera laughed, a cruel bark that had the girl flinching. The other guys in the video were interchangeable, sporting Abercrombie hoodies and boat shoes. Their smiles were all the more monstrous beneath the crew cut of their hair.
“Shut up,” one giggled, bending down to the girl splayed out of the floor. Her jean skirt was hiked up, her knees mottled purple. “You haven’t even been hurt yet. Don’t act like you don’t like it.”
A hand with clean fingernails slid up her thigh. The girl looked towards the camera, her face slicked in salt. “Please,” she begged. “Please!”
Priya slammed her laptop shut.
“Shit,” she muttered, leaning her head back in her chair. “Just…shit.”
Gritting her teeth, she stumbled from her chair, narrowly avoiding death as she made it through the minefield of her living room floor. When she reached the bathroom, she yanked the faucet on, splashing her face with too-cold water. Even now, she could see the girl’s blood-smeared overbite and watery blue eyes. She twisted the water off.
Looking back over her apartment, the piles of laundry in between stacks of magazines and newspapers threatening to topple over any second, was enough to have Priya sinking against the doorframe. She rested her head against the molding, closing her eyes.
“You know what you have to do, Divan,” she sighed to herself.
Her eyes wandered back to her station, the craggy landscape of monitors and CPUs that served as her basecamp. The technical term for her work was digital journalist. That being said, it seemed that mainstream media still thought the world lived in a never-ending reboot of Heat and the word “hacker” simply refused to die.
Priya Divan had fallen in love with code one day when she was thirteen years old and sitting in a public library, avoiding the gaze of an eighth-grade boy who refused to take no for an answer. One simple fall into a forum and she found puzzle pieces sorting through her mind, revolving like doors that opened her up to a new world. Unix became her lover, which was useful because nothing freaked out dudebros faster than the realization that the girl they were trying to hit up was one more misogynistic comment away from tearing through their social media like a vengeful, Python-fluent goddess.
Her deviation into journalism was more of a vague meander than a deliberate march. Unsatisfied with dismantling Tumblr and Twitter accounts of anti-choice bigots or defacing the websites for oil conglomerates and major corporations, it wasn’t until her friend asked her for technical assistance with his online zine that she stumbled into her calling. UnMasked quickly became an underground must-read, detailing the vacation plans of charity CEOs to Aspen or the homosexual liaisons of anti-equality senators, undercover exposes of crisis pregnancy centers and Klan rallies, editorials about the ramifications of the BP oil spill or the body positivity movement as headed by fat activist bloggers.
Hands that refused to tremble reached forward, knocking through balled up takeout wrappers before landing on her phone. It was already hot pressed against her cheek.
“Zack, we got a problem.”
She heard him rustle upwards. “What’s up, Priya?”
She paused for a second, chewing away at her cuticles, chips of fuchsia nail polish flaking off. “I found something big.”
“Like when we outted that corporate CEO who wouldn’t let his coworkers have birth control but enjoyed his bareback parties on the weekend?”
“I mean, like—" she swallowed, “—like something that I can’t keep quiet about.”
She could practically hear him tilting his head like a baby bird. “But, we don’t keep quiet about things. That’s our whole job.”
“I was surfing through the private forums,” she explained. “You know, where Redditors can post the really bad stuff? I was hoping for fraternity hazing rituals for my newest piece when I stumbled on something. I downloaded it and—Jesus—it’s a video, Zack.”
“A video of what?”
Grainy pictures flickered behind her eyelids. Bile burned the back of her throat. “It’s a girl and she’s…there are all these guys holding her down and I couldn’t even watch the whole thing, but I know what happens.”
A few seconds passed. “Shit.”
“I’ve already tracked the IP,” she informed him. “It’s local. One of the kids is wearing a Thorwood High t-shirt.”
Zack sighed. “This is gonna explode.”
“I can’t keep this for the zine,” she insisted.
“No, I get it.” There was more rustling in the background, punctuated by curses. “Call this number. It’s my contact inside the DA’s office. He’ll know what to do.”
She scribbled the number on a napkin. “Thanks, Zack.”
“Absolutely. Be careful, Priya.”
Tossing her phone on her desk, Priya became a blur of motion. Showering off the vestiges of what she seen, she tumbled into her bedroom, wet hair clinging to the back of her neck. Shoving herself into jeans and T-shirt, she grabbed her messenger bag and one of the many burner phones she kept in her bedside table. A quick keyboard click and seventeen megabytes later, she pulled the memory stick from the computer and placed it into her bag. After tucking the napkin into her pocket, Priya stomped out of the apartment, slamming the door behind her.
Sometimes, she missed the city. Endless sidewalks and anonymity appealed to her base instincts, her defenses rippling until she blended into her surroundings. Moving to a small town too far to see the skyline was a necessary evil, a turning point that both set her career course and had her blood burning for early morning sirens and hot dog stands, gay bars and off-off-Broadway shows.
She swerved past the morning-mom-joggers, their baby buggies eating up almost the entirety of the sidewalk, and ignored the catcalls from the kids riding the bus home from school. The black letters printed on the side said Thorwood High School. She swallowed down bile, refusing to vomit in front of the Panera storefront.
Instead, she halted another block down and dialed the number.
Ring. Ring. “This is Michael Connelly.”
Priya bit her lip. “Are you the lawyer?”
“I am an assistant district attorney for Fulton County.” His voice was professionally irritated. “Who is this and how did you get my private number?”
“A mutual friend,” Priya replied. She bit her nails to keep her hands from shaking. “I’ve got something you need to see.”
A snort pierced her ear. “You haven’t told me a thing about you. Why should I meet with you, again?”
“I work with Zack.”
A moment of silence dropped. “My office is three blocks from Common Grounds coffee shop. I’ll be there in an hour.”
Fifty minutes later, nursing a chai latte and ignoring half a blueberry scone, Priya found herself sizing up the suited figure walking in through the coffee shop door. From his black-buttoned waistcoat to his fashionably skinny tie, Michael Connelly screamed uprooted TriBeCa urbanite.
She tucked her Doc Martens beneath her chair.
He turned, catching her eye, and only the corner of his mouth ticking indicated any response to the lip-pierced Indian woman with half-bitten fingernails and a rouge bindi in the middle of her forehead staring at him from across the coffee shop. His steps were steady and long as he walked over, stopping to hold out his hand.
“I’m Michael Connelly,” he said, which was already painfully obvious. “And, you are?”
“Priya Divan,” she answered, taking his hand.
Nodding, he sat down. “I imagine you work on the zine with Zack.”
“I find the story and he writes it,” she replied.
His mouth quirked. “So, you’re one of his hackers.”
She rolled her eyes. Seriously, the world needed to get over Heat. “Do you want to hear about what I found or not?”
“By all means.”
Searching through her back, she pulled out her laptop and the memory stick and placed them onto the table, taking another second to root around for her headphones. Connecting everything, she passed it over to him.
“Are the headphones necessary?”
Priya saw the moment the video started, his eyelids flickering as the phone cam swam in and out of focus. She watched how his pupils contracted, the tendon in his jaw jumping; the girl was now in view. Ten minutes passed and Connelly hardly looked away, even as his throat bobbed.
With an unsteady hand, the lawyer shut the laptop.
“How would you like to do this?”
“You’re the lawyer,” she insisted. “Don’t you know?”
He scrubbed a hand over his face, mussing his too-perfect hair until he almost looked human. “How did you find the video?”
She shrugged. “I was trolling through some private forums when I caught the link. I followed it.”
“That girl can’t be more than fourteen.”
Connelly yanked at his tie before slamming his fist on the table. Other patrons glanced over at them before returning to their smart phones. “Those fucking—” he clenched his teeth “I can already imagine the bullshit about hometown heroes and their shiny futures. Did you get an IP address?”
“It’s local.” She opened the laptop, spinning it to face her while her fingers went through their movements by rote. “They uploaded it straight from their phones, but it’s a dynamic device, so it’s already been renewed. However, I know that whoever uploaded the video pinged from Fulton County, specifically Thorwood.”
“That doesn’t narrow it down,” Connelly insisted. “One of those kids is wearing a goddamn Thorwood High T-shirt. I know where they’re from.”
Priya glared at him over her screen. “But, now we know that’s where the crime also likely took place, ass-wipe. The video was uploaded to the forum at 11:53 last night. The timestamp on the video is roughly 10:51 pm. Which means, unless these kids did some major hauling ass, they were still in the area.”
“So, the girl’s probably local,” Connelly finished. “I’ll check with the police, see if they got any reports in last night. Hospitals too.”
“I’m better with police databases. You should head to the hospital and charm the nurses.”
Connelly managed a sly smile. “So, you find me charming?”
“Can it. I’ve had better lines from East Harlem boyos.”
“You wound me.”
Priya gave him a sharp look. “I’ll keep this cell open for you. No sense in tossing it yet.”
“I’m honored.” Connelly rose to his feet, pulling the bottom of his waistcoat. “I’ll call you.”
Priya watched him go, the long line of him strolling out of the coffee shop with carefully-composed bravado. She took a sip of her coffee, wincing at the cold temperature. Taking in a deep breath, she dove into the code.
The coffee shop was closing around her when she finally surfaced. When she had scoured through the police database with no success, she had turned to the high school, nudging her way into phone lists and academic records. Three yearbook photos were bookmarked. She just needed confirmation.
Her phone buzzed against her hip. “Yes?”
“I got good news and bad news. Which are you hungry for?”
“Looks like our girl checked in to Mercy General,” Connelly began. “Did the rape kit, got patched up. Didn’t give a name.”
Connelly hmmed. “It’s not nothing. It’s just not much of something. The thing is, I can only do so much here. If I want to prosecute the bastards, I have rules to follow. As much as I want you to tear the place apart, it’s worthless in court.”
“We at least have the video,” Priya reminded him. “That was a private forum, but anyone with a password has access. Plus, once it’s online, anyone who views it can report it to the authorities.”
“Trust me, I’m relieved the video is solid. I just don’t know how we can move forward in a way that won’t have me disbarred.”
Priya glanced at her watch. “You a night owl?”
“I’m a lawyer.”
“Write this address down. Be there in an hour.”
Priya didn’t even bother straightening up the place, just went straight to the espresso machine and started grinding her Costa Rican Tarrazu. The coffee was just about finished when there was a sharp rap at the door.
“Come in,” she greeted.
Connelly stepped in, breathing deep. “That smells fantastic.”
“It’s not for you.”
“Has anyone ever told you that you’re a terrible hostess?”
She meandered back into the kitchen, pouring two mugs of coffee. The lawyer’s carefully constructed air of indifference cracked at the push of a mug into his hand. He beamed at her.
“I knew you liked me.”
He took a sip. “I wouldn’t have thought you would bring me back to your place. I figured you guys were sneakier than that.”
“I have three places under false names in the area,” Priya explained. “I can shut this place down in under an hour. But, I figured that a gesture of trust wouldn’t go amiss.”
Connelly’s eyes were as brown as his coffee and suddenly less bitter. “I appreciate it.”
When they finally made it to the living room, both were bright-eyed with dragging feet. The clock read 9:23 in heavy red. Connelly yanked at his tie as he slumped onto the couch.
“What did you find?”
Priya slipped open her laptop. “No reports have been filed,” she stated. “So, I moved onto school records. Did you know that adding yourself as part of the school phone tree gives you almost full access to the student directory?”
The corners of his mouth pulled down, impressed. “I did not know that.”
“It took some wheedling, but I’m now involved in the Choral Boosters and PTA,” Priya explained. “It’s amazing what doors a fake child will open up.”
“I’m sure you’re a wonderful mother.”
“I killed a cactus once.”
Connelly snorted. “So, Super Mom, what does a PTA membership get you?”
“With some wiggling,” Priya muttered, “you get yearbook photos.”
She pulled up the class pictures, then opened three tabs. In those tabs were three smiling faces. One of the boys had dimples. Another still had braces.
“Meet Joshua Green, Elijah Woodley, and Peter Flinn,” Priya introduced through gritted teeth. “Our hometown heroes. All three are seniors at Thorwood High School. One of them is on the volleyball team. State championships.”
Connelly’s fingers bit into the wood of her coffee table. His fists pulled back to rest on his knees. “Those little fuckers.” His voice was calm and made it even worse. “They’re right there and I can’t even get to them.”
Priya shot a look at him. “Can’t you bring them in for questioning?”
“I’m the ADA,” Connelly sighed. “I need probable cause to get them into the station. And, even then, I can’t prosecute without a victim. Sure, that girl is probably fourteen, but I need her age in order to lay the charges against them. I need her testimony.”
“I couldn’t find her in the pictures, but I don’t have access to them all,” Priya explained. “And, there are plenty kids missing from it.”
The lawyer sank back into the couch, resting his head against the cushions. Priya did not look at the stretch of his neck. “So, we pretty much know who did it. But, we can’t get to them. Fucking fantastic.”
Her coffee was cold, but she drank it anyway. Her nails clicked against her mug. “What about a press conference?”
“I think it’s a little early to involve those vultures,” Connelly smirked. “Present company excluded.”
“Maybe not that exactly,” Priya allowed, “but what if we were to hold some sort of educational assembly at the local high schools. You know, about sexual assault and teen dating violence.”
“We could emphasize consent.” His hand swept through the wreck on top of the coffee table until he found pen and paper, hastily scribbling words down. “We could show the number for the local police line, encourage them to report the assault. Shit, that means I need to contact the school board, the police department, my boss. This might take a few days to muster.”
“The hospital will keep the rape kit, right?”
“For ninety days.” Connelly was bulleting hoops to jump through. “That should be enough time to find Jane Doe 84659 and get this case moving forward.”
A thought sparked in her mind. Her nose wrinkled. “Shit, does that mean I’m gonna have to be a witness?”
His hand stopped as he gave her a smug look. “Most likely. We’ll need to find the courageous vigilante who brought this forward. You’ll be a hero.” He frowned suddenly. “You’re not on the Most Wanted list or anything, are you?”
Her disciplined shove nearly sent him off the couch. “My record is squeaky, thank you very much. Not even a parking ticket.”
“Is that because you deleted it?”
“You’re not that cute, you know.”
This time when he smiled, it was genuine. “So, you do think I’m cute.”
“I think you’re an ass.”
“Which is definitely cute; I’m glad you noticed.”
The next morning, waking up to a messy and hickey-smeared assistant district attorney, Priya found herself looking at the mess strewn about her with zen-like calm. Connelly (Michael, she supposed) was buried into her pillow and pressed against her side. She smiled. It’s not like messes weren’t her forte.
As it turned out, setting up a whole series of school assemblies regarding sexual assault was a fight against ultra-conservative parents and narrow-minded bureaucrats. But, when a small town in Idaho suddenly swamped the news with images of a teary-faced cheerleader and the boy who had laced her drink with GHB, suddenly all that red tape vanished as if it never existed. Priya was happy to make the events viral, spreading the word through Tumblr and Facebook and Twitter. Study sessions with Michael to coordinate speakers and educational materials was a study in patience and sexual frustration.
Two months and thirteen days after Priya had downloaded the video, Thorwood High School held its “Consent is Mandatory” assembly.
Priya barely paid attention to the stage as Michael introduced himself and the rest of the speakers. Instead, she remained in the shadows by the emergency exit, her eyes scanning the blurred faces filling up the auditorium. She watched the ripple of horror as the first speaker, a survivor named Tammy, told her story in excruciatingly intimate detail.
“I was only fifteen,” Tammy explained, her mouth set in a straight line, her eyes sharp as steel. “He was only sixteen. It doesn’t matter how young you are, or how naive, or how bright your future is. Rape is rape. There were so many words I said to him. The most important one was no. And, that was the one he chose to ignore.”
The next was an officer from the sex crimes unit; after that was a psychologist. Michael finished it up, his hands gripping the podium with white-knuckled fingers.
“If any of you,” he started, “find yourselves in need of help, know that you are not alone. There are so many people who are here to help you. Behind me, you’ll see the number for the police line, as well as the National Lifeline. I know it’s scary. I know it hurts. But, it’s not your fault that you’re hurting. And, we’ll be here to help you when you need it.”
The lights of the auditorium flared bright. Lines of students began filing out. Some were solemn-faced, others were laughing awkwardly. Priya made her way backstage just in time to see Michael wrench his tie loose.
“Ever the consummate professional.”
“I’m professional as shit.” He looked her over, face suddenly drawn in heavy lines. “How was it?”
“Amazing,” she answered. “Zack’s already halfway through the article covering it. It’ll make front page of UnMasked for sure.”
“I’m glad it came to some good,” Michael sighed. “I’m just not sure it’s enough.”
Priya knew what he meant. “We have seventeen days.”
“Seventeen days,” Michael repeated. “Not a lot of time.”
“It’s more than what I had.”
The way Michael looked at her went through stages, realization flooded red with anger then welled up with hurt. He pulled her against him. “I-”
“I’m fine,” she answered, making sure to catch his gaze. “And, you’ve done so much that I don’t think you’ll ever realize it.”
Priya turned and her heart stopped.
Her blonde hair was yanked back into a ponytail, wisps of bangs hanging in her blue eyes. Her t-shirt was baggy pink. Her bottom lip quivered, revealing rabbit-like teeth.
“My name’s Becky Upton,” the girl confessed. “I… I need help.”
Priya reached out her hand.
There was only a moment of hesitation before Becky Upton took it.