Chapter 1: Calling
Ben had often wondered whether apathy was a virtue. Perhaps it could have subdued his curiosity, or better still, stemmed his desires once the curiosity was satisfied.
Regardless, if apathy was a virtue, it was one he did not possess. He was jaded, yes. After all, who could blame him? People said the world was progressing. It hadn't taken Ben long to realize they were liars, or at best, hopelessly naïve. The evidence showed a trend of stagnancy with the threat of decay, a far cry from progress.
But that didn't mean he didn't care anymore. Quite the contrary, he cared too much…
And it was precisely this vice that brought him to the alley on a cloudless afternoon in November, searching for something, he knew not yet what. He only knew that he needed it desperately.
Earlier that day, he'd been caught in the usual drudgery of class. Unsurprisingly, Advanced Composition 150 taught by an incompetent professor with a love for mundane drawling was neither intellectually stimulating nor amusing.
He was in his second year at the university, and so far, didn't think much of it. In the worst of cases, people perceived his lack of enthusiasm as arrogance. Those who were more optimistic took it as proof of his unique intelligence, which they always traced back to his mother and uncle.
A number of irritating family friends had even assumed he was planning on using this "gift" to follow in their footsteps. Ben was appalled by the notion. Law as a profession, given the current state of things, revolted him. Admittedly, he'd considered it when he was younger. That was before his mother had explained to him what a plea bargain entailed and how a solid prosecution could be stalled by vague reasonable doubt. There was no sticking with the glamorized picture of a justice system which cut deals with crooks.
The sciences seemed slightly more promising and Ben had secured a place in several advanced engineering courses. However, a liberal arts education entailed "diversity". Hence, he was stuck in a freshman-level English course, listening to his professor's soporific lectures on grammar. Fortunately, Ben had a seat by the window, which allowed for ninety minutes of quality road-gazing.
Apart from the occasional stray cat, nothing interesting ever took place in the alley. It was a wonder that Ben still paid any attention to it. But there were exceptions to every rule.
A falling object made him jolt upright in his seat. He leaned closer to the window, squinting to distinguish what it was. There was something there, something that stood out despite its every effort to be nondescript. It was black in color, so that the shape seemed to blend into the dimly lit street.
The professor's voice drew him away from his thoughts. Ben turned away from the window and scowled at the older man.
"Yes?" Ben said.
"Your composition," the professor replied. "I'd assume you've finished it already, since our current discussion of the assignment seems to bore you."
"I have, actually," Ben said, suppressing the urge to roll his eyes.
"Would you care to share it?"
Ben sighed. He'd thought that at the university-level, professors would give up calling out distracted students, but apparently, a PhD didn't place one above pettiness. Flipping open his notebook, he cleared his throat and read aloud:
"On the subject of natural rights: Any attempts to define a 'natural right' are superficial. In truth, humans aren't bound to consider whether or not a certain power is rightfully theirs to wield, unless the gain is insignificant. We are too narrow-minded, too focused on what we believe we have to do to judge…"
The professor gestured for him to stop and made a hackneyed comment about the value of attentiveness in class, but Ben's thoughts were already elsewhere. He was looking out the window again, scanning the ground for what had fallen from the sky.
The practical part of him said it wasn't worth his time. He was an intelligent young man, not a bored child prone to let curiosity get the better of them, but this was more than curiosity. Something was calling to him and, as ridiculous as it felt, he needed to answer it.
3:30 pm marked the end of classes for the day and the start of the weekend. Instead of heading straight to the metro, however, Ben slipped away from the crowds to the alley. There was no harm in taking a quick look, though he still felt like a fool.
The alley was littered with trash. A few crushed soda cans lay beside the dumpster. Old cigarette buds dotted the ground. But there was something else lying in the corner. Ben snatched it up.
It was a notebook. The cover was blank except for two words written along the top.
"Death Note," Ben read. He stared at the black notebook, somewhat disappointed, but what had he expected? Some kind of magic charm? Absurd, even for a child…
"Death Note," he muttered again. "Whatever the hell that is."
He glanced at the dumpster, then at the notebook. Maybe it had fallen from a window or been thrown out. Either way, it didn't seem like anyone was searching for it. Tossing it in the dumpster made sense. Better to do that than add to the litter. Yet, he was loath to do so.
I must be losing it, he scolded himself on the train ride home. The notebook, the "Death Note", he supposed, lay in his lap. He frowned at it. Maybe he was losing his mind. It wouldn't exactly be news to his family, what after the recent turn of events, but that was a separate problem.
He glanced up at the small television monitor on the train. It displayed the face of a stoic young man against the familiar mugshot backdrop. The news anchor was discussing a recent murder trial which had apparently resulted in an acquittal. The station logo flashed before the camera zoomed out to show the anchor and her interviewee, a "renowned" criminal psychologist. Ben watched the interview idly. He already knew where this was going.
"Well, you need to account for the vulnerability of today's youth," the psychologist said, "Which is something we cannot blame them for. There are a vast number of influences that the latest generation is exposed to. Media violence is one of them. Even in fictional forms…"
Ben clenched his fist and forced himself to ignore the broadcast. Instead, he focused his attention on the notebook. He opened the cover and found a few lines scribbled in an incomprehensible language. Even the letters did not resemble any familiar alphabet.
Maybe it's some sort of occult book, Ben thought. Great job, Ben. That's exactly the kind of thing everyone needs in their house.
He flipped to the next page. It was written in English:
How to Use It"
An occult book with an instruction manual. Convenient.
He read on:
"The human whose name is written in this note shall die. This note shall not take effect unless the writer has the person's face in their mind while writing his/her name. Therefore, people sharing the same name will not be effected."
Must be another urban legend. The Death Note. They sure are creative with these names.
"If the cause of death is written within the next 40 seconds of writing the person's name, it will happen. If the cause of death is not specified, the person will die of a heart attack. After writing the cause of death, details of the death should be written in the next 6 minutes and 40 seconds."
A very technical urban legend, or an elaborate prank.
"The note shall become the property of the human world, once it touches the ground (arrives in) the human world. The owner of the note can recognize the image and voice of the original owner, i.e. a Shinigami. The human who uses the notebook can go to neither Heaven nor Hell."
The page ended there. The rest were blank. Ben shut the book and set it on the empty seat next to him. It was ridiculous, though he had to give credit to the prankster who'd gone through the trouble of making the Death Note. Ben imagined they'd been watching from a few floors above when he picked up the notebook. They were probably mocking him now. The thought made him frown.
The train pulled to a stop. Ben eyed the Death Note and considered leaving it behind to scare some gullible passenger. It didn't seem to have further use.
The doors slid open and the other passengers began to file out. Ben gritted his teeth and placed the Death Note in his backpack. There was nothing wrong with keeping a harmless trinket, even if it was useless.
Ben got home later than usual that night, having missed his usual train, and was greeted by no one. Well, no human, that is. Chewie was waiting at the door as usual. The Chow Chow panted heavily as Ben stroked his fur and barked softly when the latter left to heat up dinner.
"If you're waiting for the old man, he's not coming," Ben said. "At least not for another day… if he's feeling homesick."
The dog whined and stared intently at the door. Ben had read somewhere that dogs liked having their family "pack" together due to their wolf ancestry. If that was true, Chewie had far too much wolf in him for the Solo family.
Ben's phone buzzed in his pocket – a single text from his mother:
"Late from work. There's food in the fridge. Love you."
He didn't bother to respond. He glanced at the line of messages from the previous week, all of which were more or less identical, before shutting his phone off. He tried to remember where his father had gone on business (business was a euphemism for something illicit, Ben was sure) but decided not to think too much about it.
A few of Ben's peers had asked him whether he felt smothered living with his parents. Well, smothering wasn't exactly a problem saying that they were never around. As far as he was concerned, it was a decent deal. He got the house all to himself about 18 hours of the day and didn't have to pay for room and board – cheaper with minimal family interference.
The evening was uneventful. After his typical frozen dinner and a few finishing touches on his assignments, Ben lay back in his bed and groaned, flipping through channels on the television absentmindedly.
The owner of the note can recognize Shinigami, he mused. Not sure what a Shinigami is, but I guess I'm the owner. Maybe I should be seeing ghosts now. That would give Mom a heart attack if I told her that…
He'd placed the Death Note on the nightstand atop a pile of half-read books. He glanced at it, still wondering why he'd bothered keeping the thing. It was probably filthy, which meant he'd better hide it from his mother. She would throw a fit if she knew he'd brought in some piece of junk from the street.
So, what's the owner supposed to do? Write their name on it? No. Can't do that. That would kill me. He let out a short, humorless laugh. Creative suicide, I suppose…
He turned the television to the evening news. A scene with flashing police lights gave him pause. The report was divided between the live footage and a flustered anchor on the other side. The headline, "Hostage Crisis at CoCo Night Club – Reports on Negotiations", was scrolling at the bottom of the screen.
"We have limited information on the crisis at the moment," the anchor said. "But police have narrowed down the identity of the suspect. Suspect Hugo Bartyn is thought to have entered the nightclub earlier this evening with a concealed weapon…"
A picture of the suspect, a middle-aged man with cold eyes, appeared on the screen. Over the next week, this man's face would be ubiquitous across every news station. Thinking of this infamous publicity made Ben's blood boil.
"It can't be helped," His father's voice echoed in his head. "I can tell you, kid, you're gonna see a lot of ugly in this world, but there's nothing you can do. You've got to learn that sometime…"
But he hadn't learned. He hadn't outgrown the inexorable need for action, immediate action when the situation was urgent enough. His thoughts drifted to the Death Note.
He doubted it would work. No. He was certain it wouldn't work, but perhaps this test would put an end to his inexplicable fascination with the Death Note. Besides, in the implausible event that the Death Note was real, Bartyn seemed like a worthy test subject.
Ben carried the Death Note to his desk and turned back to the TV. Bartyn's face was still there, with the suspect's name written underneath. According to the instructions in the notebook, that was all he needed to kill…
"Hugo Bartyn", he wrote in black ink on the first blank page.
40 seconds. He looked down at his watch. Bartyn was supposedly set to die of a heart attack at 11:00:10 PM.
20 more seconds. The scene hadn't changed. Still the glare of flashing lights, the distant moan of a siren, the occasional silhouette of a policeman…
10 more seconds. Nothing yet. Ben wasn't sure what he was expecting, but he couldn't tear his eyes away from the report.
3… 2… 1…
Nothing happened. The police remained stationed outside the nightclub while the reporters chattered away with pointless speculations.
Ben felt his face flush. He glowered at the notebook and seized it from the desk, getting ready to hurl it into the trashcan before the hoax humiliated him further…
The startled voice of the news anchor brought Ben's attention back to the screen. The doors of the nightclub had opened. People, the hostages, he presumed, were flooding out. Several policemen entered the building while the others looked on, perplexed by the scene unfolding before them.
"We've just received reports from CoCo Nightclub," the anchor said, her eyes wide with shock. "Witnesses inside the nightclub report that the suspect, Hugo Bartyn, 'suddenly collapsed'. Authorities have yet to confirm whether these accounts are true and whether the suspect is dead or unconscious. We will keep you updated as more information comes in…"
Ben froze. Surely there was another explanation. It was a coincidence. Strange fate had killed this man. Sudden heart attacks weren't unheard of. Regardless, it wasn't Ben's fault. It couldn't be his fault. He wasn't a murderer…
But the timing, the manner of death… it was too eerily precise to be a coincidence…
He looked down to the Death Note and he was shocked to notice his hands were trembling. He closed his eyes, angered by his anxiety. He needed to calm down. There was nothing to panic about…
Unless he had killed a man…
He was too old to believe in fairy tales and witchcraft, but there was something about the Death Note that set it apart from other myths. It was too methodical in its function, not at all like the stories of limitless and spontaneous black magic. This quality allowed it to be tested and verified like any other device, and if the tests proved true, Ben had found something truly incredible.
He stared at the page where he had written Hugo Bartyn's name. Surely, one could not become a murderer so easily, so innocently. One could kill with simple motions, the pull of a trigger or the push of a button, but killing was not murder, especially if it was justified.
Law enforcement dealt out executions to criminals like Bartyn with ease. No one tried them for murder, and they were incompetent too. What Ben had done, if Bartyn's death was indeed his doing, was cleaner, better thought out. What was more, it had saved lives. One could even go so far as to call it noble. Bartyn's death was not murder. It was a well-managed execution carried out with a peculiar but efficient weapon.
Ben narrowed his eyes and made up his mind: he needed to test the Death Note again.
That night, the rules of the Death Note slithered through Ben's dreams like the dying strains of an ancient mantra. He awoke with a jolt without knowing what had startled him. He turned to the clock on his nightstand. 2:32 AM. Too early to wake up.
Groaning, he rolled over in bed and gazed blankly out the window. The silhouettes of tree branches were visible against the sickly glow of the streetlights. They swayed as the wind blew through them, painting dark patterns onto his bedroom floor.
Suddenly, the branches were enveloped by a larger shadow. Ben blinked and the shadow disappeared. He slid out of bed and lumbered over to the window. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. He was about to return to bed when he saw two burning eyes staring back at him.
Ben recoiled and bumped into his nightstand. Wincing in pain, he took a tentative step forward. The eyes were gone. He cursed under his breath and went back to bed, attributing the mirage to the late hour and bizarre events of the previous day.
Outside Ben's bedroom, an unseen presence took up vigil. He had little interest in exploring the human world (even if he were able to) having never held it in high esteem, though his own was one of bone and dust. He was tempted to enter the house now and begin his game but sensed that the time was not right. It was all well. His desolate world had taught him patience. He would wait to show himself another day. For now, he was contented to watch.