My clients see me only once. I do the rest of the job alone. Still, it seems that most of them would rather avoid that meeting. I think they want to pretend the job is already over. Or it’s the shame. In some circles the practice is still frowned upon, comparing my profession to a hired killer. That’s a silly analogy because the dead cannot be killed. I’d rather call it a type of data processing. A sequence of executed commands to flip bits. Because of that, even colleagues call me a cold-blooded cynic. I don’t protest. Perhaps that’s why I’m so good at this job.
Whether the client likes it or not, the Personal Data Protection Act requires me to handle the documents personally. As there’s no way to avoid it, the clients usually prefer that I come to their place.
For exactly this reason I’m on my way to meet Mister Castle. My blond hair is pulled back in a ponytail. A sweater covers the tattoos on my neck. All my piercings are removed. One thing I learned is if you want to stay successful in your business, you‘d better show up looking professional.
Castle lives in a row house at the far end of the city. As I happen to dwell in an equally unglamorous place not too far away, I take a walk. The street is wet and the air smells of drying laundry. For a Saturday afternoon there’s not much traffic, leaving me ample room to maneuver between the puddles.
I notice some candles left on the sidewalk, not far ahead. Some of them still burn with a weak flame, after surviving the night’s rain. I stop to check the address.
That’s my client’s house.
I walk up to the front door, listening. It’s gravely silent inside, typical for a client visit. With a brief touch of the finger, I wake the doorbell, disturbing the stillness.
There’s some shuffling inside and after a moment, a bulky middle-aged man opens the door. He’s bald, wearing fine round glasses.
“Oh, hello. You must be here because of the job,” he says, after a moment of hesitation. Not many expect to see a young girl doing this business.
“Hello, Mister Castle,” I reply, extending my hand.
He’s about twice my size. The handshake feels like putting on a warm mitten.
“Please, come in,” he urges.
The hallway is almost empty and excessively clean, as if someone had just moved in. I imagine the other rooms are just as sterile, but I’m not invited further. I catch a glimpse of a woman wearing a bathrobe in the far doorway. Her eyes look terribly tired. Dark and sunken. Either she’s been up all night or crying a lot. Probably both. I nod at her, and she cracks a weak smile as she shuts the door, retreating inside.
“How much time do you think you need for this?” Castle asks, handing me a thick envelope.
“One or two days. I’ll call you back at the end of the week.”
“Good. That’s fine,” Castle says, as he shifts from one foot to the other, about to add something to what he’s already said.
“It’s been a very hard time after the accident, especially for my wife. Sometimes... Things just remind us too much about her.”
I don’t say anything. No condolences. That’s not my job and it doesn’t work anyway.
“Please understand. It wasn’t an easy decision,” he says.
I nod, although I don’t care. Hundreds of people die in this city alone every day. All of them leave behind their digital information. Comments, pictures, messages. Mostly rubbish. Carelessly spilling it all over the network. I just clean up after them. Create breathing space for the rest. That, or at least I sweep away the painful memories.
“Everything will be gone,” I assure him, and turn around to leave.
On my way back, I notice cardboard boxes by the door. Bags full of clothing, stacks with teen magazines. I’m certain it will all be destroyed by the end of the day.
Once outside, I open the envelope. Sometimes, clients forget to provide the required documents, and I don’t want to come back for a second time. I flip through the contents. Besides my salary, there’s the death certificate, power of attorney, and some ID’s.
I pick the driver’s license and glance at the picture. A blonde girl, with her head slightly tilted, looks at me, smiling a narrow smile. Shirley Castle. Just two years younger than me.
Soon, I’ll erase her.
In twenty minutes I’m back at my two-room condo. The hinges squeak as I push the heavy door open just enough to squeeze inside. As always, the air feels damp and wet. I load the wood-burning stove and fire it up with my lighter, keeping the sweater on until the room warms up. I drop the envelope on a relatively clean spot on the desk, between food leftovers, books, and ashtrays. Finally, I kick off my shoes and collapse in my chair.
One by one, I take the paper and plastic documents and place them in my scanner. As soon as they’re on my computer, I log-in to fill in an online form and submit it. While the system processes it, I wander to the kitchen. After years of tuning, the process has become incredibly fast. When I’m back with a steaming mug of tea, the application is processed. Now I know where Shirley’s data is located, and have passwords to access, or rather, delete it.
I begin by logging in to her social profile. There are options to memorialize it, but if it comes to hiring me, the clients want to remove it completely. They feel uncomfortable just looking at it. There are individuals you suspect are dead, considering their lack of their online activity, but it’s completely different from knowing someone’s really passed away.
So I cut the bonds. Rip out the profile with its long roots from the rest of the network and throw it away. When Shirley’s friends and classmates log in, the link will have been severed. It depends how soon they’ll find out, if ever. As in real life, you never notice immediately when someone’s gone.
I finish the tea and light a cigarette. Shirley’s email is next.
The inbox is full of unread items and I can tell by the from field it’s not spam. For some reason, people just keep writing letters to the deceased, knowing the recipient will never read them. From personal habit, I go through all the unread mail, opening them briefly without reading them. They’re mostly short sentences, but I see longer writings, too. There’s some kind of respect for the ones who wrote all this. Deleting everything at once would be like burning unopened letters. Call it superstition. When that’s finished, I’m about to remove the account completely, but then notice the draft folder is not empty. It’s tempting to open it. Perhaps Shirley had long agonized about these messages, trying to get the words right. Or gathered courage to hit that send button. Could it be a love confession? A plea for forgiveness? If I send them, would it even matter now? But I know there’s no choice. The Pact prohibits me from interacting with the data.
So the email account is deleted. Perhaps one day it will be up for grabs, like an unoccupied flat, so another Shirley can ponder over her letters.
My stomach grumbles. The mixture of tea and nicotine makes me crave for real food. I grab some lettuce and cream sauce.
While dipping a leaf, I open the image-hosting site she’s been using. There are plenty of pictures, most of which are linked to somewhere. Shirley will have to vanish. Whether it’s a blog, forum or gallery. She will disappear, leaving a blank page or error message.
Next comes the complicated stuff. Surely she’s made posts and comments on the Internet. Perhaps she hasn’t been that active. Perhaps she was posting fifty messages daily. That’s why I have software that will crawl all over the net, searching for these fragments of information. Jumping from one to another, looking for something to delete. If she had communicated back and forth with someone, now it will look like he was speaking to a ghost.
I log into her file server. It contains plenty of files ranging from films, books, music and pictures. I start deleting all of them. Meanwhile a server somewhere is deleting this data from a hard drive. I know it may not be deleted completely. That’s what makes data recovery possible. It will only remove the reference to these chunks of bits. Later they could be overwritten by something else. Until then, the data is still there. Accessible if needed. Just invisible. I wonder if it’s the same case with Shirley. Perhaps she lost the reference in this world that leads to the actual her somewhere. If we believe in such thing as rebirth, will another reference be born, linking back to Shirley?
Now, only the dry details remain. Bank accounts, healthcare records, educational background. Unsurprisingly, I’m not allowed there. It’s a lot simpler. With a few clicks, the online system will log-in and delete the data automatically. The only downside is that it will take a while. Looking at the progress bar, I drift to sleep.
The phone rings from somewhere, startling me. I look at the clock. It’s well after midnight.
“Yes?” I answer weakly.
There’s silence on the other end. Then there’s a weary woman’s voice. “I’m calling about one of your latest... assignments.”
Even though I’ve never heard her voice, I suspect it’s the woman at Castle’s house.
“Shirley.” her voice crackles as I stir a memory. “I just wanted to know, how’s the progress?”
I wiggle the mouse to wake the screen. Procedure complete.
“Actually it’s done. I was about to call your husband in the morning.”
“So you’re saying there’s nothing left?”
I pause. What answer would she rather hear? Is that the doubt that keeps her awake?
“Yes. Everything’s gone.”
“I see,” she says. There’s the silence again. Then she hangs up.
I take the contents of the envelope and one by one, feed it to the document shredder. Then put the messy result into the stove. After a few blows the embers start to glow, igniting their prey. I light my cigarette and stare at the fire. It’s as if Shirley and I were sitting around and smoking.
Then the fire dies down. Shirley is gone.
When my job is done, I like to think that all that was deleted will catch up with the owner somehow. Perhaps, rise to heaven for someone. Or join some kind of outworldly information pool where we might end up. But why do I even care about this? All I did was flip some bits. Why does it make me feel uneasy?
And why do I make so many backups?
Janis Zelcans is a network engineer from a small peninsula in Latvia where he lives with his wife, three children, a dog, and a cat.