preload preload preload preload preload preload
0 Comments | Jul 01, 2015

Phineas Talbot

The doorbell to 182 Meadow View Drive rings once, twice, and the repairman from Pathways Cable Company quickly checks his handheld display to make sure he has the correct address. It is late on a Tuesday morning, muggier than usual, and a thin bead of sweat swells between the man’s eyebrows. He instinctively shifts his gaze for a moment to the houses on his left and his right, then feigns another glance at the device in his hand. It shows nothing at all and he reaches again for the doorbell button to make one final attempt. But before his finger can reach the button, there comes a rustling on the other side of the door, a scarcely discernible curse, and the door opens to reveal a woman, middle aged, not bad looking, and slightly confused at the imposition, which is, in this case, precisely how she is supposed to look.

“Yes,” she says, looking uncertainly at the repairman. She offers nothing more, only stands and stares, arms crossed, awaiting an explanation.

“Good morning, ma’am. Philip Benson with Pathways Cable. I’m here to follow up on the service bulletin you should have received in the mail a few days ago.” He flashes a company ID badge, taking care to keep his thumb over enough of the photo to ensure that she doesn’t get a good look. The gesture is superfluous, for the woman never takes her eyes from his face.

“I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she replies. “Our cable is fine.”

“That’s good to hear, ma’am. This is just a routine service visit to check your converter box. We need to make sure you have the latest firmware. We’re in the process of transitioning our service to a cloud-based system and we need to check each subscriber’s set-up to ensure that you’ll successfully receive the new higher quality video that we’ll be transmitting in the coming few weeks. It won’t take a moment, ma’am.”

The repairman has carefully rehearsed his introductory speech, peppering it with just enough technical jargon to ensure that the woman is in no position to understand what he is saying, much less take issue with it.

“So you’re saying you need to look at our cable box.”

“Yes indeed, ma’am, if it’s not too much of an inconvenience. Won’t take a minute and I’ll be out of your hair.”

She pauses one final moment, then sighs deeply before standing to one side and gesturing noncommittally for him to step inside. Fortunately, she has not opted to call the company to confirm his visit, in which case he would have been forced to resort to his rehearsed script about confusion over a scheduling misunderstanding, following which he would have been obliged to beat a hasty retreat. Having successfully gained access to the home, only one additional thing now needs to happen in order for this to have been a truly successful service call. The woman needs to be trusting enough to leave him alone with the cable box for at least three minutes. This she readily does, pointing in the general direction of the living room television, next to which sits the Pathways converter box—a device the repairman has not the slightest interest in, nor, for that matter, even the most basic knowledge of how to operate, much less repair.

“I’ll give you a shout once I’m finished,” the repairman calls after her. There is no response.

Once the woman has left, the man makes a quick survey of the living room. He reaches into his bag and extracts a tiny black plastic device about the size of a matchbook. He works a fingernail against the bottom of the device and peels away a protective film, revealing an adhesive layer. He lifts the cable box slightly and presses the device against its bottom, taking care to ensure that the dark transparent surface points outward into the room. There is a tiny sliding switch on the bottom of the device, which he now shifts from one position to the other. He returns the cable box to its original spot next to the television and reaches again into the parts bag, producing this time a device about the size of a thin paperback book. This device contains a display that the man stares at for a moment. He waves a hand before the cable box, then quietly snaps his fingers a couple of times while looking at the display. Satisfied, he places the larger device back into his bag, glances about to ensure that all is as he found it, then closes the bag and steps to the foyer of the house.

“Everything is fine here, ma’am. I’ll just let myself out,” he says. “You’ll get a call from our office when the new signal goes live, just to make sure everything is still okay.”

There comes a grunting noise from the direction of the kitchen, and the man turns the doorknob, exits the house, and walks nonchalantly to his car. It’s a miracle, he thinks, that more of this sort of thing doesn’t happen. People these days trust anyone in a uniform who acts like he knows what he’s doing.


With a cigarette burnt nearly two-thirds of the way down, most men would just say enough is enough and stub it out—on the ground or a shoe bottom—or perhaps flick it insouciantly out a car window. But Phineas J. Talbot isn’t most men and he isn’t about to waste a perfectly serviceable third of a cigarette, what with butts up to near eight bucks a pack and he less than certain as to the source of his next meal, much less his next smoke. Which is not to say that Phineas is an impoverished man. He maintains regular if unremarkably compensated employment and earns enough to keep a small apartment. That said, he is, statistically speaking, poor, at least by any objective governmental definition of the word. And he is—partly as a consequence of his economic status and partly due to certain aspects of his upbringing—less tolerant of waste than most people, particularly when it comes to consumables, be they mandatory like food, or discretionary like tobacco.

Other less conventional instances of Phineas’ parsimony abound, notable among them his washing, drying, and reuse of paper towels, and the fact that he has been using the same disposable razor for about a year and a half. His abject horror over the wasting of food is a trait ingrained in him since early youth when, accompanied by three younger sisters, he made his way weekly to “collect the welfare” at the town office. This assortment of foodstuffs was so heinous it was remarkable the government got away with merely giving it out rather than feeling in some way obligated to pay the poor to take the stuff off its hands. Particularly notable for its scant resemblance to actual food were the powdered eggs and powdered milk, the latter of which yielded a translucent blue-white liquid that looked less like something you’d be inclined to put on your morning cereal and more like the very ghost of the once living milk. As a consequence of a youth spent eating—and more often than not looking for ways to avoid eating—such swill, Phineas will now eat borderline rotten food from his refrigerator rather than throw it out.

None of which background is directly germane to the story soon to unfold, except perhaps to provide a broad foundational sense for why Phineas behaves in certain ways in response to certain stimuli, like, for example, seeing someone else waste food, or, for that matter, waste anything. He is given to bouts of proselytizing, not on the topic of faith, of which he has none (at least not in any traditional religious sense), but rather on matters of what he takes as honorable behavior, including not only the aforementioned parsimony, but also the eschewing of all foul language and a general sense of noblesse oblige—this latter a surprising characteristic in a man never himself much risen above the barest levels of self-sufficiency. Still, his deeply impoverished upbringing left him with the view that, despite his own hand-to-mouth existence, there now exist in the world plenty of folks less fortunate than himself, folks to whom he owes a debt of some sort.

Phineas—Phin to his friends, a spare but oddly loyal cadre of individuals—is a single man living a single life, which is not to say single in the libertine sense of frivolous dating, late sleeping, and a general lack of responsibility. The single life he leads is one of daily toil, punctuated by lengthy periods of crushing monotony and loneliness, time spent thinking more about the past than the future, yet another inexplicable thing, given that Phineas’ past is in no discernible way superior to whatever his future holds. Which brings up the perfectly reasonable question of why it would be important to bring up Phineas’ past life at all if it has been so truly lacking in import to this point. A fair question and one deserving of at least a serviceable answer. And that answer is that Phineas Talbot is a superhero.

Okay, a low-grade superhero, as we shall see directly, but a superhero nonetheless. He does not fly. Nor is he imbued with powers of invisibility, invincibility, or any other of the abilities that the world associates with the various and sundry Supermen, Batmen, and Spider-Men with which our movie screens are currently encumbered. His is a far more subtle, but no less noble, ability, and one that he practices with verve.

There is one additional bit of childhood history that needs to be expounded upon in order to fully grasp why Phineas behaves as he does. It is, if you like, the mortar that binds together all the elements of his upbringing and goes perhaps further than anything else to explaining the genesis of the activity that now consumes so much of Phineas’ non-working time. From the earliest possible age that he can recall in any detail (which commences around age five), there was not one single day in which Phineas was not beaten by one or both of his parents—parents who subscribed enthusiastically to the philosophy that sparing the rod was tantamount to spoiling the child. Quite literally anything Phineas did as a youth was grounds for corporal punishment, including, but not in the slightest way limited to, being late, not working hard enough, working hard but doing something incorrectly, failing to respond quickly enough to a parental exhortation, making too much noise, making too little noise (and thus arousing suspicion), failing to keep his bedroom clean, and letting the dog in or out at inopportune moments. On certain occasions, when Phineas had managed to endure a few hours of doing nothing whatsoever wrong, he would be beaten simply for failing to provide a reason to be beaten, the parental mindset being that protracted silence must surely be a precursor to some sort of scheming that was itself deserving of discipline.

The cruelest part of this experience, though, was not the physical—the welts, bruises, and occasionally more serious manifestations—but rather the psychological, particularly the inventive bit wherein Phineas (and occasionally his sisters) was obliged to walk into the backyard in search of a suitable switch with which to assault the back of his legs and buttocks. A switch, for the uninitiated, is a thin, green tree limb, young and supple, nature’s proxy for a bullwhip. Any species of tree would suffice, but a nice straight maple branch, three to four feet in length, tapering from a half-inch or so in diameter at the base to less than an eighth of an inch at the tip, made for a suitably resilient weapon, one guaranteed not to break under the great duress of corporal punishment. A switch of the proper dimensions—and everyone in Phineas’ household knew well the correct dimensions—made a portentous swishing sound when swung in test arcs through the air as Phineas walked slowly back to the house bearing the object of his torture. The selection was an important part of the process. Choosing a switch of insufficient dimension or that appeared in some arcane manner to be incapable of providing a sufficient measure of pain only guaranteed a beating with the inferior device followed by a return trip to try again. So inured to this ritual was Phineas in his youth that he actually had a favorite bush that he returned to whenever the situation called for it, which was admittedly not every day, since his parents were nothing if not creative in their choice of implements. The switch could be counted upon at least once or twice in any given week, the remainder of the days accommodated by paddles, leather belts, or the surprisingly resilient hardwood yardsticks that sold for fifty cents at the local hardware store.

By the time Phineas reached the age of eight or so, he had mastered the fine art of absorbing the pain of his daily ordeal without so much as a watering of his eyes, much less outright crying, which his sisters did in abundance, though their torment was not nearly as regular or as practiced as his own. The fact that he would not give his parents the satisfaction of crying out or shedding tears only further infuriated them and, quite possibly, served to prolong the sessions. This decade of torment came to a surprisingly abrupt end one summer afternoon shortly after Phineas’ thirteenth birthday, by which point he had grown nearly as tall as his mother. In the midst of a by now perfunctory beating for some offense or other, Phineas simply turned, removed the yardstick from his mother’s shocked hands, broke it over his knee, placed the pieces back into her astounded hands, said the lone word “Goodbye,” and walked out the front door of his house. He has not laid eyes on either parent so much as once in the ensuing twenty-four years.

The long-term impact of this tumultuous upbringing was not entirely a negative one though, for it armed Phineas in his adult life with the ability to endure colossal amounts of pain—physical and psychological—without any apparent ill effect. The principal lasting effect was a conscious decision arrived at early in adulthood to forego having children of his own at all cost, for fear of repeating the mistakes of his parents.


“Benjamin . . . Hey, it’s Phineas.”

“Phin, buddy! What’s going on? Got anything good for me?”

“Oh, I do, Ben. I surely do.”

“Talk to me, Phin. Did you get the Pelletiers?”

“I did indeed, and a more heinous pair of scumbags you will rarely encounter.”

“Strong words, Phin. Strong words. I trust you have the goods to back up your slanderous assertions.”

“Video and audio, my friend.” A lengthy pause. “Jesus, Ben, this kid needs a break now or he’ll be back in the ER before you can blink.”
“I hear you Phin, but you know the rules. Due process and all that. Remember that we—and when I say ‘we’ I mean ‘you’—are obtaining all of this evidence in a surreptitious manner that greatly complicates its use in prosecutorial affairs.”

“I get that, Ben, but . . . just watch the video. I e-mailed it over a few minutes ago. Pay special attention at about 14:27. The kid takes a shot right in the face. He’s six for Christ’s sake. Just get him out of the house. Worry about the scumbags later.”

“We’ll do what we can do, Phin. Let me give it a look and I’ll get back to you in a bit.”

“All right, Benjamin. Make it quick, okay?”

“You can count on it, buddy.”


Benjamin Faulkner is a prosecuting attorney for the city of St. Louis, with a special expertise and professional focus in the field of domestic violence. He has spent the better part of his career prosecuting abusive spouses and protecting the abused ones. Until about three years ago his main focus had been on the adults. But then had come the day—three years ago this coming June—when he had received his first e-mailed video clip from Phineas Talbot, a man he’d never met, but who could have easily obtained his contact information by consulting the directory for the St. Louis district attorney’s office. That introductory video was only twenty-six seconds long, but Faulkner will never forget it if he lives to be a hundred. In that twenty-six seconds, a girl of perhaps four is seen lying on the floor sobbing, only to be wrenched violently upward by an adult female. There is a clearly audible cracking sound as the girl’s arm breaks, followed immediately thereafter by screams that end mercifully after another few seconds. This e-mail, the one that has taken his career in such a different direction, was accompanied by a scan of an emergency room report bearing the same date as the video. The report had been signed by a Doctor Flannigan and it described the setting of a compound fracture of the left ulna—an injury sustained during an accidental fall down a flight of stairs in the home of Ronald and Marsha Belvue.


Having left home at an inauspiciously young age, Phineas never completed a formal education. He has, however, throughout his entire life been gifted in technical matters—televisions, computers, that sort of thing. Which is how it came to be that after three years on the street as an itinerant runaway, he lied his way into the Army at age sixteen, did a four-year stint as a cryptography hardware expert, and then found civilian employment as a field technician for a national retail electronics chain. And while he is never going to become wealthy troubleshooting customer computers and home entertainment systems, he enjoys the work and it keeps him up to date on the latest electronic trends. The job pays enough to support a modest apartment and the schedule is steady enough to afford him a good deal of spare time—time to pursue a pastime that he had stumbled upon shortly after getting out of the Army and settling in the small St. Louis suburb of Pleasanton.

He remembers that day, three years hence, as clearly as he does the current one. He had been perusing an online news site that reported on events local to the central Missouri area, and he had come across a story about a parent who had been taken to court for beating his young son to the point of unconsciousness and subsequent hospitalization. The parent was exonerated for lack of concrete proof that the boy’s injuries had not, in fact, been accidental as the man claimed. He had reflected, in that terrible moment, on his own childhood, one that, while filled with incessant beatings, had never degenerated to the point of actual hospitalization, and he wondered if he might not be in a position to possibly do something about situations like this one.

As luck would have it, he had made a friend shortly after moving to the St. Louis area, a woman with whom he had had a brief but unsuccessful romantic affiliation, followed by a surprisingly felicitous parting, so much so that the two still shared the occasional dinner or lunch and compared notes on their respective jobs. Hers was as a social worker, in which capacity she dealt regularly with reports of domestic abuse in the St. Louis area, both spousal and adolescent. It was in this latter capacity that Phineas had sought her assistance. Upon describing his vision for the role he might play, she had at first been uncertain. But, once Phin had thought it through in greater detail, he had explained the idea to her in such compelling terms that she was forced to agree that the notion had merit, just so long as he swore never to invoke her name should he be found out. Which is how it came to pass that Phineas gained access to a steady source of detailed information concerning homes in the area in which child abuse of one form or another was suspected but not yet proven to be taking place, at least not so certainly proven as to cause the separation of child from parent, preferably because of the latter being remanded to prison.

It had been an easy thing to create the necessary persona to become a convincing cable television repairman—a few tools, a doctored employee badge, and a plausible narrative about improving the service at certain selected homes identified in advance by his friend. You rang the doorbell, told your concocted story, installed a tiny video camera and microphone, and you left, the final ironic touch being that the abuser’s own Wi-Fi and Internet service provided the medium through which images of any subsequent abuse was streamed to high-capacity servers that Phineas had set up in his apartment. And because the tiny camera that Phin had obtained included a motion sensor, there was no need to edit out the lengthy periods of inevitable inactivity from a suspect’s home, though finding the specific bit of incriminating footage—if it was there at all—nonetheless required a good deal of watching and waiting. But eventually, inexorably, there it was, the precipitating offense, the harsh word, the too-slow response, and the injury.

Sometimes it was a simple beating, of more or less the sort Phineas had grown up receiving, doing little more than adding one more scarcely measurable increment to the psychological trauma the child would bear for the remainder of his or her days. Other times—and Phineas had, over a span of three years, developed a frighteningly acute sense of when it would come and which parent would deliver it—there would be the too violently yanked arm or the blow to the face, as painful to watch as it was to receive. These were the parents whose principal crime was an inability to control their own anger and who needed a convenient punching bag on which to take out their frustrations.

And then sometimes, mercifully rarer, were the parents who gave their cruelty a good bit of advance thought. These were the true practitioners, the ones who knew just how to deliver a blow so that it left no marks. They were the vilest of all, which is not to say that the parents who were simply unable to contain their pent-up anger were in any way defensible. But the ones who acted with premeditated malice, the ones whose child consciously avoided interacting with them at all unless utterly unavoidable, these were the ones Phineas did whatever he could to see punished.

In the early days, he had been uncertain as to what he should do with the handful of video clips he had begun to obtain—an uncertainty that lasted only until a night several weeks into the program when he had seen Benjamin Faulkner interviewed about the status of a local abuse case, and had learned that the attorney’s quest was very much like his own. It had required merely fifteen minutes online to locate the attorney’s e-mail address, and another five to send him the first clip and a request to meet.

Phin’s overtures, and Benjamin’s reactions thereto, had put the latter into an interesting position vis-à-vis his ethical responsibilities as a member of the Missouri bar. Much research had then ensued, particularly concerning the American Bar Association’s views on the ethicality, or lack thereof, associated with using as prosecutorial evidence recordings that had not been consented to by all parties concerned—consent that would likely not naturally be forthcoming. Most extant opinion on the matter dealt with cases in which the attorney had been directly involved in the recording activities, and the ABA had changed its view on these cases more than once in recent decades, though current views varied from one state to the next. But Faulkner and his paralegal had uncovered no opinions or precedents at all for cases in which a prosecuting attorney had been presented with such recordings from a third party, said third party offering no details on just how the recordings had been obtained. The matter had been raised by presiding judges in no less than half a dozen of the subsequent cases in which Faulkner had used Talbot’s recordings, and in no case had the evidence been thrown out as a result. That said, Faulkner nonetheless felt that he was cavorting on thin jurisprudential ice, and he had taken extraordinary care in adhering to every legal process nuance in pursuing such cases.


“Tell me you have good news, Ben.” Phin answers his cell phone on the first ring.

“Depends on who we’re talking about,” Faulkner’s enigmatic reply.

“Obtuseness doesn’t become you, Benjamin.”

“You know what I mean, Phin,” Faulkner responds. “We’ve played this record many times. You take the parents down. The kid goes into the foster system. Is he better off?”

“Don’t know, Ben. That’s for philosophers to decide. Or child psychologists. What I know is the kid is still breathing, so he’s got a shot . . . What about the Pelletiers?”

“CPS and Pleasanton’s finest are rolling as we speak. Just thought you’d like to know.”

“Thank you, Ben. You’re doing a good thing here.”

“I have colleagues in my office who can’t help but wonder where all this damning evidence is coming from.”

“You, of course, have no idea.”

“An anonymous benefactor of the community, no doubt.”

“No doubt indeed.”

“If it makes you feel any better, there is no breaking and entering taking place. They invite me in.”

“This could get me disbarred someday, you know.”

“It could get you elected mayor too.”

“May God help the good citizens of St. Louis when that day comes,” Faulkner replies. He draws the phone away from his ear and presses the disconnect button. Phineas Talbot has him in a position from which there is no escape. He can change his e-mail and phone number, but as a public official, he’s easily located. He could simply refuse to prosecute the cases, but he knows perfectly well that he cannot watch the footage Talbot sends him and then do nothing in response. The two men have done this dance now seventeen times in the past almost three years, and in all seventeen cases one or more children have been taken away from abusive parents. In more than half of those cases, one or both parents have subsequently been incarcerated. It’s the reason he took this job, and if the ends require some slightly extrajudicial means, then so be it. As Faulkner ponders these things, his cell phone rings again. It’s the CPS agent parked in front of the Pelletier residence. They have the child.


Saturday morning, nearing lunchtime, and Phineas stands on the doorstep of 14 Hidalgo Lane, Pathways Cable badge in one hand, wireless scheduling device in the other. As the sun peeks from behind a late morning cloud, a young boy, no older than eight, opens the front door.

“Yes, sir?” he answers. The boy wears a SpongeBob SquarePants tee shirt and shorts. He has a single sneaker on his left foot, the right covered from mid-foot to just below the knee in a plaster cast that is covered with autographs and drawings.

“Hi there, son,” Phin greets the boy with a broad smile. “Are your folks home?”


Leave a Reply

* Required
** Your Email is never shared