As a perfectly normal thing but always a jab right into the rib cage is a rejection letter. In this case, it was for Machine of Death. Like the Wizards of the Coast campaign contest, I was up against a huge number of people. Over 700 according to the rejection letter, soI can understand why I was rejected, I just hope it was because there were too many other better entries as opposed to "it is other shite!" In some ways, I'm glad that I know even though I won't be accepted. It is also hard when my first attempts at getting published were rapid and immediate but when I try seriously, I fail more often than not. I guess, it's just a matter of either aiming higher than I should be (I won't stop though), or being in a much larger field with so many other talented writers. I suspect the latter; I'm not the best now that I'm aiming higher. So... I'm just going to keep on trying.
Since it is a rather specific story concept, I just threw it up on my website. I'm also going to post it here, behind a lj-cut for those who would like to read a short (4,295 word) story.
Detective Edward Stolis stepped over the body of the dead woman and crouched down next to the teenage girl next to her. The teenager looked up with all the pain in the world as tears rolled down her cheeks, marring her mascara and splashing down on the sequined dress that covered her lap. For a moment, he wondered at the purpose of wearing a dress such as that, but then he spotted the edge of something in the purse next to her. Idly, he tugged it out and stared at the ticket for the Phantom of the Opera at one of the many theaters in town. One pointless mystery solved. He rested one hand on the shuddering shoulder of the teenage girl and did his best to speak in a comforting tone.
"I think it's about time for you to head home."
Even as he spoke, she shook her head, her fingers clutching her dead mother's hand tightly. A broken whisper escaped her lips, choking off in the middle as she swallowed hard.
"No! I-I can't... I can't leave my mommy."
A teenage girl calling her dead mother "mommy" felt out of place, but it wasn't Edward's place to correct her. Instead, he just kept his hand on her shoulder and watched her sob, the tears splashing down on the blood-stained dress. His eyes scanned around, the words freezing in his own throat. He focused on the bright and cheery yellow prints on the wall, but they felt fake and tacky compared to the blood below. Absently, he reached out and straightened out the hem of girl's dress, where it started to ride up her thigh. She didn't notice his inappropriate maneuver and he snatched his back as soon as modesty once again returned.
Coughing, he closed his eyes and tried not to picture his own daughter. She was only a few years younger than this sobbing teen, but the sorrow that slammed into his heart would be the same when...
Edward forced himself to think about something else. With a grunt, he began to stand up, but a hand grabbed his, pulling him back down on one knee. The teenager stared at him, her murky brown eyes glistening with tears.
"No... please don't leave me."
Discomfort rose inside him, but he nodded. Shifting his sore knee into a better place, he remained next to her as the police spread out through the house, trying to find clues to track down the killer. Edward watched, the need to be in charge strong inside the detective but the frantic hand that held him refused to move.
His eyes narrowed as he watched a nondescript sedan pull up. Gold and white, he knew it almost as well as his own car. A women stepped out of it, smoothing down her suit pants before heading purposefully toward the house. Edward let his gaze drop back to the teenager.
"G... um... Gail was it?"
She nodded, not looking at him.
"Gail, I need to get back to the-"
Her eyes shot up, blood-shot, "No... please, no. Don't leave me."
Compassion rose up in his throat, choking him. He cleared his throat twice.
"I need to, but Nancy," he tried not to pause over the name, "Marston is coming here for you."
He nodded with his chin. The teenager followed his gaze, then returned her gaze to him, eyes wide.
"D-Do you trust her?"
He felt a dagger in his heart but pushed it away. Nancy slowed down as she drew closer, a frown shadowing her face for a moment. He nodded.
"I'd trust her with my daughter's life."
Gail hesitated but she let Edward draw her to her feet. Her body shook violently as he passed her hand over to Nancy who took it smoothly. A glare to Edward was his only thanks, then Nancy took the teenager back to her car. He watched them both until the red brake lights disappeared around the corner at the end of the street. The flash of red and blue filled every crack and shadow. Half a dozen police cars spread out on the street, snarling up traffic and gathering a crowd of onlookers for blocks in all directions. Most of the officers were inside with a few in the backyard, probing for clues. The detective brushed off his knees and stalked back into the house.
The district medical examiner, a young man in his late twenties, sat on the floor, filling out paperwork. Hundreds of plastic bags spread out around him as he filed through blood samples, hair, and every other little bit of biological matter they found so far. There wasn't much, but what they did found appeared to be pretty solid.
"What do we have?"
The examiner didn't even look up as he flipped back a few pages with a dramatic sigh.
"We found skin and hair samples by the television and the back door. It didn't match those samples from the bathrooms upstairs, plus we found a small bit of blood on a sharp edge of the back lock."
"Any useful clues?"
"Sandy brown hair, appears to be fairly short. The girl saw the man, about hundred sixty, reasonable strength and very fast."
"Typed the blood?"
"Yes, and I already had the samples sent over to the Machine."
Edward felt a pressure squeezing around his chest, causing his heart to skip for a moment. He wiped his forehead on his sleeve.
"The LAMP queue is forty-five minutes when I-"
The detective snapped impatiently, "How long?"
The examiner jumped slightly, "Maybe five minutes."
Edward paused and turned around slowly. His eyes focused on every police officer, one by one. He noticed how their frantic search for clues had trailed off. Instead of dusting for fingerprints, they were just pushing a few top books aside or pawing through drawers with curiosity. The sense of urgency had faded too fast. A scowl darkened his face as he returned his growing glare to the examiner.
"I take it that the others know."
"Well," he watched defensive outrage rising up in the younger man, "I did call it in."
The detective shrugged, fighting to force the glare from his face. He cleared his throat, then spoke in a louder voice to the room.
"Listen, we have five more minutes until the LAMP gets back. At least pretend you are trying to find the murderer? We have a dead mother and a sobbing girl and I'd like to find the man who did this."
A few officers looked away in embarrassment, but they began to seriously look once again. Edward snapped at the examiner before heading to the other murder, the back room of the house.
"Tell me as soon as the report gets in."
He didn't wait for a response. The back room had a large television set, a HD television set, easily ninety inches across, and a small flotilla of DVD cases scattered out across the floor. One officer was photographing the cases with a digital camera while a second recorded the scene on a camcorder, also digital and marked with a LAPD asset sticker. A third, the specialist, sat at one table, working frantically at his laptop. The detective made his way to the third, sitting down heavily next to him.
"I have a 90% probability scenario, want to see?"
The computer specialist hit a few buttons and the complexity of the screen disappeared as the screen grew blank. Then, the room appeared on the screen, with a vague image of a man in a chair, watching television. The computer fan rose up as a parody of nature came around the cornered, sneaking across the room. It pulled out a gun and shot the man once in the back of the head. As the body slumped forward, another shot fired and hit the television right below the screen with a large "X" shape. Edward's eyes looked at the corresponding spot and saw where a bullet had impacted through the plastic grill. His eyes returned to the screen as it followed the murderer pawing through the DVD's, then at the bar. He headed up stairs and the computer followed, showing a probable path toward the dresser. Then, he stopped and sprinted for the stairs just as Gail and her mother entered. He closed his eyes tightly for just a second, opening them in time to see the two women catching the murderer running down the stairs. Two shots were fired and the killer shoved past Gail to race outside.
The video ended by fading back to black. Edward leaned back.
"I'll throw it on the Beowulf cluster to poke holes into it once I get back to forensics, but that seems to be a rough estimate of what happened. We've collected about three terabytes from the cameras, plus the laser scanners, so I'm about to pack up."
"Seal up the place for two days in case I need more information, then wait for the reports."
The specialist gestured to the other officers who returned the cameras, placing them in a foam-lined case at the edge of the table. The forensics reconstructor gathered up everything and trundled his equipment to his van. Edward helped him, carrying one of the cases and setting it gingerly on the floor of the van.
The forensic specialist nodded once and headed out. Edward turned around and noticed three more squad cars were gone. He looked back at the white-sided house, lights beaming out of all the windows. The crowds that gathered with the flashing lights thinned out since he last stormed outside, bored with the normal police work they didn't show on television.
With a heavy heart, Detective Stolis returned to the house.
"Where is the examiner?"
One of the officers, who set down a set of books she was looking through, shrugged.
"He left about a minute ago."
"Did the report come in?"
She started to shrug, then pointed to the dining room table. Edward carefully walked to the table and gathered up the folder. The very top read the words he hated with a passion: "Los Angeles County Machine Prediction (LAMP)."
Flipping through the folder, he read through the brief notes from the medical examiner. A short piece of paper slipped out and he read it, an excuse from the examiner. He grunted without amusement. Setting it down, he flipped through the pages until he found four tiny slips of paper in block writing. Stapled to each one was a complicated sheet of paper identifying the DNA source.
The first was the mother's blood sample. The paper read "Shot by gun." The second, "Broken neck." He flipped up the medical examiner's report and sure enough, the bullet had shattered his neck. The third was for Gail, "Heart attack."
His hands shaking slightly, he flipped up to the last page, the unknown murderer. It took him a moment to focus on the tiny slip of paper.
He read it three more times. With a dejected sigh, he set down the folder and closed his eyes. Behind him, he could hear the last officer giving up on the investigation, heading out to the cars. A roar of engines and the house grew silent. His whisper rose up around him.
"I hate that machine."
He walked around the house and locked the doors behind him. The speed that the other officers abandoned the case bothered him, but no court drowned criminals. In fact, it was one of the obscure types of deaths that pretty much declared that the police wouldn't catch him. He let himself fume in the darkened house for a few minutes before leaving. Locking it behind him, he sealed the key in the evidence locker by the door. A heavy chain attached it to the house, despite the fact only a single brass key actually filled the empty space.
Above him, the summer night felt like a weight on his shoulder as he headed to his own car, parked almost three blocks away. When he arrived, it was the closest free spot along the curb but now, it felt like a pointless trek.
Sitting down heavily, he flipped open his cellphone and hit the second speed dial. Three rings later, a professional voice answered.
"LA Detective Hotline, how may I help you?"
"This is Detective Edward Stolis, any messages?"
"It," the sounds of flipping through a computer screen, "it doesn't look like it, detective. Oh, wait, your wife-"
He froze as an uncomfortable silence rang out. The administrative assistant corrected herself quickly.
"I'm sorry, Ms. Marston has filed her report and brought the girl to City Central. According to the captain, you're report is going to be the last one in."
"Okay, I'll submit it in a few hours. I need to come in to finish typing it."
The assistant obviously disapproved, but he hung up on her. Shoving the key into the ignition, he pulled the car away from the curb and toward the police station. An hour of snarling traffic even at night, he sat himself down heavily at his desk and wrote out his report. He finished with a complaint about the officer's conduct after they learned of the LAMP results, but he already knew they wouldn't bother responding to it, they never did. At two past midnight, he staggered out of the station and back into his car.
Instead of driving out immediately, he sighed and leaned against the steering wheel. His fingers fingered the key of his hotel room, then reached over to pull another folder from the passenger side floor. Beneath it, there was a second folder but he ignored it at first.
His eyes glared over the LAMP header, then he flipped it open with a masochistic urge rising inside him. He paged through the first pages, the identifiers of the sample burned into the back of his head to stop on the second to last page. Another tiny strip of paper, this one with three words that squeezed his heart every time he read it.
"Killed by husband."
Tears burned at his eyes and he flipped to the last page, a picture of Nancy and him, holding hands and kissing. He shook his head, tears rolling down his cheeks. For a long time, he just stared at the picture before closing the folder with a snap. He set it back down on the floor of the car and fingered the second folder. Feeling his heart skip, he started to open it, then slapped it shut, afraid to read the contents.
With a heavy heart, he headed to his hotel. The room smelling of cleaning fluids and old stains assaulted his senses. He will wasn't used to the smells, even though he spent every night there for two weeks. Listlessly, he crawled into bed and prayed for sleep to consume him.
His nightmares consumed his night, leaving him feeling restless and anxious when he woke. He went along his job, clarifying the report of the murderer and working on a new case, a theft from the prior week's riots. It cheered him up slightly and he was ready to call it a successful day when his cell phone rang out shrilly. He jumped before reaching over his seat to grab it from his jacket. His hands continued to steer his car through traffic as he peered down at the screen.
It was a number, a short number that took him another moment to recognize. It was the code that Nancy always used, when she wanted him to find her. A little sexy game they used to play, when both of them used GPS trackers in their cell phones to play tag across the city. He let a ghost of a smile stretch across his face until he noticed the last set of numbers.
Their emergency code. They never used it, but they always talked about it. The air drew outside of him as ice filled his lungs. Feelings of rage, danger, and protectiveness rose up.
An icy cold feeling grabbed him as he flipped on the police band tracker and punched in the phone number for Nancy's phone. His car slowed down, invoking horns and swears, but he didn't care. Instead, he just jerked the car into the far right lane and waited impatiently for the tracking system to find his wife's phone. It let out a shrill beep and he floored it, flipping on his flashers as he punched through traffic. The normal sprawl of LA spread apart as he raced down the middle, the central computer for the automated driving systems giving him freedom to hit over a hundred.
It wasn't until he slowed down a few blocks away that he recognized his destination. The house of the murder from the night before. His eyes narrowed and he checked his gun before padding toward the house. It was growing dark and he could see movement upstairs. The evidence locker yawned open, the digital keypad indicating that "N. Stolis" had opened it. At least the computers haven't been switched over to her maiden name yet. He used his shoe to push open the door.
The house was silent, except for the sounds of heavy steps upstairs, moving back and forth. The detective crept inside the house, his gun ready to fire. In the day that passed, the house remained as he left it, except he noticed the DVD cases had been moved, scattered out across the floor in a new pattern.
His eyes riveted at the stairs, he crept toward the back, forcing himself to breath steadily. Peeking in the back, he felt his heart skip at the sight of Gail's body sprawled out on the floor, blood pooling underneath her.
He whispered angrily as he crouched by her, using two fingers to press against her neck. She still had a pulse, erratic but beating. Relief flooded through him as he quickly inspected her. The wound had caught her right in the midriff, destroying the button-down shirt he recognized from Child Services. Next to her, he spotted a bag filled with clothes that looked like hers. He guessed they came back for them when something happened.
He yanked his cell phone from his pocket and dialed rapidly as set of police codes. The emergency GPS LED began to flash and he set it down next to her.
Leaning over her, he whispered, "Don't worry, as long as your heart keeps beating, you won't die."
It was hollow words, but he heard movement upstairs again. Praying that the girl would be okay, he quickly glanced through the rest of the house before heading up the stairs. As his foot reached near the top, he heard Nancy scream out and a gunshot filled the room.
Intense emotions blinded him and he sprinted up the remaining stairs loudly. He spun around for a moment, then kicked open the nearest door. Seeing no one, he raced for the next door and kicked it open. Splinters flew everywhere as he spotted movement and brought his gun up into a firing position.
It was a man, a stranger with sandy blond hair. He had his arm around Nancy's neck, holding a gun to her forehead as she tried to kick him back. Black burns scored the side of her face, gun powder burns Edward guessed, but he focused on the man.
"Let her go!"
The man snarled back, "Like hell I will!"
"Let her go or I'll shoot!"
"What, through her?"
Edward froze, fear rising up inside her. He watched the end of the gun shake, his hands feeling a thousand miles from his body. The man stared, backing up closer to a window. His gun remained steady.
"What, no words? Wait..." a slow, vicious grin crossed his face, "You know her death, don't you? You used the machine."
Edward's silence answered him more than anything else. The man laughed loudly, amused with himself almost as much as Edward's sudden inaction.
"What is it? Shot to death, a fall through a window. Oh, I know, died of boredom from a pathetic husband!"
He chortled happily. Nancy struggled, but the murderer pressed his gun tightly against her forehead. She whimpered, her eyes locked on her husband.
The murderer shook her, "Shut your ass, I'm talking. So, how does she die?"
Edward tried to speak, but his lips refused to move and his throat spasmed up. He forced his mouth to open, but before he could get the words out, Nancy's voice interrupted him, speaking in a deadpanned voice.
"Killed by husband."
A stunned silence stretched out between them and Edward stared into the eyes of his wife. Her own misty green eyes locked on his and he realized he still loved her more than anyone else in the world.
The murderer laughed, "Oh, that is rich! Here I just have to worry about drowning, but this bastard is going to be the one killing you!"
He let out a booming laugh, squeezing her tightly as he did. She jerked, her face turning red as he kicked at her feet.
"Oh, damn. You are screwed!"
The murderer leveled his gun toward Edward. The detective couldn't move, still caught in the realization that his wife already knew her own death. He shook violently, the tip of his gun bobbing at the edge of his vision.
"Well, I hope you're death includes being shot by a murderer."
Edward saw Nancy speaking silently, her mouth working. He made out only a single word, a word that brought tears to his eyes.
He shook his head, but she glared at him, repeating herself, her lips working silently as she told him to shoot once again. Edward didn't, but then he realized his own mortality was coming closer. His eyes jerked to focus on the man's face when he saw a muscle twitching. Praying he wouldn't get hit, he dodged to the right as the gun went off. In the split-second before the murderer could shoot again, Edward shot his wife. The bullet ripped into her and out through the murderer, slamming into wall behind.
Edward's world exploded in pain as he slammed into a dresser. His heart pounded painfully as he scrambled back into position, his gun shaking and tears streaming down his cheek.
The murderer laughed.
"I told you, I can't... be..." a puzzled expression crossed his face, "I... I..." Blood flecked his lips, then burbled out as he coughed. The cloud of red soaked into Nancy's shoulder as two guns clattered to the ground. Edward stumbled forward to catch Nancy as the murderer threw her back, his hands grabbing his throat. More blood gurgled up. The detective saw that his bullet caught the man in the chest, in his right lung. His lips tightened as the man dropped to his knees, choking on his own life fluids. At the dull thump that shook the walls, Edward ignored the murderer and caress his wife.
Nancy cracked open one eye and glared at him.
"I-I'm sorry. I-I didn't want-"
She groaned and pressed her hand against her shoulder. Edward's eyes opened up wide as he realized that the growing circle of crimson centered on her collar. He held her as he tore at her shirt, yanking it open. He barely noticed the red lace bra as he stared in shock at the obviously non-fatal bullet wound.
He stuttered, then stopped. Taking a deep breath, he looked at her and saw a wry smile crossing her lips.
"How long did you know?"
"Ten years... fuck, that hurts! Ten years ago."
"But, that was before we married."
Nancy chuckled, then winced, "Yes, three years before I ever met you."
"But, why," he felt like his body left the planet, "W-Why did you marry me?"
She leveled a glare at him, "Because I love you, you bastard. Even if you kill me, I'm still going to love you."
"I-I don't know what to say."
"How about... let me call an ambulance?"
Relieved and still in shock, he picked her up and set her down on the bed. She groaned in pain, a forced smile on her lips. Edward checked the pulse of the murderer but didn't find one. By the time he realized that the man had drowned in his own blood, sirens echoed against the walls and once against the house lit up with the red and blue flashes.
"Gail is downstairs, I should check on her."
Nancy nodded. Edward walked quickly out of the room, but her voice drew him back.
"Did you do yourself?"
Edward nodded slowly.
"Couldn't get the courage to look?"
She knew him too well.
"Then never look at it. Burn it up and forget it. I don't care how you die, Edward, I only care how you live."
She was right, as much as he hated it. She loved him even though he may be the one killing her in the end. He wiped at the tears in his eyes, thankful that she remained with him.
"I love you."
Naturally, Nancy had to have the last word.
"And you are moving back in, you bastard."