Saturday, February 24, 2007

Self-Inflicted Gunshot Wound

Here 'tis, my second attempt at a Machine of Death story. This one isn't even trying to be a comedy, and if, by the end, you are in tears, then I have done my job.

I've placed it behind a LiveJournal-esque "cut". Click here.


I hate filing death certificates. It’s the worst part of being a coroner. I always have hated it, and I always will… I’ve been doing this for years now, if I were going to get used to it, it would have happened. I hate the feeling I get when I turn what was once a human being into a page full of statistics and a two-line summary of what ended their lives. I used to labor for hours over them, feeling an inexplicable shame with every word, as if I were the one condemning them. A bad habit, I know.

“You have to separate yourself, Miss Patterson,” my boss used to say, drawing out the ‘Miss’ just long enough to annoy me. “The only people in a coroner’s office are the coroner and his assistant. Everything else,” and here he would gesture to the bodies lounging on the cold, metal tables, “is an item to be studied and data to be recorded. If it ever was a person, it stopped being so some time ago. You have to make that distinction if you ever want to cut it as a coroner.”

There was that unspoken assumption: that I wanted to be a coroner. I wanted to be a detective, but somehow I’d never quite worked up the nerve to join the real police force. But there was the coroner’s office, willing to take someone right out of college who knew a little bit about forensic pathology, and groom her as the next coroner. Clark County was a small district and no one was exactly clamoring for the position, so I fell into the role of assistant coroner. And then last month, I fell into the role of acting coroner.

I don’t know exactly where my boss went, but I know why he left; somewhere, he’s trying to outrun his destiny.

“Did you hear, Miss Patterson? They finally opened the fortune teller booth at the mall.” It was a slow day—it was almost always a slow day in a district this small—and he was reading the Clark County Bugle at his desk while I was cleaning and reorganizing the equipment.

“You mean that… machine thing?” I asked. He nodded behind his newspaper; I could see the top of his bald head bobbing. “I would have figured the hospital would get one first.”

“Free enterprise, kiddo.” I hated that nickname. If I needed a father figure, I would have picked somebody far less heartless. “The hospital needs to justify buying the fortune teller to a board of trustees. All this Tom Weller needs is a hunch and some capital. Anyway, point is, you’re on your own this afternoon.”

I dropped the scalpel I was scrubbing, aghast. “Don’t tell me you’re actually going to use that device! It’s… it’s grotesque!”

“Oh please,” he said as he folded is paper and stood up. “Don’t pretend you’re not curious about what’s going to bring you, well, here.” He laughed, a dirty-old-man sort of rasp that was usually more charming than sinister. “I know at my age it’ll be comforting to know the sorts of situations I should try to avoid. Unless it turns out to be ‘heart attack while making love’. That one, I think I’ll end up hurrying along.” He rasp laughed again, and then walked out into the afternoon air.

I never saw him again. Seems he bought a bus ticket to Florida and left that night, leaving most of his life behind. I’ve come to understand that destiny is much less amusing when you can hold it in your hand. Whatever’s in Florida, or not in Florida, I wish him the best, but he could have picked a better time to throw me into the role of acting coroner.

One death a week was about normal for Clark County; usually natural causes, sometimes accidents, and yes, occasionally, homicide. Rarely, but it’s happened. Ten bodies had come in here over the last two weeks, though, and I was only half-trained, so I was quickly finding myself swamped. Lieutenant Roland of the Clark County Police had volunteered to help me by filling out the certificates; his motives seemed dubious at best, but I wasn’t going to turn down a little help. Of course, I still had to go over each one before I’d sign off on them, and that’s when the problem with Mary Scaduto was brought to my attention. ‘Self-inflicted gunshot wound to the right temple’ was there in Lieutenant Roland’s neat handwriting, but I remembered rattling off the information during the autopsy, and at no point did I say anything like ‘self-inflicted’.

The Clark County Police Department was, conveniently enough, just next door. I could have just corrected the form, but if the detective thought I had ruled Mary a suicide, I felt I had to make sure he knew that it wasn’t a sure thing. Minutes later I had thrown on my coat, jogged through the autumn chill from one door to the next, and burst through the frosted glass doors into the stony silence of the CCPD.

The room was cavernous, complete with picture windows, marble columns, gold filigree accents and other remnants of a much larger budget. It housed about forty desks and about twelve officers, all of whom looked up when they heard the door open, the scratching of pens on paper and the clicking of keyboards fading away. The door closed itself behind me with a thud, and the noise from outside was completely drowned out. I could hear my heart pounding and virtually nothing else. It was unnerving.

“I remember when this place used to bustle,” I said under my breath. The words rushed to fill the vacuum, reaching out to all corners of the room. I might as well have screamed at the top of my lungs; the officers turned back to their work, some blushing, feigning a newfound vigor that would undoubtedly fade within minutes.

“A month ago,” said Lieutenant Roland. He was standing by the coffee maker to the right of the front door. He had a mug in his hand, but he wasn’t filling it, he was just staring down the coffeepot. “Hey there, Coroner Patterson.”

“Jen,” I corrected, for the umpteenth time. It wasn’t a flirtatious game; I just don’t like being called ‘Coroner Patterson’. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure he thought it was. Lieutenant Roland was sweet enough, but a little too old and a little too sharp-tempered for me. We’d been out to dinner together a few times, but nothing came of it.

“Jen,” he said, smiling sadly. “We’ve lost over three quarters of the force this last month. Some quit, some begged for a transfer, and some just stopped showing up. Of course, we’ve had more sign-ups than ever before… lot of hot-headed rookies who think they’re immortal and, I guess, are.” I cocked my eyebrow at him. “No worries about going into the line of fire if you’re going to be killed by tuberculosis, is there?”

I shrugged. “I suppose not. But—” I started, but his hard glance cut me off. There were a few perfectly reasonable ways to catch T.B. in the line of duty, and he knew it, but I guess the nigh-immortal rookies didn’t. No sense letting that information out. “Um, listen, I came to talk to you about Mary Scaduto.”

He nodded, tapped the coffeepot thoughtfully one last time, and then filled his mug from the water cooler. “Right, let’s step into my office.” The lieutenant stormed off, staring at his mug of water and grinding his teeth.

“Your office?” I jogged behind him, trying to keep time with his long strides, through the door clearly labeled ‘Chief’. He perched on the desk and nodded at the door. I shut it behind me.

“Chief Miller left. Yesterday. Quit, out of the blue. Moving to Venice.” He took a sip of his water, and frowned at the mug. “No cars in Venice,” he muttered.

“He went to the fortune teller.”

“Yeah. Yeah, he did.” Lieutenant Roland began to take another sip, but ended up slamming the mug on the table in disgust. “Alright,” he said as he made his way around the desk to his chair, “what’s the deal with Mary Scaduto?”

The desk was a great big mahogany affair, another memory of a bigger budget. It was overcrowded with disorganized papers and file folders, but no personal effects besides a small photo frame I recognized as having a picture of the lieutenant’s parents. All that remained, besides the computer and phone, was a large, untouched salad that the lieutenant began pushing around with his fork. “You wrote on the death certificate that she committed suicide.”

“She did,” he said. He prodded the salad a little more. When we went out, both times, he got a steak and hardly touched the vegetables. He was in good enough shape, but I’d never known him to eat healthy. I tried to shake it off as some sort of self-improvement regime.

“Um. I don’t think she did, actually. The entry wound had gunpowder burns around it, indicative of a shot from a few inches away.” I mimicked the gun by pointing my finger at my temple. “But that’s an unnatural pose for a suicide; they tend to press the barrel against their head,” I mimicked that motion, “which eliminates powder burn.”

Lieutenant Roland shook his head. “Tend to, but don’t have to.”

“But Lieutenant, I can’t in good conscience—”

“She had a destiny.” He dropped his salad fork in the uneaten greens and pulled a file from somewhere on the pile. “Found on her person, just like the other nine,” he said, pulling a small evidence bag out of the folder and passing it to me. I’d never actually seen one of these before; in the bag was a slip of paper, not much bigger than a fortune-cookie fortune, with the word ‘suicide’ printed on it in neat capital letters. I tried to imagine being handed this and told it was my future. I couldn’t.

“It’s just a piece of paper.” I said, even though I knew in my gut it was something much more than that. “It can be faked.”

“It can be traced. Just like any printer. Hers and all the other predictions came from the same device; the one from the mall. They’re real predictions.”

“I just don’t trust it. You should put someone on this, Lieutenant.”

“I don’t have anyone!” he snapped. I didn’t flinch, but I was caught off-guard. So was Lieutenant Roland; he took a deep breath and held it, mouthing a count to ten. Very subtly, he pressed his right thumb against his left wrist… he was feeling his pulse.

“You went to that machine too, didn’t you?” I didn’t mean it to sound as accusatory as it did, but there was a part of me that felt let down. I had always thought of Lieutenant Roland as a rational, down-to-earth sort of man. Someone like me, I guess. I shouldn’t have been surprised, though; everyone was falling into the swell of the fortune tellers and the hysteria that followed. I’d seen it in the news and read it in the papers for years… I just never thought it would get as far as Clark County.

“Heart attack,” he said. “No more red meat, no more coffee, no more getting angry and there’s still no guarantees that it won’t come out of the blue the next time I stand up.” Without warning, the lieutenant’s voice cracked and he squeezed his eyes shut. I pretended to be fascinated with the evidence bag in front of me, to give him as much privacy and dignity as possible. After a moment, he cleared his throat, and I looked up to see him rubbing his eyes. “I’m getting a headache,” he lied.

“Aspirin,” I said, as I rooted through my purse for a bottle. “Also good for your heart.” I passed him the bottle.

“Thank you,” he said. He shook out a pill and took it with a swig of water from his mug. When he handed the bottle back he had regained his composure. “But I honestly don’t have men to spare right now. Not unless there’s some compelling evidence for foul play.”

The evidence wasn’t compelling, and I knew it. “It just rubs me the wrong way, Lieutenant.”

“I can’t send people off on a glorified hunch,” he said, but he was grimacing at Mary Scaduto’s file as he said it. He held an imaginary gun up to his temple, and shook his head. “No, it doesn’t seem right, does it?” he asked, more to himself than to me. He ground his teeth, lost in thought; I patiently waited to see what he was going to decide. “Fine,” he said, and handed me the file. “It’s your case.”

“What?” I asked.

The lieutenant sighed. “I don’t have men to spare, but I don’t like this either. So I’m deputizing you, and promoting you. Acting Detective Patterson, welcome to the force. Take this badge and this gun.” He opened one of the drawers on the desk and removed a police badge and a holstered gun, which he left on the desk in front of me. “I know you’ve fired a gun before.”

I had fired a gun twice, at a shooting range. It was the lieutenant’s idea of a good first date… another reason he and I never got very far. I barely grazed the target, too. “Yes,” I said, less sure of myself than I’d like.

“I don’t want you to use it, but I want you to have it.” The lieutenant took a deep breath and stood up slowly… he kept his eyes closed until he was on his feet and, I suppose, sure that his heart was still beating. “Follow me and I’ll get you a clip for it.”

“Can you do this?” I asked, just before he opened the door. It stopped him.

“I have no idea what I can and cannot do. Right now, I’m just trying to keep the county running at all. I’ll accept the repercussions when they come.” He didn’t sound noble or heroic when he said that. There was no trace of the righteous officer, bending the rules to save the day. Lieutenant Roland just sounded… defeated. And as I followed him through the solemn police station, past listless officers half-heartedly going about their business while keeping one eye open for whatever would do them in, I felt the same. The world we used to know was gone forever and the one that took its place… well, it was a grim place indeed.

***

Two hours later, I was back at my desk, combing through all the information available on the ten suicides of the last two weeks. There was a daunting amount of text to go through; understaffed or not, the police officers gave each case due investigation. Somewhere between the innumerable photographs, the marginally-organized notes and the interviews with family and friends, every cheap manila file folder was too full to close properly. I’d managed to skim my way through nine of them and set them in two piles on either side of the desk. The divisions were basically my gut reactions to the facts as presented to me, but I think they made sense. To my left, the ‘almost certainly suicide’ pile.

Charles Brophy left a detailed note behind him; photocopies of the blood-stained missive were tucked into the back of the file. Elizabeth O’Leigh leapt off a bridge in public, clutching a journal full of angst-ridden poems. Carlos Reyes had a history of failed attempts… six in the last two years. Three justifiable suicides out of my ten—aged 16, 14, and 19, respectively. As sick as it makes me feel, that’s half the reason I put them in a pile… everyone else was over thirty. It had been about a decade since I was a teenager, but I remembered all too well what those years could be like.

On my other hand, the six I was sure were homicides: Mary Scaduto, of course; James Sinclaire, who had no hesitation marks around his stab wounds; Lisa DuMont, who showed signs of struggling against her noose; Julia Singe, who had purchased plane tickets just before she died; Robert Kiney, who shot himself with his hunting rifle rather than his pistol; and John Hummel, who shot himself with a gun records indicate he didn’t own. Yes, they all could have killed themselves, and treated individually, there was no particular reason to assume that they hadn’t, considering the fates that machine had assigned them.

But six suspicious suicides in two weeks?

“How’s it going?” the lieutenant’s voice echoed through the mortuary. I yelped and put my hand in my purse, reaching for the gun, before I realized who it was. Honestly, I have no idea what I thought I was going to do with that gun… it was heavy, I would take forever to wrangle it out of my purse, and my aim was terrible, even if I could bring myself to shoot at a person. But thinking about some spree killer loose in Clark County had me more on edge than I had realized.

“Um, slowly,” I said, hoping that he hadn’t noticed my moment of panic. If he had, he wasn’t acknowledging it, which I suppose was only fair of him. He padded over, impressively silent for a man his size. “‘If you know you’re going to lose the game, why keep playing at all?’” I quoted.

“Ah, the Brophy boy’s note. Do you have an answer?”

“I was hoping you did.” He didn’t say anything. I shut the last file, that of Sister Grace LaBarbara, and put it on the homicide pile. “A nun wouldn’t kill herself.”

“She might.”

I shook my head. “She might, but I’ve got seven ‘might’s in this pile now. Two, maybe. Three, maybe. Seven? No. Something’s up.”

“So what’s the link?” He stared down at me, brow furrowed. I had no idea what the link might be… I tried to stutter a reply, but he cut me off. “Patterson, seven people don’t separately decide to commit a homicide. These people all have to have something in common,” he said, tapping on the right-hand pile. “Find out what it is. I have to go on patrol.” He tapped the stack a few more times. It was only seven files tall, but they were sizable files, so it was about a foot tall. Lieutenant Roland looked like he wasn’t sure whether he should say something or not. Eventually, he went for it. “I had my suspicions too, you know. Back when this pile was only four corpses high and the Chief was still around so I had spare time to look things over. I couldn’t find the link.” He smiled. It was a weak smile, to be sure, but there was more hope in it than I’d seen all day. “But I didn’t make you a detective because you’re a pretty face.”

It was pretty much the worst pick-up line I had ever had used on me… it was a little too backhanded to actually be complimentary, way more condescending than it had any right to be, and not even very well worded. But I’d just spent two hours reading the dehumanized stories of dead people and becoming convinced that there was a serial killer just behind me. I needed something, anything, to break the mood, and a bad line served the purpose. “Thank you, Lieutenant.”

He nodded, still smiling in his awkward but earnest way. “Ted.”

“Ted.” Okay, maybe it was a flirtatious game. Probably best to get out of it; I broke eye contact and turned back to my files. It wasn’t quite shooting him down, of course, but it made clear what I should be focused on.

After a pause just a little longer than it needed to be, Ted started walking toward the exit. “Good luck,” he said. “You might want to take those home with you, look at them somewhere more comfortable.”

“I’m comfortable here,” I said without turning around. Oddly enough, I realized as I was saying it, it was true. I wasn’t sure quite what to make of that… the morgue is, after all, a room full of dead people, and I’d become as comfortable there as any given businessman is with his cubicle. I shivered… maybe it was time to head home.

Behind me, the door shut with an echoing thud, and I decide that, no, I was going to figure this out here and now. I pushed the pile of suicides away, and tore into the remaining files, trying to find anything that connected them all.

But there was nothing.

“Nothing at all?” asked Lieutenant Roland. It was the next day, and we had gone out for breakfast together. I was on my third cup of coffee already; the few times I had tried to get to bed the night before, Mary Scaduto and the rest of her pile had pulled me back within a half-hour.

“None of them live near each other, or have the same friends, or similar schedules. Two of them work in the same building. A different pair go to the same church, one of whom is second or third cousins with another one.” I rested my head on the cheap Formica table-top at the diner. “There’s just enough of a pattern to make it clear that they’re not avoiding a pattern.”

“Assuming, of course, that there’s a ‘they’ at all.” I tried to give Ted a sharp glare, but didn’t have the energy to anything more than pull my head off the table with an audible groan. “You look like hell, Jen,” he said, stirring his muesli languidly. After a few seconds of tooth-grinding, he pushed the uneaten cereal away from him in disgust. “God, I can’t eat this crap!”

“Yeah, well, you’re going to starve if you don’t eat something, Ted.”

“No,” he said, looking greedily at my artery-clogging bacon and eggs, “I’m not.”

And that’s when I realized what they all had in common, what I had been overlooking because it was too obvious. “They all went to the fortune teller!”

Lieutenant Roland seemed less than impressed. “They all breathe air and drink water, too. More than half the county’s been to that machine, Detective.”

But I wasn’t about to let this go. Something clicked, and I could feel Mary Scaduto cheering me on, wherever she was. “Yes, right away it was swamped, I remember reading about lines going down the block. But that was right away! How many people were there when you went?”

“Just… just me and Tom Weller.” His nose wrinkled. “Just us, in a closed-off room; no one else saw my result. Jesus! If I hadn’t gotten ‘heart attack’, I could be dead right now! How did I not think of that?”

“It’s insidious. I’ve been thinking of that device as synonymous with death: obviously they all went there because if they hadn’t there’d be no case! Is Weller the only guy who operates it?” Ted nodded while he waved over our waitress. “We’ve got to arrest him!”

“Can’t. It’s still a hunch.” He ground his teeth furiously and drummed his fingers on the table. Suddenly, he stopped and looked up at me, his face as bright as I’d seen it in a month. “Go.”

“What?”

“Get your fortune. While you’re doing it, ask as many questions as you can. After, go straight home, there’ll be a half-dozen officers waiting for you inside. Either we trip him up, or we catch him in the act.”

I tried to stutter a response, but the lieutenant had snatched the check out of the waitress’s hand and was already up at the counter, graciously buying me breakfast. I really wasn’t sure whether I liked a plan that made me bait. On the other hand… Clark County is small and secluded. Everybody didn’t necessarily know everybody else, but an entrepreneur like Weller was important enough to know most of the police force. A plainclothes officer had a shot at getting under his defenses, but I knew he didn’t know who I was. No, it made sense, and the worst-case scenario had me surrounded by officers—hopefully not the hot-headed rookies. Knowing Lieutenant Roland, he’d give me the officers he trusted… no, this plan was actually seeming like a good idea.

I hefted my purse, to feel the comforting weight of the gun inside. I’m not fool.

***

The Clark County Shopping Center is nothing to write home about. Compared to the mall in nearby Bakersfield, about two hours away, it’s puny, but at six stories, covering two full blocks (including the adjacent parking structure) it towers over the homes and businesses surrounding it. It was supposed to perk up the local economy and encourage local residents to remain local residents when they were leaving in droves. The mortality prediction device was only a month young here, but the slightly more civilized world had been ‘benefiting’ from its presence for years now. Anyone who had the money, spare time, and curiosity had long ago driven out to some nearby city for their future. About half of them came back; the rest went off to find somewhere safe or just live up their remaining years. I can understand why they’d make that decision, but over the last few years, it was proving disastrous for the county. The people who could afford the time and money to go off to Bakersfield for an entirely unnecessary procedure were, of course, the wealthier strata of society. A few left forever, and suddenly city hall was down a healthy chunk of income tax, vendors of luxury items lost business, budgets were trimmed, workers were laid off, and the county fell into a recession. Except, we weren’t bouncing back; too many people were leaving, too many that left behind were saving money for their eventual medical bills, and phrases like ‘return on investment’ or ‘civic duty’ are only worth anything when people merrily ignore the fact that they could die tomorrow. And nobody could merrily ignore that anymore.

The mall had helped, though. The parking lot wasn’t quite full, but it was busy. I parked on the roof of the structure because it had direct access to the sixth floor of the mall, where the fortune teller was, and even up here there were only a handful of empty spaces; I was stuck hustling through the chill from one end of the lot all the way to the other. Just before I entered the mall I passed a massive poster, one of many that some PR firm had planted throughout the county just before the mall opened. “Live for today!” it proclaimed in happy yellow letters against a backdrop of hip young adults joyously skipping through the food court with a half-dozen shopping bags in each hand, obviously overwhelmed by the sheer ecstasy of having things. The powers that be were trying to replace overwhelming morbidity with abject capitalist hedonism… while it turned my stomach, it was holding back the apocalypse and that was something to be respected. I suppose.

The actual home of the machine was appropriately ominous: Weller had blocked the picture windows and glass door of an otherwise normal storefront with jet-black curtains. The only decorations were the words “MORTALITY PREDICTION DEVICE” in large, white, block letters on the windows, and a small placard on the door that simply said “Open.”

There’s a murderer in there, I thought, doing my best not to shudder. Nervously, I looked around. There were few other shoppers here, and I suspect they were purposefully avoiding this section. Unsurprisingly, the storefronts on either side of the fortune teller were empty; I doubt any shop could survive this sort of company. I adjusted my purse, feeling one last time for the comforting weight of the gun, and took a deep breath. Nothing suspicious, I’m just an average girl who wants to learn her fortune like everyone else. Here goes nothing.

I pushed open the door, which chimed electronically, and walked into what turned out to be a well-lit, sterile-looking room with two comfortable padded chairs in the center, one of which was supporting a slim, middle-aged man with thinning hair and a fussy moustache who looked up from his novel as I entered.

“Hello!” he said, bounding out of the chair in one motion. He strode over to me and extended his hand. “I’m Tom Weller.”

“Uh, J-Jen Patterson,” I said as I shook his hand. His grip was firm and confident, mine was not so much. I couldn’t shake the realization that the hand I was touching had probably ended seven lives… I had to quell the urge to dash off and scrub it until I bled.

“Are you here to receive a prediction?” he asked. Something was wrong. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something about this man was making me furiously uncomfortable… something more than just knowing what he had done. There was something unnerving about him as a person. I forced myself to nod. “Alright. If you’ll have a seat on either chair, I’ll go get the necessary paperwork.”

Weller went through the only other door in the room, a wooden door on the back wall that led into a darkened back room. I took a moment to survey the shop, but there wasn’t much to survey; the only decoration on the white walls was a framed certificate claiming Weller was authorized to run the machine. The room itself was surprisingly small, as wide as the storefront but only half as deep, and I wondered how much of the space in the back was for accommodating the actual machine. Beyond that, the only furniture was a small table between the chairs. I picked the one he hadn’t been using, and sat down. A moment later, Weller returned with a clipboard in one hand and a metal tray in the other, upon which was a sterile-wrapped syringe, rubber gloves, antiseptic wipes and a bandage. He set the tray on the table, and handed the clipboard to me.

“The procedure is fifty dollars,” he said gently, “and I can take a check or credit card if need be. Please fill out this form.” With that he pulled a pen from his shirt pocket and handed it to me. “There’s also some information at the end you need to read… essentially saying you won’t hold me liable when the machine’s prediction comes true. Take all the time you need.” He sat back down on his chair and returned to his book. I started filling out the information, glancing up occasionally, only to see him engrossed in what he was reading, with a content little smile on his face.

Contentment, that’s what was unnerving me. It had been a long time since I’d spoken to someone who wasn’t fighting depression or fighting mania. Weller showed no signs of either. Either he was a consummate businessman or a complete sociopath.

“Why,” I croaked. I cleared my throat and started over. “Why do you need my home address?” The remainder of the form didn’t interest me, but this was information he could obviously have used for nefarious purposes.

“Oh, that’s standard,” he said. “In case it’s discovered that there’s been a problem, so I can contact you and tell you that your prediction may be inaccurate.”

“But, couldn’t you just call me?”

He nodded. “Of course, I’ll try that or e-mail first. But in case those fail, your home address is a final option. If you’re worried you’ll be put on a mailing list, don’t. My privacy policy is right there on page three.”

I flipped to page three and pretended to read it. Of course he didn’t need my home address. He lied beautifully though… there was no doubt in his words at all. I was temped to give him a fake address, but fought the urge. “Have there ever been a problem with the machine?”

“To date, no.”

“I read about a rash of suicides lately,” I said, fishing for some sort of guilt response.

“Very unfortunate,” he said. He didn’t flinch, but he did raise his eyebrows and purse his lips. It was an imitation of sorrow, worthy of a seat in congress. “I know I’m just providing a service for the people of this county, but I can’t help but feel responsible for pushing those poor people over the edge.”

“Kind of like you murdered them?” I knew it was too much. I knew it was too much before it was halfway out my mouth. But it had acquired a momentum of its own. It hung in the air, and I hoped desperately that the sudden rush of panic in my gut wasn’t making me blush.

“Kind of,” he said. There was no edge to his voice. No hint that he was upset or afraid or anything except entirely professional and polite and a little somber. There was a part of me that was starting to suspect I was wrong. Then his carefully-crafted sad expression dropped away instantly. “Are you ready for the procedure?” he asked brightly. A procedure which he just claimed made him feel like a murderer… no one could shift gears that fast.

I handed him the paperwork, which he looked over, and fished fifty dollars out of my purse. “Are you the only person who runs the machine?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said as he was putting on the gloves. “It’s easy to operate, I just put the blood sample in one end, and the result comes out the other.”

“How’s it work?”

He tore open the sterile cover of the syringe. It wasn’t a normal doctor’s office affair, but a quarter-sized version with a very small needle, specially designed for removing a small amount of blood for one use, then being disposed. “I don’t know. Nobody does, exactly. As I understand, the discovery that it worked at all was something of a fluke.”

“Then how do you know it works?”

“Because every prediction it makes has come true.” He said it with no inflection, as if it were no more metaphysically terrifying than saying “That car is red.”

In my head, I was screaming at him. What is wrong with you? How can you say that calmly? How are you not freaked out by the very idea? Nobody, nobody has come to terms with the machine of death! Nobody can come to terms with it! It undermines the very core of everything we know about the universe! Jesus Christ, you psychopath, how can you tell me that the future is set in stone and time has no meaning with that sick, content little smile on your face?

What I ended up saying was “I see,” followed by a nauseated silence. I wanted to keep peppering him with questions, to break down his defenses and trip him in a lie and prove beyond any doubt that he was as cold-blooded a killer as I knew he was. But I was feeling too sick to open my mouth. I closed my eyes and took deep breaths as Weller swabbed my arm, drew some blood and bandaged me.

“I’ll be right back,” he said, and ducked into the back room, and I realized how uncomfortable I was that he was out of my sight. I had visions of him busting through the door with a shotgun.

“Can I come?” I blurted out. Weller peeked back into the room. I did my best impression of an ingratiating smile.

“That’s not… normally allowed,” he said. Of course it’s not; he disappears into the back, and comes back with a slip of paper that says ‘SUICIDE’, and the victim assumes it’s theirs. Meanwhile, he finds out how he’s going to kill them… which sounds creepily like the machine is giving him the orders. “But okay,” he said. I immediately regretted the choice, but I stood up and walked through the door he held open for me, all the while ready to feel my head being bashed in from behind. But it didn’t happen.

He shut the door behind him and passed me, headed straight for the rear wall of what appeared to be another empty room. Except it wasn’t a wall at all, was it?

“That’s the machine?” I asked. Weller muttered assent. There were no flashing lights, exposed circuits, or giant reels—only a small hole to receive blood and a small slot to give out results—but it was a fifties-style computer all the same. A massive, room-filling contraption to take care of a single complex task. Of course, this was a task infinitely more complex than ENIAC was designed for, but the spirit was the same. He poured my blood into the machine, and then dropped the syringe in a nearby trash can. “Should just be a moment.”

Near the door there was a table covered in supplies, syringes and the like. Weller adjusted them mindlessly while I gaped at the machine which was deciding my future. I should have been paying attention to him, but the machine was mesmerizing. Even if all I saw was a tremendous flat panel with one input and one output, behind that wall, causality was being violated. Suddenly, a piece of paper poked out of the wall, accompanied by a muffled beep from somewhere within the machinery. I started over, but Weller bounded across the room before the arrival of my destiny had even registered with me. He grabbed the slip of paper, read it, and passed it to me.

“HEAD TRAUMA FOLLOWING A FALL,” it said.

I didn’t even mean to read it. I didn’t want to read it. But there it was, in front of my eyes, and I couldn’t help myself. I was going to fall to my death. My stomach churned and my knees felt weak. And that was before I remembered where I had parked… even though I had come to the mall hundreds of times, and parked on top of the parking structure as often as not, and never once come close to winding up on the wrong side of the shoulder-high wall surrounding the edge of the lot, the sudden realization that I could easily, and would inevitably, trip over something and end up with no ground beneath me was enough to make me yelp and drop the fortune.

“Oh, let me get that,” said Weller. He picked up the slip of paper, but didn’t hand it to me immediately. “Hm. You aren’t parked on the roof, are you?”

“I—no! No, I’m not, absolutely not! I just… I need to go,” I said, sounding about as believable as I felt.

“Well, take this.” Weller held out the fortune and I grabbed it and motered off. I wasn’t proud… I felt like I was retreating, but I was filled with the sudden and irresistible urge to simply not be there anymore. I had no idea where I wanted to be, except elsewhere. I kept myself from breaking into a full run, but I was moving as fast as I could walk out the door, into the mall corridor, out the exit, across the parking lot (keeping as close to the center as I possibly could) and didn’t stop for breath until I was standing in front of my car. I was about to get in and drive off when the image of my accidentally being in drive instead of reverse, and crashing through the wall and to the ground, popped into my head. But, if I was going to fall, it would be on my own, not in a car, right? It would have mentioned a car, right? I looked at the slip of paper again, hoping to make a greater sense out of the vague prediction.

Except, this time it said ‘SUICIDE’.

I whirled around, and there was Tom Weller, calmly walking towards me.

“Hey, I’m glad I found you!” he said cheerfully. “I handed you the wrong result!”

“It… it’s okay,” I said. “I don’t need it.” It was a stupid lie, but it was the first one I could come up with.

“No, it’s no problem at all. I’ll just hand you yours.” He continued walking… I edged away from him, then realized I was edging towards the wall and froze.

“Stop!”

“I’m just going to give you this!” he said, not stopping. He held up the fortune… he was slim, but looked wiry enough to push me over if he put his mind to it. I tried to think of what the right thing to do would be, but all I could imagine was seeing the ground rushing up at me. No other options coming to mind, I pulled the gun out of my purse and trained it on him. He finally stopped, about ten feet away. “Well, that seems a little uncalled for, Miss Patterson,” he said, as brightly as ever.

“You’re a murderer.” If he had denied it, I would have been okay. Or if he had burst into tears of regret, or even laughed like a cartoon supervillian… some change in his personality, anything, and I would have known he was a human being.

“Yeah,” he said, in the same terrifyingly content cheer. I waited for him to elaborate, but he didn’t. He didn’t even seem to care. It was all just too much.

“What… what the fuck? Is that it? No guilt? No fear? You killed seven people and that amounts to… ‘yeah’? What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“Eight, actually. Although to be fair, I put more effort into covering up the first one.” He shrugged.

“You’re insane.”

“They were going to die anyway, Miss Patterson. Officer Patterson? No matter. I merely assisted.” He started walking towards me, not threateningly, but purposefully. I sidestepped, moving away from him without getting closer to the edge.

“Freeze!” I shouted, brandishing my gun in what I prayed was a threatening way.

Weller laughed, that infuriating little chuckle. He didn’t come any closer, though. Instead he squeezed between my car and the one next to it. “You can’t kill me, Officer.”

“You think I won’t shoot? Because you’ve got it coming, you psycho!”

“It’s not a matter of motivation. You can shoot at me all day long… you can’t kill me.” He climbed onto the hood of my car and opened his arms wide. “Go ahead, shoot me! Shoot me!”

I tensed my finger on the trigger, but couldn’t bring myself to pull it. He was an evil bastard but I just… I wasn’t a killer.

Weller chuckled again. “Jen,” he said, “You’ve got two seconds to fire, or I’ll jump at you, knock you out, and throw you over the edge. Ready? One. Two!” And with that, he lunged, jumping onto the roof of my car, his arms extended and his face a mask of murderous rage. And I fired.

It wasn’t even voluntary; I saw him coming and I tensed that last necessary millimeter. There was a blinding flash of light, a crack that turned out to be much, much louder without ear protection, and so much recoil that the gun slammed back into my chest with enough force to make my heart skip a beat. As the ringing in my ears faded, I heard Weller’s disturbingly cheery chuckle. He was still standing on my car… I had missed completely.

“You see?” he said. “It’s not your fault, though. It’s fate. You literally can’t kill me, because that’s not how I die.”

“So how do you die then?” I spat. I was acting far tougher than I felt.

Weller smiled and shook his head. “Who do you think the fortunes saying ‘SUICIDE’ came from?” Weller pointed at his chest with both thumbs, almost as if he were proud of the achievement. “We don’t get to make our own futures any more, you see? You can stay off tall buildings the rest of your life… doesn’t mean you can’t trip over your own feet and get a concussion. You don’t get to avoid it.”

At this point, people had heard the gunshot and come running. Security personnel were first, of course, and I pulled the badge out of my purse and waved it in their direction. Behind them, shoppers were drifting out from the mall, cautiously, trying to see what the hubbub was about without becoming a part of it.

Weller leapt from the roof of my car to the top of the wall around the top of the garage. He wobbled for a moment, but found his bearings on the slim wall and turned around to face the slowly growing crowd.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” he shouted at the mass. “I suspect you remember me somewhat less than fondly! I told you how you would die! Don’t be shy, I understand the sentiment! But,” he said, leaning forward and dropping his voice, as if letting us in on a grand secret, “it’s not my fault, you see. It’s the machine. I used to be like you!” he returned to his grandiosity, like a preacher calling to his flock. “I used to think that we lived in a universe where my decisions mattered! Even if they only mattered to me, they mattered! But no! Ladies and gentleman, you are all going to die, and the way you will die has already been determined! Free will is an illusion!”

For the first time, there was a crack in his perfectly calm veneer; he was getting angry. “What j-j-justice,” he said, struggling with the word, “is there in a universe where nothing… nothing you will ever say or think or do, makes any difference whatsoever?” Weller took a deep breath and tried to compose himself, but was obviously falling into a depression. “And here you all are, working, shopping, as if any of it mattered anymore!” Tears were beginning to well up in his eyes. I’d been holding my gun steady on him during his speech, but now I lowered it. He was crazy, yes. He was a murderer. But there was still a spark of a human under there, and maybe, maybe if I got him the right sort of help, I could save him. “If you know you’re going to lose the game,” he shouted at the crowd, obviously on the verge of bawling, “why keep playing at all?”

Then he looked down at me, and his eyed glassed over again. He smiled, a tiny little smile, and whispered so that only I could hear. “For fun, of course.” He winked, turning my stomach one last time, and let himself fall backwards. Around me, the crowd rushed to the ledge, trying to help him or watch him, but I stayed put, eyes closed, listening and counting. Five seconds later, there was a crunch. No scream, no moan, just the crackle of bone against bone as Tom Weller hit the pavement serenely.

***

It wasn’t particularly comforting that the next time I saw him, he was unrecognizable. Lieutenant Roland wheeled the corpse into my morgue… after falling six stories head first, it didn’t even resemble a human anymore. “I’ll understand if you don’t want to—” he started, but I cut him off.

“I’m fine,” I snapped. I wasn’t, particularly. A few hours ago, I’d almost been killed, almost killed a man, and seen that man leap to his death. I was very far from fine, but there was a part of me that needed to perform the autopsy. That needed to know this monster was dead. “Do you have time to help me with the death certificate?”

Ted nodded, and I stood up from my desk, and walked over to the table to hand him the form, on which I had already carefully filled out the name and cause of death. For once, the COD was easy to write… I had copied it right from my own future. Head trauma following a fall. I tried to walk as naturally as possible, but with every step I remembered that the next could be my last. I know it was silly, but I’ve never gotten it out of my mind. This all happened years ago, but I’ve never stopped watching my step. And I’ve never stopped asking myself… if you know you’re going to lose the game, why keep playing at all?

And I never have come up with a better answer.


As usual, I am inviting you lot to read, comment, critique, and cetera. I have a feeling the story could be pared down a bit... I don't think it's overly bloated but it could stand a streamlining. I also worry about being inadvertantly sexist; not in real life, mind you, where I'm openly mysoginistic, but in the story, where I'm writing as a woman for... well, no real reason except having never done it before. Also, I introduce a gun in act one that doesn't really get used in act three, and that might be a little too Chekov for me. But, I think it's pretty darn okay all the same. Read, comment, you know the drill.

1 Comments:

Blogger Vincent said...

Ha ha, lovely. And dark. And depressing.

Really, just what the folks at Machine of Death are probably looking for.

2/24/2007 3:27 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home