A couple of months ago a friend of mine and I wrote a short story together as a submission for
. The process was a lot of fun and now that we both have free time in our schedules again we want to write more stories. I'd greatly appreciate feedback/criticism so I have a better idea of what areas to concentrate on for future writing. Thanks!
It wasn’t the first time I had been assigned to investigate a Machine result. Time and time again, the Machine proves accurate, and time and time again people who should know better hire me to try to piece together the future. As if mere knowledge of the nature of one’s death could prevent it from happening. I guess I shouldn’t be the one complaining. After all, it’s their loss, and my paycheck.
I’ll tell you something else: my clients rarely open investigations on their own deaths. People are remarkably comfortable with knowing how it’s going to end, and rather than try to change it, they own it. It’s the same reason EXPLOSIONS join bomb squads, PLANE CRASHES become pilots, and MURDERS like me become PIs. Everyone wants to die heroically. When it comes to our loved ones though, it’s a whole other story. I’ve gotten overprotective parents, jealous spouses and corporate bigwigs, but this was the first time a politician had crawled into my rat hole of an office. Some state senator with loose morals and looser purse strings; he wanted me to get the scoop on his sixteen-year-old kid. He did well to hire me: any old snoop can snoop, but it takes an investigator of my caliber to do it quietly, and if the Windy City’s notoriously tempestuous press ever caught wind of my client’s illegal testing of a minor, jail time would be the least of his worries.
I had seen it all before. That is, I thought I had, up until the point where in place of a word I heard a number. “6297.”
Three years ago I took a case that I filed under “M” for MOUSTACHE. It was all I could do to keep myself from laughing in my client’s face, and I swore I would never hear about a stranger death. This time, as I had done then, I gave my client a sideways glance and calmly asked him to produce the test result. Sure enough, “6297,” the characters glinting off the sturdy foil surface of the card; no further explanation. I gave him back his son’s deadly digits and immediately agreed to take the case. This one was too intriguing to ignore.
Two weeks after I had opened the case I had nothing to show for it save for my wounded pride and a crumpled scrap of paper with an address in Flossmoor scrawled on it. This case was as devoid of leads as letters. The public records yielded nothing. A visit to the Prison Death Test Database, which compiled death predictions for every inmate in every state and federal prison nationwide, was equally fruitless. A couple of blogs mentioned the odd result in passing, but that was it. No names, no leads, no nothing.
That’s when I took my questions to the Chicago office of Finale Inc., the Machine’s monolithic manufacturer. They gave me the standard legalese, some mealy-mouthed mumbo-jumbo about infinite possibility and limited liability. In other words: they’ve gotten thousands of complaints about stranger results than this one, and if you can’t understand what’s written on their machines’ cards, it’s your problem.
I had no choice but to agree. The Machine never lies, but it is often cryptic. I’ve heard everything from D0GLVR (a license plate involved in a fatal accident) to BOTFLY (working name of an experimental AI jetpack). Getting Finale to decipher the meaning of 6297 took time and effort they weren’t willing to provide, and asking them to cough up a list of names would have been illegal. But the receptionist whose day I ruined did give me a lead before she slammed the phone down: the widow of the poor sap who invented the machine lived a short ride out from the city. I grabbed my notebook and hopped into the jalopy I like to call my car.
I don’t know what I was expecting. A doting grandmother, well-kept lawn, cuckoo clock, maybe even milk and cookies. Instead I was greeted with a sour face that was as wrinkled as my hands get whenever I wake up in the bathtub after too much whiskey and Oxycontin. The stench of stale cigarette smoke hit me like a .38 slug.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she barked before I had a chance to say anything and shut the door with a slam. It took another two minutes of knocking before Joanne Fracken relented, dragging the door open with a world-weary groan. “Why don’t you ask my husband? He’s the genius.”
I did my best to ever-so-gently remind her of her husband’s not-so-recent demise. A touchy subject, made touchier by the cruel fate the Machine had selected for its creator: BLUDGEONED BY SPATULA AND THROWN FROM WINDOW. It was concluded that the death had been a suicide, although here and there conspiracy theorists and prominent political commentators alike whispered that “bludgeoned” and “thrown” implied a bludgeoner and a thrower. Fortunately for Mrs. Fracken, she had a plausible alibi and a very good lawyer.
I managed to calm the woman down, but she stayed mum no matter what I asked. “Listen, sonny,” she said at last, her breath whistling slightly through her spindly teeth, “even if I knew a lick of what you were talking about, I still wouldn’t tell you. Between the admirers, the crazies, and the kids who break my windows, I don’t have the time or inclination to talk to anyone.” She shut the door, and I heard a deadbolt being locked.
But where God shuts a door, He opens a window. Specifically, Mrs. Fracken’s basement window. I breathed a silent prayer to the little squirt whose baseball had shattered it as I slipped inside. The cellar was small and musty. A good portion of it was taken up by some large device mostly covered by a canvas tarp; a couple of vacuum tubes stuck out from under it. I guessed it was an ancient version of the Machine, some long-forgotten prototype old Merton Fracken had built in the Fifties. What was more interesting was the row of dusty filing cabinets next to the hulk. If Fracken had ever seen a 6297 before his untimely defenestration, he had probably filed it away somewhere in here.
I worked silently, combing through old bills, letters, and photographs. None of it seemed to be more than carefully-organized junk. At last I came across a stack of black-and-white composition journals. The first few were full of technical drawings and mathematical equations Einstein would have had trouble with, but halfway through the pile there was one that caught my eye. On the cover, carefully handwritten in still bright scarlet ink, was etched the word “ERRORS.” I started leafing through it and a bunch of four-digit numbers stared back at me, each one with a short sentence next to it. That’s when it hit me: what else could a numerical result be but an error code?
The tattered old journal contained a myriad of different entries, thousands by the look of it. It shouldn’t have surprised me. A uniquely ingenious device such as this one was bound to have many moving parts, any of which could seize up given the wrong set of circumstances. Lucky for me, the list went numerically. I glanced at a few as I flipped through the brittle pages:
5734 (FUEL CELL LOW)
5993 (PLASMA LEVEL INSUFFICIENT)
6028 (LUBRICATE CONCENTRIC BLADES)
6171 (PAPER JAM)
Each entry had a short explanation below it. Grateful for the boon that fate had placed in front of me, I flipped eagerly to the entry for 6297. But between the entries for 6294 (NEEDLE CONTAMINATED) and 6299 (PC LOAD LETTER), there was nothing: the page had been ripped out, and a jagged edge was all that was left to unceremoniously mark its absence. Someone had beaten me at my own game and gotten here before me.
After waiting for Mrs. Fracken to leave for her bingo game, I crawled out of her basement, long on questions and short on answers. I needed a stiff drink, and I knew just who to have it with. Greg Baranowksi and I go way back. We’ve known each other since he was a police cadet and I was still working the government angle. He’s a big shot now, busting all sorts of crimes and probably involved in a few of his own on the side, but he still finds time for me when I come calling.
We sat down over some beers in his office. It was good to get out of the sweltering summer weather into a place with air conditioning. The last thing I needed was a police inquiry, which Greg would have gladly provided despite my insistence on privacy, so I decided right off the bat that I would hold my tongue about the case. Of course, that didn’t stop me from asking a few completely unrelated questions about Mrs. Fracken’s personal life, just for curiosity’s sake.
“Give the old lady some space, Russ,” he sighed. “She’s had a rough couple of months lately. The number of calls she’s made to us can speak to that.” He leaned in a little closer. “I shouldn’t be telling you this, but just this past April she had her life savings stolen.”
I nursed my beer and gave him a look that suggested my moderate interest in the subject matter; again, pure curiosity.
“Computer crime. Someone hacked into her bank account. Well, more like something. It’s some new virus making the rounds. Struck around the country. My boys have taken to calling it ‘6297.’”
At this, my ears pricked up involuntarily, and I nearly choked on my drink. If Greg didn’t notice my vested professional interest in the subject of Mrs. Fracken’s bank account by now, it was only the booze keeping it hidden.
“Did you say... that is, why are they calling it that?”
Greg stalled. I knew him well enough, and it happens that computers were never his strong suit. I watched him squirm anxiously before giving me the best answer he could fumble through: “The, uh, the file names. They all had the same, uh, hash tag, or something. They all had the same number in their, uh, coding, and it was how they, how they traced it. Digitally.” That was certainly all the information I was going to get from Greg, but at the time it was all I needed to keep the trail hot.
I’d been looking in the wrong places. In computer security circles, 6297, if not a household name, was at least known by the experts. The virus had been growing in prominence over the past few years, and was a worldwide phenomenon. The target was always the same: poorly secured accounts, whose money was siphoned God knows where. The funny thing was that the volume of attacks seemed to vary wildly depending on the country. The U.S. was experiencing moderate activity, but just across the border in Canada the numbers were a lot higher. It was the same deal across the ocean: high in France, low in Poland, and so on.
That’s when I, like a cop car with a cut brake line, hit a brick wall with my investigation. And just like that incident, I was left feeling confused and hurt. I was trying to connect the dots, but the picture I was drawing wasn’t going to end up on a fridge any time soon. The case sat on my desk for weeks as I worked with other clients. Every so often I looked at the file guiltily, but there was nothing I could do except take another swig of bourbon. The matter looked dead.
If you wait long enough something will happen. That’s what my old boss in the police department used to say, before I started working for myself. He got indicted for 23 counts of corruption and is serving as many years in the federal pen, but in this case he was right. It just didn’t happen in any way I could have been expecting.
I came home after a rotten day at the office to find a dozen frantic messages on my answering machine; I groaned at the prospect of facing more clients. What I faced instead I was far less prepared for.
My relationship with Michelle had always been like her death: FROZEN. After the divorce she and my baby girl had moved down to San Antonio. Hearing her voice unprompted by the imminent arrival of a scheduled visit meant something serious had happened. Something bad.
When I ran into the hospital room, I saw the mass of tubes and machines before I made out Elly’s tiny body in their center. Back to back surgery and chemo is a hell of a regimen to subject a grown man to, let alone a four year-old. I forgot all about my cases. Suddenly the only mystery I wanted to solve was what was happening to my daughter. The doctor nattered on about neoplasms and neurons, but I was having none of it. There was a quicker way to get to the bottom of this one.
Almost without even thinking about it, I slipped a vial with one of her blood samples into my pocket. I discovered it later that night while undressing in the motel room and spent a long time staring at it, thinking. I’d been flirting with the law for a long time, but this seemed like a new step in our relationship, one I wasn’t sure I was ready to take. In the end I had to know, even though I knew seeing a CANCER might result in an unfortunate combination between my .44 and my temple, MURDER or not. If I lost her now, I lost everything.
I happened to know a guy through an earlier investigation - some hack who built his career on illegal death testing. It was a risky business for sure, but who could deny that the market was there? Between the morbid curiosity of teenagers and those who wanted an escape from Finale’s notoriously long lines and rigid structure, back-alley machinists provided thousands with an alternative to the toxic marriage between government and monopoly. The catch was a steep price tag and a forfeiture of all the rights Finale customers have come to expect over the years, including sterile needles and absolute privacy.