I wrote this story for Machine of Death, Volume II, a collection of short stories about, basically, a machine that can predict how (but not when) you’re going to die. Unfortunately, they had almost 2000 submissions for 30 possible slots, and this one didn’t get in. I’ve read some the other rejected submissions people have posted and it seems I’m in good company, so I can’t wait to see the stories that actually made the cut.
Sal Barker rode into town looking for the notorious outlaw Joshua Burke. Stepping into Blind Willie’s saloon he was amazed. Most days, there were only a handful of windswept and dirty men sitting at the bar, but today the room was packed with respectable-looking people, and there were even some women in the crowd.
“What’s goin’ on here?” Sal asked.
“Blind Willie’s bought a crazy new invention,” someone in the crowd told him. “Just got it in from San Francisco last week.”
“New invention?” Sal sneered, “All these people in here for some kinda slot machine?”
“It ain’t no slot machine,” Blind Willie said, hobbling towards Sal and waving his cane in the air, “It tells ya how you’ll die.”
“That so?” Sal asked, “How you gonna die then, Blind Willie?”
“Cordin’ to this machine, a ‘STAMPEDE,'” Willie said, holding out a small piece of tape with the word printed on it.
“Hell of a way to go,” Sal said, patting Willie in the back in mock sympathy, “Had a cousin got caught in a stampede, nothin’ left of him at the end but a stain on the ground. Anyone in here seen that bastard Josh Burke?”
“He was just here,” Willie said, “Even tried out the machine hisself. You oughta give it a try too, Sal.”
The crowd murmured in agreement. Sal was almost a legend around these parts, and not necessarily in a good way. Quite a few people in the room wanted to know how he’d die for reasons besides idle curiosity.
“Sounds like fun,” Sal said, “But right now I gotta find Burke. He say where he was headed?”
“What’sa matter?” a voice from the back of the room shouted, “You yeller?”
The room got quiet. Sal slowly turned around, searching for the man who’d dared insult him. The crowd parted to reveal an obviously drunk man sitting on a bar stool. The drunk’s red face turned white as he realized he’d just done something very stupid.
“Nobody calls me yeller,” Sal said, stepping forward.
“Give ‘im a break, Sal,” someone in the crowd murmured, “He’s from out of state, he don’t know you.”
But Sal’s target wasn’t the man at all. He stepped past the drunk up to the machine that had attracted so much attention. It was an ugly thing, made of metal, with gears sticking out every which way and a single lever, like a slot machine.
“How’s it work?” he asked, staring at it suspiciously.
“Put a coin in the slot, then put your finger in the hole and pull the lever,” Blind Willie said, stepping up behind him and pointing to each part with his cane. “Machine takes a bit of blood, then spits out a piece of paper that tells you how you’re going to die.”
“How’s it know?” Sal asked.
Willie just shrugged. “Alls I know is, it works. The man who invented it got ‘BROKEN NECK’ and what do you know, next month he falls off a cliff.”
“I hear he jumped,” someone said. “Couldn’t bear to face what he brought into the world. Thought it was possessed by the devil or some such nonsense.”
Sal dropped a coin in the slot and stuck his finger in the small hole. As he pulled the lever with his other hand, he felt a small jab from the needle and the gears began to turn. The whole saloon stood in silence as the machine clanked and sputtered for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, it ground to a noisy halt and a small piece of paper slid out of a slot in the front.
Sal tore off the slip and stared at it wordlessly.
It read “OLD AGE.”
A few months after Sal got his prediction, Sheriff Williams visited him to offer him a job.
“I’ll tell ya the same thing I told ya years ago,” Sal said, “Go piss up a pole.”
“Now look,” Williams said, “Things are different now than they were back then. A gunslinger like you can’t die of old age, you know better’n I do that folks’ve been treatin’ you different ever since you got that prediction.”
Sal sighed. “I’ve never run away from a fight in my life, but when people think you’re gonna die of old age, they assume that it means you’re a coward. Even if ya stand and fight, you’re still a coward. You know you’re not gonna die, so even when you’re facing’ a loaded gun, you’re not taking any risk. It’s like killin’ a man with his back turned to you.”
“I know you ain’t a coward,” the sheriff said, “And that’s why I’m here. There ain’t many men as good with a gun as you are, even less who are guaranteed to walk away from a fight alive.”
“That machine don’t mean anything,” Sal said. “It’s just a toy made by some mad scientist out in California.”
“That ain’t true, Sal, and you know it,” the sheriff said, shaking his head. “You’ve seen the newspapers. Everyone who’s died after usin’ it, it’s been right. Times are changin’. First the railroads, now the death machine. The days of the wild and free gunslinger are comin’ to an end. Sure, everyone knew that kind of life was dangerous, but having to stare at that strip of paper telling you you’re going to get shot and die? Takes a real strong man to keep doin’ it, and ain’t many up to it. Lots of folks are settling down to honest jobs.”
Sal sighed. Williams was right, of course. There wasn’t a lot of work for him even before he stuck his finger in that damned machine, and his fame was all but gone now that everyone thought he was a sham.
“It’s either this or wrangling cattle ’til that prediction comes true,” Williams said, getting up to leave.
“What the hell,” Sal said, “I’ll do it. At least this way I still get to shoot people.” He sighed. “Tell me one thing though, sheriff, what’s yours say?”
Williams smiled.”I never got a prediction myself,” he said, “Guess I’m just too scared to find out.”
“Joshua Burke,” Sal shouted at the outlaw, “You are hereby under arrest for two counts of bank robbery, three counts of horse theft and six counts of murder. Drop your weapons or we’ll shoot!”
“Come and get me, geezer!” Burke cackled. Sal winced. Apparently Burke had heard what his prediction was, too. The outlaw opened fire on the lawmen.
Sal dove into an alley and Williams dropped behind a pile of barrels as Burke’s shots rang out around them.
“Alright,” the sheriff said, “On the count of three.”
Sal shook his head. “You don’t know if he’ll kill you, sheriff. I know I’ll be OK, let me handle this.”
Williams looked at him gravely, and nodded.
Sal jumped out from the alleyway and fired in Burke’s direction. At the same moment, the outlaw finished reloading and started shooting in his direction again. Sal felt a fiery, stinging pain in his leg that knocked him to the ground. Gritting his teeth, he peered through the smoke, noticing Burke had stopped firing too. Gripping his bleeding leg, Sal stood up and limped over to where Burke had been standing.
The outlaw was sitting in a pile of his own blood, a glazed look on his eyes. As Sal reached him, he looked up and grinned wryly.
“Didn’t think you had it in you, old man,” he said, coughing blood. He reached into his coat and took out a scrap of paper. He passed it to Sal, closed his eyes, and was still.
The paper read “GUNSHOT.”
“You did it!” Sheriff Williams said, coming up behind Sal and slapping him on the back. “After all this time, you finally put him down like the dog he is.”
Sal nodded slowly, stuffing the paper into his pocket. The sheriff didn’t notice, as he’d just looked down and seen Sal’s wounded leg.
“That don’t look too good,” he said, “We better get you to a doctor.”
A few minutes later, Sal was sitting up on the doctor’s table, staring at the bullet that the doctor had just pulled from his leg.
“You were lucky,” the doctor said as he bandaged the wound, “The bullet came real close to hitting a major artery. You would’ve bled to death. As it is, you might end up with a limp, but you’ll live.”
But Sal already knew that.
I went to high school with Sandra Perlmann. She was one of those people who had it all. She was hot, popular, and managed to get good enough grades, but she was a total bitch.
One time at a party, there was this girl who was there through a friend of a friend or something like that. She wasn’t the type to be there at all. I’m sure she had debated about whether or not to come right up until the last moment, finally just deciding to go just to see what it was like.
For some reason, Sandra picked her out as the target of her latest pointless cruelty.
“Oh my God,” she shouted after engaging the girl in conversation for about a minute, “You’re a drug addict?”
First of all, this was obviously untrue. Second of all, it was a completely random thing to say, and third of all nobody even cared. Hell, quite a few people at the party were easily on their way to drug addiction themselves. We went to a pretty rich school, it wasn’t uncommon for people to do blow at parties.
But none of that mattered to the poor girl, of course. She had come hoping to just blend in and try to have a good time, but instead Sandra had picked her out and shamed her in front of everyone. She ran out of the party crying.
I didn’t say anything, of course. I never did. I was good-looking enough and had decent enough social skills that I was never a target. Why rock the boat?
Since graduation, Sandra has moved to New York, become the editor of a fashion magazine, and gotten engaged to a successful lawyer.
One day I was sitting in a bar after work. A group of three very loud women were in the corner, apparently celebrating the fact that one of them had gotten pregnant. Although, of course, it the other two were doing most the celebrating. The proud mother-to-be just sat quietly, smiling, drinking a coke. Suddenly, she lurched out of her chair, her face a mask of panic. She tried to open her mouth to speak, but it was stuck shut.
“Oh my God!” one of the other women shouted, “Someone put rubber cement in her drink!”
Something snapped inside me. I don’t know if I was drunk off of the half a beer I’d had, or if I’d just had a really bad day at work. All I knew was, I was sick of assholes. I’d been sitting quietly for too long, letting them get away with their bullshit, but I wasn’t going to let them get away with it this time.
“Who the hell did that?” I shouted.
An old man sitting next to me pointed towards the door. I caught a glimpse of a very large man walking out with a woman on his arm.
“Why didn’t you do anything?” I growled at him.
He just glared at me.
Tossing some money on the counter, ran towards the door and stepped outside. “Hey!” I called after the hulking mass, “You’re an asshole.”
He stopped, turned around and looked at me. “What’d you say to me?”
My body immediately told me to run, I’d just made a terrible mistake.
“You the one put rubber cement in that pregnant woman’s drink? You’re an asshole.”
He slowly walked up to me and stood just inches away. We’d have been face-to-face if he wasn’t two inches taller than me. My heart was pounding out of my chest, my mouth was dry but my skin was wetter than it’d ever been. I knew what I was doing was stupid, but I was fed up. I wasn’t going to run, I wasn’t going to let them win this time.
“I’m not gonna hit you,” I said, “I weigh a hundred and forty pounds. But go ahead and hit me if it’ll make you feel better.”
I was on the ground with the first punch.
I stood back up and grinned. That’s about all I remember until the emergency room.
Two days later I walked into work, my face a mass of swollen bruises and my teeth loose.
My boss took one look at me and asked, “What the hell happened to you?”
“Some guy put rubber cement in a pregnant lady’s drink. I called him an asshole, he did this to me.”
“Jesus Christ,” he said, shaking his head, “I expected better of you. Go home, take some time off.”
“I didn’t hit him,” I said, “I’m not stupid.”
“Go home,” he said, still shaking his head.
“I didn’t hit him,” I repeated. “I’m not violent. I’ve never even been in a fight before.”
“Go home,” he said.
I turned around and headed out the door.
Did he think I was less of a man for not fighting back? Did he even believe me? I didn’t know. Was he going to fire me? I didn’t know that, either, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he did. They say the meek will inherit the Earth, but it seems to me like God’s helping out the assholes.
“Yuri!” screamed Zed the Collector, “You son of a devil! I know you stole my brand new Elvis stamp last night!”
Whenever anything in town went missing, everyone blamed Yuri the Unvisible Man, even though as far as anyone could remember, he’d never actually ever been found guilty of stealing anything (in fact, half the time the “stolen” item was actually just lost and the owner usually found it a few days later).
“What a shame,” said Eugene the Thief (who accounted for the other half of the missing objects), shaking his head, “He truly is a menace.”
Yuri, fearing yet another attempted lynching, immediately took off his clothes and ran, bringing Zed’s chase to a halt. Zed spat on the unvisible man’s clothes and cursed.
“A man like that is nothing but trouble,” Zed said, “And not just because he’s a thief — no offense meant to your self, sir.”
Everyone in the village knew that Eugene was a thief, but nobody could ever prove it. And everyone liked him too much to try.
“Not just because he’s a thief,” Zed continued, “But also because I have a daughter. I’m worried what sort of mischief an unvisible man can get up to with the women in town!”
His daughter, Yulia, smiled to herself as she walked home from school with the other girls, because she knew first hand just what sort of mischief Yuri did get up to with the women in town, or at least one woman in particular.
“It’s unholy,” agreed the thief, “A man no one can see has too much to hide.” Secretly, he was just jealous of Yuri’s transparency and thought that he could put it to much better use.
Yulia made her way through the forest to the river bank where she knew Yuri went to sulk whenever he was blamed for a crime. She knew that he was there because of the twin indentations in the ground marking the resting place of the unvisible man’s buttocks.
“What can I do?” Yuri moaned, “I’ll never be accepted, wherever I go! Nobody trusts an unvisible man. Your father will never let us marry!”
“You need to show them that having an unvisible man in the village is a good thing,” Yulia said, “You need to do something good that no visible man could ever do.”
“I’ve got it!” Yuri shouted, snapping his fingers (or so Yulia assumed, he could have been cracking his neck for all she knew). “I’ll finally catch Eugene in the act! That way, I’ll clear my name and also help the village at the same time!”
“That’s wonderful!” Yulia exclaimed, leaning over to try and kiss him, but falling flat on her face because she was three feet too far to the left.
So, for the next few nights, Yuri sat on the roof of his house watching for Eugene. It was difficult work. The nights in this part of the country could be bitterly cold, and of course he had to sit through the whole night entirely naked. Some nights, Yulia would sneak out and bring him warm borscht, which made it slightly more bearable.
It seemed as though Eugene was living easy off the profits he had made from selling Zed’s prized Elvis stamp, because the village was free of any larceny for two weeks (though Yuri was still blamed when the widow Ivanova’s cat batted her favorite necklace under the dresser). The cold, sleepless nights began to wear on Yuri’s resolve, and he feared that he’d missed his chance.
However, a stroke of luck came into his life when a famous merchant came through town. The people in the town were so pleased to see a foreigner, they insisted he stay the night free of charge in Nikolai’s inn. Yuri knew that Eugene wouldn’t be able to resist the call of the merchant’s many riches, and late that night, his suspicions were confirmed as he spied Eugene sneaking towards the inn.
“Stop, thief!” he shouted, leaping off of the roof and landing on Eugene, knocking him unconscious. He shouted “Thief!” until a crowd began to gather.
“What’s the matter?” shouted Ivan the Sheriff, running up to the scene, wearing his uniform over his nightclothes.
“Yuri’s attacked Eugene!” shouted Zed.
“He’s too dangerous,” Ivan said, shaking his head. “Back when he was just a simple thief, we could let him roam free. But a violent unvisible man is too dangerous to have in town. There’s nothing left to do but to throw him in jail.”
So they did.
OK, so, there were these three guys, see? Two twins and their younger brother.
So, the twins. Identical twins, and I mean completely identical. Only way to tell ’em apart was to get way up close, ’cause you see, each of ’em had only one good eye. The other one was glass. Funny thing was, one was missing his right eye and the other his left. A little too coincidental if you ask me, but anyway say you manage to get close enough to their faces, you could know who was who.
‘Course, they never let anyone get that close to ’em. And anyone who did ain’t fit to talk about it.
Creepy bastards, too. You know how some twins got that “sixth sense” about each other, can tell what the other’s thinking or doing at the time, right? These guys had it like no other. Sometimes it seemed like they were the same guy just in two different bodies, y’know? One of ’em would be off doing something and the other would know everything before he even heard about it. Nobody knew their real names. They both went by “Jack.” To confuse people, I guess, but it’s not like it mattered since you couldn’t tell ’em apart anyway. And of course people called ’em the One-Eyed Jacks.
You see where this is going, eh? Yeah. If they’re the One-Eyed Jacks, that made their brother the Suicide King.
Alright, you gotta understand, this guy, even though he was the younger brother, he was big. The Jacks were scrawny types, they were the schemers and talkers of the operation. The King was the muscle. And he was an animal. He fought like he wasn’t afraid of dying, and I guess he wasn’t ’cause a lot of the time the fights would end with him shooting himself in the head.
Yeah. “A lot of the time.” He did this more than once. What, you think people called him the Suicide King ’cause it was cute? Yeah, after he shoots himself in the head he just lies there ’til things settle down and then he just gets up and walks out at his leisure. I don’t even wanna know how he discovered that particular talent.
Nah, it’s all true. How the hell could I make this shit up? Remember that rash of robberies all across the country few years back, three-man teams, two of ’em always got away but the third always ended up taking his own life? Sure, they said it was “copycat crimes” but who the hell would want to copy that?
You’re laughing. You don’t believe me. Well, maybe so. Hell, I never met these guys myself, could be all a ghost story far as I know. But let me tell you, I don’t hang around with no twins no more.
I’m a dick. A private dick. The best damn dick in this whole town, if I do say so myself. I’m the one who put Vito Romana behind bars. Didn’t make many friends by doing that, neither. But a man’s gotta do what he’s good at. And I’m so good, people even call me Dick, though that’s probably because my name’s Richard. It might also be because when I’m on the case I can be a real…well…you get the picture. I tell ya what, the jokers never stop laughing.
One Thursday morning this dame walked into my office with legs that went all the way up and a dress that didn’t quite go all the way down. I could tell right away she was trouble. Dames like that always are.
“I’m looking for a dick,” she said, the words floating on her sweet breath like the bloated, week-old bodies of mob victims bobbing to the surface of the river.
“I can see that,” I said. I glanced out the window. The rain-slicked street outside was bustling, as usual. Not even rain can stop a city. It just keeps on going, like a train bearing down on the broad strapped to the tracks.
“Is that some kind of joke?” she asked, raising an eyebrow — an eyebrow as perfectly sculpted as the Venus de Milo. It was the kind of eyebrow you only see in the movies, and not even then.
“Well sweetheart,” I said, lighting a cigarette, “maybe I’m jumping the gun, but since my door says ‘Private Detective’ and you came in, I guessed you ain’t lookin’ for a massage therapist. Simple detective work.” I smiled and exhaled a lungful of smoke, the taste of ashes in my mouth.
“Enough dicking around,” she said (I grimaced), “My husband’s been murdered.”
That got my attention — but I was cautious. Half the time some dame came in with a murdered husband, she was the one who did it and was just trying to divert attention. And she wouldn’t think twice about offing you, too, if you got too close to the truth.
“Sounds serious,” I agreed, “How’d it happen?”
“Poison,” she said, one perfect tear — too perfect if you ask me — dripping and falling to the floor impossibly slowly, only to shatter like a window shatters when it’s blasted with a tommy gun.
“Go on,” I told her.
She took a deep breath. Deep like the ocean, seemed to me. Deeper than a woman’s heart, for sure. “It had to be poison,” she said, “One minute he was eating his favorite dessert, spotted dick…”
It was gonna be one of those days.