Friday, November 04, 2011

Storytime

Back when I was doing that writing competition thing I wrote a story called Martyr. The challenge was taken from Machine of Death. Basically, the idea is that the story had to take place in a world where people took a blood test and found out how they would die (but just how, not when, etc.). I then submitted my story to the publishers of the Machine of Death anthology, who were taking submissions. I didn't make the cut (30 or so out of nearly 2000 submissions made it... so, not exactly a surprise). But I finally found out, after a long wait, so now, to celebrate my first writing-related rejection letter (so very, very many other rejection letters), I'm posting the story here. Hope you enjoy!

MARTYR

The man looked more human in the gray morning rain, still and cold. In life he had been more voice than person, an idea standing on the park corner, shouting for all to hear. Davis had passed him every day, once on the way to work, once on the way home.

“Isaiah says ‘The righteous perish, and no one ponders it in his heart!’ Listen to the dead! They speak truths!”

The detective tried to ignore him. Something – the voice, the idea – had made him uncomfortable, scared him even. Some folks got really into the death cards. Others, like the street preacher, tried to fight the inevitable. Folks could think what they wanted. It didn’t matter much to Davis, the cards were never wrong and they made his job easier on the good days.

This wasn’t a good day. The preacher lay dead on the sidewalk, his steel blue eyes reflecting back the sympathy that rushed from the detective. Davis had only ever seen the caricature before. The tattered brown cloak, the wide brimmed black hat, he stood on his little wooden box, reading scriptures, sun or rain. Now, for the first time, Davis saw the man. His face was worn and tired. He hadn’t been scary; he had been frail. Davis reached down, saying a quick prayer as he closed the man’s eyes. It was the only time he ever prayed, standing over a body.

“Davis!”

The detective jumped.

“Davis, you S.O.B., I haven’t seen you in a year!” A tall, skinny man with an impossibly large grin walked toward the detective.
“Collison. How you been?” The two shook hands.

“Not bad, not bad, not bad. They didn’t put you on this case, did they? What’d you do, knock up the mayor’s daughter?”

“I hear someone beat me to it. Congrats.”
“Thanks man. We’re baptizing next week, you wanna come?”

“That’s not really my… we’ll see.”

“So seriously, are they putting you on this one?” continued Collison.
“Nah, I’m just on my way in.”

“You hit the crime scene before the office? That’s a sign. Go back to bed.”

“I dunno.” Davis paused, then, tugging slightly on Collison’s elbow with a finger, lowered his tone, “What are you looking at here?”
Collison checked his periphery before responding. “Whoever did it had it planned. And they left a death card.”

“What did it say?”
“Martyr.”

----------------------------------

A few days later, Davis still hadn’t gotten the preacher out of his mind. He seemed so much taller when he’d been shouting those verses. The box. Had to be the box. Still, Davis figured he’d better look into it. He made sure to run into Collison the next morning.

“Been working a finger print from the scene. He had a prayer book from St. Patrick’s Cathedral; prayers for the dead. Eerie, right? The print belongs to a guy named Manthey. William Manthey.”

“Anything on else on the martyr card?”

“That had a print too. Jolene Beck. Deceased.”

“Thanks.”

“Do you know what the word martyr originally meant?”

“I figured it was someone who died for their faith.”

“Nope. Originally it meant ‘witness.’ Christians took it that next step, said by dying for your beliefs you testified to the truth of your faith.”

“So did the martyr card belong to the preacher?

“Low priority on John Does, so no results yet.”

“Yeah, I get it. Thanks.”

-----------------------------------

Manthey’s offices weren’t far. They took up most of the 62nd floor, and Davis waited, staring out through the thin fog to the ground below. Manthey stepped out to greet him. He was a large, robust man.

“Mr. Davis?”

“Detective.”

“Detective.”

“Up so high,” Davis mused, turning his head towards Manthey, “you’re quite removed.”

“Sometimes a little perspective is needed, if you’re going to save mankind.” Manthey paused as Davis moved from the window, “And sometimes you need to reach them more directly. Shall we step into my office?”

The office was crisp, with cherry d├ęcor and a desk befitting a man of Manthey’s stature. They sat in two leather couches, away from the desk.

“What can I do for you detective?”
“We found your print at a crime scene.”

“Oh?”

“A street preacher.”

“And you think I did it?”
“No. We’re just looking for an explanation. They found a prayer book from a nearby church. Had your print on it.”
“I go to church from time to time. Sometimes I use the prayer books they have there. I leave them in the church when I go. He must have taken one that I used.”

“Probably. Sorry to bother you. Just checking out a lead.”
“I understand. Let me walk you out.” The two men stood up and shook hands. Back in the lobby the fog outside the windows had grown thicker. Davis couldn’t see to the ground below, but something jogged in his memory.

“Say, what is it you do here? You mentioned saving mankind.”

“Healthcare. Medical devices, mostly.”
“I see. It must pay pretty well.”

“This?” He gestured to the sweeping office space, “No, this is all the product of good fortune. I worked with the inventors of the Death Machine. Ground floor, so to speak. I was just in the right place at the right time.”

“Better lucky than good, huh?”

-------------------------------------

Davis wondered if it could be a coincidence: one of the Death Machine founders and a man who preached against them? They had to be connected. Manthey must have been protecting his investment by silencing opposition. Hard to pin it on him though.

Davis hailed a cab across town. He was going to check out Ms. Beck’s tombstone, though what she could tell him he really didn’t know. It was one of those old grave yards – for the old families – and still divided by parish. One area was set aside for the Episcopals from St. John’s, one for those from St. Matthew’s, one area for the Methodists, another for the First Presbyterians. There was just one other pair of mourners in the cemetery; St. Matthew’s flock.

Jolene Beck was buried in the Catholic part of the cemetery: St. Patrick’s. Davis’ radar pinged. It was a nice stone, and well kept. “Beloved wife. The Lord’s faithful servant.” Sounded holy. Davis said a prayer. This was a busy week for him and God. The flowers at the stone were no more than a few days old. Davis saw a chapel at the end of the yard, and made his way inside. He flipped through the guest book, almost absent-mindedly. There it was. Three days ago. Jolene Beck had a visitor the day after the murder. William Manthey, husband.

---------------------

“Davis, you can’t question him again. He’s lawyered up.”

“Collison, he killed the man!”
“You can’t prove it.”
“His print’s on the prayer book. His wife’s print is on the martyr card. He visited the grave the day after the murder. And now you tell me she was a murdered too? It’s no coincidence.”

“You spooked him when you started asking questions. You shouldn’t have been up there. Let me take this. We’ve got some time. He’s still a John Doe, no friends or family pushing us for an arrest.”

“A life’s a life.”

“I know, I know, I know. Now will you let me do my job?”

“Fine. What can you tell me?”
“John Doe’s card came back.”

“Martyr?”

“Nope. Homicide.”

“Strange.”
“Yeah. Don’t worry about this, man. I got it.”

---------------------

Davis decided to stake out St. Patrick’s anyway. Collison was good at his job, but Davis wanted answers. He didn’t have to wait long. Turned out Manthey visited the church a couple times a week. It was Davis’ lucky day, and he followed Manthey in.

The church was lit distantly, casting shadows across the cavernous room. Directly in front of Davis on the altar shone a crucifix, the only illuminated object in the church, a beacon for believers. Davis genuflected reflexively, his Catholic childhood pouring back over him. From the corner of his eye he saw Manthey duck into a side chapel, and his moment of relapsing faith evaporated as he tracked down his target.

“Detective?”
“Tell me what happened.”
“I’ve got an attorney.”

“I’m not here on business.”

“Pleasure then?”

“I just need to know.”

“Are you a man of faith, Detective?”
“There was a time.”

“Walk with me.”

The two men stepped out a side door and into a narrow hallway. As they walked, Manthey continued.

“You realize that none of this is admissible.”
“Don’t worry. No one’s looking out for John Doe anyway.”

“Timothy. His name was Timothy Vinson.”

“Who was he?”
“A friend of Jolene’s. They were in the same bible study. My wife was very devout. I was always lukewarm with religion, but she was a true Catholic. She told me the Death Machine was a bad idea. I fought to convince her otherwise. I never got anywhere. Then one day, Timothy sits her down and asks about what I do. Suddenly, she’s interested.”

The two men turned a corner and continued moving away from the main sanctuary. Manthey kept talking.

“‘How does it work?’ she asks. I tell her we don’t know, it just does. ‘Can it test people who are already dead?’ she wants to know. I tell her it works on everyone, living or dead. ‘What about things that aren’t blood?’ I tell her the only thing it works on is blood. Everything else just comes back negative. On and on she goes with the questions. Finally she asks me if she can test someone. So I say sure and set it up for her. Why not let her test?”

Manthey hooked a swift right. Davis was able to make out a door at the end of the darkened hallway, with a soft glow of light from underneath.

“The problem was, she didn’t test someone,” Manthey continued, putting an emphasis on the last syllable, “At least, not in the traditional sense.”
“Then who did she test?” Davis’ voice had an apprehensive creak to it. They reached the end of the hallway and Manthey put his hand to the heavy oak door, swinging it inward.

“She tested Jesus.”

The men stood in a small sacristy where a priest in white robes huddled over a counter. He looked up and smiled.
“Who’s your friend Will?”

“Detective Davis,” answered Manthey. He stepped over to where the priest was working and snared a small vial. He held it up for Davis to see.

“This is what she tested. The wine. It should have come back negative, but it didn’t. First non-blood sample that ever produced a card. It said crucifixion. You know about transubstantiation? It was Jesus’ blood. I don’t expect you to believe me. I didn’t believe either. But we’ve tested it again and again. And every time we test the wine, every single time, no matter what church it comes from, the machine says ‘crucifixion.’ Faith isn’t so hard to find when the answer is printed on a card. Father will give you the wine. You take it yourself to be tested.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“I am.”

The priest stepped toward the detective, vial in hand. He held it up, and looked Davis unflinchingly in the eye.

“The blood of Christ.”
“We’ll see.”

“The blood of Christ.”

“Amen father. Amen.” Davis stood there, vial in hand, dumbstruck by what he’d heard. Manthey took a few more vials from the priest, and the two men exited the room.

Back in the dark hallway, Manthey picked up the story again.

“After the results, Jolene thought the machine was a tool from God. She wanted to tell the world. She thought it would bring people to Jesus. I wasn’t so sure. She had resisted the machine at first, but now she was the biggest supporter you could find. Until she got her own death card.” Manthey paused. There was an emotion in his voice that had been absent through much of his narration.

“What did the card say?” pushed Davis, already knowing the answer.

“It said martyr.”

“So what happened? How did she die?”

“Timothy. He killed her. He killed her.” Tears welled in Manthey’s eyes. “When she got her card back, she was afraid. She didn’t want to die a martyr. That word means different things to different people. Jolene thought it meant she would suffer, and she was afraid.” Manthey pulled a handkerchief from the breast pocket of his suit and wiped away a tear.

“What did Timothy say about it?” asked Davis.

“He said a martyr was someone who brought others to Christ through their death. He wanted her to die. For the church. So he forced the issue.”

By this point the two of them had reached the outer doors. They pushed their way through and stood in the church yard, beneath the bell tower.

“The problem was, he didn’t kill her for her faith. They believed the same things. When he killed her it meant she wasn’t a martyr. But the machine is never wrong. So I blackmailed him. Maybe Timothy was right about what it meant to be a martyr. Maybe it meant bringing others to Christ. Her death had to lead to conversion, in order for the card to be right. That’s why he was on the sidewalk. He was finishing her mission.”
“So why kill him?”
“I didn’t.”

“Then who did?”

Manthey nodded back towards the sacristy.

“But why?”

“It wasn’t working. People thought he was a lunatic. Three years standing out there and not a single soul stopped to talk to him. There were no conversions. Jolene wasn’t a martyr. The card was wrong. And if Jolene’s card was wrong…”

Davis finished the thought, “Then so was Jesus’ card.”

It all made sense. The priest wanted to keep the faith.

“I can’t explain it,” said Manthey, “The machine has never been wrong. I have to believe something divine is happening. I’ve got faith; I just don’t know what to believe.”

“The wine really says crucifixion?”

“Every time.”

-----------------------------

A few weeks later, when the case was pushed to the bottom of Collison’s desk and Davis had willed himself to let the preacher go, the results arrived, almost unexpectedly, in the mail. There they were, plain as day. One card – the wine – said “Crucifixion.” The other card - his blood – read “Martyr.” Davis sat for a moment, stunned not by the words on the cards, but by his lack of surprise. Then, grabbing his coat, he headed for the door.

“Hey Davis!” called his friend, “Where you going?”
“I’m going to church. You want to come?”

“Church in the middle of the day? Didn’t think you were a man of faith.”

Davis laughed, “What can I say? I believe.”
“Amen.” Collison smiled his impossible grin. “Let me get my coat.”

4 comments:

Nibbish said...

I loved this one when you submitted it in VIII, and I still do. I like it better than about half the stuff that made it into the first book. Good stuff.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Thanks. I appreciate the heck out of that. Especially since the actual Machine of Death people didn't seem to like it... ;-)

Nibbish said...

I liked the book a lot, but based on some of the submissions they put into the book, I feel that either:

a) they didn't get a great number of high quality entries, or...

b) they need a larger staff to deal with the submissions.

A fair number of the submissions were sort of weak. There were probably ten or eleven top notch stories, and several more that just fell completely flat. Time will tell if yours should have been included in the second book, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I probably would've included it.

adobery said...

Yes, I really liked your entry as well. I've never read the books for comparison, so I'll just trust Nibbish that you got screwed. :)