Highly commended - Thunderbolt Prize for Crime writers 2020
Crime. Heart breaking.
You would think that I would be in some amazing hotel with loved ones considering the past few days that I’d had. When I say that, I don’t mean that I deserve it, just that it would probably be better than where I am now. Where am I right now? Well… that’s kind of hard to explain without going back.
12 HOURS AGO:
My name tag swings from my neck with every step I make. My spirits lowering as I head towards the room of which I am condemned to sit in for the next five hours. It reads many things, but the important parts are in the numbers, and the name.
VALERIAN WHITE, AGE 22, SECURITY, 0622.
Everyone gets a name, has an age, a job, and a number. This is a new system recently installed in our city, previously known as New York, but 356 years later, known as Yellow Mist. This is a city of lights, possibility, and love. Actually, that’s what it used to be. The new name really suits our beloved metropolis, as everyone wears either rags or special masks to keep from directly inhaling the yellow shroud of pollution and, well you get the point.
It’s the 1st of June, which means it’s my turn to watch the monitors. I watch the people from all the cameras stationed throughout the city. Strolling into the dark room, I’m able to find my seat from the faint glow cast across the room. I relieve the man of his duties; he grumbles a few instructions before sweeping out of the room eagerly. The chair groans as I sit, sighing in relief. It was a long walk.
The thing about Yellow Mist, is that there is literally no crime. The cameras and cops prevent everything before I have time to press the big red button.
After five years, people just stopped. Stopped robbing, stopped fighting, stopped killing.
The system prevents us. So, there lies my frustration. I’m useless. The figures dance before me, some simply taking strolls, others selling things in the late night, though the streets are mostly empty at this time. My eyes dart from screen to screen that cover the walls, climbing way above my head even when standing. Even though the room’s walls are basically made from screens, I know that there are about 100 other rooms exactly like this, and those only cover half the city.
Some may call me practical; some may call me dodgy, but frankly, I don’t care what they think. All I’m thinking is that I’m bored, so I pull out my study material. When you’ve been doing the same boring job for the past seven years, you start to realise that it’s time to find a better one, so that’s where the studying comes in. I’m going to be an engineer… hopefully.
My stomach does a flip as one screen to my left lights up in a red fury, blaring violently. My mind takes a moment to process what is happening and I don’t realise the threat at hand immediately. My body freezes as I take in the hooded figure, and its location, one street from here. The barrel of the gun points directly at the head of a man as he clutches a heavy brief-case. A shout escapes from my mouth as the monitor suddenly goes dark, disabling my view of the crime scene.
My training kicks in as I lunge towards that red button, which I suspect has never been used.
Some small part of me smiles at the satisfaction, but then I’m out the door. I sprint towards the helpless man and the loaded gun. As I round the corner, my body freezes again, because on the ground, is a dead man. I see a bone white hand reach towards the case, the sleeve lifting up to reveal a tattoo, one that every citizen has, identifying them.
My mind struggles to commit it to memory. Unable to prevent the yell that escapes my lips, I dive for the gun which had been thrown to the ground a few feet away from where I am standing. Jumping up again, I point it towards the figure, arms and body trembling. I feel my heart beating heavily against my ribs, seeming to beg retreat, sweat dripping from my forehead into my eyes. One blink to clear them, and the person is gone. No sound or commotion indicating which direction they had gone.
With quivering legs, I dash to the man, his limp body going cold in my arms as I use my free hand to check his pulse. With no hope left, I stand, looking down at the man I was too late to save, and drop the gun. The sound of hurried footsteps echo down the street, and I turn to see three faces staring at me with horror, one of them I know. They take one look at my bloody hands, the gun at my feet, the stiff body, and rush me. I fall to the ground with a cry, my palms scraping the gravel as a knee is pressed hard into my back, and as cold metal binds my hands behind me.
I’m beginning to think I should have booked that hotel. Standing in front of an unstable door, I peer through the cracks of the decrepit wood, hesitant to knock in fear of a splinter. Eventually, I locate a smooth part and knock thrice.
Some moments later, the door swings open, revealing a young woman, perhaps nineteen. Her black hair cut short waves around her shoulders as I stare into her haunting grey eyes. She’s a whole head shorter than me but she does not take that into account as she bares her teeth. My gaze runs over her whole body, taking in her build, small but seemingly strong. And finally, my eyes come to rest upon the black tattoo inked into her skin, matching the one I saw on the hooded figure perfectly.
I cast her a dazzling smile, swinging my annoyingly long brown hair from my eyes. I can see my face very clearly reflecting from her pupils, deep blue eyes that almost seem purple, croocked nose, and wide grin. I’d neglected my hair for some time due to the fact that my personal hair dresser has a strong disliking to me now, don’t ask. But none of that matters, because in three days I won’t have to worry about cutting my hair, as it will be my head that is to be cut instead.
“Can I do something for you, sir?” she seethes. How pleasant, I think. “If I could just ask a few questions?” I say, eyeing the unstable frame of her home, hoping that I could somehow steer our conversation outside in fear of the roof collapsing upon us. “I apologise, but I’m rather busy.” she says, beginning to shut her door, though my booted foot finds a way to be extra helpful. “Fine.” She grumbles. I lead her to a bench stationed on the side of the road, going as far as to remove my mask to be heard correctly. “As I said, I’m busy, so let’s make this quick.” She snaps. I nod. The weight of my sentence pressing on my shoulders making me hasty to leave anyway. With her in cuffs. I firstly ask her name, pausing my note taking as she recites it for me. What? “Please repeat.” I demand. “Jane Doe.” Despite my imminent death for being falsely accused of murder, I can’t help the laugh that slips from my lips. I see her glowering from the corner of my teary eyes, making an effort to write the letters across my page. Once my composure has righted itself, I lead her through a series of questions to do with her actions during the night, and afternoon. With every answer she gives me my agitation rises, and as her lips morph into a triumphant grin, I finally give up, and do the only thing I can.
“You’re coming with me to the Counsel. I’m bringing you in for murder.” I seethe, making a grab for her wrist. She dodges with ease, taking a few hasty steps away from me. “Like hell! You have no proof or right to do so.” She snaps back. “I have plenty of proof.” I spit, “You’re a computer hacker. I can tell from all the screens in your house,” the familiar glow of monitors had been cast across my feet from beyond her door, “and that means you disabled the system so you could get whatever was in that case. You should have worn gloves Jane Doe.” I say, jabbing a finger at her tattoo. Her face shows no shock, but something in her eye’s stutters, shifts. Gotcha, I think. “You’re going to need more to condemn me to death.” She says slowly, “So good luck with that.” Jane Doe turns to walk back into her house and I stumble as I see another figure stroll pass the door, with the same tattoo.
This should have been impossible considering her parents are dead. Her head whips back to face me, seeing my puzzled expression, she pales.
“You’re not the only one.” I accuse. To have two children is illegal, the Counsel made it so after population escalated beyond what was safe. “Older, or younger?” I ask. “I have no clue what-” “Don’t deny it, I saw him!” I snap, cutting her off. “Younger.” She says, her head dropping. “Then you’re going to jail anyway.” I say, “Your brother too.” Her head snaps up, her eyes full of fear and regret, “No...” she begs. “Did you, or did you not murder a man yesterday?” I demand, inching closer.
I can see the wheels in her mind turning, searching, thinking. Her eyes darting around to find a potential escape. Jane looks back at the house with sad eyes, her chest rising and falling with laboured breaths, and I know.
“You may continue on with your day Jane Doe, but I must speak with your brother.” I say, walking towards the slightly ajar door. “No!” she hisses, running in front if me, shoving her hands against my body in an attempt to push me back. Her face has cracked, leaking emotions that stun me to the point where I stop, “No, I did it. I killed that man.” I shake my head sadly, her pleading washing over my head like a wave, noticed but not strong enough to stop me, “No, you didn’t, Jane. Your brother did.”
Her head drops onto my chest, tears leaking into my shirt as she nods in defeat. Her feet are planted and her grip on me tight, her fighting futile but acknowledged.
“Just-just don’t take him.” She shakes, banging her head against my collar bone making me wince, “Please.” She wails dramatically. “Understand,” I urge her, “your brother killed an innocent man. The Counsel calls for that blood to be answered, and unless I can’t supply the real murderer within three days, that blood will be mine.” She releases her hold, stepping back, not bothering to wipe the tears still trickling down her face. “You can take me instead.” She says to my shock and horror, “Or you can go to hell.” Her usual demeanour slipping back into place.
I shake my head in defiance, refusing to meet Jane’s eyes as I push her aside and stride towards the house. Shoving the door open I look around the house, searching for proof of that second child. Jane rushes in, disappearing behind a curtain. I begin to approach when a dark shadow shifts on the other side of the small one roomed house. I turn around to see a boy, the same height and build as me, his expression cold and unyielding.
“My name is Samuel, and I am the man you’re looking for.” He declares.
I look at the boy, not much older than seventeen, but cold with a stare like knives. His short-cropped hair is the same colour as Jane’s, but unlike hers, his eyes shine a bright green.
“I’m sorry Samuel, but you have to come with me.” I say steadily, my voice the exact opposite of what I’m feeling.
He nods once, but looks towards the curtains. I nod back at him, allowing a few minutes for a fair goodbye. He disappears through the curtains and I hear the muffled sobs and voices of the two of them. He appears again, his eyes solemn but not scared. Binding his arms behind him, I take one last look back at the closed curtain. Muttering a silent apology, I walk him from the house, the weight of death lifting with every step towards the Counsel hall, and transitioning to Samuel. By the time their house disappears from view, I feel a soft voice whisper over my shoulder, warning me to listen.
A shuffle of footsteps sounds from behind me, but when I look, the street remains empty, the menacing dark sky looming above us, the yellow mist swirling around our heads. Looking back to Samuel, I see his expression darken, his eyebrows furrowing.
My knees hit the ground, but the pain upon impact is nothing compared to the one spreading through my back. I reach behind me silently, screaming our in pure agony as my fingers skim over a deep wound. A bullet wound.
Bringing my hand back to my face, I inhale the stench of iron, and blink at the sight of blood. The hot fire in my back races through my limbs, and though everything is burning, everything is freezing as well.
The strength in my upper body disappears as I fall to the street, silent. Distant footsteps drift towards me, and I shriek as stiff, fumbling hands turn me over. Jane Doe’s cold grey eyes blink down at me, her expression sad and regretful.
“That man deserved to die, but you don’t. So, I’m sorry.” She whispers into my ear, “I’m sorry.”
I gather enough strength to nod, but stiffen and stop immediately. I understand. As my head begins to cloud, I look up into the sky, sadness overcomes me as I take in the sight.
A dark sky with yellow mist and clouds, with little crime or poverty, but dark none the less. A dark life.
A dark death.