“The Finder of the Lucky Devil”, a review

The Finder of the Lucky Devil

by Megan Mackie

self-published

eBook versions: 138,820 words

Paper version: 427 page

Release date: June, 2017

Reviewed by Andrew Reynolds

Megan Mackie classifies her novel The Finder of the Lucky Devil as a work of urban fiction/fantasy. If you can imagine marrying a story of a dystopian future of corporate-run government with the noir feel a 50’s crime movie, and set it all in a world where magic is real, you would have an idea of what this story encompasses.

Her protagonist, Rune Leveau, is a woman who is both on the run and undercover. The story opens with her being ‘sprung’ from a corporate prison facility by her aunt, one of the most powerful magicians of her time. That corporation wants her back, and has no intentions of stopping their search for her. At the same time, she is a Talent, someone with magical powers of her own. Those with Talent are required to register their powers, but Rune is not registered, making her twice an outlaw.

Rune’s aunt gives her a new identity, along with making her heir to the far she runs, the Lucky Devil, a hang-out for magical and normal people alike. Rune’s magical power is finding. Be it lost keys of a missing person, she can find it. She worked with her aunt in order to hide her Talent, but her aunt has recently died. Now, Rune faces the task of keeping the bar out of the hands of corporate loan sharks while keeping both her real identity and power concealed.

Into this situation walks a well-dressed stranger who calls himself St. Benedict with a job offer. He needs someone found, and he’s willing to pay enough that Rune’s financial problems will be solved. But there’s a catch, and it’s a significant one: the person Benedict wants to find is the woman she used to be. Rune turns the offer down, but Benedict isn’t one to take no for an answer. He leaks the fact that Rune might know the location of her former self, and soon every corporate police force and petty thug in Chicago is after her.

Rune and Benedict team up in an uneasy partnership when the people who work with Benedict are taken. Together, they embark on a journey through a Chicago both familiar and strange, one featuring the gritty alleys and dead-end openings between building familiar to any city dweller, along with magically-created passages open only to those who know of them. As the pair work together, Rune discovers that she has far more power than she ever imagined, and that her role in Chicago’s magical world is far more important than just the possession of an unusual Talent.

I’ve never read any urban fantasy novels before, but if the genre has half the appeal of Megan Mackie’s book, I may have to delve into it more. The book takes a few pages to really get going, but once she gets into motion, the story of Rune and Benedict’s flight from one cliff-hanging adventure to the next keeps you reading. It also doesn’t give any hint of the ending until you get there, which is something I as a reader appreciated. Megan gives you characters that have depth and nuance, even the ‘supporting cast’ that only appear for a few pages have the feel of being real people. It’s a good story, and she gives herself the opening to write more about these characters, which I hope she does.

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Paul Sanchez’s vision of a dark America

It all ended with a quarter.

I’d been alive forty years, and every one of them years a slightly different flavor of hell. Like most kids with workin’ parents, I’d gotten a few years of schoolin’, but that had ended when Dad had been fired for being five minutes late for work. After that, I swept floors, stocked shelves and did whatever work I could find. I was glad get paid a few cents for a day’s work because work was hard to come by. Hell, between kids like me, and all the old folks needin’ money to stay alive, anyone hiring had plenty of folk willing to cut each other’s throats to land a day’s worth a work.

My Dad told me about when he was young. How some crazy politician had tried to set it up so old folks didn’t have to work ’til they dropped. He’d been shouted down and nothing had been done. Dad said it was cause the bosses knew lots of poor people fighting for jobs kept wages down. Dad told me about his dad, and how he’d talked about how working people should ‘get together’ and try to improve their lot’. Then his father had gone off to something called a ‘strike’, and never come home. The cops had come around at sunset and hauled his Mom off, leavin’ him and three younger kids to fend for themselves. They’d been lucky, his Mom had come home but she had been scared half to death. The cops had grilled her for hours about her husband’s ‘radical’ ideas. They’d wanted to know if he’d talked about’em to her and her kids. She’d managed to convince them her husband hadn’t told her anything, then they’d taken her to the morgue to identify her husband. His Mom had told him that Grandad had been beaten pretty bad before someone had shot him in the head. They’d buried him in a plain pine box, and Grandma had followed him inside of a year, dead because a drunk john had felt like beating the crap out of the new prostitute at the local whore house.

For me, all that talk about the ‘old days’ was so much hot air. I was glad to land a job feedin’ parts fresh outta the molds into the polishin’ machine. I didn’t complain if the boss shorted my pay every once in a while. I knew if I groused, I’d be out the door. Too many other guys had complained, and were gone, for me to be tempted to say anything, no matter how bad things got.

I was lucky. Other guys at the foundry lost fingers, hell, lost hands, feet and even arms and legs. Nobody cared, why should they? Plenty a folks would be happy to take the job and the risks. Me, the worst I had to worry about was the occasional burn from a part that hadn’t cooled.

Then I went to work and found the gate chained shut. None of the bosses had said anythin’, but one of the guys who maintained the machines told me what’d happened. They’d closed the plant cause they could get people in China to do work even cheaper. So after fifteen years of hard work, I was back to scroungin’ for somethin’, anythin’, to make a buck.

Now I was one of the ‘old folks’ tryin’ to make ends meet. I got kicked out of the little apartment I’d been livin’ in, and felt lucky to share a room at the Hotel St. Louis. Once upon a time, it had been a stop for passenger trains when they’d come through town. When they quit runnin’, the hotel had fallen on hard times. Now, it was a flop house, and people joked that it was the Hotel St. DeLouse, thinkin’ everyone who lived there was a bum with lice. They weren’t exaggeratin’ much.

The coughin’ started a year after I lost my job, and I didn’t need a doctor to know what it was. Other men who’d done my job came down with the same thing. One said it was cause of the dust in the air. It probably was, what with the dust was always so thick you couldn’t hardly see your hand in front of your face. Whatever caused it, I knew it would keep gettin’ worse. Soon I’d be coughing up blood with the wads of black crap that felt like sandpaper inside my throat.

Dead or dyin’, I needed to eat, and that meant workin’ at whatever job I could find. But nobody wanted to hire a guy who spent half his time coughin’. I ended up sweeping floors in bars for a few pennies a day and whatever spare change I found lyin’ on the floor. The bartender would turn a blind eye to me cadgin’ peanuts and the other snack crap left out for paying customers, but only if the owner weren’t around.

My habit a pickin’ up pocket change that got me. I was walkin’ to the bar for another day of sweeping when I saw it: a quarter, lyin’ in the middle of the road. Hell, that was more than I’d be paid for the week! I walked out into the street without looking, knowin’ I’d have a fortune when I picked it up. I didn’t know the car was comin’ until I heard the screech of the tires. Then there was an incredible pain all along my left side, and the world tumbled ass over teakettles. I ended up lyin’ in the road, but I didn’t feel any more pain. Hell, I didn’t feel anything, not even the rough pavement my face was on. My head was pointed so I could still see that shiny quarter. Now, it was lyin’ almost dead-center under the grill of a big car with a three-pointed star set in the center.

I heard someone yellin’, cussin’ like crazy. “Goddamn fuckin’ bum! What the hell was he doin’, walking out in the of the road? Look at the mess he made! My damned brand-new car gonna have to go to the shop to fix these dents. And all because of that damn bum!” A pair of finely-polished shoes came into view, running towards where I lay. They stopped, the leg in the expensive pair of pants drew back, and my head jerked, the only indication I had that he’d kicked me. Another kick, them more screaming. “Say something, you goddamn bum! What the fuck reason did you have for getting’ in my way?”

The world was going dark, and I realized that not only couldn’t I feel the pavement, I couldn’t feel myself breathing.

I was dyin’. I knew it, but there wasn’t anythin’ I could do but marvel over the fact that I’d died for a quarter.

Shall we go gentle into that good night?

I’m sorry, Vesta Explorer, but the numbers don’t lie. There’s no way to get you home.”

Paul stared at the speaker, wondering how Mike Cho could so calmly tell him and the other four surviving members of the crew of the first mission to a major asteroid that they were dead. The unreasoning part of him wanted to shout, to scream his defiance of that cold pronouncement. But Mike had said those words nearly a hour ago, and Paul knew his protests would take an equally long time to reach Mission Control. Those protests would also change nothing.

The reaction mass tanks should have had more than enough protection. Paul was an engineer, and he knew the specifications those tanks had been built to. Yet for all the layers of Kevlar, aluminum and plastic that had encased them, a single undetected rock fragment had slammed into one, and when it ruptured, the force of that explosion was enough to blow the tanks on either side of it. The other three tanks had been spared by their separation, but it made no difference. It was simple bad luck that the three unused tanks were destroyed. The undamaged tanks had provided the fuel to get them on their way, and now held less than a third of what the mission would need to finish with them still alive.

“So I guess we’re fecked.”

Fionola Lynch’s Donegal-accented English was the antitheses of Cho’s MIT-educated precision, an earthy counterpoint to the cold, clinical pronouncement of their death sentence. Her partner, Vadik Sokolov, had been working outside with Zhao Shen when the tanks went. Shen had been lucky, his vital signs had flat-lined instantaneously. Vadik’s tether was cut by a piece of debris, and he’d spent the next four hours pleading for help they couldn’t provide. Fionola had stayed on the radio with him until he lost consciousness, trying to cheer him up in the face of certain death. After he’d gone silent, she’d stared at the speaker for hours as if wishing the man she loved would speak again would cause it to happen.

It hadn’t, any more than all their projections and planning had caused their fate to change.

Paul cleared his throat, trying to get his crew to pay attention to something besides their impending doom. Their eyes on him, he said the only thing he could. “We’re dead yet, people. We still have the food for the mission we were sent on, and our environmental systems are still functioning. We only die when we give up, remember that. So keep doing your jobs, keep doing the science. We don’t know what might come up. They might decide to redirect the Mars cycler on a fast burn and reach us before we run out of food. Even if they can’t…well, we can either spend the time we have left doing something useful, or we can sit around doing nothing and waiting for the end. I don’t intend to ‘go gentle into that good night’, and I hope you aren’t either.”

Maria found Fionola the next morning. She’d managed to bypass the security interlocks on the medicine storage locker and stolen four of the syringes of morphine they’d been stocked with in case of serious injuries. She’d left a note behind, hoping God would forgive her and let her be with Vadik again. None of us knew the ritual words, so Paul decided to put her out the airlock as the rest of the crew stood as close to at attention as the low-G of the rotating crew cabin allowed.

A week later, Maria was gone. She went out the same airlock Fionola had, but she’d gone of her own volition, locking herself in and depressurizing before anyone could override her commands. Franco, who had been in love with her for months, managed to slit his own throat the same day. Paul had tried to stop the bleeding, but Franco had clawed at him and Jurgen, the remaining member of the crew, had refused to help.

Paul couldn’t forgive Jurgen for his willingness to do nothing to save a fellow crew member. Over the next three months, they had stayed out of each other’s way, working 12 hour shifts and only speaking at hand-over. Then Paul had gotten up and found himself alone. There was nothing to tell him when Jurgen had gone out the airlock, for the open outer door made it clear that was what had happened. There was no note, nothing to give him a hint what event had finally broken the other man’s resolve. He was simply gone.

Paul kept up his daily routine, downloading science data to mission control and updating his status. The months passed, time stretched out before him without end. In his mind, he began handing off night duties to Jurgen again. Then he began to see the phantom crewman as he left duty, grim and resolute as he had always been, as he went to bed and came back on duty the next morning. Franco started to join him in his daily rounds of the crew compartment, offering his sharp-tongued comments on the daily mission updates from Earth. Maria was there too, her shy but competent presence always welcomed.

But Jurgen never came back. Neither did Fionola. They, and the men who’d died in the accident remained stubbornly absent from Paul’s imaginary crew. That absence began to gnaw at Paul’s conscious mind. The missing crew members were a reminder that he was in fact all alone, millions of from any other humans. Nearly a year after he’d announced there was nothing that could be done for the crew of the Vesta Explorer, Mike Cho’s voice shattered Paul’s make-believe world.

Vesta Explorer, Vesta Explorer, this is mission control, and I’ve got some good news for you. The initial tests of the Far Voyager have been completed, and the engine has performed far better than we’d hoped. We project that it can make the burn to get out to you before you run out of food. You can come home, Paul.”

Paul stared at the speaker. It was impossible. How could he abandon his ship, his crew? No, they couldn’t ask him to do that. He was the mission commander, and he had to stay with his crew. He wouldn’t leave them. It took him a week to reprogram the main computer to automatically poll all the science systems and download them to mission control. Then he powered the reactor back to the bare minimum needed to keep those instruments running and settled into his small cabin. The syringes slid into his arm one after another, and the ragged cabin began to fade. His crew gathered around him again, even those who had stubbornly refused to join him in his lonely vigil. Their smiles told him all he needed to know. They were together again, and nothing would separate the crew of the Vesta Explorer.

Matt visits his own private corner of Hell

Matt looked out the front window of his dry cleaners at the police cars. There were ten of them, like they’d come to arrest a gang of armed robbers or some terrorist group. But they were all parked in from of the Lotus Spa, the ‘massage parlor’ that had been operating in the corner space of the strip mall for almost two years now.

Why did they think they’d need that much manpower? It wasn’t all local police either. There were state police cars, county sheriff’s units, even a plain dark-colored sedan that screamed FBI or some other federal agency. All that to bust a place everybody knew about and up until now, nobody had cared about.

Matt remembered when the formerly empty storefront had suddenly been invaded by construction workers. They’d spent months working there without a hint of what sort of business was going open there. Then the day had come when it had opened, and more than a few people in Carswell’s Corner had been shocked to find such a business operating in their ‘fair’ city.

Matt wasn’t.

Hell, pretty much all of the bars in town had a woman or two who hung out at corner tables where men came to talk to them…men they would leave with, only to return fifteen minutes, a half hour, or even an hour later. Then they’d be back at the same table, waiting for the next man who wanted sex and was willing to pay for it.

One of them had been there working when Matt had gotten his first drink in the Corner Pocket. He’d gone on an epic drunks after his wife had been killed in a traffic accident and had woken up with one in his bed, shaking him and demanding to be paid.

Matt had paid a visit to the Lotus one rainy day when nobody seemed interested in getting clothing cleaned. The Asian woman who’d greeted him at the door had been older than he was, leaving him wondering if he should turn around and leave. Then she introduced him to another, younger Asian woman, and he thought his chances had improved. The older woman had asked him how long he wanted his appointment to be, and he opted for half an hour, a time he’d seen more than a few of the men visiting the establishment stay for.

The younger woman had taken him to a room dominated by a long, low table and told him to undress before leaving. The clock on the wall told him she had been gone just short of five minutes when she came back. Unsure what he should do, Matt had been sitting on the edge of the table, the broad towel that had been setting folded in it’s center wrapped around his waist.

The woman, he found out later her name was Jun, had told him to lie face down on the table with his face in a hole on one end. What happened next had surprised Matt: a thorough, firm massage of his back and shoulder muscles, followed by an equally strong massage of his legs. There was no hint of sexual contact, and that would have been Matt’s last visit if his hand hadn’t brushed Jun’s leg.

He hadn’t intended to touch her, but his hand was lying near the edge of the table, and as she worked her way down his leg, his and and her leg had touched. When it happened, Matt half expected an outraged outburst. Instead, Jun had giggled and rubbed her leg against his hand for a moment before proceeding to work her way down his leg to his foot. When she switched sides, Matt had made sure his hand was at the edge of the table, and this time, Jun rubbed her leg against his hand far longer.

Matt was tempted to see what would happen if he tried to actively touch Jun, but her announcement that his time was up (it was still five minutes before half an hour from the time he’d entered the room) had ended such thought.

Jun had not left the room as he dressed. She had helped him dress, finishing with tying his shoe laces before standing. Then she’d stepped close and whisper in his ear that if he made an appointment for an hour, he might get to do more than rub her leg.

Matt was back a week later, this time after closing his shop, and he’d made it clear to the smiling older woman that he wanted an hour-long appointment with Jun. This time, rather than stay in the room, Jun had led him further back into the storefront, Wrapped in his towel, he was taken to a room tiled from floor to halfway to the ceiling that held another table and a large, industrial sink with an over-sized spray head running in it. Jun took his towel and told him to lie face down on the table, where she proceeded to spray him with surprisingly warm water before scrubbing him down.

This time, there was sexual contact. Jun worked her way from his shoulders down his back to his butt, which she scrubbed well before letting her hand dip between his legs to give his crotch a quick feel. Then she worked her way down one leg, back up for another quick touch before scrubbing the other leg. Then the spray nozzle played over his body, rinsing away the suds from the scrubbing before Jun told him to turn over.

Face up, his arousal was hard to hide, so he made no effort to. Jun, on seeing his state, had smiled and teased him verbally before scrubbing the front side of his body. This time, there was no sexual contact until every part of his body but his crotch had been washed. When she did that, Jun had paid special attention to that area while letting Matt know she was available for more if he wanted it.

He did, and after rinsing him down, Jun had used the towel he’d worn to the room to dry him off before taking him back to the massage room. There, Jun informed him of what she was willing to do, and how much it would cost. Matt had guessed how much money to bring based on his past experience, and was glad to learn his guess was close enough to right to get what he wanted. Jun had dimmed the lights, and with a whispered caution to be quiet so her boss didn’t know what was happening, she’d undressed and satisfied Matt’s needs.

It wasn’t an intimate act like sex with his wife had been, Jun turned her face away every time he tried to kiss her. And Jun was particularly insistent that he wear ‘protection’, which Matt could understand, given what she did and perhaps how often. But he had enjoyed being able to have sex, and when he had finished, Jun had actually lain with him instead of getting up immediately. Her warm, sweaty presence that had given at least the illusion of satisfaction on her part. Then she’d gotten up, dressed, and again helped him into his clothing before walking him to the exit. There she gave him a peck on the cheek and asked him to come back again soon.

That had been the first time he’d visited, but it hadn’t been the last. Matt became a weekly visitor to the Lotus, usually going in after closing up shop on Friday. He always asked for Jun, and she had always been there with a smile and a warm greeting. After a month, Jun began to talk to him. At first, it had been simple questions after sex. Later, she had begun talking to him during the time spent being cleaned, something she told him was called a ‘table shower’. Matt told her a little about himself, then much more. Jun, in turn, had slowly opened up about her own life.

She was from Inchon, a now-single mother of a daughter in college (something Matt would never have guessed from her youthful appearance). Her husband had deserted her, and with few job prospects to pay for feeding and housing a then-young child, she had reluctantly turned to prostitution. In Korea, the working conditions for prostitutes were brutal, and the pay nowhere near what she made working in America. So when a fellow prostitute had disappeared, only to reappear several months later with tales of how much she’d made working in America, Jun had asked how she could get there.

Jun told him this was her last trip to America, that she was due to go back to Korea in a few weeks to be with her daughter. She’d made enough money to allow her to allow her to buy a small convenience store in Inchon, and she intended to retire. Her daughter knew nothing of what she’d done to help pay for her education, and Jun wanted it to stay that way.

Matt watched as officers led the older woman out in handcuffs, followed by Jun. It wasn’t fair. She hadn’t stolen money. She hadn’t hurt anyone. She’d just done what she needed to so her daughter would have a better life than she’d had. Now, she’d be sent back to Korea because she was a ‘criminal’, and that would no doubt go on her record. Would her daughter find out? Would the police take Jun’s money, the money she’d hoped would get her out of a life she lived but did not enjoy? Matt didn’t know, and a part of him felt ashamed he didn’t speak up. But admitting you visited prostitutes wasn’t something a small businessman did in Carswell’s Corner, so Matt stood in his shop, staring out the window, and did nothing.

Settling in for Fall

Fall has been here for a while now, and the weather is giving every indication that winter’s none too far down the road. Yesterday, in the middle of some drizzly rain, snow flakes could be seen. So, it’s time to get ready for colder temperatures.

If, like me, you live in an older house, you know that windows are a major problem…at least if you’re like me and not rich enough to replace to old windows that old houses come with. So today was the day I set aside to deal, with the really serious offenders. That’s four windows, all of which have a tendency to be cold spots any time the temps drop close to freezing. Time has taught me that the best way to deal with them is to cover them on the inside. Experience has taught me that getting the cover in place means I’ll be using my extensive stock of ‘colorful’ language. Experience was right, I cussed a lot more than would be considered ‘proper’, but the job is done and the house is already feeling warmer.

The other big chore was doing some leaf raking. People who live in Florida think Fall leaves are nothing more than a spectacular show. They are nice to look at, but they can also be hell to clean up. If you’ve got a yard like mine that makes it almost impossible to rake leaves from Point A to Point B, cleaning them up can get ‘interesting’. In years past, I would take a tarp, lay it out, then rake it full of leaves before using the tarp as an improvised travois. Using this, it would take two to three trips to haul the average year’s leaf fall. This year, with the leaves still clinging to the biggest tree in the back yard, I knew I’d be making several trips over the course of multiple weeks. So I indulged myself in an old tradition: a leaf burn.

It had been a very long time since I’d done one, but I found it to be a cheering experience. Getting a decent-sized pile wasn’t all that hard, and there were several dead-falls that had come down in the past week’s storms/high winds. They went on top of the pile, and a sheet of newspaper served to light the entire pile. People think leaves smoke terribly when you burn them, but that’s only true if you’re trying to burn wet leaves. In this case, it had been long enough since the last rain for what was on the ground to be dry. Once things started burning, the only time there was any smoke was when I would rake more leaves into the burn area, temporarily ‘choking’ the fire. Burning clean, it was a surprisingly hot fire, and the leaves were soon consumed. In the end, I was left with a small heap of branches and twigs that burned cheerfully down to a heap of ashes

There will be more fires, and I hope I get days equally ideal for having them: calm to light winds, sunny skies and just enough chill in the air to make being next to a fire feel good. I’ll find out, but for a first time in a long time, it was fun. Who knows, maybe next time I’ll start just before lunch and grill myself a hotdog?

Again and again

The cold breeze blows,

and the flags flap.

Their flat slap echoes across a land

stunned to silence

by grief and horror

by disgust at inaction

from the ‘leaders’

who mouth the same words

over and over again.

“We mourn the loss…”

“Our hearts and prayers…”

“We will never forget….”

Yet prayers will not bring back

the dead,

nor heal those crippled,

nor sooth the souls

of those who have lost

a loved one or friend.

And the saddest thing

in this appalling spectacle

is that soon, it will happen again.

And the same words will be said

and the flags will again flap at half mast.

Paying the price

Paul drew in a breath, held it, and slowly let it out. Another, and as he exhaled, he put his eye to telescopic sight. His father had taken him deer hunting during his teen years, and he’d hated the yearly pilgrimages into the forest. But his father had taught him how to use a rifle to shoot from a distance, and the skills had stuck well enough to let him shoot well even years later.

Those lessons had been with a Remington 30.06, but now he peered through the sight of a Barrett 82A1, a much more massive weapon. He’d found it several months earlier by accident. During one of his scrounging patrols, he’d come across the scene of a battle. The remains of several men, all of them lying in twisted poses, and often more than one piece, surrounded by their defeated opponents had made it clear this had been an intense fight. Several of those opponents had huge holes in them, which led Paul to the sniper who’d made those holes. He had been hidden atop a building, but his ‘hide’ had clearly not been good enough. Like those below, his body was in several parts, some of them looking like they’d been partially shoved through a wood chipper. Only the bald eagle shoulder patch on all the bodies had made it clear they were regular military.

Paul had taken the time to collect what he could of the fallen soldiers, giving them what dignity he could before hauling their weapons away to one of his stashes. One of the M16A4’s he’d recovered that day lay beside him, but he knew against the enemy he faced, it would be little more than an annoyance.

He watched that enemy as it rooted around in the ruins of a small house. He’d been sure to leave a clear trail to the structure, hoping he could draw the enemy out where he had a chance to kill another one. The box-like body sprouted four wheels with off-road tires on them. The cabled neck whipped from side to side, the head-like sensor array seeking to find the human that had left the clear scent path to this point. It had no imagination, any more than all the other machines that now hunted humanity. No, it could not imagine a human using a rope to pull themselves into the ash tree that stretched its branches over the remains of a suburban bungalow. Nor could it conceive of the possibility that once they done that, a human would use other ropes to climb from tree to tree so they could drop to the ground well away from where the trail appeared to end. No, the human trail ended here, so the machine knew there must be a human here.

The vents for the machines power supply were easy to see, the low howl it made clear even from 500 yards away. The critical spot should be just in front of them, and that was where Paul had his sight centered. The machine shifted slightly away from him, making the shot harder, and he knew he had to shoot, and now, or he would lose his chance. Slightly to the left, down a bit…a final deep breath, a squeeze of his finger on the trigger, and……

Paul had fired the Barrett over a dozen time before this, but the overwhelming noise, the brutal recoil, still caught him off guard. The huge armor-piercing bullet crossed the distance between Paul and his target before the sound could, and did what it was designed to. The impact lifted both tires off the ground on the side Paul had targeted, and before they had landed, the machine stopped moving. The neck and head flopped to the ground and in the ringing silence after the shot, the howling of the small turbine was conspicuously absent.

Paul waited, watching to see if the machine had a partner, something they had taken to doing. When his hearing recovered, all he heard was the sound of the chill north wind that had been blowing the past two days. Longer, and he heard a squirrel somewhere in the trees around him begin to chitter its complaints about being disturbed. Finally satisfied, he safetied the big rifle and levered himself off the ground. One more thing to do before he moved on.

He approached the wreckage with caution, the Barrett cradled under his arm, a fresh round in the chamber ready to fire as soon as he flipped the safety off. He’d only been forced to make a second shot once, but that had been enough to make him approach the robot with all due care. When a stop just inside the reach of its neck elicited no response, Paul moved to stand beside the wreck. The metal was still surprisingly warm, not unlike a deer or any other large animal that had just been brought down by a hunter. He leaned the rifle against that mass of metal, slipped his pack off, and pulled out his stencel. It was something he’d taken to doing after seeing another smashed machine someone had ‘tagged’ with their name and a number Paul assumed represented the number of killed robots they had to their credit. With no where near the talent to make something so ornate, Paul settled for a stencil he’d made of his name, and a number to mark his own kill total. He’d been using a florescent orange until last week when the can finally gave out. Now he pulled a can of dark red spray paint out, rearranged the numbers to reflect this latest kill, and with a quick shake, marked the side of the wreck.

“Paul Sanchez, 138” he read it aloud with a smile. He laid the stencil aside to dry and pulled a pair of grenades from the pack. These he put under the head, pins pulled, knowing that if another machine found the wreck it would try to salvage the sensors in it. Many of his kills had been accomplished that way, and he had no qualms about bobby-trapping the wreckage. No human would want it, so the only ones that would face danger from the unexploded ordinance would be other machines.

Back to the body of the machine to retrieve his stencil, then a quick flip of a body panel revealed the fuel filler port. The machines might have been the result of a military experiment gone wrong, but they burned the same fuel Paul had once used in his own car. It took barely a minute to shove a strip of old drapery down the fill line to the fuel, then with rifle in hand, he lit the improvised fuse and ran.

Paul was halfway up the hillside he’d come down when the flames reached the fuel and the machine exploded. He turned to look at his handiwork and saw two of the tires already burning. If all four burned, the machine would be a completely useless piece of junk, the delicate electronics already fried by the flames rising from the body. Not for the first time he wished that he’d known the autonomous killers would turn on their makers before he began developing them. Now, all he could do was try to kill as many of them before one of them got smart enough to kill him. It would never be enough to atone for his stupidity back then, but it was all he could do.