I've been feeling a bit philanthropic lately, so I decided to invest some of my time and resources in making the world a better place. I was initially playing with the idea to help the poor and needy in Africa, but I luckily quickly realised what a stupid idea that was, and that helping to give Mizal a Christmas present was obviously the better choice to make. So yeah, I wrote this story to help her with that:
People always come up with the strangest descriptions of the act of dying:
“It’s a tunnel with light on the other end.”
“Death is a warm embrace, and an immeasurable feeling of bliss.”
“Your life flashes before you once again, but then you find peace.”
Before today, I never really spent much time thinking about the end. I’m not really religious. To me, death was an inevitability, a definitive end, which has to happen some day anyways. No matter what it looks like, it’s not like you can avoid it when your time is up. Though I have to admit, I do feel sort of cheated. For all their colourful descriptions of the end, nobody ever told me that death would be cold, bloody, and reeking of urine-soaked Copenhagen alleyways. Though I guess they might have been at least partially right about the ‘life flashing before your eyes’ part of dying. I think you probably know where I’m headed with this, so let me just start at the beginning of the events that put me in this situation.
Oh, before I forget: I am (was?) Mads Persen by the way. Pleasure to meet you, I guess.
This story begins on a cold December afternoon, outside a massage parlour in Nørrebro. Nestled between gentrified yuppie apartment complexes and run-down ‘multicultural’ tenements, the advertisements for ‘Vietnamese head reflexology’ somehow looked wrong for all demographics in the area. Or it could have been the fact that I almost knew for certain what went on behind the ever so slightly ambiguous storefront. For the past few years, I have worked for a police task force that combats human trafficking. That day, two colleagues and I popped by the place because we received some troubling news about its employees.
There was a time when I would not hesitate to barge into a place like this, catch a crook red-handed, and single-handedly make sure they went to jail. The problem is that I can’t actually remember when the last time was. That day, I decided to smoke a cigarette outside, while my colleagues handled the situation. I mean, someone has to make sure nobody runs away, or something like that, right?
Before I even properly managed to fumigate my lungs, some sorry looking guy was already being dragged out of the parlour, quite literally with his pants down. Despite what most people believe, the police are actually trained to not give too much credit to stereotypes. This guy, though, fit my image of the stereotypical brothel-sneaker to the letter. Rat-faced and beady-eyed, he slouched out of the parlour under the watchful, slightly-judging gaze of Mikkel Rasmussen, one of my colleagues. The perv’s hands were desperately fumbling to hold up his unbuttoned trousers, which left less of his scrawny body to the imagination than was probably appropriate at this time of day. The cold didn’t help his self-image much either.
While Mikkel helped the catch of the day into the back of our van, I decided to check the situation inside. As I descended the parlour’s stairs I was taken aback by the musty air wafting out of the open front door: the smell of packed human bodies, mixed with fragrant oils, cheap perfume and other, less-savoury, fluids. In hindsight, it was a miracle that place managed to stay under the radar as long as it had. Inside, I was greeted by about a dozen women of different ages and different ethnicities, crammed into the small lobby. Some looked Asian, others I’d identify as Eastern European. Some barely looked eighteen years old, others a bit older. All of them, however, had this strange look on their faces: a mix of fear, and something close to relieve, or hope.
My colleague Jon What’s-His-Name was sitting behind what appeared to be the front desk, talking to one of the women while jotting down notes. Dammit, what is his surname again? I’ve been working with the guy for the past three years now, but it keeps slipping my mind. Something Swedish... Larsson! Or was it Lindkvist…? Anyhow, it doesn’t matter anymore now, I guess. Though I might be getting ahead of myself right now.
I won’t bore you with police bureaucracy, but the remainder of that day was spent transferring those women to the relevant (immigration) authorities. In the meantime, as I later heard, Mikkel made quite an entrance with Rat-faced, Loose-trousered Pervert down at the station. If I remember correctly, paperwork was hell though, as the kids were already put to bed when I came home that evening.
Fun fact: about ten thousand people are trafficked into, or within, the EU each year. Most of them women, who are forced to work in places like a certain Nørrebro massage parlour. In most cases, criminal organisations are responsible. Until, of course, people like me take them down.
A few days after we closed the massage parlour in Nørrebro, my boss called us all into the meeting room. There, he greeted us with a fidgety looking Asian woman next to him. I immediately recognised her from the parlour a few days earlier: the woman that was talking to Jon. As was to be expected, we were told that the parlour we closed belonged to one of the larger criminal networks in Denmark, dabbling in the smuggling of a variety of goods, ranging from drugs to people, and not necessarily in separate goes.
When my boss was finished, the woman introduced herself in English as Yan Shue. She came from some province in Western China, and was brought to Europe by a group of people who promised her a good job here. However, when she arrived in Denmark, she was locked up, and forced to work in… well, you know, interactive adult entertainment. She had been in Denmark for over five years at that point, but did not dare to run away, or seek help, out of fear that the people smugglers would hurt her family. I remember noticing her eyes starting to water, but her voice remained strong as she continued speaking. Her story, unfortunately, was pretty common.
The funny things about my line of work is that, though we deal with persons like Yan on a daily basis, these stories still manage to touch all of us on a certain level, even if we don’t like to show it. And with ‘we’, I of course mean most of the people that are not me. Anyhow, before my boss could continue his presentation, he softly cleared his throat. Then he told us that, with Yan’s help, our analysts were able to identify both one of the criminals’ middle men, and the likely location where their victims, including Yan, were held when they weren’t working. Our team was split up, to simultaneously investigate those locations and try and apprehend as many people involved as possible, without them realising we were on to them.
This morning, Jon… Lindberg (?) was on his way to the location where the women were kept, together with a special intervention unit, and with the help of Yan. Meanwhile, Mikkel and I were on our way to the guy that supposedly was involved in the trafficking scheme: the owner of a logistics company just outside of the city. As the threat was either deemed lower than the other location, or we were just considered expendable (which, at this point, I’m actually starting to believe), we only received a handful of regular police officers to assist us.
The transport company’s lot consisted of about a football field’s area of parking space, made up of poorly placed concrete plates, with weeds growing in between them, about of half of which was filled with trucks. It was surrounded by a rusty chain link fence. The shabby-looking building, near the front gate, that housed the offices, didn’t suggest that business was thriving.
Mikkel and I were led inside by one of the most bland-looking people I ever met in my life. Dressed in an oversized, drab grey suit, pasty-faced and heavily balding, apart from his bad comb-over, Hans Christiansen wasn’t exactly the person you’d expect to be part of a criminal organisation. Let alone any organisation that entailed some form of social interaction. After introductions and initial questioning, he of course denied that he knew anything about criminal activities being linked to his company, but he was happy to help with the investigation.
Before we even properly entered his closet-sized office, he started pulling out shipping logs, travel records, and any other stuff that might help convince us of his innocence, down to the receipts for his lunches. Admittedly, it was pretty funny to see the scrawny guy running around his office, frantically digging through his file cabinets like a mouse on amphetamines. And you have to hand it to him that he was pretty well organised.
While stacks of papers were sprouting up across the room, one of our accompanying police officers called to ask if they could show us something outside. I initially, quite frankly, didn’t see any harm in leaving Hans alone with his papers for a while, but when we told him we wanted to go outside for a bit, he tensed up. He started digging through his file cabinets in an even more frantic manner, and presented us with the most trivial scraps of paper. When I really did insist we go outside, he jumped in front of the door. Fed up, I told Mikkel to watch him, and cuff him if necessary, while I went outside to meet with the other officers.
It had started to snow while I was inside, and the parking lot was slowly starting to disappear beneath it. Quite an improvement, if you’d ask me. I found the rest of my team gathered near a truck in the centre of the lot. One of them still was holding a bolt cutter, which he evidently used to cut the lock of one of the trucks. I initially did not see much wrong with it, despite the poorly stacked cardboard boxes it contained, but when I looked through the space where a few of them had been removed, three dozen pairs of eyes stared back at me. Using a borrowed flashlight, I managed to make out the women that were hidden in the truck, crammed together more tightly than a budget livestock transport. The longer I stayed in the truck, the more I began to notice the smell of urine and vomit. Who knows how long those people had been locked in there, waiting to be shipped off to somewhere else. Quite frankly, I don’t even think I want to know.
I immediately called Mikkel to bring round Hans, the weasely owner of the company. He stammered for a bit, kept denying that he was involved in anything, and swore by everything that was dear to him that he was being framed. His pasty face was turning red, however, and the longer he was forced to stare at the people that were crammed in the back of one of his truck, the more he started to shake. I actually don’t know if he ever confessed, but I do know with almost certainty that he is guilty. The last I saw of him was when Mikkel and our accompanying police officers stuffed him in the back of our own car, to take him to the station for interrogation. God, I hope he got what was coming for him.
Around the time that Hans was being handcuffed, I got a call from Jon (Lindgren?), who was busy cleaning up the house where the other women were being kept. He happily informed me that the raid was a success. There was some unexpected resistance, as some traffickers were still present inside, and opened fire on the intervention team when they breached the door. They were swiftly neutralised. One of the team’s members was shot, but the wound probably wasn’t lethal. Inside, they found plenty of women locked up, but none of them were hurt. The relevant authorities were already on their way to help process them. All that was left was to bag the bodies of the bad guys, and to inspect the scene for any immediate evidence.
Stopped the bad guys, saved the women, fairy tale ending. I was in a surprisingly good mood after the two successful operations (something, something, touching story in my line of work) and decided to offer to help process the scene. The house was on my route home anyway.
Late this afternoon, I pulled up at the house in Valby, one of Copenhagen’s suburbs. It actually didn’t look like your average traffickers hideout. Located on a quiet street, with seemingly ‘normal’ neighbours, and a large plot of land surrounding it, the one-story home almost looked cosy. Were it, of course, not for the fact that crime scene technicians were busy hauling body bags through the front door. Though I guess that certain kinds of people might still find that cosy… The intervention team had already left by then, though some immigration officials were still talking to a few scraggly-looking women some distance away.
I found Jon (Lindström!) and Yan by a nearby police car. Yan was sitting in the back seat, with Jon talking amicably with her through the open window. The little Chinese woman was looking distraught, and appeared to be hiding behind Jon. She later told me she was afraid people would recognise her, people that could hurt her family if they found out that she helped the police. Even as the body bags were being loaded into the techs’ van, she looked more sad and nervous than happy.
I didn’t really know how to continue the conversation with her, so I turned to Jon and asked if he needed help with anything. He probably knew that I was mostly just there as a courtesy call (heck, I probably made him think that I had gone mad, to a certain degree), so he briefly mentioned something about checking the place out for a bit, after the last traffickers were removed.
From the corner of my eyes, I thought I saw Yan shifting uncomfortably, and I asked briefly if there was something wrong. She replied softly, and her eyes started to tear up. I assumed she finally felt the full brunt of her stress, or maybe even relief. She asked me if Jon and I were going to go inside. When I told her we would, she hesitantly asked if we could perhaps look for a bag of hers in her old room. Some emotional stuff about mementoes from her family and what not. Jon quickly jumped in the conversation and told her we would look for it. And so, before I could object, Yan gave us some general directions, and let us know what to look for in the rest of the house, as far as she could remember.
No matter how cosy the traffickers’ house looked from outside, the inside was all but. Besides a somewhat regular-sized sitting room, the rest of the house was partitioned into closet-sized bedrooms for the women that were kept there. Rickety bunk beds and sleeping mats meant that the small spaces could hold as many people as possible. The lucky ones had windows that, though the shutters were nailed shut, might have had some glimpses of daylight during the time that they were locked up in here. Though the cold winter must have been horrible for them. Some bile actually came up my throat while walking through the place.
While Jon (…Leifson?) went looking for Yan’s room, I decided to look through the stuff in the living room, to try and find evidence that might help us dismantle the rest of the network. It was pretty clear the traffickers didn’t know we were coming. Empty beer bottles, half-smoked joints and a scattered poker set hinted at as much. The, unfortunately quite familiar, smell of death still lingered, despite the opened front door. The smell of blood, adrenaline, and fear, combined with a faint whiff of soiled pants. The fact that some people soil themselves after death is surprisingly little repeated by those people who have the most colourful descriptions of death. So I guess that’s something to look forward to.
After some time I thought I saw something lying beneath one of the bloodied couches, but I was startled by a cry of joy from Jon, as he practically came bouncing into the living room. He was holding a little pink trolley, the kind you can get at a low-quality dollar store with a lock that’s more for show than security, and which only redeemable trait is that it fits into a plane’s overhead compartment. A sticker with some Chinese characters stuck to the side, which I assumed said ‘Yan Shue’.
As Jon ran outside, I tried moving the couch on my own. After a bit more groaning and grunting than I’d like to admit (I’m getting old. Well, was getting old, I guess...), I finally managed to grab what was lying beneath it: a leather wallet I presumed belonged to one of the traffickers. Solely from professional interest, and totally not from curiosity, I decided to snoop around inside it. Some crumpled bills fell out and, besides the guy’s (Danish) ID, I didn’t find much interesting.
Then my eyes fell on the corner of a piece of paper that was sticking out from a slightly difficult to see compartment. It was a picture of the trafficker and a woman, looking quite happy together, apparently strolling around Amager Beach. It was a Chinese woman. A Chinese woman I recognised very well.
Caught the bad guy, saved the women. Fairy tale ending, right? I realised the naivety of that thought when I heard a gunshot outside.
I rushed outside, barely registering the crowd of people that was running to an abandoned police car. I noticed the motionless body of Jon lying beside it; a red stain was spreading over his chest. I screamed for someone to call an ambulance, even though I knew there was no chance of bringing him back. Poor guy, left behind a wife and three kids. In the distance, I saw a small Chinese woman diving into a side street, a pink trolley in one of her hands.
Without further thought, I sprinted after her. My surroundings flew by without much notice. An eerie sense of purpose filled me, and I could focus on nothing other than the short Chinese woman running in front of me. A red haze started to fill my field of view. I followed her street after street, dodging, or pushing away, the bicycles and pedestrians that came in between us. I don’t know how much time passed, but my prey eventually started to get tired, and the distance between us narrowed.
She turned another corner, I followed, and I knew that I had finally caught her. We ended up in an alleyway. She stood in front of me, with her back against a fence. The only time in my life I was happy with the constant construction work going on in the city. I saw she was panting, and slightly struggling to hold on to her trolley. In her right hand, she held Jon’s gun, pointed at me.
I could hear my heart pounding in my chest, and my lungs felt like they were on fire. My arms felt like lead, yet I still managed to grab my gun, and point it at Yan. Silence, for what felt like an eternity. I can’t remember who spoke first: me, giving the warning to put down the gun, or Yan, telling me to walk away. I’m pretty sure that I didn’t say anything, but the look on my face must have screamed ‘why?’, as Yan started talking. (I guess even accidental bad guys feel the need to monologue…)
She told me everything, as tears welled up in her eyes and her face started to twitch: how she was tricked into coming to Denmark. How she was forced into prostitution. How one of her traffickers started to fancy her. How she returned his affection, desperate to improve her situation, to be released. And last but not least, how she received money to live with the other women, and got paid to inform her traffickers when someone planned to run away. She was practically screaming when she told me about the money in the trolley, and burst into tears when she told me how Jon (presumably accidentally) opened it before he handed it back to her.
She begged me… She begged me to let her go, even offered to give me the money. She told me she would do anything to go back to her old life, even would go back to her traffickers. But she kept the damned gun pointed at me. I didn’t know how to react. I think, deep down, some part of me wanted to let her go, maybe even felt pity for her. Instead, I told her to put the gun down.
Even now, I’m still not sure what exactly happened, but I heard two gunshots, almost simultaneously. Evidently, at least one of those bullets must have been mine, as Yan is lying in front of me, in even worse shape than I am. The other one must’ve gone through me, though, as the puddle of blood beneath me keeps expanding, even though I’m trying to plug the hole in my abdomen with my hands. Funnily enough, I don’t even feel the cold anymore, even though the bloody snow is coming down again.
*Sigh* I know that what is coming is inevitable. Heck, I don’t even mind it as much as I probably should. Though, before my time is up, I want the record to show that I do not feel an immense feeling of bliss, nor peace, and the only light I see is coming from the window of some sleazy apartment a few stories up. Stupid people, with their stupid descriptions of death. If I was a religious man, I’d at least have prospect of telling them how wrong they were to look forward to.
I wish I could die already, it’s getting dark. God knows I can use a rest, I’m exhausted. So. Damn. Exhausted. I feel like I’m drifting off to sleep already. It’s probably for the best… God, I could use a cigarette.
Something, something, edit lock.
This was good! Have you written any others in this style?
And this makes the five minimum, awesome. Just curious, how long did it take you?
Thanks for the compliment! I think I might have written some writing prompt thingies in this style, but nothing much longer than that. This story took me about two and a half days to write.
Really good read. The protagonist was depressing and uninterested, the plot tragic and the setting sad as shell with its morbid examination of human trafficking, but it all came together in a great story that happened to be a huge downer. Well done.
As I was rereading this I kept thinking how cool it would be if you took the basic plot and turned it into a CYOA. Investigations work so well in the format and we don't really have a lot of proper detective stories.
The only thing that felt a little off about it in hindsight was the sort of leisurely conversational way it was all told, considering the situation the protag was left in at the end. First person present tense throughout instead of just at the end might've strengthened the whole thing, I'm thinking.
Also don't do *emotes* in a story lol. Sorry but that's a pet peeve of mine. That is what narration is for. :P
But as a whole this was a great use of the 'world-weary detective' voice and the plot holds together really well, congrats on your well-deserved win.
e: I kept getting 'Hans Christiansen' crossed with Hans Christian Andersen in my mind and that made things weird lol
Overall thoughts: Cool story! The most standout quality to me is the strong voice, which is entertaining, distinct, and does a good job of capturing a jaded, world-weary detective. You have a few great phrases in here like interactive adult entertainment. The plotting is also fairly strong.
I'm going to separate the critique into two sections, content and mechanics.
My biggest complaint with the content is the protagonist dying in the end. A character death needs to be earned (e.g. by doing something immoral or making a bad mistake) or otherwise be thematically important and built up to, and the reason for their death should also be the capstone of their life. In this case, it seemed like the protagonist randomly got unlucky one day instead of this somehow reflecting on his life, so it felt like it served no purpose aside from being a downer ending.
I'm trying to think of a way to fix it, but I can't identify a clear theme in the story, so I think you'd have to try to figure out what you're trying to say first. For example, if the theme is that being callous is bad, you could show how the protagonist has become more callous in the course of his job and show him, say, failing to be empathetic towards Yan at a crucial moment when she's on the verge of confessing. If this results in her betraying him and killing him, his death will be more satisfying because he did something to deserve it. And if he learns the error of his ways as a result of her betrayal, his death now serves a purpose because he (and the audience) got something out of it. Alternatively, you could just not kill him, but I like the idea of doing it if you build up to it more.
The lack of a strong theme leads into my other main complaint, namely the lack of character development. Generally the theme is examined through the protagonist's character arc. There will be some lesson or moral of the story, and the protagonist either learns it before the climax and succeeds or notably doesn't learn it and fails. This will probably be related to the major decision they make that takes them into the climax of the story.
This reminds me, another thing you can strengthen is having the protagonist make more meaningful decisions. Each transition into a new act of the story should be precipitated by a major decision, and this is most important for the final act since the ending is the most important part of the story. This read more like him going about his day in a routine fashion without struggling with any hard decisions. In general, unless the story is part of a series, the events of a story should be the most important events of the protagonist's life (or else why aren't you writing about whatever's more important?).
Finally, the emotional tone of the story was fairly monotonous, but part of that is due to the voice (which, again, I liked). It's hard to have strong emotional impact in a short story anyway, so maybe it's better not to try. That said, I think some emotion is called for if you're going to kill your protagonist in the end.
The prose is solid, but you have a major problem with telling rather than showing. The whole thing reads like a plot summary of an (admittedly interesting) story that's two or three times as long. I understand that this is probably related to churning it out on short notice for the contest and trying to get through everything quickly, but I think it's good to keep in mind for the future.
In particular, summarizing all the dialogue removes all the tension from the story. Telling us outright what conclusions we should draw from the scene is like showing us a picture of a completed jigsaw puzzle instead of letting us assemble it ourselves. The part where he meets the guy in the transport company is a great example of this. It would be much more effective if expanded into a heftier scene of maybe 300-500 words where we see the guy maybe initially acting normal, then getting more flustered. Instead of the protagonist just telling us he's clearly nervous and up to no good, it should become clear to the reader from his dialogue and body language that he's hiding something, and wondering what it is and if it will come out creates tension. Maybe you can even drop hints to get us speculating about what he's hiding or what the details will be.
I also thought that a lot of your descriptions were kind of tell-y even when you go into a fair bit of detail with them. Consider the description of the women in the massage parlor. Instead of summarizing their general qualities, I think it would be more effective to give a few concrete examples that give us the overall impression for the rest. Instead of describing a generic range of ages and ethnicities, describe a few women in particular (e.g. a scrawny Asian girl who can't be more than 20, an older Eastern European woman, whatever) and let us figure out the general idea from there. A small number of very specific descriptions evokes a more vivid mental picture than a paragraph of generalities that covers everything.
Also, when describing the environment, try to work in your descriptions into the action of the story as much as possible. For example, instead of mentioning weeds are growing between the concrete in the parking lot, describe the protagonist stepping over them. This both makes the environment and protagonist seem more concrete by tying them together and is less obtrusive than stopping for an entire paragraph to set the scene because the story is proceeding at the same time.
Basically, you want the story to unfold in your head like a movie. Constantly look for ways to make your descriptions more concrete, specific, and integrated into the action.
Here are a few other things I noticed as I was reading.
1. The opening bit where he talks about the fact that he's dying isn't compelling because we have no context for who he is or what's going on, so I'd cut it. In a beginning, you want to get to the point as soon as possible. The sooner we see an interesting person doing interesting things, the less likely we are to stop reading.
2. You do some infodumping at the beginning where you clue us in on the case. The informal voice kind of makes it work, like the narrator is telling you all of this over the office water cooler in a blase way, but it's better to get us immediately into the action and let us figure out the background from context.
3. In general, try not to give exposition as internal narration. Convey everything through context clues or dialogue as much as possible. If I've just arrived at a building I'm about to raid with the cops, I'm not thinking about the chain of events that led to me being here, I'm thinking about what I'm doing right now.
4. The joke about the last name was funny the first time but overstayed its welcome.
Okay, I think that's all the major points. Let me know if you have any questions. Again, I think it's a cool story and has a lot of potential if you choose to revisit it, but if not, I hope this advice is useful to you going forward.
(@JJJ-thebanisher, if you enjoyed the last one, you might like this one too.)
Whoops, forgot to tag you, @Romulus.
Thanks Axiom! You have some great points, I'll keep them in mind for my next project.
This is great stuff, Ax. Your other reviews have been too, these are all points any author can apply to their own work so thank you for taking the time to write these out. If you were serious about offering a full critique as a prize in the next comp then I think these have proven that would absolutely be something worth competing for.
People who read stories at all are hard enough to find, let alone anyone willing to think and write about them in that much detail.