It took everyone a moment to process what Daley had just done.
“Where did you get those?” Maria breathed, her face as white as a sheet.
“I went walking by your place today and saw that your caretaker had brought out the trash…with these in it. Mexican law states that anything abandoned through the garbage system does not require a warrant to acquire and is admissible as evidence in court.”
Price gawked at Daley. He wasn’t sure exactly how many lies his friend had just uttered, but he said it all with such a straight face that Maria didn’t question the matter any further, she just slowly shuffled back towards her seat. Price used the moment to grab the box and inspect it closely. “.45 ACP,” he observed, “just like the gun Otto used. Only…” he lifted one of the bullets and peered at it closely, “they’re blanks.”
“Yes, they’re blanks,” Maria said softly.
“So you were helping Otto out with some fake-suicide plan?”
“Yes…I’m–I’m sorry that I lied to you detectives.”
“Oh don’t be,” Daley said. “Actually it’s very helpful for us. Let’s us know we’re going the right direction. But how about you tell us what actually happened now?”
Maria nodded and swallowed. “Well, it was just like you said. He wanted to get out of his marriage, but not lose all of his wealth in the process. So he told me about his scheme to fake his suicide and run out of the country. He was sure that if the police found a purchase record of the gun and ammunition, but could never actually retrieve them or the body, then no one would ever suspect a thing.”
Daley raised his eyebrows at Price. Price coolly ignored him.
“I want to make something clear,” Maria added earnestly. “I never liked this plan. I always thought it was dangerous and stupid!… But…Otto was set on it. More and more, with each passing day. It was clear I wasn’t going to change his mind, so…yes, I helped him to set it up.”
“So how did you help him?” Price gently prodded.
“He went to pick out the gun, bought it with his credit card. Then he gave me the card and cash to buy the bullets for him the next day.”
“Card and cash?”
“Card for the real bullets, so they would show up on the bill, and cash for the blanks so there wouldn’t be anything to tie them to his name. He also wanted them from different stores so that a store clerk couldn’t remember both being bought in the same transaction.”
“Why didn’t he buy the real bullets at the same time as the gun? Why leave you to get those?”
She shook her head in frustration. “He was being stupidly particular about it. He had this little narrative in his head of what you detectives would piece together. ‘Oh look, he got the gun on a Thursday, but the bullets on Friday…he must have been gradually working up his nerve for it.’ Silly things like that.”
“Okay, so you bought both sets of bullets the next day, from two different stores.”
“Yes. Soon we met up and I gave him both sets, then took an airplane back to Mexico. He didn’t want me to fly back too soon to when he would fake the suicide, in case that would look suspicious,” she rolled her eyes. “And I took with me the box of blanks, so it wouldn’t turn up as evidence. Though really it was supposed to be the real bullets, but in the blanks’ box. You see he was supposed to switch them during our last visit. The ‘real’ box with the blanks in it and the ‘blanks’ box with the real bullets in it. He would load all of the blanks into the gun on the morning of his birthday, then leave the empty ‘real bullets’ box where it could be found.”
“Did something go wrong with that switch? The box from your place is still filled with the blanks.”
“Obviously something went wrong,” Maria’s eyes moistened. “But I don’t know what…or how…”
“Hmm,” Price rubbed his forehead. They’d come so far, but perhaps this last conundrum was a secret Otto had taken with him to the grave. It didn’t seem that–
“Before you met with Otto and showed him the bullets, did you open the boxes? Look at the ammunition and do something with them?” Daley spoke up quickly.
“What? No. He handled that by himself.”
“But that’s not true,” Daley sighed, he reached into the same coat pocket from which he had taken the box of blanks. Now he extracted a plastic bag, presumably the one that had held the box. Squinting, he pinched at something stuck to the bag, reached out with thumb and forefinger, and stuck a small piece of clear tape to the side of the box of blanks. Then he did the same thing again with a tan piece of tape.
“Both boxes were taped shut,” Daley stated, “and you have both pieces of tape in your bag. You opened them before you gave them to Otto.”
Once again Price tried to not gawk at his friend. It was an incredibly bold statement, one that Maria could easily deny. There might be any number of reasons how that tape would have turned up in her bag. Now that Daley had made the claim, though, Price realized that Maria had indeed glossed over the details of how the bullet-swap had occurred.
Maria sighed and lowered her forehead into her palm. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I keep lying to you detectives.”
Daley pursed his lips, as if weighing whether to say what was on his mind. Eventually he ventured forward. “Honestly, the fact that you did lie is even more telling than the fact that you opened the boxes. It means there’s something you feel guilty about with that. I’m sorry, but we really need to know what it is.”
“I swapped the bullets before I met with Otto. I put the real bullets in the blanks box and the blanks in the ‘real bullets’ box. I just wanted to be sure for myself that I was leaving with the live ammunition. When I met with Otto I handed him only the box with the blanks inside and said ‘it’s all ready.’ He asked to see both boxes, to make sure everything was right. Then he asked me to get him a rag from the kitchen–we were at his house–so that he could wipe off my fingerprints. When I came back he had just finished loading the gun and handed me back the box you found today. I had a really weird feeling, but I didn’t understand it then. I think a part of me realized that he might have misunderstood what I meant by ‘it’s all ready,’ and had just performed the swap himself–”
“And ended up putting the real bullets back into the gun.”
“But I didn’t think to ask him about it. He was being so very assertive and sure. He told me to rehearse my next steps so he could be certain I hadn’t forgotten any, then hurried me out. I just– I think I just didn’t want to make him upset by questioning what he clearly had under control.”
“And you didn’t want to tell us because you were afraid we would think you had somehow set the wrong bullets up for him on purpose.”
“Sometimes I think…maybe he didn’t misunderstand me. Maybe towards the end he really did want to go through with it, and he sent me away so that I wouldn’t see him swapping the bullets back. But then I think maybe I’m being paranoid, an honest mistake seems so plausible.”
“Or maybe he wasn’t sure what he even wanted,” Daley offered softly. “Maybe he couldn’t be certain what you had meant, and found in that uncertainty an opportunity to just chose a box of bullets at random and let fate decide.”
“You think so?”
Daley shrugged. “I really have no idea.”
“Anyway, that’s what happened Detectives. I didn’t orchestrate his death, I didn’t want him to commit suicide. Somewhere along the way, though, I think I did something wrong.”
“Well I wouldn’t say that you did something right,” Price sighed. “But it’s not our job to judge what you did. We just pass the information along.” He turned to Torres and nodded. “She’s your suspect now.”
Torres thanked Price and Daley, then asked Maria to follow him out of the room. The two men were left seated side-by-side, still at the interrogation table. For a long while neither of them said anything at all. Finally it was Price who spoke.
“Well, not as simple of a case as I assumed. But maybe not quite as dramatic as you had?”
“No, but that’s alright. Mostly I just wanted to know.”
“Well…you still don’t. Not all the way.”
“No, not all the way,” Daley agreed. “Otto keeps some of the mystery to himself…. But I don’t mind. It’s alright to not know what you can’t.”
“That’s some pretty deep zen you got going on there,” Price chuckled. It was a humorless sound, though, and Daley could tell that his partner’s mind was on something else. Price was on the cusp of leaning into a more personal topic. Daley flirted with the idea of making up some excuse to stand up and walk away. But he didn’t.
“That was an interesting thing you said to her,” Price began. “About how more significant than the fact that she opened the boxes was the fact that she lied about doing it. There’s a lot of truth to that.”
“When I picked you up from the grocery the other day, it was your wife who told me you were there…at the pharmacy. But when you came out you denied it.”
“Going to a pharmacy doesn’t mean a thing, but lying about doing so? Something’s up with that.”
Daley stared ahead unblinking.
“Something else interesting that you said–back at the start of the case–something about going to the person who cares most for the suspect. You said they’ll conceal things if the person’s guilty, and be forthcoming if they’re innocent. So…I went and spoke to Marcine, James. I hope you’ll forgive me for that, and her too, because she told me about your diagnosis. She told me all about the cancer.”
Another heavy silence. Clearly now was the time for Daley to say something, but he didn’t. Awkward and trite as it sounded, Price finally had to ask “Did you want to talk about it?”
“Not really,” Daley said, and he stood and walked over to the door. But then, with his hand still on the knob, he turned his head and called over his shoulder, “but even if I don’t want to…I guess you’ve earned that right. Come on. It’s our last night in Mexico. Let’s go for a ride together and talk.”
Well there we have it, the end of my mystery story. I rather like how it wound up, being a compromise between both Price and Daley’s expectations. I’m also pleased with how I balanced between letting the reader interpret the scene according to their own imagination at some points, and being more explicit about what happened in others.
An example of the first would be when Daley produces the evidence he has found and Maria finally starts unveiling what actually happened. I did not want to pander to the reader by explicitly stating “she was telling the truth now,” but I also didn’t want them to think she might still be dishonest. I decided to resolve this issue by changing her manner of speech from before. On Monday I pointed out how her speech when concealing information had been short and brusque. The audience could read her deceit just in the way that she spoke.
So for today I flipped her mannerisms. I say “Maria nodded and swallowed” to signal a turning point, and then have her speak with long and flowing dialogue. I could be wrong, but I suspect that most readers will subconsciously note the change and accept that she must now be telling the truth.
But then, when Daley and Price have their private conversation at the end, I suddenly became very explicit in describing every look and pause. I tried to paint it as clearly as I could and leave as little as possible to the reader’s imagination. I would never recommend this sort of explicit control over the duration of a story, but carefully used in specific moments, it can have great effect.
The effect that I was hoping to achieve here is one of heaviness and slowness. I want the reader to feel the long, pregnant pauses, and so I describe them in detail. I felt this measure was necessary because I had just allowed the reader to breeze through a rapid-fire exchange, so something special had to be done to put on the brakes.
And as I said, I’m pretty pleased with how it all turned out. In fact, while I’m finished with the plot of Detectives Price and Daley, I’d like to spend a little more time in this world and style. Sometimes one of the most exciting things about a story is the way that it can inspire new ones to us. I’d like to explore this idea of extending a theme from one tale into another. I’ll have a post about that on Monday, and then next Thursday we’ll see how I keep the spirit of Washed Down the River alive in my next short story.