Washed Down the River: Part Five

woman sitting on chair
Photo by Martin Lopez on Pexels.com

 

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

“It’s for you,” Officer Torres said to Price. “I’ll carry on in here.”

Price thanked him and exited the small one-room office that was home to Guzman Charitable Services. Just outside of the room Maria sat in a chair, silently fuming, with her arms crossed so tightly that Price thought it must be painful. He ignored her, though, and went to the end of the hall where a receptionist held a receiver aloft.

“Thank you,” Price said as he took the phone. “Hello?”

“Hello, Price,” Daley’s voice came in brightly. In the background Price could hear a lot of other voices and the clinking of plates. Daley must have been calling from some diner.

“Wasn’t expecting to hear anything from you,” Price scowled, not even trying to keep the resentment out of his voice.

“Yeah, well, I’ve been watching the clock, and I figure right about now you should have gotten underway with searching Maria’s business?”

“Yes. Going to take longer without your help, of course.”

“Yes, probably an hour at least?”

It seemed a strange question. “What’s that got to do with anything?” Price asked suspiciously.

“Oh, and you have Maria there with you, of course?”

“Yes, of course. Was there any actual point to your call, Daley?”

“Um…no, that’s all. Thanks.”

And then he hung up. Price stared at the receiver in utter confusion as it slowly dawned on him: Daley wanted to be sure that Maria was being occupied for a while longer…so that he could raid her place while Torres and Price searched the office.

“Why would you tell me that?” he said numbly to the earpiece. “Why not let me live in ignorant bliss?”

“Señor?” the receptionist held her hand out for the phone.

“Sorry, never mind that. Gracias.” He handed her back the phone. She took it and then extended out a manila envelope. It was the building’s lease information on Maria’s office, which he had asked to be retrieved when they first arrived. He took it, thanked her, and made his way back down the hall.

Maria was fidgeting as he approached, struggling between her equal desire to lay her fury into him, and also to continue the indignant silent treatment she had maintained since they summoned her. Just as his steps brought him level with her the first side won out.

“Why do you choose to disbelieve me?” she snapped. “I already told you, I turned down this man’s money. Call whomever is in charge of disposing the will, they’ll tell you.”

“Oh we did, right after our chat with you. They confirmed it.”

“And?”

Price sighed. He knew he should just move on. It was more than stupid to ever discuss your reasons for suspicion with a person of interest. The directive given to all investigators was that the less you said, the less the precinct might have to apologize for. And yet…

“It’s funny how–” Price began, then snapped his mouth shut so forcefully that Maria stared back at him in shock. He cleared his throat. “Excuse me,” he strained, then ducked for refuge into the office. What had he been thinking?! To distract himself Price pulled out the three papers from the manila envelope and examined them while walking towards Torres, who was flipping through Maria’s business ledger.

“You find anything yet?” Price asked.

“No…everything appears as it should be. She registered for the charity, paid for her license, linked it to a bank account opened in her own name…all appropriate, all without so much as a single reference to Otto Davies. I assume the office was leased in her name, too?”

Price turned the page he was reviewing to the back, then quickly again to the front. “I wonder…oh, yes she licensed it herself…but–there’s this phone record that the building kept, and…” he used his free hand to pull out his pocketbook.

“What is it?” Torres asked.

“Look at this record of the first call. My Spanish isn’t very good, what does that say?”

“Uh…’Representative for Ms Guzman querying for availability and prices.'”

“Alright, and then this phone number given here, is that the callback number that was given?”

“Yes.”

“But notice it’s different from the number given in all the other phone records.”

“Hmm, so it is. And this number is from the states.”

“Not only that, it sounds familiar to me.” Price flipped through his pocketbook until at last he found the number Mrs Davies had left to reach her at home. They matched.

“You did know Otto Davies,” Price pronounced to Maria an hour later, after the two men had finished their search. It had only been appropriate, of course, to finish gathering any additional evidence the office might have held before coming out to confront her. “He made the first call when you were looking for an office space.”

Her eyes darkened. He could see she was about to deny it, so he cut her off by extending both the phone record and his open pocketbook.

“They kept a record of this?!” Maria said incredulously.

“So it would seem. I’m sure you understand that we need to bring you with us for more questions now.”

She sighed, but stood up, resigned to follow them.

“Oh, and to answer your question from before,” Price continued. “We were suspicious of you because you turned down the money.”

*

An hour later Price and Torres were seated in the interrogation room with Maria. Right as they were about to begin, another officer poked his head in and said something that Price couldn’t understand to Torres. Torres turned to Price and relayed it in English.

“Your friend is waiting at the receptionist’s desk. He wants to come join us.”

Price sighed. “Would you mind?”

Torres turned to the officer and asked for Daley to be brought in. Two minutes later he arrived and took a seat next to Price. Then the three men focused on Maria, who was sitting on the opposite side of the table. She had her arms folded in front of her, and her eyes were steeled in defense.

“Please tell us the nature of your relationship with Otto Davies,” Price said gently.

“We were…close,” Maria said haltingly. “I met him in the states while at a bar about…eight months ago.”

“Please, go on,” Price encouraged after it was clear she had finished speaking. Sometimes it was good to leave it to a suspect’s own imagination where they were supposed to fill in the details.

“Well, so, his family had no knowledge of me. He was…a very miserable man. Not happy at home.”

“Did he ever talk about leaving his ‘not happy’ home?”

“Perhaps he would say something angry like that in passing. But never anything serious about it.”

“Or about ending his life?”

“No, of course not,” for the first time some genuine sadness seemed to creep into Maria’s face.

“What did you want him to do?”

She shrugged. “That was never my decision to make.”

“That wasn’t the question.”

“Well, then I don’t know. I hadn’t thought that far ahead.”

“Why did he help you setup the charity?”

“Just…thought it would be something good for me to do.”

“According to the books in your office your charity hasn’t done anything, well, charitable in the three months since you founded it.”

“I’m still trying to secure funding for my initiatives.”

“Which also are not clearly spelled out anywhere. The only thing resembling a charter that I can find is the line you filled out when you applied for your license…’to help the poor of the city.'”

He raised an eyebrow at her.

“You don’t think that is a worthy cause?” she returned.

“Well if you are lacking funding, then it would seem the money Otto tried to leave you in his will would have gone a long way to help. Why did you really reject that?”

“Obviously to avoid the scandal.”

“Oh his family felt plenty scandalized anyway.”

Maria looked down at her feet. Daley used the opportunity to look sideways at Price and slowly raise a finger, signalling that he would like to speak. He had a shy, but winning smile, like a boy who is in trouble but asking for a new toy even so. Price’s didn’t try to withhold the disdain from his face. Daley had enjoyed taking Price down a peg or two that very morning, but now he was in an official interrogation room and knew that Price could deny him any access to the case whatsoever. So now he would smile, now he would be polite, and do whatever it took to satisfy his curiosity. Price entertained the thought of throwing Daley out right then and there…but though he hated to admit it, he genuinely did want to hear what Daley was so anxious to bring to the table. So he rolled his eyes and shook his head in a long-suffering way, but then waved his hand for Daley to proceed.

“Mmm,” Daley cleared his throat. “Ms Guzman, surely you can see that things aren’t quite adding up for us. The notion that you didn’t want to upset his family feels…weak.”

“You think I would want to profit from the death of the man I loved?!” she spat out.

“See, now, that would have been a much more convincing answer…if it had been the first one you had given. It feels to us like you’re making up answers–thinking of better and better ones as you go, I’ll admit–because there’s something you’re still trying to hide.”

Maria’s eyes went wide and her nostrils went narrow. Price genuinely felt uncomfortable being in the same room as her, but at least Daley was finally getting a reaction. That was something. In any case, words failed her, so Daley simply plowed on ahead.

“Now what would you have to hide? Well, let’s consider the situation. Otto Davies was miserable with his life. You claim he had never voiced an intention to leave it, one way or another, but whether that’s true or not, we still know that he was miserable. Add to that fact that he helped you to setup a charity, only a matter of weeks before he changed his will to send all his wealth to that charity. Any idea why he would do that?”

Maria’s lips remained pursed, so still Daley continued.

“Here’s a theory, then. If Otto had simply left his family, then the prenuptial agreements would have been executed, which sharply favored his wife. But he knew there was a chance to still cut her out through his will, though it would be unlikely for that will to be honored if it left everything to his mistress! But if he left it to a charity? Suddenly Otto’s reasons for helping you to set this business up seem pretty obvious, don’t they? I guess the only question is whether you shared in those plans?”

No answer.

“No really, Ms Guzman,” Price interjected. “We do need you to respond to that.”

She paused, picking her next words very carefully. “I was not aware of any intention like that. It was not my intention.”

“Yes, well, if you did share any such intention it would be difficult for you to admit it,” Daley nodded. “Because then you’d be afraid that we would accuse you of being complicit in his suicide.”

“If that had been my intention, then why would I turn down the money? I did that before there were ever police attached to the matter.”

“Ah, well done, that is a very good point,” Daley thumped the table. “And you are absolutely right, it wouldn’t make any sense that way. So it must be just as you say: that if he helped you setup the charity with the intention to leave you the money after his suicide, then you, at least, were never aware of such a plan and never would have approved of it.”

“At last you’re talking sense.”

“Unless…of course, the suicide was never actually the real plan. Perhaps there was another strategy that you were involved in…one that wasn’t supposed to end in Otto’s death. One that you still don’t want to tell us about.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Perhaps he only wanted to stage a suicide and slip away to Mexico? He could live with you off of the wealth he funneled into your fake-charity, and no one would ever come looking because, well, he was ‘dead.’ Maybe that was a plan you would have been able to accept, one you would even help him to set up. But then…he actually did die, and whether out of fear or guilt, you tried to wash your hands of the entire thing.”

“I am finished here,” Maria hissed. “I will not be insulted anymore.”

“Did you help Otto buy bullets for his gun?”

“Just stop!” Maria stood up and started towards the door. Torres glanced nervously at Price, wondering if he was going to intervene. “Of course I didn’t!” she cried as she reached for the knob.

“That’s a lie.” Daley reached into his pocket, pulled something out, and slammed it down on the table. It was a box of bullets.

 

On Monday I spoke about stories that are sensational and stories that are grounded. I discussed how this mystery story has featured a little bit of each. Price is grounded in the realities of life as a detective, constrained by all the mundane elements of paperwork and red tape. Daley meanwhile is free to chase a more idealized version, a game that is stripped of all the rules. Each of these perspectives shade the story, and mix across it in ways that are hopefully interesting.

At the start of the interrogation Price is direct and procedural. He asks clearly defined questions, and he receives short, unhelpful answers in reply. The process is slow and uninteresting. Then Daley has his turn and things quickly become heated, long-winded, and spiraling out of control. It even ends with a dramatic flourish at the end because that’s the sort of story Daley is trying to make this into: a sensational one.

Something else I wanted to point from this piece was how I wrote all of Maria’s responses to be extremely brief. The intention is to build up a sense of terseness, even before any adjectives are employed. This ability to imply details is something that I’m still learning how to utilize, and would like to dive into more deeply with my next post. Come back on Monday where we consider the ways authors can make dialogue self-descriptive, and then on Thursday we’ll have the conclusion to our mystery.

Washed Down the River: Part Four

flag of mexico
Photo by Hugo L on Pexels.com

 

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

The two men walked into the building and soon found a secretary to help them in their research. Price provided her what little details he had about the charity, and she went to look through a wall of filing cabinets, flipping through index cards at random.

“So does the family think they’ll get the money back somehow?” Daley asked Price while they waited. “I mean this can’t be too great of a shock after he told them off, can it?”

“Well there were the prenuptial agreements, so yeah, Mrs Davies was expecting her payday. Apparently those agreements highly favored her, and the judge decided they were unfair, so he’s superseding them with the will.”

The secretary came back, carrying a single index card back with her.

“I don’t have very much,” she said to the men. “The only reason I have anything at all is because yes, the institution was set up by an American.”

“Otto Davies?”

“No, someone named Maria Guzman.”

“But she’s an American?”

“Yes. Not by birth, this mark right here means a naturalized citizen. You can go check the census records for more information if you need it, I’m afraid that this is all I have.”

“Oh this is plenty,” Daley smiled.

The two men did indeed follow up on Maria Guzman, and Price presented the information they found on her to Mrs Davies the next day.

  • Maria Guzman is a woman (obviously)
  • Thirty-seven years old
  • Born in Mexico, but went through the immigration process in her twenties
  • Maintains dual citizenship, and has a home both in Mexico and in the states
  • Florida specifically
  • Within five miles of the Davies’ residence to be even more specific

“And you…spoke to her?” Otto’s wife asked, her face pale as a sheet.

“No, can’t,” Price shrugged his shoulders. “Well I mean I could, but it would have to be over the phone and that’s just never very effective. She’s in Mexico right now, has been for the past month.”

“Mm,” Mrs Davies pursed her lips together. “And you can’t go to Mexico?”

“Not officially, no. Well I mean I could, if we had an understanding with their government, but I highly doubt that my superiors are going to approve me continuing to chase this case any further.”

“So…not officially.”

One week later Price and Daley were on a plane out of the country. Price had introduced Mrs Davies’ to his “private detective” friend, and she had readily agreed to send him to follow up on things. Then, the next day, Price decided he might as well sit down with Commissioner Howell and request permission to go to Mexico just in case. At first Howell dismissed the notion entirely, but took it under more serious consideration when he learned that Daley was already planning the trip.

“I know you’re worried about what he  might do down there, same as me,” Price said. “You know we can’t leave him alone. He needs…looking after.”

“So that’s the official police business now?” Howell snorted. “Looking after rogue private detectives?” But even though Howell was shaking his head, the corners of his mouth twitched with concern for his friend. “However…” he said slowly, “I am worried about how this might blow back on the rest of us. I can’t stop Daley from going, obviously, and I’m worried he’ll foul things up royally! It’d be a PR nightmare if he did something stupid and people learned he was an ex from our department!”

“Yes, that’s my thought as well.”

Howell narrowed his eyes as he weighed his options. “Of course…I wouldn’t want you starting to think that this is how things are done now. That Daley can keep pulling these crazy stunts and we’ll be there to save him all the time…”

“No, of course not. I understand you completely, this would just be a one-time thing.”

“And if I did send you, it would only be because I know you would do your job right. You would be there as a bright and shining example of proper, decent, police procedure. Hopefully so bright as to prevent Daley from summoning all unholy Mexican wrath on our heads!”

“That’s all I want. One week.”

“Just one.”

And so Daley and Price flew to Mexico on the same flight, Daley in first class on Mrs Davies’ dime, Price in coach on the precinct’s. Daley breezed through customs without any wait, while Price showed his documents and had a long conversation with an official. Then the two grabbed an unlicensed taxi and made camp at a nearby motel. The next day they went to the address they had for Guzman Charitable Services, which was a single room rented out of a dinky office building in the heart of the city. They knocked on the door but no one answered.

“Not in the office at 10 am on a Thursday?” Daley clicked his tongue. “Doesn’t sound like a very reputable institution if you ask me.”

“I’d be curious to see how many charitable services Guzman Charitable Services has actually done since being instituted,” Price nodded. “We need to check in with the local precinct anyway, let’s see if we can’t get a warrant to look at this place’s books.”

Daley looked at his watch. “And then try and catch Ms Guzman at her home this evening?”

“Sounds good.”

They submitted their request for the warrant, killed a few hours walking the streets, and then that evening went to the residence for Ms Guzman, accompanied by a local officer named Torres. The house was in the suburbs, and though it was small, it was very well maintained. They knocked on the door, and a moment later a slender woman in her thirties answered.

“¿Sí?”

“Hello, Ms Guzman? My name is Detective Price, and this is my friend James Daley. We’ve been sent–”

“Yo no hablo inglés, lo siento.”

“Por favor señora,” Torres leaned forward, “esto solo tomará un minuto.”

The woman sighed. “Come on in.”

She turned her back and Daley flashed a grin at Price. The four of them walked over the tiled floor and into a receiving area that doubled as the dining room. The woman waved nonchalantly at the seats around the table. The three men ignored them, but she took the one at the head.

“You are Maria Guzman?” Price clarified.

“Sí…I mean, yes. And you are here about the money?”

“The money?””

“Some American sent some money to my institution the other day. I assume you are here to take it back, but it won’t do you any good.”

“Not to take it back, that’s not how we work…. Why wouldn’t it do any good, though?”

“I don’t take money from people I don’t know,” Maria said indignantly. “Rejected it as soon as I heard about it.”

“You turned it down?” Daley’s eyebrows raised. “My understanding is that it was quite the sum!”

“All the more reason to not get tangled in it. What do I want with a dirty fortune?”

“Well you might have left it to me,” Daley chuckled, which caused Maria’s eyes to narrow.

“I don’t think I care for your sense of humor, sir. A death is a terrible thing, and I have no wish to profit from that.”

“Yes, please excuse my friend,” Price piped up, “he’s incorrigible. But do you mean to say that you did not know Mister Otto Davies?”

“No.”

“No you don’t mean to say that, or no you didn’t know him?”

“No I did not know him.”

“At all?”

She frowned. “At all.”

“Why would he leave you all of his money then?” Daley asked.

“I would say you’d have to ask him, but apparently that’s impossible. Perhaps he saw our charity in the phone book and decided to do some good. I don’t know.”

“Saw your Mexican charity in a phone book from Florida? We barely found any record of your place at a business registry, and that was only because we were specifically looking for it!”

Maria’s nostrils flared, but she didn’t rise to the implied accusation that she was lying. “That does sound odd when you put it like that, but I don’t know anything about it.”

From that point forward Daley settled back. He folded his arms and patiently waited as Price and Torres covered the last of the formalities. Then the three left the place. As soon as they entered the car Price dropped his professional demeanor.

“Well that was useless,” he slapped the dashboard in frustration.

“What do you mean?” Daley asked. “That was great! She’s lying.”

“Yeah, you think? But so what? She knows this isn’t a murder case, and she knows we’ll have to drop it before long, so she has plenty of incentive to not cooperate. I don’t see what you have to be all happy about then.”

“Because we know that she has the information we want. This is the place to dig. Sure, I don’t know how we’ll get it out of her yet, but we’re going the right way…. I’d say we finally found the person who cared the most for Otto.”

“Well I’ll tell you one thing, I’m sure going to enjoy tearing her office apart once the warrant comes through. There’d better be something there.”

*

The next morning the two detectives checked in at the precinct and by noon they had the warrant ready to go.

“Officer Torres, could you get Miss Guzman on the phone?” Price grinned. “Tell her she needs to open up shop for us.”

“Let me know what you find down there,” Daley smiled.

“What, you’re not coming?”

“Nah, it’s a small space, I’d just be in the way.”

“Nuh-unh, that doesn’t fly. You came all the way to Mexico because you had such an itch for this case, and now you’re telling me you aren’t going to be there for a search? How come?”

“Not feeling so good. I was going to go lay down and hopefully feel better this afternoon. I’d rather be there for the interrogation after you find something to pin on Miss Guzman.” Daley turned and started to walk towards the exit.

“Hey, hey, hold up,” Price hurried to catch up to him. “You know that you’re fooling absolutely nobody, right?”

“I don’t know what you mean.” The two exited the building and continued their argument down the street.

“I don’t know where exactly you’re headed, but it’s to do some detective work that you know I couldn’t approve of.”

“If I were, then I wouldn’t be very motivated to tell you about it, now would I? Far better to just keep mum and not vex your poor, little conscience.”

“Listen Daley, I came here to do real detective work! To do things by the book!”

“And you are.”

“And I was the one who even introduced you to the Davies and told them they should send you to Mexico. So don’t pretend that your vigilantism doesn’t affect me! You get caught doing something indecent and it’ll all blow back on me!”

“Please, I’m a very delicate man!”

“And that’s to say nothing of the principle of the matter!”

“Well let’s say nothing of it.”

“Daley, come on!”

“No, you come on,” Daley finally stopped and turned to look Price in the eye. “You made it more convenient for me to be here, that’s all. I was already coming anyway, remember? So it’s not on your conscience that I’m here. And speaking of your conscience, you set the trip up this way to ease your anxieties, not to help me. Don’t pretend otherwise. Thus far I’ve indulged you in that, I’ve made you feel respectable for hanging around me. But now I’m not. That must be hard, and I’m sorry, but that’s just the way it is.”

Price shook his head and took a step back. “You say all those words like you actually mean them.”

Daley shrugged and started to walk away again. He spoke without turning to look back at his partner. “What are you going to do, Price? Arrest me? You’re far outside of your jurisdiction here.”

Part Five

 

On Monday I discussed how the different parts of a story will interrupt one another in order to have their say. The hope is that these transitions will not be jarring, and that they will combine to form a unified message, but there’s no getting around the fact that all but the smallest of tales are going to shift gears now and again.

Last week I had a scene that changed its focus partway through, and then went back to its original intent later. In today’s piece things were broken up at a much more granular level. In short, each scene of this story is focused on one thing and one thing only. The transitions of focus only occur when the next scene begins. This approach is certainly simpler, though it perhaps lacks some of the immediacy of making the change on the fly. I settled on this approach because I wanted the story to move at a quick pace, and get through multiple settings in a hurry. This meant many short scenes, which are far more difficult to interweave multiple voices within. To put it another way, it is usually better to not paint an intricate landscape when you’re working on a small canvas.

Even with the simpler approach of separating focuses into different scenes, it was still important to ensure that each story moment made sense with where I put it. For example, I knew I wanted Price and Daley to have their argument at some point during this chapter, I knew the case needed to be pushed forward, and I knew that Maria Guzman needed to be introduced as a major character. Introducing Maria while advancing the case made sense, and so I dedicated that scene solely to those two tasks, and saved the argument for later. When I considered when I should put the argument, then, I realized that it would be the perfect final note to a piece of increasing tension.

Thus there was careful consideration for when each theme would take the reins from the others, and how they would build the overall experience.

There’s one other element of this story I’d like to take a look at. If my readers had not figured it out already, this is not one of those  mystery stories that is steeped very heavily in sensationalism. There’s nothing wrong with having sensational elements in a mystery story, but I wouldn’t want any of my readers to have the wrong idea about what they’re getting into.

I would like to examine this idea of sensationalism in stories more closely. Come back on Monday where we will discusswhat it is, how it is different from fantasy, and how to use it, or not use it, properly.

Washed Down the River: Part Three

close up photography of brass bullets
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

Part One
Part Two

“You think this wasn’t a suicide?” Price asked skeptically.

“I think he wanted it to look like a suicide, but yeah, didn’t intend to actually die in the process.”

Price chuckled. “And all because that guy–”

“Gene.”

“Yeah, all because that guy was told to come pick someone up and get him out of the country? I thought you said Gene didn’t even know the name of the passenger he was supposed to carry. Could have been someone else and it’s just a coincidence that Otto washed downstream the same day.”

“Then where’s that someone else?”

“No doubt scared off when he saw two Coast Guard boats sweeping the area!”

Daley closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to think of how to explain himself. Every now and then he would have a flash of clarity where he could almost express what his intuition was telling him, but then it would fade away as soon as he tried to do just that. “You really don’t think its weird that Otto waited until a public event with a ton of witnesses, demanded that the party be held right here, walked himself to the edge of the stage over the river, shot himself in the chest instead of the head–”

“Why does that matter?”

“Everyone would think it was weird if they saw a guy shoot himself in the head and there wasn’t a fountain of blood, but if he shot himself in his jacket and they didn’t see anything? Not so surprising. So yeah, shot himself in the chest, was swept down towards the gulf, where there happened to be a boat waiting to pick up someone, and Otto had a pocketful of cash… You’re telling me you don’t see anything suspicious in all of that?”

“It’s odd, sure. But none of it matters.”

“Why not?”

“Because Otto is dead! If you had all this conjecture and we hadn’t turned up a body, I might say you were on to something. But there is a body, and it was honestly and truly shot through the chest.”

Daley shook his head, unconvinced.

“Hey look, I think I’ve got it figured out,” Price said enthusiastically. “No really, I’ve got it. You’re right, Daley. The man was sick of his family and he wanted out. He planned this grand getaway and set everything up just like you say. Who would think twice if we didn’t find a body? We would have just said it was lost at sea and confirmed the case as a suicide, which was just what he wanted.”

“But?”

“But then he woke up this morning and said ‘maybe I should just go ahead and do it for real.’ Huh?”

Daley weighed the theory for a moment. “It might be.”

“No, that’s it. I’m sure of it now. Anyone who is miserable enough to consider faking a suicide is miserable enough to consider the actual thing.”

“Well, even if you were right then you still ought to keep the case open to verify it. Let’s find out for sure if it was Otto who hired Gene, find out where he got that gun and ammo, find out if there was some haven in Mexico with his name on it.”

“All in the hopes that we’ll find something to implicate foul play, no doubt. Give me a reason why you don’t like my theory.”

“Well…this is weak, I know. But like I told you from Quincy’s testimony: Otto looked surprised when he shot himself. I think he felt the bullet and was surprised that it wasn’t a blank.”

“Or like Quincy said, just shocked that he had the nerve to do it.”

“Maybe…”

“Or, second theory, he did everything like you said, but he messed up and bought actual bullets instead of blanks! Idiot messed up and killed himself on accident.”

“In which case it would be an accidental death, not a suicide.”

“Is it?” Price’s face was one of genuine curiosity. “I mean in this case it would seem more like he was trying to make an accident, but succeeded by mistake!”

“Huh, yeah,” Daley grinned. “I dunno how you’d rule that…. But anyway, it’s obviously still worth keeping the investigation open a little longer.”

Price sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. Daley knew what he was thinking: that there was a lot more important work he could be doing than differentiating between a suicide and an accidental death. Price had ruled out the possibility of foul play entirely. Daley didn’t even know why he himself thought it might still be involved, nor why he was so interested in exploring this case any further. Well, maybe it was because now that he didn’t have to worry about reports and red tape there wasn’t anything to prevent him from being genuinely curious. Being off the force had truly unburdened him.

“Do it for me,” Daley said. He could tell there wouldn’t be any convincing Price, so it would just have to be an appeal to friendship. “One week.”

“Just one.”

Daley grinned and clapped Price on the shoulder.

“Where do you want to start?” Price sighed. “Go question the family?”

Daley frowned. “Otto hated those people. And from the little bit I’ve seen, they didn’t care for him much either.”

“So?”

“If you want to know someone’s secrets you have to talk to the person that cared about them most. They’ll conceal things if the person’s guilty and be forthcoming if they’re innocent. Either way it lets you know where the truth is at…. Problem is, I don’t know what person cared most about Otto.”

*

Four days later Price was seated in his Chevrolet Vega, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. He was parked outside of the grocery store, waiting for Daley to come out. Daley’s wife had told Price where to find him. Five minutes later he emerged.

“Hey, you done with the pharmacy?” Price leaned over and called out the passenger window.

“Pharmacy?” Daley wrinkled his nose. “No, just getting a doughnut. Yeah, I’m done. What are you doing here?”

Price shrugged. “Couple things came up with that Otto Davies guy, thought you’d want to hear about it.”

“Oh yeah,” Daley stuffed the small, white bag he carried in his coat pocket and opened the passenger door. “So I was right?”

“You’re getting way too ahead of yourself,” Price said after Daley had taken his seat and closed the door. Price started the ignition and drove out onto the street. “Just some…interesting stuff, may not mean anything at all. First thing is that we got his credit card records and found the shop where he bought the gun and the shop where he bought the bullets.”

“Wait…were they not the same?”

“Nope. Not even in the same city.”

“I’m guessing the shop where he bought the gun carried ammunition for it?”

“Oh yeah. And in fact the store owner remembered Otto because there was a funny moment where he asked for the gun and ammo, then said ‘no wait, I just want the gun is all.'”

“Huh.”

“And then he did something else funny. He paid for it with cash, and then just as the transaction finished he said he had done it wrong, could they please give him the money back and let him pay with his credit card instead.”

“Hmm…same credit card he used to buy the bullets?”

“Yeah,” Price raised an eyebrow. “Why? What does that mean to you?”

Daley shrugged. “Probably nothing, just if he was trying to hide the purchase, like so his wife didn’t know he was buying a weapon, cash would have made more sense. But specifically getting each with a card leaves a nice paper trail for anyone like us to follow.”

“Yeah, I had the same thought. But then I realized I was just being paranoid like you, and probably he just needed the cash for something else that day.”

“Yeah probably,” Daley smiled. “So how long ago did he get the gun?”

“About six weeks.”

“And the bullets?”

“The very next day.”

“So he went and bought the gun…then went and bought the bullets in an entirely different city one day later? Huh. They’re not blanks I take it?”

“Fully functional .45 ACP rounds.”

“They remember anything about Otto there?”

“Nah, but, uh, something else interesting happened just this morning.”

“Oh?”

“They read out the will and apparently seven weeks ago Otto changed it. Sent all the money to some charity in Mexico.”

“In Mexico!”

“Yeah, knew you’d like that. Course it isn’t surprising that he cut out his family, but choosing somewhere in Mexico corresponds nicely with your theory of him wanting to run down there.”

“What do we know about the charity?”

“Nothing. That’s why you’re coming with me to the registry. We’ll see if they have anything on file about it. Doubtful that there’ll be much, given that it’s international…”

“Unless it was actually started by an American!”

“That is the question…. But uh, you know that means we’re quickly running out of jurisdiction here. And it’s not like I’m going to get approval to go out of country to keep pulling on a suicide case.”

Daley was quiet for a minute.

“That’s alright. If the trail goes to Mexico, I’ll go there myself.”

“What?! You’re crazy!”

“Wouldn’t take me more than a week. Tickets are pretty cheap, and I’ve got loads of time.”

“And you’re telling me Marcine would be okay with this? Brother, she hated anytime you had to stay out past six!”

“She might not be happy about it,” Daley shrugged. “But she’s always made do.”

“Listen man, is everything alright between you two? Way I’ve heard you talk, Marcine’s always done right by you.”

“Oh she has.”

“You doing right by her?”

“You think I wouldn’t?!” there was a bite to Daley’s tone now.

“Hey look, I know I’m crossing far into ‘none of your business’ territory but I’m worried about you, man. I care!”

Daley looked down and nodded. “I know you do, Price. You mean well. I appreciate that.”

“So why don’t you listen to me?”

“I listen.”

“And why don’t you talk to me?”

“I…now’s just not a good time for that.”

Price shook his head incredulously. “That’s not how friendship works, man. You’re just gonna push everybody away.”

“I hope not,” Daley said softly. “Or maybe that’s for the best…I dunno…”

He stayed silent and Price glanced out of the corner of his eye every few seconds to see what Daley was doing. Every time was just the same. Daley’s eyes were pointed down at the dash, but they were glazed over as he intently weighed some private debate in his mind. It was worrisome, but Price didn’t want to interrupt unless he had to. After a full three minutes Daley finally spoke up again.

“I know that quite a few people are concerned about me right now. You, Marcine, even Commissioner Howell has reached out a couple times. And I really do appreciate everyone’s consideration, I wouldn’t want you to think that it goes unnoticed. And I know I haven’t been responding to any of the concern you’ve all been showing, and I get that that’s frustrating. It has to be. Like talking to a wall I would imagine.”

He paused, and Price could hear the “but” coming from a mile away. Daley continued. “And I’d like to make things easier on you all if I could…but the simple truth is that I can’t. There is something going on, but I’ve got to figure it out for myself. Talking to someone isn’t going to help me, actually I think it would only get in the way. Maybe you can accept that, maybe you can’t, but either way that’s how it’s got to be. Are you able to understand that? That some things you have to work through on your own? No matter if it seems right to anyone else, sometimes you just have to.”

Price only grunted.

“But even while I can’t make sense of my own self, I am able to make sense of this,” Daley tapped the case file laying on the dashboard. “This stuff makes sense to me. I can work it and I can uncover its secrets and I can find definitive answers if I just keep pushing long enough. And right now that feels so fulfilling to me. I need that right now. Maybe that doesn’t make sense to you, but if the trail leads to Mexico, then that’s where I’ve got to go. I hope Marcine understands, I hope you do…but even if not…”

Price shook his head. “No, I don’t understand…. But so long as you’re so dead-set on it, I might be able to help. Otto’s family is very upset about the changed will, and they wanted me to look into it. Even offered to pay for travel and expenses. I imagine they’d extend the offer to any private investigator I put them in touch with, too.”

“That would be nice.”

“Yeah, well, that’s what friends are for…for whatever that’s worth. Looks like we’re here.” Price pulled into an available parking space and stopped the car. The registry building awaited them.

Part Four
Part Five

 

On Monday I talked about how a mystery can distract the audience from some points while focusing in on others. I talked about how this can be used to hide major revelations in plain sight, so long as you can get the audience to look the other way. On the other hand, I also talked about how mysteries can pause to make sure the audience is on the same page as the detective. Many of these stories will have distinctive moments where the action halts and the characters talk through everything plainly, just to make sure no reader was left behind.

In the case of today’s post, I opened with just this sort of scene. Price and Daley talk about the clues, theories, and conclusions in great detail, reminding the audience of exactly what is known, and exactly what is not. By the end of the conversation I intended for the audience to have in mind the exact same questions that Price and Daley do.

And then I started to lead into the next development in the case, but I interrupted it with a moment of character development. For a brief period the case sinks into the background and the story is now all about two friends and their relationship. Then the conversation comes to a close, and the case comes back to the fore.

I’d like to take a closer look at these sorts of narrative interruptions more closely. Why do we tell stories that shift gears like this, rather than hold to just one thread from start to finish? What makes the difference between a clunky transition and a seamless one? We’ll explore these points and others when we come back on Monday. I’ll see you then!

Washed Down the River: Part One

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Photo by PixaSquare on Pexels.com

 

…you about there? Just got a call from the coroner wondering how long he’s going to have to wait.

“Yeah, yeah,” Detective Price lifted the mic towards his mouth. “Just pulling up as we speak.”

Good, I’ll let you–hang on–Commissioner is asking whether Daley is there with you?

“What? No! Of course he isn’t.”

Of course he isn’t,” the dispatcher repeated sarcastically. “Carry on.

Detective Price switched the mic off and Detective Daley chuckled in the seat next to him. Technically it wasn’t Detective Daley anymore.

“You might as well tell them the truth, Price. They already know it.”

“Innocent until proven guilty!”

“So they say.”

“Look, if you’re so concerned, then why don’t you stop asking to come out with me? Why can’t you be like a normal retiree and stop doing your work after you leave it?”

Daley shrugged. “Nothing ruins a passion like having to do it for a job. Now that it’s just a a hobby I actually kind of like it.”

Price scoffed. “You just enjoy being able to break the rules.”

And not having to wear a uniform. Really you should retire, too, Price, it’s much better this way.”

“Can’t. I still got a family to provide for. Oh wait, you have a family that needs providing for, too!”

“Are you trying to pry into my personal finances, Price?”

“I wasn’t talking about them needing your money.”

Daley frowned and looked out the window. “My family knows what I’m doing and–and they’ll have to make their peace with it if they haven’t already.” He shook his head and kept talking before Price could ask him if everything was alright. “Anyway, you’re still the one who picks me up each morning,”

Price shrugged. “I guess after all these years I’ve forgotten how to get from my home to the precinct without stopping by your place first.” An awkward silence. “But, uh, you wanna talk? About things at home?”

“Buy a map, Price.” Daley popped open the passenger door and stepped outside of the ’71 Chevrolet Vega. Price followed him and the two made their way across the broad lawn that sloped gently upwards to the massive art deco house ahead. There was a cobblestone walkway running from the entrance, and two red leaf palms on either side of the door. They were quite striking trees, with a single plume of crimson sticking out of their crowns…like a stream of blood gushing from a great, green head. One didn’t see these trees in Florida very much, they weren’t even native to the state.

“Pretty nice place here,” Price whistled, “it’ll be nice to see how the other side lives.”

“Dies, don’t you mean?” Daley returned dryly.

“Hey, you two the detectives?” an officer hailed them, making his way quickly down the lawn.

“Just him,” Daley jerked his thumb over his shoulder.

“Oh?” the officer half-raised his hands, as if unsure whether he should allow Daley to continue towards the estate.

“He’s alright,” Price said. “Daley is–consulting on this matter. Detective Price,” he introduced himself with extended hand.

“Officer Zane. Pleased to meet you. I hardly think you’ll need any consultant for this one,” the officer raised an eyebrow as he shook Price’s hand. “It’s an obvious case of suicide. Very public and everything.”

The three of them continued up towards the house, Officer Zane continuing to explain things along the way.

“Seems they were having a party here this morning. The birthday of the deceased, I guess. His name was Otto Davies, just so you know, I should have mentioned that first. Anyway, when it came time to cut the cake, Otto gets up to give his little speech, but it wasn’t a birthday thank-you like I’ve ever heard! Apparently he really laid it all out. Told everyone that they were a pack of leeches, bleeding him dry, and how he’s been weighed down by them for years and can’t be free. Says that he just can’t go on living like that anymore.”

“See, the other side’s got it real good,” Daley ribbed Price in the chest.

“Then he pulls out a Colt,” Zane continues, “turns it into his coat, and blasts himself away in front of everybody.”

“Shot himself in the…chest?”

“Yeah, not the head. Right in the heart they say. I dunno, maybe he thought it’d be more dramatic that way.”

They had reached the front door of the house, which opened into a hallway running from left-to-right. Opposite the entrance another set of doors was open, these leading into a central courtyard area. A bitter-looking man in a tight, gray suit waited in the opening.

“So, uh, why isn’t there any ambulance here?” Price asked.

“Because there’s no body!” the man in the gray suit interjected angrily before Zane could answer. It was George Teeler. The coroner.

Price frowned. “No body? How–”

“Follow me,” Officer Zane said, “you’ll see.”

“Well Georgie, then I guess we weren’t keeping you waiting after all,” Daley grinned broadly.

“What are you doing here?” Teeler scowled. “I thought you were off the force now!”

“Aw, you wouldn’t deny me a chance to see how the other side lives?”

“Evidently they don’t.”

“Was that a joke?!” Daley appeared genuinely amazed. “Georgie there’s hope for you yet!”

The group made their way into the courtyard area, then past the rows of chairs towards the raised stage at the back. The party-goers had all been retained for questioning. Half of them lounged in the chairs, while the rest paced nervously around the perimeter walkway.

Officer Zane leaped onto the stage and quickly strode to the back of it.

“Blood,” he pointed to a large stain on the oak paneling. “Also here.” The back of the stage was open, with a broad view of the hilly countryside as it fell away into the Gulf of Mexico a mile distant. In order to prevent anyone from falling into that countryside, a wooden railing wrapped around the back of the stage, and a good amount of dried blood was sticking to this as well.

“So he stood here?” Price clarified. “At the back of the stage, against the little railing?”

“That’s right.”

The part of the railing here was twisted and part of it had snapped off. It might have been meant to deter people from falling past it, but it wasn’t strong enough to stop a body that was determined to do so.

“So then he fell backwards, into…there?” Price’s finger pointed down eight feet to the smooth current of water beneath them. Evidently the house straddled a small river, which jetted out directly beneath the stage.

“Yup.”

“Which rushed his body away to…there?” Price’s finger traced the course of the river as it made straight for the Gulf of Mexico.

“You got it.”

“Well it wouldn’t do to have a run-of-the-mill suicide, now would it?” Daley scoffed. “Live large and die epically!”

“More like die a pain in the neck,” Price frowned. “You got anyone looking for the body down there yet?”

“A call was made,” Officer Zane nodded. “I assume they’re getting underway now.”

“Well, we probably better go help them out.”

“What about the people here?” Daley asked. “You’re not going to get their statements first?”

“What for? Looks to me like Officer Zane covered things already.”

“I did take down their testimonies, yes.”

“Good man. I’ll read your report.”

Daley shook his head. “Well I need a clearer picture. You go ahead, Price, I’ll catch up.”

“Without a car?”

“It’s just a mile. I can manage.”

“Perhaps I could ride down with you?” Zane asked Price. “Then my companion, Officer Hales over there, could use our squad car and come down with Daley when he’s finished.”

“That works, too,” Daley agreed.

Price nodded as well, then he and Zane made for his car.

“And give me a call when you’ve found my subject!” George Teeler called after them, then went off to rest in the house’s parlor.

Daley paused for a minute to take in each of the guests. He measured them up, looking for which one would be best to question. He didn’t want some nervous twit who would gush their feelings all over him, so at last he settled on a thin, middle-aged man, who was seated apart from all the rest, and appeared thoroughly bored with the entire affair. Daley grinned and made his way over, smoothly gliding into a seat directly behind the man.

“These suicides sure aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, are they?” he asked. The man swiveled in his chair and gave him a bewildered stare. “A few seconds of action, but otherwise just a lot of long tedium.”

The man sniffed in an unimpressed way. “I do have better things I could be doing with my time, if that’s what you’re saying. What do they need to keep all of us here for? It’s not like one of us killed him.”

Daley shrugged. “Search me. I suppose you didn’t really know Otto either?”

The man smiled and shook his head. “No. And after this afternoon, I wouldn’t really care to.”

“I heard it was quite the speech.”

“What? You weren’t here then?”

“No, I’m just a friend of one of the investigators.”

“Oh…should you even be here?”

“Why not? Like you said, its not like the guy was murdered.”

“Hmm…I guess I don’t know how police business works.”

“Not sure that it does. So this was your first time at Otto’s house?”

“Well this wasn’t his place, you know.”

“No?”

“No. Some relation’s. Cousin or in-law or something.” The man twisted in his seat and called to one of the women who was nervously fluttering on the walkway. “Marjorie! Marge! Over here…whose place did you say this was?”

The woman came over. She must have been the man’s wife. She was also middle-aged, wore the same style of casual, designer clothing, and her hair was dyed red, though not very well.

“Betsy’s.”

“And she’s Otto’s sister?” Daley asked.

“His wife’s sister,” Marge said.

“Oh, so his wife planned the party for him? That makes sense.”

“Well no,” Marge’s eyes went wide with the eagerness of a gossip. “We’ve just been talking about it over there. Apparently Otto explicitly wanted it here. Not just in this home, but made very clear he wanted it to be in the courtyard and with the cake up on the stage.”

“What’s so exciting about that?” the man asked.

“Because–well, it makes it seem like he planned to do it this way Quincy,” she rested her hand on her husband’s shoulder for support.

“Well yeah, this was clearly something he’d been thinking about,” Daley was nonplussed. “If you bring a gun to your birthday party, you probably didn’t just barely think to do it that morning. How long ago did you get your invitations for the party?”

“I don’t know…” Quincy scratched his head. “Four weeks ago?”

“And it said to come here?”

“Yes,” Marge nodded, then her eyes went wide. “Oh you mean he knew he was going to do this clear back then? And–and in front of all of us? Why would he want us to see this Quincy?”

“I don’t know darling, why don’t you go back to the others now.”

She scuttled off and Daley could hear her breathlessly telling her friends that they had confirmed her suspicions about this being a planned act. Quincy rolled his eyes.

“It’ll be months before I’ve heard the end of this, you know. That’s my real gripe with Otto. If he was going to off himself, why couldn’t he just do it in a private way that didn’t have to involve all of us?”

“A lot of people want it private. But I guess some people want a lot of publicity. Was Otto a rather flamboyant man?”

Quincy shook his head. “I’ve hardly ever seen him, and that’s not for a lack of opportunity. My wife and his are best friends, I’ve been to loads of their gatherings. He was always either shut up in his room or glued to the back wall with his drink. Maybe the introvert in him finally wanted to have his say for once. Wanted to see how it felt to be the drama queen.”

“Maybe…mind if I ask you about one other thing? Then I’ll let you enjoy your boredom in peace.”

Quincy turned his palms up and shrugged in surrender.

“You mentioned the cake. I heard that this whole speech started when it was time to cut it.”

“Yeah, so?”

“Well I can see that the cake is right there at the front of the stage. And the microphone stand is right next to it, too. But apparently he shot himself against the railing there, quite a bit back and to the right. Look, you can even see how the microphone cord runs from the stand over to the back railing.” Daley pointed.

“Oh yeah, he was backing towards the railing the whole time he screamed at us.”

“Strange to back away from people you’re screaming at, don’t you think? Was he meandering about randomly and ended up back there, or did he move that way pretty directly?”

“Directly I guess.”

“Huh, almost seems like he wanted to fall in the river.”

“Didn’t really think about that. Maybe so. Drama queen.”

“Maybe…did you notice if he looked down when he reached the railing? Like to see if he was over the river or not?”

“I don’t remember.”

“Anything strange at all when he shot himself?”

Quincy raised an eyebrow, and seemed to be weighing whether the thought in his mind was worth expressing or not. “Right after the gun went off, for that very brief moment before he slipped over the railing, he looked genuinely surprised. Like he couldn’t believe it had actually happened.”

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

 

On Monday I talked about ways that storytelling borrows from the art of magic in how it presents an initial world, progresses to a dramatic twist, and then reveals an even deeper world beneath. Obviously we haven’t seen that entire sequence in this first section of my mystery story, but we are seeing the setup for what will come later.

In that setup we see the shades of what the final revelation will be. It is unavoidable to tip one’s hand this way when writing a mystery. For in the setup of the mystery, what appears to be the state of things, must actually not be the state of things. The fact that everyone is certain this is a simple suicide signals to the reader that it must be something more devious. Though we haven’t been given any hard evidence that this isn’t a suicide, still we anticipate that revelation.

Another important consideration in the setup is the personality of the main character. Whatever they are written to be like will color the entire performance that follows. It can either color it in a way that supports the later revelations, or it can be a meaningless aside. Obviously in a story you want want the former. Ideally your main character’s style will support the plot developments that follow and vice versa.

Thus I took quite some time in choosing Daley’s personality for this piece. This is a mystery story, and so I decided to give the main character an air of mystery of his own. Aside from the question of “what really happened to Otto Davies?” there is also “what’s really going on with Daley?” Why is he no longer with the force? What’s going on in his home?

In this way I am setting up for a revelation within a revelation. We’re going to solve the mystery of the suicide, but we’re also going to solve the mystery of the mystery solver. Layered stories like this feel clever to us. We like when the theme is not only played out once, but multiple times, and sometimes as meta-commentaries of one another. On Monday I’d like to examine this pattern of storytelling more closely, and then on Thursday we’ll dive into the next segment of our mystery.

The Cruelty of King Bal’Tath

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“Counselors Uni and Morath,” the servant announced, bowing low before the King.

The King nodded deeply, the long curls of his wiry beard touching to his breast. Then he waited as the two men shuffled from around the partition. Their ceremonial skirts were tight around the ankles, and made them walk with small and rapid movements. King Bal’Tath did not know the reason why tradition had chosen such preposterous dress for his counselors, but he appreciated that it kept them from ever feeling truly comfortable in his presence.

“We come to serve you, our Lord,” Uni clasped his hands above his brow as both men bowed low. Uni was senior, and as such, Morath would not be permitted to speak during this meeting unless he was first asked a direct question by the King. Until then it was to be assumed that he was in total agreement with whatever Uni advised.

“I am in need of being served,” King Bal’Tath returned. “Tonight I am in particular need. I am faced with a conundrum that I find most troubling. Indeed, I weighed a great deal as to which of my counselors I should summon for this evening. At last I felt that Uni and Morath possessed the mind of their Lord in this instance.”

It was tradition that also mandated that the King select only two counselors each night to help him reason through the troubles of the day. All the members of the Counselor Brotherhood had their different areas of expertise, which he took into consideration as much as their various personalities. He selected the knowledge and the proclivities that suited each individual problem, as well as his personal temperament.

Members of the fellowship were seen as an extension of the King’s own reason. Just as the armies were an extension of his strength. Just as every organization and member of the kingdom was an extension of the King in some way or another, various parts of one body. The King was the mind of the kingdom, the single driving source for the whole. It was his responsibility to see that the body flourished, that its every part was healthy.

And it was also his responsibility to cut out its cancers.

“What is the matter that so troubles the King?” Uni asked.

He most certainly already knew. All the kingdom knew what matter weighed on their sovereign’s mind tonight. Even so, before he answered King Bal’Tath turned to the listening guards that stood on either side of him. “Leave us.”

The two soldiers bowed and walked out beyond the partition, leaving the two deaf guards as the King’s sole protectors.

King Bal’Tath turned back to Uni. “You know of the matter of the Y’narro District?”

“I have…heard the rumors, of course,” Uni nodded. “So repulsive that I could scarce believe that they were true. But if I am hearing from the King himself that the reports are true…then I am deeply shamed to have ever known the place.”

“The reports are true,” King Bal’Tath said frankly. “As you know, their pedigree is…muddled with the fringe districts of the Kingdom of Talibath. Their children are halfbreeds, and among them was found one that proved as faithless as his blood. He claimed to be my own illegitimate progeny.”

Both of the counselors raised their wrists to their foreheads so that the drooping sleeves would hang down from their arms and shield their faces.

“My Lord, we are ashamed to hear such a pernicious lie. We can hardly stand to bear to be in the room of your wrath.”

“This is not the matter that concerns me so,” King Bal’Tath waved his hand dismissively. “A king anticipates such claims and is ever ready to respond to them. The man has been dealt with already. Our friends in the torturer’s guild made entirely new inventions for him,” the corners of the King’s mouth turned up in amusement. “But the district remains a problem. As I am sure you have heard, the lad had been gaining quite a following there. There are many in Y’narro that are discontent with the district’s status within the kingdom. There are even those that would rather take a higher place of power within a new order.”

“So the rumors have suggested,” Uni nodded.

“And the rumors are true. We have received confessions that there were several of the district’s Elders who were in league with the Kingdom of Talibath!” King Bal’Tath continued, his voice now straining with anger. “There were secret talks among them of fomenting a rebellion, of building a movement around their new claimant, and of deposing me!”

The King’s veins bulged and his two counselor cowered deeply, unable to find words to express the devastated prostrations that the moment called for. So the King continued.

“Were it only the heads of that district that sought rebellion, I would still unleash my wrath upon those people. For surely once the head has turned, the whole body is soon corrupted. But our spies have ascertained that the Elder’s had the heart of the people. The seeds of this rebellion were driven by a few, but were understood by all.”

“The whole is as corrupt as the one,” Uni exclaimed. “All the people of your kingdom know that the people of Y’narro are a shiftless and scheming people. We have long felt that we would be best to get rid of them, it was only a matter of waiting for them to give a justification for their destruction. Therefore, if this youth had come with his lies of being an heir to the throne, and that was all, and if his majesty purged out the whole district for nothing more than that, not a one of your loyal followers would question your prudence in the matter. All would confess that you only did what was just.”

Morath nodded deeply, reflecting his consent.

“But this news of insurrection stirring among the masses…for this your people demand vengeance! We plead with you to hasten, and to not hold back, and to crush your enemies in as cruel a way as can be fathomed. And we cheer and champion you to the cause.”

King Bal’Tath smiled deeply, it was just what he wished to hear. “I knew, indeed, that you were the counselors that possessed my mind for this night. My thoughts are yours, now let my wrath be yours as well. Counsel with me, then, what shall be done with the people of Y’narro?”

“It must be an utter destruction,” Uni responded. “This treachery of theirs, it is ingrained in the bone. You cannot spare their youths, their women, their infants. They would only spread seeds of unfaithfulness wherever they were put. And do not consider making them slaves, either, for then their filth would be imprinted in all our buildings and grain. It would poison us all. And do not leave their homes standing for others to possess, for then their spirits will corrupt whoever rests there. The only solution is to take that land, and make of it a shrine to the Lords of Fire! Burn the people, the homes, the fields. Let your people see the scorch in the skies from one end of the kingdom to the next.”

Uni finished and bowed. Notably, Morath did not bow his consent at this moment. This was common. Junior counselors generally disagreed with the counsels of their elders. How else would they get to say anything in front of the King?

More importantly, King Bal’Tath disagreed as well. So much was evident from the way his brow furrowed and the corners of his mouth turned down. He sighed heavily, shaking his head from side-to-side.

“Uni, your heart is in the right place, but let me remind you of your own words. You counseled me to destroy these people ‘in as cruel a way as can be fathomed.’ The burning of these people is obvious. You describe a brief moment of destruction that lasts but for a night. The next day and the flame would be extinguished. Ten years after and the people would no longer speak of the moment with dread. Twenty years and they would hardly speak of it at all. Fifty and no one would remember that the event had even occurred.

“What I require is an act of cruelty such as will never be forgotten. One whose fame would immortalize my hate, and become the stuff of legend. Give me a punishment that will be logged in the annals of myth, give me the retribution that will chill all souls just to think of it, give me the vengeance that will redefine the term!”

At this point the King turned to Morath and cocked his head to one side.

“What of you, silent counselor? What would you have me do with these people? Can you take Uni’s counsel and delve still deeper?”

There was an audible swallow as Morath cleared his throat. He did not appear nervous, though, only anxious to speak his mind clearly.

“My Lord,” his high strain began, “since you ask it of me, I do indeed have counsel to give. Your expressed wish is mine as well. Death is the obvious choice for these people, but in that obviousness there lacks memorability. To do what is expected, even cruelly, can never spark the imagination as you desire. The secret to immortalizing one’s hate is to express it in a way that has never been done before. We must have a new invention, one that shows the world a darkness it has never before dared to dread.”

“Yes, this is right,” King Bal’Tath nodded eagerly. “This is exactly what I mean. And tell me, Morath, do you have the way?”

“I believe I do, my Lord. I begin by simply asking myself: what is a greater torment than to be deprived of that which one loves the most, their own life? And I answer to myself: to be made to choose between the two things that one loves the most, to have to destroy one for the other. And so I ask myself: what are the two great loves of us all? And I answer myself: the love of one’s own life, and the love of one’s children. And from this I find my counsel to the King.”

King Bal’Tath leaned forward eagerly.

“Send an army out to the district of Y’narro. Let it set camp immediately outside of their walls, and have it rest there a full week. Let the dread apprehension of death build within them all. Then, when they are ripe, send the people an emissary, and inform them that you have not come to destroy them, but rather, in your magnanimous mercy, have decided to let all the men and women live in peace…just as soon as they have delivered all their children to butchered in their place. And then you will give them three days to weigh their answer, three days to agonize between being slain together with their children, or else to live forever haunted by the betrayal of their own. They will choose the latter, and it will set the fires of torment within. Do as I have counseled, and the wrath of King Bal’Tath will not soon be forgotten!”

King Bal’Tath pressed his fingertips together and rested his lips against them, silently turning the suggestion over in his mind. Neither counselor dared interrupt their master’s contemplation. They would wait until he had something to say. King Bal’Tath stood and paced away from his throne, clasping his hands behind his back.

“You raise some very excellent points, Morath. To have to choose, to destroy your own to save yourself. To then have to live and reflect on that ever after. Compelling, to be sure.”

He paused and walked towards an alcove that opened into an outdoor pavilion. He stood there at the divide between his palace and the outside world, and stared into the night sky, seeking answers from the eternal black above.

“There is also merit in how your proposed solution fits the punishment to the crime. This is a nation of betrayers, and so you would make them betray their own.”

With the King’s back turned to his counselors, Morath allowed himself a slight smile.

“But…yet it is lacking. It is cruel, it is fitting,” the King turned back to the two men, “but it is not beautiful. And that is the one element you forgot which makes a moment become legend. For though this destruction must be most hideous, it must also be too fascinating for the world to look away.”

“I am sorry to have let you down,” Morath bowed his head deeply.

“No. Do not be. This is how counseling works, is it not? We mull it over together. Uni moved us in the right direction, then you took it to the next step, and did it very well. And now I know how to take the next. I have my answer, built off of the guidance begun by the two of you.”

“You know what to do?” Uni asked.

“Yes,” King Bal’Tath nodded deeply, then strode back and sat upon his throne. It was only appropriate that he would sit there while giving his revelation.

“We shall begin as Morath has recommended. Send our armies, besiege the town, and after a week require them to deliver their children or be destroyed. All this we shall do.”

King Bal’Tath leaned forward eagerly.

“And we will take their young ones, and they shall think that we have executed them, and will be tormented by that thought for a full decade, maybe two.”

“But we will not have?” Uni asked.

“No. And then, one day, they will look up from their fields and see the hills crowned with warriors in black. A new army of the King! Youthful soldiers thrust out by their own people, surrendered to the gallows, but secretly preserved for a single dread purpose.”

“The children,” Morath breathed.

“How those youths will have come to hate the parents that betrayed them,” King Bal’Tath grinned. “How those youths will be ready to slay the new children born to replace them. Then, then at last, we shall see the fires that Uni spoke of. Then shall the district of Y’narro be made no more. Though it will take me years to taste my vengeance, I shall have it, and it shall be the truest vengeance ever known. This is the right thing for the King to do.”

“This is the right thing,” Uni and Morath cried at the same moment, arms outstretched in salute while their eyes slid to peer at one another with grim terror.

On Monday I wrote about how stories often introduce a curiosity, and then pursue it for as far as it will take them. This can be in the form of exploring new fantasies, or in following a logical chain of cause and effect. With this post I introduced a thread of the King’s desire to punish his people. There then followed one step after another, following as each of the three men came up with increasingly cruel ways of carrying that action out.

In this way the story encourages the reader to continue to the next breadcrumb, but also tips its hand in what the final climax will be: the ultimate realization of cruelty. Thus the story is both teasing things to come, but also making the reader wait for the satisfaction.

That is a delicate balance to strike, as both too much obfuscation and too much tipping of the hand can each ruin the tale. In my next post I’d like to talk more about this idea of teasing and delivering when writing a story, and also of how to have the payoff be satisfying. Come back on Thursday to read about how a writer works these tricks.

The Soldier’s Last Sleep: Part Five

sky night stars tend
Photo by Bastian Riccardi on Pexels.com

 

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

Private Bradley passed the last hour in a dazed stupor. Though his veins still bulged with adrenaline, he could feel the exhaustion lurking beneath it. Though his eyes were open and his breath was sharp, he could hardly he considered conscious.

Men walked before him, but he did not see them. Voices spoke around him, but he did not hear them. A pair of hands guided him down the hill and into the back of a truck, but he did not feel them.

He had bounced around in the back of the vehicle a full five minutes before it even dawned on him that he must have been relieved. New troops must have come, and now he was on his way back to camp. Or maybe the enemy had come back and he was being led to a prisoner of war camp. He honestly couldn’t have said which.

But thankfully it was the first, and ten minutes later Bradley shuffled out of the truck and stood in front of his tent. Some officer’s voice was droning at him, probably giving him orders. Probably telling him to get some rest and then await further instructions.

Probably. But even if those weren’t the orders, that was what he was going to do anyhow. It was the only thing he was capable of doing anymore. Nothing else was possible. He was coming apart in so many ways, that it seemed to take all that he had just to remain standing in one piece. To do anything, to change anything, seemed like it might shatter him once and for all.

And now he realized that he was terrified even to go to sleep. In fact, he was so tired that he didn’t know if he had the strength to face it! It meant letting go. It meant trusting the world around him as he lay totally at its mercy. He had been clenching for so long, that now he wasn’t sure how to release.

But now the officer was finished with his droning, and marching away to other duties, and Bradley’s tent lay in front of him, its front flap waving invitingly in the breeze. Bradley didn’t think about it, he just moved forward. He wasn’t aware of his feet moving, indeed it felt as if he was levitating an inch off the ground. In a haze he closed the distance, passed across the threshold, and rotated down on his cot.

He didn’t bother to undo his belt. He didn’t try to pull off his boots. He didn’t unclasp his helmet and let it clatter to the floor. He certainly didn’t worry about getting out of his muddy clothes or taking a shower.

He just lay down, closed his lids, and let his vision turn inwards.

Bradley was unconscious. Not really asleep yet, but unconscious. What Bradley was putting to rest was not his body, it was the machine. He was powering it down. Its vise-like grip slowly unclenched. And now, at last, his mind and body had room enough to start going to work on themselves. Now, at last, all the things that he had been stifling inside began to worm their way out.

First came a series of shivers. They began across his brow, then worked their way down his body, all the way to the feet. They were involuntary shudders, earthquakes in his bones. It was his body loosening out all of the tension that he had so strictly maintained all these hours. Every inch of skin had to be shaken out and made to feel again.

Next came the sweating. Tension and strain had built up a lot of heat in Bradley, and it had to be cooled. There was so much hate and fear that had to be flushed out as well. So each of his pores opened and baptized his body with purifying water. All the grime that had been clogging him up was washed away.

Then came the crying. Bradley’s chest heaved up and down and tears tracked down his cheeks. His mouth opened wide, and through it he gave a series of long, shuddering exhales. No moans came with them, for when one wails audibly they are giving expression to their traumas, and Bradley’s mourning was too deep to be given any names. They could only be breathed, spilled out of him, a thousand at a time, in a heavy torrent.

At last the body had unlocked itself. Bradley’s survival grip was broken, and now he could feel again. Thus he finally realized how uncomfortable he was in his bed. His boots were tight and heavy, and he worked to take them off. He was still mostly unconscious, and unable to wake enough to take remove them properly. Instead he just idly swatted his hand at them every few minutes over the next hour until they were finally teased off an inch at a time. At last they fell to the ground with heavy thuds.

Then his fingers reached up to his chin and fumbled with the strap of his helmet. It too clattered to the ground. He rolled over and the lapel of his jacket dug at his wounded shoulder. He winced, and undid his belt, then shrugged the jacket away.

Now he was cold, and his hands found the blanket and pulled it up to his chin. His body curled up into the fetal position, and he reverted into his most primal instincts. Now his dreams began.

Strange, abstract shapes and colors came first. Black and red, jagged and sharp. They fluctuated and danced into one another without meaning. Then, slowly, they settled into something comprehensible. Bradley saw that they were a seascape of blood waves, reaching like teeth high into the air. So high that they pierced into the onyx tapestry of thunderclouds that made up the entire sky. And where the two bodies collided into one another there oozed out a thick mud.

Bradley was aware of himself in this space. He was soaring towards the horizon where the two dread masses converged into one. Would he be drowned in the waves or would he be dissipated in the mist? Either way, he would surely then be oozed out the dark mud between.

“Please, no!” he cried. “I fought, I won, I get to go home.”

You fought, you won, this is your home a thunderous voice boomed from the heavens. Claim the spoils of your victory!

And then Bradley saw. He was the waves and he was the cloud. He was the squeezing, choking vise that must grind wayward sea explorers between his iron mills. He saw puny sailors rolling across his undulating belly, eyes wide and full of fear. He hated them for their smallness. Hated them for their fear.

Bradley sneered and swelled himself, rushing his two halves together and bursting the vessels apart like juicy grapes. He hated them for being weak enough to be consumed by him. Hated them for dying while he lived.

And though he would dare not admit it, he feared them too. They looked at him with such terror, but why? How did they not see that they had just as much power to kill him, too?

The dream turned. He was still a phantom of black and red, but now in a loose bodily form, and he was sprinting between the walls of an eternal labyrinth. One did not try to escape a place as this. Once consigned here it was your home forever. And your tomb.

Around every few bends he came across one of the dread, blue sailors. He screamed at them and burst himself forth, trying to drown them in his depths before they could crush him.

One of them rounded the bend and hesitated. That was his undoing, Bradley snuffed him out in an instant. Bradley rounded the bend on another and the two of them burst themselves on one another at the same moment. The blow of that other was strong, but Bradley bluffed a laugh through quivering lips. The sailor drew back at that, and believed that Bradley might have some hidden secret that gave him the confidence to laugh. That moment of weakness doomed him. The man succumbed to the momentum of his despair, and knelt down and hung his head. Bradley quaked him into the ground.

It was a game of chicken. The first to show fear lost. To flinch, to admit your terror, was your own undoing. If Bradley could make them believe he was more powerful than they, then it would be so.

This is all that magic and witches are, the great voice boomed again. A spell is only of effect when the victim believes in it. Make them believe their doom and it will be so.

And what if they were made to believe in hope? Bradley wondered. Did magic work that way, too? Was Sergeant a mage? Had he cast a spell on Bradley to make him believe that he could survive that last night? Made a reality of a fiction? Convinced Bradley of it, but then died because he did not believe in it himself?

Why did Bradley get to live while the others did not? Some days he would say that it was just a matter of dumb luck, but he knew that that was not the entire story. He really felt there was some truth to this notion of overwhelming the will of others to live with your own. That will to live was like a muscle, and in some men it was stronger than others. And why was Bradley’s will to live stronger than many others? He did not know. Maybe he was just born that way. Maybe he was bewitched by Sarge’s speech. Maybe a million things. He had it though, and it was his blessing. Or perhaps his curse.

At this point Bradley turned over and nearly awoke. A faint thought crossed his mind that he was starving, filthy, and in need of a doctor to examine his shoulder. Yes, alright, he would take care of all those things. But first a little more sleep. He had denied his body this rest for too long, and now the time had come to pay the tab.

So instead he ground deeper into his pillow, pulled the blanket tight with earnest, and muscled his way back into deeper waves of sleep. The dreams here were more erratic and fanciful than before. Every now and then a vision from the trenches would arise, such as one where he was laying traps a pack of wolves that was also hunting him, but more so they were abstract and bizarre, such as one where he was carving faces into potatoes to try and get them to speak to him.

All the while men came and left from the tent. Trucks rolled by outside. Orders were shouted and people scrambled to fulfill them. None of them could break his trance, though, and everyone knew better than to wake the men that had come back from the line.

How much time passed was impossible to tell. Bradley had missed two full nights of sleep, and he more than made up for them now. When at last his eyes opened there was sunlight outside, so that he mistakenly thought that it was still the same day as when he had first laid head to pillow.

For a full hour he laid without any more movement than the occasional blink of his eyes. Indeed when he first opened them he did not realize that they were open. He just stared blankly ahead as the room slowly swam into conscious focus. He stared, and he listened. And at first the sounds seemed far-off and random, totally devoid of any word or meaning. But as his hearing also came into conscious focus he realized that there was an unusual rhythm to what he heard.

The camp had always been a busy place, but somehow it was even more so now. Trucks were rumbling by in a constant procession, voices were ringing over one another in a chorus of commands. Feet were running every direction at once. What on earth was going on out there?

Bradley rose to his feet, waited a minute for the resultant light-headedness to pass, then stepped out into the sun. If things had sounded active, they looked even more so! Most of the tents were being disassembled, the large medical pavilion was being brought down even now. Everything was being tied down, bundled up, and thrown into the back of trucks.

“Our line’s been broken!” Bradley hissed in horror. “We’re retreating!”

But even as he said that, he realized that couldn’t be right. Because even with all the hasty hustle and bustle, the men were smiling and laughing, clinking together glasses of champagne scurried up from who-knew-where.

“What is this?” Bradley caught a soldier by the arm as he passed by.

“Oh you’re a mess,” the man said, looking up and down Bradley’s filth-caked clothing. “And we’ve just taken down the showers, so you’ll just have to sail that way!”

“Sail? What are you talking about? Where is everyone going?”

The man cocked his head in utter bewilderment. “Do you really not know? You haven’t heard?”

Bradley shook his head.

“The war is over man! The old men back home have signed a treaty!”

Bradley released the man’s shoulder and stood with mouth agape. Could it be? He looked about himself in a stupor. It seemed too much to believe…yet here was his entire company beating a joyful march back home.

Two airplanes buzzed overhead, and Bradley watched them soar by. They were followed by a dozen more, all making way for the coast.

Bradley smiled and shook his head. He had slept clean through the end of the war. “So you were right all along, Sarge,” he muttered. Then he turned, and followed the procession away from that place.

 

And that brings us to the conclusion of The Soldier’s Last Sleep! On Monday we discussed the idea of a final act prolonging the themes of the story’s climax. Previously we experienced the rousing apex of action where Bradley defended the trench through the last night of his shift. That sequence concluded, and today I sloped the story into a long tail before the finish.

In this final act I have used Bradley’s subconscious to reiterate the themes of my story to the reader. Even as his subconscious is trying to process the events within him, I am doing the same thing for the audience. Through this I emphasize the ideas of force of will, of trying to control oneself with a vise-like grip, and the toll, physical and mental that comes with that. I speak of tension and release. I point out the idea of men overpowering one another by a show of strength, or more accurately by a facade of strength. I finish up with a discussion of influence and inspiration, which suggests a more gentle way to impose one’s will upon another.

And then, to cap it all off, I talk about the calm after the storm. For after each charge of the enemy came respite, after the fog came clear skies, and after the war there must come peace. Which was meant as a meta-commentary on the calm-final-act-after-the-climax-of-a-story theme from Monday.

This dream sequence that I concluded with also allowed me a pleasant opportunity to delve deep into the rabbit hole. Throughout the story I presented the story with dramatic prose, painting the scene of war as some sort of exaggerated fantasy. That same idea is more deeply explored in Bradley’s unconscious visions, where fantasy finally becomes his reality. With my next blog post I’d like to go deeper into this idea of going deeper. I want to consider how a story can present an idea, and then really dive into the meat of it. Come back Monday to hear about that, and have a wonderful weekend in the meantime!

The Soldier’s Last Sleep: Part Four

flock of birds flying above the mountain during sunset
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

The first three shots resounded in empty air. Private Bradley grit his teeth, cleared his mind, and went back to his basic training.

“Hold the gun firmly, but don’t clench it,” he muttered to himself. “Breathe slowly….Now exhale…” he fired and an enemy soldier’s helmet went flying through the air, exposing a startled face underneath.

Private Bradley had always been one of the better shots in their squad, he had just momentarily forgotten it while living and breathing the machine gun’s exhaust for the last few days. Now he set to work, picking his shots, following through, moving on to the next. It wasn’t a question of hitting the enemy, it was a question of how many he could drop, and whether it would be enough.

There was a sudden rise in the voices of the chargers fifty yards to the right. Of course the chargers were always shouting, seemingly in one unending cry, but there always came a sudden swell such as this when they reached the trench and leaped down to the murder. So the line has suffered its first compromise Bradley thought, then picked off another man.

The pitch in the enemies’ voices raised an octave again forty yards to the left and at another point twenty yards beyond that. Two more breaches in the line.

Private Bradley’s breath exhaled a bit more ragged than usual and his next shot went wide, two feet from its mark. He grit his teeth, furious that he had let the pressure get to him. He made up for it by firing his next round through two men running in file.

An entire chorus of waves broke up and down the trench-line, too many new breaches to count. There would be no routing the charge this time. Each squad had run out of machine gun ammunition, just as Private Bradley’s had. Without those pounding guns there had never been a chance of turning the wave. In the next fifteen seconds it would crash upon Private Bradley and his squad, too.

“NOW, BRADLEY, NOW!” Sergeant roared, pulling the rifle out of Bradley’s hands and putting the handles of the machine gun there instead.

Private Bradley grit his teeth and let loose ball and flame. The trench’s last fully automatic rang through the air like an awakened lion, bursting through men at more than twenty-five death-knells per second!

There was no easy stroke, stroke to how Bradley spun the weapon now. The enemy was so close and so dense that jerking it as quickly as he could from side to side was the only option left. For the briefest of moments the charging men’s eyes widened in shock and horror. And then those eyes went glassy and expressed nothing again forever. The men that stood next in line to catch a bullet came to a full halt, glancing side to side for an escape that wasn’t there. If they turned and ran now, they would only succeed in being shot in the back instead of the front. As they paused to consider that fact the decision was made for them.

Meanwhile Bradley’s compatriots made short work of what forces his gun happened to miss. Bradley thinned the line, and the riflemen finished it. Each following line was more dense than the one before, but each looked more timid and unsure as well.

And then, all at once, a clear hill opened to view before them.

Bradley blinked quickly, disbelieving what he saw. They had done it? They had cleared their section?

Yes, they had. Sergeant’s timing had been impeccable. Glancing downwards Bradley saw seven bullets remained on the belt. Just barely, but they had stopped the breach in their sector.

If only that had been enough.

Though no more enemy forces stood on the hill, the trench still crawled with them. In fact the squad directly to the left of Bradley’s had just finished being entirely overrun by the invaders, who were now lashing out in each direction for fresh kills!

Bradley spun to face the assailants, reaching for the firearm at his side. They leaped at him and he leaped back, firing into the heart of their pack.

“Move over here!” Private Holt shouted from his elbow.

“Pull in close,” Sergeant ordered. “We’re still on the defense!”

It was good advice. The natural inclination was to try to push the enemy, but that sort of over-extending had been exactly the downfall of many of their allies. Better to play it cool and wait to see which side had the numbers. Right now things were too muddled to tell.

Bradley’s squad pulled tight to one another, and stood back-to-back, some of them facing down the right side of the trench, some of them facing down the left. They all shouted and fired furiously into the ranks of the enemy. Half of the time the other side charged at them haltingly, and half of the time they tried to take a stance and fire back.

Such half-measures would not suffice. Bradley and his men were tight-packed and focused. They fired in controlled bursts, calling out their shots, and working as a team to drop one soldier, and then another.

“Stand firm,” Sergeant directed them. “Stand firm and they won’t charge you, no matter how many more of them there are. None of them want to be the first to meet a firm knot!”

But that knot was being untied. Rather than charge, the enemy had finally decided on taking quick shots at the bundle of men. It was dark and shadowy in the trenches, and hard for them to pick out man from mud. Even so, every now and again a lucky shot hit its mark.

A sting burrowed into Bradley’s left thigh. Another grazed over the skin of his right arm. A dull groan sounded against his back, the last complaint that Private Dunny would ever make.

Other shots sang past Bradley’s ears. He instinctively recoiled, and as he did so forgot to keep pulling the trigger. The fire from Bradley’s squad became uncertain, erratic, stifled in the storm raining around them. Then, like predators waiting for their prey to show a weakness, the other side swooped in for the kill.

Bradley caught the first man by the lapel of his jacket, and drilled with his knife until he found oil. He threw that one to the side, and barely raised his arm in time to catch the downward stab of another. His forearm seared in pain, but fortunately Private O’Malley surged forward to take that foe down for him.

No one was there to cover O’Malley, though, and a hot barrel blasted at point-blank range, blasting O’Malley backwards. The man fell right into Bradley, and the two of them fell together. Bradley’s back hit the floor of the trench and O’Malley fell across his legs. Bradley started to thrash to get back up…but then paused.

What if he didn’t? Here in the dark, who could tell a dead man from a man only pretending to be dead? There was a chance that he might be entirely overlooked. Perhaps it was a slim chance, but it was there all the same.

But no. That would leave the backs of his still-standing squadmates unprotected. That would go against his oath, that the enemy would have to cut him down by force. That would invalidate him for Sergeant’s promise of self-purchase. He had to fight his way through the night.

A dark blur passed over Bradley, an enemy making another charge. Bradley turned his gun upwards and fired, cutting the man down entirely unawares. Then, from some long-forgotten coffer, Bradley found the strength to fling back onto his feet in a single, swift motion. He held gun out in one hand and knife in the other. He fired, he cut, pushed, he grit.

The trench was narrow, and the enemy came single file to avoid crowding one another as they danced around the littered corpses. So it was an even match-up, one against one, over and over, and the only question was how long a man could stand down the tide.

A foe grabbed Bradley’s wrist while also swinging wide with a shovel. Bradley leaned back so that it cut fat air and lodged itself in the trench wall. Bradley grabbed the handle with his free hand, just above the blade, and pulled firm. The soldier, still attached to the other end, lurched forward, and lost both of his grips, the one on the shovel and the other on Bradley’s wrist. He fell to the ground at Bradley’s feet. Bradley swung the shovel around and with it dug the man into his grave.

One could not remain a man in such work as this. One had to give himself over to the machine. This was no trench of men, it was a chute on a dis-assembly line. Bradley was the mechanical arm that took the subjects apart one at a time.

Another man lunged forward with a knife. Rather than try to dodge, Bradley gripped the man’s wrist and pulled, ever so slightly shifting the angle of the thrust so that it slid in the crook between his arm and torso. He clinched down and twisted. Something snapped, metal or otherwise.

Bradley-the-machine’s limbs were creaking and sore. No matter. A machine did not complain about such things. A machine just kept at its work as bolts fell off and screw threads stripped and motors spun out of socket. Perhaps he would shatter apart, but he wouldn’t even know it. He would just keep going.

The next soldier made like he was going to lunge at Bradley, but at the last moment pulled back and fired from the hip. It was clever. It caught him off guard. Bradley felt a hole open in his shoulder and he fell onto his back.

What was less clever was that the man paused to see if Bradley was dead, giving him the opportunity to fumble his gun over from the wounded arm to his other. A crack of thunder and the assailant was down.

It was his ability to separate his mind from his body that made Bradley so adept at this work of separating limb from limb. First one had to stifle the life in himself, then he could do it in others. And so a man was always his own first casualty. It was the only way to live.

Two more soldiers advanced down the trench. Bradley was still prone and his vitality was quickly seeping through the wound in his shoulder. This was it. The fight in him was gone.

The first soldier reached him and held out his hand.

Only now did Bradley recognize the uniform of his allies. Bradley tried to offer his good hand, but it still held his gun. He dropped the weapon and let the friend pull him to his feet.

“Good to finally see a friendly face,” the soldier said. “The trench is all secured back this way, how about down past you.”

“I’m not sure,” Bradley said. He started to twist to look that way, but winced at the searing pain that came from his shoulder.

“You’re hurt,” the soldier observed. “Don’t worry, I’ll move down the line and see for myself. You stay here and Private Bailey will see to your wound.”

The man was clearly some sort of officer, though of course it was far too muddy and dark to make out any insignia.

The second man came up and Bradley showed him where he was hit, then leaned back while the man bound him up.

“You’re lucky, the shot passed clean through, I don’t have to dig it out of you.”

“A life of my shoulder always aching and never working right? Hardly seems lucky.”

“At least it’s still a life. That’s more than most of our men can say tonight.”

It suddenly occurred to Bradley to check and see if any of his squad had survived with him. One glance along the trench floor, though, and it was clear that they had not. One-by-one he could pick out each of their bodies interwoven with those of the enemy. They looked so strangely peaceful laying side-by-side with the very men that they had fought to the death against.

Maybe it wasn’t so strange, though. They had killed each other, hadn’t they? And what feud could possibly be left unresolved after such a measure as that? What more could be gained by disputing the matter any further? Here, in mutual death, they were finally all square with one another.

Of course Bradley gave his men a closer check once Private Bailey finished dressing his wounds. The two of them crouched down and felt each man’s lack of a pulse. They truly were all dead. Dunny, Holt, Yates, O’Malley…

“You too, Sergeant?” Bradley sighed. “After that speech you roused us all with? You too?”

By this point it was clear that the battle was over. The scattered din of gunfire up and down the trench had slowed and finally come to a stop. The line had been held, though with extensive casualties. More than fifty percent. Their forces were so diminished that they couldn’t hope to repel another attack. Reinforcements would have to come replace them now.

But then, of course, the enemy needed reinforcements of their own, too. All of their fresh troops were dead, and they would have to send up a new regiment before the onslaught could continue.

Sergeant had been right. Surviving this last charge had been enough. Private Bradley had earned the right to stay alive. Massaging his shoulder he turned to the East. There, searing a line of red across the green hilltop, the dawn was approaching.

Part Five

 

On Monday I discussed how a story is composed of several arcs, which each take their turn in the light, thus creating a natural rise and fall in the plot. I also mentioned how each arc escalates in their own way, combining to make a climatic finish.

In today’s post we saw the culmination of the increasing tension in this story. With each preceding charge, the enemy came closer and closer to breaking the ranks of Bradley and his men. That constant teasing was meant to build up anticipation in the reader, anticipation which was finally satisfied in the rousing action of today’s entry.

When a story has pent up enough conflict and turmoil, then it is a simple matter to let it loose in a stream of cathartic release. But another essential element of pacing in a story is the sigh of relief after the action subsides. Though the hard-run race may be won in a moment of intense effort, the experience is not over until one is able to fully regain their breath.

This next Monday I will examine this idea of giving a story time to release its tension after the climax of its action. Then, next Thursday, we will see this in play with the next entry of The Soldier’s Last Sleep.

The Soldier’s Last Sleep: Part Three

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Part One
Part Two

Some of the mortars fell directly on the trench, and some of them landed a bit before it, right in the midst of the enemy forces. All was chaotic disarray!

The enemy line scattered in a thousand different directions all at once. Some of them ran for their lives into the trenches, trying to surrender before they were butchered. Some of them ran back towards their own camp, ducking and weaving like mad, as if the dropping shells were less likely to hit them for having moved randomly. Some of them stood frozen in place, too shocked to commit to any action at all.

Meanwhile Private Bradley and his comrades swam through the dirt, beating a hasty retreat away from the explosions. Some of the commanding officers screamed at them to hold position, but to no avail. Up and down the line, where the bombardment was not striking, the allied soldiers just stared dumbly at the hole broken in their line.

In all, the shelling lasted for a one-minute-and-forty-seven-second eternity. Evidently those in charge of sending the enemy infantry out had gotten in touch with those in charge of firing the artillery, and made them aware of their scheduling error.

Of course by this point the field was long clear of any living enemy soldiers. They had all either surrendered, retreated, or died as suited them best. And so the trench-men began reforming their line where it had been broken up. It was very nerve-wracking work, for each man wondered ‘how long can it be before the shelling reoccurs?’ So each man furiously dug with his shovel, and when any sudden sounds came they would flinch, clap their hands over their heads, and make as if they would run from the spot.

Even during all that stress, though, the men spoke among one another, and hashed out what must have just happened. Clearly the enemy line had been replenished. They received fresh troops, probably an entirely new regiment, and along with it some new artillery. And not just any artillery, either. At long last they had found a way to bring the big guns through the mud, ones that actually had enough range to reach their line.

The only saving grace had been that with the fresh resources had also come fresh command units, ones that were not coordinated properly with one another. This had resulted in the blunder of the enemy shelling their own men. But right this moment they would be straightening out their agendas, and then the shelling would recommence, blast the trenches to smithereens, and the fresh troops would be sent marching over the ruin, down the hill, and into the camp below.

They would have to be pulled back now, it was the only possible outcome. And yet the orders to do so had not come yet. Every man on the line knew it had to come, so why hadn’t it come already? Why were they instead trying to repair the trench? It was pointless!

The answer to that came less than a quarter hour later. To the South they could hear the dull hum of propellers churning through the air. Every man turned and watched six bombers lumbering towards their position. They passed overhead, low enough for the infantry to make out the bomb bay doors opening as the aircraft proceeded across the field and towards the enemy lines. A chorus of gunfire and explosion resounded through the air.

“Well that’s that for the new artillery,” Private Holt observed.

“Why just the artillery?” Private Dunny said hopefully. “Surely they’re going to smash the entire camp as well!”

But they were not. As soon as the big guns were reduced to smoking, twisted metal, the planes turned on the spot and lumbered back away as uneventfully as they had come. Balance had been restored, and now it would be left to the two infantries to continue their murderous tug-of-war for the hill.

The sun was nearly set, and with it came fresh waves of exhaustion. Even if one did not look at the orange and pink streaks extending across the sky, one could feel them in his bones. The body knew that the day was retiring, and for years it had been trained to anticipate its own retiring in these hours. It was ingrained in all of the men that they should sleep now, and facts like there not being any reinforcements until the next day made no sway on the pull of nature.

“Stay alert men!” Sergeant shouted, then yawned deeply, and momentarily lost his balance where he stood.

Even worse than the fatigue was the knowledge that the enemy lines had been refreshed. If it hadn’t been for the shells breaking their charge, these new foes would have been cooling their heels over the corpses of Private Bradley and his squad right this very moment!

Fate had intervened once, but it was too much to ask her to do so again. This next charge they would have to figure things out on their own.

“Listen to me, men,” Sergeant wheezed through a dry and raspy throat. “The sun’s already on its way down, so it’s a sure thing that the enemy is going to wait until the dark of night for their next assault. One more charge in the middle of the night and then it’s morning. I’ve just received the latest word, and it says our reinforcements for sure arrive first thing in the morning. We just have to hold on until then. Just one more charge. We can make that, I know we can.”

Sergeant clasped his hands together, as if he was praying to his men.

“We’re not fighting for army, nation, or family this time, boys. This time it’s for us. Every charge before this earned you badges and medals and who-cares-what-else. But ride out this last charge…and you earn your very lives! No one earns themselves except by weathering the last charge. If you can survive this time, this one, last time, then you’re free men. You’re self-purchased through and through. Not even your own mother who birthed you will have any claim on you. No one will. This is the last night you’ll ever have to stand through, but you do have to stand through it. This is your whole life here and now, so what do you say men? It’s just one more charge!

Not a one of them cheered. They were moved, though, and wept openly, fresh streaks burning down their dirty cheeks. It rang too true to them, and they wanted to believe every word. But at the same time, even if the promises were true, it would seem all too fitting that after the close calls and narrow escapes, that they would now trip at the finish. Such an irony as that would be the perfectly summation of their military career. They had been so tired and beaten, yet they had somehow come through time and time again. But this time? Here where it mattered most? Was there anything even left to give anymore?

Why couldn’t the soul just let go easily? Why did it have to cling to life when it would be so much easier to lay down and die? Yet it did. And in spite of all cynicism, each of the men pledged that at the very least they would try. As with before, they resolved to stand and fight and make the enemy remove them from this place by force. If what the Sergeant said was true, then let this be the final measuring. They would not be overrun while leaving any drops of blood unspent. They would give all that they had. And if it was enough it would be enough, and if it was not it would not, but in either case nothing would be held back.

And so they looked hard into one another’s eyes, then took their places in the trench. They had repaired it pretty well after the shelling. It did not extend quite as high as before, and the earth was a bit fresher and looser, but it would have to do.

Each man held his gun, locked his knees, and stared down the line for the coming reckoning. None of them expected the charge for a few hours yet, but trying to rest was unfathomable. If once their eyes were allowed to close, it was doubtful whether Armageddon itself would be able to rouse them. The body yearned for it, but the body could be denied. It already had been so many times before.

“Counting off one,” Sergeant said.

“Counting off two,” Private Dunny said.

“Counting off three,” Private Bradley said.

“Counting off four,” Private Holt said.

“Counting off six,” Private Yates said.

“No, Private Yates, five comes after four,” Private O’Malley corrected.

“Thank you, O’Malley, counting off five.”

It was a ritual Sergeant had invented to keep them awake on exhausting nights such as this. They had to count, and once every so often, one of them would intentionally say the wrong number. So you had to be listening and paying attention to call them out in it, or else you were falling asleep and every man in the squad would kick you.

Minute after minute slipped by. Time was the first enemy that they had to best. Each man’s voice was already croaky when they began, and within an hour they rasped like a metal rake over a tin roof. They took swigs from their canteens, but it wasn’t water that their throats were thirsty for.

About halfway through the night they were given a boon. At long last the fog fully dissipated. It had been teasing a retreat since evening, but at long last the final tendrils of it were flowing away.

“There you go men,” Sergeant grinned. “You stood out nature itself!”

Time was bested, nature too. Now one more enemy force to go.

“They must be kicking themselves for having missed one more charge with the fog,” Private Dunny said excitedly. “And now it’s a clear night with a full moon….maybe they won’t–”

“No, Private Dunny,” Bradley spoke over him. “You know that they’re still coming, just as sure as the rest of us. It’s how it works.”

Indeed it was. Bradley had learned long ago to stop trying to bargain with the fates, nor to look for reason in what the military might do or might not do. Fates and the military didn’t work like that, not on their side and not on the other. They just did what they did, and anyone that tried to suggest a reason behind it was a fool. The enemy wave would come because they would come, that was it.

And they would come soon.

The squad stopped counting off, and a breathless hush fell over the entire line at the same moment. There was a cool weightiness in the air, one that carried sound for miles. And while there was no sound on it now, somehow all of them knew: this hour. It was like hearing future-echoes, the pulsations of rhythms soon to be played.

Now came the click! click! as every man made sure he still had a bullet ready in the chamber. Now the shuffling of feet as each man shifted from a watching stance to a fighting one.

A small cloud passed across the naked moon, and it sent rippling shadows coursing across the ground, moving from the enemy’s side of the hill towards their own. Each dark patch that shimmered over them felt put a tremor in the chest.

The cloud cleared away…but the shadows still streaked across the ground.

“FIRE!” Sergeant yelled, and the line exploded in a burst of noise and flame.

Private Bradley squeezed the handles of his machine gun and pulled the trigger tight. His hands did not protest anymore, they did not feel a thing. Molten lead burst out the barrel, round after round, tracing out lines that for the briefest of moments–moments no longer than a crack of lightning–connected him to the lives he reaped.

The men on Bradley’s line fired true, and it seemed that they dropped a score of their assailants every second. Yet there was more of the enemy tide than they had ever seen before. The horde was first visible as they crested a sudden rise in the land about a half-mile distant, and this night the ranks seemed to flow continuously over that lip like a river. Like one pack of night wolves after another, over and over.

“SWEEP! SWEEP!” Sergeant clutched Private Bradley’s shoulder. Bradley already was, of course. Rhythmically twisting the machine from left-to-right-to-left. He had his perfect cadence now. Just by looking at how distant the enemy line was, he knew exactly how quickly to turn the gun so that each round fired no more than two feet apart from the last. It formed the ideal spread for catching the most chests possible.

Click!

And then, of course, the belt ran dry. But Private Bradley had learned the timing of that as well. He would count off in his head, and as soon as he got to “thirty-seven” he would snap at Private Holt that he’d better shoulder his rifle and get the next run of bullets ready.

“Okay, this is the last one.”

WHAT?!” Private Bradley shrieked. Sergeant shrieked something a bit stronger. Of course new ammunition, just like reinforcements, were not due until the morning.

“Save that last belt,” Sergeant ordered. “I’ll tell you when to let ’em have it.”

Bradley let go of the handles and awkwardly fumbled his rifle to his shoulder. How had he become so unacquainted with it so quickly? It felt like hugging a stranger, bony and awkward. His blistered hands were too large to hold it correctly, and his calloused fingers gripped it too tightly.

“They’re nearly on us!” Private Dunny announced unnecessarily.

“There’s no more coming over the rise!” Private Yates announced, far more helpfully.

So this was it. Both sides were entirely fielded in less than a half-mile’s space. This was the wall they had to sledge their way to the other side of. Private Bradley pulled the stock flush to his cheek and fired.

Part Four
Part Five

 

Well I didn’t plan this episode to resolve one battle, only to then leave right in the middle of another. It feels like I’m writing an old black-and-white serial that ends each week’s chapter on a cliffhanger. Maybe that isn’t such a terrible thing, though, it means the story is pacing through natural rises and falls. After all, even without careful pacing a story can be well-intentioned…but it can’t be interesting. Or put another way, it doesn’t matter what you’re trying to say if you aren’t saying it in a very good way. This is an idea I’d like to examine more on Monday, and how one can achieve a well-paced story.

Before that, though, let’s touch briefly on what I wrote last Monday about listing out the individual pieces of your story, to ensure that they hold a natural tension and escalation. Today was the moment where all of the tension of The Soldier’s Last Sleep escalated to its maximum, and now all that build-up is releasing in the story’s rousing climax!

There are several threads that I have woven together to achieve this effect. Obviously the first of these is the enemy assaults, which have incrementally pushed closer and closer to overwhelming Bradley and his compatriots. Then there is the thread of physical and mental deterioration, where I have listed out the deepening states of chafing hands and racked minds. There has been a thread about administration becoming more and more chaotic, where each new day denies them the relief that they so desperately need, while the other side inadvertently shells its own men! All of these threads has escalated in their own right, let alone when twisted all together.

There we have it, a list of lists that make up a story! And not only do they escalate, but each one creates tension by being at odds with the others. Bradley wants to live, his body wants to give up, the enemy horde wants to kill him, and the administration seems to want the struggle to continue endlessly. Not all sides can win this fight, and so the conflict heightens as each pushes its own agenda. Next week we’ll finally see which thread emerges as the victor!

The Soldier’s Last Sleep: Part Two

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Part One

It was a dense and gray thing, utterly impenetrable twenty yards in. The morning light was a cool gray, diffused through the fog until it became ambient volume. The illumination didn’t appear to have a single source, seemingly emanating from every direction at once, so that there weren’t any shadows to be seen in any direction. It made the setting dream-like, ethereal and tranquil if not for the knowledge of what was coming. It was a single, mutual death-shroud, draped across them all.

“Fog? How can we have fog way up on this hill?” Private Holt asked incredulously.

“You’re from Minnesota, Holt,” Hastings drawled. “Not all fogs are mists sprung out of a lake, you know, some of them are clouds dropped down from above.”

“They wouldn’t charge in the fog, would they?” Private Dunny asked.

But they would. It was still early when the shelling stopped, and then it didn’t take long to hear the churning of boots. But of course no matter how hard you peered into the gray no forms could be made out. Even the sounds were muted and diffused through the mist, seeming to come at them as a formless wall, impossible to make out distance or direction.

Private Bradley pulled his rifle close to his cheek–Hastings was still in command of the mounted machine gun–and had a brief fantasy that there was no army coming. They existed behind a curtain, and that curtain might as well be an entire world. Yes the enemy marched, but only in his dreams.

“Ready! Fire!” another Sergeant some forty feet away called, and then all the other squad leaders echoed the call, their voices running on each other like the lapping of a brook. All at once the crack of gunfire rang out, and streams of bullets fired into the mist.

Though they fired blindly, sharp cries of pain rose up to mingle with the steady rhythm of marching. Of course Bradley never knew if he had been the one to hit his foe, or whether the man next to him had. So each successive shot was just as much a roll of the dice as before.

Fiery tracers scorched further into the great marshmallow than the other ammunition did. Sometimes they would make it eighty yards before their ember was snuffed in the soup. And then, all at once, one of those tracers from Bradley’s own rifle made contact with an enemy helmet, eliciting a bright shower of sparks against the void of white. Just like that the trance was broken and the threat was real. It had been seen!

Bradley fired again and again. At the end of each clip, as he rammed in the next, he would glance to the side where Hastings manned the big gun. Was Hastings sweeping the gun at the right height, Bradley wondered? Was he taking down enough of their foes?

It seemed that more bullets than usual were raining around Hastings, and the thought occurred to Bradley that the machine gun’s muzzle was probably the only one bright enough for the enemy to see. He was about to say something to that effect when one of those bullets cut Hastings down without so much as a whimper.

“Oh–” Sergeant began, but before he could even process what had happened Bradley dashed over to take the gun. He didn’t even pause to check whether Hastings was already dead or not. He knew.

The familiar rumble of the gun’s handles reopened the blisters that had been forming on his hands since last night. He grit his teeth, pressing his helmet tighter on his head, so that there only existed the narrowest slit between it and the top of the trench for his eyes to rove behind. Ricocheted bullets clattered against his skull like a haymaker, and flecks of rock and mud kicked into his face.

The enemy was shouting now, and Bradley kept expecting to see them burst onto the scene, a thousand men right in front of them all at once. His hand was shaking, and his grip on the trigger slipped. He clutched back on to it, and pressed his elbow against the earth wall for steadying support.

Through his narrow line of sight he could see the first evidences of the approaching enemy. It was grayish patches against the wall of murky white, oversized forms, not yet recognizable as human. But as the soldiers that cast those shadows drew nearer, the forms grew smaller and more like a man’s, so that when at last they did burst out of the mist it seemed as though the shadows had given birth to flesh and blood.

Which blood flowed in stark ribbons of crimson against the pillow of white. Bradley kept his gun on its steady swivel. His arms ached, his fingers bled, and he ground his teeth together to keep his aim straight. He held the line, not out of loyalty, but out of purebred terror. Vaguely he sensed the enemy flowing into the trench just twenty feet to the left. No matter, he couldn’t worry about it. They would have to deal with it there, just as how his squad had to deal with the soldiers leaping in front of them.

Another foe burst out of the mist after another. Three of them all at once. Bradley cut them all down, but in the meantime another five had sprung out.

He took four of them and Sergeant took one.

Another seven appeared.

All seven were cut down by their joint effort, but now there were nine, and they were already half of the way from the fog’s end to the trench.

Then Bradley knew that there would that there would be fighting in the trench for his squad, too, and the only question was how long he held to his machine gun before turning to his knife.

Could he let go of his gun at all? For if he paused to cut down a man beside him, the benefit of it would be undone–and then some–by the greater number of foes that would make it to their line a second later. He would have to hold to his station, and hold to it until he was cut down. It would be up to his comrades to–

Click!

The belt ran out again, and there was no more Private Hastings to replace it!

Mad with terror Private Bradley kicked open the box of ammunition and seized a fresh line. He felt the forms of four enemy soldiers spilling into the trench. His comrades fought them while his back was turned. He raced the belt up to the top of the gun, opened the top, threw the bullets across, closed the top, pulled back the ball, and…

There was no one before him. In those critical moments without his aid, the enemy had still made their retreat. His knees buckled before he knew anything, and his arms threw into the muddy wall for support. His face pressed into the moist earth, cooling his feverish brow as his air exhaled in great gusts, as if it hurried to escape him for want of a safer host.

“Up! Up!” the Sergeant cried. “Shoot them as the run! Don’t let them think about turning around now!”

It was the only notion that could have roused Bradley back onto his feet. Fresh fear pumped through his veins, and gave him strength to stand and shoot another five minutes until they were truly sure that no more specters would emerge from the cloud.

“Why–why haven’t they started shelling again?” Private Dunny asked after another quarter hour had elapsed.

Strangely enough, the sound of shells had become a relief to them, as it had proven the final confirmation that no more waves of enemies would approach them for a few more hours.

“You men better stay hot on your feet now!” Sergeant ordered.

In his head, Private Bradley knew that this was probably just a mind-game from the other side. Save their shells, but send no men. They knew the prolonged terror that would evoke, constantly staring at the fog, straining one’s ears for an approach, and unable to rest the nerves because of it.

But what else could Bradley and his men do? The entire value of such a tactic was to leave the trench-defenders exhausted, so that they would be easier overrun when the assault finally did come. And so the assault would come, sooner or later, and a constant watch had to be maintained for it.

Or maybe the artillery had broken apart. Or maybe they really were trying to mount another charge right now, before the fog had wholly lifted.

What else could Bradley and his men do other than wait and watch?

And so they stood there, peering out into the whiteness, each minute feeling like an hour, and going past one-by-one until actual hours had elapsed. Then the deep exhaustion began to set in. This was no run-of-the-mill fatigue, either, they could feel the weariness deep in their bones. Every muscle was at least doubly-expended, every nerve had been fired to the point of burning out. There was nothing left to give.

Still they didn’t dare lower their heads, but they stared forward with blank and vacant expressions, unseeing though with eyes wide open. No words escaped their lips, neither idle chit-chat nor irritated grumbling. They did not live in this moment, they merely occupied a physical space for a time.

They did not even stir when a courier came down the line, passing a message along to each Sergeant. Though words were spoken audibly enough for them to hear, they did not process them.

“I’m sorry,” Sergeant said to his men. “It seems we won’t be getting relieved today. More fighting off to the East and they had to take our reinforcements down that way.”

“Mm,” Private Bradley said. Really a part within him felt very sad about that, but he just didn’t have the strength to do anything about it.

There was only one sound that could pull them out of their reverie, and at last they heard it: the stomping of boots in the distance.

“How are they able to keep sending men at us?” Private Dunny asked. “It can’t be the same ones over and over, they couldn’t possibly get anyone to do that fool charge more than once!”

“Oh no?” Private Holt replied dryly. “Yet how many fool charges have they been able to get you to repel?”

Now there was no more discussion to be had. Once more the trenches came alive in a row of fire, a thousand burning bullets streaking into the mist, lost from sight, to puncture bodies and kick up mud in another world. Another world that was invading on their own, and growing closer every moment to breaking upon them.

Private Bradley’s hands protested as soon as they touched the rough iron of the machine gun’s handles, his blisters burst in bloody fountains immediately, knowing it was vain to try and hold out against the constant chafing of the machine rattling back and forth a million times per second. But there was nothing for it. Private Bradley couldn’t leave the line, so his hands couldn’t leave the gun. Both of them just had to see the ordeal through.

And the worst part was knowing that as much terror as he felt now, this was only the beginning, and that even if they made it through this charge as well, that success wouldn’t be achieved for another eternity. He would have to swallow an entire epoch of trauma, much too large for any man to stomach, just as he had each time before. Each time he had known he didn’t have it in him to see this through, and perhaps this time he would be right.

Even so, that inconvenient instinct to cling to life still persisted, and somehow made him shoulder the burden of his own survival. If he was going to fall, it wasn’t going to be for a lack of trying to stand. They may cut him down, but that is what they would have to do: cut him down. No one would walk by him easily.

Suddenly the cloud burst apart in a thousand warriors all at once. New troops, fresh troops, ones that had sprinted all the last fifteen minutes to catch the trench-men unawares!

“Oh no!” Private Dunny screamed beside Bradley.

And then, there came the most horrible miracle that Private Bradley had ever witnessed, a blinding yellow light blossomed at the feet of those men and heaved them into pieces. A terrible shockwave rent the air, and spat mud and dirt like shrapnel into Private Bradley’s squad. They were all flung backwards in an instant, nearly buried in the avalanche of filth.

And then another shell pounded into the turf. And then another.

Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

 

I mentioned last week how I wanted the audience to feel the depth of Private Bradley’s struggles, and how I was attempting to accomplish that by presenting a detailed description of all that occurred to him. We’re now several thousand words into his experience, and still going strong. I personally feel that all this material is interesting in its own right, and so I don’t mind that it’s taking its time.

This ability to stretch plot points into full and interesting narrative requires an unusual skill that I am still trying to develop: that of making lists interesting. When you get right down to it, everything that takes place in stories can be reduced into a series of lists. The overall outline is a list of plot points, the dialogue is a list of information to be exchanged, and even character arcs are a sequential list of changes that happen over time.

In the initial stages of developing a story you have to review those lists, fill in the ones that have holes, and make sure that each item logically follows the one prior. And then, after you’ve gotten everything into a nice and tidy list format, you then need to relate them to the reader in a way that hopefully doesn’t sound like they’re just being read a list!

On Monday we’ll discuss a bit more of how lists work in the structure of a story. We will also consider what makes the difference between a “good” list and a “bad” one. I’ll see you then.

The Soldier’s Last Sleep: Part One

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Private Bradley was tired even before he got to the trenches. He had spent the two days previous running up and down the medical tents, assisting wherever possible. He had no medical training whatsoever, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t deliver messages, fetch fresh bandages, remove bedpans, push beds into new wings, restrain comrades during impromptu surgeries, and carry bodies to the grave-site.

The entire camp was overrun by the tides of wounded being brought back from the front. Either you sat in the trenches getting shelled, or you took care of those that had been shelled, while waiting for your turn to go take their place. Having two days to see the effects of where they would soon be deployed was a great cruelty to Private Bradley and his squad.

Eventually the orders came, as they knew they must, and Private Bradley left the medical tent, wondering in what manner he might return to it. He grabbed his gear, stepped into the back of a truck, and jostled shoulder-to-shoulder with his squad over muddy potholes as the sound of artillery bursting grew louder and louder up ahead. Then the truck stopped and they were told that they would have to walk the rest of the way, as the road now became too steep for vehicles.

So they crawled up the muddy incline, slipping on their bellies, and sloshing back to their knees, over and over, until by the time they reached the top of the hill they were already in full earth-camouflage. The squad were led to the fifteen-foot stretch of the trench for which they would be responsible, about a quarter mile East, and firmly in the middle of the hilltop.

“Here, you hold this,” their Sergeant said, pulling Bradley’s hands onto a machine gun that was propped on top of the earth-wall and pointed in the general direction of the enemy lines.

“I haven’t handled anything like this since basic training, sir,” Bradley said.

“Luckily for us, the enemy is not aware of that fact. So if it’s alright with you, we’ll continue as ordered, Bradley?”

“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”

“Just be sure to keep it clean, loaded, and pointing down that line. You’ll know what to do when it comes to it.”

“Are we going to be seeing a lot of action, sir?” Private Dunny asked.

“You saw the men brought back from the line just as well as I did,” the Sergeant returned. “It isn’t going to be any picnic, men, that’s for sure. I’m told we shouldn’t expect any heavy artillery or armor, the mud is too thick for either side to field much more than infantry. But there will be plenty of that, and apparently they rush our line a few times every day. Our orders are simple, do not let them through.”

It was a simple affair, but also a grueling one. The light artillery kept up a constant barrage, but it was less of a threat than a nuisance. It was too small to actually reach their line, and so it burst peacefully over the middle of the plateau. Its main effect was to produce enough noise that no one could get any sleep. When it finally stopped, that was the worst of all, because then you knew the enemy infantry was marching forward.

Thus the silence hit like a deafening roar, and instantly every man seized his gun and waited with bated breath, watching the plateau for dirty mounds that moved. On occasion a tumbleweed would blow past and a nervous infantryman would open fire, which would set off a half dozen of his neighbors until the Sergeants shouted at them to get a grip.

Sometimes there was no approach, the enemy had just stopped shelling to mess with their heads. Or maybe something had gone wrong with the artillery and they had to replace a part before carrying on.

Most times, though, the enemy came. Like a swarm of overgrown ants, rushing over one another, pounding for the edge of the hill. Then all the guns came alive, and bodies started dropping here and there.

Private Bradley pulled the trigger and his machine gun vibrated hard against his hands. It was difficult to aim, and he tore up more clumps of grass and soil than he did of flesh and bone.

Still, every now and then he managed to drop one of the charging horde. Then another, and another. Yet on the enemy would press. Three hundred yards, two hundred, one hundred. They started to drop more quickly, and now came the great test. Would enough of them fall to break the charge?

They were near enough now that you could hear their own commanders screaming the men forward with foreign threats. Those commanders knew that they did not have to chase their men all the way to the line, only near enough that turning and running was as sure a doom as pushing forward to the trench. Where was that point of no return? Thirty yards? Fifteen?

Private Bradley’s Sergeant knew this game, too, and he hopped up and down, shouting at his men to hold to their terrible contest.

Seventy-five yards and you could start to see holes in the enemy’s line.

Sixty-five and their barbaric shouts were starting to tremble.

Fifty-five and a few of them were starting to pull back, but the main mass had not yet noticed.

Forty-five and they flinched in unison, covering their vitals with their arms, turning, and sprinting away as fast as possible.

Private Bradley’s squad had earned the right to live another few hours. They gripped the top of the trench for support, their knees shaking beneath them as cold sweat broke across their brows. They watched to be sure that the enemy really was gone, then collapsed to the ground one at a time.

For as prickly as their Sergeant could be, he allowed them these moment to unclench. He himself clambered out of the rut, crouched down, and kept watch for another wave. He had to crouch, because his own legs were shaking just as much as the rest of them.

The relief was not allowed for long, though. As soon as Sergeant was sure that the enemy was not returning he ordered his men out of the ditch. “Move those bodies! Can’t have them blocking our sight-lines for the next time they charge.”

And so they lumbered about in the mud, one man grabbing shoulders and another grabbing feet, and hauling them one-by-one to a ditch at the end of the hill. It was long, slow work, and all the longer and slower when they were more effective in their shooting. They did not clear out all of the bodies of course, there was no time for that, but any that had fallen within the nearest hundred yards.

One nightmare concluded, only to repeat again before a quarter-day had passed. And as it turned out, the first assault had been one of the less successful ones employed by the enemy. Most times a crest or two of their wave would break into the trenches, where a vicious struggle would leave many of the men dead on both sides. How many charges could there be, Private Bradley wondered, before it was his squad’s turn to be overrun by the invaders? And what if it was not their squad that let the enemy in, but the one right beside them?

Bradley wished he hadn’t been assigned the machine gun. With its greater firepower, he felt that so much of the burden fell upon his own shoulders. Though at the same time, Bradley would rather depend on himself than upon any other. Sergeant never offered to let another man take a turn, and Bradley did not ask him too. He just silently added the crippling pressure of it to his bag of traumas.

Eventually night came.

“They wouldn’t charge in the night, would they?” Private Dunny asked.

But they would. About an hour after midnight the next wave came, and this was a new terror in its own right. One could hear the enemy thundering towards them through the mud, yet not see them to shoot properly. Only one shot in a hundred was any good now. So flares were fired into the air, and the black emptiness was suddenly illuminated as bright as day. It was a scene so strange and fantastic, that it seemed lifted straight from the pages of some ancient fairy tale.

The pink-purple tail of the flare arcing against the ink-black sky, the burning zenith like a star of glory overhead, and beneath it all thousands of shifting, black bodies, tumbling over one another, driving to spill their blood in the trench.

And then blackness again and shooting where the bodies had been, and then another flare was shot up and the dark tide was closer. Again and closer. Again and closer. And then they were so near that Bradley could see them even without the flare. Bathed in the cold moonlight they appeared less like black demons, and more like pale ghosts, and only a dozen paces from where he and his squad stood now!

Bradley forgot how chafed his hands were and gripped the machine gun all the more tightly, wildly swinging it left and right in a wide arc, cutting the men through at the chest as he had been taught in basic training. He was getting quite good at it now.

Click!

His belt ran empty and he cursed at Private Hastings to put another in while he drew out his pistol and fired at the nearest phantom of them all. Two of the enemy spilled into their ranks, but closer to Bradley’s comrades, who dealt with them as Hastings snapped shut the top of the machine gun.

“Ready!”

Bradley grabbed the gun and began harvesting souls once more. His heart heaved within him and intoxicating blood pounded through his veins. He slipped into a death-trance, waving the gun in an unfaltering rhythm as a constant shout echoed through his dry throat.

The next thing he knew his men were crowded around him, prying his hands off the weapon.

“Save the ammo!” Sergeant was shouting. “They’re already gone!”

Hastings was given command of the machine gun and Bradley was told to get some rest.

But there would be no rest. How could he lay down with the promise of another charge in only a few hours more, and with the bursting of shells resuming in the air, and with the memories of ghostly warriors running down every time he closed his eyes? No, Bradley sat in a stupor, but he did not sleep. Though his bones were creaking and his knees were shaking he could not relax the racks in his mind.

When his brain had cooled enough to think, he at least comforted himself with the knowledge that at least things could not get any worse. He was quite wrong, though, for he had not accounted for the fog that rolled in the very next day.

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

 

I explained in my last post that I wanted to write a story about being totally and deeply exhausted. The idea for this story began a little while ago, with a moment of imagination. I was coming to bed at the end of a very busy day, and I felt absolutely dog-tired. Not long before, my wife and I had been watching episodes of M*A*S*H, and in that show there are a few times where the doctors stumble into their barracks after more than 24 hours of surgery. They collapse on their beds, sometimes dead to the world before they can even take off their boots.

Well I felt tired now, too, and I fancied myself as a soldier, returning back to camp after spending more than 48 hours holding the line under the most grueling of situations. Such an extreme tiredness I thought that must be, such a complete level of fatigue. Just by imagining myself in those shoes I felt all the more tired, and it did not take me long to fall asleep.

Now I know that that is silly, but such is the nature of imagination. It takes one’s situation, no matter how mundane, and then magnifies it to the most epic proportions it can conceive of.

The fact is, all of us want to believe we are the hero in a most wonderful story. And so our first crush is not just some puppy love, it is the greatest love story ever told, right up there with the likes of Romeo and Juliet! Being turned down for a job is not merely an unfortunate setback, it is an outrageous discrimination, so severe that it is criminal!

Some may call it romanticizing life…and some may call it having an overwrought ego, but there it is all the same.

My own little going-to-bed fantasy returned the next time I went to bed exhausted. I imagined myself in the boots of a soldier returning from the trenches, but instead of exploring my sense of self-indulgence, I found myself curious now to know who this man actually was. What had happened on the trench that he had just come from? What was his experience as he slept? Did he get his fill of sleep or was he interrupted? What exactly did he awaken to?

This story is my way of answering those questions, and thus far I am certainly taking my time with the very first one. On Thursday I will be continuing with his adventures in the trenches, and probably won’t even let him get to his cot until a week after that! To really sell the fatigue that he is experiencing, I wanted to take my time in the grueling work of war.

To accomplish this, I simply came up with a handful of different experiences that he would have in the trenches, but then weighed each of those moments down with a gravity of words. I’d like to take a closer look at this concept: how we give space to the moments in our stories, and do so without becoming wordy and redundant. Come back on Monday as we consider this feat, and until then have a wonderful weekend.