“Black Cypher you are now at the appropriate depth,” Major Hawlings had said into the microphone. There was a moment of silence, but no reply, so Hawlings repeated himself. “Black Cypher you can level out now, do you copy?”
“Two thousand feet, confirmed,” the voice of Sergeant Bradley crackled in from the wall-mounted speakers. He said something else, too, but it was lost in the static.
“Corporal Donahue, is there nothing we can do about the audio quality?” Hawlings turned in his seat.
“It isn’t interference, sir,” Donahue replied. “It’s just the signal becomes impure when it has to travel along such a long cable.”
Nathan Prewitt, seated against the back wall of the room, tried to imagine it. A massive hole somewhere in the plains of Iowa, nearly twenty feet across, with a massive black cable nearly a mile long snaking down into the earth, winding through tunnels until it joined at the back of a massive earth-moving vehicle.
“Black Cypher, please repeat,” Major Hawlings instructed. “We didn’t get your last message.”
“Our instruments show two thousand feet as well. All clear so far as we can tell and we’ve leveled out.”
“Excellent work, Sergeant. Now turn to mark two-four-zero and proceed eight hundred feet.”
Everyone in the operations room looked to the wall-mounted computer screen. It was a live feed from their seismic instruments, which gave a rough approximation of all the entities moving beneath the surface of the earth.
And there were many of them.
No less than seventy separate signals, each represented by an expanding and retracting circle on the screen, swarmed about the screen. Sergeant Bradley and his team were very near now to the sand striker worms’ nursery, and it was tended to by dozens of workers. At this particular moment, one of those gigantic worms was drawing very near to the blip that represented the earth-mover.
“Alright now, we’re seeing some movement in your area,” Major Hawlings said into the mic. “Are you detecting anything on your end?”
“Not yet, sir. Though the rig’s shaking so much it would be hard to know. Should we stop?”
“No, I don’t think so…” Major Hawlings looked to the lead zoologist, Doctor Persaud, who was seated against the back wall a few spots down from Nathan. Doctor Persaud shook his head in agreement. “Don’t slow down Sergeant. Your rig has been designed to imitate the tremor patterns of the other worms. So long as you keep moving like they do, they should think you’re one of them.”
Everyone’s eyes snapped back to the monitor, watching as the approaching worm grew closer and closer, then smoothly glided past the earth-mover, about forty feet above.
“Well done, Sergeant, you’re in the clear!”
“We should be getting close now, shouldn’t we?”
“About one-hundred-and-fifty feet to go. Make sure you don’t stop to drop the package. When I say so just make a wide, one-hundred-and-eight degree turn and drop it behind you.”
The indicator for Bradley’s team updated its coordinates every few seconds. Those numbers grew closer and closer to the known location for the nursery. Somewhere, half a mile beneath the surface of the earth, there was an underground cavern filled with thousand of striker worm eggs.
“Turn now and drop the package!” Hawlings ordered.
“Message received…turn initiated…” there was a long pause, and then… “package deployed. Countdown sequence underway.”
The room erupted in applause.
Thus far the giant sand striker worms hadn’t posed any threat to humanity, but Washington had ordered their team to come up with a weapon which could be used against the worms if ever needed. While they worked on a more elegant solution, they decided to at least try an underground nuclear explosion. This mission was a pre-emptive strike, just to let them know what they could expect if they ever went to war.
And it had worked. The entire nest, and nearly all the attending nursery workers had been destroyed that afternoon.
And almost immediately after that, all the other worms in the colony began surging for the surface!
At first the specialists were all baffled as to why. These were just dumb creatures, weren’t they? It’s not like they could have understood that humanity was responsible for the attack and were retaliating against them!
One theory Nathan heard, just before the collapse of the government, was that the worms had seen the attack on their nest as a sign of some more powerful predator churning in the deep. As a result they had moved up, hoping to find a domain where they would be the apex predators once again. That would explain why they now built their nests at the surface, too.
“In any case,” Nathan continued his account to the council at New Denver, “it doesn’t matter what drove the giant sand striker worms to the surface. All that matters is that they came and they ravaged everything faster than we could have anticipated.”
“And were you involved in the decision to drop nukes on your own people?!” the man two seats down from Nathan demanded.
“No,” Nathan sighed. “That was as much of a shock to me as it was to the rest of the world.”
That much was true. The decision to drop nuclear bombs across the northern states had been made in a state of frenzy, causing far more destruction to humanity than to the worm population. Perhaps the giant worms had moved towards the surface, but they still spent a significant portion of their time at depths where the radiation wouldn’t reach down to them.
“So what happened to your department?” Samuel Iverson asked.
“Things became more and more difficult as the cities grew uninhabitable. A lot of our work just couldn’t be done remotely, though. We had to gather somewhere with machines and technology and staff. We were working on a prototype, a weapon that we thought had a real chance to kill the worms, but we had to relocate time and time again. First Arlington, then Raleigh, then Lynchburg. We were slow to realize that the worms could feel our communities through the soil, that they would pop up sooner or later wherever the population was more than a few thousand.
“With every strike we lost people, lost equipment, and lost resources. We were close to a working prototype, but finishing it seemed more and more improbable. And then, as if things weren’t bad enough, the entire government collapsed.”
I have previously mentioned the idea of a story being bookended by another. This would be like the Grandfather reading a story to his sick grandson in the Princess Bride, or Roger Kint telling his story to police detective Dave Kujan in The Usual Suspects. The bulk of the story is through the inner narrative, but there are a few moments where we see it connect to the outer one.
Arguably there is just one story, though, the larger inner one, and the other stuff is an enhancement of it. But what if there truly were two stories that stood side-by-side in the same narrative?
This is a common phenomenon in the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Many times a case opens with a client coming to Holmes and recounting the events that led them to his doorstep. And these aren’t just quick summations, they are elaborated from a first-person perspective, telling an entire tale on their own. Then, only after this first story is completed does the second story pick up, that of Sherlock Holmes solving the case.
An excellent example of this is The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb. In this mystery Victor Hatherly comes to Holmes’ abode with a chilling tale and a bandaged hand. He recounts how he was hired for an engineering task at an old mansion, but was blindfolded so that he did not know where it was. While doing his work he discovered that the mansion was being used for some sort of criminal operation. The owner’s of the mansion got wise to his epiphany, though, and tried to kill him, resulting in a chase where Victor escaped but his thumb was chopped off along the way!
The story now returns to the present moment, where Holmes deciphers the true intentions of the criminals, figures out the location of the mansion, and leads the police in a raid on the facility, only to discover that the place was already destroyed by a fire that Victor Hatherly inadvertently caused while he was there.
There is a strange feeling when Holmes and the others go the mansion, because it the first time that he has been there, but it feels like it is both the first and the second time for us, the audience. Were we there with Hatherly during his eventful evening, or were we sitting in Holmes’ study only hearing about it secondhand?
Well…both. It is a very strange and interesting sensation, being able to exist in two different scenes at the same time, and it is a quality I enjoy a great deal from this mystery.
There is another famous detective who also has his stories split in two. The TV series Columbo was unique in that it always let the audience know beforehand who the murderer was, and exactly how they carried out their crime. The first half hour of each episode was always dedicated to following the murderer as the main character, showing the meticulous details of their crime and how they tried to cover up any clues that tied them to it.
Take, for example, the episode Fade in to Murder, which is incredibly meta by making the murderer an actor who plays a television detective. Ward Fowler is a star of the silver screen, but his entire career has been overshadowed by the blackmailing of his show’s producer. Finally he decides that he has had enough, and he stages an elaborate scheme to rid himself of her for good. First he sets up an alibi by inviting a friend over to watch a ball game, then drugs the man while he goes out to commit the crime. Fowler then stages a robbery at the deli where his producer, Claire Daley, is ordering her meal. After knocking the deli owner unconscious he shoots Claire, assuming that the police will see this as a simple case of a robbery gone too far. Finally Fowler returns to his home, rewinds the VCR on which he has been recording the ball game, setting it back to the moment where his friend went unconscious and rouses him, making the man think he had only been passed out for a few minutes.
And that ends the first story, and now begins a new one as Lieutenant Columbo arrives to investigate the case. Bit-by-bit the detective finds things that don’t add up in the case. For example the bullet hole in Claire Daley’s jacket is above the entry wound in her back, suggesting that she still had her arms raised when the robber shot her, suggesting that she wasn’t running away or making a scene, suggesting that the killing was deliberate.
As Columbo zeroes in on Ward Fowler we feel another strange split of perspective, just as we did with Sherlock Holmes. Because of the time we spent with Ward Fowler as our main character we feel sympathetic to him. Part of us wants to see his ingenious strategy come off. But at the same time Columbo is our main character now, and we are charmed by his ingenuity, too. Are we supposed to view this as Columbo’s triumph or Fowler’s tragedy? Well…both.
My Own Story)
In my latest chapter of The Salt Worms I had the main character start to recount his journey from the eastern United States to the west. When I first wrote this it was a very brief summation, something that I rushed through to get back to the main event. And it worked, and I think that version of the story could have been maintained, but as I thought about this idea of a story split in two, I realized that I had an opportunity to slow things down and show the protagonist’s journey as a story of its own.
So then I revised and expanded it, and will continue doing so as the overall narrative proceeds. One thing that I am going to be careful about that, though, is to make sure both stories matter to one another. Only together will they provide the two halves that I want for The Salt Worms. Two halves that come together and tell of a grim resolution to correct a terrible situation, but all of it tinged with an uncertainty of success at the end.
Nathan’s head swiveled left and right as Doctor Hogue led him through the city. The houses were small shacks, made of the same concrete and zinc sheets that had been used for the perimeter wall. There was a large, central area that held a community of mixed livestock: chickens, sheep, and goats. One trail ran through the whole city, passing by every home and the farm, then slowly declining towards a large, open pit where a group of workers were washing pans of salt. This salt was what kept the citizens of New Denver living in this bleak place right on the border of a giant sand striker worm’s domain.
In the salt was power. Electrical power, to be specific. Every citizen of the city dedicated themselves to the harvesting and processing of that salt, and then they fashioned it into portable salt batteries. Were these even remotely as efficient as old lithium or alkaline batteries? Of course not. But they were able to be produced without a factory so large that it would summon the sand striker worms. Every other faction in the western states knew this was the place to come for power, and they would pay whatever it cost to get it. Only the nomads at the base of the Glacier Wind Farm in Montana were rumored to have an equal source of energy, but of course getting to Montana meant surviving the radiation zone in between.
Nathan also noted the old Teslas parked at one corner of the battery pit, lending credence to the stories that New Denver was close to making a converter to power electric vehicles. If the people here could actually pull that off it would revolutionize everything!
“We’re in here,” Doctor Hogue motioned to a small, concrete building with a corrugated zinc sheet covering the entry way. “The council meets in the bunker.”
Doctor Hogue swung the zinc sheet on large hinges, and together the two men scrambled into the dark enclosure.
“I’m here,” Doctor Hogue said to the inhabitants of the place. “I’ve brought him.”
“Take a seat, stranger,” a voice commanded.
Nathan blinked a few times, adjusting his eyes to the dim light cast by a solitary lightbulb in the corner. He was in a small, crude space, with three card tables standing next to one another in the center of the room. Around those tables were folding chairs, and a group of elders eyeing him curiously. Nathan located the nearest empty chair and took a seat.
“Now, what was your name?” the man opposite of Nathan asked. He had gray hair, a bushy mustache, and a large puff of chest hair poking out of his thin, button-up shirt.
“Nathan. Nathan Prewitt. And yours?”
“And you’re some sort of chemist?”
“Biochemist,” Doctor Hogue corrected as he took his seat beside the man who was addressing Nathan.
“Well what does a biochemist have to offer us then?”
Nathan smiled uncomfortably. He had a hard time believing Samuel Iverson was the sort of man to take him seriously. In any case, he wasn’t going to answer the man’s question straightaway. What he had to say was too important to not put it in its proper context.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch what your name was…”
“Well, Mister Iverson, I want you to know that I’ve traveled all the way from Virginia by foot, just to sit here in front of you this day.”
“It isn’t if one is very careful…and very slow. I genuinely do not believe there is another wanderer on the roads that has taken the precautions or faced the dangers that I have.”
He paused for dramatic effect, but everyone just stared at him, waiting for him to continue. So he obliged.
“Before the Onslaught I was primarily involved with pathogen and virus research. Any time there was an epidemic my team would study the cell structure of what we were dealing with and make reports to the Department of Health and Human Services.
“Of course all of that changed once the sand striker worms were detected. Mine was one of the first teams that transitioned to studying the worms’ tissue after some samples had been obtained. For two years we put whatever fragments they could get under our microscopes and identified every unique feature in their cell structure–“
“For two years?” Iverson interrupted. “But the government collapsed eight months after the Onslaught began.”
“Right…” Nathan said awkwardly, as if unsure whether he should elaborate further. But the government didn’t exist anymore, so neither did clearance levels or confidential information. “Most people are not familiar with this fact, but the government was aware of some new, gigantic species moving beneath the surface some eighteen months before the first outbreak in Chicago. Seismic sensors used for detecting earthquakes were already picking up on them.”
“Are you serious?!” an elderly, rail-thin woman further down the table gasped. “And they did nothing?!”
“Well, to be honest they didn’t properly know what it was they were dealing with. That was the point of my team, as well as several others, to assess the situation and give them insight.”
“The worms were just roaming about, minding their business underground?” Doctor Hogue asked skeptically. “And then–what–decided out of the blue that they ought to plow through our cities? Just like that?”
“To be honest, we never were able to determine what it was that drove them to the surface,” Nathan shook his head sadly. “A prevailing theory was that it had to do with their life cycle. Just like how a salmon will start swimming upstream once it’s the season to reproduce. The worms might have just matured into some phase that signaled them to move towards the surface.”
“Up here with us is their spawning grounds?”
“It could be. They do lay their eggs on the surface, don’t they?”
Jonathan had told the same lies so many times over that they came out sounding perfectly sincere. Even before he left Washington he had known he would need to tell his story repeatedly. He would need it to give people a reason to help him, to open doors that would normally be closed. But if he were to give people the whole truth, they would have killed him right from the beginning.
So he had come up with an altered set of events to tell people instead, and he had recited it so many times for so many years that he had to remind himself from time-to-time what the actual situation had been.
New Denver was the largest city Nathan had seen in a long time. It wasn’t just another occasionally-inhabited outpost, it was an actual, persistent community of seven hundred souls! New Denver citizens lived in actual houses, grew actual farms, and ran actual shops!
Most of that population was comprised of original members of the Coast-Seekers company. The expedition had paused at this location when its leader, Liam Blakes, recognized that the Bonneville Salt Flats (which lay just beyond) were a likely nesting ground for giant sand striker worms. Liam’s hunch proved true, as he and the rest of his surveying team were devoured only ten minutes after venturing onto the powder.
A few more surveying teams were sent out, each in a different direction, each hoping to find a path of safety through the dry ocean. Not a single one of them made it, though, and at last the company gave up their dream of reaching the California coast and sailing to New Zealand. What with the radiation to the north and the spawning grounds to the South, there didn’t seem to be any safe passages left.
And so they had settled, scratching out their lives in the very heart of chaos.
It was almost dusk when Nathan arrived at the city gates. The perimeter fence was nothing more than razor wire, corrugated zinc sheets, and concrete barriers. The gate was nothing more than a retractable garage door. At first Nathan was surprised that their defenses were so weak, but then he realized that when you lived on the fringe of sand striker worm territory, it didn’t matter whether your walls were made of paper or steel.
“Do you have a token?” one of the armed guards asked Nathan as he approached the gate.
Nathan had heard about this “token system” that the western states employed. A major city like New Denver was sure to draw all manner of criminal opportunists, so they had to be selective about who they actually let in. So all of the main factions in this area distributed unique tokens to their members, an emblem which proved that the bearer was vouched for by a trusted community. On each token was written a serial number, and there were ledgers which tied each number to a secret password. Those ledgers were regularly updated by each faction, and whenever someone presented a token they also had to provide the password that was associated with it. This was to discourage anyone from just murdering a token-bearer and using the item for themselves.
Nathan did not have a token.
“I’m not from here,” he said. “I’ve come from far to the east.”
“New Denver does not admit new recruits. You’ll have to join one of the smaller organizations instead. Once they decide you’re credible, they’ll give you a token.”
“But I have other credentials,” Nathan unbuttoned his shirt pocket and drew out an old and stained ID card. The picture was still recognizable as being of him, and all of the essential words were still legible.
“Nathan Prewitt,” the guard read. “You were a biochemist? For the government?”
The guard handed the ID back and exchanged a confused glance with his cohort. “I don’t see how that’s relevant. Just because you worked for the government doesn’t mean we trust you.”
“Before everything collapsed my department was paired with a Weapons Research team. We were looking for an effective means of killing the sand striker worms.”
“Please inform your superiors that I wish to speak with them. I have come to help.”
The two guards looked sideways at one another. This situation was outside of their standard procedure.
“It’s alright, I’ll wait out here,” Nathan took a step back and sat down on a rock protrusion.
After another moment’s pause the guards shrugged, and the one who had been speaking with Nathan retreated into the city, leaving the other at the post. That guard stared at Nathan for a full minute before he finally ventured to speak.
“But you didn’t find anything.”
“In your research, you didn’t find anything. If the government had found a way to stop the Onslaught they would have done it. So what’s the point of your being here?”
“You’re right, the government wasn’t able to stop the Onslaught. But I didn’t say that I was here to solve all of your problems…just that I could help.”
Five minutes later the first guard returned, accompanied by a man with copper-peach hair, which was so similar to his skin tone that it seemed to disappear into it.
“Doctor Hogue,” the man introduced himself, extending a hand to Nathan.
The two shook hands.
“Thompson tells me you’re some sort of government specialist, Mister Prewitt? That you were making weapons for them?”
“Biochemist, actually. We were studying the tissue of the sand striker worms, and then collaborating with Weapons Research on what tactics we could use against them.”
“I see. Well if you’re willing to leave your weapons here with the guards, I’ll take you in to talk with the council.”
Nathan removed his rifle, handgun, and knife, surrendering them to Thompson.
“Search his backpack?” Thompson asked. “And come along with?”
“No, no, I’m not worried about him,” Doctor Hogue waved his hand, then motioned Nathan to follow him through the raised gate.
Nathan breathed an inward sigh of relief and followed. His backpack was the one thing he didn’t dare entrust to another soul. What it held had been his sole responsibility all the way from Virginia to Nevada. He would die and he would kill before he would surrender its contents to anyone else.
Which was why Nathan kept one hand permanently affixed to his shoulder strap as he followed Doctor Hogue into the city. He didn’t expect to run across any thieves here, but he had a set of rules for how to conduct himself in a community, and those rules had managed to get him through this far. They would get him through the last leg of his journey, too.
Thus from that Void sprang Life and Invasion. Or using the terms of the Ancient Prophet: Creation and Destruction. And in them began the cycle of possibility and impossibility.
For Creation, or Life, cannot occur, unless there was first an absence of Creation. A space that was first dead or unformed must exist, so that there is room for the new Creation, or Life, to occupy.
And as the seeds of all Life thus find their roots in a place of death, so all Life has the tendency towards decay and death. That which we make comes of naught, and so must return to naught. And in its dead ashes we find again the space for new Life. Were it not so, all would be created, until there was space for Creation no more, and it would have defeated itself. Instead, inherent in Life is the force of destruction, the tendency to undo itself, the strife to unmake what has been made.
The Third Recitation of Master Eidoron
Thus any effort to prevent the Invasion is folly. Indeed the Invasion is encouraged by strife, thus any effort to prevent it is also strife, and to resist it is only to hasten its coming.
In the Realm of Theory only is it possible to prevent Invasion. And in that realm the Invasion could only be quelled by a life that was totally devoid of strife, which as we have seen, would be a force of Creation that was unrestrained until there was no longer any space for Creation, and all became motionless and dead. And in this paradox we see that the Invasion must be.
Of course this notion may naturally suggest despair to the mind. If the Invasion must be, then what is the value of effort? Why even attempt to maintain one’s independence from it?
The Fourth Recitation of Master Eidoron
The answer to this conundrum comes in retaining a clear distinction between the inevitability of the whole and the freedom of the individual. Yes, mankind as a whole will give rise to the Invasion time and time again. But just because that fate for mankind, as a whole, is predetermined, the fate of the single individual is not.
Thus entire societies may be lost within the Invasion-mind, yet a single individual within that society might escape. All about us may fall away, but it is not fated that we must fall away, too. This truth is made evident in the miraculous deliverances of Abji’Tolan, the Merchant of Azuyl, Popaiyoh and Seeve, and countless other stories in the Cryptics. All these examples show a great truth in common: We can concede the loss of the masses, yet still retain faith in the salvation of the individual.
The Fifth Recitation of Master Eidoron
In fact, not only can individuals prevail, they must. For if all were silenced within the Invasion, then all disparity would cease. All would be dead. All would be lost within one totality.
And if this were so, it would unmake the Invasion. For, by necessity, the Invasion requires there to be an entity outside of itself to oppose itself, otherwise there would be nothing to which it could perform its function of invasion. Thus all would be invaded until there was space for Invasion no more, and it would have defeated itself.
And so we have the greatest paradox of all. Life and Invasion, Creation and Destruction, each destroys the other, yet also depends on the other to exist. Each must try to prevail over the other, yet must also give ground to the other. And so conflict must continue forever.
Tharol sighed and lifted his eyes from the passage to look out the nearby archway. He was stirred by passages like these…but he could not claim to truly understand them. They seemed so full of contradictions, so impossible to resolve in the mind. No doubt Master Palthio would tell him to not try to resolve them in his mind, to simply let them be, but if he didn’t strive to understand them, then surely he would never understand them?
Strive. Even as he thought the word, it echoed to him from the passages of Master Eidoron. Was his “striving” to understand these passages only hastening the coming of the Invasion?
“Why do you read those if they distress you so?”
Tharol spun around, startled by the voice interrupting on his thoughts. Reis stood a mere arm’s length away, hands clasped behind his back, scrutinizing Tharol as he read.
“I said why do you read those when they clearly upset you?”
“They don’t upset me.”
“Yes they do. I can see it on your face.”
“They–confound me, I don’t understand them–but I’m not upset about them.”
“Well even so, why read them then?”
“What would you have me do? We have to understand these, don’t we?”
Reis shrugged. “I don’t know. Master Abu’Tak says that he’s never been able to make any sense of them, and that hasn’t stopped him from being a part of the Order. I get the sense that each of the elders have their own personal doctrines that they are best attuned to, and their own blind spots that they can’t make sense of.”
“Interesting…Master Palthio said something similar to me just the other day.”
“We all have our own strengths Reis. That’s why we’re an Order and not a group of hermits, so that we can unite our different strengths.”
“Yes…I like that….But what then? Am I to just ignore the things I don’t understand? Not even try to better myself?”
“I would say put your strength when your strengths lie,” Reis said, now pacing back and forth like he was giving a lecture. “Why not put your energy where you get the best return on your investment? No one would deny that you do have other great talents.”
“Oh? And where exactly would you say that my strengths lie?”
“You’re a pursuer, Tharol. Once a thought arrests you, you chase it without relenting.”
“I suppose. So?”
“And we are in a dangerous time. As I was saying the other day, our Order is so close to changing hands, so close to being our own to run. And while that is exciting to all the other acolytes, I don’t mind telling you it makes me very nervous. It is a dangerous time, a time of uncertainty. If I were the Invasion-mind, this is the moment where I would attack.”
Tharol shifted uncomfortably. “You don’t trust the student body?”
“No. I know that I called them my friends there in the stone hedge. I had to win their trust, had to put on a face of confidence and try to unite them…but I have deep suspicions among them, don’t you?”
“I don’t–I don’t know. I think they all…mean well.”
Reis’s lips widened in a tight smile. “So you do see it. They ‘mean well?’ Yes, of course they do…but they’re fools, aren’t they?”
Tharol looked down.
“You don’t deny it. And you know as well as I do that fools who mean well can easily be made pawns for someone else. No, our peers aren’t malicious…but they are dangerous.”
“What is your point in all this? What does this have to do with my talents?”
“As I said, you’re a pursuer. And I trust your judgment. In our new Order I want you to be Master of Inspection.”
“What does that even mean?”
“You would be responsible for investigating the others, for identifying those who were suspicious and you would watch their comings and goings. There is no one I would trust more to find our traitors, to weed out our spies. No one I would trust more to protect the flock.” His broad grin made it clear that he felt he was offering Tharol a great honor. He extended a hand of friendship to Tharol.
Tharol’s eyes furrowed in intense thought. On the surface there was a great deal of truth in Reis’s words. Yes, their peers did seem susceptible to outside influence. They were vain and naïve. He always had felt bad that he saw that, worried what it said about him–that he was too judgmental?–yet he was sure it true even so. And yes, he could see how this was a dangerous time, one that required an extra dose of vigilance.
But spying on his peers? Perhaps Tharol struggled to understand the Cryptics, but even he could tell that this would be wrong. This would be acting under a motivation of fear, and by that fear he would be sowing doubt. This would be secrets and paranoia and division. This would be creating…strife. For a moment a smile crossed his face as part of Master Eidoron’s message finally made sense. This effort to control the Invasion could only hasten it.
He looked up to tell Reis as much, but as he looked into his friend’s face he realized the other half of what made him uneasy about the offer. Yes, their peers were susceptible. They were prone to follow a silk tongue, to sell themselves unwittingly to a devil. And as it was, the one who had them the wrapped around his finger most was…Reis.
Tharol closed his partially-opened mouth, and he did not take the offered hand of friendship. A deep scowl crawled across Reis’s face, and Tharol wondered how much the youth guessed of his private thoughts. Reis did not say anything, just stared back, summing Tharol up.
The tension of the moment was broken by the crashing of a cymbal. It was the summoning gong being rung from the inner sanctum of the abbey. They were being called by the elders.
“I–suppose we’d better go” Tharol said stiffly.
“I suppose we should.”
The two youth were nearly halfway to the amphitheater before Tharol realized he knew what they were being summoned for. Though he didn’t know why, somehow he could feel in his heart that they were about to begin the Trials.
The Trials were the culminating ritual for every generation of their Order, the crucible which would somehow see the old guard passing on and the new blood taking up the cause. Exactly how the old guard passed into the shadows had never been detailed to them, though. The way the elders spoke about it suggested that they did not simply take a back seat to the ruling of the new generation. Everything they said on the matter seemed to reinforce the idea that they would be permanently gone. But was that in exile?… Or in death?
The elders had never been forthcoming about how things were when they took over the Order, either. Indeed they never said a word about who their own mentors were. To the rising generation there was no other Order but the one maintained by their elders. The only clues they had of prior generations were the scriptures and recitations which their elders had chosen to preserve.
A stray thought crossed Tharol’s mind: was it possible that Master Palthio had personally known Master Eidoron? He did not know whether Master Eidoron wrote his recitations a single generation ago, or ten.
Tharol shook his head. He had far more pressing matters before him. Not only did he not know how the Trials brought in the end of an era, he didn’t even know what the Trials themselves were composed of! It was never spoken of in any greater context than its name. What was about to transpire between him and his other acolytes?
Tharol’s ruminations were interrupted as he and Reis stepped between the stone pillars and into the amphitheater proper. It was a wide, level circle open to the heavens above. The dirt was packed until it was hard as stone, with one side giving way to ascending seats. All the student body was in those seats, while the elders stood in a line at the center of the circle.
Reis and Tharol hurriedly took their seats, far apart from each other. All their fellow-acolytes looked forward in nervous anticipation, excitedly waiting to see what sort of tests they were about to be put to. They did not have long to wait, for Reis and Tharol were the last to arrive, and once they were seated Master Orish stepped forward to address the congregation.
“Pupils! Thank you for gathering here today. We welcome you to the End of Times. The Refining Scorch. The Trials! Today, we have brought you forward, that you may determine the future together. What that new horizon will be is yours to craft, and yours alone.”
There was no smile on his face. No light in his eyes. Though his words were impressive, Tharol could got the sense that this was not a moment of triumph. After a pause Master Orish continued.
“That future is not given to you, though. It must be claimed. And if it is not claimed…then it will not be. Some of you have assumed that your future is a free gift, that the Trials are merely a way to test yourselves against each other, to determine what role you will have in the new Order. But you are wrong. The Trial is to determine if you are even worthy to have your own Order. I give you a moment’s warning: defend yourselves.”
He turned his back and returned to the line of elders, each of whom stood motionless, heads bowed, eyes closed, hands clasped together and trembling. Tharol glanced sideways to his fellow acolytes, and saw on them all the same look of confusion and apprehension.
A bloodcurdling cry snapped the tension. It came from Master Foraou, who leaped past the line of elders, whipping a sword out of the folds of his tunic. He kicked off the banister at the edge of the field and flew through the air towards the mass of acolytes!
On Monday I spoke of stories that lead the reader to a particular frame of mind, and then, knowing what they are thinking, either affirm or subvert those expectations. In this section I attempted to setup a train of thought for the reader, and do both an affirmation and a subversion on it.
First I had the moment where Tharol because suspicious of Reis. In previous sections I have written Reis to be proud and insincere, and so I am leading the audience to suspect him of becoming the villain in this story. Thus they are already on the lookout for nefarious behavior from him, and his request of Tharol to spy on his friends is the affirmation of it.
Which affirmation is meant to create a moment of calm in the mind of the reader. They now know that they are in sync with the protagonist, that Tharol is pulling on the correct thread, that he isn’t missing anything that we think he should be picking up on. Thus there is danger, but Tharol is already alerted to it, and should therefore be able to handle it. And having thus created this sense of surety in the reader’s mind, I then subvert it with the horror of the elders unexpectedly attacking their own pupils.
You may find it interesting to know that I did not plan for this moment of surprise until the very moment I was writing it. It surprised me as much as I hope it surprised you! Originally the Trials were going to be something very different, and I had been trying to write the introduction to them without any success. The words just weren’t flowing, and I paused to ask myself what should be happening in this scene instead.
But we’re out of room here, and I want to look into this in greater detail. So come back Monday as we consider how an author can pause to consider what a scene needs, and go along with the answer, no matter how surprising it may be.
Stories have the unique ability to show us things about their characters that we could never know about another person in real life. At their most intimate, they detail for us the moment-to-moment thoughts and feelings of the character, to a degree that we will never have, even with our closest friends.
Indeed, in the most detailed of stories we come to know a character better than they even know themselves, as we are able to flip back through the pages to recall things that they cannot. Their lives are literally an open book to us.
Thus Harry Potter might moan about his latest disagreement with Ron, and wonder whether this really and truly the end of their friendship…and we just sigh and wonder how long it will be until he realizes that they are pals forever. Silly Harry, doesn’t he realize he’s the protagonist and Ron is his confidante? Narrative archetypes demand that they remain on speaking terms!
That, perhaps, is the greatest truth which we know about these individuals that they do not: that they are a character in a story. Harry might wonder if this is really the end for him when he encounters Lord Voldemort at the end of The Goblet of Fire, but we know this only book four of seven, there’s no way he isn’t going to make it out of this alive!
Flip the Script)
Given that this balance usually tips in favor of the reader, it can make things interesting to instead reserve some information related the main character, and refuse to share it with the reader.
This, for example, is what makes Tyler Durden such an unsettling character in Fight Club. The unnamed narrator is an open book to us. He tells us all his feelings, we’re with him at every critical point of his story, we understand him through and through. But Tyler Durden?
The man is a complete enigma. He’s charismatic and winning, but we’re never quite sure what to really make of him. He escalates his plans to more and more extreme behavior. He always seems to be on the cusp of committing some horrible crime against humanity, but then pulls back at just the last second, double- and triple-bluffing us at every turn. We are sure that he is holding secrets close to his chest, and we are both fascinated and terrified as to what they might be.
Which of course is what makes the twist of that story so compelling. It turns out that our “open book” narrator is the one harboring secrets, not Tyler Durden. Or perhaps one could say that the narrator is Tyler Durden’s closely guarded secret. For the two men are one-and-the-same, alternate personalities living in the same body.
And this is the heart of suspense. Suspense is not about popping something shocking at the reader. Suspense is about having them fully anticipate the something shocking…but leaving them uncertain as to which way it will come at them from. It isn’t enough just for a character to have a secret, the audience has to actually know that they have a secret, but no one can tell when or how it will be unveiled.
Consider the sequence in Schindler’s List where the title character tries to convince the psychopathic Amon Goeth that true strength is in having the power to hurt another, yet choosing not to. It is a nice speech, it clearly makes an impact, and as a result we see Amon fighting down the urge to lash out at the Jewish prisoners he watches over.
But even while he strives to maintain composure, we can see that it is eroding out from under him. Just what is his personal limit? We do not know. We anticipate a breakdown, and every encounter has us anxious that this might be the moment where he finally snaps. Which, tragically, he does.
Strong levels of suspense eventually stray into the realm of terror. And this is where some of the most compelling villains in stories arise. A character that is antagonistic, but one-dimensional and perfectly understood, can certainly be disliked, but usually fails to imbue the audience with the same terror that the protagonists feel. In Lord of the Rings we may be anxious for Frodo and Aragorn’s well-being, but we do not feel personally uneasy about the specter of Sauron’s all-seeing eye.
Villains that are an enigma, however, can terrify us directly. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula we have the no-secret villain in the titular vampire, and we do not fear him very greatly. But we also have a deeply-secretive adversary in the form of Renfield. And Renfield, as a result, is straight up unsettling, breathing a sense of menace right into the reader’s living room.
His mind is immediately a mystery to us by virtue of his being insane. We read about the experiments he performs in his cell at the asylum, first feeding flies to spiders, and then spiders to birds, and then eating the birds himself when he is denied a cat. He mutters about how he is trying to accumulate more and more life energy through the consumption of so many others.
We also know that he is connected with the vampire Dracula, but that he harbors motivations and intentions that are in constant, erratic flux. At times he seems genuinely friendly to our heroes, and at others to the vampire. We never know when or how he will take his stand, and so we feel very unnerved by him.
True to his volatile nature, he proves to be unpredictable right to the very end, both unlocking the door for Dracula to enter the domain of the heroes, but also fighting against him to his own demise. In all, he is a rather minor character, but he remains deeply memorable for the many tantalizing secrets that he has been wrapped in.
I mentioned in my last post that one of the main characters in my story had reasons for the decisions that he made, but I chose not to disclose them within the narrative. Doing so was meant to make him feel more unreliable. Indeed, I want all three of the characters in my story to be brimming with unsaid motivations and secrets. Each one of them has their own nugget of information that they are not sharing with the others or the readers, and each of them is going to become highly unpredictable when the others near it. Come back on Thursday as we push this tension further, and hopefully create a strong sense of suspense in the reader!
As strange as it had been to discover the end of the world, I do believe the greater surprise was that we had met our first citizen of Graymore Coventry, and that the man seemed absolutely normal! The guard’s communication with us had been intelligent and understanding, not unlike a good-natured tavern-mate that one might meet back in our own home of Omayo.
Of course, when all one has heard of a place is its greatest peculiarities, one assumes that everything about it must also be so strange. I suppose my imagination was that we would find the Coventry populated by a coven of witches, muttering unintelligibly and eating repulsive things.
I know, of course, that the legends of Graymore have since depicted those people in exactly that way, and I wish to put those falsehoods to rest. They were not a backwards or perverse people, and they were not half-demons. Those descriptions would not be entirely amiss for the other outposts that I mentioned we stopped at along the way to Graymore. There the forsaken souls were losing their grip on civilization, and even their own humanity. But here in Graymore they had managed to hold onto it somehow. My theory is that it was because they driven by such a great sense of purpose. Those villagers at the smaller outposts had had no such purpose, and therefore no reason to retain themselves.
Now the people of Graymore did, of course, have their own culture and customs. They did, of course, have little nuances and peculiarities that were unique to them. Being isolated from the rest of the world it was inevitable that they would have rutted into their own particular way of doing things.
As one might imagine, the first realization of this was in how they dressed. The people of the Coventry eschewed color in almost all of its varieties. Once or twice I saw a shade of tan or light brown, and black was reserved for only the most holy of offices. Otherwise, every citizen I saw was in shades of white or gray. Those clothes were all very conservative and modest, wrapped snugly, yet comfortably from the neck to the wrists and to the ankles. I spied neither a man’s bare chest, nor a woman’s knee in all my time there.
Such a manner of clothing would seem to be restricting, yet they had such a deliberate and graceful way of carrying themselves, that their garments seemed hardly an inconvenience at all. Indeed, I must say that the people of the Coventry had perfected the art of moving through a space, in such a way as I had never seen before, nor have ever again seen since. Where we Treksmen would stump about without a second thought to how we walked, the Coventry members would glide forward with a perfect, unbroken momentum.
That might seem a small thing, but just try to lift a foot, carry it forward, plant it, and move the next without a single variation in speed or direction. As they transcended over the earth in this manner their arms would billow around them, and I think it was to transfer all of the body’s natural jitteriness out into the air, leaving the rest of their form in a state of totally controlled poise.
Such an emphasis on dress and movement made clear to us Treksmen that these were a people who were very disciplined and solemn. It was clear that they were willing to take the governance of self as their chief concern in life. They took the energy that the rest of the world so regularly dedicates to the pursuit of wealth and enjoyment, and instead funneled it into the task of self-refinement.
They were not punitive or strict, but they were calm and grave. They were more than willing to smile at us and find amusement in our foreign ways, but I never heard anything remotely like an outburst of laughter or rowdiness. They were willing to lay a firm hand and speak with intensity, but I never saw anything remotely like violence or insult.
As I said, they were perhaps a peculiar people, but not evil, and certainly not barbaric. Rather they were the most civilized people I knew, and well honed to the work that they had selected for themselves.
We hoped to understand the basis of that work shortly, but first we had to deal with the our wares. Usually upon making a delivery there is a great deal of fuss finding an official to sign for the wagons and take them off our hands. But here we were immediately met by an escort, who rushed us straight to the city center where a Councilman stood ready to receive our papers and give us his own. Two signatures later and the last of the labor that had so strained us was borne away. Just like that, the Job’s mind retracted from our minds, making us our own persons once more.
We were free men. We could have gone home right then if we had liked.
“You will stay to learn why we have summoned you, and what sacred tragedy you are about to witness here in our halls,” the Councilman said. It was not a question, but neither was it an order. It was an intuition of our own desires.
“If we may,” I said.
He nodded deeply. “It is why you are here. Not by your own choice, nor my by mine. Who are we to intervene in what must be?”
Arrangements were made and we were brought to rooms to bathe, change our clothing, and rest until summoned for. Though nothing of offense was said, we were sure that our weathered and dirty state was an affront to everything that these people stood for. Thus we felt greatly relieved to wash and put on clean clothes. When we had ground down as many of our callouses we could we rested on half-reclined sofas until there came a gentle knock at the door and we were to be brought to an evening refreshment.
We were given seating in a large chamber with a massive table and exquisite eating utensils. It seemed that it must have been reserved for royalty, and we were ashamed to be the ones to grace that place. We never asked who the man that sat to eat with us was, and he never offered that information himself. The food given to us was as plain and unvarnished to look at as the clothing on the people, but for all the simplicity of presentation it was actually quite delicious and nourishing.
All through the meal our host spoke to us pleasantly and curiously, asking us all about our journey and expressing the sincerest of condolences for our losses along the way. Indeed, even though he knew nothing of us, he shed a few tears when he heard how tragically we had lost so many of our companions.
“It is always difficult to hear of the lives that are lost to the wheel,” he said soberly. “We have learned here at the Coventry to not let the cost weigh on us where we can help it, but that does not mean we do not mourn the sacrifices that forever surround us. We are able to both understand that their loss was necessary, and still be sad that such was so.”
“There are…many sacrifices here, are there not?” Bayhu asked.
The man smiled at Bayhu’s coyness. “Yes. I would say too many to count…but then, that is the one cost that we do count. And…it is many.”
“And there has never been one of the Coventry that has questioned this burden?” It was a very bold question, but our host’s demeanor was so genial that we felt we might be bold.
“No,” he said softly. “I’m sure part of that has to do with the fact that all who are here have been taught their purpose since they were sucklings. Where you might hesitate to give a sacrifice that you never intended, we do not even know what it is like to live without that expectation held out for us. But even more with this, there is something in the air of this place–perhaps you have sensed it already?–and it steels us to this work.”
“Do you consider our companions to have died in the service of your cause?” Moal ventured.
“Yes, absolutely. The delivery that they helped bring to us is of greatest importance in our work here. Though to be clear, they are not Altar Sacrifices, and their numbers do not count to our ledger, but anyone that dies in the service of the Black Sun, even unknowing that they do die in its service, is revered by our order. Give us their names and we shall never forget them.”
“But you did not know them.”
“It does not matter. We take this matter very seriously. If you wish to see as much, take a walk through the Halls of Weeping after we retire from this place. There we have great walls of glass, carved over with the names of all that have died in our service, Altar Sacrifices and otherwise. And before each section there ever kneels one of our acolytes reciting and memorizing their names. Thus it is that every name spent in this cause can be recalled at any moment by one member of our order or another.”
A silence prevailed, one where we were both touched that our friends could be so remembered, but also embittered that it was necessary for them to be so.
Our host seemed to know our minds even without us speaking. “Tell me, do you view your lost companions as having fallen to misfortune? To chance? Or do you have a sense that they died under a purpose?”
“Under a purpose,” I said. “But not necessarily for something.” and all the rest of the Treksmen immediately voiced their agreement.
“Yes. Even you, who are strangers to our ways, could feel it out on the road. And you expressed it very well. Their deaths, as I have said, were not Altar Sacrifices, and therefore did not tip any scales, and did not directly summon anything. But they had been marked, all of them, claimed by the Cause of the Black Sun, and so their deaths are registered in its index.”
There was a very heavy pause. All of us Treksmen thinking the same question at once, yet not daring to break that threshold. The man squinted, then smiled as he once more understood.
“And what is the Black Sun?” he echoed our thoughts. “Well, I am sorry to disappoint you…but I do not know. None of us do, not in any way that is truly meaningful. I shall tell you what little we do know of it, but I warn you now that you will only learn the periphery things, the edges of understanding, for I cannot lay before you the thing itself.”
He gestured with his hand towards a parlor, suggesting that we might be more comfortable there for the following discussion. We followed him there, and then he proceeded to give us the people’s history.
“I am sure that when you arrived you bore witness to the great void that stretches for eternity beyond our Southern wall. It has always been there, ever since our first ancestors came to this place. Without understanding what the significance of this place was, still they knew it was significant. Though they were not a studious people up to that point, yet they felt driven to seek the mysteries of this place. And so they made camp, began taking measurements, recorded everything that they found, and they did so most meticulously.
“The record we have of them is unclear whether they knew right away that they would devote the rest of their lives to this work, or if that realization came upon them only after several years of the labor. In either case, eventually they laid the foundations for this Coventry, and committed them and their descendants to the study of this ancient chasm.
“I shall not bore you with the details, but from all of their studies they found many truths. The first of which is that there are cycles and patterns to everything here. A clockwork system permeates absolutely everything. Even you are all under the influence of its regime, though you are not even consciously aware of it.”
We raised our eyebrows.
“Count your steps from when you awaken in the morning to when you lay down at night. I will tell you now, each of you will have gone eight-thousand and four-hundred. It does not matter how much you intended to accomplish that day, your feet will go that many and not a step farther or shorter.”
“And what if we tried to make ourselves go one extra step?” Ro’Kano asked.
“It has been tested. You will forget before the day expires, and fail to count out your steps at all. And any reminders you try to make for yourself will fail. But again, don’t take my word for it. Try it for yourself tomorrow. Count your steps. Better yet, each of you count the steps of the other. You will all come out the same. Just as how if you pour your water or stir your tea here, the liquid will circle exactly four-and-a-half times before coming to a complete stop. Every single time. Just as how a member of our community dies of natural causes every thirty-second day. Every single time. Just as how every rainstorm falls three weeks after a goat is sacrificed. Every. Single. Time.”
He nodded to emphasize the sincerity of his claims.
“And perhaps you see in that last statement the beginning of the answers to your deepest question: what have the sacrifices of the Coventry to do with this Void? You see, this place runs like a clock, it turns us all. But we are free beings, and so when we act, then the rest of the gears must rotate in response to us. We are not the masters of this place, but we are influencers of it. And the greatest work that we must do is to perform our sacrifices and raise the dread horizon.”
On Monday I spoke of a sort of diamond-pattern in designing narratives. As I explained, many stories begin a new chapter with an initiating idea, which then expands as the implications of that idea are explored, which implications are then resolved in a climax, resulting in the chapter contracting to a close. And then, the process repeats: opening, widening, zenith, narrowing, closed.
Today we saw the beginning and widening of a new chapter in my story. This section is instigated by the Treksmen’s arrival into the Coventry, and begins to widen as our narrator recounts the customs and nuances of the people here. They grow even wider during their conversation with their dinner host, and we are gradually approaching the zenith point. In the next section the host’s conversation will reach its climax, where he uncovers the deepest secrets of the Coventry, after which he will bid the men a pleasant sleep, narrowing the story with the close of that day. After that will begin a new sequence.
Now to be honest, this whole story has been going on for quite a bit longer than I had anticipated, and I still feel that I am several posts from its end. This isn’t the first time that this has happened to me, where a story simply wanders further than I had originally intended. I’ve spoken before about how a story seems to “want” things of its author, and resists being pushed into corners that do not suit it. I’d like to take a moment to examine this behavior more closely, and specifically in relation to the pacing and length of a work. We’ll go into this on Monday, have a wonderful weekend and I’ll see you then!
Have you ever read a book or watched a movie, and even as you were taking in the story being presented, you also started thinking of an entirely new tale ? A new story that took one of the elements of the first, but then ran with it in a completely different direction? It might not be a very large element either, it might be the smallest of ideas. In either case, you would have the urge to grow a tree from the roots of another.
The first time I can recall having this experience was when I was thirteen and watching Star Wars: The Revenge of the Sith. Not exactly a timeless classic, but still able to make an impact once or twice.
The scene that arrested my imagination takes place after Anakin Skywalker has fully turned himself over to the Dark Side, purged the Temple he once called home, dispatched all of the Separatist leaders in a tormented lava planet called Mustafar, and at last pauses there to await further orders. There is a brief moment of him looking over the burning rock, totally alone in the world, his every bridge to his past life burned. The music swells with a tragic chorus, and though he does not show remorse, he hardly looks happy in his new life.
I saw that scene, and my thirteen-year-old self was deeply moved. I thought to myself “Oh wow, it’s over for him.” I imagined that if I were in his shoes I would be experiencing a moment of quiet reflection, and I would be having deep misgivings about the steps I had just made. But what good could misgivings do any more? At this point, Anakin can never go home. There is no apologizing for crimes such as these. Though he might have believed in his cause in the moment, he must surely be weighed down now by all the good that he left behind, all the things that are forever lost. He has become a new creature, alone and apart.
As it turns out, the film never actually explored those themes. In fact Anakin is shown to naively believe that he still can have all the good things from before, and that those he loves will somehow be accepting of his choices. And so, since the film never gave expression to the things that I had been feeling, I found myself trying to imagine a plot that did.
This led me to conceiving of an entirely new story, one where a lowly, everyday man would happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and in a moment of haste make a choice that forever changes his life. Though he would dearly wish to return to his previous life, to would be impossible to do so.
However I couldn’t stop at these overall themes, I felt driven to flesh it out with world building, narrative style, and thematic tone. Though I never did actually write the story, I envisioned a strange science fiction piece, one that would take place on an alien planet. Upon that world’s surface entire cities would float on massive vessels, and the inhabitants would be extremely dry-skinned, only partially humanoid, and have a vast number of strange customs and rituals. I knew that they would measure their world by running lines out into the water as they churned over it, and that they would preserve their ideas on Rubik’s Cube-esque devices, where you could rotate different sections to rearrange the words and thus discover new chapters of text. I knew that my main character would be entirely content with the small confines of his city-world, until he inadvertently broke the delicate balance and perhaps even destroyed his entire floating city.
And the whole thing felt absolutely nothing like Star Wars, from which all of its core ideas had originally arisen. An entire world, species, and plot from nothing more than a stray scene in a film, one that didn’t even take its story in the direction that I thought it was going.
Homage, or Something Entirely New?)
For an interpretation to grow until it becomes an entirely different beast from its progenitor is not a new idea. In fact…Star Wars itself is an example of this!
George Lucas shared that his original vision came about after seeing the Akira Kurosawa film The Hidden Fortress (Kurowasa, of course, was no stranger to having his Japanese stories reinvented by numerous Western filmmakers). What stood out to Lucas was the idea of two bumbling side characters embroiled in the epic of others.
From that initial seed Lucas created two new bumblers in the form of the droids C-3PO and R2-D2, he preserved the plot hook of a princess needing to be saved, and he still had a veteran warrior leading the party. But otherwise Lucas’s story treads entirely different ground. The story is set in an alien galaxy, the central focus is moved to a more traditional hero, the themes become mythical, and even spiritual, and the plot revolves around rescuing the soul of a wayward father. Star Wars can hardly be considered a remake, or even an interpretation of The Hidden Fortress, and yet the seed of its first idea did come from there.
And from Star Wars came the seed of my own little story idea as well. Thus one story lights the spark of another, which lights the spark of another.
In fact, it has been argued that there is no truly original work in any creative medium whatsoever. It is very hard to think of plots to stories or notes to a song without having the mind inundated with all the similar approaches that have been done before. In the process of writing my recent murder mystery, it was inevitable that flashes of every other murder mystery I have ever experienced would pass through my mind. Indeed, where did the idea to even write such a story come from, if not because I first got the notion from the work of others?
Yet my story was still a unique creation. Or at the very least, a unique amalgamation of other diverse creations, just as a child is derived from two others, yet is a new creature all their own.
Interestingly, there was a small kernel of Washed Down the River that also inspired an entirely new tale to me. My own work suggested to me a new character and a new plot that could exist within the world of the first. I’d like to continue to extend that branch out a bit further, and on Thursday I will post the new/not-so-new creation.
It took everyone a moment to process what Daley had just done.
“Where did you get those?” Maria breathed, her face as white as a sheet.
“I went walking by your place today and saw that your caretaker had brought out the trash…with these in it. Mexican law states that anything abandoned through the garbage system does not require a warrant to acquire and is admissible as evidence in court.”
Price gawked at Daley. He wasn’t sure exactly how many lies his friend had just uttered, but he said it all with such a straight face that Maria didn’t question the matter any further, she just slowly shuffled back towards her seat. Price used the moment to grab the box and inspect it closely. “.45 ACP,” he observed, “just like the gun Otto used. Only…” he lifted one of the bullets and peered at it closely, “they’re blanks.”
“Yes, they’re blanks,” Maria said softly.
“So you were helping Otto out with some fake-suicide plan?”
“Yes…I’m–I’m sorry that I lied to you detectives.”
“Oh don’t be,” Daley said. “Actually it’s very helpful for us. Let’s us know we’re going the right direction. But how about you tell us what actually happened now?”
Maria nodded and swallowed. “Well, it was just like you said. He wanted to get out of his marriage, but not lose all of his wealth in the process. So he told me about his scheme to fake his suicide and run out of the country. He was sure that if the police found a purchase record of the gun and ammunition, but could never actually retrieve them or the body, then no one would ever suspect a thing.”
Daley raised his eyebrows at Price. Price coolly ignored him.
“I want to make something clear,” Maria added earnestly. “I never liked this plan. I always thought it was dangerous and stupid!… But…Otto was set on it. More and more, with each passing day. It was clear I wasn’t going to change his mind, so…yes, I helped him to set it up.”
“So how did you help him?” Price gently prodded.
“He went to pick out the gun, bought it with his credit card. Then he gave me the card and cash to buy the bullets for him the next day.”
“Card and cash?”
“Card for the real bullets, so they would show up on the bill, and cash for the blanks so there wouldn’t be anything to tie them to his name. He also wanted them from different stores so that a store clerk couldn’t remember both being bought in the same transaction.”
“Why didn’t he buy the real bullets at the same time as the gun? Why leave you to get those?”
She shook her head in frustration. “He was being stupidly particular about it. He had this little narrative in his head of what you detectives would piece together. ‘Oh look, he got the gun on a Thursday, but the bullets on Friday…he must have been gradually working up his nerve for it.’ Silly things like that.”
“Okay, so you bought both sets of bullets the next day, from two different stores.”
“Yes. Soon we met up and I gave him both sets, then took an airplane back to Mexico. He didn’t want me to fly back too soon to when he would fake the suicide, in case that would look suspicious,” she rolled her eyes. “And I took with me the box of blanks, so it wouldn’t turn up as evidence. Though really it was supposed to be the real bullets, but in the blanks’ box. You see he was supposed to switch them during our last visit. The ‘real’ box with the blanks in it and the ‘blanks’ box with the real bullets in it. He would load all of the blanks into the gun on the morning of his birthday, then leave the empty ‘real bullets’ box where it could be found.”
“Did something go wrong with that switch? The box from your place is still filled with the blanks.”
“Obviously something went wrong,” Maria’s eyes moistened. “But I don’t know what…or how…”
“Hmm,” Price rubbed his forehead. They’d come so far, but perhaps this last conundrum was a secret Otto had taken with him to the grave. It didn’t seem that–
“Before you met with Otto and showed him the bullets, did you open the boxes? Look at the ammunition and do something with them?” Daley spoke up quickly.
“What? No. He handled that by himself.”
“But that’s not true,” Daley sighed, he reached into the same coat pocket from which he had taken the box of blanks. Now he extracted a plastic bag, presumably the one that had held the box. Squinting, he pinched at something stuck to the bag, reached out with thumb and forefinger, and stuck a small piece of clear tape to the side of the box of blanks. Then he did the same thing again with a tan piece of tape.
“Both boxes were taped shut,” Daley stated, “and you have both pieces of tape in your bag. You opened them before you gave them to Otto.”
Once again Price tried to not gawk at his friend. It was an incredibly bold statement, one that Maria could easily deny. There might be any number of reasons how that tape would have turned up in her bag. Now that Daley had made the claim, though, Price realized that Maria had indeed glossed over the details of how the bullet-swap had occurred.
Maria sighed and lowered her forehead into her palm. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I keep lying to you detectives.”
Daley pursed his lips, as if weighing whether to say what was on his mind. Eventually he ventured forward. “Honestly, the fact that you did lie is even more telling than the fact that you opened the boxes. It means there’s something you feel guilty about with that. I’m sorry, but we really need to know what it is.”
“I swapped the bullets before I met with Otto. I put the real bullets in the blanks box and the blanks in the ‘real bullets’ box. I just wanted to be sure for myself that I was leaving with the live ammunition. When I met with Otto I handed him only the box with the blanks inside and said ‘it’s all ready.’ He asked to see both boxes, to make sure everything was right. Then he asked me to get him a rag from the kitchen–we were at his house–so that he could wipe off my fingerprints. When I came back he had just finished loading the gun and handed me back the box you found today. I had a really weird feeling, but I didn’t understand it then. I think a part of me realized that he might have misunderstood what I meant by ‘it’s all ready,’ and had just performed the swap himself–”
“And ended up putting the real bullets back into the gun.”
“But I didn’t think to ask him about it. He was being so very assertive and sure. He told me to rehearse my next steps so he could be certain I hadn’t forgotten any, then hurried me out. I just– I think I just didn’t want to make him upset by questioning what he clearly had under control.”
“And you didn’t want to tell us because you were afraid we would think you had somehow set the wrong bullets up for him on purpose.”
“Sometimes I think…maybe he didn’t misunderstand me. Maybe towards the end he really did want to go through with it, and he sent me away so that I wouldn’t see him swapping the bullets back. But then I think maybe I’m being paranoid, an honest mistake seems so plausible.”
“Or maybe he wasn’t sure what he even wanted,” Daley offered softly. “Maybe he couldn’t be certain what you had meant, and found in that uncertainty an opportunity to just chose a box of bullets at random and let fate decide.”
“You think so?”
Daley shrugged. “I really have no idea.”
“Anyway, that’s what happened Detectives. I didn’t orchestrate his death, I didn’t want him to commit suicide. Somewhere along the way, though, I think I did something wrong.”
“Well I wouldn’t say that you did something right,” Price sighed. “But it’s not our job to judge what you did. We just pass the information along.” He turned to Torres and nodded. “She’s your suspect now.”
Torres thanked Price and Daley, then asked Maria to follow him out of the room. The two men were left seated side-by-side, still at the interrogation table. For a long while neither of them said anything at all. Finally it was Price who spoke.
“Well, not as simple of a case as I assumed. But maybe not quite as dramatic as you had?”
“No, but that’s alright. Mostly I just wanted to know.”
“Well…you still don’t. Not all the way.”
“No, not all the way,” Daley agreed. “Otto keeps some of the mystery to himself…. But I don’t mind. It’s alright to not know what you can’t.”
“That’s some pretty deep zen you got going on there,” Price chuckled. It was a humorless sound, though, and Daley could tell that his partner’s mind was on something else. Price was on the cusp of leaning into a more personal topic. Daley flirted with the idea of making up some excuse to stand up and walk away. But he didn’t.
“That was an interesting thing you said to her,” Price began. “About how more significant than the fact that she opened the boxes was the fact that she lied about doing it. There’s a lot of truth to that.”
“When I picked you up from the grocery the other day, it was your wife who told me you were there…at the pharmacy. But when you came out you denied it.”
“Going to a pharmacy doesn’t mean a thing, but lying about doing so? Something’s up with that.”
Daley stared ahead unblinking.
“Something else interesting that you said–back at the start of the case–something about going to the person who cares most for the suspect. You said they’ll conceal things if the person’s guilty, and be forthcoming if they’re innocent. So…I went and spoke to Marcine, James. I hope you’ll forgive me for that, and her too, because she told me about your diagnosis. She told me all about the cancer.”
Another heavy silence. Clearly now was the time for Daley to say something, but he didn’t. Awkward and trite as it sounded, Price finally had to ask “Did you want to talk about it?”
“Not really,” Daley said, and he stood and walked over to the door. But then, with his hand still on the knob, he turned his head and called over his shoulder, “but even if I don’t want to…I guess you’ve earned that right. Come on. It’s our last night in Mexico. Let’s go for a ride together and talk.”
Well there we have it, the end of my mystery story. I rather like how it wound up, being a compromise between both Price and Daley’s expectations. I’m also pleased with how I balanced between letting the reader interpret the scene according to their own imagination at some points, and being more explicit about what happened in others.
An example of the first would be when Daley produces the evidence he has found and Maria finally starts unveiling what actually happened. I did not want to pander to the reader by explicitly stating “she was telling the truth now,” but I also didn’t want them to think she might still be dishonest. I decided to resolve this issue by changing her manner of speech from before. On Monday I pointed out how her speech when concealing information had been short and brusque. The audience could read her deceit just in the way that she spoke.
So for today I flipped her mannerisms. I say “Maria nodded and swallowed” to signal a turning point, and then have her speak with long and flowing dialogue. I could be wrong, but I suspect that most readers will subconsciously note the change and accept that she must now be telling the truth.
But then, when Daley and Price have their private conversation at the end, I suddenly became very explicit in describing every look and pause. I tried to paint it as clearly as I could and leave as little as possible to the reader’s imagination. I would never recommend this sort of explicit control over the duration of a story, but carefully used in specific moments, it can have great effect.
The effect that I was hoping to achieve here is one of heaviness and slowness. I want the reader to feel the long, pregnant pauses, and so I describe them in detail. I felt this measure was necessary because I had just allowed the reader to breeze through a rapid-fire exchange, so something special had to be done to put on the brakes.
And as I said, I’m pretty pleased with how it all turned out. In fact, while I’m finished with the plot of Detectives Price and Daley, I’d like to spend a little more time in this world and style. Sometimes one of the most exciting things about a story is the way that it can inspire new ones to us. I’d like to explore this idea of extending a theme from one tale into another. I’ll have a post about that on Monday, and then next Thursday we’ll see how I keep the spirit of Washed Down the River alive in my next short story.
“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.”
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?”
“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 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.