The Favored Son: Part Three

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Part One
Part Two

The Second Recitation of Master Eidoron

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.

“What?”

“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!

Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight

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.

You Never Really Knew Me

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Characters Exposed)

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.

 

Suspense)

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.

 

Terror)

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!

Raise the Black Sun: Part Five

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

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.”

Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven

 

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!

Reflecting an Idea

woman holding mirror against her head in the middle of forest
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Tangential Stories)

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.

Washed Down the River: Part Six

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Photo by Raul Juarez on Pexels.com

 

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

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.”

“Okay.”

“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.”

Silence.

“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.

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.

Part Six

 

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
Part Six

 

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
Part Six

 

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!

Divided Attention

adolescent adult beauty blur
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I am currently writing a mystery story, and this type of tale presents a most unusual dilemma. In most mysteries the author must hold the attention of the reader, but at the same time the author must distract them as well. In fact the author must primarily be calling the audience’s attention to the distraction, getting them to focus on the wrong thing on purpose.

Though not entirely. For if you have all of their attention pointed towards the false conclusions, then they won’t be able to recognize the right one when it does come along. So you need their full attention to your story as a whole, but part of it must be divided towards the truth, and part to the lies.

Thus, in the same moment the author must be the teacher that is lecturing, and the goofball that is shooting spitballs, and they must be able to gauge just how interested the reader will be in each of these conflicting voices at each beat of the story.

There are a few different ways that mystery writers can approach this balancing act. Here are the most common.

 

Revelation at the End)

The easiest way to ensure that your reader has the right amount of information and misinformation is to give it to them explicitly. If you want them to have caught on to something, you show it to them. If you want them to not have caught on to something, you do not show it to them.

In the Columbo episode Suitable for Framing, the detective knows that the murderer has stolen a priceless painting. Columbo is convinced of who the guilty party is, an art critic named Dale Kingston but he needs a way to prove it. At one point he approaches Kingston, who is walking with a large brown bag which contains the stolen paintings. Columbo grabs at it, asking if he can see what is inside, to which Kingston refuses. Kingston then scurries away to plant the paintings on an innocent woman, intending to frame her for the murder instead.

Up to this point the viewer feels that they are right-in-step with the detective Columbo, but then comes the climatic finish which reveals he was just a little bit ahead. The paintings are revealed in the custody of the framed woman, and Columbo insists that they dust it for fingerprints.

Kingston laughs at that. He is already known to have been in contact with that painting under innocent circumstances. If his fingerprints show up on the piece it won’t mean a thing. Columbo says he isn’t looking for Kingston ‘s fingerprints, he is looking for his own. When he grabbed at the brown bag that Kingston was carrying earlier, he intentionally poked his fingers inside and pressed them against whatever was in there. Columbo makes the case.

Now a mystery whose solution depends on secret information is usually frustrating because it doesn’t feel like the story is playing fair with the viewer. The episodes of Columbo gets around this issue, though, by flipping the script.

You see in Columbo you aren’t trying to figure out who the murderer is. You know right from the beginning who the guilty party is, and even seen how they have covered up their tracks. Rather than having our perspective behind the detective’s shoulder it is behind the killer’s. And so it makes sense that we only know what the killer knows, and not necessarily what Columbo does.

 

The Quicker Mind)

But many mysteries do take the perspective of the detective, and therefore should not conceal the sleuth’s information from the audience. So what can a mystery such as this do to make the final revelation still a surprise? They can give the audience all of the information necessary to solve the case, but all the pieces are so convoluted that they require some time to straighten it out. Before the audience has done so, the detective has beaten them to it.

This is how things play out in the recent film Knives Out. This movie is recent enough that I won’t go into details that spoil the outcome, but just know that the film will give you everything necessary to solve the case yourself, but it will be unlikely that you will piece it all together before Benoit Blanc does.

I guess, to be fair, one of the clues is only explicitly disclosed during the final revelation, but based on the context the viewer already knows what it must be, and it only has to be spelled out as a formality.

Mystery stories like these play fair in that they don’t withhold information from the audience, and they also present a sort of challenge to the audience: can you solve it before the detective does? And as it turns out, some people really do work out these solutions faster than the story does, but if anything this only adds to the enjoyment. It is pleasant to be hoodwinked, but it is even more pleasant to avoid being so.

 

Step for Step)

The final approach for these mysteries is to have the audience discover the truth side-by-side with the detective. There is no secret revelation at the end, no mental gymnastics to tie all of the threads together, the ending comes plainly and predictably. Mysteries like these embrace the pleasure of the journey, rather than of the climax only.

A classic example of this is the Sherlock Holmes case The Hound of Baskervilles. Here the villain is identified several chapters before the end, but without enough evidence to convict him. And so the climax of the story has us observing how Holmes and Watson lay a trap to get that man to implicate himself, which necessarily requires putting their client at mortal risk!

Even though there is no surprise twist at the end, it is still a satisfying game of cat and mouse, and it has since become the most recognizable case of the most recognizable detective. Sometimes an audience just wants to go on an adventure with a detective, and don’t need to be tricked into enjoying it.

 

With my own story I have been trying to weave all three types of mystery-story-telling into one. At the end of the last section Daley interrogated a man, based entirely on a conjecture that he had made up in his own mind, and which conjecture had not been disclosed to the audience. Thus there was something secret that gave him an upper hand in the case.

But on the other hand, his secret was simply a conjecture, which it is possible some of my readers had already made up in their own minds as well. Thus we see this situation is blended with the second pattern of mysteries, the one where it is a race between audience and detective to reach the same conclusion.

This pivotal moment of interrogation represented a shift in my story, because up to that point I had remained firmly in the third pattern: that of keeping audience and detective perfectly in sync. In fact I took some time to explicitly spell out every clue that stood out to Daley, what he was thinking about them, and what elements yet remained unknowable. Thus I ensured that everyone was on the same page.

On Thursday we will continue with the investigation, and in this segment I will once again pause and ensure that reader and detective are walking side-by-side. Then we will continue on to the next wrinkles of the case on equal footing.

 

 

Washed Down the River: Part Two

isla cristina huelva espana
Photo by Agustin Piñero on Pexels.com

 

Part One

Daley declined the ride from Officer Hales. His conversation with Quincy had got his mind stirred, and he needed time to muddle out why. So instead he dug his hands into his pockets, turned his feet towards the Gulf of Mexico, and began his slow walk in that direction.

It wasn’t even that he had questions to answer. Indeed, it would have been nice if he could have distilled an intelligible question out of the knot twisting in his mind. There wasn’t anything particular that he wanted to know, he just couldn’t shake the feeling that the entire affair was somehow odd.

Otto had thrown a big party for his friends, and let them all watch as he blasted himself away. He had been uncharacteristically public about the whole thing. It seemed likely that he had intentionally placed himself so that he would fall into the river and be swept away. Even an explanation like Quincy’s–that Otto had just indulged in a single moment of over-the-top drama–still left Daley dissatisfied. That was just another strange thing compounded on top of all the others.

“And he shot himself in the chest,” Daley said out loud as he kicked at a stone. That was unusual, too. Most people wanted to be certain that they would not be left suffering for a long while after they shot themselves, and a shot through the heart was trickier to get right.

Daley had encountered confusion like this before, of course, and he had come to learn what it meant: simply that he did not know enough. It didn’t matter if you were handed important puzzle pieces if the overall picture wasn’t complete enough for you to know what hole they filled.

Thus as he finished his mile’s walk he made his peace with the ambiguity. For now it was enough to embrace the uncertainty, and then wait patiently for more of the details to come trickling in. He smiled as he found that tranquility, then looked up to take in the scene unfolding before him.

The river had continued to run steadily by him all the way to the Gulf. Here it drastically widened, spewing itself into the larger body with a churning froth. In this fringe area the water spun in little whirlpools as all the different currents competed with one another. Then, after they had cancelled one another’s momentum out, the water was sucked by the underlying loop current down the southern arm of Florida, then eastward and into the Atlantic Ocean.

Three boats were lazily drifting around the coast now. Since the suicide was recent, there was still a chance that the body was caught in the churning froth. That was good in that they might snag it before it was lost to the Gulf, but it was bad in that it meant navigating some treacherous, choppy water for the boats.

“Made it, did you?”

Daley looked to his side, down the rocky outcropping that he stood on, and saw Price’s head hovering below.

“Didn’t see you there,” Daley said. “How are things getting along here?”

Price shrugged. “Dragging their nets, as you can see. Haven’t found anything yet so far.”

“Yes, well, it might be a difficult find. Hang on a second, only two of those boats are coast guard. Who’s on the trawler?”

“Some local was nearby, agreed to help us with the search.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why was he here?”

“Fishing I guess.”

Daley scowled and shook his head. “There isn’t any good fishing here, just look at this place!”

“Gee, I dunno. Maybe its a new boat and he wanted to get the hang of it in choppy water.”

“Hmm, maybe. Just a little strange, anyway.”

“So what if it is? That’s hardly anything worth getting worked up about.”

“No…but then there’s a lot of strange, little things going on.”

“Like what?”

Daley ignored the question. “And each little, strange thing I have the same thought: well that doesn’t really mean anything. But all together it seems like a few too many oddities.”

Price shook his head. “You know what’s odd? You’re wanting to be here for boring body retrieval. What did you call this earlier? A hobby? What kind of hobby gets you somewhere like this?”

“I’m not bored. Why? Are you?”

Price scoffed and pulled a walkie-talkie up to his mouth. “Hey you guys find anything yet?”

Well…we would have told you if we had.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

After another hour of waiting Price and Daley called the men on the boats to ask what they’d like for lunch. Then they drove off to get hamburgers and called the men when it arrived. One of the boats made for the single dock a quarter-mile down the coast, and the two detectives drove down there to join them. They remained on the boats then,  watching from the deck as they continued dragging their nets across an ever-widening circle.

They were nearing the end of the bay, which meant that the water was finally getting steady, and also that it was about to widen out into the bulk of the Gulf. Not a good sign for ever being able to retrieve the body. But then, just as they were getting ready to call it for the day, the second coast guard vessel signaled that they’d found something caught on the rocks at the corner of the bay.

“Yep, that’s a body,” Price observed as the corpse was laid out on the deck. He knelt down and opened the man’s jacket. A large, red stain covered the shirt, but the bullet wound had long since stopped bleeding. It gave Price a clean look at the entry hole. “Looks like a .45 maybe…you didn’t find the gun yet, did you?”

“Yes. He was still holding it in fact.”

“Oh wow! Let me look at that. Colt Commander…. Yep, just one bullet discharged. Hey how about that, Daley? We got it all right here. Nice and tidy for once! Hey…what are you looking for?”

Daley had finished going through the man’s jacket and front pant-pockets, now he was tipping the body sideways so that he could reach the ones in the back.

“Just wondering if he–aha!” He pulled out a thick wad of cash.

Whew! one of the coast guards whistled from the side. It was clearly more than a thousand dollars.

“What, he was going to bribe his way past Saint Peter?” Daley said pointedly to Price, but his companion did not follow. “Oh come on! You really don’t see it yet?”

Price just gave him a bewildered stare, so Daley stood up and took charge. The volunteer searcher had pulled up next to the coast guard boat with his trawler, and in one fluid motion Daley strode to the brink of the two boats and hopped over to the other. He could feel the tension among the coast guards behind him, could see it in the eyes of the volunteer. That was alright, a little tension might help him squeeze out what he needed from the man.

“Hey, I just need a quick word with you,” he said brightly, gripping the boatman firmly under the elbow and steering him towards the trawler’s cabin. “It won’t take a minute.”

“Yeah, but–”

“Just a formality, come on.”

The man was clearly very uneasy about all of this. That was good. That meant he knew something, and Daley was right to have drawn a connection from the money to him. As they rounded the corner Daley let his eyes do a quick appraisal of the man. He and his boat were untidy vessels, but uncharacteristically dressed up for the day. The man had shaved his thick stubble just this morning, evidenced by the tan line on his cheeks, his messy hair was hidden away, just the fringes of it peeking out from under the new ball-cap he had put over it. The boat was uncomfortably empty, like it had been filled with clutter which had recently been hauled away all at once. The man had been expecting company, and either it was someone important…or someone wealthy.

They passed through the doorway and into the small cabin in the middle of the boat. Price was bounding after them, so Daley quickly slammed the door shut and turned the lock, leaving his partner giving him a befuddled look through the window.

“There, no police,” Daley said as he rounded on his prey, “so hopefully you’ll be honest with me.”

“Hey man, I don’t really feel comfortable with this, don’t you think–”

“You were hired to pick up a passenger and smuggle him into another country. Probably Mexico. Just say yes.”

“What?–No!”

Daley winced and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I guess you’re not ready to be honest. What’s your name?”

“Hey man, this isn’t legal, is it? I should have that cop out there arrest you for breaking and entering! Aren’t you a cop yourself?”

“Nope, just a volunteer. Like you. So really you should be open with me. Because while I’m not a cop I do know them and I can get them off your back. I don’t care that you smuggle people, Jones–”

“My name’s Gene!”

“I don’t care that you smuggle people, Gene. I really don’t. What I do care about is that the police don’t get the wrong idea and think that you’re involved with a murder! So help me out, we’re on the same side here.”

“Involved with–what?! Those guys–” he jabbed his finger towards the coast guards “–they told me that guy was a suicide!”

“Yes, to keep you around until they could pin you with some hard evidence.”

The man’s eyes went wide with horror and Daley had to make a special effort not to smile.

“There’s too many suspicious things up at the crime scene,” Daley continued, “and the biggest of them all is a random boat that just happens to hang out where the body turns up.”

“Oh come on, if that man was murdered and I had something to do with it, you think I’d just be hanging around here waiting to get picked up?”

“No, I don’t. That’s what I’m trying to tell you, I think you’re innocent! But I’m not the one that has to be convinced.”

“I didn’t have anything to do with this,” Gene folded his arms and furrowed his brow. “So let the cops take me in if they want, the truth’ll see me through.”

“If you want it that way, sure. But then the truth means telling them why you were really here instead, doesn’t it?” Daley paused to let the weight of that sink in. “And even if you weren’t here for murder, you still don’t want the cops poking into the real reason, now do you?”

Gene remained silent, so Daley continued.

“You got a call, right? Pick some guy up at the mouth of the river, he’ll have a pocketful of cash for you. You just got to get him out of the country and into somewhere else without going through customs?”

“Why are you doing this?”

“Huh?”

Gene paused, weighing his next words carefully. “So…if, theoretically, things really were like how you just described…why are you trying to get me to tell it to you now, rather than to the police down at the office?”

It was a fair question. Gene didn’t want to be conned and he could tell that Daley’s explanation didn’t quite hold up. Daley would have to be a little bit honest with him to win his trust.

“Because, Gene, the police have to operate within a system. And I hate that system. It’s far too slow and far too encumbered. That makes for a lot of uncertainty. So maybe they would question you right now, but maybe they wouldn’t for a few days. Maybe by then the trail’s gone cold. Maybe by then you’ll have thought up a story and you’ll lie to them because they won’t put the right pressure on you. Honestly…maybe they don’t even question you at all. It’s entirely possible that you could sail away today and never hear another word about this again.” He paused and clasped his palms together in front of him. “But if you did that, then a man would have been murdered today and it would never be set right.”

Gene looked down at his feet.

“I don’t think you’re a bad guy, Gene. I really don’t. And I don’t think you want to stop us doing right by that poor sap they just pulled out of the water. His name is Otto, by the way. Don’t know if you knew that. And really, I just want to help Otto out, Gene. I really don’t care one bit about whether you’re a smuggler or not. Just tell me that that man was planning to meet you here, still alive, and that raises enough uncertainty for us to keep this case open. You won’t have to make any official statement, you won’t have to talk to the police. The detective out there is my personal friend and he’ll take my word for it. He’ll bend the rules that much because he just wants what’s right like you and me.”

Gene cleared his throat slowly. “And if he did want to talk to me, it would just be your word against mine.”

“That’s right. And if you changed your story, they’d throw out anything I said as inadmissible.”

“You’re not wearing a wire or anything?”

Daley pulled his shirt up.

Gene exhaled slowly and looked at his feet tapping on the deck. He looked up. “Okay…it’s like you said.”

Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six

 

On Monday I spoke of how a story often includes multiple layers, including meta-commentary on its own subject matter. Very often characters will discuss themes on the side, and then playing them out in their own drama. A classic example of this is the conversation between Captain Kirk and Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The two are debating as to whether no-win scenarios really exist, and what the correct behavior in such a position would be. Unsurprisingly, the action of the movie brings them face to face with that exact quandary.

I have tried to put over the mystery of Otto’s death another layer of mystery, that of Daley’s choice to stop working on the force. We did not see much development of that in this post, that will be further pursued in my next section. For today, though, I decided to try another form of multi-layering with the conversation between Daley and Gene. The conversation here is layered and also interwoven. Daley is telling lies, telling truths, and telling half-truths. He is taking his own perspectives and putting them in the mouth of the police. He is making up false accusations that Gene might be the murderer…but he is expressing a true opinion that someone has played foul.

Gene is obviously lost in the layers. By the end of the conversation he has a bit better idea of what Daley is really about, but still not complete. However the audience has been given enough context (I hope!) to see through the whole rigmarole and understand what Daley is really driving at. It was fun to try and write a layered piece that would be confusing towards a character, but be illuminating towards the reader.

In a recent post I shared a little bit about how storytellers try to obfuscate facts to make their final revelation a surprise to the reader. In my next post I’d like to look at that idea in greater detail, particularly how it is used in murder mysteries. While there I’ll also point out which of these murder mystery tropes I am using in Washed Down the River, and which ones I am not. See you next Monday!