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.”

 

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 discuss what 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

 

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

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Part One

Daley declined the ride from Officer Hales. His conversation with Quincy had got his mind stirred him, 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

 

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!

Washed Down the River: Part One

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

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

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

“What? No! Of course he isn’t.”

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

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

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

“Innocent until proven guilty!”

“So they say.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shot himself in the…chest?”

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

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

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

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

Price frowned. “No body? How–”

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

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

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

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

“Evidently they don’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s right.”

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

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

“Yup.”

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

“You got it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I did take down their testimonies, yes.”

“Good man. I’ll read your report.”

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

“Without a car?”

“It’s just a mile. I can manage.”

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

“That works, too,” Daley agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I heard it was quite the speech.”

“What? You weren’t here then?”

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

“Oh…should you even be here?”

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

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

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

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

“No?”

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

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

“Betsy’s.”

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

“His wife’s sister,” Marge said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And it said to come here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quincy turned his palms up and shrugged in surrender.

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

“Yeah, so?”

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

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

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

“Directly I guess.”

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

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

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

“I don’t remember.”

“Anything strange at all when he shot himself?”

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

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

 

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

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

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

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

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

The Magic Trick

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The Paradox)

Every great trick begins with a promise. Even before the magician takes the stage, there is an implied understanding that the audience is going to be shown something that is fascinating, but that they cannot explain. If both criteria are not met, however, the spell is literally broken.

Suppose the magician produced an elephant on stage, but it was obvious how it came to be there. It might be interesting to see, but it is hardly astounding. Or on the other hand, consider those terrible magic shows where the magician spends far too long repeating the same interlinking rings trick over and over and over. Even if you don’t know how such a trick is pulled off, it is impossible to be amazed by something so repetitive and mundane.

Indeed, a magician either makes or breaks their entire trick just in the presentation of it, and the best magicians know that they must therefore walk the fine line of foreshadowing the unforeseeable. Yes, that is a paradox, and the more paradoxical the magician can make it the better! In short, they want to make the audience slap their forehead with “but of course!” while simultaneously scratch their heads with “but how?”

This, of course, is also a trick utilized by the best mystery writers. At the end of every whodunit, the hope is that the audience will be left feeling that the solution is the only one that makes sense, but also wondering how they failed to see it then.

So how does a story pull this off? Well, the exact same way that the magician does. It distracts you along the way.

 

Sleight of Hand)

Magicians famously fool their audiences by showing them something in one hand, while the other stuffs a rabbit into the hat. Mysteries, of course, also utilize red herrings so that the reader is too busy drawing the wrong conclusions to notice the setup for the correct one.

But here’s the thing, the correct conclusion does need to be setup for. When a story unveils a grand conclusion that has not been previously alluded to, it is like a magician who puts his hat on the table, rolls up his sleeves, and then walks offstage to retrieve a white rabbit. We aren’t impressed in sleight of hand that takes place off-stage.

And yet that is exactly what far too many stories do, producing solutions that were never setup for. In fact it is so common a sin that this sort of off-stage gymnastics has been given a name: deus ex machina. Oh whoops, did I forget to tell you that the Detective happens to have a best-friend-elephant-tamer on speed dial?

But things can be taken too far the other way as well. If the conclusion is obvious, then there is nothing satisfying in its reveal. Magicians lull us into a false sense of security by presenting a world that works exactly the way that we expect it to. A card is just a card, a box is just a box, and everything behaves exactly as normal…until suddenly the world changes and the laws of nature are broken.

Good mysteries also present us with a world that makes perfect sense, and then suddenly pull the rug out from under. The reason why “Luke, I am your father” lands with such impact is because that up to this moment audiences felt that they already had a complete understanding of the world. We had a story about Luke’s father already, and it made perfect sense. His father had been killed by the enemy and needed to be avenged.

But then, suddenly, the tale shifted with the reveal that the villain actually is Luke’s father. Most importantly, this reveal somehow seemed truer than the previous arc. That is the key to every great twist in a story. It takes what already appeared true, but then makes it truer.

 

Truer?)

A story rings truer when it has greater catharsis. Luke’s need to avenge his father was certainly cathartic, but Luke’s need to save his good-turned-evil father was even more so.

In my story The Storm, we are told that a sailor lost his son when a friend took the youth sailing and the youth forgot to tie his lifeline in a storm. Later the twist comes. Actually the boy did tie his lifeline, and the friend later untied it by mistake, thinking the knot went out to the rest of the boat’s rigging. The loss of a son was already quite an emotional toll, but to have lost him at the blunder of a friend all the more so. As soon as I wrote the change into that tale I knew it was the true version of my story.

But of course Star Wars is not a mystery story, it is a fantasy. And The Storm was not what you would call a “twist” story, it was a drama. It turns out that creating an initial premise, but then upending it with a later revelation, is an essential part to all kinds of tales.

Strider being revealed as the absent King of Gondor is character development in Lord of the Rings, Ilsa revealing that her thought-to-be-dead husband is actually alive adds intrigue to Casablanca. Madame Defarge revealing that she was the girl who’s family was tortured by the Evrémondes bolsters the theme of cyclical violence in A Tale of Two Cities.

 

Last Thursday I posted a story where the conclusion was foreshadowed by the beginning: a King needed to plot an unforgettable revenge on one of his districts. This  foreshadowing was followed by detailing each individual piece that would reside in that revenge. In spite of all that setup, I feel that the tale’s final revelation was still shocking, and that it revealed a deeper catharsis that rang more true and satisfying than any other moment in the story.

Every type of story can benefit by giving the reader one thing to believe, foreshadowing a later revelation, and through it uncovering a higher, more true story. Every story can use a bit of magic. Every author can benefit from practicing their sleight of hand, and figuring out the proper balance of obfuscation and anticipation.

I have been too nervous to write any murder mysteries on this blog so far. Those require a firm understanding of the end from the very beginning, and a very tricky balance of foreshadowing the unforeseeable. I write these stories under tight time constraints, and therefore don’t invest in careful, airtight outlines at the outset. Even so, I do love a good mystery, and I think the time has come for me to pay my respects to that genre. Come back on Thursday as we get started on my magic trick!

A Big Something or Other

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Repeatedly asking the question “why” very quickly leads to things that cannot be explained. We can begin with the most grounded of subjects and the most basic of functions, but if we repeatedly ask why things are the way they are, things quickly venture into one of two domains:

  1. The metaphysical
  2. The unknown

Either the question doesn’t have an answer, or any answer exceeds our mortal comprehension. In either case, we have found the limits of our cognition.

 

Order and Chaos)

Now I have already discussed the ways in which stories have handled the metaphysical elements. I described how things like karma, fate, or God are often living characters within a story. They remain unseen, but they do have a very real influence on the characters in center stage. Thus they are not perceived, therefore, so much as felt, such as the karmic justice that drives the journey of Oedipus. And in some ways this makes a story feel more true. Many of us see patterns in the world around us, and by this believe that there are supreme forces maintaining a balance in our lives.

But what about that other domain? The pure unknown? Because while we see metaphysical order in life, we also perceive chaos and randomness. We don’t want to embody these forces, we want them to remain indescribable and formless, and yet they also need to have some sort of tangential effect on the narrative. As a result there are many stories where things “just happen.” Not really to move the narrative forward, not to center some cosmic balance, not for any discernible purpose whatsoever.

Consider the coin-tossing in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Here the two characters begin a game of flipping coins, and find that only Heads comes up. Over and over and over and over again, more than a hundred times. Guildenstern does begin to wonder about external cosmic forces: some form of karma, a trickster god, time itself having ceased, etc. But he finds no answers, and neither does the audience. It just happens…and then it does not.

In Cael: Darkness and Light, we have a massive void that is visually perceptible, insofar as it impinges upon the world that it is swallowing up. Why it is here, where it came from, and what it will become after swallowing the entire world are never answered. Because in that story there are no answers about that void. It just is.

In this way I am trying to use Cael to portray both the metaphysical and the unknowable in one. That void seems like an all-powerful and malevolent force of nature, one with a specific purpose to fulfill: to destroy. However the origin, reasons, and methods of it feel like random chaos. And it is this strange synergy of both order and chaos that I feel rings most true. Because as I said, in life we seem to perceive both forces of order and random chaos.

 

Unnecessary Origins)

Sometimes the unknown isn’t kept a secret for any philosophical reason, though. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter. Such as when we don’t fully explore a side-character’s backstory. We don’t need to know where the waiter was born and why he was so distracted as to spill coffee on our detective, all that matters is that it happened. Are these things knowable? Sure, we just don’t care.

Of course there are some things that the audience might think they want to know, but if they did the story would lose some of its magic. I had that experience when I tried to read The Silmarillion, an epic which gives the origin story of Middle Earth. Partway through I realized that really I didn’t want to know where elves came from, or how and why they built Rivendell. I preferred the magic of that city existing “just because.” I have never gone back to try to finish the book.

In some ways I feel that this selective exclusion also rings more true to life. The first time you visit a new city you always come to it in media res. It just exists, entirely outside of your understanding why. And while you could read up on its history and learn all about its origins, the actual experience of being in that city still only begins with the day you walked into it. For you, that will always be the origin.

I incorporated this sort of selective exclusion with Instructions Not Included. Here we have a box of strange objects with properties unlike anything else on earth. And while we eventually learn about the organization that planted the box, we do not ever learn how and why the objects came into being. Presumably it must have some point of origin, but knowing it would dispel the whole mystery at the center of the story. So I leave it unknown.

 

Beyond Register)

And sometimes we know what the thing is, but we lack the words to describe it. Not because we need a larger vocabulary, but because things that go “off-the-scale” will, by definition, defy any description. Sometimes you don’t just want to say that your character is angry, you want to say that he is so angry it cannot be fathomed. But if it cannot be fathomed, then the words cannot be written to properly detail it. Raging, fuming, frenzied…all these words fall short of describing an indescribable rage.

I have mentioned in a previous post how 2001: A Space Odyssey dealt with this exact problem. Here we had a constant escalation that needed to climax in a sequence that defied comprehension. David Bowman is supposed to be witnessing things that are beyond all understanding. The film handled this by showing strange, meaningless patterns and colors to the viewer, ones intended to be baffling. In the book it merely describes him seeing many diverse races and cultures, which makes for considerably less impact.

There is undoubtedly a paradox here. Visual and aural mediums are quite capable of creating experiences that cannot be  captured by words. But a written story, by definition, must be captured with words.

In Once Among the Clouds I decided to take a stab at this problem by way of metaphor. Throughout the tale I describe an escalating conflict and an abundance of violence and destruction. Then, at the very end, all is overwhelmed by a towering, dark rain cloud that washes everything away.

While I was able to describe the rain cloud in detail, I did not explicitly spell out that it was meant as an embodiment of all the hate and strife. I could have, but I expect that the reader’s subconscious will make that interpretation already, and that which is perceived subconsciously often feels more legendary to us. My hope is that this round-about form of expression will therefore make the magnitude of hate and violence seem inexpressibly deep to the reader. Whether or not I succeeded is a matter of opinion, but I found it interesting to try.

 

I would like to conclude this series with a short story that attempts to weave in all three of these types of monolithic entities. I will start with a creation of unknown origins, one that becomes a being of chaos, and by that chaos establishes a skewed sense of order, which contrast will hopefully imprint an idea on the reader that feels larger-than-life. It’s a tall order, and I’m very anxious to see how it goes. Come back on Thursday to see.

Instructions Not Included: Part Four

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Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Curtis listened well, only ever asking the occasional clarifying question and otherwise taking the information in. At times he raised his eyebrows, not so much in skepticism, only surprise. He had, of course, already noticed things floating strangely through the tubes during the past few days, Gavin hadn’t done anything to try and hide them on his desk. If he had, Curtis would have noticed and confronted him about it all the sooner.

“So it’s not just some art thing,” Curtis concluded after Gavin closed his notebook. “It’s a…machine of some kind.”

“Yeah, I guess so. I hadn’t really thought of that.”

“But we still don’t know what it’s for.”

“No…does it matter though?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I think if it did something useful that would be really cool…but really I just like playing with it and finding new things about it.”

“Hmm…yeah, that’s why you were able to keep playing with it after I got bored. Maybe if I started helping out now I’d just make you frustrated by trying to make it do something?”

“I dunno…maybe,” Gavin felt bad saying it, but it was the truth.

“No, it’s cool,” Curtis started to move away.

“No wait,” Gavin said suddenly again. “I have an idea. If we can find a way to grow discs, then we could recreate everything. Make two sets of it all.”

“Each have our own copy,” Curtis grinned.

“Exactly. Play with it exactly how we want and neither one of us feels frustrated.”

“Do you really think we can grow a disc?”

“I mean I haven’t tried, but I’ve already been able to get it to do all these other things. It seems like there oughta be a way.”

“What are some of your ideas?” Curtis sat back down in the seat, lifting one of the islands to take a closer look.

“Well I know I can make a whole rod with clay, so what if I had an already-completed rod in there, and then I made a clay disc at the end of it. So I feed the tube, it makes the black stuff, the black stuff moves down the rod, and start changing the clay into a disc.”

“Yeah, yeah, good idea. But that clay will have to hold its shape for days.”

“Oh shoot, I hadn’t thought of that.”

“Here hand me that disc. Look we’ll just lay the clay out flat on top of it. It’ll support its shape. And maybe each day we have to touch it up a little bit…”

The two boys kept chatting away, feeding off of one another’s energy late into the night.

Neither of the two boys knew at the time how endless the project would be. It was probably for the best, or else even Gavin might have balked at the commitment. The fact was it would be years of experimentation and discovery, each of them with their own set, each of them doing their own tests and sharing notes whenever they found anything exciting.

It was usually Gavin who would make a new breakthrough, like when he discovered how a series of islands could be combined as nodes around a larger shell, allowing for more massive structures to be built.He further discovered that these larger shells could be used as nodes for something larger, and so on and so on, recursively increasing the scope to any dimension required. If they had had the space for it, they could have built a tube the size of the an airport terminal, the material never buckled under its own weight.

Curtis, meanwhile, was the one who found all of the practical applications. It never buckled did it? With that in mind he went the other way and began crafting smaller and smaller levels of detail, forging links that he wove into clothing. It was extremely crude, but his initial tests made clear that robust body armor was a definite possibility for the material.

Gavin never said that he disapproved of those experiments, but he always seemed bemused by the idea of taking a technology so purely alien and applying it to mundane everyday things. His approach was always to explore what he felt the pieces “wanted” to be.

Curtis understood that the operation of the pieces was lenient. It allowed for variation in the pieces it crafted, and that meant it was intended to bend to another’s will. It was a tool to make whatever the wielder wanted it to make.

In either case, both brothers found enough to fascinate them for more than a decade. At first they tried to find places in their room to hide the experiments from their parents, and then in their later teens they pooled money from their summer jobs to rent a storage unit. They moved all the material into that and worked with it in there.

High school came and went, college did too. They were bright, and already trained in an engineering mindset. As they gained education they became aware of how significant some of their discoveries truly were. They realized this was an entire science unto itself. Even so, they still maintained the secret of it all. Boyhood promises to one another were hard to break. It had always been their project, not for anyone else.

Curtis was the first to question these old commitments. He suggested that they were holding themselves back by not bringing other minds to explore with them. At the very least he said they could create commercial applications which would fund larger experiments for them. They wouldn’t have to patent the inventions, no one would be able to reproduce what they made without the material anyway, so there was no need to disclose how it was done. It could still be their secret.

There was a flaw in that plan and Curtis knew it. Gavin knew it, too, and he didn’t hesitate to point it out. Their experiments had concluded that any piece of this material could be used to reverse engineer all others. To give away one element was to give everything away.

Other people wouldn’t figure out its secrets, Curtis said.

Not most, Gavin agreed, but some would.

Curtis pointed out that it wasn’t even their discovery anyway. Someone else put these things in that cardboard box in the first place.

Probably that person hadn’t even known what they were, Gavin said. “Someone must have been throwing them out.”

But that was not the case, as the two would soon find out.

The two of them were seated at their separate desks inside of the storage unit. A power generator hummed in the corner, powering a number of lights and two fans to keep each of them cool in the tin oven. Curtis now had his own house, but it felt fairer to keep the materials in the storage unit like this. It was their No Man’s Land.

Each of them was bent over their stack of materials, absorbed in their never-ending work. Then, all at once, the silence was shattered by a reverberating clang! Something had just slammed into the roof of their storage unit. The two snapped their heads up and looked to each other in surprise as a second crash sounded from one of the walls.

“Kids?” Gavin suggested. “Throwing rocks?”

“Maybe,” Curtis said, but he appeared entirely unconvinced. He stood up and grabbed a heavy wrench from his workstation. “C’mon.”

Together they lifted the sliding door and walked around to the side of the unit. There was twelve feet between it and the next unit, but that space was entirely empty. No kids, no burglars…nobody.

What there was, however, was a smooth white disc that was sticking to the wall. It was about the width of a hand and with little wings on opposite sides to each other. Gavin stared in disbelief, knowing what it was before he even touched it and felt the way it rippled his skin.

“It’s the same material,” he frowned.

“I didn’t show our stuff to anybody,” Curtis said, as if he was anticipating an accusation.

“Sure…” Gavin said slowly. He turned to look in the direction the winged disc must have come from. “But how–” his eyes went wide and grabbing his brother he pulled them both to the ground just as two more discs came hurtling through the air and slammed into their storage unit. At the same time they heard another thud from the opposite side, and another two hitting the roof.

“Get away!” Curtis shouted, crawling as quickly as he could along the ground.

Gavin started after him, but then paused to look at the open door to their storage shed. All their work, all their secrets were on open display. He turned and made his way back, the discs continuing to whiz overhead like bullets, three-to-five impacting every second. Gavin reached the entrance and cautiously raised up until he could grip the bottom of the door and pull it down along its track. He had the door about halfway down when another of the discs slammed into it, bending the steel shutters so that they refused to budge any further.

“Leave it!” Curtis roared, grabbing Gavin from behind and hauling him away.

“But it’s all of our work!”

“If they tracked us down here do you really think a little door-and-padlock is going to keep them out of the shed?”

They?”

Curtis jerked his thumb off to the side and Gavin turned to see what he was pointing at. The storage facility was on top of a natural rise in the land, with a single road providing the only access to it. A quarter-mile down that road, and making their way up to the facility, were two black pickup trucks.

From the bed of the truck in front came those white, winged discs. They were being flung up into the air, hung in empty space for a moment, then hurtled off in random arcs. Each disc curved through the air for a little while, and then suddenly zeroed in on Gavin and Curtis’s storage shed, each striking it from a different angle.

“You think they’re here for our stuff?” Gavin asked.

“You think they’d be here for anything else?”

“We’ve got to stop them,” Gavin’s voice was panicky.

“If they’re coming here like this…I think they mean business,” Curtis’s voice was calm.

“Then…we gotta run!”

“They seem to have accounted for that.”

Gavin looked back to the trucks, they had separated and were now approaching the brothers in a pincer. Being off the road, the trucks now kicked up huge clouds of dust in their wake, churning up the sage under their heavy tires.

Gavin stared incredulously at his brother, unbelieving of how he could be so resigned. But he was right.

“You let me do the talking,” Curtis quietly ordered.

*

Well, I said that I would finish the story today, but I’m going to need just a little bit more to cap it off. The good news is, I found out how I want to end this story! I mentioned on Monday that I would try to incorporate a couple themes here at the end. The first was going to be a theme of never-ending discoveries. The story is progressing to a cliffhanger, one where the brothers will move into a new stage of development and invention. I have that whole sequence all worked out, and I feel that it satisfies this story’s desire to forever explore the unknown.

Another theme I had toyed around with was how one needs to be responsible with their creativity and employ that power for good. Ultimately I don’t think that’s an idea I’m going to be able to deliver on with this piece. It’s a good theme, and I even sowed the seeds for it when describing the brothers different approaches to their inventions. If this were a full-sized novel, there would definitely be a pay-off on that idea later on, but I just don’t have enough time in this short-story format to give that theme its due.

This brings up a question of what scope fits a story. It is a very important consideration for an author. We often say in writing that one is limited only by their creativity, but that isn’t entirely true. There are other constraints, such as the number of words before a story becomes unwieldy. On Monday I’d like to talk some more about those limitations, and about the balance of depth and breadth that an author should consider in their work. After that I really will post the end of Instructions Not Included. I hope you’ll enjoy it, and in the meantime have a wonderful weekend!

 

Instructions Not Included: Part Two

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Part One

Gavin had a hard time paying attention in school the next day. He had wanted to check his fly trap first thing in the morning, but knew it would have been miserable to start his experiments and then leave them unfinished.

He only half listened to the teachers in class. In his notebook he kept scrawling different ideas of things to try with a fly, complete with a flowchart of what test should follow which results. At the very top he had “Put fly in tube, see if it just dies right away.” If it did that was the end of the flowchart, so he hoped to at least get further than that. Next was to observe if it tried to fly, and if so whether its wings were able to beat. If so, were they able to move it. Even a little bit? If he wedged a stick inside of the tube and the floating fly came near would it grab the stick and move along it? What if he blew a fan through the tube? Would it be able to push the things? Or what if–

“Gavin, are you paying attention?”

“Yes.” Very close attention…just to other things.

That afternoon Gavin dashed through his front door, the mason jar already clutched in his hand. He bounded up the steps to his room, turning sideways to avoid knocking over his mother. “Hi! Back from school. It was fine, nothing to say about it. I’ll be in my room, okay?”

He bolted into his room and took his seat at the desk. Taking a few calming breaths he carefully removed the saran wrap from the jar and placed one of the strange tubes over its opening. There were three flies buzzing above the sugar-water at the bottom of the jar, and Gavin watched breathlessly as one of them buzzed closer and closer to the tube. It decided to stop to rest right at the lip of the jar. Gavin frowned and tapped twice on the glass. The fly darted into the tube…and froze.

Gavin put the saran wrap back over the jar and picked up the tube, peering through its center. As soon as the fly had crossed the threshold into its domain it had gone completely lifeless, not so much as beating a wing as it floated through empty space. Curiously, though, it had not curled its legs to its body. It really was frozen as if in a singular moment of time, its legs still extended and wings still raised. Was it dead then? Or just frozen?

Gavin reached in, curled his fingers around the fly, then drew his hand back out. Immediately he felt the creature buzzing against his palm. He extended his hand back in, the buzzing still continued, but once he opened his fingers the fly snapped back to its frozen state and floated listlessly.

“Well that’s interesting,” he muttered, pulling over his notebook and jotting down the results of the test.

So the fly couldn’t move. Could it think? Was it aware that it was motionless and confused about that? Or was it unconscious while in the void? He couldn’t think of a good way to test that.

So instead Gavin went through a few more experiments. It turned out that wedging a stick between the walls of the tube did not give the fly a way to escape floating. In fact, it couldn’t because the fly never touched it. The path it floated along would always push away from the stick whenever it got too close, just like how it did when avoiding the walls. Apparently the stick, being in direct contact with the wall, was now an extension of the wall. Gavin hadn’t expected that, given it was comprised of an entirely different material.

That suggested another experiment to Gavin. He reached in, cupped his hand around the fly, drew it out and listened for its buzzing, then put his hand back in the tube and opened it. But this time, as he did so, he pressed the fly against the wall of the tube, rather than dropping it into open space. This time the fly did not freeze. It crawled across the surface, moving at a constant high speed, and making sudden direction changes as if drawing out a pattern. It looked nothing like how Gavin had ever seen a fly move. Also it never flew. It never did anything to risk losing constant contact with the surface, even when Gavin poked at it with the end of his pencil.

Gavin introduced the other flies one at a time to the tube, all with the same results. If released into the air they became immobile and floated, if pressed against the tube wall they danced out strange patterns on its surface.

Next came water. Gavin angled the tube downwards and slowly tipped the mason jar  until the water ran out of it. When only the first part of the water stream entered the tube it continued to fall as normal, but once the last drop was contained within the tube it lost its connection to the outside world and suddenly froze. It behaved like videos Gavin had seen of astronauts playing with liquids in a Zero-G environment. The water stream didn’t break apart, it just shimmered as one, long, snaking body in the middle of the tube. As with everything else, it began zigzagging from wall to wall, never touching them, never slowing in its ordered dance. As expected it never touched the stick or the flies as well. It did not act entirely as a single body, though. For example when it neared the stick it would sometimes split into two streams that would go around it. Sometimes those streams would rejoin, other times they would break off into their own entities. Once the two streams were completely separated they would never join again, they would each follow different patterns that seemed forever destined to to never intersect again.

“But how long could you really go without touching?” Gavin wondered aloud. He picked up the tube and walked with it to the bathroom. What if he tried to put more water into the tube than it could keep separated?

He turned the sink on and filled up a cup with water, then poured it into the tube. The stream floated around inside, continuing to split when it approached the stick head-on, continuing to avoid any contact other water streams. He filled up the cup and poured it in again. And again.

He couldn’t want to hold the tube directly under the faucet, because then it would be an unbroken stream of water that extended out of the tube’s confines. It was a very strange feeling, pouring cup after cup into the tube and not a single drop spilling out from the bottom. A faint inkling occurred to him that the physical properties of this tube went against everything he’d learned in school, and would therefore be of significance to other people…but at least for now he wanted to keep it only to himself.

As Gavin continued entering cupfuls of water the threads of water begin to divide and shrink to such a degree that they looked like tendrils of glass, each as thin as a spider’s thread. They criss-crossed and filled the space so completely that they almost appeared to be one volume. Yet still he could see the tiny glints that betrayed their separate edges, and knew that the threads still refused to touch.

Finally he reached the moment he’d waited for. As he poured in one more cup the water began to spill over and flow down the edges of the tube. The tube could not accept anymore volume without merging its streams of water, and so it rejected any further material.

Well, that was that then. Now Gavin wanted to get the water out and verify that not even a drop of it all had touched the flies or stick either. As he couldn’t pour the water out he would just have to scoop it the same way he had put it in. He grabbed the cup and began the long process. A vague thought occurred to him that the flies had probably died even if the water hadn’t touched them. He doubted the gaps between the water streams would have been able to hold enough oxygen to sustain them.

The thought then occurred to him that the flies had probably had just as little control on the edges of the tube as they had floating in the air. Their movement had been extremely similar to the floating movement, just projected onto the surface. It was the same pattern! He supposed that meant if he covered the walls with flies they would dance around and never touch? If he put a spider in with them would it just ignore all of the free food? He could–

Gavin had reduced the amount of water so that he had a clear view inside of the tube again. He had been waiting to see the flies, but now he realized they weren’t in there anymore! Neither was the stick. There were instead four black marks smeared across the inside of the tube in their place. Had they been crushed by all the water? But why?

Gavin turned the tube over in his hands, angling it so that the bathroom light shone more clearly on one of those dark smudges. No…it wasn’t just squashed fly guts there. It was something pure and shiny black, like tar. Although as he looked closer he saw it actually wasn’t a single goo, it was a thousand tiny strings, like millimeter-long strands of hair. And they were mobile, doing a sort of a waving gesture where they folded at their midpoint and then stood erect again.

Three flies, a stick, and a liter of water had gone in…these things were what came back out. The tube must have broken everything else down to create this. But what exactly were they? Tiny little strings of…organic sludge?

Gavin walked back to his bedroom and put the tube back on his desk. Then he strode back out with a purpose. The rest of the afternoon Gavin collected anything small and interesting he could find around the house and the alley outside, then he brought them back to his room. A few ice cubes, some small rocks, a piece of brick, ants and beetles, apple juice, a jug of water, rubbing alcohol, small pieces of glass, plastic, an old rag, a cigarette butt, a ping pong ball, bread, a strip of wood, some small weeds, a few metal screws, and a handful of dirt. He lined all the items up on his desk, right in front of his “islands.”

He pulled out his notebook and wrote down Tube #1. This was the one he had already been experimenting with. He wanted to continue to work with this one, following the same sort of structure it had already been on. Water and living tissue. He placed the beetles against the inner surface of the tube and released them to perform their erratic dances. The ants he dropped in the middle to float around. He added the weeds to this one as well, and finally filled it up with water. Done.

Tube #2. For this one he wanted to experiment with the natural materials. He put the ice in it, the small rocks, the strip of wood, and the dirt. Finally he added in the apple juice to fill up the rest of the space.

Tube #3. Here he would try the more synthetic things. The brick piece, the glass, a corner of the rag, the cigarette butt, the ping pong ball, the bread, and the metal screws. Then he poured in the alcohol. He had selected this particular tube because it was smaller, small enough that he didn’t need a whole liter of the alcohol to fill it up.

Of course some of the things had been too dense for the tubes to handle. The metal screws, the piece of brick, the rocks, and the glass. They had each just fallen to the bottom and stayed there. When he shook the tubes those pieces slid around and even fell out of the tube if tipped too far. Curiously, they were completely absent any residue of alcohol or water or anything else when they emerged. Still, the stick wedged into the tube yesterday had been similarly dense and it had decomposed, so perhaps that didn’t matter.

In any case, now there was nothing to do but call it a night and wait for tomorrow. It would be hard to be patient, but at least tomorrow was the weekend.

 

Monday I wrote about how I chose in this story to emulate some of the patterns in Shane Carruth’s stories. Most specifically I made use of a person applying scientific methodology to understanding something fantastic. Gavin is obviously an intelligent boy, but his lack of experience prevents him from fully realizing just how significant some of his simple discoveries are, such as the tube’s ability to completely untether its contents from gravity.

Sometimes when reading a story it can be aggravating for the audience to be stuck with a main character that understands less than the reader. Other times the main character will know more than the audience, and that can be frustrating as well. Other times, though, differences in understanding between characters and readers can be immensely satisfying. On Thursday I’d like to delve deeper into how an author disperses knowledge in unequal measures, and how it can be done either poorly or well. I’ll see you then!

Free Cleaning Service: Part Two

close up photo of rotary telephone
Photo by Fancycrave.com on Pexels.com

It was the next afternoon and Jim fumbled with the lock on his old apartment door. The deadbolt finally slid back and he took hold of the knob, pulling upwards as he also swung the door inwards. He and his family had learned that this was the only way to prevent the bottom of the door from scraping across the floor, and there were little arcs carved on the tile from before they had this solution. Jim had promised that one day he would fix both the door and the tiles, but that day still had not arrived four years later.

His wife switched off the vacuum she was pushing across the old living room carpet and looked up to him in surprise. “You’re home early, I thought you said something about staying late today.”

“Unfortunately not,” he sighed, placing his hat and coat on the rack.

Unfortunately,” she repeated accusingly, her dark brows furrowing together. “You mean you’d rather not be home with your family?”

He opened his mouth to give an explanation, thought better of it, and instead shook his head and murmured “That’s not how I meant it.” What exactly was he supposed to say? ‘Unfortunate’ because a warrant didn’t come through and a homicidal maniac is roaming our streets for another day?

Sarah didn’t press the matter. Her eyes had just settled on the two casefiles in his hand and a grim look of understanding shadowed her face. She had learned during the first years of her husband’s career the significance of two files. One file meant a murderer, two meant a killer. The difference was subtle but significant. A murderer existed only in a brief, singular moment. A murderer’s work happened and then stopped. Most people became a murderer without even meaning to. A killer, on the other hand, was deliberate. It was a profession. A way of being.

Jim followed Sarah’s eyes and he winced. She hated whenever he brought the nasty trappings of his work home, but he had honestly forgotten the files were in hand when he left the office. They both stood there in heavy silence, and after a moment he broke eye contact and shuffled off towards the kitchen for a drink. Jim dropped the casefiles on the counter next to the mail, then filled a tall glass of water and took it down in large gulps. It was too cold and it stung his parched throat, but after a hot and muggy day he rather enjoyed the pain of coldness. He heard the vacuum start up again in the living room again and shook his head. It seemed Sarah vacuumed every day, no matter how many times he told her it wasn’t going to help. The fabric was too shallow and the stains were too deep. Her vacuum would never clean it, and his salary would never pay to replace it. It simply was what it was and had to be accepted. The last drops of water trickled out of the glass and he set it down as he scooped up the casefiles, a single paper falling out of one of them and resting on the pile of mail. Jim didn’t notice though, and he went to the bedroom and shut the files in his nightstand drawer, hiding them from view.

“Dad?” he heard his son’s voice call from the bedroom down the hall. “Is that you?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Hey, could you come read through this essay with me? It just doesn’t feel right but I can’t tell how come.”

“Uh, well see, I was going to catch the–” he paused as his eyes fell on the nightstand clock. 4:15 pm. He had forgotten, coming home early meant there weren’t going to be any games on the television yet. “I’m coming” he sighed in defeat, rubbing his weary face, and then lumbering down the hall to help his son.

As the two of them mulled over the essay Sarah finished the vacuuming and took a moment to stare back at the floor in complete dissatisfaction. She placed the appliance back in its corner, then made her way to the kitchen to start something stewing for dinner. She put a pot on the stovetop and started it heating, then pulled various leftovers out of the fridge and placed them down on the counter. She mechanically reached for the mail and her face brightened as she read the first item, a flier promoting a new carpet cleaning business. Free Cleaning Service. A slight smile crossed her lips and for a moment dinner was forgotten while she reached for the phone.

*

It was the middle of the night, yet sleep only came to Jim in small waves, each throwing him back onto the shores of wakefulness. He couldn’t recall the last time he had had a full night’s rest. Though he craved the slumber, he dreaded the idea of relinquishing all vigilances for hours on end. He couldn’t help thinking of how helpless it left him, paralyzed and exposed to the mercy of an unmerciful world. Jim turned his nightstand clock to check the time, but its face was blank. The power was out. He kneaded his brow with his palms, then swung his legs out of bed and exited the room.

It was remarkable how the darkness in the house seemed thicker than on other nights. As he groped about like a stranger he realized how much he depended on little things like the microwave’s clock face and the television’s indicator lights to serve as anchors, waypoints that helped him to map out his orientation in the home. Now, though, it felt like a thick sheet was smothering all of his senses, and he softly cursed as he walked full-on into a wall.

Finally staggering his way into the front room he found the sofa and dropped onto it. He almost reached for the television remote before he reminded himself that there was no power. So instead he paused and just listened. There was nothing. Not even the chirping of crickets or rumble of cars out on the street. The more he sat in the emptiness the more it unnerved him. Somehow the world just didn’t seem right in this moment. He kneaded his forehead again, pressing the palms firmly against his eyes until little fireworks appeared against the closed lids. He was so tired, so weighed down, so tainted by association. He opened his eyes and still all they saw was darkness. Shouldn’t they be adjusted to this already?

Rising to his feet he stumbled over to the deck’s sliding glass door and pulled back the curtain. Nothing. All the other apartment porchlights were out, so were the streetlights. The sky was cloudy again and the moon and stars were too weak to break through them. It was not a cool night, rather the air was warm, stagnant and clammy. It added to the sense that he had been plunged into a suffocating ink and there was nothing in his power that he could do about it.

Jim leaned forward and rested his head on the cool glass. That, at least, felt nice. He swayed slowly on the spot, closing his eyes, letting his mind rest. He lost track of time. One minute. Two, three. Though standing, Jim’s mind was beginning to stray into the subconscious. As his mind sunk from the present moment he had the sensation that he was slowly falling down and backwards. Down towards something that was reaching up for him. Something malevolent stretching up higher… folding around him… closing… and…

Jim snapped his head up and turned to face the opposite direction, his eyes fixated on the front door. Every hair on his body stood on end. He hadn’t heard anything, he hadn’t even imagined anything, but somehow it was as though he had sensed a rift. Even as he stared at the dark door the sensation was continuing to mount within him, finally breaking in a shiver that traveled the length of his spine. Without knowing why, Jim held his breath and moved as silently as possible across the room. He could feel his heart thudding in dread and beads of sweat were forming along his brow. He reached the entrance to his home and pressed an unblinking eye up against the peephole.

A man stood immediately on the other side of the door, staring back at him. The form was tall and broad, entirely shrouded in darkness save for the two glistening eyes and a row of white teeth popping into view along a widening grin. Jim had the distinct impression that somehow the man knew Jim was looking at him, was watching him watch him. Jim’s heart didn’t race anymore, it entirely skipped its beats. His mouth opened to call but only a vague rattling of air escaped his throat. His initial horror was broken with another as he realized that the doorknob was turning beneath him. Instinctively he gripped it with both hands and tried to hold it secure. Even so, the force at the other end was not to be denied and the metal rubbed slowly but surely under Jim’s sweaty palms. A weight was brought to bear on the wood and the door began to push inwards. Jim threw himself against the barrier, kicking his feet against the ground for extra force, yet the door continued, slowly but steadily inwards, the low bottom scraping along the floor now, wood and tile vibrating together in a long shuddering scream.

***

The power, and horror, of dreams comes from their ability to portray a world that is convincing and real to us, but then seamlessly interweave manifestations of the intangible: emotions, ideas, fears. You may well have a conversation with greed or literally chase after happiness. By this method they help us give voice to that which we could not speak and understanding to that which we could not think. My purpose with this story was to write a story that felt like a nightmare from the heart.

As I said in my most recent post, it was not my intention to shoehorn this story to fit a particular genre or trope, I really wanted to let it just be its own thing. As I’m sure became evident, this isn’t actually some hard-boiled detective mystery, it is a tale of being haunted by oneself, a fear of conjuring up an evil that will sooner or later come into your most inner places. The use of its main character and setting were selected not to follow some tired cliché, but rather for the way they naturally lent themselves to the central themes of danger and invasiveness.

Of course, writing a quality haunting tale is difficult to do, and at the end of the day I’m still not sure if I succeeded or not. There was an image I had in my mind of what I wanted this story to be, and there is a chasm between that and what actually has made it into the final draft. I remain convinced that what was in my head was terrifying, but how much of that was lost in translation? This is a quandary every writer will face, and I imagine one that never wholly dissipates, no matter how much experience you have. On Monday we’ll dig into this topic a bit more. Until then, if you missed out on the first half of Free Cleaning Service you can go to this page to view the story in its full form, and you can also go here to see every story that I’ve posted on this blog. Have a wonderful weekend!