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
Part Five

 

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

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

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

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

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

It Follows

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This last Thursday I made mention of a core question that drives a reader through to the end of a story. This question is universal across all mediums of story-telling, across all cultures, and across all eras. Stop anyone in the middle of reading a new book or watching a movie or listening to a song, and ask them why they are continuing to give their time to this activity instead of looking for something else. Their answer is almost guaranteed to be some variation of “I want to see what happens next.”

How strongly the question “what happens next?” burns in your reader will ultimately determine whether your next novel is a great success or a dismal failure. The moment someone stops asking that question is the moment they become apathetic and put the book away unfinished. Conversely, the “hook” that everyone is told their story needs to open with is really nothing more than the first time the reader starts to wonder “what is going to happen next?”

Now I did mention on Thursday that there are a few variations to this question. Self-help books, educational textbooks, and passages of scripture, for example, are usually driven instead by the question “what can I learn from this?” But these really are the exceptions to the rule. By and large “what happens next?” is the singular question that has proved so powerful as to support multiple multi-billion dollar industries for millennia.

But the question of “what comes next” is actually useful long before your story even ends up in the hands of the reader. Every author is also driven by that question in order to even finish their work. Similar to their readers, once an author stops caring to create that “next,” then the manuscript is sure to end up on the shelf collecting dust. Let’s take a look at the different ways this question might manifest in our writing process, and how it directly influences the work we create.

 

Phisherman and Back to the Future)

When I sat down to write Phisherman I didn’t know exactly where I was going to go with the piece. I knew I wanted it to be about a hacker who “consumed” his targets by accessing all of their private secrets. I completed part one and really could have finished the whole thing right there as a brief character study. But I was still interested in this individual and I found myself curious as to what he might do next.

So I figured the natural evolution would be for him to progress from digital breaking-and-entering to physical. I wrote up a plot about how he obtained keys to a stranger’s home. Well that was definitely interesting, but then of course there had to be a part three where he actually broke into the home. The story demanded that I explore what would happen next.

That entire story came together naturally just by pulling on the thread of “what’s next?” You simply return to that well over and over until you come to the end. It makes me think of the first time I saw Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future. Here I witnessed a time traveling car that brought a boy into the past to learn from his own parents’ experience. It was fascinating, but naturally gave rise to a question of what would happen if he traveled into his own future now. Unsurprisingly, that’s exactly where the series went with its very next sequel!

 

The Sweet Bay Tree and A Separation)

In my next story I tried to approach this question of “what’s next?” in a different manner. Throughout the plot of The Sweet Bay Tree we follow as a tree slowly comes to the realization that it has already reached the end of its arc. It is going to spend the rest of its life in the confines of a single room, and will only ever leave it after being chopped into little bits.

Before getting to that realization, though, we see the tree constantly looking for all manner of possible “nexts.” At first it assumes that it will some day be brought back to the field where it originally came from. Then it learns that field was paved over and it thinks it might become part of a new field. Or maybe a grove. Perhaps a retaining wall…something. Anything! But no, one-by-one all of its anticipations are pried loose until it at last accepts that there is no “next” at all. And now that there is no next, the story promptly ends.

This sort of teasing many possible outcomes and then systematically closing them was illustrated very well in an Iranian film called A Separation. Here we meet a husband and wife whose relationship has become quite strained. Despite the tension in their marriage, each seems to be constantly on the brink of setting aside their differences for a joyful reunion. The problem is that they are never brought to these moments of near-reconciliation at the same time. The wife is about to apologize but then the husband greets her gruffly. The husband is about to admit he might have been wrong, but then the wife ruffles his pride. Although their marriage should have a “next,” they are too stubborn to find their way to it. The film ends when they divorce.

 

Three Variations on a Theme and Oedipus)

Finally with Three Variations on a Theme I tried to illustrate the classic “hook” that I mentioned up above. In each of the three short pieces things are progressing along a certain track when a new entity introduces itself to tease a new path to follow. It was the cave calling to the pioneer, the muddy shortcut inviting the laborer, and the sinister exchange offered to the starving man. The introduction of each of these elements made for a divide in the road, a moment where the character could stay on their original road or else explore the other.

Of course in each case the character took the new route. Any time a story suggests a different road you can be sure it will be taken, because what would be the point of introducing it if not to then explore it? In each of these cases it proved to be the road to ruin, each allegory providing a caution against letting curiosity distract you from a path you already know to be right.

You see this same pattern in Oedipus’ journey as well. At the beginning he commits himself to a cause, but is then repeatedly warned to abandon it. Prophets, family members, and even his own intuition constantly warn him that he does not want to follow the thread he pulling on, but he stubbornly refuses to heed any of these voices.

Of course if he did desist then we, the audience, would be furious! The story has promised us epic tragedy and we won’t be satisfied until we get it. And so the path must be pursued, and the final revelations come fully into the light. When they do, Oedipus, and us as well, probably wish we had left well enough alone!

 

World Building)

There is one other way that an author can utilize this question of “what’s next?” in crafting their stories. This method is particularly related to world building and it begins by simply inventing one new thing in your world. Then, you repeatedly ask yourself how that one change would ripple out into others.

Take the world of Harry Potter for example. It’s basically our own world, but with one twist: the witches and wizards of antiquity are real, as is their magic.

But if they are real, then how about wands? Yes.

And potions? Yes.

Oh, what about flying broomsticks? Yes, sure.

Oh, but if broomsticks are real what are they used for? Well, obviously they’re used for transportation.

What about for recreation? Sure, why not. In fact let’s say that they have sports based around them!

Well what would those look like?

You get the picture.

To be clear, I’m not saying that this particular conversation is at all representative of how J. K. Rowling actually came up with the idea of Quidditch, my point is merely to give an example of how a train of thought like this could be used to come up with all manner of interesting of details. The author merely introduce one thing that is new and then follows each of the threads that follow. Those threads will undoubtedly begin to branch in multiple directions as well, sprawling out until you’ve created an entire web of new experiences for the reader to enjoy.

It is this tool of using “what’s next?” in world building that I wish to explore with my next story. The world of that story is going to begin with one simple idea: I want for all of the currency and deeds to be maintained purely by digital ledgers, there won’t be any cash, checks, credit cards, contracts, or paper documentation of any sort. It’s a fairly simple change, but one that can certainly have numerous side-effects that follow it. Come back on Thursday to see how it all plays out.