On the weekend I was reminded of Tolstoy's brilliant answer to that question, which I think I first read in high school.
I can still hear Pahom's heart pounding fit to burst, see his body bent in a headlong rush to the finish—“An hour to suffer, a life-time to live.”
Sunday, 30 November 2014
It’s NaNoWriMo, or (Inter-)National Novel Writing Month (I guess InNaNoWriMo is one syllable too ridiculous). NaNoWriMo is “a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing” with the goal being 50000 words of rough draft by the end of November. I’ll be posting chapters of a work-in-progress titled The Redactor here.
I love feedback, positive or negative, but beware: this is genuinely a first draft. The plot is a sponge, and any good ideas you send my way might be absorbed. ...which, for a guy who likes to nail down his endings early, is a little scary.
Sunday, 2 November 2014
re•dact (rɪˈdækt) : to put into suitable literary form; edit.
The gun never wobbles in the movies.
My hand squeezed the grip so tight it was sliding on the sweat. I stared along the barrel at the kid, but it wouldn’t sit still. The sight was drawing crazy circles round him when all I wanted was a bead on his chest.
Maybe it never wobbles in the movies because they don’t task forty-year-old professors of literature with murder—particularly forty-year-old professors of literature with a heart condition and a fear of needles.
So much can change in a week.
Murder? Yeah, I wanted to murder this kid. I wanted my bullet to tear a hole in an artery. I was giddy to see him ragdoll to the ground, blood gushing onto the street.
I just hoped that before he died he had the presence of mind to look for me. I wanted him to know I made it. Me, Jack Griffin. I played his game. And he lost.
I’m tempted to ask, “How did it come to this?”
Fact is, I know precisely how it came to this. It’s documented in ridiculous detail on the kid’s website.
Six Days Earlier
“I’ve got a feeling in my blood,” the kid said. “You ever get that? The desire to seduce someone?”
“No,” I lied.
“Only, it’s not seduction.” He licked his lips and seemed to consider. “Feels more like murder.”
“Murder?” I said thickly, trying to gauge Hiero’s mood. Was he depressed? Or was this just the latest attempt to coax a novel from his experience and imagination. Literature students can be obtuse. And of all my students, Hiero was the hardest to read. Finally I forced a laugh. “You need to pick a vice. Yesterday it was--”
He spoke over me. “What would you say if I said I want to kill a man?”
Was this suicide talk? But it didn’t fit, coming out of Hiero’s mouth. I played along.
“You want to...?” I said.
“Kill a man.”
“Kill a man, yes.”
“Homicidus Hieronymus,” he added.
The kid’s full name was Hieronymus Edgar Beck. He nearly always referred to himself as Hiero.
“Homicidus?” I checked.
I leaned back in my chair and let my eyes roam through my office. My gaze inevitably fell on the bookcase taking pride of place, nearly filling the long wall. Its shelves bowed under the weight of classics. I scanned the shelves, reading names—Chandler, Lewis, Nabokov, Salinger, Tolstoy, Vonnegut. This was no book-of-the-month portfolio club set. These books were marked by life, picked from charity shops, garage sales, laundromats, each stained by the grit of life, dog-eared by fingers uncaring or eager.
How I loved those books. How I hated those books.
“This guy you want dead. How does he die?” I probed. “Blade, poison, fire, blunt force trauma, asphyxiation?”
“All of the above,” said Hiero.
“You need to choose.”
“Choose?” He said it like it was a foreign word. Gen-Y—always want all the options.
He took a sheet of paper from a manila folder in his lap and wrote. The scratching of his pen was the only sound for the time it took him to write.
“Then there is the matter of forensics,” I said. “What trace evidence will the medical examiner find? Where does it lead?”
“Traces,” he said, stressing the sibilant. “And they lead to the climax. A school of red herrings, and one black.”
“Black? I’m not sure that’s in the idiom.”
Idiom is not a word I throw into many conversations. But lit students like it. Hiero loved it. Or so I assumed. He had come to my office most days of the year. He fancied himself the next J.D. Salinger, and he meant to write the next Catcher in the Rye. He said he had one book in him. But that one book would be a cracker.
I watched him scratching in his notepad, and wondered if I’d miss our talks when he returned home. He was on exchange, and semester had almost finished. He was flying home to the US next day.
“You’ll have to choose,” I said. “Murder needs precision. Say you pick poison. Okay. Is it Hemlock or Arsenic? Dilation of the pupils, dizziness, trembling, paralysis; or headache, drowsiness, diarrhea, leukonychia striata—white patches—in the fingernails? Hemlock grows by the side of the road in Washington. And Arsenic looks like cholera in Haiti.
“The devil is in the detail. You won’t fool your readers if you don’t know it back to front.”
He lifted his gaze from the notebook and smiled. “So I’ll research,” he said, eyes glinting behind a curtain of chestnut bangs.
I hammered the point. “Agatha Christie knew her poisons so well that a real murder was solved using one of her books.”
“Life and art,” he said with a smile.
“Art and life,” I replied in what had become a shared verbal tick. An in-joke.
Night had fallen when we said our goodbyes. I locked up my office in the pale green light of an emergency exit sign.
—and slipped on the corridor tiles. I crashed onto my hip and sent my briefcase careening into the darkness.
When I’d collected myself, I discovered what had caused my fall. I’d slipped on a manila folder. Loose paper had slewed from it onto the tiles. I gathered them up, then held the folder up to the poor light.
Printed on one side of the folder in permanent marker was Hieronymus E. Beck. And below that, The Immortal Novel.
I’d slipped on the notes for Hiero’s novel.
And my life would never be the same.
As I drove home that night I struggled to drown the pity I felt for Hiero. Back home, without my goading, he would probably forget about writing. Besides, he lacked talent. Real talent. With his looks, he would have more chance in Hollywood. I convinced myself it was a good thing he had lost the notes. That even if I knew where he lived, I wouldn’t return them.
But my conscience must’ve been uneasy. At my apartment, I ate a microwave dinner at my writing bureau, and examined his notes.
The folder held even less than I had first thought. Besides loose sheets, there were five sets of stapled pages, each of two or three sheets, and all titled Research. The cover page of each set appeared to be a typed template, and the last two were blank. Hiero had probably paid twenty bucks for a decrepit typewriter from a charity shop. Another Hemmingway-wannabe.
Shit — guilt, guilt.
I retrieved the topmost and held it to the light to read. The first line of the template said Means. Next to that, in curling script, was written, Asphyxiation.
The next item was Scene, followed again by the curling script: riverside path, near bush.
Then came Time: Evening, and finally, Victim: Female jogger. Redhead. An ellipsis, then Large-breasted.
I gave him a tick for the hyphen, then laughed, thinking, Hollywood and Hiero would get along fine.
A memory of my ex-wife killed the moment. I read on.
Below the cover page were notes written freehand. Hiero had made a study of methods for asphyxiation. Under Garrotting, he had Thickness and texture of rope, and wire. Even a kyoketsu-shoge—a weapon of ninjitsu, and relic of feudal Japan. The likely particulate trace evidence left by each, the texture left upon skin, the chance of rupturing the skin, and the likelihood of crushing the cartilage of the windpipe. He had drawn diagrams of the larynx, littered with details of angle and force, and concluded the minimum strength required.
I adjusted my opinion of Hiero’s career aptitudes. This kid needed to get into engineering. Safer in the current economic climate. Paid better too.
Sleep hit me before I got a chance to look at the rest of his notes. I binned the remains of my dinner and climbed the steps to my bedroom. The bed felt empty that night, and I blamed Hiero’s hormone-charged imagination.
Tomorrow I’d visit Bedbarn. Stop sleeping in one half of a queen-size bed.
Morning rose in glorious light, but I didn’t make it to Bedbarn.
A newspaper had been stuffed through my mailbox, even though I’d killed the subscription a month ago.
I read it over breakfast. It was on page seven that I found the article about the assault.
The previous night the victim—described as being in her early twenties—had been jogging the path that winds around Point Walter on the river, when a hooded man had leapt from the bushland adjoining it and wrestled her to the ground.
I didn’t want to hear if she’d been successfully sexually assaulted. My eyes flicked forward by habit to the next article.
But they caught on a word in italics: kyoketsu-shoge.
It came after the words ‘knife’ and ‘cord’ and was in brackets, and was no doubt the late-night research of some bored intern, but there it was.
The attacker’s intent had not been rape. He had meant to garrote the girl. Murder her. With a kyoketsu-shoge.
My vision glazed for a moment, then refocused to read the rest of the article. With relief I read that she had ‘fought her attacker off”, escaping with minor lacerations to the throat—and the weapon.
The kyoketsu-shoge was the sole reason the assault was news, and perhaps why it had been crammed into the stop press.
A tearing sound briefly drowned my senses. It came from within, and I think it was the sound of my life peeling away from what the average guy calls Reality.
When it subsided, my head tried anxiously to stick it back down.
Hiero’s dossier had said “Asphyxiation”. Sure. But how many assaults did the city of Perth host each year? Tons. Whole handfuls. And assault by museum artefact...?
The dossier said “Evening”. Well, that was the obvious time to strangle someone.
It said “Female”, too. So what? Weren’t they all.
No photos, so I couldn’t check if she had red hair or big boobs.
It said, “Kyoketsu-shoge”.
Shit. (Peeling sound).
I hurried to my writing bureau, where I’d left Hiero’s dossier, hunched over like an old man, and pawed through the sheets for the one I wanted.
When I found it and read the notes on asphyxiation, a ripple of relief rolled through me. No — it didn’t say kyoketsu-shoge. It mentioned kyoketsu-shoge, among many, many alternatives. The stats were looking up again.
Come on home, Reality. The coffee’s on.
I stuck her back down, but as fast as I did, a corner dog-eared up: and what if this _girl_ who was attacked _jogging_ by a _river_ near _bush_ in the evening—with a kyoketsu-shoge!—had auburn bangs and big tits?
“Murdoch Police Station,” said a voice. “What can I do for you?”
I pressed the phone receiver to my ear. My mind went blank.
“Hello?” said the receptionist.
“Hi. I— Do...” Professor of literature, note.
“Sir?” she said, and the sunshine had dropped out of her voice. “What is your name, and who do you want?”
“My name?” I said. “I’d rather not say.”
There was a pregnant pause on the line. It may have been my imagination that heard the line suddenly hiss as if it had been switched to speakerphone.
“Would you like to be transferred to Crime Stoppers, sir?”
“Yes, yes. Crime stoppers.” What the hell was I saying?
There was a click, and the line swelled with a community announcement about opening hours and the commissioning of a hospital. Then it cut out mid-sentence.
“Crime stoppers,” said another female voice.
“I’m calling about the assault last night—the girl. The kyoketsu-shoge. I...” What?
“Do you have information pertaining to the crime?” said the voice.
“Yes. No. I wanted some information.”
“This is not a reporting service, sir. If you would like to—”
Then the mind-fart: “The girl. Did she have red hair and large breasts?”
The receptionist said a word I didn’t catch, then one I did: “Sicko.” She hung up.
I laughed. It was an odd sound.
I dialled emergency.
“Emergency services,” said yet another voice. “Which service do you require: police, ambulance, or fire?”
“Police.” Why weren’t all the questions multiple choice?
The line cut-over to a call tone, which was promptly picked up.
“Police. Please describe the nature of your emergency.” A man’s voice. Clipped tones.
“I need to know—”
“Is there an emergency, sir?”
“Then I must inform you that two false calls have been logged originating from this number. If you persist, charges will be pressed. Do you understand?”
I hung up. Dropped the phone like a snake.
Then I walked circles in my study with a palm pressed to my forehead.
A police man had just been rude to me. Me, who had never had so much as a speeding ticket.
I picked up the phone again and dialled international.
The call ping-ponged through the network, and rang for what seemed an age.
“Sparkes,” said my ex-wife.
“Jean,” I said.
“Shit, not today, Jack.”
“Good morning to you, too,” I said.
“It’s not morning here, Jack. It’s the afternoon. The morning finished hours ago, and I’m still trying to wash off the stink of faculty politics.”
“Play their game, Jean, and you stink their stink.” I couldn’t help it.
“Oh!” she said, and the sarcasm came dripping out of the handset. “I forgot I was talking to the man with the pristine arse. How’s that novel coming, Jack?”
“How’s Tracey,” I said.
“Always the segue,” she said, but the venom dried up. “Tracey’s on the east coast for the month. She’s taking a holiday. There’s a seminar by Robert McKee—some screenplay guru.”
“Screenplays? When did my daughter develop Attention Deficit?”
Jean laughed, and it made me smile till I remembered why I’d rung.
“Jean, be honest—”
I told her about Hiero’s notes and the assault.
She said, “This Hiero—he’s in your exchange group?”
“Yes. What do you think?” I said.
“What do you mean, what do I think? Attention deficit. That would make a nice screenplay—you could be played by Tom Cruise in the movie, and your student could be Leonardo Di Caprio.”
“So am I. Or maybe Tom Hanks.”
“You think I look like Tom Hanks?”
“Call me later, Jack. I feel like crap.” She hung up.