Young guy in the old west going up against someone way out of his league, but the bullets are burning a hole in his gun.
Her boyfriend is a percussionist in modern art music ensemble. She attends all his concerts, and truthfully enjoys them even though she knows she doesn’t understand much of what is going on.
Narrator finds a key, asks a locksmith to design a lock based on the key. The locksmith does so, designing a box with lock that the key opens.
Narrator discovers that that using the key a certain way opens a hidden compartment he didn’t expect.
Write a story with a cliffhanger ending.
The door opened with the lady on the other side. She wasn’t cute, but she had smiled at him when he slid his pack of spearmint gum across the counter to be rung up and paid for with a crumpled dollar. Gerald felt guilty for judging her looks, he’d been on the short end of that enough times to know better.
“Back for more gum?” It was the fourth time in two days he’d been in the store, and she had noticed him. A thrill in his gut rendered him unable to decide whether a fourth identical purchase would be worse than obviously changing his mind and picking some other random thing. He sheepishly handed over another dollar and added another pack of gum (wintergreen this time) to his pocket. “Have a good day!” she called after him. He couldn’t bring himself to turn and respond.
Namir was waiting for him around the corner. “Did she notice you?” He didn’t want to share that moment just yet, so Gerald just gave him the information he really wanted. “The bathroom is in the back, to the right as you face the beer fridge. In the hallway that leads to the back exit.” The two of them walked back toward the entrance.
The door opened and Namir was the first one through, shouting and swearing. She ducked behind the counter, more frightened of the sudden noise than his threats. Gerald stood frozen in the door. In an instant, Namir was behind the counter, emptying the cash register. Gerald backed out of the doorway and stood behind the pay phone. If she looked out from behind the counter, she wouldn’t be able to see him.
From that vantage point he had a clear view of the police car turning onto the street about two blocks away and driving toward the convenience store.
DK: It feels a little more clinical than some of the others; the buildup is there but it’s a little more distant, so I don’t find myself as immediately invested. But otherwise, it’s a strong situation and setup.
4 points out of 5
K: Ah, I like Gerald. He’s ripped straight from The Wire – this story doesn’t make it easy to understand whether you should be rooting for or against him. A convenience store robbery isn’t a great cliffhanger on its own, but with this added layer it becomes far more interesting.
4 points out of 5
I have never seen a single minute of The Wire, but to hear other descriptions of it, if my characters sound like they are coming out of that show, I must be doing something right. Spooky mentioned the added layer of ambiguity about Gerald, but I thought I would point out one more layer that could easily be missed. The door opens twice in the story, once to reveal the lady, and once to admit Namir (Namir is a common arab name, but also the Arabic word for ‘tiger’). So when Gerald sees the police coming he has to decide who he’s going to help, the Lady or the Tiger. A little homage from me to perhaps the definitive example of a cliffhanger short story.
(NOTE: to be clear, I’m not complaining that the judges missed something. They read the story as I wanted it. I just toyed around with the little homage, and so wanted to have somewhere where it was pointed out)
Write an inauguration speech for a President that is revealing his evil intentions:
As I take the office of President I am reminded of my grandmother. She didn’t realize it, but she was the one who set me on the path to this day. We were playing miniature golf in my basement in rural South Dakota where I grew up. I was about 8 or 9 at the time and I had built a makeshift course. It was my turn, and, for the third time, my shot failed to make it up the ramp and over the obstacle. “Jeez…” I started, and even as the words came out of my mouth I was thinking of earlier in the day when my cousin had gotten in trouble with my grandmother for taking the Lord’s name in vain. However, instead of letting that stop me, I forged ahead. “Jesus Christ!” I cursed, with the ball rolling back toward me off the ramp. My grandmother quickly gave me a sharp look and warned me to watch my mouth.
That was exactly what I was going for. I had realized in the moment between when I started my exclamation and when I had decided to follow through, that I could manipulate her into giving me the reaction that I wanted. Halfway between Jesus and Christ, I got a thrill that I didn’t recognize then, but that I realize now was the thrill of control. I’ve been seeking that out ever since. Now today, I have pulled off the manipulation of an entire country. You, the people, have no idea what you are in for, but let me tell you, that thrill of control? The Presidential Oath gives a huge one, and it hasn’t worn off yet.
K: This actually felt like it was going somewhere much more shocking; I would have loved to see the candidate specifically say religious manipulation was his gimmick. The ending feels a little too obvious, but the setup was still presidential and fun.
3 points of 5
DK: Imagining this kid driven by such a singular, psychological purpose all the way to the highest office in the land is something I’m getting a good kick out of.
4 points of 5
I think there’s a good idea in this. I don’t think that I got the best out of it though. It was missing that extra wrinkle that make the best Survivor entries. I really wanted to work in a reference to The Mule from Asimov’s Foundation series, and his ability to manipulate people’s emotions. Maybe I should have included that, but I couldn’t work it in without a whole extra paragraph that would have been extraneous.
Take a commonly accepted practice and argue in its favor as though it wasn’t commonly accepted.
The screaming started just after 2 A.M. I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter. I reached the living room to find Adam standing over a prone body, bloody baseball bat raised over his head ready for his next blow.
“Stop! What are you doing?”
Adam mumbled something about an intruder, but I was already on the floor, checking the eyes of the man on the floor. Seeing no twinkles, I checked his other vital signs. His dimples were no longer merry, and his droll little mouth lay slackly open, a trickle of blood staining the carpet.
“You killed Saint Nick.” I breathed. Adam dropped the bat and backed away in horror.
My first thought was for the children. I’m not sure if that makes me a monster or a candidate for mother of the year, but what were they going to do when Santa didn’t show? Sure, this year we could just plunder his bag of toys and they would be none the wiser, but what about next year?
“What happened here?” a new voice asked. I whipped around. I hadn’t even heard my mother-in-law come in. I explained the situation, concluding with my worries about the children. She was cold, calculating, and heartless as always. I’m not sure she even looked twice at the body on her carpet. “Here’s what we do. We become Santa. The kids will never know the difference, once they’re older, they will figure it out, but they’ll just assume it was one more lie that we told them, just like the puppy that got sent to the farm and all that.”
The teenage department store employee gaped at me, rendered completely speechless. “And that,” I concluded, “is why you need to march yourself back into the storeroom and find me a Transformers Dark of the Moon Ultimate Optimus Prime.”
What is wrong with me?
K: Oh, Jeez, I was convinced I didn’t care about scoring this week, but you people are MAKING me care. This is about the fifth one that deserves the top spot, but I only have one five to give. It’s an unconventional choice, presented unconventionally, with shock humor that actually shocks and is well-written throughout leading to a punchline that’s hilarious and specific while remaining pitch black. Alright, you convinced me.
5 points on a forced curve (5 point max.)
DK: I laughed at this one a fair bit, too. I thought this idea was pretty clever and the author made it make a lot of sense.
4 points on a forced curve (5 point max.)
I almost overthought this one and spent way too much time on world-building and stuff that really didn’t matter. Thank goodness for the word limit.
Come up with a creative writing challenge of your own:
Harrison Bergeron Challenge
The problem with most stories is that one character always seems to have the upper hand. The story you write in this challenge will attempt to rectify that.
Inspired by the handicaps of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic short story, every 250 words* the characters in your story must forget all the events that happened in that prior section. The ending of the story can be expanded a bit beyond the 250-word section limit (within reason) and need not conclude with a forgetting (although it certainly may). Events that occurred prior to the beginning of the story can be recalled after each forgetting (e.g., characters will remember their names).
The cause of the forgettings is up to the author, but the memory loss must be total and complete. The overall word limit for your story is 2,500.* Of course, the longer the story, the more forgettings you have to include (two of them is the minimum requirement).
Forced Curve – in order that no contestant feels inferior, the curve will consist of every submission (including any non-subs) getting a 1 from both judges.
*word limits and scoring method can be modified at the judges discretion.
K: I’m going to pretend I didn’t read that crack about the forced curve, so this is a pretty great idea. It’s only the first one, but it’ll be a tall order for three entries to beat this one.
DK: I like this idea a lot; I like challenges that leave a lot of room for creativity in the story with some limitations on how that story unfolds. It seems like the particular handicaps could create a lot of “Memento: The Short Story” results (I wonder if Memento was “inspired” by Harrison Bergeron at all…) but I think there’s a lot of room to work with anyway.
Once again, I used an existing story as my inspiration (in previous seasons it was Ray Bradbury or Clint Eastwood), this strategy seemed to pay off in previous seasons (two high scores in those two weeks), so I went back to the well one more time. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That immunity will be used the next time our team votes someone out.
Another Spookymilk Survivor staple. Write the worst opening for a novel that you can think of.
The desert behaves drunkenly, the sun acting as its liver as it dehydrates the dry climate, only the sun uses solar heat instead of alcohol dehydrogenase enzymes.
K: This doesn’t seem like a story opener, which actually doesn’t help; I’d rather detect a horrible story here than not detect one at all. I’m not sure what to hate about it, and the ridiculous turn in this sentence made me laugh in a good way.
1 point of 5 (forced curve)
DK: I don’t even know if there’s a story here at all, but I know I don’t want to read any more of it.
4 points of 5 (forced curve
At least one of the judges liked it (or didn’t like it). I thought there were less hilarious entries this year than in previous years (my entry included). Maybe this is a blessing in disguise, with my scores keeping me under the radar for a bit. I’m guessing that won’t be the case, but you never know until you have to vote to eliminate someone, and our team hasn’t had to do that yet.
Given the answers, our team had to come up with the questions. My contributions are below:
I should have known that’s what “Louie Louie” was about.
I never knew of Mr. Berry’s obsession with Duck Tales.
Winner! (2 of 2 judges picked it)
Well, that’s one way to survive a nuclear blast.
He’s taking his Kafka fanhood too far, isn’t he?
Winner! (1 of 2 judges picked it)
I guess that’s the one good thing about visiting a KKK complex.
We haven’t lost a basketball game there in 12 years!
Winner! (2 of 2 judges picked it)
Of the nineteen answers provided, the team picked three of mine (I got there a little late, but added a few good lines). The team dominated, picking up 20 of a possible 38 points. Another good challenge result for us.
The judges gave us half of a conversation (person A in the conversation below), we had to build a story around it.
A: You missed a call.
B: Are you kidding? Six weeks at this hospital, and I haven’t yet actually called a death. No one else is here, can I do it now?
A: Yeah. There’s no reason not to.
B: OK, time of death is 5:26 PM. Did the nurse ever find the next of kin?
A: No. She never did. Neither did I, for that matter.
B: That’s awful, Can you think of a worst place to die than alone in a hospital surrounded by strangers?
A: At the Fall Festival?
B: Is this about that homeless guy again? I told you before that he was dead when I got there. I bought you a nice dinner to thank you for your help. You understand what it would have looked like if I was found in that situation?
A: Yeah, that would have been a disaster.
B: So why do you keep needling me about this? You even got those ghouls in the morgue to mess with me at lunch yesterday, that prank was incredibly disgusting.
A: It wasn’t personal. They don’t see things the same way you do.
B: I still don’t like them.
A: You’re not the only one.
B: They are evil. You should stop hanging out with them.
A: Absolutely not.
B: Fine. then I’m going to have to take matters into my own hands.
A: So what are you going to do about it?
B: The same thing I did to that homeless guy. They have it coming.
K: This one is so…quick. Yes, it’s light on words, but it also just moves along nicely. This one, too, peaked a bit early, but had some nice gags along the way.
3 points out of 5
DK: Real talk time: I’m learning that one of my hangups as a judge is balancing my expectations and desire of where something is going to go against where it actually does go. I thought this was going to go in a more interesting direction than it did, and it’s hard not to mark it down because I didn’t agree with the choice made.
3 points out of 5
Others weaved an actual narrative instead of just creating a conversation. I did not do that, and the scores are pretty much what the entry deserved. A non-submitter decided the elimination, so our team remains complete after this.
My seven teammates and I were charged with each writing one section of a complete story. I wrote the fifth section (labeled “Things Get Worse” in the challenge description). So far in the story, a truck driver (Roger) has almost stopped to pick up a hitcher (Thomas) but decided against it.
Thomas felt that familiar foreboding that accompanied another missed ride. He pictured himself insubstantial, the gravel spit up by the tires of this truck passing straight through him without leaving a mark. If he acknowledged them, even these small impacts would be enough to fell him.
The driver’s eyes shifted between the dashboard clock and his side mirror that showed the unmoving hitcher receding behind him. In the time it took Roger to calculate just how far behind schedule he was, whatever strings had been holding the hitcher upright were snapped and he collapsed forward, splaying his ragged legs over the white line bordering the highway.
K: Some great touches here, like the strings holding the hitcher upright. This whole story has been a feast for a lover of language.
4 points out of 5
DK: Pretty powerful image of Thomas here for me. Sends the tension back upwards well.
4 points out of 5
Very satisfied with how this turned out. Our team is crazy talented, so this was actually below the average score for the eight of us. Plot-wise I had to give Roger a reason to turn around in future sections, and tone-wise I wanted to include in the descriptions of Thomas the ideas of being tethered and of being transparent or incorporeal.
The plot sprang from my initial idea that got bandied about and improved by the team, so I was happy to see that the overall story also got a 4 out of 5 from both judges, making our team the high scorer of the week (and also the only team that had everyone submit something).
The latest Spookymilk Survivor season is upon us! As always the first challenge was to write a short story in exactly 59 words:
I stopped to lean against this wall.
Instantly, I felt trembling upon my touch.
My wall will fall.
I’m compelled to stay, lend my supportive hands.
Breaking contact condemns it to destruction.
My wall will fall.
My hands bleed as the wall fights to come down.
I let go.
My wall will fall.
K: This is high concept, and I’m sorry to say after a few reads it hasn’t given me that moment of A-HA yet. I get that the wall is actually weakened by our lead character, but I don’t know why. Are we in a bad relationship here? I’m going to be annoyed when I find out what I missed, I hope.
3 points out of 5
DK: I’m kind of teetering on the balance between 4 and 5 with this one; it doesn’t quite hit a perfect emotional response for me, but I want to generally reward out of the box/original thinking on these standard Spookymilk challenges that achieve as much success as this one does with a different approach.
5 points out of 5
I love this new judge! With regards to the entry iteslf, the poem-like repetitive structure was the interesting part to me. I’m glad that neither judge thought it detracted from the story. But what was it all about? The original idea was about obsession, and how you can grab hold onto something and refuse to be distracted from it. I couldn’t get the impact that I wanted out in 59 words though (also, there was no good ending to that – the narrator would just keep leaning on the wall). So then the ending that works is what? He has to let the wall fall, he doesn’t want to let go of this idea, doesn’t want it to fall down, but in the end it’s the only way to make it work. It kind of ended up being a story about itself.
So, there is about 100 words to explain a 59-word story. Hopefully future entries won’t require proportional explanation.
Well, yesterday was the first day of summer, and the Twins are playing good ball lately, so, naturally, I thought the time was just right to re-introduce the Whangdoodle.
Follow along, and I’ll ramble on about the new coach and the upcoming draft.
MIKE YEO IS YOUR NEW WILD HEAD COACH
I freely admit that almost all of my Wild news comes through Russo, so if you’ve read his thoughts on the hiring of Houston Aeros head coach Mike Yeo as the third head coach in Minnesota Wild franchise history, there may be some overlap here. One thing that Russo really captured was my initial reaction to the announcement. “Wow. Really?” I thought. I don’t follow the Aeros much, so I don’t have a good sense of what his strategic inclinations are (from all reports, he prefers a defensive style), but he took the Wild’s minor league team, which has never been particularly well-regarded talent-wise, and took them all the way to the Calder Cup finals.
So I read Russo’s breakdown, in which he points out how GM Chuck Fletcher has surprised people by choosing a coach that is, at least superficially, to his previous hire that lasted two years and garnered zero playoff seasons. Both Richards and Yeo, at the time of their hiring, were young guys with no NHL head coaching experience. They both came out of the Pittsburgh minor league system. They are not the same coach, everyone points out that they have different styles, but those surface similarities are going to make for some easy pickings for the “Fletcher’s an idiot” crowd.
Then I read Wyshynski’s column on Puck Daddy, and looked at some of the other takes from various local columnists. And I found myself liking the decision. The Wild should get younger this year and next. They probably aren’t a serious playoff contender next year (although it could happen). I am not sure that any coaching hire, no matter their pedigree, would convince me that their prospects in the 2011-12 season just got better. So, the Wild go with a guy who had success within their organization, with the players that will be (should be) a part of the team over the next couple of years.
Maybe it’s the thrill of the unknown, watching Ken Hitchcock grind out a 8th-10th place finish with a team that just isn’t talented enough to do better doesn’t excite me. I think that’s because we know what Hitchcock (or MacTavish, or whoever) can do, and if that’s what they produce, well, there it is, that’s the ceiling for both the team and the coach. I’m sure there are those who disagree that the same finish under Yeo will be more satisfying, more promising somehow. I’m not even sure that I believe it at this point. But that’s the closest I can come to expressing my feelings at this point, so it’ll have to do.
NHL DRAFT AT THE EXCEL CENTER
The draft is Friday, and I can’t tell you anything about any of the players that the Wild may pick. For that there are lots and lots of mock drafts out there.
Almost all of them that I’ve seen have the Wild taking a wing or a center. Hard to argue with that. The Wild have a pretty deep blue line right now, with lots of younger guys who are ready to step in. They have been short-handed at center forever (maybe it just seems that way), and they could always use more scoring everywhere in their organization.
Last year, the Wild took Mikael Granlund, the first player from Europe off the board, with the ninth pick. Granlund has really impressed in the Finnish Elite League, playing against much older competition, and helping his team to the Elite League title last season, while averaging a point per game. He probably won’t be in a Wild sweater this coming season, but whenever he comes over, it’s going to be really exciting.
The Wild pick tenth this year, and it’s going to be impossible for them to find anyone who will be able to contribute in the NHL immediately. However, if they can find someone to complement Granlund (and 2nd round pick Jason Zucker, who won the WCHA Rookie of the Year playing for Denver) upon his arrival in a season or two, that would go a long way toward increasing optimism about this franchise.
The Wild do not have a second round pick (having traded it for Chuck Kobasew), but will have one pick in the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th rounds.
The final challenge for this version of Spookymilk Survivor is my winning entry to the Create-a-Challenge round.
Tell a story in six parts from six points of view. Once a character’s point of view is used they do not appear in the remainder of the story.
I – The Hired Help
The sun was almost completely blocked out by the trees surrounding her. She had been walking for what seemed like miles while the forest darkened around her. Stopping, she pulled out the map her employer’s wife had given her, but it was too dark to read. She wasn’t lost, just stalling. Everyone knew where the Eater’s cottage was from when they were young and dared each other to get as close as they could before their courage failed. Having never gotten particularly close as a youth, she cursed her employer for dying at such a creepy hour, forcing her to have to enlist the Eater’s assistance in almost complete darkness.
The cottage was just ahead. She steeled her nerve and approached slowly. No evidence of habitation was visible, the door hung open, but the interior was so dark that nothing was revealed. She tried not to think of all the stories of black magic that swirled around in whispers whenever the Eater came up in conversation, and reached out to rap on the doorframe.
“Why are you here?” The rattling whisper almost sent her sprinting back into the forest, but she held her ground.
“My employer has died, we require your services.”
Silence from the house. Until, suddenly, the Eater appeared out of the darkness, and, without a word, strode off into the forest toward her employer’s home.
II – The Wife
A crash from behind startled her. She turned to find her son had attempted to sneak in and run off with the mixing bowl that contained the remainder of the sweet cake batter. He had tried to catch the bowl with his damaged left hand, the one burned to unrecognizability three years ago, and now he stared at the betraying hand with a look of hatred and disappointment. Before she could say anything, he hid those feelings and put on his best innocent face. “What are you making, mother?”
“It’s not for you, it’s your father’s funeral cake.” She took the pan from the oven and set the single small human-shaped cake aside to cool for a moment. “You need to be watching the front walk to let me know when the Eater gets here.”
Fear flashed across her son’s face. “Why is the Eater coming?”
A question she had been wrestling with all day, truth be told. For what seemed like the eighteenth time, she convinced herself that she had done the right thing. It was going against her husband’s wishes, but there were larger things at stake here. Her husband had been insistent that the Eater not be called, but without that ritual, he would never be absolved of his sins. She looked at her son’s shriveled, useless arm and reminded herself that her husband needed all the help he could get.
Trying to sound convincing, for both her sake and her son’s, she answered, “The Eater is coming to forgive.”
III – The Killer
I told him his kid should be the Eater. That was the decision of the town, and he only got around it because people were afraid of what he would do if they persisted. He already set his own son on fire to keep him from being named the Eater. His exact words were “If I can’t have him, no one can.”
No one could believe he would do such a thing, but everyone was scared of what he would do next. So, instead it’s my son out there in the forest. I can’t even say that anymore. My son is gone, destroyed by the sins of everyone in this town. Because of that man. So I saw him alone this evening and I told him all of that, gave piece of my mind. He took a swing at me. I didn’t stop swinging until he stopped moving.
I wish I felt worse about it, but I think he still hurt me more three years ago than I hurt him tonight.
IV – The Dead Man
The hot cake burns my chest. I wish that I could feel it, but even though I can’t, knowing that it does is some comfort.
The Eater enters the room, he is impossibly tall, with a smooth, expressionless face. I know that he has waited a long time for this moment, but it doesn’t show anywhere on his face. He closes the door, and stands over me. Quietly he murmurs words that I can’t make out. I can feel myself detaching from my body, With each sentence he utters, a plume of black comes out of me and is absorbed into the cake. I can feel the sins leaving me, the lies, the lustful thoughts, the lustful actions, the moments of weakness, each one lifts a small weight off my spirit, but all of these are insignificant compared to the one that I cannot let go.
His murmurs have turned to firmly spoken words.
I give easement and rest now to thee dear man…
He lies. I know there is no intention of providing either of those things. I hold to this last sin as tightly as I can. It has defined my life, the moment that I rained down violence of the worst kind upon my own flesh and blood. How can the Eater take this sin to be his own? The cake is putrescent and bloated to my eyes from what it has absorbed to this point. An image of that final sin exploding the pastry and splattering the walls with the foul black sin of my life crosses my mind. I have already visited my sins upon too many of those I love, this last one is mine and mine alone.
V – The Eater
I have never had a fight quite like that during a ritual, but at last the final sin has been expelled in a plume of black that dwarfed anything I had ever seen. Taking a second to compose myself, I prepare to undertake the final step.
I spit on the cake.
I never considered Eating this atrocity of a confection. After I was exiled, I waited only for the day that I would be called to this house and could deny that final absolution. Things won’t go back to before, there is no fixing that. Once you Eat, things change. People can sense the sin you have taken on, they don’t want to be around you for any reason. Why they can stand it on the person who actually committed the sin, I haven’t been able to figure out.
Leaving the room, I see the son sitting quietly across the hall. Still boiling from the ritual and the revenge, I want to rub his face in what I have done. I grab him out of the chair. He fights against me, but his deformed arm is useless and he cannot break my grasp. I carry him to the door of the room I just left.
I stop before re-entering the room. There’s no point. This kid won’t do anything. Unforgivable things were done to me, but something worse had been done to him. I put him down and turn away. As soon as I’m out of sight of that house with all its rotting sin I begin to run back to the forest.
VI – The Son
Tears are streaming down my face. The cake is bitter from the start. I must finish Eating, to complete the ritual. Each bite overwhelms me with the awful taste of that night I was disfigured. It doesn’t matter. Tonight, I’m the Eater, and the Eater has come to forgive.
I give easement and rest now to thee dear man.
Come not down the lanes or in our meadows.
And for thy peace I pawn my own soul. Amen.
I’m writing this note before judging: I really like this entry as it is now. Considering this season had quite a few last-second entries that weren’t exactly as I envisioned them, it was satisfying to go out knowing that I had an entry I felt good about. Both of the other contestants are more than capable of topping this, so I’m not counting my prize money yet, but I think this will be a strong entry that can hang with anything they come up with.
I’ll be back to post judges comments and results later. Wish me luck!
K: Originality: 5. At times it reads like verything from Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” to Red Riding Hood, but this one does a good job of creating a myth all its own.
Use of Each Character: 4. There is nothing particularly wrong with the use of the characters, but each section reads in a very similar tone, which didn’t allow the emotions and psyches of each character to shine through. The characters themselves are very interesting; I just wanted a touch more of a voice for each.
Effectiveness of the prose: 5. I wanted more from the character standpoint, but the plot worked, I quickly understood the new world I was thrust into, and I was engaged. I read it a couple of times to get the full effect (I read all of these twice, in the end), and understanding this world and watching the story unfold was equally powerful the second time.
B: It never ceases to amaze me the originality that can come from this competition. Not sure I’ve seen anything like this (though it vaguely reminds me of Stephen King’s Thinner). Despite this world being unknown to me, I learned its rituals and rules very quickly. I am also a sucker for (short) stories where there is no hero, as I have fewer expectations as to where the story might lead. Beautiful story.
Originality (1-5) 5
Effective use of each character (1-5) 5
Overall effectiveness of the prose (1-5) 4
28 out of 30 – First Place!
I won! Holy crap. This was a crazy good final challenge, go over and read the other entries, they were all awesome, and the scores were really close. I’m psyched that I won this thing, probably more so than my first win. Thanks again to Spooky for putting this thing together, and to Beau for judging and all the competitors for being so incredibly challenging.
I’ll probably sit the next round out, but you never know, I may return to seek that elusive third championship ring in some future version. Stay tuned.
If you know the premise of the Machine of Death story anthology, then you know what this week’s challenge was. If not, those words look different because they are a link to a page that explains everything. Click on them.
Melbourne Swinson ducked out of his carriage and hurried across the busy street. The message had requested the utmost haste and discretion, and he felt a cold premonition of dread as he moved up the stairs toward the apartment of the recently deceased Mr. McJeffries. His assistant, Mr. Close, met him at the top of the stairs. How that man beat him to every crime scene was an ongoing frustration in Detective Swinson’s career, but he brushed it aside as he listened to Mr. Close relate the situation as he understood it.
“It’s another locked room murder, sir. There were three people in the house, none of whom have an airtight alibi, and none of whom will admit to witnessing the killing.”
“Are we sure it was one of the three of them? Could someone have come in off the street?”
Mr. Close tugged nervously at his collar, “The window was open, so I guess it’s possible that the killer could be someone no longer in the house…”
Melbourne Swinson ducked out of his carriage and hurried across the mud of the country lane. The message had requested the utmost haste and discretion, and he felt a cold premonition of dread as he moved up the drive toward the country manor of the recently deceased Mr. McJeffries. His assistant, Mr. Close, met him at the top of the stairs. How that man beat him to every crime scene was an ongoing frustration in Detective Swinson’s career, but he brushed it aside as he listened to Mr. Close relate the situation as he understood it.
“It’s another locked room murder, sir. There were three people in the house, none of whom have an airtight alibi, and none of whom will admit to witnessing the killing.”
“Are we sure it was one of the three of them? Could the killer no longer be in the house?”
“It doesn’t seem so, every window is shut and locked from the inside.”
Mr. Greene appeared to show the two men inside, to the room where the others waited while the investigation was ongoing. Upon admitting them to the room, he turned to take his leave, but Mr. Close motioned for him to stay. “I’ve read too many mystery novels to let the butler escape notice.”
Swinson gave Close a hard look. “What are you talking about? Mystery novels?”
“Yes, you know, Agatha Christie, Mary Roberts Rinehart, “the butler did it” and all that?”
“The butler did it?” Swinson asked incredulously, “How do you know?”
“I’m not saying this butler did it, I’m just saying if this were a mystery novel, he would be an obvious suspect.”
“There you go with these mystery novels again, I don’t know what you mean, but I guess your hunch gives us a place to get started.” Swinson eyed the butler accusingly. “Mr. Greene, empty your pockets and tell us how long you’ve been in the service of the victim.”
The butler began to empty his pockets, protesting, “I’m not really Mr. McJeffries butler, I swear.”
“Why were you pretending to be a butler?”
“I … I … I was just trying to get out of here before you started asking too many questions. I didn’t kill him, but I do have things in my life that I’d rather not discuss with the police.”
Close held up his hands, “Wait, wait. You wanted to escape notice in a murder investigation, so you pretended to be the butler? What were you thinking?”
Swinson turned to his partner, “Honestly, what do you have against butlers?”
“It’s not me! I told you, it’s the –”
“Mystery novels. Yes, yes, I know. Written by Agatha Christie and Mary Roberts Rinehart, people that none of us have ever heard of, in which butlers seem to perpetrate every crime imaginable.”
“You have never heard of Agatha Christie?”
“No. I haven’t. Who is she?”
“Only one of the most famous mystery writers ever. Her books were published back in the 1920’s and 30’s.”
“Published in the 1920’s and 30’s? Close, have you lost your mind? It’s 1834!”
The butler (who only pretended to be a butler) interjected, “May I leave now?”
Casting one last glance at his partner, Swinson turned his attention back to the suspect. “No, I haven’t finished with you.” The contents of the man’s pockets lay on the table between them. Swinson noticed a small vial, labelled only with an ‘X’. “What is this?”
Greene nervously tugged at his collar. “That is … it is …” with a sigh, he finished, “rat poison.”
“That seals it. Lock this man in the library, Close. Turns out you were right about the butler.”
“No! I told you I had no hand in killing him! You can ask Ophelia, she can tell you.” The accused man’s cries followed him out of the room.
“You are Mr. McJeffries’ secretary?” The man across from Swinson sat stiffly, his scarf wrapped loosely around his neck. At his feet a coil of rope balanced precariously atop his case.
“That is correct, I’ve been in his employ for nearly ten years now.”
“Have you ever seen the other man, Mr. Greene around the house before today.”
“Oh, yes. He was always around. He was chasing after the missis. From what I have seen, he caught her as well.”
“They were having an affair? Was Mr. McJeffries aware of that?”
“I can’t say for sure, but it wouldn’t have been hard for him to find out.”
“Did you see anything suspicious or out of the ordinary today?”
“Yes. The missis, Ophelia, was carrying around a knife earlier in the day, I did not see what she did with it before you arrived though.”
“Ophelia, can you think of a motive for Mr. Greene to kill your husband?”
“No, sir. Mr. Greene had never met my husband.”
“Were the two of you involved?” Swinson was beginning to see his open and shut case against the butler who wasn’t a butler crumbling. The new widow nodded. He made one last effort to salvage his theory. “That seems like a possible motive. With your husband out of the picture, you inherit his fortune and the two of you can finally be together. Is that what happened? What were you doing with a knife earlier today?”
“No, you must believe me. We were never planning anything like that. Besides, there was hardly any money left at this point. My husband had nearly lost it all. It wasn’t his fault though, that lousy secretary of his was stealing money right out from underneath his nose.”
“Mr. Bump was embezzling? Do you have any proof?”
“No, my husband had it, he confronted his secretary about it last week. Apparently, the man told my husband that if he was fired, he would strangle him before the words left his lips.”
Swinson turned to Close in the empty room, once the interviews were completed. “We have three motives and three weapons. What we don’t have is cause of death.”
“If we could match the cause to the weapon, we could easily identify the murderer. Have you heard about the newest invention they brought in for exactly this type of situation? If you need to establish how someone is going to die (or how they have already died) you just need a blood sample – apparently, it’s sometimes pretty cryptic, but it’s always accurate. Maybe we would get lucky in this case?”
“It’s worth a go, did you get the blood sample?”
“Yes I did. And I brought the machine.”
The two men rushed outside, Close handed the blood sample from the recently deceased McJeffries to his partner who fed it to the machine. Written on the small piece of paper produced by the Machine were two words.
Close read it, and shrugged, “That seems awfully cryptic.”
Swinson thought for a moment, “I’ve got it. This is it, Close, think about it. The whole premise is wrong. Remember that I originally came to you in a city apartment, then, without explanation, we found ourselves here completely removed from any other possible suspects. It is too convenient. Then, our butler discussion is completely reliant upon your having read books written by authors who do not yet exist. Why is that?”
Close had no response.
“Finally to cap this entirely unreasonable investigation, the final reveal is perpetrated by this cryptic Machine of Death. It has no place here in 1834, we don’t even have electricity yet.”
“Exactly. This device isn’t practical, but it is perfectly suited to our needs to solve this murder. It is a purely literary device!”
“I don’t follow you, sir.”
“A literary device, Close. Anachronisms, plot holes, and literary devices – I’m thinking this sounds like a detective story.”
Close perked up, “If that’s the case, and if things go as they usually do, at this point, all the clues have been laid out, and the reader must be wondering ‘who is the culprit?’. Do you know who the murderer is?”
“No. and I can’t know. This is one story where the readers will always solve the mystery before we do.”
K: Wow, what a ride this one was. It’s up to the reader to learn what “Hapax Legomenon” means (“a word which occurs only once in either the written record of a language, the works of an author, or in a single text”). From there I had to see which character’s name was only mentioned once. It’s very meta, but in such a clever way that I don’t feel robbed of the story. Very satisfying, in a different way from the norm.
In the end, the amount of work I did to get there and the ridiculously creative attack taken by the last one puts it over the edge. Well, look at that; I chose a meta entry! Play with meta and you play with fire, but play with words and I’ll let you get into my pants.
B: Had I come back to this a few times over several days, I may have figured this out on my own. Once I learned what the literary device really is, I got a lot closer to solving it, and Spook gave me the final clue to tip me over. I love me some logic puzzles, and this truly is one. However, solving it required me to Google, and I’m not the biggest fan of those. Of course, it’s not the author’s fault I’m ignorant.
My original idea was to have the culprit’s name as the only words which appeared once in the entire story (every other word would appear twice). That turned out to be a colossal mistake that could have taken weeks to get right. So, with this immunity, I have returned to the Spookymilk Survivor Final Challenge. Last time I got into the final three, it took some shocking turns of events for me to win. This time, there are going to be two other great writers there, who are going to make winning this version even harder.
See you next week for the thrilling conclusion!