I mentioned in an earlier post (https://polywogg.ca/new-featured-images-headers-website-posts-and-computers/) that I was upgrading my setup on my website for graphics, and I’ve already covered posts related to astronomy, my website and computers, and governance (governance, international development, civil service, a conference and my HR Guide). For my website posts, I used to frequently use an image of a frog typing:
I decided during this update that I wanted to re-purpose that image to just be about writing, so I found other images for my website/blogging options.
But even with that re-purposing, and saving it for writing, I’m left with a second question. Do I use it for MY writing, i.e., my fiction? Or do it use it when I’m writing about the craft of writing? Or both?
I confess up until recently, a lot of categories related to my writing have tended to blend together. For example, while I have 52 posts that are in the “writing” category, only five of them are ONLY in the writing category; the other 47 are cross-posted with publishing, family, even weight-loss. Which is a bit of a question mark for me…if I decide to write about a topic on my blog, isn’t it ALL writing?
When it comes to family, I have written eulogies for my father and mother, and a wedding speech for my own wedding. Back in university, I did a skit nite for stand-up style comedy, and my weekend update sketch is on my site. Those are quite different from most of my posts, and I would say are samples of my “writing”. They cross-post, sure, but they are not posts — they are stand-alone writing projects. I’m also working on a novel that I started back in November … it clearly is NOT a “post”. So I have filed it with my writing category. And for me, I think that is the main defining criteria. When I’m writing something as a project, even though I’m posting it, it is “writing”. Anything else is, well, not “writing”.
Yet in that category, I also have a bunch of posts about the technical side of writing. Mostly articles I’ve read, or reviews of classes / books about writing. And when I think of those, it is almost like post-writing, near “editing”, or pre-writing, generic techniques. None of those phrases lend themselves to an obvious image. Editing perhaps could have a red pen marking up text, but that’s hard to show in a small graphic. I found an image of an editor sitting on a throne, or a pile of manuscripts, but those are a particular type of tone. I found one of a pencil over a marked up page, but the look wasn’t appealing, and the dimensions were wrong. I considered one of a typewriter (old school), one of a kid writing at a desk (wrong tone, wrong dimensions), and one of a pencil on blue sheet of paper (nice colours, nothing communicative).
After eliminating those, I’m down to three options. The first is a piece of text with a magnifying glass and a pencil hovering above it. It has an “editing” / “technique” vibe to it, I guess, but the image itself doesn’t resonate with me. The second is an orange piece of paper (visually appealing), with a burgundy ballpoint pen to the side. I like it, it’s decent. And the third one is a red square that looks almost like a button. With a red pencil above it writing on a piece of paper within the square. It isn’t as communicative as the orange paper with a pen, but it “pops” as a featured image. Plus I feel like the red signifies “editing” somehow. Either will work, but I’m going with the red one.
There is one other category with a similar bent to it, and for lack of a better term for the category, I labelled it “publishing”. If the writing technique comes first, and my writing comes second, then the business of getting those words into the world comes next. I could try to do something more with sales and bookstores, but that presupposes a stage that is separate from publishing. If I went the ebook world, those are likely more tightly tied together, particularly if my main sales venue were to be Amazon. As with governance, I created my own symbol. A four-quadrant circle and stuck different “avenues” or “models” of publishing in the quadrants.
With the decision to wrap these all together in the “writing” category, I’ve even decided to delete the publishing category all together. In the end, it comes down to “writing technique”, “my writing”, and the “business of writing”.
– Carleton “Cal” Clarke, lead investigator; – Marilyn (maternity) and Phil (appendix), investigators on leave; – Five legal beagles; – Harrison Matthew James III, founder and senior partner in – Lila Matthews, James’ assistant – Haggerty (1950s), McCleod (1960s), other partners – Maxwell Jennings, father, divorced – Maria Jennings, mother, divorced – William Clarke, Cal’s deceased father – Melanie Jennings, daughter, deceased (car crash) and goddaughter to James – Michael Jennings, son, missing – Detective Daniel Moorcroft, detective, Bayport PD – Jim Peterson, drunk boyfriend in car crash – Chris “Kit” Markle, patrolwoman, Bayport PD
START CHAPTER 3:
I drove past the entrance to the Uplands neighbourhood. It was an area of high-end homes, high taxes, frequent police patrols, golf courses, and a country club. Somewhere amidst the nicely manicured lawns and three-car garages with roundabout laneways were my grandparents. My mom’s mom and dad. My brother and I had never met them.
When my mother and father got married, my mother walked away from her well-to-do family and settled down with my dad to live on his cop’s salary. She had inherited a huge trust from her grandparents, but she never touched it while my Dad was alive. Her parents had been against the union, some harsh words had been said about my father’s ability to provide for his family, and my mom was done with them. After my father died, she had started using the money from the trust for charities and social causes, but she isn’t in touch with her parents. They reached out to her when my father died, and Mom had James send them a strongly worded letter from the law firm advising them not to contact her again. Fun times.
I was nearing the City Limits and saw the turn for the look-out over to the left. Kit was already here, judging by her cop car being the only one in the parking lot. She has mentioned that her pulling in and parking tends to have a clearing effect on other cars, almost like they’re allergic to police officers.
When people meet Chris Markle on the job, they see a very formal, very severe-sounding Officer Markle. She’s six-feet tall, dirty blonde hair cut short, and usually wears mirrored sunglasses when she’s in uniform. She looks pretty intimidating, and she should. Not only is it part of the job, she’s also a second-degree blackbelt in To-Shin Do Ninjutsu. She’s a real-life Ninja, and she is pretty badass when she needs to be. As I got out of the car, I realized something was very different. Her dirty blonde hair was now a dark auburn.
“Hey Cal, good to see you”. Kit gave me a hug, so today was batting a 1000 for being unusual. Kit is not a hugger.
“Hey yourself. You changed your hair!”. I wasn’t stupid enough to pronounce if it was good or bad before she had a chance to tell me how she felt about it, but I thought it looked awesome.
Kit reached up and ran her fingers through the front of it. “Oh yeah, haven’t seen you in a couple of weeks. I changed it just after I got back from vacation. I felt like shaking things up a bit. Still getting used to it. You like it?”
“I do. So, let’s see…how about Perry Mason and the case of the red-headed ninja?”. Kit and I have a small game we play where we joke about what our life would be if it was an old TV episode. The first time we met, she was babysitting one of my clients in a motel room, and the guy was binge-watching Perry Mason episodes. The guy was going to testify in an upcoming whistle-blowing case and was paranoid someone was out to get him. The DA had wanted him to feel safe, and the guy hired my firm to ensure his deal was ironclad. It didn’t look like he himself had done anything wrong, so the deal was pretty simple, but like I said, he was paranoid. I got sent over because he wanted me to review security arrangements. It felt like a bad TV show, the cop, the lawyer and the whistle-blower in a motel room as a safe house. But it was how I met her so I figured I owed him one.
Kit laughed. “You’re lucky I like you. I know 22 ways to kill you with just my little finger.” She mock-glared at me. I was pretty sure she was exaggerating. Well, 80% sure. “You got the goods, Carleton?” She emphasized my full name as she knows I prefer Cal. Then again, she hates Chris, and for the same reason. We’re both named after historical figures. Me for a British general, her for an American frontiersman. At least hers was just a nickname, officially. Mine is right there on my birth certificate.
I reached in the back and pulled out a picnic basket. I had borrowed it from the office, as I thought it would spruce up the offering, and I saw Kit’s eyes widen in mock horror.
“Whoa, you’re not going all country boy on me, are you Cal? A picnic basket? Really?”. Her eyes narrowed. “Oh, I see. You want something.”
“I do, I do.” I smiled. “I wanted to see you.”
“Oh Lord, you’re trying charm on me. You know I’m immune, right? But if you give me the food, no one has to get hurt. Or maimed. I’m starving.” She grabbed the basket and headed for the bench.
“Okay, we can eat first, but I do have to ask your advice about something. Or rather someone.” I started unpacking the basket, including some cloth napkins and some cutlery. Normally, we end up with paper napkins and just toss the garbage in the bin nearby. I wondered if Kit was right. Was I trying to charm her? And was it just for the case?
We chatted about our vacations, and I noticed that she hadn’t mentioned her boyfriend. Or the guy she had been seeing at least. She never used the word boyfriend. In her words, she didn’t like “labels” defining things. She had taken a week-long trip to Boston in July, and he was supposed to go, but she talked about the whole trip and never mentioned him once.
I’m an investigator, and kind of nosy, so I had to ask. “So, what did Billy Bob think of Boston?” She had made the mistake one time of telling me his name was William Robert, and I’ve called him Billy Bob ever since.
“William thought it was fine.” Kit took another bite of her sandwich and said nothing else, just stared out at the lake.
“Fine? Just fine?”. She may be a ninja, but emotional stealth is not one of her skills.
“Yeah, fine. Hey, did you bring the Ketchup chips?”
“Nice try, Kit.” I turned on the seat and faced more towards her. “Why are you dodging questions about William? What happened?”.
“Why do you think anything happened?” She looked over at me. She sighed. “You know I hate it when you Sherlock me. Dammit.”
That was her frequent nickname for me, Sherlock, although I rarely felt like I earned the moniker. I was more of a plodder type. I waited. It almost always works.
“Fine, you want to know what happened?” She turned and opened her eyes as wide as she could. “You’re the mind-reader, you tell me. Look into my eyes.”
“You really want me to try?” I asked quietly. “You might not like my guesses.”
“I’m ready, fire away. I can take it.”
I took a deep breath. “Okay, I’ll play. I know in June you were pretty happy after your first few dates with him. Almost bubbly.”
Kit glared at me. “I am NEVER bubbly.”
“Shhh. Don’t interrupt.” I thought for a moment. “Which means you were probably looking forward to taking him to Boston. A place you love.” Kit had gone to school there and went back several times a year.
“You’re stalling, Cal. Where are the big guns?”
“You don’t like to put labels on things, but taking him to Boston also seemed to make you nervous. Before you left, we were talking about the choices we had made in life. You even questioned if the badge had been the right choice for you. Moving to Bayport even.” I was remembering the intensity of our last conversation.
Kit looked out over the lake but didn’t say anything.
In for a penny, in for a pound. “So you took the man you were interested in, to a place you love, and you were in a headspace where you were questioning whether you had made the right choices in your life. Including the fact that you’re 33, feeling a bit unsettled in Bayport, and your parents have been hinting that they want grandkids before they are too old to enjoy them.”
I paused as Kit’s mouth tightened. “Keep going.”
She looked at me. Her face was fixed in her cop look. “Keep going.”
I looked down. “So the trip to Boston wasn’t just a trip. It was a test to see if there was a future with him. You had reached the 3-month mark in your relationship, I recall you saying in June, and as much as you hate labels, you wanted to know where it was going.”
She rolled her shoulders and took a breath. “And the answer to that question was…?”
“I’m guessing from the way you’re reacting to what I’m saying that it was not what you hoped for. I’m sorry, Kit.”
“Damn, you’re spooky at times, you know that? Remind me to hide my other secrets from you a little better.” She grinned a little. “Relax, Cal. I’m fine. And confession time. It wasn’t so much that I was really hoping for something, just more that I was open to the idea, which is a first for me in a long time. I blame you, you know.”
“Me? What did I do?” I was confused.
“You and I had that really long conversation in June. If I’m honest with myself, I haven’t had a deep conversation like that with anyone in, like, forever. Probably one of the top ten conversations I have ever had in my life, by the way, so I hope it meant something to you too. Which you’re right, it put me in the headspace of thinking about William, and where it was going, and where my whole life is going. You got that part right. I had a plan, you know? Three years on patrol, take the Sargent’s exam, two years to the detective’s exam. Then maybe back to Boston. They’re low on female detectives, so I might be able to get in as a priority hire. I hate that term, but whatever gets me to the goal. Then I moved to Bayport. Started making friends. Met you. Hell, I’m even best friends with your sister-in-law and playing softball! You were wrong about the second part though. I’m not unsettled in Bayport, just the opposite. I have put down some roots here, and I really like my life! And great friends like you are part of the reason. So I’m questioning the plan. I hate you, you know?”
I laughed. “I apologize for being awesome, it’s a curse. But what happened with William?”
Kit blew out air making a raspberry sound. “It was a crapfest of a trip. He hated everything about Boston. He made fun of their accent, didn’t like the weather, thought their heritage sites were pretentious. Hell, he even made fun of the best clam chowder in the country. Everything I love about Boston, he hated. And I know, Mr. Psych Degree, that it was probably him hating it because he knew I loved it and he wanted me to stay in Bayport, but it just pissed me off. And it’s the first time we have shared a room for a week. He. Is. A. Slob. He left the wet towels on the floor, cereal bowls full of cereal bits in the sink. He hung wet socks on the balcony ledge. Who does that? I mean, really?”. She was grinning by the time she finished her rant, but I suspected it wasn’t as funny the first time. Kit is a bit of a neat freak, and towels on the floor would have been the end of anyone and I could picture her using the songs to strangle him.
“He did survive the week right? There isn’t a missing persons report being filed by his family?” I asked in my most innocent voice.
She laughed. “Yes, he survived. Barely. The funny part is we were almost home, and William…hell, Billy Bob is closer to the truth, was talking about the trip like it had been an enormous success. He honestly said it was one of the best trips he had ever taken, couldn’t wait to go somewhere together again. Maybe a trip down South. I don’t think he had any idea that I was going to break up with him as soon as my suitcase was out of the trunk. Maybe you could teach him some of your psychic deduction skills.”
“They don’t work on my own relationships, just other people’s. I’m sorry it didn’t work out, Kit.”
“Are you? Cal, are you sorry?” Kit had stood up and was looking at me very intently.
“Of course, why wouldn’t I be? You deserve to be happy. I’m sorry William wasn’t it, if that was what you wanted. But I’m not sorry if it means you’re likely to stay in Bayport.”
“I wonder…” Kit paused and then started to pack up the basket. She gave her head a little shake and then said, “I wonder what you want advice on, now that we have dissected my pathetic attempts at a lovelife.”
“I hardly think it qualifies as pathetic. At least you have something resembling a lovelife. Or haven’t you heard the latest refrain of Deborah?” Kit was friends with my sister-in-law, and one of Deborah’s frequent topics of conversation is what she calls my perpetual singlehood.
She is constantly suggesting people to set me up with, and I had finally negotiated a treaty with her. She could set me up on 2 dates per year. I would go out with the women, give it a go, and then give her a full debrief afterwards so she could critique my performance. She feels she is entitled to this as she dated me before she married my brother.
It’s an exaggeration. We went on one date, which was a double date with her roommate and my brother. The roommate got falling-down drunk, something my brother would never accept in a dating partner, but Al ended up finessing the roommate swap. It wasn’t as hard or complicated as the Seinfeld episode, he just asked her out to a movie while they were listening to the roommate throw up in the back of his car. I had bowed out to head back to the office as I was articling then.
Deborah and Al are deliriously happy, apparently, so she thinks she’s an expert on dating. I will not admit it to anyone, not even Kit, but her picks for me have not been terrible. No giant sparks, but I did get a couple of good friends out of the dates. And the rest of the year, she doesn’t hound me with questions. Fortunately, the only other person who might ask is my mother, and she is happy being a grandmother to Al and Deborah’s three kids. I’m 35, single, with no immediate prospects, but Deborah hasn’t given up on me yet. She notes that I’ve had three serious relationships in my dating life, so I am not, as she puts it, “undateable”.
“Oh right, I forgot. Your six-month anniversary is coming up, isn’t it?”. Kit was laughing, which was a welcome change from her intensity about Billy Bob.
“Yes,” I sighed. “The last date she set me up with was back in March, so she’s got a hunting permit for September. I suspect she has someone in mind already.”
“Anyone you know?”
“Not usually”, I said. “That’s her approach anyway. Someone she thinks that I might click with who I haven’t met yet nor would likely meet. A total out-of-the-box pick to shake things up, so to speak. I would guess, maybe a social worker, as she did that conference of social workers back in May? I figure I either go out with her picks, or I have to do something dramatic, like dye my hair red.”
“Maybe she’ll surprise you this time.” Kit had a slight smirk on her face like she knew something, but if I pushed, she’d tell me nothing. Certain secrets I couldn’t Sherlock out of anyone. Kit reached over and tugged on the front of my hair. “Don’t dye your hair, it looks good as it is.”
“Well, okay then. That’s settled. In the meantime, I have a case. I know you have to run soon,” I quickly looked at my watch, “but I’d like to pick your brain for the last ten minutes or so.”
I gave her a quick rundown of the case, which wasn’t much, and when I mentioned needing to see the files, she shook her head.
“Why do you ask me this?”.
“If it’s a problem, I don’t have to…I just thought…” I stopped as she shook her hands.
“That’s not what I mean. I don’t get you. The Chief of Police is your father’s old partner. And YOUR godfather. If you asked him for it, he would hand it over in a heartbeat. Or your mom could ask him for it, they’ve been friends for 30 years. That’s the biggest hook you could have in the department, and you never use it. What gives?”
I had been wondering if she would get around to asking me that one day. It is a common assumption. And it is not wrong. If I asked Chief Daniels for the file, then Uncle Dave would ask me why I wanted it, and as long as the reason was reasonable, I knew he would share no problem. He would even bend the rules a bit for me, but there was no problem here, he’d share. Which is exactly why I wouldn’t ask. As soon as I started using my hook in the department, nobody would ever trust me again. They would see me as the same as every other wheeler and dealer shyster around town, working some angle, some hook, and they would watch every word they said to me plus anything I got on paper would be heavily sanitized. I told Kit the short version of that reasoning, which seemed to placate her enough.
“Okay,” she said, “Who was the lead detective?”
“Well, fudge. I’m going to be no help to you at all.” She grimaced like she had stepped in something foul. “Detective Cupcake hates me. The feeling’s mutual, but he might be right to hate me a bit.”
“Detective Cupcake? I’ve never heard him called that before. What’s the story?”.
“Moorcroft thinks of himself as some sort of badass. Every year when the Academy does their physical training, he signs up to help the new recruits practice. He likes to throw them around to let them know who’s boss. He’s basically a bully. He also likes to wrestle with the recruit with the best record so everyone seems him defeat their best. And, to be honest, he’s not terrible.” Kit crumpled the last of the packaging from lunch and tossed it in the trashbin.
“For my year, I was at the top of the board. And of course, it said, ‘Chris Markle’ so he was expecting some big guy. When he found it was just some little “girlie”, he started talking all macho about how he would take it easy on me. I’d already seen him warming up with some of the other recruits and instead of doing controlled rolls and throws, he was going out of his way to drop them on their ass. Giving them a taste of the real world, as he puts it. For one of the smaller girls, he made a big production out of wrestling her to the crowd, although it looked more like he was frisking her breasts than wrestling. I got pissed.”
“I kind of lost my temper a bit, so when it was our turn to go, and he said that he was going to take it easy on the little girlie, I grabbed him, swung my hip a little bit aggressively, and put him down, one of the hardest drops I’ve ever done. It’s the fastest takedown I can do, and I totally knocked the wind out of him. I pretended to be all shocked he had fallen so fast, and I said I didn’t realize once a detective spent so much time on a desk that they would become such a cupcake.”
I was laughing hard at this point. “Please tell me someone has video of this. By all that is holy, please.”
“It’s not that funny, Cal. I could have seriously hurt him. I am way better trained than to risk hurting someone like that. When I swung my hip, it’s a move that is designed to take most men to the ground all on its own. It’s like getting kicked in the testicles. And then when I had him in the air, I just let go and let him land on his back. It was stupid. And now he is constantly on the look-out for anything I do wrong. For the first year, he kept pulling my training reports to see where I had screwed up. Fortunately, my training officer found out and put a stop to it. But he has an eye out for me, and if he’s involved in any of my cases, I watch my back. Every time he shows up at a crime scene, and sees me, he immediately makes me tell him everything I have done up until that point, acts like I screwed something up, and makes me do crowd control. It doesn’t help that the rest of the squad heard what I did and started calling him Detective Cupcake. Sure, he’s a complete ass, but nobody needs an extra burden to carry like that. So I won’t be able to help you at all with him. He carries a grudge, and to be frank, I probably deserve it. That’s not how I train, I just lost my temper.”
I smiled at Kit. “I get that it bothers you, but from everything I know about Moorcroft, I’m not going to cry any tears for him. And I don’t necessarily need your help with the files, I was more hoping to find a way in to get them myself. But you know the history with my father. He was his initial training officer, and wrote him up for screwing up one of the crime scenes. Then when he screwed up the Lasky case, my father was the one to report him. The Lasky family sued Moorcroft and my father willingly testified in the civil suit. The Laskys lost, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. I have no idea how Moorcroft kept his badge, but he did, just got the demotion, but there’s no love lost between our families. What I need is to find someone or something that Moorcroft wants to help or maybe something he hates even more than us.”
“Oh. That’s an idea.” Kit’s eyes focused on the distance for a moment and she was clearly thinking hard. “Listen for a second. Remember the first part of the Lasky case? The reason Moorcroft went overboard roughing up the guy was he thought he was scamming the insurance company. He hates people trying to game the system that way. If Moorcroft thought he was stopping someone from a false insurance claim, he’d help anyone.”
I had the beginning of a plan. “Hmm…maybe I can make Moorcroft think the Jennings are filing an insurance claim for their missing son. He’ll think it’s false because Moorcroft thinks the kid just ran away, so he’d likely be willing to share the files with the insurance. A little thin though. My boss, Mr. James, had suggested that if Moorcroft thought he was going to get kudos from his bosses for it, that would help too, but the insurance angle might be enough.”
Kit leaned in. “Well, they could go together. The Chief of Police is pushing us to be more responsive to local business after all. But how are you going to get Moorcroft to think he is helping an insurance company?”
I grinned. “Oh, that’s the easy part. He will be.” I just needed to call a friend over at Garrison Fidelity who owed me a favor.
“I probably don’t want to know, do I?” Kit smiled. She looked at her phone, “Okay, got to get back to protecting the richest citizens of Bayport. Thanks for the lunch, Cal.” She gave me another hug. “And thanks for listening. Hope you find Michael.” Then she gave me a fake punch to the shoulder and headed for her squad car.
I repacked the basket in the car and watched her car until it was back on the highway and around the bend. Six feet tall. Spunky. Smart. Now with red hair. Turning into a hugger. And she remembered Michael’s name from the single mention I made at the start of the explanation of what I was working on. I’m a little biased, but I think she’s amazing. Maybe Deborah could set her up with someone that would get to stay permanently in Bayport.
END OF CHAPTER
[Exposition for later: Deborah and Al run an events company, one that I started with him after law school. I had taken a leave of absence and worked with him to get it up and running, and stayed for three years. At the end, the law firm had offered me the position of investigator for them, and since I was a lawyer, they added the research team to my group. Plus I’ve added two investigators since then. The job with Al was fun, but it wasn’t my passion like it was his. So I had come back to Haggerty, McCleod and James, and went from seeing two of my favorite people in life every day to every other weekend for dinner with Mom. We text, talk on the phone occasionally, but it’s not the same.]
* Editing notes: Chapter 1 -> hide name of Chris Markle, consider move larger exposition to Lila below or Chapter 4/5, check overall timeline, tweak Feast or Famine nuance, tweak restaurant details, tweak calling Kit, tweak Dad’s list
** Personae dramatis:
– Carleton “Cal” Clarke, lead investigator; – Marilyn (maternity) and Phil (appendix), investigators on leave; – Five legal beagles; – Harrison Matthew James III, founder and senior partner in – Lila Matthews, James’ assistant – Haggerty (1950s), McCleod (1960s), other partners – Maxwell Jennings, father, divorced – Maria Jennings, mother, divorced – William Clarke, Cal’s deceased father – Melanie Jennings, daughter, deceased (car crash) and goddaughter to James – Michael Jennings, son, missing – Detective Daniel Moorcroft, detective, Bayport PD – Jim Peterson, drunk boyfriend in car crash – Chris “Kit” Markle, patrolwoman, Bayport PD
START CHAPTER 2:
I tried calling Chris Markle, but it went straight to voicemail.
“This is Kit, leave a message”.
I thought it was worth a try to phone, but I’m used to getting her greeting during the day. She’s a police officer in BPD, and usually on patrol, so she doesn’t answer her personal phone unless she has a free moment. Instead of leaving a message, I hung up and sent her a quick text:
“Lunch? Santino’s @ usual spot?”
She texted back about 5 minutes later saying “Perfect!” with a smiley face. I wasn’t sure if the smiley face was for me, lunch or the food source.
Santino’s is a local deli about three blocks over from my office and a popular spot for the downtown crowd. But Kit’s patrol was the Uplands/Bluffs to the North of the downtown, which meant she couldn’t get to Santino’s very often, with only about a half-hour break. If she was testifying in court, she often would find an excuse to be downtown at lunch-time, and Santino’s was her go-to spot. We had been friends for about two years now, and if I had business around Uplands, I’d grab a take-out order from Santino’s and meet Kit at the second look-out on the old Bluffs Road, just inside the City Limits. The parking lot was usually empty at mid-day, so it was easy to grab a picnic table and look out over the lake while we snacked.
I didn’t need to know her order, it never changed. Montreal-style smoked meat sandwich, rye bread, Cajun mustard, two thinly-sliced pickles, Havarti cheese, 3 tomato slices on the side, creamy coleslaw, and ketchup-flavoured chips. I logged onto Santino’s corporate service page, pulled up our work account, and booked pickup for two just after the lunch rush. Santino’s doesn’t normally handle personal orders, but since we are also their lawyers, and we order all our catering from them, the corporate account is a nice perk. It is carefully monitored by Lila Matthews to make sure nobody abuses the privilege too much, but I figured this one was worth it. I sent her a quick message anyway just to let her know I was doing it, but would charge it to my personal expenses.
With the order in, I opened a new electronic case file. My father’s second rule of investigation has become one of the cornerstones of my approach to my job. He insisted that everything should be written down. Not just facts, but feelings, impressions, anything that would help you recapture that moment when you re-read the notes. It is an approach that has helped me a lot during my time as an investigator, and I try to use it for every case. Which is why I am writing this report, if only for myself.
I supplement the report with some software that I used to use for project management when I worked conferences with my brother and before I became an investigator. The program has a tool that allows you a visual representation of people and relationships. It sort of looks like a combination of a family tree and an organizational chart, but it is way more powerful than that, and allows me to attach notes to each person, facts, commentary, even documents. I can move them around, sort them different ways, even choose a randomize function when I’m feeling particularly stuck and looking for a new avenue to follow or connection to consider. I can add in timelines if I need to, just like you see the detectives do on TV shows where they write on those nice big glass boards. It even comes with an app I can synch with my tablet and phone.
I quickly added a summary from the morning, and added empty boxes for the Jennings family members. I didn’t know if the deceased daughter was relevant in any way, but I added her anyway. I added the detective involved, the restaurant with a big question mark, even James, although I expected his involvement would turn out to be simply as a lawyer.
I was looking at the chart, but I was mostly thinking about my father. He had known the Jennings before, even found their lost daughter. Two more people who knew my father in a role that I never knew. He kept us at a distance from his police life, and it was only after his death that I had learned about some of his adventures. I even found his list of ten rules for investigation. I mentioned #3 earlier, never assume the outcome, and #2, write things down, but it was his first rule that was bothering me for this case. Make A Difference.
I had read through my father’s old journals and I realized that in some cases that did not mean just catch the bad guy. Sometimes it meant staying in touch with the victims afterwards, checking on them, making sure they were still connected to their community. Letting them know, for example, that if they had lost a son to gang violence, someone still remembered the son and that he had been part of a family. That a daughter who overdosed was not just a statistic. Or that a surviving friend could be prevented from becoming another statistic.
I knew the Jennings were hurting, and I had no idea what I could do in their life to make a difference. James had suggested closure, but I wasn’t sure necessarily that was going to be enough. It would stop the bleeding, but I don’t know if it would make a difference. Obviously, finding their son alive and well would be the best outcome, maybe having lost his memory which would be why he hadn’t t come home. Or maybe he became involved in a secret government program and he would return a hero. Neither of those would happen, but some people come up with elaborate explanations to hide a truth that they don’t want to face. For the Jennings, the truth was stark. Either their son had run away and was still alive but didn’t want to see them or he was dead. I knew which was more likely. Neither option would be painless.
I tabbed over to a separate note panel and noted my lunch expense. I try to be overly scrupulous with my expense account, which is a legacy I think from my father. His view was that you can never rebuild integrity. With work. With the public. With friends. With family. If you cut corners in one, you’ll start cutting corners in others. He also felt it was easier to always tell the truth because it was easier to remember. In this case, it was simply easier to let Lila know it was personal now rather than trying to remember later at the end of the month when the bills came in.
So I checked the box for personal on my expense form, but truthfully, I had no idea what the lunch was…business or personal? We’ve known each other about two years, got together lots of times. So it was no big deal when we had hung out one night in June, just before we were both headed out of town for awhile. Somehow that night was different. We ended up having this really long conversation about family, loss, work, dating, our life goals, everything. Pretty heavy stuff for what was supposed to be just two friends grabbing a beer and wings after a law firm / police officer softball game (they slaughtered us). Kit and I are friends, that’s it. I say that to be clear, that’s all we are. It’s all we have ever been. No line has ever been crossed. Not even when we were both single, even before she started dating an accountant. Friends. Full stop.
But we were talking, it was really intense, and we kind of had this moment. At least I thought we had a moment. But I confess, I am one of the dumbest guys on the planet in reading women and romance. I can spot flirting between other people, I can see sparks flying even when they can’t, but with me, I see nothing. I know nothing. I hear nothing. I’m as dense as a post unless they tell me. Which isn’t to say Kit was trying to tell me something, but even if it was accidental, I thought it was a moment. And I haven’t talked to her since.
I know that sounds bad. But it was mostly due to holidays and circumstance. We were both away and then busy. Okay, maybe a little avoidance. But I got a smiley face on my lunch idea so it is likely all good. Right? I probably imagined the moment. Like I said, she’s seeing someone anyway. I’m also recently out of a four-year long-distance relationship, so I wouldn’t be anyone’s idea of a good specimen for dating anyway. Friends.
I didn’t know if Kit would become involved in the case, but I added a box for her on the case file too.
My research team wasn’t very busy at the moment, that whole famine thing was clear for them, so I tasked them with some media scraping on anything to do with the Jennings family and the restaurant, expanding first to a ten-year timeframe and then deciding to widen it to a full 25 years. It would take me back before their wedding, but I didn’t expect the newspapers to have anything much anywhere in the whole timeframe except the car crash. It wasn’t even guaranteed they would have published any names if the boyfriend who lived was a minor at the time.
The next couple of hours was spent approving legal briefs that my research team had written, tweaking a couple of points here and there, and then closing out some of the case files from my investigation team. We were all caught up by noon on everything, so my research team would tackle the media research that afternoon.
I saw Lila’s active icon on my messenger app go to offline, which meant she had just shut down. I know the IT people pretty well, so I have a few privileges others don’t have, and monitoring when people were logged in or not was one of them. Officially it’s so I know who is in since my team is a support function, but that’s just an excuse. I like to use it to time accidental run-ins with the administrative staff when I need gossip.
I waited until the elevator went to the 6th floor and headed back down before I pressed the button. As expected, Lila was on the elevator by herself, purse in hand. She was going out for lunch, which likely meant she was meeting her son at Santino’s. It was Monday after all, and her boss was not the only one for formal routine.
“Hi Lila. Hello again I should say.” Subtle, aren’t I? “Are you heading over to Santino’s too?”.
“Yes, I am. Do you want me to pick up your order on the way back?” Lila never offers to pick up food or run errands. As the executive assistant to the head of the firm, she has progressed well beyond those days. But here she was offering.
“Umm…no, thanks, I need a break from the office. Can I walk with you?”
As we left the building, she put her purse in her left hand, and her pace quickened. I had forgotten her normal walking speed was almost a sprint for most people.
“Sorry, Lila, I worked out this morning after almost a month off from the gym and my legs are screaming at me. Can we walk a bit slower?”. I wasn’t lying. Leg day practically kills me in a good week.
Lila slowed, “Sorry, force of habit. I only have 45 minutes.” I wasn’t the only one scrupulous with the books.
I waited another half of a block as we walked, and remained silent. I was relieved when she took the initiative as I had hoped and asked if there was any progress yet on the Jennings case. I told her that I was meeting with my friend for lunch and hoped she would be able to get me the police files, while the research team was pulling together some background from media sources. I was hoping to be out in the field talking to people on Tuesday, and I told her that too.
She nodded like she thought it sounded reasonable.
“Lila…”, I started. “You’ve been with Mr. James for a long time. Did you know the Jennings before today?”
Her eyes narrowed for a moment, but she answered. “Of course.”
Ah yes, it would not be a simple dumping of info, but a need to pry it out of her. “I’m not asking you to betray any confidences of course, but I don’t want to let Mr. James down. As you said this morning. Is there anything you think I should know sooner rather than later? Anyone in particular you think I should talk to?”. I hoped the guilt of potentially failing James would loosen her tongue and apparently it was the magic key.
“Absolutely. We cannot let Mr. James or the Jennings down on this one. Not again.”
Again? Now what did that mean?
Lila continued before I could ask. “If I was you, I would review the file for the Jennings divorce. Particularly the custody portion. And you should talk to that Peterson boy.”
I was seriously confused. The only way we would have the Jennings divorce file is if one of our firm handled the divorce. But if we had, I can’t imagine which party we represented or how the other would have agreed to come to our offices this morning. I’d have to read it as soon as I got back from lunch. “I’m sorry, Lila, I’m new to the clients. We have their divorce file? Who did we represent?”
Lila frowned. “It was most unusual, but we represented both parties. It was a simple enough divorce, as I understand it, and Mr. James assigned two associates to work out the division as fast as they could. They drew up a proposal, and it was all over in two days. Most unusual. It would have even been over in a day, but apparently there was some discussion about the wording of the custody provision if their son returned.”
James had always had a strict rule in the firm about never representing two opposing sides, even when there was no real disagreement or conflict of interest. The Bar Association had rules to allow us to do it, and procedures in place to protect both parties and the firm, and James had always said it was a slippery slope that could lead to anarchy. Haggerty, McCleod and James had a strict rule against it. Yet James had been the one to violate that rule himself. Doubly strange.
“And who is the Peterson boy you mentioned?”.
“Oh, Jim Peterson. He was the boy who was driving the car when Melanie was killed.”
I didn’t see a connection yet between Melanie’s car crash and Michael’s disappearance, but if Lila thought I should talk to the driver of the car, I’d add him to the interview list.
We had arrived at Santino’s and Lila went off to join her son. I waved from a distance. He’s a dental hygienist, and since I had already spent an hour with one that morning for extra scaling of my teeth, I wasn’t in the mood for another visit. I grabbed my order, headed back to the office to pick up my car, and headed North to the Lock Bridge that connects the downtown to the old Bluffs Road highway. I passed the turn for Bayport Boulevard, but people just call it the Boulevard. Somewhere down that road was the restaurant where the boy disappeared but I would head over there tomorrow. I needed more information first.
I usually get to my office around 7:45 a.m., giving me enough time to sort through emails from the lawyers in my firm asking for legal research from my team of legal beagles or occasionally investigatory support from myself and my two field personnel, before any meetings that might be scheduled starting at 9:00 a.m. As the head of Research and Investigations, I don’t generate revenue for the firm, so I’m exempt from most of the law firm’s business meetings. But we have enough case meetings to attend throughout the week that my team of eight — five researchers, two investigators and myself — are kept hopping. For all eight of us, it is feast or famine. We’re either swamped and trying to keep our heads above water or we’re having daily “in-house team meetings” where we play trivia at lunch.
August is usually famine time. Most of the lawyers take vacation in August, the courthouse is a virtual ghost town, and the number of requests coming to my team slow to a trickle. Three of my researchers were off for annual vacations with family, recharging their batteries. Two were still around to hold the fort, but they had already taken their leave in July.
The investigatory team was in a different boat. We were down to just me. My lead field agent, Marilyn, was off on maternity leave, having given birth back in June to a healthy baby boy, 9 lbs, 2 ounces, and I didn’t have a replacement for her yet. My second agent, Phil, had been travelling overseas when his appendix ruptured. If they had been able to remove it before the rupture, he likely would have been off for a week and then back in the office. Instead, the rupture had him laid up likely for 2-3 months.
When work overloads either team, I’m the backup. I’m a full lawyer and have my private investigator’s license, so I can cover off either team’s workload if something comes up, but I was hoping we didn’t get too many investigations before I found replacements for Marilyn and Phil. I could farm some of their work out to outside consultants, but our law firm preferred not to do that, which is why my team exists in the first place. We are a full-service law firm.
But that first Monday, my quiet August disappeared with a instant message. Instead of arriving at 7:45 a.m., I had had a dentist appointment first thing and didn’t hit the office until almost 8:45 a.m. I had barely logged in to our internal email system when an instant message from Lila Matthews popped up ensuring I had seen the invite to a 9:00 a.m. meeting with her boss, the senior partner, Harrison Matthew James III. I hadn’t seen the invite yet, as it hadn’t been there at 7:30 a.m. when I checked my phone schedule while on the way from the gym to the dentist, so whatever it was about, it was new.
Which if it was anyone else would seem normal. But Harrison James does not do anything impromptu, and a sudden meeting meant that Lila would have had to rearrange quite a few things for the day to fit him in. James is my boss, and we mostly meet through Lila…she sends me questions from him, I send the answers back, she prints them out, and he reads them at his leisure. Occasionally, I meet with him in person, but it is rarely unplanned. He is 74 years old, and has the body of a 50-year-old tennis pro (even though he plays racquetball) and a mind like a lightning-fast steel trap. I confess he intimidates the hell out of me, not because he’s physically intimidating in person or in speech, just that he is so quick mentally and extremely formal in his manners.
I had just enough time to grab a jacket and tie. Lila’s invite had a WC notation on it, short for “with clients”, but I would never go to see James without business armor. He was always dressed in a classic three piece suit, complete with a pocket watch and a pearl-handled cane. He once drafted an email to all personnel that even on Saturday, when we were closed officially, we should always dress as if we might have to meet with clients. Shorts and t-shirts were never appropriate for the office, in his view.
The invite had no agenda with it, which was unheard of for James. He always invites people for coffee one month after their arrival in the firm and it comes with an agenda with a single item that says “Item 1. Coffee”. The clients weren’t listed either. Very odd. James rarely saw clients these days, except for glad-handing and to reassure them he was still running things. Most day-to-day business with clients was handled by others. If that sounds like he is stepping away or slowing down, he isn’t. There isn’t anything that happens in this law firm that he doesn’t know about, sometimes before it happens. Rumour has it that he bought a wedding gift for two associates after he saw them meet for the first time in a client conference. James is a planner and he is rarely wrong.
I headed upstairs from my fourth floor back office facing an alley to James’ sixth-floor office facing the town square. Our law firm is a six-floor heritage building just three blocks from the lakeshore and overlooks Bayport’s town square on the most expensive land in the business district. We are also just three blocks from City Hall and the Courthouse buildings. The law firm of Haggerty, McCleod, and James has been around since the city was founded, with our founding member William Henry James as the first lawyer in the area. Harrison James is his great-great-great-great grandson (although there may be more greats in there) and occupies the same office as his ancestor. A McCleod joined the firm back in the 1950s and Haggerty in the 1960s. But there has always been a James. McCleod and Haggerty share the fifth floor space with most of the senior lawyers in the firm but the sixth floor is just a large conference room plus James’ office.
I took the back stairs two at a time, arriving at 8:59 a.m. When James says 9:00, he means on the dot. You don’t arrive early, you don’t arrive late. But his door was already open, and Lila was serving coffee to a couple sitting inside on the couch. Except for the coffee meetings one month after you start, James never serves anything. It encourages people to linger rather than get to the point. I’m serious, he wrote us all a memo about how to run an efficient meeting with a client and one of the points was to refrain from serving unless necessary. What was going on?
James saw me outside the door and waved me in. “Carleton, please join us.”
Lila offered me some coffee as I entered, with a raise of her eyebrows and a look that dared me to say yes. I declined. As she picked up a few things to leave, I had a chance to look at the couple opposite me. The man was in his late 40s, maybe early 50s, and his wife was about the same age I thought. Both had red, puffy eyes, and the wife had a handkerchief in her hands that she was twisting around one hand, clenching and unclenching. I doubt she was even aware she was doing it. I noticed neither were wearing wedding rings, so corrected my initial impression. Probably not husband and wife, but they were still both quite aware of the other if their body language was accurate.
James interrupted my train of thought just as the clock on his deck gave a soft chime for the hour. 9:00 a.m. on the dot. Time to get to business.
“Carleton, I would like to introduce you to two of my oldest friends. This is Maxwell and Maria Jennings. Maxwell and Maria, this is Carleton Clarke, our chief investigator here at the law firm.”
We exchanged quick acknowledgements, and I turned to James to launch us into the meeting. But he took a sip of his coffee, almost like he was stalling for a minute, and Maxwell looked at me with a small puzzled look. “Carleton Clarke, you said? Are you any relation to William Clarke?”
I was surprised. Very few people knew my father, he tended to keep a low profile during his thirty years as a police officer in Bayport, choosing to spend almost all of in patrol. He died about ten years ago, an undetected aneurysm that just exploded in his sleep, so it is even rarer for people to draw a connection now. “Yes, William was my father.” I left it at that…it’s always dangerous to ask the natural follow-up question if they knew him or the next one as to how. Not everyone is ready to tell me that he arrested them back in college or that he had to visit their house from time to time for domestic calls.
Maxwell turned to Maria. “Isn’t that strange…another Clarke to help us with a missing child. You kind of look like him too, around the eyes. Maybe it’s a sign, Maria…”. His voice trailed off and he seemed lost in his own memories. Maria , had looked up at me when I said William Clarke was my father and there was a small glimmer of something in her eyes. Even her hands had stilled.
Maria stared at me for a second and then jerked back to the present. “I’m sorry, Mr. Clarke, you don’t even know what we’re talking about. Max and I, when we were married,”, she said with a sideways glance at Maxwell, “we had two children you see. Melanie was the oldest, and then Michael. We were the M family. Max, Maria, Melanie and Michael. All Ms.” She smiled a small but sad smile for a moment.
“About eighteen years ago, when Melanie was 4, she wandered off at the campground above the Bluffs. I was pregnant with Michael at the time, and we were just frantic. We had no idea where she had gone. Everybody in the campground combed all over the area for three hours…down at the bottom of the cliffs, in the lake, everywhere. Eventually someone called the police. Then your father showed up, wandered around the campsite for about 10 minutes, noticed another camping trailer like ours that was sitting open, went inside and there she was, asleep on the bed. She had wandered off and found what she thought was home and just went to sleep. And your father brought her back to us, safe and sound. We almost named Michael after him, we were so grateful, but he said he didn’t really do anything. But he had. He ended our nightmare. At the time, it was the worst 3 hours of my life.” Maria stopped, and something dark seemed to cross her face.
Maxwell squeezed her shoulder, and took over the narrative. “Maybe it’s a sign that you’re here. We’re hoping you can find our son Michael.”
James leaned forward. “If anyone can find him, it’s Carleton. He’s one of the best investigators I’ve ever employed. Perhaps you can start at the beginning though and tell us the story of his disappearance. Just the highlights, we can go into more detail later.”
Maxwell frowned. “There aren’t many highlights. Two years ago, he was just about to turn 16 and was working at the McDonald’s over on the Boulevard. One night, he took his break at midnight and never came back. Nobody saw him go, and we’ve never heard from him since. The police found nothing and said he just ran away. But we never believed it.”
I asked as gently as I could. “Maxwell, was there a reason they thought he might have run away?”
Maxwell frowned. “Sorry, call me Max. Only my mother and old friends like Harrison call me Maxwell. A reason to believe he ran away? Not to us, but I guess it did to them. Michael had saved up some money from working plus some money he got from his grandmother passing away. Most of it was tied up in savings for college someday, but we let him keep some to spend on something fun. But he didn’t, he was always good at saving. At the time, he had $3700 in cash in his bank account that he had saved up. The day before he disappeared, he withdrew $3600. The police say that shows he was planning to run away, and that he needed the cash to do it. But it doesn’t make sense. There was no reason for him to go anywhere. He seemed happy.”
Maria reached down to the floor and picked up a small tote bag. She reached in, pulled out a brown wallet, and placed it on the table. “Tell them about the wallet.” The wallet seemed a little worn, but was quite thick.
“Right, the wallet. That’s new. Last week, the McDonald’s where he worked was having some work done out by their dumpster, putting in a new fence or something, and they tore down the old fence around the garbage area. Next to the back of the garbage area, partly under the edge of the slab, they found Michael’s wallet. Almost all of the money is there. It was kind of protected from the elements so it’s in pretty good shape. It’s definitely his wallet. It even has his student I.D. in it. We tried to turn it over to the police, but Detective Moorcroft wouldn’t even take it. He said it wasn’t evidence of anything, the case was closed, nothing more to do on it. He said Michael was 18 now and if he didn’t want to come home, the police wouldn’t force him to return.”
I tried not to let my dismay show. “Detective Moorcroft was the lead detective on your son’s disappearance?” I could see James’ eyes narrowing a bit. He knew what I knew…Moorcroft was one of the laziest detectives in the Bayport’s Police Department, and routinely closed cases by taking the simplest explanation, twisting facts to fit it, and declaring it done. My father had hated him and thought he was a complete waste of skin. Harsh words from a man who generally believed in the inherent goodness of anyone wearing blue.
Max grimaced. “Yes, he was the lead. Although he didn’t seem to do much. He…” He paused, searching for words.
Maria jumped in. “He was an asshole!” Max held out his hands like he was trying to calm her down, but she was having none of him. “Don’t you argue with me Maxwell Jennings, he was a complete asshole. The very first thing he asked us was what did we fight with Michael about? How many times had he had run away before? Who did he know in other cities? Did he have a long-distance girlfriend? Was he gay? Into drugs? He decided before he even got to our house that Mikey had run away, and you know it! He didn’t investigate ANYTHING!”. She glared at Max to deny it. Her hands were wringing the handkerchief almost like it was someone’s neck.
Max nodded as Maria was speaking, and turned towards James. “That’s all true, she’s right, I shouldn’t sugar coat it. She’s right. Last week, when Moorcroft wouldn’t even take the wallet to investigate, we didn’t know what to do. If Michael took the money to run away, but didn’t have the money, how did he run away? And if he did run away, we still don’t know why. Where is he? Sorry, Harrison, I didn’t mean to seem so pushy when we spoke on the weekend, I didn’t expect to meet with you and Mr. Clarke. To be honest, we probably can’t afford your firm. The garage hasn’t been doing so well lately. I just thought maybe you could point us to a private detective or someone who specializes in missing persons cases. Because that’s what Michael is. Missing. We don’t care what Detective Moorcroft says.” Maria took his hand and squeezed it.
“Nonsense, of course I won’t refer you elsewhere, Maxwell.” James sounded like a calm, reassuring grandfather. “Carleton can help you, of that I am quite certain. We’ll reach out to the Bayport Police Department and review their files. And don’t worry about the cost. I may only have been Melanie’s godfather, but I consider all of you family. We will find out what happened. I promise you that much.”
Max and Maria left, and James asked me to remain behind.
“Carleton, I know this will appear highly irregular to you, and for that I apologize.” He didn’t need to apologize. Once he said they were like family, it had all started to make sense.
“Not at all, sir, I am honoured to help. I am, however, a bit concerned about their expectations. And perhaps your own. May I speak freely, sir?” I had never asked that of him before, but I felt this situation demanded it. And I noticed that I had started to talk like him. He has that effect on me.
James looked a bit uncomfortable. “This isn’t the military, Carleton. I pay you to write and speak clearly. This is no different.”
I disagreed with him about it not being different, but that wasn’t a battle I needed to fight. “Thank you, sir. You know that we never start out with assumptions when doing our investigations as it can cloud our judgement in gathering facts. It was the first rule my father used as a cop, and it is the first rule I teach our investigators. But I do want to caution you. If his parents are correct that Michael had no reason to run away, and it appears now that he had no resources available to him to facilitate a departure, it is unlikely that this search will end well. As much as they think it is a sign that I am William Clarke’s son, we are not likely to find Michael in a camping trailer, sleeping quietly after two years of being missing.”
James sighed, and sat back in his chair. “I know, Carleton, I know. I suspect, as you do, that he is dead. We have been involved in the law too long to believe otherwise in situations like these. I agree that we cannot assume that is the case, but it is the most likely outcome. Yet those two people deserve some closure. Even if it is just knowing what happened to their son.” He paused for a moment, and pursed his lips as if he had tasted something sour.
“Carleton, I am going to share some more information with you as I don’t want you to start completely blind. I don’t know if it will become relevant at any point in your investigation, but I need to inform you that Max and Maria have not had a happy time these last ten years.” James paused for a moment, and then continued. “I am no longer close to the family, and I regret that development. I was a close friend of Maria’s mother, and she passed away a year or two before Melanie was born. I made a toast at Maria and Maxwell’s marriage in her honour. Her father was long gone, and I watched out for her with some of the estate, so when Melanie was born, Maria asked me to be her godfather.”
“Over time, we drifted apart. Life happens, I think your generation says. Your father may have saved Melanie as a child, but nobody could save her from a drunk boyfriend about eight years ago. He crashed the car they were in, killing Melanie and two friends in the backseat. The boyfriend walked away with barely a scratch. All three of the family were devastated, as was I, to be honest. I wasn’t there for them, a decision I regret.” James seemed to drift back in his thoughts for a moment.
I suspected I knew what he was thinking about, but I didn’t pry. His wife had died of pancreatic cancer about that time and she had apparently not gone gently into the night. I had just been an associate then, had barely known him, but everyone could see the strain he was under, and the spark that disappeared from his eyes. We all thought he would retire. Instead, one month to the day after her funeral, he was in the office and back to work full-time. He hasn’t taken a vacation day since.
James continued his briefing as if he hadn’t paused. “When they lost Melanie, they both coped in different ways. I understand Maria became angry and distant, but threw herself into awareness campaigns about the dangers of drinking and driving. I believe Maxwell started to spend more time at work. He runs a small auto-body shop off the Boulevard. The marriage became strained as it so often does after the loss of a child. The two of them managed to stay together, but when Michael disappeared, I believe the marriage couldn’t withstand the strain any longer. They divorced a year ago. I don’t know if any of this is relevant, but I wanted you to know the history in case it becomes relevant or if it helps you avoid traumatising them with too many unnecessary background questions.”
“Thank you, sir. I will keep it in mind.” I hesitated, but I was already speaking candidly anyway. “I will also have to find a way to deal with Moorcroft.”
“Ah, yes. Mr. Moorcroft. I have dealt with him before. If he thinks you are questioning his conclusion, he will give you no assistance at all, he just digs in his heels. I leave the investigations to you, as always, but in this instance, may I be so bold as to make a suggestion?”
Did my boss just ask permission to tell me what to do? Seriously, what was in that coffee? “Absolutely sir, I would welcome any of your suggestions.”
“It occurs to me that if Mr. Moorcroft was somehow led to believe that we were looking for evidence to come to the same conclusion as he did, as opposed to an alternative solution, he might revel in the attention. Particularly if he thought his assistance would somehow benefit him with his superiors. It might take some finesse, but I also caution you that it would definitely not work coming from you. Daniel Moorcroft and William Clarke were practically mortal enemies. Moorcroft would never knowingly or willingly assist you under any circumstances. You may have to work through an intermediary.”
“Thank you, sir, an interesting strategy. And I think I know a guy.”
James smiled. “I’m sure you do. Keep me apprised of developments. Lila has been instructed to clear my schedule for you for this case at your discretion.” It was clear that the meeting was done. As I left, I noticed the clock on his desk was chiming for the quarter hour. Right on time.
Lila spoke softly to me as I left the office. “Cal?” I don’t think Lila has ever called me anything but Carleton before, even though I tell everyone to do so. I’m sure James never will. “Don’t let him down on this one, please.” I nodded solemnly and headed downstairs.
Lila was extremely protective of James, but she made me wonder if there was even more to the story than I realized. James often seems to keep a lot of secrets…some by choice, some by nature, some simply by his formal personality. I would love to know how he knew about my father’s contentious relationship with Moorcroft, but asking would lead nowhere. Over the last five years of working for him, I have learned only that he apparently knew my father quite well, but nothing more, not even the circumstances. My mother claims to know nothing about it, and any attempts to draw out James has been met with a polite but firm change of subject. And now Lila was asking me to not to let him down on this case, in a way that seemed stronger than just guilt that he didn’t stay in touch with the family over the years.
But those secrets could wait. I needed to make some calls. I had told James that I knew a guy, a phrase my father used often, but it isn’t quite true in this case. Technically, I should have said that I know a gal.
Lots of articles exist on the ‘net about good ways to create a rich protagonist in a story, whether they be sleuth or otherwise. So why do I like “Developing and Introducing The Sleuth in Your Mystery Novel” by Hallie Ephron (Writer’s Digest, March/April 2015, pp. 56-58)?
In simplest explanation, it’s because the article divides the tips into two separate sections — developing the sleuth and introducing the sleuth.
Developing the sleuth takes the reader through the main tips that are common to most articles, or at least the first three of five are common. First and foremost, they start with basic appearance — what do they wear, and what does it say about them? Dowdy clothes or upscale business suit? Fashionably chic or jeans and t-shirt? Nobody would ever mistake Kinsey Millhone, blue-collar PI, with her cousin in the books who’s an upmarket lawyer, even though the two of them look alike. Nor Miss Marple for Jessica Fletcher.
Second, she talks about disequilibrium, although most people would call it motivation (either intrinsic or extrinsic). Separate from the “case”, what in their life do they want to change? Usually this is described as more the character arc that you have in mind for their overall backstory, even though the case might only be a small segment of that journey. This ties in well with her third area, the background of the character.
However, the last two areas often don’t make it to the pop-psych list of tips. Number four on her list is the particular skills or talents that the sleuth has that makes them a bit “different” (Kinsey Millhone isn’t a fighter like Spenser, but she is doggedly persistent; most lawyer sleuths don’t have the sophistication in a courtroom scene of Perry Mason, which in part is why Mason always had Della Street and Paul Drake to compensate with skills in other areas).
And last, she talks about their demeanour under stress. This is a great little characteristic that often is what management and organizational behaviour specialists look at in terms of character/personality/style. Stress brings out your baser instincts, your so-called “natural management style”, and for some in management studies, that is a particularly revealing “tell”. For example, a manager may be warm and fuzzy because they think that is what a good managers should do. And when things are going well, they walk around the office, stop and talk to people, etc.
But when something big is going on, they hyper-focus and stop doing those things — they stick to their knitting, and focus on what matters to them when they don’t have time to think it through. Often it is how you know something is wrong for someone, they stop acting like their “normal” outgoing self and suddenly start acting like their “real” self (focused internally, etc.). It is a great way to have OB discussions at work too — what stresses you out, and what signs would we see externally to know you’re stressed? For some it is as simple as junk food showing up on their desk instead of the normal carrots and celery; for others, they stop having big social conversations and tend to just answer in short sentences. It`s something you rarely see in tips on character development, with most pop-psych tips focusing more on writing a mini-biography of them or figuring out where they are in childbirth order.
However, what I really like in the article is how she focuses her attention on first impressions — how we are introduced to a sleuth for the very first time. What we see, what they’re doing, what we think is important for a reader to know right away. Sue Grafton frequently did literal introductions of Kinsey Millhone, a quick paragraph where Kinsey would say, “I’m 33 years old, twice-divorced, single…” and does her entire backstory in that one single paragraph. Sure, it’s more elaborate in the very first book, but in subsequent books, the exposition is a single paragraph.
The article gives three great examples of introductions through description, dialogue or jumping straight into action. And while most articles about character development never talk about the intro, the intro can be everything. It tells you who they are right off the bat. Sometimes it is a feint, and maybe they’re undercover, so you’re not REALLY seeing the sleuth. But that tells you something too about how they approach undercover work.
The article was excerpted from her book, and I may have to track down a copy. I really like what she did here…