Saturday, October 13, 2012

Setting the Mood, Maude

Let's talk about setting the mood of a story through the use of descriptive detailing.

I have to admit (or maybe, I have to confess, I don't know which would be more accurate) the visual scene of a story's opening is what gets me writing.  I see an image first in my head.  And then I write the story around that image.

Verbal photographs, kiddo.  That's the key.

And I think it's a good technique--one that is becoming rare these days.  I find it rare, in my opinion, to find a writer who can make a Polaroid shot in words so clear, so vivid, it instantly comes into sharp clarity the moment one reads the passage to themselves. 

Yet isn't that one of the key ingredients needed to be perfected if a writer wants to be successful?

Words describing images,  or individual actions, sets the tone for the entire story.  In any genre I'm thinking.  But so especially true if you're writing noir/hard boiled detectives.  The mood of the story sets up the interaction between characters.  Ultimately sets up the motives for each of the characters involved in the story.  So important.  So critical for a story to succeed.

Take the photo above.  When I wrote this Turner Hahn/Frank Morales story you're about to read the image that exploded in my head was very much like the one above.  I saw it clearly.  Absolutely crystal clear:  Turner and Frank moving around in a dark basement filled with boxes and boxes stacked on top of each other, their flash lights throwing out long beams of white light cutting through the darkness.

Maybe I'm all wrong. (What?!  Me?  Wrong?  Oh Pissssshawww, Maude!)

Read the story below.  Tell me what you think.

We Found Beatrice Bonner


            The dark basement smelled of dreams long forgotten.

             Of memories unremembered.

            In the inky darkness the startling white beams of our flashlights cut through the cobwebs and layers of dust and decay and played across the clutter of a lifetime’s worth of hoarding in stark silence.  Carefully we made our way through the narrow corridors of the blackened basement,  the white beams of our  flashlights arcing across the canyon walls of dust covered boxes stacked clear to the floor jousts above our heads to the darkly moist cement floor.

            The place smelled.  Smelled old.  Ancient.  With a whiff of decay–a sharp sting of disease.

            Boxes.  Magazines.  Newspapers.  Books.  An assortment of bicycles.  Steamer trunks, one atop another, locked and sealed shut back when Nixon was president.  Clothes.  Boxes and boxes of clothes neatly folded, covered in a fine coating of dust; smelling dank and fungal infested.  A life time of someone never letting go.  Never discarding either the important or the frivolous.

            Our flashlights danced across the darkness to our left and right.  Seeking.  Looking for what we already knew was down here.  In silence we made our way deeper and deeper into the basement of the old house knowing that we were eventually going to find the grisly prize at the end of our search. 

            Behind me I heard my partner grunt and then heard a box slide to one side ominously.  Twisting around I played the beam of light across his face and then at the tall column of boxes towering over his head suddenly beginning to tilt dangerously toward him.  The red headed wannabe Mountain Gorilla braced the leaning stack with one outstretched hand with a look of growing frustration playing across his rugged looks.

            “This place is fraking nightmare, Turner.  One wrong move and we’re going to be buried in a mountain of shit.  It’ll take a month for the forensics boys to find us.”

            I turned back to face the front, a grin playing across my lips.  We were both big men.  But Frank was the proverbial Spanish bull in an English china shop.  He had shoulders that would make the prow of an aircraft carrier feel slighted.  Arms as thick as the main cables holding up the Golden Gate.  Finesse, my friend, is not his main forte.  Blunt trauma is more his shtick.

            The flashlight in my hand roamed across the curtain of darkness in front of me and there, just visibly at the far end of the flashlight beam, the image of a brick wall and an edge of a large, deep, wash basin.

            “Over here,” I said quietly.

            And we found what we knew we would find.  In the middle of the deep wash basin.  The bloody stump of a person’s leg.  Ripped from the victim from just below the knee cap.  Still wrapped in the tan cloth of a pant’s leg.  The foot encased in a black, worn old shoe with a bleached out, formless blue sock partially covering an exposed ankle.

            A heavy coat of coagulated blood covered the bottom of the wash basin. Lying flat in the sink beside the single shoe was a hack saw.  A bloody hack saw with a broken blade.  Playing the flashlight across the dust covered cement floor of the basement to my left and right I could find nothing else for a body.  But I did find a fifty-five gallon drum, black and dull, with white letters that said ‘Hydrochloric Acid’ stenciled across the middle of it.  The lid of the barrel was partially closed.  The stench of the acid . . .and some other smell I didn’t want to dwell on . . . overwhelming.

            I didn’t want to pull the lid to one side and look inside.  Fortunately I didn’t have to.  Frank’s voice behind me stopped me.

            “Turner, looky-here.  In the wall to the right and above the wash basin.  See it?”

            I saw it.  It was unmistakable.

            Two dark red bricks were missing from the wall.  Visibly in the light was the smooth round curve of a human skull partially filling the gaping hole.  Both powerful beams of our flashlights latched onto the wall and didn’t move for a long time.  Neither of us said anything.

            We found her.  Beatrice Bonner.  A thirteen year old girl missing for the last twenty years.  Found her stuffed into the basement wall of a dilapidated wreck of a house owned by a hermit named Charles Friedman.  But the missing person file would soon be replaced.  She was no longer missing.  From the large round hole in the top of her skull–a clean, sharp puncture wound made by something long and sharp–the Missing Person stamp would soon be changed to Murder.

            “Call the boys,” I said quietly as the flashlight turned back and illuminated the bloody stump standing upright in the sink.  “Tell’em we found the old man and the girl.  Tell’em to bring enough boys over.  This is a double-homicide case now.”

            Cautiously we trekked our way out of the basement and slowly moved up the rickety steps of the basement to the kitchen.  The house was empty.  Old and empty.  Forgotten and empty.  It sat in the middle of a corner lot almost hidden from prying eyes by weeds and rows of untrimmed bushes.  Visible from the west side windows of the kitchen was the sagging frame of a detached garage.  One garage door stood at a severe angle.  Held upright by a single hinge still attached to the garage.  Glancing out the window I could see the trunk lid and tail lights of an old car.  A car that hadn’t been moved in generations.  Hugging up against the car’s sides were boxes and boxes of newspapers.  Dried, faded, fungus-infested newspapers. 

            The kitchen itself was amazingly clean and tidy.  There were no dishes in the sink.  They was nothing on the flat surface of the kitchen counters that seemed out of place.  In the middle of the kitchen floor was a small white painted table with four matching chairs.  Chairs precisely aligned..  The table’s surface spotlessly clean.

            “What’s wrong with this picture?” Frank grunted, turning to look at me and lifting a questioning eyebrow.

            “Someone has a cleaning fetish,” I answered, frowning myself. “In a house that’s been turned into warehouse of discarded trash.”

            “Our suspect?”

            Our suspect was a forty year old recently released mental patient by the name of Jacob Friedman.  The son of the home owner, Charles Friedman.  Four hours earlier Jacob walked into South Side Precinct, took the ancient elevator up to the second floor which housed the homicide section, found Frank and I sitting at our desks doing paperwork, and confessed he had just murdered his father.

            Just like that.  A nervous little man with hands that wouldn’t stop shaking and watery blue eyes that could not look you straight in the face.  Confessed standing beside our desk in a soft voice of quiet resignation.  He said he had killed his father.  Said he knew where Beatrice Bonner’s remains were.  Said he wanted to go back to the hospital.  Wanted to go back to the lock up ward.  Back to safety. And never wanted to left alone again.

            Jacob Friedman had spent the last eighteen years in an insane asylum.  Ten of those eighteen years in a high-security section of the asylum.  Behind locked doors and barb wire fences.  In a padded cell.  With eyes observing him eighteen of the twenty-four hours of the day.  Twenty years ago the state accused him of kidnaping Beatrice Bonner and murdering her.  Circumstantial evidence, of course, since a body was never discovered. Jacob was already known by the neighbors as being a sick, twisted kid.  Several testified it was Jacob who had stolen their beloved pets and had abused and tortured them in the woods behind the Friedman’s house.  The same neighbors, and other witnesses, said this scared, frail and pale creature of a man and the girl had been seen together that day walking down to neighborhood convenience store.  They remembered him walking back from the store.  Alone.

            Beatrice Bonner was never seen again.

            Until now.

            I remember the drive out into the suburbs to find the Friedman’s house.  It was an overcast, sour, despicable day of random showers, high humidity, and sweltering heat.  It seemed that day the weather had every one in a bad, scurrilous mood.  As I drove the Shelby GT350 Mustang, my favorite car, with Frank sitting in the passenger side bucket seat to my right, I remember listening to music of Depeche Mode playing on the radio.  It was their Policy of Truth.  A rumble of bass guitars lamenting about a love gone bad.  A perfect cover tune for this case, I thought to myself, as I drove.

            Thinking about the case the music still plays darkly in my mind.

            Eerily, as we drove back to the precinct house hours later after the forensic boys went over the place minutely, the song played again over the radio. 

            A couple of days later Assistant District Attorney Anthony Scarborough beamed up at us and said we had did a find job in this investigation.  The case was opened and shut.  This time Jacob Friedman would get the gas chamber and no smart lawyer would get him off by copping an insanity plea.

            “Did he sign a confession?”

            “Hasn’t said a word or moved a muscle since the day he walked in and told us he did it,” I answered sourly.  “Been sitting in his cell like a statue.  Hardly eats.  Never says a word.  Doesn’t move a muscle.”

            “Well . . . that’s okay,” the DA growled and nodded.  But the furrows of lines creasing his forehead looked worrisome. “As long as you to testify he confessed to the crimes when he approached you.  That, and the evidence we have, should be enough for a conviction.”

            “What evidence, Jethro?” Frank grunted, frowning, and looking like a maleficent volcano about to explode.

            I fought hard  to hide the grin that wanted split my lips in two.  Jethro was a moniker my mountain-gorilla lookalike for a partner use to label people he thought were blithering idiots.  And he pegged Deputy DA Anthony Scarborough at the top of the list.

            “I am not Jethro, Sergeant Morales!  How many times do I have to tell you that?  And the evidence?  Try this out.  He’s a known sadist.  He’s father’s remains–what little there is of him–was found in a basement sink in a house he and his father occupied.  He was last seen with the girl as they walked to a local store.  And his fingerprints are all over the weapon used to chop his father up!  What more evidence do you need?”

            Open and shut.

            Even I felt the guy was probably guilty.  But . . .

            This nagging voice in the back of my head.  An insistent whisper that just wouldn’t shut up.  Couldn’t make out what it was trying to say.  But I could tell it sure as hell wasn’t happy in the way this case was playing out.

            Brother . . . if you’re a cop . . . you get these nagging little voices occasionally.  Listen to them.  More times than not they start yapping at you just below the surface of consciousness when something’s wrong in the investigation.  Not yelling loud enough to slap you up the side of the head with a brick and tell you what’s wrong.  But making noise; an irritating noise that tells you you’ve screwed up somewhere.  You missed something.  Or overlooked something.  Or something just doesn’t add up.

            Or maybe . . .just  maybe . . . it was just too damn easy.

            Frank and I rode in elevator in silence.  Just the two of us.  Both of us had our arms folded across our chests and frowns on our lips.  We eyed our sour mugs in the reflections coming off the stainless steel doors in front of us.  We both knew something was wrong.  Something didn’t fit.  Something was out of whack somewhere.

            “Do you think maybe . . . ?”

            “Damn right,” he nodded before I could finish.  “A guy keeps his kitchen spotless yet leaves the basement sink looking like a butcher’s table.  Doesn’t make sense.”

            “So he’s possibly not our . . . . ,” I started to say.

            “Hell no!  Some other freaking sicko did the murder of the old man!” Frank snapped angrily, nodding in head decisively.  “And I’d bet next month’s paycheck Beatrice Bonner’s murder was a frame-up as well!”

            “So maybe we should . . . ?”    

            “You took the words right out of my mouth, kiddo!  By god, we ought to go back to the house and go over it like a fine tooth.  Cover that fucker from antic to sub basement.  There’s gotta be something we missed over there.  Gotta be!”

            I grinned as the elevator doors opened and glanced at my pal.

            “Glad we talked,” I said, nodding, as we stepped out of the elevator.

            “Turner, sometimes you talk to much.”

            The grin widened as we made our way out to the parking lot and to the Shelby Mustang.


            Hours of searching the basement.  The ground floor.  The upstairs.  Combing through everything.  Probing ever nook and cranny.  And finally, tackling the piles of newspapers that seemed to be tall, silent columns of deadly silence littering the basement floor.

            And . . . . epiphany.

            Something clicked.  Something slapped together in our collective heads.  Those little voices bothering both of us suddenly shutting up.  We looked up from the piles of newspapers almost burying us and just stared at each other.

            “I’ll be go to hell,” Frank snarled, shaking his head in disbelief and looking down at browned, brittle paper spread out across his lap.  “Gag me with a spoon, California Girl, and call me stupid!”

            “Stupid!”  I said, smirking,  as I ran a hand through my hair.  “But who the hell would have caught it fifteen years ago?”

            “Yeah.  But still . . .”

            Buried deep in one pile of newspapers were six papers which had blazing headlines across the front page in big letters saying,  Body of Dismembered Girl Found In Woods.

            Six of them.  Two in Kansas.  One in Missouri.  Two in Illinois.  And Beatrice Bonner.

All almost identical stories. Cases that stretched out across decades.  Girl snatched off a sidewalk in a quiet residential neighborhood.  Missing for weeks.  And then pedestrians, or hikers, or construction workers, stumble onto the scattered bones of the dead in a forest.  The girls were killed by two holes punctured into the back of the head.  And then dismembered.

            The murders went back eighteen years.  The first two happening when Jacob Friedman was only two years old.

            “Jacob Friedman didn’t murder Beatrice Bonner,” Frank growled, looking up at me and frowning.  “His father was the killer.  Apparently a serial killer.”

            “But I betcha our sicko killer didn’t try to hide his little secret from his son.”

            “You think Jacob helped the old man kill these girls?”

            “Don’t think so,” I said, shaking my head no.  “But the kid knew.  Knew for a long time.  And knowing what his father was doing made him go off the deep end.”

            “Say,” Frank said, lifting an eyebrow in surprise and half turning to look at the brick wall and the hole where we found Beatrice Bonner’s remains.  “You know, we haven’t found a thing that mentions Jacob’s mother.  No divorce papers.  No funeral notices.  Nothing.  You don’t think . . . ?”

            We both looked at the brick wall of the basement and narrowed our eyes thoughtfully.

            Yeah.  She was in there.  Behind a cement patch in the casement wall.  It took a team of forensic boys three hours to dig her out.  But she was, like the other victims, dismembered and with two holes punched into the back of her skull.

            We had solved seven old cases of murder.  But we still didn’t know who killed Jacob Friedman’s father.

            “Jacob could have,” Frank said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully as we stood watching the lab boys insert bones into plastic baggies and label each one meticulously.  “Could have come back from the crazy house and just . . . snapped.  The old man must have said something and Jacob just lost it.  Went bat-shit crazy.”

            I was half listening to Frank’s musings.  But I was more interested in a newspaper I found which detailed the disappearance of Beatrice Bonner.  It was a concise, well written story.  So well written two things leapt out at me almost instantly.

            The first one was Beatrice Bonner’s family lived directly across the street from the Friedman’s house.  The second one was the dead girl’s father was a plumber.  When I read that I stopped, looked up and at the now gaping hole where Beatrice and Mrs. Friedman had been resting in for all these years. 

            Sure enough.  Water pipes snaked in through the casement wall and twisted their way down toward the washtub sink in front of us.

            “Come on,” I said, tossing the paper to one side and turning to leave.  “I think I know who killed Old Man Friedman.”

            He was an old man now.  Patrick Bonner.  White haired, bone thin.  Skin dark brown and rawhide tough.  Dressed in an old shirt long faded with time and baggy blue jeans. He was sitting on the front porch in a battered looking rocking chair, one leg thrown over the other, smoking a cigarette and eyeing the comings and goings of the police and lab boys with a dispassionate interest.  Didn’t blink an eye or move a muscle when he saw Frank and I come out of the Friedman house, walk down the sidewalk, cross the street, and start up the sidewalk leading to his house.

            “Did you figure it out, boys?” he finally said in a casual, almost friendly voice, as our feet slapped on the first step leading up to the porch.

            “Yes sir, most of it.”  I said, nodding.  “But you can fill in the details if you want.”

            One eye narrowed and watched us for a moment or two as the cigarette hung in his lips and blue smoke drifted up past his face.  Finally he shrugged, lifted a hand up and pulled the cigarette out and snapped it out into the lawn in front of him.

            “Sure.  Why not.  It’s all over now.  The waiting.  The unknowing.  The anger.  All of it.  Gone.  I hope that sonofabitch burns in hell.  Burns for eternity.”

            “What happened, Mr. Bonner?” Frank asked.

            “Charlie’s been in a wheel chair for the last three years.  In poor health.  Living off what little retirement and Social Security he could get.  When he found out Jacob was getting out of the hospital and was coming home he called me and asked me if I would be willing to fix a leak down in the basement.  I didn’t like the sonofabitch.  Never did.  Always thought he was an odd old coot.  Thought his son was nuts.  But I said okay.  I’d come over and see what I could do.

            That’s when I found her.  Beatrice.  I had to knock a hole in the brick wall and take a peek at the plumbing.  Just happened to pick the exact spot Charlie used to hide what he did to my daughter.  I went . . . . well, you know.  You know what happened next.”

            “And Jacob?”  I asked.  “Where does Jacob come in to all of this?”

            “I dunno,” sighed the old man, shaking his head and looking thoughtful.  “He must have found what I did to his father in the basement.  What little sanity he had left him decided to check out.  I saw him get into a taxi and disappear down the street.  Apparently the taxi took him straight to you guys.  Hell, I’ve been sitting on this porch and waiting for you guys to show up for the last three days.   Was beginning to wonder if I was going to get away with it.”

            We took him downtown.  Booked him for Murder One.  Then we went over to deputy District Attorney Anthony Scarborough and told him he was a fucking idiot.  Well . . . not so bluntly.  But when we left he had no doubt what we thought of him.  After that we drove Jacob Friedman back to the insane asylum.  We left him smiling at us dreamily as two male nurses gently took him by his arms and started walking him down the wide garden path of oblivion.

            Justice is a cruel bitch.

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