Sitting on a wooden bench in front of a deli, you’re ravishing a tuna sandwich with extra mustard. It’s a busy Friday evening and the deli is swarming with people.
It’s your first night out in a month. The last few weeks have been hazy for you. You haven’t taken a bath in forever, nor have you eaten properly in days. This happens every time you start off with a new project. But work is self-satisfying. You willingly let yourself get pulled into an alternate universe. A universe where everything is in your control and you’re the sole creator.
You hear sirens blaring at a distance. It’s nothing unusual. In this town, things tend to get crazy on Fridays. One police car stops right in front of the deli a few hundred feet away from you.
Two burly men in grey suits step out of the car and hurry into the deli. Sensing their urgency, you think someone might have reported something in there.
You take another bite of your sandwich, waiting for the drama to unfold.
“Ouch”, you seem to have bitten into something hard. Looking down, you find a small pea-sized stone in the sandwich. You try to pull it out, when suddenly, you feel two sturdy hands on your shoulders and with no alarm, you are pulled to your feet.
“What on earth!” You exclaim in despair as you watch the contents of your sandwich spill onto the ground.
The guy on the left fishes out a pair of handcuffs from his back pocket as he says, “Come with us.”
You’re confused. You were expecting to watch a drama unfold in front of you, not become the center of it. People start gathering.
“What have I done?” You try to reason.
“If you think I’m a thief, you’re mistaken." You try to correct them lest they are misguided by your appearance.
"You know what you’ve done, Mr. Johnson."
They know your name. So this is not some random arrest made while patrolling.
"I don’t understand. I’m fairly harmless. I’m a writer of crime fiction novels. That’s all. And the last time I checked, writing fiction is not a crime."
"That is very true, Mr. Johnson. Writing crime fiction or even plotting a crime isn’t an offense. But converting your fiction to reality is."
“You are arrested for the murder of Elisa Mayer.” The other one spoke for the first time, shoving you in the backseat of their car.
The engines blared to life as you stared between the crowd and the back of the heads of the two police officers who didn’t make any sense.
The interrogation room looked exactly how you had imagined it. You feel a certain sense of pride that you’ve been able to describe it in your novels with absolute precision without ever visiting one.
You eye the half-filled glass of water on the table. It must have been there for a while because you notice the droplets forming on the outside. As expected, there are mirrored walls, and there’s probably someone standing on the other side monitoring your behavior when all you can see is your reflection.
All of this is pointless. They definitely must have gotten something wrong. Despite things being very hazy, one thing that you are absolutely certain of is, you have killed no one and you haven’t stepped out in a month.
But sure, let’s hear the police’s version as well. Might be interesting. You could probably add that to your plot when you prepare your next draft, although you doubt you need to make another one. The last one is flawless.
Leaning against the wall, you think about the absurd turn of events on the one evening you decide to step out in days. You feel a certain itchiness and anxiety that things aren’t in your control. In your world, you control every scenario and that notion normally soothes you.
You keep scratching the same spot on your arm relentlessly, even though it’s not itching. You wonder when someone will come to question you, give you a chance to clear the misunderstanding, and when you’ll be walking out again to get back to your car standing in the parking lot of the deli. At least that’s how things would have played out if it were you controlling the situation. But unfortunately, you’re not.
You now hear voices outside the room. The first voice belongs to one of the two officers who dragged you in here and the second one, hoarse and assertive probably belonged to a superior.
“Is it the case of that fiction writer?”
“What’s he saying?”
“I don’t think the guy realises he’s killed somebody. He’s in complete denial and sounds way too genuine. Either he’s an actor who didn’t get appreciated for his skills in Hollywood or he’s, you know, a bit…..”
The entire conversation seemed insulting to you. What did the guy want to call you? Crazy? Just because you wore shabby clothes and wrote crime thrillers? And of course, you’ll sound genuine about your innocence. You ARE innocent. No amount of evidence from their side could prove otherwise.
A big, slightly overweight man walks in. His eyes are sharp and wise. There’s a big scar on the left side of his neck. He asks you to take your seat while he makes himself comfortable.
Placing his coffee mug on the table, he spends a few minutes leafing through the pages on what you assume is your “file”. There’s an uneasy silence in the room which you realise is purposeful, to make you uneasy and panicky.
And he’s succeeding. Here you are, sitting in front of an intimidating man, squirming under his presence, slowly losing your control, just as he wants.
“So, crime thrillers, is it? How’s that going?”
“Good. I’ve already published two. This is my third book.”
“Anything that I might have read?”
“The books haven’t become as famous as they deserve to be, yet.”
You know he’s indulging in pointless small talk. He doesn't care about any of this. He has your so-called crime stated in the file and all he wants to do is get you to confess.
“What is this book about?”
"I’m sure it’s written in that file, because that’s the basis on which you've arrested me, right? "
You’re trying to gain a little upper hand by being uncooperative. If you seem confident and cocky, maybe that’ll prove your innocence.
“Right. So let’s do it that way. The story is about an employee murdering his boss who made his life an absolute hell but gets away with it. Am I correct here, Mr. Johnson?”
“Yes.” You respond curtly, not feeling the need to elaborate.
“What did you do before you became a writer? Your records here say, you used to work for an organization.”
“That’s correct. I was in corporate for twenty years of my life before I quit that hellhole to pursue my passion for writing.”
“Why did you work in a corporation to begin with?”
"Money." You say as a matter of fact. That seemed like a stupid question.
“Right. So what prompted you to quit?”
“Like I said, I wanted to pursue my passion.”
You reply, a bit irritated at the redundancy of the questions, although you understand what he’s building up to.
“I understand. But what was the trigger point? I mean, it’s not like suddenly after twenty years you realised that you were passionate about writing, and should quit your job to pursue that.”
"Well, I was unhappy about it for a very long time, and in the last few years, it got unbearable. "
“And why is that?”
“Because of my ex-boss, Elisa Mayer”
“Who in your book is Miriam Hatler, I suppose?” Finally the question.
You want to say yes, because it’s true. Because there’s nothing wrong in writing a story inspired by your life. But you have to handle this situation delicately. You don’t want to be cocky or nervous and fidgety.
“That’s correct. But I haven’t seen her in over two years ever since I quit.”
You choose to go a neutral way. You give away no emotion.
"Well, let’s not stick to that just yet."
“Do you watch the news, Mr. Johnson?”
“Not when I’m in the middle of a project. Nothing distracts me when I’m writing.”
“I see. Well, since you don’t watch the news and you claim that you haven’t met your ex-boss in two years, I should probably mention that we found her murdered in her office last month.”
He paused to see your reaction on this news.
You shrug. You have made your feelings about her very clear. You're about to mention that the two officers who came to arrest you, already told you that but he cuts you off, continuing.
"The same way you’ve described in the latest draft on your online blog. "
You were about to open your mouth when he spoke again.
“Although I sincerely hope that’s not your last version because I found several grammatical errors in it, which was off-putting.”
That got your blood boiling. You haven’t received a lot of compliments about your work, but at the same time, you haven’t accepted any criticism from people either. You got your first two books published through a small publishing house and even they didn’t say much except that they’ll publish it. You were the sole fan and criticizer of your books. This was the first review you’ve received and that too a negative one. It didn’t sit well with you.
“It’s not the last draft. There’s more to come”
“Why do you publish the drafts on your blog?”
“Because beginners are always curious about the art of storytelling. Things don’t fall in place in the first draft itself. And people just never seem to acknowledge that. That’s why I keep posting all my drafts, so that with each draft, my readers can view the differences and improvements.”
“You mean your 15 readers?”
“It’ll grow with time. It’s a tricky generation. The Internet is filled with talent.”
“Okay, so let’s go back to what you were doing on 31st of July, Mr. Johnson.”
“The whole of last month, I’ve either ordered take-outs or not eaten anything. So if that day I’d ordered something, you might find a bill somewhere lying in the house with the date and time.”
Before he could ask more questions, you decide to ask some of your own.
“What made you look up my blog? I mean, what lead you guys to me?”
"We’ve interviewed every single person who bore a hatred to Ms. Elisa. It wasn’t a long list and -"
You burst out laughing. Now that’s a joke you don’t hear every day.
“With all due respect, I think you mean the list of people who liked her is short. All of us who worked under her, hated her. I was the only one who left and channeled my hatred in another way.”
“By killing her.”
“By writing a book about killing her.” You correct him, coldly.
“As you say. So anyway, we had everyone who worked under her, checked out. We couldn’t find anything about you until we went online and found your blog which you publish under your name.”
“I see. But that can’t be the only reason you’ve arrested me, right? That Elisa’s death occurred the same way as the character in my novel?”
“Obviously not. We wouldn’t want an innocent man to go to prison with no evidence. But you see, in this case we got one.”
Rubbish. You tell yourself. Absolute rubbish. One thing you pride yourself in is the flawlessness in your plot. Every angle considered and taken care of, no loose ends left behind, the accuracy of timings, everything. There was no room for error. It wasn’t the point, and yet it kind of was.
It was impossible for the police to find any evidence of the crime, especially if it was committed exactly how you have written it down.
“Pray tell me, what is this evidence you speak of?”
"I see you’re very confident about the fact that there can’t be any evidence and I get where this is coming from. I have to say that your plot is ingenious. I was very impressed by it."
Finally, a compliment. You’ve spent weeks improving it. All-day long you keep thinking of ways in which the plot can fail. The murderer might get caught. You think about it while eating; you think about it sitting on the pot, trying to get the plan airtight.
“The thing is, when we found the similarity between the death of your character and Elise, we traced back the steps to see if it was the same as the rest of your story.”
"And it wasn’t right? It can’t be. I haven’t stepped out in over a month. I don’t know how to prove it, but I haven’t. "
He continued, ignoring your random outburst.
"So while tracing back the steps, we found the other incidents to be same.
Your ex-colleague’s swipe card stolen on a late Friday evening, knowing he won’t realise or report it until Monday.
The swiping in of his card again at 9:30 pm, the same time the entire security staff breaks for dinner together. The knowledge that most of the employees clock out by six or seven on Friday and that Elisa worked late, even on Fridays.
The taking of the service elevator knowing that the CCTV didn’t work properly in that and also removing the footage of the floors and the area where your boss sits, from the CCTV room, early next morning before the cleaners discovered the body."
You sit there numb, unable to speak. Yes, this is exactly how you’ve written your story, with years of observation and random experimentation when you still worked there. But you did that just for fun. An idea shaping in your mind then, for a story. Not murder.
“So what’s the evidence?”
You ask, even though you’re too scared to know the answer.
“The fact that the food court next to the CCTV room where your team has gone out for lunches on multiple occasions, is open on Saturdays. A worker in one restaurant remembers you entering the room because he had found it suspicious that an employee of a company would do so at such odd hours.”
And that did it. Defeat the one thing you truly believed in. How could you forget? On Saturdays, the food court is open. But since it’s not a working day, it’s usually empty, and one might think it’s shut. All that thinking, all that precision, and you missed out on this simple detail. You couldn’t feel more stupid. It’s as if someone told you, “Hey dummy, did you know that Earth was round?”
You try one last time.
“I left the corporation two years back, and the murder took place a month ago. I’ve lost all contact with people there. I can’t have taken anybody’s swipe card.”
“We thought so too. But again, you’ve been there for twenty years observing those people and their habits. Hoping that things stayed the same for two more years as it had for the last twenty years, wasn’t too big a risk, I suppose. You knew that after work Alan always grabbed a smoke. And Alan mentioned bumping into someone at the shop who he didn’t care to look at.”
You have nothing more to say. Maybe your mind is trying to block that memory. It happens sometimes, you’ve read. Probably that’s why you remember little from the past few weeks because you weren’t lost in fiction but in the actual world which you confused as your own. Probably all this while, you were plotting the murder not to write a story but to commit it. Maybe that’s why it was so important for it to be flawless. You don’t know if you trust yourself anymore.
He gets up from his seat and says,
“If Officer Sam hasn’t already told you, you’re under arrest for the murder of Elisa Mayer.”
He slams the door so loudly that it makes you jump in your seat. After a few seconds Officer Sam, you assume, walks in. This time you voluntarily get up and he proceeds to cuff you again.
But you stop him.
“I need to piss.”
“What? No. Turn around”
“Let me go. What the hell.”
You struggle to not let him cuff you again. He slams your head on the table and everything goes blank.
You wake up from your sleep, with a throbbing headache and a shirt drenched in sweat.
You need to piss. Real bad.
After washing your hands in the basin, you sit down at your desk and start typing vigorously on the laptop.
Draft 45: Detail missing - The food court next to the CCTV room is open on Saturdays.