Short Story, “The Vacuum Princess”

Near the beginning of this story, Diana and Mustapha are confronting a suspect:

Mustapha slapped a folder on the table. “Jessica Kilgore.”

“I’m sorry? Who’s she?”

“Don’t play dumb with us, Mr. Henderson.”

“I’m… not.”

Mustapha flipped open the folder, to show a black and white photo of a younger Henderson standing next to a much younger woman, both of them in black suits, surrounded by other mourners. “Right there, Mr. Henderson.”

“Oh. That bitch. Hunh. I don’t know if I ever knew her last name.” He looked up at them, unconcerned. “Tell me something horrible happened to her.”

[He gives them an alibi] “What happened to her?”

Diana said, “She was murdered, sir.”

Henderson sat back, toyed with his napkin. “I really ought to feel bad. I haven’t seen her since 2002. No, that’s not true: I was at… the Dogwood Festival? One of those. Saw her in the crowd, I turned away. Two years ago, maybe three. I didn’t kill her; I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about her.”

“Her friends were real clear, Mr. Henderson: she’d told four different people that if she were to end up dead, we needed to come talk to you.”

“Really? How recently?”

Diana tapped on her phone. “You took her aside at a party in 2006 or 2007 and told her in great detail about how you were watching her, and that you were going to kidnap her and bury her alive in a state park.”

Henderson looked back and forth between Diana and Mustapha, twice, his face carefully neutral. Finally, “She had a real talent for embellishing her stories. Did she suffer, when she was killed?”

Diana began, “Mr. Henderson, that’s–”

“No, Detective, it is important. Because if she didn’t suffer, I didn’t kill her. I would want her to know full well what was coming and why.” He tossed the napkin into the salad bowl. “That woman, through depraved indifference, bears the responsibility for the entirely preventable death of one of my best friends.  She cut Justine off, she drained the life from her, and then she left her to die when she knew Justine was badly injured. All so she could find a new victim on the dance floor at Eddie’s Attic. Do you know what happened to that woman?” This time, Henderson couldn’t suppress his grin. “Yeah, I didn’t think so. Go look it up.”

So this story sets up a nice conflict. A woman is murdered; there is a man who believed he had good reason to dislike her and made this public. Naturally, the question is going to be did he kill her, and most likely, the answer will be “no,” because it’s more dramatic for there to be somebody else who knew about his enmity for her and decided to kill her for some other reason and frame him for it. The scene will end with Diana as asking Henderson what he has to say about the baseball bat that was found at the crime scene with his fingerprints on it. Henderson has no answer other than to urge them to call his attorney.

But the problem is, it’s the wrong conflict. The central conflict in this story is Henderson’s anger at Jessica Kilgore for whatever it was that caused the death of his friend Justine. So by eliminating Kilgore from the story right away, all of the primary conflict is pushed to the margins of the story. It therefore requires another victim. Kilgore has a new lover – let’s make it a man, this time – who ends up on the floor of their shared house, bludgeoned with a baseball bat bearing Henderson’s fingerprints. This way, Kilgore can plausibly argue that Henderson killed her lover to make her suffer, and Henderson can point the police in the direction of Kilgore’s other dead lovers and make the case that she is framing him because of his well-known grudge against her.

This means I have to rewrite most of the beginning of the story, but frankly, this is par for the course. If you’re going to have a decade-long conflict as the centerpiece of a story, it’s more compelling dramatically to have both of the parties to the conflict able to speak within the story.

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