Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 6, Scene 2

TOC page here.

We move straight from the quick-witted repartée between our detectives to Mario, a guy we’ve seen before and will seem just as out of it this second time:

Mario wasn’t any less fuzzy after a full night’s sleep. “Brah, you want a real answer from me, you’ve got to at least let me have one drink.”

Diana said, “Mario, you’re helping us out: if we could bring a beer into the jail for you, we would. Your body is telling you that you need to dry out.”

“No, it’s the opposite, man. My mind don’t get in gear till I get me a drink.”

Before Mustapha could yell at the guy, she said, “Here, all you have to do is look at some pictures.” She slid the tablet across the table. “Try to think back to what you saw Alex get into.”

Mario looked up at her, bewildered. “Alex?”

“Your friend, whose girlfriend came and got him.”

A light dawned, slowly and dimly. “Oh yeah, Alex and his old lady.” He looked down at the screen. “That ain’t it at all.”

Diana said, “Swipe through the pictures.” The light went out again. “With your finger, like this. Which one looks most like the van you saw?”

Mario swiped, hesitantly. “No, that ain’t it, either.” He kept swiping, more quickly. “It ain’t none of these, man.”

Mustapha growled. “You better not be wasting our time. You told us you saw Alex get into a van–”

“Yeah. But these ones are all wrong.” He looked at Diana. “You got a pen and paper?”

She didn’t, but Mustapha did. Mario made a rectangular frame with his thumbs and index fingers, held it over the paper, cocked his head, then picked up the pen and took less than a minute to finish a sketch. He spun it to them. “Like, this kind of van.”

“Holy cow,” said Diana. On the page was a bold, perfectly proportioned cartoon of a van—but this was a commercial van, bigger and with flat sides instead of windows. “You’ve got talent.”

He shrugged. “Can’t draw people.”

Mustapha took the paper. “I owe you two beers: you just made our job a lot easier.”

“I’ma take you up on that.”

This one needs help, especially since my description of Mario shifted from the first time we saw him to now. He’s something I do a lot, which is take one of the many vivid side characters and bring him back for an encore. To me, in genre fiction you want to have as few characters as you can get away with, so long as you don’t impoverish the plot. In the original outline, Mario got his earlier narrative, about Alex Dawson going off to the white van, after being pointed at by the chorus of homeless guys. There was originally going to be another character in between the two: that guy would get the first scene and only now Mario. But that intermediate character was unnecessary: let’s instead make Mario vivid, the kind of homeless alcoholic that makes Mustapha grind his teeth.

And now I’ve got you there. After all, as a seasoned reader of detective fiction you’re already alert to the level of detail given Mario and thus inclined to raise Mario above the level of background noise: oh, he’s somebody, not just a dude giving information. He doesn’t know how to swipe a touch-screen, in 2015. I was pleased when I thought up that detail.

But he can draw perfect cartoons. Why? How? It doesn’t matter at all. I’m never going to tell you and have no idea myself; I can’t imagine it will become relevant to the plot, but only if it did would I give you this backstory. You’ll make it up yourself: he… oh, yeah, he was going to art school but his parents died and he had no money and no support and too much grief, and down he spiraled. Sure: that works. Or maybe he did the Ad of the Year at some agency and… whatever. Doesn’t matter.

In the outline for the chapter, I was going to have Diana ask for his story, but again, cut as much superfluity as you can without impoverishing the plot. We don’t need to know—plus, you the reader get to participate in the story, because you read stories and watch cop dramas. You’re likely to pause for an instant, maybe do a Run Lola Run thing with a few images from an old Polaroid camera, however you might envision backstory, before you move on.


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  1. Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 6, Scene 1b | Julian Cage

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