Welcome, friends, family and fellow Prosers.
This story, it's cast and many of its scenes, has been with me for a while now. It began as a response to a photo prompt in a Facebook genre-writing group, during a week in which we were exploring Tragedy. The image was one of a couple, presumably dead and floating in a a shallow pool. Their body positions reminded me of a pair of dancing marionettes, and the rest, as they say, was history.
That flash story was the birth of Detective Howard Stegner, and his nemesis, the Puppeteer. Over the next several months, many more of the flash prompts I encountered became different aspects of this story, and I finally took the hint and compiled them into one project.
The strongest supporter of the tale was one of my fellow admins. She has since become my business partner in a small publishing house (@RhetoricAskew here on Prose), and is a fellow Proser herself. Take a bow @MandyMelanson. We have never gotten to shake hands, but I still consider her one of my very best friends, and in many ways, this story owes its existence to her enthusiasm and support. A very special thank you must also go out to @RubyPond, whose six-part prompt was the poke-in-the-rear that I needed to pull this tale out and begin working on it in earnest. Without her, it might very well still be simmering on very low, somewhere at the back of my brain.
I have decided, in all my strangeness, to do something I have never seen done by a novelist. I am sharing the creation of this story as I write it. Each of the parts is between 300 and 500 words long, with some scenes existing in a single part, and others spanning many. I have made a commitment to myself, to write at least 300 words on the story, each and every day until it is done.
I have received some great feedback from some of you already, but I am officially inviting those of you who are interested to come along with me, as I write this first draft. Keep in mind that it IS a first draft, so will be re-written and edited heavily before it gets anywhere near publishable form. It is bound to have some plot holes, some character lapses, and sadly (for the editor in me) probably some grammatical errors as well.
Please feel free to leave any feedback you think might help. Those of you who decide to do this "on-the-fly" beta read will all get a nod in the final book.
If I have tagged you, and you don't care to be tagged any further, please let me know. All of you have, at one time or another, LIKED something I have written, but I know not everyone cares to be tagged in these types of posts, nor does everyone want to read an ongoing story in this fashion. (I will still be writing and posting classic-style poetry and other challenge-response flashes, but this story is going to stay front-burnered).
Okay - I know I tend to be long-winded when I write in a journaling fashion--you should see my rough-draft blog posts, oy vay!--so I will close this one with a link to the book itself, where you will find the parts, listed in order. Once again feel free to comment and/or critique as you read.
dustygrein, author of The Puppeteer, found here:
The ancient claw-foot tub sits alone under fluorescent lights; the white tiles lining the walls and the floor give very little evidence to the cold dirt and concrete surrounding this basement room.
An odor faintly reminiscent of copper permeates the room, and the only sound is a slow dripping noise from the underside of the tub. The drain doesn’t quite seal tight, and it is from here the noise originates. The droplets on the underside of the tub’s drain reflect the room’s white light in bright red glimmers as they grow fat, let go and fall the six inches to the brass grill on the floor drain.
Inside the tub, a form slowly sits up. The head and chest which rise slowly into view are smooth and hairless; the red liquid they have been soaking in runs slowly, in thick viscous rivulets, back to the tub below. Small bits of organic matter, or maybe just clotted liquid, cling to the arms and shoulders of the grotesque figure seated in the tub.
In the shiny, dripping red face, eyelids open and two bright, icy blue eyes stare out at the silent basement. With a small smile, which exposes square white teeth, the man in the tub pulls the plug and releases the red liquid in a gush of sound, to be swallowed by the floor drain. As the ancient tub begins to drain, we can tell that its insides are stained red, and have apparently been filled many times before with the thick liquid.
The man sits quietly as the tub drains, then stands and turns on a small shower-head.
This has been an exquisite soak, but there is work to do. The newest hunt will start again tonight, and he has to prepare his next disguise.
(c) 2017 - dustygrein
Senior Detective Howard Stegner turned off his engine and stared through the rain running in sheets down the windshield. A call had come in from the Paradise Theater about an hour ago. The building had been closed up for days, the cast off on a retreat.
According to the call, the manager had found four victims on stage when he showed up this afternoon. Uniformed officers had secured the area, but even in the rain, strings of police tape had attracted the usual band of onlookers.
Christ, didn’t these people have jobs or homes?
The detective climbed out of his sedan, and turned his collar up against the rain. What little hair he had on top his head was plastered to his skull almost immediately, and he jogged across the street and ducked under the tape.
There was a uniformed officer standing guard in front of the door which led to the theater’s lobby. Stegner went through the door and found the manager sitting in a chair next to the empty refreshment stand. Stegner’s partner, Detective Paul Jenkins, was talking to the visibly shaken gentleman.
The younger detective glanced up and raised his index finger, before looking back to the pale and trembling man. Stegner knew that Paul was supposed to be in a parent-teacher conference this afternoon. Obviously he had been closer to the theater when the call game in.
Jenkins closed his notebook, and Stegner saw the manager wince as Paul reached out to pat his shoulder. The guy was definitely spooked. Stegner started toward them, but Jenkins intercepted him before he could cross the lobby.
“Paul.” Stegner nodded, shifting his eyes toward the theater’s manager then back. “Are we having fun yet?”
“Howie. You're not gonna believe this one.”
“What do we got?”
Jenkins shook his head. “Follow me.You need to see it for yourself.”
He led Stegner through the double doors, and into the theater. The house lights had been turned up, but the colored stage lights were still on and they illuminated the strangest tableau the aging detective had ever seen.
On stage were four women, but they looked more like marionettes than humans. They had some type of cords attached to their wrists, ankles, and heads, and these “strings” disappeared into the area above the stage. The four had been posed with their arms and feet extended, as if frozen in mid-dance.
Stegner stopped and muttered “Holy shit.” The sound was quite loud in the quiet theater.
Jenkins looked back over his shoulder. “It gets weirder. Come on.”
Together, they made their way to the front of the stage and gazed up at the horrifyingly beautiful scene. The four women had the muscular builds of professional dancers but their bodies were very pale. They had been dressed in beautiful costumes, no doubt from the wardrobe room behind the stage area, and their hair and makeup were done exquisitely. Under the colored spots, they appeared gorgeous and almost ethereal.
Stegner pulled out his notepad, and began to make notes. He had been investigating murders for twenty years now, and his brain automatically began to notice details that were transcribed by his fingers in a cryptic and almost illegible hand.
Jenkins waited for Stegner to finish his initial observations before he attempted to discuss the scene. They had been partners for eight years, and Paul had learned a long time ago how Stegner worked. This was one of the reasons that the two men got along so well.
From this vantage point, small details became clear. The four victims were adorned with heavy stage makeup on their faces. Their eyes seemed to sparkle from between almost closed lids, and as he stared into the face of the girl closest to him, Stegner realized that her eyes, in fact all of their eyes, had been replaced with striated crystal marbles. Each victim had a single rose bloom positioned at her feet, and the eyes seemed to have been aimed at these flowers. The thin cords that rose from the dancers’ bodies had been driven through their limbs and affixed to a swivel anchor. It appeared that the anchor had been used to pierce the joints, but there was no blood to be seen. Anywhere.
Stegner let his eyes follow the cords up into the catwalks above the stage, where they were affixed to what appeared to be giant puppet control sticks. These wooden crossed bars were suspended from the thick frames that supported the lights and pulleys.
“Did the RP or the uniforms touch anything?”
“No. First respondent was…” Jenkins checked his own notes, “Gallagher. He felt the first vic on the right for a pulse, but he had the sense to glove up. No one else even came close. They were all too creeped out.”
Jenkins gave Stegner a grin. “I called the M.E. and Jerry Walters is on the way, but I wouldn’t have let even his team get close until you had a chance to make your notes.”
“You’re alright, Paul. I don’t care what everyone else says.”
“Yeah, tell Frannie that. She’s gonna have to put my dinner in the microwave again.”
Stegner walked toward the backstage entrance. “Oh please,” he said. “I’ll trade you. I’ll eat your cold homemade dinner, and you can try a cardboard pizza.”
“No dice.” Jenkins followed Stegner. “You know, Howie, I could always have Frannie put an extra helping away, if you wanna come over after we get this mess handled.”
They climbed the steps from floor level to the back stage area, behind the thick velvet curtains. “You mean if we get this handled. I ain’t never seen anything like it.”
“Yeah, this is definitely different. I wonder where he did ’em. It couldn’t have been here.”
Stegner looked at his younger partner. “I was thinking he must have brought them in after they were dead, then strung ’em up. Notice how pale they are?”
“Yeah.” Jenkins dark skin had gone a bit ashen. “They look like they were bled dry.”
“I can almost guarantee it. Look at the wrists, where the cord and anchors were driven through. Not even a drop of blood on the metal. No, our boy did them somewhere else, then drained them, cleaned ’em up, and brought them here. Do we have any tentative IDs from the manager?”
“No. He says they aren’t part of the crew or the dancers from the current show.” Jenkins waved his hand at the feet of the victims on stage. “What do you make of the flowers?”
“I don’t know what the hell to make of any of this.” Stegner pulled on a pair of latex gloves, and walked onto the stage slowly, examining the floor with each step. He crouched down on his haunches in front of the nearest victim, and just stared at the girl. She looked like she was still too young to have even had her first drink.
Who are you, my dear, and where is the family that you should be having dinner with?
“Paul, come here and check this out.”
Jenkins approached, and pulled on his own pair of gloves before joining Stegner at the feet of the girl.
“Look at how clean her hair looks.” The girl’s hair was not only clean, but well brushed and styled. Her stage makeup was heavy, but flawless. “We’ll know more after we get them down from these ropes, but on first glance, I’d say our boy is either into hair and makeup, or maybe works in the entertainment industry.”
The door to the theater behind them opened, and Stegner could hear the sound of the forensics techs from the M.E.’s Office, making their way down the aisle in their clean suits. Without looking, he extended his arm back at the noise, and ticked his finger back and forth. The techs stopped in their tracks.
“What?” Jenkins was sniffing the air in search of whatever it was that Stegner had smelled. “I don’t smell anything.”
“Exactly. They have no odor at all. Even if they had just been bled dry, we should be able to smell them. Combined with the clean hair, I think our boy bathed them before he dressed them.”
He stood, and both of his knees gave loud cracks. Jenkins stood as well, and then he looked up at the wooden controllers above them.
“This bastard is into puppets it seems.”
Stegner’s eyes followed his partner’s gaze. “Either that or he wanted it to look like it.”
The detective turned to the forensics crew. “All yours. Do me a favor though, give me a double set of photos. I want a full grid set for my own file on this one.”
Dr. Jerry Walters, the assistant M.E. and lead investigative agent, gave him a big thumbs-up. “You got it, boss.” Walters was competent, and Stegner was glad he pulled this case.
“And make sure you double bag everything. This is gonna be looked at from on high.”
The detective started back toward the dressing room and wardrobe area behind the stage. “I have a feeling these outfits,” he said, cocking a thumb back at the bodies, “ain’t part of the show. I think he dressed ’em up before he brought them here.” Stegner stripped off his gloves and reached into his pocket and pulled out the roll of antacids that he kept on him at all times.
Jenkins saw him, and shook his head. “Howie, you gotta see a doctor about that heartburn.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. A mother, I don’t need.” He pulled out two of the small tablets and popped them in his mouth. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this guy, Paul. This is too elaborate and well-planned to be a solitary exhibit. We may have us a professional.”
A quick search of the wardrobe lockers and racks verified his guess; the costumes the bodies had been dressed in were not part of the current show’s finery. It looked like even the ropes that were connected to the wooden controllers and the crossbars themselves, all came from the outside. The stage was just that—a place for staging this scene.
The press is gonna have a field day when this gets out.
This was gonna be a mess alright. Retirement was looking better and better all the time.
Sometimes Stegner didn’t understand himself. He should have had Paul help him with the inevitable reports that had to be done after the bodies were sent to the morgue. Instead he had sent his partner home to have dinner with Frannie and Bridgette, offering to handle the paperwork alone. The ache in his abdomen flared in strength, and as he turned off the engine to his sedan, he reached into his pocket for his antacids.
There were only two left in the roll, and he stripped the paper off them and threw them into his mouth. He knew that he probably should see a doctor, but then he would have to listen to the endless lectures about his weight, his diet, and his smoking. He had another roll of tablets in his desk upstairs.
At least I found the ones that taste like fruit flavored chalk, instead of chalk flavored chalk.
The rain had stopped, but the puddles were still deep enough that he splashed through them on his way inside, soaking his right foot. He was convinced this was anti-karma, and was what he got for being such a nice guy.
Entering the lobby of the station house, he gave a nod to Sergeant Shaughnessy at the counter, and winked at Audra where she sat at her dispatch desk. He stripped off his coat as he waited for the elevator. The homicide department, referred to by those who worked there as the pit, was on the second floor. The younger guys all prided themselves on walking upstairs, but Stegner had no such need to feel like a superhero.
Truth be told, climbing the five steps from the sidewalk up to the front door was all the workout Stegner cared for. Thank God he wouldn’t have to take another physical. In a matter of weeks, he would be a civilian, and his days would be his own—although he wasn’t sure just what he was supposed to do with that time. It stretched out like a huge unknown ocean of hours, and the thought of filling those empty hours was one that Stegner didn’t care to dwell on. He would have to figure that out soon enough.
The elevator opened, and three officers exited; two younger guys that Stegner had never been introduced to were talking quietly, but the third one stopped as he walked by.
“Late night again Steg?” Raymond Bailey was one of the old-timers, and worked on the third floor, in the evidence locker.
“Yeah, you know me,” Stegner shrugged. “I love this place so much, I can’t tear myself away.”
“You ought to just get a cot and sleeping bag.” Bailey was joking, but the thought had actually occurred to Stegner on many occasions, and he had even at times found himself waking up at his desk in the middle of the night.
“Nah. We super-cops don’t actually sleep.”
Bailey grinned and shook his head as he walked towards the door, and the night air beyond. Stegner stepped into the elevator, hit the button for the second floor, and sighed heavily as the doors closed.
Stegner’s mind began to drift, as it always did at the beginning of a case. He had long ago learned that after he took his notes at a crime scene, the best course of action was to clear his mind of all conscious thoughts about the scene, and focus on the mundane task of writing up his reports from a detached viewpoint.
In the movies, the detectives always seemed to either generate these huge lists of brilliant deductions, or postulate wild theories until one fit. That wasn’t how it worked, at least for him.
Instead, he would let his subconscious ponder and stew on the crime scene as he provided a clinical description of the scene and the victims. In most cases, the crime itself was fairly simple to solve. Most murders were crimes of passion, and interviews with the family or associates of the victims was enough to put him and Jenkins on the trail of the perpetrator. Then came the real work, of tracking the murderer down, and proving the case with the evidence.
This however was not a typical case. It wasn’t a crime of passion. It was obviously a well thought out event. He would of course know more once the identities of the victims had been obtained, but he felt safe in an assumption that this wasn’t personal.
The doors of the elevator opened, and Stegner walked across the mostly abandoned second floor. The captain’s office was dark, and the only occupied desk in the pit was that of the other senior detective. Jimmy Plack had been here almost as long as Stegner. The two had actually tried to partner up years ago, but they were just too different in how they worked. Plack had always seemed to Stegner like a plodder, who enjoyed the footwork more than he did the arrest and capture of suspects. His conviction record was exemplary, but his percentage of open cold-cases was too high for Stegner.
Plack looked up and gave Stegner a slight nod. That was the most they ever communicated anymore, unless they had cases that intersected. Stegner was glad that he and Jenkins had drawn this new case. He wanted to catch this guy, and was afraid that it was just the beginning of what might end up being a very high-profile case.
In a way, Stegner welcomed the idea that this case might garner attention from the feds, but if the FBI got involved, he and his partner might very well get sidelined.
Might be nice to have it handed off before R-Day. Wouldn’t feel right to retire while it was still open on my desk.
Thinking about his desk, Stegner walked up to it and sat down, a curious expression on his face. There was a rather large package on it, wrapped in brown paper. It was addressed to Detective II, Howard Stegner. He lifted it, and found it wasn’t very heavy. Now his curiosity was piqued. It must have come through the mail room, but there was no return address—it didn’t have a postmark or courier stamp.
He grabbed the letter opener from his desk drawer and split the wrapping on the right side, and slid the paper off.
What he found stunned him.
“Plack! Did you see where this package came from?”
The other detective didn’t even look up. “I have no idea. It was here when I came in.”
“When was that!?”
“About 3:00. Why?”
Stegner had been called to the crime scene at 2:30, so it had to have been delivered right after he left.
Christ! This is bad.
Ignoring Plack’s question, he grabbed his phone. Jenkins answered on the third ring.
“Paul, I know you are busy with the family, but I think you might want to come to the pit.” The origin of the nickname used by detectives for the 2nd floor was lost in the history of the department.
“Jesus, Howie, I just got dinner. What’s going on?”
“Our boy left me a present while I was gone, and a calling card.”
“What do you mean?”
“I am sitting here staring at a shadow box, or a diorama, maybe. Paul, it’s the Paradise. The entire staged crime scene, in miniature. Very detailed miniature. Right down to the roses on the floorboards. Our boy just took this to a whole new level.”
“Oh shit! Okay, I’m on my way.”
Stegner reached into his desk and grabbed a fresh pair of latex gloves. Once he had them on, he gently picked up the wrapping paper from the floor where it had fallen, and set it on the desk, next to the miniature scene.
The diorama was in a sealed box, about 14 inches wide, 12 inches deep and about 18 inches high. The base appeared to be made of some kind of hardwood - it was stained deep mahogany and covered in a gloss finish. The top and sides were clear. Stegner was willing to bet that it wasn’t glass. Glass would have been much heavier. His bet was on Lucite or Plexglass, but the boys in the lab would figure it out.
Inside, the stage of the Paradise had been recreated in miniature, complete with red velvet curtains and small spotlights with colored lens covers, mounted on a little catwalk. On the stage were four posable wooden marionettes. These were about four inches in height and were dressed in costumes that were identical to those the victims had been dressed in. They had strings that ran up to small cross-bars, exactly like those at the crime scene.
He carefully picked up the box, and noticed that everything was frozen in place. The stage curtains didn’t move at all, even though they appeared to be made from crushed velvet. This was an amazingly beautiful miniature, if it hadn’t been for the fact that there was a duplicate crime scene of actual human girls. This perp was meticulous, and he had obviously spent a lot of time planning and creating this.
Stegner considered calling the captain tonight. M.J. Fisher was a good cop and a great boss, but it was just after dinnertime, and Stegner knew that the captain had his daughter and grandkids living with him. On the other hand, Stegner would probably get his ass chewed if he didn’t at least give M.J. a heads-up.
He picked up his phone and dialed the number. As he waited for an answer, he reached into his top desk drawer for a fresh roll of antacids.
** This concludes Chapter One of The Puppeteer. Chapter Two is up next...