A Study of Murder: (A Short Story)
Raphael Nesterovich, this morning, said goodbye to his wife at his car, with his customary travel mug of steaming black coffee and blueberry muffin in his left hand, fumbling around in his pocket for his keys with his right hand. Having emerged from the depths with them, and having gained admittance to his war-wagon of a sports utility vehicle, he programmed the GPS unit to aim him in the direction of the community college, where he was to begin---by invitation---a lecture series on creative writing, with an emphasis on publication, of course.
The word is 'of course,' because this is The Raphael Nesterovich, world-famous, New York Times best-selling novelist and short story writer working in the horror/supernatural thriller genre, second in eminence only to Stephen King and Dean Koontz. Actually, that would make him third in eminence, strictly speaking, wouldn't it?
Though he made his living as a writer of fiction, he never worked from home. He kept bankers' hours, driving to a small studio he maintained in town for this purpose. It was his way of maintaining discipline, of combatting his natural tendency to procrastination. And this, too, was why it was customary for him to breakfast on the move.
But, as already noted, we are meeting Mr. Nesterovich at moment in time when he is "giving back to the community," as it were, by teaching other people how to write fiction. As he drove along he thought about what he would say and how he would say it.
What would his students be like? There was no suspense because he had seen it before: older people in their late-twenties, thirties, and forties mostly; people looking for a way out of their spirit-sapping nine-to-fives; people with varying levels of talent and determination; people who had done what they had to do rather than what they had wanted to do, who had forged the path of necessity rather than the path of desire; people whose backs had been bent with the heavy burden of responsibility; people seeking the joy of self-expression before it was too late.
He would do his very best for them all. After all, is it not the truth that he,--- The Raphael Nesterovich, world-famous, New York Times best-selling novelist and short story writer working in the horror/supernatural thriller genre, third in eminence only to Stephen King and Dean Koontz----had been, for many, many, many years a: dog-walker; security guard; substitute teacher; telephone marketer; a cleaner of animal cages at a petting zoo; a ski instructor, a mountain trail guide, a stock clerk; a gas station convenience store manager; bail bondsman; and as several characters at Disney World---before having landed his big break? Why, if he could save just one person...
He arrived, parked in a space that administration had so graciously reserved for him, and headed for the classroom with his coffee and his briefcase. This was his first day with this group. Some of them were already present.
Nesterovich smiled and nodded greetings to them, mumbling a 'Hi. How's it going?,' under his breath, too low for anyone to hear; this was his way, being an introverted man, who needs a minute to get comfortable with people he newly meets.
They would give the stragglers few minutes more. In the meantime, Nesterovich sat at the desk and opened his briefcase, the lid of which formed a protective barrier, for which he was grateful, as he shuffled papers. Now these papers were completely irrelevant, useless, bearing no relationship whatever to the "price of tea in China," as they say; but Nesterovich shuffled them anyway, for all he was worth, trying to look official.
The time came when he had to admit to himself that everybody who was coming had come, and put an end to his pathetic dithering. He screwed up his courage, rose from his desk, and surveyed the student body, who had, more or less, fit the bill he wrote for them on the way over here.
He introduced himself and gave introductory remarks outlining the course. Then he asked if there were any questions. None came. "Pretty straightforward, right?" he said.
And then, like the meek Michael Jackson, who used to turn into the Dancing Machine on stage, so, too, did the author find himself, as always, enlivened by his art. The transformation was striking as he moved around the room, holding forth with an insouciant smile on his face, one hand in a pocket, gesturing with the other like a one-armed orchestra conductor.
He said, "You know, whenever I do book signings, interviews, and like that, the question they always ask me is: Where do I get my ideas from? And I answer the question in the standard way: news stories, incidents that have either happened to me or people I know, or things I heard about in some way or another. Sometimes I think of 'what-if' situations...
"They ask me where my characters come from and the answer to that is pretty standard as well: their composites of friends, relatives, acquaintances with disparate characteristics that I fuse together in my imagination, you know. But I am never asked the question that is so much more important. It is the question that must precede all others especially when it comes to the field of horror and the supernatural.
"They should be asking me: Do you believe in evil? Of course, the answer to that is: yes. What they should really ask me is: What is your theory of evil? How do you see evil as functioning? Where do you think evil comes from? This is the starting point of all fiction in the field that I'm in; and to a greater or lesser extent, it should probably be the starting point for all fiction.
"After all, all fiction: sci-fi, detective/crime, fantasy, literary, all of it starts with conflict. And the novel's resolution is about how that conflict will be resolved. And that conflict is usually sparked off by someone or group of people doing something bad, wrong, illegal, evil. Why does the guy rob that bank and kill twenty people in the process? Why does the company office manager embezzle hundreds of thousands of dollars from the company where she works? Why does the married father of four cheat on his wife? Get obsessed with Internet porn? Marry two or three other women at the same time? Why does Sauron seek the ring? Why do the Sith embrace the dark side of the force and keep trying to take over the galaxy? And so on.
"Once you get that straight---your own personal theory of evil---the rest will take care of itself, the ideas for stories, plots and subplots will come gushing out of your brain in a torrent like a mighty fountain. It all starts with the evil.
"So I will put that question to you all, here, right now. What is your theory of evil?" Nesterovich looked around expectantly, waiting.
For five or six minutes he had to endure rather standard, boring, pedestrian responses. He strolled about the room, arms folded, as he nodded, accepting each inanity from each student respectfully, murmuring something like "mmm, uh-hunh, and sure-sure," and so forth, until he finally heard something interesting.
Somebody mumbled something.
"What?" he said. "How's that?"
They mumbled it a bit louder but still indistinct.
"Speak up please. Don't be shy," he said, his eyes scanning.
And then finally, quaveringly though distinctly, a student said, "What is the difference between God and the Devil?"
"Yes," Nesterovich said, waiting for more. "That is a rhetorical question, isn't it?"
The same student said, "The difference is the Devil lost---as in "Paradise Lost." Lucifer's bid for control of Heaven failed and he was cast down."
Another student helped out. "Better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven," as the line goes. But of course, that means that ruling in Hell wasn't Lucifer's first choice. There was no place for him anymore in Heaven."
"What is the logical conclusion of this line of reasoning?" Nesterovich said.
Twenty-five minutes later it was time to dismiss the class. But before he let them go Nesterovich said, "I have a light homework assignment for you. I want you to think about the matter of evil further; and next week I will expect from you all a five-to-seven page essay---typed and double-spaced please---about your personal theory of evil, how it functions. Okay, see you all next week when we will, then, get down to work."
Finished for the day, Raphael Nesterovich drove away from the campus in the sport utility vehicle which he had rented with an imaginary name and thoroughly fictitious identification in support of it.
An interesting discussing had materialized in class. He believed that evil did not, in fact, have an independent, causeless existence which necessarily operated in diametrical opposition to the good. He reflected that sometimes a man could find the ground being ripped up from under his feet. Sometimes a man could find himself without a place to stand. He could see his virtue clawed away from him.
He thought of his wife, Emily, and the perfect love they had once shared---which she had ruined with her possessiveness and nagging. Insufferable nagging. Relentless nagging. All the time asking:
Who was that on the phone?: Either Lucy, Charlotte, Amanda, Bridgette, or Samantha, if you must know.
Why are you spending so much time on the computer? What's so fascinating?: Internet porn, of course. Since you, my dear, have grown to be such a shriveled up, cold, unimaginative shrew over the years, I have to get stimulation somehow.
Why is there money missing from the checking account?: Because pimpin' ain't easy, my dear. Just kidding. I'm keeping a mistress, what do you think?
Where are you going?: Out.
Where 'out' exactly?: The world is my oyster.
When will you be back?: When I've finished being 'out.'
Hadn't he always taken care of Emily? Kept her in fine style? Given her culture and style? Hadn't he made her a lady? Hadn't he always, in spite of everything, always, ultimately, come home to her?
Of course he had.
He suddenly decided to take in a movie. He parked in the lot of a big mall complex that included a movie theater. He got out, opened the back hatch, and said goodbye to his wife one last time.
There was nobody else around this isolated corner of the parking lot. Keeping one eye on the roving security guard's jeep, he lifted the blanket away from Emily's head.
He looked at her. It was sad really. One moment he had been chopping cheddar cheese, tomatoes, celery, onions, garlic, and ham for a Caesar salad to go with dinner. The next moment he was chopping Emily.
It had been all her fault, naturally. He said, "Goodbye Emily my dear. You really shouldn't have been such a bitch, you know."
He would simply leave the car in the lot and take the bus home. There were no fingerprints inside or outside the car. He had taken care of that.
Raphael Nesterovich entered the mall and bought a movie ticket. Then he went to the concession stand and ordered up a feast for himself: the largest sized tub of popcorn, buttered, of course; cheese and chili nachos---yeah nachos!; a big box of chocolate covered raisins; a vanilla and chocolate popsicle; and a gigantic root beer, no ice, to wash it all down.
Seated in the back corner, by himself, in the dark, he thought about how Hollywood was ruining horror. You couldn't write a scary vampire story anymore because vampires were now action heroes. Werewolves weren't quite there yet, but both the big and small screen was making those creatures more and more respectable by the day.
Zombies? Well, he had never known what to make of zombies. But he remembered a show on BBC America television about a young man who had been turned into a zombie, but then, sort of... recovered. It turns out that one can be cured of being a zombie, as if the condition is merely the result of a virus.
Of course, there was always Freddy, Jason, Michael, and that Hellraiser guy for the faithful. No redeeming those guys into action heroes.
But now Hollywood was in the process of ruining Frankenstein. That is the abomination that Raphael Nesterovich is looking at on the screen right now. I, Frankenstein with the hunky Aaron Eckhart playing the Frankenstein monster himself.
Raphael Nesterovich would find a new love. One sweeter, more gentle, more trusting. One blessedly free of suspicion and the tendency to nag. One who would believe him without question. One who would put him on a pedestal and rip anybody's throat out who threatened to pull him off it. One who would not make him into such a homicidal beast.