In the spring of 2009, the New York Times-bestselling crime novelist Lisa Lutz decided to collaborate on a murder mystery with a longtime friend (and ex-boyfriend), freelance editor and poet David Hayward.
The practical workings of the collaboration were as follows: Lutz would write the first chapter and all odd-numbered chapters thereafter. Hayward would write the even ones. They would not outline or discuss what they were working on. Each author would read the other's chapter "blind." Neither author was allowed to undo a plot development established by the other.
A few details about the presentation of the text warrant explanation: The footnotes within each chapter are comments made by the reading author. The authors also exchanged brief messages when a chapter was completed; these appear at the end of each chapter. The authors' initial messages to each other about the potential project are presented on the pages immediately following this Editor's Note. Lutz told me she saw the project as an experiment, a challenge—a new way of writing that might spur creativity to higher levels. I leave it to you to judge the results.
For reasons that will become obvious, both authors refused to come together to revise their work. I present it to you in its original form. While unorthodox in structure, it is nevertheless a novel. It just happens to tell more stories than either author intended.
I just finished the first chapter of a new novel—a real crime novel with a dead body and all—and I thought of you. And not in the way you might expect.
I'll cut to the chase: What would you say about making a go of another collaboration? And, no, I have not recently suffered a head injury. There's just something about this project that makes me feel like two heads might be better than one.
I know what you're thinking. Yes, our last attempt at collaboration, The Fop, was an epic disaster. A monthlong volcano of insults followed by a few years of complete silence qualifies, yes? Sometimes I don't know how we survived it (not to mention several other battles). But this is, what, thirteen years later? We're older, wiser, and probably too tired to fight with that level of vigor.
And maybe The Fop was doomed from the start. When it came down to writing it in the sober light of day, it might not have been the bulletproof idea it seemed over pitchers of beer at the Kilowatt. The story of a double-agent valet hiding behind the identity of his moronic yet flamboyant master is basically a B-movie version of Jeeves and Wooster. (Although, honestly, I still think there's something there. It just wasn't our fate to realize the vision.)
More importantly, we were writing that thing in the same room. Facial expressions can ratchet up an already stressful experience. I also think it's worth mentioning that this was back in your poetry days, and frankly, your touches of poignancy and high-art references were severely out of place in a broadly comic, mainstream undertaking.
Really, I accept equal blame for it. I had no patience and was often quite rude. Let me just offer up an overall mea culpa. But forget about The Fop. This is not The Fop. This is an as-yet-untitled crime novel that I think has some potential.
Okay, time to address the other elephant in the room. I know you're still bitter about you-know-what. It's true, in the very beginning, you helped brainstorm a few character details and offered some valuable footwear consultation. But it was always my screenplay, not a joint venture. And after the brutal struggles over The Fop, did you really expect me to ask you to collaborate again? Still, I know you felt betrayed, especially since The Fop went nowhere and my solo project got made (even if it did go straight to video). But that's all in the past. This is my olive branch to you. Maybe I'm a sucker for unfinished business, but I still believe we have some creative symbiosis.
If you're game, let me know and I'll send you the first chapter along with a few minor stipulations. If not, no offense taken. I'm sure I can find some other ex-poet interested in slumming it in the world of mainstream fiction.
And hello to you, too. A word or two of personal greeting would have been nice—after all, it's been a few months since I saw you at Frank's. But I guess the businesslike approach is part of your strategy for this new project. I think I get it.
And we did almost have something with The Fop, didn't we? Clear away the romantic debris—and maybe the last half-hour of every writing session—and it really might have worked. I still laugh every time I think of the ski lodge scene (after he retrieves the monocle). Can you name a funnier movie sequence in the past decade? I can't.
But yeah, communication was never our strong suit. For example, the news that you considered The Fop a "broadly comic, mainstream undertaking" would have been useful in 1997. If I'd known we were aiming that low, I would have punched up the crotch gags, and maybe the last thirteen years would have gone differently for me. But let's leave all that in the past. I'm sorry, too.
I had a good laugh about my supposed bitterness over being shut out of your straight-to-video success. (Coincidentally, that's exactly as many laughs as I experienced watching the film.) A sliver of the money would have been nice, but you're right: That thing was all yours. I'm happy it led to better things for you. I'm over it. Let's not mention it again.
I don't know what your "minor" stipulations might be, but I have only one, and it's major: If we do this and it sells, we split the money down the middle. Given our history—not to mention your lifelong obsession with butlers and other menservants—I think this can work only if we approach it as equals. I realize you're the "name" here, but if I didn't have something you wanted, I figure you wouldn't be asking me.
If you agree to that, I'm game. And hopefully not in the hunting sense.
I can handle the fifty-fifty split, but only with a couple of sensible amendments. First, I get top billing, since you agree that I'm the "name" author. Second, you may not discuss any aspect of our collaboration with our mutual acquaintances.
My final stipulation is that you simply correct my spelling and grammar, rather than mock me for it. You know what I've discovered in the world of publishing? Copy editors. They're totally awesome and they never insult me.
I just want to mention two more things: (1) Most people secretly wish they had a butler. I simply have the courage to openly voice my desire. (2) Read your description of The Fop. How was it not obvious we were talking about a broad comedy? I'm hoping the first chapter will make the tone of this story unmistakable, but if you're confused, please ask. Don't try to create a new genre.
So let's get started.
Paul flipped the coin and Lacey called tails. It was heads. Had the quarter made one more half-fl ip, who knows how differently things might have turned out? Paul could let things go; Lacey couldn't. But there's no point in thinking about what might have happened. Lacey lost the coin toss, so this is how the story goes.
Thursday was trash night. Lacey and Paul Hansen, grown siblings living under the same roof, had evolved tools for resolving simple disputes. In their childhood, they'd resort to wrestling matches or the slap game. But ever since their parents died, Paul had refused to engage in any physical altercation with his sister. Now that they were in their late twenties, the coin toss was the judge and jury in their household. Lacey grabbed her coat and slipped on her boots. She pulled the trash from the pantry and stepped out into the crisp California night. The sky was almost clotted with stars. She dumped the trash and dragged the bin down the long driveway and deposited it on the curb.
When she turned to look back at their house, a modest rambler lonely among acres of forest, all she could see was one dim light in the living room and the flicker of a television set. Paul was always watching TV. During the day, their home appeared ordinary and peaceful, if not a little weather-worn. A paint job wouldn't hurt. Though Mercer (pop. 1,280) was only a few miles away, it felt like they lived in the middle of nowhere. No other homes could be seen from their doorstep. As children they'd played in the forest that abutted their backyard, creating the footpaths that now guided them through the once-impenetrable terrain. Lacey had thought it was the most beautiful place in the world. Not anymore.
Now she mostly thought about how she would escape. Some days she pictured herself as far away as Italy. Other times she thought San Francisco would suffi ce. From there she could still keep a close watch on her brother. After their parents' death, she was the only real family he had. Even Aunt Gwen was gone, retired to Canada. And when Paul came back from college, his life didn't exactly fill up with friends. She stayed for him, she told herself. As far as Lacey could tell, Paul didn't want to go anywhere. He could see the entire world on the Travel Channel—what was the point of buying a plane ticket? Lacey no longer cared where she went as long as it wasn't Mercer. One day soon, this town would be a distant memory.
And one day, a coin toss wouldn't decide Lacey's destiny. It was a few hours to midnight (or prime time, as Paul called it) when Lacey heard the flies. She retraced her steps up the driveway and returned to the house to grab a flashlight. She tripped along the weeds and brush in their backyard, closing in on the stench. An animal must have died. Maybe a deer. But what would have killed a deer in the middle of their backyard? There was no hunting in these woods. Maybe the deer just died. Animals sometimes just die, like people, right? That's what she was thinking up until the moment she realized it was a body, a human body.
Her flashlight panned across the scene momentarily and she turned away. Just to make sure she saw what she thought she saw, she fl ashed the light on the body again, this time lingering on the head, or at least where the head should have been. She gagged. Then she decided she had seen enough. She ran full-speed back to the house.
"We have a problem," Lacey said to Paul, trying to sound calm and rational. She always liked people who were calm and rational, and adopted this persona whenever possible.
"Can it wait until morning?" Paul replied, staring blankly at the TV screen. "My program is on."
Had Lacey been in an argumentative mood, she would have reminded Paul that "his program"—meaning any show he liked—was always on.
This particular moment, his program involved men catching crabs in perilous conditions. Even Lacey liked this program.
"No, it can't wait," Lacey said, trying to keep her voice even.
"Can it wait fifteen minutes?" Paul asked, checking the clock.
"No," Lacey replied.
"Almost anything can wait fifteen minutes."
"Not a house fire," Lacey snapped.
"Is the house on fire?" Paul asked.
Lacey sat down on the couch next to Paul. She tapped her boot nervously on the hardwood fl oor—a habit of hers that could drive Paul to the brink of insanity. While the news could have waited fifteen minutes until Paul's program was over, Lacey didn't feel like waiting.
"There's a dead body in our backyard," she said. "I'm going to call 911."
Lacey slowly got to her feet and walked over to the phone. She picked up the cordless, but before she could dial, Paul snatched it out of her hand.
"Show me," he said.
"Well, he's definitely dead," Paul said.
"Thanks for confirming my diagnosis," Lacey replied. "Now what?"
"That could take forever."
"Do you know him?" Paul asked.
"He's missing a head!" Lacey shouted. "How the fuck do I know if I know him or not?"
Despite the cold air, a bead of sweat dripped down Paul's forehead.
"He smells," Lacey said, fighting her gag reflex again.
"Can we call the cops now?" Lacey asked. "I want him out of here."
"No, Lacey. We can't call the cops," Paul said, matter-of-factly.
The reason was obvious, and on a normal day, a day when Lacey hadn't discovered her first headless body, she wouldn't have needed the reminder.
"Think about it," Paul said in his most condescending tone.
"Oh . . . right," Lacey sadly replied.
They couldn't call the cops because they couldn't have the law nosing around their property, an unfortunate side effect of their business. Like so many in their line of work, Paul and Lacey had fallen into it. Paul had grown his first marijuana plant in high school, but he didn't pursue it seriously until he came back from college short on savings and job opportunities. Five years later, the Hansens were a small but steady supplier. Lacey was interested in botany, but she never quite thought of herself as a pot grower. It was just something she was helping out with for now.
"Why here?" Lacey asked, her calm and rational persona fading fast.
"I don't know," Paul replied.
"Is someone sending us a message?"
"Still don't know."
Despite the smell, the siblings stood at the grisly crime scene and took in the sight of the uninvited guest on their property. The body, flat on its back, had on work boots, old blue jeans (the kind that got old from wearing them and working in them and then washing them), a plaid work shirt, and another layer underneath. It was once white. Now it was covered in dirt and blood and who knows what else.
"So what do we do?" Lacey asked, fighting back the urge to vomit.
"We have to move the body," Paul replied.
In silence, brother and sister returned to the house to prepare for the ugly task at hand. Lacey pulled her hair into a tight ponytail. She was twenty-eight years old, it occurred to her, and moving her first dead body.
The calm and rational side of Lacey thought about DNA. She'd watched enough of those programs to know that she didn't want hers sprinkling all over the corpse. Paul donned a baseball cap. Lacey pulled two sets of dishwashing gloves from the pantry. Paul grabbed a tarp from the garage. Lacey poured peppermint oil on a pair of earplugs and stuffed them up her nose. She offered a pair of the same to her brother. The silence was briefly broken.
"These aren't used, are they?" Paul asked, holding the earplugs at a distance.
"What do you care? You've worn that same shirt for a week straight," Lacey replied. The shirt was a blue variation on Mercer's plaid flannel uniform. Last week it was red.
"I don't want your earwax up my nose."
"They're fresh," Lacey said. "I buy them in bulk. You have no idea how loud you snore."
"Well, you did play me that tape," Paul mumbled.
Another short patch of silence. Paul backed his blue Dodge pickup truck to the edge of the gravel driveway. He met Lacey beside the body. The tarp was laid next to the headless man.
"You can have the feet," Paul said, generously.
"Thanks," Lacey replied.
Paul grabbed the body by the shoulders; Lacey took his feet. Having never tried to move a body before, neither sibling realized how immovable dead weight was.
"Let's roll him," Lacey suggested.
Paul and Lacey each secured the tarp on the ground with one foot and, with all their force, they pushed the body over once, then twice, until it was resting in the center of the tarp. Then they wrapped the plastic around the body and secured it with duct tape so no fluids could escape. They each grabbed a side of the tarp and lifted the body off the ground, carrying it to the truck. They dropped him on the ground to catch their breath. They had to somehow lift one hundred and eighty or so pounds onto the truck bed. Lacey was strong. Sometimes she had to carry giant sacks of soil amendments deep into the woods, but this would take all her strength. She rested for a bit on her haunches.
"On the count of three," Paul said. "One. Two. Three."
"Now what?" Lacey asked, after Paul secured the body in the truck bed.
"We dump him."
"Anywhere remote," Paul replied. "We're surrounded by acres of forest. If we pick the right spot, he might never be found."
"But don't we want him to be found?"
"Because clearly he was murdered, and we want the murderer caught so his family, if he has any, can have some peace."
"You don't even know the guy," Paul replied.
"Doesn't matter," Lacey said. "It's the right thing to do."
"I don't care where we dump him as long as it's miles from here."
"I know a place," Lacey replied.
Paul drove their truck down the dark road. He turned on the radio to a country station. He thought the music might help. Lacey hated this song—pop masquerading as country. She knew it would always remind her of this night, so she was glad it wasn't one she liked.
There was an eight-mile path off a rest stop about fifteen minutes from their house. It wasn't a popular hiking destination, but it got enough foot traffic that a decaying corpse would eventually be noticed.
Paul pulled the truck into the rest stop and breathed a sigh of relief when they saw the parking lot was empty. Lugging the body off the truck was easier. There was no point being gentle with a corpse. But still, the thud when it hit the ground sent a wave of nausea through Paul. He wished he'd brought a joint to calm his nerves. He wanted to stay calm for Lacey, but his calm was wearing off. They dragged the body about a quarter-mile down the trail, unwrapped the corpse, and dropped it down a short embankment. The body ended up facedown, or would have if it had had a face. Paul folded up the plastic tarp. He pulled off his gloves and told his sister to do the same.
"What will we do with all this plastic?" Lacey asked.
"Burn it," Paul replied.
"We can't burn plastic. Do you know how bad that is for the ozone layer?"
"Our DNA is all over the gloves, Lacey. The ozone layer can suck it."
"We should have worn cloth gloves inside the plastic gloves. Then we could have burnt the cloth gloves and left the plastic ones with the body or maybe in a dumpster somewhere," Lacey said.
"Let's remember that for next time," Paul replied, his patience waning.
Lacey took the flashlight from Paul's hand and said, "We better double-check and make sure we haven't left anything behind."
She beamed the light over the body, which was now tangled in brush. While Paul worked to dislodge a thick branch, Lacey gingerly hiked down the embankment to the side of the body. She scanned the area around the corpse with the flashlight. That's when she noticed it. The watch.
She'd seen it before, lots of times. An old Seiko with a new leather band. One of those watches that supposedly winds itself through regular movement, although most people end up shaking their arm to wind it up. It never kept exact time. Lacey studied the body again. It was the right size. The clothes were the same, although all the men in Mercer seemed to dress alike. Holding her breath, she unclasped the watch and viewed the inscription on the back under the glow of the flashlight:
4 D LOVE D
"Paul," Lacey said. Panic was edging into her voice, tears catching in her throat.
"Where are you?" Paul said, peering over the embankment.
He saw his sister standing over the corpse with the flashlight.
"We know him," Lacey said. "It's Darryl. It's Darryl Cleveland."
Okay, back to you. I think it's time for a little backstory on the siblings. Maybe you can take care of some of that.
Also, I've decided Lacey should be studying botany. You might want to get started on the research since you're good at that sort of thing. Mind setting that up in your chapter?
Also, I didn't mention how the parents died. I'll leave that detail to you. I don't care how. Just don't go crazy. Leave the mafia out of it. Capiche?
Nice job. I'm reminded how succinct and propulsive your writing can be. Don't worry about backstory—I've already got a novel's worth in my head.
Just a note for both of us to keep in mind as we continue: Let's make sure we don't start taking sides, with you favoring Lacey and me favoring Paul. That's the kind of predictable gender stuff that derailed us back in the Fop days (although I stand by my allegiance to Lucius Van Landingham). I think we're both above that now.