Persistence Can Be Fatal


By Regina Clarke



"I have it now, the words captured, the scenes so clear in my head. Doc Whelan doesn't know what he's talking about. I'm fine, right as rain, with a script to prove it. I see the protagonist, or is it the villain? Only I know for sure. Keep them guessing, right? But the fade in is cool. Listen to this. Margaret? Are you awake?"

His wife pretended to be asleep, snoring lightly, keeping her breath even. Rafe could drive her mad with his plots and possibilities, none of them likely to bear fruit, except in his own, driven mind. If her old friend Dr. James Whelan had any sense, he'd feed Rafe some special pills for his occasional angina and end her misery. But she could hardly ask. She couldn't even hint at the idea. Margaret let out a small sigh and turned over, away from the light. If she got up and left the room, he'd just follow her.

"Well, I guess maybe you can hear me even if you don't know it," Rafe said, undeterred. "It begins in a subway. Late at night. Listen:


FADE IN:

INT. SUBWAY — NIGHT

A MAN in a long coat races up several levels of darkened subway
steps, past wide brightly-lighted corridors leading to tunnels. No one
else is around.

At the last landing he stops and looks down. The SOUND OF A
PIANO, a melody distinct but far away. In the empty space it has
a hollow reverberation.

He is in shadow, very still, listening.

A loud, piercing SIREN breaks in. He turns and leaps up the last
flight of stairs and out through a gate into the street.



"Exciting, right? Some producer's going to love it, I tell you. It gets even better. What I felt — saw is a better word, in my head — is how the guy is afraid, but not afraid, all at the same time. He doesn't want to be caught, but he's not sorry about what he's done. Only no one will know that right away. What he's done, I mean. That's tension. Suspense. You gotta use words that create suspense. No one knows what's going on. Except maybe the detective that shows up, only he's got troubles of his own. I know, if you were awake you'd say 'don't we all, Rafe darling?' but in my plot it's a key ingredient. He's not unhappy, this detective, but he's alone. It gnaws at him. Yeah, that's a good word, it gnaws at him. So I introduce him next, before the crime's been discovered. He's on his way to work on the subway. Same one the killer used, only he doesn't find that out till later, either. All he knows is he wants some coffee and a bagel. Here's that part:


EXT. STREET — DAY

An OLD WOMAN is selling bagels on a corner near a newsstand
during rush hour.

JENNER grabs one and digs in into the pocket of his trench coat
for change.

As she holds out her hand, a PASSERBY in a dark blue parka brushes
against him and he drops the bagel. Jenner swears. The old one hands
him a new one. He pays her for two.



"It's the guy in the parka he needs to look out for, only he doesn't know that yet, either, but he starts to wonder:


INT. SUBWAY

Jenner is riding on the train, balancing a styrofoam coffee cup and his
bagel as he undoes a gold clip and pulls some papers out of his black
leather briefcase.

He gets engrossed in what he's reading.

The train begins a slow screeching slide. As it curves around to enter
a station stop the LIGHTS FLICKER.

In the window above Jenner the faces of those standing in the car
appear on and off, too fast to discern clearly.

Jenner looks up and out the glass in time to see the station name. He
starts to gather his things together.

As he gets up, the same passerby in a dark blue parka falls against him
clumsily, pushing him back down. The coffee spills everywhere. Jenner
scrambles to save the briefcase and bagel.

JENNER

Great. Just great.

He looks up at the person in half-hearted anger, but no one is there.
He gets to the door just as the train stops. He peers over his shoulder
all around the car. Being a tall man, 6'4", he can see over most of the
people there. The dark blue parka is gone.



"You're thinking no detective carries a leather briefcase, right? True, true. But Jenner's wife gave it to him. She's left him but he hangs on to it. I like that about him. Makes him human, not hard-boiled, but he's not soft, either, no way. About the ex-wife, I'll explain that later when he gets involved with someone. But that's later. So, he gets to the station:


EXT. STREET

Jenner is walking toward the police station. He throws the half-eaten
bagel and empty coffee cup into a trash can. The briefcase is tucked
under his arm.

He walks up the steps of the station. At the entrance TWO UNIFORMS
are smoking cigarettes.


JENNER

Not here, boys, remember? Use the back
door. Got to look nice for our customers.

A UNIFORM

We don't call them customers, sir.



Margaret lay still, wondering if she could adequately explain to any detective who showed up on her doorstep why she had shot her husband, but since she had no gun it didn't matter. Was there another way? Yes, she thought there was. Everything had a solution.

"So what happens next?" Rafe went on. "It's all about timing. Only I hold off a bit more, build expectations. I have to show how Jenner handles regular stuff, first, so the audience knows he'll be able to find the killer, that he's got the savvy for that, and can handle himself when the stakes are high, right? Gotta do that. So I add some action:


INT. POLICE STATION LOBBY — DAY

PETRA moves toward Jenner as he enters the lobby, waving a piece
of paper at him. Jenner sets his briefcase down on the counter in front
of the desk sergeant, who isn't pleased.


PETRA

Meeting? 8 a.m.? Ring a bell, detective?

JENNER

I got delayed. So what's the deal for
us, then? The captain made a decision?

PETRA

We hit them tonight.

JENNER

All of them?

PETRA

Every last scurrilous piece
of refuse we can find.

JENNER

Scurrilous? Nice one.


Petra leads him back into the main room.


INT. MAIN ROOM FOR DETECTIVES — DAY


PETRA

You read my report?

JENNER

On the way in. Most of it. It's
good. I just think you need to —


An EXPLOSION rocks the station. The main room they
are in rattles and shakes but stays intact.

Both race toward the lobby.



Margaret stirred under the covers. Rafe glanced over and then leaned over her so he could see her face. She looked asleep. Maybe he should stop, save the rest for another night when she was really listening to him. But there was no time. He had one chance to impress Kara Justice, head of one of the top agencies in Hollywood. She wanted the script in the morning and she would read it without mercy. It was Rafe's chance to prove his worth as a screenwriter, that he was more than just some wimp who wrote commercials. He needed to read the script out loud. The words mattered. If he couldn't feel like they resonated, out they had to go. It didn't help to talk into his digital recording device. That was like talking to himself. At least Margaret was a live human being. He could pretend she was awake. That'd do.

"Now here's where it gets interesting," he said, dropping a page in his eagerness and catching it before it hit the floor. "A good script, it needs a hook, sure, so I have that in the opening scene, but you gotta connect the dots right away. That's what I do. Listen. This grabs the hook and runs with it, know what I mean?


INT. POLICE STATION LOBBY — DAY

The lobby has been damaged. Two policemen are on the
floor, one lying still and the other moaning and holding his
leg.

Jenner starts toward the men and stops. Lying near one of
them is a large strip of leather, a thin gold clip across the
top of it, half melted. It's a piece of his briefcase.

Petra is watching him.

PETRA

John?

Others are caring for the policeman who is hurt. The other
one is dead.

PETRA (CONT'D)
John, what is it?

He points to the remnants of his briefcase.

PETRA

The bomb was in your
briefcase? How?

JENNER

Well, you don't think I —

PETRA

Not if I'm breathing. But Captain
Haverson'll have some questions.

JENNER

That's just it. I don't know any —

He stops, remembering.

JENNER (CONT'D)

The train.


Rafe slaps the page with his hand. "Now he's getting it. He just doesn't know why. Was there a timer that set it off? Was he supposed to be the victim and something went wrong? Was it a warning? He doesn't know. Suspense, tension, mystery — it's all there!"

Rafe went quiet a moment. Then he smiled. "I'm on my way with this one, Margaret. I feel it. So, what happens next, you want to know? That's the deal. Make sure the audience wants to know more. Remember Dan Raven from high school? Crashed and burned when his script got rejected. But he gave me one piece of advice, and it was on the money. He said make each word count so no one can change it, not the director, not the actor, not the script doctor, not the production manager or the matte artist or whoever else is wandering around. Make the words matter. That's what I'm doing here, know what I mean?

"Now, the next part is procedural so I'll just sum it up. Jenner gives a report to his captain, who isn't happy since repairing the lobby will be expensive and besides, now he has to set up a city-wide hunt for a cop-killer. Jenner goes home to clean up and wait for a call from the M.E. who's doing an autopsy on the dead cop. He gets the call and leaves his building and doesn't see the person in a hooded blue parka standing just beyond the streetlight. See, Jenner isn't paying attention because he hates morgues. Like most detectives do, in books and on TV, right? He's thinking about that and regretting he has to go and deal with the M.E., who's got a weird personality, like they all do. I mean, they work with dead people all the time. The next scene shows that and also sets up some anxiety for my detective. He's got his vulnerable side. More audience sympathy, right? So here it is:


INT. POLICE MORGUE — NIGHT

Jenner is sitting on a bench, leaning forward, hands on
his knees. He looks sallow under the fluorescent light.
His muscles are tense. He looks up when Parker, the M.E.,
approaches in a bloody apron, accompanied by a HAZMAT
OFFICER.

JENNER

Well?

PARKER

Well yourself. Always a
pleasure to see you, Jenner.


Jenner attempts a smile. He wants information, but he's clearly
familiar with Parker's routine.

JENNER

Sam said you had found something.

PARKER

I'd say so. You were right on
the mark. If I may ask, how did
you know?


Jenner suddenly feels agitated. The hazmat officer notices this.

JENNER

What difference does it make?

PARKER

Good heavens, my dear boy,
none, of course. Naturally, I
am curious. Well, we all are

(turning to the other man)

aren't we?


JENNER
(losing control)

Whatever you have — spit it out!



"See how the M.E. manipulates Jenner?" Rafe tapped his head. "And keeps at it:



Parker fiddles with the strings dangling from his apron,
a small smile on his face. Then he looks away from Jenner
as he answers.



"See how I mirror Parker's behavior when he handles the strings — same way he handles Jenner? Really good, right? Okay, now he tells Jenner what he's found out:


PARKER

No prints, of course. Quite impossible,
there. But yes, there was a crude attempt
at a bomb. So many reasons could be
attributed to that. Not really my concern.

JENNER

I'm waiting...

PARKER

Ah, yes, the details. I found traces of
sulfur, potassium chlorate and red
phosphorous, calcium carbonate on
the body, all excellent ingredients for
combustion.

JENNER

Flash powder.


PARKER

Such a clever man, our Jenner.
An older formula, actually. More
dangerous when ignited.


HAZMAT OFFICER

It was the coffee. The entry of
moisture into the mix, getting
everything wet, that was the
catalyst.


PARKER

Exactly. You know, if you had kept
the briefcase with you, I wouldn't be
talking to you now — amazing there
was any delay at all — you had
seconds to spare. Am I right?

Parker turns again toward the hazmat officer, who nods in
agreement, still watching Jenner.


JENNER
(half to himself)

Why...


PARKER

Your desk sergeant dead in my laboratory,
another in a critical care unit, and a damaged
entrance lobby — I'd say that is
certainly a question worth answering.



Rafe sent another glance at Margaret, who hadn't moved since the last time he looked at her. A shudder of anxiety ran through him.

"Margaret?"

He wanted to shake her shoulder to check on her but if she was asleep and he woke her up she'd be furious with him. Margaret valued sleep the way some women valued diamonds. She told him it kept her young. He couldn't see it for himself, but that wasn't something he was about to mention any time soon. Feeling foolish, he leaned over her again. He saw her eyelids fluttering. She was dreaming. He sighed with relief and went back to his script. It was perfect, he thought. He didn't have to revise a word, so far. He'd chosen the right ones every time.

"So what has to happen next is to show how brave Jenner is, a kind of maverick guy, too. Those things appeal to everyone, right? The loner who can save the day. Only this time something brings him up short. He toughs it out but still has to deal with the fallout. His partner Petra and he have another setup to run, a long-term stakeout that's about to bring them a real catch. It should go like clockwork — only it doesn't. Conflict. Right? More tension. At the stakeout the audience sees Jenner make a mistake and it costs him. Listen:


INT. CAR — NIGHT

Jenner and Petra watching a motel across the street. A neon sign
reads "Heberson's Sandy Nook."


PETRA

Sandy Nook. Cool name for a place
with no sand. It's number twenty-eight.
Far as we know, there are eight in there.

JENNER

You sure?

PETRA

What?

JENNER

Sorry. Okay. Everyone is in position?

PETRA

Why else would we be here?
You're starting to annoy me.

(pause)

How was Parker?

JENNER

Same old sadistic self.


A small beam of light flashes from trees near the sign.


PETRA

Our boys are ready. Let's go.

JENNER

Okay, okay.


EXT. PARKING LOT OF MOTEL — NIGHT

Everything is quiet.

Jenner and Petra move toward Room #28. Jenner takes
the door. He stops and leans over to listen. He is clearly
visible to everyone in the light from the parking lot.

He holds up his hand and ducks into a shadow.

The door opens a little. No one comes out. He waits a
minute, and then slams against the door. A hail of bullets
greets him and he falls.

Shouts from out front. Petra screams Jenner's name.



"I give instructions there. Fade to black. Can't do that too often. Directors, producers, they don't want the writer setting up the cameras and scenes. A script, it's just a blueprint to them. But like Dan Raven said, you get the words that are supposed to be there, the ones that matter, no one'll change anything. So here they might not want to fade to black, but they won't be able to deny it works. This is a crisis in Jenner's life. It needs the dark to show that.

"Now it changes again and fast. He's in a hospital room and his partner Petra is with him. Makes him feel good, you know? Having her there. She tells him the bust went pretty well. They got five of the bad guys after Jenner was knocked out. Then he sees his ex-wife Anna is in the room. He feels this kind of joy. But it's not what he thinks. Petra leaves and here's what happens:


INT. HOSPITAL ROOM — MORNING

Jenner moves his hand and touches Anna's arm.

ANNA

John. I want you to meet Peter.

The man behind her moves closer. He has a nice,
unassuming face, a lot of dignity.

Jenner drops his hand back on the bed.

ANNA (CONT'D)

We just came to check on you. I'm glad
you are all right. When I got Petra's call —
I was so afraid for you. A reckless thing
to do, wasn't it?

JENNER

I bet you aren't reckless, Peter, are you?
I can tell just by looking at you. You know
just how to do everything, just how to keep
it all on the even keel, don't you?

ANNA

We're leaving now.

She gets up quickly and grabs Peter's hand. Jenner sees this.

Peter holds back a moment, looking at Jenner.

PETER

I think what you did was very
brave, actually. I'm impressed.


Peter and Anna leave.

Jenner stares at the empty space after they have left. Then he
leans his head back on the pillow.



"See, it's another thing shifting for him. He's not so sure how to deal with it, his old feelings for Anna and now seeing her with her new boyfriend, lover, whatever. This gets the audience attached to Jenner, more sympathy stuff. Then Petra comes back into the room. He feels for the first time how much he relies on her as someone he trusts. She knows what he is, who he is. This gives him a sense of purpose that Anna's behavior had taken away the moment before. Petra wants more information on why Jenner went in alone on the stakeout and he sees it's not just her being cross with his action but she cares, despite how she talks. Listen:



PETRA

What were you doing last night? Think you
were brave? Nah-uh. Stupid, maybe. You left
me waving in the wind.What's wrong with you?

JENNER

Why'd you call Anna?

PETRA

Because she'll always want to know.

JENNER

Can't tell it by me.

PETRA

She was here, wasn't she?

JENNER

With him.

PETRA

You let her go, remember?
A cop's curse, messing up
a marriage. Anna did the
right thing.

JENNER

Remind me not to ask for
you when I want backup.

(seeing her face)

Hey. You know what I mean. I
screwed up there, at the motel.
I know. Wasn't thinking.

PETRA

Glad you're okay. Gotta run.

JENNER

Yeah. Sure.


"So it's all set up now, like, that's the first act, and everything's in place. So now what I do is have a scene to start act two that's mysterious. It's my only other screen direction. Same one, in fact. The screen is dark. The audience hears a piano, someone playing the same thing they heard in the opening scene. It's got the same hollow sound, almost like an echo. Then daylight fills the screen, a busy street scene in the city, and Jenner is walking on the sidewalk studying signs above shop windows. Want to know why?"

"No."

Rafe turned to his wife, who was sitting up beside him now, her blond hair tangled, a couple of lines on her face from the pillow, her silk pajamas wrinkled, her dark blue eyes watching him.

"But this is just the first act!" he said, unable to hold back his enthusiasm that she was awake, which would make reading the script out loud so much better.

"I am warning you, my darling Rafe, not to read another word in my presence from those pages you are holding. I have listened to the other scripts, through all their iterations. I've done so gladly because I believed in you. But that time has faded to black, my dearest. I don't want to hear another word. None. Not one. Do you understand?"

"Margaret! I have to show this to Kara in the morning!"

"It is morning, Rafe. It's almost four a.m."

Rafe looked at his watch on the night table.

"Two hours. I need two more hours to read the rest of it out loud. It's the last time, I promise! I just know Kara will love this — she'll find a producer and studio to love it, too. We'll have everything we've always wanted."

Margaret leaned over and opened the drawer of her own night table and took out a small carafe of cognac and one glass and a small vial.

"Two hours," he pleaded. "I know it's a winner, Margaret!"

She looked at him again, a different expression in her eyes, something he couldn't interpret, either.

"But dearest Rafe, you said you have chosen the right words, words that matter, and that not one of them in your script is expendable. Am I right?"

"Yes!" Rafe said, his eyes lighting up with happiness. "You heard that? It's true."

"Then you don't have to read it to me anymore. It's already perfect."

Rafe leaned back on the three pillows he had tucked behind him for support. What could he say to that?

Margaret seemed to relax until he came up with an answer he was sure she couldn't resist.

"Wait! You have to listen to the rest of it. Don't you see? Kara is going to ask me what you thought of it. You know she will. It's because of you she even agreed to read it, right? You got her her first agency job. She trusts you." Rafe smiled in triumph.

Margaret sat up again, resting her right hand under the white satin quilt she had chosen to celebrate their second anniversary, a long, long time ago. Then she reached over to the night table and fiddled with the glass and poured out a small quantity of the amber drink and handed the glass to her husband.

"So?" Rafe asked. "What do you say?"

"Have this, dearest. You need a break, don't you? A little of this won't interrupt your concentration."

Rafe looked at her with affection. "Thank you, Margaret. You've always taken care of me." He drank the cognac in one swallow, coughed a little, and sighed with contentment as he picked up the pages he had set down on the bed. The sensations came so quickly he didn't have time to register what was happening. Even his wife's voice seemed to be fading in the distance, though he caught some of it.

"Rafe, darling, words matter to me, too. So listen to what I tell you now, dearest, because I won't be saying it again: I will not listen to you read another word of any script ever. Do you hear that, Rafe? Do you hear my words, exactly?"

Rafe would have answered her if he could. He would have argued the point. He never gave up when a good idea hit him. He was a tenacious man. Everyone knew this about him. They all felt compassion for Margaret when they heard what had happened. A heart attack, and Rafe only forty-eight. He had worked so hard to make it into the business, and failed. Margaret had always encouraged him, supported him. But sometimes things just didn't work out, they told her.

"I know," she said at the funeral, dabbing at nonexistent tears. "Such persistence, yes, you're right. Dearest Rafe."


Regina Clarke's stories have appeared in Subtle Fiction, Halfway Down the Stairs, Fried Fiction, Bewildering Stories, and Thrice Fiction. A short story has been selected by Kzine (U.K.) for publication in 2013.


Copyright 2012 Regina Clarke. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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