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SEAN KIM

 

 

Sean Kim

 

Sean Kim has had stories published in Word Riot (2004), Faultline (2001), Dark Horses (2000).  In May 2009 he was a finalist for the Glimmertrain Fiction Open and a STAND Grant recipient in 2006. He writes movie reviews and opinion pieces for KoreAm and The Rumpus. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from San Diego State University and currently teaches English at City College of San Francisco.

 

 

 

 

 

His Last Breath

 

This story was part of the Prebooked series of readings at the 2010 Frank O'Connor international Short Story Festival. Prebooked featured authors who have had previous writing success but who have yet to publish a book.

 

 

 

 

It was on the shelves of Borderland Books that I came across a copy of Dark Alleys, the old 50s pulp rag catering to the time honored genre of crime fiction. Only with luck do you come across such a rare thing, enough to give pause and smile with a certain tenderness. As I flipped through the pages, among the kaleidoscopic tales of murderous men and wicked women, I came upon a strange little story titled “Good-bye My Sweet” written by a Christopher Nelson. On reading the brief twelve pages, I found nothing new about the plot itself, which involved a very plain man who met a beautiful woman in a bar. He fell madly in love with her and progressively grew obsessed, before killing her in a jealous rage. The story ended on a moment’s pause of remorse over her dead body, before he ran off into the night. It was your standard tale of lust and jealousy taken to its final conclusion, murder. 

But the thing that drew my attention wasn’t the story itself, it was the coincidence, because at the time I was also writing a piece with a very similar plot to “Good-Bye My Sweet”, though my story was called “Farewell Temptress”.  To my surprise, both the stories were near mirror reflections of each other, in characters, action, and plot. For instance, the narrators of “Good-Bye” and “Farewell” were both cerebral men easily possessed of their emotions, equally moody as they were volatile. Then there was the murdered woman in Nelson’s story, Lana Marrs, who was exactly like the murdered woman in my story, Lily Moreau. A reader could easily confuse one for the other, the two practically embodying the same personality. Nelson described his Lana with “light, gold hair that shined like steel” and I described Lily’s with a “a gold, metallic gleam.” To Nelson, her eyes were “abyssmal jewels hiding secrets that mocked from their depths” and I wrote, “her jewel eyes grinned with secrets no man would know.”

The similarities were so uncanny that I bought the magazine and took it home, where I combed through it line by line, writing down every detail of Lana Marrs and comparing them with my own Lily Moreau. They came to near perfect matches. The only difference I noted was the style; Nelson’s tended towards the Baroque and mine, thankfully, was more spare.

But the occurrence isn’t so surprising. It’s broadly understood stories, especially plots, tend to repeat. I know this personally as a seasoned writer of mystery thrillers. My novels One Night for Seven Sins, The Darkest Hour, The Mirror and the Man, and Madamoiselle Murder, were each inspired, if not loosely based, on other stories written before me. Even when I thought I’d written something entirely new, I quickly began to find echoes of it in other tales that were decades, even centuries old. In fact I will admit, I’ve even adapted entire plots and characters from other novels into my own, the most successful of which was Edwin Traum. It was a romance set in Renaissance New England, loosely adapted from a 19th century novella about a ventriloquist written by Charles Braun. You could read my novel, then Braun’s, and see a clear homage at work.

But what was curious about the situation with Nelson’s “Good-bye My Sweet” and my “Farewell Temptress” was the stories weren’t just similar, they were exactly the same, right down the line from plot to character. One might pass it off as mere coincidence, but any writer of mysteries will tell you there’s no such thing as coincidence.

So I began by searching through the registries of five different detective societies, from Amateur Sleuths to the Dime-Store Crime Fan Club, to find more about this Christopher Nelson. Unfortunately there was no listing, which was strange for such a common and unassuming name. The only information available came on the back-cover of the Dark Alleys magazine I’d bought. The author blurb gave a short bio:

            Mr. Nelson has worked as a criminal lawyer before turning to crime

            writing. This is his third publication. He is married and lives in

            California.

            After some wrangling, I was able to get in touch with the ex-editor of Dark Alleys. We spoke over the phone. The old salt claimed he’d never talked to Nelson in person and only exchanged brief letters via a PO Box address concerning galleys for the publication of “Good-Bye My Sweet,” a story which he oddly recalled in some detail. But he offered nothing more. When I asked if he could give me the PO Box address, the old man, maybe out of bitterness or senility, yelled, “No!” and hung up.

Once more to square one. With just the back-cover blurb as evidence, I went to the library and began an arduous reference search. I found Nelson’s name in two other pulps and wrote down the volume and issue numbers. Searching unsuccessfully through the library stacks, I arrived back, as they say, to “square one” to Borderlands Books. There I combed through the long-boxes in search of those two other stories.

Fortune favored the stubborn. In Detection Magazine and Fantastic Lands, I found the two remaining tales. Anticipation that verged on fear overwhelmed me as I purchased the rags at the cashier and rushed home. Locked in my office, I read through both stories in a single sitting and to no surprise, found them exactly the same as Nelson’s “Good-Bye My Sweet” and thereby, my own “Farewell Temptress.” An unnamed narrator becomes fascinated then obsessed with a beautiful woman, he marries her, she betrays him, then he kills her in a passion.

Of course, there were some variations. One narrator was a doctor, the other an accountant; one was set in a nameless city and the other was in Mexico. But the murder victims in all three were women, blonde and beautiful, each killed by a gun-shot to the chest. Their names were Ronnette Bloom, Claire Tenneyson, and of course, Lana Marrs.

This seemingly coincidental event of finding one story that was a mirror image of another, which then led to two more stories, each with the same plot, same characters, and same conclusion; made an all too obvious pattern. I laughed in amusement, but the humor of it was quickly lost to me that night as I sat at my desk thinking. I realized in writing my story “Farewell Temptress”, I was not only lacking imagination, but I was beginning to feel like a true murderer planning a woman’s death. Calculating actions and developing scenes, analyzing every step of the killer’s approach with gun in hand, going over every detail of how she crumpled to the floor at the pull of the trigger, how her hair fanned onto the rain-wet street, her wide-eyed stare of shock and the on-coming chill of death. All the while, I sat in the comfort of my cushioned chair, behind my oak desk and my Olivetti, serenely sipping coffee.

It struck me as a vicious thing to imagine and all of it done behind the courageous veneer of artistic pursuit, when really I was participating in a string of murders begun by Chris Nelson, which he likely picked up from another writer who’d written the same story years before him. Suddenly, what I once considered a grand literary tradition, became a serial murdering that possibly went back two-hundred years, beginning with Poe. Among the victims were Lana Marrs, Ronnette Bloom, Claire Tenneyson, and now my Lily Moreau, adding to an abstracted serial killer’s list of victims!

Speaking as a man of morality, and not as a writer, this was reprehensible. So, after long consideration, I scrapped “Farewell Temptress” and filed it away, where it’s remained ever since. Such is the writer’s life, where simple decisions are made and entire worlds end.

I spent the next two days in a drunken stupor, staring out the window of my reading room, wondering what kind of dark world was out there and what I could do to bring a little light. This epiphany, to use a hackneyed device, suddenly inspired a renewed sense of duty. I had an idea. Putting on a pot of coffee, I sat at my desk, pulled out a fresh roll of paper, and began typing. I opened with the new line “As one case ended, another began….”

The main character was Detective Max Parrish. The story was called “The Fifth Victim” and it was set in the same dark and rainy metropolis of what I’ve come to describe as Nelson’s Murder Trilogy. This world was filled with a string of caricatures from the drunk, greedy landlord to the innocent young girl new to the hard realities of the detective-fiction world. Enmeshed in the shadowy lower-depths, Parrish worked from a tiny cubicled office, attempting to puzzle out the murders of Lana Marrs, Ronnette Bloom, and Claire Tenneyson.

I modeled Parrish after a line of tough, wise-cracking, American detectives with the snappy repartee and wicked right hook. He trolled around, drinking whiskey, getting steeped in bar-room brawls, smoking relentlessly between interviews of shady characters. As he suffered through the toughest case of his career, he had arrived at an impasse, unsure where to go next. Just then, Parrish received a phone call from a mysterious woman, telling him she had information on the murders of the three girls that might be of interest.

They met in an abandoned apartment building, steeped in the mood of your typical noir: rain crawling down the window, a clap of thunder, a dark figure lurking in the corner. The figure stepped into the light and in a silky voice said her name was Lily M. She was from a small town in another part of the state, “But that isn’t important,” she said, “The case is important.”

As she told Parrish, Lily was almost a victim of the same crime as Lana Marrs, but survived by a freak accident, which she wouldn’t explain. Then she handed him a packet containing leaves of paper, typed and handwritten, and told him the answer to the case lay inside.

Before disappearing, Parrish caught a lock of her golden blonde hair in a flash of lightning, then asked her why was she doing this, what was her motive?

Lily told him, “Revenge.” A roll of thunder passed then she closed the door behind her.

            Parrish read through the contents of the packet and discovered three stories, each describing the murder of a woman as told by an unnamed narrator. The only discrepancy were the names, which were mixed combinations of the three; instead of Lana Marrs, Ronnette Bloom, and Claire Tenneyson; there was Lana Bloom, Claire Marrs, and Ronnette Tenneyson.  All three were written by Christopher Nelson.

            After a number of phone calls to editors of each magazine, punctuated by an interrogation and minor beating of the arrogant ex-editor of Dark Alleys, Parrish finally got two addresses from the man.

            Leaving the city, he drove to a rustic, wood-side town and stopped in front of a clean, white-washed Victorian.

            Parrish went up and knocked on the door.

            Nelson’s wife answered. There was an exchange between them, a growing look of confusion and shock on the wife’s face. Then the author himself, Christopher Nelson appeared, unknowing and curious, asking what the problem was, what was going on?

Explanations followed protest, before an indignant Nelson refused to comply. He tried to close the door, but Parrish burst in and wrestled the author to the floor, amid the wife’s piercing screams, until at last Parrish slapped the handcuffs on the killer.

            The police arrived and they took Nelson to the squad car. He was last heard crying out through a crack in the window, “They’re stories! I WROTE them!  They’re not real!” before the squad car drove off.

That done, there was one last thing to clear-up. Parrish got back in his car and drove further out from the rustic town into a demure little suburb. He examined the scrap of paper with the other address, found the street, then the home.

He arrived at my door with a cigarette hanging from his lips and that ragged, five o’clock shadow. My first thought was, “Where did this guy come from? A detective novel?”

I didn’t know what he was about, so I let him in and we sat over bourbons. Parrish then explained to me about the Lana Marrs case, which went back two previous girls, and finally to a writer by the name of Nelson, Christopher. He asked if I knew him.

I did. I explained to Parrish that Nelson was a character I created in a story within a story, about three murdered girls, and a fourth who survived, and how I, the narrator, linked everything together into one.

Parrish drew from his cigarette, nodding. He took in the last swallow of bourbon and stood up. We looked at each other. Of course, I knew what came next. I excused myself with what poise remained, said I needed to wash up before facing the music.

I went to my bedroom and pulled out a 9mm from my desk drawer. Loaded, trigger cocked, I ran into the living room blasting.

But Parrish was gone.

I looked around in a panic, screaming for him to come out, to meet his maker! Then out of nowhere, the press of cold steel at my neck, and that smart-mouth jab, just like Marlowe would make it, and Spade, and Hammer: “Which is faster, Mr. Kim? Pen or gun? Can you write faster than a bullet?”

But before he could snap the cuffs, I made a mad dash through the kitchen. I ran and jumped through the big window, smashing glass all over me, and sprinted down the rain-soaked street, going straight for three blocks.

But Parrish was on me, relentless. Then two, three shots before an explosion of heat in my chest. A burst of metallic liquid spurting from my mouth, a sharp burning between the shoulders. Before it could register, I crumpled to the ground, unable to move or breathe, blood streaming from my mouth.

Parrish finally stepped up and turned me on my back. I watched, dazed, as he looked down on my prone figure. Then he pulled off his hat, then his hair, and then his entire face. Blonde curls fell around him, or her. It was Lana, or Ronnette, or maybe Claire.

Or was it Lily? I couldn’t tell. It was her, and it was all of them.

I stared in wonder at the beauty and justice of it. Then with my last breath I tried to call out a name, just one name, but all I had left was a long sigh of satisfaction, then fell back dead.

 

 

 

©2011 Sean Kim

 

 

 

 

Author Links

 

Reviews by Kim in The Rumpus

'Megaplex': story by Kim in Word Riot

 

 

 

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