He had thought it would help his writing to join a writer’s circle.
Alan had been sitting on his first draft for months, terrified that there would be more work in editing the thing than there had been in writing it. He had basked in the pride of having written an entire story and couldn’t bare having to cut away pieces or to reshape it. As he walked towards the apartment block with a printed copy of his first chapter, he hoped they would not have many notes for him. Surely they would at least go easy on him for the first week?
It had been difficult to find this group. They had actually advertised in the newspaper of all places. Even to someone who bragged to his barista (who knew his order by heart) about writing a crime novel, it seemed pretentious. However, he had needed to find the right audience for his work and the ad reading “crime writers meeting – serious interest only” had given him a good impression. After he sent the listed email address his first chapter, he had quickly received an invitation to the meeting.
It seemed odd to invite a stranger to an apartment, rather than vetting them in public first, but he assumed the group outnumbering him made them feel that there was no danger. He supposed the real risk was to him, but he carried a pocketknife just in case. Not that he thought it would come to that.
He rang the number for the flat and was buzzed in without any words exchanged. Walking upstairs, he noted that the flat on the floor below his intended destination was blasting music. He wryly wondered if the party atmosphere would spoil the mood for discussing fictitious murders.
The door opened without Alan even knocking. A blonde woman stood at the door, beckoning him in with a warm smile. As he stepped inside, the door closed before he could even introduce himself. His host smiled warmly and introduced herself as Susanna, whom he had been talking with over email.
“I hope the apartment is to your liking, I do try to decorate”
Alan was not quite sure what she meant. It looked every bit like a normal apartment – the furniture had not even been rearranged to accommodate the five other attendees. Oddly, the lights were not turned on, with a cluster of candles on the coffee table throwing out the only light once the door had closed. Three people sat on the couch while the other two stood on the other side of the coffee table.
“It looks lovely!”
Alan smiled warmly, eager to make a good impression and hopeful that it would cause the group to soften any critique. Plus, he gave them extra points for atmosphere.
“Uh, I’m sorry but are we looking at anyone else’s work tonight? I didn’t get any other excerpts to read and I thought… maybe there would… be?”
Alan trailed off awkwardly.
One of the people sitting on the couch, a man of around 60 years, called out to him
“Oh no Alan, first timers get full attention for their first meeting. We want to make sure that you fit in with our dynamic. We don’t want to spill our secrets without knowing what sort of man you are first”
That made sense, Alan thought. Best to see if someone could take criticism well before you accept it from them. Some people love criticising but won’t take a mote in return.
Alan knelt at one end of the coffee table, pleased to see that each member of the circle had a printed and notated copy of his first chapter. He saw that some also had pocket torches to be able to read more clearly, utility outweighing aesthetics.
He had tried to start big, with the murder of a woman returning home from work. She entered her dark apartment, only to be attacked by the killer. It was supposed to hook the reader and make them want to see them caught. He had worried he went overboard with the gore, but overall he did not think it would need much changing.
Susanna knelt at the opposite end of the coffee table, announcing that it would need to be a 40 minute discussion, before the demonstration. Alan wondered, horrified, if he had walked into a tupperware demonstration masquerading as a writers circle, but a young dark-haired man whose name was either David or Daffyd was already asking about the relevance of the weather outside the flat. Alan explained that the storm was necessary to hide the sound of the murder.
“But you couldn’t predict that. It would make way more sense to fabricate a normal noise. Unless you’re not on any sort of time limit and can wait months for the right kind of storm to hide your killing”
Alan was pretty sure the brunette’s name was Amanda.
“That makes sense. Maybe something more like-“
the music thumped from below and he laughed
“Something like waiting for a neighbour to throw a party? He could know about that”
“Precisely!” Susanna said brightly, “Or if there’s an empty flat, all you need to do is put in speaker and most people will tune it out until unless it’s very late”
Alan found it odd that they referred to the killer in second person, but he supposed it made sense to get into the mind of the killer to follow their logic.
The rest of the session discussed his description of the environment. Susanna was very adamant that two different readers should be able to draw comparable maps of a space if it is well enough described. She wanted his next draft to have more of a feel for the space.
“Like, when he pushes her back onto the table, you should describe what the wood feels like. Or when she pushes him back into the wall – are there any pictures there? Is it plaster or brick he feels?”
Susanna had gotten up, and was pointing to different sections of the flat, the older man following her gestures with his torchlight. It slowly dawned on Alan what Susanna had meant by “decorating”. She had arranged the flat to have the same layout as his chapter. He was immediately stunned by the effort and thoughtfulness and tried to tell her how touched her was, how sorry he had not realised.
“Of course I did! It works so much better this way. Now, we have ten minutes before the feedback session is done, would anyone like some tea? Alan, you should explore the space for this part, unless anyone else can offer anything?”
David/Daffyd jumped in immediately, “oh! what sort of knife do you use? You just say ‘the knife’, but it really helps to give it a personality”
“I uh…. a pocketknife!”
Alan pulled out the knife from his pocket, a surprisingly well-received gesture, all things considered. He had though that after all the effort of arranging her apartment, he could show some initiative in bringing his own prop.
Amanda had engaged him in a discussion about the type of wounds he would need to inflict to kill with such a shallow blade when a cup of tea was handed to him. In the dim light, he saw the name “Jenny” painted on the side and wondered if Susanna had a flatmate. When Susanna’s watch beeped, everyone put their still-warm mugs on the table beside the candles.
“So, Alan. I hope you’re feeling comfortable with our little group now?”
Alan smiled and nodded at Susanna and the group. He had thoroughly enjoyed this evening.
“So now we come to the most important part, the demonstration!”
The group politely clapped and Alan hurried to put his mug down to join in. He had figured that, after all the effort to stage the flat, he was going to do a walk-through of the scene with someone, to see how it would flow in reality.
“Now, you’ve got your knife all ready? Good! We should be able to start shortly”
They all moved to the edges of the room, two stood behind the kitchen doorway, three in the hallway, and Susanna moved towards the front door. From her positioning, Alan made an educated guess.
“Oh, so you’ll play the victim?”
The was a brief pause, then polite laughter.
“Oh no!” Susanna half-laughed, in a voice that sounded more confused than amused.
“That’s not really feasible, sweetheart. Just wait, she’ll be here any minute”
Alan stood in the dark, the only light coming from the candles and from Susanna’s phone, the screen illuminating her look of concentration on it. Her eyebrows shot up as she smiled.
Alan wondered if they had hired an actress to help and felt flattered by the effort already put into this evening. As someone blew out the candles, Susanna gestured for him to stand beside her and he watched her fiddle with a music app on her phone as the music in the flat below got even louder. He could only just hear the sound of keys in the door and he suddenly froze, unsure of what he was supposed to do. The door opened, Susanna and Alan, hidden behind it. The light came on and he heard keys being dropped into the bowl beside the door. As the woman stepped into the room, she froze at the moment the door closed behind her. There was a moment where Alan stared at her, equally frozen, before Susanna grabbed Alan’s hand and had him turn the deadbolt lock.
“Go on! Just like we discussed”
It had been odd, receiving notes while he worked. Something about live criticism let him view the scenario externally and soon Alan started following the blueprints his new friends had helped him put together.
After he had showered and changed into the clothes Susanna provided, Alan exited the bathroom to the harsh smell of chemicals. David/Daffyd and the older man were dousing the body and the mugs with something noxious in a gas canister. Alan really needed to learn their names. Amanda brushed past him, lightly patting him on the shoulder as she walked into the bathroom with a similar canister.
One by one, they left the flat, Alan staying until it was just him and Susanna. He was writing furiously, trying to fit a new novel in the margins of his old work. Susanna had to guide him to the door again. As he dazedly walked down the stairs, he saw one of the group members exiting the flat below holding a bluetooth speaker while another wiped down the intercom buttons.
Two blocks away, the group discussed their next meeting as Alan tried to ignore the flash of flames in an apartment in the distance.
“So, next week we’re going to walk through Daniel’s third chapter. It’s the one with the actual kidnapping, so I need everyone to be on time, OK?”
As he nodded along with the group, Alan felt a pang of horror.
He had almost called Daniel “Daffyd”. It would not do to insult his new friends.
After each member was assigned a role, Alan almost skipped home, ready to start his second draft.
He wondered if he would be allowed a third?