Ian Shearer

Death By Committee

McCloud walks slowly into the bar, not limping, but the effort it takes is clear on his face. He slides into a seat with a grunt from way down in his throat. The bartender approaches.

‘Double bourbon, neat,’ says McCloud, settling onto his elbows.

The barman goes to pour his drink and he grimaces as he reaches into his jacket. When his hand reappears, it is holding a wallet and dripping splotches of red onto the bar.

‘Your hand’s bleeding,’ says the barman, waiting for his payment.

This gets the attention of the young man sitting a few stools down. McCloud throws a twenty on the bar and stuffs his wallet back inside his jacket. When he does, the young man to his right sees his shirt, soaked scarlet with fresh blood.

‘Jesus, what happened to you?’ asks the young man.

The barman turns to have a look and McCloud puts the whiskey away in one.

‘Give me another and keep ’em coming.’

The barman pours another drink. McCloud touches a couple of fingers to his belly and they come away bloody. He turns to the young man.

‘It’s a long story kid,’ he says, ‘not sure I’ve got enough time to tell it.’

He reaches around to his back, pulls a gun from his belt, and lays it on the bar.

‘Hold on a minute.’ It was Paul, chiming in as usual. ‘I thought you said we weren’t allowed to have guns,’ he said to Graham.

‘He doesn’t actually use it. It’s just a prop,’ I said.

‘Aye, but I wanted to have a gun in mine, but I left it out because they said no guns.’

‘Or sex,’ said Julianne, as if this was helpful addition to the conversation. There were murmurs of agreement from the rest of the group, who apparently felt the same way.

‘He is right, Ian,’ said Graham, who was supposed to be running the thing. ‘We agreed that for this exercise we wouldn’t have any stories involving guns.’

‘Or sex,’ added Julianne again.

‘Yeah I know that,’ I said, trying my hardest to ignore the silly bitch, ‘but the gun isn’t important. He doesn’t even use it in the story.’

‘Well then I would suggest it’s not necessary to mention the gun,’ said Graham. ‘Remember that old rule – if there’s a bomb in the first act, it should go off by the third.’

‘Omit needless words,’ said Richard, like he was some fucking literary sage, rather than just a bald, boring cunt quoting Strunk at a writing group. If Richard omitted needless words he’d never speak again. I looked around at the blank faces, waiting for my reply, and drinking this shit up. Some of them were taking notes.

McCloud finishes off his second and sits slumped, staring at the bottom of his glass. He looks at his watch.

‘Another?’ asks the barman.

‘Why not,’ says McCloud. The young guy beside him takes a swig of beer and waits patiently.

‘Okay then, what I meant is that the gun is important, but only in setting up the character,’ I said. ‘There is no gunfight, it’s just something he’s carrying. If the gun itself was the issue, then maybe his hat is also an issue.’

‘Is he wearing a hat?’ asked Paul, frowning. Everyone checked their copies of manuscript I printed for them.

‘I don’t think you mentioned him wearing a hat, Ian,’ said Graham.

McCloud reaches up and pats the top of his own head. No hat.

‘Musta got shot off in that gunfight I was in,’ he says, grinning in spite of his pain.

Everyone agrees that there was no mention of a hat in the opening. ‘Okay so he’s not wearing a hat!’ I said, ‘I was just making a point.’

‘I think the character description needs a lot more work. I can’t picture him at all,’ said Julianne.

‘I actually did picture him with a hat,’ said Stephen, and everyone ignored him but me.

‘Forget about the hat!’ I half-shouted. ‘What he looks like doesn’t matter that much.’

‘Actually you can give a lot of character information with the physical description,’ said Richard. ‘The guy is obviously involved in crime in some way, so maybe you could convey that in how he is dressed. Like a gangster, maybe.’

‘That’s why I mentioned the gun,’ I said.

‘But we did say no guns,’ said Graham.

‘Or sex!’ said Julianne.

‘What if we take out the gun and put the hat in?’ Graham went on.

‘What do you call those hats the gangsters used to wear?’ asked Paul.

‘Stetsons,’ answered Richard.

‘Yes, see, this is good,’ said Graham, uncapping his pen. ‘Take out the gun and have him lay his Stetson on the bar,’ he said, scribbling on his copy.

McCloud looks in surprise at the hat sitting where his gun used to be. He puts the hat on his head.

‘What do you think?’ he asks the barman.

‘Not as much use as a gun.’

McCloud sighs in agreement, takes the hat off, and tosses it away.

‘Okay so we agree that the hat can replace the gun?’ said Graham, looking around the room. They’re all nodding like cattle. I think about the other stories I’ve had to sit and listen to. Every one about an affair, or a marriage falling apart, or a marriage falling apart because of an affair. These people learned to write by watching soap operas. I once tried learning how not to write by watching a soap opera and didn’t even make it through for the educational benefit.

‘I never agreed to that,’ I said.

‘Kill your darlings,’ said Richard, always with a helpful quote. Pompous fucking prick.

‘I think the hat is better,’ said Julianne, ‘The gun is too symbolic. Too phallic.’ Julianne’s story had been about a woman’s husband leaving her for another man, and she thinks everything is a fucking phallic symbol. I decided to fuck with her a little bit.

‘That’s nothing, wait till I get to the part with the dildo,’ I told her, looking very serious.

‘We said no sex!’

‘Oh it’s not a sex scene, technically. The woman in the story almost gets caught diddling herself with a dildo up her ass but she hides it in McCloud’s underwear drawer. It’s an allegory for male rape and female empowerment.’ Everyone considered this silently.

‘That’s amazing,’ said Julianne, and she was being sincere. I don’t know why I bothered. At the last meeting, she told someone he had an Oedipal complex.

‘Again, Ian, it seems like this story has a lot of material we agreed we wouldn’t use. The point of this exercise was to come up with a story that didn’t rely on sex or violence to keep the reader interested,’ said Graham.

‘Well if I can’t write about people fucking or killing each other, what should I write about? People just sitting around talking?’

‘Sure. Stories like that can be very interesting.’

‘Bullshit. No one would read a story like that,’ I said.

McCloud is slumped over the bar, blood pooling on the floor around his barstool. The young guy lifts McCloud’s arm and lets it drop, lifelessly, back onto the bar.

‘I think he’s dead,’ he says.

‘Shit,’ says the barman, ‘get me his wallet. He still owes for the last two.’

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