The Double-MacGuffin

A lot of stories are based on people competing for something. In many cases, what they are competing for is far less important than the competition — as long as the object of competition is important to them.

It might be a glowing thing in the trunk of a Chevy Malibu or it might be the contents of an ice skate bag. All that matters is that everyone in the story is willing to kill to get it or die trying.

But then there’s the Double-MacGuffin. This is a story where people are competing not for the thing, but for the thing that will tell them what the real thing even is, and perhaps provide access to the actual MacGuffin.

For the record, I just coined Double-MacGuffin, and in the annals of literature, when they discuss Double-MacGuffin stories, they will mention this humble blog episode in the “quaint backstory” part of their analysis.

It would be easy to confuse a race-for-treasure-map story as a double-MacGuffin, but that’s not the case at all. Even if the treasure is vague and MacGuffin-like, the map is not. It’s a competition for a well-defined thing that leads to an undefined thing. That’s a single-MacGuffin plot right there, bunky. To make it a Double-MacGuffin, the map itself has to be something so inscrutable that it can never be defined.

The characters in a Double-MacGuffin story are fighting to find the question, because they know the answer to that question is important.

I’m dancing around a story right now that wants to be a double-MacGuffin. And that’s actually not so hard, until you try to end it.

On Television right now, Lodge 49 is the perfect Double-MacGuffin story. An artifact that may or may not exist but everyone wants can provide access to something… undefinable. While the characters chase the artifact, the “undefinable” isn’t afraid to elbow people in the ribs. It’s beautiful.

Locally, Feeding the Eels has stumbled into that world, and is having a good time. And The Quest For the Important Thing to Defeat the Evil Guy is an archetype of the double-MacGuffin trope.

Yeah, I put my writing into the paragraph right after mentioning one of the best-conceived television shows I’ve ever seen. But Eels has the Double-MacGuffin going, and that’s all right.

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Episode 31: Final Offer

A Brief Re-introduction:

Feeding the Eels is a story I used to add to occasionally here at MR&HBI. The process was simple: Write an episode in 90 minutes, leave a title for the next episode, and don’t plan anything. The prose is spontaneous and recreational, occasionally clever, and does not aspire to the lofty title “literature”.

As time passed I regularly began to break the 90-minute rule, but to this day I start writing with a title and no idea what to do with it. In fact, I never went back and even read what had come before.

Until now, of course; it’s been far too long for me to remember more than the biggest events in the narrative. I can see why I stopped when I did, too. I left myself quite a little humdinger of a situation.

You probably want to start from the beginning, or perhaps Episode 2. (Episode 1 was an entirely different exercise, and I will be rewriting it.) Anyway, you can find it all here.

I moaned softly and sat up, lifting my hat off my face and tossing it onto the overstuffed chair that sat next to the couch that had been my bed for far too little time.

The knock came again. Gentle, patient. Surely aware that someone in my situation might be inclined to put a bullet or fifty through the wood of the door rather than answer politely. It was the sort of knock that said that whatever I did, there would be another knock, and next time it wouldn’t be so polite.

Stepping softly I slipped the painting and its box into a drawer in the bureau. The precious pieces of paper that had traveled with the map went under a sofa cushion.

Another knock. “Hold your pants on, sunshine,” I called out. I didn’t have to feign fatigue and annoyance. I slipped the little Walther into my suit pocket and trod more heavily toward the door, remembering that bullets could also pass through it in the other direction.

Civilized behavior carried the day; I opened the hotel room door and nobody shot anyone else. Two men stood there. Spaniards I had met before. The older of the two, his olive face topped by thick black hair going gray at the temples, was heavier, but still fit. The younger was not holding a gun, but was certainly ready to produce one if things got unfriendly.

“That was quick,” I said. I stepped aside to let them into the room.

The older man smiled as he walked slowly into the room, casting his eyes around almost casually. “We own this property. It is fortunate for us that you decided to live it up for a little while.”

I wondered if “live for a little while” was a threat.

“Your partner is also here?” He asked, though he certainly knew the answer.

“Hello, Señor Santiago,” Alice said from the doorway to the bedroom of the suite. She was wearing a silk robe with the initials of the hotel emblazoned on the breast, loosely tied around her narrow waist. Both her hands were empty. “It’s good to see you again.”

Santiago smiled. “Indeed, Miss Alice. I am pleased to see that you are healing from your wounds quite nicely.”

“Thank Dr. Mendez one more time for me,” she said.

Santiago nodded and turned back to me. “And how is your lovely employer?”

I made my way back to the bar. “I’m currently between clients. Can I offer either of you gentlemen a drink?”

Santiago nodded slowly. “Then what I heard is true. A Gin and Tonic would be refreshing. He glanced at my arm and smiled ruefully. Although please don’t trouble yourself. I can—”

“No worries,” said Alice. She glided to the bar, silk flowing behind her. “If you learn one thing working for a detective, it’s how to make a good G&T.”

Santiago studied her for a moment. “You seem… taller this morning.” In all honesty, I had to agree.

She flashed him a red smile over her shoulder as she set to making the drink. “I’ve been trying to improve my posture.” I suspected that perhaps she had instead been hunching down all along.

“To what do we owe the pleasure of your visit, Mr. Santiago?” I asked.

He looked at me with mild reproach. “Let us not play games, Mr. Lowell.”

“I just want to hear you say it.”

He sighed. “You have something that belongs to us. A painting.”

“I see,” I said. “I do have one of those. How do I know it’s yours?”

Alice arrived with a Gin and Tonic for Santiago, a soda water for the other spaniard, and then she retrieved a whiskey for herself. Santiago accepted the drink, looked at her, and smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry,” he said, and handed his drink to his retainer. The younger man took a sip.

“I’m hurt,” Alice said, but there was a hint of playfulness in her pout.

“You know how it is, Señorita. Guillermo would be terribly upset with me if I didn’t let him protect me.” His smile became less sincere as he turned back to me. “The painting was stolen from my people. It was entrusted to a humble museum that contains many relics that speak to the history of The Blood of the Saint.”

“What saint is that, anyway?” Alice asked.

Santiago chuckled. “Her full name is complex, with decorations and filigrees, but when she was alive, she was called ‘Mireia'”.

“A Catalalonian name,” Alice said. She moved to the couch and sat, inviting Santiago to sit next to her. I moved my hat and occupied the overstuffed chair. I gestured to the wooden chair by the desk and looked at the quiet visitor. He nodded and sat.

Santiago continued. “Yes, We are of Catalunya. I try not to take offense when Americans call me a Spaniard.”

“I’ve not heard of a saint named Mireia,” Alice said.

“Rome is corrupt,” Santiago said. “Mireia was a saint. She was a poor girl with a terrible affliction. She could speak nothing but the truth. Naturally that led to horrifying consequences. There are few who revere souls like that any longer.”

“She sounds like Charley,” Alice said. She stood. “Another drink?”

“Please,” Santiago said, handing her his glass. The he stood also, and then the rest of us. “I wonder. May I see it?”

“It’s intact,” I said. “But let’s not play games. Before I put that thing in your hands we need to discuss terms.”

Santiago scowled. “There will be no terms. It belongs to us.”

“You must appreciate the personal sacrifice Alice and I have made to ensure its safe recovery.”

“And what is it you want for helping to make our recovery task more difficult, Mr. Lowell?”

“More difficult? Without me, that painting would be in the hands of someone much less reasonable than I am.”

“What is it you want, Mr. Lowell?”

“Your handshake.”

Santiago hesitated. “What?”

“You shake my hand and tell me that we’re friends, that on the Blood of Saint Mireia, who could tell no lie, our business is finished. And I promise, based on my apparently-hilarious honesty that no word of this ever reaches anyone else’s ears. And then we’re done, and the painting is yours, and we live our lives.”

Alice had the next round ready; she put a fresh Gin and Tonic and a Seltzer into the quiet one’s hands. After he sipped the cocktail and nodded, she took it from him and handed it to Santiago. When all that was finished she grabbed our drinks. Whiskey for me and it looked like a Manhattan for herself. Finished serving, she sat, and awkwardly the rest of us sat as well.

Santiago studied his drink, and took a sip. “It is a good offer,” the Catalan said. He thought for a moment. “I wish I could say yes. However…” He turned to his bodyguard in time to see Guillermo twist in agony and fall from his chair, foam escaping the corners of his mouth, his eyes wide as he suffocated on his own blood.

Alice had a gun, her Luger 9mm, and now it was trained on Santiago’s chest. She looked at him with sadness. “You say you worship the saint, you say you respect truth, but you are the one with the knife, cutting out her tongue.”

Santiago slowly raised his hands. “Truth,” he said, “Doesn’t exist.”

“What a sad view of the world you have,” Alice said. She pulled the trigger and her gun spat, and I tried to shake the ringing in my ears as Santiago slipped off the sofa and bled on a rug that his people apparently owned.

“That may have been a mistake,” Alice said.

 

Tune in next time for… Boiling Blood!

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