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Short story
Kill the Darling

Mira Morrigan hummed tunelessly to herself as she worked on her latest project. A flip of a switch here, a twist of a knob there, a slide of a thumb one way and then another slowly brought the character to life before her eyes.

This particular character was destined for Nick Payne’s next blockbuster crime thriller novel, and Mira was particularly proud of him. He was tall, with wavy dark hair that brushed his collar, big dark blue eyes, and even white teeth in a smile could melt the resolve of any red-blooded woman. He wore a tuxedo like he’d been born for it. He was wicked intelligent and more than a little narcissistic. She was building an ideal villain. “I think I’ll call you…Draven,” she whispered. “Yeah. Draven Mackenzie, that’s your name.”

Mira wondered what would happen if the New York Times found out that the biggest novelist out there right now, top of their bestseller list, was purchasing a character from Ambrose’s Entities, a tiny shop tucked away in the basement of a former post office building. She giggled, then resumed humming.

Walter Ambrose had brought Mira on as his apprentice only six months ago. Her talents had so impressed him that he allowed her full reign over his beloved Generate-Originate-Design machine. “God,” as Walter called it, was a primitive, home-built apparatus that resembled an enormous audio mixing board with hundreds of switches, sliders, gauges and knobs. These gave Mira the power to insert, remove, and adjust each character’s physical and personality traits.

“Be careful now,” Walter had growled after Mira gave her first character, a gregarious airline pilot, a bad case of myopia. “Ambrose characters are not only unique, they’re true to life. Believable. No airline’s gonna hire a nearsighted pilot.”

Since then, the characters Mira produced got steadily better in quality, and Walter eventually let her work in peace. That’s when she’d started to experiment.

A month ago, she gave a sickly child character a second form of cancer on a whim. That one’s gonna be a real tearjerker, she thought as she packaged the child up for the author. She waited to see what would happen, but never heard anything.

Last week Mira was working on a nice old grandmother character, complete with cat-eye reading glasses on a neck chain, when she was overcome with the impromptu urge to slap a third eyeball on the woman’s forehead. She hadn’t heard from that author, either.

Today, with Draven Mackenzie in front of her, that familiar spontaneous compulsion rolled in strong. I wonder what would happen if… Mira thought as she quickly flipped the empathy switch to off, the sadism switch to on, and turned the impulse control dial almost all the way to zero. Then, before her conscience could stop her, she pressed the large red button marked BUILD. God whirred and clanked as the machine built the character Mira had just designed.

He’ll be here any minute, Mira thought. I’ll definitely have to read this book.

She grinned.


Crumbled asphalt crunched under the tires as Nick Payne pulled his SUV into a tiny parking lot behind the old post office building. A rusty old AMC Spirit occupied one of the lot’s two spaces. He gritted his teeth. I hope there’s enough room for me, he thought. There was. Barely.

Nick pulled a ballcap over his ruffled brown hair and slipped his aviators over his blue eyes. He’d learned quickly that it didn’t matter where he went; people recognized him. He supposed it was part of the deal when you had eight novels break the New York Times bestseller list, the last three landing at number one. Recognition came with fame, and most days he could handle it.

But not today. He couldn’t have anybody see him walking into Ambrose’s Entities.

Nick was here because he was in a funk with his latest novel. Nothing in his usual formula was working. The characters felt one-dimensional, and everything he did to raise the stakes and the tension felt fake. Contrived. He wasn’t making progress. And, to make matters worse, his agent had recently started asking when she might see a draft.

No pressure.

He’d discussed it with his wife, Eleanor, and as usual she had words of wisdom to share. “It’s not a bad story, Nick. Maybe you just need to, I don’t know, try something different.”

Maybe she was right. Drastic times, drastic measures, he’d thought as he pulled a battered business card out of his wallet. Others had done it and seen success. Why couldn’t he? He made the call.

That was yesterday. Now he was here to pick up his new villain.

He stopped just outside the door and tried to look in the window. He couldn’t see anything but vague shapes through layers of dust and grime. Here goes nothing, he thought. Rusty hinges screeched as he pushed the heavy wooden door open and stepped inside.

Nick found himself in a dusty, cluttered room. Hundreds of ancient books lay in piles on every surface: the overloaded shelves along the walls, the small counter, the threadbare Persian rug. A single bulb threw meager light from the pressed tin ceiling. The whole place smelled of old paper and dust.

He was about to announce his arrival when a thick drape on the back wall swept aside and a young woman emerged from a hidden back room. She was way too skinny, pale, and her shaved hair was a shadow on her scalp. Dark fatigue ringed her brown eyes. She wore a floor-length bohemian skirt and a baggy t-shirt that had been washed to a dirty non-color. This is the owner of that Spirit out there, Nick guessed.

She set a smallish paper bag on the counter and gave him a smile full of crooked teeth. “Mr. Payne?”

Nick stepped uncertainly up to the counter. “Uh, yes.”

“I’m Mira Morrigan. Walter’s apprentice.” She didn’t offer her hand, so Nick kept his in his pockets.

“Uh, is Mr. Ambrose here?” Nick was a bit taken aback; he had expected to meet the shop’s proprietor, not a girl who looked like she hadn’t even finished high school yet.

“He’s gone out for a bit, I’m afraid,” Mira said. “But you’re in good hands with me. I built your new character.” She beamed like a proud momma.

“Oh.” Nick didn’t know how he felt about this, but was crunched for time – so he didn’t press. “Um, all right. Were you able to meet my specifications?”

Mira nodded, still smiling. “Of course. I took the liberty of naming him for you. I hope you don’t mind.”

Something twisted in Nick’s chest. He did mind, as a matter of fact. Naming the characters was the author’s job. Developing them is the author’s job too, buddy, his conscience chimed in. He ignored it and opened his mouth to protest, but she spoke first.

“His name is Draven Mackenzie.”

He blinked, then let the name sit on his brain like wine on the tongue. “I – I think I like it. It fits.”

Mira smiled again. “Of course.”

"So…how does this work?”

Mira slid the bag in front of Nick. “The instructions are inside the bag. It’s pretty easy, sort of like dropping HTML code into a website builder.”

Nick, who paid his publicist to build and maintain his website, didn’t know what that meant. But he figured he could follow directions and figure it out. “Great. What do I owe you?”

“One thousand dollars. Cash only.”

Nick paid the lady, wished her a good day, and took the paper bag with him. He whistled as he crossed the tiny parking lot to his car.

There was hope yet for his novel.


Ambrose’s odd apprentice was right: the installation instructions she’d provided were easy as pie to follow. Before Nick knew it, Draven Mackenzie had been integrated into his draft. Energized, Nick picked up where he’d left off in Chapter Four. His fingers were a blur on the keyboard as the words poured out.

Allison shivered despite the warm evening air and slung her bookbag over her other shoulder as she quickly walked down the street toward home. Why did I stay at the library after dark? she thought. She could not shake the feeling that she was being watched.

She didn’t see the black sedan rolling slowly and silently along the curb a block behind her. The shadowy figure behind the wheel watched her hungrily. The thought of that luscious body, hands and feet bound, pretty little lips gagged, ready for him to do as he pleased was more than he could handle.

Draven decided: he must have her. He stuck his pistol in the small of his back and parked the car when it became clear she’d reached her destination: a two-story house with dark windows.

As she punched the code to open the garage door, he ran up behind her, bear-hugged her, and clamped his gloved hand over her mouth before she could scream. “Be a good girl and let’s go inside, all right?” Draven said softly into her ear. “If you make a single noise, I will kill you.”

Panic boiled behind her huge wet eyes, but the girl stayed quiet. He pushed her inside and closed the door behind him.

“Is that you, Allison?” A male’s voice called from somewhere in the house. “You’re just in time.”

Draven hadn’t expected anyone to be home. He stopped in the hallway just inside the garage, the girl still in his arms, and debated what to do next.

“Allison?” The hallway light flipped on, and there stood a man in his late forties, with light brown hair turning gray at the temples. The man stopped short. “Alli – what, who are you?” Draven didn’t even blink; he yanked the gun from his waistband and fired. A hole appeared in the center of the man’s forehead and the back of his head blew out, coating the wall behind him in blood and brain matter before he crumpled to the floor.

“DAAAHH!” The girl screamed into Draven’s glove, and she began to fight. Draven regained control and shoved her up against the wall. He leaned against her to hold her there and traced the contours of her trembling chin with the gun’s muzzle. The pure, unadulterated fear in her eyes gave him a hard-on. He smiled. “Come on, sugar,” he said in his ghastly soothing voice. “You wouldn’t want what happened to your dad to happen to you, would you?”

Horrified, Nick stopped typing. “What the fuck,” he muttered. “That’s not how this is supposed to go. At all.” He deleted the entire scene and tried again.

Allison shivered despite the warm evening air and slung her bookbag over her other shoulder as she quickly walked down the street toward home. Why did I stay at the library after dark? she thought. She could not shake the feeling that she was being watched.

She was. A dark figure waited behind a hedge just three houses down. He watched her like a starving tiger, pistol in hand. A throbbing erection strained against his pants. Soon he would have that luscious body to do his bidding with. He could almost taste the blood.

Nick pushed himself back from his desk, stomach churning. He felt dirty. Jesus Christ, he thought incredulously. This is not the villain I ordered. Draven Mackenzie was ruining his novel, and Nick had to get him out. Now. He searched frantically for the installation instructions Mira Morrigan had given him, and found them on the floor under his desk. He reread them and was dismayed to discover that they did not include un-installation instructions.

How hard can it be? Nick thought. My editor tells me all the time to “kill your darlings,” or get rid of characters and plotlines that don’t help the story. Draven Mackenzie is killing my story – so it’s time to kill the darling.

Nick scooted back up to his computer and began scanning his draft from the beginning. He read slowly and carefully, taking care to delete every mention of Draven Mackenzie from every page. He felt lighter with every press of the backspace key. This is what it takes to save my novel, he thought. Then: That guy Ambrose is getting a call from me tomorrow.

Just as he was about to delete the last word of the last sentence he’d typed, Nick heard a noise behind him: the unmistakable click-click sound of a pistol being readied to fire. His hands froze over the computer’s keyboard.

“Turn around.” The ghastly soothing voice made Nick’s skin crawl. He slowly spun in his chair, and an ice-cold finger of dread traced his spine when he came face to face with Draven Mackenzie. The man who was supposed to be entirely fictional had his pistol trained on the center of Nick’s chest.

Physically, Draven Mackenzie was exactly what Nick had ordered: tall, dark, handsome, with a body that had been poured into his tuxedo. But behind that cool facade was a pure madman. Nick stared into the cold black eye of Draven Mackenzie’s gun, and panic crashed over him like a tidal wave. “No. No no no, please don’t,” he babbled as he scrambled to get away.

“Time to kill the darling,” Draven Mackenzie said. A maniacal grin split his face.

Nick heard a loud bang, saw a flash of light, felt a moment’s searing pain –

And then there was nothing.