Detective time again. I lectured about the Wise Sage Man recently, a dude who holds tons of info and keeps kicking your protagonist back into play. He’s a great character to keep things moving. Just like our other examples, here and here, I’m going to illustrate a different way to use the usual archetypes. We can all spot a Wise Sage Man when we’re looking at fantasy stories. Easy as pie. Here he is in the gritty city, with our sleazy detective, Mr. Hood. Relevant Wise Sage Man traits are bolded, just like before. And just like before, Hood’s in a heap of trouble.
“Been a while, Bert,” Captain Rice said. He looked up and down the misty street. “Anyone see you?”
I shook my head and followed him inside.
“What the hell happened to you?” Cap shut the door with his cane and led me into the kitchen. There was a lonesome bowl of soup on the wobbly table. A cigarette smoldered in an ashtray next to it.
“Nice to see you too, Captain.” (The WSM shares a history with the hero, not all of it happy)
The old man glared at me, gesturing with his cane. “Interrupt my dinner, looking like shit.” He sat down and offered me the other chair. “No more soup,” he said by way of apology.
I took off my hat and sat down next to him. I lit a cigarette with shaky hands and slowly shrugged out of my coat. “I didn’t know where to go.” (When the hero is overwhelmed by the situation, he goes straight to his mentor, the guide to the New World)
Captain Rice slurped up some steaming minestrone. “That’s the only time I ever see you, Bertie.”
I looked at him with fresh eyes. He hadn’t been my boss in six years. He hadn’t been whole for a lot longer than that. He was retired, widowed now, half-crippled and alone. Now here I was, dragging in a fresh mess.
“Your father would be rolling over in his grave if he saw you,” he said. “Go on, then. Get yourself a drink, get yourself together.”
I didn’t need to be told twice.
I waited for him in the living room. When he finally joined me, my jangling nerves had piped down and I felt calm enough to talk. I told him everything.
“Two Shoes, huh?” Rice nodded slowly. “I knew his father, you know that? Leo Tuschen. First generation, fresh off the boat. He was savvy, you get me? Not smart, not bright. He could tell which way the wind was blowing. Knew how to make people work for him. I managed to get Leo sitting in front of a jury twice. Two times in twenty years of doing wrong. Each time, I knew we were lost. We were just idiots in blue suits. He was too slick. They always let him off with a slap on the wrist. The law couldn’t touch a man like Leo. Savvy.”
“And Arnold?” I asked. I refilled both our drinks.
“Psh, that idiot.” Rice put his glass down with more force than was necessary. “You know why they call him that, right?”
I nodded, but waved him on.
“Clumsiest kid I ever saw. That kid walked like he was a drunk in a funhouse, just trying to get down the avenue. They said that for a kid with only two shoes, he sure made it look like a lot to manage. He embarrassed his father. Watching him try to play football was hysterical. He was like a marionette with half the strings cut. All the neighborhood kids gave him shit, just constantly.” Captain Rice laughed and polished off his drink. He waved me away from a refill.
“His pop, though. He knew about people. He told Arnold in front of everybody, he said, ‘Your weakness tells you where your enemies will strike. Make your weakness your strength.’ Just like that. Cold as ice. Everybody heard it. So Arnold Tuschen stops crying when kids call him Two Shoes. He starts smiling. And when a kid tries to trip him in the hall, make him stumble? Two Shoes puts him in the hospital. Smiling. Creepiest damn kid, you know? His father was a brute, but he had class.” Captain Rice offered me a cigarette.
My hands had stopped shaking, so I could take it without embarrassing myself. “But then?” I asked.
“Arnold thought he was the prince, just waiting for the king to die. It never crossed Arnold’s mind that Joey Francis would take it all from him.” (The WSM fills in the missing bits of the picture for the hero, giving him the information he’ll need for the final confrontation)
I looked at the Captain, seeing just a flicker of the man I remembered there. “Did it cross yours?”
He clucked his tongue. “Jesus, Bertie, you’re thick. How do you think Joey Francis knew where to find Leo? How do you think Joey knew he’d be alone?”
I remembered something Kitty-Angel had said to me at the bar. Joey Francis may be a monster, but he’s our monster, she’d said.
“What the hell, Charlie. You sold out a gangster to another gangster?”
“You think you’re clean?” He snapped. He was red in the face, florid. Hurt.
I said nothing. There were pictures on the wall of the captain and my father, back when they were beat cops. They looked like silent-film stars, young and fiery and ready to rumble. There was one with both of them and my mother, the late Mrs. Rice too, both of them dressed to the nines, everyone looking like a picture from a magazine. I looked away from those pictures. (Even if Captain Rice hadn’t been Hood’s boss back when he was a cop, he was already invested in Hood by way of his father)
“We couldn’t touch Leo, we couldn’t get anything to stick. He was like ice. We had to do something. Joey, at least he was old-fashioned. He moved a little horse, some women, nothing too dirty. He kept it away from the good neighborhoods, away from the kids. He kept the bodies from washing up on our beach.”
The lesser of two evils, I thought. “So here we are again,” I said. “The DA can’t get anything to stick to Two Shoes, and everyone wants to keep their pet gangster in business.”
Captain Rice nodded. He looked tired, worn out.
“I don’t know what to do,” I said. “The DA’s daughter wants me to help Joey, but Two Shoes made it look like I killed Joey’s girl. I can’t get near Francis without getting peppered with lead. The cops are after me for the murder. Hobbes, my old partner, he’s on Arnold’s payroll and he’s gunning for me, too.” (At this moment, the hero is ready to turn away from the quest. This is the moment where anyone with any sense would run. The WSM can’t let that happen, or your story will fall apart)
“You think you’re the first guy in a bad spot? Think it’s new to have the whole world against you?” Captain Rice turned to me slowly, his eyes wet and faded. “Or maybe you’re just the first guy to have to deal with a crooked cop. It doesn’t matter who’s crooked, who’s bought, who’s bent, you big baby.”
I looked at the carpet between my shoes instead of meeting his eyes. “I know, I know.” I didn’t want to talk anymore.
“You’re not special. You’re not quick, you’re not smart, you’re just not. But let me tell you what you are. You’re a good guy. And good guys always win in the end. Do you know why?”
“Because we’re too fuckin’ dumb to quit. When the chips are down, when there isn’t any single good reason to keep trying, good guys don’t quit. When only bad shit will fall on your doorstep, when everybody will hate you if you win, good guys don’t quit. They’re too dumb. Too in love with the idea of a world where any of this shit really matters. A world where good and evil still matter. Good guys are too fuckin’ dumb to know that the monsters are real and they have huge fuckin’ teeth and they bite.”
The Captain looked away, shaking his head. “I dunno, Bert. You tell me. How fuckin’ dumb are you?”