All Stories, Crime/Mystery/Thriller

The Devil in Detail by Tripp Watson

Robert Dunman held the final tile above mortar, and with a bead of sweat at his brow, pushed it in. The lines were clean and straight and the tiles were pristine. He rose with a grunt; one hand rested in the arch of his back. He remembered a recent review posted on his website.

Simply the best. No detail left unconsidered.

Robert Dunman had an eye for detail. He craved perfection, and although he never finished a job to his own standards, he found that recently he was getting pretty close. His clients, nevertheless, were always thrilled with the quality of his work. He was quickly becoming the most popular contractor in town—through word-of-mouth, mainly. Robert didn’t advertise. He didn’t need to; he had more than enough work to fill his time.

Perfection—as it always does—came at a price though, and Robert had one flaw. In fact, it was the only negative review he had ever received: he worked slow. He worked alone and he worked slow. (It should be noted that his single negative review was amended to a perfect set of five stars when the client took the time to admire their finished product.)

Robert, however, never took the time to admire his own work, but he certainly inspected it. He checked every tile for a droplet of mortar he may have missed, or heaven forbid, a scratch he may have accidentally delivered. But the floor looked good—ready for grout. He turned to leave and gave the door jamb two quick raps from his knuckles. He hesitated, then gave it one more knock, harder.


People talk. It’s in their nature. There will always be whispers from the curious and gossip of the obscene. Jan skipped Mass. Henry got shit-faced and skipped town. Katie walks with a limp, but probably just for the attention. It’s almost always done in the shadows cast by our own fabricated privacy. We want to dig our holes and live in the dark, but we feel compelled to grab anything that strolls too close and drag it into the depths with us.

Robert, although popular and well liked in his field, didn’t escape the murmurs. He was different, and different is sometimes enough to set the stage of your entire life. He felt compulsion. It manifested in different ways, but it always felt the same—like an itch that needed to be scratched. When he was younger, he tried to not give into the compulsions. Maybe, if he ignored the urges, they would go away, he thought. Then maybe all the other kids in school wouldn’t mock him for knocking on door frames whenever he walked through. Or shaking his head in quick, violent jerks. But ignoring the urge and doing nothing felt like watching a spider creep up his arm and not shooing it away. Or ignoring a pebble in his shoe and simply walking on it until the underside of his foot turned dark and bloody. The few times he was able to take his mind off of an urge, his body simply acted on it anyway—subconsciously. Afterall, who thinks about every itch they scratch?

In high school he knew a kid named Harry. Harry would yell words out at random, and the other kids—as instructed by Principal Freeman—wouldn’t react. Robert and Harry would commiserate with one another about their “broken brains” but never really became great friends. Once, while draining a six-pack of PBRs under a bridge by the school, they drunkenly admitted to wanting to trade malfunctions, but neither of them really meant it. Robert hated the idea of needing special privileges, and Harry didn’t envy Robert for the headaches caused by his endless tics. Regardless, they were stuck with their own brains.


Robert entered his modest ranch home, knocked two times on the door frame, then one more time, harder, and placed his keys on a small hook by the front door. In the kitchen, he measured two ounces of bourbon, poured it into a glass and took one beer from the refrigerator. He popped the tab and made a small dent in the can just above his thumb. He sipped the whiskey, took a long pull from the can of beer, and stared into the living room. Next to a TV, which looked unwatched although it was a new model, stood a grand but empty bookcase. He had been ecstatic to find that particular bookcase at such a low cost; however, after he returned it home, the trouble had begun.

He had set the bookcase up next to his TV and placed tiny plastic discs under the left side of the case until the bubble in the tube of his level had finished its floating dance in the exact center. He went into the attic and came back down with a huge and meticulously packed box of books labeled “my favorites.” He arranged them on the shelf neatly by the authors’ last names. After a moment, he realized that that was no good. He took them down and started again—this time by genre. He placed thrillers by romance and sci-fi by horror before stopping, looking distressed. He pulled them down again. This time he put them back by genre in alphabetical order. Action, adventure, comedy, dystopian. Dystopian? That may be sci-fi in this instance, he thought to himself before ripping all the books down again. Next, he tried by color, but that didn’t work either. Over and over he put the books up and tore them back down. He pulled his hands into tight fists and released them while breathing in carefully measured, deep breaths.

Suddenly he yanked the bookcase from the carefully laid plastic discs and threw it to the floor. He went to bed and lay awake for two hours before returning to the living room to carefully pack the box of books again. The next day he donated the entire box to Goodwill.

He finished his whiskey; rinsed and polished the glass; finished his beer and dropped it in the recycling; and washed his hands for a full three minutes before turning his attention to the basement door. He fished a key from his pocket and unlocked one lock and then two more. The basement was where he kept his tools, and he had one more chore he hoped to complete before the night was finished. At the bottom of the stairs there was a row of woodworking tools hung neatly on a pegboard. He dragged his fingertips along the pegboard but paid the tools no mind. On the far end of the basement there was a hand-crafted worktable. Nothing sat on the table itself, but behind it was another wall of tools. From largest to smallest was a row of screwdrivers. Beneath it and arranged in the same pattern were hammers. Finally, bound and gagged and pinned to the concrete floor was a shirtless man coated with chaotic, kinetic energy that had no place in the still basement.

Robert moved to the other side of the room, hardly noticing the thrashing man at his feet. The man’s mouth was covered in a neatly torn rectangle of duct tape, so that his cries were merely muffled white noise. It wouldn’t have mattered if he didn’t have the duct tape muzzle; the basement was soundproofed. No one had thought twice about Robert soundproofing his basement. Afterall, he was a respectful homeowner who would never think of inconveniencing his neighbors with the thrums and whines of the power tools he used for his crafting hobbies.

The man on the floor was stretched with hands high above his head in a knot of rope. His wrists were pulled to one corner of the room while another knot of rope, buried into his ankles, stretched to the opposite corner of the basement. The two lengths of rope and the man between them bisected the room. Drenched in sweat, he looked wildly at Robert.

Sitting at his worktable, Robert eyed the tools hanging on the wall to his right. Each tool was meticulously cared for. If he had no tool that he needed to clean on a particular night, then he’d choose one at random to work on. Last night he had chosen the cement cutter. With rubbing alcohol, Q-tips, and a keen eye, he cleaned every hungry tooth of the blade—a blade that was capable of cutting through flesh and bone, and which had. He had the cleanest tools in town—everyone knew that—but that was normal for someone who was a little different. Tonight, however, there was other business to address.

Robert picked up a jackhammer that leaned on the wall. The man on the floor began struggling more forcefully, eyes gaping and beginning to spill tears. Robert approached the man and rested the jackhammer’s bit in the man’s navel. It wasn’t a compulsion that led Robert to his malicious hobbies. He felt no itch that he needed to scratch. There was no spider he had to brush from his arm. He simply felt desire. He didn’t need to do this; he wanted to. He pulled the trigger and held the jackhammer in place as it tried to jump away. His night had just begun.


As Robert Dunman regained the top of his basement stairs, he rapped his knuckles on the frame of the door three times before shutting it behind him and locking three locks. He wrung his hands in a bleached-white washcloth and thought again of his recent review.

Simply the best. No detail left unconsidered.

Tripp Watson

Image by Devon Breen from Pixabay 

6 thoughts on “The Devil in Detail by Tripp Watson”

  1. Hi Tripp,
    I liked this a helluva lot!!!.
    It was beautifully written and tied in the ideas of the OCD and serial killer brilliantly.
    It is so well done and amazingly understated.
    Hope you have more for us very soon!!


  2. Ah, Tripp, this is very good. The macabre nestled inside the mundane. As a reader I was admiring the pace, and your clever use of detail (the spider, the beer can), I was even at the point of empathizing with regards to the books and bookcase – associating, connecting even: then wham!
    I was engaged, misled and ultimately misdirected; confidently, and competently by a strong piece of writing
    This is excellent use of a small canvas to create a Big Picture with the lightest of brushstrokes, leaving the reader to dwell on the story, and in so doing to provide the shading…the detail.
    I found this piece thoughtful, and creative and (most importantly) entertaining.



  3. Really tight, visceral, physical, matter of fact writing – I really admire the style here. The twist is great, but equally impressive is how this makes the reader reflect back on the OCD of the protagonist. The whole scene with his frustration at being unable to organise the books ‘perfectly’ and the resulting empty bookcase was particularly strong in my opinion. I couldn’t help thinking that the victim was someone who hadn’t left a perfect, 5-star review and that the killing was, as with the books, a way of expelling something (someone) who didn’t meet Robert’s psychotic need for perfection – if this was the intention, then I think this being only just implied rather than explicit is a good narrative choice.


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