Chorus Verse Chorus (4)

Here’s Part 4 of the story from the filing cabinet. Part One is here.

Eight hours later, the rain was long gone, a beautiful clear spring sunrise was caressing the city, and Diana lifted her head off her desk with a crushing headache. “Whoa, I shouldn’t have had those leftovers,” she groaned. She looked over at Mustapha, who was slumped back in one chair with his feet on another, snoring softly. She patted off to the women’s room without waking him.

Her phone rang right when she was in the midst of washing her face. She let it go to voicemail, then when she dried her hands, looked at the screen. Upon seeing the words Duane Peterson, she just hit redial rather than listen to her message.

He picked up on the first ring. “Good morning, sunshine. Quite a coincidence, ain’t it?”

“I haven’t listened to your message yet. What happened?”

“Your partner put out a BOLO for this Max character last night? I got a call half an hour ago from the manager of the Best Sleep motel back behind the Dunk’n’Dine on Cheshire Bridge, says his housekeeper found a body.”

“Oh, man.”

“You guessed it. Max Washburn, ex-photographer.”

An hour later, Peterson welcomed them into the room. He handed Diana a plastic evidence bag containing a photograph of Roxanne and Cathy standing arm in arm at the Twelfth Street entrance to Piedmont Park. “Here’s your tangible evidence,” he said. “Back of the photo has the first vic’s prints on it.”

Keller opened the dead man’s shirt to reveal a pair of closely spaced marks. “Tasered. Then smothered with a pillow. Maybe one, two in the morning?” He gestured around the room. “And everything wiped clean as a baby’s bottom.”

“Now I know you’ve never had kids,” said Diana. She turned to Mustapha. “We need to talk to Roxanne again.”

“She’s got motive,” he said. “But let’s find the roommate, first.”

They spent the morning and the first part of the afternoon working their way through the hipster parts of town, flashing Ellie’s picture, and getting nowhere, until they made it to the East Atlanta Village district. The barista at Sacred Grounds took one look at the photo and nodded. “Emo shoegazer poetry girl number four,” he said while serving the customer behind them.

“What do you know about her?” asked Mustapha.

“That’s about it. Started coming a couple of months ago, maybe twice a week? Pretty shy. Spent a lot of time writing in a black sketchbook. Nice, but not talkative. Try the Gravity Pub.”

The bartender at the pub talked to them out of one side of his mouth while giving orders to a supplier with the other. “Sure. Lottery girl. She was here last night. Go downstairs and ask for Jason.”

“Lottery girl?”

“She bought everyone a round, said she won ten grand off of one of those scratchoff tickets?”

Mustapha’s eyebrows went up. “You mean that really happens?”

Downstairs was a picture-perfect recreation of a suburban basement circa 1978, with ratty couches, an air-hockey table and a Led Zeppelin poster on the wall. Jason was skinny, stoop-shouldered, dressed in full slacker regalia and had straight brown hair hanging over the top half of his face. “Ellie. She was here last night. She won the lottery, you know?”

“How well you know her?” asked Mustapha.

“Well, we’re kind of, like, going out?”

“Really?” asked Diana. “Tell us more.”

“I met her at the coffee shop? She came and saw me spin—I do a classic New Wave show—and I got her phone number. It’s pretty casual, I guess. She’s… got issues. Really likes her privacy. But a nice person.”

“And you saw her last night?”

“Yeah. She just showed up, right before closing. She was all happy, which was weird, cause she was usually pretty quiet. But she bought everyone drinks cos she won a bunch of money. Everyone was hammered. She came back to my place and… was a lot more open than usual.” Even behind the hair, Diana could see his blush.

Mustapha said, “Looks like it was you what won the lottery, kid.”

“Yeah, that’s kind of how I felt. Next time I see her, I’m going to make sure we have a few drinks.”

“Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker,” said Diana. “Have you heard from her today?”

“No. She must have left real late at night, early in the morning. She was gone when I woke up.”

“What kind of car does she drive?” asked Mustapha.

“She doesn’t. Bicycle only.”

Diana started to ask another question, but Mustapha plucked her by the sleeve. “Thanks, Jason,” he said as they left. “My guess, you’ll never see her again.” They left Jason confused at the base of the stairway. Once they were back on the street, he said, “Now we’ve got to talk to Roxanne.”

On the drive back to Midtown, Diana rang her sister again. “I know it’s early for a nocturnal creature like you.”

“Bleah. I’ve been up since noon. Did you catch her killer?”

“Sort of. Where did Roxanne and her crew go last night?”

“Club Baby Seal. But they left early. After that, I don’t know.”

“Do stars ever go out incognito? To clubs, I mean?”

“Sometimes you have a band, and they’ll do a show in a small club under a fake name. Usually it’s when they’re getting ready to do a bigger tour, and they want to work the kinks out of the show without people getting word.”

“But they don’t, like, go out in disguise? Just to go clubbing without getting their picture taken?”

“What would be the point of that? Besides, if it’s a good enough disguise, you’d never know.” Fiona rang off, without saying goodbye.

“Roxanne left the club early last night,” Diana said to Mustapha.

“Sure she did. And I’ll bet she was real careful about calling Ellie from an untraceable phone.”

“Which one of them killed Max?”

“That’s what I want to know. My guess, Roxanne paid Ellie about… ten grand and told her to skip town.”

“How are we going to find Ellie?”

“We’re not. She’s a ghost. Girl like that, she’ll change her hair color and disappear. Who even knows if her name was really Ellie, anyway? We were sitting around with our thumbs up our asses while she was giving her friends and her boyfriend one last goodbye.”

“Okay. So how did she get out of town, then?”

“Got in a cab and disappeared. Who knows? She’s in the wind.”

“We can track cabs.”

“Only if we spend all night doing it. By then she’s in fucking Texas. And she’s not Ellie anymore.”

“Oh.” Then: “Oh. Oh!”

“You need me to roll down the window or something?”

“She never was Ellie.”

“Probably not. So what?”

“No. I mean, there never was an Ellie.”

“Right. Who knows if she even remembers the name she was born with?”

“No. I mean that person never existed. Come on, prove me wrong.”

“How can I? I don’t even know what the fuck you’re talking about.”

Diana leaned over the back of the seat to grab the box full of photos. “Take half of these and flip through them. I bet you… delicious Chinese barbecue, that there’s not a one of them that has both Ellie and Roxanne in it.”

A long pause. “I see. I’ll buy you barbecue anywhere, but I ain’t going to take that bet. What did Roxanne want more than anything?”

“Something like a normal life. Read Faulkner in a café, write some poetry.”

“And so Ellie was born. I bet, we go back and look, there never was an ad in Creative Loafing. She and her friend cooked it up from the start.”

When they got to Roxanne’s apartment, she was surrounded by stylists, makeup and hair people, as well as Tyler the entertainment lawyer. She shooed all but Tyler away before sitting down to talk to them. Roxanne was wearing a black, curly, shoulder-length wig, a black leather vest over bare skin, a matching miniskirt and fishnet hose with four-inch heels. She wore an ankh on a chain around her neck and one eye had been done up in the classical Egyptian style, with lines curling onto her temple and cheek. “Sorry for the drama” she said. “Photo shoot. Have you found anything out about Cathy?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Mustapha. “Your friend was killed by her boyfriend; it was actually one of them paparazzi posing as this Peter.”

Roxanne hung her head. “I should have said something.”

“You see, I think you might have.”

Roxanne started to speak, but Tyler held up a hand. “Is this an interrogation, Detective? I thought you said you found the killer.”

“Yeah, well, someone killed him, is the problem.”

“And that’s a problem because?”

“Because vigilante justice is still murder, even if nobody will miss the guy.”

Roxanne looked properly befuddled. “Are you trying to say I had something to do with this?”

“I just want to give you the chance to tell me all about your relationship with Ellie, the roommate.”

She killed this guy?” Mustapha just stared at her, but neither the Egyptian eye nor the plain one blinked. Finally, she spoke. “Have you found her?”

“I don’t think we will. You got anything you want to tell me?”

Tyler said. “No, she doesn’t. You have any hard evidence connecting Roxanne to this man’s murder?” When he got no answer, he nodded. “I didn’t think so.”

Roxanne giggled. “Once? Ellie and I figured we were about the same size. She always wanted to know what it was like to be famous. So we switched for the day. She got to go to the VIP room, and I got to walk in the park without people trying to take my picture.”

“That’s enough, Roxanne,” said Tyler.

“It was very peaceful.”

Diana said, “Where were you last night?”

Roxanne looked at Tyler, who nodded. “Clubbing. We hit Baby Seal, but after what happened to Cathy, my heart wasn’t in it. We were back here by one, then I went to bed.”

“Can anyone confirm you stayed in the apartment?”

“No. Like I said before, I like to make my own lunch. And I like to sleep alone.”

Tyler said, “We’re done here, Detectives.”

On the way down, Mustapha punched the elevator wall hard, once, then grimaced as he massaged his knuckles. “The rich and powerful get away with murder.”

“And this is news to you?”

“It just pisses me off, that’s all. Even when it’s a public service homicide.”

“I bet if we could get into Roxanne’s apartment, we’d find a black sketchbook with some poetry.”

“Like anyone would give us the search warrants. Were screwed. She got away with it.”

“She didn’t get away. She lost her best and only friend. And now she can’t be Ellie anymore, either.”

“I wonder which one she’ll miss more.”

They exited the building. The fans and photographers were gone, replaced by ordinary Saturday afternoon traffic. “She’s going to miss that boy the most,” said Diana.

“The DJ from the bar? Kid looked like he just came in from recess.”

“Yeah, but he wanted Ellie even though she knew she had issues. Someone loved the parts of Roxanne that weren’t rich or famous. And that’s what she can’t go back to.”

Mustapha snorted. “She’ll recover, maybe write a hit song about it, or her friend.”

“Yeah. And she’ll never see the inside of a jail cell. But still, she’ll suffer.”

Chorus Verse Chorus (3)

Here’s Part 3 of the story I found in the filing cabinet. Part 1 is here.

The manager at the Days Inn tucked into the elbow of land where Buford Highway circled around Peachtree took one look at Peter’s picture and nodded. “Peter. He’s a wedding photographer. Here, I got his card somewhere.”

“He here now?” asked Mustapha.

“I just got on duty. Take the key, let me find his card.”

Room 316 was in need of a thorough cleaning, but there were no other signs of human habitation. Diana sighed. “Eight-hour head start, he could be most of the way to Miami by now.”

The manager met them halfway back. “Here’s his card. You want I should keep an eye out for him?”

Mustapha said, “No, we’re going to do that. Make sure nobody goes in the room until there is a patrolman in front of it.”

The card had DuPlessis Photography: Weddings Gay and Straight on it in old-fashioned copperplate. There was no name to go with the phone number and web address. Mustapha made the call, got the machine, left a message. He turned to Diana. “You want to wait here, or go back and see what we can find in the girl’s place?”

“Well, you found a roommate. That was impressive.”

“All I had to do was look in the back bedroom.”

“Maybe there’s a diary or something.”

“We should be so lucky.”

On the way back down Peachtree, Diana took out her phone and called her sister. Fiona picked up on the second ring and shouted over house music, “Majorly busy, just opened the club, and no, I haven’t seen Grace.”

“And a hello to you. Grace is having some quality time with her dad this weekend. She said he was taking her shooting.”

“I’d rather she were walking the streets. What’s up?”

“Roxanne Stone. Know her?”

“Don’t you only like that organic acoustic crap?”

“Her friend was killed in their building tonight, but you don’t get to repeat that to anyone. Not even Severin.”

“My lips are sealed. Inasmuch as that’s possible. Roxanne? Made a real comeback after that faux-authentic phase. Has about three years left until her sell-by date, unless she starts doing TV: she’s not a good enough actress to keep doing films.”

“What about her personality? You’ve had her at your club, right?”

“Sure. Pretty three-dimensional for a star. Goes through the motions enough to stay in the tabloids, but she knew who William Faulkner was and could actually talk about his books. Severin was quite smitten, really, and you know what it takes to get him to show any feelings at all. I got an autographed picture of her for Grace: didn’t you see it?”

“Why I called. I figured you would know. So, a relatively credible person?”

“She’s tabloid royalty. Well, aristocracy, at least. Do with that what you will. Listen, I got to go: there are wealthy people who need to feel like VIPs.” Fiona rang off without further comment.

“How’s life in clubland?” asked Mustapha.

“Deafening. She likes Roxanne.”

“And here I always thought your sister had good taste.”

Back in Cathy’s apartment, Mustapha in the living room, silent, just looking around. His nostrils flared as he took in the smells as well as the sights. Diana knew better than to distract him, so she went into the back bedroom. It was more of a cell than a room, being in the interior of the building. It contained a futon frame with no futon, a cheap secondhand desk with a pair of cardboard boxes on it, and some loose clothing, mostly worn vintage skirts and sweaters, on the floor of the closet. On the wall above the desk was a map of the world printed upside down so that Australia, Africa and South America were at the top. Diana looked at this for a long moment before investigating the boxes, both of which were full of books. These were American and British literature from the past two centuries, mostly worn and with Used stickers on them. William Faulkner’s Light in August was at the top of the stack in the second box. Diana took it and flipped through it as she walked back to the living room past a motionless Mustapha and into Cathy’s bedroom, where Dave Keller knelt on the floor dusting for prints around the baseboards, though Cathy’s body was gone.

Keller looked up at her and squinted to read the book’s cover. “Got a paper due?”

“It’s the roommates. She didn’t by any chance show up?”

“Nobody but cops and the ME’s office.” He stood up. “I need a break. This is going nowhere.” He followed her back out into the living room and sat down heavily on the couch. Diana continued to flip through Light in August, not really focusing on words, while Mustapha gradually turned around in a complete circle.

The mood was broken by the chime of Mustapha’s phone. He made no move to answer it, but Diana set up and plucked the phone out of his jacket pocket. “Can’t distract the master,” she said to Keller, and answered.

“Yeah, I’m Tommy DuPlessis, and I’m looking for Inspector Ollie?”

“Alawi,” said Diana. She walked into the living room and sat where Roxanne had been sitting several hours before. “I’m Detective Siddall. What can I do for you?”

“Yeah, well, he was looking for Peter DuPlessis?”

“Your brother?”

“No, that’s the weird thing. There’s nobody named Peter in my family. I don’t even have a brother. He’s got the wrong DuPlessis, is my guess?”

“Maybe. Are you a wedding photographer?”

“Yes. Where I am right now, waiting for the in-laws to stop fighting over who gets to stand where in the photos.”

“And you don’t know any other person in your business with the same last name? A tall guy, pretty well built, dark hair and mustache?”

“Doesn’t ring a bell. And there’s nobody else with my name.”

“Because we’re looking for a fellow who was calling himself Peter DuPlessis and who told people he was a wedding photographer. He even gave someone your card.”

“No shit? That’s fucked up.” A long pause. “You know, it makes sense, though. I had this guy calling me all last week, totally cheesed off cos I didn’t show for his wedding. But he was never on my calendar or anything. I kind of felt bad for the guy; I mean, it was his wedding and all. Maybe he made the appointment with this Peter dude.”

“Any reason you could think of that someone would want to impersonate you?”

“Hell no. I’m barely keeping my head above water as it is. Hey, I gotta go: the mother of the bride from hell is waving at me. The mother’s from hell, that is; the bride’s all right.” He rang off without saying anything else.

Mustapha said, “There’s no real Peter DuPlessis?”

“Doesn’t look like it.”

“So who was he, then, and what did he want from the vic?”

Keller spoke up. “You know what’s bugging me about this place?”

“It’s too clean,” said Mustapha. He gestured at the windchimes and wooden dragons on the walls. “And the vic wasn’t all that neat.”

“It’s been wiped clean,” said Keller. “There are almost no fingerprints anywhere.”

“Makes sense,” said Diana. “Your average crook is a big CSI fan.”

“Yeah, but your perp actually did a good job.”

“Like I said.”

“This took hours,” said Keller. “He hung the vic in the closet and scoured the entire place.”

Mustapha said, “That doesn’t really fit with the opportunistic use of the curtain rope to strangle her. So what do we know?”

“Perp is probably in the system,” said Diana.

“And he was posing as someone else. Someone else specific, that is. Why does he want people to think he’s this DuPlessis guy?”

Diana pondered the question on the way back down the elevator and out through the lobby. When they exited the building, she was almost blinded by the sea of lights and flashes. Mustapha used his considerable bulk to push his way through the onlookers and back toward their car, but at the last minute Diana ducked out from behind him and dashed over to where a pair of paparazzi stood, each with long lenses on expensive cameras. She flashed her shield at them. “Hey, y’all.”

“Um, we’re fifty feet from the building,” said the first, a great bald giant.

“We measured it,” said the guy who looked like George Michael back when everyone still thought he was straight.

“I’m not worried about that,” said Diana. “I’m Major Crimes, not crowd control. What I want to know is if any of you have seen this man before.” She flashed the picture of Peter with Cathy.

George Michael took it from her. “Sure,” he said. “What’s his name again?”

“That’s what I want to know,” said Diana.

“Max,” said the giant. “He’s a stringer.”

“Max what? What’s a stringer?”

“Like, an independent photographer,” said George Michael. “Me and William here, we work for papers. Max is a freelancer: he chases a story, gets a picture, sells it to the highest bidder.”

Mustapha came up behind Diana. “Like them guys that killed Princess Diana.”

“Her driver was drunk,” said both men defensively.

“Does Max have a last name?” asked Diana.

“Sure,” said the giant. “But I don’t know it.”

“You know, I probably shouldn’t tell you this,” said George Michael. “But Roxanne was asking about that same guy a couple of days ago.”

“Really? What did you really want to know?”

“Who he was, where she could find him.”

“That’s right,” said the giant. “She said she owed him a favor, wanted to give him some exclusive pictures.”

“What did you tell her?”

“Pretty much what we just told you. Including that we ain’t seen old Max in a couple of months.”

George Michael shrugged. “This business, people move around a lot.”

A great whoop went up from the crowd and people ran forward, toward a white limousine that was trying to exit from the Metropolis’s parking structure. The two photographers lifted their cameras, but Diana held up her hand. “One more question,” she said. She held up the photograph of Ellie. “Ever seen this woman?”

“Yeah, sure,” said the giant. “Nice girl. Lives in the building.”

George Michael nodded. “Came out here last week, talked with us for a while. Just chit-chat, but real friendly. Listen, we got to make our dime now, you know?” They began to walk toward the limousine, snapping photos as they went.

Mustapha said, “Let’s go back to the station. We can scan the picture, put his name on the wire. Put the girl up there, while were at it.”

“What I want to know is, what a paparazzi—what’s the singular, paparazzo?—is doing claiming to be someone else and romancing Roxanne’s friend… oh, I think I just answered my own silly question.”

Continue to part four

Chorus Verse Chorus (2)

Here’s the second part of the old story I found and cleaned up. Part one is here, part 3 here.

An hour later, a freshly showered but still red-eyed Roxanne sat in her own penthouse apartment, twenty floors up, furnished in black and chrome with bare hardwood floors. In place of a coffee table was a full-size, knee-high xylophone with great cast bronze keys; a wooden mallet and a square black porcelain tray holding some kind of fizzy drink sat atop the keys. Next to Roxanne sat an entertainment lawyer who appeared to have been molded out of the finest synthetic human skin and hair. He didn’t move at all. Roxanne alternately leaned forward to sip her drink and sat back to clutch at the stuffed elephant in her lap.

The lawyer cleared his throat. “I think we can all agree,” he said mellifluously, “that Ms. Stein had nothing to do with this horrible deed. She was merely–”

Roxanne cut him off. “Relax, Tyler.” Her gaze passed over Mustapha and onto Diana. “Look, what I meant was that I brought her into this crazy world. She wouldn’t be in Atlanta if it weren’t for me. I didn’t kill her. God. She was the only link I had to reality.”

Diana smiled back. “You have to understand that we need to clear you as a suspect. Let’s say we did catch the person who killed your friend. His lawyer’s going to point out that you had a key to the apartment and you found the body. So we have to rule you out.”

Roxanne looked at Tyler, who nodded. “Okay,” she said. “What do you need?”

Mustapha said, “We need to know where you were this afternoon. Maybe you can give us a rundown of what happened today.”

She frowned. “I might not be able to help. Today was my free day. I spent most of the morning sleeping in, then I did yoga for a while, took a nap, then played the piano for a long time. Then I went down to see Cathy before I had to get ready for going out tonight.”

“And nobody saw you this whole time?”

“Maybe if someone was looking out the windows through a telescope.” At Mustapha’s eyeroll, she sat up. “You would not believe what happens. The fucking paparazzi: they’ll do anything. But I’m pretty careful about what little free time I have.”

“There wasn’t anyone up here all day?”

“No.” She sighed. “Look, I made my own lunch, okay? I like making my own lunch. I’m a big girl: I can spend a day by myself. I’d go crazy if I couldn’t.”

“But you have to admit,” said Diana, “that it doesn’t help much.”

“No, I suppose it doesn’t. But I didn’t kill Cathy. Have you talked to her boyfriend?”

“Who is he?”

“Peter. Peter Du-something or other. He’s a wedding photographer.” She looked as if she’d tasted something dreadful.

“Not a fan of his?”

“… No. Well, not really.” She took a big sip of her drink, then stifled a belch. “Sorry. He was too good to be true, was what I thought.”

Diana said, “Too good for your only friend?”

“Yeah. I guess that does sound weird. But you saw Cathy. She’s not the kind of girl boys hang out with, or even really notice. It had been like four or five years said she had anyone calling her at all. Then out of the blue, this fancy guy, with a great body and a great look, comes out of nowhere? One half of me was jumping up and down and cheering; the other half was wondering what the real story was, and then feeling bad about it because of what it meant I thought about Cathy.”

“So you thought he was after her money?”

“Maybe. But the thing is, she didn’t have any real money, to speak of. And she was all about how into her she was he was, how the sex was so good. So I was still figuring out if I should do, or say, anything.” She finished her drink and shrugged. “Maybe she was the one he wanted to settle down with.” Now her eyes teared up again. “I don’t even know.”

Mustapha said quietly, “What about her roommate?”

Roxanne’s hand slipped on the empty glass. “Roommate? Oh, you mean Ellie. I thought she moved out. Oh, man. Has she been back?”

“There’s enough stuff left in the spare bedroom, you’d think she’d come back for it. How did they know each other?”

“They didn’t. Cathy wanted help with the mortgage. I think she put an ad in Creative Loafing. Ellie showed up about a week later. Depresso indie rock girl.” Roxanne smiled. “But nice, and cool with Cathy. She thought it was funny that Cathy’s best friend is this famous pop star that she herself wouldn’t listen to if you put a gun to her head. She gave me a hard time the first couple of times we met, but then it turned out we were both learning to knit, so she decided I was okay after all.”

“Where is she now?”

Roxanne shrugged. “She was going to move in with her own boyfriend. Somewhere… I really don’t know. Where the kids who only listen to bands they’ve never heard of hang out.”

“How did Ellie and Peter get along?”

“Um. They were okay. She was into taking pictures, so he would show her stuff.” She put the empty glass on the black tray and stood up. “I just realized I have pictures,” she said, and padded barefoot from the room. For the two or three minutes she was gone, Tyler the lawyer didn’t move at all. Diana was fairly certain he didn’t even blink.

Roxanne came back with an old shoebox full of photos. “Here we go.” She searched through the photos until she found several. “Here’s Cathy with Ellie. Here’s Ellie by herself. Here’s Peter with Cathy.” She handed the photos to Diana. Cathy in life had a nice smile, but not much else going for her. Peter was a big strapping fellow with muscles, a tank top and a well trimmed mustache; this made him look like half of the tens of thousands of gay men in Midtown. Ellie was about Roxanne’s size, and thus dwarfed by both Peter and Cathy: she had long, stringy dark hair, black-rimmed cat-eye glasses, and a T-shirt that said Dismemberment Plan under a thrift store cardigan with jeans and black Chuck Taylors.

A flunky poked a very styled head into the door. “Roxanne?”

“I’ll be there in five.” Roxanne turned to Diana. “Anything else, let me give you my private line.”

Mustapha said, “You’re going out?”

Roxanne sighed, looking ten years older. “Like I said, there are other people’s careers on the line. Tomorrow, I’m staying here by myself all day, to try to mourn Cathy properly.”

Continue to part three

Chorus Verse Chorus (1)

I was cleaning out a filing cabinet, and found this story, which I wrote in about 2006, and had thought lost forever. I retranscribed it, and cleaned it up a little bit, but kept it more or less as it was. Here’s the first part:

Inspector Mustapha Alawi peered through the rain-spattered windshield with a sour expression on his face. As Diana pulled to a stop at the barricade just past Seventh Street, he lunged for the door. “Hyenas are already here.”

Diana looked up Peachtree, where the barricades were pushing the usual Saturday night cruise around the block, to see the TV lights. “Oh, this is Roxanne’s building.” At Mustapha’s puzzled look, she explained. “Everyone wants to catch her and her entourage on their way out clubbing.” As they got out of the car, she saw that he still wasn’t getting it. “Roxanne Stone?”

“Oh, yeah, the little rocker chick. You mean that’s why we gotta come out here on a rainy night for a suicide? To babysit the press?”

They walked through the barricades and pushed their way through the strata of fans, press, paparazzi and police before they made it into the lobby of the Metropolis complex that loomed over the street between Eighth and Tenth. As they were ushered through the doors, Diana turned back and gazed at the sea of lights, and felt young and innocent again. The range of fans blocking all of Peachtree carried signs and banners, nearly all with variations on We [Heart] You Roxanne, or on Toy With Me, the new single that Diana had heard blasing from her daughter’s bedroom twice a day for several weeks now. One enormous banner had a promo shot of Roxanne, done up about a third of the way from rock to goth, with her great wide vulnerable eyes below a boy’s short haircut. The heavy eyeliner and mascara, and the deadpan waifish stare, made the three-word slogan even more vivid.

Detective Duane Peterson, resplendent in a peacock-blue double-breasted suit and thousand-dollar loafers, met them in the lobby. His tone was half-cheerful and half-ironic, just like usual. “Welcome to Hollywood Fantasy Camp, dreamgirls.”

Mustapha went for a cigarette, then growled when he remembered he had quit again this week. “Tell me I’m here for a reason other than all them zombies outside.”

“Oh, but you are.” Peterson led them into the elevator and winked at Diana in the mirrored walls of the car. “About an hour ago, Ms. Rachel Stein, a.k.a. Roxanne Stone, came down from her penthouse apartment to visit her friend Catherine Jacobs, who lives on the fifth floor of the same building. Dispatch prudently sends someone who has been known to read the style pages from time to time, so when I realized who I was interviewing, I hurriedly phoned Chief Purcell. And here you are, making this a Major Crime.”

The elevator doors opened; Peterson led them around a corner to an open door guarded by a pair of uniforms. The apartment looked as if the contents of a Pier One had been catapulted into it from far away. A stressed-out looking brunette in her mid-thirties sat in the dining room, chin on hands, elbows on table. Her heavy eye makeup had run and smudged all over her cheeks and temples; neglected between her elbows was a weakly steaming mug of tea.

She looked up at them with a thousand-yard stare. “Are you, like, the major detectives? Because I really need to get out of here, but they said I had to wait for you.”

Mustapha glared down at her. “Why, you got some magazine to be in?”

Roxanne glared back, then looked away after a moment. “No. The opposite. I just lost my only real friend: I want to be alone.”

Diana pulled up the other chair and sat down. “I’m Detective Siddall. This gruff but lovable fellow is Inspector Mustapha Alawi. I’m sure you can understand that the City of Atlanta wants to make sure there are no misunderstandings.”

Roxanne picked up the mug and drank it halfway down before replying.” Do what you have to do. I just–”

“Ms. Stein, what do you mean when you say that Ms. Jacobs was your only real friend?”

She sat back up and focused a million-candlepower pair of eyes on Diana. “She knew me from before. Before I became Roxanne.”

Diana found the glamour moving, but managed to keep her voice steady. “And everyone else you know?” Mustapha moved off through the dining room and into the bedroom where the Crime Scene techs were gathered.

Roxanne finished her tea. “Came after. Cathy was my next-door neighbor growing up. We used to play on the swings together. I started doing TV when I was eleven, movies at fifteen, first album when I was nineteen. Now I’m twenty-nine, and there are five hundred people outside who want a piece of me. And if I don’t go clubbing tonight, there are promoters, and club owners, and photographers, and clothing, hair and makeup people, and waitresses and bartenders and DJs, who are going to have their professional reputations or monthly income seriously disrupted. But she’s the only one who really knows what makes me laugh or cry.”

“Is that why she lives in your building?”

“Sure. Once I decided to start spending the winters down here, Cathy came with. She ended up loving it.”

“Did she keep loving it?”

“She was fine! Wonderful, even. That’s why I can’t understand why… why she’d do this! She was enjoying grad school, she actually had a boyfriend–” Roxanne picked up the empty mug and slammed it down onto the floor. But instead of shattering, it only bounced weakly off the faux-Persian rug, then rolled to a stop under a buffet table painted with what might have been dragons. “That was supposed to break.” She put her forehead down onto her folded arms and gave herself over to her tears.

Diana wanted to get up and pat her on the shoulder, but her debate over whether this was appropriate was interrupted by Mustapha. “Hey, Dee? C’mere.”

She followed his voice into the bedroom. Peterson and Mustapha stood at the foot of the bed while Dave Keller from Crime Scene and his lovely assistant Marcia had the body of a woman laid out on the floor between the bed and the open closet doors. The victim might have been pretty once, but nobody looks good after ligature strangulation. She wore a soiled white nightgown over a figure thick in the hips and thighs. The dark green fringed decorative rope she had used to hang herself, in the gap in the row of clothing in the closet, remained tied about her throat.

Mustapha pointed at the corpse. “Looks like a suicide, don’t it?”

Diana smiled. “What’s not right?”

Keller answered her question. “This kind of suicide? Imagine hanging yourself from the closet rod. There’s no drop, so what you do is lean forward so the rope cuts off the big vessels to your head.” He put his spread-out thumb and forefinger under Marcia’s chin, on her throat. “You pass out, then you gradually suffocate.” Marcia crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue. “But the same gravity you use to make yourself pass out pulls the rope away from the back of your head.” He mined this by putting his other fist behind Marcia’s neck and then pulling it backward. Marcia stuck her tongue out even further.

“So if she really killed herself,” said Diana, “she’d only have ligature marks on her throat, but not on the back of her neck.” She knelt down to have a look: Keller and Marcia rolled the body to make it easier for her to see that the livid marks went all the way around Catherine’s neck.

Mustapha turned to Peterson. “Looks like you got your Major Crime after all.”

“Y’all can take the rest of the night off, call it a garden-variety homicide.”

They all whirled at the sound from the doorway. Roxanne was on her knees, eyes red, makeup running. “Homicide?” she wailed. “Somebody killed Cathy?” Diana nodded. Roxanne just gazed back at her with those fantastic eyes. “What have I done?” she wailed. Her eyes went up into her head and she slumped to the floor.

Continue to part two

Lazy Writing 101: The Goldfinch

If you read a lot of mass-market fiction, you start to pick up on which writers are really honing their craft and which are phoning it in. Phoning it in comes across in lazy plotting (“Oh no, I forgot to charge my phone!”), or telling rather than showing, or a particular sort of character development I’m going to illustrate here. This specific piece is from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which all told is a pretty solid novel, though she had no idea how to end it.

The passage here deals with two characters, narrator Theo and his object of desire Pippa. Years before, Theo and Pippa were both badly injured in an explosion, and while Theo appears to have recovered, Pippa still suffers from its aftereffects. Earlier in the novel, we are introduced to Pippa’s boyfriend Everett, who Theo dislikes both on principle because Everett is Pippa’s boyfriend, and on merits because Everett is kind of a whiny twit to Theo’s man of action. Much later, Pippa is visiting and she and Theo are discussing her uncle Welty, who was killed in the explosion. Pippa says:

“But Welty—he was one too. An Advanced Being. Like—not joking. Serious. Out of the ballpark. Those stories that Barbara tells—guru What’s-His-Name putting his hand on her head in Burma and in that one minute she was infused with knowledge and became a different person—Well, I mean, Everett—of course he never met Krishnamurti but—”

“Right, right.” Everett—why this annoyed quite me [sic] so much, I didn’t know—had attended some sort of guru-based boarding school in the south of England where the classes had names like Care For the Earth and Thinking of Others.

This is terrible writing. Not the prose, which is intended to reflect how people actually converse, but rather the setup. We’ve had a whole chapter with Everett in it well before. Everett is not a new character in this chapter, and Theo has had ample time to dissect him as not worthy of Pippa for all sorts of reasons that boil down to Everett isn’t Theo. So if Tartt had known that Everett had gone to a guru-based boarding school back when Everett first appeared in the book, surely Theo would have found this out and commented on it as a way of disdaining Everett, especially since Theo is a dedicated rationalist and would roll his eyes at anything guru-based.

Therefore, Tartt didn’t decide to make Everett a graduate of a guru-based boarding school until she wrote this very passage. Which is fine: sometimes we learn new things about the characters we write. But what’s not fine is her failure to anchor this new insight in the text. All she has to do here, once she’s figured out the “guru-based boarding school”, is go back to the earlier chapter where we meet Everett and have Theo find out about it, and then he can trash Everett for it. Guru-based is funny, and it’s a great piece of a character. There’s all sorts of fun things Tartt could have done at this point: for example, she could have Everett do something Theo finds baffling, and then Theo investigates and finds out about the school, and it only confirms his belief that Everett isn’t the right guy for Pippa. Then she could make it even funnier by having Everett’s guru-based knowledge actually be the appropriate response to a particular situation, which leaves Theo both angry and bereft.

This is a common trope in mass-market fiction: in detective novels, it often manifests when a new character is introduced with a throwaway quotation and then a long paragraph of narration telling us who that character is and what they like on their pizza. Since I’ve never heard a name for the trope before, I’ll show another example of it in an upcoming post.

 

Reboot: July 2014

Real life intervened and compelled me to take about nine months off of trying to be a serious writer of popular mystery-thriller fiction. And even before that the exercise had become rote: I was just cherry-picking dumb crime stories and saying smartass things about them.

So now it’s time for a purge and a restart. From now on, this blog is going to concentrate less on lurid crimes and the stories that could potentially be made from them, and more on actually writing stories. I’m going to use the blog for three separate but related purposes:

  • Posting daily writings and thus forcing myself to write.
  • Critiquing my own writing and thereby strengthening it.
  • Critiquing others’ writing as a means of taking my own work more seriously.
  • Updates as to where and when I’m reading or being published.
  • Links to other writers’ work, not solely for networking purposes.

Sure, I’ll post a funny true crime story once in a while—some are hard to resist—but this blog has now become much more serious about the mechanics, process and presentation of my writing, and other forms of professional development.

Desperadoes

Joe Johnson, crime writer for the Athens Banner-Herald and one of my favorite Georgia crime reporters, picks up on a great story:

For the second time in less than a week, masked gunmen robbed a business in west Athens.

Athens-Clarke County police said they don’t have any evidence to suspect the robbery on Monday at D.R. Green Motors on West Broad Street is related to a Jan. 21 hold-up at an Atlanta Highway convenience store.

In both cases, though, a pair of gunmen wearing full ski masks entered the businesses during the late evening.

Last week’s robbery at Lay’s Food Mart, 4360 Atlanta Highway, occurred at about 10 p.m. and D.R. Green Motors was robbed at about 10:30 p.m. Monday, police said.

In the convenience store robbery, a clerk described the bandits only as black males.

Ignore the cops who of course have every reason to believe the crimes are related, not only for their similarity but also because armed robbery is a terrible way to earn a living. The guys got away with “cash and a cellphone,” so I’m going to guess less than $300 of spendable money. Think of the risk they’re taking, of ending up in jail or shot by cops or store clerks, or other customers, or random motorists—this is, after all, Georgia. And it’s not as if they can do this very often, like there’s $300 waiting for the sufficiently ballsy every single night in Clarke County and environs. They’ve already done it twice, so if they try it again, everyone buying Red Bull and lotto tickets who isn’t already armed will be by the time the two guys get around to target #4.

In other words, these are the kind of people whose forehead tattoo that reads POOR IMPULSE CONTROL is visible to pretty much everyone, even when the rest of their face is covered. I guarantee you that when they’re caught or killed within three weeks, their average birth year will be 1993 or so. They’re young, not bright, and their idea of careful planning is going to turn out to be missing something obvious and critical.

But think of the opportunity cost of armed robbery: what else could they be doing to make 300 bucks? That’s two days’ labor for both of them at minimum wage, after taxes and other deductions. So either they truly are desperados, emphasis on “desperate”, or it’s not the money. It’s the adventure. And that’s what makes them scary.

Though Johnson’s first sentence needed a better thought, because at first read I thought that the article was going to be about the same business being robbed by two different groups of masked gunmen. Which would really make a better story than that of the desperadoes, which will almost certainly turn out to be cruelly banal.

Imagine the perspective of the proprietor of a convenience store: first, he’s relating his experiences to the detectives, then they’re back five days later. Mustapha: “You’ve had a hell of a week, Mr. Ayinde. My partner said you said these were different guys, and I figured the whole thing had kinda traumatized you, you know? Not like I’d blame you. But then I watched those security cams, and yeah, that second pair of guys are taller than the first. Oh, man.”

Now imagine learning how easy it is to buy a gun in Georgia, and putting it solemnly under your counter, managing to ignore the PTSD flashbacks from before you got your wife to the refugee camp. Now imagine two downscale, goofy black guys coming into the store on one of these real cold nights we’ve been having, with their scarves pulled up and their wooly hats down, so you can only see their eyes.

 

Kendrick Johnson’s Autopsy

This story is deep and weird and very wrong. Kendrick Johnson was a star athlete in a Valdosta high school:

State medical examiners concluded that Johnson suffocated in January after getting stuck in a rolled-up gym mat while reaching for a sneaker. That’s a finding his family has never accepted, and one challenged by the findings of a second autopsy they commissioned.

None of this passed the smell test right from the start. Johnson’s family complained, with some pretty clear justification, that the crime scene was contaminated and the investigation botched. They filed all kinds of freedom-of-information requests and got stonewalled at first, with the local sheriff’s office saying the GBI called the death an accidental suffocation in a rolled-up gym mat. Here’s Ebony magazine’s take on it, which of course is going to view it as partly a racial issue, but lest we forget, this is Valdosta, Georgia. The family finally managed to get their son’s body disinterred, and the results of that second autopsy came out recently:

Dr. Bill Anderson determined the teen died from a blow to the neck, but he also made another discovery: some of Johnson’s organs were missing. His lungs, heart and brain were not there, and the body was stuffed with newspaper.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation claims Johnson’s organs were placed back in his body after the first autopsy, but the Valdosta funeral home that enbalmed him said the organs were discarded before the body was sent to them.

So obviously someone’s totally corrupt here. There’s actually security cam footage—this article doesn’t talk about it—but the school has so far refused to release it. Someone murdered this poor kid, and if the security footage can’t tell who, the evidence the sheriff’s department missed probably can.

 

Isolated Afternoon Thundershowers (4)

Parts 1, 2, 3:

Coming up after the news on All Things Considered, the latest developments in the Israeli/Palestinian peace process. Adam groaned and switched the damn thing off, then got to inch forward all of half a car length. He punched the phone again. This time, to his surprise, Claire picked right up. “Just got off the plane. How’s Sweetie Pie?”

“Still at school. I’m on the Downtown Connector, stopped dead. It’s pouring. Again. All the skyscrapers are lost in clouds. At this rate, I’m gonna be most of an hour late. I shoulda taken Piedmont. How pissed off do they get if you’re late?”

She laughed. “They don’t. Because you have to pay the teacher. Three bucks a minute.”

“What?!”

She laughed again. “Keeps you on time.”

“This is going to cost me a hundred bucks. There’s no exception for stuck in traffic?”

“This is Atlanta: when are you not stuck in traffic? Call ahead, though, so Simon doesn’t worry.”

“Um, I don’t think I even have the number. Oh, no; I do, but the card is in my briefcase.”

“I’ll do it. Kiss him for me!” and she rang off, to leave him staring at the back of a white pickup covered in Ron Paul stickers, all beaded with the endless rain, each drop reflecting an ocean of brake lights in the premature dusk brought on by the storm.

 

Simon looked up as Mr. Darius came back in the room. “Audrey’s mom came and got her,” he said as he added another brick to his Lego tower.

“I just saw them. And your mom called: she said your dad was coming to get you?”

“Yeah, Mom’s on a trip. Dad’s going to take me for pizza.”

“That is awesome. But he’s going to be late: he’s stuck in traffic. So it’s just you and me for a while here, big guy. You want a book, or you want some more Lego time?”

“Um, Legos is good. Can you show me how to make the bricks over…?”

“Hunh? Oh, overlap. Of course. But in a few minutes you’re going to have to hang out in the lobby while I make sure the rest of the place is locked up tight.”

But Mr. Darius took forever back there. Simon could hear him, on the phone, but not loud enough to know what he was saying. Outside the front door, it was pouring rain, which was why they missed playground time again this afternoon. Lots of cars were on the street outside. A bus pulled up to the shelter across the street and a lady got in. After the bus drove away, there were no cars. And he saw it: a kitty, a black one, standing under the seat of the bus shelter. He was hunched over, with his fur sticking out, so he was all wet. Simon really wanted a kitty. But Mom has allergies.

“Mr. D?” He called. No answer. Simon went back to find him, but the halls were dark and now he couldn’t hear Mr. Darius’s voice. He looked back, forth, back, then went to the front door. This time he got to press the button to open it because Mom wasn’t there to tell him no.

Once outside, the rain hit him like the shower at the outdoor pool, only it didn’t smell like the pool. He walked to the curb and stood there, watching the kitty from between all the cars that were zooming by. But the cars never stopped. He could only see the kitty if all the cars lined up just right. He sighed. He’d get in so much trouble if he crossed the street. It was jaywalking, the police lady told his class.

He went to go back inside, but now the door was locked. And pressing the button didn’t work because you need to slide a card first. He, knocked again, called for Mr. D, but nobody came. And he could see on the bench inside the lobby his Spiderman backpack, with the emergency phone in it. He started to cry, but made himself stop: either Mr. D would–

“Dad!” he shouted as the car came to a stop. But it was the right car and the wrong dad: this man wasn’t bald. “Sorry,” he said. “I thought you were my dad. He drives the same kind of car.”

“Well, you’re soaked to the bone,” said the man. “Hop on in, and I’ll give you a ride.”

“Okay,” said Simon. Then he paused and remembered the police lady. “I’m not supposed to get in a car with strangers.”

“I’m not a stranger,” said the man. “I’m your dad’s friend from work.” Simon slumped back against the door, not knowing what to think. The man looked back and forth. Somebody else honked their horn. “Okay,” the guy said, and drove away.

Isolated Afternoon Thundershowers (3)

Parts 1 and 2 linked here.

Sergeant Jasmine Franklin was going to make it through this shift with her dignity intact. Why was her rain gear in her locker instead of her saddlebags? Because she’d let discipline slip. Well, as sure as Jazz was going to end up—however reluctantly—next to her mother at church on Sunday, she was going to get this intersection moving. And if getting soaked was what it took to remind her to double-check next time, so be it. She had the two disabled cars off to where they’d cause the fewest problems, and she had something of a sequence going: Krog, then DeKalb westbound and middle lane, Krog, DeKalb westbound and right lane, alternating so eastbound traffic could get around the disabled cars. She was almost beginning to enjoy herself; she even let the chick on the bike through instead of chewing her out for riding between the lanes. Like a biker was going to listen.

Then the BMW nearly killed her, and wrecked her rhythm. Motherfucker. And Tag Applied For? Jazz looked longingly at her motorcycle, then imagined the lieutenant busting her chops for leaving her post to chase the guy down.

Two more cycles, and there was a suburban grandma type leaning out the window of her SUV. “I’ve got a rain paaaancho,” she said in that Fargo accent. “You look real wet.”

Jazz made herself smile. “Ma’am, I ain’t getting any wetter. Thanks; but move on.”

And then another cycle, and some Arab kid was leaning out his window. “You have to help,” he said with no accent. “That Beemer? There’s a little boy in there. He wrote HELP ME on the window. I think he’s been kidnapped.”

Jesus Shitbird. Three-quarters of an inch of rain and every driver in Atlanta turns into a crazy bitch. “Sir, you’re blocking traffic. Please move on.”

“No, you have to listen. That boy: you could tell. The driver? Saw me looking. That’s why he went through and splashed you. You have to help.”

Jazz gritted her teeth, made every muscle in her mouth make the smile. “Sir, you need to move on.”

“But–”

“Do you really want to antagonize me? Here and now? Move on.”

The guy shook with rage or frustration, but drove away, leaving his window open in the pouring rain.

And then when she’d finally got things moving again, her lapel mike crackled to life. And she heard Amber Alert. And the description of a little white boy. And then she was spinning in a slow circle, each arm outstretched with the palm held up so all the drivers could see the orange triangles stitched to her palms, and then she was gunning the bike, lights and sirens, up the hill and eastbound toward Moreland.

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