Step Up on Sweet Auburn

Last week, Martavious Boyd, a 32-year-old man about whom we know very little, got himself shot to death in the Sweet Auburn district:

Police said 32-year-old Martavious Boyd and another man got into an argument in the 100 block of Auburn Avenue around 11:30 Sunday night. The unidentified man pulled a gun and started shooting, according to police. The victim was hit at least once.

Investigators released surveillance video from a local convenience store, calling the man on the cell phone inside a person of interest in the case.

If you consider yourself a friend– step up. Forget the street code,” said stepfather Robert Willis, who is concerned some of Boyd’s friends and acquaintances may have key information that could lead to an arrest.

Willis and family members said Boyd had plenty of friends around the Sweet Auburn Historic District, having grown up in a nearby neighborhood.

“That’s what you’re doing to this family: denying them peace by not stepping up,” Willis said.

Let’s all think good thoughts for the family of poor Mr. Boyd, who deserved better. Sweet Auburn is a dangerous place; and while it’s not nearly as toxic as it once was, it’s still a rough area after dark.

If we were to construct a fictional story around this crime, there are three places we could go. One is gentrification: the Georgia State dormitories are nearby now, and the western end of the avenue is beginning, barely, to fill up with shops catering to students. Imagine a white girl who’s had two drinks too many walking into the middle of this, and both guys arguing simultaneously upset that what has always been black turf is being invaded and at the same time wanting to get the poor thing to safety lest the cops come down on the block like Thor’s hammer.

The second is the “stop snitching” culture, which is incredibly poisonous to underprivileged communities. Our victim analogue would also be from the neighborhood, so there could be a lot of drama there.

The last one is the overall history of Sweet Auburn. About 20 years ago, I got a tour of the area from a local (black) TV personality, who explained how the area was Atlanta’s best example of the law of unintended consequences. In the Jim Crow days, black folks couldn’t go into white people’s stores, so the thriving black middle class set up their own stores on Auburn Avenue. But once desegregation happened, most of those shoppers were like “sweet, I can go to Macy’s now” and Sweet Auburn just crashed, and never recovered, and never really has—although things are getting just the tiniest bit better, finally. Have that be the backbone of the story: both the people who were arguing had grandparents who owned successful boutiques back in the 1950s.

(No Known Relation)

This very short story packs a great punch. Wheelchair-bound Vietnam veteran kills home invader:

A wheelchair-bound Vietnam veteran fatally shot a man who forced his way into the veteran’s residence, authorities said.

Eddie Frank Smith, 69, was at home in Monticello on Thursday about 9 p.m. when Andre Smith, 22, (no known relation), forced his way into Eddie Frank Smith’s home through a rear door, according to a media release from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

When Eddie Frank Smith went to investigate, Andre Smith lunged toward the resident, who shot the intruder once in the chest, according to the GBI.

The intruder ran away and collapsed about 100 yards from the residence. Both Eddie Frank Smith and neighbors called 911. Andre Smith later died at Jasper Memorial Hospital.

Monticello is in central Georgia, about as middle of nowhere as you can get, considering it’s only about 70 miles from Atlanta. And this story just feels like Georgia: guns, dumb crime, no consequences for shooters. The only piece of data I’d want to know is whether Eddie Frank Smith is a white guy.

Rewriting this crime as a fictional story wouldn’t require much. You’ve got a homeowner who looks like an easy victim if you’re a dumbass twentysomething, but who in fact not only has combat training but a long history of being wary of every possible imaginary danger. Tell it from both perspectives. But in the story? There have to be three characters, not two—and they all have to have the same last name.

Novel 3: Act III, Chapter 1, Scene 2c

TOC page here.

We’ve received forensic details on the death of Bill Knight; now, let’s wrap this scene up quickly:

On their way out to the circle of cars, Purcell stopped them. “Same guy?”

Diana said, “Looks like it, sir. Writing looks the same; so do the ligature marks.”

“We’re going to have to deal with the media, and I mean soon. Those fucking kids. I don’t like drug prohibition laws, but I wish they hadn’t had the foresight to throw their weed away before they called us: we could drop some charges on them.” He pointed at Diana’s tablet. “AJC, Creative Loafing, all the TV channels have his picture up. They blurred the face, but still.”

Mustapha said, “Stall’em, Chief. We’ve got to do the notification.”

“That’ll work. But leave time to change clothes, because you’re both going to have to be at the press conference. And that will happen sooner rather than later. Mayor’s already out of bed.”

As they got to Mustapha’s Lexus, the reporters and their spotlights came running toward them. “Detectives!” shouted the guy from FOX, “Has the Reaper struck again?”

Diana had long ago learned to resist the reflex to shield herself from the spotlights. “A man has been killed. Until we’ve spoken with his family, we can’t comment further.”

“Show some respect,” muttered Mustapha as they got in the car.

Peachtree-Pine was only a few blocks away, but most of the reporters ran for their vans and began following the Lexus; it took half an hour and a couple of driving maneuvers that made even Diana close her eyes to lose the most tenacious of them. Just to be safe, they went back to the precinct and swapped cars for Diana’s.

Again, the media is everpresent, here. And not that helpful, like they might be in some cop novels.

Novel 3: Act III, Chapter 1, Scene 2b

TOC page here.

Diana has been called by Mustapha to the scene of the third dead homeless man, but right away she recognizes him as Bill Knight, a man who’d tried to help her very early on in the book and who before he became a homeless alcoholic was a friend of her ex-husband.

She saw Mustapha look up at her, eyebrows raised. “You didn’t meet him. The first time I talked to Claire Longstreet, right after we found Alex Dawson. Remember later, when we were in her office and I was asking about Red? This guy was Red’s pal. Mr. Buchanan at the door mentioned him.”

“Right, right; and he’s one of the Lazarus Program guys.”

“Lazarus Program?” said Keller. “This guy ain’t coming back.”

Diana said, “He knew my ex-husband, too.”

Mustapha said, “You think you want to take a step back?”

“As if the chief would let me.” She looked down again, firmed up the image of Knight’s face in her mind. “I asked Andrew about him, a couple of weeks ago; before Mr. Knight climbed into the bottle, he was a real humanitarian. Well, Andrew said do-gooder, but sometimes I have to translate.”

Mustapha said, “Yeah, and didn’t he only leave the place for meetings?”

Keller said, “There’s a meeting every night. Well, you’d know that.”

Diana said, “It’s five in the morning. Dave, any idea on time of death?”

“Liver temp says between ten and midnight. He wasn’t killed right here, so if he was kept somewhere where the temperature was significantly different, that will skew it.”

Mustapha said, “So he gets out of his meeting, starts to walk back, gets popped. Or he never showed. We can ask around, see if the AA guys will break confidentiality. Maybe they saw somebody pick him up.”

Diana used her tablet to call up the picture of Mario’s chest, held it to line up with her perspective on Knight, flicked her gaze back and forth. “Looks the same to me; maybe Imam Dave can tell us if there’s a dot out of place.”

Keller said, “That actually says something?” Diana read him the English translation from where she had stored it on the tablet. “Hunh. Does Islam have the thing with Abraham and Isaac? Never mind: they’d cut his throat, not strangle him.” He stood up, looked around. “During the day, this parking lot is empty. Too close to Peachtree-Pine, which is what? Two, three blocks down there. But at night? Campers: them guys that can’t deal with the shelter rules. You’ll find them tucked in little hobbit holes all over these blocks. Why I think he wasn’t killed here: somebody would have noticed.”

Diana said, “Those kids that found him: was he face up or face down?”

Mustapha said, “Down. Curtis tore them new assholes for flipping him over. They said they thought he was just passed out, and wanted to help.”

“And that might even be true. I bet more than one person has slept off some fortified wine in this grass.”

Keller said, “He wasn’t robbed, either. Still has a wallet with a hundred bucks in small bills.”

Mustapha said, “So he can’t have been there long. Perp drops him off at 0300, even the nightcrawlers are sleeping.” He stood up, looked around: without the klieg lights, the parking lot would be an oasis of darkness. “Some of these intersections will have cameras.” He pointed toward the light at North Avenue. “There’s our most likely spot. Let’s get Purcell to authorize manpower, see if we can find a white van.” He turned around, pointed back toward Peachtree-Pine. “That’s probably our best bet for next of kin, plus we can maybe find out what meeting he went to. If anyone’s awake at this hour.”

Mostly just forensic details here: he was killed elsewhere, the writing looks legit. But these sorts of details are often important, later.

Novel 3: Act III, Chapter 1, Scene 2a

TOC page here.

We had a nice long transition to the third act, one that has more to do with the main plot than might initially seem clear, then Diana’s phone rings and off she goes to Victim #3:

Half an hour later, gruff old Sergeant Klein dropped her off outside the double ring of vehicles that marked any seriously mediagenic crime scene in Atlanta. The outer ring was TV vans with their antenna pylons extended up into the air; the inner was APD and Crime Scene vehicles trying to screen from the media whatever lay in the disused parking lot behind what had long ago been a shoe store.

Diana slid through the first ring; the first person she encountered in the second was Sergeant Brown. “Come on through, ma’am,” he said, shifting aside to let her between two radio cars.

Andrea Blitts came running toward them, camera man with spotlight in tow. “Detective Siddal! Can you confirm the Reaper has struck again?”

Sergeant Brown patted Diana on the back, which pushed her through into the crime scene.”Back off!” he snarled. “You interfere with a crime scene, you can spend the night downtown.”

“You’re cute, Sergeant,” said Blitts, “But you’re not my type. Maybe you can confirm…” Diana slipped her way to the center of the klieg lights, where Mustapha and Keller knelt in the weeds that had long ago overgrown the asphalt.

Before she could approach them, Chief Purcell stepped into her path. “Y’all have my full support, and the mayor’s office says the same. We need to find and apprehend whoever is responsible for this second—second—killing of a homeless man by someone with a real twisted view of Islam.” He leaned in closer. “College kids come back to smoke up, saw the body, rolled him over and saw the Arabic writing. They put pictures up on Instagram and called the media before they called us. Captain Jenkins has them back at your precinct right now, going to scare the life out of them. Do your job, Detective, and hope to hell nobody goes sniffing around for that guy from last month.” He nodded and walked away.

Diana began to kneel beside Mustapha, felt her knee think about giving way, crouched instead. “Same MO,” said Mustapha, “as that one other killing.” In a stage whisper, he continued, “Circle the wagons.”

From where she crouched, at the corpse’s feet, she could clearly see the calligraphy on the man’s bony chest, and the livid mark of the cord on his throat, but the neck was craned and the face lost in high-contrast shadow. She arose, walked around Keller, held up a hand to block the direct light from her eyes. “Oh, dear,” she said.

Keller snorted. “Understatement much?”

“I know him. This is Bill Knight.”

We might remember Bill Knight as the helpful recovering alcoholic who talked with Diana way back in the first scene, when she went to the shelter. Now things are going to get interesting.

Normal Teenagers Steal Cars

Last month, I wrote about Barney Simms, local community leader killed in his front yard, and while I made it clear that the real Sims deserves our respect, as a crime fiction writer the story was very appealing. The murder of a public figure, I wrote, taking a fictional community leader as the example, gives rise to all kinds of other causes that the typical motives for murder don’t cover.

Recently, a suspect, 17-year-old Eric Banks, was arrested for Simms’ murder. Banks was seen with Simms about an hour before his death: Simms took him to lunch. Banks’ mother claims, naturally, that her son is innocent:

She said her son told her he accepted a meal from Simms at the Waffle House, but that when the two parted ways, Simms was still alive.

“After that, (my son) left. He went somewhere. I don’t know where he went after that,” she said.

Atlanta homicide investigators said they believe Simms was shot about an hour after that encounter. A neighbor found Simms dead in his front yard. His car had been stolen.

Only CBS46 was there as police lead Banks to jail, now charged with murder.

“He did not kill that man. He’s not capable of doing nothing like that,” said Banks’ mother.

She acknowledged that her son has a criminal history.

“But not with no violent history or nothing bad,” she said, “only like what teenagers do — normal teenagers do — steal cars and stuff like that. That’s it.”

“Normal teenagers steal cars” is just great: it had to be the title here. So let’s return to fiction, and have a similar situation where community leader takes wayward teen to lunch, then is shot an hour later. In real life, the cops probably have all kinds of reasons to believe Banks is guilty, but in fiction, let’s say we don’t. The fictional young man was seen with the fictional community leader, the fictional young man seems good for it, lets himself get bullied into some kind of quasi-confession, charges are filed.

But in the original piece on Simms, I wrote about how people might have all kinds of reasons to have it in for a community leader. Let’s just say someone was looking for a chance. They see our community leader with our wayward/normal teen, figure out the kid is the perfect patsy, show up and kill the leader and drop the gun off in the kid’s yard. Now imagine the story from the mom’s point of view, and from the actual killer’s. Twin them off and alternate between them, or do half the story from one’s POV and half from the other’s. Someone out there was so intent on what they thought was justice that they’re going to commit a great injustice. The mom surprises herself by actually being willing to believe her kid did it—at first.

Read a Story Here: “Chorus Verse Chorus”

Here’s a link to a freshly-published story, Chorus Verse Chorus. It deals with the perils of fame and can be found in the latest issue of Eyedrum Periodically. Here’s the first couple of paragraphs:

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 blasting 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.

Check out the rest.

Another Murder, Another Traffic Jam

Early Thursday morning, yet another murder wrecked the commute into Atlanta, this time from the east rather than the northwest:

More than six hours after DeKalb County police found someone dead from an apparent gunshot wound on I-20, officials have reopened portions of the interstate that were shut down while they conducted their investigation.

About 4 a.m., officers found a male passenger dead in a vehicle on I-20 at I-285, DeKalb police Maj. Stephen Fore said.

“The driver was cooperative with police and it was determined the shooting incident occurred in Forest Park,” Fore said.

More questions than answers here. I don’t quite understand the link between “finding a passenger dead in a vehicle” and “the driver was cooperative with police”. What I’m guessing is that the driver was pulled over, but the article could have clarified that. If the guy was on I-20 in DeKalb County, he was about ten miles away from Forest Park, so I’m not sure what that’s all about, either.

If we made a similar story into a murder mystery, we could go two ways. One would be to link it with the earlier story about the woman who murdered a (homeless) pedestrian on her double-carjacking spree into town: why are people trying to tie up Atlanta’s already awful commute with these senseless deaths? The trouble is that the two crimes have nothing else in common. Though it would be fun to imagine someone who had some interest in stopping traffic and then orchestrating the two crimes, it stretches the willing suspension of disbelief too much. Who would benefit from such a thing and how? Advocates of public transit? (You know, that’s not such a bad idea.)

Better still, ignore the first story and write this from the perspective of the driver. What was he up to that got his passenger shot in Forest Park, and how did it result in his driving ninety degrees around the Perimeter? Where was he going? Why didn’t he go to the nearest hospital? Now construct a narrative that makes this the most plausible thing to do: what’s up with him or the passenger that he’s willing to drive ten miles with a corpse?

What if he didn’t realize the guy was dead, or even shot? As in, his friend is sleeping off a few drinks in the passenger seat, and is struck through an open window by a stray bullet in such a way that our driver just doesn’t notice that the guy goes from asleep to dead? And then he gets pulled over for a broken taillight, and the cop sees blood on the passenger side door. Now imagine him driving along the highway, thinking himself a good person for driving without the radio on so his buddy can snooze, and then the blue lights go on. And for Atlanta, the real tragedy is that the commute gets tied up.

Early Morning Crime Spree

Here’s today’s big Atlanta crime news. Anything that affects the truly epic craziness of the morning or evening commute is real news in our town.

Police say they have a driver in custody who killed pedestrian and carjacked two drivers in Cobb County and attempted another in Atlanta on Wednesday morning.

Marietta police officer Jim Rakestraw said the incident began on Interstate 575 when a female driver was involved in a hit-and run. The driver then drove to the intersection of Cobb Parkway and Bells Ferry Road where she hit a female pedestrian around 6:15 a.m. The pedestrian was transported to Kennestone Hospital, where she later died.

Rakestraw said the driver then carjacked a vehicle in the area, drove to the intersection of Canton and I-75 where she carjacked another vehicle.

The driver then apparently drove into Atlanta, where Atlanta police say she wrecked her car on Ponce de Leon Avenue. Police say tried to take another car at gunpoint but was taken down by officers in front of the Majestic Diner.

Now, this is tragic because someone was killed. So let’s have some respect for the victim, and rewrite this as a crime story. Have the same sequence of events, but put the pedestrian in the hospital with minor injuries instead. The key question is: what in the world made this woman in such a hurry to get downtown? We can chalk it up to mental illness, but that doesn’t make for all that great of a story. What motivated her in our story to be in such a hurry that she was willing to get in a hit-and-run, then carjack two people and try for a third?

Keep in mind that even at 0615 the trip from I-575 to Ponce de Leon is likely to be pretty grueling. It’s 28 miles or so, but through some of the worst, most congested parts of the metro area. What’s her hurry? What’s happening at 0700 intown that she needs to get to that badly? It certainly can’t be the food at the Majestic.


Novel 3: Act III, Chapter 1, Scene 1d

TOC page here.

Here’s the fourth of four parts of the transition from Act II to Act III:

Her phone buzzing brought her back to reality. She scrambled to find it, but it had got caught in the blankets and stopped vibrating before she could extract it. But it had only been the call to evening prayer. She tossed the phone back onto the bed, then realized what day it was; she tried to catch the phone in midair, but lacking Fiona’s reflexes only succeeded in knocking it to the floor. She leaned off the bed to pick it up, overextended, found it easier just to roll onto the floor after it. Sure enough, the little icon of the moon had a tiny crescent instead of just a dark circle, and the text underneath read Rabi al-Thany, Day 1.

After that, she couldn’t focus on her book any more: she kept activating the phone every few minutes to see if there were any alerts. She was too awake to doze, too worried to read, still kind of hungry. She dressed, got her crime scene kit together, went downstairs. Grace was gone, but Fiona slept on the divan in the library, on her back, arms folded on her chest, the image of an effigy of a medieval knight ruined, or perhaps enhanced, by her Joy Division T-shirt. Diana slipped out the front door, felt for her keys, and only then remembered that her car was back at the precinct. The slice of Fellini’s pizza she had imaged in her head disappeared in a puff of fragrant smoke: too far to walk. There were dozens of restaurants a few blocks away on Peachtree, or Juniper, but they were all yuppie watering holes: small portions, expensive cocktails, people talking loudly about themselves. But if she cared to cross Piedmont Park on a dark, cold evening, there was Mellow Mushroom, not as good as Fellini’s but still dripping with melted cheese.

A few blocks through her neighborhood, then across the park, a slight blond woman with a badge and a gun. Fifteen or even ten years ago, this might have had at least a whiff of danger, but intown Atlanta was so gentrified now that the only people Diana saw were joggers, themselves oblivious to anything beyond their music and their workout.

Mellow Mushroom was warm and very colorful, with its amateur paintings of tripping humanoid fungi on the walls. The perfect place to absorb House of Leaves and a thousand calories. But Diana couldn’t enjoy the pizza nor the book, as she was constantly checking her phone for updates. This city remained stubbornly peaceful.

Piedmont Park was empty on the way back, though surely there were a few homeless shadows camping in the margins. When she returned home, Fiona was gone and Frey the cat was the only one around.

Diana tried every technique she needed to get to sleep: hot bath, vibrator, the four-inch binder for the lieutenant’s exam. But she’d had enough sleep, and she was too keyed up for more, though eventually she dozed off on the couch, after spending a couple of hours down the rabbit hole of TV Tropes. She dreamed of the cartoon characters at Mellow Mushroom, stranded in a hot desert wasteland, then came to, groggy, unsure of anything but that she could hear her phone beeping three times, over and over.

She sat up, dislodged a grumpy cat, fumbled for the phone. “Siddal.”

It was Gloria this time. “Detective Siddal, your partner called. Courtland and Linden. He said to say you were right all along, and that the whole circus is already in town. I hope you can figure out what that means.”

She felt her hands go cold and a sinking feeling in her throat. “Thanks, Gloria: I’ll be right there. Wait; I need a ride. Is there any way–“

“There’s two patrol cars out their in your zone. You need fifteen minutes to get ready, sugar?”

“No, I’m–“ She looked down at herself. “Yes, please.”

And now we’re back in action. One of the things I consider important about writing these novels and stories is to make sure there’s tension between the character’s regular life and their function as a detective. In some novels, it would be all detective action: the first time the phone sounded would be the important one. But that’s not how real life works, and it takes away from depth of character to pretend it is.


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