Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 4, Scene 1a

TOC page here.

New chapter, new location. New character, new insight into Mustapha’s character. Time to tackle the Islamic angle.

The Atlanta Islamic Center on Fourteenth Street north of Georgia Tech was built of cream-colored stone. The dome of the mosque and the top of the minaret were covered with burnished copper that Diana had often thought looked very beautiful on a sunny day. But in the late night gloom, the copper was dark: it was the low clouds that were copper-colored from reflected city lights.

“I’m still shocked,” Diana said. “All these years, I figured you had this spiritual side. You know, somewhere in your little downstairs mancave there was a secret stash of CDs of guys reciting the Qur’an.” She pulled the car into the parking lot, which was empty except for a bicycle chained to the post of the handicapped parking sign. “It’s like discovering you have layers. Only the opposite.”

“Alright, already,” groaned Mustapha. “I’m going to hell. I got it.”

“I’m not criticizing you; I’m just surprised.”

“Besides, when was the last time you were in church? Other than for a wedding or a funeral, I mean.”

“Or for the architecture. I’m not claiming spiritual superiority; I just figured it was in your background.” She parked her car and they emerged. “Are we the only ones here for the prayer? You’d think if they could afford such a nice mosque, more people would show up.”

“We’re early, even for the dawn prayer.” He followed her up the sidewalk to the main door, which was propped open. “And I left Morocco when I was nine; the only thing I remember about it is playing a lot of soccer.”

“And your parents didn’t keep the faith?” She held open the door for him.

“They didn’t have any to begin with. Think about it: they got all three of their kids as far away from that place as they could.” He walked ahead of her into the atrium, then bent down to unlace his shoes.

Diana used the toe of her left shoe to leverage her right foot out of its shoe. Then she jumped, and her hand went to her sidearm, as she saw a shadow slip into the atrium from the main chamber.

“Good morning,” said the shadow. It stepped forward under the light and resolved itself into a short, round man in a beautiful white robe and skullcap. He had a thick beard but no mustache, and wonderful laugh and smile lines around his mouth.

“Hiya,” said Diana. She stepped out of her other shoe. “We’re with the Atlanta Police. Can we ask you a few questions?”

“Certainly. My name is Daoud Bustani, but most Americans just call me Dave.” His English was excellent, much better articulated than Diana’s own. “I am the imam here. Please, come back to my office and have tea with me.”

“Sounds great,” said Mustapha. His tone was a little sharper than usual.

He followed Diana and the imam through the darkened the central chamber, around a support pillar covered in finely carved wood, and back into a rather prosaic office lined with bookshelves. Bustani pointed them to a seat and began to fuss with the teakettle.

Diana cleared her throat. “Mr. Bustani? I’ve spent enough time in the Muslim world to know about the dawn prayer, but what I never understood was why it always happens way before dawn. I mean, it’s still pitch-dark.”

He smiled at her. “The word is fajr, which doesn’t mean dawn in the sense of the sun coming over the horizon, but in the sense of the first indication that the night is coming to an end. In traditional Islam, it is the moment at which, if you hold a black thread and a white one up to the sky–”

“You can tell which one is which,” finished Mustapha.

“Very good, Detective,” said Bustani. “You’re not–”

“Yeah, yeah. I was born in Morocco. And I learned a little when I was a kid. But I don’t keep up with it.”

“Well, we’d be very happy to welcome you back into the love of God, Detective…?”

“Mustapha Alawi. This here is Diana Siddall. We’re with Atlanta Homicide.”

Yá salám,” said Bustani. “Please tell me the victim of his homicide did not belong to this congregation.”

“We don’t think so,” said Diana. “But before we go further, I need you to understand that what we’re about to tell you cannot leave this room.”

“I shall be very discreet.” The kettle began to hiss. “But neither will I divulge information about anyone who prays here. Confidentiality, you know.”

“That’s not what we’re after, sir.”

“Please, call me Dave.” He opened an antique silver teapot and peered into it. “Would you like too much sugar with your tea? This is a rhetorical question for most Arabs, isn’t it, Detective Alawi?”

“It sure is. Listen, Dave, we’re serious about this. We’ve got some evidence that we need you to help us understand–”

“And it would jeopardize your case if I went around telling people what I had seen.” He handed each of them a small glass tumbler with a worn gilt rim, full of steaming, dark, clear tea. “I watch all the crime dramas. The period between the maghrib and ‘ashá prayers is right when TNT and USA play all of the Law & Order reruns.” He picked up his own glass of tea and lifted it to his lips. ”Bismillah.”

“Cheers,” said Diana. She reached into her satchel and removed a folded piece of paper. “What you’re going to look at here, Mr. Bustani, is the chest of a murder victim. Someone drew, or wrote, I guess, this piece of calligraphy on him right around the time he was killed. Do you think you could try to read it for us?”

Bustani put down his tea and took the paper from Diana, then unfolded it. He studied it for several moments, then whistled softly. “This is the worst sort of blasphemy.”

Note that for the new chapter I’ve switched to third-person omniscient instead of style indirect libre. Why? Because now we have enough of a perspective on Diana’s character that we can identify with her without having to view the scene through her eyes. Now, we can go to plot and dialogue, and not have to be told to identify with her any more.

Plus it’s more fun this way to break the “show, don’t tell” rule. I’m still showing most everything in this scene: the obvious (facts of the case), the almost as obvious (Dave’s personality), and the more subtle (Mustapha’s discomfort). But I’m telling you that Mustapha has no religious life. It’s okay, because I can dress it up in conversation. I’m showing you that not only has Mustapha never talked about it to Diana, but Diana’s never asked him about it. This says a lot about their partnership without having to tell you anything.

Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 3, Scene 3

TOC page here.

Last in this chapter we get the victim’s family. To homicide detectives, family are always the first place to look for suspects; watch Law & Order, and if there’s a teenage daughter in the family, she did it. Up until now, Diana and Mustapha had better leads, but now they’re back to square one. There’s someone out there who knew Alex’s movements well enough to impersonate Rosa. Is it any of these guys, and how can you tell?

Alex Dawson was survived by a father and at least three brothers, and all four men looked just like Alex. To Mustapha, it looked fake, like they were a bunch of actors picked to be brothers. All of them were drinkers, too; it was usually a little harder to tell with black guys, because they didn’t get the red in the cheeks and nose, but Mustapha had been pretty good friends with the bottom of a bottle back about 20 years ago, and he was hard to fool. The dad was already half in the bag on what smelled like gin and tonic, and Mustapha would bet his Mustang that the tallest brother had a pint bottle of something in his coat pocket. None of them looked surprised, but Mustapha gave them credit for being broken up about it, anyway.

“I don’t want you to think I’m cold, Officer,” said the youngest brother, who had already smoked three cigarettes in about five minutes. “But Alex’s lifestyle? We all knew where it was going to lead.”

The father shook his head. “Just tell me my boy died with a little dignity: can you do that?”

Mustapha knew Diana wanted to answer the question, but he also knew none of these guys wanted to hear it from a cute little white girl. “Mr. Dawson,” he said, “what did the patrol officer tell you when he came to get you?”

“He didn’t say nothing. I was at church; he spoke to Reverend Carter, and they came and told me Alex was dead. He done freeze to death?”

“That would be my guess, Daddy,” said the middle brother, who was about three sizes fatter than the other three men. “That or some kind of overdose.”

“Oh, dear,” said Diana.

“What are you saying, honey?” said the father.

“What church is that, sir?” asked Mustapha.

“Cascade Road Baptist,” said the youngest brother. “Reverend Carter has been a great source of support for our family.”

The youngest brother lit another cigarette. “Are you trying to tell us something, Detective?”

“Well,” said Mustapha, “I’m sorry to bring you bad news, but your brother’s death wasn’t an accident.”

“He’s going to burn in hell,” said the father.

The middle brother placed a hand on his father’s shoulder. “The Lord will have mercy on him, Daddy. Alex was a troubled soul.”

“I’m sorry,” said Diana. “I think you’ve misunderstood. It wasn’t a suicide, either; we’re investigating Alex’s death as a homicide.”

“He was murdered?” The father actually seemed happy about this, or at least happier. “Who done it?”

The oldest brother nodded. “A lot of those people Alex hangs out with were bad news.”

Mustapha held up a hand. “We don’t know who it was, folks. But we’re going to find out. Now, I know you’re not going to appreciate this, but we need to know where each of you were between about six and ten o’clock this evening.”

“Now wait just a God damn minute,” said the father.

Now the middle brother was holding his father’s hand. “It’s okay, Daddy. They always think family members are suspects.”

“Most of the time,” said the youngest, “they right.”

“I don’t mean no disrespect,” said the father. “I’m just upset because my son is dead. Even though I knew this was going to happen a long time ago. I was in church, and so were Tyrell and Charlie here.” He indicated the two older brothers.

“Two weddings and a funeral,” said the oldest brother. “We run an electrical supply company, and we do lights and sound for the church.”

“And if I went and talked to Reverend Carter,” said Mustapha, “he’d say you were there the whole time?”

“None of us killed Alex, Detective,” said the youngest brother. “I’m not much of a churchgoer, but I had my kids this afternoon. I took them to the indoor water park out by Six Flags.”

Mustapha panned his gaze slowly from brother to brother to father to brother. The middle brother was the only one that seemed hinky, but he looked like a lifelong small-timer. “Thanks, fellas. I’m sorry for your loss. When was the last time any of you saw Alex?”

“Fourth of July,” said the oldest and youngest brother at the same time.

“Came to the family picnic,” continued the youngest. “Behaved fine, too.”

The middle brother nodded. “First time in years he didn’t fall in the pool or try to wrestle the dog.”

The youngest brother started to laugh, then stopped, embarrassed, then laughed again. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“It’s okay, Ray-Ray,” said the father. “I seen him about two weeks ago.”

“You did?” said the middle brother.

The father nodded. “I just saw him on the street, on Memorial, when I was driving back from that job over in Kirkwood. So I took him out to lunch.”

“Why didn’t you tell us?” said the oldest brother.

“Cos I knew you were going to get that tone in your voice, Tyrell. And you were going to give me lip for giving your brother $50.”

“Dad!”

“You see what I mean? I knew he was going to spend that money on liquor, but he’s my own son.” A tear streamed down the man’s cheek. “My own damn son.”

“Mr. Dawson?” Diana used her polite social worker voice. “Can you tell us anything that seemed unusual about Alex, when you saw him?”

The man slowly shook his head. “He was the same as always. No place to live, no job, no future… but none of that mattered to him.”

Mustapha sighed. “This is going to be kind of an awkward question, but was Alex a Muslim? Did he ever talk about converting to Islam or anything like that?”

“Islam?” said the middle brother. “Don’t they forbid alcohol?”

The youngest brother was still trying not to laugh. “Alex never went to church since he was about thirteen.”

“It’s true,” said the oldest. “He never had any use for the Lord.”

Diana gave it one more try. “Maybe he was… trying to turn over a new leaf? Hook up with something that totally prevented him from drinking?”

The father snorted. “Girl, you never knew my son. A bottle of cheap whiskey was the only church he ever knew.”

Who done it? Any of them? In the final version, the brothers will be a little more clearly differentiated. But do any of them seem like they have any reason to kill their brother? Dad gave him $50; the middle brother is a little hinky; the youngest isn’t a churchgoer so is the most likely one to go for Islamic iconography. But none of them benefit directly from Alex’s death, and they all seem to have accepted him for who he was; so for now, another dead end, which is the main theme of this chapter.

Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 3, Scene 2

TOC page here.

Now let’s shift locations to the morgue. Normally, shifting locations means changing chapters, but this is a work in progress, so I’m going to set up the formal chaptering once it’s done. Here, we go back to the original pattern: character, setting, theme:

The morgue was deserted, even by its usual standards. Mustapha paused by the snack machine, pretending he was interested in year-old tortilla chips rather than just waiting for her to catch up. Diana’s surgically repaired knee was better than the original, but going down stairs would always be a little slow and awkward. As she reached the bottom of the last flight of steps, the main doors of the morgue opened a crack and a shadow beckoned them inside.

The figure padded ahead of them through the cold, dark facility four stories underneath the old police headquarters building on Central Avenue. They walked between rows of metal tables, each with its long, wrapped bundle. Add the far end of the room, the figure reached out and flipped a switch, illuminating a single panel of the overhead fluorescents. Diana flinched against the sudden light; her vision resolved itself into the figure of Dr. Palwasha Dhandha, to teach and well-kept in dark green scrubs. Next her, on the examining table lay the corpse of Alex Dawson, still in every layer of clothing he had worn on the street, except for shoes and socks.

“I’m sure you think this cloak and dagger stuff is a bit trite, Inspector,” said the doctor. Her appearance was pure South Asian, but her accent was snooty West End London. “But if you think your fellow police officers are terrible gossips, you clearly haven’t spent enough time with morgue attendants.”

“Hey, Doc,” said Mustapha, “anything that helps keeps the press away from my case is just fine with me.”

“I’m glad I could help. Hello, Diana.”

“Hi, Posh. How are the boys?”

“Mad for football. But the stupid American kind, with all the plastic armor.” She shrugged. “It makes one almost wish they had chosen video games.”

“Those things will kill you,” said Mustapha. “Have you done the prelim on our pal Alex here? You said you had something for us, but he looks just like he did before.”

“I wanted you to get the full effect of it, just like I had. Let’s begin at the head and work down.”

“My kinda gal.”

“Inspector, you’re making me blush. Superficially, the cause of death is ligature strangulation.” She pointed at the deep bruising in a ring around the front and sides of Alex’s throat. “Once I open him up, I may find something different, but this has all the markers. He was probably killed with a lamp flex or some other kind of rubberized wire. I satisfied myself by confirming the petechiae in the eyes, then moved downward and began removing his clothing.”

Dr. Dhandha folded back the front flaps of Alex’s coat. Diana could see that the oversized red T-shirt Alex was wearing as his outermost layer beneath the coat has beed cut down the middle with scissors, as had the six or seven layers below.

Posh took hold of the topmost section of each side of the cut clothing. “And this is where I decided I should probably ring you up.” She folded back the clothing to reveal Alex’s chest, which was lean, dark, well-muscled, scrubbed clean and painted with an enormous hieroglyph made up of dozens of zigzag lines with branching curves and dots, done in very thick wide black ink. To Diana, it looked like the fancy calligraphy she would see framed in gilt in market stalls in Istanbul, and Damascus, and Baghdad, and Kabul and Karachi when she had traveled through those cities long before.

“Aw, shit,” said Mustapha.

Posh nodded. “Yes. I thought you would want to see this.”

“The Reaper converted to Islam, didn’t he?” said Diana.

Mustapha sighed. “Yeah. Let’s go get some peanuts out of that snack machine, because the circus is about to come to town.”

“So what does it say? Or is it just some religious symbol?” Diana was pretty sure that even though the hieroglyph looked like a beautiful, symmetrical design, it was really Arabic letters.

“I couldn’t tell you,” said Posh. “My family is Hindu, but we don’t even practice. I’ve seen these in my Muslim friends’ homes, and they’re usually verses from the Qur’an, but I can barely read the alphabet. What does it say, Inspector?”

Mustapha spent a long moment staring at the hieroglyph. Then he laughed, sourly. “You think I know? I’m has lost as you are, Doc.”

“It’s your religion,” said Diana. “It’s your language.”

Mustapha gave her his second-best stop being perky glare. “We go to Benihana for the big holidays. There’s a Koran in our house, but I don’t think I’ve opened it since Lucie was born.”

“But you can read it, right?”

“My family thought they were upper class. We only spoke French at home. I can understand a little bit of Arabic, but the kind we speak in Morocco is nothing like the kind that’s in the Qur’an. I can read it—no, I can sound out words if it’s printed the normal way—but I only know what a few of the words mean.”

“I never knew that. So this would be, like, asking me to read the Bible in old English, with fancy writing.”

“Oh, dear,” said Posh. “And here I was hoping that I would be here when you solved the mystery.”

“Sorry to disappoint,” said Mustapha, insincerely. “I can tap dance.”

“No, you can’t,” said Diana.

“Have you ever seen me try?”

“I would remember that. Let’s go to a mosque and ask the…”

“Imam? Nobody will be up until the dawn prayer, which will be about half past way too early in the morning. Let’s sit on this, and not even tell the brass, until we figure out just what it means.”

“I will continue examining him,” said Posh. “By myself.”

“That’s perfect, Doc.” Mustapha jerked his head back toward the entrance. “Let’s go pretend we really are interested in the guy’s family.”

Diana started to walk out toward the entrance. “Maybe we can make a little Freudian slip in front of one of the reporters, throw them way off.”

“See? That’s why I keep you around. You’re meaner than I am.”

“Not unless you haven’t had your tea. I can’t believe you can’t read Arabic. Here I was, thinking you went to one of those schools where all they do is memorize the Koran all day.”

“I went to elementary school in Paris, with a bunch of white kids.”

“I always figured you had a prayer mat at home and study the sacred texts when you think nobody’s looking. You know, the secret seeker beneath the gruff exterior.”

“Nah. I just watch SportsCenter.”

New character is Posh the English-Indian medical examiner: she, like Keller, is an ongoing character who appears in the novels and many of the short stories. You don’t want to make your tertiary characters TOO wacky, but they need to be more than just a collection of tics, which is why here we get some family background.

Setting is the morgue: it’s pretty generic, but we use it to explore Diana’s bad knee, something that will come up repeatedly. She tore it long ago when Grace was a child, screwed it up worse in A Rush to Judgment, and is now basically hiding from Internal Affairs, because if they were to find out her knee was that bad, they’d put her on medical retirement.

The big reveal shows us that Alex’s chest has Arabic calligraphy—and that Mustapha, the technically Muslim immigrant from Morocco, can’t read Arabic. Clearly, Rosa didn’t do this. It raises still more questions: what does Alex have to do with Islam, and what’s the Reaper connection? The Reaper, as has been repeatedly established, was Catholic, like all good mystery-thriller occult villains.

The theme is that neither Diana nor Mustapha really belong in the deep sense: they’re both alienated from their pasts.

Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 3, Scene 1b

TOC page here.

So we hit the climax of the last scene, where everyone has had their eyes opened—maybe even Lieutenant Dave. Nobody is who they seem, and Rosa wasn’t Rosa. So let’s replace the illusion with the truth through dialogue:

“Hey, listen; this was a lot of fun. It really broadened my horizons.” He took a key ring from a white plastic shopping bag that lay on the floor near the bed.

“Great,” said Rosa. Once he had released her, she stretched, stood up and put on a black silk kimono. “Glad I could be of service. So what happened to Alex?”

“Honey,” said Littleton, “these two are the senior Homicide detectives.”

“Oh, shit; Alex is dead?”

“I’m afraid so,” said Diana. “And my partner is the senior Homicide detective; I’m way down the totem pole.”

Littleton shook his head. “What I hear, he wouldn’t eat if it weren’t for you.”

“You mean I wouldn’t stop eating,” said Mustapha. “Ms. Pinelli, your friend Alex was murdered about the time you were driving to Starship. If you’ve got a receipt in that bag, I could help you both out.”

“Yeah, it’s right here; do you want the dinner receipts, also? Why would anyone – oh, you’re here because you think I’m a suspect.”

“That’s right, ma’am,” said Diana. “Some of Alex’s friends told us that you had been seeing each other.”

“Yeah, but I tossed him to the curb maybe two weeks ago. He’s a nice guy, and he had some pretty nice equipment, but he couldn’t use it, especially once he was half full of cheap bourbon.”

“Sorry to hear that,” said Mustapha. “His buddies said you had an ex that was giving you trouble?”

“Ricky, you mean? He’s all bark and no bite; besides, it was when he went to jail that I figured I could get rid of Alex and not have to worry.” She blushed, for the first time since Diana had opened the door. “I mean, get rid of him as in break up with him. I didn’t kill him. I liked him, really: it was just the whiskey dick I couldn’t deal with. Those guys he hung out with, you might want to start looking there. Some of them are alright, but most of them are nothing but trouble.”

“That’s the problem, ma’am,” said Mustapha.

She didn’t do it: she has a receipt from the sex toy store. What clearer alibi could you want? So apparently here, they’re at a dead end; but they’re not, because someone posed as Rosa. But Diana and Mustapha still haven’t raised this with each other. Only if you paid attention to what Mario said are you going to have already figured out someone was posing as Rosa. Now, it’s confirmed. So there’s fun for the reader in a well-constructed piece of dialogue, because they already know before Rosa confirms it that someone else took Rosa’s place. They’re reading a detective novel, after all.

Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 3, Scene 1a

TOC page here.

Now we shift the action to a new place, so we start a new chapter. Technically, the Grady scene should be a chapter of its own, but it’s so short it’s hard to justify that.

Cabbagetown is a small neighborhood of narrow streets a mile due east of downtown Atlanta. It lies tucked in the shadow of the train yards and the giant brick buildings that had once been a cotton mill but were now loft spaces for bohemian twentysomethings. Once, Cabbagetown had been home to the millworkers, and got its name from the food that symbolized their poverty. Today, it was an insular and funky homebase for bohemian fortysomethings. Most of the small houses had been refurbished or added on to since the neighborhood had been colonized in the 1980s, but Rosa Pinelli’s house was an unvarnished original: the yard was overgrown, the siding falling off the front, and the gutter on the left side of the house had fallen entirely off. The shades were drawn, the lights were on, and the 1991 Toyota Corolla registered to Rosa was parked in the driveway. The DMV had no records of her owning a van of any color.

“You think I should go around back?” asked Mustapha.

Diana held out the DMV photo of Rosa Pinelli “Does this look like a woman who runs from the police?” Rosa was short, squat and ferociously ugly: she looked almost noble against the backdrop of 21st-century perfection.

“If I hadn’t been your partner for three years and knew you would get pissed off at me, I would say she was the kind of woman the police run from.”

“And if I hadn’t been your partner for three years, I would never have expected you to say something like that.” Diana rang the doorbell, but the chime could not be heard above the loud, dark dance music that was playing in the house.

Mustapha lost patience almost immediately. He yanked open the screen door and beat on the door with his fist. “Atlanta Police! Open up!” The door had not been fully latched, so his fourth or fifth blow sent it swinging open. Like a lot of the small houses in the neighborhood, this one opened right into the living room, which was pristine, modernist, spare and very beautiful. There was a large painting in deep, rich oils of a pastoral scene over the low, black table where most people’s house would have had a big-screen TV.

Diana ducked underneath Mustapha’s arm, walked into the living room and took a few steps sideways into the hallway. “Ms. Pinelli?” The loud music was coming from a closed bedroom door. She knocked on this as hard as she could, thinking that by the fourth or fifth blow she might crack the thin veneer over the softcore door. As Mustapha came up behind her, Diana her a woman’s scream over the pounding music. She pulled her sidearm from her holster and kicked the door open.

The first thing she saw as she got the weapon’s sights up to her eyes was a woman in chains, naked, screaming, and a man in a black mask holding a whip above her. Both turned to look at Diana, her face red and strained under its mop of frizzy red hair and his unseen beneath the mask. Diana’s gaze shifted to the man, but before she could begin to tighten her finger on the trigger, she realized that the man was in a corset and leather chaps, and that the handcuffs pulling the woman’s wrists up toward the headboard of the bed on which she lay were padded with purple fur on the insides. She rolled her eyes and stowed her weapon.

“What the fuck?” said the man.

“Get the hell out of my house!” Rosa Pinelli, in person, was even more hideous than her driver’s license photo.

“Hands where I can see them,” said Diana to the man.

“Like I can move them,” said Rosa.

“This isn’t a crime, you know,” said the man.

“At your age?” Mustapha laughed. “It’s a crime against fashion, buddy.”

“My doors and windows were shut,” said Rosa. “We’re consenting adults.”

Mustapha laughed again. “Your private life? That’s your own concern. Ms. Pinelli, we need you to get up and talk to us about Alex Dawson.”

“Alex? I haven’t seen him in a couple of weeks. And I can’t get up: it took Roy here half an hour to get me chained up like this.”

“It was my first time,” said the man. “It’s more complicated than I thought.”

Diana pulled out of the chair and sat down, then took out her phone, all as a way to keep from laughing. “Have you been… um, at this, whatever you’re doing, all evening?”

“No,” said Rosa. “I took Roy out for Indian food after he got off work. You know where I mean, over by Lawrenceville Highway and 285?”

“Those vegetarian places? My daughter loves those. I gain weight just thinking about that food.”

Mustapha leaned against the doorjamb. “What time did you get off, Roy? I mean, get off work?”

“Quarter to six? Probably closer to six, really.”

“Which restaurant did you go to?”

“I don’t remember the name. It was the one with all the blue neon.”

“Madras Palace,” said Diana.

“Yeah, that was it. Man, I never even knew that food existed. It was delicious.”

“That’s just great,” said Mustapha. “You guys come right back here, afterward?”

Rosa shook her head, sending rolls of flesh rippling and lengths of chain clanking. “We stopped at Starship and bought a couple of toys. But we were back here by about 9:30.” She sighed. “If you guys are going to stick around, can you get Roy to unchain me? I gotta work a double tomorrow.”

“Just a couple of more questions. That Toyota in the driveway: is that your only car?”

“Yeah. I’ve had that thing for about 15 years.”

“How about you, Roy? What do you drive?”

“Ford F-250. Dark blue, custom grill.”

Diana spoke up. “You know, Roy, we’re going to have to see your ID.”

“I was afraid of that. I probably have to take off the mask, too, don’t I?”

“You got that right,” said Mustapha.

“Because, see, I know you guys. Or at least, I know who you are.”

“Oh, hell.”

Roy took off his mask to reveal the face of an ordinary fortysomething white man. Diana knew that she recognized him from someplace, but couldn’t remember exactly where. Roy extended a hand to Mustapha, then noticed he was still wearing a black leather glove. He peeled this off, then offered his hand again. “Steve Littleton. I’m a Lieutenant over in Traffic.”

“That’s it,” said Diana. “You did the video about hot pursuit techniques.”

“I sure did. Listen, anything that can be done to keep my name out of the incident report… well, you’d be doing me a solid.”

Rosa spluttered. “You’re a cop?”

“Sure am. And since we’re not on the Internet anymore, I guess I should tell you I’m not really divorced, either.”

Diana bit her knuckle to keep from laughing. “And people tell me I should date.”

“My wife? She went through the change, you know? She’s just not interested anymore. She knows I have… you know. But she doesn’t know the specifics.”

“We got your back, Lieutenant,” said Mustapha.

“What one of you please unchain me?” Said Rosa. “Jesus. I knew you were too good to be true.”

This is a long scene but worth it, because a) it establishes that Rosa is not Alex’s killer (they have receipts!), b) that kink is as mainstream as it gets, c) that Rosa dumped Alex some time ago and therefore that the killer was not only posing as Rosa but also has information that is somewhat out of date; and d) that Lieutenant Littleton is a decent guy except for the whole lying to both his wife and Rosa thing, and he owes D/M a big one now. This might come in handy later on.

Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 2, Scene 5

Chapter 2 Scenes 1, 2, 3, 4; Chapter 1 Scenes 12, 34a, 4b, 5.

But of course our detectives don’t know that the lady wasn’t Rosa, or at least they have to make sure it wasn’t. So let’s find her. Here’s the final, short scene of Chapter 2:

Grady Hospital in downtown Atlanta was the only public hospital and the only Level One trauma center in the city. To a casual observer, the emergency room after midnight on a Monday would seem like somewhere between purgatory and pandemonium: behind the desks, sweaty, harried nurses moved bodies and paper, while in the chairs sat the worried, the sick and the destitute sat.

But to Diana, who had long been used to the worst of the chaos, Monday night in the Grady emergency room seemed quiet and peaceful. It only took her five minutes to track down someone who knew Rosa Pinelli and only a couple more to find out that Rosa had the night off. She returned to the emergency room to find Mustapha, who was being congratulated by a couple of cops and a paramedic; all four men were doing that manly half-hug pat on the back thing that always made her want to laugh.

“Did your team win?”

“Naw. I just gave these guys a hand with a patient.”

The paramedic smiled at her. He was a beautiful man with a cleft chin, but the grapevine had long ago labeled him gay. “Guy was on PCP. Your partner helped us restrain him.”

The cop left. “What he means, Detective, is the Inspector whacked the guy with a fire extinguisher.”

“Right on the head,” said the second cop. “Dropped him like a rock.”

“Why I keep him around,” said Diana. She tugged on Mustapha’s sleeve. “I got a home address. Cabbagetown.”

“Let’s go see what she has to say. Take it easy, fellas.”

The paramedic handed Mustapha the fire extinguisher. “Better go armed.”

Diana took it from him. “He’s a thinker, not a fighter.” She put it back in its cabinet before following Mustapha back out the main doors.

So this is cute: she’s not at the hospital, but we know where she lives. Off we go, and we get a good look at Mustapha and at Diana’s relationship with him.

But it sucks, and is a classic example of bad writing that needs a serious edit before it makes it into the book. Why? Because the funniest and most action-packed part takes place offstage. Hitting someone with a fire extinguisher is great theatre, and we (and therefore Diana) need to see it.

Murder in Little Five Points

Recently the APD were able to arrest four suspects in the March 14 killings of two men in Little Five Points, still one of Atlanta’s more colorful neighborhoods despite the rapid and near-total gentrification of the area. The two men were leaving the bar they’d been carousing in and heading home at 0300. Nobody saw them get shot, but people heard the shots.

Earlier that night, some people in the Highlands, about a mile away, were robbed, and the robbers later arrested. The cops figured the same guys (three men and a 14yo boy, who since this is Georgia is being charged as an adult) for the L5P killings, but had nothing tangible. Unable to strong-arm any of these guys into confessing, the cops looked to the public:

Last Friday, [Detectives] Velazquez and Thomas asked the public for help in finding the man who returned the wallet to a bartender at the North Highland Pub, where a bartender contacted the owner.

The found wallet solidifies the timeline and makes it easily possible for the robbers to have committed the killings. It’s still a very circumstantial case, but again, this is Georgia. So, kudos to the police and to the guy who turned the wallet in, and then came forward later in response to the media call.

So this is fundamentally already a story: conflict, resolution. But simply to write it as a straightforward narrative would just be boring true-crime writing. Better still to mix it up a little, especially with respect to the victims. One way would be to tell it from the juvenile’s perspective: out of his depth everywhere, terrified of what will happen to him if he saves himself by snitching.

But the perspective that intrigues me most is that of the guy who found the wallet. What’s HE doing here? What’s he doing out at that hour? What’s the inner conflict he’s processing while stumbling upon the wallet, doing his duty as a citizen, shrugging and walking away? How does this relate to the consequences of coming forward later? What does it reveal about him that will cause him problems? And what about the danger he doesn’t know: if the 14yo has a credible fear of the gang coming for him if he snitches, the wallet-finder has no idea when he comes forward what those guys might do to him. He’s worried about some personal thing, when he ought to be worried about the gang.

I’ll tell it from both perspectives, see how that works out.

Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 2, Scene 4

Chapter 2 Scenes 1, 2, 3; Chapter 1 Scenes 12, 34a, 4b, 5.

The last scene was the Greek chorus of homeless men; now, we’re going to have a single witness. General to specific, is the idea here: the contrast between the chorus, that represents conventional wisdom, and the individual, who flaunts it or conflicts with it in some other way.

Two hours later, Mustapha watched Diana through the one-way glass as Diana walked into the interview room. Mario sat at the table across from her; if sitting was what someone this jittery could do. Mario might have been half Hispanic, or he might have been all Hispanic: Mario looked like the kind of guy who might not know himself. His hair stuck out in all directions, and the outer half was dyed the color of cheap red wine. He had the kind of mustache only a teenage boy could be proud of, as well as some of the worst acne scarring Mustapha had ever seen.

“Hi, Mario,” said Diana. “Sorry to wake you up.”

“Ain’t no thing,” said Mario, managing not to enunciate a single word. “Do you, like, have a beer or something for me?”

“I’m afraid not,” said Diana. “Just a couple of questions.”

“Maybe a cigarette?”

“I don’t smoke. Mario, we talked to some of your friends in the park–“

“Hey man, I didn’t bother that lady none. She just had no respect for a man needs something to eat.”

“We’re not going to worry about her. What we want to know is what happened to your friend Alex.”

“He got in the car, with his lady.”

“You saw this happen with your own eyes?”

“You calling me a liar? Because I ain’t no liar.”

“Of course not. I’m just trying to make sure I have the story straight.”

“That’s cool. Yeah, he got in. I was walking up to meet them other boys, and the car pulled up and she asked was Alex there.”

“Who asked, Mario?”

“His lady. Rosa, right? She work at the hospital.”

“Do you know Rosa, Mario? I mean, know her personally?”

He shrugged. “I done heard all about her. From Alex.”

“Have you ever met her, before?”

“No, but I seen her.” He shook his head. “She ain’t a very pretty lady.” He reached up to pat his own hair. “She got hair this color, but she got a big round fro, like she a colored lady. But she white.”

“So you recognized her, when she talked to you?”

“Hard to miss that hair, you know what I’m saying? But she asked for Alex. She was real polite and all: she even gave me five dollars.”

“Why did she do that?”

He smirked. “Cause I got the touch, man.”

“You asked her for money?”

“No. She handed me the bills, and asked me real polite and everything.” His voice took on a higher pitch and a singsong tone. “Would you be willing to go up there and tell Alex that Rosa wants to see him?”

“And that’s what you did?” Mario nodded. “And Alex went?”

Mario nodded again. “He said she got a new car. But he got in it, y’know?”

“What kind of car was it, Mario?”

“Wasn’t no car. It was a van. A white one. Hey, are you sure you don’t have any cigarettes?”

So, the plot advances once you know to ask Mario the right questions. Looks like Alex went off with his girlfriend Rosa after all. But watch how he undercuts that narrative without being aware of it: it’s a different car, the woman gives Mario money, he recognizes her by her distinctive hair. In other words, while Mario doesn’t know it, and even the detectives might not have quite caught on yet, we already know this wasn’t Rosa.

Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 2, Scene 3

Chapter 2 Scenes 1, 2; Chapter 1 Scenes 12, 34a, 4b, 5.

Again picking up where we left off, here’s the Greek chorus of homeless men who are going to appear as a counterpoint every so often:

Renaissance Park wasn’t named out of irony: Atlanta’s symbol is the phoenix, and the city’s renaissance after being burned to the ground in the Civil War remains a source of pride for many residents. But Renaissance Park is only three blocks away from the Peachtree-Pine shelter, and nobody with a permanent residence dares to enter the park after dusk. For the Atlanta Police Department, the park was a constant source of citizen complaint and arrests for petty crimes: for the local homeless population, Renaissance Park was a permanent encampment for those too dissolute, mad, or antisocial to spend the night at the shelter.

By the time Diana and Mustapha arrived there, the park had been cordoned off by three radio cars and a squad of uniformed officers. Five men sat on the steps leading up into the park, watched over by a patrolman. Three more dozed on the grass next to the stairs.

The patrolman saluted as they walked up. “Sergeant told me to round up the ones who were still awake, let them talk to you.”

“Thanks, officer,” said Diana. She looked at the five men and put on her best Officer Friendly smile. “Good evening, fellas. Sorry you got rousted. But maybe you’ve already heard about your friend Alex.”

The tallest of the men nodded. “We sure did. But we ain’t had nothing to do with it. Last we saw, his girlfriend came to get him.”

Another man lit a cigarette with palsied hands. “She killed him, didn’t he?”

“No, she didn’t,” said a third.

Diana said, “What makes you think she’s responsible?”

He shrugged, or tried to. “Women. Begging your pardon.”

“It ain’t like that,” said the shortest of the five men. He was very articulate for a man with only two teeth. “She killed them, she would’ve done it in the bedroom. Alex couldn’t keep his dick in his pants–”

The third man laughed. “He liked his liquor too much to care about his dick.”

“Yeah, but when he wasn’t drinking he was a player,” said the smoking man. “Tommy’s right, though; if Rosa killed him, it would’ve been one of them… what do you call it? When she ain’t planned it?”

“A crime of passion?” said Diana.

“Yeah, that’s it,” said Tommy. “But Rosa is a good lady. She ain’t no killer.”

“What about Alex?” said Mustapha. “You know of anything he was into?”

“Well,” said the first man, “less you count Rosa…”

“And he wasn’t into her no more,” said the third man.

“I thought she broke up with him,” said Diana.

“What I’m saying. Alex isn’t the sort of guy who looks back.” He paused. “Wasn’t the sort of guy, I guess I mean.”

“Don’t none of us look back,” said the man with the cigarette. “We all living in the now, now.”

Diana looked at him, blankly. “Okay. Let’s go back to the beginning. Alex was with you tonight?”

“He sure was,” said the smoking man. “Not every night, cause we wasn’t that close. Alex, he likes himself the space to roam.”

“He a lone wolf,” said the tall man.

“Ain’t that the truth,” said the third. “Alex is a man who likes his comfort. So if they let him in, he stays at the shelter, because he don’t like camping.”

Tommy said, “But if he’s been drinking, he comes and hangs out with us or in the squat across the freeway. But them guys is all crazy over there–”

“No respect for public property,” said the smoking man.

“That’s right. But they do like to party. So sometimes, he over there, and sometimes, he over here.”

Mustapha tried not to sound exasperated. “But he was here tonight?”

“He surely was,” said the third man. “Until his lady came and got him.”

“When did that happen?” said Diana.

The tall man laughed. “Time, it be time, sister. Detective.”

“We ain’t exactly on a schedule, here,” said the smoking man.

“Right. Before dark or after dark?”

“After,” said Tommy. “Cause he showed up after dark, because he had a bottle, and they wouldn’t let him into the shelter.”

“Now we’re getting somewhere,” said Mustapha. “What did his girl say when she showed up?”

“Now that, I don’t know,” said Tommy.

“We ain’t seen her,” said the smoking man.

“But your friend Willie told us that he got into her car,” said Diana.

“Willie is not what you would call a–” began the smoking man.

“Reliable witness,” finished the third.

“So Willie didn’t see Alex get in the car?”

“No, ma’am,” said Tommy.

“Then why the hell did he tell us that?” asked Mustapha.

The tall man said, “He trying to help y’all out.”

Mustapha made a visible effort to remain calm. “So who did see Alex get in the car?”

“Wasn’t me,” said the third man.

“Wasn’t any of us,” said the smoking man.

“Great,” said Diana. “Now we’re back to square one.”

“No, you ain’t,” said Tommy. “You just have to learn to ax the right question.”

“No shit?” said Mustapha. “Maybe you can help us out.”

“Sho. None of us standing here right now saw Alex get in the car, on account of we was all having us a drink up there yonder,” pointing into the darkness of the park.

“Willie didn’t see it, neither,” said the tall man.

“So what y’all are saying,” said Diana, “is that someone else saw Alex get in the car.”

Tommy grinned, making him look like a large and demented baby. “See? You just got to get to the heart of the mystery.”

“Guys, I missed the football game for this,” said Mustapha.

“Who won?” said the smoking man.

“Broncos. Who was the person who saw Alex get in the car?”

“Oh, that was Mario,” said the third man.

“Excellent. Can I talk to him?”

“It’s y’all who done took him,” said the tall man.

Diana sighed. “You mean he got arrested?”

“That’s right,” said the smoking man. He lit another cigarette off the coal of the first, then pinched out the first one and put it in his pocket. “Mario, he got himself a big mouth.”

“It’s true,” said Tommy. “We know we ain’t supposed to bother the citizens walking back from Publix or whatever, but Mario, he gets some beer in him and he wants to start axing people questions.”

“Asking for money,” said the third man.

“After Alex left,” said the tall man, “Mario done mouthed off to the wrong person, so he got to go spend the night down in the Catacombs.”

“Oh, thank you,” said Diana.

“See, it was Mario,” said the smoking man, “who saw the car. He come into the trees and told Alex his girl was waiting for him.”

“And Alex went?” said Mustapha. All five men nodded.

“Did this come as a surprise to Alex?” asked Diana. They all nodded, again.

“He said she done broke up with him,” said the third man. “We told you that.”

“Just trying to make sure I know the whole story,” said Diana. “Alex wasn’t worried about anything?”

“Alex?” said the tall man. “He never worried about anything his whole life: that was his biggest problem. God bless him.”

“Ma’am?” said the third man. “Who’s gonna let us know about his funeral?”

The point of the chorus in ancient Greek drama was to represent the general as opposed to the particular in the form of the hero(es). Sometimes they say what the hero can’t; sometimes they add wisdom to the hero; sometimes they represent the conventional wisdom. Since a big part of this novel is how the media create the conventional wisdom, these guys, who have very little access to mainstream news, are the counterweight to what the endless news reporters are going to have to say.

Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 2, Scene 2

Chapter 2 Scene 1; Chapter 1 Scenes 12, 34a, 4b, 5.

Taking up where we left off, this gives us Mustapha, Diana and Keller going over the scene once again, and giving further depth both to M/D’s relationship and to the Reaper killings.

Mustapha’s voice brought her out of her reverie. “How many of the Reaper’s victims were strangled?”

“Three. No, four. But… those were all silk scarves.” She pointed at the groove incised in Dawson’s swollen throat. “This was a regular electrical cord.”

Keller laughed dryly. “Stoph, you never have to remember anything anymore, do you?”

Diana turned around and stepped down next to Dawson’s feet. “He makes me drive most of the time, too.”

Mustapha growled, “That’s because you get grumpy when I listen to classic rock.” He took a deep breath and stood up. “I’m glad you called me, Dee. This is… ambiguous, I guess is my word.”

“Looks straight-up to me,” said Keller. “Or else it’s a copycat.”

“Right. But ligature strangulation is outside the usual MO. Demographics are a little bit wrong, too.”

Diana nodded. “There are only two other male victims.”

“So he’s branching out,” said Keller.

“Maybe I’m just doing a little wishful thinking here,” said Mustapha. “It’s been a few months, and I’m still recovering from dealing with all the politics and other bullshit.”

“I thought you liked being the center of attention,” said Keller.

Mustapha jerked a thumb at Diana. “No, it’s her who likes to be on TV.”

Diana rolled her eyes. “That was a quid pro quo, and you know it.”

“You got Hollywood on the brain: don’t deny it. Anyway, Dave, you have no idea how many lunatics called in with tips about the Reaper.”

“Oh, Lord,” said Diana. “And we had to follow up on each and every one of them, just in case.”

“You were on vacation, so you missed the whole thing about the different saints in the different Catholic churches.”

Diana shook her head. “Four whole days of my life I will never get back.”

“Right,” said Keller. “But if you don’t work it like it is the Reaper–“

“And some college girl decides it’s a good idea to walk home alone,” began Mustapha.

“It’ll be all of our asses.”

Diana said, “So what I think Mustapha and I are really asking you to do, Dave, is take this poor fellow back to the lab yourself and don’t let anyone other than you and Dr. Posh examine him.” Diana caught Mustapha’s eye. “And then… well, not ignore evidence–“

Mustapha finished the sentence for her. “—sort of maybe give greater weight to whatever’s ambiguous.”

Keller stood up, grinning. “Was that your word of the day from your desk calendar?” He took his cigarettes from the pocket of his coveralls, then took two long steps away from the body before lighting up.

“Hey, it was her idea.”

“But you outrank her.”

“I have a partner with initiative.”

“That’s what they call it these days. But yes, I can pull rank on this if you want me to. Dr. Posh: well, that’s up to her.”

“Don’t worry,” said Diana. “I’ll ask her.”

“And it won’t be long before bigger fish come sniffing around.” Keller took out his specimen jar, opened it, and dropped the cigarette into it before closing it and putting it away.

They all flinched as the TV lights went on. Andrea Blitts from DNN was reporting from the sidewalk fifty feet away, and the crew from Channel Five was getting warmed up beyond her. At least the sergeant had done his job properly, so that neither the victim nor the investigators were in the field of either camera. Keller got back to work while Mustapha waved over a couple of patrolmen to stand in between the victim and the cameras, just in case.

He rejoined Diana at the curb. “So for now, this is just a public… I mean, garden-variety homicide. Let’s go find the girlfriend.”

Note how much attention here the media gets. This isn’t just background decoration: the media, and what it puts out to the public, is going to be a key feature of this novel. The public is going to “know” this is terrorism, or the Reaper, or both; and it’s going to be our detectives’ task to stay focused on the crime itself without making these kinds of assumptions, even when media pressure is going to inspire the higher-ups to insist they look at the murder in this way.

We also get more on Keller, but not enough to draw a conclusion: is he measuring his own smoking, or just keeping the crime scene clean? And we allude to Dr. Posh, whoever she is: a recurring character, if you read the short stories, but if you’ve just picked this novel up, this scene is intended to add depth to the forensic side of things without spending too much time on it.

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