Now we’ve shifted to the next morning, really only four or five hours ahead. In comes the other major theme of this novel, which is the general public’s reaction to what’s going on. This whole book is based on the existence of a previous serial killer, “the Reaper”, who appears to have gone silent until homeless man Alex Dawson is murdered. The 21st-century notion that major crimes are a public issue, with citizen commentary and reaction as an essential part of the story, is going to come into play shortly.
Right now, Diana is strategizing about, then dealing with, the media; soon, the headings of chapters will start to have tweets and internet comments about the reports. These will echo the events in the text in other ways, but they’ll also localize the work, by bringing to the fore the Atlanta attitude of simultaneously panicking about crime and openly disdaining its victims.
Diana came into the briefing room with a jumbo coffee in one hand and her tablet in the other. “Sorry,” she said to the assembled officers and detectives; but she wasn’t, really. The mile walk from her townhouse to the precinct had been just enough to stretch her knee out and remove the residue of troubling but unclear dreams from her mind.
Mustapha shifted over so she could slide a chair in next to him. Captain Curtis Jenkins, resplendent as always in a bespoke suit, arose. “Okay, pipe down, everyone. Now that Detective Siddall has found it convenient to join us, let’s start with the party line: we cannot confirm or deny that Alex Dawson was killed by the Reaper, because we don’t have enough information either way. We are treating this as an ordinary homicide until proved otherwise. Stoph, you want to fill us in?”
Mustapha looked at Diana. Diana put her coffee on the table, wishing it were cool enough to drink. She said, “Alex Dawson’s eyes were excised, he was strangled, and there are religious elements to the display of his body. All those are consistent with the Reaper, and Dawson’s killer was careful not to leave forensic evidence, which is how we all managed to look so competent last summer. What’s inconsistent is that Dawson’s eyes were not at the scene: the Reaper killings always used the eyes looking back on the victim as part of an elaborate display, which this was not. Also, the Reaper’s displays were consistent with Catholic iconography, and this was Islamic.”
She reached down, took the lid off the coffee so it would cool faster. “For now, we are going to treat Mr. Dawson’s death with the standard homicide protocol: deliberate murder usually comes back to money or a personal conflict.”
A voice from the back of the room said, “Or a fight over who got to panhandle on that corner.”
Diana ignored him. “Right now, a financial motive seems unlikely, but Mr. Dawson had a family, so we can’t rule it out. Don’t assume anything about homeless people: we all know each one has their own story, even if most of the stories start to sound the same after a while. But we’re going to treat him with the respect due a citizen: once I’m done here, Captain Jenkins is going to assign you to teams, to follow up on Mr. Dawson’s movements, his family, and his contacts among the homeless population.” To a chorus of groans, she responded, “I know, I know: not the easiest group of people to get a coherent narrative from. Try to be friendly, and stay out of Peachtree-Pine: they have a long track record of not cooperating with anyone, and they think it’s the right thing to do. Inspector Alawi and I’ve already have made contact with management there, and we are trying to gain their trust that we are not trying to evict them or find a scapegoat for Mr. Dawson’s death. So don’t wreck it for us by busting in there. And for goodness sake, don’t talk to the media. Someone like the Reaper, insofar as we can even try to understand what motivates him—or her—is only going to feed on media attention. Keep the city safe by keeping your mouth shut.”
But Diana barely had time to sit down at her desk and take a first, tentative sip of still-too-hot coffee, before one of the civilian assistants poked her head into the office. “Detective Siddall? You might want to check out the AJC front page.”
Diana clicked a link she long ago reluctantly bookmarked. The screen filled with the usual overload of poorly-aligned text and auto-playing advertisements. She tried not to think about the effects of corporate consolidation on journalism as she closed the various ads in order to reveal the article beneath. She saw a picture of Alex Dawson’s chest, the calligraphy exposed, all underneath the headline ISIS comes to Atlanta. She pinched her nose and drank her coffee: it was going to be a long day.
Within forty-five minutes, she had put on the suit she kept in the office closet and been driven downtown to the new APD HQ on Mitchell Street, where under the watchful eye of Chief Purcell and one of the mayor’s top aides, she stood in front of a cluster of news cameras.
“Let me repeat,” she said, “that we have no evidence that Mr. Dawson’s death is a result of terrorist activity. None. We’re fairly sure that what’s written on his chest is a verse from the Qur’an, but we have nothing else to link his death to Islamic or any other kind of terrorists. Right now, we’re investigating his death like we would any homicide. If evidence presents itself, we’ll keep you informed. But until then, irresponsible speculation isn’t going to do anyone any good, and is probably going to make things worse. If anyone has information about Mr. Dawson or how he got to where he was, the APD has an information line set up for that purpose–”
Andrea Blitts broke in. “Detective Siddall, some people are saying that this is the Reaper, and he’s converted to Islam.”
Diana couldn’t resist an eyeroll. “Some people? You mean networks desperate for ratings?”
The guy from Fox said, “The public has a right to know. The Reaper was never caught, and with thirteen deaths, and now this homeless guy–”
Diana kept a straight face. “Alex Dawson, was his name. And we can only attribute eleven killings to the individual you people insist on calling the Reaper. Molly Atkins was killed by her ex-boyfriend in a clumsy attempt at a copycat killing, and Raymond Flynn’s death differed from the others significantly, and therefore can’t be attributed conclusively to the same killer as the other eleven.”
She held up a finger before anyone else could interrupt. “Alex Dawson’s death shares some characteristics with last summer’s killings. Some. But there are also significant differences. The religious iconography is one, and the display of the body is another: Mr. Dawson’s body was not placed in a… tableau, like the others were.”
Andrea Blitts asked, “What about his eyes, Detective?”
“Those were different, too. I can’t give details about that, since it’s part of our investigation.”
The guy from Channel 5 said, “Were his eyes removed?”
Diana couldn’t stop herself from a microglance toward Chief Purcell, and none of the reporters missed it. The droid from ABC shouted, “They were, weren’t they?”
Damage control. “Yes. But before y’all start shouting again, we can’t confirm that Mr. Dawson’s eyes were excised in the same manner as the other victims. Too many dissimilarities: what I would very much like you to do is not encourage people to panic. Please let us get on with the investigation without prompting people to flood our inboxes with speculation.”
Fox: “How do we know the killer’s not another one of the homeless people?”
“We don’t. It’s possible, but–”
Channel 5: “When are you going to shut down Peachtree-Pine?” At Diana’s double blink, “You know as well as we do that it’s a crime nexus–”
The rest of his statement was overcome by cries from the other reporters. “People need to feel safe!” she heard Andrea Blitts say.
Diana held up both hands for calm. “Nobody’s talking about closing the shelter. That’s way outside our purview. It is a matter for politicians, not police. And for the record, the rate of violent crime in the neighborhood of Peachtree–Pine isn’t any higher than that of the city as a whole.” She forced herself to breathe deeply before proceeding. “What I’m asking you, as a matter of public safety, is to not jump to conclusions. That’s all. We’re going to investigate Mr. Dawson’s murder to the fullest extent of our ability, and when—and more importantly, if—we can make a clear link to the Reaper killings, it will be our duty to inform you. Same goes for any connection to terrorism or radicalism.”
Half an hour later, Diana had the suit jacket off and her head pillowed on her arms on Purcell’s desk. “She’ll be fine,” she heard Mustapha say. “She lives for the spotlight.” She peered up to look for something to throw at her partner, but Purcell’s desk was as neat as it always was.
Purcell entered the office, patted Diana on the shoulder. “You did fine, Detective. Nothing will keep those jackals away for long. If I weren’t afraid for my pension, I’d let the media and the Reaper fight it out—and I’m not sure who I’d root for.”
“They’d commit murder themselves for a couple of clickthroughs. Please tell me the FBI is taking over.”
Mustapha said, “We should be so lucky. On the plus side, we already got about twenty email tips. One of them said that it was the Masons, and they’re sacrificing people to Allah in that temple up on Ponce. You want to go check it out?”
She sat up, rubbed her eyes. “I thought only the roller derby chicks hung out there.”
“Yeah. And they would take the Reaper down.” He looked at his watch. “It’s almost not way too early for a cheeseburger, Dee: we can listen to the phone tip line.”
Diana found herself suddenly awake. “Family. Family money.”
Purcell said, “Wish I had some.”
Mustapha said, “Dawson’s family sure doesn’t have any. Not enough to kill their homeless brother over. What was he costing them?”
Diana said, “The dad is a soft touch. The brothers don’t like it. And I bet there’s way more money there than you would think. The dad said they did sound and light shows.”
“Yeah. At church.”
“That’s a huge, rich church. Atlanta’s black elite. Remember that Daytron kid? Raytron? The one whose mom we met at church, she told him he better start snitching or she was going to whack him with that big old Bible?”
“Oh, that was the same church? Sure; maybe.”
“Dawson’s father name-dropped the Reverend twice. I bet Reverend Whoever has City Council people on his speed-dial.”
Notice the dissonance between what Diana is trying to give the reporters and what they want from her. And of course their primary goal is to critique the very existence of the homeless shelter, because this is Atlanta, where we bulldoze anything and build overpriced mixed-use developments on the site. Diana, who’s liberal but not extreme, wants to treat Alex Dawson like a citizen, but the collective unconscious of Atlanta doesn’t believe that homeless people are citizens—and neither do most police officers, as we’ll find.