Domestic Violence Isn’t a Story Any More

Here’s another story of a thwarted man who chose to kill innocents.


Four people were killed in a shooting Wednesday morning in Forsyth County, which is about 40 miles northeast of Atlanta.

We’ve also learned the shooter has at least two felony convictions in his criminal history.

The shooting occurred just after 6 a.m. Wednesday in the 5500 block of Old Atlanta Road in the Suwanee area.

When deputies arrived on scene, three people were found dead inside a home.

Forsyth County Sheriff Duane Piper said that the gunman, Matthew Fields, committed suicide. Rebecca Manning, was shot, along with her two sons, Jared and Jacob Smith. Jared was 8 and Jacob was 9.  Both boys were dead when deputies arrived.

Rebecca Manning later died at the hospital.

Rebecca Manning’s father, Jerry Manning, was also shot and is listed in critical condition at the hospital.

Police said Fields is Rebecca Manning’s husband, but family members said they were never married. Fields is not the father of the children. The father of the children was identified as Robbie Smith, who lives a few miles from the home.

Authorities said the shooting is domestic-related and there was never any harm to the public. Sheriff Piper said officers were familiar with the residence and had been at the home before.

CBS46 dug into the criminal record of gunman Matthew Fields and learned he was arrested several times. Fields was arrested for probation violation in 2005. Prior to that, we found a 2004 felony arrest for forgery, a felony arrest in 2003 for burglary and charges related to leaving the scene of an accident in 2006.

Deputies were there Tuesday night for a report of a domestic dispute outside the house that was called in by passing drivers.  Fields was not on scene when deputies got there and Rebecca Manning refused to press charges.

Suwanee is exurban Atlanta: middle-class single-family homes, for the most part. Forsyth County was traditionally one of Georgia’s centers for racist violence: this is one of the issues in my story Cross Lap Joint. But this story has nothing to do with race: everyone in it is white. It’s just another story of a loser man who, seeing that his antisocial behavior is about to result in serious consequences, uses the guns handed out like candy to erase everyone he’s shamed before erasing himself.

As a crime writer, it’s hard to work with material like this. The plot is a cliché: Fields almost got tagged with domestic violence charges, couldn’t handle the stain on his “honor”, had a rare vision of the next forty years of increasingly downscale life, and instead of just taking himself out, chose to murder his wife and kids first. The “family annihilator” is just one facet of American life right now: guns, entitlement, thwarted masculinity. Hard to come at it from the character angle, also: there’s nothing appealing or even distinctive about Fields. A man killing his female partner isn’t even really news anymore.

The only angle that might inspire a story is that the children’s poor father lives a few miles away. Let’s all take a moment to share a little sympathy for Robbie Smith, who we know absolutely nothing about other than that his two little boys are dead. Now imagine a story that takes the same structure and tell it from the father’s point of view. Let’s say that Dad (and note: we are not talking about poor Mr. Smith here) has his issues, and reproduced way too young like people in these situations always do, and despite the ruined relationship with his ex, does what he can to keep the peace and stay in his sons’ lives. And he doesn’t like his ex’s new boyfriend, and not just because the new BF is sleeping with the ex: maybe he knows about the BF’s criminal record, or maybe he doesn’t care for the BF’s influence on his sons, or maybe, still better, he just doesn’t like the BF for unclear reasons. But he knows he can’t bring it up with his ex, like she’s going to listen to him. Then the domestic violence incident happens, and knowing that intervention will likely be counterproductive, he decides not to intervene. Now it’s a story.

Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 5, Scene 3b

TOC page here.

Here’s the rest of the scene, where we discuss religion. One of the ongoing themes here is that Christianity and Islam are both such enormous religions (over a billion followers each) that it’s impossible to say “Islam is this” and not be able to quickly come up with a counterexample. Reverend Carter is one kind of Christian, and Claire another:

Mustapha said, “You get a lot of church groups coming in here and helping out?”

“No. Some donate to us, but if they come in, they always spend more time trying to convert the clients than they do feeding them. There are plenty of church groups who work outside the shelter, though; just head out into Renaissance Park or the parking lot across Pine Street, and you’ll run into one sooner or later.”

“Any of them Muslim?”

“The groups, you mean? They’re all different faiths. There’s an atheist group, which, as long as they’re doing good works, they’re better than half the churches in town. There was even a group of Flying Spaghetti Monster people; you know, with colanders on their heads? They were very nice, but goodness, did they confuse people.”

“Cascade Baptist?”

“Doesn’t ring a bell. But again, they could be out there and I wouldn’t know. I’ve only managed this organization for just over a year now. The people who used to run it? Well, let’s just say that making alliances wasn’t their strong suit.”

Diana looked up from her tablet. “Are you a licensed counselor, Ms. Longstreet?”

“Claire, please. I… no. I do pastoral counseling: Georgia doesn’t require a license.”

“How many clients do you have in the Lazarus Program?”

“That’s… very few. Alex Dawson isn’t—wasn’t—one of them.”

“But that very helpful gentleman who used to know my ex-husband is.”

“Bill Knight. Yes.” Mustapha had no idea what Diana was talking about, but as usual, he let it ride.

“Who else is? How about Mr. Buchanan, working your door?”

“I… look, none of that has anything to do with Alex. I take on a few clients whose efforts to get their lives together are serious and sustained, and help them out with intensive small-group and individual therapy. That’s really all it is. Traditional talk therapy is extremely effective: just imagine how many fewer problems you police would have if we spent ten percent of our military budget on therapy.”

“That’s a lot of couches,” said Mustapha.

“Mock me if you will, Inspector, but you asked earlier about how people become homeless? The single greatest driver of homelessness is bankruptcy brought on by medical bills. In Canada and other civilized countries, access to healthcare, even mental health care, which shouldn’t be a separate issue at any rate, isn’t doled out by class status. People who have been middle-class their whole lives have no idea what it’s like to have to choose between medical care and the electric bill. And for them, therapy is right out of the question.”

“Sorry,” he said. “Haven’t had my tea yet.” He sipped: for herbal crap, it wasn’t bad.

Longstreet sipped her own tea. “I suppose you can tell I’m a bit passionate about this. And Obamacare might be helpful for people with jobs, but it does little for the homeless, for whom even a basic policy is far out of reach.”

Diana reached out, dipped the tip of her pinky finger in her tea, recoiled. “Who was Lazarus? I know, he’s in the bible somewhere, but I grew up outside church.”

Longstreet got up, knelt down under the hot plate where there was a minifridge, put a few ice cubes in a cup and handed it to Diana. “Your teeth?” she said as a grateful Diana poured the ice into her tea and nodded. “We see a lot of that, here. Don’t even get me started on why dental care is a separate issue from regular healthcare.”

“I’m with you, there,” said Diana. She sipped, smiled, swallowed. “So who was Lazarus?”

Longstreet flushed. “I didn’t make up the name, I swear. It was a former client, one now living on his own, who had been a minister before his… issues took control of him. Neither one of you knows the reference?”

Diana said, “My stepmother and I used to read lots of books of mythology together, so I recognized the name, but don’t remember the story.”

“Oh. It’s from the gospel of John. Lazarus was a local man who Jesus… brought back from the dead.” At their expressions, “Like I said, I didn’t make up the name.”

Claire goes by works, not faith nor spectacle. But at the same time, she’s allowing people to call her Jesus, which is generally regarded as a warning sign. She understands that our medical system is the travesty that causes homelessness, but she’s providing unlicensed “pastoral” counseling instead of trained therapy. She’s a study in contradictions, which is intended: it renders her both more vivid and more relevant to the central plot. I’m setting her up to be a point of ambiguity, which remember “ambiguous” is right from the start one of our theme words.

In real life, I the author am pretty hostile to religion in general: it’s an authoritarian fairy tale. This makes it a challenge to portray people with faith without unconsciously slanting things negatively. But of course, there are tens of millions of people for whom their religion is a big net positive, even if I might think that overall religion hurts humanity. One of my favorites among my short stories is Bird of Paradise, which has decent, kind religious people at its heart.

Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 5, Scene 3a

TOC page here.

Now both detectives get to meet Claire Longstreet, the director of the shelter. Diana met her briefly, earlier, but now we get to see her from Mustapha’s POV:

The shadow led them down a hallway decorated by the kind of amateur acrylic paintings he’d think untrained homeless guys would create. Still better than he himself could do. She ushered them in, keeping her eyes to the ground the whole time, then vanished before Mustapha had a chance to turn around.

Claire Longstreet looked great, as always: the one woman in a hundred where the boyfriend wouldn’t be full of shit when he said he wanted his girl to stop wearing makeup. Her office had real art in it, and a curtain on the inside wall, that if the building made any sense, would cover a window looking out over the main room with all the bunks. “I’m sorry Henry kept you waiting, Detectives. I probably should have told him you’d come and to send you right in. He’s very loyal.”

“What did he do?” said Mustapha. “I mean, how did he become homeless? He doesn’t look or sound like a guy with a drug problem.”

“He doesn’t have one. Didn’t. I’m not sure how comfortable–”

“He spent time inside, didn’t he?”

“… Yes. Henry grew up in circumstances we can hardly imagine, and when he was a very young man, he did something foolish and spent a few years in prison. I’m sure you know as well as I do how difficult our society makes it for felons who have served their time to take up a place in society.” She pointed to a hot plate on a table in the corner. “Would you like tea?” At their nods, she got up to turn on the burner. “So to answer your question, Inspector Alawi, in Henry’s case it was abject poverty. Henry is intelligent and capable, but nobody would hire him for even minimum wage.”

Diana said, “And since he’s intelligent and capable, he wasn’t willing to–”

“Exactly. If our society provided more in the way of transition? Or less stigma, or even access to capital? But I suspect I’m talking to the wrong people.”

Mustapha said, “Oh, we agree. We just aren’t in any position to do anything about it. So tell us what your… clients have to say about what happened to Alex Dawson.”

A wry smile. “Well, they have a great deal to say. How much of it is germane, I don’t know. I saw the picture on the Internet, and that certainly dispensed with some of their theories: I can’t imagine that zombies would have the patience to learn Arabic calligraphy. I wish I could give you something specific, but all I have are third-hand reports of Alex getting into a white van with his girlfriend.”

“Yeah, we might have got second-hand on that one. But we tracked the girlfriend down, and it wasn’t her driving that van. She was…”

“Otherwise engaged,” said Diana, stifling a laugh. “It wasn’t her. Anyone he had a conflict with? Does anything your clients have to say sound credible to you? And can we talk to them?”

“Detective Siddall, you asked me last night, and I’ll give you the same answer now: I’m not going to open up Peachtree-Pine to you without some clear link to a specific person. There are forces in Atlanta who have been doing their best to close down this facility since the turn of the century. They want to transform these blocks into a playground for rich people, just as they have with everything surrounding us. We live in a city, and we can’t just exile the poor to some distant enclave and forget about them. They have just as much right to be here as anyone else. The same people who want us out would campaign against a tax hike that would pay for enough services to give everyone a home; and they’d spend more of their own money on the campaign than they would ever pay in higher taxes. Atlanta is ruled by the one percent, and class inequality is their–”

She looked to her side, suddenly self-conscious, then got up and took the kettle off the heat just as it began to whistle. “Sorry. You can probably guess how I feel about this. You may think I’m a conspiracy theorist; but the conspiracy here is very real.” She put the kettle on the other burner, turned off the first, got out mugs. “All I have is herbal; with the hours I keep, I had to give up caffeine.”

They both shrugged; she poured. “It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Chamber of Commerce and the so-called doctors of Emory Midtown got together and murdered one of our clients as a way to further discredit the organization. They already think the lives of the homeless are disposable. I’m sure you have heard what some of the city’s leaders have to say about the homeless in public, but even folks like you might be shocked about by what people tell me in private.” She plucked the teabags back out of the hot liquid, passed them each a mug. “But with Alex? I just can’t see them being that creative, really: they wouldn’t have converted the Reaper to Islam. And if it had been one of my clients? Alex would have been stabbed with a broken bottle, or beaten to death; and the killer would have ended up in my office confessing—and yes, I would have sent him to you. You’re looking for someone outside the Peachtree-Pine community.”

She’s a real preacher, in a way that the Reverend Carter from the beginning of the chapter wasn’t. This is more infodump, but again, it’s intended to be organic. Claire is telling, not showing, but she’s got a compelling reason to tell a story, so we can get background even in a situation where Mustapha and Diana probably already know the story quite well. And in doing so, we can add to her character: she’s charismatic, articulate, passionate about the people she represents, even though she clearly comes from a class background.

In the previous scene, Mustapha’s drive set up the physical layout of the neighborhood; now, we get the political layout. And in each case, there’s tension between the homeless and the 21st-century city that surrounds them.

Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 5, Scene 2b

TOC page here.

I got ahead of myself last time, and forgot to add in an important point: the two police officers who will end up becoming important to the narrative. So forgive me for mis-ordering things, but this very brief scene takes place before we meet Henry Buchanan:

Back in Midtown, Mustapha pulled the Lexus around Linden to Courtland and into the Third World. The block bounded by Peachtree, Linden, Courtland and Pine had been given over to the thousand or so men and a few dozen women who slept in the shelter at night and were kept out during the day. There were still a few restaurants and a salon making a go of it on Peachtree, facing the Crawford Long Hospital complex—Emory Midtown, now—that could probably generate a lot of food and retail traffic, but he’d bet two tickets to a Falcons game that none of the doctors, patients or visitors would dare cross Peachtree even at lunchtime. Courtland was just homeless standing or sitting on the sidewalk up and down the block: no wonder the fenced-in, weed-strewn parking lot that used to be a hip-hop club had never been redeveloped. The sunken parking lot on Pine across from the shelter could have been a shantytown if the structures were a little sturdier. The yuppie hive on Pine diagonally across from the shelter had a big, sturdy fence, and burglar bars on the AC units, something you hardly ever saw outside the ghetto. The Episcopal Church further down Courtland had an equally impressive fence surrounding its pristine lawn.

He tooted the horn so he could ease in behind the patrol car APD had to keep there whenever the shelter’s doors were closed; he got the stink-eye from a pair of guys in old Army fatigues before they grudgingly moved out of the way. Two patrol officers, a man and a woman, leaned against the hood of their car. The guy, a sergeant whose name Mustapha thought was Brown, was one of those gym rats who beefed himself up even further by wearing all of the body armor the department would let him get away with; the woman was in regular uniform and had a nice smile to go with some nice curves.

She recognized them right away. She held up her hand to the three guys talking at them, came over to greet Mustapha and Diana. “Detectives. Come by to interrogate a few of these folks?”

“Oh, hey, Officer Slaughter!” said Diana in Girl Tone. “Whose toes did you step on to pull this duty?”

A big grin. “Rotation, ma’am. Lieutenant got sick of people trying to pull favors to swap out of it, started putting everyone’s name in a hat.” She gestured at the crowd milling around them. “At least I’m not on traffic duty. You want to hear some conspiracy theories about your homicide victim? So far I’ve got Emory Midtown doctors, rich businessmen, Obama, Islamic ghosts, and three different kinds of aliens. Oh, and Satan, of course.”

Mustapha laughed. “Write that up in a report for your lieutenant. Is that Claire chick inside?”

Brown said, “Went into the zoo about an hour ago. Hasn’t come out.”

On the way across the street, Mustapha said to Diana, “Her name’s really Slaughter? They ought to make her a sergeant.”

“Nobody, and I mean nobody, has ever made that joke before.”

The first part is infodump, which sometimes just has to happen: the central issue here is that the blocks immediately surrounding Peachtree-Pine are blighted, especially in comparison with the shiny new areas around the neighborhood. Much of intown Atlanta was kind of a dump, back in the 1980s; but everything has grown up and gentrified, except this small pocket of blight.

Infodump is a real problem for novelists: it’s too easy to break the “show, don’t tell” rule. Sometimes it’s fine just to have a couple of paragraphs of narration, but it’s better if you can integrate it into the story, or in this case, Mustapha’s POV. So we’ll drive around the block. Most of this novel takes place in a very small radius, geographically, so it’s likely that I’ll end up putting a map in it, or perhaps some line drawings or photographs. Lots of people have a reason to want Peachtree-Pine gone, is the point here; and not all of their reasons are terrible.

Then we get two new characters: Sergeant Brown and Officer Slaughter. Note that we don’t get to talk to him: all we see is Mustapha’s POV, which is enough to tell us that a) he’s not important to Mustapha the senior Homicide detective, and b) he’s beefy and uparmored. Is this just regular old insecurity or is there something else afoot here? We don’t know yet, and we won’t for a little while; but introducing characters like this with a little broad brush makes it easier to integrate them into the story later on.

As for Officer Slaughter, she’s friendly, well-disposed, part of the network of women that someone like Mustapha is going to always find mysterious. What do we learn? She’s got a sense of humor about a bad detail, and can enjoy it enough to gather information. We’re shown, but not told, that the homeless people will talk to her.


Gas Station Attendant Assassination

I would have always assumed that late-night gas station attendant is one of the most dangerous jobs in America. Why else would all that Plexiglass be there? But every list I find of most dangerous jobs is loaded with resource extraction (logging, fishing, oil) or transportation (trucking, small-plane pilot). So maybe statistics don’t back up the stereotype, or maybe not enough people have watched the episode of The Wire where it explains how the Plexiglass will only stop a low-caliber bullet.

But if you browse a lot of crime news aggregators like I do, you’ll find that those resource extraction or transportation job deaths are almost entirely accidental: nobody’s dropping logs on you on purpose. When it comes to murder, “cashier” comes right behind “taxi driver” and “manager” on the list of dangerous jobs. This site has some terrible graphs on the subject, and it doesn’t break out “cashier” by type of service: the #3 ranking includes, say, fast-food cashiers as well as gas station attendants. Still, 42 murders is a lot; and this doesn’t touch on the number of gas station attendants who are victims of violent threats as part of robberies, or of attempted murders. People working late night at the service station are taking a much higher risk than most.

Most of these murders, however, are matters of being in the wrong place at the wrong time: the attendants are murdered because it’s convenient, or because they’re in the way of the quick cash, or perhaps because they valiantly but unwisely decided to defend their turf. Few if any of them are deliberately targeted for who they are, rather than what or where. Which is what makes this story jump out:

Police say a man working at a DeKalb County [metro Atlanta] gas station was shot and killed early Monday morning.

Harry Wells was devoted to his family and customers at the convenience store, where he’s worked for many years.

A man entered the store around 4:30 a.m., pulled a gun and shot the 54-year-old clerk in the torso.

A worker, who wished to remain anonymous, described what he saw on the security camera video.

“The guy is coming from outside. The window is open and he shot him and left. That’s all I saw on the camera,” the employee said.

The worker told Channel 2’s Tom Regan it was not a holdup but possibly an act of anger or revenge.

Now, in deference to the feelings of Mr. Wells’ family and friends, I’m not going to speculate on why he was targeted. He was clearly well-loved and will be missed.

But as a crime fiction writer, the story is intriguing. When the homicide detectives come into a late-night gas station scene, they’re going to work it as a robbery gone bad. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, they’re going to be right. Sometimes, however, the hoofbeats are zebras, not horses, and thus do episodes of House or good crime stories get made.

In the story, we’ll stick with the avatar of Mr. Wells continuing to be a well-known good guy, but make the security cameras more ambiguous, or rather less ambiguous from the detectives’ point of view. It’s going to look like the all-too-typical story of dude coming in looking for free Swisher Sweets and plugging the attendant, so that’s what the detectives will go with. Imagine them being fatigued or stressed about something else and viewing this case as by-the-numbers. Only indirectly will they start to sort out that there’s something else going on: the robber doesn’t actually take anything, or a second-tier friend of the attendant comes forward with what seems at first like uninformed speculation, etc. Once they begin to treat the homicide as an assassination do things become more clear and their interest less cursory.

So, the trick to writing a good story is to make things link up: what about the victim and the perpetrator makes the gas station the right place to carry off the killing, other than the convenience of being able to disguise it as a robbery?

Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 5, Scene 2a

TOC page here.

Now Diana gets to cheer up by talking to homeless people. But here’s a guy who mostly talks back:

At the door was a skinny guy with enough wear on him to be homeless, but with a fresh haircut and clean clothes. And an attitude. “Ms. Longstreet said she already talked to y’all folks. She’s busy, today.” He didn’t even flinch at Cop Glare. “Go on: she’ll call you, she’s got something to say.”

Mustapha cocked his head. “Y’all have enough problems. You really want more?”

Diana went for politeness, like usual. “Perhaps you could ask Ms. Longstreet if she’d spare the time.”

The guy just stared back, then nodded. A shadow in a corner of the entryway got up and trotted inside.

Mustapha cleared his throat to give the guy an earful, but Diana got there first. “Maybe you can help us, Mr.–”

His mouth wrinkled. “Call me Henry.” She held up her phone; the guy turned his head.

“All right, pal,” said Mustapha. “Smile for the camera and cough up your ID.” At his hesitation, “Attitude will get you somewhere unpleasant, real fast. We’re trying to find whoever killed your friend Alex Dawson. Maybe save some other homeless guy’s life.”

“He wasn’t my friend.” But the guy relented. Henry Buchanan was thirty-nine, maybe five years older than Mustapha would have guessed. “I ain’t homeless,” he said. “I live here.”

“Cut the crap.”

Buchanan’s nostrils flared. “What I mean is, I’m back on track to getting my life together: I live here, and I work here. Right now, I’m watching the door, so Ms. Claire can get some work done without being interrupted.”

Diana said, “Mr. Buchanan, is this some kind of formal program you’re involved in?” The guy nodded. “What’s it involve?”

A long look, then a shrug. “Therapy. Counseling. Like a twelve-step program, only more one-on-one.”

“Is this a religious thing?”

Another shrug. “Submitting to the will of God is part of it.”

Mustapha said, “Yeah, but which god?”

“They’s all one, Detective.” Buchanan did a double-take. “Oh, I see what you mean, because of Alex. This ain’t no Muslim thing: that’s for Seventies boo-geois ni… black folks. Ms. Claire is a Christian minister. Jesus’ path is the one I’m trying real hard to walk. Are you saved, Detective?”

“Yeah, by the bell.” He pointed beyond Buchanan to where the shadow had reentered the room. The shadow was a woman—really, a girl, maybe seventeen once you took away the street. Buchanan turned, she nodded, Mustapha took pleasure in body-checking the guy as he went through the door. But skinny as he was, Buchanan still stood his ground.

So we wouldn’t notice this guy—your attention wouldn’t be drawn to him—if he were just the doorkeeper. There are all kinds of bells and whistles around Henry Buchanan that should clue us in to his being meaningful later on, just like we got all kinds of additional information about Bill Knight a couple of chapters ago.

He’s five years older than Mustapha thinks. So he’s less aged by the stress of the streets than most of them. Why? No idea, right now. He doesn’t flinch at Cop Glare, he backtalks them, tries to avoid being intimidated. A hard guy, and hard for it’s own sake, because he could just as easily have stepped and fetched and thus not attracted their notice.

But once he’s been put in his place, he relents and gives away more about the program he’s in than maybe he should have done. So, despite the attitude a useful source. Compare and contrast him with Ms. Claire, who we’re about to meet.

Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 5, Scene 1

TOC page here.

Diana and Mustapha have investigated a great deal, but they’re still fundamentally at Square One as far as solving Alex Dawson’s murder goes. In the absence of other leads, they go back to looking at his family:

Reverend Andre Carter of Cascade Road Baptist Church probably had the mayor on speed-dial, thought Mustapha. And the two-thousand-dollar suit didn’t really work with the whole sell all you have and give it to the poor thing. “The Dawsons are part of the backbone of our church,” said Carter in the sing-song preacher voice. “What happened to Alexander was… well, let’s just say it isn’t always easy to accept God’s will.” Carter opened a hand to indicate his powerlessness. “Or understand it. Alex was loved just as much as his other brothers, maybe more. When I was younger, I used to think that Alex lost control because he turned away from God and the church. But that’s the sin of pride, Detectives: it might be better, as well as truer, to say that Alex had the gene that made him keep drinking even on the rare occasions when he wanted to stop.”

Carter closed his fist; Mustapha noticed the guy had a perfect manicure. He said, “So, Reverend, you see Mr. Dawson around here much?”

“Almost never. The homeless tend to stick within a very small range.”

“Yeah? You feed a lot of them, here?”

“Not here. We have an outreach ministry downtown. Bring the mountain to Mohammed–” Carter grimaced; Mustapha looked closely for signs of a facelift, but got nothing, felt cheated. “Sorry,” said Carter. “I was mixing up religions for comedic value, and momentarily forgot about the circumstances of the poor man’s death.”

Diana said, “So you haven’t seen him lately? His dad sounded real broken up. I thought maybe he was trying to get Alex to start over.”

“Alex’s brothers had accepted that Alex had chosen that life, but Lamar kept Alex in his prayers.”

Mustapha said, “Do prayers include maybe sending Alex to rehab?”

A big, embarrassed smile: teeth white, but just shy of perfect. “Oh, it did. Twice. Cost a fortune: we passed the plate. He lasted about two weeks the first time; the second, he made it through the program, but was passed out in a gutter a month later. Lamar is a loving father, but even he wasn’t enough of an optimist to think a third time would be the charm.”

Diana said, “They said they do the sound and light for your church?”

“… Yes. You can’t suspect them–”

“I’m really just curious. Do you have a video we can watch?”

“We have our own YouTube channel.”

Ten minutes later, Diana shut down the tablet. “Wowie. That is some real pageantry.”

“All glory to the Lord.”

“Where did those kids get the angel costumes?”

“Er… I could ask. There’s a committee.”

“It’s nothing. Brought me back to school plays, was all. Well, thanks for your time.” She handed him a card. “You hear anything?”

Carter took it. “I’ll keep an eye out here out. Come on over this Sunday, if you want to see the show.”

Mustapha said, “I’d scare the poor little angels.”


Back in the car, Mustapha said, “I think he likes you.”

“Seemed like a reflex to me. You know Martin Luther King slept with pretty much every woman who came near him?”

“He had a dream. I thought our reverend was hinky as hell, but maybe after my encounter with David the guy who reminded me how far I’ve gone from my heritage, I’m more cynical than normal about religion and preachers.”

“Well, I’m maybe not the person to judge the appropriate level of cynicism. I’m assuming someone who runs a big church is corrupt—especially when they spend that much on angel costumes. But murder Alex, or cover it up?”

“Yet. That guy’s got smaller fish to fry.” He watched her stare off into the distance for at least a minute, then, “Hey, I expect at least a chuckle for a joke that stupid. Don’t tell me those reporters got you down.”

That got a smile. “No. Andrew’s getting remarried.”

“And that makes you Emo Girl? I figured you’d be jumping for joy, get him off your back.”

A shrug. “Yes. He’s doing it because he wants more kids.”

“Right, because he’s all warm and fuzzy.”

A giggle. “Think establish a dynasty. He had a contest, Grace said.” She told him the story.

“I’m surprised it took him that long to think that one up.”

“That’s what I said. I guess… maybe in the back of my mind I always thought I’d get married again, have more kids. But I really have aged out.”

“Didn’t you break up with that hunky ex-Marine because he wanted just that?”

That got him a smack on the arm. “Don’t you dare demand consistency from me. It’s just strange, that’s all.” A sigh. “Let’s go talk to homeless people; that will cheer me up.”

Now we’re back to Mustapha’s POV. He’s an experienced homicide detective: he knows that his skepticism toward religion is mostly driven by his own feelings. While Reverend Carter fits the mould of flashy, corrupt preacher, he’s not obviously dripping with corruption, and at any rate he has no remotely clear motive to kill Alex. Spending money on angel costumes and pageantry has little to do with the actual message of the gospels, but it’s implausible to think that there’s a plot by Alex to expose corruption and that Reverend Carter would choose Islamic murder as his response.

We also loop back into Diana’s personal life, and this reinforces her general alienation. She’s not single due to lack of opportunities; she’s single because on some level she wants to be. This is practical, in that in each novel it enables a new romantic interest that can then not work out, but also intended to be a central part of Diana’s character: she’s just not the marrying kind, and this causes her problems.

Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 4, Scene 3

TOC page here.

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.

Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 4, Scene 2

TOC page here.

And now we shift back home. The key to good detective fiction is character: it’s great to tell a good story about a crime, but the best-selling novelists have characters we either identify with or want to be. Right now the example I’m thinking of is the series of novels set in rural Louisiana starring ex-drunk Dave Robicheaux and his still-drunk friend Clete, which are wonderful novels with vivid characters but whose author’s name I can’t remember and now have to look up: James Lee Burke is the answer, and he’s a very good writer, but I remember his novels because of the characters.

So here’s Diana returning home to a surprise:

Mustapha got out of Diana’s car, leaned back into the open door. “Over/under on the first phone call about the Reaper?”

“Six-thirty? We leak like a sieve. I’ll come get you after eight.”

“I’ll have the car by then. You want me to come get you?”

“I’ll meet you at the station: I need the walk. And don’t discount your son’s natural charm. That, plus the wounded warrior thing, might keep them out all night.”

Diana sat in the car until she saw Mustapha close his front door behind him, then took out her phone; no messages. Too late to call anyone except Grace, who wouldn’t answer. She sighed and drove back to her townhouse in Midtown’s Ansley Park neighborhood, a mile and a half up Peachtree and a world away from where Alex Dawson had been dumped.

She was half-asleep when she pressed the button to open the gate to her driveway, but snapped awake when her headlights washed over Grace’s motorcycle parked near the steps leading up to the door. Grace herself was at the kitchen table, two laptops open, headphones on over the boy’s short haircut that Diana knew it was pointless to say probably wasn’t inspiring eligible young men not to mistake Grace for a lesbian.

Grace looked up, took off the headphones, stood. The Army-surplus coveralls over her lanky figure probably didn’t help, either. “I’m glad I went out with Dad.”

“Duty called. Did you torture him with vegetarianism?”

“Beside the point. Dad’s getting married.”

Diana searched her mind, looking for a trace of loss or sadness. “I’m guessing there’s an iron-clad prenup?”

“He didn’t say. She was right there with us at dinner. She’s my age. She’ll turn twenty-five a week before me.”

Diana went to the fridge, poured herself half a glass of Pinot Noir, sipped. “I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am. Why buy a cow?”

Grace walked to the sliding door that led to the patio and opened it a crack. “What I was thinking. And she is a cow, too. Tell me what a Dad Girlfriend would look like.”

“Scrawny fashion model with an MBA. Oh, and no soul.”

“This one is all curves. Martika, is her name.” Diana’s cat Frey came in from the patio, did a figure eight around Grace’s ankles, purring loudly. “From Estonia: I had to look up where that is. Dad went over there, and had a contest. Like those awful reality shows, with a rose? And Martika won.”

Diana sipped her wine, leaned on the back of the ancient leather couch. “Well, that part is classic your father.” Another sip. “Though the curves do sound uncharacteristic.” Frey hopped up on the couch and curled up right in the middle.

Grace took a fat joint from a case in one pocket of her coveralls, bit off the twist of paper at one end, spat it out the crack in the door. “She’s really a cow. As in, a breeding animal. Dad wants to have more children.”

Diana downed the last of the wine, rested the glass on a side table. “He always did.” She watched Grace light up with a Zippo, take a long hit, hold the still-burning joint well outside the sliding door so as not to let the smoke drift back into the house.

Grace did the trick where she could talk without actually exhaling. “And you never let him. He’s still mad.”

“You’re all I need.”

“I always wanted a baby brother.” She turned her head and exhaled out onto the porch.

Diana shrugged. “Maybe now you’ll have the chance. So, he’s gone and bought himself the best breeding cow in all Estonia.” Grace, who had leaned her head out the door to inhale again, nodded. “I’m surprised it took him this long to think that one up. You realize this will cut into your inheritance?”

“Who cares? It’s all blood money.” Grace exhaled again, bent down and ground out the coal of the joint on the concrete patio. “And infinity divided by a couple of extra half-siblings is still infinity. I’m sure poor Martika thinks she’s getting the deal of the century: pop out a couple of puppies for a ticket out of Estonia and one percent of a defense-industry CEO’s pile of money. But it’s still creepy. I asked Dad why he didn’t just adopt some starving kids from right here.” She put away the joint, slid the door mostly shut, to leave a crack. “You can probably guess his reaction.”

“You got the don’t be a hippie look?”

“That, plus a long lecture on how he’s demonstrated superior fitness and should have his own genes passed on, instead of spending his resources to raise the children of people too stupid to use birth control.”

Diana smirked. “Like, for example, your father and me.”

“Ha ha. Should have thought about that one. I was mostly just glad for Martika that she doesn’t speak much English.” Grace yawned, caught herself. “That was supposed to wake me up. I want to finish editing this film tonight.”

Diana yawned, then yawned again. She shook her head back and forth, quickly. “What’s this one about?”

“Disenfranchisement. How the Georgia Secretary of State’s office keeps losing voter registrations for poor black people.” Grace watched her mother yawn again. “Watch it in the morning, when it’s done. Go to bed.”

“Yes, dear.” Diana began to walk up the stairs.

Halfway up, she heard Grace say, “So who got murdered tonight?”

“A homeless man. It’s going to be a lurid media sensation; and it will become one of those unsolved cases that my captain…” she paused to yawn again. “…will bark at me about at a meeting about a week from now, because we won’t have solved it.”

“Sleep on it.”

But tired as she was, Diana couldn’t fall asleep. She would need rest to deal with the dozens of calls she’d get tomorrow about the Reaper; she wondered briefly if anyone would care about poor Alex Dawson if he’d been killed by a fellow homeless man over a bottle.

Try as she might to will herself into unconsciousness, her thoughts turned to her ex-husband Andrew and his new cow, and from there to her then-boyfriend Andrew, twenty-five years ago, and how at nineteen she ended up pregnant, and at twenty, a married mother, and then spent the rest of her life running from commitment. Without her own family money, Andrew Bascombe would never have been able to found Universal Optics, would never be able to hold a contest for the perfect cow.

She got out of bed. If only weed didn’t make her speedy and paranoid instead of sleepy. But at least there was Benadryl in the medicine cabinet.

Setting, character, theme. Here we are in Diana’s house, of which I show little, but there’s wine in the fridge. We’ll see more of it later. More important is Diana’s attitude about the house, which is that it’s hers alone and her grown daughter—the one with whom we’ve already established she has a troubled relationship—is a visitor, not an ongoing presence.

And speaking of presence, we have the absent one of Diana’s former husband, which the text tells us all we need to know for now. You don’t see educated people in late-20th-century America having children at nineteen, so we know there’s a story there, and not one we have to reveal right away. Andrew’s a bit of a caricature from Grace’s and especially Diana’s point of view, but that’s to be expected. And yet he deserves caricature: a CEO type, holding a contest for the perfect breeding cow? Sometimes writing fiction can be a lot of fun. Andrew’s an occasional character in the short stories, and he’s in both of the other novels, and holding a rose contest is totally in character for him.

Note also how Grace’s character is shown more than told here: she dresses like a boy, she edits social justice documentaries (and as it turns out, directs them), she smokes weed casually in front of her mom, she has a pretty nuanced opinion of her dad’s cartoonish behavior. For Diana, we have more not quite feeling at home, even in her home.

Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 4, Scene 1b

TOC page here.

We pick up right where we left off, with Dave the imam worried about blasphemy:

“Then it’s from the Qur’an?”

“Indeed it is.” He walked over to a bookcase and took down a thick volume, its leather cover stamped with gold calligraphy. “Let me find you the exact quotation.” He licked a finger, paged through the text, humming to himself. “Aha. Sura 91, The Sun. Very early in the revelations; the Prophet first preached simple monotheism to the pagans of Quraysh—of Mecca, that is.”

Mustapha said, “You see? We knew you could help, Dave.”

Diana said, “What does it say?”

“Ma’am, your partner will tell you that it is impossible to translate the Qur’an into English or any other language without losing a great deal of the meaning, but this particular passage is really quite clear.” He leaned back in his head and began reciting in sonorous Arabic. His singing voice was a full octave lower than his speaking voice. Diana let the words flow over her: they made her feel young again, traveling dusty parts of the world when Grace was a toddler.

After Bustani was finished, he remained still for a moment, head back, eyes closed.

Mustapha said, “You’re not going to make me translate, are you, Dave?”

The imam opened his eyes and smiled at them. “Detective, if I were going to try to bring you back to the faith, we would start elsewhere. In English, the words are something like:

By the Sun in its splendor

And by the Moon that follows

By the day that shows the Sun’s glory

And by the night that conceals it

By the Earth and Him who stretched it forth

And by the soul and Him who perfected it

And inspired within it right and wrong

Surely blissful is he who purifies his soul

And miserable is he who pollutes it.

Diana asked, “So, the writer is saying that our victim had polluted his soul?”

Bustani placed the open book on his desk. “It’s blasphemy; an insult to God. The whole point of these early verses is that the tribal customs of blood feud and revenge needed to be replaced: we’re all to be held to the same standard. Whatever your victim had done was up to God to judge, not to mankind. You read about these ISIS people, al-Qaeda, whatever they call themselves, throwing gay men off rooftops and beheading people for watching soccer: they’re missing the message in the same way. Like when the KKK or abortion clinic bombers call themselves Christians. It’s simply not our business to take vengeance for moral crimes.”

Diana said, “So this could be one of these terrorist cells, you’re saying? As in, they’ve misinterpreted the message that badly?”

Bustani winced. “Please don’t associate Islam with this. No, is the answer to your question; because while these people are depraved, to mark a body like this? Tattooing, body piercing, all that is deeply frowned upon. God made your body and it is not to be modified. They might put a sign next to him, but they wouldn’t draw on his body. This is vile, but it’s also sort of… inauthentic. Like ISIS.” He finished his tea. “May I ask? Who was this man, your victim?”

Mustapha said, “Homeless guy with a drinking problem.”

“Hmm. Perhaps a very badly misunderstood application of the prohibition against alcohol? But the solution wouldn’t be to kill the poor fellow; again, we leave judgment to God, who is merciful.”

“Yeah? We leave judgment to juries, who usually aren’t. Thanks for your help, Dave.”

So here we have the rest of the scene. We’ve already established that Mustapha isn’t comfortable with the remnants of his ancestral faith, but when it’s directly relevant to the case, he’s willing to deal with it. We’ve got links to Islam, the Qur’an and a polluted soul, but all of them are questionable, because one of the themes of this book is people who don’t quite fit into the mould.



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