“Salt Life” (2)

A new work of crime fiction. Read the first part here.


Jennifer was hot, too, and this plus all the fancy matching jewelry was a giant blinking red light if she was single. She was way above the crazy/hot axis, or there was something real wrong with her. But naturally they got paired off, and she was funny and smart and down-to-earth, so maybe there was a tragic death or breakup or whatever. And the fancy jewelry was marketing: she made it in her house. “It’s pretty profitable,” she said, in the low, throaty voice that attracted Peter in spite of himself. “If I wanted to live like a nun, I could just live off it. But I have expensive tastes.”

That’s it, thought Peter. But before he could say anything, she went on. “So I work a boring job, mostly for the health insurance. Hey, Laura said she thought you were Ellen’s boyfriend, but Carol said you work together? Which one is it?”

“Work together, sometimes. I sell and lease commercial real estate? Your company needs new offices, I’m your guy. Been doing it since college. Sometimes Ellen helps me out, showing places, that kind of thing.”

“Is that market, like, working again? All I see are signs that say Space Available.”

“That’s retail, which is way overbuilt and I don’t touch. You want to open a jewelry store, I can put you in touch with–”

“My stuff is all Internet. Just me and the FedEx chick.”

“Exactly. But the office market is doing great. I actually pushed a show until tomorrow so I could meet Ellen here. Though there was about a year and a half where we never leased anything. Lot of people I know went under; I did okay, because I have really, really cheap tastes.”

He switched the conversation back to her, which was easy because she was a woman, but a surprisingly no-nonsense one. He could see himself dating her, he wanted to get involved; just so long as she could get used to Buford Highway noodle places instead of whatever chi-chi shit she clearly preferred. She only had two glasses of wine, and never finished the second, which was a point in her favor, especially given that the rest of the sorority was three or four times over the limit, except for the pregnant chick and one other who it turned out was also a couple of months in. Jennifer just shook her head. “Makes you wonder. Me, I have to keep my fine motor control if I want to spend the evening finishing this custom necklace I’m working on.”

Finally, while some of the girls—he couldn’t make himself think of them as women—were chanting “Boot and Rally!” at one who had evidently done the first and clearly couldn’t handle the second, Ellen showed up.

“Where the fuck have you been?” Peter said. “This is my worst nightmare.”

“I texted you twice.” She passed him an envelope. “You’re welcome.”

He slipped it into his jacket pocket. “I didn’t have that phone with me.”

“Well, then. Besides, looks like you’re having fun.”

“That Jennifer girl? What’s her deal?”

“Always a bridesmaid. I don’t know her that well; she’s not a client. From the grapevine? Men get interested, she finds a reason to dump them. She’s picky.” She poked him in the belly. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you interested.”

“Curious, is more like it. I was going with dark secret.”

“Well, you would. I can find out more if–” And then there was a crash behind them, and the sound of breaking glass. They whirled to see Carol trying in vain to hold onto a tray of champagne flutes as Boot and Rally stumbled past her, lost her balance, went headfirst down the stairs, arms stretched out reflexively to break her fall. She landed in a crunch of broken glass that sounded louder than it should have in the sudden shocked silence, then got back up, one side of her white blouse soaked in blood that glistened in the summer sunshine. She raised her arm and her eyes went wide as she saw the stem of the champagne flute sticking out of the center of her forearm, a gobbet of flesh impaled on the jagged tip, the base of the glass flush against the other side of her arm. Before anyone else could react, she reached up with her other hand and started to pull the glass out.

And then there was Jennifer, vaulting the railing and crunching broken glasses as she landed. She peeled Boot and Rally’s hand off the base of the glass, then held her wrists far apart. Peter noticed that Jennifer was the only woman there who wasn’t wearing four-inch heels.

“No, no, no, baby,” she said, looking straight into the injured girl’s eyes. “You only pull it out in the movies. In real life, it might be the only thing keeping you from bleeding out.” She looked up at Carol. “Call 911. And get me something I can use as a tourniquet.” Carol dropped the empty tray and vomited into the bushes. Half a dozen of the others started throwing up, as well. Peter grabbed a linen napkin and a fork, tied the napkin around the girl’s upper arm and used the stem of the fork to twist it tighter as Jennifer held the girl’s hands and soothed her. Ellen called 911.

“Salt Life” Intro

Posted without comment: the first few hundred words of a new story.

Peter slowed as he approached the house on his recon run. Fuck. This was going to be even worse than advertised. Grant Park, he figured it would be like the other one of these he’d been to, a couple of balloons and a bunch of hipster parents looking for an excuse to drink beer at noon. But this house’s front yard had about a hundred balloons, in colors that matched the tablecloths on the two long trestle tables, each one with two silver urns on it. This was an event. Which meant it was going to be ruled by females.

He took the next right and went around the block for another pass. At least this was one of the few neighborhoods in Atlanta with real blocks, instead of the roads just going off in random directions or dead-ending. Second pass proved him right: the urns were fancy ice buckets, and there was a pudgy chick in full makeup and heels jamming bottles of wine into the ice. All the wine was white, too, of course. Sorority life, fifteen years later. What a nightmare.

Fuck it, Ellen could wait, drink Chardonnay with the Tri-Delts for a while. He went around the block again, pulled out onto Boulevard, drove to the park itself, found a place in the parking lot where the lines of sight were clear, packed the little vaporizer, hot-boxed the Jag while listening to some bullshit on NPR. He cracked the windows and dreamed of an empty calendar and a clean open ocean.

He dozed off a little, got jolted awake by the top of the hour news. Now Ellen was going to be all aggro with him, but she owed him, and he didn’t have the other phone on him, anyway. He hit the vape again, fired up the car, went back to the party.

The pudgy chick was the first to greet him. “You’re just in time,” she said. “If you head out right now, you can catch them before they tee off.”

“Excuse me?”

“The hubbies are all playing golf. After all, their part in this is done.” She put a hand to her mouth. “You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?” She wiggled her bottle of seltzer water. “I’m Carol. It’s my party, and I won’t drink cause I can’t.”

“Okay. Is Ellen Smith here?”

“Oh, you belong to her. Not yet. But come on in and have a drink. Are you, like, the new man in her life?”

She wasn’t pudgy; she was pregnant. Right. “No. We work together. Hi; I’m Peter Sandler.” He slipped on the Sales Mask. “Sorry: I’m real late, so I was just a little surprised she wasn’t here yet. Congratulations. Is there beer?”

“Sure. My husband insisted.” And soon he found himself just where he didn’t want to be, surrounded by women pushing forty, expensive outfits, ridiculous shoes, full makeup on a muggy Georgia day, nice and tight for their age except for a couple of fatties and another few who were still fighting it off. No smokers at all until one of them whipped out a pack and then half the rest did, fogged up the back porch, teased Carol the pregnant girl.

Later, Carol edged up to him. “Feel like a piece of meat near a pride of lionesses?”

“I was thinking pool full of sharks. At first. But nobody’s really biting. Which is just fine.”

“That’s because they’re all married. Five years ago you would have been chewed up. But nobody wants to act out in front the rest. Gossip.”

“I didn’t even know what this party was all about.”

“And you probably wish you never did. Oh, look; here’s Jennifer. She’s not married.”

A Surge in Crappy Policiing

I’ve blogged time and again about violence in gentrifying neighborhoods, which is one of the chief themes of crime in Atlanta. East Atlanta has been the center of this in recent months—see the second of those two links for specifics—and recently, the police held a press conference where they talked about how they were stepping up patrols in an effort to catch some of the perpetrators.

Now we have some of the results of this surge, and they’re superficially pretty:

DeKalb County’s police chief says his department is taking action against a recent string of crime in the area. Chief Cedric Alexander says the department is seeing results from a recent surge of police activity… In eight days, DeKalb police say the teams have made 75 arrests and written 105 citations. In all, crime in the area had been reduced by 42 percent.

Well, that sounds great: let’s get these punks off the streets. It’s well-attested, though probably rather exaggerated, that crime goes up in the summertime, because teenage punks are out of school and bored.

But upon closer examination, it’s unclear whether we’re any safer:

“For me as a police chief, it’s very troubling. For me as a citizen of the county, it’s very troubling. For myself as a psychologist, it’s very troubling,” Alexander said. “So on a very number of veins, I find it very and I’m very much concerned because these are young kids that are out there unsupervised that we arrest over and over and over. And we find ourselves re-arresting them and find ourselves sending them back the street sometime before we get back out there.”

Kind of cool that the police chief is a psychologist: this might make for interesting fiction. But read what the man says: if his cops are arresting the same kids over and over, then what they aren’t doing is arresting the kids for anything important. If these kids were guilty of, or even chargeable with, major crimes like murder or strong-arm robberies, even as kids they wouldn’t be released to be rearrested—they’d be in custody.

So what we know is that these kids aren’t doing anything really harmful. I’m going to guess traffic issues, maybe as far as suspended or nonexistent licenses; graffiti; underage drinking; maybe some minor weapon possession like jackknives. And, of course, weed. Black kids (and in this part of DeKalb County, it’s a certainty that the kids are black) smoke weed at about the same level as their white peers, but are much, much more likely to be arrested for it, and much more likely to be treated as criminals instead of good kids in trouble.

So this “surge” resulted in some probably pretty high percentage of 75 arrests being for weed, and into the system those kids go, up until now just bored, and now essentially barred from meaningful employment, which in my more cynical moments I feel is the primary purpose of the War on Some Drugs. And are we safer? Get real. These cops can’t even find the criminals who are so dumb they get caught on camera:

Decatur police hope new surveillance pictures will help solve one recent robbery and perhaps others.

Investigators are scrambling to solve a string of crimes in the area this month.

Police say the two men seen in the photos are suspects in a July 6 robbery on New Street in Decatur.

According to investigators, the two drove away in a stolen Mercedes after confronting a woman while she worked in a building, stealing her purse and a laptop computer.

Police believe the two men and a third suspect are tied to other robberies in DeKalb County.

Technically, Decatur, while in DeKalb County, has its own police force. But the point remains: police “surges” catch a lot of little fish, but it takes real work to catch the ones who really do us some harm.


Moral Decay v. Environment

I grew up in an upper-class environment: everyone was the 4 or 5 percent, everyone was white except for one kid of each ethnicity (their dads were immigrant doctors), everyone’s parents were Republicans, almost everyone had two parents, good nutrition, solid schooling and pro-education home environments, etc. And while teens in my school wrecked cars and went to coke rehab (it was the ’80s), nobody committed violent felonies—though many of their parents probably participated in white-collar crime.

After coming of age, I lived in some really, really dire neighborhoods, where street crime was a regular event. And I always thought back to my peers in high school, whose parents all would have said something like “those people are poor because they can’t govern themselves”. And there was certainly no shortage of poor impulse control among the inhabitants of those neighborhoods.

But the reality of the relationship between poverty and crime is much more complex. Let’s take as a very illustrative example the story of David Mack Collins, a 22yo father of two, who died ten days ago in the sort of crime so stupid that at first blush it makes for terrible crime fiction:

Athens-Clarke police said Collins and his buddy, 23-year-old Anthony Gray Coleman Jr., were both shot by a man whom they had set up for an armed robbery on the pretext of selling him drugs… Collins’s life ended in a way similar to that of many other local teens and young men who came before him.

Nobody I grew up with would do something this dumb, because they were raised in households that taught that (blue-collar) crime didn’t pay, and because they had other options in life. But Collins didn’t have that kind of support network:

Each sibling had a different father, and David Collins didn’t know who his was. Because their mother was a drug addict, their grandmother in Monroe was given custody of the siblings, Betty Collins said.

In spite of such circumstances, Collins tried to live a normal life.

“My brother grew up in the church (and) sang in the church choir,” Collins said. “He wasn’t made for the streets because he had a different kind of heart. He just ran into it.”

According to Collins, things started going downhill when her brother had a girlfriend in high school who introduced him to alcohol. He got in trouble when found at school with some liquor the girl had brought him.

Now I knew tons of kids who went to coke rehab in high school (again, it was the ’80s). But none of them ever got expelled, or even put into the legal system, because after all they were good kids from good families. But Collins was a kid with no dad and a drug-addict mom, and even if he’d had even one parent, he was still a ghetto black kid, and therefore subject to the strictest possible punishment for infractions that would get a white kid a talking-to.

Even so, Collins tried to get his life together. I won’t quote the rest of the story, which is by Athens reporter Joe Johnson, a guy whose work I’ve admired for a long time. Read it; it’s worth your time and attention. Long story short, Collins can’t find work, but wants to support his family, so getting into street crime was pretty much his ONLY option. And this is where my former peers would stop understanding.

This is what crime fiction is really all about; not the what, but the WHY. Johnson does a great job of opening up to us the series of events that led to Collins taking a bullet, and helps us understand how we can see this as just as much environment as moral decay.


The Comments Say it All

The article is pretty much useless:

There have been three homicides in east Atlanta in as many months, and now people who live in this historic part of Atlanta are fed up.

Hundreds gathered at the ARC Auditorium at Zoo Atlanta to learn how they can protect themselves and their community.

Atlanta police, along with DeKalb County police officers, were there to answer questions and give advice on how to fight crime.

Not everyone thought the meeting made a difference and left shaking their heads. One man who did not want to be identified said the people who held the crime meeting were “just blowing a bunch of smoke.”

There was a meeting; that’s all the article says. The local blog is far superior journalism, though this should hardly be surprising.

In response to a slew of recent residential burglaries, armed robberies and at least one shooting, DeKalb County’s top cop pledged a “surge” of 20 to 25 police officers will be reassigned to the unincorporated areas of the county.

Police Chief Cedric L. Alexander made the promise Wednesday night at a meeting of residents from several Atlanta neighborhoods and unincorporated DeKalb.

The main issue, the article goes on to explain, is jurisdictional: East Atlanta partly belongs to the city and partly to DeKalb County, which has a population of about 700k and whose government is a disaster, with one sheriff murdering another, a school board so fractious and corrupt that the (equally corrupt) governor felt compelled to step in and be the white Republican dismissing a bunch of black elected officials, and a CEO who’s under indictment for strong-arming campaign contributions.

So it’s probably not difficult to understand that the response time to white hipsters’ homes at the very edge of the county is lousy, and that the general levels of incompetence, corruption and cooperation between city and DeKalb police forces are pretty low. Various articles have both forces mentioning that the group of thugs believed responsible for many of these crimes keeps crossing jurisdictional lines, as if this should matter. But, at least they’re attempting to placate residents; though it’s much easier for them and lucrative for their respective jurisdictions to set up speed traps to ticket hipsters than it is to investigate murders and robberies so stupid as to defy ordinary detective procedures.

But the real reason I linked the original article is because of the comments good citizens have left behind. I’ve written before about the duality of gentrifying neighborhoods, and nowhere is the gap in understanding more clear than what people have to say on the internet under cover of anonymity.