Celebratory Gunfire

Personally, I don’t associate the two; but plenty of people do, here in Atlanta and all over the world. New Year’s Eve? Someone gets shot in metro Atlanta almost every year, not because of the usual causes like small-scale robbery or a conflict over a parking space, but because somebody decides to ring in the new year by pointing their pistol up in the air and emptying the clip.

This would be harmless but for what goes up coming back down at roughly the same speed. Here’s a local story about a beloved woman in an impoverished neighborhood sitting on her porch and killed by a local man engaging in celebratory gunfire. Looks like the cops got the guy, which will make Mildred Martin’s family slightly less sad—and also represents impressive police work. A bullet fired into the air can travel up to a mile in any direction: for those of you playing at home, the bullet will go farthest if you point the muzzle of the gun 45 degrees from the vertical.

So let’s turn this sad tale into crime fiction. Same situation, different victim: our purpose here is not to further upset Ms. Martin’s family. If it’s just Random Guy firing into the air and killing our victim, it’s tragic, but it’s not especially dramatic in fictional terms.

Nevertheless, it could be a good procedural story, as we have Diana and Mustapha drawing a circle on a map (or rather, Mustapha doing that and Diana using her tablet to draw a digital circle, and the two of them bickering about it) and then tracing a path through that circle, asking who heard gunshots, and gradually honing in on the source. They might even discover someone else using a firearm for a deliberate crime while they do it.

Better yet is to add irony to the story through either killer or victim. Have the victim be either someone who has just got the all-clear after a severe medical crisis, or just got out of prison, and is enjoying a day on the porch, free of anxiety for the first time in years. Have the perp be someone who has a really good reason to engage in celebratory gunfire: they just got out of prison, or got the all-clear from a medical crisis. For even more irony, have the shooter be celebrating life: his daughter just had the grandkid they’d all be waiting for.

Or make it deliberate. Have the shooter’s wife be the real shooter. She’s upset because when her abusive husband got put away for manslaughter, she thought he’d be away for fifteen years. But he found Jesus in prison, and Georgia is at the forefront of prison reform here in the USA (believe it or not, that’s actually true) so he’s released early, without enough warning for her and the kids to get away. Now Daddy’s back, and the wife is worried. So she serves Daddy a celebratory cocktail with some tranquilizers in it, then wraps his hand round the gun and fires, then has her friend down the street phone in the gunshots—the theory here being that Daddy, as a convicted felon, will go back to jail if caught in possession of a firearm.

Trouble is, the wife did not consider that what goes up must come down. So she’s all satisfied when the cops show up to take Daddy back to prison where he belongs; but only at the end does she find out they’re there for felony murder, not for illegal possession of a firearm. And only then does she find out that the victim is by happenstance someone dear to her.

The Boy in the Wheelchair

Here’s a Reddit thread that struck me, and here’s how to turn it into a short story.

The gist of the thread is that when he was two years old, the poster’s nephew pushed another two-year-old and the second kid fell down the stairs and was paralyzed. Now, they’re fifteen, and Nephew, who was never told about his role in the accident and of course doesn’t remember it because he was only two, wants to be friends with Wheelchair, because Nephew is a basically sensitive guy who wants to treat Wheelchair like an equal, unlike the rest of the kids.

But Wheelchair knows full well that Nephew is the one responsible for his paraplegia, and while he can’t legitimately hold Nephew responsible, he understandably doesn’t want to be friends with Nephew; and Nephew, who’s trying to be nice here, can’t figure out why.

In the Reddit thread, the aunt is looking for advice on whether and how to tell Nephew the big secret. But I’m a crime writer, so of course I’m going to go in a different direction. Let’s make them adults: college students. Nephew is now Niece, a spunky but unattractive young woman, whereas Wheelchair is one of those wheelchair people who do half-marathons and have super beefy arms. She has no idea that she’s responsible (in the sense that a 2yo can be responsible) for his paraplegia, but he totally knows. She’s horny, clueless and not getting attention from other boys, and Wheelchair does have lovely forearms, so she thinks maybe she can help him out. He’s standoffish at first, but then suddenly warms to her—and then she ends up committing suicide by jumping from a parking structure. What a pity: she had so much promise as a student.

Diana and Mustapha are called in because protocol, and it seems like a sad and all-too-typical story, but the university doesn’t like its suicide statistics, and pulls some strings to get them to do a less cursory investigation. See, the thing is, Niece was notably afraid of heights. This piques their interest. They do some interviews, and find Wheelchair, who after a bit of stoicism, breaks down: they’d made friends, he was trying to get her to confront her fear of heights, she told him she wanted to be his GF, he told her that his paraplegia prevented him from performing sexually and that she needed to look elsewhere, she jumped to her death in despair. Sounds sad but plausible.

But Diana is still skeptical: Wheelchair wears special high-tech gloves, and in the rivets of Niece’s jeans are a few threads from those gloves—yet he didn’t mention trying to grab her as she jumped or whatever. She traces phone records and finds that Wheelchair spends a lot of time talking to a pair of neuroscience professors. They tell her that Wheelchair is a great candidate for high-tech nerve regeneration therapy, because he’s not quite completely paralyzed. This leads Diana to the records, and thence to Wheelchair’s mother, who Diana snows by posing her own daughter Grace as another candidate for neurotherapy. Then an interview with Niece’s mother, who puts two and two together. Then, a final scene where Diana and Mustapha stage an event that forces Wheelchair to stand up, or to admit the truth, that he stood up behind her and tossed her off the parking structure in revenge for what she did when they were two.

Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 5, Scene 4a

TOC page here.

The last scene ended with Diana and Mustapha talking about Claire Longstreet’s letting her pastoral counseling efforts be called the Lazarus Program. Longstreet ended with “Like I said, I didn’t make up the name.”

In the car, Diana said, “But she didn’t change it, either. She’s letting her clients call her Jesus.”

“And she sure doesn’t look like a Mexican dude.” Mustapha pulled the car away from the curb, waved at Officer Slaughter, who waved back, and at Brown, who didn’t. He turned right onto Peachtree, eyeing the hospital on the other side of the street. “I don’t blame her for being paranoid, though: I can just see the hospital admins wanting to turn this block into offices, maybe a hotel for people visiting their families.” Right on Linden, right on Courtland, heading downtown, past the crowds of homeless milling about on the corner of Pine. “But did she murder this poor guy because he was about to spill the big secret? Whatever that was? We’re spinning our wheels, here.”

Diana said, “Someone’s out there, with voices in his head, and he’s Arab, or Muslim who knows Arabic, and god is calling to him.” She squirmed in her seat. “But then there’s the van. And figuring out Alex has a girlfriend, and taking the trouble to look enough like Rosa to fool Mario.” Before Mustapha could speak, she said, “Who, I admit, has no business on a witness stand. But whoever was in the van fooled Alex, too. That level of planning is incompatible with voices ordering you to kill.”

Mustapha drove down Courtland, between the big hotels, into the zone that used to look neutron bombed but was now getting rebuilt with apartment buildings for students on their parents’ budget. “So there’s two of them, one of those folie à deux things where there’s a prophet and his enabler.”

“Oh, I didn’t think of that one. Sure.” She sighed. “I’m thinking, someone is messing with us. With the city, I mean. And then the question becomes why? Who benefits from sowing chaos, or what happens when we’re focused on this rather than looking out for other things that might happen?” She flipped open the cover on her tablet. “I’m overthinking this. Your idea is better.” She started tapping. “How did our new friend Henry Buchanan wind up in jail?”

Mustapha crossed Edgewood and the streetcar tracks, gunned it up the hillinto Georgia State territory alongside Hurt Park, then found himself swerving over to come to a fast stop at the corner of the park.

Diana braced herself with a knee against the dash. “Careful, cowboy.”

Mustapha pointed across her. “They’re feeding people, in the park.”

Diana kept her eyes on the screen. “Let’s go to Sweet Auburn Market, instead.”

“Feeding homeless people.”

Now she looked up. “Oh, and the women are wearing headscarves.”

They’ve wanted to know about Islamic groups feeding the homeless, and here we are. This short subscene is basically a transition from one scene, Longstreet, to another, where they’ll talk to the Muslims feeding the homeless. But as a writer, these are the best opportunities to add depth to the story. I could have just said, “They drove down Courtland until they came up on a Muslim group feeding the homeless,” which would be workmanlike and sometimes is even a good idea. But here, I can get a few things done:

  • I can redouble, twice, the role of large-scale development in the story. And the second one’s organic: we can see it happening in a second part of intown, for a different but similar reason.
  • I can update their theory of the crime through conversation, not just narration or giving someone’s thoughts. It’s really improbable that one person would commit this precise sort of crime; so maybe two perps would make more sense.
  • I can bring Georgia State slowly but doubly into it, as the university is another big driver of the development.

And all this in just a few paragraphs of conversation. Sometimes, this can be fun.


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.