Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 4, Scene 1a

TOC page here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s not what we’re after, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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  1. Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 3, Scene 3 | Julian Cage

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