Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 6, Scene 2

TOC page here.

We move straight from the quick-witted repartée between our detectives to Mario, a guy we’ve seen before and will seem just as out of it this second time:

Mario wasn’t any less fuzzy after a full night’s sleep. “Brah, you want a real answer from me, you’ve got to at least let me have one drink.”

Diana said, “Mario, you’re helping us out: if we could bring a beer into the jail for you, we would. Your body is telling you that you need to dry out.”

“No, it’s the opposite, man. My mind don’t get in gear till I get me a drink.”

Before Mustapha could yell at the guy, she said, “Here, all you have to do is look at some pictures.” She slid the tablet across the table. “Try to think back to what you saw Alex get into.”

Mario looked up at her, bewildered. “Alex?”

“Your friend, whose girlfriend came and got him.”

A light dawned, slowly and dimly. “Oh yeah, Alex and his old lady.” He looked down at the screen. “That ain’t it at all.”

Diana said, “Swipe through the pictures.” The light went out again. “With your finger, like this. Which one looks most like the van you saw?”

Mario swiped, hesitantly. “No, that ain’t it, either.” He kept swiping, more quickly. “It ain’t none of these, man.”

Mustapha growled. “You better not be wasting our time. You told us you saw Alex get into a van–”

“Yeah. But these ones are all wrong.” He looked at Diana. “You got a pen and paper?”

She didn’t, but Mustapha did. Mario made a rectangular frame with his thumbs and index fingers, held it over the paper, cocked his head, then picked up the pen and took less than a minute to finish a sketch. He spun it to them. “Like, this kind of van.”

“Holy cow,” said Diana. On the page was a bold, perfectly proportioned cartoon of a van—but this was a commercial van, bigger and with flat sides instead of windows. “You’ve got talent.”

He shrugged. “Can’t draw people.”

Mustapha took the paper. “I owe you two beers: you just made our job a lot easier.”

“I’ma take you up on that.”

This one needs help, especially since my description of Mario shifted from the first time we saw him to now. He’s something I do a lot, which is take one of the many vivid side characters and bring him back for an encore. To me, in genre fiction you want to have as few characters as you can get away with, so long as you don’t impoverish the plot. In the original outline, Mario got his earlier narrative, about Alex Dawson going off to the white van, after being pointed at by the chorus of homeless guys. There was originally going to be another character in between the two: that guy would get the first scene and only now Mario. But that intermediate character was unnecessary: let’s instead make Mario vivid, the kind of homeless alcoholic that makes Mustapha grind his teeth.

And now I’ve got you there. After all, as a seasoned reader of detective fiction you’re already alert to the level of detail given Mario and thus inclined to raise Mario above the level of background noise: oh, he’s somebody, not just a dude giving information. He doesn’t know how to swipe a touch-screen, in 2015. I was pleased when I thought up that detail.

But he can draw perfect cartoons. Why? How? It doesn’t matter at all. I’m never going to tell you and have no idea myself; I can’t imagine it will become relevant to the plot, but only if it did would I give you this backstory. You’ll make it up yourself: he… oh, yeah, he was going to art school but his parents died and he had no money and no support and too much grief, and down he spiraled. Sure: that works. Or maybe he did the Ad of the Year at some agency and… whatever. Doesn’t matter.

In the outline for the chapter, I was going to have Diana ask for his story, but again, cut as much superfluity as you can without impoverishing the plot. We don’t need to know—plus, you the reader get to participate in the story, because you read stories and watch cop dramas. You’re likely to pause for an instant, maybe do a Run Lola Run thing with a few images from an old Polaroid camera, however you might envision backstory, before you move on.


“I’m Glad I Did Get Fired Yesterday”

Here’s an article about the closing arguments in a murder trial in Columbus GA, one of the second-tier cities in Georgia. More than half the population of the state lives in the greater metro Atlanta area (though only about six percent in the city itself), and much of the rest is concentrated in the second-tier cities: Columbus, Macon, Augusta and Savannah. Columbus, like its three sisters, has more than its fair share of violent crime. In this one, a young man phoned for a cab, then shot driver Byron Brown at point-blank range. Cab driver is right up there with night attendant at convenience store, as far as dangerous professions are concerned.

There’s nothing especially noteworthy about the story: it’s just banal, crappy crime. But I wanted to know what else the cops had on him, so I followed the link back to this story from three years before, from when they identified the suspect now on trial. The cab company wouldn’t comment on the story, so the reporter found a former co-worker to comment on Brown:

“He started picking me up when I was 16 in his cab, taking me back and forth to work” said the former co-worker. “The days my kids got sick and I didn’t have any money, he would pick us up and take us to the hospital. Byron was a good man.”

Again, nothing here is striking enough to pique a reader’s interest. It’s the sort of lowbrow crime that would take a lot more massaging to turn into a compelling story. Not impossible, but there are much easier fish to fry. I read on, though, and then comes this beauty:

“I worked for the company, but I’m glad I did get fired yesterday because that could’ve been me on the call.”

NOW it’s literature. What I need now is a triangle: side one is the co-worker’s character and how and why she got fired; side two is Brown’s character and how and why he ended up taking what would have been her shift; and side three is the murderer’s character and how and why s/he ended up killing Brown. All three need to be related, or parallel, or structurally similar, or have the same word or object or person in them; enough of a pattern so that the last part of the story slides right into an established structure.

Plus there’s the beautiful grammar. Not just “I’m glad I got fired”, but the did get making it just perfect Southern US English, where there is simply no good reason not to add an extra verb tense.


Double Shooting in West Midtown (2)

Here’s some actual follow-up reporting. about the aftermath of a shooting I witnessed last week in Atlanta’s West Midtown neighborhood. It’s not exactly in-depth, but one of the fun features of life in Atlanta is that it’s a pleasant surprise when local corporate media perform even their most basic responsibilities.

11Alive tracked police report trends in West Midtown over the past five years and found a changing criminal landscape. Starting in 2009, total crime began dropping. Then in 2014, it almost restored to ’09 levels.

It’s not that simple.

A closer look reveals the specific crimes have changed.

Violent crimes, mostly robberies, are down 17%. Non-Violent crimes trended flat, just 3% lower than five years ago.

However of those non-violent crimes burglaries have been cut in half, and car break now make up about two thirds of the total crime here.

Those nuisance crimes do make an impact here.

Here’s an at least cursory look at crime statistics: overall crime dips and rises back most of the way, but violent crime is rarer and car break-ins much more common. So two shot guys in a car was a bad throwback for that particular intersection.

As far as fiction is concerned, one way to work it would be to go straight ahead, have two yuppiehipsters walking out of Octane Coffee, and bam! the shooting starts right in front of them. Make the first two pages their argument about something banal, but make them vivid characters, so the reader is invested in their argument before getting smacked by the shootout, which needs to happen right there instead of a mile away as it did in real life. Once D/M get the case, it becomes a bit of a Rashomon thing, with the couple not coming forward right away but their perspective turning out to be the key clue.

Or take it a different way: the major crime in that neighborhood is car break-ins. So they’re routine: just an oh, great! followed by some phone calls. You live there, you know it’s not worth it to lock your car or leave anything of value in it. But first-time visitors to an intersection that gentrified might not think to do this. Now imagine they left something real important in the car, come out to get it, but their window has been freshly broken. So they track down and assault the guy who did the break-ins. We don’t even need two shot guys in an SUV.

Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 6, Scene 1b

TOC page here.

We pick up in the middle of the conversation with the local chief of the FBI:

Mustapha poured himself another cup. “It’s the girlfriend that’s the key. One of these guys, if there’s two, knew our vic had a girlfriend and could look enough like her to get the poor guy into the van.”

Jack said, “Well, and they’ve got a van.”

Diana said, “So do ten thousand other people in metro Atlanta. Okay, but you’re right: get a list of all the people who work with the shelter and cross-reference them with people who have access to a van. Still a needle in a haystack.”

Jack said, “Smaller haystack, though.”

Mustapha said, “Sure. But that Claire chick ain’t going to cooperate. I say we could go all Bad Cop after her, open up the books and see who works there, but she’s got those Chamber of Commerce guys up in her grill, and they’re a lot scarier than us.”

Diana probed the bad tooth with her tongue. Maybe it would go away and she wouldn’t need to visit the dentist. “But Alex didn’t always stay in the shelter. We need to find all the people who work in the parks, and the squats.”

Mustapha said, “Oh, great. Like there’s a master list for that.”

“No, it’s a good idea,” she said. “You know as well as I do we’re never going to clear this one before he, or they, strike again. If he does.”

Jack said, “People like this never stop at just one. The gods need blood.”

“Right. But, it gives us a clear plan and a big haystack. Purcell gets cranky, we point to all the… uncategorized information we have to go through.”

Mustapha sipped, nodded. “Okay. Put the media to work: have them put out the call for anyone who feeds the strays to come forward and talk to us. From there, we figure out who’s not coming forward. Work the parks and slots, talk about vans.”

Jack stood up. “Just make sure you have all your shots.”

They’re still miles away from solving the case, but at least now they have some kind of protocol to approach it with. Whodunits in the real world are usually solved by snitches or data: there’s no honor among thieves, and the only thing that caught Son of Sam was a parking ticket. Enough cross-references and they might get lucky.

Trouble is, homeless people by their very nature tend not to leave much of a data trail. Data analysis is only sexy when you’ve got a big-budget cop show and can do neat and totally fake graphics and rows of hacker code. In literature, the human angle is more interesting, which is why this setting provides so much rich material for the story.


Always Wash Your Hands

I thought this up earlier today while riding a motorscooter that was acting fussy.

F1 and M1 are boss and senior employee at a mechanic’s shop. Or a print shop, or somewhere else where people get their hands dirty and therefore often have need of heavy-duty hand-cleaning products. She and he are long-time co-workers and might have been lovers at one point. A few years before, they’d had some kind of breakup, and it was acrimonious, though now things have settled somewhat.

They’re at the shop after hours, just the two of them. M1 is having intestinal distress; he has settled onto the throne with the sports section of the newspaper and plans to stay there and let nature take its course. Midway through his session, he hears, distantly and not well, another man arguing with F1. Because of the bathroom door and the echoey shop, M1 can’t hear the details of the argument, but from pitch and tone can tell the guy is black, mean, and very righteously angry with F1.

Because of his condition, it takes him longer than he’d like to get off the pot and out the door, and before he can do the former, the argument has ended. So he takes his time getting cleaned up, including washing his hands in the Goop or whatever, then goes out to see what that was all about.

Of course, he finds F1 bludgeoned to death on the floor of the waiting room. So he calls the cops, who of course figure him for the killer. He tells the story, but there’s no evidence, no security cam, no visuals at all, and of course the killer ex-lover is going to make up a dumbshit story about a random black guy to distract the cops and the media. But this is 2015, black lives matter, and people aren’t so quick to be fooled by that anymore. Mustapha and Diana never were, but M1 seems like a simple, sports-lovin’ mechanic, and putting his uniform in the laundry and washing up and pretending it was a black guy just seems way too cold-blooded.

A friend of F1’s tells them that F1 had started seeing “the” guy and was planning on telling M1 about it that day. But the murder weapon is nowhere to be found, it didn’t clearly come from inside the shop, and zero forensic evidence links M1 to the actual death, so D/M don’t want the DA to pull the trigger just yet.

Where to next?

Tabula Rasa

Here’s a story that gives almost no information to construct a piece of fiction from:

The tire tracks still remain on Parks Drive where a red 2000 Grand Am came to rest.

Powder Springs Police said they found 24-year-old Anthony Costner dead inside the vehicle. His common law wife, 22-year-old Catherine Costner, was clinging to life.

Police said the couple had been shot. But, amidst all the violence, officers made an amazing discovery in the backseat – a small child.

“The 22-year-old female in the vehicle sustained one gunshot.  The 24-year-old male received multiple gunshots. Luckily, the 2-year-old in the vehicle was unharmed,” Deputy Chief of Powder Springs Police Matt Boyd said.

Rescue officials rushed Ms. Costner and the couple’s daughter to Kennestone Hospital. Police said the 22- year-old didn’t make it, but her daughter who was in a car seat at the time, checked out fine and is in DFACS custody now.

Police said they are asking for the public’s helping finding out who shot the Costners and why.

“We are trying to establish anything that will become a lead…whether that is video, talking to any witnesses, so anything we can do we are looking into,” Boyd said.

Anyone who saw the Costners or their car over the last 48 hours should call police. Boyd said Crime Stoppers is offering up to a $2,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest.

Poor little girl. Poor Costners. If the cops are willing to admit they’re clueless, they have really no idea who might have done this or why.

So let’s be respectful to them and imagine a very similar situation with two fictional victims. Keep the baby: it’s the best detail. Here you have something like the classic closed room mystery, with nothing but the blank slate of a bullet-riddled car. No evidence pointing at someone else, be it fingerprints or phone records. Clearly impossible for it to be a suicide. Where do you go? Writing fiction like this is a real challenge. How do you create someone more or less entirely outside the characters’ normal sphere of communication but who still has sufficient motivation to shoot them in cold blood? What kind of double life does one or the other lead that might create such a motivation, but which isn’t visible even to the cops?

The copout here would be to make it some kind of random crime: the much-discussed but rarely-seen “gang initiation”, some kind of trite serial killer thing, etc. A slightly less copout version would be a case of mistaken identity; but the article clearly states that the kid was in a car seat, and a kid that young needs a real car seat, and I know from long experience that a car seat like that is a real pain in the ass to move from car to car.

Of course, therein could lie the drama: you’ve got car owner, who is both impatient with the slowness of moving the car seat and nervous because in the back of his head he knows someone crazy or mean is out to get him; Mom and Dad, trying not to bicker over getting the damn straps right; and the baby saying something cute. And then they drive off, and Crazy Mean pulls up next to them, shoots Dad, realizes oh crap wrong guy, and feels bad about it but has to kill Mom, too. The baby’s one bit of babble will not actually be helpful here.

But then the New York Daily News follows up, and we get this:

Two Georgia parents who responded to a call for help from someone they knew were fatally shot early Thursday morning, with their young daughter in their car with them, police said…

Catherine’s mother, Cynthia Quinn, says her daughter was called by someone she knew in the middle of the night needing help.

“When they went to help these people, for whatever reason, a gun was pulled and my son-in-law and my daughter are now dead,” Cynthia Quinn said. “Her husband was shot in the face, the head and the hand. She was shot in the stomach, all in front of my granddaughter.”

So if this is true, presumably the cops have easy access to phone records, and can sort out who called when and track them down. So if they’re still clueless enough to admit it in public, that means that they talked to everyone and came up with nothing suspicious. If they had been called and went for help, and the cops talked to that person and excluded them from suspicion, then where does the story go?

In our fictional story, what’s important enough to put the kid in the car and have all three go? That would be the piece of drama the story hinges on. Someone needs a jump-start or whatever? Just send Dad.

Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 6, Scene 1a

TOC page here.

New chapter, new character: Jack Carter from the FBI. Normally, the relationship between anal-retentive, territorial Feds and the regular cops is portrayed in crime fiction as being contentious, so the camaraderie here is meant to be jarring enough to conceal the fact that most of this is repetition and infodump:

Diana stifled another burp as she walked back into her office. She thought briefly about becoming homeless just to get free Indian food, then felt bad about it. Mustapha was pouring fresh tea for a guest, Jack Carter, head of the Atlanta FBI office. “Hi, Jack,” she said. “Please tell us that as a matter of national security, you’re taking this case off our hands.”

“We should be so lucky,” said Mustapha. He poured her a glass, and put it by her computer, where by sunset it might be cool enough to drink.

“Hey, Diana,” said Carter. “I was just telling your partner we’ve got nothing in our databases that even resembles this, so we are adopting a hands-off approach and letting you folks work your magic.”

“Worst of both worlds,” said Diana. “What do your databases tell you?”

“Not a whole lot. Mustapha said you already know that particular verse isn’t widely used: we got zero hits plugging it into known rhetoric.” He sipped his tea. “Man, that’s good. You know I’ve been doing this at home? Had no idea you could just grow mint and put it in a teapot.”

Mustapha said, “At my house, I gotta mow it.”

“I think I’d have to use more sugar, to get the taste right. But that will get my wife on my butt: she’s on this crusade about carbs. Anyhow, the one thing that everyone is clear on is that ISIS and other jihadi groups don’t strangle their victims. Apparently it’s not really kosher unless you cut the throat—but given your background, Stoph, you probably already knew that.”

Diana said, “You can call him Brother Mustapha, now.”

“Knock it off,” said Mustapha. “Yeah, I caught that one. It’s halál, by the way, not kosher. Pretty much the same thing, though, as far as slaughtering animals is concerned.”

Jack sipped again. “No real Muslim would strangle if it was a political thing, is what the guy up in DC tells me. So, not our circus, not our monkey. This homeless guy pissed someone off enough to dress him up like a terror victim?”

Diana sat, called up the crime scene photos on her desktop. “We have no idea. Chief Purcell is going to call us in real soon, because of course he wants a quick clearance, and we’re going to disappoint him. Everyone kind of liked the guy, and nobody with a good structural reason to want him gone seems to have the…”

Mustapha said, “Mental infrastructure, to pull off something like this.”

Diana said, “Mustapha has the best theory so far, I think.” She sketched out the folie à deux idea while trying not to flinch whenever Jack sipped his tea.

Jack drained the glass, put it aside, declined Mustapha’s proffered teapot. “Sure, that could be it. Like the Columbine killers. Saves you from having to figure out why they picked your victim, since it’ll be squirrel logic the whole way down.”

So I get to do two things here: repeat the theory so that readers who are more skimming than reading catch back up, and also push yet another barrier between Alex Dawson and the Reaper. In addition, I get to drag in more tea-making, while using it as a way to emphasize the bond between the detectives and Jack. Plus I can throw in the phrase “crusade against carbs”, which made me giggle when I first wrote it. This is usually a cue it needs to be removed, but it actually fits in to the dialogue about jihadists, so it gets to stay.


Double Shooting in West Midtown (1)

Very sketchy details on this one so far; I’ll update when I know more.

Atlanta Police confirm that two people have been shot in the 800 block of Howell Mill Road NW.

Police say a man is in critical condition and the other person is alert, conscious and breathing.

Investigators said they believe the shooting happened at a parking lot at Northside Drive and 11th Street.

There is no word on what lead to the shooting.

Way to go with the great grammar, WSB. This story is notable because I ran into it last night: I came upon a roadblock, stopped and talked to one of the camera operators. Someone drove up on them at Northside and 11th (maybe half a mile away), emptied a clip into the car, took off. These guys panicked, drove to the location, pulled the more seriously wounded guy out of the car and ran into a nearby coffeehouse to call an ambulance. They did not, as another story reports, take off after they put their friend on the sidewalk.

On the surface, it seems like the kind of banal street crime that’s difficult to make dramatic: either someone with more ego than sense had a beef with these guys, or it was a transaction gone bad. I almost botched this post, because when finding the article link, I came upon another double shooting in West Midtown from the previous night. That one was the result of another nightclub fight, a depressingly common cause of fatal shootings, but this one remains unclear. So, all-too-common causes, guns handed out like candy, we know the story already.

The real story comes from the neighborhood. Ten years ago, there was little other than largely-abandoned small industrial sites in the area; now, it’s crackerbox condos and hipster restaurants for blocks in any direction. The coffeehouse the guys ran into to call the ambulance (and why did none of them have phones on them? There’s the weird detail.) is one of my favorite places to get work done. Yet Northside Drive, the main thoroughfare, runs south to some still pretty distressed areas, so 20th-century style urban crime keeps intruding. Two different worlds, technically in the same city and century, very little connection between them except when the bullet-pocked SUV pulls in and a guy runs into the coffeehouse to use the phone. There’s your point of drama.


Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 5, Scene 4b

TOC page here.

Mustapha and Diana drive up on young Muslims serving food to the homeless, and we get this exchange:

It was a smooth operation, too: a pickup truck with boxes in the bed, ready to go. A beefy guy, whose parents might have come from Pakistan or India, dressed in standard Atlanta hip-hop gear, shared lunch assembly duty with a black kid in what Peter liked to call the “full Muhammad”: a long white djellaba, skullcap, scraggly beard but no mustache. But this kid, like the girl in the black hijab who was handing out plasticware, was American black, unlike the girl on drinks duty, who was even darker African black. The girl handing foam clamshells to the park’s inhabitants had roots in Syria or Lebanon, but could have passed for a white girl if she took off her own gaily-patterned headscarf.

The American black girl spotted them for cops right away. “You can’t mess with us: we got every right to be here.”

Mustapha grinned. “We wouldn’t dare; and we don’t want to, anyway. You hear about that fellow who got himself killed last night?”

She frowned. “You think you going to hold the Muslim community responsible for that?”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

“Because we will not tolerate–”

“You’re misunderstanding us,” said Diana. “We’re just wondering if you’d ever met the victim.”

She looked back and forth between them, still suspicious, then said to the boy in the robe, “Brother Omar, you want to take my place?” Once away from the crowd, she said, “We all watched the news. None of us recognized him. But we do our charity down here, and what I understand is these folks don’t wander up that way. We are here to fulfill our obligation to Allah.” She put the emphasis on the first syllable instead of the last. “By delivering alms to the poor. Jihad is within, not without. We saw his brother say he had an alcohol problem. Alcohol is haram, but even if he was one of us, the solution wouldn’t be to kill him like that. Brother Mustapha—he’s our imam—said that killing someone in that way is totally forbidden.”

Mustapha nodded. “Well, we’re on the same side, there. Your imam have anything to say about what was written on Mr. Dawson?”

“He said it was definitely from the Qur’an.” This got two equal syllables instead of the emphasis on the second one. “But it wasn’t, like, a verse you hear that often. I can’t read that fancy writing.” She dropped to a whisper. “Tell you the truth, I can’t read Arabic at all. I’m trying to learn.” She pointed up at the GSU building across the street. “Taking classes there. But I got dyslexia real bad. Even reading in English gives me a headache. And Arabic? It goes backwards. Right to left.” She said shook her head, sadly. “I can’t even.”

They stuck around to talk with the homeless, but those few of the men who admitted to having met Alex Dawson had nothing useful to offer, other than praise for the Muslim group, who evidently handed out more and better food than most of the Christian missions, and never preached to them. The Pakistani boy, Sherif, turned out to be the chef, and very shy, except on the topic of food.

But even after all the men in the park had seconds, there was plenty left over: biryani rice, curried chicken, that paneer creamed spinach stuff. Maybe not his personal favorite, but Diana lived and died for Indian food, so Mustapha pretended not to check out GSU coeds while Diana ate her weight in lunch and licked her fingers.

Back in the car, he growled, “One word about Brother Mustapha,”

She laughed, stifled a belch, let it go. “I wouldn’t dream of it.” She got out the tablet as he headed toward the capital. “Ooh, Henry Buchanan from the shelter killed a guy when he was seventeen.”

“Why does that totally not surprise me?”

“Only did five years. Voluntary manslaughter. Let’s see… it was a bar fight. Killed a guy with a pool cue.”

“That’s Man One, not voluntary.”

She paged through some more. “Dimed out a couple of dealers for a reduced sentence, it looks like.”

“Maybe this one ain’t so complicated after all.”

She burped again; he cracked a window. “How did he fool Dawson? And how does he know Arabic?”

“I hear they teach it in prison.”

And that’s the end of the chapter. A lot of this is color: the descriptions of the young Muslims, the setting at Georgia State, the descriptions of food. We like a novel not just because it’s telling us a story, but because it’s giving us a feel for people and places; this is less true in genre fiction than in literary, but it’s still useful here, because a scene like this pulls us in to what Atlanta is like.

But hidden within the color is a nugget of information: these young Muslims, like Dave the imam, have no interest in imposing their faith on anyone else—even the most laid-back version of their faith. But notice that we only get this nameless young woman’s point of view here. She speaks for the group, but none of the other group members speak (except Sherif, about food, and that’s off-stage), so we as readers can take her POV to be that of the whole group, or we can wonder if one of them might have something different, not to say but to do.

And then we get back to Henry Buchanan, who’s clearly capable of killing a man and has enough self-regard to reduce his sentence. Let’s see how much more suspicion he generates.

On to Chapter 6.