Novel 3: Act II, Chapter 1, Scene 2

TOC page here.

Diana has found “a way out” of the predicament of two bodies in two months, killed in the same way—the second one someone who’d tried to help them solve the first. She goes out to make some phone calls:

Ninety minutes later, Diana was leading Captain Jenkins and Chief Purcell back down the stairs into the lobby. Purcell said, “I need to apologize to you, Detective Siddall, for giving you a hard time on the phone back there. Too many years at high rank have made me dismissive of too much, and I’m old and need my sleep. You did the right thing, by getting us out here at this hour. Let’s keep this very quiet, for now. Curtis, what’s the likelihood of solving a six-day-old homicide?”

“Like this one? Even miracle workers like Detective Siddall here can’t work miracles.”

“That’s what I thought. So, Detective Siddall, do your job as best you can. But the last thing we need is a media circus, after what happened last time. Let’s keep this fellow out of the news. Curtis, get Dave Keller in here personally, do the same with Doctor Dhandha, find this man’s next of kin and persuade him that a quick cremation is in everyone’s best interest.”

Diana herself speak. “Wait for the next crescent moon.”

Purcell stopped in the middle of the lobby. “Excuse me?”

“I was out on a homicide call last week, and saw the crescent moon—the waning one, in the morning. Our victim here was killed a couple of days after that. Alex Dawson was killed a month earlier. I can look it up, but I bet you both men were killed right after the new moon.”

Purcell looked baffled. Diana continued. “Arabic writing, sir. Qur’anic verses. The Islamic calendar is lunar: each month begins with the first sighting of the moon in the evening sky. So, two days or so after I saw it in the morning. It’s why they have a Red Crescent instead of a Red Cross.”

Jenkins nodded. “Right. New month, new murder. So we got three weeks or so.”

Purcell said, “I see. Do your best work, Detective Siddall. Let’s make this victim vanish, and find this killer without panicking the city. Come on, Curtis: I’ll give you a ride home.”

He walked from the entranceway, Jenkins and Diana in tow; but just at that moment, a patrol car pulled up and Brown and Slaughter got out. Brown said, “I saw the entrance was unguarded, and… Chief. Captain.” A pretty crisp salute. “Everything all right?”

Purcell didn’t miss a beat. “Never better. Captain Jenkins and I were on our way back from a scene, and wanted to make sure the detectives knew they have our support. Keep up the good work, Sergeant.” A smile to Slaughter. “Officer.” He and Jenkins walked around the building to Purcell’s car.

Brown gave Diana a long look before shrugging. “Come on, Slaughter; you want to make sergeant, you learn to stay away from the brass.”

Now we see why Diana saw the moon way back at the beginning of the chapter. It gives a base for this to stand upon. The murders are on a lunar cycle. Note that Purcell is concerned more with the media reaction than the death of Mario, who we don’t even see him seeing. Everyone here understands that reaction and perception are the important thing, except maybe Slaughter, and she’s certainly had her eyes opened in recent days.

But Slaughter has a body camera, and whatever else we may think of Brown, he’s no dummy. Now, he’s got footage of Purcell and Jenkins, the chief and a captain, coming to a third-rate homicide scene. He has to be wondering what for.

Novel 3: Act II, Chapter 1, Scene 1e

TOC page here.

We’ve just discovered that the body in the building was Mario, who was so helpful to them the previous month. Now, Diana goes back outside the building to make some phone calls, and encounters the Greek chorus:

Diana picked her way back downstairs and emerged from the building to see Brown, nightstick in hand, facing down two familiar men. “For the last time,” said Brown, “the hotel is closed tonight. Go find somewhere else to drink yourselves to death.”

“Tommy! Ray-Ray!” said Diana cheerfully. “I’m afraid Sergeant Brown is right: you’ll have to clear off.”

“Hey, Ms. Detective,” said Tommy. “Tell us it wasn’t that old Reaper.”

“Nope. Just someone… looks like his heart gave out. We’ll take care of him.” She looked at Brown. “That goes for you guys, too: I’ll watch the door while we wait for Forensics.” To Slaughter, “Inspector Alawi is up there smoking cigarettes. Yuck.”

“That shit will kill you,” said Tommy, quite seriously.

Diana said, “It sure will. By the way, y’all are on camera now, so behave.” She pointed at Slaughter, who pointed at her body cam.

“No shit?” said Ray-Ray.

Tommy crouched a little, waved and smiled. “Hi, Mom!”

Ray-Ray said, “I thought your mama was dead.”

“It’s just what you say, man. Get with the program.”

Brown sheathed his nightstick. “If you say so, ma’am.” To the men, “Run along, now.”

Diana said, “Oh, that’s all right.”

Brown and Slaughter got into their cruiser and drove off south on Peachtree into the labyrinth of office buildings. Tommy said, “It’s him what should have that camera.”

“What I said. But that grump wouldn’t budge. You fellas see, or hear, anything? White vans?”

“No, ma’am. We had an eye out, too. Everybody made it through the holidays all right.”

Ray-Ray said, “Except whoever’s up there.”

“Yeah, ‘cept it’s already the middle of January. Holidays are over.”

Diana took out her phone. “Well, I have to make some calls. Stay safe, fellows.”

“You too, ma’am.” They gathered their packs and melted into the shadows.

Remember that the function of the Greek chorus (here, there are only two of them) is to reinforce the commonly-accepted wisdom. Cigarettes will kill you, you say “Hi, Mom” when you’re on camera, Brown is kind of a bad guy. Nothing to see, here: move on. But Brown has a camera now, and if you think this is only going to come in handy when Brown drops a gun on a random non-bad guy he’s just dropped, you haven’t read enough of the product of my twisted mind.

A Trail of Crimes Ends with Murder

This past Tuesday night/Wednesday morning, a former boxing champion, O’Neill Bell, was murdered in downscale Southwest Atlanta. He got off a bus, was held up, exchanged words with the robbers, and ended up shot to death. By itself, this is tragic: here’s a guy who, whatever you may think of boxing, had a heck of a work ethic, and ended up dead because he wasn’t deferential enough to a low-end robber.

But there’s two other angles to this that make it an interesting story. One is that this is the second murder of a successful boxer in Atlanta in recent years. In 2009, boxing champion Vernon Forrest was murdered in a different downscale Atlanta neighborhood. Per Wikipedia:

At about 11:00 pm EDT on July 25, 2009, Forrest stopped at a gas station in the Atlanta neighborhood of Mechanicsville. With him was his 11-year-old godson. As the boy went inside the gas station, Forrest went to the back of his car to add air to a low tire. As this occurred, a man robbed him at gunpoint and fled. Forrest, who was armed, went after the man and shots were exchanged. After a short distance, Forrest gave up the chase and began talking to a second man. It was this man that shot Forrest seven to eight times in the back. According to police, the shooter and a second person left the scene in a red Pontiac. Forrest was pronounced dead at the scene and the death was ruled a homicide. Atlanta Police would arrest and later charge 25-year-old Jquante Crews, 20-year-old Demario Ware and 30-year-old Charman Sinkfield for his murder. It is believed that Sinkfield was the shooter, Ware was the robber, and Crews was the driver. All three are currently serving life sentences. (Georgia Department of Corrections)

If the events were more closely spaced in time, we might be forgiven for wanting to write a story where famous Atlanta boxers were being murdered. The initial suspect would be some ambitious young boxer who hasn’t got the talent to beat either of them in the ring; then we’d move to some trainer who had a grudge against both of them; then to some woman who had been dumped by both of them; then finally to a guy who figured boxers probably had a lot of money. Banal street crime, not conspiracy: cheesy but fun.

But there’s another, darker way to take this: if we look at another article on the Bell murder, we see that it was the culmination of a series of crimes by the same group of people:

On Wednesday, Atlanta Police released a photo of a person of interest in the case. Police also shared video of the stolen PT Cruiser that the robbing crew used in a daylong crime spree that ran from East Point to Clayton County to Atlanta. The crimes escalated each time until they ended with a murder for money and Bell being left to die in the street on Harbin Road.

Bunch of young and very stupid people steal a car, decide to commit a bunch of violent crimes. Anyone who’s seen Repo Man knows how this sort of thing will eventually end. The first crimes embolden them, so when Bell, a (professional) tough guy, doesn’t fold immediately, they’re hyped up enough to shoot the poor man. This scenario makes for a better piece of fiction, too: tell it from the POV of the weakest link in the stolen car, who thought they were just going for a joyride and is just not dim enough to understand that he’s liable to get tagged with felony murder and end up doing life like the driver in Forrest’s killing.

This dovetails with another tale of another crime spree, from back last spring. I posted about it at the time: four teens, working their way down a road, robbing and stealing, until they come across two genial barflies in Little Five Points and end up murdering them both. I still walk past the memorial for the two guys all the time. When I wrote about it, I had the same idea as I did in the paragraph above: write it from the perspective of the weakest link among the robbers. These four guys got caught, but only through the improbable intervention of a good Samaritan. The guys in the Bell killing got snapped on convenience store video, so it’s likely they’ll get caught, too; but it says something about metro Atlanta policing that people are allowed to get away with multiple crimes like this.

Listen to a Story for Free: “Measure Twice, Cut Once”

Enjoy it here.

Novel 3: Act II, Chapter 1, Scene 1d

TOC page here.

We ended the last excerpt with our detectives about to find the second body in the series of murders. Here we go:

Diana handed him the thermos, then followed the light. The heap resolved itself into a figure of a man, face down, the tips of his kinky hair a faded magenta. She broke protocol, grabbed the man’s shoulder through the army jacket, rolled him to see his face. “Oh, shit,” she said aloud. “It’s Mario.”

“That ain’t all,” said Mustapha. He lit a cigarette, began to walk toward her, keeping the light trained on Mario’s corpse. “Go on, pull up his shirt; I already did.”

With a sense of dread, Diana rolled Mario all the way onto his back. He’d been strangled, with something at least superficially similar to what had killed Alex Dawson. She reached to his belly and pulled up his cheery Coca-Cola T-shirt—and there it was, the calligraphy with its swirls and dots.

She stared at it for a long time, then pulled the shirt the rest of the way up, uncovered her tablet and zoomed in on the writing to photograph it. Then she pulled the shirt back down and rolled Mario back onto his face. “Is it the same verse?”

“How should I know? It’s the same style. You know we’re going to get blamed for this.”

She walked to the window. “Not if I can help it. Were Slaughter or Brown up here when you rolled him over?”

“No. And I don’t think either one peeked. He’s obviously dead, they took it upstairs like they’re supposed to. It’s just you and me, for now.”

Through the decades of grime on the window, Diana could see all fourteen lanes of the Downtown Connector directly below her, with the Peachtree bridge crossing it right below her. On the other side of the highway was the pocket park where they had found Alex Dawson; and beyond that, the hospital complex, with the corner of Peachtree-Pine visible on the other side of the street. “Okay,” she said. “Let’s kick it upstairs again. You want to guard the body or call the Chief?”

He exhaled, crouched, stubbed out his cigarette on the floor, placed the butt on the windowsill. Then, “Oh, that was a serious question?”

So it’s Mario, who helped them out before by drawing the right kind of van. Is this a coincidence: is Mario just the latest victim? Or did he die because he helped them? This is what’s going through their heads right now, but we needn’t actually state it. But Diana’s “not going to get blamed for it”. How and why not? Clearly, it’s going to involve a call to the chief, and if she’s concerned about Slaughter and Brown not seeing it, it’s probably not all that ethical. And that’s something that I want to be clear about in my fiction: Diana and Mustapha are intended to be likable characters, but not perfect ones. This would be boring.

Kendrick Johnson (5)

I’ve written before about this story, where a black high school football player from Valdosta, the largest city in very rural south Georgia, was found dead wrapped in a mat in his high school’s gym. There are layers and layers of small-town corruption happening here: missing video files, a misleading autopsy, an exhumation.

Johnson’s parents are suing the local authorities and local FBI agent Rick Bell, claiming Bell’s two sons Brian and Branden murdered Johnson, or had something to do with his death, and then had their crimes covered up by sympathetic law enforcement. The DOJ is investigating the local sheriff’s office and the Bells, and has repeatedly asked the courts to block discovery in the civil lawsuit on the premise that this would interfere with the criminal investigation.

Today, CNN reports that the civil court has released some of the details of the DOJ filing, which claims that there are obstruction and witness tampering issues involved. This is the clearest indication yet that the Johnsons have real merit to their case. The circumstantial evidence was already there, but reading the tea leaves here implies real physical or documentary evidence. This could be an effort to Bleak House the entire thing: drawing it out endlessly until somebody runs out of money. But it’s much more likely there’s a noose closing around the local sheriff or the Bells, and the criminal hammer will fall before the civil one does.

A Different Kind of Murder by Cop

Here’s a story from Douglas County, the western exurbs of Atlanta.

Shawn Clark, 29, who served with the Atlanta police from March 4, 2010 to Jan. 7, 2013, was arrested Nov. 14 in Union City in connection with the fatal shooting that afternoon of Antonio Ellison, 27, Douglas County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Lt. Glenn Daniel said.

Kind of lame journalism here, because the salient fact isn’t that he was an Atlanta cop, but rather that this ended almost three years ago. It’s impossible to make a proper snap judgment (and this is the AJC, so snap judgments are usually the point) without knowing what he’s done since then. Clearly, he’s not a cop, because the article would/should tell us where he serves now; but then why isn’t he a cop? Because he opened his own Dippin’ Dots franchise? Because he’s living the dream working as a bookkeeper? (No more wrestling with drunks!) Because he’s a semi-employed ne’er-d0-well who resigned in disgrace?

Clark and a woman had gone to a residence in the 2500 block of Winding Creek Drive in Lithia Springs to get her children and personal belongings, Daniel said.

Clark and Ellison argued and began fighting, and Clark shot Ellison with a handgun and left the scene, Daniel said.

Lt. Glenn Daniel is getting a lot of airtime here. But we don’t have anything like enough information here to have any idea what might have happened. The classic story would be that Ellison is the now-ex of the woman Clark was with, but does this mean Clark was her boyfriend or just a friendly ex-cop neighbor? But that’s just guesswork: we’re also missing the central piece of information, which is whether Ellison was even a residence of the house.

If this were to be turned into one of my stories, and the real people replaced by characters, neither man would have anything to do with the woman: they’re both just random neighbors who happen to get into a fight that becomes a homicide. I’d do a little misdirection and lead Diana and Mustapha down the path of “oh, of course, old boyfriend, new boyfriend, custody battle…” before bringing out the fact that neither of them had any real contact with her.

The next biggest cliché would be the two men knew each other from before: the detective would unearth some buried piece of evidence that showed the two men had a previous conflict. Maybe misdirect with that, too. Because the real reveal in the story would be that there’s a third man, the actual now-ex of the woman (she’d be an actual character in the story, too) who in some way causes or escalates the conflict that leaves one guy dead and another charged with his murder. The story would have the third man in the way background, and then with each scene, others’ testimony would bring him in a little closer to the actual scene. And therein lies drama, because how can the detectives arrest him for just using words to provoke a gunfight?

Edit: Twelve hours later, 11Alive comes through: Clark was investigated and disciplined before leaving the force, and Ellison is the father of the children. This doesn’t seem like the sort of information that would be difficult to find or to update the article with—they could have phoned Glenn Daniel—but there’s the AJC for you. Again, this is a crime fiction blog, so we’re not here to criticize Ellison, but rather to take real-life crimes and explore how their structure or some of their details might work in the context of a fictional crime story.


Novel 3: Act II, Chapter 1, Scene 1c

TOC page here.

So the first two parts of this scene have shown time passing, and Diana’s character, and a brief look at the moon. A little lull, but an informative one. Now we move to action in this longer excerpt:

She must have fallen asleep: the lights were on, and the book on her chest. The phone ringing made her mind shift straight to Andrew: she groaned and reached to turn it off. Then it struck her that the phone was making a triple beep. She took a deep breath, answered. “Siddall.”

“Hey, there,” said Marlene from Dispatch.

“I was dreaming of…” Diana heard herself say. “Never mind.” She slid her legs from around the sleeping cat. “What’s up?”

“Your partner’s in the old Medical Arts Building downtown on Peachtree. He said to come quickly.”

“Oh.” She blinked twice. “Oh. Don’t tell me–”

“He didn’t tell me. But he sounded worried. Which, the Inspector?”

“Yeah. Thanks. I’ll take it from here.” She hung up, looked at Frey and wondered, not for the first time, what life would be like if she were the sort of person who only lived for contemplation. But she knew too well that she thrived off the action, too. She didn’t even need coffee, but Mustapha would, so she put on a pot while she got changed.

Twenty minutes later, she pulled to a stop in front of the Medical Arts Building, a once-beautiful Art Deco tower abandoned long ago, and now for so long given over to squatters. It would be far too expensive to renovate, even given its prime location just across the freeway canyon from where Alex Dawson was found.

Officer Slaughter and Sergeant Brown were standing at parade rest at the building’s main entrance, which was usually boarded up, but now yawned open, with one of the plywood planks laid over the threshold. “Evening, ma’am,” said Brown. “Your partner’s with the body. Fourth floor. Watch out for stray needles.”

Diana got out her tablet. “Y’all were first responders?”

“Yes, ma’am. One of the other squatters called in to Dispatch. Good thing the weather’s been cold: he’s been there for days. We cleared the floor, called Major Crimes, got your partner.”

“Any ID? Cause of death?”

“Didn’t check: left it for your partner. Not a civilian; one of the vagrants. If he didn’t drink or freeze himself to death, it’s your basic public service homicide.”

Slaughter groaned aloud; Diane looked down to hide her own grin. Brown didn’t miss a beat: “Here, Slaughter, turn toward me so I can say that into your brand-new body camera.” Diana looked back up to see Brown crouch down and stare into the camera mounted on Slaughter’s shirt pocket. “Each of these parasites will cost the city, county and state hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of his short and miserable life. If you call it life.”

Diana said, “Your opinion is duly noted, Sergeant. Make sure everyone stays out.” She walked over the plywood into the building, then realized she’d botched the dramatic exit. She went back and got the thermos of coffee out of the car. She had time for a quick wink at Slaughter, whose body camera Diana herself had arranged, before ducking back inside.

Four floors up, Mustapha stood in the glow of streetlights, an unlit cigarette in his mouth.He pointed his Maglite at a heap of clothing in one corner. “Get ready for the circus,” he said. “Oh, good, you brought coffee.”

Brown’s a dick and Slaughter has a body camera now. There’s a corpse in an abandoned building, a few days after Diana saw the tiny sliver of old moon right before dawn. Mustapha has coffee. Murder number two: here we go.

Novel 3: Act II, Chapter 1, Scene 1b

TOC page here.

Second part of the first scene of the new act: now we reënter the A plot with a link back to the murders.

Two weeks into the year, Diana was in front of a downscale strip club in southwest Atlanta in the glow of dawn, where a man’s body lay cooling on the cold ground. The witness talking to him would have been largely incoherent even when sober, so Diana’s mind wandered. She saw the tiniest fingernail paring of a waning crescent moon just above the eastern horizon: the oldest of old moons, it was no real crescent but a black circle cut out of the pink dawn, with just its lower edge aglow. This seemed important rather than merely beautiful, but she couldn’t think why.

The witness reached out and touched her arm. “We tried to tell him, you know? But he ain’t listen. Bitches don’t care about nothing but money.”

Five days later, she was home unexpectedly early, with no open cases but Alex Dawson’s. The house was empty but for Frey the cat, the fridge was empty but for a heel of fruitcake even she wouldn’t touch, the lights were out, the curtains drawn against the darkened winter sky. The perfect evening.

She sat in the bathtub with House of Leaves for an hour. She lay on the couch to cool off and read until she decided she needed a blanket, then crawled into bed. Frey reappeared and crawled between her knees to give himself a bath, then fell asleep. She kept reading. At some point, her phone rang. Later, when she got up to pee, she checked the screen, saw Andrew’s name, snorted out loud.

So we see the moon, which of course Islam is a lunar religion. But Diana is too caught up in the moment to link the moon to anything else. She’s there at the scene of a banal murder, the sort of thing that will be solved in half an hour, so she’s half asleep while she’s investigating. Look at that throwaway line, right there at the end of the second paragraph. Do you really think that’s unimportant in the larger scheme of things?

Then we get to see the real Diana, the introvert who just wants to nap with the cat and read her book. This is the person she would be if it weren’t for police work and Grace. This is the person she can be because of money. This is the person she was before Andrew and Grace. She’s something of a wish-fulfillment for the typical reader of genre fiction: what if I could just nap and read all day? Dreamy. But this is still just a pause.

Novel 3: Act II, Chapter 1, Scene 1a

TOC page here.

Now we transition away and show the passage of time, from mid-December to mid-January in four paragraphs:

Diana and Mustapha spent hours per day, days on end, tracking all the white delivery vans in the city, but came up with no connection to Alex Dawson’s death. People on the Internet spent a lot of time and energy attacking and defending Sergeant Brown, but Diana kept Melody Slaughter’s secret for the sake of Slaughter’s career. Public outcry over the death of Abdelraziq Ben Hamid al-Haddad lasted exactly two days, until a trio of youths carjacked a young mother in the underground garage of the Edgewood Retail District and killed her for the trunkload of Christmas presents she had bought for the disadvantaged children she worked with. Diana and Mustapha had all three youths in custody within twenty-four hours, because they were exactly as bright as the average carjacker, but Alex Dawson and Abdelraziq al-Haddad were off the local newsfeeds and out of the public’s mind.

Diana shared the family tradition of Christmas Eve Eve dinner with Fiona, Grace, Severin and her own father, former Fulton County District Attorney Malcolm Siddall, now eighty but still hearty. Andrew and his cow remained unmentioned; but Malcolm took Diana aside as he left and said, “You’re free, now. Well, you always were.”

“Thanks, Daddy.” She shrugged it off; but half an hour after they left, she was booking plane tickets and taking advantage of nine weeks’ accumulated lost time to take herself off rotation for the holiday. The next night, she had Christmas Eve dinner and much merriment with her friends in Chicago.

She and Mustapha had their traditional New Year’s date three stories underground in a parking garage, where the bullets fired up in the air by celebrants all over Atlanta could not come down upon them. The city made it all the way to thirty-nine minutes after midnight this year before recording a homicide, but at least it was deliberate—the classic argument over a parking space—instead of accidental from a falling bullet.

The case disappears, replaced by something more shiny and lurid. Diana has a family she spends time with; she has nebulous friends she prefers to spend time with. She and Mustapha have their own holiday tradition: staying safe. Atlanta is a violent and foolish place.

Next we move straight into another crime in the very short (only three chapters) Act 2. If this novel were purely about the A plot, we’d begin in medias res with another murder. But this novel is really about Diana’s character, so we have to contextualize the crimes.