The Mothership Connection (8)

Parts 1, 23456 and 7 of this story about an empty grave found in an under-construction Beltline where we try to ascertain whether I can write a compelling story with hip-hop as the background. We just found out the kid with a “gang tag” doing his homework in the car the night of the pot festival is an aspiring rapper with a hip-hop pedigree that connects him to Big Daddy Jay, who a decade ago was a big star, but is now a producer, and recently out of jail in New York where he took the fall for a protégé. Then we heard from people who walked down what would become the Beltline late at night after the pot festival, where they say a guy digging a grave. Once Diana does some research, she finds out that Big Daddy Jay was married to one of the other men in the group, Thirty Ought, who has since disappeared, presumed to be hiding from the law but possibly recently disinterred from the Beltline. So now, finally, five thousand words in, we get to meet actual hip-hoppers:

Diana was right to wear the fancy earplugs, thought Mustapha. Even he thought it was loud as shit in Club 112, and his hearing had been crap ever since Vietnam. The scene was off the hook, if anyone still used that phrase: bodies writhing, bass pounding, multiple video screens ready to set off anyone’s epilepsy. His sense of smell worked great, though: he wished he’d brought some nose plugs along to block the sweat, cologne, absurdly overpriced brand-name liquor, all overlaid by a thick mix of about two-to-one tobacco to high-quality cannabis.

Diana stood on tiptoes and cupped her hands to say something into the ear of the bouncer, who looked like he’d been rejected by the NFL for being too big. The bouncer nodded, spoke into a lapel mike, called in a manager, a fireplug of a man in a two-thousand-dollar suit. A few more whispered words, and the manager led them straight across the crowded dance floor, he and Diana slim enough to slip between the dancers, Mustapha relying on bulk and cop glare. Just as they were in the middle of the dance floor, the music abruptly cut out; Mustapha watched bodies melt in slow motion from dance poses back to earth. The DJ’s voice came through the speakers like the word of god: “Murder police in the house!” The crowd cheered, the beat came back, the dancers’ arms shot to the sky.

Within moments, they were in a VIP room: velvet couches, bottle service, the glitter side of gangster. Inside, the music had its own volume control, so it was tolerable, though Mustapha fancied he could see the one-way glass looking out on the dance floor vibrating from the bass outside. Big Daddy Jay held court in the center, an outer ring of hangers-on surrounding an inner, this latter in a slightly different dialect of logos and poses. Had they come with him from New York? None of them were real gangsters, except the kid next to Big Daddy, who was hard, eyes unmoving, tweaked among a bunch of stoners.

Big Daddy rose to greet them. “Now I know I’m home for reals. Two days back and I got the po-lice asking me questions.” His suit was gorgeous and understated; the flashy rings and necklaces and earrings were anything but. Yet the diamonds were all too big: Mustapha was willing to bet that a businessman like Big Daddy Jay wouldn’t wear real stones to a club. “Y’all know I’ve been up north for years?”

Diana said, “There’s no statute of limitations on murder, Mr. Evans.”

“You got the wrong guy. I hung out with some hard men back in the day, but I’ve been strictly a businessman all my life.”

“You just did a year in jail.”

He patted the young man’s shoulder. “That was just protecting my investment.” He turned to the kid. “Shaun, these here the real life Atlanta murder police. This lady started a little after my time, but the big man has put more men in jail, sent more men to the death chamber, then the whole Pirate Mafia ever put in the ground. Detectives, remember this moment, and you can tell y’all’s kids you met Shawty G before he blew up platinum. Say hi, Shaun.”

The kid just glared. Diana said, “I’m already treasuring the memory. Say, Mr. Evans: where’s your husband?”

The room went silent for an instant, though the music never stopped. Shawty Gee’s glare softened into confusion; Big Daddy’s broad grin flashed to grim for an instant before reasserting itself. “Man, y’all have done your homework.”

“Your husband?” said the kid.

“Yeah,” said Diana. “He and Thirty Ought were married, in 2004, up in Massachusetts.”

Big Daddy smiled, in control once again. “It’s true. He was sick, you see? Having this weird shit happen to him. We went to a doctor, paid cash, no records. Multiple sclerosis. And there ain’t nobody going to give a real gangsta like Thirty Ought no health insurance, especially with a pre-existing condition. Me, I always had a policy. So we went up there, had the wedding. Laughed our asses off about it. It was Thirty Ought’s idea: he read about Massachusetts making gay marriage legal and figured that was how he could get fixed. He was a hard, tough man; but multiple sclerosis is a terrible curse.”

Big Daddy looked down and noticed that he was worrying the ring on one finger with the fingers of the other hand. He put his hands carefully to his sides. “Anyway. It was all about the healthcare. And it worked: he started getting treatment. Look it up. But then, a little while after I went up North, he stopped returning my calls. I figure he’s got a girlfriend, what’s he need with a husband? Maybe a few months later, his moms calls me, wonders if he’s up there. I made some calls, but… y’all cops took down the New Pirate Mafia, and nobody’d seen him. Thirty Ought’s mom said she talked to y’all. But she passed on while I was a guest of the state of New York.” He picked up his champagne glass, toasted the air. “God rest her. I asked around, looked up some old friends, when I did the show in Pittsburgh this morning. But it’s a whole new generation: some of those kids ain’t even heard of Thirty Ought.”

Shaun narrowed his eyes. “You was married? To a man?”

“Still am.” He reached out, pinched the kid’s cheek. “Why I ain’t axed you yet.” Most of the hangers-on laughed. He looked at Diana. “Anything else y’all need to know?”

“Sure. Where were you Friday night? Early Saturday morning.”

“Me and Shaun here went to that 4/20 Festival. Strictly for the music, you understand?”

“Of course. You were together the whole time?”

“No. Shaun here found him some company of the female persuasion. I hung out, listened to what them stoners are doing with beats. But that’s all I’m going to say. Y’all find Thirty Ought, tell him to call me. He owes me a few years’ worth of anniversary presents.” He stood up, fished out a phone, looked at Diana. “Read me your number, and I’ll text you my attorney’s contact information.”

This was the hardest part to pull off, because it’s a culture I only really know second-hand. But it works, because we’ve already got to know BDJ and what he’s all about, so nothing here comes straight out of left field. He was married for health insurance: not uncommon, though a little unorthodox for the standard image of hip-hop, given that it’s a gay marriage. It makes sense, though: they’re married on the down-low not because they’re secret lovers, but because BDJ was trying to help his friend with medical treatment. It humanizes them both and draws us away from “pure” hip-hop, thus making the story much easier for me to write.

But where does the story go, now? BDJ has explained everything so far.

True Tragedy is Banal

Here’s a crime blurb from WGCL that’s just a few paragraphs but that has an entire novel’s worth of tragedy and human frailty condensed into it. Let’s take it apart, a few paragraphs at a time:

COLLEGE PARK, GA (CBS46) –

Rochelle Jones said she can’t believe her neighbor, Robert Moore, is gone.

“He was a good person, an innocent person is gone,” said Jones Friday.

The 52-year-old husband and father of four was killed around midnight, when a bullet flew through the wall of his apartment and hit him in the head. The apartment is at a complex on the 2600 block of Roosevelt Highway.

College Park is a crime-ridden inner-ring suburb of Atlanta. Robert Moore was minding his own business in his own apartment, when something that crime novels and shows don’t usually address happened. Most people, because of crime shows, video games and basic ignorance, seem to think that a bullet disappears if it misses its intended target or something immediately beside or behind it. But of course bullets are ballistic, and travel very fast, more than fast enough to penetrate walls, car doors, etc. You think you’re safe in your apartment, but cheap apartments on Roosevelt Highway are made of plasterboard and not much else. Mr. Moore likely died before he even heard the sound of the gunshot. Even in a brick house, the bullet can come through a window. A significant number of people are hurt or killed every year by bullets fired by fools who think that once they fire a gun in the air in celebration, the bullet just disappears.

So we have four kids whose father is gone and a widowed wife who now has to figure out how to provide for them. This is enough drama for one novel, but there’s more:

Jones said she could hear the gunshots near her window.

“I ducked on the floor, told my family to get on the floor,” said Jones.

The trigger? Police said an argument started around 9 p.m. Thursday, when a group of three people playing basketball began to sit and lean on a car.

Officers said the owner of that car confronted the group and then left to run an errand. They said when he came back, the men hadn’t moved, that’s when things escalated. Moments later, shots were fired.

Only Moore was hit.

Sounds like Ms. Jones has way more experience with gunshots in the vicinity than she’d really like. Now look at the idiotic argument that killed poor Mr. Moore. It’s a special kind of violent loser who becomes upset enough to make an issue out of someone else leaning on their car. In this otherwise tightly-written piece, it’s hard to tease out that the owner of the car didn’t drive the car when they went on the errand. And of course, the kind of people who engage in this kind of behavior shoot about as accurately as stormtroopers, so whereas one of them dying might have been tragic to their families, the innocent Mr. Moore was the only casualty here, which makes the tragedy much worse precisely because it’s so banal.

But here’s where it gets so much worse:

Moore was only living in the apartment temporarily after a fire destroyed his family’s home in late April.

“He used to come and give me stuff every day, him and his wife. They said when they first moved out, they said, ‘I can see you’re a very good person,'” said Jones.

We have no backstory for the fire, but really, we don’t need one. Their home is gone, they have to live in the kind of apartments full of idiots who pull out guns when people sit on cars, and maybe because they come from a better place, they don’t have Ms. Jones’ reflexes when it comes to gunfire. Writing stories about deliberate murder can be difficult, because you have to get into the mind of someone who would deliberately kill someone else; but this? This is real human tragedy. Let’s all think good thoughts about the Moore family and hope that they survive the tragic and completely preventable death of their father.

College Park police told CBS46 an arrest has been made. Felerix Cofer, 44, the owner of the car, was charged with illegal possession of a firearm.

I didn’t even know it was possible to illegally possess a firearm in Georgia, where now we’re about to allow college kids to conceal-carry on campus. Let’s hope they eventually trace the bullet to Cofer’s gun and charge him with second-degree murder, which this is; but the level of human tragedy in this story would almost certainly imply that one of the other people fired the fatal bullet, and has since disposed of that gun. And it’s not as if this would bring Mr. Moore back, or as if any of these people have the money to settle a lawsuit.

 

The Mothership Connection (7)

Parts 1, 2345 and 6 of this story about an empty grave found in an under-construction Beltline where we try to ascertain whether I can write a compelling story with hip-hop as the background. We just found out the kid with a “gang tag” doing his homework in the car the night of the pot festival is an aspiring rapper with a hip-hop pedigree that connects him to Big Daddy Jay, who a decade ago was a big star, but is now a producer, and recently out of jail in New York where he took the fall for a protégé. Then we heard from people who walked down what would become the Beltline late at night after the pot festival, where they say a guy digging a grave. Now Diana gets to do some research:

Mustapha stopped at the entrance to their cubicle. Diana had headphones on, not her usual thing at all—and they were the big fat headphones all the douchebags were wearing these days. He craned his neck to see the tablet screen, which was playing a hip-hop video, a rapid cut sequence of clichés: brand names, guns, wheels, liquor, women. The desktop monitor had a dozen windows open: the one in front was the Vital Records page for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Mustapha made sure to rock back and forth so his shadow would alert her to his presence; sometimes, she got kinda jumpy.

But she calmly pulled the headphones from her ears. “I think we might be onto something.”

“Yeah? You going to change jobs, become a fly girl?”

“Too old. My butt’s not big enough. Sit down: this one will take a moment to explain.”

“I’ll make tea.”

“Okay. So Big Daddy Jay, who does kind of look like Rick Ross? He’s the one from the suburbs, came down to Pittsburgh to hang with the real gangsters, takes up with now-dead partner Sweet T, the guy with the boombox in the tub, and Thirty Ought, the hard guy with the pedigree. Sweet T’s dead, but Thirty Ought is missing. As in, actually reported missing, by his mom. Filed a report in 2007: Missing Persons did a truly cursory investigation, probably figuring the guy’s got money and is a well-known felon,”

“So he’s either buried somewhere, like the train tracks over in Midtown,”

“Or, what they figure, living somewhere under an assumed name, somewhere where all the other bangers can’t come back up on him.”

“Man, you have been watching a lot of videos.”

“I have to keep watching them over again, just to figure out what the heck they’re saying. But I haven’t got the good part yet. Missing Persons does just enough to satisfy Thirty Ought’s moms—er, mom—and filed it away. And if they’d done just a few more hours’ work, they’d have found something real interesting. See here?” She tapped the main monitor screen. “A marriage license. From Massachusetts, 2004, between Arthur Oakes a.k.a. Big Daddy Jay, and Tyrell Beatty,”

“Hang on: a gay marriage license? Tell me Tyrell ain’t Thirty Ought’s real name.”

“It is. They were, and still are, legally married. But that’s not even sort of all of it. The New Pirate Mafia was a corporation: everything split three ways, and Sweet T died intestate and without heirs. So in the absence of anyone clever enough in Sweet T’s extended family to gum up the works, Thirty Ought and Big Daddy get his share.”

Mustapha looked up from the teapot he was packing full of mint leaves. “And with Thirty Ought gone, Big Daddy gets it all. How he financed his move to the big time.”

“But that’s the thing. Thirty Ought does have a will, on file with the courts. When he dies, his share goes to,”

“His big gay husband?”

“Nope. Frank Gibson, now deceased in a drive-by, father of,”

“Um… oh. Our boy Christopher.”

“Thirty Ought and Frank were first cousins. With Thirty Ought declared dead, half of the New Pirate Mafia belongs to Christopher. But with Thirty Ought missing, there’s no probate, and nobody’s the wiser. Frank might have known he was Thirty Ought’s heir, but Christopher probably doesn’t.”

“Let’s go talk to Thirty Ought’s mom, then; see if she we can pry it open that way.”

“Can’t. Died about six months ago.”

“Well.” He poured, then sipped his tea, saw Diana wince because she thought he had burned his tongue. “You have to wonder if that was one of the reasons old Big Daddy set out for a colder climate. Out of sight, out of mind. Waits till the old lady’s died to come back and spend time with his homies, figures he’s home free. Oh, right; and then someone explains the Beltline to him, and he panics. He had to panic, if he used Christopher as his ride.”

“I’m thinking Christopher has no idea he’s Thirty Ought’s heir.”

“Grandma seemed pretty sharp.”

“She’s probably doesn’t know, either.”

Again, I can do it at three removes: Mustapha watching Diana, Diana doing research, the documents from a decade before. So it’s easier to throw a crazy wrench into the story by making Big Daddy Jay and Thirty Ought two married men. And now the story is about money, not about rhymes. Thank goodness, because I have no flow.

A Murderous Brawl in Augusta

A couple of weeks ago, two high school girls in Hephzibah, GA, just outside of second-tier city Augusta, set up a fistfight over what Richmond County Sheriff Richard Roundtree called “high school drama”. It more or less immediately turned into a brawl, with fists, cars, knives and clubs being used as weapons. An 18-year-old high school dropout, Demajhay Bell, was stabbed in the neck and died two days later.Now, Richmond County DA Ashley Wright has charged nine people with felony murder in connection with Bell’s death.

Felony murder, for people who don’t read tons of crime novels, is a little problematic: what it means is that you started or participated in an action that led to someone else’s death. Usually, we see it used against criminals who participate in gang violence and home invasions: homeowner ends up dead, nobody’s sure which invader fired the gun, charge’em all and make’em deal. Or, homeowner kills invader, others get away, charge’em all with their friend’s death.

These are uses of the charge that kind of make sense, especially as a deterrent: even getaway drivers sitting in the car during the invasion can get tagged with this. Though it does raise a question of actual culpability: what if the getaway driver really doesn’t know they’re a getaway driver? His friends con him into thinking he’s taking them to pick up a bag of weed or whatever, and someone ends up dead, and he ends up in prison for life for murder. Typically, you have to have intent or mens rea to be indicted of a crime, and this use of felony murder goes against this fundamental legal principle. Here’s a story from Gainesville, GA where the other already-convicted defendants are trying to tell the court that their getaway driver had no idea crimes were transpiring. Here’s a story from the Pennsylvania state legislature about a potential change to the law.

Back in Augusta, most of these people are getting charged because Wright thinks they know who stabbed Bell, and he’s using the felony murder charge as leverage to make them talk. And while this might well work, the question is whether it’s just. I don’t know enough about the details of the fight (you can go look up cell phone videos of it on LiveLeak, but I sure don’t want to) to ascertain how close these people who have been charged are to Bell’s death. The CNN article doesn’t tell me if the two girls who got in the fistfight—you know, “high school drama”—have been charged with felony murder. What really makes me curious is Roundtree’s final statement: “It was a series of events that led to it. It wasn’t just one incident of a violent act against an individual,” he told WRDW. “This was a coordinated, conscious effort.” What was, precisely? Where’s the causal link from the “high school drama” to the “coordinated, conscious effort”? I’ll follow this story and see whether I can find out.

If we consider this type of story from the perspective of crime fiction, it can become much more interesting. Let’s say I’m Fistfight Girl 1, a basically decent kid with some fairly typical high school drama, which includes Fistfight Girl 2, someone significantly more downscale than my college-bound self, and who has a conflict with me that she’s mostly made up but has some link to some guy who likes me and who she likes. Me, I just want her to go away, but she keeps bugging me, and my dad gives me what seems like good advice: “She keeps challenging you to a fight? You’ve done kung fu for ten years, and you’re on the basketball team, and that girl is on the fast-food diet and is just mouthy. A couple of punches ought to shut her up.”

So you arrange it, meet at high noon on neutral ground. The drama of the story is the lead-up to what you think ought to be a fairly short and successful confrontation, but you’ve never been in a fistfight outside the dojo before, and your kung fu training is all about not using violence when it’s not necessary, so you’re ethically conflicted and maybe a little nervous because that girl crazy. You show up: a bunch of her downscale friends are there. Trash-talking ensues, but you find that Zen spot inside you and say “Let’s get down to business”. And you do, and we spend a couple of pages contrasting the details of your fight with your inner thoughts. You can do this.

And then all hell breaks loose, as some conflict you had no idea even existed breaks out. You’re on the college prep track and keep away from people like this on purpose, and suddenly they’re waving weapons and someone’s driving a car through the crowd and WTF? The story would be great if you figured out that your opponent had no idea about this either, and you help her get away from it. Back at home, you’re hyperventilating, and then the cops show up and arrest you for murder. You don’t know the victim, you have no idea who might have killed him because you were focused on getting Fistfight Girl 2 out of there, and you don’t even know what felony murder is.

The question is, what’s the resolution here? I’ll follow up on the real and fictional story as I obtain more information.

The Mothership Connection (6)

Parts 1, 234 and 5 of this story about an empty grave found in an under-construction Beltline where we try to ascertain whether I can write a compelling story with hip-hop as the background. We just found out the kid with a “gang tag” doing his homework in the car the night of the pot festival is an aspiring rapper with a hip-hop pedigree that connects him to Big Daddy Jay, who a decade ago was a big star, but is now a producer, and recently out of jail in New York where he took the fall for a protégé. Now let’s hear from people who walked down what would become the Beltline late at night after the pot festival:

Diana answered the phone while Mustapha drove. “Siddal. Yeah, that’s me. Normal what? Oh, that. Yeah? Behind Midtown Promenade? Yeah, yeah; totally. Can they meet us there? At… is one o’clock too early? Yeah, sure. Three is fine. No, no; we’re Homicide: we don’t give a crap. Just don’t blow it in my face and we’re good. Listen: thanks a lot. No, we appreciate it. Bye.”

He said, “Don’t blow it in your face?”

“Weed smoke. Yuck.”

“Man, I always had you pegged for a secret stoner.”

“Pfft. I hate Pop-Tarts. But the stoner Twitter network is much more efficient than you might think: they’ve already lined up two people who saw a man digging a hole on the Beltline last night.”

“Let’s hope they both saw the same man.”

The first guy was from Stoner Central: he could be watching a Phish show right now. “I don’t have to tell you my name, do I?”

“Yeah, you do, man,” said Mustapha. “Sorry: you’re a witness. We think. But in your statement, you can just say you were going for a walk; you don’t have to say where from. What did you see?”

The kid shrugged. “Well, really, I heard it, more than saw it. I was kinda blazed—don’t write that down—and I’m walking along, and it hits me that someone is digging a hole. I mean, the shovel hitting the dirt, the thump of the dirt getting moved, over and over. At first, I blew it off, figuring I was just hearing shit. But then I’m like no, someone’s digging a hole. Then I kind of freaked out, you know, like fuck, someone’s digging my grave, I got to start eating right. Sorry about the language. But it was kind of creepy, especially because the guy doing it was this big black dude all dressed in black. All he needed was a Lincoln hat and he could have been a voodoo dude, you know? He must have heard me, ‘cos he looks up and asks me what the fuck I’m looking at. I just booked out of there, went home and went to bed. Forgot about it until I got on Twitter. I don’t know what else I can tell y’all.”

Diana asked, “Did you look at his face?”

“No, ma’am. From where I was, the moon was behind him. Sorry.”

A young woman walked up to them, nicely put together in full corporate drag. “Are you guys the detectives?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Mustapha. “You saw something last night?”

“Sure.” She looked at the shaggy kid. “Hey. You had cookies.”

He broke out into a big grin. “I still do.” His face froze. “I mean, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“We really don’t care,” said Diana. To the woman, “What did you see?”

“Rick Ross, digging a grave. That was fucked up. I had a second cookie, which maybe wasn’t the best idea, but I didn’t know that I’d have to cover for my hungover boss. Man, I just want to crawl back into bed. Nevermind: anyway, I’m going back to where I parked my car, over by Trader Joe’s? And I have to pee, and I can’t go into any of the bars because I’m too paranoid, so I figure, I’ll go down the little hill and pee on the train tracks. But I lose my balance and basically fall down the hill, and when I get up and dust myself off, there’s Rick Ross. I’d have pinched myself to see if he was for real, but that fall was kind of a buzzkill. He looks at me and asks me what the fuck I’m doing, I just got out of there and squatted next to my car.”

Diana asked, “So you saw this guy’s face?”

“Kind of. He had sunglasses on. In the middle of the night. Big black dude, big beard, dark suit.”

Diana went to one of the sites Evans had booked, did a search. “This guy? Rick Ross?”

She took it, looked; her mouth twisted. “Maybe. I don’t think this guy was that fat.”

“Okay… how about this guy?”

“Oh, that’s closer. You’ve got to understand I was real high.”

This part only connects to hip-hop insofar as there’s a well-known star involved, or at least someone similar to a well-known star. Now we know the grave was unearthed (and remember, there’s nothing in it) the very night our young aspiring rapper Christopher was sitting a few meters away in his car. Plus, this part was just fun to write.

The Mothership Connection (5)

Parts 1, 23 and 4 of this story about an empty grave found in an under-construction Beltline where we try to ascertain whether I can write a compelling story with hip-hop as the background. We just found out the kid with a “gang tag” doing his homework in the car the night of the pot festival is an aspiring rapper with a hip-hop pedigree that connects him to Big Daddy Jay, who a decade ago was a big star, but is now a producer, and recently out of jail in New York where he took the fall for a protégé:

Richard Evans looked nothing like an English teacher. He was built like a college running back and dressed like an upscale homeless man, in old army pants and a T-shirt from a 1998 charity walkathon, stretched tight over his chest. “All week, I have to wear dress shirts and slacks; you get me here on the weekend, you get me in rags.” From where he stood atop a chair, he gestured to Diana for the stapler: with this, he attached the rest of a decorative border around a bulletin board full of different examples of poetic forms. “So what is it y’all are looking for?” He was all smiles, eyes flashing, clearly fancying Diana.

“Well, Mr. Evans, we have one question, but maybe you can help us with two.” He wasn’t her type, Mustapha thought—too beefy and too short—but he could tell she enjoyed the attention. She showed him the photo of Christopher. “Tell us about this kid.”

Evans’ face fell. “Oh, man.” He hopped down from the chair. “Tell me he hasn’t done something stupid.”

“Nothing truly felonious. Maybe at worst, a lookout, or driver. Why does he go to school here? His grandma said magnet school?”

“Sure. Tri-Cities is a magnet for the performing arts. I’ll bet even you have heard of OutKast? They went here, back in the day. So every wannabe rapper from all across Atlanta figures they can replicate that. My job is to teach them there’s more about poetry than just rhyme. Christopher? He actually listens.”

“So he’s got a future as a rapper?”

“Maybe. Good flow, decent diction, and a pedigree. His family were all real gangsters, which is the problem. They were hard and he isn’t. Which is a point in his favor as a human being, but not so much as a rapper. He tells good stories, and he’s heard good stories; but he hasn’t got the skill to front himself. And in modern hip-hop, goofball kids with a fine sense of observational humor, like OutKast, aren’t going to make it. It’s a real shame. In a perfect world? We airlift him out of that ghetto, send him to college, have him write a newspaper column or a blog or something. He could do standup comedy. But make it big in modern hip-hop? Not so much.”

“Okay. Tell us about Big Daddy Jay.”

“He’s in town. Heck, my students are over in Pittsburgh watching him right now. And he and Christopher are related. Not biologically; more like a hip-hop genealogy.”

“Pretend we’re tourists from another planet. Go back to when Big Daddy Jay was getting his start.”

“Sure. You want, I can use your iPad and bookmark sites for you.” Evans led them to his desk, pulled out student desk chairs for both of them. “Okay. Back in 1998, Big Daddy Jay moves to Pittsburgh from middle-class suburbia, hooks up with the Pirate Mafia, who were a real gang. Pittsburgh Pirates, like the baseball team, right? Jay had flow, and business skills, but zero street cred. He gets together with this guy, Sweet T, who could write, and Thirty Ought, who had a shit-ton of street cred but couldn’t rap or write. Which is strange, because it’s Thirty Ought who had the musical pedigree. You see, back when, his own daddy was big in the electro-funk scene, early ‘80s arpeggiated stuff. Nothing you’ve probably heard of, but they put out a bunch of club hits under the name Electrifyin’ Warpdrive. That money is what funded the New Pirate Mafia. Big Daddy Jay did the business end, Sweet T wrote and performed, Thirty Ought looked good in videos and cover art, also provided the seed money. Here, this is Thirty Ought from about 2001.”

Evans called up a photo of what to Diana was a living stereotype: bandanna, wife-beater, tattoos, bullet scars, grim attitude. “Keeping it real,” she said.

“That was his function. Thing is, he was real. Thirty Ought and Sweet T were no-foolin’ real gangsters. Christopher’s daddy and uncle were in the game with them. Between the two of them, Sweet T, and Thirty Ought, they probably put a dozen other players in the ground before the New Pirate Mafia got off the ground.”

Mustapha said, “So what happened to the band? Where are the other two guys?”

“Well, Sweet T’s dead. Back in… 2005 or so? Smoking weed in the tub, kicking it old school listening to a boombox. It fell in the tub, power was on, that’s all she wrote. Then there was a drive-by, and Christopher’s daddy was killed and his uncle Keith went off to jail. Y’all’s own gang unit took down what was left. Next thing, Daddy Jay is up in New York City managing other acts.”

Diana said, “What did he do time for, up there?”

“Took a fall for someone else. He’s got this protégé, Shawty G? Now there’s a real gangster. They were clubbing, someone disses them, Shawty pulls a gun, security jumps in. Shawty has a record a mile long; a weapons charge is going to send him to Attica for life. Daddy Jay has a clean record—remember, he’s from Stone Mountain, not Pittsburgh—and he claims the gun as his. Everyone knows it’s bullshit, but he goes ahead and pleads guilty.”

Mustapha said, “Protecting his investment.”

Diana said, “Giving himself the real street cred he always lacked.”

Evans said, “Y’all just went to the top of the class. Not only that, but when he was in jail, Jay met another aspiring rapper, got him a contract. Actually recorded a couple of cuts from his cell. He’s due to get out soon, and he’s got Big Daddy’s marketing machine waiting for him.”

Diana asked, “What happened to Thirty Ought?”

“He ran. Got tipped off the cops were coming for them, disappeared. Daddy Jay got a big hit off it: Miss You My Brother. He’s like a ghost, now: every so often, you’ll hear someone say they saw him at a show or a party.”

“Hologram Tupac,” said Mustapha.

“Yeah, sort of. Only we know Tupac is dead for real.”

So here’s where the story actually gets in to hip-hop. It’s easier to do because it’s at two removes: Mr. Evans is telling the story, and it all happened ten years ago. I can create a rap group without having to actually have them right there, or give you any of their rhymes: this way, the characters can sneak up on you smoothly enough without truly alerting you to my lack of acquaintance with 20-teens hip-hop.

The Mothership Connection (4)

Parts 1, 2 and 3 of this story about an empty grave found in an under-construction Beltline where we try to ascertain whether I can write a compelling story with hip-hop as the background. We just found out there was a kid with a “gang tag” doing his homework in the car the night of the pot festival:

“Christopher,” said the old lady, “is my pride and joy. He knows not to smoke that weed and mess up his mind; he’s the only kid in Pittsburgh who has a future. And I don’t know who he’d run with here; he goes to the magnet school down by the airport. I’d have known he was going to a dope festival, I’d have kept the keys. He told me he had a chance to do some rhyming on stage, so I let him go. He loves him some poetry. You see, his papa was in the game, one of the original Pirate Mafia. Used to do security at their shows before he got gunned down. My other son is doing life for what them Bankhead boys came down on him for, but he’s up for parole in thirteen more years. Christopher saw Big Daddy Jay all kinds of times when he was a little boy.”

She steeled herself, gripped her walker, stood. “You can probably see why I want to keep him away from that life, and also why he wants to write about it. To him, it’s all memories of good times.” She sighed. “Pirates, they look good in the movies, but that ain’t reality.” She led them to the back door, carefully unlocked all three deadbolts, opened the door, unlocked the heavy steel grill that was the screen door, opened it. The perfect lawn was tiny and neat, and ran up to a small embankment.

Diana pointed. “That’s the Beltline, running behind your house?”

“That’s what they tell me. I’ll believe it gets to this neighborhood when I see it.”

The car was under a vinyl cover. Mustapha peeled it back, cupped his hands, looked in the driver’s side window. “Clean as a whistle.”

“Well, it better be,” said the old woman. “I told him he borrows it, he has to bring it back cleaner than he found it.” She handed Diana the keys. “It better not smell like weed smoke.”

“Smells like it’s been washed,” said Mustapha.

Diana popped the passenger door, put her head in. “Smells like it’s been detailed.”

“Who the hell details cars on a Saturday morning?”

“Neighborhood this poor, people are entrepreneurial. Better question: why would someone detail a car on a Saturday morning?” She stood up. “Ms. Jones, when did Christopher come in this morning?”

“Now that I can’t say. I sleep with earplugs.”

Mustapha pointed over the chain-link fence. “Maybe the neighbors will know.”

The old lady shook her head. “Ain’t nobody there. All those houses been boarded up for years, now.”

“Yeah? Then how come the garden plot is all freshly turned over?”

She took a pair of glasses from the pocket of her housecoat, held them up to her eyes, raised her eyebrows. “Now that I really can’t say. Maybe they’re going to grow them some weed. Or maybe some vegetables, sell them to all those people gonna ride their bicycles down that Beltline any day now.”

On the way back out, Mustapha scratched the address of the house next door in his notepad. “We get back, let’s look up the owners; nobody is going to give us exigent circumstances on a five-year-old corpse.”

Diana held up her tablet, started recording video, then spun slowly, taking in a panorama that ended on Mustapha. “I’d do it now, but,”

“Yeah. The records people won’t let you do it remotely. Ha: you think I don’t listen.”

“I was going to say that cell reception is terrible here.”

“What? In an up and coming neighborhood like this?” He spun around to do his own panorama of a down-and-out hood that had never quite climbed out of the ghetto. Diana pointed behind Ms. Jones’s house. “She’s right, though: if the Beltline gets finished, this neighborhood really will come up.”

“Yeah. White hipsters with expensive strollers are going to wreck the ambience, though.” They drove down the street and pulled onto McDaniel Street, which had been roped off with police barricades. Down the street, a truck-mounted soundstage was being set up, with a range of corporate vendor tents around it: cheap mobile phones, shoes, clothes, brightly-colored energy drinks whose names Diana knew she’d probably mispronounce. Around this were local entrepreneurs: guys with coolers full of soft drinks, the ubiquitous Sock Man. Sooner or later, there was going to be a guy selling meat out of a car trunk full of ice. Or seafood, two hundred miles from the nearest port.

The sergeant came trundling over. “Homicide in the house. Y’all are too early: no one’s got their drink on enough yet.”

“Hey, Lucas,” said Mustapha. “We’re trying to track down a missing corpse. What’s going on?”

“Big Daddy Jay, making his triumphant return to his old neighborhood. Going to throw out three or four rhymes, give away a few T-shirts, make the peeps listen to his stable of rappers. Y’all wasting your time hanging out here: this is party hip-hop, with maybe just enough artificial gangsta flava to pretend to keep it real.”

Mustapha said, “But this Daddy character, he’s from here?”

“Man, don’t you follow the news?”

“Fuck me, I only listen to classic rock.”

“I’m just funnin’ you; this shit makes me feel white. I only like classic soul, but you work in this hood a few years, you’ll pick it up. Daddy Jay is more of a producer, now: where the real money is. Now, back in the day, he was one-third of the New Pirate Mafia, and they was gangsta. Sort of. They broke up, he moved up to New York, started collecting younger rappers.”

“And now he’s back here, helping his old neighborhood.”

“Selling records, more like. He was in jail up there, just got out, is why he’s touring.”

Diana asked, “What was he in for?”

“Brought a gun to a Mets game? Something like that. He met some rapper in jail, got him all set up, trying to make him big.”

Diana said, “Sergeant, do us a favor?” She flipped through her tablet, showed him Christopher’s DMV photo. “This kid might get five minutes on stage. You see him up there, pay special attention.”

“That boy’s too young and pretty to be making corpses go missing.”

“That’s just what we’re hoping.”

Now we get some hip-hop in the mix. But it’s all from a decade before, which is what I think enables me to write about it and make it reasonably compelling.

The Mothership Connection (3)

Part 1 and Part 2 of this story I’m excerpting about a cold-case murder on the Atlanta Beltline.

Here’s Part 3:

The Midtown Promenade and the Midtown Place center south of that, where the old Negro League ball fields had once been, were covered in surveillance cameras. But the walk up to the Beltline from Midtown Place was up a steep embankment; from the Promenade, it was a shallow drop. The security cameras showed the parking lot of the Promenade to be crowded very late into Friday night; after one o’clock, groups of people, mostly young and shaggy, began to straggle back from the park.

Mustapha said, “I thought you booted people who walk into the park.”

“Usually, yeah,” said the security guard. “But they all paid up. Special event.”

“I was going to ask about that,” said Diana. “Park usually closes at eleven.”

“But it was 4/20 yesterday.” The guy put an imaginary joint to his lips. “Big pot festival, lot of jam bands, chicks with armpit hair.”

Mustapha said, “Great. They see a guy digging up a grave, they’ll just giggle.”

They watched the video feed until dawn began to near. A few cars were left overnight, but the last people in the lot were a quartet of white guys who stood around a late-model SUV, engaged in a desultory game of Hacky Sack.

“What a cliché,” said the security guard.

Diana said, “Why do they all keep checking their phones? Oh, they’re waiting on the man with more pot.”

“No,” said the guard. “They’re waiting for 4:20.” He pointed at the time readout in the corner of the screen. Sure enough, once the readout said 0420, all four guys fired up their own joints and passed them around: then, after a few moments’ conversation, they piled into the car and drove away very slowly and carefully. The car’s plates were from Cobb County, the heart of conservative suburbia.

“Sorry we couldn’t help,” said the guard. “I’ll keep an eye open. Man, y’all would have made your arrest quotas for the month just hanging out there on Monroe and pulling them over. Keep one of them sniffer dogs with you, like you’d need it.”

 

But back at the Midtown precinct, the patrol lieutenant shook her head. “Orders. Leave them alone unless they’re a clear danger on the road. Same as drunk drivers. We start pulling over your average intoxicated driver, the restaurant and bar association will set the mayor’s hair on fire. And I’ll take stoners over drunks any day of the week: you can’t do too much damage when you’re only going ten miles per hour. What is it y’all were looking for anyhow?”

Mustapha said, “A needle in a damn haystack. And the needle might not even be there.”

But half an hour later, a patrol officer came up to the double cubicle Diana and Mustapha shared. Rick Gibson was a ten-year veteran, the rare kind of guy who didn’t cherish an ambition to make detective, or even sergeant. “LT sent me up, said y’all wanted to know about anything weird at the Midtown Promenade last night?”

“Sure,” said Mustapha. “We’re about to have tea; you want some?”

“No, I’m headed home. Thanks, though. What is it you’re looking for? Because there was potheads all over the place, but they don’t make any trouble long as you drive up on’em real slow. There was this couple, in the art theater there? They were the only ones in the movie, they get it on, we had to come in and give them a warning, send them home. Oh, and two guys at the Highlander got into it over which Sabbath album was the best, but we just made them pay their tab and told them to go to the park, smoke some weed and chill out.”

Mustapha poured tea. “This would have been a parking lot thing.” He explained the story.

“No shit? We’d have heard of somebody dragging a body around… hang the fuck on. Okay, I don’t know if this was related, but, there was this kid sitting in an old white Cadillac, back up there behind the gay cowboy bar, so right by where somebody would come off those train tracks. So we figure he’s waiting on someone, reading a book, but then we come back like two hours later, and he’s still there. We roust him, run him and the tags, it comes up he’s from Pittsburgh. Not the city; the neighborhood. The car’s his grandma’s, he’s got no record at all but he’s got a flag from the gang unit.”

Diana said, “Find me a kid from that neighborhood who doesn’t.”

“What I said. He’s real polite, no attitude, talks like a white kid. Explains he had uncles were in the game, so there’s the flag. But he’s not: he’s doing his damn chemistry homework. Says his pals conned him into giving him a ride, he’s thinking it’s a hip-hop show, turns out it’s the 4/20 festival. He don’t smoke, so he heads back to the car to wait for them. We call grandma, she confirms she left him the car, tells us to make sure he stays out of trouble. So, no harm, no foul. But now I’m thinking he could have been the lookout.” Gibson shrugged. “Maybe I’m just succumbing to prejudice, you know? But pot festivals are a white kid thing.”

They aren’t, really. But there’s a kid with a “gang tag”, so of course this will get followed up. Still no hip-hop: just a body; or rather, a missing body and an empty grave.

The Mothership Connection (2)

The other day, I posted the first excerpt of an unpublished story, The Mothership Connection. The point here is to determine not whether I can write about hip-hop authentically—I can’t—but rather whether I can use it as the background for a story. In that excerpt, our detectives found an empty grave at the then under construction Beltline. Here’s the second part:

Captain Curtis Jenkins leaned back in his seat. “These guys were playing a joke on y’all?”

“No, sir,” said Diana. “They looked at the hole, figured it for a grave, called Dispatch, message got garbled by the time we got it.”

“There’s nobody at all?”

“No,” said Mustapha. “We had those guys walking all the way to Monroe. Found an old motorcycle, a microwave oven and a lawnmower, but no bodies or other gravesites.”

Jenkins nodded, slowly. “Then file it and move on.”

Diana said, “It made us wonder,”

Mustapha said, “It made you wonder.”

“Oh, hush. Think about it: that long-disused rail line would have been a great place to dispose of a body. Until last fall, there was nothing there but trash. So then the killer sees they’re grading the path; he panics, goes and exhumes the corpse.”

“Or maybe,” said Jenkins, “they were going to bury someone there, figuring the construction crew would cover it. And then they got scared off, I don’t know. Listen: I know y’all hate it when I talk like a bureaucrat, but you wouldn’t believe the pressure we’re getting on the budget. The city’s broke, folks. You bring me some kind of tangible evidence that someone was buried there, or you’ll have to move on.”

Mustapha said, “Told you he was going to say that.”

“Sir, that’s why we did some research, first.”

She did some research. I filled out paperwork.”

“I’m impressed either way,” said Jenkins. “What do you have?”

“Pictures,” said Diana. “I brought you actual printouts, too.”

Mustapha said, “I had to talk her into the printouts.”

Diana got out three 8×10 color printouts of aerial photographs of that stretch of the rail line. “This one here is from last summer. Here’s the bridge for Virginia Avenue, and here,”

“Okay, I see it,” said Jenkins. He took the photo. “It definitely looks a little different.”

“And here it is from 2007. Even clearer.”

“Yeah. But imagine me trying to justify this. They’re going to ask how we know it’s a grave.”

Mustapha frowned. “Curtis, why the hell would someone dig it up, otherwise?”

“I don’t know. There was different kinds of plants or something.”

“Well, there were,” said Diane. “Because they got dug up.” She showed him the third picture. “This is from 2003. See? Nothing other than the same plants that surround it. That’s a grave, sir.”

“It sure looks like one. But,”

Diana put a pathology report in front of him. “The soil that was dug up? Tested positive for products of decay.”

“You mean human decay?”

Mustapha said, “Curtis, it ain’t someone’s dog.”

“Okay, I give up trying to protect y’all. Ask around, see if anyone saw a guy digging up a grave. But right now, without a body, and without a missing person, you got no case. Someone dies under suspicious circumstances, you’re next up.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Diana.

“I don’t think you should. Go on; time’s a-wasting.”

Again, we haven’t got to the hip-hop part yet. This is just a murder mystery.

 

The Sad Tale of Trentavious White

The Street Execs studio in northwest Atlanta is notorious for producing quality hip-hop and firearms discharges. Last week, rapper Bankroll Fresh, whose mother named him Trentavious White, was shot and killed at the studio. Police are saying nothing about who might have done this and why, and whether it was deliberate or whether Mr. White, whose career was on a real upward track, simply got in the way of a bullet fired at someone else or at random. Gossip sites are saying plenty, with their usual close regard for accuracy and detail.

I’m not going to comment on Mr. White’s death except to say that all homicide is the culmination of tragedy. I write murder mystery fiction, and I know my limits, and my limits are well short of making compelling fiction about the Atlanta hip-hop scene. I’m a middle-aged white guy who likes classic rock, and while I might well create a compelling plot if I spent enough time lurking on major hip-hop sites, I’m still going to come off like an ass, because no non-native speaker masters another language in middle age. Except Vladimir Nabokov, and I ain’t him. I have a good enough ear that I can put a hip-hopper in a story as a witness or secondary character, but I can’t make a story about hip-hop. And never mind the “cultural appropriation” argument, which is just dumb: I write about Atlanta, and while I’m no hip-hop fan, it’s an essential part of the city.

The only time I’ve tried is a story I’ve yet to publish called The Mothership Connection, and it works because most of what happens in the story takes place a decade or more before, and the plot isn’t really about hip-hop. I’m going to excerpt it over the next week or so here as an exercise in self-reflection: am I, in fact, too white to write a story about rappers? You be the judge.

The Mothership Connection

“But you have to admit it’s a beautiful morning for a walk in the park,” said Detective Diana Siddal.

“Ask me again after I’ve had a cup of tea,” said Inspector Mustapha Alawi. He helped Diana up the embankment and onto the flat, wide grassy path that was being transformed into the Atlanta Beltline. From this point on, there was a wider concrete path, still so new as to be white rather than gray. Once the funding got sorted out, there would be a streetcar running alongside the path, linking up a lopsided circle around downtown about three miles in diameter and hopefully turning some of the ghettos on the southwest side into functioning neighborhoods once again. For now, the city was racing to pave the quadrant in the affluent northeast section, so white yuppies could ride thousand-dollar bicycles from their already-gentrified neighborhoods up to Piedmont Park.

“What’s not to like? Here we are, spending part of our workday enjoying the outdoors.” She twirled around, arms outstretched. To their north, the Beltline was elevated above the buildings on either side: they could see off to their left the cluster of towers at the center of Midtown, gleaming in the light of the rising sun to their right.

“Yeah, yeah; it’s spring and the chickens are clucking or whatever.”

After a quarter-mile of walking, Diana bouncing and chattering all the while, they got to the end of the new pavement. For a hundred yards ahead of them, the ground was graded and gravel laid down; off to the side was the heavy equipment, with a cluster of guys in helmets and orange vests around it. Beyond that, the right of way was still covered in decades-old brush as it narrowed to pass under the Virginia Avenue bridge before crossing Monroe into the park. They couldn’t see the towers, because these were now blocked by the Midtown Promenade shopping center, but as they got closer, Mustapha could see that the construction guys all had steaming cups and there was a big plastic urn on the Bobcat’s fender.

The foreman stepped out to meet them “Clocked you for the cops right away,” he said. “Come on down here and we’ll–”

Diana held up a hand. “My partner’s not quite a cop yet. Please give him coffee, first.”

Twenty minutes later, they were at the far edge of the gravel. The foreman pointed. “That brush hasn’t been cut in years. There’s all kinds of shit in there: not just used condoms and empty beer bottles, but washers and dryers, car parts.” He led them along a faint trail twenty yards or so back into the brush, then pointed. “But this is our first grave. Called 911 right then and there, left the site alone. Didn’t want to contaminate the crime scene.”

Mustapha saw an irregular rectangle hacked out of the earth, maybe eight by ten feet in area, with piles of freshly excavated dirt around its perimeter. He took a few steps forward, craned his neck. The hole got smaller and more regular with depth; it bottomed out maybe four feet below the ground level. The packed red Georgia clay was scored with shovel marks.

Diana spoke before he could. “You moved the body? Where is it?” She looked around, but around the hole the brush was undisturbed.

“No,” said the foreman. “That’s the way we found it.”

See? No hip-hop yet. You won’t hear a word about hip-hop until 2000 words in, either. Because this story is about murder.