Probably Just a Simple Robbery

Pizza delivery driver is a pretty dangerous occupation. You’re vulnerable, you have cash on you, your company usually isn’t keeping very good track of you, and any evildoer can summon you as long as they’re outside certain neighborhoods. And that whole porn plot never happens. It’s decent money in a good situation, but so few situations are good. Usually, when a pizza delivery guy gets shot, it’s by a customer or pretend customer looking for quick cash. But here’s a counterpoint: two suspects were arrested today in the death of a driver.

A Gwinnett County police spokesperson said Robert Purcell, 40, was found shot to death inside his car.

Police described a possible motive for the homicide as “robbery,” but Purcell was not at his job delivering pizzas at the time.

His co-workers at Marco’s Pizza near Snellville reported him missing after he didn’t show up to work Friday.

Later, police found Purcell inside his car, parked on the exit ramp from Highway 78 westbound to Hugh Howell Road.

Now imagine a fictional narrative with these same parameters. Any number of reasons our hypothetical driver could have been killed: first on the list is the tips he drove away with at the end of his shift. Again: cash can be dangerous. Kind of sad in that he’s forty, as we usually think of pizza drivers as being in their twenties. But the Great Recession messed up a lot of people’s lives. But there’s more: there are details that turn this story into more than just a simple tragedy.

Known as ‘Jesse’ amongst his co-workers, they tell CBS46 Purcell was living out of his car for the past few weeks.

They said Purcell had a disagreement with his roommates and he was looking for another place to live.

He spent most nights sleeping in his car parked behind Marco’s.

Originally from Michigan, Purcell’s co-workers said he had no relatives in the area.

We could run our hypothetical crime story as “guy who got dealt an increasingly bad hand”, or somewhere closer to “guy who lacked the interpersonal skills to get far in life”. This is detective fiction, so it will probably be both. But his co-workers seem to care about him: a lonely guy but okay to work with. What got him there? What got him away from Michigan? Beside the weather, I mean. Such a short story, and we can drag so much out of it. What’s the relationship between the falling-out with the roommates and his death? Or is there one? Or, if we wanted to be all oblique about it, what happened one night in the Marco’s parking lot where only later did the people making it happen find out the guy had been sleeping there and probably noticed what they were up to?

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Novel 3: Act III, Chapter 1, Scene 3c

TOC page here.

A continuation of yesterday’s post. Diana and Mustapha are at the shelter, in order to break the news of Bill Knight’s death to Claire Longstreet, and also to find next of kin and any leads, which they do. But Claire Longstreet has so far skirted their questions about the mysterious Red, the victim’s best friend.

But this time, Mustapha wasn’t willing to be patient. “You’re still stonewalling us. Who’s he in the program with? Bring them to us now, and where the hell is this Red character?”

Longstreet blew her nose, stopped the tears. “The program is confidential. I can talk to them,”

“No, Ms. Longstreet, we can. You can counsel people all you want; that’s your business. But homicide is ours. We got the mayor and the media on our backs, cos once people have their coffee this morning, they’re going to start panicking about the Reaper, just like last summer. Your ordinary Atlantan doesn’t give a shit about your program, or your confidentiality, and neither does the mayor. You can cooperate, or you can get your water shut off again.”

Her lips went white. “You can’t threaten–“

“I ain’t threatening; I’m predicting. Your… philosophy, whatever, that’s your business. But public order is the mayor’s. You do not want to be the one the TV people are saying is hindering the investigation.”

Diana broke in. “We really don’t want try to get them to talk about the sort of personal things that are why you have confidentiality; we just want to hear anything Mr. Knight might have said about anything suspicious he might have seen.”

Mustapha said, “That’s right. And bring us to Red, now.”

Longstreet said, “Now that, I cannot do.” At Mustapha’s growl, “I passed on your request last month, and got an unequivocal response back that his family feels any further contact with the shelter will only impede his recovery.” She flared her nostrils. “You can try me in the court of public opinion, but I’m not without resources. The homeless and the formerly homeless deserve dignity–“

“Sure they do. What we are trying to give Bill Knight here, by tracking down the guy who killed him.”

“So I will ask the other Lazarus Program participants if they want to speak with you, And I will ask them to try to find it in their hearts to do so. But I won’t tell them what to do.”

She jammed a thumb into the corner of her eyesocket, right next to the bridge of her nose. “I’m sorry; this is going to turn into a full blown migraine; and here I am worrying about my own problems when Bill’s family will suffer far worse. Go talk to Catfish and Big Steve: Catfish has been in my program for a few months, and Big Steve has been nosing around for a while now: I keep hoping he’s going to come join us.”

Note how well she responds under stress. We know she’s hiding something, because she would be way more apologetic and less defensive if Red or the other Lazarus Program participants were truly irrelevant to the deaths. Of course, they may be irrelevant to the deaths; just not to something else. We know from Diana’s conversation with Tommy Clyburne in the previous chapter that she has big financial backing that would generally prefer to remain anonymous.

Novel 3: Act III, Chapter 1, Scene 3b

TOC page here.

A brief continuation of yesterday’s post. Diana and Mustapha are at the shelter, in order to break the news of Bill Knight’s death to Claire Longstreet, and also to find next of kin and any leads:

Longstreet began to weep again. Diana could tell from Mustapha’s expression that he was about to lose patience with her, so she intervened. “I understand you’re upset and anxious, Ms. Longstreet, but we still need to know who Bill went to the meeting with, and to speak to them. And we need to talk to Red.”

Another nose pinch, this one very brief. “He went with… oh, with Catfish and Big Steve. They’ll be in line for breakfast up at the Lutheran Church on Ponce, if habit proves true.” She arose, pulled back the curtain that covered the window; Diana could see rows of bunk beds, with men milling about. Longstreet looked over the room, shrugged, let the curtain fall back. “I don’t see them inside, so that’s my guess. Let me put the word out for you.”

A couple of phone calls later, “Yes, they along with half the other residents are there. They have to listen to a sermon, which personally I find objectionable, but most of them say it’s worth it for a better-quality breakfast.”

She looked at them in the eyes, first Mustapha, then Diana. “Please find this guy, detectives. Bill is… Bill was an inspiration to all of us. He had problems, he confronted them, he got his life together. His sons think he’s moving back in with them on Friday.” More weeping.

Now we have not only next of kin, but also some people who saw Knight a few hours before his death. Note again that Longstreet dodges the Red question.

Novel 3: Act III, Chapter 1, Scene 3a

TOC page here.

Diana and Mustapha arrive at the shelter, in order to break the news of Bill Knight’s death to Claire Longstreet, and also to find next of kin and any leads:

The sky was mostly light by the time they pulled up in front of Peachtree-Pine, but even this early, the door was open and a few people were milling about the entrance. Henry Buchanan was at the door, drinking out of a chipped coffee mug with World’s Best Dad printed on it. “Go on in,” he told them. “We all saw the news; Ms. Claire showed up a while ago, said to send you in. Who was it?”

“We can’t say,” said Diana. “We have to talk to the family, first.”

Claire Longstreet was in all black: sweater, jeans, real leather boots. She was pouring tea for herself. “My phone started ringing at four-thirty. Please tell me there’s some obvious clue and you’ll have someone in custody soon.” She grabbed two empty mugs, poured more tea, handed them out. “He was one of ours, wasn’t he?”

“One of yours,” said Mustapha.

Diana held out the tablet. “Bill Knight: I met him. You didn’t want him to talk to us. Now he’s dead.”

“Oh, no. But I don’t see how–“

“Cut the bullshit, Ms. Longstreet,” said Mustapha. “We’re not here to mess with your operation. We need a next of kin for Mr. Knight, if you’ve got it, and we need to know what meeting he was at yesterday evening.”

“Yes, yes, of course. I’m just… I’m wracked with grief, is what I am. Bill… Well, you saw him, Detective Siddal. He confronted his demons and came out the other side. His family… I just talked with his wife, three… no, four days ago now. He’s due—was due—to leave Peachtree-Pine and go back to living with her and her sons. They were going to throw him a party.” She put her face in her hands and wept.

Diana fiddled with her phone while Longstreet composed herself; then, she said, “All the information you have for his wife, please. And since he’s a member of your program, you’ll know where he went to his meeting. We need the names of the other participants in the program, and we need to talk to them, today. And you never got back to us on this fellow Red, and this time we’re not going to let you stonewall us.”

Longstreet pinched the bridge of her nose, hard enough and for long enough that Diana could see the tendons in her hand quiver with the stress. Finally, “Bill’s wife’s name is Catherine. Same last name. I can…” She got the MacBook out of her bag, typed and clicked, then took a pen and paper and wrote a few lines. She passed this to Diana. “Catherine works at AmericasMart, something about interior design. She lives with Bill’s father and the two teenage sons, but she’s mentioned several times that the business is an early-morning thing, so you should probably try her there first.” More computer work. “Bill was at the AA meeting at the Presbyterian Church on Peachtree and Fifth last night: says here it lets out at half past ten, but these AA people, they always stand around and talk, afterward. They don’t like to be alone. Henry will know if and when Bill came back.”

This is the third murder—to Claire, it’s the second—so they’re finally able to pry a next of kin and a last known location for Knight. What’s new here? Henry Buchanan is still a person of interest, and while Knight’s wife should be easy to contact, note that Longstreet didn’t answer the question about Red.

Step Up on Sweet Auburn

Last week, Martavious Boyd, a 32-year-old man about whom we know very little, got himself shot to death in the Sweet Auburn district:

Police said 32-year-old Martavious Boyd and another man got into an argument in the 100 block of Auburn Avenue around 11:30 Sunday night. The unidentified man pulled a gun and started shooting, according to police. The victim was hit at least once.

Investigators released surveillance video from a local convenience store, calling the man on the cell phone inside a person of interest in the case.

If you consider yourself a friend– step up. Forget the street code,” said stepfather Robert Willis, who is concerned some of Boyd’s friends and acquaintances may have key information that could lead to an arrest.

Willis and family members said Boyd had plenty of friends around the Sweet Auburn Historic District, having grown up in a nearby neighborhood.

“That’s what you’re doing to this family: denying them peace by not stepping up,” Willis said.

Let’s all think good thoughts for the family of poor Mr. Boyd, who deserved better. Sweet Auburn is a dangerous place; and while it’s not nearly as toxic as it once was, it’s still a rough area after dark.

If we were to construct a fictional story around this crime, there are three places we could go. One is gentrification: the Georgia State dormitories are nearby now, and the western end of the avenue is beginning, barely, to fill up with shops catering to students. Imagine a white girl who’s had two drinks too many walking into the middle of this, and both guys arguing simultaneously upset that what has always been black turf is being invaded and at the same time wanting to get the poor thing to safety lest the cops come down on the block like Thor’s hammer.

The second is the “stop snitching” culture, which is incredibly poisonous to underprivileged communities. Our victim analogue would also be from the neighborhood, so there could be a lot of drama there.

The last one is the overall history of Sweet Auburn. About 20 years ago, I got a tour of the area from a local (black) TV personality, who explained how the area was Atlanta’s best example of the law of unintended consequences. In the Jim Crow days, black folks couldn’t go into white people’s stores, so the thriving black middle class set up their own stores on Auburn Avenue. But once desegregation happened, most of those shoppers were like “sweet, I can go to Macy’s now” and Sweet Auburn just crashed, and never recovered, and never really has—although things are getting just the tiniest bit better, finally. Have that be the backbone of the story: both the people who were arguing had grandparents who owned successful boutiques back in the 1950s.

(No Known Relation)

This very short story packs a great punch. Wheelchair-bound Vietnam veteran kills home invader:

A wheelchair-bound Vietnam veteran fatally shot a man who forced his way into the veteran’s residence, authorities said.

Eddie Frank Smith, 69, was at home in Monticello on Thursday about 9 p.m. when Andre Smith, 22, (no known relation), forced his way into Eddie Frank Smith’s home through a rear door, according to a media release from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

When Eddie Frank Smith went to investigate, Andre Smith lunged toward the resident, who shot the intruder once in the chest, according to the GBI.

The intruder ran away and collapsed about 100 yards from the residence. Both Eddie Frank Smith and neighbors called 911. Andre Smith later died at Jasper Memorial Hospital.

Monticello is in central Georgia, about as middle of nowhere as you can get, considering it’s only about 70 miles from Atlanta. And this story just feels like Georgia: guns, dumb crime, no consequences for shooters. The only piece of data I’d want to know is whether Eddie Frank Smith is a white guy.

Rewriting this crime as a fictional story wouldn’t require much. You’ve got a homeowner who looks like an easy victim if you’re a dumbass twentysomething, but who in fact not only has combat training but a long history of being wary of every possible imaginary danger. Tell it from both perspectives. But in the story? There have to be three characters, not two—and they all have to have the same last name.

Novel 3: Act III, Chapter 1, Scene 2c

TOC page here.

We’ve received forensic details on the death of Bill Knight; now, let’s wrap this scene up quickly:

On their way out to the circle of cars, Purcell stopped them. “Same guy?”

Diana said, “Looks like it, sir. Writing looks the same; so do the ligature marks.”

“We’re going to have to deal with the media, and I mean soon. Those fucking kids. I don’t like drug prohibition laws, but I wish they hadn’t had the foresight to throw their weed away before they called us: we could drop some charges on them.” He pointed at Diana’s tablet. “AJC, Creative Loafing, all the TV channels have his picture up. They blurred the face, but still.”

Mustapha said, “Stall’em, Chief. We’ve got to do the notification.”

“That’ll work. But leave time to change clothes, because you’re both going to have to be at the press conference. And that will happen sooner rather than later. Mayor’s already out of bed.”

As they got to Mustapha’s Lexus, the reporters and their spotlights came running toward them. “Detectives!” shouted the guy from FOX, “Has the Reaper struck again?”

Diana had long ago learned to resist the reflex to shield herself from the spotlights. “A man has been killed. Until we’ve spoken with his family, we can’t comment further.”

“Show some respect,” muttered Mustapha as they got in the car.

Peachtree-Pine was only a few blocks away, but most of the reporters ran for their vans and began following the Lexus; it took half an hour and a couple of driving maneuvers that made even Diana close her eyes to lose the most tenacious of them. Just to be safe, they went back to the precinct and swapped cars for Diana’s.

Again, the media is everpresent, here. And not that helpful, like they might be in some cop novels.

Novel 3: Act III, Chapter 1, Scene 2b

TOC page here.

Diana has been called by Mustapha to the scene of the third dead homeless man, but right away she recognizes him as Bill Knight, a man who’d tried to help her very early on in the book and who before he became a homeless alcoholic was a friend of her ex-husband.

She saw Mustapha look up at her, eyebrows raised. “You didn’t meet him. The first time I talked to Claire Longstreet, right after we found Alex Dawson. Remember later, when we were in her office and I was asking about Red? This guy was Red’s pal. Mr. Buchanan at the door mentioned him.”

“Right, right; and he’s one of the Lazarus Program guys.”

“Lazarus Program?” said Keller. “This guy ain’t coming back.”

Diana said, “He knew my ex-husband, too.”

Mustapha said, “You think you want to take a step back?”

“As if the chief would let me.” She looked down again, firmed up the image of Knight’s face in her mind. “I asked Andrew about him, a couple of weeks ago; before Mr. Knight climbed into the bottle, he was a real humanitarian. Well, Andrew said do-gooder, but sometimes I have to translate.”

Mustapha said, “Yeah, and didn’t he only leave the place for meetings?”

Keller said, “There’s a meeting every night. Well, you’d know that.”

Diana said, “It’s five in the morning. Dave, any idea on time of death?”

“Liver temp says between ten and midnight. He wasn’t killed right here, so if he was kept somewhere where the temperature was significantly different, that will skew it.”

Mustapha said, “So he gets out of his meeting, starts to walk back, gets popped. Or he never showed. We can ask around, see if the AA guys will break confidentiality. Maybe they saw somebody pick him up.”

Diana used her tablet to call up the picture of Mario’s chest, held it to line up with her perspective on Knight, flicked her gaze back and forth. “Looks the same to me; maybe Imam Dave can tell us if there’s a dot out of place.”

Keller said, “That actually says something?” Diana read him the English translation from where she had stored it on the tablet. “Hunh. Does Islam have the thing with Abraham and Isaac? Never mind: they’d cut his throat, not strangle him.” He stood up, looked around. “During the day, this parking lot is empty. Too close to Peachtree-Pine, which is what? Two, three blocks down there. But at night? Campers: them guys that can’t deal with the shelter rules. You’ll find them tucked in little hobbit holes all over these blocks. Why I think he wasn’t killed here: somebody would have noticed.”

Diana said, “Those kids that found him: was he face up or face down?”

Mustapha said, “Down. Curtis tore them new assholes for flipping him over. They said they thought he was just passed out, and wanted to help.”

“And that might even be true. I bet more than one person has slept off some fortified wine in this grass.”

Keller said, “He wasn’t robbed, either. Still has a wallet with a hundred bucks in small bills.”

Mustapha said, “So he can’t have been there long. Perp drops him off at 0300, even the nightcrawlers are sleeping.” He stood up, looked around: without the klieg lights, the parking lot would be an oasis of darkness. “Some of these intersections will have cameras.” He pointed toward the light at North Avenue. “There’s our most likely spot. Let’s get Purcell to authorize manpower, see if we can find a white van.” He turned around, pointed back toward Peachtree-Pine. “That’s probably our best bet for next of kin, plus we can maybe find out what meeting he went to. If anyone’s awake at this hour.”

Mostly just forensic details here: he was killed elsewhere, the writing looks legit. But these sorts of details are often important, later.

Novel 3: Act III, Chapter 1, Scene 2a

TOC page here.

We had a nice long transition to the third act, one that has more to do with the main plot than might initially seem clear, then Diana’s phone rings and off she goes to Victim #3:

Half an hour later, gruff old Sergeant Klein dropped her off outside the double ring of vehicles that marked any seriously mediagenic crime scene in Atlanta. The outer ring was TV vans with their antenna pylons extended up into the air; the inner was APD and Crime Scene vehicles trying to screen from the media whatever lay in the disused parking lot behind what had long ago been a shoe store.

Diana slid through the first ring; the first person she encountered in the second was Sergeant Brown. “Come on through, ma’am,” he said, shifting aside to let her between two radio cars.

Andrea Blitts came running toward them, camera man with spotlight in tow. “Detective Siddal! Can you confirm the Reaper has struck again?”

Sergeant Brown patted Diana on the back, which pushed her through into the crime scene.”Back off!” he snarled. “You interfere with a crime scene, you can spend the night downtown.”

“You’re cute, Sergeant,” said Blitts, “But you’re not my type. Maybe you can confirm…” Diana slipped her way to the center of the klieg lights, where Mustapha and Keller knelt in the weeds that had long ago overgrown the asphalt.

Before she could approach them, Chief Purcell stepped into her path. “Y’all have my full support, and the mayor’s office says the same. We need to find and apprehend whoever is responsible for this second—second—killing of a homeless man by someone with a real twisted view of Islam.” He leaned in closer. “College kids come back to smoke up, saw the body, rolled him over and saw the Arabic writing. They put pictures up on Instagram and called the media before they called us. Captain Jenkins has them back at your precinct right now, going to scare the life out of them. Do your job, Detective, and hope to hell nobody goes sniffing around for that guy from last month.” He nodded and walked away.

Diana began to kneel beside Mustapha, felt her knee think about giving way, crouched instead. “Same MO,” said Mustapha, “as that one other killing.” In a stage whisper, he continued, “Circle the wagons.”

From where she crouched, at the corpse’s feet, she could clearly see the calligraphy on the man’s bony chest, and the livid mark of the cord on his throat, but the neck was craned and the face lost in high-contrast shadow. She arose, walked around Keller, held up a hand to block the direct light from her eyes. “Oh, dear,” she said.

Keller snorted. “Understatement much?”

“I know him. This is Bill Knight.”

We might remember Bill Knight as the helpful recovering alcoholic who talked with Diana way back in the first scene, when she went to the shelter. Now things are going to get interesting.

Normal Teenagers Steal Cars

Last month, I wrote about Barney Simms, local community leader killed in his front yard, and while I made it clear that the real Sims deserves our respect, as a crime fiction writer the story was very appealing. The murder of a public figure, I wrote, taking a fictional community leader as the example, gives rise to all kinds of other causes that the typical motives for murder don’t cover.

Recently, a suspect, 17-year-old Eric Banks, was arrested for Simms’ murder. Banks was seen with Simms about an hour before his death: Simms took him to lunch. Banks’ mother claims, naturally, that her son is innocent:

She said her son told her he accepted a meal from Simms at the Waffle House, but that when the two parted ways, Simms was still alive.

“After that, (my son) left. He went somewhere. I don’t know where he went after that,” she said.

Atlanta homicide investigators said they believe Simms was shot about an hour after that encounter. A neighbor found Simms dead in his front yard. His car had been stolen.

Only CBS46 was there as police lead Banks to jail, now charged with murder.

“He did not kill that man. He’s not capable of doing nothing like that,” said Banks’ mother.

She acknowledged that her son has a criminal history.

“But not with no violent history or nothing bad,” she said, “only like what teenagers do — normal teenagers do — steal cars and stuff like that. That’s it.”

“Normal teenagers steal cars” is just great: it had to be the title here. So let’s return to fiction, and have a similar situation where community leader takes wayward teen to lunch, then is shot an hour later. In real life, the cops probably have all kinds of reasons to believe Banks is guilty, but in fiction, let’s say we don’t. The fictional young man was seen with the fictional community leader, the fictional young man seems good for it, lets himself get bullied into some kind of quasi-confession, charges are filed.

But in the original piece on Simms, I wrote about how people might have all kinds of reasons to have it in for a community leader. Let’s just say someone was looking for a chance. They see our community leader with our wayward/normal teen, figure out the kid is the perfect patsy, show up and kill the leader and drop the gun off in the kid’s yard. Now imagine the story from the mom’s point of view, and from the actual killer’s. Twin them off and alternate between them, or do half the story from one’s POV and half from the other’s. Someone out there was so intent on what they thought was justice that they’re going to commit a great injustice. The mom surprises herself by actually being willing to believe her kid did it—at first.