Chief of Operations

Here’s a piece of flash fiction, newly published.

The pop of the champagne cork sounded like a click through the phone’s speaker. Inspector Mustapha Alawi watched again, handed the phone back to his partner, shrugged. “Get promoted to the executive suite, come home and get shot in a home invasion. Welcome to Atlanta.”

Detective Diana Siddall rolled her eyes. “What home invasion?” She walked around Tyler Graham’s cooling corpse and pulled a drawer from the dresser.

He looked over his reading glasses to see a fat roll of cash and the glint of gold and diamonds. He shrugged again. “Okay. Well, assassination narrows the list of potential suspects.”

“You’re the silver lining in my life.”

Advertisements

Pyramids and Ziggurats (2)

Here’s the opening sequence of the new story, whose outline is here: there’s been a body found at a regional Burning Man.

“Build a giant statue, set it on fire, dance around it naked.” Inspector Mustapha Alawi guided the Lexus off the country road and into the ruts hundreds of cars had made in the red Georgia clay underneath the grass. “Am I missing anything?”

Detective Diana Siddall was slumped in the passenger seat, looking green. They’d been partners long enough for Mustapha to know it wasn’t carsickness, but rather Diana being out of the city and in clean country air that mostly smelled of cowshit. “They’re all tripping out of their minds,” she said.

“Well, duh. Come on, we did this when I was young. Three days of peace and music.”

“I thought you were killing Viet Cong, in the jungle?”

“Generational thing. And it was North Vietnamese Army: the Viet Cong were done for by the time I got there. Only difference is, I bet these kids are streaming the whole thing on the Internet.”

“We’re in the middle of nowhere.”

“We’re like sixty miles from Atlanta.”

The track felt bumpy even through the Lexus’s suspension. They turned a corner and emerged into a large fallow field where hundreds of cars were lined up neatly under the hot spring sun. The track ran through the center of the field, where in the shade of an enormous solitary tree a few shirtless people sat in camp chairs. As they approached the tree, a woman stood up and walked to Mustapha’s window. Cheerful, thirtysomething, flabby, topless, $5000 worth of tattoos, mostly mermaids. She produced as if from thin air a barcode scanner. “Y’all need to have your wristbands on before–”

Mustapha showed her his shield. “Atlanta Homicide. You want to point us to Sheriff Marconi?”

She stood up, blew out a sigh. “Yeah. They’re waiting for you. It’s going to be way easier for y’all to park and walk in.”

She waved them over to a spot in the shade. As they were parking, Mustapha was momentarily distracted by a vision walking toward him: a much slimmer, rather younger woman, lovely, smiling. No obvious tattoos, but her skin was mostly covered with body paint: amateurishly applied yellow and green sunflowers. “Hi,” she said to Mustapha through the still-open window. “Welcome to Euphoria. I’m Peaseblossom. I’ll take you to the effigy.”

“Nice to meet you,” said Mustapha as he started to exit the vehicle.

“You might want to put it in park,” said Diana.

2nd Anonymous Corpse of 2017

Here’s a very brief story about another unidentified person found dead in downtown Atlanta. This woman was found just three or four blocks from where our first homicide of 2017 took place. Earlier, I wrote about how this provided a potential jumping-off point for a piece of fiction, which was based on the total randomness of the unidentified dead guy. But now, we’ve got TWO corpses, both without names, both dead in a city that sounds violent but really only sees 100 murders in a bad year. Of course, the first place the press jumps to is serial killer, because that generates a lot of clickthroughs. But Diana and Mustapha are skeptical, especially because of the different methods (gunshot, then stabbing) by which each victim was killed.

A better link is that both victims were found at places the city is really trying hard to gentrify. The first man was found on Broad Street, which the city wants to turn into an arts district, by which they mean corporate, tourist-friendly arts district, because there are already a lot of local artists there; the second victim was found at Underground Atlanta, essentially the case study in terrible urban renewal projects. After more than twenty years of declining fortunes and increasing violence, Underground has been sold to a private developer, which has angered many people who also don’t like the corporatization of the arts district.

So the immediate thing Diana and Mustapha are going to look for is another killing at another gentrification site (Atlanta has plenty). Right now, I’m thinking they’re going to resist every media attempt to frame these as serial killings, and only gradually come to grips with the fact that they might be just that.

Pyramids and Ziggurats (1)

Last May, before I unwisely took a hiatus from this blog to get involved in the election, I posted this story idea, created from when a friend told me the story of their experience at a “regional burn” or mini-Burning Man, and recapped here:

  1. In the woods in rural Georgia gather a thousand people, 5% real artists, 20% half-ass artists, 20% middle-class people whose idea of a great four-day weekend is camping and watching a shitshow while on big drugs, 10% skeevy dudes who want to ogle topless women, and 45% broken, traumatized hippies.

  2. Most of these people gather in prearranged groups of about 20 people, usually with some kind of theme, but there is an area set aside for people camping solo or in small groups. This area is a bit sketchier. It should also be noted that the parking area is well away from the camp: people drive their cars on a one-lane road into the camp, dump their stuff, take the car back, walk to the site and set up.

  3. The event is carefully privatized: sympathetic landowner, distant neighbors, wristbands and entry fees: the point is that local law enforcement can’t just show up and get in without probable cause, because this would end up with 995 people getting busted for drugs. The volunteer security patrol has to be really euphemistic over the radio because law enforcement is monitoring it.

  4. During the (very hot) day, a hippie girl passes out, so an ambulance is allowed in, followed by a sheriff’s car. But the girl is clearly just suffering from heatstroke, not intoxication, so no probable cause.

  5. Late that night, a man is found dead from what looks like an accidental fall. He was a solo camper, someone who a few people recognize as a decent guy peripheral to the scene. But dead is dead, and now the sheriff’s team gets to come in and investigate. But some of the campers are attorneys, and the organizers are well-versed in the law, so while the sheriff can cordon off the event, they can’t ransack anyone’s camp, especially since the death appears to be misadventure.

  6. The next morning, however, the local medical examiner fingerprints the dead guy, and he pops right up as a person of interest in an Atlanta homicide case. Also, the injuries aren’t consistent with an accidental fall.

  7. Diana and Mustapha drive down to RuralWorld, meet the sheriff. talk. The dead guy was an important witness in a homicide case: anyone who knew him in Atlanta knew he liked to go to these giant burn parties. Sheriff wants to bust in and sort through everyone; D/M convince him otherwise. Wait, no: the sheriff is a woman.

  8. They meet with the sheriff and the organizers of the burn, and once they explain to the organizers that they think there are murderers loose in their camp. the organizers reluctantly agree to let D/M into the burn undercover, set them up as volunteer security people and let them roam.

  9. Each of them is paired up with a more experienced burner and starts to patrol. Both the burners are of course batshit crazy like foxes, so this is occasion for infodump and comic relief. Throughout these scenes, we play against type: Diana the kinky liberal is like WTF this is stupid, and Mustapha the old guy is like the 21st century rules. “Acidheads STILL like pyramids!”

  10. Each of them separately explores the area of the camp near where the dead guy pitched his tent. We find out from hilariously vague witnesses that there were three guys, who appeared out of place, camping near that spot, but that they have since moved.

  11. The climactic moment for most of the campers arrives: the giant structure is ceremonially set aflame. D/M are observers and are pressured to participate.

  12. Almost immediately thereafter, it starts to rain, not very hard. This is good, say their companions, because it will make for people tripping under tents instead of going balls-out outside. It’s a quiet night, except for dueling techno and bad karaoke.

  13. Mustapha’s partner leads him into the woods because tripping campers often wander up there and get lost. Diana’s partner helps her find people who might know who the mystery campers were.

  14. Up in the woods, a call comes through on the radio that there’s a car in the camp trying to get out. Mustapha’s partner panics: “This usually means the people driving it are tripping way too hard, and we know the sheriff’s out there someplace.” They go running through the woods, Blair Witch style.

  15. They’re too late, but Diana and her partner are right there. Diana waves to hippie guarding one-lane road to freedom to back off and let the car through, relying on the sheriff, but the hippie misunderstands and tries to block the car. Driver shoots hippie, Diana shoots driver, Mustapha catches up, Diana’s heretofore trippingly useless hippie partner does something awesome and takes down one of the remaining thugs. Mission accomplished: they had come because they knew the witness would come, and they thought they could get away, but they didn’t know that nobody’s supposed to bring in a car at night, so they alerted “security”.

  16. We end with Diana wanting to go home and Mustapha wanting to enjoy the party. “I think that girl liked me.”

    I’m bringing this one back up because I intend to write the story over the next two weeks, and I want to hold myself to it. If I’m going to do it from the detectives’ point of view, the chronology is going to have to get mixed up. It has to start with #7, and with Diana being the one with a romantic view of an event like this and Mustapha very skeptical. From there, we get the rest of the background.

 

Novel 3: Act III, Chapter 2, Scene 1c

TOC page here.

Mustapha and Diana are asking the wife of the recently-murdered Bill Knight questions about what she might know. They didn’t live together, but had a lot of contact as he recovered from alcoholism.

But Mustapha barely had time to settle into the throne-like office chair Diana wheeled to him before Knight returned, composed, wearing a little more makeup. “I’m so sorry,” she began.

Mustapha said, “You’re doing fine. Did your husband ever talk about Islam?”

“Islam? Oh, the writing on the bodies? Did that happen to Bill? Oh, dear. No, he never said anything about Islam. We’re Christian, but not what you’d call observant. In fact, Christianity is a bit of a problem for Bill. That Claire woman is a wonder-worker: she’s the one responsible for walking Bill down the road to recovery. But she’s a minister of some kind, and everything they discussed kept coming back to god and Jesus, and too much of that rubbed Bill the wrong way. In AA? They have this thing about a Higher Power, but Bill preferred to conceive of this as just being the vastness of the world. He talked about how he and Claire would butt heads because she and most everyone else took it literally. But it was god, not Allah or Muhammad.”

Diana said, “What else did he tell you about the Lazarus Program?”

“Just how well it works. Group therapy, individual therapy, staying out of trouble. I have to confess that I was a little jealous there for a while because he talked about Claire so much; but I have a friend who’s a psychiatrist, and he explained how transference works and how important it is.”

“Did he ever talk about being afraid, or worried?”

“Sure. But he was worried about relapsing, not about someone stalking him.”

“How about a guy named Mario?”

“Doesn’t ring a bell.”

Mustapha said, “Look, again we’re real sorry. Someone from our liaison office will call you later today, about funeral arrangements, that sort of thing. And… this is not going to be easy, as in, even over and above having to deal with grief. You remember how crazy people were about the Reaper last summer? This is going to be worse. Detective Siddal here and I are going to have to do press conferences; you can expect TV cameras to show up the minute we give out your husband’s name.”

“If not before,” said Diana.

“Yeah. So you might want to think about taking your sons out of school, maybe taking a vacation, that sort of thing.”

Knight nodded, slowly. “This is going to just kill them.”

Diana said, “We’ll do whatever it takes to bring your husband’s killer to justice, ma’am, but there’s almost nothing we can do about the media. To Mustapha, “Get out of Ms. Knight’s chair and let’s go talk to the chief.”

Is this scene just filler? (No.) So what’s the tell here? Which of these questions and answers is going to lead us somewhere new?

Novel 3: Act III, Chapter 2, Scene 1b

TOC page here.

Mustapha and Diana have made it to the center of the labyrinth to inform Bill Knight’s wife of his death. She takes it well, then asks if it was “one of the other bums” who killed him.

Mustapha said, “No. Did you watch the news this morning?”

“Briefly. Obama and Congress, yelling at each other instead of doing anything.”

Diana said, “Local news, Ms. Knight.”

“Oh, that. No, I never do: it’s garbage.”

Mustapha explained; Knight cut him off partway through. “Like that other bum, last month? Oh, god.” A hand to her mouth. “Oh, god. Did he… did he suffer?”

Diana said, “Hard to say, ma’am. We know you’re in shock, but we’re hoping you can help us.”

“Help you catch the Reaper, you mean? How am I going to—never mind. Of course: what do you need?”

Mustapha said, “When was the last time you spoke with your husband?”

“Three days ago? We had lunch, at Krog Street Tacos. I wasn’t thinking straight, because I was starving, and I brought back margaritas for both of us.” A long pause: she looked inward, and breathed. “Talk about embarrassing. But he sat there and ate lunch, with it right there the whole time. He said it was a nice test, and that he wasn’t even tempted. Which I later felt bad about for not quite believing. Then, when we were finishing up, there was a mom with two preschoolers, and he just handed her the drink, said she looked like she could use it.” She began to weep. “Oh, lord: what am I going to tell the boys?”

Mustapha said, “We’re very sorry for your loss. Did your husband talk about anything at all that might,”

“No. He’s—he was—happy. Even on alcohol, Bill is a real charmer. As he stopped drinking, and things became clearer, he started paying more attention to what was around him. We’d have lunch and he’d tell me stories. The kinds of things men without jobs and with lots of time on their hands would get up to. Pathetic, but in the hands of a good storyteller, they really said something about the human condition.”

Diana said, “Did he ever talk about the other victim? A guy named Alex Dawson?”

“Sure. He was broken up about that. The other guy was still in denial about his alcoholism, but Bill was convinced that with time and effort he could help him out. He said… oh, right: something about maintaining contact until the guy had a breakthrough or bottomed out. I don’t know how much y’all know about alcoholism, but you can’t make someone stop drinking. They have to decide to do it on their own. There were a couple of other guys he kept a look out for, too. So then… Oh, god, my poor husband… The Reaper… Would you excuse me for a moment?”

Mustapha said, “Take your time, Ms. Knight.”

The key takeaway here is that she loved him, but he wanted to stay out on the streets for a while longer. But we just in the last chapter heard someone else say she was making him stay on the streets longer, in order to confirm his sobriety. Who’s fibbing here?

Novel 3: Act III, Chapter 2, Scene 1a

TOC page here.

After a long hiatus, we’re back. Bill Knight is dead, and now it’s time to notify his wife.

Diana always ended up lost every time she went to AmericasMart. The complex, ten blocks and a world away from Peachtree-Pine, was always growing, and since it was mostly windowless, Diana’s usually acute sense of direction didn’t work except on the rare occasions when they emerged into one of the covered Habitrail walkways that connected the buildings far above street level. Diana wanted to gawk at the various showrooms, but Mustapha plowed ahead at his usual pace: if she wanted to examine what wholesalers and specialist merchants had to offer to retailers and interior designers, she’d have to do it on her own time, with a map and a trail of breadcrumbs.

When Mustapha stopped to look at the signs mounted high on the walls, she was gawking at a store full of chandeliers, so she walked right into his back with an oof! and a faint whiff of cigarettes and mint tea. She had to windmill her arms to keep from falling, but he didn’t even seem to notice. Then, with a nod, he turned left and plunged back into the labyrinth. Some time later, they came upon a store whose metal grate was only half-raised. Mustapha gracefully ducked under it; Diana took her time, making sure to be gentle to the bad knee.

As she stood back up, a woman came trotting from the back of the store. Late forties, well-cared for, elegant. Her carefully tailored clothes minimized the stockiness of her figure. “Y’all, I’m just getting ready to open,” she said. “Make yourself comfortable and I’ll be right with you.” She turned on a heel and went back to where she’d come from.

Diana looked around. The showroom was nothing but chairs, ranging from well-padded upscale office chairs, through the sort that you might see at a fancy restaurant, all the way to the not-quite-recliners found in the rooms of better hotels. She found an office chair and kicked back; Mustapha paced.

The woman reemerged a few minutes later. “I knew if I didn’t finish that email, I’d forget to send it. Catherine Knight: what can I do y’all for?”

Mustapha flipped open the leather case that held his shield. “My partner here spends a lot of time in front of the computer.”

A nice smile. “I don’t do retail. Now, if you were looking for chairs for the whole department,”

“If only. Listen, Ms. Knight, your husband is William Knight?”

“Yes. What’s this about?”

“I’m afraid we’ve got some bad news for you.”

She took it well, at first, thought Diana. Maybe she herself would, if her husband was living on the streets; she’d know in the back of her head that the police would show up one day. Catherine Knight’s reactions seemed rehearsed, as if she’d imagined having this conversation before; but the stress in the set of her jaw and the cords of her neck was real.

When Mustapha was done telling her he was sorry, Knight put her face in her hands, sobbed a couple of times, then remained silent, before looking up, red of cheek but clear of eyes. “Was it the alcohol?”

“No, ma’am,” said Diana.

“He had such a terrible problem with drinking. How he wound up on the streets. But he managed to get his life back together. He was supposed to come back to us last fall, but he wanted to wait: to make sure he had the strength to deal with the streets before he could deal with his family. I didn’t understand, at first—all we ever did was love him—but that was the problem, you see. He couldn’t deal with being loved when he had so many problems inside.” She looked pensive; Diana and Mustapha waited her out. Then: “If it wasn’t a drink, was it one of the other bums?”

What does this initial look at Catherine tell you about Bill? What does it tell you about her? What does it tell you about their relationship? Why is this important?

Chief of Operations

A quick bit of flash fiction from the prompt “Here’s to You”.

The pop of the champagne cork sounded like a click through the phone’s speaker. Inspector Mustapha Alawi watched again, handed the phone back to his partner, shrugged. “Get promoted to the executive suite, come home and get shot in a home invasion. Welcome to Atlanta.”

Detective Diana Siddall rolled her eyes. “What home invasion?” She walked around Tyler Graham’s cooling corpse and pulled a drawer from the dresser.

He looked over his reading glasses to see a fat roll of cash and the glint of gold and diamonds. He shrugged again. “Okay. Well, assassination narrows the list of potential suspects.”

“You’re the silver lining in my life.”

Graham’s wife Cheryl hadn’t been at the banquet. “He loves that world, all that back-slapping one-percenter shit,” she said between bouts of sobbing. “I stay away so I don’t turn into the screeching harpy. He lets me do what I want, I let him climb over bodies up the ladder. Uh, not real bodies.” The book club ladies confirmed her story: if they had conspired with her to murder Graham, they’d have been smart enough to take the cash and jewels.

Graham’s ex Daphne looked like a better suspect, especially once they found records of the domestic-violence call from years ago, but she was on a plane to Chicago during both the banquet and the murder. “Man, that sucks,” she said, almost convincingly. “I find texts from Sydney, I go ballistic, he tells me Sidney is a man. Didn’t know it could be a man’s name. Turns out he was screwing Sidney anyway. As long as he was on top, y’know?”

Graham’s boss Charles Reynolds, the CEO, seemed human. “I should really be thinking about Tyler’s family, but here I am, thinking of the work I put in to get him to the executive level.” At Mustapha’s eyebrow, “This high up? It’s all politics. Now I owe a lot of people favors.”

If there’s a winner in a corporate power struggle, there’s a loser. Heather Jacobs was a case study in conflict. “Tyler was a rival, not an enemy. I had an escort with me at the banquet and after: you want my alibi, I’ll call her. I ought to be next in line for that job, but Charlie shit-talked me all up and down the C-suite because he wanted Tyler there.”

Mustapha shrugged. “The pay raise’ll help with your feelings.”

But nothing clicked until they got Daphne back from Chicago and had her flip through photos. “Oh, that guy,” she said, pointing at a picture of Reynolds. “Tyler hated him. Y’know what I said about being on top? There was a fraternity thing: Tyler took a lot of abuse from him. Like, abuse abuse.”

In the interview room, Reynolds was at ease, not even sweating. “Why would I kill Tyler? I promoted him.”

Diana showed him a grainy image on her tablet. “Because in his safe-deposit box, we found an old VHS tape. You haven’t aged a day, but I hear tell rape’ll keep you young. You keep your enemies closer.”

The smile of the true sociopath. “He played the game well.”

“And you… well, didn’t. Your leased Ferrari you drove to his house has a GPS tracker.”

Not even a blink. “I drove him home.”

She showed another image. “He took Lyft. It’s such a pity that you’ll probably do well in prison.”

 

First Homicide of 2017

New year, new commitment to blog and fiction. Becoming involved in the election was in hindsight a terrible idea.

This poor as-yet-anonymous man marks Atlanta’s first murder of the new year. Few details are given:

A person walking down the street found a man shot to death Monday morning.

The man’s body was discovered on the sidewalk at 96 Broad Street Southwest around 6:30 a.m.

Investigators said the man was found with a gunshot wound to the head.

Authorities are working to identify the victim and to see if there were any cameras in the area.

This lack of detail makes it the hardest type of murder to solve, though of course the cops likely have more information than the media. Imagine a story where it’s just some guy, dead on the street, no ID, no witnesses, no cameras. The kind of perfect tabula rasa for a crime story: Diana and Mustapha grit their teeth running down pseudo-leads that turn out to be useless, while the brass bears down on them because dammit, we ought to solve the first murder of the year. But other murders, ones with actual named victims and motives, come along, and the ball gets… well, maybe not “dropped”, but at least placed in a cold case file.

Only much later does a series of encounters and internet posts lead to the victim’s identity. He’s from Texas or someplace equally far away; he’s mostly estranged from his family; they can’t for the life of them think why he might have gone to Atlanta. Nothing helps; there’s no closure.

At the end of the year, the very last homicide has a clear suspect, but they’ve no leverage on him. Someone else comes forward and gives a plausible narrative about how that suspect killed the first victim, as well. But in the end, this narrative proves to be false: the storyteller has a preëxisting beef with the suspect and made it up. They manage to patch up enough evidence to nail the suspect for the end-of-year murder, but the first one still remains open. There’s no closure.