Novel 3: Act III, Chapter 1, Scene 2a

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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.

Novel 3: Act III, Chapter 1, Scene 1d

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Here’s the fourth of four parts of the transition from Act II to Act III:

Her phone buzzing brought her back to reality. She scrambled to find it, but it had got caught in the blankets and stopped vibrating before she could extract it. But it had only been the call to evening prayer. She tossed the phone back onto the bed, then realized what day it was; she tried to catch the phone in midair, but lacking Fiona’s reflexes only succeeded in knocking it to the floor. She leaned off the bed to pick it up, overextended, found it easier just to roll onto the floor after it. Sure enough, the little icon of the moon had a tiny crescent instead of just a dark circle, and the text underneath read Rabi al-Thany, Day 1.

After that, she couldn’t focus on her book any more: she kept activating the phone every few minutes to see if there were any alerts. She was too awake to doze, too worried to read, still kind of hungry. She dressed, got her crime scene kit together, went downstairs. Grace was gone, but Fiona slept on the divan in the library, on her back, arms folded on her chest, the image of an effigy of a medieval knight ruined, or perhaps enhanced, by her Joy Division T-shirt. Diana slipped out the front door, felt for her keys, and only then remembered that her car was back at the precinct. The slice of Fellini’s pizza she had imaged in her head disappeared in a puff of fragrant smoke: too far to walk. There were dozens of restaurants a few blocks away on Peachtree, or Juniper, but they were all yuppie watering holes: small portions, expensive cocktails, people talking loudly about themselves. But if she cared to cross Piedmont Park on a dark, cold evening, there was Mellow Mushroom, not as good as Fellini’s but still dripping with melted cheese.

A few blocks through her neighborhood, then across the park, a slight blond woman with a badge and a gun. Fifteen or even ten years ago, this might have had at least a whiff of danger, but intown Atlanta was so gentrified now that the only people Diana saw were joggers, themselves oblivious to anything beyond their music and their workout.

Mellow Mushroom was warm and very colorful, with its amateur paintings of tripping humanoid fungi on the walls. The perfect place to absorb House of Leaves and a thousand calories. But Diana couldn’t enjoy the pizza nor the book, as she was constantly checking her phone for updates. This city remained stubbornly peaceful.

Piedmont Park was empty on the way back, though surely there were a few homeless shadows camping in the margins. When she returned home, Fiona was gone and Frey the cat was the only one around.

Diana tried every technique she needed to get to sleep: hot bath, vibrator, the four-inch binder for the lieutenant’s exam. But she’d had enough sleep, and she was too keyed up for more, though eventually she dozed off on the couch, after spending a couple of hours down the rabbit hole of TV Tropes. She dreamed of the cartoon characters at Mellow Mushroom, stranded in a hot desert wasteland, then came to, groggy, unsure of anything but that she could hear her phone beeping three times, over and over.

She sat up, dislodged a grumpy cat, fumbled for the phone. “Siddal.”

It was Gloria this time. “Detective Siddal, your partner called. Courtland and Linden. He said to say you were right all along, and that the whole circus is already in town. I hope you can figure out what that means.”

She felt her hands go cold and a sinking feeling in her throat. “Thanks, Gloria: I’ll be right there. Wait; I need a ride. Is there any way–“

“There’s two patrol cars out their in your zone. You need fifteen minutes to get ready, sugar?”

“No, I’m–“ She looked down at herself. “Yes, please.”

And now we’re back in action. One of the things I consider important about writing these novels and stories is to make sure there’s tension between the character’s regular life and their function as a detective. In some novels, it would be all detective action: the first time the phone sounded would be the important one. But that’s not how real life works, and it takes away from depth of character to pretend it is.

Novel 3: Act III, Chapter 1, Scene 1c

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Here’s the third of four parts of the transition from Act II to Act III:

She rose from the dead in the gathering gloom of the evening. The house was full of the rich scent of savory food: something with meat and garlic in it. With the peculiar, insipid calm the aftereffects of the drug gave her, she padded downstairs in a bathroom to find Fiona and Grace, holding glasses of wine and arguing.

“Mom!” said Grace. Her wineglass slid out of her hand.

Fiona, with her usual instinctive dexterity, reached out a foot, caught the glass by the stem between two toes, lifted it back up to where Grace could reach for it, all without spilling a drop. “I’d no idea you were home. I’m sorry about the music.”

“What music?” asked Diana. “What’s for dinner?”

“Krog Street Tacos,” said Grace. “We didn’t see your car. Burrito casserole: I’ll break vegan for it.”

“Mustapha drove me home. You went to KST and you didn’t tell me?”

Fiona said reasonably, “We didn’t know where you were. Gracie phoned you.”

“I was dead to the world. Did you get enough for me?”

Grace and Fiona exchanged a look. “Um, sure,” said Grace.

“No,” said Fiona. “Grace, go get more.”

“The line will be out the door. You go: you have faerie magic.”

“It’s okay,” said Diana. She opened the fridge, which was completely empty. “Maybe there’s cereal?”

There wasn’t. But Grace remembered the bag of granola in her bike’s pannier, so Diana grazed on that while the casserole finished reheating, then restrained herself to just a few bites of casserole and half of one of the sausages Fiona had brought along to add flavor to it. Fiona and Grace were playing Scrabble, as they have been doing since Grace was eight, for blood, as always: both were closing in on four hundred points, even with a few letters left in the bag.

Grace reached out and picked up the blank Fiona had used; she replaced it with a B. She and Fiona had long played a variant where blanks could be recycled. “Ha ha ha,” she said. “Prepare to be bingoed.”

“Hang on,” said Fiona. “That blank was an X, not a B. AXLE and XI, not ABLE and BI.”

“Who cares? It’s a word either way.”

“I said it was AXLE. It’s an X.”

“Both letters fit, and there’s no other word that would get messed up. It could be either one.”

“It’s not… Schrödinger’s blank, Gracie. It’s an X.”

“You don’t get to dictate reality. ABLE is just as legit. My blank, now.”

Fiona looked to Diana; Diana held up her hands. “Work it out.” She slipped from her chair and went to get her phone, which had no voicemails from work, thank the gods, and only one text, from Grace, asking what she wanted from Krog Street Tacos. She tossed the phone on her bed, found her book, and set to reading, ignoring the bickering she could hear from down the stairs.

Eventually, the kvetching subsided, to be replaced by a faint odor of high-quality cannabis. Diana ignored it all, focused on the book, enjoying the part where the typography started to get weird.

Why is this part here? Why aren’t we investigating a murder? One, because these novels are about character as much as they are about plot. But there’s a better answer: we have two perfectly plausible answers to a puzzle, otherwise interchangeable but for intent. Keep that in mind as we move forward.

Novel 3: Act III, Chapter 1, Scene 1b

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The beginning of Act III continues, circling in closer to the cyclical action of this novel:

By early February, the light waned noticeably later in the evenings. Some Facebook friend of Diana’s posted a picture of the full moon captioned with some nonsense about astrology: Diana downloaded an app that tracked the phases of the moon. It also, to her delight, had a feature that would make her phone ring whenever it was time for one of Islam’s five daily prayers; an in-app purchase changed the ring tone to a recording of a muezzin singing the call to prayer. This lasted for three days before she began to worry about Mustapha’s blood pressure.

But as the moon waned on the screen of her phone, Diana became increasingly nervous. Never a sound sleeper, she took to waking up unprompted each night at moonrise. None of the windows in her townhouse faced southeast, so she couldn’t even see the moon from inside; but she had to put on slippers and a coat and walk out onto the street to see the shrinking crescent before she could get back to sleep.

The day before the new moon, she walked into Captain Jenkins’ office. His face was that of a man drowned by bureaucracy, but his shirt was wrinkle free and his tie perfectly knotted. “Sir,” she began. “It’ll happen in a day or two.” To Jenkins’ raised eyebrow, “The new moon. Another–”

“Don’t say it out loud, Detective. Yeah, I set my calendar up with moon phases. Day or so after the new moon, is what Stoph said.”

“Yes, sir. I’m just… I want to warn people, homeless people.”

“Which would expose our conspiracy to transform a murder into an accidental death.” He motioned for her to shut the door behind her. “And even if that wasn’t the case, you know as well as I do that telling the city to watch out for the Reaper would end up with five people getting killed when some idiot the state has seen fit to allow to carry a firearm mistakes some other armed idiot for a serial killer. And no, I don’t like it, either.”

On the way home, Diana thought about calling Claire Longstreet to encourage her to consider closing the shelter’s doors early. But she couldn’t think of the right way to word it, and while she didn’t need her pension, Mustapha and the others really did.

The next two nights were largely sleepless, not because of anxiety over what might happen, but because of two murders outside dive bars in impoverished neighborhoods. The second one involved Diana running across the field after the suspect, bad knee throbbing, but she caught a break when the man tripped on a ladder someone had left in the grass. So the day after the new moon was an eight a.m. Ambien, the third shift worker’s best friend, and the deep dreamless sleep again, the sort Diana always found unfamiliar.

Just tying the various threads together here, bringing us back to focus on the main story. But because the stories I write are as much about character as they are about plot, I’m going to yank it away right after this and get us back to domesticity.

Novel 3: Act III, Chapter 1, Scene 1a

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And now we begin Act III:

January overstayed its welcome, as usual: even the northern transplants began to complain about the cold and drear. Diana and Mustapha spent a week carefully tracing forensic evidence in the case of a fifteen-year-old prostitute found with her throat slashed in a construction trailer at the site of the billion-dollar temple to pro football towards which a cash-strapped city government had pledged $300 million of taxpayer money.

The girl was called Pretty Eyes, but nobody knew her real name, including her pimp, who was in the Bahamas at the time of her murder. He was genuinely distraught about her death, above and beyond the feelings of an owner toward his ruined assets. Well over a thousand people worked on the stadium: each of them had to be swabbed for DNA, and questioned. All sixteen of the workers who had prior records of violence against women proved to have solid alibis, and none of the workers’ DNA matched. Somewhere out there was a man who’d raped an underage girl and left her to die on a pile of blood-soaked blueprints, and who’d probably kill again. But he didn’t pluck out eyeballs or write in Arabic, and construction of the new stadium remained on schedule, and Pretty Eyes was black and destitute, so the media moved on quickly to the next scandal.

Mario remained buried. A report was filed, citing exposure, and his sister took a coffee can full of ashes back to Houston with her, and that was that. Even the commenters on the AJC website moved on from Islamophobia back to directing their racism at ordinary black people. A Georgia court ruled that the holders of the note on Peachtree-Pine could go ahead with foreclosure, but Claire Longstreet appealed, giving the shelter at least another year. Alex Dawson’s murder went into the cold case file.

Diana and Grace met Andrew for dinner: it was all very civilized. Andrew picked the place, so of course it was ultra high end, with fawning staff and girlfriend menus with no prices printed. Andrew made a great fuss over expensive wine and took three phone calls during dinner. Diana stared at him, from across the table, saw a handsome alpha male, and tried to really remember what exactly it was that had drawn her to him so long ago. She had a near perfect image of their first meeting in her head when Grace kicked her foot under the table in response to something preposterous her father said. The image disappeared in a flash, never to return. Tiny portions of weird fusion cuisine left both her and Grace still hungry. They went up to Buford Highway and found a place with no English on the menu, where they laughed about the situation over plates of spicy Szechuan chicken.

“You should have a TV rose contest, Mom,” said Grace. “You’re wealthy; you look good.”

“That sounds like a wonderful idea. We’ll call it The Cougar and the Rose. Better idea: let’s have one for you.”

“I’m not pretty enough for TV. Plus, the network would make the pool of guys be all those manly frat-guy types instead of cute hipster boys.”

Here we have a slice of life, the renewal of another month. Work, family, ongoing relationships. Nothing more, nothing less. Murder is a business like any other.

Novel 3: Act II, Chapter 3, Scene 5

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An extremely fatigued Diana returns from a lunch where she learns why the homeless shelter stays in its place despite nearly everyone wanting it gone:

Diana had no idea how she got home, or how the car was still in one piece, Frey was the only one in the house. She put the box from Mary Mac’s in the refrigerator, where it was the only object but for a few condiment bottles in the door. She went upstairs and gazed at the blank screen of her laptop, seeing only her own reflection, misremembering herself. The sleeplessness and fatigue was like an aura around her, almost tangible, giving her extreme clarity into she knew not what.

After a long, meditative silence, as she reached out with a fingertip to wake up the laptop. She had no idea what she was looking for, but ended up on Georgia Tech’s website. Maybe she’d go back to school, finish the degree that Grace interrupted.

She clicked over to the least dreadful of the corporate news websites. Celebrity gossip, paid-for politicians… yes. She typed Reaper Atlanta into the search box, got dozens of articles, but none less than five days old. Poor Mario was dead, but at least nobody knew about it.

She floated to bed. In her dream, she was in an amalgam of all the Catholic churches she’d visited back during the original Reaper investigation. To one side of the stainedglass above her was Jesus on the cross; to the other side was Mary, weeping. Her tears fell to the floor, where they formed a pattern like the ones drawn on the dead men’s chests. “I made this,” said Mary. “You can’t read it.”

The scene shifted to the dorm hallway at Georgia Tech. Boys: boys behind doors; doors she could open. She moved to her own room: someone was trying to get in, but she’d locked the door. She looked out through the peephole, and there was Andrew. He had a rose in one hand and an electric drill in the other. He was drilling her door, making a peep hole of his own, one that was going to break through into her room any second–

She snapped awake. The buzzing sound of the drill was her phone buzzing of the nightstand beside her. She picked it up: an unfamiliar number.

“Diana?” A woman’s voice, heavily accented. “Diana Siddal?” Accent on the second syllable, the mistake people often made. “My name’s Alicia Garcia?” She sounded as if she weren’t sure.


“I have a friend, who’s a cop here in Houston? He sent me a link. That’s my brother, Miguel. The picture says Mario, but that’s just a nickname. You’re looking for him?”

“Oh. Right. No, ma’am; we’re looking for you. Look, I’m really sorry, but I’ve got some bad news for you.”

And that’s Act II, right there. Like I said way back when, it’s very short, just a quick repeat of the first cycle with some adds to the subplots and some background. Act III will be quite long and is going to include its own self-contained story.

Novel 3: Act II, Chapter 3, Scene 4c

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Diana is eating lunch with Tommy Clyburne, part of the business association whose district covers the homeless shelter. He’s explained to her why they’ve never been able to get rid of the shelter. Here, he’s explained what happened after they stopped paying their mortgage:

“So why didn’t you just take the building away?”

“That’s what I said: we tried. There’s more than a few good lawyers out there who are willing to work pro bono to get their name in the spotlight. They gummed it up for six, seven years before it finally got to the Supreme Court. The Georgia one, I mean. And you know elected judges: not a one of them wants to risk having enough of the public hearing their name before election time. So they came up with a technicality, and now we’re on year… four? five? of the second time through the system. Perhaps Ms. Longstreet can ultimately be persuaded; she’s certainly a step in the right direction. We’ve thrown an awful lot of good money after bad.”

“You’ve got a delinquent mortgage: you’ll win, eventually.”

“Don’t be so sure. They’ve got guardian angels.” At Diana’s blank look, “Not real angels. You know how in any big rich family there’s going to be one grandkid who turns into a hippie? You know, the kid who lives off a trust fund, so they have the free time to go to all the rallies, say power to the people? Okay, now multiply that by Coca-Cola money. There’s three or four of them out there, not all from the same fortune. You mentioned the water bill? That was what happened: when the city government played hardball and wouldn’t back down, someone wrote a check for a hundred and fifty grand.”

Clyburne drank the rest of his sweet tea. “My guess is, the minute we get the go-ahead to seize the property, someone will step out of the shadows, or a few of them will chip in, and that neighborhood will stay an eyesore for another twenty years.”

Rich heirs, messing with the Man for the sake of the People. This won’t turn out to be irrelevant to the main plot of the story. But we’ve also explained why the shelter, despite its numerous and manifest problems, is able to stay in its place. This was infodump, but it was done in a halfway entertaining fashion, and that’s what’s important.

Novel 3: Act II, Chapter 3, Scene 4b

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Diana is eating lunch with Tommy Clyburne, part of the business association whose district covers the homeless shelter. He’s explained to her why they’ve never been able to get rid of the shelter. Here, he’s explained what happened after they stopped paying their mortgage:

Diana’s hand reached out, flipped the napkin off her plate. “Forgive me for being less than totally convinced that all the people in your organization are quite so charitable.”

Clyburne chuckled. “Indeed. Look at that district: Ralph McGill up to North Avenue, Peachtree over east to Piedmont and beyond. Twenty thousand taxpaying citizens could be living there; plus medical offices for the hospital. Run a shuttle to connect to Civic Center MARTA, express buses down Courtland and up Piedmont all the way from Memorial to Tenth. Even the more libertarian among my partners will readily acknowledge that whatever it takes to relocate the shelter will be returned many times over. Truly, though, the consensus is that helping them is a moral imperative and not merely a financial one.”

She took from the plate the roll she’d carefully bisected, then replaced the napkin. “Okay, so I’m Maxine Lee and I’m a truly passionate advocate for the homeless: why won’t I take you up on the offer to relocate? Assuming it really is a good offer.”

“Oh, it was. Politics, is your answer. Like many people, she let her personal politics get in the way of what’s right. My libertarian colleagues often underpay their employees, offering bottom dollar because they believe in a perfect world where everything and everyone has a price. In my company, we pay above-market salaries and provide excellent benefits, because it encourages loyalty and reduces turnoved, and this leads to stability and increased profits. It’s the same thing as your husband’s company.”

“Ex-husband,” said Diana around a mouthful of roll.

“Sorry. But he overpays people for the same reason. He’s a hell of a businessman.”

“Can’t argue with you there.”

“The ones who underpay? Some of them are always complaining about their turnover and how disruptive it is to their business. But they won’t put two and two together and spend money to make money. The politics of paying low wages is too dear to them. Maxine Lee? Same story.

“She was a libertarian? Oh, never mind. So sleep deprived.”

“Well, that might have been interesting. She was an anarchist. Well maybe that’s not quite the right word. You see, it was… emotionally important to her that all the doctors and developers and yuppies had to deal with a huge crowd of stinky, obnoxious homeless people right up in their faces. And I’m not calling them that, like many people I know would. Some of those homeless folks are lazy drunks, but most of them drew a bad hand at birth, or picked the wrong cards when they were young and dumb. I mean, one of the reasons why Peachtree-Pine underserves its clients is that the lack of hygiene and good manners was a big old middle finger to the rest of us. She’d go on about how we can’t just forget the poor or push them aside.”

“She’s right. Philosophically, at least. But I get it: she wasn’t willing to give in, because she enjoyed making y’all squirm.”

“And that caused—still causes—homeless people to suffer.”

Much of this is infodump, the management of which I covered in the last post. The key feature of this peace is that it’s a long discussion about how personal ideals get in the way of good business practices. Keep that in mind as the narrative unspools.

Novel 3: Act II, Chapter 3, Scene 4a

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Diana is so fatigued she can barely think, but when her ex-husband Andrew called, she asked him about who among his mover and shaker friends might be a member of the business association for the neighborhood that includes the homeless shelter:

And so it was she found herself in Mary Mac’s Tea Room, along with everyone else who cared about flavor more than they did about their hearts, sitting across the table from Mr. Clyburne. He was round and jolly, and black, which Diana chided herself for being surprised about. “Your secret is safe with me,” she told him. “I’m going to face-plant into pot roast and starch.”

“And I’ll rely on you never to tell my wife I had me a pork chop.”

After their order was taken, Clyburn said, “You’ve met Andrew’s new bride?”

“I understand she’s Best In Show.”

“I’m not going to deny it, she’s real nice to look at.” A slow head shake. “Twenty-first century manufacture. Who wants babies, at his age?”

Diana managed to make herself stop after exactly half of her pot roast, her mac and cheese, her mashed potatoes and the broccoli casserole she’d chosen to add a little green to the plate. She moved the plate aside, covered it with her napkin. “Here’s my question,” she said as Clyburne used his knife to work a sliver of meat from the bone. “Peachtree-Pine is a giant pain in y’all’s rear end. You want them gone, and you’re rich and powerful. Y’all have wanted them out for… since the Olympics, right? There’re obnoxious, they kill your property values, they stop you from making those blocks as ritzy as the ones up past Ponce.”

Clyburn held up a finger, chewed, swallowed, wiped his mouth. “Look, we’re not opposed to taking care of the homeless. Most of us are Democrats. We’ve been willing since the millennium to buy them out and help them get settled in a different part of town.” The whole hand went up. “One near transit and services, not way out in the ghetto. Our intention all along has been to provide them with better care. Well, you’re a cop: you know even more than I do what goes on there. They’ve got way too many people for that building, and they’re warehousing them.”

“Sorry; I’m very tired. I’m not trying to critique you. I’m saying, even if I might not agree with you, that you have a bunch of compelling arguments. The thing I’m really interested in is, we’re in Atlanta, where money always trumps everything and new development always pushes out the old; and yet, Peachtree-Pine is still going strong. I can think of a few times where it looked like they were about to close. Something about the water bill? But they never do. It’s certainly not Atlanta’s tender concern for the downtrodden that keeps you from dropping a political or financial hammer on them.”

“Well, we did foreclose on them. That didn’t work, either. Maybe oh-nine? I wasn’t really part of it. Let me think.” Another sliver of pork. “They used to own that building outright, up until 2002 or so. Then they took out a million-dollar mortgage. Nobody has any idea how that money got spent. I mean, I dealt with Ms. Longstreet’s predecessor, Maxine Lee, for well over a decade, and let me tell you, that woman was a real… object lesson in the humility, compassion and forbearance that Jesus Christ demands of us all. But bless her bellicose little soul, she was not lining her own pockets, and neither were any of the other managers.”

He put the utensils on the plate and pushed it away. “Divine. I may not have agreed with them, but they weren’t corrupt. Neither is Ms. Longstreet: we did due diligence on her last year, just like we did on the others once they took all of about six months to stop making payments on the mortgage.”

“I bet y’all thought that was a golden opportunity.”

“You got that right. Just keep in mind that we’ve been clear since forever that we’re willing to fund what it took to make sure those people got better care. That ain’t just talk: it’s how we treat the least of us that counts. And they are not being well-served.”

Here’s the crux of the matter from the larger perspective of how the shelter fits into the fabric of the city. How is it they manage to stay there, when more or less everyone wants them out? This scene is a lot of infodump, but sometimes you need infodump—and there’s a right and a wrong way to do it. The worst way is to just give five paragraphs of third-person omniscient narration: it’s boring, it breaks up the story, and it’s just shitty writing. If you can’t work the background into the story, or at the very least dole it out sparingly, you’re not doing it right. The second worst way is to have one character say to the other, “As you know, Bob, the…”, which is just laughable. You have to have a character who doesn’t know the story find out the details, as Diana is doing here, and you have to make the character giving the information be a real person instead of just a mouthpiece. Hence, food.

Novel 3: Act II, Chapter 3, Scene 3

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Mustapha drops a fatigued Diana off at her car after a long and fruitless night of investigating Bill Knight’s murder:

She surprised herself by actually going home, changing, looking up a yoga class and going. The new teacher had to be younger than Grace. “You have good form, but you’re tense,” said the woman, whose real name was surely not January. “Maybe you should step out side the box mentally. Shake things up, do something different.”

“If you only knew.” Thinking this witty only underscored to Diana how tired she was. The ride home was a blur; at one point, she was staring at her phone, trying to decide whether to listen to any of the three messages Andrew had left, when the driver behind her laid on the horn because the light had been green for at least half a second. She needed a shower, and something to eat, but of course there was nothing at all in the house. She heard herself whimper. It was only just after noon. She made coffee, then waited for it to cool while she uploaded Mario’s photo into an image search site, then posted it on a few cop boards.

She was just about to take the first sip when she heard her phone ring. Her gorge rose as she thought about the media getting hold of Mario.

But it was just Andrew. She went to put the phone down, but out of fatigue and reflex answered the call instead. “Oh, you’re actually alive,” she heard him say.

“Only technically. Why do you keep calling me?” She couldn’t resist adding, “Aren’t you somebody else’s problem, now?”

“Not yet. I wanted to invite you to the wedding. You should meet her, soon. She’s a hell of a girl.”

“I’m sure she’s a lovely woman. I would like nothing better than to meet her. I need to go to bed now. Wait: I have a question for you. Are any of your fancy One Percent friends on the board of the development association for the part of Peachtree where the homeless shelter is?”

“Um… yes. Tommy Clyburne. What do you need to know?”

“I’m not even sure.”

Remember, in the final draft the victim will be someone other than Mario. But right on the heels of detail about Diana’s working relationship with Mustapha, we get to see her relationship with Andrew, who can still boss her around after 25 years divorced. Note all the detail here: he’s going to keep calling until she answers or responds, he has some kind of vague concern for her but it’s still mostly about him, he calls women “girls”, but she knows how to work him by making him feel confident and connected. And all in about 140 words.

For the record, in all half a million words I’ve written about these two detectives, there’s never been a hint of sexual tension. He’s 20 years older, comfortably settled in late middle age with an empty nest; she’s too picky and self-reliant to have remarried, and she’s actually kind of kinky, though this is only alluded to.