The Mothership Connection (13)

Parts 1, 234567891011 and 12 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. They confront BDJ in a club and he explains that he and Thirty Ought got married for medical insurance: Thirty Ought had multiple sclerosis. Diana gets a corrupt judge to allow them to disinter a new grave near another section of the Beltline, they find Thirty Ought’s body, and inform our aspiring rapper Christopher that he’s actually Thirty Ought’s heir, he owns half of everything, and if he helps them by snitching, he can have it all. But Big Daddy has a plausible claim that Thirty Ought died of natural causes, and that he hid the body because he feared he’d be held responsible for it way back then. Lastly, a gangster imprisoned for crimes back in the day tells our detectives he has a way for them to nail Big Daddy for murder… but it’s not quite what we’re led to think.

This time, it was Big Daddy who was resplendent in finery, while his lawyer was in a plain black suit. The hotel suite at the Ritz still smelled of weed smoke, even though the windows were open and the smell and sound of Peachtree Street traffic filled the room.

The lawyer looked at Diana and Mustapha with narrow, reddened eyes. “The hell you back here for? My client made bail.”

“For now,” said Diana. “But there’s no bail on murder charges.”

Shawty G’s bugged-out eyes made him look even higher. “Man, you think Big Daddy’s going to do any time, you wrong: snitches get stitches, even if it’s just on the autopsy table.”

“Shut the fuck up,” said Mustapha. “Haven’t you heard you’re under new ownership?” He pointed at Big Daddy. “Stand up.”

Big Daddy’s eyes were clear. “We are already negotiating in good faith with the DA’s office.” He remained seated.

The lawyer said, “And they know full well they’ll get nowhere prosecuting Mr. Oakes for Mr. Beatty’s death.”

“Natural causes, baby,” said Big Daddy.

Diana said, “Oh, we know about that. And you’re right: you’ll never do time for killing Mr. Beatty.”

Mustapha said, “But that’s not why we’re here.”

Diana smiled “No. You see, there were three of you in the New Pirate Mafia. Poor dear old Sweet T, died in the tub. Weed, boombox, accident. But we have a witness, and an affidavit, and… oh, yes, Mr. Oakes, you should look worried.”

A long, slow smile, almost genuine. “I’m not. If it’s the witness I’m thinking of, he’s in jail. A convicted felon.”

The lawyer stirred himself to say, “Not credible.”

“Not by himself,” said Mustapha. “He gets up in court, talks about how you picked up the boombox and tossed it in the bathtub, then laughed as you watched your partner twitch himself to death, the jury probably won’t buy it.”

Diana said, “But the Atlanta Police Department is a giant bureaucracy. It took us forever, poking around in a dusty warehouse on a hot spring day, but we found the boombox.”

“Sealed in plastic,” said Mustapha. “For seven years.”

“And guess whose fingerprints are on it, nice and neat, right where you’d grab it to throw it in?”

“Stand up, Big Daddy,” said Mustapha. “You’re under arrest for the murder of William Carter, a.k.a. Sweet T. You have the right to remain silent, but it don’t matter, as we have evidence and corroborative testimony. Come on, get up before I dislocate your shoulder pulling you up.” He saw Shawty G start to move. “Assaulting an officer will get you a lot more than stitches, kid.”

Diana unholstered her sidearm. “Just try us. Oh, and by the way; I talked to Christopher, who just as soon as Mr. Oakes here is convicted will own all of you instead of just half? He told me to tell you the enterprise is moving in a new direction, and that after today, you’re paying your own hotel bill.”

And that’s it. Misdirection: we haven’t mentioned dear old Sweet T for thousands of words now, but he was right there all along. Big Daddy spent a lot of time and effort covering up how he murdered his husband, but it never even occurred to him, let alone most people reading this story, that he might be held to account for his other partner’s death.

So I think I succeeded in writing a story about hip-hop, mostly because hip-hop is just the window dressing for a tale of murder and hubris. The classics always work.

Back to the novel next.

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The Mothership Connection (12)

Parts 1, 2345678910 and 11 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. They confront BDJ in a club and he explains that he and Thirty Ought got married for medical insurance: Thirty Ought had multiple sclerosis. Diana gets a corrupt judge to allow them to disinter a new grave near another section of the Beltline, they find Thirty Ought’s body, and inform our aspiring rapper Christopher that he’s actually Thirty Ought’s heir, he owns half of everything, and if he helps them by snitching, he can have it all. But Big Daddy has a plausible claim that Thirty Ought died of natural causes, and that he hid the body because he feared he’d be held responsible for it way back then. Now, let’s enjoy the final plot twist:

The skinny, balding man in the orange jumpsuit arranged the file folders in front of him. “Thanks for taking the time, y’all.”

“It was a long drive, Mr. Gibson,” said Mustapha. “This better be worth it.”

“Oh, it is. I’m not yanking your chain because I’m some bored gangster, stuck in a cell.”

Diana said, “We read your file. You’re a credit to the penal system.”

“Not so sure about that, ma’am.”

“You got your GED, your BA and now you’re halfway through law school. That’s impressive.”

“Thank you. But what I’m saying is, the penal system fought me all the way. They have no interest in rehabilitation. Never mind; that’s not the point. Way I hear it, y’all hauled Big Daddy up for moving the body, but the DA can’t make a murder charge stick. What I’m saying is, I can help you, but of course you need to help me. I got thirteen more years before I go out for parole; I want to do my last year of law school in the classroom.”

Mustapha started to stand up. “Talking about yanking our chain.”

“Don’t be hasty, Inspector. You want to see that monster go down, I know what nobody else does. Besides, my nephew? Christopher needs me, for protection.” He read their faces. “Legal protection. Business sense. My gangster days are far behind me. And the hip-hop business is full of thugs and criminals. You’ve both spoken to Christopher at length: they’ll eat him alive.”

Diana said, “Where is Christopher, by the way? Our DA can’t seem to find him. I’m worried Mr. Oakes already has got to him.”

“Rest your mind, ma’am. I’ve got a friend, a parolee? Christopher is staying with his cousins out in the country, away from all the rough and tumble. Your DA needs him, call me: he’ll be there in three hours or so. But y’all want Big Daddy for murder, and so do I. Hell, I’d give you him for free if it wasn’t my only ticket out of this cage. Me and Thirty Ought? We rode bikes together when we were like five years old. He was my brother. The hardest man I know. So he was gay. Someone else? I might not have liked it. But we both knew it from the start. Ain’t nothing. So that bitch Big Daddy comes along, dumbass suburban kid wants to be a big name, and he figures it out right away. He was the love of Thirty Ought’s life. All the while, they was the New Pirate Mafia? Thirty Ought saved his best poetry for old Big Daddy. I read how Big Daddy saying they got married for health insurance. Bullshit. Thirty Ought was still around to ask, he’d tell you it was the dream wedding he always wanted. And then that snake betrayed him. Broke his heart. Probably what killed him.”

Diana said, “That’s… touching, really. But you just said probably killed him. But probably doesn’t cut it in court.”

Mustapha said, “Yeah. There’s no thirteen years off a sentence for probably.”

Gibson smiled, slowly. “You’re right. I was in here by the time Thirty Ought disappeared. His mom came here, twice, trying to find out if I knew anything. I couldn’t help her, not with anything concrete.”

Mustapha groaned, and began to stand up. “Thanks for wasting our day, skell.”

“Please, don’t be hasty, Inspector. Sit down and hear a little story I got to tell.”

So, what’s the surprise? You might be able to read it between the lines. Gibson can’t have witnessed Thirty Ought’s death. So what’s he got that will take thirteen years off his sentence? What’s he got that will nail Big Daddy for murder? It’s all there: you just have to know where to look.

The Mothership Connection (11)

Parts 1, 23456789 and 10 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. They confront BDJ in a club and he explains that he and Thirty Ought got married for medical insurance: Thirty Ought had multiple sclerosis. Diana gets a corrupt judge to allow them to disinter a new grave near another section of the Beltline, they find Thirty Ought’s body, and inform our aspiring rapper Christopher that he’s actually Thirty Ought’s heir, he owns half of everything, and if he helps them by snitching, he can have it all. Now, Big Daddy’s in jail, awaiting arraignment:

Big Daddy looked a lot smaller in a prison jumpsuit; but his lawyer more than made up for this in both bulk and adornment. “It is simply unconscionable to have brutally detained Mr. Oakes in the midst of his–”

“Oh, stop,” said Diana. “We all like to have our fun.”

“Well. Let’s keep this brief, so I can extricate my client from this insalubrious location before the close of business. Given the treachery of that young man, it would be a waste of everyone’s time to attempt to assert that my client did not relocate Thirty Ought’s body. We are ready to plead guilty on that, accept our punishment and move on. But Mr. Oakes did not kill his… er, husband. You see, back in 2006, Thirty Ought’s MS symptoms caused him increasing pain and suffering. He used narcotics to alleviate this.”

Big Daddy said, “I come home one night and there he is, on the floor, stone dead. I loved the man—not in the gay sense, mind, but like the brother he was to me—and I hated seeing him in pain. But I cried like a baby with him in my arms. I still don’t know if it was an accident or a suicide.”

The lawyer said, “And what you won’t find is any evidence of homicide.”

“Who cares?” said Mustapha. “Hiding the body, profiting from his disappearance: the jury can draw its own conclusions.”

Big Daddy grimaced. “Man, I panicked cause it was my place he was dead in. Y’all was hunting us down, I knew damn well if I called it in y’all were gonna pin it on me. I thought about pulling a number from The Wire and sealing him in one of them houses in Pittsburgh, but I didn’t have no tools and it was three in the morning.”

Diana asked, “So why bury him in Midtown? Not really your neck of the woods.”

“Well, that was why. All the fellas in Pittsburgh? They was pool sharks. Man, you got no idea how much money I lost playing pool back in the day. So what I used to do was go on out there where nobody would recognize me, go to that Dupree’s place in that shopping center, put in some practice. I knew about them old train tracks from when I’d go out to smoke some herb. Went up to New York, lost track of my roots, didn’t hear nothing about no Beltline till that snitch bitch Christopher told me. Tell you the truth, I didn’t know nothing about Thirty Ought’s will, either, or I’d have been giving the boy his cut all along.”

“Sure you would,” muttered Mustapha.

“It’s immaterial,” said the lawyer. “The body? He’ll do his time. It’s a misdemeanor, anyway. The death? We will fight all charges with all our resources. You can’t prove homicide, you can’t prove murder. Your DA’s office is too risk-averse to roll those dice; and in the event Mr. Quinn chooses to try my clients, we feel confident Mr. Oakes will be acquitted.”

Big Daddy leaned back, hands behind his head. “Reasonable doubt all around, baby.”

So, body disposal, not murder; or at least, not murder anyone can prove. Will our detectives be able to find a way to keep Big Daddy in jail? We’ll find out next time.

 

The Mothership Connection (10)

Parts 1, 2345678 and 9 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. They confront BDJ in a club and he explains that he and Thirty Ought got married for medical insurance: Thirty Ought had multiple sclerosis. Diana gets a corrupt judge to allow them to disinter a new grave near another section of the Beltline:

Mustapha sat down in the chair and opened the folder. “This is a nice picture of you, Christopher. That’s kind of a big deal, being on stage with Big Daddy Jay. All the other aspiring rappers at Tri-Cities are going to be jealous. Someone as young as you, getting to warm up for that Shawty G guy? Man, you done made your bones.”

Christopher sat low in his chair, legs splayed, arms folded, trying to look hard. “I earned that.”

“You know, you did. But I was trying to be all clever, you know, make your bones. See, I could have a future as a rapper.”

“Well, you’ve got flow,” said Diana from where she stood by the window.

“And we’ve got bones. Whose bones they are, we think is that they belong to Thirty Ought. Right height and build, but we don’t have dental records, because he never really went to the dentist. Except the kind what makes gold teeth, and they don’t really keep the sort of records we need. The kind of records you want, Christopher. And I’m just going to take a wild guess here and say that Big Daddy not only offered you a spot on stage the other day with Shawty G, in return for using your grandmother’s car to help them move Thirty Ought’s body from out there in Midtown to the garden of the house next door, but he also dangled some kind of record deal in front of you if you’d keep your mouth shut.” Mustapha folded his arms, though he remained sitting up.

“I ain’t sayin’ nothing,” said Christopher, but he couldn’t meet Mustapha’s gaze for long.

“Christopher is a boy with a future,” said his grandmother from beside him.

“In jail,” said Mustapha.

Christopher shrugged. “Don’t matter. I’ll get out. And the whole time in, I’ll be rhyming.”

“And Big Daddy will be there for you, setting up your career? That’s what he told you, right? He and that Shawty G kid told you they needed a ride up to Midtown, and if you kept shut, he’d jump-start you. Even let you get up on stage Saturday afternoon and do your thing. Which, we saw the video.”

Diana said, “Stay in school.”

“Now, Detective, give the boy a chance. He’s young. He’s got stars in his eyes. So many that he can’t see the truth.”

A long silence. Then the grandmother said, “What have you done, boy?”

Mustapha said, “Not that much, really. He drove those clowns up to Midtown, so Big Daddy could dig up the body, and then he helped rebury it. In the garden next door. Did y’all know the New Pirate Mafia corporation owns that whole row of homes? Once the Beltline is finished, they’re going to make out like bandits, flipping those houses. Chris here is eighteen, so he’ll do time, but not much, even if he doesn’t talk. There goes college.”

“Don’t need it,” said Christopher.

Diana pulled up a chair and sat down. “We get it, Chris: you’re doing what makes sense to you, with the information you have. Big Daddy probably told you the body you moved was some gangbanger who did the New Pirate Mafia wrong. He just needed help: you help him, he puts you on stage when you get out. Just like Shawty G.”

“But you don’t have all the information,” said Mustapha. “And we’re trying to help you—believe it or not, we really are. Not because we’re nice people and we want to save a young man from getting bamboozled into throwing his life away. We’re not those kind of cops. It’s because we really want to nail that murderous prick Big Daddy.”

Diana said, “Right now, you think it’s in your best interest to protect him. But snitching is really in your best interest. And we can prove it. You think you’re getting a shot at the big time if you keep shot. But you already are big-time. You see, the guy we just dug up was Thirty Ought. Old bullet wounds prove it.”

“Gold teeth, too.”

“Yep. So now, you have to ask yourself, why would Big Daddy know where his partner in crime was buried? Yeah, that does make you wonder, doesn’t it? But Big Daddy’s still alive, even if he killed his husband,”

“His husband?” gasped the grandmother. “Lord.”

Mustapha said, “And he can help you, and Thirty Ought can’t.”

Diana said, “At least, that’s what you think. See, Thirty Ought had a will. Missing and buried in Midtown, Big Daddy is the sole proprietor of New Pirate Mafia; declared dead, Thirty Ought’s share goes to your own dad.”

“Which means you, since your dad’s gone,” said Mustapha. “You think you’re getting a shot at being a bit player in the New New Pirate Mafia. But you’re half of it, son. It’s already yours.”

Diana said, “And if you help us put Big Daddy away, it’s all yours. You own that Shawty G kid. All the records. All your grandfather’s electro-funk stuff, which by the way I’ve been listening to all day and is one hundred percent awesome. You can cut your own records, or you can sit around and count your money. You see, Big Daddy can’t profit from his crime: you help us put him away for moving the body, we can get him for murder. It’s all yours.”

Another long silence. Then Christopher said, “And if I don’t snitch, it’s still half mine.”

“That’s right. But you’ll be in jail; and you probably think you can do three or four years. And you might could, if you were by yourself. But you need to ask yourself: with Big Daddy out there, how long are you going to stay alive in jail?”

The grandmother cleared her throat. “Before Christopher says anything, I’m going to call my minister. We need to get us a lawyer, and you’ll need to show us all the papers.”

Mustapha said, “That is no problem, ma’am. The lawyer will tell you it’s all true. Chris, you need to listen to your grandmother. She’s a way better role model than ol’ Big Daddy.”

It’s never about rhymes; it’s always about money. Christopher owns half of Big Daddy, and here he is committing small-time crimes in order to get a tiny percentage of that. The “stop snitching” culture is loathsome, though there’s a sense in which it makes sense in the context of ghettos under siege. But that ethic only goes so far.

The Mothership Connection (9)

Parts 1, 234567 and 8 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. They confront BDJ in a club and he explains that he and Thirty Ought got married for medical insurance: Thirty Ought had multiple sclerosis. Now, let’s shift gears:

The distinguished Southern gentleman looked around to see if anyone else was looking before kicking his ball out of the rough. “Don’t tell nobody.”

Diana said, “My lips are sealed, Your Honor.”

“Now you confuse me with all these names. Big Daddy Jay, Thirty Ought, Shawty G: why is it these rap people can’t stick with the names their parents gave them?” He lined up his shot, took a practice swing.

“Some of these guys are real gangsters, Judge Hawthorne. It’s just part of the tradition. Others just want to look or sound like gangsters.”

“Well, it’s darned confusing. I’m going to need the five wood, sugar.”

“Mmm. Of course, Your Honor.” She took the three iron from him, looked at the sock Muppets that covered the woods. Elmo was the three; the five was Cookie Monster. “Here you go. But the story itself is simple: one guy killed the other and reburied him in the backyard of this abandoned house, because with the second guy missing, the first guy retains control of the estate. It’s just about money.”

“And you say these fellows were married? I always thought one of the few points these rap people had in their favor was that they didn’t tolerate homosexuals.”

Diana waited for him to take his practice swing before responding. “We’re thinking it might really have been for health insurance. The second guy did get treatment for multiple sclerosis before he disappeared.”

“Hmph. How do you know he’s in this garden?”

“We don’t know for sure that it’s Thirty Ought. But the house backs up onto what’s going to be the Beltline one day. Inspector Alawi and I took a stroll on it, enjoyed the beautiful spring weather. One of the K-9 officers went with us and, well, the dog got away for a moment and he entered the backyard, alerted on the garden. There’s definitely someone buried there.”

Another practice swing. “Neighborhood like that, there’s probably a corpse in every garden.”

“But we’ve got…”

“Yes, I see. An empty grave and a fresh one. Now hush.” Two more practice swings, then a long wait while he lined up the shot, tensed, swung back, stopped, let the club relax, lined up again, then an even longer pause. Diana tried very hard not to think about shouting “Cookie,” or throwing the sock at him. Another false start, then the real swing. The ball took off in a long, low arc, straight for the flag, then bounced once, then several more times, coming to rest just on the lip of the green.

“Well,” said Hawthorne. “Fancy that. Looks like you are a good luck charm, Detective. I’ll sign your warrant.” He tossed the club back to her without looking, then began to walk. “Carry the clubs up to the green, now; there’s a dear.”

What an asshole. One of the constants in the fiction that I write is that while murder is committed for one of four or five clearly-defined reasons, real evil is generally committed by the sort of men who are accustomed to cheating at golf. Diana, who grew up rich and with a powerful father who made every effort not to be corrupt, consistently has problems with guys like Hawthorne, though she knows full well they never commit the sort of crimes that get you life in prison. And as long as he gets his ego stroked by treating an attractive woman as a servant, she’ll help him out.

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.

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.

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.