Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 5, Scene 3b

TOC page here.

Here’s the rest of the scene, where we discuss religion. One of the ongoing themes here is that Christianity and Islam are both such enormous religions (over a billion followers each) that it’s impossible to say “Islam is this” and not be able to quickly come up with a counterexample. Reverend Carter is one kind of Christian, and Claire another:

Mustapha said, “You get a lot of church groups coming in here and helping out?”

“No. Some donate to us, but if they come in, they always spend more time trying to convert the clients than they do feeding them. There are plenty of church groups who work outside the shelter, though; just head out into Renaissance Park or the parking lot across Pine Street, and you’ll run into one sooner or later.”

“Any of them Muslim?”

“The groups, you mean? They’re all different faiths. There’s an atheist group, which, as long as they’re doing good works, they’re better than half the churches in town. There was even a group of Flying Spaghetti Monster people; you know, with colanders on their heads? They were very nice, but goodness, did they confuse people.”

“Cascade Baptist?”

“Doesn’t ring a bell. But again, they could be out there and I wouldn’t know. I’ve only managed this organization for just over a year now. The people who used to run it? Well, let’s just say that making alliances wasn’t their strong suit.”

Diana looked up from her tablet. “Are you a licensed counselor, Ms. Longstreet?”

“Claire, please. I… no. I do pastoral counseling: Georgia doesn’t require a license.”

“How many clients do you have in the Lazarus Program?”

“That’s… very few. Alex Dawson isn’t—wasn’t—one of them.”

“But that very helpful gentleman who used to know my ex-husband is.”

“Bill Knight. Yes.” Mustapha had no idea what Diana was talking about, but as usual, he let it ride.

“Who else is? How about Mr. Buchanan, working your door?”

“I… look, none of that has anything to do with Alex. I take on a few clients whose efforts to get their lives together are serious and sustained, and help them out with intensive small-group and individual therapy. That’s really all it is. Traditional talk therapy is extremely effective: just imagine how many fewer problems you police would have if we spent ten percent of our military budget on therapy.”

“That’s a lot of couches,” said Mustapha.

“Mock me if you will, Inspector, but you asked earlier about how people become homeless? The single greatest driver of homelessness is bankruptcy brought on by medical bills. In Canada and other civilized countries, access to healthcare, even mental health care, which shouldn’t be a separate issue at any rate, isn’t doled out by class status. People who have been middle-class their whole lives have no idea what it’s like to have to choose between medical care and the electric bill. And for them, therapy is right out of the question.”

“Sorry,” he said. “Haven’t had my tea yet.” He sipped: for herbal crap, it wasn’t bad.

Longstreet sipped her own tea. “I suppose you can tell I’m a bit passionate about this. And Obamacare might be helpful for people with jobs, but it does little for the homeless, for whom even a basic policy is far out of reach.”

Diana reached out, dipped the tip of her pinky finger in her tea, recoiled. “Who was Lazarus? I know, he’s in the bible somewhere, but I grew up outside church.”

Longstreet got up, knelt down under the hot plate where there was a minifridge, put a few ice cubes in a cup and handed it to Diana. “Your teeth?” she said as a grateful Diana poured the ice into her tea and nodded. “We see a lot of that, here. Don’t even get me started on why dental care is a separate issue from regular healthcare.”

“I’m with you, there,” said Diana. She sipped, smiled, swallowed. “So who was Lazarus?”

Longstreet flushed. “I didn’t make up the name, I swear. It was a former client, one now living on his own, who had been a minister before his… issues took control of him. Neither one of you knows the reference?”

Diana said, “My stepmother and I used to read lots of books of mythology together, so I recognized the name, but don’t remember the story.”

“Oh. It’s from the gospel of John. Lazarus was a local man who Jesus… brought back from the dead.” At their expressions, “Like I said, I didn’t make up the name.”

Claire goes by works, not faith nor spectacle. But at the same time, she’s allowing people to call her Jesus, which is generally regarded as a warning sign. She understands that our medical system is the travesty that causes homelessness, but she’s providing unlicensed “pastoral” counseling instead of trained therapy. She’s a study in contradictions, which is intended: it renders her both more vivid and more relevant to the central plot. I’m setting her up to be a point of ambiguity, which remember “ambiguous” is right from the start one of our theme words.

In real life, I the author am pretty hostile to religion in general: it’s an authoritarian fairy tale. This makes it a challenge to portray people with faith without unconsciously slanting things negatively. But of course, there are tens of millions of people for whom their religion is a big net positive, even if I might think that overall religion hurts humanity. One of my favorites among my short stories is Bird of Paradise, which has decent, kind religious people at its heart.

Next.

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Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 5, Scene 3a

TOC page here.

Now both detectives get to meet Claire Longstreet, the director of the shelter. Diana met her briefly, earlier, but now we get to see her from Mustapha’s POV:

The shadow led them down a hallway decorated by the kind of amateur acrylic paintings he’d think untrained homeless guys would create. Still better than he himself could do. She ushered them in, keeping her eyes to the ground the whole time, then vanished before Mustapha had a chance to turn around.

Claire Longstreet looked great, as always: the one woman in a hundred where the boyfriend wouldn’t be full of shit when he said he wanted his girl to stop wearing makeup. Her office had real art in it, and a curtain on the inside wall, that if the building made any sense, would cover a window looking out over the main room with all the bunks. “I’m sorry Henry kept you waiting, Detectives. I probably should have told him you’d come and to send you right in. He’s very loyal.”

“What did he do?” said Mustapha. “I mean, how did he become homeless? He doesn’t look or sound like a guy with a drug problem.”

“He doesn’t have one. Didn’t. I’m not sure how comfortable–”

“He spent time inside, didn’t he?”

“… Yes. Henry grew up in circumstances we can hardly imagine, and when he was a very young man, he did something foolish and spent a few years in prison. I’m sure you know as well as I do how difficult our society makes it for felons who have served their time to take up a place in society.” She pointed to a hot plate on a table in the corner. “Would you like tea?” At their nods, she got up to turn on the burner. “So to answer your question, Inspector Alawi, in Henry’s case it was abject poverty. Henry is intelligent and capable, but nobody would hire him for even minimum wage.”

Diana said, “And since he’s intelligent and capable, he wasn’t willing to–”

“Exactly. If our society provided more in the way of transition? Or less stigma, or even access to capital? But I suspect I’m talking to the wrong people.”

Mustapha said, “Oh, we agree. We just aren’t in any position to do anything about it. So tell us what your… clients have to say about what happened to Alex Dawson.”

A wry smile. “Well, they have a great deal to say. How much of it is germane, I don’t know. I saw the picture on the Internet, and that certainly dispensed with some of their theories: I can’t imagine that zombies would have the patience to learn Arabic calligraphy. I wish I could give you something specific, but all I have are third-hand reports of Alex getting into a white van with his girlfriend.”

“Yeah, we might have got second-hand on that one. But we tracked the girlfriend down, and it wasn’t her driving that van. She was…”

“Otherwise engaged,” said Diana, stifling a laugh. “It wasn’t her. Anyone he had a conflict with? Does anything your clients have to say sound credible to you? And can we talk to them?”

“Detective Siddall, you asked me last night, and I’ll give you the same answer now: I’m not going to open up Peachtree-Pine to you without some clear link to a specific person. There are forces in Atlanta who have been doing their best to close down this facility since the turn of the century. They want to transform these blocks into a playground for rich people, just as they have with everything surrounding us. We live in a city, and we can’t just exile the poor to some distant enclave and forget about them. They have just as much right to be here as anyone else. The same people who want us out would campaign against a tax hike that would pay for enough services to give everyone a home; and they’d spend more of their own money on the campaign than they would ever pay in higher taxes. Atlanta is ruled by the one percent, and class inequality is their–”

She looked to her side, suddenly self-conscious, then got up and took the kettle off the heat just as it began to whistle. “Sorry. You can probably guess how I feel about this. You may think I’m a conspiracy theorist; but the conspiracy here is very real.” She put the kettle on the other burner, turned off the first, got out mugs. “All I have is herbal; with the hours I keep, I had to give up caffeine.”

They both shrugged; she poured. “It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Chamber of Commerce and the so-called doctors of Emory Midtown got together and murdered one of our clients as a way to further discredit the organization. They already think the lives of the homeless are disposable. I’m sure you have heard what some of the city’s leaders have to say about the homeless in public, but even folks like you might be shocked about by what people tell me in private.” She plucked the teabags back out of the hot liquid, passed them each a mug. “But with Alex? I just can’t see them being that creative, really: they wouldn’t have converted the Reaper to Islam. And if it had been one of my clients? Alex would have been stabbed with a broken bottle, or beaten to death; and the killer would have ended up in my office confessing—and yes, I would have sent him to you. You’re looking for someone outside the Peachtree-Pine community.”

She’s a real preacher, in a way that the Reverend Carter from the beginning of the chapter wasn’t. This is more infodump, but again, it’s intended to be organic. Claire is telling, not showing, but she’s got a compelling reason to tell a story, so we can get background even in a situation where Mustapha and Diana probably already know the story quite well. And in doing so, we can add to her character: she’s charismatic, articulate, passionate about the people she represents, even though she clearly comes from a class background.

In the previous scene, Mustapha’s drive set up the physical layout of the neighborhood; now, we get the political layout. And in each case, there’s tension between the homeless and the 21st-century city that surrounds them.

Next.

Murder in Little Five Points

Recently the APD were able to arrest four suspects in the March 14 killings of two men in Little Five Points, still one of Atlanta’s more colorful neighborhoods despite the rapid and near-total gentrification of the area. The two men were leaving the bar they’d been carousing in and heading home at 0300. Nobody saw them get shot, but people heard the shots.

Earlier that night, some people in the Highlands, about a mile away, were robbed, and the robbers later arrested. The cops figured the same guys (three men and a 14yo boy, who since this is Georgia is being charged as an adult) for the L5P killings, but had nothing tangible. Unable to strong-arm any of these guys into confessing, the cops looked to the public:

Last Friday, [Detectives] Velazquez and Thomas asked the public for help in finding the man who returned the wallet to a bartender at the North Highland Pub, where a bartender contacted the owner.

The found wallet solidifies the timeline and makes it easily possible for the robbers to have committed the killings. It’s still a very circumstantial case, but again, this is Georgia. So, kudos to the police and to the guy who turned the wallet in, and then came forward later in response to the media call.

So this is fundamentally already a story: conflict, resolution. But simply to write it as a straightforward narrative would just be boring true-crime writing. Better still to mix it up a little, especially with respect to the victims. One way would be to tell it from the juvenile’s perspective: out of his depth everywhere, terrified of what will happen to him if he saves himself by snitching.

But the perspective that intrigues me most is that of the guy who found the wallet. What’s HE doing here? What’s he doing out at that hour? What’s the inner conflict he’s processing while stumbling upon the wallet, doing his duty as a citizen, shrugging and walking away? How does this relate to the consequences of coming forward later? What does it reveal about him that will cause him problems? And what about the danger he doesn’t know: if the 14yo has a credible fear of the gang coming for him if he snitches, the wallet-finder has no idea when he comes forward what those guys might do to him. He’s worried about some personal thing, when he ought to be worried about the gang.

I’ll tell it from both perspectives, see how that works out.

Obligatory Disclaimer

Welcome to my blog. Most of what you’ll see here falls into one of several categories:

  1. Short segments of pieces of my fiction, some of which are strung together over multiple posts in order to show how a story evolves.
  2. Links to lurid crimes that take place in the Atlanta area, often coupled with musings on how these crimes could be turned into stories.
  3. Readings of the works of other mystery-thriller authors, mostly as media for discussions of prose, character, structure or themes.
  4. Photographs of Atlanta-area landmarks and other features.

I’m going to try to stay away from politics, philosophy, and pictures of pets. At some time in the distant future when I have readers, they should understand that any fiction of mine posted on this blog is copyrighted with all rights reserved, and that any piece of someone else’s writing is cited for the express and limited purpose of academic criticism. For now, this is all mostly a reason to get me to take more seriously my writing and myself as a writer.