Fire in the Belly

Work In progress — a story based on the 1985 Philadelphia Police bombing of a cult’s fortress in which eleven died, including five children, and sixty-one row houses allowed to burn to the ground.

FIRE IN THE BELLY

(Draft)

By Lanny Larcinese

Prologue

    The forensic investigation unit of the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office had seen corpses eaten by rats and roaches before—usually people who died alone, in anonymity, maybe buried under three feet of a hoarder’s detritus or somebody’s grandma outliving everybody except a landlord discovering her body while attempting to collect rent.

    This body was different. This was no middle-aged man keeling over in the brush from a heart attack while jogging, and hadn’t been dead all that long. His eyeballs were gone and he displayed bite marks from small, narrow teeth. The holes dug into the front of his body at first looked like hollow-point bullet wounds, but their uneven shape suggested some animal got to him. A quick call to Rat Control confirmed that yes, rats did inhabit the remote wooded area known as the Forbidden Drive beside the Wissahickon Creek. A lot of them.

    When the body was turned over and traces of peanut butter found smeared on it, it was clear this was a murder, probably by knife. But gnawing vermin made knife wounds hard to identify, especially since peanut butter had been stuffed into them. It wouldn’t be the first time a murderer recruited wildlife to eat the evidence.

    No identification was found near the nude corpse. The forensic team began surveying for missing person reports while awaiting the full autopsy.

    It didn’t take long to identify the partially eaten V.I.P. cooling in the fridge.

 Chapter One

Jamin Baker’s eyes popped open when the brittle static of loudspeakers silenced the chorus of sparrows in the leafy Parkside district adjacent to Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. The prospect of Lucinda War’s voice set Jamin’s nerves humming like a tuning fork.

The scratchy static was the 6:00 a.m. prelude to Lucinda’s morning rant — her shrill soprano enough to vibrate window glass — berating neighbors not to play into the hands of authorities by complaining about vermin multiplying throughout the neighborhood, etc. etc. The blaring racket would go on for hours, preaching various parts of Project War’s manifesto.

“As Jackie War teaches us,” she would say day after day after day, “all life is precious, and these little creatures have more of a right to be in this pathetic neighborhood than y’all.”

Eight loudspeakers were fastened to the corners of the decrepit, four-story Queen Ann in the middle of the block. Project War had taken the house over – first as squatters and later at auction – from a city hoping to buy peace from the bizarre and hostile group. Four more speakers were attached to nearby trees, including in front of Jamin’s apartment building. No way could he escape the annoyance.

Shortly after the amplified tirades began, he had used every ounce of his six foot six, two-seventy to bang on their door to restore order to the peaceful, middle-class, black neighborhood. As a natural leader, Benjamin Baker – “Jammin’ Jamin” to his friends, for his muted, soulful trumpet solos lilting from his open windows on sultry summer nights – had been block captain for three years prior to the intrusion of the militant group. The neighbors would expect him to handle the problem, and he could hardly wait.

Lucinda War had answered the door. A Nina Simone look-alike, she was tall and slim with satin, onyx-black skin and close-cropped hair. Her posture leaned forward like a reed in a delta pond, but her delicate look belied the virulent rhetoric spewed daily through the heated and hated loudspeakers of Project War.

She invited Jamin in and offered him a seat. He refused, said he’d only need a minute. Cockroaches openly scurrying over the sofa and walls signaled Jamin they were used to having their way. Two naked children, a boy and a girl about nine, alert faces framed by long dreadlocks, sucked on thumbs and peeked shyly around a half-opened pocket door.

“What can we do about those loudspeakers?” Jamin had asked Lucinda. “They’re making all us neighbors crazy.”

“Nuthin’. Nuthin’ can be done. It’s important to get Jackie War’s message out, and y’all motherfuckers better listen instead of fightin’ it.”

All Jamin could do was grit his teeth.

The whole town knew of Jackie War by now. He was flouting the law, trying to make Philadelphia into Detroit. But when it came to law and order, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Hank Marazzo made Detroit P.D. look like a Buddhist commune.

Project War had been handing out mimeographed pamphlets on street corners and blasting their message through loudspeakers for years. Its membership doubled after ’79, after a cop died in a shootout at their former headquarters in North Philly. The confrontation was over the service of a subpoena for L&I violations. A cop’s death over a lousy property matter threw more acid between the police and the black community – already eroded enough – and injected a kind of polio into a city administration able to talk but paralyzed by political stalemate.

Five War members had been convicted and were doing time. Now, in some twisted logic that Benjamin Baker couldn’t comprehend, Project War added neighbors to its declaration of war against the world, and stood ready to do whatever necessary to get the brothers freed.

*

    Jamin sat on the edge of his bed and covered his ears. The usual hostile words over the loudspeaker bled into one, long, piercing screed. Not even his legendary will could blunt the racket from leaching into his head. In a fit of rage some months prior, he had ripped the speakers out of the tree beside his building, only to have two men from Project War threaten to hurt him bad if he did it again. Maybe Dawn, too.

“Only Jackie War decides when it’s quiet time,” they had said. Jamin could have broken both of them in half, but he had Dawn to worry about.

Frustration overwhelmed him every time he saw his young niece talking to the Project War people on their porch. He had warned her they were not to be befriended, but she protested in her fifteen year old way that they were nice, that none of them was ever mean to her. And she wasn’t afraid of no big bad wolf. They had even asked her to read to the children who occupied the compound. She agreed, as long as the children put on clothes. They were usually naked running through the  neighborhood.

“I think they’re poor, Uncle Benjy,” she told Jamin. “All they ever eat are raw vegetables and onions.”

By twelve, Dawn had grown to a skinny five-foot ten, but by fifteen she was taller yet and almost fully built out. She looked more like a woman than she was, and Jamin’s promise to her father – his dead brother – to look after her pressed against his skull like a brain swollen with fever.

He lacked the instincts of a natural father, so it was work to scare away frisky high school boys. He even had to give one of her male teachers comeuppance when the teacher’s after-class tutoring ended with a hug and his hand on her bottom.

Jamin, a well-read bus driver and part-time security guard, undertook her tutoring himself. He had to. She was precious though painfully reticent, and her father was dead because of him. Maybe he should have told her he was her father.

When she found out from a cousin at ten years old that her father was killed in an accident that Jamin caused by driving drunk, she became more distant yet. At first, Jamin wrote it off as the work of pre-adolescence, but when actual adolescence arrived, her reserve became armor he couldn’t penetrate.

He slipped into his ratty slippers and brown terrycloth robe with the underarm torn away. He shuffled into his niece’s bedroom and gave her a gentle shake on the shoulder. She didn’t stir.

“Dawn, honey, wake up.”

Barely squinting, she opened an almond-shaped, hazel eye and aimed it toward her uncle.

“What time is it?” she said in a thick voice.

“Time to get up is what time it is. C’mon now girl, shake yourself awake. I’ll get us some coffee.”

He had vowed when she was a two-year old orphan that he would never shout for her to wake up. He would never jerk her awake. He would never reprimand her or nag her about anything upon awakening. Instead, he would wake her gently, then bring her a simple breakfast in bed, and when she was old enough to drink coffee, that, too. He wanted each of her days to begin gently, feeling she was cared for. It was the least he could do.

He went into the kitchen, tore open a package of Pop-Tarts, put them into the toaster, and reached for a package of Folgers while the coffeepot filled under the spigot. He carried her breakfast back into the bedroom, set the tray on her nightstand, and shook her awake again.

“C’mon now, you got to get ready for school.”

He sat at her bedside. He would stay there until she embraced the coffee mug in both hands and took her first sip.

Jamin was usually chatty driving her to West Philadelphia High, although was always unsure if she got benefit of his counsel during those early morning rides, or whether she was still in a sleep-deprived haze or within her own emotional igloo.

Nor could he tell if her, “Yes, Uncle Benjy,” or “No, Uncle Benjy,” or worse, “I dunno,” was in response to something he said, or butter to ease the chafing of adult wisdom grating against adolescent resentment.

“You still seeing that Bernard boy?” he asked as they got rolling.

“We’re friends. I have lots of friends.”

“Maybe you’re friendlier to some than to others,” he said.

“What does that mean? What are you trying to say?”

“Why don’t you bring him home, tell him not to be afraid?”

“Why should he be afraid?” she said.

“He should be afraid because he don’t treat you respectful, he deals with me.”

“I know how to take care of myself.”

“Maybe. Anyway, bring Bernard around. I’ll get us some Popeyes.”

She didn’t respond. It made Jamin crazy when she did that. Who knew what went through her head? Not long ago he didn’t want to hear about boys; but lately, he hated that she was finding excuses to visit those crazies next door.

The time to choose the less worse thing had arrived.

#

Writing Characters II – Lacunas

In early November I posted an essay on my website (lannylarcinese.com) about my preference for “character driven” fiction – the deeper the revelation of character, the better. Of course, the writer reveals those insights by the spoonful and more artistic fashion than simply bopping around the character’s head in dense, interminable passages.

Along these lines, Faulkner provides a beacon: The work of the novelist is the human heart in conflict with itself. Such stuff is different from the more typical motives of survival, justice, or mere misguidance. I am a crime fiction writer because crime is the most recognizable and dramatic manifestation of mental and/or social and/or character disorder.

Many crime stories tell us something about the protagonists and antagonists, usually to establish motive. Often, as with noir, characters’ bleak backgrounds may cause their world-view to devolve into cynical actions or sketchy relationships. In many procedurals, the protagonist’s character may actually be enhanced by transcending the bleak aspects of his background – drug abuse, alcoholism, or cynicism caused by too much street life – and lead to uplifting or at least satisfying actions, like taking out the bad guy to save society.

In literary fiction, about which some say, “not much happens but a lot goes on,” the plot may well be the character’s journey from one state to another, e.g., an epiphany or a reconciliation. Such writing serves Faulkner’s dictum well. But for those of us who like action beyond the inner landscape, we crave character insights wedded to significant external events, e.g., where loss of life, limb, or loved ones are at stake.

I strive to get beyond the character flaw tropes of alcoholism/drug abuse/deprivation, etc. In deference to Faulkner, I think about spaces a lot. That is the fictional garden I like to traipse and to me, the most fascinating aspects of the human condition. Examples: the space between want and need; between feelings of tribalism (which have survival value) and altruism (also has survival value); between anger and civility; between faithfulness and lust for others; between what we feel and how we act; between orthodoxy and flexibility; between self-image vs. from others; between laws and mores, etc. Each of these lacunas is fodder for conflict. They may exist within a single character or among many characters and are especially effective when they collide. No matter how such conflict is deployed, sparks will ensue.

The first draft of my novel, Dear Dad, They’re Dead (out fall of 2019 from Intrigue Publications) began as a vivid image of two high school boys having a rumble behind the gym. One pulls out an ice pick; the other, with lightning hand speed, snatches it from him and stabs him in the trachea with it. It was so compelling that I had to write it down. But at the keyboard, I asked myself, “Why were they there? What are their back stories? What would cause two boys to do this?” Like the Big Bang of a singularity and no small amount of dedication to learning craft, it evolved into an 85,000 word novel. It developed that both were nice boys who grew into good men, in fact became best friends. The story is about, among other things, the gaps between their initial circumstances as individuals and ultimate destiny, and the states of mind and bridging of gaps which let it happen.

Lacuna, it’s such a great word and opens so many story doors.

 

Review: Patient Zero by Todd Harra

Todd Harra has written a compelling techno-thriller with an optimum blend of mystery, terrorism, bureaucracy, interesting characters and science (mostly pathology & anatomy, but who knew odors have mass?) Also, given Harra’s background as a fourth generation funeral director, he provides enough dead-body stuff enough to satisfy curiosity & ease anxiety without overly dwelling on the mortician’s arts. The tone of such passages, like the comforting demeanor of those whose jobs are to deliver a modicum of calm to the grief-stricken, is informative but soothing.

The plot involves the mysterious appearance of the shigella bacterium (or is it a virus?) and a spate of bodies the custody and usual processing of which are mysteriously co-opted by government spooks.

Who are their agencies? Why are they doing this? And what in the hell is causing the shigella epidemic? Those and other questions fall into the wheelhouse of Tripp “Clip” Clipper, ex-Ranger combat medic and current funeral director, and whose particular combination of skills and temperament uniquely qualify him to delve into the mystery. He is also lover to Maggie, a pathologist at the Medical University of South Carolina. She lives in the apartment above Clip’s family funeral home.

As investigation proceeds and ever-increasing danger shadows Clip and those close to him, the stakes go up, culminating in Clip being shanghaied into a casket meant for a dead shigella victim & dumped into the shark-infested drink off the coast of South Carolina. (I won’t mention what happens to Maggie.) The scene is as tense as Lawrence Olivier’s Dr. Szell asking Dustin Hoffman’s Thomas Levy, “Is is safe?” However, a door opens to Tripp’s survival, only to expose him to yet more risk as he continues trying to uncover the cause of the outbreak poisoning Charleston and possibly more of the U.S.

The book’s characters are varied and blessedly human—vs. boring superheroes—yet likable. As thrillers go, Patient Zero is a four-star endeavor, and this reviewer expects readers will look forward to Clip’s release—or escape—from Witness Protection. Trouble always attracts worthy adversaries and readers will find Clip up to the job.

We hope there is a sequel.

Writing Characters

Writers have ways to create distinctive characters: appearance, age, speech, dress, attitude, background, social class, sexuality, mental state, motive, tics, etc. The less creative rely on stereotypes. These are story-killers. I prefer to write characters with complexity.

Depth of character reflects the writer’s own insight into the so-called “human condition.” Some writers are especially insightful. I’m not sure science has established the basis for such instincts; I only know some are better at it than others. Nor am I establishing a hierarchy; I’m only claiming that on this subject, differences exist among writers, just as with math ability, puzzle-solving, visual sense, verbal sense, or any other feature of the human mind. William Faulkner said that the work of the novelist is the human heart in conflict with itself, a principle that deeply resonates and informs much of my fiction writing.

What is an example of my frustration with shallow characters? How about a character who is alcoholic or a druggie, or carries animus toward a class of people, or has needs, or any other feature populating crime fiction? Many writers stop there and continue on with a plot designed to exacerbate or ameliorate those deficits, or they, the plot. But it’s not deep enough for me.

Character flaws are well-trod territory, especially in crime fiction. Less often do we see the genesis of such flaws (beyond simple “environment” tropes) or the internal conflict they present. It’s one thing to be alcoholic and suffer its effects—loss of job, family, health life, etc.—but what about the accompanying black despair? For me the story is not that a character is a drunk and lost his job and family; for me the story is his anguish and the cascade of mental and behavioral distortions which result. I prefer writing that gets inside of those states. I think of it as getting to the inside of the inside of the inside.

Take Hanibal Lecter, a remarkable character—smooth, hyper-intelligent, poised, manipulative, and a psychopath who eats people. He’s a fascinating study as is, but I want to know how he got that way—not merely that his life unfolded in ways that made him a cannibal—but what specific personality skewers or brain malfunctions or environmental conditions made him the way he is, and further, how did they collide in his mind with other influences? What are his thoughts? How did altruism and empathy—normal traits with survival value in their own right—become subsumed into his darker parts and lead to his conclusion that redemption lay in eating folks?

My work in progress, a novel tentatively titled “Fire in the Belly,” is based on events of the 1985 Project MOVE disaster in Philadelphia, in which a bomb dropped by police on a cult’s fortress resulted in the death of seven and an entire city block burned to the ground. Its actual history was such that no fiction could be more bizarre, considering its outlandish facts and characters. But what prompted me to write the story was the question of vulnerability to cults, about which it is said no one is immune, and started me thinking about “ego strength,” and the cult leader’s wherewithal to overcome it. So my plot may unfold resembling the real event, but no writing about it currently extant explains the cult members or gets inside of their heads to reveal what brought them to force the disastrous police confrontation and its unintended consequences.

My story will make that effort (not with psychology, with which I have no training and often question how much its practitioners actually know) but will attempt to track the human character and spirit—its needs, gains, and desires. I’ll depict certain human traits in service of self-preservation, e.g., tribalism and altruism, and try to reconcile them with practicality and the psychic collisions they entail. I’ll seek out my characters’ rewards and losses, both in temporal terms as well as spiritual terms. If I do my job right, it will have the ring of truth to the reader who might say, “That could’ve been me,” and if he’s not given to introspection, he might become so. I want him walking away in thought.