Speak of the Devil: A Novel

Speak of the Devil: A Novel

by Allison Leotta
Speak of the Devil: A Novel

Speak of the Devil: A Novel

by Allison Leotta


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For readers of Kathy Reichs, Lisa Scottoline, Patricia Cornwell, and Lisa Gardner, a new thriller by former federal sex-crimes prosecutor Allison Leotta.


On the very night she gets engaged to the man she loves, sex-crimes prosecutor Anna Curtis’s professional life takes a shocking turn that threatens everything she holds dear.

While Anna is enjoying a romantic dinner capped off by a marriage proposal, a few miles away two separate groups are gearing up to raid a brothel. A vicious killer known as Diablo—the Devil—leads one group. A few minutes later, Anna’s own investigative team heads in to search the brothel, as part of the fight against human trafficking in D.C. Both groups are caught off guard, with deadly results.

As Anna investigates the bloody face-off, the boundaries between her work and home life begin to blur. Though eager to focus on her new fiancé, the chief homicide prosecutor Jack Bailey, and her soon-to-be stepdaughter, Olivia, this case and the search for Diablo are never far from her mind.

When Anna discovers a web of long-buried secrets and official lies leading straight to her doorstep, the truth about this case threatens to rob her of the happiness she seemed so close to securing. And everything Anna counted on becomes a question mark as Diablo moves in for yet another kill.

Allison Leotta draws on her experience as a D.C. sex-crimes prosecutor to take readers into the back rooms of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the hidden world of the Witness Protection Program, and the secret rituals of one of America’s most dangerous gangs. Universally praised by bestselling authors from Catherine Coulter and George Pelecanos to Lisa Scottoline and David Baldacci, Leotta weaves fact and fiction to create her best novel yet.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781451644852
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: 08/06/2013
Series: Anna Curtis Series , #3
Pages: 282
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

About The Author
Allison Leotta was a federal sex-crimes prosecutor in Washington, DC, for twelve years. In 2011, she left the Justice Department to pursue writing full time. She is the acclaimed author of Law of Attraction, Discretion, Speak of the Devil, A Good Killing, and The Last Good Girl and founder of the award-winning blog, The Prime-Time Crime Review. Leotta lives with her husband, Michael, and their two sons outside of Washington, DC. Visit her online at AllisonLeotta.com.

Read an Excerpt


The courthouse coffee was terrible, but the morning after Valentine’s Day was no time for a domestic violence prosecutor to go uncaffeinated. Anna poured the inky brew into a Styrofoam cup, took a sip, and grimaced. Scalding and bitter—a fitting start to a day of sorting through last night’s crimes. At least she’d have help. Anna pulled out her cell phone and called her officemate.

“DV Papering,” Grace answered in crisp singsong.

“Hey, I’m in the cafeteria. Want some coffee?”

“That’d be fabulous.” Grace hushed her voice. “And grab a bunch of napkins. There’s a woman bleeding all over your chair.”

Grace had been a prosecutor for four months, but Anna was still new enough that the information jolted her. “Should we call an ambulance?”

“She’s okay. A lot of scrapes and bruises, and a very messy nosebleed. Nothing life-threatening. I can cover till you get here. And can you snag me a muffin? I’m starving.”

“Sure. Be right there.”

Marveling at Grace’s calm, Anna grabbed a muffin and got in line to pay. Three people stood in front of her: a tall guy in a dark suit, a man wearing a Redskins jersey over a blue collared shirt, and a buxom woman in fishnet stockings and a spandex miniskirt. Lawyer, Anna guessed of the first man. Then a policeman, hiding his uniform so courthouse visitors wouldn’t ask him questions. And a prostitute, just getting off work, here to see her probation officer. The one thing Anna liked about the courthouse’s grim basement cafeteria was its democracy. The cop might arrest the prostitute later tonight, and the lawyer might skewer the cop during cross-examination, but everyone had to wait in the same line to get their corned-beef hash.

After paying, Anna hurried to the napkin dispenser, but the tall lawyer who’d been ahead of her took the last ones.

She looked at him in dismay. “Actually, I really need those,” she said, nodding at the napkins in his hand.

Something about the man’s dark hair and lanky figure seemed familiar, but out of place. His tailored suit and buttery leather briefcase were common in the federal court next door, but marked him as several income brackets above the D.C. Superior Court crowd. He probably worked for some big Washington law firm, in one of the high-paying jobs she’d turned down to work for the government.

The man glanced down at her and suddenly grinned. “Anna Curtis! Hey! It’s been a while.”

“Hi, um . . .” She shook her head.

“Nick Wagner. Harvard Law School. I had a ridiculous beard? And hair down to here.” He tapped his shoulder and blushed slightly. “Your team beat mine in the final round of Ames Moot Court. Kicked our asses, in fact.”

“Nick! You used to play guitar in the Hark during Friday happy hour.”

“You got it.” His smile widened. “I guess you made more of an impression on me than I made on you.”

“Sorry—I’m just in a rush, and focused on those napkins.”

Nick placed them ceremoniously in her palm. “Some kind of food spill emergency?”

“Thank you. Bloody nose. Abuse victim in the Papering Room. So—I’ve got to go.” Anna began to walk out of the cafeteria, looking over her shoulder with regret. “I’m sorry I can’t really talk now.”

Nick hurried along with her through the labyrinth of the courthouse basement. “So, you’re a prosecutor—and you pulled papering duty on the day after Valentine’s Day? What’d you do, run over the U.S. Attorney’s dog?”

She had to laugh. Papering was the most despised assignment in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, a task only the greenest prosecutors could be compelled to do. Anna would turn arrests from the last twenty-four hours into criminal case files: typing information into a computer, two-hole-punching police paperwork, condensing lifetimes of violence into slim manila folders. The tedium was broken only when a victim came to tell her sad story in person. And Valentine’s Day was notoriously the worst time for domestic violence. People were two-timing each other, or paying too much attention to their baby’s mother and not enough to their wife, or just plain forgetting a card. It was surprising how often a lovers’ quarrel turned into a trip to lockup.

“I just started in January,” Anna explained, “so I’m still in the hazing period.”

“Well, we should catch up sometime.”

“Sure,” she said as they rounded a corner. A crowd of police officers lined the hallway outside the Papering Room. She’d never seen so many blue uniforms in one place before. It was going to be a long day.

“How about dinner tonight?” Nick asked.

“I don’t know.” Anna glanced sideways at him without slowing her pace. Despite the poor timing, it was a tempting offer. She’d been feeling homesick and disconnected in her new city. It’d be nice to talk with a law school acquaintance. She stopped in the doorway to the Papering Room and handed him her business card. “Call me. Let’s see how things look later.”

“I will.”

He smiled at her: a warm, radiant smile. Despite herself, she felt a natural pull toward him. This might not turn out to be such a bad day-after-Valentine’s Day after all.

That thought died as she walked into the Papering Room.

A tiny woman sat at one of the two sagging desks, flanked by Grace and a uniformed policeman. Blood had soaked the woman’s white button-down shirt and spattered the gray linoleum at her feet. A few dark red drops flecked the bottom of the mint green cinder block walls. Her beautiful brown face was marred by two black eyes so swollen they were nearly shut. Raw red abrasions covered her left cheek in a messy cross-hatch pattern. She held a piece of bloodstained office paper to her nose and rocked herself back and forth, moaning softly.

Although Anna had read a lot of police reports describing gruesome injuries lately, she hadn’t seen a woman this badly scraped up since her childhood. A wave of memories, guilt, and anger stunned her into a momentary paralysis. But today was her day to pick up cases, so this victim was her responsibility. Clenching her teeth, she strode over to the woman and held out a couple of napkins. “Here,” she said gently. “Try these.”

The woman swapped them for the paper at her nose.

“My name is Anna Curtis. I’m an AUSA, an Assistant U.S. Attorney. I’ll be handling your case.”

“Laprea Johnson,” the woman said. Her voice was so soft it was barely audible.

Suddenly Laprea gasped. The pain on her face transformed into a puckered mask of rage. At first, Anna wondered what she’d said to infuriate the woman.

But she was glaring past Anna—at Nick, who stood frozen in the doorway. His face had turned an ashy white. The wounded woman spat her words at him.

“What the fuck are you doing here?”

© 2010 Allison Leotta

What People are Saying About This

Douglas Preston

“The best legal thriller I’ve read this year, beautifully crafted and frighteningly real. Leotta knows her stuff cold and will bring you into a world of big money, corruption, high-end prostitution and murder. If you’re a fan of Grisham or Richard North Patterson, you simply have to buy this novel.”

David Baldacci

“A first-rate thriller. Leotta nails the trifecta of fiction: plot, pace and character. Ranks right up there with the wonderful Linda Fairstein.”

George Pelecanos

“Allison Leotta is quickly making her place at the table of D.C.’s finest crime and legal thriller novelists. She’s an assured and authentic voice, and a highly entertaining storyteller. Discretion is another winner from this talented writer.”

John Lescroart

“Allison Leotta scores big again with Discretion, her top-notch follow up to Law of Attraction. Smart and sexy, Discretion showcases Leotta’s rock-solid plotting as well as another star turn for her protagonist, Assistant U.S. Attorney Anna Curtis. If you liked Law of Attraction—and who didn’t?—you’ll love this one!”

Lisa Scottoline

“Fresh, fast, and addictive, and Allison Leotta's experience as a federal sex-crimes prosecutor shines through on every page. The result is a realistic legal thriller that's as fun to read as it is fascinating.”

Michael Palmer

“A terrific read. Slick, sexy, and very smart. Allison Leotta is a master at creating tension and then mercilessly tightening it. This is the kind of book I love to read, crafted by a wonderfully imaginative writer, who really knows what she is talking about. Allison Leotta is headed to the top of the heap.”

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Speak of the Devil includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Allison Leotta. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


In this gripping thriller, Allison Leotta draws on her experience as a prosecutor to take readers into the back rooms of the US Attorney’s Office, the hidden world of the Witness Protection Program, and the secret rituals of one of America’s most dangerous gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha. The same night that prosecutor Anna Curtis gets engaged, a terrifying man known as Diablo leads a vicious attack on a brothel. Anna is assigned to investigate and bring “the devil” to justice. As the investigation grows larger and Anna begins uncovering the secrets of the Mara Salvatrucha, she must also plan her wedding, become the stepmother to a six-year-old girl, and embrace her new role as one half of a D.C. power couple. As Anna discovers the full extent of Diablo’s depravity, she also discovers long-buried secrets, official lies, and a terrifying danger that comes straight to her doorstep. The facts she unearths in the case not only threaten her plans for a happy marriage, but everything she thought she knew about the past and present, good and evil, and the price of justice.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. The opening chapter of Speak of the Devil alternates between the perspectives of Anna Curtis, Tierra Guerrero, and Hector Ramos. Although Anna remains the focus of the book, Leotta tells her story from multiple points of view—including a member of the Mara Salvatrucha. How does Leotta utilize this technique to shape the plot, and increase the tension and drama of the story? Which perspectives surprised you, and why?

2. Speak of the Devil has an extensive cast of fully articulated supporting characters, from FBI agent Samantha Randazzo, to Detective Tavon McGee, Anna’s sister Jody, and Jack’s daughter Olivia. Which of the supporting characters did you find the most compelling? Who did you wish you could have spent more time with?

3. Throughout the narrative, Leotta makes skillful use of subtle and eerie foreshadowing (for example, Luisa’s suspicion of the presence of a ghost in Jack’s house). How many instances of foreshadowing did you catch? Why do you think foreshadowing is so effective in a thriller story?

4. Speak of the Devil sheds light into the inner workings of two completely different worlds—the D.C. criminal justice system and the Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13. What surprised you the most about the view from the inside of these organizations?

5. Working in the world of criminal justice is a difficult, demanding, and frightening life. Aside from Anna, how do the characters confront or cope with the dangers and sacrifices necessary to be successful in this kind of career? Do you think you could live that kind of life? Why, or why not?

6. The three-dot tattoo worn by many members of MS-13 is a symbol of the three places membership in the gang can take you—prison, the hospital, or the morgue. Hector Ramos is an example of someone who made it out alive, but what is it about this gang that makes it so difficult to transcend these three options? Why would a gang embrace this kind of fatalism?

7. What sets MS-13 apart from other criminal organizations that you’ve read about? Can you speculate about the kind of conditions that could produce a gang with such a brutal philosophy?

8. The character of Gato allows the reader an inside perspective on what it’s actually like to be in a gang, and what could lead a person to live that kind of life. What did you make of Gato’s character, especially his reasoning for membership in the gang, and his later rejection of that life? Did you find it possible to sympathize with such a violent criminal?

9. What do you think gives a character like Diablo so much power? Why is he so much more frightening than the rest of his gang? Is it just the modifications he’s made to his body, or is it something more? Consider Gato’s thoughts on Diablo and his past on pages 206-207.

10. Anna is such a memorable character in part because of her passion for, and skill in, her line of work. What do you think drives her to work so hard for justice? How would you handle a field that confronted you with the worst, most violent criminals that society has to offer? Could you be as tough and fearless as Anna?

11. Although Anna and her sister Jody look remarkably similar, Anna points out that “…their lives were carving them into different shapes (page 213).” Leotta makes great use of the contrast between the two sisters’ careers, relationships, and outlook on life. What do you think could make two sisters lead such different lives? What does Jody’s character tell you about Anna, her past, and her career?

12. The relationship between Jack and Anna repeatedly shifts and evolves throughout the course of the book. What did you make of Anna’s final decision to call off the wedding? Would you have made the same decision?

13. Nina Flores’s decision to enter the Witness Protection program is depicted both as a cowardly and bitter move, and a terribly noble sacrifice. What do you think about Nina’s decision? What kind of choice would you have made in her place? Did you find Nina to be a sympathetic character by the end of the story?

14. In a number of ways, the trial of Psycho and Diablo is a microcosm of the rest of the story, containing many of the themes and conflicts of the narrative as a whole. Most notably, Leotta draws out the contrast between Anna’s professional and personal lives, her confidence levels in each, and how the two worlds are forced together by this particular case—Anna’s confidence is only disturbed by the interaction between Jack and Nina. What does this tell you about Anna’s character? When the personal and the professional collide, how do you confront the difficulties of each?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Frighteningly enough, the Mara Salvatrucha is a real gang. Do some research on the true story of this terrifying gang, and share your findings with your book club. How does the depiction of MS-13 in Speak of the Devil compare with what you’ve learned? Here are some places to start:
a. http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/channel/explorer/videos/worlds-most-dangerous-gang/
b. http://www.npr.org/2005/03/17/4539688/the-international-reach-of-the-mara-salvatrucha

2. Sin Nombre is a Spanish-language thriller film about the Mara Salvatrucha. Rent this movie and watch it with your book club. Compare Speak of the Devil and the film’s take on MS-13. How does this film change the way you think of Speak of the Devil? How did the knowledge you brought to the film affect your viewing experience?

3. Speak of the Devil isn’t the only book featuring Anna Curtis—Allison Leotta’s two previous thrillers both feature this tough, beautiful, and skilled prosecutor. Check out either Discretion or Law of Attraction—what did you learn about Anna’s character? How does reading the previous books change your perspective on Speak of the Devil? How has Anna changed from book to book?

A Conversation with Allison Leotta 1. This isn’t your first story featuring Anna Curtis. What is it like to spend so much time with a character? How has your perspective towards her evolved over the course of your three books featuring her?

It’s been fun and challenging to grow with Anna throughout the series. In the first book, she was a rookie, seeing this intense world from the viewpoint of someone new to it. The reader got to learn everything along with her. By book three, Anna knows the ropes, but her personal life is much more complicated.

Over the course of three books, I’ve gotten to know Anna the way you get to know a close friend. I’ve heard it said that an author should put her heroine up in a tree and throw rocks at her: to see how she reacts, what she’s made of. In each book, she gets stronger.

2. Much of your work is based upon your own career. Is this particular story based on a case you had? How much additional research do you do for each novel?

I handled several cases where victims and witnesses were terrified of testifying against MS-13. One of the largest challenges in these cases was convincing these people that they should “speak of the devil”–and protecting them when they did.

Many of the dramatic twists in this novel were inspired by true cases. The opening scene is based on a real police raid of a brothel that coincided with an MS-13 raid–and the ensuing chaos and violence. When a police friend told me about that raid, I knew it was where I wanted to start my story.

After that, I spoke to law enforcement officers I knew who specialize in MS-13 cases, and I attended MS-13 trials in different jurisdictions. A friend of mine in the Eastern District of Virginia had a trial prosecuting several MS-13 men who pimped out fourteen-year-old girls in vans at construction sites. This became the backstory for Nina’s case.

Perhaps the most notorious American MS-13 case is that of Brenda Paz, a seventeen-year-old girl who was a member of the gang and then “flipped” and cooperated with the government. She entered the US Marshals’ Witness Security Program–but was lonely. Against WitSec’s rules, she started hanging out with her friends in the gang again. The gang found out and greenlighted her. She was killed by her MS-13 boyfriend, who cuddled, comforted, and generally “babysat” her the night before. The day of her murder, he and three others took her to a beautiful stretch of the Shenandoah River and stabbed her to death. She was four months pregnant. The idea of a man killing the woman he’d held in his arms the night before–and the extent to which this man was willing to go for his gang–was so chilling, I couldn’t get it out of my mind.

3. Beyond Anna, are there other characters from Speak of the Devil that have real-life counterparts? Or are they all from fiction?

Simon & Schuster’s lawyers insist that all the characters are completely fictional! But many of my fictional characters are composites of real people I’ve met. McGee–one of my favorite characters–is a compilation of some of the finest MPD detectives I’ve worked with. And Raffles the cat is based on a real cat.

4. There’s a lot of detail about the workings of the criminal justice system in Speak of the Devil, and they feel extremely accurate—are you ever tempted to bend accuracy for the sake of the story? Or do you always stick to how things really play out?

I’m always tempted to bend accuracy–it would be so much easier! But accuracy is what I bring to the table, and I really do try to make my stories as genuine and authentic as possible. My husband, Mike, was also a federal prosecutor, and he’s very good about keeping my writing real. He’s my first reader and most important critic.

Still, I can’t write what actually happens at the USAO on a day-to-day basis–how boring! Imagine all the scenes of Anna typing at her computer, reading stacks of police paperwork, or digging through file cabinets. Any scene involving filing cabinets is an automatic candidate for deletion. I try to focus the story on the dramatic parts of the legal process. In each of my novels, Anna has the case of a lifetime. As long as it’s plausible that such a case could happen in some prosecutor’s lifetime, I’m okay with it.

5. Which other depictions of your former line of work do you think are the most accurate or compelling? Which do you think totally miss the mark?

No shocker, I think prosecutors-turned-authors best capture the legal stuff. Scott Turow, a former Chicago AUSA and phenomenal all-around writer, paints wonderfully dramatic and accurate courtroom scenes. Linda Fairstein, Chief of the Sex Crimes Unit of the Manhattan DA Office for decades, played a crucial role in the tectonic shift in attitudes about prosecuting sex crimes. Her knowledge and compassion now infuse her thrillers. Former prosecutor William Landay’s most recent novel, Defending Jacob, is so hauntingly good, I couldn’t write a word of my own for weeks after reading it.

Two of my favorite non-lawyer crime writers are Laura Lippman and George Pelecanos, both of whom authentically capture the people and cities they write about. Their novels transcend the “crime” genre and are just great literary fiction.

TV crime shows like CSI most often get it wrong. You’ve probably heard of the “CSI Effect” – the fact that modern jurors come into courtrooms expecting to see some sort of amazing technological magic, like an infrared camera that can be waved around to immediately tell whodunnit. The science just doesn’t work that way in real life, and real prosecutors have to gently lower these TV-fed expectations each time they make an opening statement. Even when there is DNA at a crime scene, for example, that alone doesn’t tell you what happened. You need to talk to people: to establish the relationships between the actors, flesh out motives, and say who was where, when. Despite all the advances in science, some of the best police work is still done by a dedicated detective with a notepad and some people skills.

6. Now that you’ve written several books based upon your work as a prosecutor, do you find your perspective on that career has changed?

Yes. As a prosecutor, you tend to see the trees rather than the forest. You’re looking into all the details of the case and the family involved: How often does Uncle Boo visit the house? Did he have access to little Tommy? Are he and Tommy’s mom beefing, giving her a reason to lie about him? It’s all about the details.

As a writer, I need to see the forest, too. Where are the major areas of danger, of injustice, of conflict? Then I have to take these trends and make them personal again, weaving them into a story involving characters you care about.

In the end, both prosecuting and novel-writing are about telling a compelling story.

7. Obviously, writing and working as prosecutor are very different careers! Do you miss being a prosecutor?

I miss the people. The DC US Attorney’s Office has some of the best lawyers in America, and there is a remarkable feeling of bonding that comes from fighting the good fight, together, every day. Now it’s just me alone at my kitchen table. I recently adopted a cute little mutt. She’s not a fabulous conversationalist, but it’s nice to have a reason to use my vocal chords, even if it’s just to say, “Oh, you’re such a good little puppy, aren’t you?” periodically.

But I love writing, and I feel incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to do this. Books were my first love, and being a full-time novelist is a dream come true.

It also helps that my editor, Lauren Spiegel, is always up for talking about my stories. I love gossiping with her about the characters–it’s fun, and her observations always make my story better.

8. One of the most compelling parts of Speak of the Devil is the character of Gato, and his life in MS-13. What was it like to get inside the head of, and even sympathize with, such a violent criminal?

With every case I ever handled, I tried to get inside the head of the defendant: to understand what he was thinking, why he did what he did, and what his defense was going to be. In almost every case, the man (my defendants were usually male) was not a monster but a person who’d been victimized or terribly marginalized in some way himself.

One of the most heartwrenching things to see is how the cycle of violence repeats itself, with children of abuse often becoming perpetrators of it. One of the most rewarding aspects of being a prosecutor is when you feel that your work has, perhaps, stopped some particular cycle in its tracks.

9. You skillfully weave together the story of Anna’s professional life and her personal life—which do you find more difficult to write? Do you find either more interesting to work with, as a writer?

I vastly prefer to write about her personal life! With the legal side of things, I agonize over getting the details just right, and spend hours talking to sources and checking statute books. The writing is slow and painstaking. But her personal life is pure fun to write; it flows. I hate to say it, but Anna’s worst personal day is far easier for me to write than her most triumphant legal victory.

10. What can we expect next from Anna Curtis? Are you planning more novels with this character? Are you working on any more stories that depart from the Anna Curtis storyline?

Anna’s going to need some time to recover from the events in Speak of the Devil. I’m thinking of sending her on vacation, or having her just hang out at Sergio’s restaurant for a while. Something to take her mind off Jack. Eat, Pray, Love on a smaller scale, because, of course, she won’t be able to stay away from legal drama for long.

I do have some ideas for a couple of stand-alone novels, which I’m really excited to write. I hope my readers will be as interested in a book where Anna takes a well-deserved break!

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