In this thrilling debut novel from Carrie H. Johnson, one woman with a dangerous job and a volatile past is feeling the heat from all sides . . .
READY, AIM . . .
She sweats every detail as a forensic firearms specialist—and as a forty-something single mother. She’s got more responsibilities than she can count, more baggage than she wants to claim, and way too many regrets. But Muriel Mabley will do whatever it takes to put Philadelphia’s most vicious killer in lockdown for good…
BURN . . .
Until her troubled younger sister in witness protection receives a terrifying warning—and Muriel’s long-time partner, Laughton, reveals he knows more than he should about her and Muriel’s shattered past. And when Laughton’s ex-wife and her new husband turn up dead, his own secrets will send Muriel down a twisted trail of lethal leads, disappeared witnesses, and the ultimate wrenching betrayal…
Praise for Hot Flash
“This is a taut thriller by a new voice in the mystery genre. The introduction of the main and supporting characters is extremely well-crafted and they represent entertaining opportunities for future installments.”
—RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars
“There are plenty of thrills here for suspense junkies.”
“A lively and clever novel that will dare you to put it down. The reader will leave fingerprints pressed into the cover of this one. Top of the ‘must read’ list.”
—John Lutz, New York Times bestselling author
“A gripping, fast-paced debut novel.”
—Valerie Wilson Wesley, author of The Tamara Hayle Mysteries
About the Author
Carrie H. Johnson has been published in the Los Angeles Times, Boston Herald, and Worcester Telegram and
Gazette. She received her MA in Journalism from Northeastern University and is currently a professor teaching communication and business courses at Worcester State University, Quinsigamond Community College in
Worcester, and The Center for Women and Enterprise in Boston, MA. Visit her website at carriehjohnson.com.
Read an Excerpt
By Carrie H. Johnson
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Carrie H. Johnson
All rights reserved.
Our bodies arched, both of us reaching for that place of ultimate release we knew was coming. Yes! We screamed at the same time ... except I kept screaming long after his moment had passed.
You've got to be kidding me, a cramp in my groin? The second time in the three times we had made love. Achieving pretzel positions these days came at a price, but man, how sweet the reward.
"What's the matter, baby? You cramping again?" he asked, looking down at me with genuine concern.
I was pissed, embarrassed, and in pain all at the same time. "Yeah," I answered meekly, grimacing.
"It's okay. It's okay, sugar," he said, sliding off me. He reached out and pulled me into the curvature of his body, leaving the wet spot to its own demise. I settled in. Gently, he massaged my thigh. His hands soothed me. Little by little, the cramp went away. Just as I dozed off, my cell phone rang.
"Mph, mph, mph," I muttered. "Never a moment's peace."
Calvin stirred. "Huh?"
"Nothin', baby, shhhh," I whispered, easing from his grasp and reaching for the phone from the bedside table. As quietly as I could, I answered the phone the same way I always did.
"Did I get you at a bad time, partner?" Laughton chuckled. He used the same line whenever he called. He never thought twice about waking me, no matter the hour. I worked to live and lived to work — at least that's been my story for twenty years, the last seventeen as a firearms forensics expert for the Philadelphia Police Department. I had the dubious distinction of being the first woman in the unit and one of two minorities. The other was my partner, Laughton McNair.
At forty-nine, I was beginning to think I was blocking the blessing God intended for me. I felt like I had blown past any hope of a true love in pursuit of a damn suspect.
"You there?" Laughton said, laughing louder.
"Hee hee, hell. I finally find someone and you runnin' my ass ragged, like you don't even want it to last. What now?" I said.
"Speak up. I can hardly hear you."
"I said ..."
"I heard you." More chuckles from Laughton. "You might want to rethink a relationship. Word is we've got another dead wife and again the husband swears he didn't do it. Says she offed herself. That makes three dead wives in three weeks. Hell, must be the season or something in the water."
Not wanting to move much or turn the light on, I let my fingers search blindly through my bag on the nightstand until they landed on paper and a pen. Pulling my hand out of my bag with paper and pen was another story. I knocked over the half-filled champagne glass also on the nightstand. "Damn it!" I was like a freaking circus act, trying to save the paper, keep the bubbly from getting on the bed, stop the glass from breaking, and keep from dropping the phone.
"Sounds like you're fighting a war over there," Laughton said.
"Just give me the address."
"If you can't get away ..."
"Laughton, just ..."
"You don't have to yell."
He let a moment of silence pass before he said, "Thirteen ninety-one Berkhoff. I'll meet you there."
"I'm coming," I said and clicked off.
"You okay?" Calvin reached out to recapture me. I let him and fell back into the warmth of his embrace. Then I caught myself, sat up, and clicked the light on — but not without a sigh of protest.
Calvin rose. He rested his head in his palm and flashed that gorgeous smile at me. "Can't blame a guy for trying," he said.
"It's a pity I can't do you any more lovin' right now. I can't sugarcoat it. This is my life," I complained on my way to the bathroom.
"So you keep telling me."
I felt uptight about leaving Calvin in the house alone. My son, Travis, would be home from college in the morning, his first spring break from Lincoln University. He and Calvin had not met. In all the years before this night, I had not brought a man home, except Laughton, and at least a decade had passed since I'd had any form of a romantic relationship. The memory chip filled with that information had almost disintegrated. Then along came Calvin.
When I came out, Calvin was up and dressed. He was five foot ten, two hundred pounds of muscle, the kind of muscle that flexed at his slightest move. Pure lovely. He pulled me close and pressed his wet lips to mine. His breath, mixed with a hint of citrus from his cologne, made every nerve in my body pulsate.
"Next time we'll do my place. You can sing to me while I make you dinner," he whispered. "Soft, slow melodies." He crooned, "You Must Be a Special Lady," as he rocked me back and forth, slow and steady. His gooey caramel voice touched my every nerve ending, head to toe. Calvin is a singer and owns a nightclub, which is how we met. I was at his club with friends and Calvin and I — or rather, Calvin and my alter ego, spurred on by my friends, of course — entertained the crowd with duets all night.
He held me snugly against his chest and buried his face in the hollow of my neck while brushing his fingertips down the length of my body.
"Mmm ... sounds luscious," was all I could muster.
* * *
The interstate was deserted, unusual no matter what time, day or night.
In the darkness, I could easily picture Calvin's face, bright with a satisfied smile. I could still feel his hot breath on my neck, the soft strumming of his fingers on my back. I had it bad. Butterflies reached down to my navel and made me shiver. I felt like I was nineteen again, first love or some such foolishness.
Flashing lights from an oncoming police car brought my thoughts around to what was ahead, a possible suicide. How anyone could think life was so bad that they would kill themselves never settled with me. Life's stuff enters pit territory sometimes, but then tomorrow comes and anything is possible again. Of course, the idea that the husband could be the killer could take one even deeper into pit territory. The man you once loved, who made you scream during lovemaking, now not only wants you gone, moved out, but dead.
When I rounded the corner to Berkhoff Street, the scene was chaotic, like the trappings of a major crime. I pulled curbside and rolled to a stop behind a news truck. After I turned off Bertha, my 2000 Saab gray convertible, she rattled in protest for a few moments before going quiet. As I got out, local news anchor Sheridan Meriwether hustled from the front of the news truck and shoved a microphone in my face before I could shut the car door.
"Back off, Sheridan. You'll know when we know," I told her.
"True, it's a suicide?" Sheridan persisted.
"If you know that, then why the attack? You know we don't give out information in suicides."
"Confirmation. Especially since two other wives have been killed in the past few weeks."
"Won't be for a while. Not tonight anyway."
"Thanks, Muriel." She nodded toward Bertha. "Time you gave the old gray lady a permanent rest, don't you think?"
"Hey, she's dependable."
She chuckled her way back to the front of the news truck. Sheridan was the only newsperson I would give the time of day. We went back two decades, to rookie days when my mom and dad were killed in a car crash. Sheridan and several other newspeople had accompanied the police to inform me. She returned the next day, too, after the buzz had faded. A drunk driver sped through a red light and rammed my parents' car head-on. That was the story the police told the papers. The driver of the other car cooked to a crisp when his car exploded after hitting my parents' car, then a brick wall. My parents were on their way home from an Earth, Wind & Fire concert at the Tower Theater.
Sheridan produced a series on drunk drivers in Philadelphia, how their indiscretions affected families and children on both sides of the equation, which led to a national broadcast. Philadelphia police cracked down on drunk drivers and legislation passed with compulsory loss of licenses. Several other cities and states followed suit.
I showed my badge to the young cop guarding the front door and entered the small foyer. In front of me was a white-carpeted staircase. To the left was the living room. Laughton, his expression stonier than I expected, stood next to the detective questioning who I supposed was the husband. He sat on the couch, leaned forward with his elbows resting on his thighs, his head hanging down. Two girls clad in Frozen pajamas huddled next to him on the couch, one on either side.
The detective glanced at me, then back at the man. "Where were you?"
"I just got here, man," the man said. "Went upstairs and found her on the floor."
"And the kids?"
"My daughter spent the night with me. She had a sleepover at my house. This is Jeanne, lives a few blocks over. She got homesick and wouldn't stop crying, so I was bringing them back here. Marcy and I separated, but we're trying to work things out." He choked up, unable to speak any more.
"At three a.m."
"I told you, the child was having a fit. Wanted her mother."
A tank of a woman charged through the front door, "Oh my God. Baby, are you all right?" She pushed past the police officer there and clomped across the room, sending those close to look for cover. The red-striped flannel robe she wore and pink furry slippers, size thirteen at least, made her look like a giant candy cane with feet.
"Wade, what the hell is happenin' here?" She moved in and lifted the girl from the sofa by her arm. Without giving him a chance to answer, she continued, "C'mon, baby. You're coming with me."
An officer stepped sideways and blocked the way. "Ma'am, you can't take her —"
The woman's head snapped around like the devil possessed her, ready to spit out nasty words followed by green fluids. She never stopped stepping.
I expect she would have trampled the officer, but Laughton interceded. "It's all right, Jackson. Let her go," he said.
Jackson sidestepped out of the woman's way before Laughton's words settled.
Laughton nodded his head in my direction. "Body's upstairs."
The house was spotless. White was the color: white furniture, white walls, white drapes, white wall-to-wall carpet, white picture frames. The only real color came in the mass of throw pillows that adorned the couch and a wash of plants positioned around the room.
I went upstairs and headed to the right of the landing, into a bedroom where an officer I knew, Mark Hutchinson, was photographing the scene. Body funk permeated the air. I wrinkled my nose.
"Hey, M&M," Hutchinson said.
"That's Muriel to you." I hated when my colleagues took the liberty to call me that. Sometimes I wanted to nail Laughton with a front kick to the groin for starting the nickname.
He shook his head. "Ain't me or the victim. She smells like a violet." He tilted his head back, sniffed, and smiled.
Hutchinson waved his hand in another direction. "I'm about done here."
I stopped at the threshold of the bathroom and perused the scene. Marcy Taylor lay on the bathroom floor. A small hole in her temple still oozed blood. Her right arm was extended over her head, and she had a .22 pistol in that hand. Her fingernails and toenails looked freshly painted. When I bent over her body, the sulfur-like smell of hair relaxer backed me up a bit. Her hair was bone-straight. The white silk gown she wore flowed around her body as though staged. Her cocoa brown complexion looked ashen with a pasty, white film.
"Shame," Laughton said to my back. "She was a beautiful woman." I jerked around to see him standing in the doorway.
"Check this out," I said, pointing to the lay of the nightgown over the floor.
"I already did the scene. We'll talk later," he said.
"Damn it, Laughton. Come here and check this out." But when I turned my head, he was gone.
I finished checking out the scene and went outside for some fresh air. Laughton was on the front lawn talking to an officer. He beelined for his car when he saw me.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" I muttered, jogging to catch up with him. Louder. "Laughton, what the hell —"
He dropped anchor. Caught off guard, I plowed into him. He waited until I peeled myself off him and regained my footing, then said, "Nothing. Wade says they separated a few months ago and were trying to get it together, so he came over for some making up. He used his key to enter and found her dead on the bathroom floor."
"No, he said he was bringing the little girl home because she was homesick."
"Yeah, well, then you heard it all."
I grabbed his arm and attempted to spin him around. "You act like you know this one or something," I practically screeched at him.
I cringed and softened my tone five octaves at least when I managed to speak again. "How?"
"I was married to her ... a long time ago."
He might as well have backhanded me upside the head. "You never —"
"I have an errand to run. I'll see you back at the lab."
I stared after him long after he got in his car and sped off.
The sun was rising by the time the scene was secured: body and evidence bagged, husband and daughter gone back home. It spewed warm tropical hues over the city. By the time I reached the station, the hues had turned cold metallic gray. I pulled into a parking spot and answered the persistent ring of my cell phone. It was Nareece.
"Hey, sis. My babies got you up this early?" I said, feigning a light mood. My babies were Nareece's eight-year-old twin daughters.
Nareece groaned. "No. Everyone's still sleeping."
"You should be, too."
"Oh, so you figured you'd wake me up at this ungodly hour in the morning. Sure, why not? We're talkin' sisterly love here, right?" I said. We chuckled. "I've been up since three anyway, working a case." I waited for her to say something, but she stayed silent. "Reece?" More silence. "C'mon, Reecey, we've been through this so many times. Please don't tell me you're trippin' again."
"A bell goes off in my head every time this date rolls around. I believe I'll die with it going off," Nareece confessed.
"Therapy isn't helping?"
"You mean the shrink? She ain't worth the paper she prints her bills on. I get more from talking to you every day. It's all you, Muriel. What would I do without you?"
"I'd say we've helped each other through, Reecey."
Silence filled the space again. Meanwhile, Laughton pulled his Audi Quattro in next to my Bertha and got out. I knocked on the window to get his attention. He glanced in my direction and moved on with his gangster swagger as though he didn't see me.
"I have to go to work, Reece. I just pulled into the parking lot after being at a scene."
"Reece, you've got a great husband, two beautiful daughters, and a gorgeous home, baby. Concentrate on all that and quit lookin' behind you."
Nareece and John had ten years of marriage. John is Vietnamese. The twins were striking, inheritors of almond-shaped eyes, "good" curly black hair, and amber skin. Rose and Helen, named after our mother and grandmother. John balked at their names because they did not reflect his heritage. But he was mush where Nareece was concerned.
"You're right. I'm good except for two days out of the year, today and on Travis's birthday. And you're probably tired of hearing me."
"I'll listen as long as you need me to. It's you and me, Reecey. Always has been, always will be. I'll call you back later today. I promise."
I clicked off and stayed put for a few minutes, bogged down by the realization of Reece's growing obsession with my son, way more than in past years, which conjured up ugly scenes for me. I prayed for a quick passing, though a hint of guilt pierced my gut. Did I pray for her sake, my sake, or Travis's? What scared me anyway?CHAPTER 2
Forty years earlier, I attended the Mary Channing Wister Elementary School on the southwest corner of Eighth and Poplar Street in North Philly, the same spot where I now worked. Thirteen million dollars in renovations to the 1923 art deco building in the dilapidated neighborhood began a rehab project that improved the looks of the neighborhood, but nary a whisper of calm. Lush landscaping and a newly paved parking lot replaced the jungle gym, and the hopscotch and Four Squares outlines. The entryway was more elaborate than the heavy, double wooden doors of my school days, which kids burst through every morning — the entire student body at the same time. Now three tiers of cement stairs led up to a glass entrance that opened automatically when you neared. Inside the building, which housed the Forensic Science Center, there was no evidence a school ever existed.
Instead, the scent of gunpowder and hot metal wafted from the basement, where the Firearms Identification Unit, aka the lab, lived. The space was configured in a maze of cubicles whose occupants labored over bullets and firearms atop crowded desks.
Excerpted from Hot Flash by Carrie H. Johnson. Copyright © 2016 Carrie H. Johnson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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