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Los Angeles homicide detective Elouise "Lou" Norton and her partner, Colin Taggert, arrive at the scene of a tragic house fire. Juliet Chatman perished in the blaze, along with her two children. Left behind is grieving husband and father Christopher Chatman, hospitalized after trying to rescue his family. Chatman is devastated that he couldn't save them.
Unless, of course, he's the one who killed them.
Neighbors and family friends insist the Chatmans were living the dream. But Lou quickly discovers the reality was very different. The flames of adultery, jealousy, scandal, fraud, and disease had all but consumed the Chatmans' marriage before it went up in smoke.
Lou's own marriage hangs by a thread. Soured by the men in her life, Lou is convinced that Chatman started the fire. Her colleagues worry that her personal issues are obscuring her judgment. With very little evidence regarding the fireand rising doubts about her husband's commitment to monogamyLou feels played by all sides.
Was the fire sparked by a serial arsonist known as The Burning Man? Or by the Chatmans' son, who regularly burned his father's property?
Searching for justice through the ashes of a picture-perfect family, Lou doesn't know if she will catch an arsonist or be burned in the process.
Skies of Ash is another thrilling read from author-to-watch Rachel Howzell Hall.
"Gives voice to a rare figure in crime fiction: a highly complex, fully imagined black female detective." - Kirkus Reviews, starred review on Trail of Echoes
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Skies of Ash
By Rachel Howzell Hall
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2015 Rachel Howzell Hall
All rights reserved.
I took Greg back the first time because he said he loved me.
I took Greg back the second time because my heart still ring-a-dinged every time he touched me.
I took Greg back the last time because my sister's bones had been discovered after twenty-five years and my heart and head had become tangled messes and I needed him to fix me.
And so, on this Tuesday morning, with my blood racing and my heart pounding, I was ready to take him back in every way.
Maybe I shouldn't have pulled out that rubber.
Copper-colored sunlight crawled across our bed as my beloved of eleven years gawked at me. His pecan-colored eyes, the color of that copper sunlight in happy times, now darkened into skies of tornado and flash-flood warnings. He went stiff with my touch (and not the good stiff) and gaped at the silver-foil square between my fingers. "It's been six months, Lou. You still don't ...?" His voice softened like the rest of him.
I flinched and opened my mouth to say, "Hell no, I don't trust you. You just ended your fling with what's-her-face six months ago, so are you kidding me with that question?"
But I didn't say that. Instead, I waggled the condom as playfully as a woman could waggle a condom at her husband. "Yes or no?" Then, I kissed his lips. "Yes?"
His jaw clenched.
So ... not a yes.
The telephone rang from the nightstand. Caller ID droned, "Rodriguez, Zak Rodriguez." Another man was calling me.
"Lou," Greg barked, "ignore it."
"Can't," I choked. "I'm back on call."
Greg rolled away from me and clenched his body into a tight bronze ball.
I sat up in bed. "We spent all Sunday and yesterday together. No dead bodies. No zombies. Nobody but us for two days. That's a record, right?"
No response from him—which was a response.
The phone rang.
And Greg pouted.
And whatever murder my boss had chosen for me kept going unsolved.
I slung the condom toward the bathroom, then grabbed the receiver. "Morning, L.T."
Greg climbed out of bed with his wide shoulders hunched high and his bare ass tight as a clam. He muttered, "Fuck this," then stomped to the bathroom and slammed the door.
"Am I interrupting anything?" Lieutenant Rodriguez cracked.
I tugged at my earlobe. "Same as it ever was."
"So," he said, "there's been a house fire in Baldwin Hills."
"Been a lot of house fires in Baldwin Hills."
"This one has bodies."
"Strange circumstances surrounding those bodies," he added. "In the 911 call, a female occupant's heard saying, 'Something, something kill me.' And then, there's a cough. And then, there's nothin'."
I cocked an eyebrow. "Kill me? You win. Strange circumstances. Hence your call to me on this beautiful Tuesday morning."
"And with all the fires in the neighborhood lately," he said, "and budget cuts, Arson is happy to throw us a bone."
Just moments ago, I'd had a bone in my possession but had gambled it away because of my silly fear of herpes.
As soon as I hung up with my boss, the phone rang again.
Caller ID said, "Taggert, Colin Taggert."
Another man calling.
"So you startin' fires just to see me again?" Colin said.
"Yep. I'm hoping a beam drops on your head. Maybe then I'll get a good partner."
"Brought you coffee," he said, "but you need to bust your ass."
I threw off the comforter and hopped out of bed. "Getting dressed now."
As my partner talked about a woman he had picked up in the coffee shop, I pushed aside the gauzy window curtain and peeked out.
The wet asphalt twinkled with sunlight. The silver collar on the beagle in the yard across the street twinkled with sunlight. The chrome on the neighbor's VW Bug twinkled with sunlight. Everything and its mother twinkled with sunlight except for the crap in my frigid bedroom.
Maybe I shouldn't have pulled out that rubber.
The bathroom door opened.
Greg stepped out wearing black boxer briefs. Even in his midthirties, he still rocked hard abs, that firm ass, and those eyes—how I loved those eyes.
" ... thinks possible murder, with the arson to cover it up," Colin was saying. "You're not talking. Mr. Norton hoverin' and glarin' at me through the phone?"
"Yeah," I said. "See you over there." I tossed the phone on the bed.
Greg, arms crossed, leaned against the dresser. "That Colin?"
I found my nightshirt in the sheets and slipped it over my head.
Greg plucked the rubber from the carpet. "This is crazy, Lou. But I get it. I messed up. Again. And I can't apologize enough for that." He forced himself to meet my eyes. "If it'll make you feel better, I'll go to the doctor and have myself checked out." He dropped the condom on the dresser. "No problem. It's all good."
A kiss, a hug, and ten minutes later I was dressed in heavy work boots, a blue long-sleeved department T-shirt and jeans. And from the closet shelf, I retrieved my Glock from its gun case.
Downstairs, our living room smelled of forest—we had purchased a Christmas tree on Sunday, but the seven-foot noble pine still sat there, naked.
"Maybe we can decorate the tree tonight," I suggested.
"Probably have to work late," Greg said. "You can start, though."
I froze—who decorates a tree alone? —then grabbed my bag from the couch.
On the way to the garage, we walked past his home office, a grotto filled with video-game boxes piled atop art books perched against tubs of markers, pencils, and empty Gatorade bottles. I noticed on his drawing table a charcoal sketch of a busty, brown-skinned female with long, windswept hair, a badge on her giant left boob, and a big-ass cannon on her ultracurvy hip.
"Look familiar?" Greg asked, standing behind me. "Pretty good, huh?"
My skin flushed—I was staring at me, reimagined and hypersexualized for teenage boys and their gamer dads. The complexity of Lou had been rendered to boobs, hair, and gun. "New character?" I asked as my inner June Jordan wept.
He gave me a lopsided smile. "Maybe."
This drawing of Sexy Cop would soon join drawings of Sexy She-Elf and Sexy Marine on our walls. Yay?
My favorite LAPD unmarked Crown Vic, a light blue beauty that reeked of sweat, Drakkar Noir cologne, and dill pickles, awaited my arrival. It was parked next to Greg's red and black motorbike and my silver Porsche Cayenne SUV, the automotive equivalent of a decathlon-competing supermodel who built rockets in her spare time.
Greg hit the switch on the wall and the garage door rumbled up and away.
The sky was bright blue and the sun was as high and white as a crank head in San Bernardino. Little clouds puffed from my mouth as my skin tightened. No breeze wafted from the west—no salty, decaying smells from the Ballona Wetlands at the end of our block or from the Pacific Ocean just a mile away.
"What are you doing today?" I asked, watching him amble to the driveway. My mind ran that query again to ensure that it didn't sound as suspicious as I had meant.
He grabbed the newspaper from the pavement. "A stand-up at ten to see where we are on Last Days and then over to the mall for surveillance."
Even though he was now vice president of creative development for M80 Games, Greg still enjoyed watching customers play the titles he had designed. He had spent a month in Tokyo working on the art for his new "zombies meet the Book of Revelation" series. Between meetings, he had also worked on a purse designer named Michiko Yurikami. Greg was a master multitasker, an unfortunate result of my soft-gloved management style.
For this last transgression, I had won a "baby, I'm sorry, maybe I have an addiction" diamond-platinum cross pendant. Even though I'm not religious enough to buy or wear a cross. I wore it, though, and ignored the frothy anger in my stomach, just like I drove the "please, baby, please" Porsche with whitened knuckles.
"This you?" Greg held out his phone to show the Times 's Web site and its picture of a twostory, Spanish-style house engulfed in flames. The headline screamed, FIERY BLAZE IN THE HILLS.
I startled seeing that house on fire, knowing that someone had died in one of its rooms. "Think so." I stopped reading—I needed to see the mess firsthand to make my own calls.
"How does Rodriguez know this is a homicide and not an accident?" Greg asked. "People die in house fires all the time."
I shrugged. "There was this strange 911 call. Guess I'll soon find out."
He slipped his arms around my waist. This time, he melted against me, and we kissed slowly ... deeply ... "And you will solve the case," he said. "A winner is you."
"Your ass looks great in those jeans."
"Never is. Where's your jacket? It's cold out here."
"In the car," I said, certain he didn't want me covered up cuz of the weather, not really.
After one last kiss, I slipped behind the Crown Vic's steering wheel. After a whinny and a cough, the giant Ford rattled to life.
Greg smiled and waved at me as I backed the beast out of the garage. Strange (but not infrequent) rigidity filled me again.
Because of his smile ...
What was he hiding?CHAPTER 2
The chatter and bursts of static from the Crown Vic's police radio pulled me from lingering unease about Greg's smile, and I loosened my grip on the steering wheel.
"... requires additional units ..."
"... still in the house, one may be a Hispanic male ..."
"... 4893 Crenshaw ... Stand by ... Shots fired ..."
All of this as the city sipped its first cup of coffee.
I raced toward the sun, toward Baldwin Hills, a neighborhood just three miles east of mine. Stark columns of black-and-white smoke hung over upper-middle-class homes, waiting for me to see them before they smeared like paint and pencil across the sky. I passed La Brea Avenue, where I should've turned right but didn't. I kept east and passed the McDonald's, the ghetto Ralphs supermarket, and the KFC that always forgot to put in your biscuits. I glanced to my right at the perimeters of the Jungle, my childhood home.
Moldy, cramped apartments surrounded by prison-yard wire. Check.
Red spray-painted tags of BPS JUNGLES and BFL dripping like blood on walls. Check.
Plaster and glass and telephone poles shot to shit by bullets and poverty. Stumbling crackheads. Gangbanging drug dealers. Storefront payday check-advance scams. Still too early for that, but "check" in advance.
I worked this part of Los Angeles and visited here more than my own home. Twenty-five years ago, a man named Max Crase had murdered my big sister, Victoria, at a liquor store right down that street. Crase had later helped build fancy condominiums on that street over there. Six months ago, he murdered another seventeen-year-old girl as well as her sister, a case—my case—that still haunted me. And as I passed Crase Parc and Promenade (Units Still Available! ), I lifted my middle finger and then controlled the urge to ram the car into the condo's terra-cotta lobby. Later, Lou. Not today.
Memorial tour complete, I busted a U-turn and headed back to La Brea. As I sped up the hill, gray powder swirled and flecked on my windshield. Los Angeles's version of snow. The snowstorm intensified, and the smell of smoke and melted plastic wafted through the air vents. I hated the smell of toxic chemicals and burned dining room tables in the morning. Smelled like ... job security. Unfortunately.
Fires kicked our asses. First of all, murder is hard to nearly impossible to prove. And then, most times, homicide detectives reached the scene hours after the fire's start. By then, witnesses had wandered back home. Crucial evidence had been destroyed by flame, water, and heroes wearing galoshes. And the victims—they rarely survived swelling and blistering so severe and complete that no one, not even their mothers, recognized them, and so the coroner had to study porcelain uppers to call them officially by name.
My Motorola radio blipped from the passenger seat. "What's taking you so long?" Colin asked.
"Dude. I can't fly there."
"It's a tragedy, Lou. Guess there were some kids in the house."
My fingers went cold. "I hate this case already."
"You need to get here, though."
"The fire all the way out?"
"No. Still some hot spots here and there."
"Those bodies getting more dead?"
"Stop wringing your hands, Taggert," I snapped. "I'll be there, all right?"
Last year this time, Colin had been working homicide in a Colorado Springs suburb. But he had shared the D with a chick who was not his fiancée. The fiancée's dad, who was also the city's police chief, took Colin's betrayal of his daughter personally, forcing the young detective immediately to serve and protect a city with no bounty on his head.
On my best days, Colin merely annoyed me—like the constant beeping of a truck backing up. To be fair, I didn't know many (okay, any ) twenty-eight-year-old, white-boy detectives from the Rocky Mountains. And he didn't know any thirty-seven-year-old black female detectives from Los Angeles. So there was a cultural rift between my partner and me. A rift that was three galaxies wide.
Before I pulled onto the street that would shoot me up to the fire site, I parked near an elementary school closed for winter break. I grabbed my iPhone from my bag and held my breath as I tapped the Bust-a-Cheat icon.
1. Turn on Greg's cell-phone mic and use it as a bug to listen to his conversations?
2. Use the GPS tracking system to pinpoint the whereabouts of his phone and him?
3. Or, simply check the phone's RECENT CALLS log?
But then what would I do if a Japanese country code—Tokyo's was 011 + 81 + 3—showed up inRECENT CALLS?
I bought Bust-a-Cheat two weeks after I had forgiven him.
I bought Bust-a-Cheat because he had never let his iPhone out of his sight.
"You bought Bust-a-Cheat cuz you know you's a sucka." That's what my girl Lena had blurted on my deck, where we had been guzzling tall glasses of absinthe and cranberry juice. "And if you gotta do this," she had continued, "gotta buy spyware—which, by the way, why didn't they have that when Chauncey was diddlin' homeboy in the back of my Range Rover—then you don't trust him, and à quoi bon ?"
Six months later, here I sat. Not trusting him.
I tapped RECENT CALLS.
The phone's screen blinked, blanked, then filled.
NO CALLS ON 12/11.
"Thank you, Lord," I whispered, sounding small, sounding like a woman not packing a semiautomatic in her bra and a .22 Magnum Pug mini-revolver in her ponytail.
Personal drama handled, my heart found its regular pace, and I shoved the phone back into my bag. I muttered another "thank you," then jammed up the hill, following a dank river of water and ashes that would end in blood.CHAPTER 3
Don Mateo Drive resembled a neighborhood in a Norman Rockwell painting. A baby grand piano sparkled in the living room window of an army-green bungalow. The Cape Cod's hedges had been shaped into snowmen, squirrels, and rabbits. Christmas lights glowed on the eaves of the ranch-style, and fire-hose water shimmered on its roof. Sludge gathered at the base of every window frame at every house.
Except for 6381 Don Mateo Drive, the former Spanish-style house I'd glimpsed on theTimes 's Web site. There was no sludge on those windows. Barely any windows. Hell, there was barely any house.
Crews from every local news station had set up at the sawhorses. And as I rolled past, reporters shouted, "Detective, detective!" One brave soul knocked on my passenger-side window. A flash from a camera blinded me. I bared my teeth and growled, "Back the hell off."
I grabbed the Motorola from the passenger seat and toggled the switch. "I'm here," I told Colin. "Have one of the guys move the press back some more."
"Crazy, right?" Colin asked.
Just glimpsing the destruction, the angriness of this fire made me shiver. "I don't like it here."
"Hell, Lou, you don't like a whole lotta things. But on this: yeah, I don't like it, either."
A patrol cop lifted the yellow tape, and I drove through, parking near a Frank Sinatra–style house, all weird, cool angles and bop-bop-bum. I wrapped my Windbreaker around my hip and clipped my silver badge to my belt loop, then grabbed the small digital camera from the glove compartment. I climbed out of the car and took pictures of a smoking, charred heap now boasting crime-scene tape and broken ceramic roof tiles. Every house, except this house, had its trio of trash cans—blue, green, black—sitting out at the curb. I snapped pictures of that, and then I photographed the crowd: a bald black man holding a toddler, an elderly Asian couple wearing matching jogging suits, a dark-skinned weight lifter with headphones around his thick neck, and the heroines of Waiting to Exhale wearing yoga pants and fruit-colored tank tops.
Excerpted from Skies of Ash by Rachel Howzell Hall. Copyright © 2015 Rachel Howzell Hall. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Tuesday, December 11,
Wednesday, December 12,
Thursday, December 13,
Friday, December 14,
Saturday, December 15,
Sunday, December 16,
About the Author,
Also by Rachel Howzell Hall,