Land of Shadows by Rachel Howzell Hall is a procedural mystery featuring homicide detective Elouise “Lou” Norton as she delves deep into a teenage murder on the outskirts of L.A. (available June 10, 2014).
Along the ever-changing border of gentrifying Los Angeles, seventeen-year-old Monique Darson is found dead at a condominium construction site, hanging in the closet of an unfinished unit. Homicide detective Elouise “Lou” Norton’s new partner, Colin Taggert, fresh from the comparatively bucolic Colorado Springs police department, assumes it’s a teenage suicide. Lou isn’t buying the easy explanation.
For one thing, the condo site is owned by Napoleon Crase, a self-made millionaire. . .and the man who may have murdered Lou's missing sister, Tori, thirty years ago. As Lou investigates the death of Monique Darson, she uncovers undeniable links between the two cases. But her department is skeptical.
Lou is convinced that when she solves Monique’s case she will finally bring her lost sister home. But as she gets closer to the truth, she also gets closer to a violent killer. After all this time, can he be brought to justice. . .before Lou becomes his next victim?
Two hundred and six bones make up the adult human skeleton.
And on a Wednesday night in June, I was perfecting my hammer fist, an efficient strike that could break at least four of those bones.
Fifteen minutes into my Krav Maga class, the bell tower rang—a ring tone chosen for Lieutenant Zak Rodriguez. And even though I was hammer fisting; even though, a yard away, my friend Lena was flirting with Avarim as he taught her how to break from a choke hold; even though I was off duty and needed this workout and was observing the tradition known as “having a personal life”—duty called.
For whom the bell tolled.
Elouise Norton, LAPD Homicide Detective, Southwest Division.
I excused myself from my trainer, Seth, and padded over to the mirrored wall. I scrutinized my abs, a part of my body that rarely saw the sun and was always hidden beneath silk shirts and six pounds of Kevlar. Not to brag, but my belly looked awesome in this light.
I grabbed my iPhone and towel from the floor and glanced at the phone’s picture of a middle-aged Latino with smoke-colored eyes and a Clark Gable mustache.
And the bell tolled again.
I took a deep breath, then said, “Lou here.”
“You’re not answering your radio,” Lieutenant Rodriguez shouted. Sirens blared in the background.
“Because it’s in the car.”
“And why aren’t you in the car?”
“Because I’m on the Westside, getting in some exercise.”
Lena, also getting in some “exercise,” was now sticking her ass into Avarim’s crotch and cooing, “Like this? Like this?” Newly divorced, Lena was tiny and dazzling. More than that, she could filet men like a hungry grizzly could filet salmon.
I swiped the towel across my sweaty forehead. “What’s up, LT?”
“A Jane Doe hanging in a closet.”
Unimpressed, I lifted my left knee to my chest and held it for two seconds. “Oh, yeah?”
In this city, Jane Does were always found hanging around. In closets, off bridges, in shower stalls …
“Yeah. A security guard found her in one of those condos over on Santa Rosalia near the Jungle, the ones still under construction. You know ’em, right?”
I had started to lift my right knee but froze. My grip tightened around the phone because yeah, I knew Santa Rosalia, and yeah, I knew the Jungle. From age three and on to my eighteenth birthday, I had lived in that part of black Los Angeles. Worse, my big sister, Victoria, had been snatched off those streets, never to be seen again. I hated the Jungle, and yet I had never left.
“From what the first officer told me,” Lieutenant Rodriguez was saying, “she’s pretty ripe, more than five hours old, and … Hey, you there?”
I stifled a sigh. “Yep. I’m … good.” But his words must have spooked me—Lena had abandoned sexy Avarim to come stand beside me. Big brown eyes wide with worry, she touched my wrist and whispered, “You okay?”
I nodded, even though, no, I wasn’t okay, not entirely. “I don’t understand,” I said to my boss. “Why am I catching this? Last time I scanned the board, there were blank spaces by Guerrero’s and Dolby’s names.”
“First,” he said, “you know the people in that area better than Guerrero and Dolby, so it won’t take thirty years for you to figure out your ass from your elbow. Second: Guerrero and Dolby are on everybody’s shit list for screwing up that Sizzler robbery, and this Jane Doe in a closet could be something, and I really don’t wanna read in the Times that two Southwest Division dicks forgot to fingerprint the scene. I swear those two are SOS.”
He paused, then added, “I know you have two cases simmering right now, but you know and I know that our clearance rate is shit right now. I need the A-Team on this.”
“One more question,” I said. “May I ask why you’re heading out to a suicide? Not that I don’t enjoy your company.”
“Again: she’s on Napoleon Crase’s property. That worries me.”
Yeah. That worried me, too.
“I just want everything done right,” he said. “I already called Taggert and he’s en route to the scene. He’s an ass, but he’s now your ass, so be nice to him, all right?”
“I’m always nice,” I said with a smirk.
He chuckled. “Oh, yeah. You’re a black Marie Osmond. Meet you over there.”
Lena had returned to grappling or … whatever she had been doing with Avarim.
“I caught a case,” I told her. “A suicide. So I gotta bail.”
Eyes on her trainer, Lena puckered her lips. “Lovely. Go protect and serve. Be a hero. Join the Navy.” Then, she shooed me away—she was now able to flirt with Avarim without worry or judgment from her personal Jiminy Cricket.
Four minutes later, I strode from the locker room to the exit, wearing the blue pinstriped pantsuit and white silk shirt I had just ditched twenty minutes before but had Febreze’d after Lieutenant Rodriguez’s call.
In the space of ten miles, buildings along Olympic Boulevard transformed from glass and marble towers named after powerful lawyers and bankers to burned-out medical offices and bail bond joints, storefront churches and liquor stores, lots of liquor stores. The billboards changed, too—from Nicole Kidman selling Chanel N°5 to people-less Rémy Martin and “Have you been tested for HIV?” ads.
I sped past it all in my silver Porsche Cayenne SUV, a beast of a car even at thirty-five miles per hour. Behind the wheel of my Porsche, I became That Asshole, ducking and dodging, revving and tailgating—so different from the Other Lou who used to drive a Jeep Cherokee before she caught her husband banging an E3 booth babe while he was supposed to be attending a seminar on next-gen video games for tween girls and so, as penance, had to buy his wife a $90,000 sports car.
Tonight, I had a reason to be That Asshole. The ripe Jane Doe hanging in a closet wasn’t gonna cut herself down, was she?
The condo site over on Santa Rosalia Drive sat at the base of Baldwin Hills and on a plot of land that had been vacant just a year ago. When I was a kid, pick-up-snake churches, speak-in-tongue churches, and go-to-church-every-day-of-the-week churches had pitched large white tents there for revivals. At the end of the week, the portable organ played “Take Me to the Water” as sinners and their mothers trudged to the altar for redemption and a dunk in the rollaway baptismal pool. My family attended a few of those week-long extravaganzas, but after Dad abandoned us and after Tori had disappeared, Mom stopped talking to God. For the two remaining members of the Starr family, “churches” became Church’s, the fast-food joint that sold fried chicken and hush puppies.
The revival tents disappeared completely after April 1992, when twelve angry white people acquitted three LAPD officers of using excessive force. Black and brown folks, pissed off at that verdict, burned down the city. And then, two years later, a 6.7 magnitude earthquake finished the demolition, knocking down the charred remains, including much of the Santa Barbara Plaza off Santa Rosalia. No more shops and nightclubs, gas stations and burger stands. There had been talks of rebuilding the plaza and some initial efforts had succeeded—Earvin “Magic” Johnson opened a movie theater that prohibited men from wearing baseball caps, and across the way, Walmart bought space in the irrelevant shopping mall. But none of this brought the sexy back, and blacks with money, the ones who lived in the surrounding hills, found fancier parts of Los Angeles to shop and dine.
My Motorola radio, now riding shotgun, squawked. “Where you at, partner?” Colin Taggert’s slow baritone filled the car.
I grabbed the radio and keyed the mike. “Five minutes away.”
“I’ll go ahead and—”
“No, you won’t.”
“I’ve done this before—”
“That was then. This is now. You will wait for me.”
Colin had lived in Colorado Springs all of his life. His daddy was an Air Force colonel and his mommy was married to an Air Force colonel. Colin hated flying, and so he had chosen to pound the pavement for the Colorado Springs Police Department. After four years on patrol and some strings pulled by his father, Colin made detective at just twenty-eight years old.
“Jane Doe ain’t going nowhere,” I told him now, “unless you have magical resurrection powers. Do you have said powers?”
Colin sighed, then said, “No one’s here, and—”
“That doesn’t make sense,” I said, narrowing my eyes. “What address do you have?”
“I’m at the condos on Stocker.”
“You’re supposed to be at the condos off Stocker.” Then, I gave him new directions to Crase Parc and Promenade.
Two years ago, a businessman named Napoleon Crase and his partners wrote a check to purchase the old plaza. Wonder of wonders, the check didn’t bounce (like prior checks from other developers had), and the Santa Barbara Plaza revitalization effort was resurrected.
The Crase Parc and Promenade would soon house Buppies and young white couples looking for cheap, yet swanky condominiums in a soon-to-be-gentrified neighborhood. A neighborhood that had already seen its only Starbucks close and the crime rate double. No worries, though. The fancy “c” in “Parc” would act as an invisibility cloak, hiding the chickenheads, wackjobs, and gangbangers roaming the ruins of the Plaza just a block away.
One of those abandoned stores in the dead shopping center had been Crase Liquor Emporium, Crase’s first business and the last place where I had seen my sister alive. Twenty-five years had passed since that day at the liquor store, and I still didn’t know how to answer a very simple question: Did your sister die? Didn’t know, because the case had never been solved.
Colin stood near his Crown Vic, now talking with Lieutenant Rodriguez. He had a burger in one hand and waved at me with the other. My new partner had dirty-blond hair, steely blue eyes, and a swimmer’s body. He also had a too-square jaw, a hawkish nose, and ears as big as sails. He was almost hot but then, in the LAPD’s candy shop, perfection didn’t matter.
Not many black female police officers worked in Colorado Springs, and so Colin didn’t know how to deal with me. On our first day together—just three days before this Jane Doe suicide—I took him for coffee and broke it down. “I’m sassy, but not Florence-the-Jeffersons’-maid sassy. Nor am I ultrareligious. I’m sure as hell not an earth mother, so there’s that to remember, too. Actually, you’d be better off seeking comfort from that palm tree across the street before coming to me.
“Also: I hate watermelon but I love chicken. I can say ‘nigga’ but I will break every bone in your face if I hear you say it.” I squinted at him. “And you look like someone who’s been around people who say it a lot. So be careful, please.” I sipped my Venti drip, then added, “On a lighter note: yes, the myth is true. The blacker the berry and so forth and so on.”
He had gaped at me—what’s this about berries?
It had been a very long week.
The sun was now dropping behind the hills, leaving Santa Rosalia Drive in shadow. There was a chill in the air. Typical June gloom: overcast with a high of seventy degrees. Not too cold but cold enough to slow death’s decay. There weren’t many looky-loos standing on the sidewalks yet. Just an old black couple, a guy wearing khaki Dickies, and his tatted-up girlfriend in a sequined halter top.
Two separate buildings made up the under-construction Crase condominiums. No concrete had been poured yet over the dirt to make sidewalks and driveways, and white paint had been slapped only on the south-facing walls. The burgundy sign nailed to the construction trailer showed renderings of one- and two-bedroom units. Starting at only $400,000!
“Almost half a mil to live here?” I mumbled, gazing at the buildings. “Not even open yet, and the place is already in the shit.”
I slipped on my shoulder holster full of Glock, pulled on my suit jacket, and clipped my gold shield to my belt. Then, I whispered a quick prayer—God was like my mother’s ex-boyfriend who I still liked, and so I snuck quick conversations with Him because, sometimes, He did cool things for me.
Colin, finishing the last of his meal, ambled toward me, smiling his all-American smile and I’m the Shit eking from his pores. “That dispatcher,” he said, shaking his head. “Who the hell gave her a radio?”
“Oh,” I said, “it’s her fault that you were about to bust down the wrong door.”
He wore a wool suit too heavy for Southern California, a red-and-gray striped tie he had worn in prep school, and black cowboy boots that were shinier than the detective’s shield hanging from his neck. He crumpled the burger’s wax paper as he admired the Porsche’s curves and sexiness. Then, he smiled at me, bit his lip, and tilted his square head.
That was a thing of his. A gesture that was supposed to make me rip off my slacks and lie spread-eagled on one of those Crown Victorias.
“You look exhausted,” he said to me, before tipping a plastic container of orange Tic Tacs to his lips.
I grimaced as the tiny candies rattled, as his teeth crunched, as he shook the little box again before slipping it into his pants pocket. “And you look like you’re going to a bar mitzvah at the Ponderosa. You just eat?”
He nodded. “Fatburger. Damn good.”
“We’re about to see a body.”
I gaped at him—damn good or not, filling your stomach full of burger, then going to a death site wasn’t the smartest thing to do. “Where’s the RO?”
A light-skinned black patrol cop stepped away from the small group of bystanders and shouted, “That’s me.”
I grabbed my leather organizer from the passenger seat of the Porsche and pulled out a pen. “So, what’s the deal—?” The responding officer’s name tag read SHEPARD.
“The site’s security guard called in saying he had found a body,” Shepard explained. “I arrived at 7:05 P.M., and got a statement from the guard. His name is James Mason and he says he was doing rounds when he noticed that the front door to unit 1B was open. He went inside, smelled it, looked around, and found Jane Doe hanging in the closet of the master bedroom.”
“He touch her?” I asked.
“He says no,” Shepard stated. “I reached the unit at 7:08 P.M., found the girl, then came back down to notify Lieutenant Rodriguez. Then I called Dispatch to send an ambulance, even though it was clear the victim was dead.”
“And how did you know she was dead?” Colin asked, a pen poised over his steno pad.
Shepard’s eyes flitted down to Colin’s rep tie and fancy boots. He chuckled but couldn’t respond out of deference to Colin’s rank.
So, I responded to Colin for him. “Don’t know what goes on in Colorado, but living people in this state don’t smell like rotten pot roast.”
Colin’s cheeks reddened. “I know that. Just askin’ a question. Just doin’ my job.”
Shepard turned back to me. “After notifying the coroner, me and my partner secured the scene.”
“This guy Mason got a jacket?” I asked.
“A deuce and a 415.”
Drunk driving and general disturbance went together like chips and dip.
“Did you FI this Mason guy?” I asked.
“Yep,” Shepard said, then nodded to the quartet behind the yellow tape. “Now I’m interviewing the folks over there, but so far no one’s seen anything strange. My partner’s inside.”
Colin said, “Good job.”
Shepard rolled his eyes, all This guy …
I turned to my partner. “Ready to meet the dead?”
Colin did that smile-bite-thing. “I’m always ready.”
Yeah. That’s what they all say. Especially the ones with their guts filled with meat. And then they fall to their knees and land facedown in a pool of their own vomit.
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Rachel Howzell Hall was born and raised in Los Angeles. An avid reader and lover of books, she received her B.A. in English and American Literature from University of California at Santa Cruz. She is the author of Land of Shadows, A Quiet Storm, The View from Here and No One Knows You're Here. She lives in Los Angeles.