Less than a month until Kato’s release, so my publisher gave everyone on their mailing list an exclusive excerpt . . . and I’m sharing it with all of you!
Los Angeles, California, present day
THE AIR WAS HOT and dry, the wind burning her sinuses as she struggled to breathe, to stay small and quiet as the screams mounted, the noise rising higher and higher above the sounds of gunfire, until she thought the person’s vocal cords would snap from the strain.
Grace Van Allen woke with a start, her breath coming in terrified gasps as she sat up and stared around her sunlit bedroom. No burning winds, no thundering gunfire, no helicopter hovering, raining death. What the hell? She hadn’t had a nightmare like that in months. She pressed a reassuring hand to her chest, her heart pounding like crazy. It had seemed so real. It had been real, once upon a time. But that was half a world and another lifetime ago.
Shaking her head, she glanced at the digital readout on her alarm, then reached over and, with a resigned sigh, slapped the off switch. She could have used those extra ten minutes. Throwing the covers off, she swung her legs over the side of the bed and slid her feet into slippers. She loved her hardwood floors, but at this time of year, they could be cold in the mornings. And, yeah, this was Southern California, and a lot of people would scoff at her definition of cold, but it was all a matter of perspective.
The distant sound of sirens slipped past her double-paned windows, along with the hard gust of Santa Ana winds. She frowned, remembering the wind in her dreams. It had been blowing for two days now, which was why she’d made the switch to her heavy robe last night. These weren’t the warm Santa Ana winds of Raymond Chandler fame. Instead, this was an arctic blast of unusual cold that was knocking down trees and freezing plants meant for much warmer climes.
Wrapping her robe tightly, she headed for the kitchen, guided by the blessed aroma of her morning coffee. Whoever had come up with the idea of having a timer on the brewing machine should get a prize for service to humanity. Did they have an award like that? She’d have to look into it.
But not this morning. This morning, she was headed back to her dark and cramped corner of an office in the basement of a very prestigious museum, where she’d secured a much-coveted post-doctoral fellowship. Notwithstanding the crappy office, it was a sweet job, and one she’d worked her ass off for. If only they would accommodate her night owl tendencies. They didn’t mind that she stayed over after hours, working late into night like the diligent little worker bee she was, but they still insisted she report in every morning at the same time as everyone else. It was uncivilized, really.
She cupped both hands around her coffee mug, soaking in heat along with every sip of the dark brew as she shuffled back to her bedroom, only relinquishing her hold on it to strip off the tank top and boy shorts she’d slept in and step into the shower. She’d gotten home late as usual, but then continued working on her own until well after midnight. When she’d finally surrendered to the need for sleep, she’d been too tired to do more than drop her clothes in the hamper and wash her face. But this morning, the pounding hot water felt nearly as good as the hot coffee—a double whammy of heat, inside and out. It was enough to make a girl think all was right with the world.
She turned off the tap and flattened her hands over her wet hair, squeezing out the excess water as she opened the shower door. She wrapped one towel around her head, and another, larger one around her body before cracking open the bathroom door to let some of the steam out. She tilted her head curiously. The sirens that had been so distant when she’d gone into the bathroom were now really loud. And there were an awful lot of them.
She frowned, then shook her head. It was probably just another traffic accident on nearby Wilshire Boulevard. Drying off quickly, she pulled on her robe and walked over to the wall of glass that looked out onto her small balcony. One of the sirens chirped off abruptly, and muffled voices wafted up to her seventeenth floor condo, making her curious enough to tug the hood of her robe over her wet hair and venture out to peer over the balcony railing.
She stared. Her street was swarming with emergency vehicles—several police cars, an ambulance, and, good God, was that a SWAT truck? What the hell? She abruptly remembered the screams that had woken her earlier, the ones she’d relegated to her dreams. But what if they’d been real? She backed away, as if expecting bad guys to come rolling over the railing, and then jumped like a rabbit when someone knocked on her door, hard and loud. She froze, staring at the door until a fresh round of knocking jolted her into motion. Rushing over, she checked her peephole camera. She wasn’t an idiot. She didn’t have the kind where you put your vulnerable eye up to a hole for anyone to poke at. Her system had a camera that clearly showed her the two men in the dark blue uniforms of the LAPD standing outside her door.
One of them looked directly into the camera. “Police. Open up, please.”
Grace studied the image. They looked like real cops. Folding her robe more securely over her naked body—geez, did she have to be naked?—she tightened the belt, and then opened the door, holding the robe closed at her neck like someone’s maiden auntie.
“LAPD, ma’am. Do you mind if we come in?”
“Um, sure. I mean, no, come on in.” Opening the door wide, she backed away, inviting them inside. They were both dark-haired, both trim and athletic, and both looking around her condo as if searching for something. Or someone. “Did something happen?” she asked. What a lame-ass question. Of course, something had happened.
“Officer Suarez, ma’am, and this is Officer Kendall. We’d like to ask you a few questions. Can we sit down?”
“Oh. Sure. Um.” She grimaced at her pre-verbal responses. “Do you mind if I get dressed first? You kind of caught me in the middle—”
Shut up, Grace. They really didn’t need to know she was completely naked under her robe.
“This will only take a minute, ma’am. If you don’t mind.”
So they weren’t even going to let her get dressed? What the hell had happened? “Okay. There’s coffee. Help yourself,” she said faintly, then settled on one of the two chairs facing the couch.
Neither of them took her up on the coffee. Kendall walked over to her balcony and opened the door, going all the way to the railing and peering downward, before coming back inside to stand silently. Suarez sat on the couch and took out an iPad.
“Your name?” he asked.
“Grace Van Allen.”
He checked something on his iPad, then nodded and said, “You’ve been living here for one year?”
“Fourteen months,” she confirmed. “Last week.”
He nodded again. “Have you been here all morning?”
She wet her lips nervously. She’d never been questioned by the police before, even if she hadn’t done anything wrong, and this wasn’t exactly a grilling. “Yes, I got home just after ten last night. I worked a couple of hours at my desk here,” she gestured at her desk across the room, “and then I went to bed.”
“Did you hear or see anything unusual or unexpected during that time?”
Should she mention the screams? She still wasn’t altogether certain they were real. On the other hand. . . . “Not last night, but this morning, I heard someone screaming. It woke me up, and I wasn’t sure if it was real or just part of a dream. But then I saw all of you outside. Did something happen?”
Well, obviously something had happened. The real question was what?
“What time was that?” Suarez asked.
“Seven fifty-two. I know because it was just before my alarm would have gone off.”
“Was the scream a man or a woman?”
She did a double take, not expecting the question. Which was pretty sexist of her. Men screamed, too. But not in this case. “It was a woman.”
“Did you recognize it? That is, recognize the person screaming?”
Recognize a scream? Could you even do that? “No, as I said, it woke me up and I wasn’t even sure it was real. Did something happen?” she asked again, more insistently. She lived in this building and had a right to know if there was a specific danger.
“I’m sorry to say, but . . . there was a murder last night.”
“One of my neighbors?” she asked, growing more concerned. It had been a woman’s scream. “Which one? Is Mrs. Cohen okay? She lives there all alone, and she’s—”
“The victim was male, and he didn’t live on this floor,” he interrupted. “He was found downstairs, in the unit directly below yours, actually.”
Grace glanced down at her floor then back up again. “I don’t, er, didn’t know him. The only people I know are on this floor.”
“Alton and Claire Hudson,” he supplied. “The press already have the name, so it’s no secret. Mrs. Hudson is an ER doc at St. John’s. She came home from her overnight shift and discovered her husband dead.”
“That’s awful,” Grace breathed, realizing it must have been Claire she’d heard screaming.
Suarez didn’t say anything. “You heard nothing before this morning?”
“No, but I worked late, and I was tired.”
“Until midnight, you said.”
“A little after, yes.”
“What is it that you do? For work, I mean.”
“I’m a post-doc fellow in the antiquities department of a museum in Malibu. I specialize in—” Well, hell, Suarez probably didn’t care about all of that. She stopped talking.
“Do you typically come home that late?”
She nodded. “My mind works better at night, and I like the quiet. It helps me concentrate.” It hit her suddenly that he was trying to figure out when Alton Hudson had been murdered. “Have you talked to anyone else? Their neighbors, maybe?”
He gave her one of those flat cop stares. They probably practiced those suckers in the mirror every morning. “We’re talking to everyone.”
“Is it dangerous here? I can stay with my parents if—”
“We don’t believe there’s any danger to others in the building, but if you think you might leave, give me your contact information at your parents, in case the detectives have more questions.”
Detectives, right. Suarez and Kendall must be part of the team canvassing the neighborhood. But the main investigation would fall to homicide detectives. Not that she had any personal experience of such things, but she watched police shows like everyone else.
“I’ll give you my card. It has my office number.” She stood and walked over to her desk. It was big, flanked by two bookshelves, and between them, the three pieces occupied one entire wall. This was where she spent most of her off-work hours. She loved what she did, loved her research. In fact, her latest project was still sitting on her desk. It was a trio of ancient scrolls she’d been tasked with translating. Or trying to, anyway. She picked up the pages and tapped their edges on the desk, making a tidy pile that she slipped into a manila folder. She’d be taking those back to the museum with her this morning. She wasn’t even close to cracking the language yet. If it even was a language.
Opening a drawer, she pulled out one of the new business cards she’d had made only last month. They came in handy for professional conferences, and the various museum functions. She hated networking, but it was a necessary evil.
She walked back and handed the card to Suarez, who looked it over, then slid it into his shirt pocket.
Snapping closed his iPad cover, he stood and gave his partner, Kendall, a glance. “That’s it for now, Ms. Van Allen. I’m sure the detectives will be in touch.”
The two policemen started for the door, with Grace trailing after them. Stepping in front of them, she flicked the thumb turn on her deadbolt and pulled open the door.
“Be sure and lock up after us,” Suarez said, giving her a little wink before turning away.
What the hell was the wink for? And why had he put her card in his pocket? She slowly closed and locked the door. A little flirtation to go with the murder investigation? He wouldn’t be the first cop she’d dated, although this was about as far from the proverbial meet-cute scenario as you could get. Was she even attracted to him? She wasn’t sure. For that matter, she wasn’t sure he was attracted to her either. She might be jumping the gun a little bit, but, hey, she could be forgiven for a little gun jumping. Someone had been murdered just a few feet away from where she was sleeping. How much distance was there between floors anyway? She was definitely relocating to her parents’ place tonight. They wouldn’t care; they were out of town and would be for the next several weeks. They wouldn’t have cared anyway, but it was easier with them gone.
Abruptly remembering that she wasn’t wearing proper clothes, and that she still needed to go to work, she hurried back to her bedroom. As she got dressed, she couldn’t stop staring at the floor, wondering if Alton Hudson was still lying dead down there. She’d heard Claire’s screams loud and clear this morning, so he’d probably—
Time to go to work. She needed something else to think about for a while.
In closing, today is Memorial Day in the United States. For many, it’s a three-day weekend, a party with friends, a barbecue on the beach. But let’s not forget what the purpose of this day is. It’s a time to remember all of the men and women of our military who have died in service to this country. So take a moment to remember, because for every one of those men and women, there are loved ones who can never forget.