In California the hills are on fire. Not a good sign for Andrew Kindler, who just came from back east to get away from his past–as an arsonist. In fact, almost from the moment he sets foot in his cousin’s Santa Monica beach house, the heat starts swirling around him. First there’s the cop who thinks Andrew might know something about a murder suspect. Then there’s the suspect’s beautiful sister, who is willing to pay Andrew $5,000 for the same information.
But Andrew really uninformed. And with a sensational murder case burning a hole in the gut of the LAPD–as well as the star-studded L.A. fitness industry–ignorance is dangerous. Now Andrew must solve a murder he knows nothing about, find a killer he’s never met, and unravel a family’s explosive secret. His reward for success? To live another day: one step ahead of his burning past...
“An exceptionally well-crafted and well-told tale of arson, police work, misplaced zeal, bad relationships, good relationships, family bonds and, oh yes, exercise videos. Quirky, compelling, intelligent, and funny ... If you like Elmore Leonard, do yourself a favor and pick up BURN.”–Lincoln Journal Star
“A cult writer for the masses–hip, smart and so mordantly funny that the casual reader might be laughing too hard to realize just how thoughtful Doolittle’s work is. Get on the bandwagon now.”–Laura Lippman, author of By a Spider’s Thread
“Sean Doolittle combines wit, good humor, and a generosity of spirit rare in mystery fiction to create novels that are both engrossing and strangely uplifting. He deserves to take his place among the best in the genre.”–John Connolly, author of The White Road
“An estimable addition not only to the publisher’s list but also to crime fiction ... Doolittle delivers a briskly plotted, hard-boiled mystery that has its roots in the Elmore Leonard school of dark comedy.”–South Florida Sun-Sentinel
·Gold medal winner for mystery in ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year Award
·A Best Crime Fiction of 2003 pick from January Magazine
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Sean Doolittle's short fiction has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Year's Best Mystery Stories 2002 (James Ellroy, guest editor), and his first novel, Dirt, was a BookSense Book of the Day, and named one of the 100 Best Books of 2001 by the editors of Amazon.com. He lives in Omaha, Nebraska, with his wife and daughter, and is at work on his next novel.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :
Common sense told Andrew Kindler that a surprise visitor at the beach house didn't necessarily mean bad news. Instinct changed his mind long before the stranger with the sport coat on his arm got around to showing his badge.
"Hello up there."
Andrew hadn't realized he'd dozed off in the lounge chair until the voice startled him awake. He sat up and blinked against the sunlight, slowly regaining his sense of place. After all these weeks, he still sometimes woke up disoriented. He'd gotten to like the feeling.
Most of the time.
"Sorry. Over here."
Andrew looked toward the owner of the voice, who stood near the top of the long run of stairs leading up to the deck. When the stranger saw that he'd gotten Andrew's attention, he raised a rolled newspaper in greeting. "Anybody home?"
Andrew looked at his watch. Not quite nine o'clock. He reached to turn down the radio, suddenly wishing he had a dog.
"Morning," he said.
"Morning," said the stranger. "I rang the bell but nobody answered. Heard the radio, noticed the gate was open, thought I'd poke my head around. Mind if I come up?"
A German Shepherd, Andrew thought. Maybe a Doberman.
"Watch that top step," he said. "It's cracked through the middle."
The guy acknowledged the tip with a short wave of the newspaper and a long stride over the offending tread. He strolled across the deck, scuffed cowboy boots sounding a hollow knock that echoed beneath the planks. Andrew watched from the lounge chair, evaluating possibilities.
Besides the gulls, and the occasional gutsy pelican, he didn't get many callers here. His cousin Caroline dropped by every so often with one of her foil-wrapped care packages, usually something new she'd learned in her gourmet cooking class. Andrew had begun to grow optimistic that anybody else who had reason to look for him probably would have found him before now.
The guy coming toward him wore rolled shirtsleeves and black denim slacks in spite of the heat wave in progress. He carried the sport coat over the crook of one elbow. Andrew saw big shoulders, weathered features, and a clean-shaved jaw. He guessed mid-forties, but the sunglasses made it hard to tell.
"Your paper was in a bush around back," the guy said, holding out the morning Times.
"I knew that kid's aim was improving. Thanks."
On the radio, the morning jock had just launched the hour with the daily Hot Spot report. Andrew leaned over and turned the volume back up a notch.
It had been almost two weeks since air and ground crews had reigned in an out-of-control brush fire that had blackened nearly 2,500 acres of state park land a few miles up the coast. According to the radio, smoldering pockets had flared up again during the night.
Meanwhile, farther north, separate wildfires in Topanga and Calabasas had been devouring parched scrub since late yesterday afternoon. Hot, dry Santa Ana gusts threatened to drive one fire into the other, pushing both through the mountain passes toward Malibu. Andrew had taken to spending his mornings on the deck, watching the forest department planes pass overhead on tagteam runs.
The stranger listened along for a moment, turning to gaze at the thick brown haze parked above Topanga Canyon to the north.
"Lifestyles of the rich and famous," he mused.
Andrew said, "Mm."
"Early in the year for this stuff, though. Dry summer."
"That's what they're saying."
"Sorry again for the drop-in, Mr. Borland." The stranger grinned easily and extended a palm. "I came by to see you yesterday, but you weren't around."
Mr. Borland. Andrew smiled and decided to let that one hang for now. He didn't explain to the stranger that he was not his jackass cousin-in-law, Lane, who owned the beach house. He reached to meet the man's grip, which felt calloused and solid.
"Detective, is it?"
The guy cocked his head without losing the grin. He watched Andrew from behind the shades. "You must be reading those papers."
"When I can find where they landed. Have you been in the papers?"
"Oh, I seem to be a regular celebrity lately."
"That must be it," Andrew said. "I probably saw your picture somewhere."
The detective nodded along, but Andrew could tell he wasn't buying it. Especially when the cop leaned forward and said, "Just between you and me, what really gave me away?"
Andrew thought: I started it. He shielded sun with his hand, starting over with the boots and working his way up.
"Put it this way," he said. "Are you much of a drinker?"
The detective--who had yet to state his business, Andrew couldn't help but note--seemed happy enough to play along. "I've been known to rest my feet on a rail from time to time."
"You know how when you're talking to a woman at a bar, one of the first things she notices is that spot where the wedding ring used to be on your left hand there?"
Now the detective looked at the hand he'd used to deliver the newspaper. His grin widened. "I do."
"For what it's worth," Andrew told him, "those sweat stains on your shirt say 'shoulder holster' to me."
The detective barked out a laugh that seemed to come back to them from beneath the deck. Without further chitchat, he folded open the jacket, reached inside, and said, "Not bad. Maybe you should have one of these."
Andrew set the newspaper aside and accepted the wallet. He flipped it open, checked the shield and ID. Adrian Timms, LAPD. Robbery-Homicide Division. When Andrew handed the wallet back, Timms finally took off the shades and slipped them into his shirt pocket. His eyes seemed friendly, direct. Andrew got the feeling they didn't miss much.
"Mind if I sit down?"
"Help yourself." Andrew held up his coffee mug. "I've got a pot on in the house."
"Too hot for coffee, but thanks. I don't want to take much of your time."
"I'm not really on a tight schedule," Andrew said. "What brings you to the beach, Detective?"
Timms took the nearest sling chair, propped a boot across his knee, and draped the jacket over it. "I'm investigating this Gregor Tavlin business you've probably been hearing about."
Andrew was not aware of any Gregor Tavlin business. He hadn't really looked at the newspaper in a couple of weeks. Lane and Caroline had a television at the beach house, but he rarely turned it on. And except for the daily Hot Spot, he mostly just kept the radio around for company.
"No kidding? That's some business."
"Yes, I guess it is."
"Look," Andrew finally said. "I have a confession to make."
"Now there's something I don't hear every day."
He ran over with wit, this cop. Andrew gestured toward the house. "Lane Borland is my cousin's husband. I just moved to town a couple months ago. Lane owns the house. They don't use the place much, so I get a view of the ocean while I pretend to be hunting for my own shower and toilet."
The truth: He probably should have packed up and moved on weeks ago. He knew better than to let himself get attached to the place, but he couldn't seem to help it.
Andrew liked the view of sand and water. He liked the coastline at dusk, the soft lap of the surf at night. He liked making coffee before sunrise, taking a hot mug out to the deck, and waiting for the salty mists to clear.
Lately, he'd grown to find something reassuring about the sight of a new horizon line.
He'd grown to like measuring out the days according to the rhythm of the tides.
Andrew didn't bother telling the detective how much he disliked the philandering greaseball his cousin Caroline had married, or how fiercely Lane Borland opposed the idea of Andrew anywhere near his property.
Lane, a talent manager who specialized in spokesmodels, had bought the beach house during a dip in the real estate market last year. He'd claimed it was a resale investment until Caroline had caught him here celebrating their anniversary with a buxom twenty-two-year-old Maybelline girl.
Caroline had offered her husband two options: get rid of the place, or hire a lawyer and get ready to pay up. Lane had caved without argument at the time, though he'd been citing soft real estate numbers ever since. He blamed the stock market.
But Andrew's kid cousin was no dummy, despite her inexplicable taste in men. Which meant that until Lane decided to stop dragging his feet and give up his million-dollar whoopie pad, Andrew had a fantastic rent-free view of the Pacific.He was happy to help.
"I'll be honest," Detective Timms said. "That explains a thing or two."
"I was thinking you didn't seem to be from around here."
It appeared to be Andrew's turn. "What gave me away?"
The detective started with Andrew's sandals and worked his way up from there.
"The tan, for starters," he said. "No offense, but you're a little on the pale side for a fellow who spends mornings on a sundeck."
Andrew held up the tube of SPF 60 he generally kept with him when he planned to be outside for any length of time. "These rays you've got out here are hell on scar tissue."
As if he'd been granted permission, the detective now nodded toward the first thing most people noticed about Andrew's face.
"I've been wondering what you tangled with," he admitted. "Left a little mark."
Andrew supposed the detective was being polite. The worst of the scars was thick as a pencil and ran half the length of his jawline. The jagged hook at the corner of his eye had been quickest to heal; its sibling, which trailed from the opposite corner of his mouth, had puckered as it sealed, leaving him with a permanent smirk. Caroline told him it looked cute. Kind of awshucksy, she said. Andrew thought it looked like he'd shaved with a Cuisinart.
"It was a concrete abutment," he lied. "The car looked worse."
Timms gave a low whistle.
"Probably should have kept my feet on that bar rail," Andrew said. "Gas pedal turned out to be a bad idea."
"Hindsight's always twenty-twenty."
"So they say."
"I'm sorry," the detective said. "What did you say your name was, again?"
"I didn't. It's Andrew. I can get you Lane's office number if you need to talk to him. I think I've got it in the house somewhere."
"Don't bother, I've already got it," Timms said. "I was just in the neighborhood, thought I'd try to catch him at home."
Andrew didn't ask the detective what had led him to assume he might find Lane at the beach house on a weekday morning. He planned to ask Lane that question personally. With any luck, he'd be forced to choke the answer out of the little weasel.
"But as long as I'm here, maybe you can save me some shoe leather," Timms said. "David Lomax is the person I'm actually looking for. He's a hard guy to find lately. We were told he might have stayed here recently. Have you spoken with him?"
The detective nodded. "David. I don't suppose you've seen him around."
Andrew shook his head and told the truth. "Never even heard of him."
"I see." Timms gathered up his jacket and stood. "Thanks for your time. I'll get out of your hair, give your cousin a call. Sorry again for the bother."
"Cousin-in-law. And it's no bother. Hope you track down your guy."
"That makes two of us."
Timms stuck out his hand again, and Andrew shook it. He was about to wish the detective luck, maybe say something conciliatory about the heat, when he noticed Timms glancing off toward the water. The detective seemed to be considering something.
"Before I go," he said, "mind if I ask one more question?"
"Not at all."
"Don't look now. But have you noticed the guy with the turned-up visor over there? Scooting the metal detector around that pile of driftwood. Hundred yards out."
Casually, Andrew moved his gaze down the beach.
"You mean the guy pointing the rocket launcher at us?"
"Looks like about a 400-millimeter zoom lens to me," Timms said. "Just so you know, he's been sneaking peeks over this way ever since I got here."
Andrew waited before glancing toward the guy with the camera again. The guy had turned his back to the house. He swept the metal detector's circular antenna coil from side to side over the sand a few feet in front of him.
It wasn't easy to be sure from this distance, but Andrew didn't think he'd ever seen the person before. He watched the guy pretend to inspect a fist-sized stalk of dried kelp. He thought: This might not be my day.
"I'm really starting to wish these pikers would update their maps," he said, spinning out the first thing that came to mind.
Timms lifted an eyebrow.
"You know who I'm talking about? I see them sitting around in lawn chairs all the time. I guess they sell 'em to the tourists?"
"Ah," Timms said. "Homes of the Stars."
"Right, right." Andrew gestured toward the house again. "My cousin tells me a Baldwin used to own the place before Lane bought it. That's the third guy with a camera since I've been here."
This time, when the detective laughed, the whole deck seemed to vibrate beneath Andrew's chair. Timms fished his sunglasses out of his shirt pocket and put them on again.
"It's a little unnerving," Andrew said.
"Well," said Timms. "In that case, I can only think of one thing to tell you."
"Welcome to Los Angeles, Mr. Kindler."
Andrew laughed politely. He and Timms exchanged final pleasantries. With that, the detective strolled back across the deck, remembering the top step as he descended the stairs.
For a long time after he'd gone, Andrew stayed out on the deck, listening to the radio. He pondered the smoke banks blotting the pale blue sky above the Santa Monica Mountains.
Over the sound of the radio, Andrew could hear young kids kicking a ball around behind the tall privacy fence encircling the adjacent property. Three long blonde roller-bladers in thong tankinis threaded joggers on the strip. Across the busy highway, atop the rail-lined cliffs, the tall palms along Ocean Avenue hung their fronds in the heat.
By the time the guy with the beachcombing rig had wandered out of view, Andrew had decided only two things for sure.
He was out of ideas.
And he was absolutely positive that he'd never told the big detective with the cowboy boots his last name.
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