On a rainy spring day in Los Angeles, homicide detective Elouise “Lou” Norton is called away from a rare lunch date to Bonner Park, where the body of thirteen-year-old Chanita Lords has been discovered. When Lou and her partner, Colin Taggert, take on the sad task of informing Chanita’s mother, Lou is surprised to find herself in the apartment building she grew up in.
Trail of Echoes is the latest Elouise Norton novel from critically acclaimed writer Rachel Howzell Hall. Please enjoy this excerpt.
At twelve thirty on a rainy Wednesday after noon, I was breaking one of my cardinal rules as a homicide detective: Never eat lunch with civilians. But on that Wednesday in March, I sat at a Formica- topped table in Johnny’s Pastrami with no ordinary citizen.
Assistant District Attorney Sam Seward had eyes the color of mint leaves, hands that could palm Jupiter, and a mind agile enough to grasp the story arc of Game of Thrones.
I had a crush on Sam.
He liked me, too, even though I associated “bracelets” with “handcuffs” and smelled of gun oil more than lavender. And so when he had asked if I wanted to grab a pastrami with him, I had immediately chirped, “Sure. Why not?” I wanted to have Normal People Lunch with ketchup that squirted from bottles and conversations about March Madness instead of murders, bodies, and blood. More than that, I wanted to have Normal People Lunch with Sam.
And now he smiled at me like the secret goof he was. And I futzed with the belt of my cowl- necked sweater like the nervous virgin I hadn’t been in twenty years.
Outside, clouds the color of Tahitian black pearls and drizzle softened the crimson glare of car brake lights. Inside, the diner smelled of meat and onions, and George Harrison crooned from hidden speakers about the way she moves.
“Elouise Norton,” Sam said, shaking his head. “I cannot believe it.”
I nibbled a sliver of pastrami. “Why not? I do violence all day.”
“Which is why I can’t believe you’d watch a show on your downtime that’s all decapitations and grit for an hour and three minutes.”
I gasped. “You made me watch it.”
He smoothed his slate- blue tie. “ Couldn’t talk to you about the Darson case forever.”
Sam was prosecuting Max Crase, the man who had murdered high school cheerleader Monique Darson, her sister Macie, and my sister Victoria. Now recovering from a brain tumor, Max Crase had pled insanity. And well . . . “insane” was just one word I’d use to describe him.
“Nor do I want to talk about the Darson case now.” I smiled at Sam, then pointed at his face. “You have mustard . . .”
He squinted at me. “Get it off, then.”
My heart pounded— I loved challenges.
I waited a moment . . . then leaned forward.
He moved aside sandwich baskets and almost- full glasses of Diet Coke, then leaned forward but only a little. “Closer,” he demanded.
I waited . . . then obeyed.
His butterscotch- colored cheeks flushed.
With his face an inch away from mine, I parted my lips.
And the bell tower tolled: the ringtone for Lieutenant Zak Rodriguez.
Sam crooked his neck, going for the kiss.
But the bell tower tolled again— louder and crankier this time.
“Sounds official,” Sam whispered.
Going cold, I sank into my seat. “It’s my boss.” I reached for Sam’s hand as my other hand grabbed the phone from my purse.
“Where you at?” Lieutenant Rodriguez asked.
“Having pastrami and soda pop.”
Sam kissed my hand before he let go.
“Pepe and Luke?”
I pushed my bangs off my flushed forehead. “Nuh uh.”
Lieutenant Rodriguez sighed. “Please say you’re not with your ex.”
“ Don’t worry. I’m not.”
“Hate to break it up, but you’re on deck. Some joggers found a body up in Bonner Park.”
My ankle holster, stuffed now with my lunch gun, pinched my skin— death had a way of yanking you from Wonderland. “ Really? This early in the day?”
“And whoever left it there is one cold son of a bitch.”
“ Aren’t they all?”
“He put it in one of those large duffel bags, the kind soldiers carry. And he left it there on the trail. In this weather.”
Outside our window, the wind had picked up, making palm fronds frantic and street signs swing. Back in the calm mustiness of Johnny’s, someone had dropped a quarter into the tabletop jukebox and had pressed E6: Olivia Newton- John asking if I’ve ever been mellow.
“Yeah,” Lieutenant Rodriguez was saying, “and where he left it? Up on that trail? It ain’t the typical boneyard. Anyway, I’ll call Taggert and we’ll meet you over there. Maybe you shoulda had one of your salads today. Edamame and shit instead of all that meat.”
Martha Bonner Park. Hills, trees, valleys— a beautiful jewel in the city’s crown. I jogged, hiked, and fed ducks there whenever I wasn’t watching divers pull guns and bodies out of its murky- green fake lake.
“Gotta go?” Sam asked, eyes on his iPhone.
“Same here. I’m helping to plan Congresswoman Fortier’s jazz funeral.”
He nodded. “A second line down Crenshaw. A horse, a brass band, all of it.”
I dug in my purse for the car keys. “How many permits did you all have to pull for a New Orleans homegoing in the middle of Los Angeles?”
He rubbed his face. “You have no idea. And I hear all of NOLA is coming to usher her into the great beyond.” He emerged from behind his hands with a smile. “But I’m glad we had a moment to ourselves.”
I blushed. “Me too.”
Even though this was our first date, nothing else needed to be said or explained. I gotta go. No apology, no weird hostility. He, too, had to keep LA from exploding.
Oh, how I liked Sam.
Hand in hand, we walked to the parking lot, stopping at the light- blue Crown Vic that would stink of mildew until August.
“So you owe me.” Towering over me, Sam rested his hands on my waist.
I tensed, aware of my bulky ballistics vest, hoping that he didn’t think that was all . . . me. “Owe you? For what?”
“For ending our lunch so soon.”
I shivered— not because of the forty- degree weather. “Bullshit. We were basically done.”
“I wanted pie.”
I straightened the collar of his black wool overcoat. “Fine. You’ll get your pie.”
Then, my freakin’ iPhone caw- cawed from my pocket: the ringtone for Colin Taggert, my partner of nine months.
Sam dropped his hands and backed away from me. “If your case is a dunker, come over to night and watch something other than a basketball game. You could bring pie.”
“You’ll call me?”
And the eagle caw- cawed again: America was calling.
I plucked the phone from my pocket. “I’m on my way,” I told Colin, slipping behind the Ford’s steering wheel. In the rearview mirror, I watched Sam climb into his black Bimmer.
“The body in the—” Colin sneezed, then sneezed again. “The body in the park. Prepare yourself: it’s a girl.”
Just when you’re trying to be mellow.
Copyright © 2016 by Rachel Howzell Hall