Back To Black

an excerpt

Chapter One

"I don't think there's a single clean cup here," I told my partner, as I rifled through a motley collection in the makeshift kitchen of the Waianae Police stationhouse. "They're all pretty disgusting. I wouldn't put my lips on those. You might catch something."

Jackie gave me a withering look. "You know...I really don't give a fuck, Quinn," she said, pouring herself a cup of coffee.

That shocked me. Jackie Howe was usually the sunniest person I knew. To be honest, the brew smelled pretty good. I was about to change my mind and gamble with my gastrointestinal health when she nudged me.

"Grab us a couple of seats. I'll see if I can scare us up a donut or two."

I did as I was told. The briefing room was filling up, and I was lucky to put my hands on a pair of comfy-looking swivel chairs. Almost everybody else had plastic lawn chairs. I nodded at a few of the faces I knew and stifled a yawn. Five hours ago, we'd come off the night shift on our usual beat, District One in Honolulu. I'd caught a few hours' rest. I wasn't sure about Jackie. She seemed miserable. She joined me a few moments later. It was hard to tell if her mournful expression was due to the lack of carbohydrates or something more serious. I had a feeling it was the latter and I felt bad for not noticing sooner than this morning.

"You okay?" I asked her, touching her elbow. She dipped her head, turning her face from me.

"Attention, ladies!" The lieutenant's voice boomed over our chatter. All conversation stopped. He sure knew how to get a roomful of cops, half-asleep, mostly macho guys at that, to shut the fuck up.

We were all curious, all wondering why we'd received emergency text messages at five a.m., demanding our presence at Waianae Police Station at seven.

I leaned forward in my seat and caught a whiff of hazelnut-flavored coffee as Jackie took a long slug of the hot liquid steaming up from a mug bearing the words, I'd Rather be Kayaking.

I knew I would.

Dang. I'd passed on the opportunity for coffee, and now I needed a java fix. To cap off my grumpiness, Jackie seemed to be symptom-free and enjoying her brew. Okay. So not a disease. I suspected marital trouble. I felt bad for even thinking that way, but Jackie was having a rough time of things lately. She was worried about her husband Arthur possibly losing his job. A tire mechanic with Sears, he faced the closure of the company's flagship Ala Moana location. He was so popular with the customers, he'd probably be absorbed into another store location. But still, Jacks was a worrier. Rumor had it that she and Arthur had spent more on their wedding than on their first home together. She'd been sullen and uncommunicative since we'd got in, which was unusual. I realized in that moment that something really was wrong. Normally, she drove me barking mad with her non-stop monologues.

Lieutenant Kalika flicked a switch and the room went dark. It was a damned good thing, because it hid all the filth. This was the dirtiest stationhouse I'd ever walked into. In fact, the whole building had looked grungy when Jackie and I rolled up to it. It was a long, flat, dun-colored thing that could have used a fresh coat of paint. Trash overflowed from a garbage bin out front.

It hadn't escaped my attention that a crumpled banner for a community pride event lay, tossed aside, outside the front door. It was now seven-fifteen and we were crowded into the briefing room with a cross-section of cops who, like us, didn't belong on the leeward side of the island.

I tried to focus on what the lui was saying, but my gaze had fixed itself out of an exterior window. Waianae was a tough neighborhood. It had the worst crime statistics on the whole island so it shouldn't have surprised me to spot a kid getting beaten up by two others right outside the station. Another kid stood by, recording it all on his cell phone.

"Am I boring you, Novak?" the lui asked.

Yes. "No, sir. I was just wondering if we shouldn't intervene in the beat-down going on out front."

All eyes turned, and the lieutenant muttered something before marching out of the room. We all sat in the near-dark, and I felt grateful for all the bodies around me. I have a pathological fear of the dark I have never confessed to anybody.

Breathe in, breathe out.

A couple of uniformed officers rushed outside and, like I said, Waianae is one tough place, because even in police presence, the two bigger kids kept unloading on the smaller one. He fought back, surprisingly. The kid recording it all took off. The cops reached under the pile of legs and arms and retrieved the smaller guy, who'd done a pretty good job of defending himself in the melee.

We were all silent, watching the pitiful scene outside.

"You okay?" one of the officers asked the victim, whose mouth and nose bled. I could hear his voice faintly. The kid said, "Yes," and seemed stoic. It was only when the officer turned his back that we in the briefing room saw his face collapse in grief.

Poor kid.

The uniformed officers kept a hold on the two thugs and brought them into the building.

Lieutenant Kalika returned, and I did my best, bang-up job of looking interested as he pointed to a map of the island of Oahu, now illuminated on an old-fashioned, roll-down white screen. The entire police department for the island was divided into eight divisions, and within these divisions, there were sectors. Each sector covered two or three different suburbs. Waianae Police Station's first sector covered Waianae, Makaha Beach, Maili, and Makua. Lieutenant Kalika pressed the little gizmo in his hand, and we were treated to an overlay of the crime map for Sector One for the last four weeks.

I saw the jumbled icons and heard the surprised sounds racing around the room. Apart from a lot of car accidents, there seemed to be an unusual number of burglaries, identified by icons of black masks.

"We have a huge spike in residential robberies," Lieutenant Kalika said. "These are unusual cases because in almost every incident, the break-in has occurred in homes tented for termite control."

It surprised me that so many people in Waianae could apparently afford such expensive measures for pest removal. This was the most economically depressed area in all of the Hawaiian Islands. With the recent closure of the major source of income--the pineapple and sugar industries--times were really hard. Our district constantly fought homelessness. An ad-hoc tent city on the western tip of the beach at Makaha had once stretched for almost two miles, but it came back in bits and pieces. Local families couldn't afford their rent, so they'd get evicted, cross the road and set up home with their kids and pets right on the sand. I knew many kids who'd lived like this since they were born.

"We didn't notice a pattern at first," Kalika went on. "The first break-in occurred three months ago. A month later, there was a second, followed by one a week later. In the last four weeks, there have been seventeen robberies."

A few hands shot into the air, but he waved them off. "I know what you're going to ask me, but the truth is this. We know the termite vans are being followed and the houses are being staked out. We can't point fingers at any one company, since several have been followed."

He looked up at us. "The home owners have all sprung for termite control thanks to some handy-dandy promotional offers sent out by mail." He held up a batch of flyers I could just see in the darkened room, and indicated a cluster of break-ins on the screen of the nicest area of the sector, Makaha Beach. "We've had a robbery every single day here, and this is our tourist-heavy neighborhood. You can imagine the governor's none too pleased."

Tourist-heavy. That was a laugh. There were three hotels, one of which was a resort that always seemed to be in the midst of a massive overhaul. In fact, the whole area was constantly under construction. Farrington Highway always featured signs diverting traffic away from it. For some reason, street repairs out here took months. Sometimes I was ashamed of the area. Heading out this way came with an old joke: "Don't drive too slow out here or somebody will steal your tires."

Lieutenant Kalika switched on the light again. "Each of these houses has security guards sitting out front. These robberies are brazen. Mostly at night, sometimes during the day, but we have reason to believe it's the same crew because their MO is always the same. They enter through an open window, unseen by the security guards."

He looked disturbed. "They're taking a huge risk with their health since they are entering homes riddled with active, poisonous gas, so look to the idea that these are well-organized, very prepared thieves."

Gas masks. God. What next?

"All of you have been brought here since you work robbery-homicide in your sectors and have been recommended by your commanding officers. At this point, we have created a task force and have asked pest control companies to cooperate by telling us where and when they're tenting."

I shot up my hand and asked a question before he could shout me down. "Sir? Are the security guards in-house for each termite company or are they privately hired?"

It was a good question and one he hadn't addressed. I looked around. Everybody was staring at him expectantly.

Lieutenant Kalika flicked a gaze over at a muscular guy who'd just entered the room. He had a buzz haircut and wore a tight, white T-shirt and jeans. I recognized him as a DEA agent who used to go undercover in the islands. He had a grumpy look on his face as he moved beside Kalika, who introduced him.

"Special Agent J.D. Justus is visiting here from California. He'll be heading up this task force."

When J.D. spoke, he still had the same gruff voice I'd found such a turn-on when we met at Angles, one of the three gay bars in Waikiki. We'd danced together during a wet T-shirt contest that neither of us bothered entering. We went home and fucked like bunnies for two days.

He had introduced himself as J.D. but by our second day in bed together, I learned his name was John David Justus. What a cool name! Last time I'd seen him, he'd left my bed, promising he'd call. That was two years ago. Guess he lost my number. I felt strangely hurt watching him. He cast a glance around the room but didn't seem to notice me. That did wonders for my ego.

I didn't know whether to thank my boss for sending me here to be close to Justus again or whether to kick his ass when I got back to my side of the island.

Justus eyed the crowd. "I won't keep you long, but we have reason to believe this is the same working crew that blew into Los Angeles six months ago and targeted depressed communities there. They went after Inglewood, Gardena, and Compton--not Beverly Hills.

"Why they're targeting people who are struggling to survive is anybody's guess, but so far, they've conducted a pretty tight operation. They break in with no muss, no fuss, spend a good amount of time in the houses, since they appear to ransack every room, then they take off. We believe they have access to gas masks and..." He gave a significant pause and I let out a breath I didn't realize I'd been holding. He still looked fucking fabulous. Unbidden images kept popping into my brain. He'd been hard and sexy and sweaty and, man...he'd begged me to fuck him.

"The Hawaii Gun Club had a robbery four weeks ago," he said. He held up his hand when the entire room erupted. "This is about the time the home-invasions picked up speed. The burglars got away with a few Magnums, a couple AK-47s and"--another significant pause--"eight choppers."

I knew that was slang for Thompson submachine guns.

"How come we haven't heard about this before?" somebody asked.

"We've kept a lid on it for obvious reasons." Justus's tone was sharp. When somebody else asked how they'd managed to keep the robberies out of the media, Justus smiled.

"We can't really take credit for that. The media has the same access everybody else has to the crime maps." He indicated the blank screen on the wall behind him. "They just don't think Waianae is a very sexy area, so the robberies stay out of the news reports, and this crew keeps pulling off their daring heists. In every instance, the robberies have not been detected until the homeowners return when the tents are down and the residence is given the all-clear. Once they go into their homes, they see they've been robbed."

"You said you think it's the same crew that was pulling off these stunts in Los Angeles," I surprised myself by asking. "Any idea who these guys are?"

Justus finally made eye contact with me. Dang. It was still there. The smoke. The heat. The passion. I started to sweat.

"We have a few leads. As to your question about the security guards, there are three companies that work exclusively with pest control. We're checking on that angle now."

His gaze bored into mine. Angles. We'd met at Angles. Was it apt that the bar was closed and so, apparently, was his memory of me? Did he remember? Did he care? Or was I too damned desperate and reading too much into everything these days? I kept my gaze on him, but he was being peppered...nay, hammered, with questions and he focused on the task at hand. I stared at him as he spoke.

He was still hard looking, but handsome in the Ed Harris way that had so attracted me initially. He had a few more laugh lines around the eyes. He hadn't laughed much around me, so I did wonder how he got those...and he still didn't have an ounce of body fat. J.D. had lived a difficult life, tossed out of his home by his stepfather at the age of fifteen. He was proof positive that there was always a way out of a terrible childhood.

We were quite a contrast with one another. He was all-American. I was a mix of Italian and Irish with dark, thick hair that always wanted to curl. My mother called my looks Black Irish. Justus had called it trouble.

Maybe that's why I hadn't heard from him. All I knew was that at the age of thirty, I was ready to settle down. I wanted a partner. A life. I hate the gay bars, and feel increasingly geriatric inside them. With Angles now closed, the only two decent gay bars left were Fusion and Hula's Lei Stand. They seemed to attract a steady stream of tourists looking for mythical hula boys, and locals looking for visitors drunk enough to bonk them.

I hadn't formed an opinion of the newest additions to the mix. Bacchus, over on Lewers Street, was the ritziest, but I'm cheap and usually opt for their two-dollar Tuesday beers. LoJax, a gay sports bar over on Kuhio, is more my speed, but it annoys me simply because it tries to be everything: sports bar, gay bar, tapas restaurant, and live music club. It attracted a mixed clientele, which I suppose is fine, but sometimes a man just wants to know where he is and stick with things plain, not fancy.

The only other gay bar is In Between. I hate the name because it implies bisexuality. A man should be straight or gay. He needs to pick a lane. Besides, it's a gay karaoke bar. Why would I want to pay to hear crappy music?

I came back to reality just as Kalika ended the meeting, letting us all know that we would be contacted to keep watch on every new, upcoming termite-control situation.

"I must stress that this is not to be discussed with anybody, not even your spouses."

As he said this, I felt J.D.'s gaze on my face and knew. Hell yeah, he remembered me. As soon as I looked at him, his glance shifted to my partner. She stared at him, and turned pink when I shot a look in her direction. The man did not give off a gaydar at all, and Jackie was as charmed as I had been. Dang. The woman was a newlywed, too.

"You will work with your already-assigned partner and I am asking for full cooperation. When your shift arrives, I expect you to follow my instructions to the letter. Understood?"

"Understood," we said as one. We got to our feet.

"Cripes," my partner said. "I need to use the bathroom."