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California Fire and Life

Cover of California Fire and Life

California Fire and Life

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Jack Wade, a claims adjuster for California Fire and Life Mutual Insurance Company, is one of the best arson investigators around. He's a man who knows fire, who can read the traces it leaves behind like a roadmap. When he's called in to examine an unusual claim, the tracks of the fire tell him that something's wrong. So wrong that he violates his own cardinal rule--"You don't get personal, you don't get emotional. Whatever you do, you don't get involved"--and plunges into the case.

Real estate mogul Nicky Vale's house is one of the most valuable properties on this stretch of the Southern California gold coast--large, luxurious, crammed with antiques, set on a nice piece of land with a perfect ocean view. After a disastrous blaze tears through a wing of the house, it's only normal that Vale would file an insurance claim. But a $3 million claim is rarely normal, especially not when it's filed within hours of the horrific death of the owner's young and beautiful wife. The County Sheriff's Department investigator, Brian "Accidentally" Bentley, has declared the fire, well, accidental--caused by Mrs. Vale's passing out in bed with a bottle of vodka and a lit cigarette--although a careful look at the evidence points to something more sinister.

When Jack begins his investigation, he draws on his skill, experience and sheer stubbornness to uncover the truth of what's going on, but each step leads him further into a situation that's becoming increasingly dangerous. Soon arson is the least of Jack's worries, as the case grows to involve the Russian mob, Vietnamese gangs, real estate scams, counterfeiting and corporate corruption. In addition, Jack's forced to confront his own ghosts, including a fatal professional error, and to cope with the sudden reentry into his life of the best thing that ever happened to him: Letitia del Rio, a Sheriff's deputy whose bombshell looks are exceeded only by her smarts and guts.

As the investigation spins out of control, Jack finds himself pulled so far in that he might not make it out. His outrageous behavior and defiant integrity, usually about as helpful to him as third-degree burns, may now be the only things that will keep the investigation--and Jack himself--from being snuffed out.

Jack Wade, a claims adjuster for California Fire and Life Mutual Insurance Company, is one of the best arson investigators around. He's a man who knows fire, who can read the traces it leaves behind like a roadmap. When he's called in to examine an unusual claim, the tracks of the fire tell him that something's wrong. So wrong that he violates his own cardinal rule--"You don't get personal, you don't get emotional. Whatever you do, you don't get involved"--and plunges into the case.

Real estate mogul Nicky Vale's house is one of the most valuable properties on this stretch of the Southern California gold coast--large, luxurious, crammed with antiques, set on a nice piece of land with a perfect ocean view. After a disastrous blaze tears through a wing of the house, it's only normal that Vale would file an insurance claim. But a $3 million claim is rarely normal, especially not when it's filed within hours of the horrific death of the owner's young and beautiful wife. The County Sheriff's Department investigator, Brian "Accidentally" Bentley, has declared the fire, well, accidental--caused by Mrs. Vale's passing out in bed with a bottle of vodka and a lit cigarette--although a careful look at the evidence points to something more sinister.

When Jack begins his investigation, he draws on his skill, experience and sheer stubbornness to uncover the truth of what's going on, but each step leads him further into a situation that's becoming increasingly dangerous. Soon arson is the least of Jack's worries, as the case grows to involve the Russian mob, Vietnamese gangs, real estate scams, counterfeiting and corporate corruption. In addition, Jack's forced to confront his own ghosts, including a fatal professional error, and to cope with the sudden reentry into his life of the best thing that ever happened to him: Letitia del Rio, a Sheriff's deputy whose bombshell looks are exceeded only by her smarts and guts.

As the investigation spins out of control, Jack finds himself pulled so far in that he might not make it out. His outrageous behavior and defiant integrity, usually about as helpful to him as third-degree burns, may now be the only things that will keep the investigation--and Jack himself--from being snuffed out.

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Excerpts-
  • Chapter One

    Woman's lying in bed and the bed's on fire.

    She doesn't wake up.

    Flame licks at her thighs like a lover and she doesn't wake up.

    Just down the hill the Pacific pounds on the rocks.

    California fire and life.

    2

    George Scollins doesn't wake up, either.

    Reason for this is that he's lying at the bottom of the stairs with a
    broken neck.

    It's easy to see how this might have happened--Scollins's little Laguna Canyon house is a freaking mess. Tools, wood, furniture lying all over the place, you can hardly walk across the floor without tripping on something.

    In addition to the tools, wood and furniture, you have paint cans, containers of stain, plastic bottles full of turpentine, cleaning rags .
    . .

    This is also the reason the house is a bonfire.

    Not surprising, really.

    Not surprising at all.

    California fire and life.

    3

    Two Vietnamese kids sit in the front of a delivery truck.

    The driver, Tommy Do, pulls it off into a parking lot.

    "Middle of freaking nowhere," says Tommy's buddy, Vince Tranh.

    Tommy doesn't give a shit, he's happy to be getting rid of the load, a
    truck full of hot stuff.

    Tommy pulls over by a Caddy.

    "They love their Caddies," Tranh says to him in Vietnamese.

    "Let 'em," Tommy says. Tommy's saving for a Miata. A Miata is cool. Tommy can see himself cruising in a black Miata, wraparound shades on his face, a babe with long black hair beside him.

    Yeah, he can see that.

    Two guys get out of the Caddy.

    One of them's tall. Looks like one of those Afghan hounds, Tommy thinks, except the guy's wearing a dark blue suit that has got to be hot standing out there in the desert. The other guy is shorter, but broad. Guy wears a black Hawaiian print shirt with big flowers all over it, and Tommy thinks he looks like a jerk. Tommy has him tabbed as the leg breaker, and Tommy is going to be glad to get his money, unload and get the fuck back to Garden Grove.

    As a general rule, Tommy doesn't like doing business with non-Vietnamese, especially these people.

    Except the money this time is too good.

    Two grand for a delivery job.

    The big guy in the flowered shirt opens a gate and Tommy drives through it. Guy closes the gate behind them.

    Tommy and Tranh hop out of the truck.

    Blue Suit says, "Unload the truck."

    Tommy shakes his head.

    "Money first," he says.

    Blue Suit says, "Sure."

    "Business is business," Tommy says, like he's apologizing for the money-first request. He's trying to be polite.

    "Business is business," Blue Suit agrees.

    Tommy watches Blue Suit reach into the jacket pocket for his wallet, except Blue Suit takes out a silenced 9mm and puts three bullets in a tight pattern into Tommy's face.

    Tranh stands there with this oh-fucking-no look on his face but he doesn't run or anything. Just stands there like frozen, which makes it easy for Blue Suit to put the next three into him.

    The guy in the flowered shirt hefts first Tommy, then Tranh, and tosses their bodies into the Dumpster. Pours gasoline all over them then tosses a match in.

    "Vietnamese are Buddhists?" he asks Blue Suit.

    "I think so."

    They're speaking in Russian.

    "Don't they cremate their dead?"

    Blue Suit shrugs.

    An hour later they have the truck unloaded and the contents stored in the cinder block building. Twelve minutes after that, Flower Shirt drives the truck out into the desert and makes it go boom.

    California fire and life.

    4

    Jack Wade sits on an old Hobie...

About the Author-
  • Don Winslow has worked as a private investigator in London, Amsterdam and various places in the United States, and as an arson investigator in Los Angeles for more than 15 years. He lives in California.

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    Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Don Winslow
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