Ashes, Ashes, They All Fall Dead
A Deadly Games Romantic Thriller (Book#3)
What she doesn’t remember . . .
One by one the letters arrive at the FBI office in Savannah, Georgia. Inside, each bears a name--victims of a twisted crime--and the sing-song phrase . . . Ashes, ashes, they all fall dead. Special Agent Tessa James becomes obsessed with finding the killer whose victims are crying out to her for justice.
Will kill her . . .
When sexy, brilliant consultant, Matt Buchanan, is paired with Tessa to discover who’s sending the “Ashes” letters, he discovers a serial arsonist is leaving nothing but murder in his wake. Inexplicably, the clues point to Tessa herself, forcing her to realize if she can’t remember the forgotten years of her past, the name on the next letter will be hers.
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Here’s what reviewers are saying about Ashes, Ashes, They All Fall Dead…
"Lena Diaz skillfully weaves love scenes that are at once steamy and tender with an explosive serial killer plot. Ashes, Ashes is a riveting romantic suspense that will have fans of the genre eagerly awaiting the sequel."
– NYT Bestselling author Wendy Corsi Staub
Ashes, Ashes, They All Fall Dead has been selected as a finalist in the National Excellence in Romance Fiction awards!
Ashes, Ashes, They All Fall Dead won the Greater Detroit RWA Booksellers Best Award for romantic suspense!
Hot, greedy tongues of flame licked around the eaves, teasing, tasting, like a new lover hungry for a first caress, ravenous to join with the tantalizing flesh of the woman lying inside the house.
The beckoning inferno drew him across the dew-laden grass until the heat was so intense he was forced to step back. He lifted his face to the sky as the first ashes fluttered down, brushing softly across his skin like a warm breath, a gentle kiss.
He captured the sooty flakes in his hands, the familiar, acrid scent making his nostrils flare. The comforting crackle of the fire subtly changed and he cocked his head to listen. No, the fire hadn’t changed. Those were sirens, the high-pitched whine mingling with the dull roar of the flames.
He crushed the pieces of ash in his palms, picked up the gas can, and loped across the lawn to his truck. Too late. They were too late. They were always too late. And soon, he would have his revenge.
Ashes, Ashes, They All Fall Dead.
The stacks of letters cluttered the top of the conference room table, each one a bleak epitaph to a life stolen, a life lost, a life destroyed. FBI Special Agent Tessa James slid one of the pages toward her, gingerly running her latex-gloved finger across the words. A name—Sharon Johnson. So simple. So short. So inadequate. Beneath it, a killer’s irreverent gloat, “Ashes, Ashes, They All Fall Dead,” followed by an odd little curlicue, like someone would make when doodling, except that it was on every letter. It seemed obscene that his words, and his mark, sat on the same pages as his victim’s names.
Even in death he wouldn’t let them go.
The door opened, letting in a rush of air-conditioning that fluttered the pages across the brown laminate surface, like leaves scattering across a grave. Tessa slapped her hands down so the papers wouldn’t fall off the table, and looked up to see her boss, Supervisory Special Agent Casey Matthews.
At one time he’d been her biggest supporter and friend.
He flicked a steely-gray glance at the tabletop. His mouth flattened and he shut the door behind him with an ominous click.
“Any new leads?” he asked.
The matter-of-fact tone of his voice didn’t fool her. His ramrod-straight back and the tightness of his jaw were warning signs of an impending blowup. She mentally picked her way through a minefield of possible responses to his question. A cleverly constructed lie might save her. But she respected him too much to give him anything less than the truth.
“No new leads. I still haven’t linked the names to any reported cases, besides the two we already knew about that weren’t connected.”
This time it was his turn to watch her, to weigh her words, to carefully select his response.
She met his gaze, unflinching. Defying him outright had never been her plan. Which was why she’d intended to have the forbidden letters back into evidence before he returned from his meeting across town. Either the meeting had ended early, or he’d been more suspicious than she’d realized and had come back specifically to see whether she was obeying his orders.
Unfortunately, she wasn’t.
She wished it were as simple as just deciding to blindly follow his lead. But nothing about this situation was simple. There were real people behind each of the names on the letters, victims who deserved justice. Her colleagues had given up on the case long ago, but she couldn’t. If life was even halfway fair, she wouldn’t have to sneak around to fight for people she’d never even met. But life wasn’t fair, and the FBI wasn’t forgiving of agents who broke the rules.
“This has to be a hoax,” he finally said. “It’s been going on for, what, three years now? If someone had actually killed all these people and sent these letters to the FBI to taunt us about his crimes, we’d be able to match at least one of those names to an unsolved murder.”
It always came down to the same argument. He thought it was a hoax. She was just as convinced it wasn’t. She desperately wanted him to be right, because that would mean all those lives had not been lost. But, somehow, she knew this wasn’t a joke. She knew it just as certainly as she knew she had to exert five-point-five pounds of pressure on her Glock 17’s trigger to fire a shot. There was no doubt in her mind that whoever had sent the letters was deadly serious, a dangerous killer who had to be stopped.
She tore her gaze away from the forlorn collection of names. Agreeing with him would be the smarter path, the easier path.
But not the right path.
Regardless of what happened in the next few minutes, she wasn’t going to cower and beg for forgiveness. She wasn’t the one choosing budgets and resources over saving lives.
“It’s not a hoax,” she insisted. “It’s been going on too long for that. We haven’t alerted the media about the letters, so whoever sent them isn’t getting any attention, or even the satisfaction of knowing he’s made the FBI spend any time playing his game. There’s no payoff.”
Casey rested a hip against the table, half sitting. The rigidness of his posture eased, and he seemed to be truly considering her argument. “If the person sending these letters was typical, I’d agree with you. But it’s just as likely he, or she, is mentally ill and gains enjoyment just by mailing them. Regardless, you have to look at the other side. Do the math. There have been twenty-three letters, which implies twenty-three victims, in less than thirty-six months—which is basically a fresh kill every six or seven weeks. His signature, his mode of killing, would have had to pop up on someone’s radar by now. It’s just not plausible that no one would have made the connection between at least some of his kills.”
His logic was sound. If he was arguing about any other case, she’d agree with him. But this case, for some reason she couldn’t fathom, struck her as different. She had to convince him she was right or more people would die.
She grabbed the first letter the killer had sent and held it up like an exhibit in court. “Anna Davidson. She’s someone’s daughter, maybe someone’s mother or wife. Don’t you want to know what happened to her? What about her family? Do they even know she’s dead? Can you imagine the agonizing limbo they must be in, living each day wondering what happened and whether they’ll ever see their loved one again?”
“You’re assuming Anna Davidson is real. There’s no proof that she is.”
She let out a deep sigh of frustration and carefully matched the letter back to its envelope and replaced them on the stack.
“Can I prove she’s real, that she was murdered? No. Not yet. But all I need is one clue to tie one victim to one of these names. A single thread I can pull and unravel this monster’s game.”
Casey crossed to the window. He pushed aside the blinds, but Tessa knew he wasn’t admiring the view. There wasn’t one—unless he considered a narrow side street and concrete building interesting. The FBI field office was tucked a block back from Reynolds Square, as if to keep the modern building from blighting Savannah’s historic district and ruining the tourists’ pictures. No, he was thinking, trying to decide what to do about a defiant agent who’d disobeyed his direct orders one too many times.
He turned around and leaned back against the windowsill. “We have other cases.”
Here it comes.
“We also have a cold-case unit,” he continued, “which gave up on this months ago. When you asked for permission to work this case, my answer was clear. No. I need you on other assignments. And yet you continue to sneak around, working on what you want to work on instead of what you’re supposed to work on.”
She stiffened. “None of my other assignments have suffered in any way. The time I’ve spent on this has been on my own time, either during lunch or after hours.”
He quite deliberately glanced at his watch, then looked at the clock on the far wall, which clearly showed it was mid-morning, not lunchtime.
Her face heated. “Okay, I admit that today—for the first time—I’m using regular work hours to examine the letters. But the only reason I decided to pull them out this morning is because I just wrapped up my last assignment and didn’t have a new one to work on yet.”
He rolled his eyes. “Right. Like you don’t know what other pending cases we have and couldn’t have started looking at one. We both know better. That’s not the reason you took those letters out of evidence today and brought them in here.”
Her frustration at his refusal to see reason warred with the need to try to placate him. She swallowed hard and carefully modulated her tone to sound respectful, even if her words were anything but. “I admit my decision was partially based on the fact that you were supposed to be in a meeting across town.”
He let out a short bark of laughter. “You’re not going to stop, are you? No matter how many times I order you to drop this, you’re going to keep pressing, keep sneaking around.” He held up a hand to halt her reply. “Don’t answer that. It’ll just piss me off.”
His long strides quickly carried him across the small room, but instead of sitting, he paced back and forth. When he stopped directly in front of her, he flattened his palms on the top of the table and leaned down.
“What I want, what I need, is an explanation. Why is this case so important that you’re risking an eight-year career? You and I both know you’ve worked twice as hard as most of the men in this office to prove yourself, to succeed in this old boys’ network. You’ve built a reputation as one of the best agents on my team, and yet you’re willing to throw all that away. Why? Why are you so . . . obsessed . . . with this case?”
The edge of steel flashing in his eyes, the harsh words about her throwing away her career, had her stomach sinking like a corpse weighted down with chains in the Savannah River. Had she pushed him too far? Was this the end of her career?
She tried to imagine a future as Miss Tessa James instead of Special Agent James. From the first time she’d seen an FBI agent on a TV show, chasing a bad guy, putting him away so he could never hurt anyone else again, she knew she’d grow up to do the same thing. She’d never have to rely on anyone else to protect her. She would be the one saving others. When she tried to imagine a future in which she wasn’t an FBI agent, all she saw was a miserable, dark void.
“Well?” he pressed. “What is it about this case that has you willing to risk everything?”
She clutched her hands together beneath the table. Why was he dragging this out? Why not just fire her now and get it over with? If he were anyone else, she’d end this humiliation right now and walk out. But this was Casey. They’d been in the trenches together too many times. He’d earned the right to know why she’d done what she’d done. And this was the first time he’d ever specifically asked why this case was so important to her. Maybe he really cared, really wanted to know.
But how could she explain something she didn’t understand herself?
Her shoulders slumped as the fight drained out of her. “I don’t know, Casey. I wish I did. Maybe it’s . . . maybe it’s something about the names of the victims. Or maybe it’s the ‘Ashes, Ashes’ thing he writes on the letters. There’s something about that phrase that seems so . . . familiar.”
He yanked the chair out across from her and straddled it. “Of course the Ashes, Ashes phrase sounds familiar. It’s a nursery rhyme, or a bastardization of one. It’s familiar to all of us.”
They both sat silently, her dying inside, knowing she’d just destroyed her future. Him, looking more confused than angry as he drummed his fingers on the laminate tabletop.
His fingers stilled, and the sudden look of determination in his eyes immediately set her on edge. He’d just come to some kind of decision, and she knew before he spoke that she wasn’t going to like it.
“I want the old Tessa James back,” he said. “The one I could rely on to follow orders and work with me, instead of against me. The agent with promise and a brilliant career ahead of her. So, I’m not going to fire you. I’m not even going to reprimand you, even though you deserve it. But only if you’ll give me something in return. You have to agree to a deal.”
The hope that had begun to flare inside her when he started his little speech died a quick death. Casey wasn’t the kind of man to make deals, so she couldn’t imagine one where she’d come out the winner.
She eyed him warily. “What kind of deal?”
He waved his hand toward the pile of letters. “I’ll give you one week, seven days, to prove this isn’t a hoax and develop at least one solid lead—and I do mean solid, like granite. If at the end of that week you can’t convince me this isn’t a hoax, then you agree to drop this and never bring the letters up again.”
She stared at him, stunned that he was giving her another chance, and even more stunned that he was going to let her do exactly what she’d wanted to do all along.
“You’re going to let me work the case?”
He nodded. “For seven days. The clock starts tomorrow, day one. On day seven, game over. And you have to agree to my terms in writing.”
The “in writing” part stung, but she’d broken his trust over the letters. It would take a long time to win it back.
“I’ll take the deal, and I’ll put it in writing.” Blessed relief bubbled up inside her. She didn’t know why he was being so accommodating, but she wasn’t going to do anything that might make him rethink his decision. “You won’t regret this, Casey. Without any other distractions, I’m sure I’ll be able to—”
He held up his hand. “I’m not finished.”
Her stomach sank again.
“There’s one more requirement. I want you to have the resources you need so you can’t complain later that I didn’t give you the best possible chance to solve this thing. To that end, when I go back to my office, I’m going to arrange for someone to help you.”
Help her? Wonderful. Another partner. Her last one had been Pierce Buchanan. It had been a great partnership until they decided to date. Then his old flame, Madison, had come onto the scene and Tessa had foolishly thought she could get Pierce to choose her instead. She’d basically thrown herself at him, had kissed him, in fact, with his future wife watching through a window.
Not one of her prouder moments.
That had ended the partnership, and it had taken a while for her to feel comfortable working in the same office with him again without feeling like a fool. Taking on another partner, forcing someone to work on a cold case he had no interest in, wasn’t exactly a great way to start a new partnership.
“I appreciate the offer.” She struggled to keep the irritation from showing in her voice. “But I’ve already brainstormed with everyone in our office. I’ve followed up on every suggestion, but none of it amounted to even one new lead. There’s no point in forcing me to work with another agent. It won’t make a difference.”
The tightening around his eyes told her she’d said too much. She belatedly realized she’d just thrown her fellow agents under the proverbial armored car by admitting they knew she’d been working on the letters case—and hadn’t told him.
He crossed his arms over the back of his chair. “Wasting other agents’ time on this isn’t what I had in mind. I’m going to call a consultant, a local private investigator who specializes in working with law enforcement to solve cold cases. Then I want you to meet with him and explain the details of the case. Get him to agree to work on it with you. His name is Matt Buchanan.”
She blinked and tried to form words several times before they finally came out. “Pierce’s baby brother? You have to be kidding. He’s, what, sixteen, seventeen?”
Her boss’s knuckles whitened from clutching the back of the chair so hard.
Tessa immediately regretted her outburst, but her shock had driven all caution from her brain.
“I think he’s twenty-four, not that it matters,” Casey finally responded. “He’s a brilliant investigator who’s worked with several other agents in this office quite successfully. He holds master’s degrees in both criminology and advanced mathematics with a minor in computer science. More importantly, in only three years he’s helped close over thirty cold cases for seven different law-enforcement agencies, including ours. His solve ratio is eighty-five percent. What’s the solve ratio for our cold-case unit?”
“More like twenty percent,” she grudgingly admitted.
He waited, as if he expected her to thank him and tell him how excited she was to work with a child. She’d had to put up with Matt’s arrogant interference when he was still a college student, while Tessa was investigating Madison McKinley’s abduction three years ago—the same Madison who eventually married Pierce. Tolerating Matt because he was Pierce’s brother was one thing. But if Tessa was forced to actively work with him on an investigation, every day, for a solid week, she might as well go to jail right now.
Because she’d probably kill him.
Casey rapped one of his fists on the table. “Look, I know you have a problem with Matt, so I won’t force you to work with him.”
She cleared her throat, uncomfortable that her dislike of the man was so obvious. But she wasn’t going to deny it either.
“It’s your decision,” Casey said. “But Buchanan is part of the deal. Work with him to develop that lead by day seven. If you’re successful, this becomes an active investigation with my full support. No lead, the case is dead, and if I catch you even thinking about those letters again, your career is over.”