The Zehra Series – A prosecutor whose cases often threaten—her life!!
What if a sociopathic arsonist couldn’t be stopped in your community?
A series of fatal fires terrifies the law enforcement community in the Twin Cities in Minnesota. Fire investigators are certain the serial arsonist has been apprehended and the deadly fires will stop. Due to political pressure and public hysteria, the suspect is charged with arson and murder. But the prosecutor, Zehra Hassan, has doubts that they have caught the guilty person. Her crises of confidence propels her into action and danger.
What people have said about Flashover:
This versatile author, who has surpassed himself here, weaves a riveting plot as his complex characters come alive and keep the reader totally engrossed.
In “Flashover,” Colin Nelson puts together city politics, legal drama, and a book within a book to continually increase the suspense and to keep me guessing until the end. He described the fires in such detail that I could almost feel the flames!
“Flashover” is full of twists and turns, Mr. Nelson’s third crime novel will keep you guessing until the end. His books just keep getting better!
The nightmare plagued Zehra again as a daydream. It was the vacation with her parents to Warwick Castle in England when she was fourteen. She’d seen a torture chamber used for religious repression during the English Civil War—a cavity in the stone floor about the size of a large suitcase in which prisoners were folded in half and stuffed inside. Across the top, a metal cage fastened shut. Zehra imagined herself, once again, trapped in there for her refusal to disavow her faith. Claustrophobia. Then panic. A Charlie horse stitched pain along her right thigh, but she couldn’t straighten her leg. A howl erupted from inside Zehra as her mind disintegrated into serrated pieces, and her face turned black and started to melt as if it were wax before a fire . . .
Her office phone rang several times until she blinked and answered it.
“It’s an emergency. I need you, so get up here now.”
Zehra Hassan, a prosecutor in the Hennepin County Attorney’s office, had never received a command like this one from “Bud” Grant. She hung up the phone and glanced at her watch. Seven-fifteen. Her boss, Ulysses S. Grant, the elected County Attorney, had never arrived at the office this early either.
Zehra scrambled to find a legal pad and a pen. Her office occupied the largest corner on the floor overlooking Minneapolis and the Mississippi River as it curved around the sprawling University of Minnesota campus and east across to St. Paul. Even this early in the morning, the intense summer heat made the buildings of St. Paul dance on the horizon.
Since she’d won the murder trial a year ago and had exposed an international terrorist group, the FBI had taken over to break-up the criminal network that trafficked in illegal contraband including humans. Zehra’s career had also taken-off—she had tried several of the most serious cases and won them all. Grant thought she walked on water, although that came from a Christian miracle, and Zehra was an American Muslim who’d been born in Texas. Feeling happy for her success, she didn’t feel a need to point out that difference to Grant.
But the fact was they needed each other. Her dream and plan for becoming the first Muslim judge in Minnesota was on target. Grant would be the key to making that happen.
Clutching her legal pad in one hand, Zehra tried to run a brush through her black hair, but it had a life of its own. The humidity curled it beyond any control Zehra could exact over it. Her skin looked like she had a perpetual tan—even during Minnesota winters. She wasn’t scheduled for court today so she was dressed casually—dark pants and a pink blouse. She wore little make up—didn’t need much—and even less jewelry.
Next to her door hung a small yellow banner that read: You’re the GREATEST! After she’d won the last difficult trial, her parents had given it to her as a gift. They meant the world to Zehra. They’d supported her through so many things. But now that she was engaged to Paul, a Christian after all, she worried what would happen to those family bonds.
Avoiding the elevator—part of her commitment to a healthy life-style–Zehra opened the steel door into the staircase and walked up one level to the 23th floor of the Hennepin County Government Center. Grant’s office was in a corner at the opposite end from Zehra’s. She hurried through the sheetrock hallways past mostly empty offices of other assistant county attorneys until she came to her boss’s office. The door was shut.
Pausing to take a breath, she heard Grant shouting from inside but couldn’t make out the words. He spoke quickly in a voice that had gone crisp around the edges from the cigars he smoked. Tension twisted around inside her. Zehra knocked firmly.
Grant barked for her to come in. She found him sitting behind his big desk looking out the window. Off in the corner, stood her old mentor, Elizabeth Alvarez.
Zehra noticed the local newspaper, the StarTribune, unfolded across Grant’s desk. It didn’t surprise her that it was opened to a front page article about a series of fires that had broken out in the last few months in the city. The fire last night had killed the president of the Minneapolis City Council, Frank Martini. A suspect had been arrested. Arsons were rare crimes and seldom garnered much press attention. The death of Martini made this one different and made the others suddenly more serious also.
The tension in Zehra’s stomach grew as she intuitively put together the clues before her. She and Liz gave each other a quick hug. Zehra searched Liz’s face for some sign of what was to come. Liz maintained a poker face, which was one of the reasons she had been such a good prosecutor. She had blond hair with dark roots that showed more than ever and she’d been unable to lose the weight she had promised months ago.
Grant, nicknamed “Bud” after the legendary Viking’s football coach, puffed on a Punch cigar. It was officially a non-smoking building. He waved his thick arm through the smoke toward the chair in front of his desk. He set the cigar down and came from behind the desk to sit in a chair next to Zehra, bringing a sweet smell with him that she liked. Although the air conditioning was on, it didn’t run all the time because of budget cuts. Humidity hung in the office, heavy like the cigar smoke.
Liz, who’d recently become Grant’s First Assistant, moved away to the side to another chair. Her phone rang and she answered it.
She had mentored Zehra in the years when they both worked in the Adult Criminal Division. Recovering from a heart attack, Liz had accepted the new position to give herself relief from the stress of trying cases in the courtroom. Still, she’d beaten three other applicants to get the job. No one dared to cross Elizabeth Alvarez—even Zehra. Liz followed Zehra with her eyes but kept talking on her cell phone.
Grant wore a pair of blue-framed glasses that contrasted with his black skin and Zehra noticed the familiar freckles across his nose and cheeks. She hadn’t seen Grant in a couple weeks and was surprised by his eyes. They were rimmed in red and sagged around the corners.
“Bud, are you okay?” she asked.
He shook his head. “Getting plastered by McCormick.”
Ralph McCormick had been an Assistant Hennepin County Attorney until he had quit in order to run against Grant for the office of County Attorney in the upcoming election, less than four months away.
“I didn’t know him well,” Zehra said, “but he’s a cowboy. He used to think he was more of a ‘top cop’ than a lawyer. Why are you worried? I never thought he was that smart.”
“But he’s ambitious,” Grant said.
Even though Grant had done a good job, he had his enemies. Most of the large law firms opposed him. The local newspaper, the StarTribune, was expected to endorse McCormick. He’d taken some controversial positions on recent prosecutions that upset many people. But Grant was a man who marched to his “own drummer.” It was the best thing about him Zehra thought and one of the main reasons she continued to work for him.
“I’m so low in the polls, I should quit now,” Grant said. He leaned forward in the chair over his bulging stomach. He raised his head and looked at Zehra. “Hey, forgot to congratulate you on your engagement. Paul’s a lucky guy.”
“Thanks.” She remembered she had to call her mother, Martha who had invited her and Paul for dinner. It would be another difficult conversation.
“Bud, stop the pity party,” Liz said. She snapped off her phone. “We’re going to bury that schmuck.”
“I know,” Grant barked at Liz, “but the support’s thin this time. McCormick’s winning in the polls. Voters are falling for his simplistic message.”
“That’s why you’ve got to follow the damn plan.”
Sweat dampened Zehra’s armpits. Over the years and many tough cases, Grant had always been a fighter. She’d never seen him this discouraged. His color looked ashen and he breathed heavily.
Bud took another deep breath. His face brightened when he looked at Zehra sitting next to him.
“Uh . . . and why am I here?” Zehra asked quietly.
He leaned back. “Five fires already this summer. Know what McCormick’s doing with them?”
Zehra shrugged her shoulders.
“He’s blaming me. Of course, the fire department and the police investigate those fires, not us. But the public doesn’t get the distinction. They think we’re all law enforcement. Now we’ve got the fire last night that killed the city council president, Frank Martini. McCormick’s blaming me for not solving these fires. He insists they’re arson—which it looks like they are. And he’s saying because I haven’t solved them, I’m not competent to be re-elected.”
“That’s ridiculous. Don’t let him fan the flames.”
Bud’s head twitched in response. “I don’t need your usual humor, Zehra. The public’s buying it. People are getting
worried and scared and they want to blame someone—me.” Grant grunted as he pushed off from the worn armrests and
walked to the window. Outside the window, framing his head, cumulus clouds piled high into the air.
Zehra wondered why they were talking to her. Although she’d participated in a few campaign events for Grant, she certainly didn’t know anything about politics or running a campaign. She was a trial lawyer and her battleground was the courtroom. Besides, she didn’t have any interest in politics.
With his back still toward her, Bud said, “I need your help.” He turned and came over to stand above her. His eyes bored into Zehra’s and his face softened. “You’re my best prosecutor and most famous. I need you out front to diffuse this issue.”
Zehra stood up. Something was terribly wrong. Her stomach tightened again. “I don’t know anything about fires—”
“That’s okay.” Liz walked over to stand next to Zehra and leaned toward her. She could smell the tobacco on Liz’ breath. “I’ll be straight with you,” Liz began. Her cell phone rang, she answered, and told the caller to wait. “We need some cover for this phony issue. The press is on our ass about it and McCormick’s riding it all the way to the election. Unless, we hit back. That’s where you come in. We want to be able to tell the press we’ve assigned our best prosecutor to work with the arson squad and charge the suspect, Cyrus Miller.” Liz turned her head to talk into the phone. “Get your butt out on the streets,” she shouted. “We’ve only got a couple months left.”
“But we never do that,” Zehra protested.
Bud’s eyes opened wide as if he were talking to a child. “That’s the point. I’m doing something extraordinary and proactive in order to solve these arsons.”
“What about the suspect?”
Holding her hand over the phone, Liz coughed and turned her head back to Zehra. “Simple: charge the sucker with the arson and murder and start to prosecute the case. We need to get ahead of this issue before McCormick destroys Bud’s campaign.”
Grant interrupted, “You get together with the arson investigator and—”
“Wait a minute.” Zehra’s breath quickened. “I don’t know anything about arsons. Never even tried an arson case. All I know is they’re almost impossible to prove. The evidence is all burned-up by the time the investigators get there. I don’t want to take on something like that. Give it to one of the new people. Let them stumble around with it.” She wanted to laugh out loud but saw they both were serious. “Do we have enough evidence to charge out a Complaint?”
“Uh, you’ll have to talk with the fire investigator. But Zehra,” Grant raised his voice. “I want the case charged. Immediately.”
“We’ve got an ethical duty not to charge someone if we don’t think we can prove the case,” she reminded them.
Off the phone, Liz responded, “Of course. Meet with the investigator, a solid expert named Quinn Hartley, and you’ll see we’ve got enough to charge. Besides, Miller’s already been tipped-off. He hired our old employee, that screw-up Ted Rohrbacher, as his lawyer. We have to work fast now.”
Grant, who hadn’t been In a courtroom in years, said, “Under the rules, we’ve only got thirty-six hours to charge him or he gets out of jail free, right?”
“Yeah,” Liz said.
“Even if he’s released, we can still charge him and get him into court with a summons.” Zehra shook her head. “We’ve got plenty of time.”
“No we don’t.” Grant’s voice rose to a scratchy level.
Zehra said, “I remember Ted when he worked here years ago. He’s had his problems, but he was good. It’ll be a tough fight.” She’d do anything to help Grant, but this idea was crazy. Besides, she didn’t want to take on a high-profile case that could be a loser—it would hurt her reputation and her chances for a judgeship.
Liz wagged her hand in front of her. “Ted was another protégé of mine—one that didn’t turn out nearly as well as you.” She cleared her throat, turned her eyes on Zehra, and bored in. “Think about your future,” Liz reminded her.
“Well, sure but . . .”
“First thing, I need your help.” Grant’s eyes went wet and soft. He sighed. “Now that the president was killed, we’ve got the entire city council and the mayor of Minneapolis demanding that we do something—yesterday. I don’t want to screw-up here.” His words lanced into Zehra. “I know you’ve got a full caseload. I’m relieving you of all of them and they’ll be reassigned. This case will be your only one. I want a big win on this one.” He circled away from her.
Grant was a master politician and very persuasive. Zehra wiped her damp forehead. “I don’t want the new case.” She remembered reading about it in the StarTribune. The suspect, Cyrus Miller, was the owner of the house Frank Martini had been renting. Of the four previous fires, Miller had also owned one of the small retail stores that had burned to the ground. Both had been heavily insured shortly before the fires. Pretty suspicious. But that didn’t mean Miller was guilty or, worse yet, that he could be proved guilty in a trial.
While they waited silently, Zehra considered Grant’s idea and discovered that the possibilities of this case tugged at her. Challenged her.
But then she remembered that she had absolutely no experience in the legal area of arson. Wouldn’t that be obvious to the fire investigators? Wouldn’t she feel like an idiot hanging around them? It could be a total disaster for everyone, mostly her.
Grant walked back to tower over Zehra. She could feel the force of Grant’s personality as he came closer. He once told Zehra that his grandparents had run a juke joint out in the bayous of Louisiana. He’d come a long way from there and would not fail now. The pressure he could put on Zehra would be impossible to resist. Standing next to her, she could hear his breathing—damp, slow. In and out while he waited.
Zehra shifted her weight from one leg to the other. Tried to stall for some time to think this over.
Bud’s voice softened. “If I can get re-elected, I’m in tight with the governor. I know you want a judgeship. I can’t guarantee you one, of course, but I can sure put the squeeze on the governor to consider appointing you. If I lose, well, I won’t have any juice to help you.”
“I don’t need your help,” Zehra snapped. “I’ll do it on my own efforts and my own record.” She looked up and met Grant’s eyes. Even though her words made her sound independent, they both knew that if she took the case and won it, Grant would owe her the world—and a judgeship. “I’ll agree to at least meet with the fire investigator. But I have to be convinced that we can prove Miller guilty before I actually charge him,” Zehra insisted. If she took it on, she wanted a winner. She felt the closeness of the warm room.
Grant frowned but must have sensed her increased cooperation. “Of course.” Grant gave her a “Louis Armstrong” smile: big teeth dominating his face. Without dropping his smile, he growled, “But once you’ve met with Hartley, I want the case charged right away. You’ll have to— I’m going public with it as soon as I can.”
Zehra smelled cigar smoke and the claustrophobic feel of damp air.
She felt trapped.