Excerpt from Sugar Skull by Denise Hamilton, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Sugar Skull

by Denise Hamilton

Sugar Skull
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2003, 304 pages
    Feb 2004, 400 pages

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Reluctantly, the guards stepped back. Vincent Chevalier's face took on a cautious, cunning look. He knew he had one chance and he'd better not flub it.

"My daughter is only fifteen, but she's precocious. We live in a nice part of Pasadena, prep school and all that, but in the last year she's gotten restless. Started hanging out with an edgier crowd. Some of them are runaways, and she brings them food and warm clothes. They squat in abandoned buildings. There's a young man she's been trying to help. He gives me the creeps but I keep my mouth shut. I don't want to drive them closer. They've been on and off for months. Yesterday she said she was going to visit a girlfriend and would be home for dinner. She never showed."

He looked at us, anxiety mounting in his eyes. "I want someone to go to the squat with me."

"Why can't you check it out by yourself?" I asked.

Vincent Chevalier twitched his cap up and down against his fleecy sweater. He was slight and couldn't have stood more than five foot eight inches tall. "Last time I saw Finch, that's her squatter friend, he threatened me."

"Sounds like you need a bodyguard, not a puny girl reporter."

He stared at me. His silvery-black hair was curly and wet, plastered against his pale skull, except for one unruly lock that fell forward into his eyes.

"What I really need is the police, but they won't come. They've been there with me before, when she's run away. They don't take my calls seriously anymore. But if the press noses around, maybe they will. I don't want to go by myself. I want a witness."

"Where is this squat?"

Something about his story gnawed at me. His daughter had been hanging out with a disturbed runaway in some abandoned building and he didn't put a stop to it? And now he wanted me to help find her? Yet desperation rolled off him in big, crashing waves. He was bewildered in that way honest people get when they find themselves spinning into madness. And he had already tried the police. I suppose that counted for something.

"East Hollywood," he said. "You can follow me in your car."

I scrolled through the wires again to see what else was going on in the city. All over town, people were dying violently -- shot in dead-end bars, withdrawing money from ATMs, working the night shift in liquor stores, and playing hopscotch on the corner. Usually, we waited until Sunday, when the final tally came in, then did a roundup. Unless the victims were rich, prominent, or had met their end in some horribly unusual and tragic way, they got folded into the main story as smoothly as egg whites into cake. So far the wires were at fourteen and counting. As for scheduled events, there was a Mexican concert and All-Star Rodeo in La Puente at noon. The mayoral candidates were debating at the Century Plaza Hotel. Vietnam vets were demonstrating in front of the federal building at three o'clock. It was a slow news day.

Vincent Chevalier tapped his black suede sneaker impatiently. I focused on its agitated dance. It could be a great story. I pictured the headline, strategically placed in the paper's coveted Column One slot. DANCE WITH THE DARK SIDE -- BORED RICH GIRLS SEEK ULTIMATE THRILLS SLUMMING WITH HOMELESS RUNAWAYS. But if he wasn't on the level? I looked around. The other 8 AM reporter was just strolling in, carrying his designer coffee in its corrugated paper holder. He was a Princeton graduate who had studied with Tom Wolfe and achieved notoriety when his senior thesis, a literary deconstruction of speed metal songs, had been published to great acclaim. I had gone to a state school and jostled with 250 students in a drafty auditorium for the attention of some postdoc lassoed into teaching Journalism 101.

Chevalier was watching my colleague too.

"Is he a reporter?" Chevalier inclined his chin. "Maybe a man would be better."

Copyright © 2003 by Denise Hamilton

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