top of page

Having just completed a challenging case, private detective Terry Luvello was hoping for some rest. Instead, a 3:00 a.m. visit from a thirteen-year-old neighbor is a prelude to what will soon become the most perplexing case of his career. The girl’s father, the director of the Cleveland Federal Reserve, has just been accused of murder. Even worse, the police are in possession of evidence that seems to confirm the father’s guilt.


Reluctant though intrigued, Terry is soon thrust into the world of deepfake videos—fabricated recordings so real they are virtually impossible to disprove. Shortly after Terry begins his investigation, similar videos implicate four other individuals with ties to high finance.


With the help of his partner and girlfriend, police detective Hannah Page, Terry soon realizes that disproving the videos is only half the battle. In a case filled with misdirection, Terry and Hannah must determine the true motive behind his client’s frame while matching wits with an unknown adversary willing to kill anyone who stands in his way. As they learn more about their enemy’s true intentions, Terry and Hannah race against time to prevent a crime on a scale far greater than they could have ever imagined.


A transgender male with a uniquely wry sense of humor, Terry seeks to solve his case while continuing with the clinical transition he began months earlier. As the investigation reaches a climax, he must decide just what he is willing to sacrifice to save the woman he loves.

Chapter One

     Some days are just meant to be good ones. Maybe it’s Sunday morning, and you can spend a little extra time with your girlfriend; maybe your boss compliments you on a job well done, or a predicted rain shower somehow passes you by.

     This was, unfortunately, not one of those days.

     I remember my father, a fireman in Cleveland’s ever-busy arson squad, telling me arsonists were the biggest whiners he ever had the misfortune of meeting. According to Dad, he never met an arsonist who didn’t attempt to justify his actions by claiming:

        1. The building was covered by insurance;

        2. The owners were assholes; or

        3. They were helping to ease Cleveland’s ever-growing problem with urban blight.

     The last excuse was Dad’s personal favorite, a rationalization combining a fair degree of imagination with just a hint of actual truth.

Though I was sure Dad’s observations were sound, I saw nothing of the whiner in Azazel Jessup. Facing him in an abandoned apartment building, I wondered if Azazel’s malevolent self-assurance may have been due to his unfortunate first name. Whether out of spite or foresight, his parents named Azazel after a demon in the Hebrew Bible. My friend John mentioned the name was also a cosmetic brand. Somehow, I was betting that wasn’t it.

     It may have also been Azazel’s predilection for setting buildings on fire without regard for the homeless who might be camping inside. My client, the Cleveland Catholic Charities, leased a few of those properties, intending to repurpose them as short-term residences and treatment centers for said homeless. Whatever his reasons, I figured Azazel was just evil—maybe his parents had been onto something after all.

     That evil had led to the desperate nature of my current predicament. Armed with my Glock, I stood six feet from Azazel in the basement of the ancient Acadia apartment building. An abandoned three-story structure scheduled for demolition, the Acadia now housed only squatters, the number depending on Cleveland’s ever-changing outdoor temperature.

     Even acknowledging my so-so accuracy with my weapon, the six-foot distance between Azazel and myself would have normally made his unusually large forehead a can’t-miss target. Azazel’s own weapon, a black matte Zippo lighter helpfully monogrammed with a stylish letter A, served to complicate that calculation.

     Currently lit, the Zippo was only one of my problems. Azazel stood at the far end of a trail of gasoline that would ignite his latest conflagration. He had me, and he knew it.

     Shaking the lighter slightly for emphasis, he said, “Put the gun down, asshole, unless you think you’re a good enough shot to knock this lighter out of my hand. You miss, and this whole building goes up in flames. You might escape; you might not. The one thing for sure is a lot of homeless on the floors upstairs will die in their own version of hellfire.”

     I was genuinely curious. “Is that what this is, Azazel? Your attempt to justify your ridiculous first name?”

     “My parents poked their finger in the fucking Bible and randomly picked out a name. Do you really think this is about me thinking I was the devil? I’d have set this building on fire even if no one was inside. You’re standing on some valuable land.”

     Valuable land? The building was off an old courtyard just south of Superior Avenue. The church intended to knock the Acadia down and establish a more formal shelter, but that hardly made it valuable. The city hadn’t planned any other renovations in the area, and I’d consulted building records before I narrowed down my list of potential targets. I figured I had maybe thirty seconds before Azazel tossed the lighter, but I still had to ask.

     “Why would you possibly think this old place is valuable?”

     “They paid me, didn’t they?”

     While insane, there was a certain logic to that theory. Watching Azazel, however, I could see I was pretty much out of time.

     “You talk about this place like it’s some sort of castle.”

     Azazel looked confused, not that I could blame him. As for me, I was just pissed. I tried again.

     Speaking louder, I repeated, “You talk about this place like it’s some sort of castle.”

     Two shots fired, virtually simultaneous with my last word. The first struck Azazel in what used to be his head. The second struck his right hand, Azazel’s fingers still somehow gripping his monogrammed Zippo lighter. The impact flipped the lighter to his right, though not far enough to avoid the gasoline trail. Wishing I could throw it toward Hannah’s moron SWAT friends, I dove for the lighter as it fell from Azazel’s now-lifeless fist.

     I stood a hair over five foot seven with a reach maybe two feet beyond that. Cut two inches from that reach, and I would never have made it. I caught the lighter a second before it struck the basement floor, which was fortunate since I had no wish to join Azazel as part of some psychotic funeral pyre. The flame died a second after singeing one of my gloves, an accessory I always wore in case it became necessary to deny my presence at a location where I didn’t belong.

     I got up slowly, choking from the smell of gasoline, as my police detective girlfriend ran into the room from her office hideaway. Two Cleveland SWAT sharpshooters and three members of the Greater Cleveland Arson Squad quickly followed her, the latter armed with Class B fire extinguishers.

     Cleveland Police Detective Hannah Page and I had been dating since our first case together, a string of serial murders inspired by a Catholic priest. The resolution of that case had almost torn us apart, and we were still working through some of those issues. We’d partnered on this string of arsons as Azazel’s first fire had occurred in Hannah’s Twelfth District.

     She came striding up to me as I rose gingerly from the hard concrete.

I was feeling more than a little grumpy. “You should have told me I’d have to repeat the safeword multiple times. There are only so many ways to work ‘castle’ into an arson-related context.”

     Hannah shook her head. “The SWAT guys were convinced you said ‘shithole.’ They’re great shots, but their listening skills need work. Be glad they didn’t accidentally pop you. One of them did that on a case last year—he just got off suspension, as a matter of fact.”

     I could never tell when she was joking—always dangerous when your girlfriend carries a Smith & Wesson.

     “You could make it up to me by coming over tonight.”

     “As much as I’d like to spend the night in your postage stamp-sized bed, I will be spending the rest of tonight doing the paperwork for this little mess. At least now we know somebody paid him. A crazy asshole like that, I thought he might be doing it for fun.”

     “Can you keep Azazel’s death out of the newspapers while we figure out who’s responsible?”

     “That I can do. I intended to do the same even if he was arrested.”

     As Hannah walked away, she turned back to ask the question I had hoped I could avoid.

     “You never told me how you tracked down this dipshit. We didn’t have anyone named Azazel on our list of suspected arsonists, and that name I would have remembered. How did you manage to find him?”

     “You can credit my amazing powers of deduction.”

     She knew enough not to fall for that one, but she also knew she wouldn’t be getting a straight answer. After realizing I would say nothing more, Hannah and I parted ways for the evening as she left to interface with her apparently hard-of-hearing special weapons friends.

     The truth was, I first heard Azazel’s name from Amos Johnson, an enforcer with the Cleveland mob. Amos had assisted me on a few previous cases as payback for helping him find his kidnapped daughter. While not exactly a friend, Amos once said that if ordered to kill me, he would do so with a bullet to the head. In mob circles, that was about as friendly as things got.

     Like many triggermen, Amos instinctively mistrusted those who killed or otherwise caused mayhem without directly confronting their prey. Amos had happily put me onto Azazel as the new firestarter in town, also alerting me to his monogrammed Zippo lighter. Using the description Amos provided, I spoke with numerous homeless residents near buildings I viewed as potential targets. After two days of relatively fruitless conversations, I finally found a grizzled old man who remembered seeing someone flashing Azazel’s trademark lighter by the old Acadia apartment building.

     I alerted Hannah, who trusted me enough to arrange a stakeout. Tonight was day two of that effort. Though the plan had been to monitor and confront Azazel before he dumped his accelerant, the night had still ended with a reasonable degree of success.

     I reminded myself to thank Amos for his tip. Before the SWAT team could mistake me for some other criminal, I exited the Acadia and drove back to my apartment.

bottom of page