“In this terrific series opener, Afia evokes the women’s lives in all their wayward and beautiful glory, especially the abruptness with which their dreams, hopes and fears cease to exist.”--The New York Times
The start of an exciting new historical mystery series set during the Harlem Renaissance from debut author Nekesa Afia
Harlem, 1926. Young Black women like Louise Lloyd are ending up dead.
Following a harrowing kidnapping ordeal when she was in her teens, Louise is doing everything she can to maintain a normal life. She’s succeeding, too. She spends her days working at Maggie’s Café and her nights at the Zodiac, Harlem’s hottest speakeasy. Louise’s friends, especially her girlfriend, Rosa Maria Moreno, might say she’s running from her past and the notoriety that still stalks her, but don’t tell her that.
When a girl turns up dead in front of the café, Louise is forced to confront something she’s been trying to ignore—two other local Black girls have been murdered in the past few weeks. After an altercation with a police officer gets her arrested, Louise is given an ultimatum: She can either help solve the case or wind up in a jail cell. Louise has no choice but to investigate and soon finds herself toe-to-toe with a murderous mastermind hell-bent on taking more lives, maybe even her own....
About the author
Twenty-four-year-old Nekesa Afia just finished her undergrad degree (bachelor's in journalism, with a minor in English) and is a publishing student. When she isn't writing, she's dancing, sewing, and trying to pet every dog she sees. She's been writing since she was a child and this is her debut novel.
Excerpt: Dead Dead Girls (by (author) Nekesa Afia)
The wind whips against her face. Snowflakes stick to her hair, her cheeks, her eyelashes.
She’s disoriented as she tries to find her way home. The sun set at four in the afternoon, but it’s much later now. It’s so dark that it feels as if blackness has swallowed up the city. She’s making her way down the streets, relying on streetlamps and muscle memory. It’s impossible to see in the snow.
She knows two things: first, that she’s going to be in big trouble for being so late; second, that it’s not going to be easy to locate her house in this terrible storm. It’s a small home. She’s the oldest of four girls. The youngest are twins—high energy and overly demanding of her patience. It’s exhausting to keep them in line. They don’t behave as they’re supposed to. Even worse, they’re all crammed into one bedroom.
They live with their widowed father and his sister. Her aunt is strict, but her father is ruthless. He works in the church and has high standards for his children. She also suspects he resents all of them for not being boys. He can snap at any time, for any reason. Anything she can do to protect the twins, she will do.
What’s the world like outside of this place? she wonders.
Maybe someday she’ll find out.
She’s crossing the street now, turning the collar of her coat to the wind, the residents of Harlem passing her by. They all seem to be in the same rush, wanting to get home and out of the cold. The stove will be nice. She’s going to sit in front of it until her face is glowing from the heat. After that, maybe she’ll read. Or perhaps write a letter using the new fountain pen in her pocket, which she bought earlier in the day. Or maybe—
Someone grabs her from behind, a pair of hands that seems to have come out of nowhere. She tries to pull away. She slams her elbows back. Kicks hard. Her hands ball into fists and she turns to throw a punch. But it’s too late. A raggedy cloth presses over her nose and mouth.
The world spins. The buildings blur.
After a few seconds, it all goes black.
She won’t be going home tonight.
Her hands are shaking. That’s the first thing she notices. They’re tied tightly behind her back. She immediately begins trying to get loose. The room is small and dark. In the distance, maybe a few steps away—the blackness is so bewildering that she can’t tell for sure—someone is crying softly.
The winter cold has settled into her bones. The tips of her fingers have gone numb; her feet, too. Her coat is also gone. It provided some comfort against the cold, but now she’s trembling under her thin clothes.
She blinks as her eyes adjust. How long has she been here? A day? A week? She has no idea. The last thing she remembers is trying to get home, then fighting as hard as she could to free herself from someone’s grasp. But that could have been a month ago. She could be in an entirely different city, maybe even a different state.
Her eyes are heavy. She wants to go back to sleep. Just for a moment, she thinks. Maybe if I sleep for a bit, I’ll wake up and find myself next to the stove in my house. But she knows better than that. If she closes her eyes again, she may never wake up. It’s too cold in here. Her stomach is swirling. Cramps tear through her legs in gripping waves.
She must stay awake and alert.
The room is even smaller than she’d first thought. Now that the dark isn’t as menacing, she can make out the dirty walls. And she’s not alone. There’s a girl with smudges on her face several feet away, curled into a little ball, one arm tied to the wall. Next to her is another girl. They’re leaning on each other for warmth, or support. A third girl is lying on her back, frail and shaking, crying.
She doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t know what to say, but a million questions have bubbled to her lips.
“You’re up,” the girl with dirt on her face says. “He should be back soon to feed us.”
It’s not much of a response, and she doesn’t know what to do with it. “It’s only him?”
“Only one I’ve seen.”
The dim winter light streams through the only window. Bars cover the glass, but it’s too high to reach, even if she could somehow untie the ropes. Then she remembers: the pen in her pocket. It’s still there; she can feel its hardness against her skin. She lifts her hands, slips two fingers into her skirt, and manages to fish it out. She uses the tip to start cutting through her binds. It’s slow, but it’s working.
“I’m going to get us out of here,” she tells the other girls.
The girl with dirt on her face looks up. In the dim lighting, she can see that they’re all like her: young and Black. “What’s going to happen to us?” the girl asks.
She’s about to answer when the door swings open.
All the girls look up, watching as light floods into the room, momentarily blinding them.
The man enters, a mask covering his face, a gun holstered at his side. He’s tall—at least six foot—and well built. She manages to keep her eyes closed, her hands folded across her lap as if they’re still bound.
When he turns to check on the girls by the wall, she leaps off the chair and throws herself at him.
He drops the tray he was holding, and loaves of stale bread and a pitcher of water fall to the floor. He throws her back and she crashes against the cold concrete stars clouding her vision. The pen rolls under the chair, but still she attacks again, rough and unrefined, concerned only with saving herself and the girls. She manages to connect on a few more blows, one hitting him square in his stomach.
He yells. The girls scream. She feels a second burst of energy running through her veins.
While he doubles over, grunts, and tries to shake away the pain, she reaches under the chair and grabs the pen. He turns back toward her, staring into her eyes with a wild glare, never once looking down to the object in her palm. There’s a pause, as if he’s trying to figure out how he wants to kill her.
He glances at a sharp-edged brick protruding from one of the walls.
He nods as if delighted by the agony her body will no doubt feel when he slams her against it.
But he never gets the chance. As soon as he’s within two feet of her, she lifts the pen and buries its razor-sharp tip into his shoulder. He howls in pain. His screaming echoes off the walls. In that moment, she grabs the gun from his holster and aims it at him while she unties the other girls, the idea of freedom giving them the strength they need to get out.
Then they stumble, one girl limping, for the door.
As she shepherds the other girls to safety, she decides that she’ll never be made a victim again.
Something about the booming band made Louise Lloyd feel alive. Really, truly alive in a way she had thought impossible. Sweat rolled down her back, down her face, sticking her hair to her cheeks and red lips. She didn’t bother to brush away the strands as she concentrated on dancing. The strap of her dress fell, revealing her shoulder, and she put it back into place. She was panting for breath, her heart beating wildly. She let her muddy hazel eyes flicker shut for just one moment, taking one beat to reset.
The Zodiac was the hottest club in the West Fifties. Everything about it was the best. It had high, sweeping ceilings, gleaming dance floors, and the best band in the city. The bandstand was big enough for an orchestra. The band itself, however, was seven pieces, and there was a different singer each night, all poised to become the Next Big Thing.
Tonight’s singer was a woman with a soulful voice and skin darker than Louise’s. She was barely dressed, wearing a tiny showgirl costume. The lights shone on her, gleaming off her long arms and legs. She managed to make eye contact with everyone in the club, presiding over them as they danced. A small smile settled on her face as she clutched the microphone stand.
The bar had been shoved into the corner, almost an afterthought. There were no tables and chairs in the Zodiac; the rare nondancer stood by the wall and watched.
No one came to the Zodiac to sit.
The music bounced off the ceiling like some unbridled animal in heat. It was impossible to speak over it. The band was playing a song Louise particularly loved.
The best part was that, for the right price, the owner didn’t care what color a person was. Secrets were made and kept at the Zodiac. It was a place where men could dance with men, and women could dance with women.
Louise needed a place that was discreet and had a good band.
The Zodiac was that place.
She was lost in a sea of sparkles and skirts and bangles, some of the many shiny bright things on the dance floor. She was wearing a new dress—one she had splurged on, one that felt special. It was navy blue with sequins that shimmered in the light. She had meticulously paired it with navy blue heels and red lipstick, and she could feel girls in the club staring at her. She was caught in the sway of her skirt as she let herself be carried away by the music, twirling and stepping. She had paid a little too much for this dress, and it was a bit too long, but it was her first time wearing it out and she had been right. It was special. There was nothing better than dancing in a new dress. She danced with her closest confidante, Rosa Maria Moreno, who was wearing a complementary dress of blood red and was easily leading Louise through the Charleston steps.
They only really needed each other.
She and Rosa Maria never tried to attract attention. That was something that happened as they danced, feeling the music between them as they moved. It was an easy, effortless connection that she never needed to think about.
It was the perfect way to end a Thursday night or begin a Friday. They had been in the Zodiac since it opened at midnight, on the floor for two straight hours, completing every Baltimore, Charleston, and foxtrot that the band played, running to the bar for drinks if there was a lull. Her muscles screamed for a break, but she wasn’t about to let up.
The Zodiac was open from Thursday to Sunday, and they had so little time to spend on the dance floor.
“Ready to switch?” Rosa Maria asked.
Rosa Maria was tall, but not awkwardly so, with perfect, clear skin. She had bleached her hair blond but had grown tired of it after a week, and now she had thick dark roots. Her eyes were dark brown and wide. The red of her dress bounced off her skin, and she was, frankly, the most beautiful girl Louise had ever seen.
“Always.” They changed so she was leading, the music settling inside her in a way she didn’t try to fight. The song ended to wild applause, and the band struck up a waltz. Rosa Maria loved the waltz, but Louise abhorred it. She found strange men often proposed marriage if a gal was good enough at a waltz. She had no time for silly men. So, as Rosa Maria was twirled into the next dance by a man she did not know, she slunk to the bar. She needed a drink, anyway.
“Lovie,” the bartender, Rafael Moreno, greeted her. He leaned over and kissed her forehead. “Everything copacetic, baby doll?”
Louise smiled and pulled her hair from her lipstick, her pulse slowing. “Everything’s jake, babe.”
“And how.” She leaned over the bar and pulled her purse out. Rafael kept watch over it while she danced. It was the major benefit to being best friends with the bartender. She pulled out a cigarette, lit it, then checked her makeup in her compact mirror. Her lipstick had smeared, and she began to reapply it.
“Gin, Lovie?” Rafael asked. Rafael Moreno was many things, devastatingly handsome for one: his dark hair was always neatly parted, his brown skin perfectly sun-kissed, his eyes dark and beautiful. He had the unique ability to make a girl weak at the knees with his one-dimpled smile. Rafael had been there the first time Louise had walked into the Zodiac, and he’d remained a constant ever since. The moment he had found out her middle name was Lovie was the moment he started using it and nothing else for her.
“Yes, please.” Louise winked. It was their own little nightly dance. He placed a glass in front of her and began to pour. Her attention drifted to the dance floor, where the couples were swaying romantically.
“How’s my sister?” Rafael asked. Rosa Maria was Rafael’s twin sister, older by about three minutes. Louise could never see real similarities between the two.
“Never better.” Louise drained half her gin and placed her glass on the bar. She passed the dizzy state she liked to stay in and was officially drunk. Rafael was watching his sister on the floor, lips slightly pursed. It was that small thing that told Louise he was jealous he had to stay behind the bar.
“You’re on fire tonight.”
“We always are. I’ll save you a dance.”
“Please.” Rafael often hated that this job put him so close to something he loved to do. Both Moreno siblings were sensational dancers, and Louise sometimes struggled to keep up.
“I heard some man asking after you,” Rafael said as he watched the dance floor. Louise rolled her eyes. Their conversations had to be shoved into the few minutes Louise wasn’t dancing. They’d learned to keep it to the important details. “I told him you weren’t interested.”
“Much appreciated.” She tried to find the man Rafael was talking about in the crowd.
“He seemed like a real cake-eater.”
“The same could be said about you.”
“But I do it with style.” Rafael winked. “Over there. Handsome. Tall.”
Louise looked to where Rafael was pointing. The man in question didn’t notice them. He was oddly dressed—everyone in the Zodiac wore their best, but his jacket was shabby, and something was off about him. His hat was pulled low over his eyes, and he stuck to the shadows of the club. He was an outsider. Louise turned back to her friend and raised an eyebrow.
“You know me.” She sipped from her glass, trying not to let the bootleg alcohol stay in her mouth too long. “I’m happy where I am. How can you tell he’s handsome if you can’t see him?”
“Every man that tall is also handsome.” Rafael placed the glass he was cleaning under the bar and tossed the rag he was using over his shoulder.
Louise scanned the floor, ready to go again when the band picked up the pace. She hated being on the sidelines, away from the action. She hated watching. She looked back to where the man had been standing. He was gone.
Praise for Dead Dead Girls
“Tightly paced, razor sharp, and with a wonderful no-nonsense protagonist, Dead Dead Girls made me fly through the pages. Ms Afia is one to watch."—Evie Dunmore, USA Today bestselling author of A Rogue of One’s Own
“Debut author Nekesa Afia brings 1920s Harlem to life in this twisty tale of murder and betrayal where nothing and no one is as it seems.”--Victoria Thompson USA Today Bestselling Author of Murder on Wall Street
“'Though she be but little, she is fierce.' Shakespeare might as well have been describing Louise Lloyd, the flawed yet fantastic protagonist in Afia's debut set in 1920s Harlem. I loved the world that Afia created and can't wait to follow Lou and her friends on their next adventure. Come for the wonderfully diverse and twisty mystery, stay for the amazing 20s slang and fashion.”--Mia P. Manansala, author of Arsenic and Adobo
“A wholly original, unputdownable thrill ride of a debut from a writer to watch. You heard it here: Louise Lloyd is about to become your new favorite protagonist. Intensely paced and masterfully rendered, Dead Dead Girls is a glittering, irresistible mystery.”--Laurie Elizabeth Flynn, author of The Girls Are All So Nice Here
“Finally, the Jazz Age heroine we deserve! You’ll never forget Louise Lovie Lloyd, the fast-dancing, even faster talking protagonist at the center of this tightly-plotted mystery. Come for the music, stay for the murder.” –Eliza Jane Brazier, author of If I Disappear
“Dead Dead Girls expertly combines killer suspense with a heroine to die for….Debut author Nekesa Afia expertly creates an intricate mystery in a lush setting with a strong female main character that is so captivating I'd read a whole book of her doing nothing more exciting than baking a cake. Dead Dead Girls is a must read!”-Olivia Blacke, author of Killer Content