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The Second Girl
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“One of the Year’s Best Crime Novels”-The New York Times Book Review, Booklist
Frank Marr knows crime in Washington, DC. A decorated former police detective, he retired early and now ekes a living as a private eye for a defense attorney. Frank Marr may be the best investigator the city has ever known, but the city doesn’t know his dirty secret.
A high-functioning drug addict, Frank has devoted his considerable skills to hiding his usage from others. But after accidentally discovering a kidnapped teenage girl in the home of an Adams Morgan drug gang, Frank becomes a hero and is thrust into the spotlight. He reluctantly agrees to investigate the disappearance of another girl — possibly connected to the first — but the heightened scrutiny may bring his own secrets to light, too.
Frank is as slippery and charming an antihero as you’ve ever met, but he’s also achingly vulnerable. The result is a mystery of startling intensity, a tightly coiled thriller where every scene may turn disastrous. The Second Girl is the crime novel of the season, and marks the start of a refreshing series from an author who knows the criminal underworld inside and out.
Keep your eyes open to your mercies. The man who forgets to be thankful has fallen asleep in life.
—Robert Louis Stevenson
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
—John 1:5 NIV
I’ve been sitting on the run-down two-story row house on Kenyon Street Northwest off and on for eight days. That’s the longest I’ve had to surveil a location, but it’s worth the effort. I know it’ll be a good hit.
Lord knows I need a good hit.
At least five Salvadoran boys are living in the house on a regular basis; all of them nothing but little big men, aspiring to be hard, slingin’ their shit in the area of 16th and Park. Mostly weed, crack cocaine, and heroin, but they recently got into powder, which is what interests me most. Powder cocaine is getting harder to find nowadays. Crack is still the drug of choice on the street, and of course heroin. Then there’s PCP, but that’s a whole different monster. It made a comeback a few years ago. Kids’re walking around in the open, smoking dippers like they’re regular cigarettes. The Salvadoran boys won’t mess with that shit. But I’ve seen them hanging with someone who will.
I had dealings with Cordell back in the day, when I was on the job and working narcotics. He’s the leader of a crew that controls most of the corners in the Adams Morgan area, and one of that area’s main distributors. Cordell’s crew usually works south of Columbia Road. Park Road is north of Columbia, so when I saw him with the Salvadorans like they were talking business, I figured Cordell was expanding his horizons, maybe got himself into bed with one of the bigger Latino gangs that control Columbia to Park.
I don’t know if the Salvadorans are affiliated with one of those gangs or if they’re just a bunch of orphans who got themselves adopted by the Holm family. Doesn’t matter to me which scenario it is. All I know for sure is that Cordell Holm deals in weight, and that means I have a chance of getting a piece of that today.
Like I’ve done all the other days I’ve been sitting on this spot, I watch them as they make their way out the door, usually by ten hundred hours. They slide into an older model, mostly primed-out, four-door gray Toyota with chromed-out wheels, an oversize metallic-red spoiler, and home-tinted windows. A little El Salvadoran flag, fringed in gold, hangs from the rearview mirror.
They head west, like they always do, toward 16th Street and Park Road. I’ve tailed them enough times to know they’ll park at a spot another Latino kid reserves for them, a young boy, twelve to fourteen years old, just another kid trying to get his foot in the door and working up to something more.
The driver, an older-looking boy who keeps his hair slicked back and shiny, will stay with the car. The other four will split up by twos and cover the area that spans east on Park from 16th to 14th Street.
The boy with the shiny hair takes care of the stash. He keeps it in a crumpled-up Doritos bag, which he drops in the gutter at the rear of their vehicle as if it were trash. He keeps a thick wad of cash rolled up and stuffed in the sock on his left foot.
Another boy, who always wears an oversize Wizards jersey and black Jordan Super Fly sneakers, returns to the car when they’re low on merchandise, usually after a couple of hours. He drives the car back to the house to re-up, then returns it to Shiny.
I should be long gone by the time they need to re-up. But then I know all too well what can happen. Shit, just about anything can happen. Shiny might get lucky and hook up, bring her back to the house on Kenyon. Or maybe it’ll be a busy day and Super Fly’ll need to re-up sooner. You can never predict; you can only prepare. I’m prepared. But I also do my best to eliminate the possibility of an encounter—no more than fifteen minutes inside. You’d be surprised what an experienced person like me can find in fifteen minutes.
These boys have been running free on the streets, as if they own that real estate they’re working. It wouldn’t be difficult for even a mediocre cop to figure out what they’re doing. But I haven’t seen any of them try. Third District’s short on manpower. The whole police department’s short on manpower. All the smart ones are leaving and most of the old-timers are on their way out or already gone. The few that remain are getting themselves pulled from their regular assignments by the chief for one ridiculous thing or another—some detail with a fancy acronym. By the time those officers get off from working that shit, they’re either too tired to work regular or they just don’t give a damn. Hate to say it, ’cause I like most of them, but their fatigue or sloppiness works to my benefit.
I sit on the house for another ten minutes after the Salvadorans pull out.
When it feels right I step out of my Volvo, and slip on my suit coat, and tighten the knot of my tie. I shoulder my nearly empty backpack, which contains only a few items I might need once I get inside—a small Streamlight, a stun gun, a crowbar, a screwdriver, pliers, a box cutter, zip ties, and an extra pair of handcuffs.
I look both ways and cross the street.
It’s about half a block to the house.
I walk like I belong.
Most of the leaves have fallen from the few trees that hang tough on this block. The largest one, an old oak, with roots like fat, arthritic fingers reaching over the median, stands tall, anchored defiantly in front of their house.
The sidewalk and the walkway leading to the front porch are littered with dead leaves, crunching under my feet.
If I’m walking like I belong, why try to walk quietly? That wouldn’t be natural. It’s the way I look and dress, the way I carry myself, that means the most. Those years on the job stay with you, and I learned well. A commanding exterior presence. The inside, well, maybe not so much.
An empty bottle of Cuervo 1800, spent containers of sports drinks, cigarette butts, and scrunched-up red plastic cups are piled in a corner of the patio, in front of a couple of fold-up chairs. The black security gate is aluminum; the front door’s wooden, and there’s one dead bolt above the doorknob. Old, just like the house. You’d think based on what they do for a living they’d have more sense and give the front door an upgrade, invest in a steel door with a stronger frame. Maybe they’re just too fucking confident. They’ll know better soon.
I pull a pair of latex gloves out of the front pocket of my pants, put them on. I ring the doorbell a couple of times. I hear it chime, muffled through the wooden door, wait a few seconds and ring again. No answer. No barking dog, but I never saw them with a dog, so I don’t expect one.
I look behind me, scan the block, unshoulder the backpack, unzip one of the pockets, and grab a large screwdriver.
I wedge the tip between the door and the frame to the right of the dead bolt, find the spot where the bolt meets the metal, then slam the screwdriver with the heel of my palm. It doesn’t take more than a couple of hits.
Another quick glance behind me, and I pry the door open and enter, closing it behind me. It swings open a bit ’cause it won’t latch. I notice a single tennis shoe on the floor, grab it, and push it against the door so it stays partly open. Push back my suit jacket and remove my Glock from its holster. I tuck it to my side.
The smell inside the house is like ripe armpit mixed with cheap old liquor. I’ve been in worse places, though. More shoes on the floor, discarded shirts on two stained sofas, empty bottles of liquor, beer, cigarette butts falling out of ashtrays, beer cans replacing ashtrays, brand-new flat screen on an old coffee table against a wall.
It doesn’t matter how much preparation you put into a spot before you go in. Unless you can see through walls, you never know what you’re going to find. Fortunately, this is a small house, so there are not a lot of rooms to clear. No basement either, so one of the upstairs bedrooms is more than likely the spot I’m looking for. I’ve got a feeling Shiny likes to keep the stash close, so after I clear the house, the room I believe he beds down in is the one I’ll tear up.
The kitchen is littered with pizza boxes, more empty beer and liquor bottles. There are a few power tools—circular saw, drills, tile cutter, and so on—lined up against a wall near the rear door. Doesn’t look like they do much cooking. There are a couple of nearly full bottles of Cuervo on the counter. I’ll give it a more thorough search after I check the rooms on the second floor.
The wooden staircase leading to the second floor is narrow and creaky, the railing flimsy. I grip my gun with two hands and keep it at the ready.
Move up the steps.
An equally narrow hallway with wood floors, an open door to a bedroom straight ahead. Two other rooms, one of the doors open, separated by a bathroom. A linen closet with a slightly open door is across from the bathroom, past the flimsy metal banister rails.
I clear the room ahead of me first and then the next one. I’ll make my way back to search both rooms after I clear and search the master bedroom.
The closed door should be the main bedroom. Probably Shiny’s. I swing it open.
It’s the master bedroom. One window with drawn blackout curtains and a large king-size bed against a wall. A soccer ball’s in the middle of the floor, surrounded by dirty laundry and a black garbage bag stuffed with more dirty laundry. A portrait representing Christ, eyes toward heaven, hangs on the wall over the bed. Graffiti, as if they’ve been practicing their craft, on the other walls. There’s a small walk-in closet and another closed door with a latch and a padlock on the outside. I like padlocked doors.
I pull the curtain open enough to peek out. The old oak directly ahead. My Volvo across the street half a block down. Same cars that were parked there earlier. An old black man walking along the sidewalk on the other side of the street.
The padlocked door has to be a bathroom. It’s an obvious first choice to search.
I position myself to the side of the door and put my ear against it, give it a bit of a push, then turn the knob. I hear what sounds like a chain or a leash scooting on the floor. Sounds like I might have gotten the dog ownership thing all wrong. The last thing I want is an underfed pit bull jumping out at me after I open the door. All the time I’ve been sitting on this place I’ve never seen them with one. Sometimes they’ll keep them locked up and secured inside where they keep the stash. The dogs get meaner being confined like that. If it is a dog, it might think I’m its master and won’t attack until after I break off the latch and it suddenly realizes I’m not. Dogs don’t scare me, but that doesn’t mean I want to deal with one right now. I put my ear against the door again, push at it. Nothing this time, not even a low growl. But there’s definitely something in there. If it’s a dog, I’m hoping it’ll be crated.
I set my backpack on the floor, grip my weapon with my right hand, and pull out the crowbar from the backpack. It’s a tool that’s not only good for busting out a padlock on a latched door, but for teaching a bad dog a valuable lesson. Last thing I want to do is shoot the damn thing. Putting one through the head’s not only messy, but will attract attention. I holster my weapon, then wedge the crowbar in the latch where it meets the screws, and give it a yank. The screws tear out, splintering the wood. The latch and locked padlock fall to the floor.
I grip the crowbar tight like I mean business, then stand quiet and listen. Nothing. A dog would have reacted. Maybe. You never know with some of those gunpowder-fed psycho breeds, so I open the bathroom door slowly, while stepping back to a more defensive position.
“Damn,” I say, but it sounds more like a sudden release of breath.
A young girl, mouth duct-taped, in nothing but her underwear, sits cowering on the tile floor, snug against the wall below the sink and next to the corner of the bathtub. Her hands handcuffed in front, secured to a chain that’s fastened to a large eyebolt, which is screwed into the floor. Her shoulder-length blond hair in a ponytail. Bruises on her legs. Her face mostly hidden, tucked down to cradle herself, as if she’s afraid of what I might do to her.
For an instant I want to turn around and hightail it the hell outta here. I want to pretend like I never saw this shit. I’ll just find a new spot to hit—quickly. This nature of mine is all about fight or flight, and right now it’s all flight. What the hell am I supposed to do with this? Fuck. Despite the desperation and need that overwhelms me after I’m coming down from a long binge, I have a stronger old self that knows better.
I can’t run.
She’s still huddled there, whimpering, ninety pounds of serious living shit.
“I’m not gonna hurt you, girl,” I try, in my most comforting tone.
I grab my key ring out of my pants pocket.
“I’m gonna take those off you, okay?”
I lean down on one knee, reach for her hands. She resists at first, still unsure. The handcuff key I carry on my key ring works for the ones that bind her. She tries to scoot away, like a feral child in chains, but the wall stops her.
“I’m not gonna hurt you,” I say again. “See, look.”
I slowly pull my wallet out of my back pants pocket and unfold it to show her the police badge. My thumb hides the portion of the badge that reads “Retired.” “See, it says ‘Detective.’”
I reach for her cuffed hands again, and this time she doesn’t resist. They’re sturdy handcuffs, like the ones I have, not something you can buy just anywhere. Cops, or maybe security guards, carry cuffs like this. I slip them in my left front pants pocket.
After I release her, I realize I should’ve peeled the duct tape off first. I notice a few track marks on her right inner arm, but not like someone who’s been using for a long time—just a few new bruises. Her small breasts are also bruised. She can’t be more than fifteen. She covers her breasts with her arms. I almost want to say I’m not looking at her like that, but I take off my jacket instead to offer to her. I can see she notices the holstered gun I carry on the right side of my waist.
She grabs the jacket, drapes it around her shoulders, and grips it tight to cover her body. It’s large enough to cover her down to her knees. I slide the wallet back into my pants pocket. “Let me take that off your face.”
She shakes her head no and starts to pull off the duct tape on her own. She whimpers as it tugs and pulls at the corner of her thin lip, but she manages to get it off. The area around her mouth is blotchy, scaly. It’s been pulled from her mouth more than once.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
It takes her a moment to say, “Amanda.”
“Amanda, I’m Frank, but my friends call me Frankie or just Marr. Where do you live, Amanda?”
“That’s in Fairfax County, right?”
“Yes. My family, are they okay?” She begins to weep.
“Your family?” I ask, wondering if I somehow missed finding them when I cleared the house. “Are they here?”
She looks at me, confused now.
“No, they’re home. They’re home, aren’t they?”
“I’m sure they’re home. I need to get you out of here now. You’ll be with them soon enough.”
“No. No. I thought you were here because they’re safe. I thought you came here to get me. No, I can’t go home,” she says, tears now streaming.
“Why can’t you go home?”
“Because he said they’d kill my family if I ever went home,” she cries. “You said you are a policeman. Have you seen them, my mom…my dad?”
“I came here because of something else and found you.”
“I can’t go, then. They’ll kill them! They know where I live. They’ll kill my mom and my dad.”
“No they won’t. I’ll make sure of that. I gotta take you outta here now, all right? Trust me when I say they’re not gonna touch your family, or you. Okay?”
I can tell she’s afraid to leave and why she was cuffed in front instead of in the back. She wasn’t about to escape. Those boys knew that. They’ve had enough time to brainwash the shit out of this kid. Judging by the tracks and the bruises, I’d say a few days. That’s more than enough time for a child like this.
“They been putting that shit in your arm, or have you?” I ask, and realize afterward that I’m talking to a little girl, not the junkies or crackheads I’m used to talking to.
“He has,” she says, with a firmness that suggests anger. Her lip quivers.
And I wonder if “he” is Shiny.
“Yes, and something else once, but it kept me up for almost two days so they didn’t anymore.”
“What else they got you using?” I ask, realizing how my mind is working now.
“Just weed. I want to go now.”
“I need to know first. The stuff they shot you up with, which made you stay up for two days, do you know where they keep that?”
“I don’t know. Why are you asking me this? Please, I want my mom now.”
I’m such an asshole. Who thinks like this?
“Where do they keep their stash?”
She looks at me, eyes wide, like she remembers when I said I didn’t come here for her.
“Is it someplace in the room there?”
“I don’t know,” she says, fear in her voice now. “Please take me home.” She breaks down and sobs.
I’m kicked back to reality. Her fucking reality.
“Are you hurt anywhere? I mean, can you move?”
“I can move.”
I maneuver myself calmly toward her and offer my hand.
“Let’s get outta here,” I say.
I help her up, but her knees buckle after she stands.
“Button up the jacket. I’ll have to carry you.”
I grab around her with my left arm, over my jacket where it falls below her rear. I lift her, and it’s like lifting nothing at all. She wraps her frail arms around my neck. I slip the crowbar into my backpack with my free hand on the way out and shoulder the backpack. She doesn’t say a word.
I pull the living room curtain and peek out before I exit. It looks clear, so I kick away the shoe that props the door. Once outside, I try to pull it shut the best I can. With my luck, some crackhead burglar’s going to roll up on the spot and find the stash, along with who knows what else. Damn, I can’t even think about it. Here I am, cradling this little girl, who’s been through hell, and this is what I think about.
I got just enough of my own to get me through tonight at least, but I don’t like the prospect of what tomorrow might bring if I don’t get the job finished today. I got a few necessities to help me through in the event of a total crash—Valium, Klonopin, Oxy, a good amount of weed, and a lot of liquor. But I like my life on the ups, not the downs.
I walk quickly to my car and around to the rear passenger’s side. I set my backpack on the sidewalk and push the button on the key fob, unlocking the door. I gently put her in, sit her on the seat. I buckle the seat belt for her.
“This is a funny-looking car for a policeman,” she says.
“It’s a specialized car, for cops who don’t want to be made as cops,” I return with a smile.
I close the door and walk around to the driver’s side, open the door and set the backpack on the front seat, peel off my latex gloves, and shove them in my pants pocket. I start the car.
Before I pull out I look at her through the rearview mirror and I realize I can’t go to the cops. It doesn’t matter that I’m a former cop turned PI and still have a couple of friends I can trust. And seriously, there’s only two.
Yeah, I can make up a good story. I’m not worried about that. Hell, I rescued a little girl. Exigent circumstances. Those words alone allowed me to kick in plenty of doors back in the day. But the fact is, if I take her somewhere like the Third District, which is the closest station, I’ll be there most of the day answering questions and making up stories. I don’t have the time for that shit.
And I can’t just take her home. Cops would still get involved, and Fairfax County PD would be slow-cooking my ass for even more hours than DC. Whatever choice I make, cops are going to get involved. I just have to do it in a way that minimizes my exposure and allows me to get back out here and do what I gotta do before they move on it first.
Then it comes to me.
I’ll take her to Costello’s office downtown. She’ll know how to handle it. She retains me as an investigator for some of her bigger defense cases. All this other shit I do, well, that’s just sustaining a lifestyle I couldn’t afford otherwise.
I look at my wristwatch. If I hurry, I might have enough time after I drop off the kid to come back and make a quick run through before those Salvadoran mopes return. I’ll just have to give Costello the condensed version of a story I haven’t thought of yet.
I take Georgia Avenue south until it turns into 7th. Howard Hospital is behind me. I think about turning around to take her there. I look at the rearview again, notice her wrapped in my suit jacket, unexpressive and gazing out the window.
My mind’s been racing, but like I said, taking her to Costello’s might buy me the time I need to finish up what I spent days planning so I stay the course.
“How old are you, Amanda?”
I see her break away from the window as if something jarred her.
“You look a little young for sixteen. When’s your birthday?”
She doesn’t answer. It’s like she forgot.
“Amanda, can you tell me your birthday?”
“That was like a couple days ago, huh?”
Damn, what a way to spend your birthday.
“Did they kidnap you, Amanda?” I ask directly.
She disappears again, somewhere in her head or out the window.
“Did they kidnap you?”
“No,” she says, just as directly.
“Tell me what happened. I need you to focus now because I’ll need to explain it later.”
She is looking at me watching her through the rearview mirror.
It takes a moment, but she says, “There’s a boy,” then pauses, thinks. “He goes to my school, Edgar. He took me there once. He said they were his brothers and I should meet them because he wanted me to be his girl.”
“So you dated Edgar before that?”
“Yeah, I guess. He has a car, and we’d drive around sometimes, maybe go to the mall.”
“The first time you were there, is that when they kidnapped you?”
“No. They took me to a mall and bought me stuff.”
“Your parents ever say anything about that?”
“They never knew. Don’t tell my parents,” she adds desperately.
“I won’t tell them.”
- "The Second Girl is a terrific DC crime novel."—@shoedog11 (George Pelecanos)
- "Within the first couple of pages, David Swinson pulls off a masterly piece of characterization: he creates a damaged, damned protagonist who no sane person would want to get close to, and then he grabs you by the collar and hauls you into Frank Marr's mind so fast and so thoroughly that none of that matters. The writing throws sparks, and the ferocious plot peels back layer after layer of Frank's character as we - and he - find out how much of his humanity is still left."—Tana French, author of The Secret Place
- "Once you're drawn into Frankie Marr's world (in, oh, the first few pages of this fine novel), you won't want to leave. Marr is one of the most compelling and complex protagonists to come along in years. And, not content with just creating a memorable hero, author Swinson also offers up a breakneck plot, which he recounts in muscular prose and with a commanding knowledge of cops, bad guys and the streets of Washington, D.C. Reminiscent of The Wire and the writing of George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane, The Second Girl is a winner."—Jeffrey Deaver, author of The Kill Room
- "It's actually refreshing to pick up The Second Girl."—Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review
- "This is the DC crime novel you should be reading this summer . . . The delight of The Second Girl is how smoothly its engine runs . . . [Marr's] character just works. He's damaged enough to prove interesting, and self-aware enough not to drive a reader batty."—Hillary Kelly, Washingtonian
- "Frank Marr turns the PI mold on its head; he's an addict with a self-serving vigilante streak. But he's also a pretty decent guy deep down who works the streets with expertise, and readers will be fascinated by the day-in-the-life perspective of an unrepentant cocaine addict. A gritty knockout debut that screams for a series."—Booklist (starred)
- "An auspicious, and gleefully amoral, series debut . . . Swinson, himself a former D.C. police detective, brings the neighborhood and its criminal underworld to gritty life. . . . Marr may be a disaster on legs, but he gets inside a reader's head with ease. . . . It's good news that this is merely an introduction to a character who plans to return."—Kirkus Reviews (starred)
- "The book's action is forever on the boil."—Jack Batten, Toronto Star
- "[A] sweaty, suspenseful saga . . . This book will sell like crazy."—Long Beach Press Telegram
- "Like Dennis Lehane and Richard Price, David Swinson gives us a gritty urban crime novel populated with morally complex, utterly believable characters. Swinson knows how to build suspense, and he has a great ear for the patois of the streets, but it is detective Frank Marr's tightrope walk between his noble and darker impulses that makes The Second Girl such a rewarding read from start to finish."—Ron Rash, author of Serena
- "[A] highly original noir...Swinson keeps the outcome in doubt to the end. He also does a fine job portraying the varied neighborhoods of contemporary Washington."—Publishers Weekly
- "Like the very best of classic crime writing, The Second Girl made me want to read faster and slower at the same time. Now I want David Swinson to write faster."—Michael Robotham, author of Life or Death and Shatter
- "David Swinson steps into the mean streets of American fiction with an unforgettable character, Frank Marr, and that journey takes readers into realities most people never see. The Second Girl is a non-stop drive through American crime, punishment and even an alley or two of justice. It's bracing to see fiction created by an author who paid his dues to learn our hidden truths."—James Grady, author of Six Days at the Condor
- "In a world of pretenders and wannabes, David Swinson is the real deal. The Second Girl crackles with authenticity, and introduces an antihero in Frank Marr as compelling as the habit he can't shake. In Swinson's hands, Marr is a reflection of the mean streets of DC he calls home: tarnished, drug-addled, but maybe-just maybe-not too far-gone to save."—Chris Holm, author of The Killing Kind
- "The Second Girl is as good as it gets. Deeply compelling crime fiction that is gritty, authentic, and with an anti-hero you end up rooting for. It reminded me of The Wire and I enjoyed it every bit as much. A great read; close to perfect."—Peggy Blair, author of Hungry Ghosts
- "Brimming with equal parts authenticity and heart, The Second Girl boasts a cops-and-corner-boys milieu as gritty and compelling as anything in The Wire, as told by a tough-talking P.I. protagonist with a vulnerable side. David Swinson is a hell of a fine writer, and The Second Girl is a stellar first entry in what's sure to be a can't miss series."—Owen Laukkenen, author of Stolen Ones
- "The Second Girl is a down-and-dirty thriller with real heart from an author who knows what he's talking about. This is firmly in George Pelecanos territory and it doesn't get much better than that."—Mark Billingham, author of The Bones Beneath
- "This is a tight, tense tale that sucks you in [and] won't let you go. There is a feel [of] "The Wire" about this book, along with writing that's reminiscent of Michael Connelly or Jo Nesbo's best work. Gritty, authentic action, spot-on dialogue, a sense of place and voice, and the plot just moves like a river. I felt like I stuck a toe in and got caught in that cold river where [Frank Marr] liked to dump people...I was swept away, and washed up in the end with a sense of relief and hope...which is just what I like in a crime story. Well told, David Swinson!"—Toby Neal, author of the Lei Crime series
- On Sale
- Jun 7, 2016
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Mulholland Books