- Published: 3 May 2022
- ISBN: 9781529125320
- Imprint: Century
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 400
- RRP: $37.00
(Women's Murder Club 22)
Cindy Thomas was working at the dining table she’d bought at a tag sale down the block. It was cherrywood, round, with a hinged leaf and the letters SN etched near the hinge. She traced the initials with her finger, imagining that the person who’d left that mark was also a journalist suffering from writer’s block—and Cindy was as blocked as a writer could be.
Her full-time job was as senior crime reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle. She’d been covering the violent murders of a killer unknown. And then, at the end of his crime spree, caught by the police, this unrepentant serial monster had asked her to write the story of his life. And that’s what she was doing—trying to do—now. It would be easy for her agent to sell this idea for a true-crime thriller about Evan Burke. He was a savage and highly successful at getting away with his kills. According to him, he was the most prolific killer of the century, and Cindy didn’t doubt him.
She had no shortage of quotable and illustrated research.
Because Burke wanted Cindy’s book to secure his place in criminal history, he had provided her with notebooks, as well as photos of his victims, alive and dead. He’d given her his maps to his victims’ graves, which, when opened by homicide cops, had turned up bones, clothing, and other evidence of Burke’s crimes. He’d been convicted of six murders, which in his mind was insufficient, but the prosecution was plenty happy.
Right now Burke was in solitary confinement at San Quentin State Prison, in the maximum-security wing. And at the same time, he was inside Cindy’s head night and day. Thoughts of Burke’s victims—what he’d done to those young women—never left her. She wasn’t getting enough sleep and the writing she had done so far showed it.
Henry Tyler, Cindy’s boss and mentor, and publisher of the Chronicle, had said to her, “This book is your big shot. Take it.” And he’d given her two days off a week with pay so she could work on the book at home. Home was the small three-room apartment she shared with her fiancé, Rich Conklin, a homicide inspector who’d been a key member of the team that had captured Evan Burke.
Rich was giving her total support. He did the laundry. He read her pages for accuracy. He consoled her when the bloody murders made her cry. And since Cindy had commandeered the dining table for her book-in-progress, Rich had taken to eating his breakfast over the kitchen sink.
It was incredible to have Rich backing her up, but in a big way, he couldn’t help her. It felt to Cindy as though her brain had jammed on the brakes—and it wasn’t all about Evan Burke.
Outside, in real time, the city she loved had been divided by a restrictive new gun law that had sparked violence among the citizens of San Francisco. Lindsay Boxer, Cindy’s closest friend and Richie’s partner, had gotten burned while upholding this law.
Lindsay had recently been benched for an indeterminate time while an officer-involved shooting she’d been part of was investigated. There was no telling if the city would side with her and return her gun, badge, and police authority, or make her an example to help the mayor.
Cindy felt sick for Lindsay. And in trying to help her, she had only made things worse.
Cindy closed her laptop and shoved it aside, making room on the table for her crossed arms. She put her head down, thinking again about her call to Lindsay last night. When Cindy had asked how she was feeling, Lindsay had lied, saying, “I’m fine. I’m not worried, so don’t you worry, either.”
But Cindy was worried that Lindsay was being made a target for upholding this new law, even though anyone in Lindsay’s place would have taken the same shot.
Cindy had written about the incident in her crime blog, sure that support would pour in. That hadn’t happened. So many crazed and furious readers had jammed her inbox that Henry Tyler had called her on her cell phone, sounding upset. Raising his voice, which he almost never did with her.
“You’re looking for trouble,” Tyler had said. “Stay out of this.”
“What, Henry? It’s no different than what I write every day.”
He’d made himself perfectly clear. Her half-page blog post had thrown gas on the fire caused by the new gun laws in effect in San Francisco and other large cities across the country.
A national resistance movement was mobilizing.
They were calling themselves Defenders of the Second, and their motto was “We will not comply.”
Tyler had ended his tirade, saying, “Full pay while you write your book, Cindy. It’s a gift. Until it’s done, you’re off Crime and on the Weekend section. Now go. Write.”
Cindy hadn’t cried, but she’d wanted to. Henry was right. She’d missed the big picture and made the blog post personal.
Just then her phone rang again. She grabbed it from the dining room table and said, “Hello?”
A man’s voice shouted into her ear, “My gun is my business. Read the Consti—”
Cindy clicked off. How did the bastard get my cell phone number?
She had to go out. Somewhere. She dressed quickly in jeans, a cardigan, running shoes, and Richie’s leather flight jacket. She checked that the stove was off, fluffed her hair, and closed the curtains. Last, she stuffed her laptop into her backpack along with her police scanner and dropped her phone into her pocket.
Cindy headed out, walking east on Kirkham, squinting into the morning sunshine. At the end of the block, she turned north toward Golden Gate Park. There was a bakery called Sweets down the street, and she had an idea to bring fresh-brewed Sumatran coffee and cookies to Lindsay. Being together, commiserating, could cheer them both up.
Cindy texted for an Uber to pick her up at Sweets, on the corner of Twenty-Fourth Avenue and Irving Street, then drive her to Lake Street to see Lindsay. The bakery was in sight when a black sedan pulled up to the curb.
“Right. Give me a second, will you? I’ll be quick.”
The driver called out, “There’s no parking here.”
Cindy turned her back on the driver as he drove at walking speed behind her. He called her name again. She turned, impatient now, and was surprised to see three men, boys really, get out of the car.
“What’s the matter? Look, forget it . . .,” she said to the one who had been driving. The words were just out of her mouth when she saw a gun in the driver’s hands. She looked into his eyes as he growled at her, “Get in the car, bitch. We need to talk to you about your friend Lindsay Boxer. This is on her.”
Shocked by the threat, Cindy yelled loudly, “Get away from me.”
She was reaching for her phone when a fist came at her and slammed into her face. There was a split second of sharp pain, but the lights were out, and Cindy went down.
PART ONE – NINE DAYS EARLIER
A lifelong veteran of US intelligence agencies, Lindsay Boxer’s husband, Joe Molinari, now worked from home as a high-level consultant in risk assessment, port security, and advanced cyber threats.
When Joe had a contract, the Molinaris were flush. At the moment, Lindsay’s SFPD salary paid the rent.
Joe’s phone rang at 7 a.m. as the morning sped toward its chaotic climax. The caller ID read Steinmetz FBI. Steinmetz was section chief of the FBI’s SF field office and Joe’s former direct report. Joe picked up the phone on the second ring.
As Lindsay called him from the other room and their precocious almost-four-year-old daughter charged into his home office crying because she didn’t like her outfit, Joe heard Steinmetz’s booming voice in his ear.
“Rise and shine, agent.”
Jesus, he thought. He shushed Julie and said, “Craig. Everything okay? Can I get back to you in a half hour? I’m in the middle—”
“I need you today and tomorrow,” said Steinmetz. “Could be for much longer.”
Hesitating, Joe ran his hand through his hair. He was reluctant to pick up a potentially dangerous FBI case. And two days could turn into two months. But it wouldn’t be good for business to say no to Steinmetz.
“I can meet you downtown by nine,” he said.
As Joe dressed, Lindsay told Julie she looked fantastic, to just go with it, and dished her up a bowl of Cheerios. Joe made eggs while Lindsay toasted bread, and when the plates were clean, Lindsay emptied her mug of coffee into the sink and asked, “Did Steinmetz give you a clue?”
“Couple of days’ work, maybe more.”
Lindsay looked at her watch. Joe knew she had a meeting at eight. “Cool. We’d better get going.”
Lindsay buttoned Julie into her coat. Joe leashed their aging border collie, Martha, and when the family was out on the street, Joe kissed his wife before she zoomed off in her blue Explorer. He and Julie walked Martha to the corner and back, and he still got the kiddo to the school bus in time.
Joe’s car was across the street.
He switched off the alarm, started the engine, and headed downtown. Fifteen minutes later he found a parking spot on Golden Gate Avenue a block from the imposing government building that dominated the area. Joe checked his watch as he cleared the metal detector in the lobby. He was five minutes to the good.
He’d only just taken a seat in the reception area when Craig Steinmetz came through an interior doorway.
He said, “Molinari.”
Joe walked over to Steinmetz and they shook hands.
“What’s it been? Couple of months?” the chief said to Joe.
“Right, and yet still fresh in my mind.”
It had been an abduction. Guns fired. An agent had been killed. Steinmetz sighed. “I know, Joe. This is a different type of assignment, if you choose to accept it.”
Joe followed Steinmetz to his office, which, despite the section chief ’s rank, was classic FBI decor. Two flags flanked the desk: the Stars and Stripes on one side, and on the other, the Department of Justice flag with its eagle on a shield over a field of blue. The President’s photo hung on the wall opposite the desk. There was a corner bookshelf, four blue chairs, a two-seat sofa, and a coffee table. No knickknacks or personal pictures, just the absence of distraction.
Steinmetz went to his desk.
Joe took the chair across from Steinmetz, who asked, “You remember Mike Wallenger?”
“Sure. We were a team for a couple of years.”
“He said to tell you to say yes.”
Joe laughed. “That’s Mike. Jump first, look on the way down. And still. He breaks no bones. Instincts of a panther.”
“True, that,” said Steinmetz. “You’ll be working with and reporting to him.”
“Doing what, exactly?”
“Character name of Alejandro Vega, specializes in gun trafficking and dealing fentanyl on the side. Just served five years for selling drugs on the streets of Guadalajara. He has a family there. Federales called to tell me that Vega is very likely coming to our little gun show today, and they could use our help. We want to grab him up and send him home.”
Steinmetz pushed a couple of warrants across the desk. One was for search, the other was an arrest warrant.
He said, “Wallenger will fill you in on the details. Be safe.”
Could a building sweat? If someone were to ask him, Walter O’Brien would say no.
AnnieLee had been standing on the side of the road for an hour, thumbing a ride, when the rain started falling in earnest.
CARTER VON OEHSON MIXED himself a tall gin and tonic from behind the polished mahogany bar of his father’s billiard room, topping it off with a squeeze of lime.
Matthew Butler cocked his head to one side, considering the big-boned blonde in front of him.
I WASN’T PRESENT at the courthouse in Erva, Alabama, on that morning in June, when events unfolded that would suck me into the undertow of Douglas County.
The forest had a particular scent to it, a dewy moistness off the Columbia River mixed with Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, red cedar, hemlock, and maple.
A board a Night Stalkers Special Operations MH-60M Black Hawk helicopter code-named Spear One, Navy chief Nick Zeppos of SEAL Team Six checks his watch.
CINDY THOMAS FOLLOWED Robert Barnett’s assistant down the long corridor at the law firm of Barnett and Associates in Washington, DC.
I CHECKED THE street in both directions in front of an upscale coffee house called Flat Bread and Butter on Amsterdam Avenue near 140th Street. The street was about as quiet as New York City gets.
IT TOOK BOBBY a week to decide where to park. It had to be close to the wedding, but not too close.
DEVON MONROE TORE HIS EYES off the two dead bodies in the powder-blue Bentley convertible, top down, idling not twenty yards away, and glanced at his best friend.