Excerpt

Monday, JULY 7


SHARON MCCONE

A typical July night in San Francisco. Mist swirling off the bay, a foghorn bellowing every thirty seconds out at the Golden Gate. Lights along the Embarcadero dimmed, and the sidewalks and the streets mostly empty at a few minutes after nine. Sounds of traffic on the Bay Bridge curiously muted. In contrast, my boot heels tapped loudly on the pavement.

Ahead of me lay Pier 24. Three long blocks behind me my vintage MG sat in a no-parking zone, out of gas.

Way to go, McCone. When you fly, you're meticulous about fueling. But with the car, you resist stopping at a station till the damn thing's running on fumes.

Just my luck—the fumes had given out short of my destination tonight.

Pilot error—on the ground.

A sudden blast of wind came off the water, and I gripped my woolen hat, pulled it lower on my forehead. Something to my right was banging, metal on metal: I glanced over and saw a no trespassing sign loosely attached to a chain-link fence barring access to one of the old piers scheduled for demolition.

This is my workday neighborhood. I walk this lovely, palm-lined boulevard all the time. I shouldn't allow sounds to spook me.

Another moan from the foghorn. Why did it sometimes seem melancholy, at other times strident, and at still others like the scream of a victim in pain?

Now I was passing a derelict shed on the far side of the doomed pier. A heap of rags lay on its loading dock. No, not rags—a human being seeking shelter from the inclement weather. Another member of San Francisco's homeless population.

One of many things wrong with this damned city—too few resources, too little compassion.

I had a love-hate relationship with the town I'd made my home. But I knew, no matter how bad the urban situation became, I'd never leave.

Ahead the security lights of Pier 24 glowed through the mist. I quickened my steps.

The city's port commission had tried to raise the tenants' rental rates last fall—a first step toward also demolishing this pier—but an influential attorney friend of mine had prevailed upon them to maintain the status quo. For a while, anyway.

Where, I wondered now, would I find a comparable rate and space for an agency that was growing quickly? Profits were up, yes, but salaries and the cost of employee benefits were also escalating. Maybe . . .

I put my worries aside and concentrated on my original purpose: retrieve the cell phone that I'd accidentally left on my desk before going out to dinner with one of my friends and operatives, Julia Rafael. The phone whose absence had prevented me from calling Triple A when the car ran out of gas. If I contacted them from the office, they'd be there by the time I walked back to the MG—

A hand touched my forearm. I jerked away, moving into a defensive stance. A dark figure had loomed out of the mist.

"Lady, can you spare a dollar?"

Jesus, he was panhandling in a nearly deserted area in this weather? Better to fort up in the shelter of one of the sheds, like the person I'd glimpsed earlier.

He waited, arms loose at his sides, shoulders slumped. I couldn't see his features, but the wind whipped at his jacket and I saw it was thin and had a ragged tear.

I reached into the pocket of my peacoat and found some bills that I'd left there whenever I last wore it. Held them out to him. He hesitated before taking them, as if he couldn't believe his good fortune.

"Thank you, lady. God bless."

He disappeared into the fog as swiftly as he'd appeared.

I pulled the collar of my coat more tightly around my neck and went on toward the pier.

The powers that be say you shouldn't give money to the homeless; they'll only spend it on drugs and liquor. What was that slogan they made up? Care, not cash. All shiny and idealistic, but the truth is, some people slip through the cracks in the care department, and cash for a bottle or a fix is what they need to get themselves through a cold, damp night like this one.

I thrust my hands deeper into my pockets, but a chill had invaded me that couldn't be touched by the warmth of wool and lining.

The fog seemed thicker now. It played tricks on my vision. Someone was coming at me from the bayside. . . . No, advancing toward me on the left . . . No, there was nobody—

A shriek echoed over the boulevard, high-pitched tones bouncing off the surrounding buildings.

I stopped, peered hard through the churning mist.

Laughter, and the sound of running feet over at Hills Brothers Plaza. More laughter, fading into the distance along with the footsteps. People clowning around after leaving one of the restaurants.

The security grille had been pulled down over the yawning, arched entrance to the pier. My opener was back in the MG. I grasped the cold bars and called out to Lewis, the guard we tenants collectively employed.

No answer.

Well, sure. He was probably drinking in the far recesses of the cavernous structure. Or already passed out. A nice guy, Lewis, but a serious alcoholic. At the last tenants' meeting we'd talked about firing him, but none of us had taken the initiative to find a replacement. I should have—

That's not your bailiwick any more, McCone. You've got Adah to take care of things like that now.

Adah Joslyn, formerly of the SFPD's homicide detail, now my executive administrator. Last winter I'd stepped back from the day-to-day running of the agency so I could concentrate on cases that really interested me. There hadn't been many, and in the meantime I'd started giving self-defense classes at a women's shelter in my neighborhood and working their emergency hotline during the day when most of their volunteers were out earning a living. I'd been able to spend more time at Touchstone, Hy's and my seaside home in Mendocino County, and at our ranch in the high desert country with our horses, King Lear and Sidekick.

I shouted again for Lewis.

Still no answer.

Damn. I'd have to use my security code to open the door to the right of the pier's entrance. But I'd just changed it, as we did every month, and I wasn't sure. . . .

Favorite canned chili. Right. I punched in 6255397—the numerical equivalent of NALLEYS on the keypad—and gained entry.

Usually there were cars belonging to tenants parked on the pier's floor at any time of day or night: employees of my agency, the architectural firm and desktop publisher on the opposite catwalk, and the various small businesses running along either side of the downstairs worked long and irregular hours. Tonight I was surprised to find no vehicles and no light leaking around doorways. The desk where Lewis was supposed to be stationed was deserted.

That does it. We're firing your ass tomorrow.

I crossed the floor to the stairs to our catwalk, footsteps echoing off the walls and high corrugated iron roof, then clanging on the metal as I climbed up and went toward my office at the bayside end. God, this place was spooky at night with nobody around.

As I passed the space occupied by my office manager, Ted Smalley, and his assistant, Kendra Williams, I thought I saw a flicker of light.

So somebody was there after all. Maybe Ted had left his car on the street; if so, he could give me a ride back to the MG. Kendra took public transit; she could keep me company while I waited for Triple A, and then I'd drive her home. I went to the door, calling out to them. No response. I rattled the knob. Locked.

I'd imagined the light. Or it had been a reflection off the high north-facing windows.

I went along to my office, slid the key into its dead-bolt lock. When I turned it, the bolt clicked into place. Now that was wrong; I'd locked it when I left the office. We all made a point to do so because we had so many sensitive files in cabinets and on our computers.

I turned the key again and shoved the door open. Stepped inside and reached for the light switch.

Motion in the darkness, more sensed than heard.

My fingertips touched the switch but before I could flip it, a dark figure appeared only a few feet away and then barreled into me, knocked me against the wall. My head bounced off the Sheetrock hard enough to blur my vision. In the next second I reeled backward through the door, spun around, and was down on my knees on the hard iron catwalk. As I tried to scramble away, push up and regain my footing, one of my groping hands brushed over some other kind of metal—

Sudden flash, loud pop.

Rush of pain.

Oh my God, I've been shot—

Nothing.


Copyright © 2009 by Pronzini-Muller Family Trust