THE CHOIR KIDS
AARON WINSLOW WOULD NEVER forget the next few minutes. He recognized the terrifying sounds the instant they cracked through the night. His body went cold all over. He couldn’t believe that someone was shooting a high-powered rifle in this neighborhood.
K-pow, k-pow, k-pow… k-pow, k-pow, k-pow.
His choir was just leaving the La Salle Heights Church. Forty-eight young kids were streaming past him toward the sidewalk. They had just finished their final rehearsal before the San Francisco Sing-Off, and they had been excellent.
Then came the gunfire. Lots of it. Not just a single shot. A strafing. An attack.
K-pow, k-pow, k-pow… k-pow, k-pow, k-pow.
“Get down!” he screamed at the top of his voice. “Everybody down on the ground! Cover your heads. Cover up!” He almost couldn’t believe the words as they left his mouth.
At first, no one seemed to hear him. To the kids, in their dress white blouses and shirts, the shots must have sounded like firecrackers. Then a volley of shots rained through the church’s beautiful stained-glass window. The depiction of Christ’s blessing over a child at Capernaum shattered, glass splintering everywhere, some of it falling on the heads of the children.
“Someone’s shooting!” Winslow screamed. Maybe more than one person. How could that be? He ran wildly through the kids, shouting, waving his arms, pushing as many as he could down to the grass.
As the kids finally crouched low or dove for the ground, Winslow spotted two of his choir girls, Chantal and Tamara, frozen on the lawn as bullets streaked past them. “Get down, Chantal, Tamara!” he yelled, but they remained there, hugging each other, emitting frantic wails. They were best friends. He had known them since they were little kids, playing four-square on blacktop.
There was never any doubt in his mind. He sprinted toward the two girls, grasped their arms firmly, and tumbled them to the ground. Then he lay on top of them, pressing their bodies tightly.
Bullets whined over his head, just inches away. His eardrums hurt. His body was trembling and so were the girls shielded beneath him. He was almost sure he was about to die. “It’s all right, babies,” he whispered.
Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the firing stopped. A hush of silence hung in the air. So strange and eerie, as if the whole world had stopped to listen.
As he raised himself, his eyes fell on an incredible sight. Slowly, everywhere, the children struggled to their feet. There was some crying, but he didn’t see any blood, no one seemed to be hurt.
“Everyone okay?” Winslow called out. He made his way through the crowd. “Is anyone hurt?”
“I’m okay.… I’m okay” came back to him. He looked around in disbelief. This was a miracle.
Then he heard the sound of a single child whimpering.
He turned and spotted Maria Parker, only twelve years old. Maria was standing on the whitewashed wooden steps of the church entrance. She seemed lost. Choking sobs poured from her open mouth.
Then Aaron Winslow’s eyes came to rest on what had made the girl hysterical. He felt his heart sink. Even in war, even growing up on the streets of Oakland, he had never felt anything so horrible, so sad and senseless.
“Oh, God. Oh, no. How could you let this happen?”
Tasha Catchings, just eleven years old, lay in a heap in a flowerbed near the foundation of the church. Her white school blouse was soaked with blood.
Finally, Reverend Aaron Winslow began to cry himself.
THE WOMEN’S MURDER CLUB—AGAIN
ON A TUESDAY NIGHT, I found myself playing a game of crazy eights with three residents of the Hope Street Teen House. I was loving it.
On the beat-up couch across from me sat Hector, a barrio kid two days out of Juvenile; Alysha, quiet and pretty, but with a family history you wouldn’t want to know; and Michelle, who at fourteen had already spent a year selling herself on the streets of San Francisco.
“Hearts,” I declared, flipping down an eight and changing the suit just as Hector was about to lay out.
“Damn, badge lady,” he whined. “How come each time I’m ’bout to go down, you stick your knife in me?”
“Teach you to ever trust a cop, fool.” Michelle laughed, tossing a conspiratorial smile my way.
For the past month, I’d been spending a night or two a week at the Hope Street House. For so long after the terrible bride and groom case that summer, I’d felt completely lost. I took a month off from Homicide, ran down by the marina, gazed out at the bay from the safety of my Potrero Hill flat.
Nothing helped. Not counseling, not the total support of my girls—Claire, Cindy, Jill. Not even going back to the job. I had watched, unable to help, as the life leaked out of the person I loved. I still felt responsible for my partner’s death in the line of duty. Nothing seemed to fill the void.
So I came here… to Hope Street.
And the good news was, it was working a little.
I peered up from my cards at Angela, a new arrival who sat in a metal chair across the room cuddling her three-month-old daughter. The poor kid, maybe sixteen, hadn’t said much all night. I would try to talk to Angela before I left.
The door opened and Dee Collins, one of the house’s head counselors, came in. She was followed by a stiff-looking black woman in a conservative gray suit. She had Department of Children and Families written all over her.
“Angela, your social worker’s here.” Dee knelt down beside her.
“I ain’t blind,” the teenager said.
“We’re going to have to take the baby now,” the social worker interrupted, as if completing this assignment was all that kept her from catching the next Caltrain.
“No!” Angela pulled the infant even closer. “You can keep me in this hole, you can send me back to Claymore, but you’re not taking my baby.”
“Please, honey, only for a few days,” Dee Collins tried to assure her.
The teenage girl drew her arms protectively around her baby, who, sensing some harm, began to cry.
“Don’t you make a scene, Angela,” the social worker warned. “You know how this is done.”
As she came toward her, I watched as Angela jumped out of the chair. She was clutching the baby in one arm and a glass of juice she’d been drinking in the opposite hand.
In one swift motion, she cracked the glass against a table. It created a jagged shard.
“Angela.” I jumped up from the card table. “Put that down. No one’s going to take your baby anywhere unless you let her go.”
“This bitch is trying to ruin my life.” She glared. “First she lets me sit in Claymore three days past my date, then she won’t let me go home to my mom. Now she’s trying to take my baby girl.”
I nodded, peering into the teenager’s eyes. “First, you gotta lay down the glass,” I said. “You know that, Angela.”
The DCF worker took a step, but I held her back. I moved slowly toward Angela. I took hold of the glass, then I gently eased the child out of her arms.
“She’s all I have,” the girl whispered, and then she started to sob.
“I know.” I nodded. “That’s why you’ll change some things in your life and get her back.”
Dee Collins had her arms around Angela, a cloth wrapped around the girl’s bleeding hand. The DCF worker was trying unsuccessfully to hush the crying infant.
I went up and said to her, “That baby gets placed somewhere nearby with daily visitation rights. And by the way, I didn’t see anything going on here that was worth putting on file.… You?” The caseworker gave me a disgruntled look and turned away.
Suddenly, my beeper sounded, three dissonant beeps punctuating the tense air. I pulled it out and read the number. Jacobi, my ex-partner in Homicide. What did he want?
I excused myself and moved into the staff office. I was able to reach him in his car.
“Something bad’s happened, Lindsay,” he said glumly. “I thought you’d want to know.”
He clued me in about a horrible drive-by shooting at the La Salle Heights Church. An eleven-year-old girl had been killed.
“Jesus…” I sighed as my heart sank.
“I thought you might want in on it,” Jacobi said.
I took in a breath. It had been over three months since I’d been on the scene at a homicide. Not since the day the bride and groom case ended.
“So, I didn’t hear,” Jacobi pressed. “You want in, Lieutenant?” It was the first time he had called me by my new rank.
I realized my honeymoon had come to an end. “Yeah,” I muttered. “I want in.”
A COLD RAIN STARTED to fall as I pulled my Explorer up to the La Salle Heights Church on Harrow Street, in the predominantly black section of Bay View. An angry, anxious crowd had formed—a combination of saddened neighborhood mothers and the usual sullen homeboys huddled in their bright Tommys—all pushing against a handful of uniformed cops.
“This ain’t goddamn Mississippi,” someone shouted as I forced my way through the throng.
“How many more?” an older woman wailed. “How many more?”
I badged my way past a couple of nervous patrolmen to the front. What I saw next absolutely took my breath away.
The facade of the white clapboard church was slashed with a grotesque pattern of bullet holes and lead-colored chinks. A huge hole gaped in a wall where a large stained-glass window had been shot out. Jagged edges of colored glass teetered like hanging ice. Kids were still scattered all over the lawn, obviously in shock, some being attended to by EMS teams.
“Oh, Jesus,” I whispered under my breath.
I spotted medical techs in black windbreakers huddled over the body of a young girl by the front steps. A couple of plainclothesmen were nearby. One of them was my ex-partner, Warren Jacobi.
I found myself hesitating. I had done this a hundred times. Only months ago I had solved the biggest murder case in the city since Harvey Milk, but so much had happened since then. I felt weird, like I was new at this. Balling my fists, I took a deep breath and went over to Jacobi.
“Welcome back to the world, Lieutenant,” Jacobi said with a roll of the tongue on my new rank.
The sound of that word still sent electricity surging through me. Heading Homicide had been the goal I had pursued throughout my career: the first female homicide detective in San Francisco, now the department’s first female lieutenant. After my old L.T., Sam Roth, opted for a cushy stint up in Bodega Bay, Chief Mercer had called me in. I can do one of two things, he’d said to me. I can keep you on long-term administrative leave and you can see if you find the heart to do this job again. Or I can give you these, Lindsay. He pushed a gold shield with two bars on it across the table. Until that moment, I don’t think I had ever seen Mercer smile.
“The lieutenant’s shield doesn’t make it any easier, does it, Lindsay?” Jacobi said, emphasizing that our three-year relationship as partners had now changed.
“What do we have?” I asked him.
“Looks like a single gunman, from out in those bushes.” He pointed to a dense thicket beside the church, maybe fifty yards away. “Asshole caught the kids just as they came out. Opened fire with everything he had.”
I took a breath, staring at the weeping, shell-shocked kids scattered all over the lawn. “Anybody see the guy? Somebody did, right?”
He shook his head. “Everyone hit the deck.”
Near the fallen child, a distraught black woman sobbed into the shoulder of a comforting friend. Jacobi saw my eyes fix on the dead girl.
“Name’s Tasha Catchings,” he muttered. “In the fifth grade, over at St. Anne’s. Good girl. Youngest kid in the choir.”
I moved in closer and knelt over the blood-soaked body. No matter how many times you do this, it’s a wrenching sight. Tasha’s school blouse was soaked with blood, mixed with falling rain. Just a few feet away, a rainbow-colored knapsack lay on the grass.
“She’s it?” I asked incredulously. I surveyed the scene. “She’s the only one who got hit?”
Bullet holes were everywhere, splintered glass and wood. Dozens of kids had been streaming out to the street.… All those shots, and only one victim.
“Our lucky day, huh?” Jacobi snorted.
PAUL CHIN, one of my Homicide crew, was interviewing a tall, handsome black man dressed in a black turtleneck and jeans on the steps of the church. I’d seen him before, on the news. I even knew his name, Aaron Winslow.
Even in shock and dismay, Winslow carried himself with a graceful bearing—a smooth face, jet-black hair cut flat on top, and a football running back’s build. Everyone in San Francisco knew what he was doing for this neighborhood. He was supposed to be a real-life hero, and I must say he looked the part.
I walked over.
“This is Reverend Aaron Winslow,” Chin said, introducing us.
“Lindsay Boxer,” I said, extending my hand.
“Lieutenant Boxer,” said Chin. “She’ll be overseeing the case.”
“I’m familiar with your work,” I said. “You’ve given a lot to this neighborhood. I’m so sorry for this. I don’t have any words for it.”
His eyes shifted toward the murdered girl. He spoke in the softest voice imaginable. “I’ve known her since she was a child. These are good, responsible people. Her mother… she brought up Tasha and her brother on her own. These were all young kids. Choir practice, Lieutenant.”
I didn’t want to intrude, but I had to. “Can I ask a few questions? Please.”
He nodded blankly. “Of course.”
“You see anyone? Someone fleeing? A shape, a glimpse?”
“I saw where the shots came from,” Winslow said, and he pointed to the same thicket of bushes where Jacobi had gone. “I saw the trailer fire. I was busy trying to get everyone down. It was madness.”
“Has anyone made any threats recently against you or your church?” I asked.
“Threats?” Winslow screwed up his face. “Maybe years ago, when we first got funding to rebuild some of these houses.”
A short distance away, a haunting wail came from Tasha Catchings’s mother as the girl’s body was lifted onto a gurney. This was so sad. The surrounding crowd was growing edgy. Taunts and accusations began to ring out. “Why are you all standing around? Go find her killer!”
“I better get over there,” Winslow said, “before this thing goes the wrong way.” He started to move, then turned with tight-lipped resignation on his face. “I could have saved that poor baby. I heard the shots.”
“You couldn’t save them all,” I said. “You did what you could.”
He finally nodded. Then he said something that totally shocked me. “It was an M Sixteen, Lieutenant. Thirty-round clip. The bastard reloaded twice. ”
“How would you know that?” I asked, surprised.
“Desert Storm,” he answered. “I was a field chaplain. No way I would ever forget that awful sound. No one ever does.”
I HEARD MY NAME called out over the din of the crowd. It was Jacobi. He was in the woods behind the church. “Hey, Lieutenant, come check this out.”
Heading over, I wondered what kind of person could do such a terrible thing. I had worked on a hundred homicides; usually drugs, money, or sex was at the heart of them. But this… this was meant to shock.
“Check it out,” Jacobi said, bending down over a spot. He’d found a bullet casing.
“M Sixteen, I bet,” I replied.
Jacobi nodded. “Little lady’s been brushing up during her time off? Shell’s a Remington two twenty-three.”
“Lieutenant Little Lady to you.” I smirked. Then I told him how I knew.
Dozens of empty shells were scattered all around. We were deep in the brush and trees, hidden from the church. The casings were strewn in two distinct clusters about five yards apart.
“You can see where he started firing,” Jacobi said. “I figure here. He must’ve moved around.”
From the first cluster of shells, there was a clear line of sight to the side of the church. That stained-glass window in full view… all those kids streaming toward the street… I could see why no one had spotted him. His hiding place was totally protected.
“When he reloaded, he must’ve moved over there.” Jacobi pointed.
I made my way over and crouched near the second cluster of shells. Something wasn’t making sense. The facade of the church was in view, the front steps where Tasha Catchings had lain. But only barely.
I squinted through an imaginary sight, leveling my gaze at where Tasha must’ve been when she was hit. You could barely even fix it into sight. There was no way he could’ve intentionally been aiming for her. She had been struck from a totally improbable angle.
“Lucky shot,” Jacobi muttered. “What do you think, a ricochet?”
“What’s back here?” I asked. I looked around, pushing my way through the thick bushes leading away from the church. No one had seen the shooter escape, so he obviously hadn’t made his way along Harrow Street. The brush was about twenty feet deep.
At the end was a five-foot-high chain-link fence dividing the church grounds from the surrounding neighborhood. The fence wasn’t high. I planted my flats and hoisted myself over.
I found myself facing penned-in backyards and tiny row houses. A few people had gathered, watching the show. To the right, the playgrounds of the Whitney Young projects.
Jacobi finally caught up with me. “Take it easy, Loo,” he huffed. “There’s an audience. You’re making me look bad.”
“This is how he must’ve made his way out, Warren.” We looked in both directions. One way led toward an alley, the other toward a row of homes.
I shouted to a group of onlookers who had gathered on a back porch, “Anyone see anything?” No one responded.
“Someone was shooting at the church,” I shouted. “A little girl’s been killed. Help us out. We need your help.”
Everyone stood around with the unconfiding silence of people who don’t talk to the police.
Then slowly a woman of about thirty came forward. She was nudging a young boy ahead of her. “Bernard saw something,” she said in a muffled voice.
Bernard appeared to be about six, with cautious, round eyes, wearing a gold-and-purple Kobe Bryant sweatshirt.
“It was a van,” Bernard blurted. “Like Uncle Reggie’s.” He pointed to the dirt road leading to the alley. “It was parked down there.”
I knelt down, gently smiling into the scared boy’s eyes. “What color van, Bernard?”
The kid replied, “White.”
“My brother’s got a white Dodge minivan,” Bernard’s mother said.
“Was it like your uncle’s, Bernard?” I asked.
“Sorta. Not really, though.”
“Did you see the man who was driving it?”
He shook his head. “I was bringing out the garbage. I only saw it drive away.”
“Do you think you would recognize it again if you saw it?” I asked.
“Because it looked like your uncle’s?”
He hesitated. “No, because it had a picture on the back.”
“A picture? You mean like an insignia? Or some kind of advertising?”
“Uh-uh.” He shook his head; his moonlike eyes were searching around. Then they lit up. “I mean like that.” He pointed toward a pickup truck in a neighbor’s driveway. There was a sticker of a Cal Golden Bear on the rear bumper.
“You mean a decal?” I confirmed.
“On the door.”
I held the boy softly by the shoulders. “What did this decal look like, Bernard?”
“Like Mufasa,” the boy said, “from The Lion King.”
“A lion?” My mind raced through anything that seemed likely. Sports teams, college logos, corporations…
“Yeah, like Mufasa,” Bernard repeated. “Except it had two heads.”
LESS THAN AN HOUR LATER, I was pushing through a surging crowd that had built up on the steps of the Hall of Justice. I felt hollowed out and terribly sad, but knew I couldn’t show it here.
The lobby of the tomblike granite building where I worked was packed with reporters and news crews, shoving their microphones at anyone who came in wearing a badge. Most of the crime reporters knew me, but I waved them off until I could get upstairs.
Then a set of hands grasped my shoulders and a familiar voice chimed, “Linds, we need to talk.…”
I spun to face Cindy Thomas, one of my closest friends, though it also happened she was the lead crime reporter at the Chronicle. “I won’t bother you now,” she said above the din. “But it’s important. How about Susie’s, at ten?”
It had been Cindy who, as a stringer buried on the paper’s Metro desk, had sneaked into the heart of the bride and groom case and helped blow it wide open. Cindy who, as much as any of us, was responsible for the gold on my shield today.
I managed a smile. “I’ll see you there.”
Upstairs on three, I strode into the cramped fluorescent-lit room that the twelve inspectors who managed Homicide for the city called home. Lorraine Stafford was waiting for me there. She had been my first appointment, after six successful years in Sex Crimes. And Cappy McNeil had come in, too.
Lorraine asked, “What can I do?”
“You can check with Sacramento for any stolen white vans. Any model. In-state plates. And put out an APB along with it for a bumper sticker of some sort of lion on the rear.” She nodded and started away.
“Lorraine.” I stopped her. “Make that a two-headed lion.”
A brutal madman sprays bullets into a crowd of children leaving a San Francisco church. Miraculously-or was it intentionally?-only one person dies. Then an elderly black woman is hung. Police homicide inspector Lindsay Boxer senses a connection and together with medical examiner Claire, assistant D. A. Jill, and Chronicle reporter Cindy, finds a link that sends a chill through the entire nation. This killer’s motives are unspeakable.