By Maxine Paetro
Read by January LaVoy
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Lindsay Boxer has a beautiful baby daughter and a husband she loves unconditionally. The police detective has never been happier-until a brutal murder in a hotel and the disappearance of a blonde woman from the scene intrude upon Lindsay’s own life. She can’t ignore the disturbing clues that hit too close to home. When an explosive tragedy plunges San Francisco into chaos, Lindsay must investigate a criminal plot that stretches around the globe, and she again finds herself following signs that lead to her own front door. Lindsay turns to the Women’s Murder Club for help as she desperately searches for the deadly blonde . . . before she loses her husband for good.
Alison Muller wasn’t classically beautiful, but she was striking, with swinging blonde hair and peekaboo bangs brushing the frames of her wraparound shades. Her black leather coat flared above the knees of her skinny jeans, and her purposeful stride was punctuated by the staccato clacking of her high-heeled boots.
That afternoon, as she cut through the golden-hued lobby of San Francisco’s Four Seasons Hotel, Ali checked out every man, woman, and child crossing the floor, on the queue at reception, slouched in chairs in front of the fireplace. She noted and labeled the tourists and businesspeople, deflecting the stares of the men who couldn’t look away, while on the phone with her husband and their younger daughter, Mitzi.
“I didn’t actually forget, Mitz,” Ali said to her five-year old. “More like I lost track.”
“You did forget,” her daughter insisted.
“Not completely. I thought your big day was tomorrow.”
“Everyone wanted to know where you were,” her daughter complained.
“I’ll make it up to you, sweetheart,” Ali said.
“When? With what?”
Ali’s thoughts ran ahead to the man waiting for her in a room on the fourteenth floor.
“Let me speak to Daddy,” Ali said.
She passed the stunning exhibition of modern art and reached the elevator bank at the northwest end of the lobby. She stood behind the couple in front of the doors. They were French, discussing their dinner plans, agreeing that they had enough time to shower and change.
Ali thumbed her phone, checked her e-mail and the Investors Business Daily headlines and the text from Michael asking if she’d gotten lost. Ali’s husband came back on the line.
“I did my best,” he said. “She’s inconsolable.”
“You can handle her, dear. I’m sure you can do it. I’ll order her something online when I get home.”
“Which will be when?” her husband asked.
God. The questions. The never-ending questions.
“After dinner,” Ali said. “I’m sorry. I wouldn’t blow you off if it wasn’t important.”
The elevator doors opened.
Her husband said, “Say good-bye to Mitzi.”
She said, “Hang on a minute. I’m losing reception.”
Ali stepped into the elevator and stood with her back to the corner, her jacket parting to reveal the butt of a gun tucked into her waistband. The doors closed and the car rose swiftly and quietly upward.
When Ali got out at the fourteenth floor, she spoke to her daughter as she walked along the plush carpeted hallway.
She reached room 1420 and rapped on the door, and it opened.
Ali said into the phone, “Happy birthday. See you soon. Kiss, kiss. Bye-bye.”
She clicked off, stepped inside the room, and kicked the door closed behind her as she went into Michael’s arms.
“You’re late,” he said.
Michael Chan took off Ali’s glasses and sucked in his breath. He couldn’t get over this woman—and he had tried. She smiled at him and he put his hands on both sides of her face and kissed the smile right off her.
One kiss ignited a string of them: deep, telling, momentous. Michael lifted Ali and she hooked her legs around his hips and he walked her into the luxurious blue-and-bronze suite backlit by the watercolor sunset over San Francisco.
Chan didn’t notice the view. Ali smelled like orchids or some exotic musk, and she had her tongue at his ear.
“Too much,” he muttered. “You’re too damned much.”
She was panting as he lowered her to the bed.
“Wait,” she said.
“Of course. I’m a patient man,” he said. His blood was surging, narrowing his focus. He put his hands on his hips and watched to see what she would do.
She looked up at him, her warm gaze flicking over his body and his strong features as if she were memorizing him. They met infrequently, but when they did, they pretended they were strangers. It was a game.
“At least tell me your name,” she said.
He pulled off her boots, tossed them aside. She sat up, shrugged off her coat, and shoved it over the edge of the bed. He plucked the gun from her waistband, looked through the sight, smelled the muzzle, and put it on the nightstand.
“Interesting,” he said. “Hand-tooled.”
He sat on the bed next to her and told her to lie down, and he lay next to her. He moved her bangs away from her eyes.
She reached down and ran her hand across the front of his pants. He grabbed her wrist.
She said, “Ummmm, I’m Renata.”
“Giovanni,” he said. “Prince of Gorgonzola.”
She laughed. It was a terrific laugh. “Finally, I meet the Prince of Cheese.”
Michael kept a straight face. “Correct. And you should never keep royalty waiting.”
He stroked her cheek, then dipped his fingers beneath the neckline of her blouse.
“I think I may have met you once before,” she said.
He freed the pearl buttons from their loops.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I would have remembered.”
He ran his hand over the tops of her breasts, then gathered up her hair, wrapped it around his left hand, and pulled her head back.
She moaned and said, “You paid me with three gold coins. I came to your room in the hotel overlooking”—she sighed—“the Trevi Fountain.”
“I’ve never stayed in Rome,” he said.
He turned her so that she faced away from him. He stroked the long side of her body down to her haunch and back. He enjoyed the soft sounds coming from her throat as she tried to twist away from him.
“Did you tell your husband?”
“Why would you ask me that?” she said.
“Because I want him to throw you out.”
He undid the closure at the waist of her jeans, pulled down the zipper, got to his feet, and removed her jeans and all of his clothes.
He didn’t hear the sound at the door.
This was unlike him. He had superior senses, but they were engaged. Ali was looking up at him with—what was that look in her eyes?
She said, “I heard a card in the lock.”
A voice called out, “Housekeeping.”
Chan said, “I didn’t lock the door. You?”
Ali said, “Hell no.”
Chan shouted, “Come back later,” but the door was already opening and the cart was bumping over the threshold. He grabbed his pants from the floor and, holding them in front of him, he went toward the foyer.
He shouted, “No! Wait!”
The three shots were muffled by a suppressor. If Michael Chan had known his killer, it didn’t matter now.
Michael Chan was gone.
It had been a rough week, and it was only Monday.
My partner, Rich Conklin, and I had just testified against Edward “Ted” Swanson, a cop who had, over time, left eighteen people dead before the shootout with a predatory drug lord called Kingfisher took Swanson out of the game.
All of the SFPD had known Swanson as a great cop. We had liked him. Respected him. So when my partner and I exposed him as a psychopath with a badge, we were stunned and outraged.
During Swanson’s lethal crime spree, he had stolen over five million in drugs and money from Kingfisher, and this drug boss with a murderous reputation up and down the West Coast hadn’t taken this loss as the cost of doing business.
After the shootout, while Swanson lay comatose in the ICU, Kingfisher figured that his best chance of getting his property back was to turn his death threats on the lead investigator on the case.
That investigator was me.
His phone calls were irrational, untraceable, and absolutely terrifying.
Then, about the time Swanson was released from the hospital and indicted on multiple charges of drug trafficking and murder, Kingfisher’s phone calls stopped. A week later, Mexican authorities turned up the King’s body in a shallow grave in Baja. Was it really over?
Sometimes terrifying events leave aftershocks when you realize how bad things could have become. Kingfisher’s threats had embedded themselves inside me on a visceral level, and now that I was free of them, something inside me unclenched.
On the other hand, events that seem innocuous at the time can flip you right over the edge into the dark side.
And that was the case with Swanson.
A dirty cop shakes up everything: friendships, public trust, and belief in your own ability to read people. I thought I had done a good job testifying against Swanson today. I hoped so. Richie had been terrific, for sure, and now the decision as to Swanson’s guilt or innocence was up to his jury.
My partner said, “We’re done with this, Lindsay. Time to move on.”
I was checking out of the Hall of Justice at just after six when my husband texted me to say that he would be home late, and that there was a roasted chicken in the fridge.
I was disappointed not to see Joe, but as I stepped outside the gray granite building into a luminous summer evening, I formulated a new plan. Rather than chicken for three, I would have a quiet dinner with my baby daughter, followed by Dreamland in about three hours, tops.
I fired up my old Explorer and had just cleared the rush-hour snarl on Bryant when the boss called me.
Against my better judgment, I picked up.
“Boxer,” Brady said, “a bad scene just went down at the Four Seasons. I need you there.”
The only scene I wanted to see was my little girl in clean onesies, and me with a glass of Chardonnay in my hand. But Homicide was understaffed, my partner and I had a fresh gap in our caseload, and Brady was a good lieutenant.
I said, “Were you able to catch Conklin?”
“He’s on the way,” said Brady.
I made a U-turn on Geary, and twenty minutes later, I met up with my partner in the sumptuous lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel. Conklin was as tired as I was, but it looked good on him.
“Overtime pay, Lindsay.”
“Yahoo,” I said with an appropriate lack of enthusiasm. “What did Brady tell you?”
“To be smart, thorough, and quick.”
“Instead of what? Stupid, sloppy, and slow?”
Richie laughed. “He said the Four Seasons wants their hotel back.”
We took the elevator to the fourteenth floor, and when the doors opened, we saw that the hallway was cordoned off and law enforcement personnel were standing at the exit doors, leaning against walls, waiting for us.
Conklin and I ducked under the tape and nodded to uniforms we knew, finally pulling up to the open door marked 1420.
The cop at the door signed us into the log, and I asked him, “Who called it in?”
“Hotel’s head of security. He responded to complaints of gunshots.”
“How bad is it?”
“Bad enough,” he said.
“Let’s see,” I said.
The first officer stepped aside, revealing a naked male body lying faceup, about fifteen feet inside the deluxe hotel suite. He had been shot once in the forehead, once through the right eye, and had taken another bullet to his chest for good measure.
I said to Conklin, “What do you think? Midthirties? Asian?”
Conklin nodded and said, “That’s an expensive watch. He’s wearing a wedding ring. We’re probably not looking at a robbery.”
Someone called my name.
Charlie Clapper, director of San Francisco’s forensic unit, came around a corner in the suite. “Boxer,” Clapper said. “Conklin. Welcome to the Four Seasons. How can we make your stay here more enjoyable?”
I said, “Tell me you’ve ID’d the victim and have the shooter in custody. And that by the way, the shooter confessed.”
Clapper is a former homicide cop, a pro who knows what he’s doing and never has to prove it. He laughed and said, “I guess miracles happen—but not here. Not today.”
I peered behind Clapper. Lights had been set up and CSIs were processing the expensively furnished suite, which had soundproof windows and a high city view. There was a lot of blood around and under the victim, but the room behind him looked spotless.
I took in the silvery-blue carpeting and upholstery, the lightly rumpled bed, bedspread still in place. I saw no wine bottles or remains of a room service meal, and the TV was off.
It looked like room 1420 had only been used for a short time before what happened here went down.
Conklin asked Clapper to run what he knew so far.
Clapper said, “To start with, it looks like our victim had company. We found fresh lipstick and a few long blonde hairs on a pillowcase. There’s no wallet, no suitcase, no papers, no clothes, no shoes.”
“Perfect score,” said Conklin.
Clapper went on. “This gentleman checked in under the name Gregory Wang. He used a credit card with that name and the charge went through, but there is no Gregory Wang at the address on the card or anywhere.
“Also notable, the room has been thoroughly wiped down. No prints old or new. Entry was by a key card that was traced to a Maria Silva in housekeeping. Ms. Silva is now off duty, not answering her phone. A patrol car has gone to her address.”
“What about his prints?” Conklin asked, indicating the victim.
“We ran the victim’s prints and came up with nothing. He’s not in the system, has never been in the military, or taught grade school, or been arrested. And wait. There’s more,” said Clapper. “There’s a whole other crime scene right next door. Can’t be a coincidence, but right now, I don’t see the connection.”
Dr. Claire Washburn, chief medical examiner and my best friend, was waiting for the three of us in the room next door to the murder room. She held up her bloody gloves to show me why she wasn’t going to give me a hug.
“Take a good fast look,” she said. “I’m ready to remove these bodies.”
This room was smaller but looked in every other way identical to the one we’d just left. Same color scheme, same made-up bed, and same view of the city.
But twice the number of victims.
There were two bodies lying on the pale blue carpet, a young black man and a young white woman; both looked to be in their twenties.
Both were clothed in what you might call middle-of-the-road casual. Girl wearing a pastel plaid cotton shirt and jeans, her red hair fanned out around her head, a look of surprise on her face. Boy wearing black cords and a T-shirt under a blue V-neck sweater. Running shoes.
It looked to me like the male victim had been sitting at the desk, the female in a chair near a coffee table. From the way their bodies had fallen, I thought they’d jumped up when they heard an intruder and had been gunned down, all the shots going into the trunks of their bodies and the chairs they’d been sitting in.
Their blood was spattered on the walls and furnishings, but I saw no spent brass.
I asked Claire, “How long ago did this happen?”
“An hour, maybe.”
“Nothing in this room but those kids and the clothes they’re wearing.”
Clapper said, “I ran their prints and got nothing. Their registration info is bogus. Same wiped-down surfaces. I’d venture to say this room is cleaner now than it has ever been.”
As Claire and her techs wrapped the two unidentified decedents in sheets and zipped them into body bags, I noticed cords and battery chargers on the floor behind the desk.
I said to my colleagues, “Look at that. These kids had laptops. As I understand it, high-end surveillance equipment is Web-connected. You can activate audio and video plants with an app.”
“You think the victims were PIs?” Conklin asked.
“If so, there should be microcameras in the murder room.”
Clapper said, “I’m on it.”
He left to check and returned a few minutes later with three small bugs: one he’d pulled from a light socket above the bathroom mirror, the second from the desk lamp, and the third from the air duct.
“And just to be totally consistent, no prints on them,” said Clapper.
I called Lieutenant Jackson Brady and brought him up to speed. Then I texted Joe, saying I might be pulling an all-nighter. After that, I called Mrs. Rose, a sweetheart of a grandma, who lives in the apartment across the hall from ours and had become our daughter’s nanny.
“Can you stay late?” I asked her. “I think dinner might be in the fridge.”
“I cooked that chicken for you,” she said, laughing.
I promised Mrs. Rose that I’d give her a heads-up when I was on the way home. Then I called and texted Joe again. No answer, no return text.
Where was my husband? Why didn’t he call me?
Conklin said to me, “Security needs us, Linds. Urgently.”
Liam Dugan was a stocky man in his fifties, a former sergeant with the LAPD and now the hotel’s head of security.
He said to me, “What a living, freaking, blood-curdling nightmare,” and walked us down the hall to the fourteenth-floor supply closet. He opened the door, and there, jammed behind the cleaning cart, was the body of housekeeper Maria Silva.
She had short dark hair and was wearing a blue and gold hotel uniform with soaking blood on the shoulder that I could see from where I stood.
Dugan said, “She was a nice woman. Has a husband, two kids. I’m sorry, but I was hoping she was alive. So I touched her. I probably touched the cart and a few other things so I could get in there. Anyway, she took a bullet to the back of her head. Her key card is gone. The girls keep them on cords around their necks.”
We taped off the new crime scene, and I met with the cops on the floor, telling them they were on duty until relieved by the night shift.
After that, Conklin and I huddled in room 1418, where the supposed PIs had been executed. We looked at the blood spatter at the otherwise tidy murder scene and tried on scenarios.
Every way we turned it, it came down to a professional job, all four hits connected. Mr. Wang had been the target and Maria Silva had probably been the first victim.
The woman who had left blonde hair on the pillow could be a witness, the killer, a coconspirator, or a victim. Or she’d walked out before things got sticky and still didn’t know what happened. It was possible.
Conklin and I went with Dugan to the hotel security offices and were given a file room with two desks and computers. We sat side by side and cued up the surveillance footage that had been shot over the previous four hours in six key locations.
Dugan said, “Here’s a hard copy of the floor plans. I’ll keep the footage coming and if there’s anything you need, just find me. Nothing’s off-limits.”
At eight, room service brought us roast beef sandwiches, pickles, chips, and coffee. At ten, I used the ladies’ room, washed my face, and looked at myself in the mirror.
My hair was all over the place, not in the sun-kissed beachy blonde tradition. More like my hair hated me. I reset my ponytail while staring deep into the reflection of my red-rimmed eyes. I needed a shower. I’ll just leave it there.
I returned to the security department, and as soon as I put my butt in the chair, Conklin pointed to an image on the screen of a man who looked like our male victim in 1420, who had checked in as Gregory Wang.
Wang came through the elevator entrance from Market Street to the hotel lobby, which is on the fifth floor, and crossed through toward reception. He was alone, wearing dark pants and a gray sports jacket, a ball cap shading his face, and he had a computer bag hanging from a strap over his right shoulder. He checked in at the desk, and then we lost him on that tape. Another camera picked him up at the elevator bank for the guest rooms upstairs.
The footage was high-quality. But apart from the spring in Wang’s step, there was nothing useful to be gleaned from what we’d just seen. I backed up the tape, watching Wang cross the lobby to the elevators again. Then I watched the lit numbers next to the elevator door rise, make several stops before landing on fourteen, then go back down.
I slid the disc that held the fourteenth-floor footage into the drawer. The time dating read 4:30 p.m. The camera, positioned across from the fourteenth-floor elevator, caught Wang getting out of the car and walking away from the camera, down the hallway. He swiped his key card and opened the door to 1420.
“He didn’t knock,” I said. “His guest hasn’t arrived yet.”
We fast-forwarded fourteenth-floor footage and watched people coming and going from their rooms, getting in and out of the elevators. No one raised suspicion. We paused the tape to check out the housekeeping cart; at 5 p.m., Maria Silva was still alive.
At 5:52, a blond-haired woman exited the elevator.
“Well, hello,” I said to the screen.
I stopped the video. She was on her phone. Between her haircut, her glasses, and her holding the phone close to her mouth, I couldn’t see much of her face. Her overall appearance was stylish, and she seemed self-assured. I started up the video and we watched the woman walk down the hallway and knock on the door of room 1420. The door opened and she went inside.
I kept the video rolling, looking for bad guys to appear, to put a gun to the housekeeper’s head, to go into the room next door and take out the PIs.
Then, when the time code read 6:23—something happened. The screen went gray. The picture was just—gone.
We ran the tape all the way to the end, hoping the video would resume, but there was nothing.
Nothing, nothing, nothing.
All we had were four dead people and no clue as to who had killed them, how they’d done it, or why.
I didn’t like this.
I didn’t like it at all.
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- Jun 6, 2017
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