By Maxine Paetro
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Table of Contents
A Preview of The 9th Judgment
A Preview of 15th Affair
About the Authors
Books by James Patterson
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To Suzie and Jack And to John, Brendan, and Alex
THE OLD CHROME-YELLOW school bus crawled south on Market Street at half past seven that May morning. Its side and back windows were blacked out, and a hip-hop hit throbbed into the low-lying mist that floated like a silk veil between the sun and San Francisco.
Got my ice
Got my smoke
Got my ride
Ain't got no hope
Hold ya heads up high
Don't know when
Ya gonna die….
The traffic light changed to yellow at the intersection of Fourth and Market. The stop-sign arm at the driver's side of the school bus swung out, the four-way hazard lights burned amber, and the vehicle came to a halt.
To the right of the bus was a shopping mall, a huge one: Bloomingdale's, Nordstrom, the windows papered with large Abercrombie posters of provocative half-naked teens in black and white.
To the left of the bus was a blue Ford van and then one of two islands splitting the road—a staging area for bus passengers and tourists.
Two cars behind the school bus, Louise Lindenmeyer, office manager, late for work, braked her old gray Volvo. She buzzed down her window and glared at that goddamned school bus.
She'd been stuck on its tailpipe since Buena Vista Park, then watched it pull away from her at the light at Fifth and Market as a stream of traffic took the turn and pulled in front of her.
And now that bus had stuck her at a light… again.
Louise heard a shout. "Hey, asshole!"
A man in his shirtsleeves, tie flapping, face bunched up, dried shaving cream under his left ear, walked past her car to give the bus driver hell.
A horn honked, and another, and then a cacophony of horns.
The light was green.
Louise took her foot off the brake and at that instant felt a concussive shock, her ears ringing as she saw the roof of the school bus explode violently upward.
Chunks of burning metal, steel-and-glass shrapnel, shot out in all directions faster than gunfire. A mushroom cloud like that of a small A-bomb formed above the bus, and the box-shaped vehicle became a fireball. Oily smoke colored the air.
Louise saw the blue van in the lane to the left of the bus bloom with flame, then blacken in front of her eyes.
No one got out of the van!
And now the blaze rushed at the silver Camry directly in front of her. The gas tank blew, and fire danced over the car, consuming it in vivid, leaping flames.
The bunch-faced man pulled himself up off the pavement to the hole where her passenger-side window had been. His shirt was gone. His hair was black frizz. The skin of his face was draped over his collarbone like tissue paper.
Louise recoiled in horror, grappled with her door handle as fire lapped at the hood of her Volvo. The car door opened and the heat rushed in.
That's when she saw the skin of her own arm still on the steering wheel, as if it were a glove turned inside out. Louise couldn't hear the businessman's horrified screams or her own. It was as though her ears had been plugged with wax. Her vision was all dancing spots and blurry shapes.
And then she was sucked down into a well of black.
MY PARTNER, RICH CONKLIN, was at the wheel of our unmarked car and I was sugaring my coffee when I felt the concussion.
The dashboard shook. Hot coffee slopped over my hand. I shouted, "What the hell?" A few moments later the radio sputtered, the dispatcher calling out, "Reports of an explosion at Market and Fourth. Nearby units identify and respond."
I dumped my coffee out the window, grabbed the mic, and told Dispatch we were two blocks away as Conklin accelerated up the hill, then braked so that our car slewed across Fourth Street, blocking traffic.
We bolted from the car, Conklin yelling, "Lindsay, watch out. There could be secondary explosions!"
The air was opaque with roiling smoke, rank with burning rubber, plastic, and human flesh. I stopped running, wiped my sleeve across my stinging eyes, and fought against my gag reflex. I took in the hellish scene—and my hair literally lifted away from the back of my neck.
Market Street is a major artery. It should have been pulsing with commuter traffic, but instead it looked like Baghdad after a suicide bomb. People were screaming, running in circles, blinded by panic and a screen of smoky haze.
I called Chief Tracchio, reported that I was the first officer on the scene.
"What's happening, Sergeant?"
I told him what I saw: five dead on the street, two more at the bus stop. "Unknown number of victims alive or dead, still in their cars," I coughed into the phone.
"You okay, Boxer?"
I signed off as cruisers, fire rigs, and EMS units, their sirens whooping, streamed onto Market and formed a perimeter at Third and at Fifth, blocking off oncoming traffic. Moments later, the command vehicle rolled up, and the bomb squad, covered top to toe in gray protective suits, poured onto the debris field.
A bloodied woman of indeterminate age and race staggered toward me. I caught her as her knees buckled, and Conklin and I helped her to a gurney.
"I saw it," the victim whispered. She pointed to a blackened hulk at the intersection. "That school bus was a bomb."
"A school bus? Please, God, not kids!"
I looked everywhere but saw no children.
Had they all been burned alive?
WATER STREAMED from fire hoses, dousing flame. Metal sizzled and the air turned rancid.
I found Chuck Hanni, arson investigator and explosion expert, stooping outside the school bus's side door. He had his hair slicked back, and he wore khakis and a denim shirt, sleeves rolled up, showing the old burn scar that ran from the base of his right thumb to his elbow.
Hanni looked up, said, "God-awful disaster, Lindsay."
He walked me through what he called a "catastrophic explosion," showed me the two adult-size "crispy critters" curled between the double row of seats near the driver's side. Pointed out that the bus's front tires were full of air, the back tires, flat.
"The explosion started in the rear, not the engine compartment. And I found this."
Hanni indicated rounded pieces of glass, conduction tubes, and blue plastic shards melted into a mass behind the bus door.
"Imagine the explosive force," he said, pointing to a metal projectile embedded in the wall. "That's a triple beam balance," he said, "and I'm guessing the blue plastic is from a cooler. Only took a few gallons of ether and a spark to do all this…"
A wave of his hand to indicate the three blocks of utter destruction.
I heard hacking coughs and boots crunching on glass. Conklin, his six-foot-two frame materializing out of the haze. "There's something you guys should see before the bomb squad throws us outta here."
Hanni and I followed Conklin across the intersection to where a man's body lay folded up against a lamppost.
Conklin said, "A witness saw this guy fly out of the bus's windshield when it blew."
The dead man was Hispanic, his face sliced up, his hair in dyed-red twists matted with blood, his body barely covered in the remnants of an electric-blue sweatshirt and jeans, his skull bashed in from his collision with the lamppost. From the age lines in his face, I guessed this man had lived a hard forty years. I dug his wallet out of his hip pocket, opened it to his driver's license.
"His name is Juan Gomez. According to this, he's only twenty-three."
Hanni bent down, peeled back the dead man's lips. I saw two broken rows of decayed stubs where his teeth had once been.
"A tweaker," Hanni said. "He was probably the cook. Lindsay, this case belongs to Narcotics, maybe the DEA."
Hanni punched buttons on his cell phone as I stared down at Juan Gomez's body. First visible sign of methamphetamine use is rotten teeth. It takes a couple of years of food- and sleep-deprivation to age a meth head twenty years. By then, the drug would have eaten away big hunks of his brain.
Gomez was on his way out before the explosion.
"So the bus was a mobile meth lab?" said Conklin.
Hanni was on hold for Narcotics.
"Yep," he said. "Until it blew all to hell."
CINDY THOMAS BUTTONED her lightweight Burberry trench coat, said, "Morning, Pinky," as the doorman held open the front doors of the Blakely Arms. He touched his hat brim and searched Cindy's eyes, saying, "Have a good day, Ms. Thomas. You take care."
Cindy couldn't say that she never looked for trouble. She worked the crime desk at the Chronicle and liked to say, "Bad news is good news to me."
But a year and a half ago a psycho with an illegal sublet and an anger-management problem, living two floors above her, had sneaked into apartments and gone on a brutal killing spree.
The killer had been caught and convicted, and was currently quarantined on death row at the "Q."
But still, there were aftershocks at the Blakely Arms. The residents triple-locked their doors every night, flinched at sudden noises, felt the loss of common, everyday security.
Cindy was determined not to live with this kind of fear.
She smiled at the doorman, said, "I'm a badass, Pinky. Thugs had better watch out for me."
Then she breezed outside into the early May morning.
Striding down Townsend from Third to Fifth—two very long blocks—Cindy traveled between the old and new San Francisco. She passed the liquor store next to her building, the drive-through McDonald's across the street, the Starbucks and the Borders on the ground floor of a new residential high-rise, using the time to return calls, book appointments, set up her day.
She paused near the recently rejuvenated Caltrain station that used to be a hell pit of homeless druggies, now much improved as the neighborhood gentrification took hold.
But behind the Caltrain station was a fenced-off and buckled stretch of sidewalk that ran along the train yard. Rusted junkers and vans from the Jimi Hendrix era parked on the street. The vehicles were crash pads for the homeless.
As Cindy mentally geared up for her power walk through that " no-fly zone," she noticed a clump of street people ahead—and some of them seemed to be crying.
Then she drew her laminated ID card out of her coat, held it in front of her like a badge, pushed her way into the crowd—and it parted for her.
The ailanthus trees shooting up through cracks in the pavement cast a netted shade on a pile of rags, old newspapers, and fast-food trash that was lying at the base of the chain-link fence.
Cindy felt a wave of nausea, sucked in her breath.
The pile of rags was, in fact, a dead man. His clothes were blood-soaked and his face so beaten to mush, Cindy couldn't make out his features.
She asked a bystander, "What happened? Who is this man?"
The bystander was a heavyset woman, toothless, wearing many layers and textures of clothes. Her legs were bandaged to the knees and her nose was pink from crying.
She gave Cindy a sidelong look.
"It's B-B-Bagman Jesus. Someone killed him!"
Cindy thumbed 911 on her Treo, reported what had clearly been a murder, and waited for the police to arrive.
As she waited, street people gathered around her.
These were the unwashed, the uncounted, the unnoticed, fringe people who slipped through the cracks, lived where the Census Bureau feared to tread.
They stank and they twitched, they stammered and scratched, and they jockeyed to get closer to Cindy. They reached out to touch her, talked over and corrected one another.
They wanted to be heard.
And although a half hour ago Cindy would have avoided all contact with them, she now wanted very much to hear them. As time passed and the police didn't come, Cindy felt a story budding, getting ready to bloom.
She used her cell again, called her friend Lindsay at home.
The phone rang six times before a masculine voice rasped, "Hello?" Sounded to Cindy like maybe she'd interrupted Lindsay and Joe at an inopportune moment.
"Beautiful timing, Cindy," Joe panted.
"Sorry, Joe, really," said Cindy. "But I've got to speak to Lindsay."
"DON'T BE MAD," I said, tucking the blanket under Joe's chin, patting his stubbly cheeks, planting a PG-13-rated kiss on his mouth, careful not to get him going again because I just didn't have enough time to get back in the mood.
"I'm not mad," he said, eyes closed. "But I am going to be seeking retribution tonight, so prepare yourself."
I laughed at my big, handsome guy, said, "Actually, I can't wait."
"Cindy's a bad influence."
I laughed some more.
Cindy is a pit bull in disguise. She's all girlie-girl on the outside but tenacious through and through, which is how she pushed her way into my gory crime scene six years back and wouldn't give up until she'd nailed her story and I'd solved my case. I wished all of my cops were like Cindy.
"Cindy's a peach," I said to my lover. "She grows on you."
"Yeah? I'll have to take your word for it." Joe smirked.
"Honey, would you mind—?"
"Will I walk Martha? Yes. Because I work at home and you have a real job."
"Thanks, Joe," I said. "Will you do it soon? Because I think she's got to go."
Joe looked at me deadpan, his big blue eyes giving me the business. I blew him a kiss, then I made a run for the shower.
Several months had blown by since my cozy apartment on Potrero Hill had burned out to the walls—and I was still getting used to living with Joe in his new crib in the high-rent district.
Not that I didn't enjoy his travertine shower stall with the dual heads and a gizmo that dispensed gel, shampoo, and moisturizer, plus the hotel-style bath sheets folded over a heated brass rack.
I mean, yeah. Things could be worse!
I turned the water up hot and high, soaked and lathered my hair, my mind going to Cindy's phone call, wondering what she was so charged up about.
Last I heard, dead bums didn't make headlines. But Cindy was telling me this was some kind of special bum with a special name. And she was asking me to check out the scene as a favor to her.
I dried my hair, padded down the carpeted hallway to my own walk-in closet, which was still mostly empty. I stepped into clean work pants, shrugged on an aqua-colored pullover, checked my gun, buckled my shoulder holster, and topped it all off with my second-best blue blazer.
I bent to ruffle the silky ears of my lovely border collie, Sweet Martha, and called out, "Bye, honey," to Joe.
Then I headed out to meet Cindy's newest passion: a dead bum with a certifiably crazy name.
CINDY STOOD AT the dead man's side and filled her notebook, getting down the names, the descriptions, the exact quotes from Bagman Jesus's friends and mourners.
"He wore a really big cross," said a Mexican dishwasher who worked at a Thai restaurant. He sported an Adidas T-shirt and jeans under a dirty white apron. Had koi tattooed on his arms. "The cross was made of two, whatchamacallit, nails—"
"It was a crucifix, Tommy," said a bent white-haired woman leaning against her shopping cart at the edge of the crowd, sores on her legs, her filthy red coat dragging in the street.
"'Scuuuuse me, boss. What I meant was, a crucifix."
"And they weren't nails, they were bolts, about three inches long, tied together with copper wire. And don't forget that toy baby on that cross. A little pink baby." The old woman held a thumb and forefinger an inch apart to show Cindy how small that toy baby was.
"Why would someone take his crucifix?" the heavyset woman asked. "But his b-b-bag. That was a real leather bag! Lady, write this down! He was murdered for his s-s-stuff."
"We didden even know his real name," said Babe, a big girl from the Chinese massage parlor. "He give me ten dollah when I had no food. He didden want nothing for it."
"Bagman took care of me when I had pneumonia," said a gray- haired man, his chalk-striped suit pants cinched at the waist with twine. "My name is Bunker. Charles Bunker," he told Cindy.
He stuck out his hand, and Cindy shook it.
"I heard shots last night," Bunker said. "It was after midnight."
"Did you see who shot him?"
"I wish I had."
"Did he have any enemies?"
"Will you let me through?" said a black man with dreads, a gold nose stud, and a white turtleneck under an old tuxedo jacket who was threading his way through the crowd toward Cindy.
He slowly spelled out his name—Harry Bainbridge—so Cindy would get it right. Then Bainbridge held a long, bony finger above Bagman's body, traced the letters stitched to the back of Bagman's bloody coat.
"You can read that?" he asked her.
"Tells you everything you want to know."
Cindy wrote it down in her book.
BY THE TIME Conklin and I got to Fourth and Townsend, uniforms had taped off the area, shunted the commuters the long way around to the station entrance, shooed bystanders behind the tape, and blocked off all but official traffic.
Cindy was standing in the street.
She flagged us down, opened my car door for me, started pitching her story before I put my feet on the ground.
"I feel a five-part human-interest series coming on," she said, "about the homeless of San Francisco. And I'm going to start with that man's life and death."
She pointed to a dead man lying stiff in his bloody rags.
"Thirty people were crying over his body, Lindsay. I don't know if that many people would cry if it was me lying there."
"Shut up," Conklin said, coming around the front of the car. "You're crazy." He gently shook Cindy's shoulder, making her blond curls bounce.
"Okay, okay," Cindy said. She smiled up at Conklin, her slightly overlapping front teeth adding a vulnerable quality to her natural adorableness. "Just kidding. But I'm real serious about Bagman Jesus. You guys keep me in the loop, okay?"
"You betcha," I said, but I didn't get why Cindy regarded Bagman Jesus as a celebrity, and his death as a major deal.
I said, "Cindy, street people die every day—"
"And nobody gives a damn. Hell, people want them dead. That's my point!"
I left Cindy and Conklin in the street and went over to show my badge to K. J. Grealish, the CSI in charge. She was young, dark-haired, and skinny, and had nearly chewed her lips off from stress.
"I've been on my feet for the last twenty-seven hours straight," Grealish told me, "and this pointless dung heap of a crime scene could take another twenty- seven hours. Tell me again. Why are we here?"
As the trains rumbled into the yard, dust blew up, leaves fell from the trees, and newspapers flew into the air, further contaminating the crime scene.
A horn honked—the coroner's van clearing cops out of the way. It parked in the middle of the street. The door slid open, and Dr. Claire Washburn stepped out. She put her hands on her size-16 hips, beamed her Madonna smile at me—and I beamed back. Then I walked over and gave her a hug.
Claire is not only San Francisco's chief medical examiner but my closest friend. We'd bonded together a decade and a half back when she was a plump, black assistant medical examiner and I was a tall blonde with a 34D bra size, trying to survive my first savage year of on-the-job training in Homicide.
Those had been tough, bloody years for both of us, just trying to do our jobs in a man's world.
We still talked every day. I was her new baby's godmother, and I felt closer to Claire than I did to my own sister. But I hadn't seen her in more than a week.
When we turned each other loose from the hug, Claire asked the CSI, "K.J.? You got your photos of the victim?"
Grealish said she had, so Claire and I ducked under the tape and, no surprise, Cindy came along with us.
"It's okay," I said to Grealish. "She's with me."
"Actually," Cindy said under her breath, "you're with me."
We stepped around the blood trail, skirted the cones and markers, then Claire put down her bag and stooped beside the body. She turned Bagman's head from side to side with her gloved hand, gently palpated his scalp, probing for lacerations, fractures, or other injuries. After a long pause, she said, "Holy moly."
"That's enough of that medical jargon," I said to my friend. "Let's have it in English."
"As usual, Lindsay"—Claire sighed—"I'm not making any pronouncements until I do the post. But this much I'll tell you… and this is off the record, girl reporter," she said to Cindy. "You hear me?"
"Okay, okay. My lips are sealed. My mouth's a safe."
"Looks like your guy wasn't just given a vicious beat-down," Claire murmured. "This poor sucker took multiple gunshots to his head. I'm saying he was shot at close range, probably until the gun was empty."
THE KILLING OF a street person has zero priority in Homicide. Sounds cold, but we just don't have the resources to work cases where the killer will never be found.
Conklin and I talked it over while sitting in the car.
"Bagman Jesus was robbed, right?" said Conklin. "Some other homeless dude beat the crap out of him and, when he fought back, blew him away."
"About those gunshots. I don't know. Sounds more like gangbangers. Or a bunch of kids rolling a bum for kicks, then capping him because they could get away with it. Just look at that," I said, indicating the crime scene: bloody footprints crisscrossing the pavement, tracking in nonevidentiary trace with every step.
- On Sale
- Apr 27, 2009
- Page Count
- 464 pages
- Little, Brown and Company