By Maxine Paetro
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In this thriller from a #1 New York Times bestselling author, SFPD Sergeant Lindsay Boxer has guns on her mind and only twenty-two seconds until she loses her badge—or her life.SFPD Sergeant Lindsay Boxer has guns on her mind.
There’s buzz of a last-ditch shipment of drugs and weapons crossing the Mexican border ahead of new restrictive gun laws. Before Lindsay can act, her top informant tips her to a case that hits disturbingly close to home.
Former cops. Professional hits. All with the same warning scrawled on their bodies:
You talk, you die.
Now it’s Lindsay’s turn to choose.
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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.
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."
Chief of police Charles Clapper called the 8 a.m. meeting to order.
His fifth-floor office was packed with forty detectives and uniformed officers. An equal number were banked outside the open door to his waiting room, where they could hear his bulletin on the new gun law.
From where I stood with Rich Conklin, I could see Clapper, the tall, gray-haired man in his fifties, always impeccably dressed and groomed. This morning I saw a stain on his tie and anxiety in his eyes.
I'd known Clapper since I joined the SFPD, and for much of that time, he'd headed up our forensics lab. He was smart as hell, a good leader, and once upon a time, he'd had a sense of humor, which he was losing as he took on the weight of standing on the X where the buck stopped.
Clapper made no introductory remarks, just cut to the mayor's memo, issued early this morning. Once released, it had been read on the predawn news, printed in the papers, and dispatched over the electronic grapevine, where it made stops on handheld devices on the street, in kitchens, on public transportation, and in offices across the city and the country.
I understood why Clapper looked rattled.
California already had the strictest gun laws in the country, but now they'd been tightened further: bans on more semiautomatics, stricter gun registry and sales requirements. Automatic weapons were now illegal. So were suppressors and clips that held more than ten rounds, and all guns were required to have GPS so they could be tracked by law enforcement. The number of people who could request "gun violence restraining orders" had been expanded, and "ghost guns" were banned. Anyone arrested in possession of these now-illegal weapons could expect jail time.
Last night, in defiance of the new law, a throng of rowdies, both locals and out-of-towners, had gathered outside Oracle Park. They'd been armed with AKs and semiautomatics and had grown increasingly defiant, chanting "We will not comply" as their ranks swelled. Cops and the SFFD had dispersed them with warnings and a blue line.
"We'll be buying back weapons at eighteen publicized locations," Clapper said, tapping a clipboard. "This lists the fair prices we'll be offering in the form of grocery and big-box-store gift cards in exchange for weapons. And you'll learn where you can sign out a cruiser with the setup kit.
"I'm asking you all to sign the schedule to man the buy-back stations. This is a chance to make friends and reduce the number of weapons in the city. If you haven't heard, a police station in Ocala, Florida, was stormed and the protesters were arrested, sixty of them. They mugged for the cameras and promised payback if their guns were impounded. Which they were. Similar protests have gone on in Texas, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin."
It was still fresh news that cities around the country had put similar gun restriction laws into place, and protests were sparking up like wildfires.
Even police were divided on the issue.
Half the cops I knew were glad to get excessive firepower off the streets. It was also true that the other half agreed with the protesters, who took the new law as an attack on their rights under the Second Amendment.
Clapper said, "Anyone with issues about gun control, keep them to yourself. I expect you all to do your duty as law enforcement officers and to watch your backs. Questions?"
There were none. Clapper ended the meeting. His office and anteroom emptied. Along with my friends and colleagues in Homicide, I clattered down the fire stairs to our squad room.
Our new gun law had shut the door on military-style weapons. I sent up a silent prayer that the protesters wouldn't batter that door down.
Homicide Lieutenant Jackson Brady's office was a one-hundred-square-foot glass enclosure wedged into the back corner of the squad room. He could see I-80 through his window and the entire bullpen through his walls, and I could see him clearly from my desk fifteen feet from his door.
Today, as nearly always, he wore his platinum-blond hair banded in a short pony, a denim shirt, blue tie, blue jacket, jeans. His intense blue eyes were focused on his desk while he spoke on the phone. He was in what I thought of as his "blue study."
The office—and the job of lieutenant—had once been mine, but I had stepped aside so that I could work homicides hands-on. For now, my friend and partner, Rich Conklin, was bringing a new member of our squad up to speed, and Brady had me working as his backup officer in charge.
This involved managing case files, assigning manpower, and, if Brady was otherwise involved, answering his phone. When he ended his call, I took five paces to his office, knocked for effect, and opened the door.
"We have to talk, Lieu."
"Not really. You've been sighing hard enough to blow down my walls for the last whatever."
"Hundred years," I said.
"A week," he said. "But that's you bein' a team play-uh."
Brady had come to the SFPD from Miami PD, bringing a touch of Southern drawl with him. I slumped into a side chair, put my gum-soled shoes up against the side of the desk.
"I want to work the gifts-for-guns program with Alvarez."
"She signed up?"
I sighed. "She will. You know Alvarez is a good team play-uh."
He gave me a look but had to smile.
"What's up, Boxer?"
"I need to get out of this place."
"Fine," said Brady. "Tell Conklin I need him to help me."
I left Brady's office before he could say, "Keep me in the loop."
Alvarez, recently of Vegas PD, Vice squad, was a gung-ho, good-looking thirtysomething, and she was all in. She leaned back in her chair, pumped her fist, and said, "Yesss."
I told Conklin he was temporarily assigned to my desk outside Brady's office, and he wasn't overjoyed. "Don't forget to write," he said.
It took an hour plus to gain possession of a van, learn the buy-back protocol, and drive to the Walmart parking lot in Daly City. I parked the van not far from the store's front doors, slid open our side panel, and set up a market tent and a card table on the asphalt. As ordered, Alvarez and I wore SFPD windbreakers over our Kevlar vests.
Alvarez checked out the camera inside the van with its view of the table, and I put out signs and a couple of folding chairs.
"I'll get coffee," she said.
I sat in a folding chair in the morning sunshine. Shoppers pushed their carts full of merchandise and some small kids to their cars. A woman of about seventy came toward the van, and when she got to the card table, she showed me a bunch of crumpled newspaper inside a plastic bag.
"I have something to sell," she said, handing me the bag.
I unwrapped her old S and W .22, showed her the price chart. She nodded and I gave her twenty-five dollars in a supermarket gift card.
"Thanks for the grocery money," she said.
Alvarez returned with black coffee and four packets of sugar for me, milky latte for herself.
We toasted with our coffee containers.
"To getting guns off the street," she said.
To which I added, "It's a good day to be a cop."
Mike Wallenger was briefing Joe Molinari in the car. He wore a red cap inscribed Defenders of the 2nd, the name the gun-law protesters had adopted. His canvas jacket, jeans, steel-toed boots, and three-day-old beard completed the look. Like Joe, he had his gun in a hip holster under his jacket, and his badge was hooked to the opposite side of his waistband.
Joe's undercover guise was what he'd worn to meet Steinmetz. Khakis, striped sweater, one of the new, lighter Kevlar vests under a black-and-orange Giants windbreaker. Loafers. He was Everyman.
Wallenger took a card out of the console and passed it to Joe. It was a mug shot of a dark-haired man in his late thirties with a tattoo of a dragon on the right side of his neck.
"That's our subject, Alejandro Vega," Wallenger said. "He buys guns in Mexico, largely military surplus, and sells them in the US. He's been out of jail for a week."
Joe said, "So he served his time, went home for a conjugal visit and to restock?"
"So it seems. That's all I know except that he's our problem."
Joe said, "Okay. Tell me the plan."
"I've kept it simple," said Wallenger, negotiating the turn at Geneva Avenue. "When we get to the show, we'll locate Vega's booth. I'm your neighbor with gun knowledge, and you're looking to buy an automatic handgun for protection. Money's no object. You want the best. And if Vega doesn't offer what we like, you just keep asking what else he has.
"If he puts out an illegal weapon, I'll pull my piece and step in with a warrant. You put him on the floor and cuff him. I'll call our backup, and they'll confiscate his goods and search his vehicle."
"Mike. You asked for me. Why?"
"'Nobody does it better…,'" Wallenger sang.
"Oh, man. Please stop. I used to like that song."
"No joke. You don't look like a Fed."
"Yeah," said Joe. "Pasta. Homemade. I put on a few pounds."
"That's a good thing. Vega will not be able to pass up this gun show. And we look like customers. He won't make us."
"I'm glad for the opportunity, Mike."
Wallenger grinned and said, "The pleasure is mine."
He parked the unmarked blue Honda sedan in the huge lot off of Geneva Avenue outside the Cow Palace, the convention center where the much-anticipated gun show was being held. The lot was three-quarters full and the doors had only opened in the last hour.
Joe got out of the car and zipped up his Giants windbreaker.
Wallenger said, "You go in first."
While his partner checked in with the backup teams, Joe went through the revolving doors to the convention center. He showed his badge and gun to security, then cleared the magnetometer.
Joe took in the vast dimensions of the place, the volume of the innumerable would-be gun shoppers milling among the hundreds of sellers' tables and, incidentally, blocking his view. He narrowed his focus, scanning table by table, hoping his gaze would fall on the man with the dragon tattoo.
But Vega was a needle in a haystack of needles.
It was Wallenger who spotted him.
Alejandro Vega's table was at the end of a middle row, equidistant from the front and rear exit doors.
Mike Wallenger nodded to Joe, a signal to move in. Joe put his hands in his pockets and drifted to the edge of the crowd of about a half dozen men who were browsing Vega's table of long guns and military weaponry. With Wallenger at his back, Joe stared down at the display laid out on green felt. It all looked legal. Vega sensed that he had a buyer and looked up.
- “The women characters are serious, strong, and admirable. Enjoyable storytelling by two masters of the craft.”—Kirkus Reviews
- “James Patterson’s 22 Seconds is this summer’s must-read crime thriller—here’s why: The newest book in the series is the best of them all."—Woman's World
- On Sale
- Dec 26, 2023
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Grand Central Publishing