Coming Back


By Marcia Muller

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New York Times bestselling author, Marcia Muller, brings you another thrilling mystery with her famous private investigator, Sharon McCone.

In Locked In, San Francisco private eye Sharon McCone was shot in the head and suffered from locked-in syndrome: almost total paralysis but with an alert, conscious mind. Now, as Sharon struggles to regain control over her body, she wants everything to go back to normal, but realizes that it may not be possible to return to her old life. Meanwhile, Sharon's relationships are suffering. Her husband is impatient with her refusal to accept help and some of her colleagues doubt her abilities after the accident.

But when Sharon's friend from physical therapy goes missing, she must call upon those closest to her to find out the truth behind the disappearance. The investigation soon points to issues of national security and proves to be the most dangerous and critical case yet for Sharon and her colleagues.


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Table of Contents

Copyright Page



Coming back was the hardest thing I've ever had to do.

First the speech: trying to make coherent words out of the gibberish that spewed from my lips. Like learning English as a second language, only as if I had no first.

"Mescatal," I said to Phoebe Williams, my speech therapist at the Brandt Neurological Institute; I'd been a patient there since I was shot in the head in early July by an intruder at Pier 24½. Phoebe had asked me what abilities I'd normally lacked before I spent two weeks in a coma.

In spite of the scrambled word, she knew what I meant. "Mus-i-cal." She accented the first syllable, using a long U slowly, showing me how she moved her mouth and tongue.

"Musicattle." At least the first two syllables were right.


"Mus-i-kit. Mus-i-cat. Mus-i-cal. Musical!"

It was the tenth word I'd finally gotten right in the past half hour. Now I was tired. Who would have thought that simple speech could be so exhausting?

Regaining motion was another effort entirely: flexing my fingers, toes, and feet. Making them strong and able to do my bidding.

"Can't be my sinature! Like a first-graver's."

"You're doing fine, Sharon. Let's work on signing your name a few more times." Jill Hughes, one of my physical therapists, was annoyingly upbeat.

"You ever a sheerleader?" I asked.

"A what?"

I paused and shaped my mouth to make the word come out right. "Cheerleader."

"What's that got to do with—"

I shook my head and picked up the pen that I'd thrown down on the table. "Try sinning again."

Jill's eyes met mine, and we both started to laugh.

And so it went, until the day when my words made sense, but the voice and inflections didn't sound like my own.

"Better today," I told Phoebe after she'd returned from a long weekend. It was a flat statement that didn't reflect the excitement and hope I felt inside.

"Very good!"

"Been practick… practicing those speech exercises you gave me." I demonstrated shaping words with exaggerated mouth and tongue motions. "Nighttime, maybe three hours." I felt as if a stranger were talking through me.

"You've made a lot of progress. Are you ready to work even harder?"


"Then let's get started. Why don't you read me the lead article in the Chronicle?"

I picked up that morning's newspaper with fingers that no longer fumbled. " 'Yesterday Presh… President Barack Obama… un-equiv-ocally stated…' "

The news, at least for today, was good.

I spent hours toning my long unused muscles until I had control over them.

"Let's turn over on our side," Mark Ito, physical therapist, said.

From my position on my back on the padded table I stared up at the ceiling and sighed. My breakfast had been oatmeal, which I'd despised since my childhood when my mother insisted I start every day with it. I'd accidentally looked at the bathroom mirror and seen my nearly bald head. A phone call from Elwood Farmer, my birth father who lived on the Flathead Rez in Montana, had annoyed me: he was doing what I thought of as his mystical Indian shtick today, quoting Shoshone proverbs that didn't have much to do with my current problematical situation. I asked him not to try so hard to be a father at this late date—we'd only discovered each other a few years ago—and instead of taking offense, he'd waxed more eloquent and philosophical. I'd hung up on him. Later I would have to mend fences.

Mark Ito repeated, "Let's turn over on our side now."

"Whose side? Yours or mine?"

"Testy today, aren't we?"

"I am. I don't know about you."

"On our side, please." He motioned but refrained from helping me.

I thumped onto my side, feeling as a walrus must. God, was I gaining weight? That would add the final insult to injury!

"That's good," Mark said. "Now let's raise our right knee…. Very good. We're doing fine."

"Maybe you are. This hurts."

"Testiness is a sign of healing."

And then there was the walking: a halting step; an assisted journey down the hospital's corridor, clinging to a railing.

"What's this thing around me, Mark? A harness?"

"So you won't fall. I've got you. Grasp the bar on the wall and stabilize yourself. Then take a step with your right foot."

"Not our right foot?"

"I got your message weeks ago: no PT speak. Step, please."

I stepped, teetered some. Mark pulled on the harness to steady me.

"I feel like a toy poodle being taken for a walk."

"One more step."

I took two. "Betcha I can outrun a toy poodle."

"Try two more."

I took three.

Finally I walked slowly on my own down that same corridor.

"Hey, look at you, Shar!" Mark began applauding. "Hey, everybody," he called to others in the hallway, "look at McCone!"

Two orderlies, a nurse, and a patient in a wheelchair joined in Mark's applause.

"Thank you." I made a slight bow. "I'm stepping out."

As I made my way toward the lobby and the bench outside the front door, where my nurse had frequently wheeled me in my chair, my eyes filled with tears of gratitude for all the Institute staff had done for me.

Eventually there was a day in December when I heard myself talking as I always had, and the two halves of my verbal ability became one.

"I've been thinking, Ripinsky," I said to Hy. We were relaxing in front of the kiva-style fireplace in the sitting room at our Church Street house. Home for good, at last.

"About what?"

"I ought to start putting in appearances at the office, if only for the staff meetings." McCone Investigations had been in the hands of my capable employees for nearly five months now, but I missed the day-to-day involvement. "Things're okay, but they need me."

"I thought you weren't going back till after the first of the year. You don't want to overdo it."

"Dammit, Ripinsky, I'm sick of being an invalid! I want my fuckin' life back!"

He grinned widely, white teeth flashing beneath his bushy dark blond mustache. "I'd say you're well on your way, colorful vocabulary and all."

When the Brandt Institute released me from their therapy program they referred me to a rehab center in the Inner Sunset district. It was quite a distance from my house and the pier, but I went six or seven days a week, and gradually I became more and more the person I used to be.

It would be over six months before the state of California would allow me to operate a motor vehicle: people who have had seizures and brain damage must serve a probationary period after recovery. It would be nearly a year or more before an FAA-certified doctor would sign off on my medical status and even longer until I proved my abilities to their examiners and my pilot's license was restored.

But all of that would happen. With hard work and determination I'd come all the way back.

Others, I knew, were not so fortunate.



When Piper Quinn didn't make it to our exercise session for the fifth straight day, I got worried.

I'd met Piper at the Brandt Neurological Institute, where she'd also been a patient, and when she'd been released from their therapy program she'd joined me for daily sessions at Alta Vista Rehab, on Judah Street near the UC medical campus. The center was like a gym, with trainers who were specialists in various disorders and injuries; it even had a pool and a juice bar. A staff doctor designed an individual program for each patient—only they called us clients—and Piper and I reconnected at the weight machines.

Piper's condition made mine seem like a common cold: two years ago she'd been hit by a speeding car while crossing with the light at the intersection of Geary Boulevard and Seventeenth Avenue. The force of the impact threw her some twenty yards through the window of a storefront. The driver of the car was probably drunk; he hadn't even slowed down, much less stopped to help.

The combination of broken arms and legs and ribs, extreme blood loss, a collapsed lung, and some brain damage resulting in a coma should have killed her. As should the stroke that paralyzed the right side of her body after she regained consciousness. But Piper was young—twenty-seven—and strong and loved life. She clung to it ferociously. After six operations and two months in acute care at San Francisco General, she was admitted to the Brandt Institute, where she gradually reclaimed what she could.

Piper would always walk with a cane and a limp and sometimes slur or scramble her words. She would always seem a bit "off" to so-called normal people. But she was pretty and vibrant and determined to succeed at whatever she attempted to do. A survivor like no other.

That was why her repeated absences from our exercise sessions gave me cause for concern.

I stood on the sidewalk watching the N-Judah streetcar pull away from the nearby stop. A common sight, the rear end of public transit vehicles; they were never there when I needed them. For most of the time I'd lived in the city I'd zipped around in my vintage red MG, a great car to weave through traffic and wedge into tiny parking spaces. Now, because I couldn't drive till the doctors and the DMV gave me the go-ahead next July, my choice was to rely on the Muni rather than my husband and my friends and associates. I hated asking favors and wanted to guard my independence, so I spent a lot of money on the Muni—there had been a recent fare hike—and an inordinate amount of time at bus and streetcar stops.

Now I checked my watch. Four-thirteen. Hy would be in his South-of-Market office at RI, the corporate security firm he owned; in the time it would take him to get here through Friday rush hour traffic, it would be five-thirty or six. Our caseload at the agency was light these days—although not so light as to cause alarm—and my employees had been leaving early; I didn't want to keep them from their weekend.

I fingered the pendant I wore over my sweater, a single large multicolored opal—turquoise, green, blue, and fiery red. I'd worn it every day this week to show Piper how much I appreciated her gift. She'd been wearing it last Friday when we had coffee at the little café on the corner, and when I admired it she said, "If you like it, I want you to have it."

I protested, but she took the pendant off and fastened it around my neck, saying, "It was a present from an old love. He bought it intending to win me back. Not possible now." I loved the pendant and had shown it off to everybody at the office, but Piper had yet to see me wear it.

Now I reached into my backpack for my PDA and accessed Piper's address, three blocks away on Tenth Avenue. That was all the contact information I had for her; for two people who had grown so emotionally close, we'd never exchanged phone numbers or e-mail addresses. And now that I thought of it, that had been her doing. She shied away from any connection outside the rehab center, except for the occasional cup of coffee at the café, where we talked of our progress or neutral subjects.

I knew very little about her life. Our friendship revolved around our disabilities.

I did know that she was from the Midwest but had left there eight years before to attend a now-defunct computer graphics school in Santa Cruz. Her degree led to a job offer to manage a Web site for a clothing firm here in the city, and later she'd moved along to another, similar position in what she called the rag trade. After three years, she had the connections and know-how to establish her own firm, which she ran out of her apartment. She'd been returning to her car from a meeting with a client when she crossed Geary and was struck by the hit-and-run driver.

What I didn't know about Piper would fill volumes. What had her childhood been like? Were her parents still living? Did she have siblings? Friends? A boyfriend other than the "old love"? Had she ever been married? Had a child? She'd had few visitors at Brandt and those that came had not stayed long. One, she'd told me, was her attorney. Another, a neighbor bringing her some things she needed from her apartment. It was as if the accident had severed her personal time line, leaving Before on one side and After on the other.

She'd gotten back to work once she left the Institute, reconnecting with a few old clients and getting referrals from them to others, and she spoke enthusiastically of her projects. I sensed she was more concerned about doing something useful than the money it brought in; she'd received a large insurance payment from her accident policy with State Farm, which had taken care of her medical bills plus allowed her to maintain her apartment during her recovery. Maybe she had money of her own—savings or a trust fund. She never acted as if she were on the brink of financial disaster, as so many of the people who came to Alta Vista Rehab did.

I hesitated a moment more on the sidewalk, craning my neck to see if a streetcar was in sight, then decided on impulse to pay Piper a visit. I was worried about her, and as an excuse for just dropping in I could tell her I needed a place to wait till Hy was available.

I set out for Tenth Avenue.

The buildings on Piper's block were a mixture of brick Edwardians, stucco cottages, and three-story modern apartments of a similar bay-windowed style. Cars clogged the curbs, motorcycles wedged between them, and bicycles were chained to railings and lampposts. Too few garages, too many people. It was a bland area, except for the occasional garish purple or pink house, and now rendered gray by the fog and fading light.

Piper's address was one of the modern structures. Three mailboxes, three buzzers and intercoms. Her unit, naturally, was on the ground floor, and a wheelchair ramp spanned part of the front steps. She used the chair on days when walking was too much for her.

I rang the bell but received no answering buzz. Then I saw that the lobby door was partly open; somebody had wedged a newspaper between it and the jamb. I went in and spotted Piper's door at the back of the lobby, next to the stairs; it was also partway open. As I entered a long narrow hallway with three closed doors leading off it, I called out to Piper.


I went along the hallway, glancing at the prints on the walls: Chinese scenes of mountains towering over villages or lone houses, executed in intricate detail. Reducing everyday life to something small and manageable. I wondered if Piper had selected them before or after her accident. Probably I was reading too much into her choice of artwork, but since being shot I'd found that small and manageable worked for me.

The hallway widened out into a living room with a blue plush sofa and two matching chairs arranged before a gas-log fireplace. Lighter blue curtains were closed against the fog and a table lamp burned low. Piper lay on her side on the sofa, wearing a long white robe; the flicker of the flames accentuated her high cheekbones and picked out red-gold streaks in her long blonde hair. One arm trailed off the sofa, its fingers grazing the gray carpet. She didn't move or acknowledge my presence.

I went over and touched her shoulder lightly, so as not to alarm her. She stirred, muttered, and went still again.

Oh God, I thought, relapse. Another seizure or stroke. How many times have I been afraid that would happen to me?

"Piper." I spoke softly.

No response.

"Piper!" I shook her shoulder.

Her eyes opened slowly, dull and unfocused.

"It's me—Sharon."

"Uhhh… Sharon." She tried to raise her extended arm, but it fell back.

"Piper, what happened? Are you all right?"

"Huh? Oh…" She closed her eyes, swallowed heavily.

"I'll call the EMTs—"

"No. You… help me. Problem I can't control."

"What problem?"


"Piper, tell me!"

"Your job, you know…"

"What about my job?"

She sank back into a stupor.

I shook her again. No response. I lifted one of her eyelids; her pupils were dilated to the max.


I looked around for a pill bottle, a syringe. Nothing.

I was about to call 911 on my cell when there was a noise at the end of the hall, the sound of the outer door closing. A tall, middle-aged woman with short gray hair and round dark-framed glasses appeared, grocery bag in hand. The glasses and her slightly hooked nose reminded me of an owl. She was dressed unseasonably in a T-shirt and shorts; her legs and arms were sinewy and tanned. Probably a runner.

She stopped and looked from me to Piper and back to me. "Well," she said, "what's this?"

I introduced myself as Piper's friend from Alta Vista Rehab. "I was about to call 911. Piper's out of it; it looks as if she's taken an overdose of drugs."

The woman glanced at Piper. Behind her glasses her eyes moved shrewdly, assessing the situation.

After a few beats she said in a faint drawl, "I'm sure she'll be fine. She's a diabetic, you know, and isn't good about taking her meds. I'll give her an insulin shot and she'll perk right up."

I found that explanation hard to believe. Piper had never mentioned diabetes, and even if she had the disease, I couldn't imagine her ever neglecting her medications.

The woman set down the grocery bag on the nearby dining table and went to Piper. "Upsy-daisy, honey. Let's get you into the bedroom." She lifted her with ease and pushed through one of the closed doors, shutting it behind her.

I went over there and listened, but couldn't make out anything. Shortly the woman reappeared. "She'll be okay now."

I asked, "And you are?"

Hesitation. Then, "Melinda Knowles, a friend from back home. Piper's aunt, actually."

"How long have you been visiting?"

"Oh, just a few days. I came west to help out."

Why hadn't she come before this, when Piper really could have used help? Why now, when Piper had regained her independence?

"Came out from where?" I asked.

She moved closer to me and began herding me toward the hallway, in a series of little, nipping invasions of my space designed for that purpose.

"You're from where?" I repeated.

Knowles kept herding me. I held my ground till we were close enough that I could feel her breath on my face. I caught the scent of mint overlying alcohol. An early happy hour?

Finally she said, "I'm from a little town near Oklahoma City. You wouldn't know of it."

Now I placed her accent—not Southern or Texan, but distinctive in its own way. "The town where Piper is from?"

My guess was right. Knowles nodded. "If she'd stayed home, this awful thing never would have happened to her."

"I'd like to look in on her for a moment."

"No, she needs her rest. And I need to get dinner on the table. She has to have her nourishment on a regular basis."

But Piper was perfectly capable of providing her own meals. Just last week she'd told me about a complicated soufflé that she'd cooked.

I hesitated, reluctant to leave her alone with this woman who so obviously wanted me gone.

Knowles's face softened. "I know you're worried about Piper. I am too. She was doing so well until this week."

"What happened?"

"I'm not sure. She won't talk about it."

"A shock of some kind?"

"Maybe. I'll ask her to call you when she's better."

"Thank you." Then I realized Piper didn't have my number, and I gave Knowles one of my business cards. She set it on an end table, barely glancing at it.

"I'm sure Piper will be glad you stopped by," Knowles said, ushering me to the door, her movements no longer so aggressive.

Still I hesitated. This woman reminded me of a watchdog, and not the benign kind.

"Good-bye for now," she said.

I stepped into the hall and the door closed behind me, the dead bolt clicking into place.


He loved Shar, but she could be a pain in the ass sometimes. Like tonight: dragging into the house at nearly seven after taking two streetcars from the rehab center. She'd told him she'd had an upsetting experience and needed time by herself to process it, but she didn't want to discuss it just yet.

Bullshitting him, probably. The Muni was not a place to do any serious thinking. Just an excuse for her damned stubborn insistence on being independent.

He'd told her as much, and she'd disappeared downstairs to their bedroom suite to take a shower. Moving more slowly than normal; the long rides—probably standing up—had tired her.

He grabbed an IPA from the fridge and sat down in front of the fire to wait for her.

The last few months had been hard on him—a conflicted time. What he'd most valued in his wife when they first met, her self-sufficiency and bravery, were taxing his patience. Scaring him a little too. She'd come a long way since last July, when she'd been delivered by a gifted neurosurgeon from a life in a locked-in state, and most times she seemed like her old self.

Well, except for her hair: it had grown back thick and black as before, but it was short and spiky and there was a weird white streak that she complained made her look like a skunk. She'd had a small gray streak in the same place since her teens, which she dyed, but she refused to color this one till her hair grew out. People joked about her new look, and she laughed, but he knew her appearance bothered her.

It certainly didn't bother him. It was the pushing of her limits that did. If as a result something happened to her…

He'd had experience with disability before: his first wife, Julie Spaulding, had died of multiple sclerosis. But Julie had been ill before he married her and had learned to live with the disease. She knew her limits and didn't exceed them and, as a consequence, Hy had made his own accommodations.

Julie, he thought now. Something she'd said about being disabled flickered in Hy's memory, then vanished. He tried to recapture it but couldn't. Julie had been gone many years, and the small details of their life together had faded. Some of the bigger ones, too, he hated to admit.

He heard Shar coming up the spiral staircase from the bedroom and went to the kitchen to fetch her a glass of chardonnay. By the time he was back in the sitting room, she had sunk onto the sofa and pulled a soft woolen blanket around her. Her hair was wet from the shower, her cheeks rosy. He handed her the glass and said, "Better now?"

"Yes." She sipped, smiled at him. Their spats were infrequent and short; neither could stay angry with the other.

But, dammit, she had to understand how he'd felt: alone, unsure where she was and if she was all right. She hadn't even given him the courtesy of a phone call.

"My cell discharged," she said.

Reading his mind; they'd always had that connection, even at a long physical distance.

"And there aren't many phone booths around anymore."

He put his hand on her knee, enjoying the solid feel of flesh and bone. "I know."

"The damn thing's unreliable," she added, looking down into her wineglass. "My cell, I mean."

"Buy a better one. Or keep it on the charger when you're home."

"I know I should. But I…" Her voice trailed off into silence. "It's hard," she added, "getting around to things like that."

"I understand."

"And sometimes it's a relief to be unavailable. My mother, my brother, John. Charlene and Patsy too. The only ones who don't want to caution me to take it easy a dozen times a day are my birth family. At least they trust me."

"Your mother and brother and sisters care."

"That's not the point! They view me as infirm, somebody who's not capable of getting on with her life. Ma left seven messages at the agency today. Seven! John's down to five, Patsy and Charlene two apiece. But I bet there're more on the voice mail here."


  • "After all these years, Muller's series remains a gold standard for female detective stories."—Kirkus, starred review
  • "Top-notch mystery and more from one of the genre's Grand Masters."—Library Journal

On Sale
Oct 1, 2011
Page Count
352 pages

Marcia Muller

About the Author

Marcia Muller has written many novels and short stories. She has won six Anthony Awards, a Shamus Award, and is also the recipient of the Private Eye Writers of America's Lifetime Achievement Award as well as the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award (their highest accolade). She lives in northern California with her husband, mystery writer Bill Pronzini.

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