All rights belong to the author: Marcia Muller.
This is a short fragment for review the book. The full version can be purchased in the store.

Marcia Muller
Locked In

Book 26 in the Sharon McCone series, 2009

For Bette Golden Lamb,

with many thanks from her honorary medical person

and

Bill,

for a story that started out as a joke


MONDAY, JULY 7

SHARON McCONE

A typical July night in San Francisco. Mist swirling off the bay, a foghorn bellowing every thirty seconds out at the Golden Gate. Lights along the Embarcadero dimmed, and the sidewalks and the streets mostly empty at a few minutes after nine. Sounds of traffic on the Bay Bridge curiously muted. In contrast, my boot heels tapped loudly on the pavement.

Ahead of me lay Pier 24½. Three long blocks behind me my vintage MG sat in a no-parking zone, out of gas.

Way to go, McCone. When you fly, you’re meticulous about fueling. But with the car, you resist stopping at a station till the damn thing’s running on fumes.

Just my luck-the fumes had given out short of my destination tonight.

Pilot error-on the ground.

A sudden blast of wind came off the water, and I gripped my woolen hat, pulled it lower on my forehead. Something to my right was banging, metal on metal: I glanced over and saw a NO TRESPASSING sign loosely attached to a chain-link fence barring access to one of the old piers scheduled for demolition.

This is my workday neighborhood. I walk this lovely, palm-lined boulevard all the time. I shouldn’t allow sounds to spook me.

Another moan from the foghorn. Why did it sometimes seem melancholy, at other times strident, and at still others like the scream of a victim in pain?

Now I was passing a derelict shed on the far side of the doomed pier. A heap of rags lay on its loading dock. No, not rags-a human being seeking shelter from the inclement weather. Another member of San Francisco’s homeless population.

One of many things wrong with this damned city-too few resources, too little compassion.

I had a love-hate relationship with the town I’d made my home. But I knew, no matter how bad the urban situation became, I’d never leave.

Ahead the security lights of Pier 24½ glowed through the mist. I quickened my steps.

The city’s port commission had tried to raise the tenants’ rental rates last fall-a first step toward also demolishing this pier-but an influential attorney friend of mine had prevailed upon them to maintain the status quo. For a while, anyway.

Where, I wondered now, would I find a comparable rate and space for an agency that was growing quickly? Profits were up, yes, but salaries and the cost of employee benefits were also escalating. Maybe…

I put my worries aside and concentrated on my original purpose: retrieve the cell phone that I’d accidentally left on my desk before going out to dinner with one of my friends and operatives, Julia Rafael. The phone whose absence had prevented me from calling Triple A when the car ran out of gas. If I contacted them from the office, they’d be there by the time I walked back to the MG-

A hand touched my forearm. I jerked away, moving into a defensive stance. A dark figure had loomed out of the mist.

“Lady, can you spare a dollar?”

Jesus, he was panhandling in a nearly deserted area in this weather? Better to fort up in the shelter of one of the sheds, like the person I’d glimpsed earlier.

He waited, arms loose at his sides, shoulders slumped. I couldn’t see his features, but the wind whipped at his jacket and I saw it was thin and had a ragged tear.

I reached into the pocket of my peacoat and found some bills that I’d left there whenever I last wore it. Held them out to him. He hesitated before taking them, as if he couldn’t believe his good fortune.

“Thank you, lady. God bless.”

He disappeared into the fog as swiftly as he’d appeared.

I pulled the collar of my coat more tightly around my neck and went on toward the pier.

The powers that be say you shouldn’t give money to the homeless; they’ll only spend it on drugs and liquor. What was that slogan they made up? Care, not cash. All shiny and idealistic, but the truth is, some people slip through the cracks in the care department, and cash for a bottle or a fix is what they need to get themselves through a cold, damp night like this one.

I thrust my hands deeper into my pockets, but a chill had invaded me that couldn’t be touched by the warmth of wool and lining.

The fog seemed thicker now. It played tricks on my vision. Someone was coming at me from the bayside… No, advancing toward me on the left… No, there was nobody-

A shriek echoed over the boulevard, high-pitched tones bouncing off the surrounding buildings.

I stopped, peered hard through the churning mist.

Laughter, and the sound of running feet over at Hills Brothers Plaza. More laughter, fading into the distance along with the footsteps. People clowning around after leaving one of the restaurants.

The security grille had been pulled down over the yawning, arched entrance to the pier. My opener was back in the MG. I grasped the cold bars and called out to Lewis, the guard we tenants collectively employed.

No answer.

Well, sure. He was probably drinking in the far recesses of the cavernous structure. Or already passed out. A nice guy, Lewis, but a serious alcoholic. At the last tenants’ meeting we’d talked about firing him, but none of us had taken the initiative to find a replacement. I should have-

That’s not your bailiwick any more, McCone. You’ve got Adah to take care of things like that now.

Adah Joslyn, formerly of the SFPD’s homicide detail, now my executive administrator. Last winter I’d stepped back from the day-to-day running of the agency so I could concentrate on cases that really interested me. There hadn’t been many, and in the meantime I’d started giving self-defense classes at a women’s shelter in my neighborhood and working their emergency hotline during the day when most of their volunteers were out earning a living. I’d been able to spend more time at Touchstone, Hy’s and my seaside home in Mendocino County, and at our ranch in the high desert country with our horses, King Lear and Sidekick.

I shouted again for Lewis.

Still no answer.

Damn. I’d have to use my security code to open the door to the right of the pier’s entrance. But I’d just changed it, as we did every month, and I wasn’t sure…

Favorite canned chili. Right. I punched in 6255397-the numerical equivalent of NALLEYS on the keypad-and gained entry.

Usually there were cars belonging to tenants parked on the pier’s floor at any time of day or night: employees of my agency, the architectural firm and desktop publisher on the opposite catwalk, and the various small businesses running along either side of the downstairs worked long and irregular hours. Tonight I was surprised to find no vehicles and no light leaking around doorways. The desk where Lewis was supposed to be stationed was deserted.

That does it. We’re firing your ass tomorrow.

I crossed the floor to the stairs to our catwalk, footsteps echoing off the walls and high corrugated iron roof, then clanging on the metal as I climbed up and went toward my office at the bayside end. God, this place was spooky at night with nobody around.

As I passed the space occupied by my office manager, Ted Smalley, and his assistant, Kendra Williams, I thought I saw a flicker of light.

So somebody was there after all. Maybe Ted had left his car on the street; if so, he could give me a ride back to the MG. Kendra took public transit; she could keep me company while I waited for Triple A, and then I’d drive her home. I went to the door, calling out to them. No response. I rattled the knob. Locked.

I’d imagined the light. Or it had been a reflection off the high north-facing windows.

I went along to my office, slid the key into its dead-bolt lock. When I turned it, the bolt clicked into place. Now that was wrong; I’d locked it when I left the office. We all made a point to do so because we had so many sensitive files in cabinets and on our computers.

I turned the key again and shoved the door open. Stepped inside and reached for the light switch.

Motion in the darkness, more sensed than heard.

My fingertips touched the switch but before I could flip it, a dark figure appeared only a few feet away and then barreled into me, knocked me against the wall. My head bounced off the Sheet-rock hard enough to blur my vision. In the next second I reeled backward through the door, spun around, and was down on my knees on the hard iron catwalk. As I tried to scramble away, push up and regain my footing, one of my groping hands brushed over some other kind of metal-

Sudden flash, loud pop.

Rush of pain.

Oh my God, I’ve been shot-

Nothing.

THURSDAY, JULY 17

SHARON McCONE

A thin bright line. Widening. Slowly.

Beige light.

What…?

My eyes began to focus.

A ceiling. I’m on my back looking at an unfamiliar ceiling.

A tube was thrust into my mouth, and from somewhere nearby came a rhythmic breathing sound. In my peripheral vision were other tubes, snaking in many directions. Metal bars to either side, like a baby’s crib.

I couldn’t move my head either to the left or to the right.

Straight ahead, a curtain. Beige and green-a leafy pattern.

Rhythmic beeping sounds from behind me.

Hospital room. I’m in a hospital!

But where…? What…? How…?

The light dimmed, narrowed-

The light returned, softer now.

Rustling noises and then, in profile, a face.

Nurse? Must be. Blue scrubs and a gentle, placid expression. Asian, probably Filipina.

She moved away.

Come back! I need to ask you-

Everything dimmed again.


* * *

Dark now, but a shaft of light slanting across the ceiling. Must be coming from a doorway. Faint sounds of men and women talking. No, one man and two women. Who…?

Hospital staff. A friend had once told me hospitals were noisy at night; no cessation of activity then. Nurses gave medications, responded to emergency situations and the ring of patients’ call buttons.

Call button…

It would be within easy reach. All I had to do was feel around for it-

My right arm wouldn’t move.

My calves and feet hurt, an ache that went straight to the bones. I couldn’t move them either.

Paralyzed!

No, that can’t be.

Frantically I willed some part of me to move-a finger, a toe, anything.

Nothing.

Total immobility.

A scream rose in my throat. A scream without voice.

I couldn’t make a sound.

What’s happening to me?

Cold, foggy night along the Embarcadero… Derelict coming out of the mist… Deserted pier… My office… Shadowy figure slamming into me… Flash, pop, pain…

Oh, God!

Panic shot through me. The scream rose to a high, shrill pitch, but only in my mind.

“… Appears comatose. As you know, it took quite an effort to stabilize her.” A stranger’s voice, grave. “But her blood pressure is finally in hand, essentially normal, she’s taking nourishment through the feeding tube, and is able to breathe well on her own since we began taking her off the ventilator yesterday.”

“Do you have a definite diagnosis yet?”

Hy! But what-?

“Traumatic brain injury, of course, but beyond that we can’t yet say. The CT scan shows the bullet entered the occipital lobe of her brain, carrying along with it bone fragments. A clot formed from internal bleeding, creating pressure.”

“And the prognosis?” Hy’s voice was tightly controlled, but I knew he was quaking inside.

“Too early to tell. It’s-if you’ll excuse my wording-a mess in there, which is why we can’t attempt surgery. She appears comatose and completely paralyzed, but the scan we took yesterday shows she has good brain wave activity.”

“So she’ll come out of this?”

A pause. “I do think you may have to face some hard decisions about your wife’s quality of life.” Rustling of paper. “I see here that you have her advance directive giving you medical power of attorney. Have the two of you discussed her wishes?”

“Yes.” Curt. He wasn’t ready to go there yet.

I’d been listening to the conversation dispassionately, as if they were talking about somebody else. Now my defenses crumbled, and I gave in to panic. The silent scream rose again.

The doctor said, “Have you given any further thought to transferring her to the Brandt Neurological Institute?”

“I spoke with them this morning. They have a room available and will admit her as soon as you give the go-ahead.” Hy hesitated. “Isn’t this the equivalent of giving up on her?”

“Not at all.” The doctor’s voice was too upbeat. “It’s an excellent acute rehabilitation center. Dr. Ralph Saxnay, who will be her attending neurosurgeon, is one of the best. In addition, it’s very quiet and private. No one needs to know she’s there.” A pause. “You must realize we’ve had difficulty with the media here. Your wife has made quite a name for herself in this city.”

Hy didn’t respond to the doctor’s comment. “I’ll make the final arrangements with the institute.”

Final arragements. It sounds as if he’s planning my funeral.

The doctor said a few more things in low tones, and then I heard him leave the room. Hy was still there, standing back and to the right of me; I couldn’t see him.

I tried to say something, to move something again. Couldn’t do anything. Paralyzed.

But not in a coma as the doctor had said.

Hy doesn’t know. I can’t communicate with him, even though I can hear every word he says.

Hy sighed heavily and placed his hand on my forehead. “Oh, McCone, I don’t know if you even realize I’m here.” His voice was twisted with pain.

Look at me! Look into my eyes! You’ll see I’m with you.

“If you can hear me, remember that I love you. Hold to that thought, and we’ll get through this together. Just like we always have.”

I love you too, Ripinsky.

HY RIPINSKY

He stepped out into the parking lot of San Francisco General Hospital and turned up his collar against the fog. Walked toward where he’d left his silver-blue 1966 Mustang, fumbling in his pocket for the keys. When he got to the classic machine, he had to curb a violent desire to kick it. This was not the time to give way to impotent rage.

Not yet, anyway.

Inside the car, he took out his cell phone and called the Brandt Neurological Institute’s admitting office. He told the clerk he’d arranged for his wife’s transfer, then set up a meeting with Dr. Ralph Saxnay, the neurosurgeon, for eleven the next morning. After he ended the call, he just sat there, staring out at the gathering mist.

Nothing more to be done today. Shar would be in good hands tomorrow. Not that there was anything wrong with SF General’s trauma unit-they’d saved her life with all the odds against her-or ICU; they were both excellent, but they’d done all they could and weren’t set up to handle a patient with a long-term… condition.

His thoughts flashed back to his first wife, Julie, now many years dead of multiple sclerosis. Toward the end she’d also been unmoving and silent, but there’d been an absence about her, as if her essence had already left her body. Not so with McCone; he still felt the psychic connection that had bound them together since almost the first time they met. If she was beyond all hope, would that connection exist?

No, he refused to believe it.

The past ten days were a jumble in his memory. His shock when the call came to his hotel in Seattle from Ted Smalley, who had been summoned along with the police and paramedics when the half-drunk security guard found McCone shortly after hearing the shot. The frantic and reckless flight to San Francisco piloting Ripinsky International’s jet. Heart-pounding drive from the airport, where two days before he’d left the Mustang inside the jet’s hangar, to the hospital. Then the waiting, a three-day and -night vigil.

We’ve established a good oxygen supply… Blood flow and pressure returning to normal… A setback, blood pressure crashing… BP edging toward normal… She’s responding to the medications… Another setback, incompatibility with the medication… Have to be very careful with meds in cases of traumatic brain injury… No, we can’t operate at this point; chances of her survival would be very slim…

Why don’t you get some rest. Mr. Ripinsky? Really, you’ll be no good to your wife if you don’t rest.

Of course, he hadn’t rested. Had sat by her bedside, alert for any change, any sign. And later, when they’d said she was stabilized, he’d stayed with her in the ICU except for brief trips home to shower and change and field phone calls from her family and friends.

Her adoptive mother near San Diego had collapsed upon hearing the news and been placed under sedation, according to Sharon’s stepfather. Sister Charlene and her husband, Vic, were in the city, in spite of Sharon’s not being allowed visitors. Calls came daily from her birth mother in Boise, Idaho; from her birth father on the Flathead Reservation in Montana; from her half sister Robin in Berkeley; from her sister Patsy in Sonoma. Brother John arrived from San Diego and installed himself in Sharon and Hy’s guest room.

The people at the agency knew better than to bother Hy. They had established a rapport with two of the floor nurses who kept them posted.

Hy leaned forward and grasped the steering wheel, weariness and helplessness diluting his earlier rage. When he’d first heard the news of McCone’s shooting, the rage had been dominant: he’d flown the jet recklessly, driven erratically, burst into the hospital like the proverbial storm. Now he was wearing down, the only bright spot on the horizon being the slim hope that the Brandt Neurological Institute promised.

Life without her-

No, for God’s sake, don’t go there!

He straightened, grasped the wheel.

So what to do to pass the long evening? Go home, where everything was a reminder of Shar, and their cats stared at her favorite chair with bewildered eyes? Where her brother John would rekindle his rage with endless discussions about “getting the bastard that did this”? Go to the RI office, catch up on paperwork in the hope it would numb his mind enough to let him sleep on the sofa there? Impose his presence upon friends who had already done more than he could ever repay?

None of the above.

He started the car and drove toward Pier 24½.

Cars were parked on the pier’s floor-so many that he had trouble slotting the Mustang. Odd, this late in the afternoon. Some of the offices on the first story were closed, but lights blazed upstairs at McCone Investigations, and he sensed tension and activity. As he climbed the stairway to the catwalk, he heard voices coming from the conference room.

When he appeared in the doorway, silence fell. Adah Joslyn, Sharon’s executive administrator, broke it by saying to Hy, “Is there-”

“No news. She’s being transferred to an acute care facility tomorrow.”

A collective sigh of disappointment mixed with relief. No news was bad news; no news was good news.

“Am I interrupting something?” he asked.

“No, no, of course not. Come in.”

He did, taking a chair against the wall, since there were no places left at the round oak table.

Adah was standing: an elegant, slim woman in a well tailored navy blue suit, with a honey-tan complexion and beautifully corn-rowed black hair. The perfect image for an increasingly successful agency, just as she’d been the perfect image for the SFPD’s campaign to promote women and minorities-not only because she was female, but because she was also half black and half Jewish. The perfect image until working the homicide detail had taken its toll and Shar had made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. In spite of Adah’s tightly controlled exterior, Hy knew her to be funny, generous, and a thoroughly staunch friend.

The silence stretched out. He said, “Go on with whatever you were discussing, please.”

Looks were exchanged around the table. Adah said, “Actually, we should have invited you to this meeting, Hy. It’s kind of… a tribal war council.”

“Meaning what?”

“We’re Sharon’s tribe… family… whatever-”

“And we’re pissed off, going to find out who shot her,” said Sharon’s nephew Mick Savage.

Hy turned his gaze to Mick. The petulant, spoiled son of a country-music superstar had matured into a stand-up man in the years he’d known him. Hard to grow up in the shadow of his father, but Mick had managed-in spite of being a tall, blond version of handsome Ricky Savage, but without his father’s musical talent, ambition, or ruthless drive. Mick had found both his present and his future in computers and, owing to the revolutionary software programs he was currently creating with fellow operative Derek Ford, would someday rival Ricky in fortune, if not in fame.

Hy said, “So how do you intend to nail this person?”

The operative who replied surprised him: Julia Rafael. She and his wife had had dinner at a Mission district tacqueria before Shar had returned to the pier to pick up her forgotten cell phone. Julia was something of an engima to Hy. She’d worked the streets of the Mission district from age twelve, selling herself and drugs. Arrests, abortions, and the birth of a son whose father she couldn’t begin to name had followed. The boy had given Julia a purpose; after her final release from the California Youth Authority, she’d turned her life around.

Hy, ever distrustful of dramatic turnarounds-in spite of having made one himself-had waited for Julia to screw up. And when she was arrested for crimes that put Sharon’s license and the agency in serious jeopardy, he’d wanted to say “I told you so.” But Julia, vindicated, had turned into a fine operative. He still wondered at McCone’s friendship with her: Julia was insecure in the extreme and covered it with a haughty, sometimes hostile demeanor. But McCone was an excellent judge of character, so she must have seen gold in Julia that was yet to be mined.

Now Julia said, “We started on these investigations the day after Shar was attacked, with the idea that the shooter had to have some connection with one of the cases the agency was working. Otherwise why was he skulking around the pier at night?”

“He wasn’t looking for money or stuff to sell for drugs,” Adah added. “Nothing was taken.”

“Unless Shar interrupted him before he could take something,” Hy said.

“It’s possible, but this has more the feel of an instrusion by somebody who knew the pier, knew Lewis was a drunk and likely to leave his station for long periods of time. Your average thief doesn’t just walk into someplace with a lighted guard’s desk.”

“Or shoot his way out of the situation if he’s caught,” Julia said. “He’d hide-unless he was afraid Shar would recognize him.”

“Someone who had been here before, then,” Hy said. “Someone she’d seen. Not necessarily her client, but one of the agency’s, or a witness or suspect in one of the cases.”

Adah nodded. “That’s our reasoning. Anyway, we did an in-depth analysis of all cases going back two months. There’re a number that raised red flags. We’ve eliminated some, but there are several that still hold our attention. Why don’t you tell us about yours, Julia?”

“Okay. There’re two of them, both cases where the SFPD dropped the ball. Haven Dietz was the victim of a violent knifing attack a year ago that left her disfigured and with only partial use of her right arm. The other clients are the Peeples, Judy and Thomas. Their son, Larry, was gay. He disappeared suddenly six months ago. No satisfaction from the cops in either matter.”

Hy asked, “What’re the red flags?”

“Dietz and Peeples were friends, lived in the same building. He cared for her while she was recuperating. She was the one who recommended us to the parents. I sense there’s something she’s not telling me-about Peeples or her attacker.”

Adah said, “Let’s move on. Mick?”

“Have you heard of Celestina Gates?”

Hy shook his head.

“Identity-theft expert. Had a syndicated column and regularly appeared on national talk shows advising people how to safeguard themselves. Trouble is, two months ago her own identity was stolen. When the media got hold of the situation, they ridiculed her, questioned her credibility. The syndicate canceled her column, a book deal fell through, and the talk-show offers stopped coming in. Red flag is that I sense something wrong with the whole situation.”

“That’s it?” Hy asked.

“That’s it. But Shar would feel the same. When something’s off, we have similar instincts.”

Hy couldn’t debate that. Sharon had a shit detector that seldom failed her.

“Rae?” Adah said.

Rae Kelleher, the then-assistant whom Sharon had brought with her from All Souls Legal Cooperative when she established her own agency. Red-haired, freckled, blue-eyed, and petite. A part-time operative and author of three crime novels. Married to Mick’s father, Ricky Savage. Ricky and Rae were Hy’s and Sharon’s closest friends. No way she wouldn’t wade into this mess, ready to do anything she could to help.

“The Bay Area Victims’ Advocates is the client,” she said, looking directly into Hy’s eyes. “They’re concerned with getting solutions to unsolved crimes against women. This one’s a homicide, back-burnered by the SFPD. I’ll give you a copy of the file.”

“Thanks.”

Adah said, “Craig-your turn.”

Craig Morland was Adah’s significant other. A former special agent with the FBI, he’d become disillusioned with the federal agency and was eventually lured away from DC to San Francisco by Adah. When they’d first met, Craig had been a buttoned-down, shorn, and shaven man with-as Hy had characterized him-a stick up his ass. No one would confuse his former persona with that of the easygoing, tousled-haired, mustached man of today.

“I’m looking into corruption at city hall. Big-time chicanery, but I can’t yet figure out on whose part. My informant is very close with the information. Till I’ve gone into it further, I’d rather not reveal details.”

Hy said, “Hey, man, we’re talking about my wife getting shot.”

“And if it’s connected to this case, we’re talking about maybe more people getting shot. People close to us.” Craig paused. “I need a couple more days. Okay?”

Hy shrugged, suddenly feeling bone-tired.

The meeting broke up then, people standing and gathering their things as if on cue. Rae’s hand pressed his arm. “Come to our house and spend the night,” she said. “I know it’s hard to go home-especially with John there. John is not soothing when he’s angry.”

“That’s understating it.”

She urged him to his feet. “Lasagna and a feather bed-that’s what you need.”

“The hospital-”

“Will call you if there’s any change. Right now you come with me.”

He went. Lasagna and a feather bed sounded good. It would be better if he could share both with Shar, but that wasn’t going to happen.

Not tonight. Maybe not ever.

FRIDAY, JULY 18

SHARON McCONE

They had removed the tube from my mouth for good yesterday, and now were disconnecting the patches that connected me to the monitors from my arms, legs, and chest.

God, those are my lifelines! They’re going to kill me!

The voiceless scream rose. Subsided when someone said, “Okay, let’s get her onto the gurney.”

Being lifted. Moved sideways. Down onto a harder surface. Tugging of blankets. Clicking of strap connectors.

Where are they taking me? More tests?

I struggled to make my vocal cords work. Couldn’t.

I tried to raise my arm. Couldn’t.

Clumsy maneuvering through a door. Then swift forward motion, wheels bumping over uneven spots on the floor. Acoustical ceiling and fluorescents passing overhead. Automatic door noise, and then…

Fresh air. Cool and faintly salt-tinged.

I’m outside!

Another voice: “We’ll take her from here.” A face appeared above me-male, smooth, young. “Ms. McCone,” he said, “if you can hear me, I’m Andy with the Sequoia Ambulance Service. We’re taking you to the Brandt Neurological Institute.”

Oh, right. Where Hy told the doctor he was having me transferred. The terror subsided, and I blinked my eyelids, but Andy had looked away. “It’s only a twenty-minute trip,” he added, “and we’ll try to make you as comfortable as possible.”

Why does he sound as if he doesn’t believe I can understand a word he says?

Will somebody please look at me and see I’m still here?

Weariness washed over me and I slept.

Cool light. Blue walls. Scent of fresh-cut flowers. A window. And beyond it a thick stand of eucalyptus.

I love eucalyptus. I wish the window were open so I could smell them. But this floral scent… what…?

I tried to look around, but from the way the bed was positioned I couldn’t see much more of the room. Looked up. Suspended from the overhead track was a stainless steel contraption that looked like an elaborate, multi-barbed fishhook. An IV bag was suspended from it, as well as a container of a brownish liquid.

Alone? Yes, I can tell by the quality of the silence.

Tired. So tired. Was it yesterday that Hy said it had been ten days? Ten whole days since I’d been in a coma, then weak and helpless?

No, admit it-paralyzed.

But not in a coma. I can think, see, hear, breathe, and feel. I just can’t move or speak.

Just? That’s everything!

Got to find some way to let them know.

Got to!

Someone coming into the room. Hand on my forehead. Hy.

“We’re at the Brandt Institute, McCone,” he said. “I just met your new neurosurgeon. They’re going to do everything they can to help you.”

Don’t stand over to the side. Look at my face!

“It’s a nice place, out on Jackson Street, near the Presidio. Nice people, too.”

Look at me, dammit!

“First thing tomorrow they’re going to run some more brain scans and try to get an accurate diagnosis. Then…” He fell silent for a few seconds.

“Hell, McCone, if you could hear me, you’d know I’m clutching at straws here. There’s so much they don’t know about the brain, and I know even less. God, I can’t…”

He was crying. I’d seldom known him to cry.

He moved around, bent over, and buried his face on my shoulder. His body shook and his tears wet my hospital gown. I wanted to hold him, and I couldn’t move. Comfort him, and I had no words.

After a moment, he raised his head and looked straight into my eyes.

I blinked at him, moved my eyes up and down.

He drew back, astonishment and hope brightening his drawn features. Gently he reached out to touch my face.

“You’re here with me!” he said.

I blinked again.

“You can hear me. See me.”

Blink.

“Can you move?”

I decided two blinks would mean no.

“Can you talk to me?”

Blink, blink.

“Doesn’t matter. You’re on your way back. I’m getting your doctor.”

Thank God. I knew I could count on you, Ripinsky.

But what the hell took you so long?

RAE KELLEHER

She propped her right elbow on the desk and lowered her forehead to the palm of her hand. Her eyes ached and pain needled above her brow. Through the open doorway of her study she could hear her stepdaughters, Molly and Lisa, squabbling downstairs over which DVD to watch. She wouldn’t interfere. Let them duke it out-that was her parenting philosophy. Prepare them ahead of time for the often rocky shoals of life.

She took several deep breaths. The throbbing stopped. She raised her head and fumbled in the desk drawer for eyedrops. They soothed the ache.

She raised her head and stared out the window to the northeast at the fog-shrouded towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. Below the house waves pounded the shoreline. Many millions’ worth of view. She remembered when she and Ricky and the real-estate agent had first toured the multilevel mansion in the exclusive Sea Cliff area: it was so beautiful that she ached to live there. She’d been poor and in debt most of her life, and she couldn’t believe anything remotely like that was possible. But in the bedroom with the indoor hot tub overlooking the sea, Ricky had put his arms around her and said, “What do you think, Red? Will you live here with me?” The answer was a given.

Back to the present, she told herself.

But the present was so depressing. Shar…

She thought back to her initial interview with the woman she’d hoped would be her boss, when Shar was staff investigator at All Souls Legal Cooperative, a poverty law firm. Rae had been in her twenties, trapped in a bad marriage to a professional student, and adrift as far as a career was concerned. Shar’s faith in her ability to make a good investigator had given her the strength to break with her husband and move on. And as they worked together, a friendship strong enough to last a lifetime had formed between them.

At least, she’d thought it would last a lifetime, till some scum-bag had pumped a bullet into Shar’s brain.

And now she was trying without much success to connect this old homicide to Shar’s shooting. Cold cases fascinated most people, but as far as Rae was concerned they were a pain in the ass. For that matter, so was the director at the San Francisco Victims’ Advocates. Maggie Lambert, an old-school feminist and former rape victim with great empathy for her mostly deceased clients. But Maggie wasn’t interested in providing accurate files or details. She wanted instant resolutions to cases that had been gathering dust forever.

Plus it was hard for Rae to focus when she was so worried about Shar.

Shar-now almost but not quite a relative by marriage. Ricky was only Shar’s former brother-in-law, but his and her sister Charlene’s six kids-four of whom Rae was participating in raising-had caused her enough trouble to qualify her for family membership. They weren’t collectively called the Little Savages for nothing.

Back to the files.

Angie Atkins, in her late teens, a hooker who’d been found slashed to death three years ago in an alley off Sixth Street downtown-San Francisco’s skid row. No family, no history. She’d never been fingerprinted-didn’t hold a driver’s license-but Rae had a lead on another hooker who had been Angie’s best friend. So far her informant had only given her a first name-Callie-which she could’ve made up in order to get the money for her next fix.

Victims’ Advocates was a nonprofit group funded by various foundations and state and federal grants. Their focus was on cold cases involving violence to women. Although they employed two investigators, they were currently on overload, and McCone Investigations had agreed to take the case pro bono.

Why, Rae thought now, had she been the one Adah Joslyn approached with the assignment? And why had she agreed? She didn’t draw a salary from the agency, didn’t need to work if she didn’t want to. But although she and Ricky had so much money that neither of them would have to lift a finger for the rest of their lives, idleness wasn’t a component of their natures. So he managed his recording company, scouted for new talent, issued an occasional CD, and performed charity concerts. She wrote and investigated, because both pursuits were in her blood. ...

All rights belong to the author: Marcia Muller.
This is a short fragment for review the book. The full version can be purchased in the store.