20th Victim Page 1


CINDY THOMAS WAS tuned in to her police scanner as she drove through the Friday-morning rush to her job at the San Francisco Chronicle.

For the last fifteen minutes there’d been nothing but routine calls back and forth between dispatch and patrol cars. Then something happened.

The Whistler TRX-1 scanner went crazy with static and cross talk. It was as though a main switch had been thrown wide open. Codes in the four hundreds jammed the channel. She knew them all: 406, officer needs emergency help; 408, send ambulance; 410, requested assistance responding.

Cindy was an investigative journalist, top dog on the crime beat. Her assistance was definitely not requested, but she was responding anyway. Tips didn’t get hotter than ones that came right off the scanner.

The location of the reported shooting was a Taco King on Duboce Avenue. Cindy took a right off Otis Street and headed toward the Duboce Triangle, near the center of San Francisco between the Mission, the Castro, and the Lower Haight.

With the sirens from the patrol cars ahead and the ambulance wailing and honking from behind, she sure didn’t need the street number. She pulled over to the side of the road, and once the emergency medical bus had passed her, she drafted behind it, pedal to the floor and never mind the speed limit.

The ambulance braked at the entrance to the Taco King at the intersection of Duboce Avenue and Guerrero Street. Cruisers had blocked off three lanes of the four-lane street, and uniformed officers were already detouring traffic. People were running away from the scene, screaming, terrified.

Cindy left her Honda at the curb and jogged a half block, reaching the Taco King in time to see two paramedics loading a stretcher into the back of the bus. She tried to get the attention of one of them, but he elbowed her out of his way.

“Step aside, miss.”

Cindy watched through the open rear doors. The paramedic ripped open the victim’s shirt, yelled, “Clear,” and applied the paddles. The body jumped and then doors slammed and the ambulance tore off south on Guerrero, toward Metro Hospital.

Police tape had been stretched across three of the four lanes, keeping bystanders from entering the parking lot and the restaurant. At the tape stood a uniformed cop—Al Sawyer—a friend of Cindy’s live-in love, homicide inspector Rich Conklin.

She walked up to Sawyer with her notebook in hand, greeted him, and said, “Al, what the hell happened here?”

“Oh, hey, Cindy. If you hang on, someone will come out and make an announcement to the press.”

She growled at him.

He laughed.

“I heard you were a pit bull, but you don’t look the part.” She wore blond curls, with a rhinestone-studded clip to discipline them, and had determination in her big blue eyes. That was how she looked, no manipulation intended. Still.

“Al. Look. I’m only asking for what everyone inside and outside the Taco King saw and heard. Gotta be forty witnesses, right? Just confirm that and give me a detail or two, okay? I’ll write, ‘Anonymous police source told this reporter.’ Like that.”

“I’ll tell you this much,” Sawyer said. “A guy was shot through the windshield of that SUV over there.”

Sawyer pointed to a silver late-model Porsche Cayenne.

“His wife was sitting next to him. I heard she’s pregnant. She wasn’t hit and didn’t see the shooter. That’s unverified, Cindy. Wife’s inside the squad car that’s moving out of the lot over there. And now you owe me. Big time. Give me a minute to think so I don’t blow my three wishes.”

Cindy didn’t give him the minute, instead asking, “The victim’s name? Did anyone see the shooter?”

“You’re pushing it, Cindy.”

“Well. My pit-bull reputation is at stake.”

He grinned at her, then said, “Can you see the SUV?”

“I see it.”

“Take a picture of the SUV’s back window.”

“All right, Al, I sure will.”

Sawyer said, “Here’s your scoop: the victim is almost famous. If he dies, it’s going to be big news.”




SAWYER SHOOK HIS finger at Cindy, a friendly warning.

Cindy mouthed, “Thank you,” and before she could get chased away, she ducked the tape, got within fifty feet of the SUV’s rear window, and snapped the picture. She was back over the line, blowing up the shot, when Jeb McGowan appeared out of the crowd and sidled up to her. McGowan looked like a young genius with his slicked-back hair and cool glasses with two-tone frames. He played the part of journo elite, having worked crime in his last job at the LA Sun Times. He had a daily column—as she had—and had done some interviews on cable news after he reported on the Marina Slasher two years ago.

Back then McGowan had implied that San Francisco was small-time and provincial.

“Why are you here?” she’d asked.

“My lady friend has family in Frisco. She needs to see them more. So whaddaya gonna do?”

Cindy had thought, For starters, don’t call it Frisco.

Now McGowan was in her face.

“Cindy. Hey.”

That was another thing. McGowan was pushy. Okay, the same had been said of her. But in Cindy’s opinion, McSmarty was no team player and would love to shove her under a speeding bus and snatch the top spot. Or maybe he’d just stick around, like gum under her shoe, and simply annoy her to death.