21st Birthday Page 1


CINDY THOMAS FOLLOWED Robert Barnett’s assistant down the long corridor at the law firm of Barnett and Associates in Washington, DC.

This meeting could be the beginning of something terrific, and she had dressed for the win; sleek black dress, tailored leather jacket, a touch of lipstick, and an air of confidence that came from the material itself.

As a senior crime reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, she had dominated the inside track, investigating and reporting on the vilest and most audacious serial murders of our time.

Bob Barnett, a lawyer and a literary agent, had represented her true-crime epic, Fish’s Girl, making a very respectable sale to a good publishing house. Then, as was said, “It debuted to great reviews” and had briefly touched the hem of the Times Best Seller list.

Fish’s Girl was the real-life story of a psychopathic serial killer with an equally deadly and immoral girlfriend. Reporting for the Chronicle, Cindy had helped the police catch “Fish’s Girl,” and the finale in the book — and in real life — had been a shoot-out. Cindy had been winged by a 9mm bullet and then returned fire, bringing down the psycho killer herself.

The entire Fish’s Girl experience had been extraordinary, but now it was old news. Industry press reported that book sales were down in all categories, and Cindy had been busy with her all-consuming day job.

Then, last week, Bob Barnett called her at home, saying, “I’ve been following your Burke serial avidly. Great work, Cindy. If you craft it into a proposal, I believe I can sell it.”

He’d asked her to write a treatment of the story; an introduction, a chapter outline, and at least one fully written chapter to show off her style for those potential deal makers who didn’t read the Chronicle. He had offered her a plane ticket and a room at the Ritz if she would fly to DC and meet with him about her recent coverage of the serial murders. Cindy had allowed herself to hope that Barnett would work his magic again.

“Call me when you’re ready,” he had said.

It hadn’t taken long.

Now, Barnett’s assistant led her into the corner office, told her that the boss was running a little late, and said, “Make yourself at home, Ms. Thomas. I’m right outside if you need anything.”

The office looked just as Cindy remembered it. The carpet was grass green. A slab of green marble was set into Barnett’s desktop, and potted orchids, most in full bloom, stood proudly on every flat surface. The floor-to-ceiling bookcase at a right angle to Barnett’s desk held every book he’d sold; Cindy saw Fish’s Girl was at eye level slightly out of line, as if Bob had taken it out to review before this meeting.

Cindy loved seeing it fitted in between the big author names, and after snapping a selfie with her book to show Richie, she took a seat on the sofa in the meeting area.

She was ready for Barnett when he strode into his office, saying, “Cindy, I’m so sorry I kept you waiting.”

“Not a problem, Bob.”

He shook her hand with both of his and took the chair at an angle to her seat on the sofa. He was a nice-looking man, designer glasses, natural tan, thick gray hair, and he was easy to talk with.

“I’ve been enjoying the view,” Cindy said. “And the orchids.”

“I’m a genius with orchids,” he said. “And not too bad at picking winners, either.”

She smiled appreciatively, and leaning forward, he got to the point.

“I read your proposal in one sitting. This story is right up there with Helter Skelter, Black Dahlia, and In Cold Blood. I’m dying to hear the up-to-the-minute conclusion. We get the right people on board, this story could be a monster, Cindy. An absolute monster.”


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CINDY THOMAS WAS at work in her office at the San Francisco Chronicle on Monday at 5:30 p.m. when she heard a woman calling her name.