For fans for Harlan Coben, Robert Crais and Lee Child.
When college basketball coach Malik Shaw goes missing after a family tragedy, it looks like just another retired athlete gone off the rails. But Malik's childhood friend, private security specialist Ty Johnson, quickly begins to suspect that there is more to it.
Chasing the truth, Ty, along with his business partner, Ryan Lock, begin to uncover a sinister conspiracy of silence in a sleepy Minnesota college town.
Ryan Lock is one of my favourite characters, he's got a little bit of everything without being outrageously superhuman. A fallible hero, broken by events of the past and fighting to put himself together again. No one is innocent in this book. – Steven Savile
"Sean Black writes like a punch to the gut."– Jesse Kellerman
"The heir apparent to Lee Child."– Ken Bruen
Long Beach, California
As a United States Marine, Ty Johnson had one advantage. He already knew what it was like to face down someone who wanted to kill you. Growing up in Long Beach in the nineties had taken care of that.
To Ty as a child, and then a teenager, violence had been commonplace. He'd seen people shot, stabbed and beaten to death. Sometimes they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Others, someone had come looking for them. Not that it mattered much to the family gathered around the casket.
This time had been one of those wrong-time-wrong-place deals – a basketball court in early summer, playing a little one-on-one with his friend Malik Shaw. Ty had been standing with his back to the hoop: 'Let me see what you got, Mr All Star.'
In front of him, Malik gave that easy smile of his. Ty spread his arms wide and bounced on the heels of box-fresh white sneakers that were already acquiring a dirty tideline from the hot asphalt of the playground.
'What I got? Got you in my pocket for a start,' said Malik.
'That so?' said Ty, flipping his left hand out to try to steal the ball.
With a flick of his right wrist, Malik spun it away from him. He took a step back. He feinted hard left, and then he was on the move, zipping past Ty, like he was a mirage, and moving toward the basket. Caught off balance by the feint, Ty tried to sort out his feet, almost falling over.
Malik must have pulled the same move a thousand times with him, but even though Ty knew it was coming, he could never stop him. He feinted left, and sometimes it wasn't a feint. Other times it was. There was nothing in Malik's expression to give Ty a clue. He just grinned at you, and then he was gone, springing up toward the hoop and slamming the ball through it. Meanwhile Ty would still be turning round in a futile attempt to stop him, but Malik would already have picked up the ball and thrown it back to him.
That usually irritated Ty, which would crack Malik up, so much so that sometimes Ty scored the next basket because Malik was doubled over, laughing.
'Oh, man, don't feel bad. I'm sure you must be good at something, Tyrone. I mean, girls like you. That's got to be worth something, brother?'
Ty glared at him. Looking at the two sixteen-year-olds side by side without watching them play, a stranger might have figured Ty as the ball player. He was already six feet even, with huge feet and hands, like a German Shepherd puppy with oversized paws that hinted at further growth to come. By contrast Malik was only five ten, wide and broad-shouldered: a lot of players his age were skin and bones ‒ they tended to fill out in college when they were pushed into a rigorous diet and training regime. At this age, though, it was all about raw talent, which Malik had to the extent that when their high school team played away the kids supporting their opponents would fall silent. Afterwards their coaches would crowd round him. In their high school, Malik was a rock star.
'Just messing with you, man,' Malik said. 'You're good at shit. Anyway, you got the Marines, right? You'll be cold chillin'. Ain't nobody be fighting no more. Hell, that probably make you smarter than my ass. Parade round in a uniform, pick up a pay check from Uncle Sam.' Malik stopped, aware that his friend's attention was elsewhere. 'Hey? Ty?'
Ty was looking across the playground to a low-slung Pontiac that had just pulled up with four young black men sitting inside, all wearing red. Members of the bloods gang. Or, to be more precise, 18th Street Bloods.
Malik had seen them now. Ty saw the easy smile fall away from his friend's face. Instinctively, Ty stepped to the right so that he was standing directly in front of Malik, shielding him from the barrel of the pump-action shotgun that the front nearside passenger was pointing at them.
Hard eyes peered out from the car. Ty could smell dope smoke in the air. The thump of the bass line from a rap song sound-tracked the scene. Neither Ty nor Malik was involved with a gang but that didn't matter. Their neighborhood was blue, Crips territory. Their neighbors, their relatives, the kids and young men from their block were all Crips. And, as far as the gang-bangers in the Pontiac were concerned, that made Ty and Malik guilty by association.
Red and blue. Those were the two tribes in Long Beach. You were one or the other, even if you wanted no part of either. The fact that Malik wanted to wear the blue and white uniform of the LA Lakers, and the only blues Ty wanted to be seen in were US Marine Corps dress blues counted for nothing to the four young men staring at them.
Here, lives ended this way. A car pulling up. A window gliding down. The ratchet of a fresh round in the chamber. Then a burst of gunfire.
Ty met the gunman's eyes. He turned his lower arms so that they were facing out and opened his fists, which had been clenched with fear and adrenalin, to reveal that they were empty. He didn't stare but neither did he look away. As was the way with this place, the message didn't require words.
Do what you gotta do.
The barrel was raised and, for a split second, Ty thought the moment had passed, that they were going to take off. Then he saw the gang-banger's right hand slip to the grip and heard the ratchet. He swallowed hard as the barrel was lowered back into position and he saw a finger fall to the trigger.
'Get the fuck out of here, Malik,' he said, not daring to glance back.
'No, man. I'm staying.'
'Do what I said. Take off. I mean it. How your momma gonna ever forgive me if I let you get shot?'
Malik didn't move. Ty could feel him still standing behind him. The sour smell of fear was coming off him, the same as it was off himself.
All Ty could see now was the pad of flesh straining against the metal trigger of the shotgun. He closed his eyes, preparing for the blast, making his peace with God.
The sound of a siren snapped his eyes open. The barrel disappeared inside the car. The window went up. There was a squeal of tires and the roar of an engine as the car took off.
On the opposite side of the street a Long Beach Police Department black-and-white pulled a U-turn and stopped where the Pontiac had been only a few seconds previously.
Two patrol officers got out They walked toward the two boys, the black sergeant's thumbs hooked into his utility belt, like some pastiche of a gunslinger.
Walker. Everyone in the neighborhood knew Sergeant Walker. And everyone hated him – mommas, crackheads, grandmas, gang-bangers, churchgoers, people who didn't break the law, people who did, even little kids. He was ten times worse than any of the white cops, even the old racist ones. Walker hated black people more than they ever could and even now, at his young age, Ty knew it was because Walker hated himself. But Sergeant Walker had one soft spot. He loved basketball.
Sergeant Walker looked past Ty, like he didn't exist, hitched his belt over his gut and nodded from the road to Malik. 'They have a beef with you?'
Ty and Malik gave identical shrugs. They knew better than to say anything to the cops.
'How's that jump shot, Malik?' Walker asked, acting like Ty wasn't even there or that car full of armed gang-bangers hadn't been about to shoot both of them dead.
Malik studied the ground. 'Okay, I guess.'
'Okay?' Walker repeated, turning to his partner. 'You should see this kid. He's gonna go all the way.' He turned his attention back to Malik. 'What college you thinking about?' he asked. 'UCLA, right?'
Malik shrugged. 'I don't really know.'
Walker leaned over and slapped his shoulder. 'Y'know, I played a little ball. I was pretty good too.'
His partner chuckled, and Ty saw Walker get pissed at his laughter. Ty wondered if that was what had made Walker like he was. Always being belittled. Always second class. Knowing he'd never be good enough, when being good enough in the LBPD still meant being white.
Walker straightened up. 'Anyway, you take care now,' he said to Malik.
Ty stood with his friend and watched the two cops leave. 'You got yourself a fan,' he said.
Malik spat on the ground. 'I don't need no fans like him.'
Ty smiled. Malik had always had an idealistic streak. If there was a kid being picked on at school, he would be the first to step in. But Malik couldn't fight for shit, apart from on a court, so Ty would have to straighten out whoever Malik had a problem with. Even the toughest kids, the kids on their way to juvenile detention, the ones with big brothers already in the pen or who'd done time themselves in juvie didn't mess with Ty. They didn't mess with Ty because he was that much tougher. They didn't mess with him because they knew he could hold a grudge. You might think he'd forgotten about you, but he never had. He'd bide his time, and when the moment was right, he'd mess you up in a way that meant you stayed messed up long enough not to tangle with him again.
Malik looked at him. 'You'd really take a bullet for me?'
Ty hadn't thought about it. He'd acted out of instinct. You protected those you cared about. That was Ty's first rule. The second rule was you didn't talk about it.