Unlucky 13, p.12

Unlucky 13, page 12

 part  #13 of  Women's Murder Club Series


Unlucky 13

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  The name rang a distant bell.


  “Timko. Donna. Head of product development. At Chuck’s,” my partner said distinctly. As if he were talking to a child.

  “Right. When are we supposed to see her?”

  “You told her ten-thirty.”

  It was 10:15 right now.

  “I called her. Told her an emergency came up,” Conklin said. “She said, ‘It’s your meeting.’”

  “Okay, okay,” I said. “Let’s hit the road.”


  CONKLIN DROVE US northeast on Bryant Street toward the Bay Bridge and West Berkeley, a mixed-use residential/commercial area separated from the bay by the Eastshore Freeway.

  As we drove, the car radio chattered, dispatch and squad cars urgently tracking the chase of a hit-and-run driver in the Financial District.

  Conklin closely followed the chase and also negotiated traffic while I manhandled my phone. I jumped from news link to news link, cruising for information about the FinStar, a fully loaded floating ocean liner under siege.

  I found snippets on YouTube—video clips like the one Yuki had sent, truncated and poorly shot, and also taped phone calls from terrified, clueless passengers who’d managed to get out calls before their phones were confiscated.

  These postcards from the front were like random pieces of a table-size jigsaw puzzle, giving only ambiguous hints of the big picture.

  And then there was breaking news from a passenger’s cell phone. A CPA from Tucson, Charles Stone, had hidden in a storage container on the sports deck. He called his brother in Wilmington, who taped the call.

  Said Stone: “These guys spoke American English. Or I guess they could be Canadian. I don’t know. They’ve taken a bunch of hostages to the Pool Deck. I heard a burst of gunfire. Tell Mollie that I love her. I love you, too, bro.”

  I looked up as Conklin was backing our Crown Vic into a spot between two vehicles parked in front of a modern two-story office building with clean lines and a stucco facade. I was so preoccupied with the thoughts of the passengers on the FinStar that I was almost surprised to see we were still in California.

  We entered the building, which had high ceilings with exposed timbers and lots of windows letting in the bright morning light. The reception area was devoid of advertising posters and other incidentals, which told me that this was a practical workplace and that the staff here had no contact with consumers. We presented our badges to security at the desk and took an elevator up one floor.

  A young man with a black faux-hawk and a guarded expression was waiting for us. He said, “I’m Davo. Donna just got out of her meeting. Stick with me.”

  Conklin and I followed Davo, who opened a locked door and led us down a yellow-carpeted corridor to Donna Timko’s sanctum, as spacious and as open as the entrance on the ground floor.

  Timko stood and came forward to greet us.

  She was a very large woman, obese, actually. She wore a flowing blue dress to just below her knees, an enviable diamond bracelet, and a radiant smile. She looked as kind as she’d looked when we’d seen her on the video screen at the executive meeting.

  She said, “It’s good to meet you in person. I am so glad you could come.”

  I don’t know what Donna Timko saw in my face, but here’s what was in my mind: I didn’t want to be there at all.


  I DID MY level best to wrench my thoughts away from my friends on the FinStar as Timko shook my hand and asked, “Would you like to see the facility? I’m in love with this place and have very few opportunities to show it off. You could even say that I have none.”

  Oh, no. Not a tour.

  Timko told her assistant we’d be back in fifteen minutes, and Conklin and I joined Timko on her rounds. She started us off with the executive offices, introduced us to staff, and showed us the plans for the introduction of Baby Cakes, a new product that would be rolling out within the next six weeks.

  Next stop was the sparkling stainless-steel test kitchens, fragrant with sugar and spice.

  “We’re very focused on Baby Cakes right now,” Timko told us. “The promotion for this product is going to be huge, and none of our competitors have anything like it.”

  Baby Cakes were the size of big-button mushrooms, each one a single mouthful of a premium flavor combination of cake and frosting to be packaged in six-cake variety packs with a price point of $1.99.

  Conklin was like the proverbial kid in a candy shop. He taste-tested mocha cakes frosted with marshmallow and a bunch of tutti-frutti ones topped with shredded coconut and I don’t know what else.

  He was being affable with a purpose.

  Making friends inside.

  Almost unnoticed, I took up a position between a mixing station and a huge fridge and watched the cheerful elf chefs with confectioner’s sugar on their gloves and noses. I wondered if one of them could be salting cake batter with micro-encapsulated belly bombs.

  We returned to Timko’s office and assembled in her sunny seating area, banked with potted greenery under a skylight.

  “So now that I’ve had my fun, what can I do to help you?” the product-development chief asked us.

  “We need your informed opinion on what’s behind the bombs, Donna,” Conklin said. “Why do you think Chuck’s is being targeted?”

  “I’ve thought of nothing else since the get-go,” said Timko. She reached into her handbag for an e-cig and puffed until the end of it turned blue. She seemed to be considering how to say what was on her mind.

  Finally she said, “I don’t know if this is worth a dime, but last month, there was an offer to buy Chuck’s. Space Dogs. You know of them?”

  Sure I did. Space Dogs was a hot dog chain based in the Northeast somewhere, Philadelphia maybe, or Scranton.

  “Space Dogs wants to get into hamburgers?”

  “More like they wanted to take over our real estate—our stores and our plants—and also to cherry-pick our personnel. They’d be expanding the Space Dogs franchise into the West Coast in one very big move,” said Timko.

  “And did Chuck’s management want to sell?”

  “Stan Weaver, our chairman, was all for it. He had golden parachutes ready for key executives ready to go in exchange for supporting the sale.”

  “How did Michael Jansing feel about selling out?” Conklin asked.

  “He’s as loyal to Chuck’s brand and culture as I am, but there was a lot of money involved. In the end, Jansing voted in favor of the buyout. But listen. Whether the company is sold or not, I want to help you catch the maniac who is killing our customers. That’s just so wrong.”

  I said, “There isn’t much time. If the bomber isn’t arrested in the next day or so, the governor is going to have to close Chuck’s down, maybe permanently.”

  Timko’s eyes watered, and then, after a moment, she said, “I don’t know anyone who would want to sabotage this company. Most of us just feel damned grateful to work here.”

  Conklin and I left Timko to her job and went out to the car, talking about this corporate buyout wrinkle as we walked.

  If Chuck’s was associated with food-related fatalities, the value of the company would tank, making it a cheaper buy for Space Dogs. On the other hand, there had to be plenty of Chuck’s employees who wouldn’t profit from a buyout.

  Conklin said, “People get fired when companies are bought out, right? Someone at Chuck’s might want the deal to fall through.”

  I said, “Too many twisting roads. Too little time. I don’t know about you, Richie, but I hear the ticking of the next belly bomb about to explode.”


  CINDY WAS HUNCHED over her laptop at the Chron, crunching toward her four o’clock deadline, which was ten minutes from now, a piece about a hit-and-run that had turned into a nightmare on Fillmore Street.

  Cindy checked the spelling of the victims’ names, did a last polish, then forwarded the piece to her editor.

  Before jumpi
ng back into her Morales obsession, Cindy checked her e-mail and was cleaning out her spam filter when a subject heading made her heart lurch to a stop.


  Cindy stared at the heading. The meaning was ambiguous, but the words radiated malevolence. She didn’t recognize the sender’s screen name, but her own e-mail address was posted at the end of her column every day and anyone in the whole wide world could write to her here. She had been about to delete it without opening, but those four words stopped her.


  You made me what?

  Cindy sucked in a breath and tapped on the envelope icon. The capitalized text was aimed at her like a shotgun muzzle.



  Cindy felt numb, absolutely frozen stiff, but her mind was flashing like a Fourth of July sparkler.

  MM was Mackie Morales.

  Mackie had made her. In cop jargon, it meant that she’d been seen and identified. Cindy flashed on the other night. While she was parked outside Mackie’s mother’s house, a dark sedan had driven toward her. It had slowed, hesitated, then sped up and kept going.

  That had been Mackie.

  And not only had Mackie identified her staked out on the street, she’d also made her as a broken woman, a woman she had trumped.

  Cindy’s nose smarted and tears welled up. She grabbed a tissue and pressed it to her eyes, willing herself not to cry.

  But she cried anyway.

  When she got hold of herself, Cindy left her office and made it to the ladies’ room without anyone seeing her. She washed her face and put on fresh makeup. Then she went back to her desk with a newborn and promising idea.

  She hit the reply key and typed a return e-mail to Morales.

  Subject heading: “Mackie’s back in town.”

  Hi, Mackie,

  I wasn’t sure where you were, so thanks for letting me know. Let’s meet. No tricks. I have a big idea to discuss with you.


  Before she could change her mind, Cindy hit the send key.

  There. Done. She hoped she would hear back from Mackie very soon. If Mackie would meet with her, she might get her interview, and Mackie might get the kind of notoriety she might actually crave.

  Her computer pinged.

  There was mail in her inbox marked undeliverable. It was the message that she had just sent to Morales. Morales must have written to her from public internet access or a boost phone, so Cindy’s sketchy connection to her no longer existed.

  Cindy exhaled a breath she hadn’t known she was holding.

  Morales had made her, cut her, dropped her, and every bit of that hurt like a hot poker had been thrust through her heart.

  What are you going to do now, Cindy?

  What are you going to do?


  YUKI HAD BEEN huddling against a bulkhead on the Pool Deck for a long time, terrified for Brady, having no sense of what these terrorists wanted in exchange for releasing the passengers of the FinStar.

  And if they didn’t get what they wanted, what then?

  Start shooting?

  Blow up the ship?

  She was very aware that she was wearing a see-through nightgown under the short ship-provided terry-cloth robe. She tucked the hem of the robe under and around her, then interlaced her fingers in front of her life preserver as if it could actually save her life.

  These were the questions going around and around in her head on an endless loop: Where was Brady? Had they done something to him?

  About six hours before, Yuki had been savagely woken by an unimaginably loud air-cracking boom. Her bed had pitched sideways, throwing her to the floor.

  She had grabbed the floor as the ship rolled in the other direction, and she had fallen head-first hard against the bed frame. She’d screamed, “Brady! What’s happening?”

  Glass crashed and doors swung open and slammed closed while the echo of the concussion rumbled long and low below her and the ship rolled again. Light flashed where light should not be—outside the windows, below their balcony.

  Yuki got to her knees, grabbed the side of the bed, and pulled herself to her feet. Although the bed had been tumbled, Brady’s side of it was still neatly made.

  She turned to the bathroom and screamed “Brady!” expecting him to come out, saying, “What the hell?” or “Get down!”

  But he hadn’t been there.

  Just then, there had been another loud boom—a bomb going off, for sure. This boom was more muffled than the first, coming from across the hall or maybe the other side of the ship.

  Sirens sounded in the hallway, and then a man’s voice came over the public address system, saying, “Crew to emergency stations.” It was repeated several times.

  Yuki’s mother would say, “Find your husband, Yuki-eh. Go to your husband.”

  No kidding. Where was he?

  Yuki had pulled on a robe and gone to the windows. She’d spotted a number of small boats, visible in the still-light night sky of Alaska. The boats were motoring at high speed toward the ship.

  Yuki remembered feeling pure gratitude.

  Thank God. Help was coming.

  Help was on the way.


  AS YUKI SAT on the Pool Deck with hundreds of other passengers, shivering in her thin nightclothes, and not just from the cold night air, she remembered how right after she had seen the boats through her window, the public-address system had come to life again, this time squealing as if it were in pain.

  Then she’d heard the uninflected voice of the captain.

  “Dear guests, this is Captain Berlinghoff. As you have noticed, there has been a disturbance, but there is nothing to worry about, I assure you we are getting everything under control. We will be escorting you to public rooms. Please cooperate with your cabin stewards and stay calm. We are safe, absolutely safe. I repeat…”

  What kind of disturbance?

  The small boats had been closing on the flank of the ship. From her windows, forty feet above the waterline, she hadn’t seen any faces. But then she’d seen guns.

  Was the Navy coming to investigate the explosions? A sharp pang of fear had shot through her mind like a bullet. Pirates! Maybe those men were pirates!

  But that couldn’t be. There were no pirates in this part of the world. This was the United States.

  About then, smoke had begun curling through the air-conditioning vents.

  Was the ship on fire? Was it even safe to leave?

  Oh, God, what was happening? Where was Brady?

  She had looked for her cell phone and finally found it wedged under the night stand, but before she could turn it on, there had been a loud knock at the door.

  “Mr. and Mrs. Brady. It’s Lyle.”

  Yuki had looked through the peephole and seen their cabin steward, his eyes so round that there was a circle of white all the way around his irises. She’d opened the door.

  “Mrs. Brady. You have to go to the Veranda Lounge.”

  She had asked, “Have you seen my husband?”

  “No ma’am. When did you see him last?”

  She’d had a lot to drink last night, and Brady had tucked her in early.

  Behind Lyle, people wearing life vests filled the corridor, streaming toward the stairs, their faces wrinkled with sleep and naked with fear.

  “What’s happening?” she’d asked. “Is the ship on fire? Are we under attack?”

  “I don’t know anything, Mrs. Brady. Put on your life vest,” said Lyle, “and hurry to the Veranda Deck. Take the stairs.”

  “No, wait.”

  Lyle had snapped at her, “Put on your vest and go upstairs, Mrs. Brady. Go now.”
  Yuki had dialed Brady’s number, and when his outgoing message came on, she had left a message of her own.

  “I’m going to the Veranda Deck,” she said. “Look for me.”

  Panting, her hands shaking uncontrollably, Yuki had found her deck shoes on the floor of the closet. Her life vest was under the bed—and so was Brady’s.

  She had put the vest around her and then had taken a last look around the cabin. Opening the drawer of the night stand, she had found her new coral necklace, her wedding gift from Brady. Clutching it, she joined the throng heading for the stairs.


  THERE HAD BEEN four armed men at the top of the stairs. They wore camouflage and ski masks, black with slits for the eyes and mouth. They had held serious assault weapons, and that was when Yuki understood that the captain had nothing under control. He had lied trying to keep order.

  Her blood had rushed to her feet.

  Lightheaded, close to fainting, she’d grasped the banister and began to climb. Terror had squeezed out any hope in her mind that this evacuation was about engine failure.

  This was an attack.

  Where was Brady? Was he even alive?

  The men—pirates, as she thought of them—had directed the passengers at the top landing, sending the elderly and the women and children to the left. Men were sent to the right. Anyone who hesitated was shoved or poked with a gun.

  Yuki and the rest of those sent to the left were herded into the Veranda Lounge, the pirates deliberately terrorizing the passengers who were as vulnerable as baby birds on a high window ledge. Then all the lights had gone out and Yuki had heard muffled gunfire.

  What was happening?

  A woman in a red kimono-like robe, her hair in a topknot, leapt up from the floor and shouted at the closest gunman.

  “I need my medication. I need water. I need to use the toilet. I’m sixty-seven years old. Let me go back to my cabin. I’m not a flight risk.”

  The gunman told her to shut up and sit down and then gave her a shove.

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