Unlucky 13, p.14

Unlucky 13, page 14

 part  #13 of  Women's Murder Club Series


Unlucky 13

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  I scrutinized the customers ordering, those picking up at the takeout line, and others who were dining in. Wait staff were doing their jobs and joking with customers. I didn’t see anything remarkable. It seemed to be a good day at Chuck’s Hayes Valley.

  I studied the cooks and kitchen workers through the letter-box view of the kitchen and tried to imagine how one of them might plant mini-explosives in a hamburger patty.

  It didn’t look all that hard to do.

  Meanwhile, the mood inside our bullpen had changed from a high-functioning homicide squad into some kind of powerless mission control center agonizing over a derelict spacecraft. Throughout the afternoon, the day crew kept stopping by our desks to find out if Conklin and I had heard anything new about Brady. At day’s end, Cappy McNeil and his partner, Paul Chi, dragged chairs over and sat down. They had both worked with Brady, had friendships with Yuki, and were feeling frustrated and angry and helpless to the max.

  Copy that.

  Lacking any shred of good news, we batted around theories of how the hijacking might resolve with pirates dead and passengers safe. We put a hopeful face on it, but in fact none of us tossed confetti.

  Before Chi and McNeil clocked out, Chi leaned over my desk and tapped a key that brightened my screen. Cappy gave me a pound cake he’d been intending to take home for dessert and kissed my cheek. A first.

  After my old pals said good night, Conklin and I went back to hamburgers on parade.

  I watched the relentless march of people on my screen, and after reviewing the entire fast-forwarded twelve hours of Day Minus One inside the restaurant, I changed out the disk and watched parking lot videos.

  These were more of the same: slices of gray-and-white cinema verité: a bread truck arrival and departure, ditto a refrigerated delivery truck from Chuck’s main kitchen, bringing boxes to the back door. And I watched a few hundred cars park in Chuck’s lot and then depart onto Hayes Street.

  Had I seen a killer and didn’t know it?

  How could I know?

  I went on to the next day’s disk, saw the two doomed college kids pick up their lunch from the takeout line, and noticed some of the same customers I’d seen before.

  I made a note of the regulars, marking the time that they appeared on the tape, and I took screen captures for later comparison. Again I watched delivery trucks arrive and guys lugging cartons to the back door of the kitchen.

  I watched the Hayes Valley kitchen crew dunk trash into the Dumpster outside the back door and lock up the store when the doors were closed for the day.

  I got up and went to the ladies’, and when I came back, Conklin said, “I’m thinking Italian.”

  “Fine idea.”


  CONKLIN AND I walked out onto a darkened Bryant Street and headed to Enzo’s, a greasy pie pan joint on 7th, where we scarfed down a pizza before returning to surveillance footage hell.

  It was my turn to make coffee, and Conklin used a letter opener to cut Cappy’s donated pound cake into thick slices.

  Four hours later, I had marked and snipped out three images of customers who looked suspiciously like the same person in disguise: a skinny guy with (a) a beard, (b) a knit hat, and (c) a hoodie.

  That was the extent of suspicious individual sightings. Still…

  I showed my snippets to Conklin, who said sweetly, “I think you’re reaching, Linds.”

  I took a fistful of pencils out of the mug on my desk and hurled them, one after the other javelin-style, toward the trash can near Brenda’s vacant desk across the room.

  I made six baskets out of ten. Which sucked. It was a big trash can.

  I said to Conklin, “Maybe I’m reaching. Maybe I’m right on the nose. You don’t mind if I send these photos to the lab. Get another opinion?”

  “There’s a naked woman in my bed,” Conklin said, reaching behind his chair for his Windbreaker. “I think I’ll go now, catch her while she’s still in the mood.”

  “Go,” I said. “This will still be waiting for us tomorrow.”

  Conklin waved good-bye, and then my phone rang.

  It was Joe, and he got right into it.

  “This just in on the FinStar,” he said. “Shots have been heard. Another body has washed up. Crowds are gathering all over Alaska, demanding an end to the hostage crisis. The government of Finland is jumping up and down, but there’s absolutely nothing they can do. Communications with the Coast Guard vessel have broken down. That’s all I’ve got. I’m sorry.”


  “I know,” said my husband. “Come home now, Blondie. Your family misses you.”


  TOTAL DARKNESS HAD descended over southeastern Alaska. Sitting on the deck behind Brady, Yuki pressed her cheek against his polo shirt and just tried to breathe normally.

  Brady said softly, “Sweetie, this will be over soon. They can’t keep six hundred people in this situation for very long.”

  She nodded. “I know.”

  They’d been fed and watered like animals. They’d been given limited access to stinking buckets for toilets and no privacy. They’d slept on their feet or sitting with their backs against others.

  The mood on the ship was getting desperate.

  The passengers and even the damned pirates looked and acted like they were running out of patience. They circled above on the running track, dropped burning matches, fired off volleys of bullets, and kept terror alive on the ship.

  Yuki had met enough criminals with explosive anger issues to know that any one of these men could go off and start mowing people down. She scooted around until she was sitting next to her husband. She looped her arm around his calf and hugged it hard. He put his arm around her back and held her tight. Her feeling of safety was at complete odds with her knowledge that they could easily be dead before the sun came up.

  A woman was sitting next to Yuki on her left. She had told Yuki that her name was Susannah. Susannah was in her fifties and was wearing a robe as Yuki was but with red flannel pajamas underneath and fuzzy socks. She was praying for the lives of all of the people on the ship, and she was asking God to forgive the pirates for what they had done.

  Yuki didn’t understand how she could pray for the men who had just gunned down innocent people.

  Now that it was so quiet on the deck, Yuki could hear the water lapping against the sides of the ship, Brady’s breathing, and Susannah talking to God under her breath.

  A pirate was standing by the rail, maybe fifteen feet away from them. This is the one Yuki thought of as Bigfoot because of the way he walked, with long, heavy footsteps. He lowered his head and cupped his hands to light a cigarette.

  Beside her, Brady was watching Bigfoot, too. Watching him puff on his cigarette, then pull his radio phone out of his shirt pocket and speak into the microphone at his mouth. Yuki saw her husband check his watch, then turn his head to the right.

  She followed Brady’s gaze and saw him make eye contact with another passenger who also seemed aware of the pirate’s movements.

  She remembered the man’s name. Brett Lazaroff. She and Brady had met him at the breakfast buffet line the first morning, which seemed like forever ago.

  Lazaroff had dark hair that was going gray and was about sixty and very fit. He and Brady had gotten into a conversation in front of the scrambled eggs tray.

  She’d said hello and taken her plate to the table, where she learned that Lazaroff was widowed with adult kids and owned an auto supply store in Anacortes. He might have said that he’d been in the military.

  Now she saw Lazaroff lift his jaw toward Bigfoot and she saw Brady nod. Yuki thought it might be the almost telepathic communication of two men who had been trained to shoot first.

  A little bud of hope blossomed in her mind.

  Brady and Lazaroff were working on a plan.


  THE CALL CAME in before 7:00 a.m. as I was snoozing deeply, my head on a new pillow that had been billed correctly
as “better than goose down.”

  I looked at my chirping phone and said, “No way.”

  But I couldn’t ignore the call from Michael Jansing.

  “Boxer,” I harrumphed into the mouthpiece.

  “Sergeant Boxer, sorry to call you this early, but I just got a text from the bomber. I told him I couldn’t speak to him in private until I got to the office, that I was surrounded by my family.”

  “You told him when you’d get to work?”

  “I said I’d be there at eight.”

  “Come to the Hall,” I told Jansing. “I’ll meet you.”

  I found FBI special agent Jay Beskin’s card in my blazer pocket and called him at once, and thank you, God, he picked up.

  “Jay, the belly bomber has reached out to Jansing and is calling him at around eight. Can you meet us at the Hall pronto?”

  My next twenty minutes were a flurry of dressing and looking for car keys, punctuated by gulps of scalding coffee and the protests of my screaming baby.

  “I’ll be home tonight, baby girl. I will.”

  I called Conklin from the road and told his voice mail that the bomber was stirring, and that I’d be in the squad room shortly. I called Jacobi and left the same message.

  I reached the Hall and parked with ten minutes to spare and met Beskin on the steps to the main entrance. Up to a point, he was central casting’s idea of an FBI agent: six-one, square-shouldered and square-jawed, with a government-issue haircut and a good gray suit. And then there were his bright-red-and-silver running shoes.

  He saw me looking at them.

  “What?” he said. “The fastest way to get here was to run.”

  Agent Beskin and I exchanged nervous chitchat as we waited for Jansing to arrive. Pulling up minutes later, he parked his Beemer illegally but he was on time.

  I asked Chuck’s sandy-haired CEO, “Did he call?”

  “Not yet.”

  We entered the Hall through the heavy steel-and-glass front doors. I badged Jansing and Beskin through security and we arrived upstairs before the clock struck eight.

  Our electronics tech from the radio room, Kelli Pearson, was waiting in Brady’s empty office with her bag of tricks open and ready. I knew her to be smart and thorough, and I introduced her as such to Jansing and Beskin. Then we all took seats in the glass-walled hundred square feet that felt almost roomy without Brady’s bulk behind the desk.

  Jansing said, “The bomber keeps saying no police. And yet, here we are.”

  I said, “It was either come here and trace the call or go to your office and miss an opportunity to catch this guy.”

  The call came to Jansing’s phone at ten after the hour. Pearson got the number and tapped it from the phone plugged into her laptop. The software chased the number to the cell phone tower that routed the bomber’s call but didn’t ring the bomber’s phone.

  On my signal, Jansing said into his phone, “This is Jansing.”

  I leaned in so that Jansing’s ear and mine bracketed his cell phone. I heard the chilling electronically modulated voice say, “Listen up. Five million is the price. If you don’t have it ready for drop-off by tomorrow morning at eight on the nose, bombs will go off. Multiple.”

  “Wait,” Jansing said.

  Pearson turned the laptop so we could see the blinking dot that represented the bomber’s car moving east on Carroll Avenue. This was an industrial area, dense with warehouses, trucking companies, heavy-equipment lots, and commercial truck traffic.

  “No waiting,” said the robo-bomber. His voice was so freaking mechanical, I wondered if there was really a person speaking into a phone.

  “Money for lives, Jansing,” said the hollow voice. “I don’t mind blowing up people. Why should I?”

  “How can you go from asking a hundred thousand to demanding five million? I can’t get that much—”

  “Once I have the money, I’ll stop. Otherwise…”

  The phone went dead.

  Pearson tapped her keyboard—but there was no blinking dot on the map of the Bayview area of San Francisco.

  “That shitbird took the battery out of his phone,” Agent Beskin said. “For God’s sake! I keep waiting for him to do something stupid.”

  I called Dispatch from Brady’s desk phone.

  “I need all cars in the vicinity of Carroll and Third Street in the Bayview neighborhood to report any suspicious vehicular activity.”

  “What type of vehicle, Sergeant?”

  “Damned if I know,” I snapped. “Sorry. Anything suspicious, that’s all.”

  Once again, our belly bomber was driving the action. We wouldn’t have time to set up a trap because we wouldn’t know the drop point until he made his next call to Jansing.

  Beskin said to Jansing, “We’ll stick with you, Mr. Jansing, as many agents as it takes to keep you safe and to get this guy when he calls again. We’ll be ready for him. He won’t get away from us the next time.”

  I couldn’t think of a reason in the world for Jansing to believe him.


  AT JUST BEFORE noon, a refrigerated transport van with the distinctive checked aqua trim and Chuck’s Prime logo of a snorting bull on a hill pulled into the loading area behind a Chuck’s Prime in Larkspur.

  Chuck’s was one of many shops and restaurants in a busy outdoor mall called Marin Country Mart. With a yoga studio, a French bakery, a sushi joint, and a brewing company, the whole area was designed to look like a quaint country-style town offering views of Mount Tamalpais and the terminal for the ferry that took people from Marin to San Francisco.

  The driver, a wiry, well-built man with dark hair and a two-day-old beard, stepped down from the van and closed the door.

  He squinted at the sun, then walked around stacks of pallets and a Dumpster and rounded the corner to the front of the store, where the buff college boys and cute cowgirls were setting up tables under an olive tree. They were busy, earnestly unfurling market umbrellas, spraying Windex on the front window, polishing the chrome trim.

  He shouted, “Howdy y’all.”

  “Oh, hey, Walt,” one of the boys said. “I’ll get the door.”

  “Thanks, Tony. I’ll be there in a minute.”

  Walt unzipped his leather jacket, pulled up his hood, and went inside and ordered a Coco-Primo shake to go.

  The counter guy, Arturo, turned down his offer to pay, saying, “C’mon, man, it’s on the house.”

  The two men exchanged sad commentary about the fumble at the goal line last night, and then Walt took his shake out the front door. He sucked on his sweet, thick shake for a minute, taking in the sun on the water, and then continued around the stucco wall of the restaurant to the back.

  He opened the cab of the van, placed his drink in the cup holder, and then walked toward the cargo doors. He set his hand truck down on the asphalt and began loading twenty-pound cartons of frozen beef patties onto the dolly.

  “Let me give you a hand,” Tony called out. He was a big kid who probably played football in high school, Walt thought.

  “Sure,” Walt said. “I’m running late. I’ve got a few more stops to make before I hit rush hour.”

  The big kid used a brick to wedge open the back door and went to help Walt.

  “You came just in time,” Tony said. “I didn’t know if we were going to have enough patties to get through lunch.”

  “I’ll tell management to boost your weekly order.”

  “Good. Thanks,” said Tony. “Hey, you know that girl I told you I liked? Gita?”

  “Sure. In your drama class.”

  “That’s her,” said Tony. “We’re hanging out now.”

  “That’s fine,” said Walt. “Good luck with that.”

  Tony grinned and said, “See you next week.”

  Walt passed gas as he climbed into his van. He settled in, picked up his cup, and sucked up a long pull of chilly Coco-Primo before putting the van into gear.

  He was whistling through his teeth as he
pulled the truck out onto Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and headed west to his next stop.

  Man, he was like riding the moon.

  In the back of the freezer compartment was a box of frozen patties packed lovingly with a little extra bang.

  Every way he looked, it was win/win.

  Money or ka-boom.

  Or possibly both.

  Why not? Life was good. And he didn’t owe anyone a damned thing.


  CONKLIN AND I were in Jacobi’s corner office on the fifth floor. Traffic was flowing, and the sun was bright.

  I took in my old friend’s office, which had been furnished for him in wide, comfy couches and chairs, an expansive desk, and a pretty nice-looking Persian carpet—all of which he deserved after his hard years in Homicide and recompense for his shot-up hip and other permanent injuries he’d taken on the Job.

  The three of us were grumbling about the lack of progress on the FinStar. As we waited for the new mayor to arrive, Jacobi was saying that Yuki, who weighed barely a hundred pounds, could be broken like a twig.

  “But she’s got a quick mind,” I said. “She’s thought her way around killers a few dozen times, you know.”

  At that the mayor came through the doorway.

  His Honor Robert Worley was a serious man of thirty-six, a lawyer and former car-dealership owner, married and the father of four, a pillar of the community. He was charismatic and handsome, and he was building his public service career with no ceiling on his ambitions.

  I knew he didn’t want to make any mistakes.

  He shook hands all around, put his coat over the back of the couch, and took a seat, saying, “Sorry. The traffic was against me. I mean, it fought me like hell.”

  Jacobi got up and closed the door and gave the mayor a bottle of spring water from the fridge. Then we all took seats in the soft leather furniture. Jacobi led the discussion by saying that he’d been partnered with Conklin and me and added, “These two are the best of the best, Your Honor. None better. Boxer, tell the mayor what we have on the belly bomber.”

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