Unlucky 13, p.15

Unlucky 13, page 15

 part  #13 of  Women's Murder Club Series


Unlucky 13

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  The mayor leaned forward, clasped his hands between his taupe pinstriped knees, and said, “I’ve been thinking about this case since I saw those bodies in the Jeep. One of the worst things I’ve ever seen.”

  I brought him up to date on the failed stakeout on San Leandro Street and the note the bomber had left behind after he emptied the cash from the briefcase.

  When I’d answered the mayor’s questions, I ran through the ticktock on the day’s events. I told him that I’d called in the FBI and that we’d lost the belly bomber a nanosecond after he made his demand.

  “Mr. Mayor, the bomber threatened multiple bombs,” I said. “Chuck’s may not pay the ransom, and even if they do, this psycho is enjoying himself. I’ll bet he wants to kill people more than he wants a payoff. He likes the game too damned much.”

  The mayor asked me, “What do you suggest?”

  “We should shut down Chuck’s Primes in San Francisco, which will at least stop people from eating Chuck’s burgers immediately. And I think we should ask the governor to close down every Chuck’s in California while we and the FBI work on the case.”

  The mayor, being a lawyer, didn’t agree.

  “As I understand it, all you have that links Chuck’s to the explosive material in the original incident is a lab report of the bomb ingredients. You can’t actually place those burger bombs in the actual restaurant, correct?”

  I couldn’t believe what the mayor was saying.

  We had two dead people with Chuck’s hamburger wrappings in the backseat of their car. We had explosive material in high-quality chopped steak consistent with Chuck’s Prime. We had the bomber holding up Chuck’s CEO for ransom to stop further bombings. Surely that was enough to connect the bomber to Chuck’s. Come on.

  The mayor kept talking.

  “This anonymous guy who’s making the threats could have planted the bombs in that hamburger without being a Chuck’s employee, couldn’t he?”

  I didn’t see how.

  The mayor went on.

  “Or maybe the bombs weren’t in the hamburgers, but the kids ate them and something else, and the product was in their systems.”

  He paused, but I didn’t know what to say. The guy didn’t want to close Chuck’s down, and he didn’t want me to contradict him.

  “Look, Sergeant. I understand you. I don’t want more people to die either,” Morley said. “But, I can’t padlock a company without direct evidence,” he said.

  The mayor shook hands with us again, told us to keep working—even harder—and to get in touch with him immediately if we had a breakthrough in the case.

  He exited Jacobi’s office leaving us with absolutely nothing but bomb threats in the wind.


  MORALES HAD BOOSTED another car, a 2004 Subaru Outback, and it was perfect. The sea-foam-green color was boring, the car was dirty, and it had open boxes of old picture frames in the back. There wasn’t a person in the state of California who would give this car a second look or even a first.

  Not even the cops would be looking for a car worth five grand on a good day.

  Randy was humming as she cruised slowly down 7th Street and stopped at the light at Bryant. She took in the whole of the Hall of Justice, the gray granite building where she had gone to work every day last summer.

  It gave her a tremendous high to reflect on those months, going every morning through the lobby, clearing security, working an actual job in Homicide. And she had turned in an award-quality performance that would never be credited by the Academy.

  She liked thinking about the killings she’d finessed, no one suspecting her—ever. And she’d gotten Rich Conklin to fall in love with her. Oh, man. He was so hooked.

  You were dazzling, baby, Randy said.

  “I did it for us, lover,” she said. “Just for us.”

  And that was why the outcome was so wrong. She’d scored big-time, and Randy should be alive. And so she was stuck remembering what Lindsay Boxer had caused. She hated that woman so much, her thoughts alone should have been enough to kill Boxer dead.

  The stoplight changed and Morales turned onto Bryant and drove slowly past the Hall. A few cops were grouped around a squad car at the curb. She knew them, could remember all of their names. She had an impulse to wave.

  Randy said, Get a move on, sweetheart.

  “I know. No showing off,” Morales muttered.

  She stepped on the gas and, after clearing the Hall, turned left onto Harriet. There was a parking lot on her left, right near the ME’s Office, and Boxer used to park her car there in the shade of the Interstate.

  Morales peered along the rows of parked cars but didn’t see Boxer’s blue ride. Hell, she had probably gone for the day. No problem. She knew where Boxer lived, had memorized the address months ago. When her lover was still alive. When she still believed in a happily-ever-after life.

  The kind of life Boxer had.

  Morales took a left on Harrison Street, and headed north toward Lake Street. She hoped the Boxer-Molinaris kept the curtains in their apartment open. She wanted to see the sergeant at home with her husband and child. She wanted to get a feel for their neighborhood.

  And then, after she’d seen her mom and little boy, she was going to come back here and destroy everything that Lindsay Boxer loved.


  LAST NIGHT, THINKING about the f-you e-mail she had gotten a couple of days ago from Morales, Cindy had lain awake in bed, trying to figure out if there was a way in the world she could locate that hateful woman.

  Cindy didn’t remember falling asleep, but then daylight pried her eyes open. She picked up last night’s thoughts as though she had never dropped them.

  But now she had an idea.

  She cleaned up, made coffee, and then called her new pal in Wisconsin, Captain Patrick Lawrence of the Cleveland, Wisconsin, PD.

  The captain answered on the first ring and said he was just getting in, to give him a second to take off his jacket. She heard the clunk of the phone on his desk and then he was back.

  “I’ve got time to talk right now, Cindy.”

  “I need some help, Pat, of the usually off-limits-to-reporters kind.”

  The captain told Cindy he was happy to help her as long as she kept his name out of it. He couldn’t chase Morales himself when she was out of his county, but the fact that she was tied to Randy Fish gave the captain some personal interest in the outcome of the case.

  Cindy paced around her small apartment as she told the captain about Morales’s e-mail.

  “She pegged me when I was watching for her outside her mother’s house. I didn’t get a look at her car. She had her high beams on, but apparently she saw me. I’m thinking she has to be driving a stolen car.”

  Lawrence said, “Makes sense she’d be boosting cars of opportunity. I would imagine she’d rotate them out pretty regularly, hoping it would take a while for local PDs to catch up with her ride.”

  “Pat, here’s the favor: Could you access a stolen-car database and give me a list of recently stolen cars in San Francisco?”

  “Check your e-mail after lunch,” he said.

  At the end of the day, Cindy met with Henry Tyler in his office. He looked distracted and intense at the same time. He didn’t ask her to sit down. He just said, “Where are you on Morales?”

  Cindy said, “She’s in town, Henry. She sent me an e-mail telling me that she saw me.”

  “She wrote to you?” said the publisher. He was standing behind his desk and had been moving stacks of paper, looking for something. A pen. And he found it. Cindy had a hundred and ten percent of Tyler’s attention now.

  He said again, “She wrote to you? What did she say?”

  “She told me that she knows I’m looking for her and to get off her tail.”

  “Cindy. What the hell? You were going to let the police know where she was, get her arrested. Isn’t that right?”

  “Right. That’s still the plan. Get her arrested. Write the stor
y. I’m working with a police captain, trading information, and I think I have an idea why she’s in town.”

  “My instincts are telling me to pull you off this, Cindy. It feels like this could go very bad.”

  “Henry, this e-mail is huge. I’m being careful—”

  “Make sure you understand me. Don’t go near Morales unless you’re in a cop car, with cops. Do you hear me?”

  “Yes, sir, I do.”

  Cindy left Tyler, went down the hall to her own office, and called Lindsay again. This was the third message she’d left for her friend, and now she was worried.

  It was just a hunch, but she thought maybe Morales was in town not just to see her child but to go after Lindsay. It was no secret that Randy Fish had been fascinated with Lindsay. He had singled her out as the only cop he would talk to, and Mackie knew that. Did that work on her? Was she jealous of Lindsay? It had to have hurt her deeply that Lindsay had been alone with Fish when he died.

  That must have almost killed Mackie.

  Maybe she was getting this wrong, but psychologically it made sense. She had to let Lindsay know.

  She texted Lindsay: Call me.

  Then she opened her mail from Captain Lawrence.

  He had listed six cars that had been stolen in San Francisco this week, most of them cars that could be profitably chop-shopped for parts or sold in Mexico. She printed out the list, which included a BMW and a Jaguar. The last car on the list was a 2004 Subaru Outback that had been parked two to three blocks down from Candlestick Park. She didn’t know if Morales had stolen that car, but it was the kind of car that went unnoticed, and she could see Morales feeling very safe in an ancient station wagon.

  Cindy left her office and got her own car out of the lot. She had the Subaru in mind when she drove toward Lindsay’s neighborhood.

  She called Lindsay again as night came on.


  CINDY NEATLY BACKED her car into an empty spot under the curbside acacia and hawthorn trees in front of Table Asia Gallery. To her left, 12th Street dead-ended a half block to the north, where it butted up against Mountain Lake Park. Across the intersection of Lake and 12th, the blocky five-story apartment building where Lindsay and Joe lived dominated her eastern view.

  Evening rush-hour traffic streamed past her with the urgency of people fleeing their offices for the relief of home.

  Cindy fixed her eyes on the flow of cars, putting her mind on “search” for the recently stolen vehicles on Captain Lawrence’s short list. Once she’d locked in, the pissed-off voice in her head was free to carp about the frustrating and demeaning meeting she’d just had with Henry Tyler.

  Principally, his order to “go in a cop car with cops” was insulting and lame. How was it possible that Henry Tyler, publisher of the Chronicle, didn’t know that tracking a subject, digging up news to trade with cops in exchange for access, was standard operating procedure for investigative reporters?

  She, in particular, had a long history of working with cops and bringing home big stories. Henry knew this full well, and his slap across the face only fueled her determination to nail this goddamned story she’d turned from a stale report of a sighting into a story in three dimensions. Now she needed to bring it home. Collect her prize.

  Cindy took mental inventory of the Morales situation. She knew that Morales was in San Francisco, which was a jump on every other reporter in the world and also the FBI. She’d met Morales and knew enough about her to push her buttons. Admittedly, the button-pushing was a two-way street. The inflammatory and scary e-mailed threat from Morales was proof of that.

  But, most important, this e-mail had been direct contact between the two of them. I MADE YOU CINDY.

  If that wasn’t the first sentence in the lede paragraph of her upcoming career story, she didn’t know squat about journalism.

  Cindy heard the buzz of her cell phone with an incoming text message. She grabbed it. Lindsay.

  I’m in a meeting. Later.

  She was about to reply when an old greenish Subaru wagon drove past her, heading north on Lake Street. It was almost as if she’d conjured up one of the cars she was looking for—and it was real and right in front of her.

  The dusty-green Subaru Outback cruised through the intersection of Lake and 12th and seemed to slow as it passed Lindsay’s building. Then it continued on, its taillights receding up ahead, already too far away for Cindy to read the plate number.

  She tossed her phone onto the passenger seat, strapped in, jerked the car into gear, pulled out into the lane, and jammed on the gas. Thirty seconds later, she was flying east, past blocks of multicolored Victorian houses, tailing the green all-wheel-drive vehicle that was heading toward the Presidio.

  She could make out the silhouette of the driver through the Subaru’s rear window three cars ahead, but she wasn’t close enough to tell if the driver was male or female.

  Was Mackie Morales driving that car?

  Actually, Cindy had no idea.


  CONKLIN AND I were taking up space in the tech bullpen at Clapper’s forensics lab, peering over the bony shoulders and fuchsia hair of Bo Kellner, a sharp young criminalist who specialized in digital forensics.

  The three frames I’d snipped from several days of surveillance footage shot at the Hayes Valley Chuck’s Prime restaurant were getting this kid all excited. Well, the frames were exciting, but Kellner was already highly enthused about his new facial-recognition program called Hunting Wolf.

  He’d just installed it yesterday, and he was already being given a real-life opportunity to run Hunting Wolf through its paces. He was as excited as if he’d won the Instant Scratch-off Lotto.

  I only half listened to Kellner talk about his program because I was juggling anxiety on two fronts: the upcoming ransom deadline from our friendly mechanical belly bomber and my constant thrumming, live-wire fear for the lives of Yuki and Brady.

  Conklin, however, appeared to be in the present, and he wanted to get to know Bo Kellner’s new baby.

  “What do you know about facial recognition?” Kellner asked Conklin.

  “Pretty much what’s been produced in this lab and what I’ve seen on cop TV.”

  Kellner laughed. “Okay, then. So let’s start with this.”

  He inputted one of the faces from the grainy footage I’d sent to the lab twenty-four hours ago. It was a three-quarter view of a thin white man with a full beard who’d been caught on camera ordering from the menu hanging over the counter.

  Kellner was saying, “If this was actual footage, Hunting Wolf could read his lips and tell you what he ordered,” when my phone chirped. I fished it out of my jacket pocket and glanced at the caller ID.

  It was Cindy.

  I texted her that I couldn’t talk but I’d call her later. Thinking, yes, after I had the belly bomber in my theoretical crosshairs.

  Right now Belly Bomber was job one.

  Kellner was saying, “So now Hunting Wolf is scanning this gray-and-white image, using algorithms that look for light and shadow and specific features, relaying that information as a face print—a unique numerical code.”

  “I’m more or less following you,” Conklin said.

  “Look,” Kellner said. “See the flickering at the top of the frame? The program is scanning pretty fast, but when it reaches the center of the face, the rapid movement will slow down as it tracks the features.”

  Kellner rotated the face from three-quarters to a frontal view. He said, “Now I’m going to mess with the picture a little. I’m going to delete the beard and fill in the lower half of the face with what we call male physiological norms.”

  Kellner moved the cursor around, twiddled with the image, and within seconds the guy with the beard was clean-shaven with a nice jawline.

  Kellner said, “So now, I enter this clean face into the database and give him a name: Kellner1SFPD. We’ve gone from facial tracking to facial recognition.”

  The software jiggled, locked in
, and then flashed through millions of faces already stored in the database, ranging beyond the known criminal database to any matching image that had ever been downloaded onto the Internet, at the fantastic speed of thirty-six million faces a second.

  But for all the cutting-edge pizzazz, there was no match.

  I said, “So he’s not a known criminal, and he’s not known, period.”

  “That’s right,” said Kellner. “If his image was on Facebook or any database, Hunting Wolf would send up a flare. This guy has a very low, almost nonexistent profile.”

  I leaned in and said, “If you input the second face, it could match to the first. It’s still just a cold hit, but maybe we’d get a better image of this guy, right?”

  “Correct,” said Kellner. “Exactly right.”

  The second photo from my series was of a skinny guy wearing a dark leather jacket, knit hat, a brushy moustache, and a small soul patch.

  Kellner imported it, and technological wizardry recommenced. Images flashed on the screen, stopped on the first skinny guy, now known as Kellner1SFPD, and flashed “100% MATCH.”

  Kellner said, “Let’s go for a triple play.”

  Skinny man number three wore a hoodie that threw a shadow over his eyes.

  The mouth on number three looked different from the first two, and he had a bulge in his cheek that looked like he had food in his mouth. Kellner explained, “Could be chewing gum. That’s a time-tested method of fooling ID software. Even smiling can throw off the search function. That’s why you don’t smile for a passport ID. But don’t worry. Hunting Wolf is smarter than the guy chewing gum and wearing a hoodie.

  “Watch Hunting Wolf hunt.”


  AS I WATCHED the computer screen, the software digested the new input at some unimaginable speed, and when it stopped, I was looking at a composite of our three skinny guys without any facial fur.

  Kellner’s program then did a global recognition search, and when no lights blinked and no bells rang, he pushed back his chair and looked up at us.

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