Unlucky 13, page 17part #13 of Women's Murder Club Series
The music seemed to change the mood of the terrorists. He hoped it might make them a touch complacent. Dance fever covered low conversation.
Brady said to Yuki, “What a mindfucker that guy is. He could write a book on it. Don’t believe a word he said.”
Brady knew that crowd control was one of the terrorists’ biggest problems. The nineteen shooters were overwhelmingly outnumbered by the combined thousand passengers and crew. But Jackhammer’s brutal, successive, random killings had created paranoia, enforced compliance, and put thoughts of rebellion down cold. He’d overwhelmed their ability to fight back. He’d undermined their sanity.
Brady wrapped both his arms around his wife and held her tightly. Yuki was a strong person, but the direct threat to her life had shaken her hard and he wasn’t sure how much more mind control and terror she could take.
A lot of pictures came into his mind, and not the kind of thoughts he usually had. He thought about grabbing one of those AK-47s and just going Rambo.
Yuki squeezed his hand.
“I’m okay,” he said.
No, he wasn’t. He was a cop. He couldn’t let these guys keep shooting people while he just hoped that the accountants and bankers would come through for a bunch of people they didn’t know.
Brady had to do something about this. He was fatter now. Years of smoking had cut his wind. But he still had a strategic mind and the will to kill. He would protect Yuki.
What he had to do was stay focused, look for an opportunity, have a workable plan ready to go. And pray for the physical strength and the reflexes to carry it out.
BRADY WAS TRYING on ideas about how to take back the FinStar when there was a light tug on his sleeve. He started, almost lashing out with the edge of his hand, but he paused long enough to see the face of the man who had crawled over to him on his elbows.
It was Lyle, their cabin steward, and he was wearing a blue spa robe over his whites.
Lyle was overheated, breathing through his mouth. He dropped to his stomach, turned his head so that his cheek was flat on the deck, and spoke through the raucous Latin beat.
“Mr. Brady. You’re military?”
“No. I’m a homicide cop. What do you know, Lyle?”
“There’s a citadel amidships. Somewhere near the officers’ quarters.”
“A citadel. You mean there are guns?”
“I heard there were guns and maybe a radio.”
“And the officers? They’re alive?”
With one of the gunmen close by, Lyle didn’t reply. He dropped his head and wept into the inside elbow of his robed arm. Yuki also cried softly, but none of the pirates noticed. So many people were crying.
Yuki hugged Brady from behind and he patted her little hand. The first time she’d taken his big rough hand in both of hers, her touch had gone all the way through him. He’d felt sure of her. He’d known that he was in the presence of good.
It had been his idea to take this cruise. He’d never been much of a romantic, but this trip had seemed like a really good idea—the sea, magnificent scenery, a luxury liner taking care of everything so they could start their marriage in a beautiful way.
Now fucking this.
Brady waited until the masked goon with the running shoes had finished padding between and around the passengers and run up the metal stairs to the track.
When Brady was sure the gunman was out of earshot, he said, “Lyle, what about the officers?”
Eventually Lyle said, “These guys killed everyone on the bridge when they boarded. That’s what I heard. It wasn’t the captain’s watch. He was sleeping in his quarters. He made an announcement after that, so he could still be alive.
“And the third mate. He was asleep in the officers’ quarters across from the captain. He’s probably alive. Chief Engineer. Master of the hotel. They’re also alive as far as I know. So a few of the senior men are in their quarters. Probably. I can’t speak for the hundreds of waiters and cabin boys and laundry crew, guys like that. I think they’re locked in the hold.”
Brady said, “But the citadel is near the officers’ quarters. You could take me there.”
“There are guys with guns in front of the door, don’t you get it? I’m not a fighter,” Lyle said. He plucked at his robe. “I put this on so they wouldn’t know I was crew.”
“You found a way to survive,” said Brady. “We need the officers and we have to get weapons. You have to want that, too, right? You’ve heard the expression ‘like shooting fish in a barrel’? Christ! That’s what this is. That’s what we are. You like being a fish, Lyle?”
The cabin steward shook his head madly, desperately.
“How old are you?”
“Nineteen. I’m going to be nineteen. Maybe.”
“Do you want to be a nineteen-year-old who helped put down a stinking paramilitary platoon of fucking crazy killers?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
“You’re going to like it better than you think.”
WHERE’S THE BEEF?
CONKLIN AND I were in Michael Jansing’s office with his dogged assistant, Caroline, who was plumbing Jansing’s computer for Chuck’s Prime’s personnel records. After a global search, the computer flagged a Walter Brenner, thirty-nine, truck driver, living in El Cerrito, just north of West Berkeley and Albany.
He’d been working at Chuck’s for about three years. He had gotten a two-dollar raise each year. There were no comments in the spaces provided for them, just check marks to show that he’d had satisfactory performance evaluations.
“Is there anything you can tell us about him?” I asked Caroline. “Anything at all?”
She shrugged. “I’m still pretty new here.” She printed out Brenner’s contact info, including his address, and also sent the file to my phone.
I thanked Caroline and bid her a fond adieu, and Conklin and I left the building. We boarded my antique Explorer and, setting out at warp speed, arrived at Belmont Avenue, a quiet street at the foot of Albany Hill Park, at just about 7:45 p.m.
The 1920s Craftsman-style homes in this residential street were garnished with a fringe of trees out front and had good-size backyards with gardens and swing sets and occasional shade trees. Although the homes were cute and folksy, the freeway provided a persistent industrial undertone.
Walt Brenner lived in a small, yellow house trimmed in white and squarely placed on a corner of the block. It had a slab-porch entry, a fruit tree in the front yard, and a stockade fence shielding the backyard from the roadway.
We didn’t stop at the house, but instead rounded the corner and stopped a block away. Stepping out and opening the hatch, I took out two vests and handed one to Conklin. I put mine on and zipped my Windbreaker over it.
We got back into the vehicle, crawled along Belmont Avenue, and returned to Brenner’s tidy little home.
Conklin pulled the Explorer into the driveway next to a newish black SUV, which seemed a little above a truck driver’s pay grade.
Conklin said, “I’m thinking softball approach. Walter makes a weekly drop-off to all the Chuck’s in this area. We ask him what are your thoughts on anyone who might be angry at the bosses, blah-blah-blah.”
I said, “I like it.”
I raised my fist to knock. But my knuckles never touched wood. The door opened, and to my utter amazement, Donna Timko was standing right there.
It was Donna, all right. She was wearing a flowered tent dress and slippers and had a quizzical look on her face.
I wondered what kind of expression she saw on mine.
Donna said, “Sergeant Boxer and, uh, Inspector Conklin. This is a surprise.”
Conklin said, “We didn’t realize you live here, Donna. This is Walter Brenner’s address, right?”
She nodded. Conklin went on.
“He lives here? And you’re expecting him home?”
Conklin said, “Well, if you have a couple of minutes, maybe we could come in and talk while we wait for Walter.”
“Certainly. Come in. Go right on through to the dining room,” she said.
I had a lot of questions for Donna, starting with “Who are you to our belly bomb suspect?”
But that could wait until I was looking into her big brown eyes.
WALTER BRENNER’S HOUSE smelled like a bakery.
“My new recipe for Baby Cakes,” Timko said, as Conklin and I preceded her into a small white-painted living room furnished with country upholstery and bookshelves bracketing a fireplace. Half-folded laundry was in a pile on the furniture. Stairs to the second floor were in a hallway to our right.
We continued on through an arched pass-through to the dining room. Donna said, “Have a seat at the table. I was just making coffee.”
I looked at Conklin, shrugged, and he shrugged back.
Then we pulled out a couple of ladder-back chairs at the round, four-person dining table and sat down. The dining room was small, maybe a hundred fifty square feet, with a view of the kitchen just ahead and, through the windows to our left, the charming houses across the street.
In a couple of minutes, Donna Timko returned with a tray of coffee cups and individual-size cakes and some details about the recipe.
I was watching Donna’s expression as she busied herself at the table. She was talkative but definitely preoccupied.
I had my hand around a gold-rimmed coffee cup when I asked, “Donna, what is your relationship to Walter Brenner?”
“Oh, you didn’t know? Walt is my half brother. We own this place together.”
“Terrific house,” said Conklin. “Very homey. How long have you been living here?”
“About three years. What’s wrong? Is Walter okay?”
Conklin said, “He’s fine, just fine. You know we’re talking to all of Chuck’s employees. We noticed that Walter pretty much goes to every store once a week. We hoped he might have some thoughts on anyone with an attitude, a grudge against the company, something like that.”
“Walt loves his job, if that’s what you want to know. He’s the poster boy for happy employee of the year. Gee,” said Donna, “talk about timing. Here he comes. You can ask him whatever you like.”
I followed Donna’s gaze to the windows and saw a white van with a Chuck’s logo on the side pulling up to the garage doors. I hadn’t planned on the complication of Donna Timko, so the next few minutes were going to require finesse.
I thought of several scenarios, including the one where Timko shouts at Walt to run—and he does it.
Timko said, “Walt’s a very funny guy. Everyone thinks he ought to do stand-up. Sit, sit,” she said to us. “He’s coming through the back door.”
Timko placed her napkin next to her plate, got up from the table, and went into the kitchen. I heard the kitchen door open to the garage and then I heard the voices of a man and Donna talking low.
I took out my gun and put it on my lap and was looking to Richie to do the same, when Donna returned to the dining room with her brother.
There he was in the flesh, Walter Brenner, the skinny man I’d seen in several different guises on security tape. But this time he was life-size, in color, and clean-shaven, and he had dimples that hadn’t shown up in the Hunting Wolf run-through. He was also holding a .38.
I jumped to my feet, raised my gun, and shouted, “Drop the gun. Do it now.”
I was aware of Conklin getting to his feet at the same time, but my eyes went to Donna as she lifted her hand from behind her voluminous house dress and pointed a small gun at me.
She said, “Take it easy, Sergeant. Sit back down. Put your gun on the table and slide it over to me. Take your partner’s gun and give me that, too.
“Let’s go,” she snapped. “Or I’m going to shoot the two of you where you stand.”
I SAT DOWN, took my gun up out of my lap, and put it on the table as Donna had told me to do. But I didn’t release it from my grip. I moved slowly, using whatever few seconds I could gain to assess our situation.
The dining room was a twelve-by-twelve-foot open-ended box with two arched entranceways, one from the living room to the dining room, the other from the dining room to the kitchen.
There was a squat lowboy on the wall to my right, and past Conklin, on the opposite wall, were a pair of windows.
The table and chairs were too big for the room and took up the center of it, leaving very little margin around the sides.
Donna was standing six feet across the table from me, aiming her ladylike Colt with steady hands. If I leapt for her, she’d shoot. No doubt about it. The only way she could miss was if her gun jammed or she had a heart attack.
I couldn’t count on either of those possibilities. Accordingly, I didn’t see how we were all going to get out of this room alive.
I put the safety on my gun and slid it across the table. Conklin was also sitting down. He’s a quick draw and good shot, but his gun was in its holster on his hip.
He showed Timko that he wasn’t holding a gun and said in a very reasonable tone of voice, “Donna, no. Put that away. You, too, Mr. Brenner. We’re just here to talk. No need to get bent out of shape. You don’t want to accidentally shoot a cop. You really don’t.
“And just so you know, I called for backup before we entered the house. So there are going to be cruisers in your driveway any minute.”
Had Richie called for backup?
That would have been prudent, but I’d been busy getting out our Kevlar vests and hadn’t noticed what my partner had done.
Time had slowed to one solitary frame per second. I was alert to the facial expressions of the two people holding the guns, watching the tension in their hands at the same time.
Donna Timko was focused and tightly coiled.
Walt was relaxed. He handled his weapon casually, like he was familiar with it and welcomed an opportunity to let ’er rip.
“Right,” Walt said to Conklin. “Cops are on the way.”
Conklin said, “Pulling a gun on a cop is plenty bad enough, Walter. But, if you shoot a cop, no one can help you. Understand what I’m saying? Put the guns away and we’ll forget this happened. Right, Sergeant? Or, you have a running head start. See how far you go.”
Donna sat down and braced her elbows on the table. She held her Colt with both hands, the muzzle pointed at my face.
I was still desperately trying on scenarios, looking for something that would get the fewest number of us killed.
Sweat beaded on my scalp. I thought of Julie and Joe. That I might not see them again. Had I even kissed them on the way out the door this morning? I couldn’t remember.
I knew that I wouldn’t survive a head shot.
Donna Timko was showing visible signs of stress. She was red-faced, and the muscle in her left jaw was twitching. It looked to me like she could go off any moment.
She said, “Walt, take Mr. Conklin’s weapon, why don’t you? And then we’ve got to figure out what to do with these crumbs.”
I HAD NO problem believing that Donna Timko was a loose cannon. She was adrenalized. Her gun was braced four feet directly across the table from me. Her finger was on the trigger and she’d aimed her gun just so.
If she sneezed, she’d shoot me between the eyes.
Two feet to my left, Conklin sat in the chair with his hands in the air at shoulder height.
Walter Brenner stood to the right of his sister, training his gun on Conklin, grinning and bouncing on his feet like a four-year-old waiting for a pony ride.
Forget ponies. Make that a crazy four-year-old with a gun.
Some wave of serenity came over Timko’s face, which I read as her having made up her mind. To her we were dead cops walking, and now she was thinking ahead to how to get rid of ou
She said to her brother, “Walt, here’s an idea. We can get into the processing plant. You can work the grinder, right?”
“You’re thinking cop burgers?”
“Exactly. Cop Prime. With bacon. Well done.”
They both had a good laugh.
I couldn’t help it. I pictured my body going through an industrial-grade meat grinder and heard the whirr of the blades cutting through muscle and bone. It gave me the horrors.
Why didn’t Walter and Donna just shoot us now?
Simple answer. It would be easier for them if we went into the transport van on the hoof.
I wanted to look at Conklin but didn’t dare take my eyes off the sweetheart of Chuck’s executive board, a woman who had sympathized with the bomb victims and the little people who worked at Chuck’s and was now transformed into a grinning, bloodthirsty ghoul.
Timko was not only thinking ahead, she wanted my opinion.
She said, “That’ll work, right, Sergeant? Take you out through the garage, and we all get into the van. Who knows, we might drop you off somewhere and make a run for Canada.”
“That’s a better idea than the meat processor,” I said. “We go missing, the FBI will be all over that plant, and you know human blood and remains will spell it all out, PDQ.”
“Good point. Well, I’m loaded with ideas. That’s my best one so far. Walt, get his gun. Come on. I can’t do everything.”
Walt was a lefty.
He walked over to Conklin and pressed the gun muzzle to his temple. Sweat rolled down my sides, but my partner was cool, give him credit. Give him all the credit in the world.
Walt said, “Take out your gun with the tips of your fingers and pass it to me. No sudden moves. My metabolism is high, normally. Now? I could shoot you out of pure freaking jitters. So do what I say. Okay?”
If Conklin didn’t hand over his gun, Brenner might reach for it. That would give my partner an opportunity to head-butt him, elbow him in the groin, any number of moves that might work—or get us both killed.
JAMES PATTERSON SERIES:
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