Unlucky 13, p.18

Unlucky 13, page 18

 part  #13 of  Women's Murder Club Series


Unlucky 13

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  Timko flicked her eyes toward Conklin, who was gauging the situation, looking to see what her brother was going to do.

  I knew what I had to do, and that I had to get it right the first time.

  It might be the only chance Conklin and I had to get out of El Cerrito alive.


  MY HANDS WERE flat on the table, but I hooked my thumbs under the edge of it. I took a breath, gathered my strength, and exhaled. Rising out of my chair, I flipped the dining table away from me and toward Donna Timko.

  Donna yelped as the tabletop went vertical. She bolted out of her chair before the hundred pounds of tiger maple came down on her thighs, but she lost her footing and fell backward to the floor along with her chair and the fancy bone china crashing around her.

  At the moment I flipped the table, Walt reflexively turned his gun on me.

  Conklin went into action. Using both hands, he slammed Walt’s forearm away from his head to the left, and using the power of his legs, drove Walt into the wall. He followed that body slam up with a knee to Walt’s groin, then moved to get the gun out of his grip. He wrenched Walt’s gun backward. The angle of the trigger guard snapped Walt’s finger.

  I heard it break.

  Brenner’s scream was part shock, part fury, and then there was the pain. And Conklin wasn’t through with him yet.

  As Conklin forced Walt’s arm behind him and brought him to the floor, I went for Timko.

  I’m fit and she was a loose pile of what-the-fuck happened crammed into the corner behind an upended chair and dining table. I threw the chair out of my way, got around the table, and found the big woman lying on her shooting arm.

  Her gun hand was flat to the ground and I stomped on it, hard. Timko shrieked, releasing her Colt, and I kicked it under the lowboy and out of the way.

  My Glock had also fallen to the floor during the table flip, and I picked it up. Then, gun in hand, I squatted down to Donna’s eye level. I was blowing hard and my heart was still galloping. I was pumping so much adrenaline, I might have been able to fly. But I kept my wheels on the ground and spoke in measured tones to the helpless criminal staring at me defiantly with hard, furious eyes.

  “Donna, you don’t have much time. I’ll bet that the belly bombs were Walt’s idea. Tell me the whole story before this house fills with cops and I’ll work with you.”

  “Neither of us is guilty of anything.”

  I kept going, giving her another chance to give me the confession I wanted.

  “Right after the cops, there’s going to be a wave of pumped-up FBI and ATF agents who are going to see belly bombs as a career maker. Feds trump local. So I hope you understand, Donna. When the Feds show up, this deal goes out of my hands for good. Feds will seek the death penalty.”

  “I want a lawyer. That’s all I have to say.”

  “Sure thing, Donna. No problem. You can call your lawyer after you’re booked. In the years to come, I hope you’ll remember that I told you that your best chance to get a break was right now, with me.”


  DONNA LAUGHED MANIACALLY. I was pretty sure that losing control of this shooting match was making her hysterical, but still. She was laughing.

  I shrugged and said, “Well, I tried.”

  “Am I under arrest?” Brenner asked from where he was cuffed and facedown on the scatter rug.

  “Not yet,” said Conklin. “But when I hear sirens, I’m reading you your rights. That gives you, I don’t know, two minutes to play ball. Confess or don’t, I don’t really give a shit.”

  I said to my partner, “I think I can still get home in time for a late dinner with my husband. That’ll be a nice change.”

  “So what are you actually saying?” Timko said, squirming and pushing against the wall in an effort to sit upright in her corner. “You’re making us a real offer?”

  “No promises,” I said. “You tell me who did what in these bombings. And I need to know if there are any more bombs in play. Talk to me. Get me on your side and I’ll help you with the powers that be.”

  She said, “Huh. What are you, Sergeant? Size eight?”

  I said, “Uh, ten. Why?”

  This was prelude to girl talk, I guessed. My cue to get Timko to think I liked her. I pulled over a chair, sat so that I was looking down at the woman who couldn’t do a thing but look back.

  “Fast food is all about hooking the consumer,” she said. “Making food addictive. That’s what we do. What I do. It’s like dealing drugs. We work like crazy to get the fat-salt-sugar ‘bliss point’ to a T. It’s a science. And I’ve got the degrees in chemistry to prove it. And of course, there’s this.”

  She grabbed folds of belly fat through her house dress with both hands and jiggled them. Where was she going with this?

  “I’m not sure I follow you, Donna. You’re not saying you set off bombs because you’re addicted to fast food?”

  “Hell, no. I had nothing to do with any bombs. I’m just saying I don’t feel bad that someone’s holding Chuck’s up for a fortune. Corporations like Chuck’s are corrupt. Unconscionable.”

  I said, “I thought you might tell me that you were getting screwed on the potential merger. That Walter was going to lose his job. Because that I might understand.”

  “Well, that’s true, Sergeant. You think I was going to get a fair share in Chuck’s merger with Space Dogs? I was the fat girl, supposed to take whatever I was offered. How do they dare treat me that way? How do they dare after all I’ve put into Chuck’s and the zillions they’ve made off my brains and talent and my hard work?”

  Conklin answered his ringing cell phone and said, “How long? Okay. We’ve got the situation under control.”

  He ended the call and said to me, “The cavalry is on the way. They’re just entering El Cerrito.”


  SIRENS WAILED IN the near distance, closing in on the cozy yellow Craftsman-style house on Belmont Avenue.

  I took out my phone and called Jacobi.

  When he answered, I said, “Warren, we need a search warrant for a refrigerated transport van and for the house belonging to Donna Timko and Walter Brenner. We’re bringing them in as soon as you convince the Feds that they belong to us. We caught them and we want them.”

  I gave Jacobi the particulars as the sirens got loud enough for him to hear them over my phone, and then I hung up. I looked through the window at the neat suburban houses across the street, lights and TVs on in the front rooms.

  The neighbors were going to be shocked.

  Walter and Donna are such nice people. I just can’t believe that they’d put bombs—No wayyy. Really?

  “See that?” I said as squad cars drove up on the lawn and the flashing red-and-blue lights lit the dining room up like Christmas Eve in an alternative universe.

  I said, “This is Walt and Donna saying good-bye to their best chance to get a break.”

  “You’re too funny,” Timko said, laughing again. “You’ve got nothing on us. No evidence. No witnesses. No confession. No nothing. We’ll be home in the morning.”

  “Take your toothbrush with you just in case. We’ve got you on threatening a police officer, resisting arrest, unlawful restraint, and of course, suspicion of murder. That’s before CSI goes through the van and this house.”

  “Be my guest. There’s nothing to find,” Timko said.

  “Really?” My turn to grin. “Not a trace of explosives? Not a print matching one on a ransom note? You’re sure?”

  The look on Timko’s face said she was terrified. Out of her tiny freaking mind.

  Conklin moved the dining table out of the way, and we each took one of Donna’s arms and hauled her to her feet. I cuffed her. The pleasure was all mine.

  “Donna Timko, you’re under arrest on a quite a few charges,” I said, “most of them felonies.” And then I listed them.

  She shouted, “I have diabetes. You can’t lock me up. I’ll die.”

  “I’m pretty sure the
y can scrounge up some insulin at the Women’s Jail. Meanwhile, you have the right to remain silent. If you can’t afford an attorney, you’ll be provided with one, courtesy of the City of San Francisco. Anything you say can and will be used against you. Do you understand everything I just said?”

  Conklin read Walt Brenner his rights as car radios squawked right outside the house. The doorbell rang and knuckles rapped hard on the front door.

  “This is the police. We’re coming in.”

  Guess what? The killer with the large brown eyes started to cry.


  YUKI HEARD THE gun go off. She didn’t know who’d been executed, but she knew how the victim had felt. First the shocked terror of being pulled out of the crowd. Then disbelief. Then not-not-not ready to leave her friends, her family, her life because it wasn’t her time. Then the pleading, followed by…maybe relief in the sharp report of the gun. That she couldn’t know.

  She kept her eyes down as she stepped around clumps of passengers huddled on the deck. She edged along the narrow path between the pool and the railing, keeping tabs on her new best friend, Becky, who was whimpering behind her, “Don’t let it be Carl or Luke. Please God. Not them.”

  Yuki and Becky had been to the stinking waste bucket, each of them acting as a privacy curtain for the other, while a gunman in fatigues and mask watched over them with an assault rifle and hurried them along.

  Taking along a buddy to use the bucket was more for company and support than for protection from men’s eyes. This late in the game, Yuki didn’t care who saw her squatting over a bucket. She just didn’t care anymore.

  This ship was a prison camp.

  And soon another hour would pass. Another one of them would be murdered.

  Becky touched her arm and whispered, “This will be over soon. They’ll pay.”

  “I know,” said Yuki.

  Becky dropped down beside her husband and son, and Yuki headed toward the spot where Brady waited for her. He raised his hand and she went to him and placed her hand on his shoulder. He helped her down beside him.

  “Are you okay?” he asked.

  “Freakin’ fabulous,” she said.

  She handed him the bottle of water the gunman had given her. Brady twisted off the cap. He returned the bottle to Yuki, who took a few gulps and then passed it back to Brady.

  Twenty yards away, on the other side of the pool, three guards leaned against railings. One smoked, one paced, and one talked on his radio, speaking to someone in their militia, checking in as they did every half hour.

  Another goon was on the track above them. He swept the mass of prisoners with his torchlight, three or four times before shutting the light off.

  Brady put his hand to the back of Yuki’s head and, drawing her close, kissed her temple. She hugged her knees in the chilly dark, glad for the comforting weight of Brady’s arm around her shoulders.

  The guard who had been pacing went to the rail on their side of the pool. He flicked his cigarette into the water, then, still with his back to them, lit a match and bent his head. Brady was on his feet fast, like a panther.

  The match was still burning when Brady reached his left hand around the man’s face and hooked his mouth with his fingers, getting a grip on his skull with his right.

  It took less than the count of three.

  Before the gunman even got his hands up, Brady had twisted his head with a powerful jerk.

  The gunman went slack and Brady lowered him soundlessly to the deck.

  Yuki put her hand over her mouth to muffle a scream as Lazaroff got up to help Brady. The two worked as one in the dark, wordlessly stripping off the dead pirate’s clothes and mask, then sliding his body under one of the lounge chairs piled nearby.

  As soon as that was done, Lazaroff melted into the amorphous blackness of the crowd and Brady sat down beside her.

  He lifted his shirt, took her hand, and placed it on the terrorist’s fatigues and mask. Then he put her hand to the waistband of his jeans, before wrapping his arm around her again.

  My God. My God.

  Brady had on pirate gear, and more than that, he had a gun.


  ONE OF THE masked thugs had put a seventies rock track on the bar’s sound system. As “You Make Loving Fun” blasted overhead, Brady and Lazaroff lay next to each other on the deck, talking mouth to ear in the dark.

  When Brady worked narcotics for the Miami PD, he’d worked with undercover cops, run stings with them, and led raids against drug traffickers. Cops got almost no training in hand-to-hand combat, but Brady had taken some training in mixed martial arts on his own. As for guns, he knew and could operate almost any weapon in current use.

  His new friend aboard the FinStar, Brett Lazaroff, had been a Navy corpsman in the early days of Vietnam. He had been involved in search-and-destroy missions and worked with the Marines as well as local irregulars, going into villages and finding and killing guerrillas.

  Lazaroff was in his midsixties and had arthritis all through his joints, but the two of them would make a good team.

  And then there was Lyle.

  Lyle was a nice kid, but that was all he had in his kit. He’d told Brady that he had held a variety of odd jobs over the past three years: washing cars and mowing lawns before moving to Alaska and getting a dishwashing job in a one-star hotel. He gave that up when he heard of an opening as a cabin steward on the FinStar.

  Lyle’s no-forethought series of pickup dead-end jobs had accidentally positioned him to be a part of a life-and-death operation he could never have imagined.

  After Brady and Lazaroff blocked it all out, Brady filled Lyle in.

  “Lyle, you have to take us to the crew quarters. Lazaroff and I are going to keep you out of the way when the shooting starts.”

  “My mom’s name is Leora Findlay. Hoboken, New Jersey. If I don’t make it, Mr. Brady.”

  Lazaroff said in a husky whisper, “Lyle? It’s okay to be afraid. In fact, we’re counting on it. You won’t have to act scared and that’s good.”

  Brady knew that there were three gunmen on the Sun Deck above them, a half dozen patrolling the Pool Deck, and others inside the body of the ship.

  Their “pattern of life” was to make radio contact every half hour. Each gunman identified himself by position, not by name: Pool deck 4 to base. Veranda 2 to base. Roving patrol 1 to Sun Deck.

  Brady watched for the pale-green light of the radio on the track to go out. Then he glanced at his watch. It had been five minutes since the start of the pirates’ last check-in. A pale gray line on the horizon in the east signaled morning getting ready to bust through some cloud cover.

  It was now or never.

  Over a period of ten minutes, Brady pulled the dead pirate’s lightweight, waterproof camouflage pants over his jeans, buttoned the shirt over his sweater, switched out his deck shoes for lace-up combat boots, and cinched the ammo belt around his waist.

  Last, he put the dead guy’s walkie-talkie radio back in his shirt pocket and hung the rifle strap across his shoulder.

  He covered Yuki’s cheek with his hand and kissed her. She held his hand against her face and trembled.

  “I love you so much,” he said.

  “Come back to me,” she said. “We have to make a life.”

  Doubts saturated Brady’s mind. He was out of shape. He didn’t know the ship very well. There were hundreds of moving parts that could go so far out of control that people would die. And that would be on him.

  “There’s no way I’m not coming back,” he said to Yuki. “Have you got that?”

  He pulled on the black knitted mask that smelled of cigarette smoke, then signaled to Lazaroff and Lyle to stand.

  When they were all on their feet, he said loudly, “Let’s go, assholes.”

  He waved the rifle and Lazaroff and Lyle raised their hands. With Brady bringing up the rear, the three men stepped around the weeping, cringing clumps of humanity on the deck and made their way to
ward the Luna Grill doors and the interior of the ship.


  BRADY LED HIS group from behind, the three of them leaving the open Pool Deck and entering the Luna Grill, which was like a furniture warehouse now, piled with café tables and chairs from the deck outside. A gas lamp that had been placed on top of the piano threw a dim light over the formerly elegant room, which now looked debased, like a used-up exotic dancer turning tricks on the street.

  Brady’s three-man resistance force walked around overturned furniture and garbage heaped on the plush carpets past curved windows reflecting the sputtering gas light.

  At the far side of the lounge, an open doorway led into the public corridor. Lyle, in the lead, took them to one of the hand-painted murals lining the corridor walls.

  He said, “This is how you get to the crew’s stairs.”

  He pushed on a panel and a door opened into a wide metal stairwell that ran the entire height of the ship, from the Sun Deck down to the hold. Caged emergency lights on the walls lit the stairs with a flickering low-wattage light.

  The three were on the stairs, the hidden door closed behind them, when a voice called out, “Yo. Wassup?”

  Brady snapped around, flashed his light up, and saw a man in fatigues sitting on the landing one flight above them. The gunman was fully armed, but he’d taken off his mask, revealing him to be a young white guy in his early twenties with short blond hair.

  Brady said, “Chief wants me to take these two to the hold. Cabin steward. And the old dude is an engineer.”

  “Why bother locking them up? Why not just—pyewww?”

  He put a finger gun to his head and pretended to fire.

  “You want to ask Jackhammer?” Brady said. “Go ahead.”

  Brady wanted to stop talking and start moving. He didn’t know how tight this unit was, whether they were a band of brothers or mercenaries recruited individually for this mission.

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