Unlucky 13, p.2

Unlucky 13, page 2

 part  #13 of  Women's Murder Club Series


Unlucky 13

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  Yellow tape was unspooled and a perimeter was set up with a wide margin around the Jeep. Roadblocks were placed at both ends of the bridge. Conklin and I documented the scene with our cell-phone cameras and notepads and chewed over some theories.

  I was enormously relieved when Clapper’s van came through with a flatbed truck behind it. Both vehicles parked outside the cordon, and the unflappable Clapper and half a dozen criminalists disembarked.

  Clapper is a crisply turned-out man in his late forties, a former homicide cop, and a very fine CSI. I went over to him and said, “I don’t think you’ve ever seen anything like this.”

  After I briefed him on what I was calling a crime scene, we walked over to the wreck and Clapper poked his head into the vehicle.

  He took a long look, then backed out and said, “It’s an explosion, all right. But the way I understand belly bombs, they’re mechanical devices, surgically implanted. Powder. Cap. Detonator. I don’t see wires. I don’t smell explosive powder. And this is strange,” Clapper continued. “The blast was restricted to the front compartment. Bombs of this type are meant to blow up not just the vehicle, but everything around it. You’re right, though. This is a new one on me.”

  I said, “We’ve run the plates, but I want the bodies ID’d before Eyewitness News notifies next of kin.”

  I pointed to a red nylon backpack in the rear foot well. After a tech shot photos of the bag and the fairly untouched rear compartment, I gloved up and unzipped the bag. Inside was a toy dog, a bunch of CDs, cell-phone charger, and a blue spangled wallet.

  Inside the wallet was a driver’s license.

  “Our female victim is Lara Trimble, twenty-one, lives in Oakland,” I said.

  There was a mess of paper litter in the rear compartment foot well and I found myself staring at something that might be important.

  “Can you shoot that?” I asked.

  Once forensics had photos, I lifted out a hamburger bag that hadn’t been damaged in the blast.

  “Hello,” I said out loud. “Is this where they had their last meal?”

  Clapper said, “Thank you,” and then deftly took the bag from my fingers and sealed it in a glassine envelope. “This is what we like to call evidence.”

  Claire joined us and said, “Charles, what are you thinking?”

  “I’m thinking that this scene is going to be on the national news in a wink. The FBI, Homeland Security, ATF, as many Feds as can fit on the deck will be here in a half hour and the bridge will be closed until next Christmas. For twenty-four hours, anyway.”

  The Golden Gate Bridge was a high-quality target, an American icon. Bombs on this bridge would scare everyone in San Francisco. It was scaring the crap out of me.

  I called Brady’s cell and said that we were looking at possible terrorist activity.

  He said, “Shit. Of course we are.”

  Then we all stood around in the swirling fog and waited for the Feds to arrive.




  A WEEK AFTER belly bombs exploded inside two graduate students in a red Jeep, and because nonmetal bombs were of major concern to federal law enforcement, the Feds were working the terrorist implications. And they’d pretty much shut the SFPD out of the case.

  While the FBI huddled and labored at our local FBI offices, the tide of worldwide headlines about a mysterious one-car crash that tied up the Golden Gate Bridge for an afternoon receded and were replaced by breaking news of a movie star’s divorce, political shenanigans, and a significant freeway pile-up in south LA.

  Meanwhile, the SFPD was treating the belly bombs as an unsolved crime, very likely a double homicide, and by SFPD, I mean Claire, Clapper, Conklin, and me.

  It was just after 6:00 p.m. on a Monday night, and Conklin and I were at our desks in the Hall of Justice, home to the criminal courts, the DA’s Office, and the Southern Station of the SFPD. Homicide is on the fourth floor.

  My partner and I work at facing desks in the bullpen, a windowless, twenty-by-twenty-foot square of fluorescent-lit gray linoleum floors and dingy walls of unknown color. There are twelve desks in this room. At the moment, we had the room to ourselves and were reviewing the sparse facts of our belly bomb case.

  Over the past couple of days, we’d interviewed the victims’ families. Lara Trimble’s grief-stricken loved ones swore that Lara had no enemies and that she was a music student, not a political activist.

  David Katz, the young man who had driven the Jeep, had been doing postgrad work in psychology. Besides being shattered, his parents were completely dumbfounded by their son’s unexplained and tragic death. They hadn’t even the slimmest guess as to why David and Lara had been killed.

  Our week of thorough investigation into Trimble and Katz’s backgrounds and associates bore out the opinion of their family circle. These kids were not radical anything. They were victims.

  Claire was still working with Clapper on what could have been the explosive element and its delivery system, but for now, all we had was comprehensive documentation of the demolished car and a Whitman’s Sampler of trace evidence courtesy of the FBI.

  Essentially we had zip, zero, nothing to go on that hadn’t been evident when we stood on the bridge a week ago.

  I looked at the scene photos for the hundredth time, scrutinizing them for something, anything, I may have missed. But when the night shift began filtering into our humble squad room, I was ready to close the book on the day.

  I got my gear together and waved hello to cop friends and goodnight to Richie, leaving him on the phone cooing to Tina. My seven-year old Explorer was waiting for me in the lot on Harriet Street, and when I turned the key, she started right up.

  Twenty minutes later, I came through the front door of the roomy apartment I share with my husband, Joe, our six-month-old baby girl, Julie, and Martha, my border collie sidekick and Julie’s best doggy friend.

  I called out, “Sergeant Mommy is home,” but there was no clicking of doggy toenails on hardwood, no “Hey, sweetie.”

  It was way too quiet. Where was everyone?

  I had my hand on the butt of my nine as I went from room to room and back around to the foyer, the little hairs on the back of my neck standing up as I checked reference points: keys missing from the console, baby bottle in the sink, Joe’s slippers by his chair, empty crib—when the front door swung open.

  Martha shot through the opening and jumped up on me. My gorgeous and wonderful husband was right behind her, wheeling our child’s stroller into the foyer.

  “Hey, Julie,” Joe said, “Look who’s home.”

  I threw my arms around his neck, gave him a kiss, picked up my darling girl, and danced her around. I have to say, Julie is the most gorgeous baby on the planet—and I’m not just saying that because she’s ours. She’s got her daddy’s dark hair and both of our blue eyes, and actually, I can’t take her out without people rushing over to her and saying, “Oh, you’re so cute. Do you want to come home with me?”

  And Julie will smile and put her arms out for them to take her! It’s kind of a riot—and it kind of scares me, too. I can’t turn my back on Julie for an instant, because she might go with anyone.

  “We played a little softball in the park,” Joe told me.

  “Oh, right. Good idea.”

  “She said she’s going to sleep through the night.”

  “Ha-ha. I want that in writing.”

  “Why don’t you take off your piece and your shoes and stay awhile,” said my husband, clicking on the evening news. “Soup’s on in ten minutes.”

  Love, love, love coming home. Just love it.


  I SPENT HALF the night talking to Joe about the belly bombs. And it wasn’t just pillow talk. Joe Molinari was former FBI, also former deputy director of Homeland Security, and now a highly regarded consultant who was content to be Mr. Mom while I fulfilled my calling in Homicide.

  Joe had been over the c
ase with me a few dozen times already, and he said, when we were under the covers in the dark, “Sooner or later, the bomber is going to take credit for this.”

  I said, “Huh,” and rooted around in the creases of my mind, thinking that for certain bombers, that was true. But not all of them.

  I remember that Joe got up for the baby twice. I did it three times, and suddenly it was eight and I was late.

  At nine-ish, I parked my car in my favorite spot in the shade of the overpass and went directly to the ME’s Office. The reception area was full of cops and plainclothes guys standing around, wishing for cigarettes and hoping for autopsy reports.

  There was a new girl at the front desk who said her name was Tasha. I told her that Claire was expecting me, which was a lie that Claire always backed up.

  I found Claire in the autopsy suite, stripping off her gloves as her assistant rolled a corpse out of the room toward the cooler.

  She said, “I love how I think about you and you just materialize.”

  “You got something?” I asked.

  “Yeah. If I hadn’t had my hands full of internal organs, I would’ve texted you.”

  Claire unsnapped her gown and hung it on a hook and peeled off her cap. I followed her through to her office, dying every second to know what kind of news she had.

  She settled in behind her desk, rolled her chair until she was in just the right place, and said, “I got something from Clapper that he got from the Feds. What the belly bombs consist of.”

  “Holy crap. Tell me.”

  “Here’s the nutshell version. Trace of some kind of magnesium compound was found in stomach contents that were sprayed around the Jeep. The compound was ingested—you with me so far?”

  “If I was any more with you, I’d be sitting in your lap.”

  “Stay where you are. I’ve got no room on my lap.”


  “Okay, so, this compound interacts with stomach acid.”

  I blinked a few times, then said, “You’re saying that those kids ate something and when it got to their stomachs—ka-boom.”

  “Exactly,” said Claire.

  Until new or contrary evidence challenged our theory, I was calling the belly bomb case a double homicide.


  I WAS STILL wrapping my mind around bombs you can eat when Claire picked up her ringing phone and got into something long and windy with a lawyer who wanted her as an expert witness.

  While I waited for Claire’s attention, I stared at the picture on her desk of the four of us in what we cheerfully call the Women’s Murder Club. The four members are Claire, Cindy, Yuki, and me.

  Claire was the bosomy African-American stalwart in the middle of our group, a mom three times over, my best buddy for the past dozen years, a woman with a heart big enough to move into and set up housekeeping.

  To her right was Cindy, a sweet-looking bulldog of a reporter, working the crime desk at the Chronicle, who’d helped me bust a few criminals in her search for an exclusive story. Cindy and I have fought at times. Lots of times. She doesn’t back down until she’s tried every possible way around me and a few impossible ones. But I know her well and love her fiercely.

  To Claire’s left was Yuki Castellano, who had given up private law to prosecute bad guys for the DA’s Office. She’s a bird-size beauty, a high-speed talker, a brilliant woman who has caught some bad breaks and still never says die.

  I was the tall blonde on the end of the line, wearing my working-cop clothes and a sour expression. Bah. I don’t know what was bothering me the day that picture was taken. Well, taking a guess, maybe our new lieutenant, Jackson Brady, had stepped on my toes.

  In front of me in real life, Claire picked up her intercom line and yelled into her phone, “Tell Inspector Orson to cool his giant heels and I’ll be with him in ten minutes. Hey, tell him to get coffee. I like mine with a lot of sugar.”

  Claire slammed the phone down and said, “No peace for the weary.”

  “I think you mean ‘No rest for the wicked.’”

  “That, too.”

  The phone on her desk rang.

  “Don’t take that, okay?” I said. “What do you make of this ingestible bomb?”

  “Well,” said Claire. She uncapped a bottle of water and took a really long pull. Then she said, “Since you ask, I believe this belly bomb was as personal as a knife.”


  “It was a micro-bomb so it was easy to disguise. Limited impact because it was only meant to kill one person at a time.”

  “So these kids were targeted?”

  “Not necessarily. Could have been random. Remember the psycho who put cyanide inside Tylenol capsules.”

  “So those one-person bombs were a kind of message?”

  “My thoughts exactly,” said Claire. “Both of us go to the head of the class.”


  CLAIRE’S ASSISTANT, TASHA, appeared in the doorway of Claire’s office and changed the subject big-time.

  She said, “Yuki Castellano is on line five. Wants to speak to both of you. She said, and I quote: ‘If you don’t put them on the phone, you’ll be sorry you came to work today.’ Unquote. She was kidding, right, Dr. Washburn?”

  “Was she laughing?” Claire asked.

  “Well, yeah. The cutest laugh I ever heard.”

  Although Yuki was our resident bad news bear, she’d been quite merry lately. She’d won a couple of cases and was getting along well with her big hunk of burning love boyfriend.

  Tasha shot a look at me. “Doctor, all of your friends try to walk right over me.”

  Claire said, “That’s them teaching you to push back. Thank you, Tasha.” Then she stabbed a button, putting Yuki on speaker.

  Yuki chirped, “I knew you two were together, goofing off, eating doughnuts, drinking coffee, livin’ la vida loca.”

  “Are you high, sweetie?” Claire asked.

  “You bet I am. Love makes me a little goofy.”

  “Tell us something we don’t know,” I said.

  “Okay, how’s this? Brady and I are getting married.”

  Yuki let loose one of her trademark delightful merry-bells chortles. There was a long pause as Claire and I stared at each other across Claire’s desk, just trying to comprehend what Yuki had said.

  Claire recovered first.

  “Did I hear you right, Yuki?” she said. “You’re not fooling with us, are you?”

  “I’m at the bridal shop. Right this minute.”

  I had just gotten used to Yuki dating my boss—now she was marrying him? Well, never mind the kink their relationship had put in the chain of command. Yuki was getting married.

  “Oh. My. God,” I said, “Did you expect this? Or were you surprised by what could be the best news of the year?”

  “Sur-prised!” she shrieked. “Brady’s divorce came through. So he just hangs up with his lawyer, rolls over in bed, and he says to me, ‘Nothing to stop us now.’”

  Yuki treated us to another round of happy-over-the-moon laughter, then took a breath and chirped, “We’re saying the I do’s on Saturday.”

  I said into the speaker phone, “Saturday? What Saturday? This Saturday?”

  “Yes. So listen, I hired this great wedding planner, and all you girls have to do is put on the dresses and show up. Details to follow.”

  “We’re wearing bridesmaids’ dresses?” I asked, totally horrified.

  “Of course. Pink ones. Off the shoulder. Big skirt.”

  Well, Cindy and Claire would look good in pink. I would look like a half-baked ham.

  “Don’t worry, Linds,” Yuki said. “You can use it after the wedding. It’s a nice little cocktail dress.”

  “And I was just sitting here wishing I had an off-the-shoulder pink cocktail dress,” I said, laughing in order to keep the terror out of my voice. “Can I get a tiara to go with that?”

  Yuki laughed and said, “I’m kidding about the dresses, girls. I’m not having any
maids of honor, none of that. Having a judge. Having vows. Having food. Having dancing. Sound okay?”

  “Brilliant,” Claire said. “We’re throwing your engagement party. For four. Tonight.”

  Right after we said good-bye to Yuki, I left Claire’s office, jogged through the breezeway, and entered the back door to the lobby of the Hall of Justice, with its super-size ceilings and garnet-colored marble walls. I took the stairs to Homicide and after passing through the squad’s outer office went through the little swinging gate and into the bullpen.

  I said, “Yo,” to our PA, Brenda, and then made my way around the desks in the bullpen. I found Brady in his hundred-square-foot glass cubicle at the far end.

  He looked just like always—delts and biceps pulling the fabric of his blue shirt, white-blond hair pulled back and banded in a short pony, head bent over his computer.

  I’d had a few issues with Brady since he’d taken over my old job as squad boss. From the first, I bucked at Brady’s impersonal management style. But lately, I hate to admit, I’ve become a fan. He’s impartial. He’s decisive. And he has a track record as a really good cop.

  I knocked on Brady’s glass door. He said, “Come in, Boxer.”

  I did and kept coming, all four steps to his desk. Then I grabbed his shoulders and kissed him.

  “Congrats, boss.”

  The look on Brady’s face was priceless.


  I was grinning my face off as I crossed the squad room to my desk and Conklin’s. My partner looked up from his computer and said to me, “I saw you kissing up to the boss.”

  “He and Yuki are getting married. Swear to God. And we’ve got a hot lead. So, let’s get to work.”


  I SWUNG DOWN into my desk chair and said to my partner, “The explosive material in the belly bomb is a magnesium compound and the victims ingested it.”

  “They ate it? And it exploded? That’s not possible.”

  “I’m quoting Claire, who got that from the FBI lab. They found a trace of the compound in the stomach contents. Seems that stomach acid activates the explosion.”

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