Unlucky 13, p.21

Unlucky 13, page 21

 part  #13 of  Women's Murder Club Series

 

Unlucky 13
 


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She escorted me past more security checkpoints and through several gates to a gray windowless room with two plastic chairs and a yellow Formica table. This is where I waited to talk with the former head of Chuck’s product-development division.

  Then I heard Bubbleen’s voice in the corridor, saying, “You got fifteen minutes to stare your eyes out, Ms. Donna Timko. Go right in.”

  CHAPTER 101

  DONNA TIMKO SHUFFLED into the small meeting room. She was dressed in orange, wore no makeup, and had stringy hair. She looked sallow and yet cheerful. Why? She should be hitting the bottom about now, I figured.

  With shackles clanking, she edged onto the plastic chair across the table from me and was compliant as Officer Waters linked her cuffs with a chain through the hole in the table to the chain around her waist.

  “I’ll be baaack,” said Officer Waters.

  The door closed and Timko and I were alone.

  “I’m getting that déjà vu feeling,” she said. “Only this time, no coffee, no Baby Cakes.”

  Okay, good, she wasn’t giving me the silent treatment. I said, “Donna. How’re you doing?”

  “Not bad. First vacation I’ve had in years. Nice of you to ask. Why are you here?”

  “Well, maybe you could help me out with something.”

  “I refuse to answer any questions that you’ll try to use against me, so, let’s talk about what I want to talk about.”

  “Go ahead.”

  I sat back in my wobbly seat as Donna teed up whatever she had on her twisted mind. She wanted ballgame scores and headlines on “Dancing with the Stars,” and she wanted to know if I knew how Walter was doing.

  I told her about the 49ers’ crushing win over the Packers, said that I didn’t watch the other thing, and told her that as far as I knew, Walter was making friends in jail. “I’ll get word to him that you were asking after him. I promise.

  “My turn,” I said after that.

  “I’ll listen,” she said, “but I told you, Sergeant.”

  Then she motioned zipping her lip.

  Donna Timko was looking playful, almost cute.

  But Bubbleen Waters hadn’t exaggerated when she said of Timko, “She’s a nasty piece of work.”

  My mind filled with pictures dominated by the color red. The red Jeep on the bridge, followed a few days later by the bloodied interior of a car in a Chuck’s parking lot in LA.

  And the latest, Corporal Andy Licht, twenty-three years old, rented tuxedo hanging from a hook in the backseat, St. Christopher hanging from the rearview mirror. This returning soldier was two days from marrying the young woman who’d been waiting for him and praying for his safety. Now Licht was dead, his blood sprayed all over the white tile on the restaurant floor.

  Jacobi had said, “Get them to brag. That’s what we want.”

  I looked at Timko and said, “Something just happened. I’d like your thoughts on it, Donna.”

  “Oh, yeah? What’s the magic word?” she said, cocking her head like a predatory bird.

  CHAPTER 102

  I DON’T THINK it’s a secret in our squad that when we’re doing an interrogation, I’m the bad ass and Conklin is the good cop that women can’t resist. Well, I had Conklin’s role now, and I asked myself, what would Conklin do?

  No doubt he would play along with the mean girl in cuffs and tangerine-colored jumpsuit, being attentive and sympathetic and almost for real.

  I decided my version of Conklin’s style was “Just us girls.”

  I said, “Between us, I’ve got a disaster on my hands and I don’t know what the hell to do next.”

  “Oh, yeah?”

  “Definitely, yeah,” I said. “A belly bomb went off inside a Chuck’s restaurant in Alameda. Same effect as your bombs, but with a shorter time between ingestion and explosion. So, it’s a better bomb.”

  Timko’s face crumpled. “Better? How could it be better?”

  “That’s what I want to know. You’ve got advanced degrees in chemistry. So how did this copycat improve on your formula? Could someone you know be advancing your work? Give me your thoughts. Please. There. I said the magic word.”

  Tears came into Timko’s eyes, beaded up on her lower lid, and spilled over.

  What the hell?

  “Someone else died because of Chuck’s?” she asked me. “How is that better, Sergeant? What kind of person are you, anyway?”

  I guess my face registered surprise, even shock.

  This made no sense. Last time I’d seen Timko, she was threatening to run me through a meat grinder.

  And then Timko’s face lit up. She was beaming at me.

  Man, oh, man. She was like a shape-shifter.

  And I remembered that the first time I saw Timko, she was on a monitor attending a Chuck’s senior staff meeting virtually. And she’d been crying.

  Crocodile tears.

  Timko said, “I kind of love this, Sergeant. Do you know what it’s like to be treated like you’re nothing? Like you don’t even exist? No. That’s my life. Well, I don’t feel like nothing right now. I think I could bend steel bars with my bare hands.”

  I had wanted Timko to scoff. To say that this latest bomb was all hers and Walter’s, that there was no accomplice, no copycat. That one of their bombs had been sitting in a freezer until it was slapped onto the grill and served up to a soldier.

  I especially wanted her to tell me if there were other bombs out there lying dormant in Chuck’s kitchens, and that she knew where they were and that she’d trade that information for a deal.

  But no.

  I wasn’t playing Timko.

  She was playing me.

  Still, she was telling me her motive for the killings. She did it for the power: over her victims, over the police, over the heads of Chuck’s, over the FBI, and over me.

  She was grinning, and I felt the twist, like a knife between my ribs. The more bombs that went off while she and her brother were in jail, the better it was for them.

  She said, “I had nothing to do with any bombs, Sergeant. And you can’t prove anything. In fact, our attorneys are going to call this ‘reasonable doubt.’

  “Problem solved, right?”

  She winked, then called out toward the barred door.

  “Bubbleen, get your fat ass in here. Sergeant Boxer and I are done.”

  My husband is a modest guy, and he’s almost always right. He’d said to me after the first bombs, “Sooner or later, the bomber is going to take credit.”

  Well. Hadn’t happened yet.

  As soon as I got out onto the street, I called Jacobi.

  When he answered, I shouted into my phone, “Jacobi. Timko admitted nothing, but bombs are gonna go off. Call the FBI. Call the mayor. Get Chuck’s closed! Every last Chuckburger has to be recalled so no one else dies.”

  Jacobi snuck in a few words edgewise.

  “Exactly right,” I said. “We nail them on hindering prosecution, interfering with a police officer, reckless endangerment, everything else we’ve got. We buy time. We buy time and find the one forgotten thing. We find the thing that proves that she and Walter made those damned dirty bombs.”

  PART FIVE

  HIGH NOON

  CHAPTER 103

  JOE CALLED OUT to me from the foyer, “I’ll be back in an hour, Blondie. And that’s a promise, more or less.”

  “Godspeed,” I called back.

  I was in a hurry, closing the snaps on Julie’s pastel-striped onesie and looking for her knitted hat with the daisy in front, when the phone rang. I’d ducked her calls too often.

  “Cindy—hey.”

  “Tell me everything,” she said.

  I was glad to hear her voice. It had been a while.

  “Joe’s picking up Martha from the vet and I’m using my lunch hour to take Julie to the park.”

  Cindy laughed, said, “That’s fascinating, but I meant, tell me everything about Brady and Yuki.”

  I only had time to give her the Twitter version, so no need to go of
f the record. I told her that Brady had made an appearance at the squad this morning and was going to be back on the job as soon as he was able to pull a full day.

  “Lost part of his ear,” I told her. “An earlobe. Four broken ribs, too, but he’s going to be fine.”

  “Whoaaa. And Yuki?”

  “Yuki is down to about two-thirds her fighting weight, which means she couldn’t go one round with a chicken. But she seems pretty good, all things considered. She’s going to take off work for a couple weeks.”

  “Sure. She probably needs to sleep with both eyes closed.”

  “She said the ground is still moving under her feet.”

  Julie was fussing, gearing up for a tantrum. I picked her up while keeping the phone between my ear and shoulder. I unfolded the stroller with one hand and said to Cindy, “How are you? Just the headlines.”

  “Everything is good, well, except for.” Cindy’s voice dropped. “Morales.”

  I looked at the time. I had a meeting with Jacobi in forty-eight minutes and I hadn’t left the house.

  Cindy was saying, “I still worry, you know. That she’s got it in for you.”

  I said, “Please don’t worry about me, Cindy. Please? I’m a cop. I carry a gun. And now I’ve got a playdate with my bossy baby girl.”

  We said good-bye and I strapped my precious daughter into her stroller.

  “Wow, you look amazing with that hat,” I said. “Hold it.”

  I got my phone. I took Julie’s picture and sent it to Joe.

  “Are you ready?” I asked Julie.

  And then I said her lines, too.

  “‘Ready? It’s about time you got off the danged phone. I certainly am ready to go to the park, Mom.’

  “All right, baby girl. Let’s go.”

  CHAPTER 104

  THE SUNLIGHT WAS soft and the air was scented with eucalyptus. In fact, I could almost smell the ocean, too, as I walked Julie’s stroller through my neighborhood, its diversity reflected in the restaurants and shops.

  I wanted to enjoy this unexpected quality time with Julie.

  All I had to do was kick Donna Timko out of my head, put my faith in the powers that be to recall every last Chuckburger on earth, and—relax.

  “Mommy helped shut down a multimillion-dollar hamburger chain, baby girl,” I said. “I hope so, anyway.”

  I unbuttoned my jacket, took the band out of my hair, and shook out my pony. Julie babbled happily as we turned west on Lake and took a left onto 12th, heading into the seven-block-long straightaway to the park.

  I said, “So, the dog run, right, Julie? Or you want to see the birdies in Stow Lake? I’m pretty sure you got your eyes and your hair from dear old dad, but when it comes to dogs, you take after—”

  Julie interrupted me with a long string of baby foolery, beating the air with her hands—soooo cute—making me laugh. I stopped to kiss her face and then we pushed along the eclectic residential block to the intersection at California, where I paused for the light.

  I tried to imagine having a day like this every day. And the idea held some appeal. Sunshine, baby and me, and if I actually wasn’t working, we would go home in a bit, have Gerber mixed veggies and turkey, and then take a nap.

  The light changed and we crossed the road and headed toward Clement, entering the business section of the Richmond District. Traffic was congested. Car horns and radios blared and—holy crap! I saw something I just didn’t like.

  Gripping the handlebar of the stroller, I started to run.

  I used the crowded sidewalk as a buffer, looking ahead of me and on both sides all at the same time. All I cared about was Julie. Getting her out of sight.

  I stepped on a crack in the sidewalk, turning my ankle, but I recovered my balance before I dropped. Julie wasn’t aware that I’d almost gone down, because I kept the stroller steady. A clot of teens were taking up the breadth of the sidewalk, smoking cigarettes, texting, and joking around.

  I screamed at them to get the fuck out of my way.

  They yelled back, but they made way for me, and I kept going, running fast and furious.

  Between 12th and 11th, I turned onto Clement and stayed on the south side, which was lined with a wall-to-wall row of shops.

  There was an alcove halfway up the block, an entrance to a Chinese restaurant. I shoved the stroller down the stone steps and stumbled behind it, hiding behind the alcove to the shuttered Wing Ho’s Happy Eating.

  Julie was wailing now, and I stood between her carriage and the street, semi-protected by the wings of the alcove and pretty much out of plain sight.

  I watched, and when I felt it was safe, I grabbed my child and held her over my shoulder. I picked up the stroller with my free hand, took the stairs up to the sidewalk, and ducked into the boutique next door, Rosalie’s Fanfare.

  I found a shopgirl at the back of the store. She was wearing a black tunic, tight pants, and black leather boots to her knees. She froze and stared at me with huge black-ringed eyes.

  I tucked my baby into the stroller and said, “I’m a cop. On a case.”

  I opened my jacket, showed her the badge pinned inside and my gun on my hip. Then I touched Julie’s head and said, “Honey. I’ll be right back.”

  The shopgirl said, “No, no, you can’t leave her here.”

  I said, “You. Watch. Her.”

  The baby’s cries followed me as I went back toward the front of the store. I bumped hard into a woman coming out of a dressing room. She fell back against a bunch of cartons that tumbled like a stack of blocks.

  The sound of the customer’s curses mingled with Julie’s screams as I made for the shop’s front door.

  The weight of a human female heart is about nine ounces. Every bit of mine was with my baby, as if that small pounding muscle could protect her.

  CHAPTER 105

  I HAD MY gun out before I exited Rosalie’s Fanfare.

  I stood in the doorway, peering out onto Clement Street. I checked out the pedestrians on both sides and stared into the shadows and the glaring sections of pavement.

  I was sure that I’d seen a woman who could pass as a teenage boy—a lean five foot six with an angular face, wearing boyfriend jeans and a hoodie, hands in the pockets and possibly holding a gun.

  It was Morales. Wasn’t it?

  I always said I’d know Mackie Morales in a grizzly bear suit. I’d spent three months with her in her role as a summer intern. She was lethal as a rattlesnake and crazy as a loon.

  Yeah, and she was foxy, too.

  Had she been staking me out, waiting for a moment when I was alone with Julie, on foot and very vulnerable?

  I thought of calling for backup. None would get here in time, and what would I say?

  That I’d seen a boylike girl who might be Morales?

  No. I needed Conklin. He was my first choice for backup, and not just because he had his own issues with Morales. Also because he would not call me paranoid.

  I slapped my right-hand jacket pocket, going for my phone. But my phone wasn’t there. It wasn’t in any of my pockets. What the hell? I slapped my pockets again.

  Damn it. Was my phone in the stroller?

  And then I remembered taking the picture of Julie, then putting down the phone as I got her ready to go.

  Julie. How long had it been since I left her? One minute? Five?

  I trotted a half-block to the corner of 10th, checking out people with such a fierce look that many pulled back as if I were crazy. Meanwhile, a lot of people were dressed in jeans and hoodies. Christ, it was practically a uniform for kids of a certain age.

  I crossed Clement and doubled back toward 11th.

  After five minutes of searching for Morales, the heartstrings that connected me to my daughter like a bungee cord yanked me back to Rosalie’s Fanfare.

  I ran like a 49er with the ball, goalposts in sight, in the last seconds of the game.

  I dodged and I wove and I sped down the street, homing in on the fashion boutique where my l
ittle girl was waiting. I stiff-armed the door—and ran right into Cindy.

  She was holding Julie in her arms, staring out the window, waiting for me.

  “Cindy. How—?”

  “I saw you leaving your place. I called out to you, but you didn’t hear me.”

  I hugged Cindy and the baby together, tears coming.

  “I followed you,” Cindy said, hanging on to me. “I do that sometimes. Don’t be mad, okay?”

  “Mad? She’s out there, damn it. Did you see her? You were right.”

  “I didn’t want to be right.”

  “Thank you, Cindy.”

  We were safe for now—and I had been warned.

  CHAPTER 106

  ROSALIE’S FANFARE WAS two blocks from my apartment, and Cindy had parked her Honda just up the street from my front door. No cab and no cruiser would get to us in the five minutes it would take us to trot home.

  Cindy stayed with Julie inside the boutique while I looked long and hard at the foot traffic outside. Then, I signaled to my friend and we all started out toward Lake Street at a very quick clip.

  Cindy and I were both paranoid, but Julie was enjoying herself. Maybe it was the swiftness of her little stroller and the two of us hovering over her, or maybe her stars had suddenly aligned.

  All I knew for sure was that Party Girl Molinari was laughing.

  Our little group of three cut through lunch-hour pedestrians on 12th and a block later, when we crossed California, I almost began to breathe normally.

  The residential block between California and Lake was humming sweetly. The street was wide and homey, dotted with trees. Ground-level garages had SUVs in the driveways, retirees walked dogs, and a woman in pink sweats was sweeping her walk while talking to her neighbor, who was unloading groceries from her car.

  Cindy was saying, “So, what now? You’ll get out an all points bulletin?”

  “Too bad I can’t make a positive ID, but anyway, the FBI is going to want to talk to us.”

  I was doing my own APB, checking out everything that moved. Dogs barked from a doorway. A man slid out from under his car and got on his phone. He wore a sweatshirt with the sleeves ripped off. He was a man’s man, not a slim-hipped psycho killer.

 
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