Unlucky 13, p.6

Unlucky 13, page 6

 part  #13 of  Women's Murder Club Series


Unlucky 13

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  He didn’t seem to notice her.

  Still moving forward, Mackie passed the ATMs on her left and, keeping her head down, entered the main part of the bank. It was warm inside and lit with bluish light from the overhead fixtures, making the space evenly bright. No shadows here at all.

  Randy was humming a lilting, wordless tune in her mind. He did that sometimes, and she found the melody sweet and comforting.

  She looked around the bank, assessing the customers and the bank employees, sweeping her gaze across the circular customer-service station to her right, where a large customer rep with purple bangs and her middle-aged paunchy colleague attempted to calm an irate man with a big battered briefcase.

  Directly ahead, to the back of the bank, were the teller windows. A line of three customers waited to conduct their transactions, and Mackie joined the queue.

  The woman in front of her was maybe twenty-five, wearing a full-length yellow raincoat. She had a heavy handbag over her shoulder and black rubber boots. She was reading something on her tablet and seemed lost in it.

  Mackie figured it would take about four minutes to get to one of the three tellers, and Randy agreed, suggesting that Mackie use the time to read their body language.

  Mackie observed the nearest teller, a gray-haired white woman in a blue silk blouse, speaking in brief rehearsed sentences to her customer. Next to her, a white male teller was counting out money, paying close attention to the count, then counting again.

  The teller to his right was a black woman, pretty, wearing a tight floral-print blouse and a gold chain around her neck. She was laughing at something the customer had said.

  Mackie thought the old woman would probably take directions best.

  The line advanced and then the black teller flipped on the light at her station to show that her window was open. She looked at the woman in the yellow slicker standing in front of Mackie and said, “Miss? You’re next.”

  Mackie walked right up to the woman in yellow, close enough to see the chipped red polish on her fingernails. Mackie said, “Gee, I think you dropped this.”

  The woman turned her head and looked at Mackie, who had taken her Ruger out of her pocket and now pressed it hard into the woman’s side.

  She didn’t need Randy to feed her her lines.

  “This is a gun,” Mackie said quietly. “You want to live? Do exactly as I say.”


  THE WOMAN IN yellow said, “What?” and stiffened her back.

  Mackie hissed, “Keep your eyes front. What’s your name?”


  “Jill, we’re going up to the window. Be good or be dead. Understand? Let’s go, now. Move.”

  Randy’s voice inside her head: You’re doing fine, baby doll. Wake her up.

  Mackie said, “Jill. I. Said. Move.”

  “Please don’t shoot. Please.”

  Mackie gave the woman a hard poke and they crossed the eight feet of granite floor between the rope line and the teller’s window. The teller wore a name tag on her blouse. SANDRA CARNAHAN.

  Sandra said, “And how may I help you ladies today?”

  Mackie leaned in and speaking over Jill’s shoulder said, “I have a gun. Act normal.”

  “I understand,” the teller said. Her eyes were huge and fixed on her.

  “Don’t hit the alarm, or I will shoot.”

  “I have a baby,” the teller said.

  “Good for you, Sandra. Your baby wants you to clean out your drawer and give the cash to me. No dye packs. No alarm. Screw with me and your baby loses her mom.”

  “I’m doing it. Don’t worry.” Sandra sniffed.

  She opened her drawer, piled three stacks of bills into the metal transom, then flipped it so that it opened on the customer side.

  Mackie reached around Jill and had just wrapped her hand around the money, when Jill lost it. She screamed.

  Sandra was hyperventilating, looking like she was going to scream, run, or both. All the eyes in the bank went to Mackie and the woman in yellow.

  Inside Mackie’s head, Randy said, Sandra stepped on the button.

  Really? Big mistake, Sandra. This is on you.

  Mackie raised her gun, aimed, and fired. The bullet punctured the plexiglass window, but Sandra had ducked under the counter. Mackie turned to see everything going crazy. People dove behind pillars, got under desks, pressed against walls.

  Jill dropped to the floor, covered her head, and began keening, “Nooooo, nooooo, noooooo.”

  Mackie spoke in a cold monotone, saying to Jill, “Look what you made me do.”

  She fired twice, bullets punching neat holes in the yellow vinyl. Then Mackie turned to face the audience from her place on the stage.


  MACKIE FELT A surge of adrenaline, the good kind that made her fearless and able to do anything. She had killed before but only in a crowd.

  Blending in was her strength.

  This was something different.

  She held her gun in front of her and yelled out into the open areas of the bank, “Everyone get down on the floor. Down. I’ll shoot anyone who moves.”

  People scrambled, dropped, covered their faces. Briefcases, phones, and umbrellas clattered to the floor and echoed in the new silence.

  It was as if time had frozen, and Mackie used that solid moment to take stock.

  She saw everything in sharp detail: the paralyzed faces of customers and bankers, the fat girl with the purple bangs, an office girl with big black glasses, a white-haired man with a red face that was turning blue.

  She noted the clock on the south wall reading 2:03, the vid-cams on the pillars, the shock on the guard’s young face.

  She could make it. She would.

  She had the money, a loaded gun, and a clear path to the front doors thirty yards away.

  Time resumed. The guard came to life and took a stance in front of Mackie, holding his gun with both hands. He looked young. Green. Terrified.

  The guard shouted, “Drop it, miss. Cops are coming. You can’t get away, miss. Now, lower your gun. Slowly.”

  Randy was speaking: Go ahead, Mackie. Make my day.

  Mackie wanted to laugh. Firing her gun, she landed three shots in a tight pattern around the guard’s neck and chest. He grabbed his throat and, looking stupefied, collapsed to the floor. Blood spilled. He wheezed and exhaled his last breath.

  Mackie scampered toward the guard’s body and scooped up his gun, and when she turned back to face the crowd, she was holding a gun in each hand.

  That should give any heroes pause before rushing me.

  She was on camera. She knew that. Cops were coming. But not very fast.

  She backed toward the doors and pushed one open with her shoulder. She shouted into the bank, saying, “First person out the door after me gets a shot to the head. Have a nice day.”

  And she was back outside in the gray morning.

  Mackie drafted along behind a group of three white-collar tools on North Dearborn, unbuttoning her coat as she walked. Ten yards ahead was a trash can next to the bus stop. Mackie blended with the passengers getting off the bus. She emptied the pockets of her gray hooded raincoat and transferred the cash and her Ruger to the navy-blue coat she wore underneath the gray one.

  She dropped her gray coat into the trash and kept moving, plumbing her pockets as she walked, smoothly putting on sunglasses and slicking on bright lipstick. She fluffed her hair. She had changed her appearance in maybe thirty seconds.

  Mackie felt exhilarated as she continued on, walking north at a moderate pace, crossing West Randolph against the light.

  She guessed she had about a couple thousand dollars, which would be enough to get the hell out of Chicago.

  But the real plan, the one that included making an actual home for Randy and Ben in a new place, with new names—that plan had been destroyed when Randy died.

  She had Sergeant Lindsay Boxer to thank for that.

  She would thank her i
n person, though.

  She could hardly wait.


  AT THREE IN the afternoon, the bustling Seattle waterfront was swarming with passenger arrivals, food and luggage transport, and other commercial vehicles bringing fuel and cargo into the Port of Seattle. A cruise ship was moored along the waterfront at Pier 66.

  Yuki and Brady were in the backseat of their hired car, holding hands as the car nosed through traffic into a sliver of a parking spot outside the pier. The driver got out and opened the car door for Yuki. Brady exited on the other side and signed for the ride.

  Their luggage had been sent on ahead, and Yuki took in the salty marine air and thought about the future. She was married! She was Jackson Brady’s wife. She loved her husband, loved him so much. And there was no other way to say it: her job wasn’t the center of her life anymore.

  “There she is,” Brady called to her.

  “She” was the FinStar, the flagship of the Finlandia Line, dead ahead, moored on the far side of the terminal. This grand ship would be taking her and Brady and about six hundred other people on a ten-day luxury tour of Alaska.

  Even from here, the FinStar looked entirely awesome.

  The car pulled away, and Yuki’s husband called out, “You okay?”


  “What’s wrong?” he asked, his face full of concern.

  “I’m not okay. I passed ‘okay’ about six months ago. I’m over the moon, Brady. I’m over Pluto.”

  He grinned at her, put his arm around her waist, and walked her toward the terminal doors.

  “I hope we can handle this, sweetie. Ten days with nothing to do but enjoy ourselves. It’s been about twenty years since I had ten days off.”

  “I plan to spend a lot of time in bed,” Yuki said.

  “Oh, no, not that,” he said.

  They grinned at each other and kissed. And then, over the next two hours, they checked into their awesome, shipshape honeymoon hotel. They visited their cabin, bounced and wrestled on the bed, and at 5:00 p.m. they were on deck.

  From this windswept point of view, they could see all of the Seattle shoreline to the north and south, Elliott Bay and Puget Sound extending out to the west. Seabirds dove into the waves and then Yuki covered her ears as four long horn pulls signaled that their ship was ready to depart. Harbor Police and Coast Guard boats scurried to escort the cruise ship out of the port.

  All along the dockside railing, passengers waved good-bye, took pictures, and shared the moment with other guests around them as the ship pulled slowly away from the moorings.

  Yuki touched the little card in her pocket.

  It had been on the tray with the bottle of champagne that had been waiting for them in the cabin. It said, Dear Mr. and Mrs. Brady. Thank you for spending your honeymoon with us. I look forward very much to meeting you over dinner this week.

  And the captain had signed his name, George Berlinghoff.

  “I’ve got something here,” Brady said. “It’s, uh, a wedding present.” He took a longish black box out of his Windbreaker pocket.

  “I saw this,” Brady said, “and it looked like you, and I don’t know what the hell to do in a jewelry store, so I hope you like it.”

  Yuki said, “I do.”

  “Open the box, smarty.”

  She smiled, then opened the long clamshell box. She sucked in her breath when she saw the strand of pink coral beads the size of marbles.

  “How absolutely perfect.”

  “It’s called ‘angel skin coral.’”

  “These are beautiful, Brady. I can’t believe how beautiful they are.”

  Yuki stood on her toes and kissed her brand-new husband, kissed him again, thanked him, and then handed him the necklace. She turned so that he could fasten it around her neck.

  He swore at the clasp, apologized, then managed to close the necklace on the third try. He leaned down and pressed his cheek to Yuki’s.

  “Happy honeymoon, Mrs. Brady.”

  Yuki was too moved to speak, but she knew this. She was both happier than she’d ever been, and confident that she and Brady were meant to be together.




  I WAS ALREADY awake when Clapper called.

  He said into my ear, “Glad I got you, Boxer. We’ve got breaking news on the belly bombs.”

  At 7:15 or so, I texted Claire, and within an hour she and I were high on caffeine and optimism, on our way out to San Francisco’s Police Department Crime Lab at Hunters Point.

  We met Clapper on the ground floor of the 13,500-square-foot lab. In answer to our questions, he said, “Keep your lids on. You’ll hear all about it in another couple minutes. And better from her than from me.”

  Clapper walked us through the lab’s labyrinthine corridors and between rows of cubicles until we reached a corner office at the back of the building that was pretty much crammed with lab furniture and shiny high-tech equipment.

  At the center of it all was Dr. Damaris Cortes, lab manager and point person working with the FBI on the belly bomb case. Cortes was a radiant forty, with short blue hair, large diamond studs, and a tattoo of an atom in the cleft between thumb and forefinger of her right hand.

  She almost shimmered with energy.

  Cortes offered us small chairs in her cramped office, while Clapper stood in the doorway, saying, “I’m pretty sure the three of you could speed up the rotation of the earth.”

  Cortes said, “Fasten your seat belt, Clapper. Buckle up.”

  Clapper laughed and said, “Copy that,” then disappeared down the hallway.

  Cortes fixed her big gray eyes on us and said, “Claire, Lindsay, you understand this belly bomb is impossible, right? And yet—it was done. The FBI gave me a few cc’s of stomach contents—about one tablespoon. And, guess what? I found something.”

  Cortes spun her chair around and began clicking open files on her computer.

  “Nope, nope, nope—there you are, you little stinker,” she said. “Come look at this.”

  Claire and I peered over the doctor’s shoulders and looked at the screen, but I had no idea what I was supposed to be looking at within this splotchy pinkish smear.

  “Is that it?” Claire said. “That little oblong shape there?”

  I squinted and said, “Why don’t you tell us ordinary folks what you’ve got?”

  Cortes had a wild, untethered laugh that totally suited her mad-scientist personality.

  “That, my friends, is your smoking gun.”


  DR. DAMARIS CORTES looked luminous and had a pleased ta-dah look on her face, as though she’d just discovered the eighth wonder of the world.

  “Smoking gun?” I said. “How so?”

  She was happy to explain—at length—which only told me how much work had gone into finding what was revealed to be a miniature gel cap. And, most important, it was intact.

  Dr. Cortes’s explanation, translated into everyday English, came down to this.

  A small soluble capsule had been filled with three ingredients: magnesium, which we’d already known about; RDX, which we had known nothing about; and oil to keep the two ingredients apart until stomach acid dissolved the capsule.

  Cortes refreshed my understanding of RDX, a stable explosive in granular form that was developed for the military. RDX packs a huge bang more powerful than TNT, and to this moment, had only been detonated in conventional ways.

  Now there was a new method.

  Cortes theorized that when the capsule dissolved, stomach acid activated the magnesium, which created a flare. That flare ignited the RDX, causing a secondary explosion with enough power to blow through muscle tissue and seat belts and windshield glass.

  Cortes went on, “The execution was brilliant. The capsule was evidently folded into top-grade hamburger meat, which could be preformed into patties, frozen, and cooked whenever.”

  I asked, “And the person eatin
g the encapsulated explosive wouldn’t notice it?”

  “Not really,” said Cortes. “The gel cap is flexible and small. And now it’s embedded in this thick meat sandwich, maybe accompanied by cheese, bacon, and bread. The way most people tuck into hamburgers, they hardly chew, am I right?”

  Cortes shrugged expansively.

  I thought about recently wolfing down a Chuckburger at my desk and gave myself a belated scolding for taking a chance like that.

  Cortes went on.

  “Odds are your killer didn’t get it right the first time. I can imagine some trial runs before there was liftoff. But to conceive of this bomb at all, well, you’re dealing with some kind of genius. You see that, don’t you?”

  Claire said, “What they used to call in the comic books an evil genius.”

  Cortes said, “I ran a simple comparison between the beef in my sample and what’s available locally, and I’ve concluded that my sample of mush is consistent with the beef at Chuck’s Prime.”

  We thanked Cortes, and Claire and I backtracked through the maze of offices out to the parking lot.

  I said to Claire, “You know what I’m thinking?”

  “Hold on.” She put her thumbs to her temples. “Let me tune in to your frequency.”

  “I’m thinking maybe the Jeep victims’ belly bombs were the test run. If that’s so, if that was the first—”

  Claire said, “So you’re thinking there could be another belly bomb?”

  “I think so. We still don’t get the message.”


  CONKLIN WAS IN the break room, washing out the coffee pot, when I found him.

  I got a fresh can of coffee from the cupboard and popped the top. “I’ve got a belly bomb update,” I said.

  “Hit me with it.”

  I filled him in on the two-stage explosive that had been packaged in a gel cap and disguised inside ground beef consistent with Chuck’s Prime Beef blend.

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