Unlucky 13, p.9

Unlucky 13, page 9

 part  #13 of  Women's Murder Club Series


Unlucky 13

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  I said to Cindy in my best film noir cop growl, “Okay, sister. Start talking.”


  CINDY CAREFULLY SET her wineglass down on the coffee table, kicked off her ballet flats, and curled up in a corner of the couch. I sat across from her in Joe’s big leather chair.

  “What’s going on?” I asked her.

  “You’re going to kill me,” said Cindy, “but I wish you wouldn’t.”

  I read her face and saw something that looked like guilt in her eyes. I felt a stinging shock of alarm. What the hell could Cindy have done to tick me off?

  I said, “Only one way to find out.”

  And then she told me.

  “When you said Morales had been seen in Wisconsin? In a town near Lake Michigan? I tracked her there.”

  “You’re joking. You didn’t do that, Cindy.”

  “Randy Fish’s father had a house on the lake that still belongs to his estate. I thought Morales might be there. I brought cops with me when I went. I wanted to be in on the takedown and write about her, you know. Get an exclusive. But—she was already gone.”

  “You took something I said to you as a friend—”

  “I know, I know. But you weren’t working the case, Lindsay. She was in Wisconsin. Not on your patch.”

  “And so you went out on this, this story, using my private information without asking me? Do you realize how that could come back on me?”

  Cindy picked up her glass, drained it, and said, “You know, I figured I’d turn the information over to you and Richie and you’d nail her and she would be prosecuted here and we’d all win. Look, I don’t blame you for whatever you think of me. I was wrong. I’m really sorry. Thanks for dinner, Linds.”

  She put down her glass and toed around for her shoes. I didn’t think Cindy was actually steady enough to make it through the front door. And there was no way she could drive.

  “I’m not going to beg you, Cindy. But if you don’t spit it out, I will come over there and smother you with a throw pillow.”

  She laughed and said, “Please don’t hurt me.”

  “We’ll see.”

  She grinned, sat back on the couch, and said, “Okay. So when we got to the house, Morales was gone. But she had wired the house with explosives. Yeah! To blow up. I have that on excellent authority.”

  “How do you know it was Morales who did that?”

  “Off the record—her prints were found under a layer of dust. Anyway, the FBI is watching the house. Hoping she’ll go back to it so they can nail her. Personally? What do I think? I think she’s out of that house for good.”


  Cindy took a deep breath and let it out as a long sigh.

  “Earlier this week, a female fitting Mackie’s description robbed a bank in Chicago. She killed two people—a guard and a bystander. I just flew out there and talked to two customers who had fled before the cops locked them down. The way they described her, Linds, get this: five foot six to five foot eight. Athletic. Could be Hispanic.”

  I said, “That’s a description? I call that a vague generality that could fit too many people to be useful at all. But listen, Cindy. Please look at me. Let’s say you’re actually onto Morales. Thank God you didn’t confront her. Are you kidding me? She’s on the FBI’s top-ten most-wanted list. Number five. You know better than almost anyone how dangerous she is.”

  Cindy said, “I’m a crime journalist, Linds. A damned good one, as it turns out.”

  That was indisputable. Cindy had helped me solve more than one case with her doggedness, and she had some kind of intuition that couldn’t be put down to luck. She had told me once that she was one killer story short of national acclaim. I understood what Morales meant to her.

  But that didn’t mean she should be trying to get close to her. I nodded my head in agreement and said, “I know how good you are. I know.”

  Cindy said, “So—may I have some coffee now? I’m not done telling you what’s going on.”


  I KEPT MY eyes on Cindy while I brewed the coffee. She was tapping on her phone, looking as distracted as she had seemed over dinner.

  Joe came into the kitchen and I whispered to him, “She’s tracking Morales.”

  His eyebrows shot up to his hairline.

  “By herself? You gotta love her,” he said.

  “And—why?” I said dubiously.

  “She’s a lot like you.”

  “Come on,” I said. “You really think that?”

  He grinned, gave me a swat on the behind, poured coffee for himself, and went back to his office.

  I called out, “Cindy, come get your mug.”

  She sugared and milked her java, after which we took our mugs to the living room and assumed our former positions. She swiped at her cell phone with her thumb, and just when I was ready to scream, she got up and brought her phone over to me.

  “I just got an e-mail with these attachments about three hours ago,” Cindy said. “Sometimes a picture is actually worth a thousand blah-blah-blahs.”

  “What am I looking at?” I asked her.

  The first photo was of three State of Wyoming Highway Patrol cars, flashers on, clumped up along the side of a highway.

  The second shot showed traffic cones across the lane and a half-dozen khaki-uniformed troopers standing around what looked like a female body lying in the ditch off the shoulder of the road.

  “You’re saying that’s Mackie?”

  “No,” said Cindy. “Keep flipping through.”

  The next photo was a tighter shot of the corpse. I thought that I was looking at a hit-and-run, but by the fourth photo, it was clear that the victim had been shot through the left temple.

  “Who sent you these to you?” I asked.

  “Off the record,” Cindy said, “they’re from a cop friend of mine who got the pictures from an undisclosed source. There’s no ID yet on the victim. I don’t know her, Linds,” Cindy said, “but she looks familiar.”

  I looked at the close-ups of the victim. She was pretty, in her twenties, long dark hair, pale skin, slender build.

  The gunshot wound to the temple made me think that if she had been a passenger, the driver could have shot her and dumped her out of the vehicle.

  Or, if she had been driving and stopped her car for someone and rolled down her window, the person standing outside the car could have popped her, dragged her out, and stolen her car.

  Then I came to the close-ups of the victim’s hands. All of her fingers had been cut off at the first digit—and that changed everything.

  Cindy said, “Remind you of something?”

  Yes. It reminded me of Randy Fish, a sexual sadist who had used different methods to kill and torture his victims. He had cut the fingers off one of his last kills with a pair of pruning shears—while the girl was alive. He’d told me all about that.

  Randy Fish was dead. I was a witness to that.

  But his soul mate was still alive.

  Cindy said, “How could this be a coincidence? This murder looks to me like an homage to Randy Fish. And that makes me think Mackie did it.”

  Might. Could be. Definite maybe. But there was no evidence that Mackie Morales was connected to this crime at all.

  I asked Cindy a lot of questions: Had any ID been found on or near the victim? Were there any witnesses? Any missing persons report leading to the victim? Any anything?

  Cindy said, “Linds, I’ve told you everything I know and everything I’m thinking.”

  I wasn’t buying it.

  Cindy was looking straight at me with her big round baby blues, but I wasn’t sure she was seeing me. Maybe she was inside her head, working on her killer story about a Mackie Morales murder spree.

  Or maybe it was something else.

  I said, “What is it, Cindy? What aren’t you saying?”


  CONKLIN SHOWED UP at our work space at half past nine, which was late for him. He hadn’t shaved or combe
d his hair, and he’d missed a couple of shirt buttons. Either he’d taken a tumble in the clothes dryer or I was looking at the hallmark of new love: late nights, morning delight.

  “I just made coffee,” I said, tipping my chin toward the break room.

  Conklin said, “Thank God.”

  “You’re welcome.”

  He headed out and then came back a minute later with a cup of Mocha Java, wrestled his chair out from under the desk, threw himself into it, and raked back his thick brown hair with the fingers of both hands.

  He said, “Coffee without doughnuts is like a day without sunshine.”

  “Sorry to disappoint,” I said.

  I opened my pencil drawer, took out a packet of peanut butter crackers, and chucked them over to my partner. He caught them on the fly and opened the packet with his teeth.

  “Tina and I.”


  “She doesn’t like my politics. I never thought something like that would matter.”

  “You had a fight?”

  “I guess you always think that someone you like shares your values. I keep getting this wrong.”

  “Are you two going to be all right?”

  He shrugged, chewing his crackers, and with his mouth full he asked what was new with me.

  I found myself telling him that Cindy had come over to my house for dinner last night. I held back that she had wanted to play with the baby.

  Conklin said, “How is Cindy? She didn’t look good at the wedding. She’s lost weight. She hardly spoke to me. Is she all right?”

  I said, “Men are so clueless.”

  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

  “Anyway. A few days ago, I stupidly mentioned to her what Brady told us—that Morales might have been seen in Wisconsin. Cindy decided to follow up in person.”

  Conklin choked on his coffee, and when he’d stopped sputtering, he stared at me and said, “You’re saying she went to Wisconsin to find Mackie Morales? By herself? Then what was she going to do?”

  I filled my partner in on Cindy’s search for our former summer intern with a taste for murder—that she was working on a career move. “What she is calling a once-in-a-lifetime story.”

  Conklin’s face bent through several gradations of shocked disbelief as I told him what Cindy had uncovered in the past few days, a trail of incidents that spelled Mackie Morales had resurfaced.

  “Cindy wasn’t telling me everything,” I said to Rich. “When I prodded her, she said, and I quote, ‘I’ll tell you if and when I know more.’”

  Conklin crumpled his empty cup and tossed it into the trash. He said, “You tried to talk her out of this? Never mind. I know what she’s like. I hope to God Mackie doesn’t find out that Cindy is dogging her.”

  My desk phone rang too many times before I finally punched the button.

  A man’s voice said, “Sergeant, this is Lou Frye. From Chuck’s Prime.”

  I signaled to Richie to pick up on line four, and I told Frye that Conklin was on the line.

  Frye coughed and wheezed, then got enough wind to say, “Jansing got a text from the extortionist saying he’s going to call today with a demand. I guess you want to be here.”

  After Cindy and Conklin broke up, my partner lived in his car for a couple of weeks and used the office facilities until he found a new place to live. Now he opened his desk drawer and took out his toiletry kit, which still lived in his desk. He rooted around and pulled out a razor, then headed toward the men’s room.

  “We’re on our way,” I said to Louis Frye.


  I COULD MAKE the drive to Chuck’s HQ in Emeryville while handcuffed, blindfolded, and in my sleep, but still, there was no getting there fast. We were handicapped by morning rush from the west end of the Bay Bridge, and after we cleared the tunnel at Treasure Island, a panicky driver up ahead braked into a turn and fishtailed across all lanes, forcing me to skin a guard rail. I regained the road on two wheels.

  Conklin, to his credit, didn’t puke. When we got to the straightaway of 580 East, I shut down the sound and fury in case the bomber had eyes on the Emery Tech Building.

  It was almost 10:30 when I nosed our car into a spot in Chuck’s executive lot. Therese Stanford, a pretty, bespectacled young woman from our crime lab’s electronic trace division, was waiting for us in a souped-up red Mustang, probably a recent confiscation by Narcotics. She got out of the car with a laptop case slung over her shoulder.

  Lou Frye, Chuck’s Prime’s attorney, was smoking a cigarette just outside the back door. He stubbed his butt out against the brick wall, and once Conklin and I had feet on the ground, we introduced him to CSI Stanford and he let us into the building by the back way.

  “No phone call, yet,” Frye said, pressing the elevator button. “Jansing is a wreck. I’ve never seen him this way before, but he’s got a big conflict. He wants to do the right thing, but he has to protect the company. He loves Chuck’s. He is Chuck’s.”

  Michael Jansing was in his office, rocking his desk chair, staring out the window. He dropped the chair into its upright position when we walked in. He stood up, said hello to the three of us, shook our hands with his sweaty one, and offered us coffee.

  As his assistant brought in a coffee tray, Stanford set up her laptop on Jansing’s desk.

  “What if the bastard doesn’t call?” Jansing asked Stanford.

  “If he wants his money, he will.”

  “And what do I do?”

  “Try to buy us some time to get a bead on him. Ask his name. Ask, ‘What’s your beef?’—no, no,” Stanford said, laughing nervously. “I didn’t mean that.”

  Conklin took over. “Fumble a little, Mr. Jansing, but don’t overdo it. Get the time and address of the drop and Sergeant Boxer and I will take it from there.”

  Everyone took seats and settled in for a wait. The silence was thick and then thicker. I can’t speak for what was going on in the minds of those around me, but I knew how much could go wrong.

  If the guy called from his cell phone, we’d own him, but would he call? Would he direct us to the drop, or was he the kind of sadist who could race Jansing around from place to place until he was sure that his pigeon had flown alone. Then take the money and split.

  And by the way, while Stanford had worded her question indelicately, she was on the right track. What was the killer’s beef? What did he have against Jansing? What did he have against Chuck’s Prime? Or was planting explosives in hamburger meat a crime of opportunity?

  Jansing’s office was as quiet as a morgue during a blackout. We’d exhausted our Q and A the last two times we visited Jansing, and he was silent and tense and had no further questions of us. We drank coffee and watched Jansing rock in his executive chair for forty-seven excruciating minutes.

  And then a phone rang. Jansing grabbed at his breast pocket. He took out his cell and showed the caller ID number to Stanford.

  She tapped the number into a cell phone attached to her computer, and her tracking software almost instantly pinpointed the base station the bomber was calling from.

  Stanford said, “He’s in Emeryville.”

  She disconnected the line, then, redialing the caller’s number, nabbed the exact location. By then Jansing’s phone had rung four times.

  “He’s going to hang up,” I said.

  “Go ahead and answer it,” Stanford said to Jansing.


  JANSING PUT HIS phone on speaker and said his name.

  The voice that came back over the phone was electronically modulated, giving the speaker a high-pitched robotic quality that was sick, chilling, and crazy.

  “How you doing, Jansing? I hoped I’d catch you in.”

  Therese Stanford was at her computer keyboard, typing in the phone number of the no-name phone. Her screen showed the location of cell towers in Emeryville and environs. With luck, she’d be able to ping the bomber’s phone.

  “I don’t understand what you want from me,
Jansing said. “I gave you the money.”

  “The first payment doesn’t count because you brought in the cops. Now my fee has doubled.”

  “The cops came to me,” Jansing protested.

  “I warned you about cops,” the killer said in his eerie, uninflected voice. “You really should’ve listened to me. There are serious consequences, you know, like ka-boom.”

  Jansing looked at me helplessly.

  I mouthed words at him, and he spoke them into the phone.

  “I understand.”

  “I want a hundred grand. Small bills. No tracking devices.”

  “I-I-I have to go to the bank. I need some time.”

  “I’ll call you in a half hour,” said Robo-bomber.

  “Wait. Where am I supposed to go after that?”

  “I said, I’ll call you.”

  The line went dead.

  I said to Jansing, “Where is your bank?”

  Jansing got up, walked six yards to the far side of the room, and, lifting a framed poster of Chuck’s iconic snorting bull off the hook in the wall, revealed a wall safe. He punched numbers into the lock and pulled down on the handle. The door swung open and Jansing took out four stacks of hundred-dollar bills, each with a wrapper reading $25,000.

  As Jansing returned the poster to its original position, I called Jacobi and requested cars be stationed at intervals off the main streets in Emeryville—Hollis and 65th in particular—and prepared to follow Jansing’s car at a distance.

  Stanford said, “The phone is on the move, traveling west to east over the bridge, crossing now to Oakland.”

  I relayed that information to Jacobi, and as we continued to track the bomber’s phone while waiting for him to call back, Jansing’s phone rang. Again I listened in as the killer told Chuck’s sweating CEO to get into his car and turn left on 65th, then right on San Pablo, and to keep his phone line open for further instructions.

  “Don’t screw it up,” said the bomber’s mechanical voice, “or I will kill again. You can’t imagine what a good time I’m having.”

  And then he laughed.

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