Prologue | KA-BOOM
IT WAS AN ugly Monday just after noon. There had been no sign of sun so far, just a thick fog that had put the blocks to traffic around the Golden Gate. I was behind the wheel of the squad car, and Inspector Rich Conklin, my partner of many years, was in the seat beside me when Claire called my cell phone.
Claire Washburn is my closest friend, and also San Francisco’s Chief Medical Examiner. This call was strictly business.
“Lindsay,” Claire shouted over the braying of car horns. “I’ve got two DBs in a single-car smash-up and I don’t know what the hell I’m looking at. If you and Richie are in the neighborhood, I could use another opinion.”
She gave me her location, and I told her we’d be there as soon as weather and traffic permitted. I repeated to Rich what Claire had said and turned the car around.
My partner is smart, steady, a glass-full type of guy, and on this particular day, he was pretty happy with himself.
He said, “Claire wants us to look at a traffic fatality?”
“She doubts it’s an accident.”
I followed Lincoln through the Presidio and past the Crissy Field Overlook toward the bridge as Conklin called Brady and told him we were answering Claire’s call. He phoned Claire and said we were about eight minutes out, then picked up where he left off, asking my advice on his romantic dilemma.
“It’s Tina’s birthday. We’ve been together for two months,” he said. “So what do I get her that means ‘I like you a lot so far’?”
This line of conversation was tricky. Rich is like a younger brother to me. We’re tight. We talk about everything. But, his ex-girlfriend Cindy is my home girl. And Cindy was still suffering from their breakup six months ago. She hadn’t given up hope that she and Richie could get back together.
To tell the truth, I was hoping for that, too.
I kept my eyes on the road, staying on Lincoln, a twolaner flanked by historic buildings on the left and a parking lot on the right for visitors to the bridge. We drove slowly past the nifty old houses on Pilots’ Row and then hit a wall of traffic.
“Looks like we’re walking,” I said.
I braked on the shoulder, turned on the flashers, grabbed my Windbreaker, and locked up. Then my partner and I started up the incline. Richie didn’t miss a beat.
“So I was thinking I’d get her a pair of earrings. Or does the ring in earring send too much of a message?”
“Not unless they’re diamonds,” I said.
“Hah,” said Conklin.
I said, “Rich, in my humble opinion, you and Tina are at flowers and dinner. That’s safe, sweet, and her mother won’t send out invitations.”
“Okay. And do I sign the card love or not?”
I couldn’t help it. I rolled my eyes and threw a sigh.
“Richie, do you love her? Or don’t you? You have to figure that one out.”
“Could you stop giggling?” I said.
He gave me a salute and said, “Yes, ma’am, Sergeant Boxer, ma’am. And could you put in for a sense of humor?”
“You’re asking for it,” I said.
I gave him a little shove, and he laughed some more, and we kept walking up the incline, passing cars that were inching forward and passengers who were getting out, shouting curses into the fog.
My cell phone rang again.
Claire said, “Hurry up, okay? I can’t hold off the damned Bridge Authority much longer. The tow truck is here.”
THE SCENE WAS surreal, and I don’t use the term lightly.
From what I could see, a late-model red Jeep had lost control in the outside northbound lane and then careered across five lanes before hitting the walkway barrier and slamming into the railing, which was bulging to accommodate the Jeep’s front end.
All but one lane had been closed, and a narrow ribbon of traffic was open to alternating northbound and southbound traffic that crawled past the Jeep, which was swallowed by fog up to its tail lights.
Law enforcement vehicles were haphazardly parked on the roadway: Bridge Authority SUVs, Fire Department, CHP vehicles, black-and-whites, and personnel to match were all clumped up around the Jeep. I saw people I knew from the ME’s Office shooting pictures of the accident. A traffic cop heaved over the railing.
At the same time, a tow truck was pulling into position to remove the Jeep, in prep for reopening the road, the only thoroughfare between San Francisco and Sausalito.
A Bridge Authority uni checked out our badges and called out, “Dr. Washburn, you got company.”
Claire came out from behind her van, shaking her head, and said, “Hey, you guys. Welcome to some kind of crazy. Let me give you the tour.”
She looked worried, and as we closed in on the Jeep, I saw why. The windshield had exploded outward, the front end was crushed accordion-style, and as I peered into the passenger compartment, my scalp actually crawled.
I’ve seen a lot of gruesome scenes in my fourteen years in Homicide, and this one vaulted to the top of the “most gruesome” list. I mean, number one.
Two adults, white male in the driver’s seat, white female in the passenger seat, both looked to be in their late teens or early twenties. Their arms were akimbo and their heads thrown back, mouths open in silent screams.
But what drew my attention directly were the victims’ midsections, which were gaping, bloody holes. And I could see where the blood and guts had gone.
The driver’s side was plastered with bits of human debris mixed with fragments of clothing and other detritus I couldn’t identify. One air bag was draped over the steering wheel. The other covered the passenger from the thighs down.
Claire said, “We’ve got blood and particles of human tissue stuck all over everywhere. We’ve got damage to the seat belts and the dashboard and the instrument panel, and that’s a button projectile stuck in the visor. Also, we’ve got a dusting of particulate from the air bags sugaring everything.
“These areas right here,” she said, pointing to the blown-out abdomens of the deceased, “this is what I’m calling explosive points of origin.”
“Aw, Christ,” Rich said. “They had bombs on their laps? What a desperate way to kill yourself.”
“I’m not ready to call manner of death, but I’m getting a handle on cause. Look at this,” Claire said. She got an arm around the passenger and leaned the young woman’s body forward. I saw spinal tissue, bone, and blood against the back of the seat.
My morning coffee was now threatening to climb out of my throat, and the air around me seemed to get very bright. I turned away, took a couple of deep breaths, and when I turned back, I had the presence of mind to say, “So, this bomb, or should I say bombs plural, blew all the way through the bodies?”
Claire said, “Correct, Lindsay. That’s why my premature but still educated opinion is that we’re looking at a bomb that exploded from inside the abdomen. Abdomens, plural.
“I’m thinking belly bombs.”
THE LUNCH-HOUR RUSH had escalated from peeved to highly outraged. Traffic cops were taking crap from irate drivers, and TV choppers buzzed overhead like houseflies circling a warm apple pie.
The tow truck operator called out in my direction, “Hey. Like, can someone extract the victims? We gotta open the bridge.”
Here’s what I knew for sure: I was the ranking homicide cop on the scene, the primary investigator until the case was permanently assigned. Right now, my job was to protect the scene from contamination, and, no joke, the scene was a six-lane highway.
I marched over to the tow-truck driver and told him, “Thanks, but the wreck is staying here and please extract your truck from my bridge.”
As the tow truck moved out, I addressed my fellow law enforcement officers, saying, “Whatever this is, it’s not an accident. I’m locking the bridge down.”
“Bravo,” Claire said. “We agree.”
I dismissed nonessential personnel and phoned Charlie Clapper, head of CSU. I told him to drop whatever he might be doing and hustle over.
“Jam on the gas and jack up the sirens,” I said.
I reported in to Brady, told him what I knew. He said he would get hold of the chief and the mayor, and would be on scene ASAP.
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.
Part One | SAVE THE LAST DANCE FOR ME
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 case 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 —very cute, wearing her blond hair in a low ponytail. She introduced herself: “I’m Debbie Day. The new intern.”
I congratulated the young woman and 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, “Debbie, 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.’ ”
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.”
Copyright © 2014 by James Patterson