The brutal murder of a business tycoon leaves Afton Tangler and the Twin Cities reeling, but that’s just the beginning of a gruesome crime spree...
Leland Odin made his fortune launching a home shopping network, but his millions can’t save his life. On the list for a transplant, the ailing businessman sees all hope lost when the helicopter carrying his donor heart is shot out of the sky.
Now with two pilots dead and dozens injured, Afton Tangler, family liaison officer for the Minneapolis Police Department, is drawn into the case. As she and her partner investigate family members and business associates, whoever wants Leland dead strikes again—and succeeds—in a brazen hospital room attack.
The supposedly squeaky clean millionaire has crossed the wrong person—and she’s not finished exacting her revenge. The case explodes into an international conspiracy of unbridled greed and violence. And as Afton gets closer to unearthing the mastermind behind it, she gets closer to becoming collateral damage...
About the Author
Gerry Schmitt is the New York Times bestselling author of more than thirty-five mysteries, including the Afton Tangler Thrillers, as well as the Tea Shop, Scrapbooking, and the Cackleberry Club mysteries, written under the pen name Laura Childs. She is the former CEO of her own marketing firm, has won dozens of TV and radio awards, produced two reality TV shows, and invests in small businesses. She and her professor husband enjoy collecting art, traveling, and have two Shar-Peis.
Read an Excerpt
Copyright © 2017 Gerry Schmitt
Mom Chao Cherry hunched forward in a broken wicker chair and stared anxiously across the Mississippi River toward the University of Minnesota campus. Almost unrecognizable as a wealthy khunying from Bangkok, she wore a polyester blouse and baggy pants, cheap rubber flip-flops, and carried an eight ball of cocaine in her handbag. Only her red lacquered nails, edged in twenty-four karat gold, hinted at her ridiculous wealth.
“Time?” Mom Chao Cherry asked in an accent that probably sounded Thai or Chinese to a Westerner, but to a linguist’s ear, clearly betrayed her American heritage.
“Paed nalika,” Narong replied. Eight o’clock.
The corners of Mom Chao Cherry’s mouth crinkled faintly, giving her aging face the appearance of a patient but ravenous crocodile. “Di yeiym,” she said. Most excellent.
She hadn’t been back to America in more than sixty years, ever since her missionary parents had dragged her off to Asia to bring the word of Jesus to the impoverished, war-ravaged people of China. But this homecoming felt incredibly sweet. Like sweet revenge. Now, relaxing slightly, she reached into her bag and pulled out a cigarette. Lit it with a hissing lighter and inhaled deeply. She would have preferred to imbibe her drug of choice, cocaine, but that would have to wait. Right now there was wild work to be done.
Narong, who was old beyond his years at twenty-four, lifted the PF-89 rocket launcher onto his right shoulder and braced himself. Two years of compulsory service in the Royal Thai Armed Forces and another two years in the private employ of Mom Chao Cherry had taught him to truly love all forms of weaponry. He was in awe of their cold precision and the impersonal way in which they delivered death. Narong, whose name literally meant “to make war,” hungered for the moment when he could sight a potential target in his crosshairs, gently squeeze the trigger, and feel the pulse-pounding rush of total destruction. For close-up work, he was an expert in awud mied, or Thai knife fighting.
They’d come to this third-floor room above the Huang Sheng Noodle Factory some two hours earlier, right after they’d received the call from their hospital contact. Entering through the back door, eyes downcast, they’d pushed past the cooks and dishwashers that toiled in the hot, humid, clattering kitchen where bean sprouts littered the floors and orders were barked out in greengrocer Cantonese.
Up to the top floor they’d been led by the nervous owner, and then down a long hallway lit with bare bulbs. They’d ghosted past small cramped dormitory rooms that held two and three sets of narrow bunk beds, finally emerging in this end room with a lumpy bed and the smell of rancid cooking oil and mouse droppings. A room with a single window that afforded the perfect prospect of the slow rolling Mississippi River and, beyond it, the University of Minnesota Medical Center complex.
The helicopter swept in from the north, decelerating to approximately five knots. Two pilots in a Bell 407 who’d made this run a hundred times before. They’d just dropped out of an indigo blue sky scattered with bright stars like jacks strewn haphazardly across a lush cashmere blanket. A mile to their right, Minneapolis skyscrapers twinkled in the night—the IDS tower, Capella Tower, and the Wells Fargo Center, as well as a dozen high-rise luxury condominiums. Closer still was the newly constructed football stadium, raking the skyline with its harsh, unforgiving wall of reflective glass.
The chief pilot, Captain Sam Buell, had his hands on the cyclic stick, his feet working the rudder pedals. He was carrying no emergency patients tonight, just medical cargo he’d picked up in Madison, Wisconsin. So, an easy run for Buell, who was looking forward to spending the night with his girlfriend, who lived in a nearby North Loop condo. She was an assistant producer at a TV station, a hot chick with a killer body and a healthy appetite for experimental sex. She had no clue that Buell had a pregnant wife waiting for him back home. Or if she’d figured it out, she didn’t much care.
Buell’s feet worked the pedals as he swung the helo around in a wide arc over the turgid Mississippi. He was preparing for their final approach. All he had to do now was coast in slowly and drop the skids. The landing zone, with its sixteen green perimeter lights, shone like a Christmas tree. No problem there.
“Looking good,” his copilot, Josh Ansel, said. “Ten-degree angle, LZ dead ahead. Almost there.” Ansel was young and unmarried, so he might be hitting the clubs tonight. First Avenue, where Soul Asylum and Prince had gotten their starts. Like that.
Buell hovered the Bell 407 over the dark ribbon of river as easily as if it were a giant bubble floating on a summer breeze. He was just about to throttle back and adjust his airspeed and pitch when a tiny flash, no bigger than a lightning bug, caught his eye.
Buell frowned, concerned that someone might be aiming a laser pointer directly at his windshield. There were dormitories close by, jammed right up to the edge of the towering riverbank, so there was always the chance some dumb-ass kid would pick him out as a target.
But dumb-ass kids were the least of Captain Buell’s problems at this moment. The rocket slammed into his helicopter with an angry hiss, piercing the metal skin, pulverizing the gearbox, sending the bird into a perilous and lethal spin. In the darkened cockpit, with the hydraulics gone, sensor gauges, warning lights, and control switches all went crazy. Ansel screamed in fear, or maybe it was pain from the raging inferno that suddenly engulfed them.
And when the big explosion came, a riotous event of incandescent shrapnel, Ansel was already gone, bones and flesh sizzled into an unrecognizable carcass. Buell had maybe a split-second longer, time for a fleeting regret about a baby he’d never see.
Two students walking back from Stoll’s Bar in Stadium Village witnessed the eruption overhead. A raging, pulsing beacon that looked as if a big-ass rocket had just blown up in space.
“Holy shit!” one of the men cried as the remains of the flaming bubble jerked and throbbed in the air and then, like an angry demon cast out of the bowels of hell, hurtled downward in a furious arc, screaming directly toward them. The two men had just enough presence of mind to dive beneath a bus shelter before sheets of fire and twisted hunks of metal rained down upon them.
Nearby, on Washington Avenue, a bus was hit by an enormous fireball of white-hot metal that shattered the windshield and sent the vehicle crashing into a light standard. A rotor spun free of the plummeting debris and carved its way into the side of the chemistry building. More debris rained down as students returning from Walter Library, a Chekhov play at Northrop Auditorium, and a French film festival at the Bell Museum, all began to shriek in terror. A minute later, a dozen sirens cranked up to join the unholy cacophony.
It was the springtime of unrest. Of students protesting loans they claimed rendered them indentured servants for the better part of a decade. Of real estate developers paying rock-bottom prices for rat-hole boarding houses, booting out tenants, and then throwing up overpriced, high-rise dorms. Of angry people hanging around the dismal cluster of bars, retail, and restaurants directly adjacent to the University of Minnesota that was known as Dinkytown. A place that, in its heyday, had been a hub of fine bookstores, interesting head shops, and coffeehouses haunted by university intelligentsia and the ghost of Bob Dylan.
It was all different now. Nobody wore tie-dye and worried about banning the bomb or building a better world. Now students huddled over mobile devices, muttering and malcontent, never rallying together over one particular cause, but still very freaking pissed off.
Family Liaison Officer Afton Tangler and Detective Max Montgomery, both of the Minneapolis Police Department, had just endured a particularly harrowing university neighborhood meeting a few blocks away at Windmere Elementary School. Afton was supposed to have delivered a quasi pep talk on victims’ advocacy rights, but the meeting had quickly devolved into Max being harassed and shouted down by a gang of wild-eyed students who were across-the-board angry at what they termed “police brutality.” Which basically meant they’d probably been ticketed or arrested for drunkenly racing their cars up and down University Avenue. Or smoking pot beneath the Fourteenth Avenue Bridge. Or turning a deaf ear when their girlfriends pleaded “no” during a drunken party.
“Wait until their precious BMWs get jacked,” Max said, practically grinding his teeth. “Then who are they gonna call? Ghostbusters?”
They were cruising down University Avenue in Max’s Hyundai Sonata, slipping past fraternity houses, copy shops, student centers, and imposing buildings with Ionic columns and donor names carved high on marble cornices. Buildings named after academic superstars in chemistry, geology, and mathematics whose names and accomplishments had long since been forgotten.
“Nobody wanted to talk victim advocacy,” Max grumped. “We were sent in as sacrificial lambs.”
“Of course we were,” Afton said. “That was the edict that came down from on high.”
Afton was the more politically savvy of the two, a sociology major and family liaison officer who was used to dealing with victims and family members caught in the messy aftermath of murder and trauma. Max, on the other hand, was a hot reactor. A veteran police detective who didn’t worry about decorum and political correctness. Of course, when you found yourself in a life-threatening situation—say, some asshole hopped up on bath salts was charging directly at you down a dark alley—you pretty much wanted a hot reactor on your side. A hot reactor whose Glock was loaded with hollow points.
“The police chief specified police presence at key neighborhood meetings,” Afton said. “Not much we could have done except claim we never got the memo.” Afton was a shade past thirty, with shaggy blond hair and the lithe, compact body of a rock climber, which was her current adrenaline-boosting sport of choice. She had the piercing blues eyes of a Siberian husky and the heart to match. Though she enjoyed being a family liaison officer, her sights were set on becoming a detective.
Max hunched over his steering wheel and searched the dark street ahead. “I gotta get this bad taste outta my mouth. Isn’t there a Micky D’s around here somewhere?” Max was silver-haired and in his mid-forties. Like most detectives, he was mistrustful and circumspect, with political leanings that tended to the right. He’d been married and divorced twice but was still clearly on the radar of several women who worked at their downtown headquarters.
“There’s a Burger Basket in Stadium Village.” Afton leaned back in the passenger seat and stared out the window. It was past nine o’clock on this Tuesday night and she was anxious to get home to her kidlins, Poppy and Tess. She was a single mom and hated being away from them on a school night. “Maybe if we . . .” Afton stopped abruptly. She’d just felt a shudder, a grinding vibration of some sort followed by a low-level explosion. It was as if the fabric of the universe had been ripped apart by something deep and threatening. She suddenly sat up straight, senses alert, antenna prickling. “Did you hear that?”
But Max was still grousing noisily. “Chief wants police presence, next time he can go by himself. See how he likes . . .” Angry static burst from Max’s radio. “What the hell?” His cop instincts kicked in immediately as he dropped his diatribe and pawed at the dial. Goosing up the volume, he swerved to avoid hitting two jaywalking coeds who bounced across the street, cool as you please, in maroon hoodies and butt-twitching miniskirts.
“All available personnel . . . Explosion at Washington Avenue and Oak Street,” came the dispatcher’s crackly voice.
“That’s right here at the U,” Afton said, stunned. “Like, ten blocks away.”
“Better haul ass,” Max said, tromping down hard on the accelerator.
Owen Hacket, more often known as Hack to his lowlife friends in Duluth, was waiting a block away, exactly as he’d promised. He chomped down hard on his cigar when he saw the old lady and the kid running toward him through the darkness. They were bookin’ it, even the old lady, bodies hunched forward, feet slapping the pavement loudly. Hack had heard the ominous whomp of the explosion—a hell of a thing—and wondered just how much time they really had before the cops and federales showed up. With visions of terrorists dancing in everybody’s heads these days, he was positive the feds would have their shorts in a twist in no time at all.
Hack had timed out his route earlier this afternoon. Turn right on Cedar, go across the bridge, then swing left onto the ramp that circled around to 35W. Then you were pretty much in the clear. After a hard, snowy Minnesota winter that was still coughing up an occasional spit of snow in early April, the pavement had accumulated a few potholes but was now bone dry. Which was a very good thing. Still, a dry run was always your basic piece of cake. It’s when you needed to pull it off for real that all sorts of problems reared up to bite you in the ass.
The Asian kid jerked open the rear door, shoved the old lady in, and sent her sprawling across the backseat. Then he jumped in himself, hauling his heavy weapon in after him. Hack gunned the engine and spun his way toward the green light even as the kid was still pulling the door closed. Then Hack was gripping the wheel like Dale freaking Earnhardt Jr. and making his turns—right, left, then right again.
His pulse pounding like a timpani and every nerve end fizzing, Hack caught a quick glimpse of himself in the rearview mirror and liked what he saw. Cocksure grin across his face, eyes in a half-knowing squint, buzz-cut hair. In just the right light, he thought he kinda looked like Bruce Willis.
Afton and Max didn’t have to go far before they came upon a scene of complete chaos. To Afton it looked like news footage that had been shot following a bombing in Lebanon or Syria. All that was missing was a grim-faced reporter in a flak jacket.
“This is bad,” Max said as they coasted toward the scene.
Flames lit the night sky, throwing eerie specters of shadow on the nearby campus buildings. Chunks of unidentifiable metal stuck out like jagged tumors from the side of a concrete wall. Noxious, oily black smoke boiled from a gasoline fire that smoldered in the middle of Washington Avenue. Injured students were everywhere. The walking wounded.
“What happened?” Afton wondered. “Plane crash?”
“Or some kind of explosion.”
Max ran his car up onto the sidewalk, threw a POLICE card on the dashboard, and the two of them jumped out. Dozens of people were injured and dazed, and Afton spotted a nurse, on her hands and knees, frantically applying pressure to the leg of a wounded coed. More nurses and med students were pouring out of the nearby university hospital. From blocks away, sirens screamed their approach. The cavalry was coming.
Afton sprinted toward a young man in a white hoodie who was stumbling toward one of the medical buildings. As she reached him, the kid collapsed to the ground.
“Max!” she hollered. “Give me a hand.”
In an instant Max was right there. They braced their arms around the kid’s waist, hoisted him up, and began carrying him toward the hospital.
“What . . .?” the kid muttered.
“You’re going to be okay,” Afton told him. “Just try to stay awake, try to focus.”
Blood soaked Afton’s shirt as the kid’s head lolled against her shoulder. Her legs began to cramp with the effort of hauling the dead weight, but she and Max kept going.
“Almost there,” Max huffed.
And then they were at the glass-door entrance to the hospital, where two orderlies in blue scrubs met them and hastily laid the kid on a gurney.
“Do you know what happened?” Max asked one of the orderlies.
“Helicopter crash,” the orderly said as they rushed the kid off. “They were on approach to the hospital’s helipad.”
“Oh no,” Afton said.
“Hard landing,” Max grunted.
They rushed back outside to find that dozens of vehicles had arrived—ambulances, police cruisers, fire trucks, big black SUVs packed with life-saving gear, even a BearCat armored vehicle. More doctors, nurses, and paramedics had spilled out onto the street from the various medical buildings and were tending to the wounded. Police officers were questioning dazed-looking gawkers, other officers strung up yellow crime scene tape, and firemen were uncoiling hoses to deal with the last bits of flaming wreckage.
“Thacker’s here,” Afton said. She’d just caught sight of the black van the Minneapolis Police Department often used as a mobile command post.
“Let’s go check in,” Max said. “See how we can help.”
Deputy Chief Gerald Thacker was pretty much unflappable, but tonight he looked harried. He stood at the back gate of the van, a phone in each hand, barking orders. He was tall, with a commanding presence and salt-and-pepper gray hair that gave him an almost corporate look. Tonight he wore a black MPD windbreaker over blue jeans. Like so many other first responders, he’d gotten the emergency call at home.
“Anything we can do, Chief?” Max asked.
Thacker gave a slow reptilian blink when he recognized Max and Afton. “You guys got called out for this?”
“We were down the street doing a town hall,” Afton said.
“Good, I can use you,” Thacker said. “This is the worst damn thing since the I-35 bridge went down.” His phone buzzed again and he held up an index finger. “Wait one.” He lifted the phone to his ear, listened for a few moments, and said, “We don’t know yet. NTSB and Crime Scene are on their way.” He nodded. “Okay, sure.” Dropping the phone to his side, he said, “Homeland Security is worried this might be a terrorist attack.”
“What do you think happened?” Afton asked. She knew that when Thacker ventured a guess it was usually the right guess.
“Hell if I know for sure,” Thacker said. “But it was probably a malfunctioning helicopter.”
“Passengers on board?” Max asked.
Thacker bobbed his head. “Far as we know, it was just the two pilots.”
Afton gazed at Max and lifted an eyebrow. At least some poor stroke victim hadn’t been on his way in for a clot-busting dose of TPA. Still, she assumed that both pilots were goners. Looking at the twisted metal that was strewn everywhere, there was no way they could have survived such a devastating crash.
“Hey!” an officer called out. He was running toward then in a shambling, flat-footed way, his right hand lifted in a wave. Afton recognized his uniform as that of a University of Minnesota Police reserve officer. He was a young guy, maybe twenty-two at most, with brush-cut blond hair and a blond fuzz of a moustache.
“Can you see what this guy wants?” Thacker asked Max. He was talking on the phone again, trying to give directions to two different people at once.
Max nodded as he turned to meet the young officer, who’d just skidded to a halt in front of them. “What’s up? You okay?”
“There’s a problem in one of the dorms,” the reserve officer said. “Some kid just called in, said they need help real bad.” He took a gulp of air. “It’s just a couple blocks over.”
Max gave a quick nod. “Show us.”
Max and Afton ran after the young officer. They jogged down the middle of the street, hung a right at Upton, and dashed up a grassy hill, running up against a crush of frightened-looking students who had heard the sirens and been inexorably drawn to the crash scene. Afton figured that grisly photos would be plastered all over social media in a matter of milliseconds.
They followed the reserve officer across the street and up to a ten-story red brick building that had MILBURN HALL emblazoned above the glass entrance doors. A crowd of panicked students milled about inside the lobby while alarms blared and strobe lights flashed. Some nervous Nellie had obviously pulled the fire alarm.
The reserve officer doggedly pushed his way through the crowd, Afton and Max following closely in his wake. With the elevators out of commission, they ducked into the stairwell, took the steps two at a time, and finally slammed through the crash-bar door on the sixth floor.
They banged down the hallway as students in various states of dress and undress peeked out at them, their curiosity mingled with abject fear. This was, after all, the 9/11 generation.
“Is this dorm coed?” Max asked as they jogged along. “Or are these kids just amusing themselves with a pajama party?”
“It’s the new world order,” Afton said.
“Hell of a thing.”
“Right here, the reserve officer said, indicating a door. “Room six twenty-three.”
“Okay, we got this,” Max said. “You go back to your unit and do what you can to help.”
“Sure thing,” the officer said.
The door was half open, so Max did a pro forma knock with his knuckles and pushed his way in. “Minneapolis Police responding to a call,” he boomed out. “We’re coming in.”
Two frightened-looking students were inside the room—a boy and a girl. The place reeked of gasoline and smoke, just like the street below. Twin beds were pushed together, and books, pizza boxes, clothes, and computer shit were strewn everywhere. There was an enormous, gaping hole in the window that looked out toward the river, and the curtains billowed from the strong updraft. The temperature in the room had probably dropped to a chilly fifty degrees.
“Holy shit,” Max said. “Are you kids okay?” He gave the kids a quick once-over and determined that they were relatively unharmed.
“You guys are cops?” the boy asked.
“Detectives,” Max said. “Minneapolis PD.” He pulled out his ID and held it up. “I’m Detective Max Montgomery and this is Liaison Officer Afton Tangler. We were right here on campus when we got the call.” He spun on his heels and surveyed the huge jagged opening in the window. Glass shards rimmed the hole like gleaming shark’s teeth. From down below came the whoop-whoop of ambulance and police sirens. More first responders were arriving every second.
“You’re sure nobody’s injured?” Afton asked. The kids were white-faced and shivering. Shock.
“We’re okay,” the boy said, though he didn’t look okay. His eyes bulged out of their sockets and his face was flushed. His blood pressure was probably off the charts right now.
“We better call Building Services and get some guys in here with nails and big sheets of plywood right away,” Max said. “Board up this window.”
“We appreciate your help,” the young man said. “But that’s not the problem. That’s not why we had our RA call the police.”
Max turned to Afton. “What’s an RA?”
“Resident assistant,” she said. She looked at the boy. “Why did you ask him to call? What’s the problem?”
“Over there,” the young woman said. She pointed toward an open closet that was jammed solid with clothing, mostly jeans and plaid shirts. Another rat’s nest of sneakers, boots, and pale blue towels lay on the floor. A small red-and-white cooler was canted atop a denim jacket. It stuck halfway out of the open closet.
“That cooler came flying through our window and almost conked Ashley in the head,” the boy said.
Max fixed his gaze on Ashley. “Are you sure you didn’t get hit?”
Ashley twisted her hands in her long sweater and nodded shyly. “When I saw the fireball out the window and heard the screams, I thought I was going to die. And then when the glass broke, I thought the whole building was going to explode.”
“The cooler must have come shooting out of the helo,” Afton said.
“You kids are damn lucky that you didn’t get clipped,” Max said. “With an explosion like that, pretty much anything and everything becomes a deadly missile. Hunks of glass, metal parts from that bird, any medical junk they were transporting inside.”
“Do you know why the helicopter exploded?” the boy asked.
“Not yet,” Max said. “But we’ll figure it out, you can count on it. For now, we’ll bag your cooler and take it in as evidence. The NTSB’s gonna want to look at every bit of debris that we can round up.”
Ashley screwed up her face, seemingly to summon up her courage, and spoke again. “You need to look inside.”
“Inside the cooler?” Afton asked. She’d detected a funny tension between the two students. Like there might be more going on here than met the eye.
“What’s the problem?” Max asked, stepping across the room to stand directly over the cooler.
“Open it,” said the boy.
Max leaned down and flipped open the two latches, tilting the red top away from the white bottom part.
Afton leaned forward as well, expecting . . . well, she wasn’t sure what to expect.
“Jesus Christ,” Max breathed.
Now they were all staring into the cooler, where an amorphous red glob wrapped in some kind of netting was surrounded by sterile cool packs.
“What is that?” Max asked.
“It’s a heart,” Afton said. “A human heart.”
Hack liked to think of himself as a facilitator. Should a Panamanian tanker come steaming into Duluth Harbor and a little weed or crank needed to be offloaded privately, he could handle that. If you happened to have some excess cargo that a first mate wanted to sell on the down low, he could make that happen, too. And should you be a Greek sailor looking for some amorous female companionship—well, that was in Hack’s wheelhouse as well. Besides the facilitating and the dope and the smuggling and the covert appropriation, Hack also ran a few girls out of the Silver Seas Bar in West Duluth.
Tonight, however, sitting here with the old lady and the Asian kid, Hack felt that he’d finally moved up a notch in the hierarchy of criminality, if there was such a phrase. And to tell the truth, it felt pretty damn good.
He’d driven his two contacts back to their suite at the Hotel Itasca and was sitting with them now, adrenaline still coursing through his veins like fire as he sipped a fine, smooth whisky in a cut-glass tumbler. He was savoring the victory so to speak. The kid was sitting across from him, basically mute, must be some kind of servant, he thought. But the old lady . . . well, she was clearly a big shot who’d come all the way from Thailand just to get her kicks.
Mom Chao Cherry was staring at him now as he sprawled in a black leather club chair, sipping his liquor. Her eyes were flat, dark pools and reminded him of the eyes of a cobra he’d once seen. The snake had been smuggled in on a freighter from the Philippines and the snake’s owner was trying to sell him to one or another of the various dockworkers, talking up the finer points of owning a venomous reptile.
“You performed extremely well tonight, Mr. Hacket,” Mom Chao Cherry said in her somewhat clipped English.
“Hack,” Hack said. “Just call me Hack.” After all, they’d just done some crazy business together. And he was pretty sure there was more coming his way.
“Very well, Mr. Hack. You came highly recommended as a man who can be trusted, as well as be useful in any number of critical situations.”
Hack tipped his drink toward her. “That’s me, ma’am. Always happy to oblige.”
Mom Chao Cherry smiled, but there was very little warmth. “I have some additional requirements that Narong will fill you in on.”
Hack nodded at Narong and said, “Dude.”
Narong stood up abruptly as if some sort of silent alarm had just gone off, prompting Hack to pull himself to his feet as well.
“Gonna cost you,” Hack said, but there was a genial tone to his voice, no implied threat, nothing contentious. Hack was a businessman who prided himself on his strong work ethic and highly flexible morals. His attitude was: If somebody needs dirty work and they’ve put cash on the table, then let’s get that mother done.
“We will speak again tomorrow,” Mom Chao Cherry said. “For now . . .” She nodded at Narong, who responded with a formal half bow. Then Narong led Hack out of the suite and down the hallway to his own, much more modest room.
Mom Chao Cherry, whose long-ago given name had been Regina, after a second-century Christian martyr who’d been tortured and beheaded for her unyielding faith, had changed out of her poor clothes and into a gold embroidered Roberto Cavalli caftan. Now she reclined on a white velvet chaise lounge in the bedroom of her penthouse suite.
She was musing happily about the carefully engineered helicopter crash. And the donor heart that had certainly plunged into the murky depths of the Mississippi River, serving now as a tasty banquet for the bottom-feeding fish that lived there.
She was also doing a celebratory line of coke.
The TV set flickered and blared as her glazed eyes idly watched Newswatch 7’s coverage of the chaos that will still ongoing at the University of Minnesota. Jittering, wide-eyed students gave disjointed, firsthand accounts of the explosion, while police and firemen scurried around like frazzled little ants.
She barely heard Narong slip back into her suite. When he politely cleared his throat, she looked up. “You gave the man his instructions?”
“All will be prepared.”
“The other,” she said. “Dead?”
Narong shook his head. “Not yet.”
Mom Chao Cherry’s face betrayed no trace of emotion. She was still savoring the euphoria and the hot drip that trickled down the back of her throat. What dopers liked to call the burn.
Finally, she licked her lips and said, “How much time does our contact think he might have?”
“He doesn’t know for sure,” Narong said. “The doctors are saying perhaps a few more days.” He shrugged. “Maybe only hours.” Narong had been studying English for the past two years under his employer’s tutelage and was excited to finally put his new language skills to work.
“That’s good,” Mom Chao Cherry said. When she was stoned, her voice took on the soft purr of a jungle cat. “Once we are able to take possession of our merchandise we will kill him.”
“When?” Narong asked. He’d been driven to a fever pitch by tonight’s wondrous and deadly explosion. Now the need for more killing was practically boiling up inside him.
“Soon. Tomorrow.” She lifted a finger. “Call Sing and tell him to send three men. Make it clear that he’s to put them on a plane immediately.”
Narong bristled slightly. “I have weapons. I can handle any problem. Plus we have the American, Mr. Hack.”
She smiled a tolerant smile. “Three men. Just in case.”
“As you wish.” Narong did his half bow again, then turned and slipped out of the room.
Mom Chao Cherry smiled as she pulled a pale pink cashmere shawl around her thin shoulders. The accommodations here were better than she’d expected. A three-room suite on the top floor of the Hotel Itasca, a luxury boutique hotel that sat squarely on the Mississippi River, overlooking Lock and Dam No. 1 and the original Pillsbury A Mill. Rock stars had stayed here. Sports celebrities. One has-been movie star had even OD’d here.
Mom Chao Cherry opened her gold case and spilled out another tiny pile of white powder. She tamped it into a line, leaned forward, and, using a thin glass straw, snorted it quickly.
A hot rush exploded inside her head. She flopped back, letting the fire ripple and roar but feeling the euphoria ooze over her as well. A friend had once told her that cocaine was the selfish drug, the drug that made you love yourself more than anything in the world. She smiled lazily. That was true. But, of course, it hadn’t always been that way.
She’d been fifteen years old when she and her missionary parents had been expelled from China by a new government led by the young and brash Mao Zedong. They’d packed up hymnals, crosses, and everything they owned and fled to Cambodia, where they’d set up a temporary church in the middle of a snake-infested jungle. Baby Jesus had been a tough sell to the men of the Khmer Rouge and, four months later, her parents were murdered, hacked to bits one night as they slept on their cots. A Cambodian woman she’d befriended helped smuggle her away. When they finally crossed the border into Thailand, she was put into an orphanage. That lasted only a few weeks until the head of the orphanage, an unsavory man named Kim Duk, sold her as a child prostitute to a madame in Bangkok.
Bangkok had been nothing short of bizarre—the young girls, the aberrant sexual needs of the older men, the craziness of the clattering, overcrowded city. But she had been an oddly curious girl and a sexual prodigy of sorts. With her porcelain white skin and fluent English, she soon became a favorite of the American GI’s who came to Bangkok for R & R, on leave and trying to forget the horrendous, bloody fighting in Korea.
Three years later, a rising brothel star, she was confident enough to engineer her own move. She bribed her way into a higher-class brothel located in the Rattanakosin section of Bangkok. There she began to entertain men who were high up in the military and the Thai government. She learned sex tricks, improved her Thai and Chinese language skills, and became adept at flattering and charming older men. Within a few years, she met her future husband, Somchai Homhuan. He was a Thai arms dealer, smuggler, and crime boss. None of that mattered. She’d already seen and done it all. And she’d learned the most important lesson in life—that a person had to scratch and claw and kill for every single baht they earned and any sliver of respect they hoped to get.
It wasn’t long before she became Homhuan’s wife and, eventually, his trusted business partner. Her new Thai name, Mom Chao Cherry, which meant Her Serene Highness Princess, had started out as a private joke between the two of them. A pet name and a gentle jibe at her proclivity for first class travel, expensive jewelry, and need to spend money as wildly as the Thai royal family. Then it evolved into her given name. A decade after giving blowjobs to Japanese businessmen who traveled to Bangkok on corporate-sponsored sex trips, she’d risen to what was known in Thailand as Hi-So, or high society. It was the absolute pinnacle of success.
Three years ago, Homhuan was killed, murdered by men from the rival Kham cartel, who ruled the Golden Triangle, that sliver of land where Burma, Thailand, and Laos came together and poppies were the most prolific cash crop.
After Homhuan was gone, it seemed only right for her to step in and oversee the entire organization.
Mom Chao Cherry gazed out the window at the night sky. It was early spring, and Cassiopeia hung lazily just to the left of Draco. The lady was tipped back in her chair, a celestial goddess surveying her heavens. Mom Chao Cherry decided it was a very auspicious sign for what was yet to come.
Excerpted from "Shadow Girl"
Copyright © 2018 Gerry Schmitt.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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