Dead In the Water
by CE Fox
"Jean, for the last time, I've got the ice chest. Now come on!" Jim Reed's tone was exasperated as he tapped his fingers on the roof of their sedan, watching his wife of five years finally walk out the front door of their house.
"Jim, don't get snippy. Last time we went sailing, you forgot it and we nearly died of thirst."
"And you're never going to me forget, are you?"
"No," Jean said firmly, then turned back toward the interior of the house, calling out a few more last-minute instructions to her parents, Harold and Louise Carver, who would be watching their toddler son for the two days they planned to be gone.
"Jean, come on," Jim yelled. "Your parents know what to do with Jimmy."
Jean turned her head long enough to stick out her tongue, but she finally closed the door behind her and hurried down the driveway. Jim rolled his eyes. "Finally," he muttered, then climbed behind the wheel. Jean slid into the seat beside him and kissed him on the cheek.
"Free at last!" she sighed happily. "You realize this is the first weekend we've had alone together in over six months?"
"Yeah, I realize that." Jim said, a teasing glimmer shining in his eyes. He leaned over and gave her a deep, passionate kiss.
Jean gave in for a moment, then pushed her husband away. "Jim, stop! What if Mom sees?"
"She'll just know how badly we needed the babysitting," Jim said. He waved toward the front window. Then he planted another kiss on her neck.
"Jim, you're horrible!" Jean squirmed.
"Want me to quit?" he said, nuzzling her ear.
Jean smiled as she pushed him away for the second time. "Just hold that thought for later and drive, would you?"
The Pacific waters were calm. Too calm. Jim glared at the limp sails. "A breeze, just a little breeze, that's all I ask!"
Jean giggled from where she lay sprawled on a towel across the sloop's stern. "I think this is nice. We don't really need to sail all the way to Catalina. Just being out on the water is enough for me. We can even sleep on the boat if we want to."
"I wanted to go to Catalina."
"Men. You always have to get somewhere. Can't you just relax and enjoy the journey?"
"'Journey' implies that you're going somewhere," Jim grumbled. "This isn't a journey. This
is . . . I don't know, being stalled on the shoulder or something. We're barely out of Marina Del Rey!"
Jean mumbled something that Jim didn't catch. Her eyes were closed, her expression relaxed with the sun-drenched drowsiness that can only be induced by a slowly rocking boat. Jim grinned, then quietly got a bucket and lowered it by the rope tied on its handle over the side of the sloop. He filled it, then slowly brought it back up. He grinned wider, then sent a mighty wave of cold Pacific water toward his wife.
She screamed as the deluge drenched her. "Jim Reed! You-you-ooooh!" she finally spluttered, flinging her soppy towel at him.
He ducked and the towel sailed out into the Pacific. "Oops," he said. "Hope that wasn't one of the good towels."
"You could go get it," Jean suggested.
"Are you kidding? That water's cold!"
"No, really?" Jean laid back down on the now-soaked cushions. "Jim, one of these days, I'm going to get even. And then you'll be sorry."
"I'm scared, honey. Real scared," Jim said with a laugh. He moved to the wheel. "I'm gonna start the engine. I want to get somewhere besides the middle of nowhere."
"Jim, do you have to? It's so peaceful. There's not another boat in sight."
Jim sighed. "No, I don't have to." He sat down on the seat by the wheel and examined the radio. He turned it on and fiddled with the dial until he came across the Coast Guard emergency frequency.
"Jim," Jean said, a note of warning creeping into her voice.
"I'm just going to keep it tuned to the emergency frequency. Just in case."
"For once, can't you forget you're a cop?"
"Jean, I'm not being a cop. All sailors are supposed to monitor the radio."
"Jim, you're an off-duty cop who borrowed Bobby Owens' sailboat for a weekend. That hardly makes you a sailor."
"A sailor is one who sails. I'm sailing. Therefore I'm a sailor."
"I thought you said we were stalled on the shoulder."
"Well, I would be a sailor if there was a breeze," he said, glaring again at the limp canvas. "I just can't believe I spent all that time with Bobby learning how to set the sails and tack and run with the wind, and here we sit."
"Aw, poor big Jim. You know," Jean said, lifting an eyebrow and smiling softly, "I can probably think of some ways to take your mind off the wind."
Jim returned the smile, then lowered himself and stretched out alongside his wife. "What wind?" he whispered.
"Hmmm?" Jim murmured. He reluctantly pulled his arm from over his eyes and raised his head. "What?"
"Over there. I think I see smoke." Jean crawled out of the bed and pointed out the small cabin window toward the northeast.
"It's probably just somebody's exhaust," Jim said, his jaw cracking in a huge yawn. He'd given up on the wind, and the engine, and just about everything else. Making love to his wife had that effect on him. All he wanted to do now was curl himself around her and sleep the day away. Catalina could wait. "C'mon, honey, come back."
"No, Jim, it's more than just exhaust. I think someone's in trouble."
Jim sighed and crawled over the covers until he could see out the window. He squinted against the sparkles of sunlight on the water and made out a thick plume of smoke rising straight up in into the windless sky. "You're right. That doesn't look good." Now fully awake, he yanked his swimming trunks back on and hurried above deck.
Jean threw on a t-shirt and pair of shorts and followed close on his heels, then stopped. "I think there were some binoculars below."
She ran back to get them, and he turned up the radio. There was no traffic on the emergency bandwidth. He chewed his lip as he watched the smoke climb into the blue sky, then he hauled in the anchor and cranked the engine over. The deck vibrated under his bare feet as the inboard engine purred to life. As he steered the boat toward the smoke, Jean reemerged with the binoculars. "Honey, take the wheel," he said as he raised the binoculars. He saw a sizeable yacht, flames showing in the wheelhouse and smoke pouring from every opening. He dropped the binoculars and grabbed the radio microphone. He stammered out a call for help, having to bite his tongue against automatically slipping into LAPD radio procedures.
He took the wheel back from Jean and increased the throttle.
"Jim! What are you doing?"
"They may need help."
"But," she started, then stopped. "Okay, but please promise me you won't do anything foolish."
"I won't do anything stupid, honey. Trust me."
"Trust him," she muttered. "Give him a bucket and he'll charge hell itself."
Jim flicked a glance her way. "I heard that."
As their comparatively small 32-foot sloop approached the burning yacht, which Jim estimated to be at least a 50-footer, a muffled whump shook the air. A dense ball of burning smoke boiled out of the yacht's interior and mushroomed into the blue sky. He could feel the heat from the flames against his cheeks even at nearly 200 feet out. Jim felt Jean's fingernails dig into his bicep. "Ouch, honey, not so hard," he said, gently pulling his arm away from her.
She reclaimed her grip on his arm. "Jim, I don't think we should go any closer."
"We won't. I just want to circle around. Maybe someone's in the water."
He carefully steered their boat around the burning yacht. A large oil slick bloomed from the yacht's stern, but there wasn't much debris floating in the choppy waters, despite the booming explosion. Jim spied a seat cushion and some shards of wood, but nothing else. Oily smoke burned his eyes, and the pungent odor of burning wood and plastic-and the unmistakable odor of burning flesh-assaulted his nose. He opened the throttle and moved quickly upwind. "Did you see anything?"
"No," she said, chewing her lower lip as she peered anxiously at the dark water. "But Jim, that smell-"
"Yeah," Jim said. "Try not to think about it, honey."
From the pallor of her face, he knew that was useless advice. He reached up and squeezed her hand, wishing they were anywhere but here. This was supposed to be a holiday, a day to relax and be with his wife and escape the tedium, and the horrors, of his job as a Los Angeles police officer. And yet here he was, witness again to someone's horrible death. Was there no escaping it? Sometimes he wondered if he were put on this earth for the sole purpose of mopping up all the death and mayhem human beings dished out on one another. But a quick glance at the small woman hanging tightly to his arm grounded him. This too shall pass, he thought with an inward sigh of frustration. He steered the boat to an even safer distance, and they watched the yacht burn.
"Such a shame," Jean said in a small voice. "Wonder what started it?"
"No telling-maybe something in the kitchen. I mean galley. Or maybe they were smoking in bed or something." Or something . . . the policeman in him couldn't help wondering if they were witnessing something more sinister than an accidental fire.
Jim heard the beating thumps of a helicopter's rotors. What looked like a Bell Jet Ranger was fast approaching from the southeast. "Maybe help's on the way," he said, pointing it out to Jean.
As the helicopter approached, Jim saw that it wasn't a Coast Guard or Los Angeles County Fire Department whirlybird, but apparently a privately-owned craft. He didn't put much significance on the black and red Jet Ranger until it was nearly overhead, when he noticed that the registration numbers required by the F.A.A. on all aircraft were conspicuously missing. The chopper made a low pass, then circled around for another. The occupants didn't seem bent on doing anything more menacing than gawking at the smoldering yacht, but an instinctive shiver stirred the hair on the back of his neck. "Honey, get below."
"What? Why? Isn't that the-"
"Honey, I just have a bad feeling. Now get below. Hurry."
"Jim, if there's some danger that I don't know about, I'm not going to leave you out here-"
"Jean, will you just go!" Jim pleaded.
The helicopter made one more low pass, close enough for Jim to make out the pale outline of a man's face peering down out of the side window, but still too far away to make out any features. As the man's face turned in his direction, Jim had an impression of dark hair, a mustache, maybe sideburns, sunglasses, and an undefinable yet distinct air of threat. Jim felt another chill work down his spine as he found himself under the scrutiny of the unknown pilot. He wished the sails were up, so he could duck behind one, out of the man's sight. He wished he had his gun in his hand. If wishes were horses . . .
Without warning, the helicopter swooped upward and moved off. Jim looked in the opposite direction and saw a big Coast Guard helicopter beating toward him. By the time the big red and white Sikorsky HH-52 drew into a hover overhead, the private chopper was several miles away. Jim tried to feel relief, but as he watched the Coast Guard go to work on recovery operations, his gaze kept straying to the far horizon and the fast-shrinking dot of the other helicopter.
". . . so there we were, in the middle of the ocean half-way between Marina Del Rey and Catalina, and the Coast Guard and the L.A. County Fire Department are swarming all over. It was crazy." Jim shook his head as he pinned his badge on his class C uniform shirt. Roll call for PM Watch was five minutes away, and as he dressed, he regaled his partner with the whole sad story.
Pete Malloy shut his locker door. "So I take it your weekend of rest and relaxation ended a little early."
"Yeah. By the time the Coasties finished talking to us, and the fire department retrieved the body from that yacht, we were ready to say good-bye to boats forever. Jean got sick. Heck, I almost got sick."
Pete regarded his younger partner with compassion. "Bad, huh?"
Pete had seen his share of burned bodies. It was never a pretty sight. The smell alone . . . he changed the subject before his breakfast came back to haunt him. "What about that helicopter you saw? You said it didn't have any registration numbers?"
"None whatsoever. I told the Coast Guard guys, but they just shrugged and said they see it a lot. I got the impression that they had a pretty good idea already of what was going on."
"They didn't say, but that's my guess. I didn't say anything to Jean, but how many yachts suddenly burst into flame for no reason?"
"Sounds hinky to me. I'm just glad you and Jean didn't get involved any further than you did."
"Me, too. We were very glad to get back into port and hand the keys back over to Bobby." He slipped out of his blue jeans and transferred his wallet and change into the pockets of his uniform pants.
"So who is this Bobby Owens character? He must be some kind of friend to loan out a thirty-two foot sailboat to a landlubber like you."
Jim grinned. "He's a friend from college. We were on the football team, and he and his wife and Jean and I ran around together, you know how it is. We don't see each other much any more, but somehow friendships like that tend to last a lifetime. I'd give him the shirt off my back if he needed it, and he'd do the same for me. In fact, there were a few times that he did, when Jean and I were first married and money got a little tight."
Pete smiled, then glanced at his watch. "Those kind of friends are worth their weight in gold. But right now, we're about forty-five seconds away from being late for roll call, and Mac's introducing four new rookies. So, uh, hoist your mainsails and let's get moving, Captain Hook."
"1-Adam-12, PM Watch, clear," Jim said, then pulled the mic away from his mouth and without missing a beat continued on. "Bobby was the place kicker. He always said he was too smart to play any position where he'd get knocked on his can every play."
"What'd you play?"
"Wide receiver, mostly."
"Makes sense, the way you run."
Jim smiled. "Yeah. And back then I was skinnier than I am now. Not much use for a skinny linebacker."
"I don't wanna hear it."
"Yeah, I was real skinny then, Pete. Weighed about one-sixty soaking wet."
"And I bet you ate like a piranha," Pete sighed. "So what happened? Did one of the tapeworms die?"
Jim laughed. "Nah. Just grew up, I guess."
"Oh ho ho. Funny, Pete. But who's still a swinging bachelor who won't settle down?"
"Oh, don't worry about me. I'm all grown up." He leered at Jim.
Jim snorted. "You're something else, Pete. Anyway, before you sidetracked me, I was gonna say that you and Bobby and me oughta get together sometime and do some deep sea fishing. He's got a big sport fishing boat."
"I'm beginning to like Bobby already."
"I'll give him a call and see what I can do."
"1-Adam-12, see the woman. Possible 311. 1445 East Robards, in the back."
Pete sighed. "The fun's starting early tonight."
"No, buddy. You can't walk down people's driveways naked like this," Jim explained as patiently as he could as he tried to coax the old drunk back into his coat. "Now come on, put this on."
"But thish here alley'sh a private drive. It shays sho right back there." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder and just about fell down. "I got a right to walk on a private drive in whatever I want. Including my birthday shuit."
Pete grabbed him by the arm and steadied him. "Only if you own the private drive, and only if you're out of sight. Neither of which apply, so put on the coat."
"Shpoilshport," the man grumbled, but he aimed an arm toward the sleeve. Jim helped guide his other arm in and then stepped back. The man fumbled with the buttons. "You, kind shir, are a gen'l'man," he said. He gave Jim a bleary smile of approval, then scowled at Pete. "You, shir, are a cretin."
Pete feigned a look of regret. "I knew I shouldn't have dropped out of finishing school."
Jim limited his amusement to a gleam in his eyes as he helped the wobbly old man into the back of the patrol car. "Watch your head."
"A gen'l'man. A real fine gen'l'men."
Jim shut the door on him, then winked at Pete. "I'll give you some pointers in etiquette any time you want."
"Get in the car."
" . . . and that about does it," Pete said, signing the report with a flourish. He handed it to Jim for his signature. "So, what'd Bobby say?" Pete had offered to write out the report on the 311 drunk while Jim called to arrange their fishing expedition. No sacrifice was too big if it got Pete in a boat with a line in his hand.
"He said he had a surprise for me but wouldn't say what. How do you like a guy that pulls stuff like that?" Jim complained, shaking his head. He chewed on the inside of his cheek as he tried to figure out what possible news Bobby had that couldn't be shared over the phone.
"I meant about the fishing trip."
"Huh? Oh, yeah. Next Saturday, 5:30 a.m., at his house. He's got a private pier, can you believe that? Wonder why he doesn't keep the sloop there?"
Pete could care less where Bobby berthed his boats. He was too dismayed by the middle-of-the night start. "5:30? Can't we shade that a little?"
Jim laughed at the stricken look on Pete's face. "Pete, I talked him down from 4:30. Don't push it. Look, I'll pick you up. That way you can sleep on the drive up there."
"You know, he didn't sound like it was bad news."
"What?" Pete paused briefly as he backed out of the parking space to aim a quizzical glance at Jim.
"Bobby. That surprise he said he couldn't tell me over the phone. He didn't sound like it was bad news."
"Well, if he called it a surprise, it probably wasn't bad news."
"Probably not. At least I hope not."
Pete sighed. "You're gonna brood about this, aren't you?"
"Me? No way. I'm just wondering, that's all. Curious. Aren't you a little curious?"
"I don't even know Bobby. Why would I be curious?"
"You'd make a lousy detective, Pete. No natural curiosity."
"Did you clear us?"
Jim blushed and lunged for the mic.
Jim wished he'd never cleared them. Then someone else would have gotten the call on the broken stoplight. His feet were killing him. He shifted his weight for the hundredth time as he waved yet another timid housewife in a station wagon through the intersection. The signal was broken, flashing red in all directions, and despite the fact that he was standing in the center of the intersection, badge flashing in the early evening sun, arms windmilling, and all six-foot-two of him in not exactly hard-to-notice LAPD navy blue, people kept creeping through the intersection like they thought he would deliberately send them all crashing into each other. He felt a bead of sweat crawl down his back. It itched like the dickens, but he was afraid if he moved his arm to scratch it, he'd send some poor wretch straight into the ditch. He was sure every idiot in LA was behind the wheel and driving past him. He blew a short blast on his whistle and circled his arm faster. The woman increased her speed marginally and rolled past him.
Pete walked carefully out to Jim's post in the center of the intersection. "Take a break, partner."
"They either go a hundred miles an hour, or three," Jim grumbled as he had to suddenly stop because a red sports car barreled by three inches from his toes. He blew a long blast on his whistle and glared, but the car was gone, and they were both too far from the black and white to bother chasing it. "Idiots. Next time we see that guy, he's busted."
Pete flashed him a sympathetic smile and started his own St. Vitus dance in the middle of the intersection. Jim dropped into the patrol car and grabbed the mic. "1-Adam-12 requesting ETA on repair crew to fix the signals at Broadway and Fifth."
"1-Adam-12, stand by." There was a pause, then the dispatcher's voice returned. "1-Adam-12, be advised repair crew not available for another forty-five minutes."
"Is there a traffic enforcement officer available yet?"
"Negative, Adam-12. No other units available."
"1-Adam-12, roger," Jim sighed. He stood up and yelled the bad news to Pete.
"I'm bushed," Jim sighed heavily as he and Pete dragged themselves into the locker room at the end of watch. He sagged onto the bench in front of his locker. He wasn't sure he had the strength to actually open the door. He dropped all his gear onto the floor and let his arms hang limp.
"You didn't throw your casting arm out, did you?" Pete quipped.
"I don't think so, but four hours of directing traffic isn't what I'd call a good warm up for a day of deep-sea fishing. You know, every single time I called for a repair crew ETA, they kept saying forty-five minutes?"
"I know, I was there-remember?"
"Too bad one of those new guys couldn't have gotten that call. My arms are killing me."
Pete laughed. "You know, if you didn't insist on directing like you were conducting an orchestra, you'd be a lot better off."
Jim worked up his own tired smile. "I like to do it with style, what can I say?"
The locker room door swung open and Mac stuck his head in. "Jim? Phone call from the LA County sheriff's department. You can take it in my office."
Jim stood up and stared at the door after Mac disappeared. "Wonder what that's about?"
"I know a way to find out. Go answer the phone." Pete gave Jim a shove toward the locker room door.
"This is Jim Reed," Jim muttered into the handset.
"Detective Bill Ericsson, L.A. County sheriff's office. I've been looking over the reports on that yacht fire last weekend. Coast Guard handled the preliminary sea stuff, then handed it over to us for the land investigation. Got a couple questions for you, if you have a minute."
"Sure, no problem."
"Did you see the yacht catch fire initially?"
"No. We saw the smoke and went to check it out."
"'We' being you and your wife?"
"Tell me what you saw as you pulled alongside."
"Well, it's pretty much like I said for the report. Smoke was pouring out of the main cabin. Then there was an explosion and a big fireball jetted out of it."
"Anything look amiss to you?"
Jim pulled the handset away from his ear and stared at it momentarily in disbelief. Amiss? What, going up in flames isn't amiss enough for you? He bit back the smart remark and simply said, "Uh, besides the fire, no."
"Okay, the report says that before the Coast Guard arrived you state that a private helicopter flew over the scene."
"Yeah. A Bell Jet Ranger. Black over red paint scheme, no numbers. He made two passes, then disappeared. I guess he saw the Coast Guard coming and lit off."
"The Coast Guard people didn't see anything."
"Well, maybe they were too busy looking at the burning yacht. I told them about it."
"Did you see anyone in the area immediately before you spotted the boat?"
Jim's face started to burn and he was grateful the detective was on the phone and not standing in front of him. He turned slightly so Mac couldn't see him. "Uh, no. We were, uh, below deck."
Ericsson's only comment was a noncommital grunt. "Thanks, Officer Reed. We'll be in touch."
"Hey, wait a minute-what did you find out about how the fire started?"
"If we think you need to know, we'll call you." With that, the line clicked and went dead.
Jim tossed the handset down in disgust.
"Hey, careful with the equipment," Mac protested. He picked up the handset and replaced it more gently, as if that would undo any damage Jim had inflicted on it.
"Sorry, Mac. That detective cut me off, can you believe it?"
"It's his case, Jim, not yours."
Jim gave Mac a sour look. "I know that, Mac. I'm just curious, that's all. You'd think being a fellow officer would give me some clout."
"Not always, Reed."
"Not necessarily. Some detectives like to play it close to the vest, which is how they should play it. So bottle up your urge to solve every crime on the planet and let them handle it. We've got enough problems of our own without taking on crimes on the high seas."
"Aye, aye, sir," Jim laughed. "See you tomorrow, Mac."
Pete had left by the time Jim returned to the locker room, so it wasn't until the next afternoon that Jim was able to vent his frustrations. Pete listened to his partner's complaints with half an ear.
"You're not listening!" Jim suddenly blurted.
Pete dragged his attention away from the rush hour traffic. "I'm listening."
"Well, what do you think?"
"What do I think about what?"
"See, you weren't listening."
"I was listening. You asked the detective for information and he cut you off."
"Don't you think he should have told me something?"
"No?" Jim squawked. "Come on, Pete. Whose side are you on?"
"Look, Jim, if L.A. County is anything like the LAPD, Ericsson's a busy man. He doesn't have time to chat with witnesses."
"But I'm a cop!"
"To him you're a civilian who witnessed a possible crime. That's all."
Jim slumped in the seat and tapped his fingers on his knee. "I still think he could have told me something."
"And so starts today's brooding session," Pete muttered under his breath.
"I'm not brooding."
"I'm just . . . thinking."
Pete gave him an incredulous stare. "Is that what you're calling it now?"
Jim tried to keep a straight face, but he couldn't. "Yeah, I guess."
"Gonna be a-"
"Don't say it."
"1-Adam-22, that's Brinkman and his new guy," Jim said as they heard a pursuit call for speed-only go out.
"Yeah. Steve Trevino. Switched over from Communications. Two of the new guys are transfers from there, Mac said."
"Just like Charlie Burnside. Terrific."
Pete smiled. "Burnside was a fluke."
"He may have been a fluke, but thanks to his badge-heavy antics, I'm a little gun shy about transfers from Communications."
"Trevino's sharp, from what Brink says, so I don't think you have to worry about catching him choking out any suspects. You know, from what I've seen, all those guys seem sharp. And big- that Trevino's gotta top 220. Robertson, too."
"And they're having all the fun," Jim groused. "I can't believe it's been such a slow week. Maybe we really did clean up the district."
"You're just anxious to get out on that boat."
"Yeah, I guess. But still, seems like all we've handled are shoplifters, lost pets, and parking violations. Not a single 211. No 459's. Nothing."
"Some weeks are like that. Enjoy it while you can."
Jim narrowed his eyes at Pete. "So you're not bored?"
"Out of my mind," Pete said plaintively.
Jim laughed. "I just wish I knew what Bobby's big secret is. Maybe he got a new boat. I bet that's it-some big new state-of-the-art boat."
"I'm all for that."
" . . . 1-Adam-22 now westbound on Cloverly . . . any available units set up for code 100 and identify on Tac 2."
"We're not far from there, put us code 100 at Westview and Cloverly."
Jim switched to Tac 2 and called them in as Pete pulled around a corner and stopped a block later at the intersection.
"Roger, 1-Adam-12. 1-Adam-22, 1-Adam-12 is code 100 at Westview and Cloverly. 1-Adam-36 is code 100 at Shaw Terrace and Cloverly. 1-Adam-22, what is your location?"
Adam-22 was close enough for Adam-12 to pick up their transmission. "1-Adam-22, still westbound on Cloverly, now approaching Harborview."
"One more block," Jim murmured. They could pick up Adam-22's siren now. "Trevino's handling the pursuit pretty well, sounds like."
"Here they come," Pete said. They sped past, well over the speed limit. Pete swung out behind them and followed at a reasonable distance. They passed Adam-36, who pulled out behind them. The three patrol cars dogged the fleeing speeder until he finally pulled over to the side. Pete parked their unit at an angle. He and Jim jumped out and held position as Brinkman and Trevino approached the car with their guns drawn. Jim kept an eye on the suspect, but he also watched Trevino to see how he handled himself. The suspect came out of the car, hands held high until Brinkman ordered him face down on the ground. Trevino did just what he should-held back and covered while Brink did the patdown and cuffed the suspect.
Jim relaxed and replaced his gun in the snapcase holster. "Is it a four?" he called.
Brinkman hauled the guy to his feet. "Yeah, we're fine. Trevino, put out the four."
Trevino hurried to the radio and a moment later Jim heard a shaky voice put out a four. "Still nervous, I guess," he said to Pete.
"Some of 'em take a while to relax," Pete said. "At least he knows his unit number."
"Hey, he might be reading it off a piece of paper," Jim grinned.
"Nah. Otherwise we'd have heard, 'This is unit 1-a-22, we are clear'," Pete said in a perfect mimicry of Jim's horrible first try at the radio.
"Was I that bad?"
"You were worse."
"Wonder if Trevino likes to fish?"
"You could ask him."
Jim yawned. After clearing from the pursuit, the watch had returned to its doldrums. "I just hope Burnside wasn't Trevino's training officer in Communications."
"Tell you what, if Trevino threatens to put down a suspect for no good reason, we'll sic Al Porter on him."
"Yeah, Al still owes me one for that whole Burnside thing. My shoulder ached for two days after he slammed me into that locker."
"Poor baby. You know, if anything, the LAPD owes Al. If he hadn't tipped you about Burnside being badge heavy, no telling how much damage Burnside might have done."
"What'd they end up giving Charlie? Twenty-one months probation or something like that?"
"Something like that. And hours of community service."
"Slap on the wrist."
"I guess the judge figured losing his job as an officer was part of the punishment."
"I'd have thrown the book at him."
"I think you did."
After another quiet hour in which they freed a kid with his hand stuck in the spokes of his bicycle and issued three parking citations, Jim was ready to explode. "I guess it's time to start searching the classifieds."
Pete looked at him in surprise. "What?"
"It's obvious we've cleaned out the entire criminal element of the district. We'll get back to the station at the end of watch and find pink slips taped to our lockers. The city no longer needs us."
"You might be right."
"I guess we can find some little town out in the wild west that still needs a sheriff and his trusty sidekick."
"Okay, but I get to be sheriff."
"No way, Festus. It was my idea. I'm the sheriff."
"Fine. But until then you can forget about driving."
Jim snorted. "Like you'd ever loosen your iron hold on that steering wheel."
"Finally, the boy's figured it out."
Jim changed the subject before he started dwelling on how depressing it was to never get to drive. "Hey, I finally found an article in the paper on that yacht that burned down. It was a guy from Santa Monica -- Edward Douglas. One of these entrepreneur types, out on a cruise all by himself. Cause of death was smoke inhalation and massive head trauma, probably incurred during one of the explosions."
Pete flipped on the headlights as early evening gave way to dusk. "How'd the boat catch on fire?"
"Article didn't say. Just said the origin of the fire was suspicious."
"Makes you wonder."
"Speaking of bombed, I think that's a deuce ahead of us."
They dropped the drunk off at the station, during which time they bumped into Brink and Trevino booking their own deuce. Trevino's dark complexion looked a little green around the edges, probably due to the fact that the deuce had evidently vomited all over his uniform. Jim and Pete stayed upwind as they finished processing their own drunk and hurriedly left the room.
"Looks like Trevino got his baptism," Jim laughed. "Gotta hate drunks that upchuck all over the uniform."
"It happens to the best of us," Pete agreed.
By the time they reached the car, Jim had forgotten Trevino's woes. He was back to worrying over Bobby's surprise. "I'm positive it's a new boat. What else could it be?"
"Would you relax about that, already?" Pete complained. "You'll find out tomorrow."
"I know," Jim sighed. "I just hate knowing there's something I should know that I don't know."
Pete stared at him for a moment before he cranked the engine. "I have no idea what you just said, but in no way do I want you to repeat it."
"Good, because I don't think I could if I wanted to."
"Pete, you seeing who I think I'm seeing?"
Pete looked past Jim to the car sitting slightly ahead of them in the next lane at the stoplight. "Speak of the devil-is that Charlie Burnside?"
"I think it is. He's a little heavier, but that's gotta be him."
"Unbelievable. Should we pull up beside him and smile?"
"I don't think that'd be a good idea, Pete."
"Wonder what he's doing now?"
"I don't know, and I don't really care."
The light changed and traffic crept forward. The left lane, as usual, moved a little faster and Pete couldn't keep from pulling even with Burnside's blue Chevy.
"Terrific, Pete," Jim hissed through clenched teeth. He looked like he wanted to crawl down onto the floorboards.
"I can't help it. If he looks over, just flash those pearly whites he wanted to leave on the pavement and tell him to have a nice day."
Jim glared at Pete, but Pete was already looking past him and smiling at Burnside. Charlie glanced over, did a double take, then motioned them to the curb.
"Oh great, he wants a little face-to-face, old home week," Pete said.
"I'm taking the shotgun," Jim said grimly.
Pete pulled up behind Burnside's now-parked car. "You might as well stay in the-never mind, he's coming back here."
With a long-suffering sigh, Jim climbed out of the car and stood behind his open door, watching Burnside approach without any welcome on his face.
"Officers Reed and Malloy," Burnside said. His smile had just a hint of frost in it. "How's the LAPD's finest?"
Pete waited a beat to see if Jim was going to answer, but his partner's lips looked like they were sewn shut. "We're fine," Pete said mildly. "Been a long time."
"Yeah, it has." He looked Jim up and down. "Ah, now, come on, Reed. What's the matter? Cat got your tongue? That'd be a first."
Jim didn't say anything.
Charlie shook his head. "Still haven't cultivated that sense of humor, have you?"
"What have you been up to?" Pete asked, more as a diversion than anything. He could care less what Charlie did with his time these days.
"A little of this, a little of that. Working security jobs, mostly. Got a nice one going at Marina Del Rey. One of the big hotels. So, how's everybody back at the division? Al Porter busted out of any more uniforms?"
Pete gave him an obligatory smile. "No. Things are pretty much the same. A few new recruits, a few retired. Some transfers."
"Yeah, believe it or nor, I actually know a couple of those new recruits. Worked with one of them pretty closely in Communications before . . . well, you know. Anyway, guy named Robertson. Kind of a party animal, but good at his job. And Trevino. Another good kid. Lot like Reed here, straight arrow and all that. Got a better sense of humor, though."
Jim looked briefly at Pete before casually studying the ground at his feet in a show of complete disinterest.
"They're coming along just fine," Pete said.
"1-Adam-12, see the woman. Possible missing child. 4343 Redding Lane. 4343 Redding Lane. Respond code 2."
Jim immediately dropped back into his seat and slammed his door shut.
"Duty calls," Pete said.
"See you around, Pete. And hey, tell your partner, since he isn't speaking to me, no hard feelings. Truly."
Pete hesitated, nodded, then slid behind the wheel. After he pulled out into traffic, he glanced back. Burnside stood beside his car, watching them drive away. "No hard feelings, he says. I've heard that one before, right before he went and slammed you into your locker," Pete said.
"Still doing the shuffle and scratch act. Hard to know if he's changed at all."
"For the better?"
Jim hesitated. "Or the worse."
They found the missing six-year-old in the laundry chute. After the fire department freed him, the boy informed Pete he wanted to see what it felt like to be a pair of dirty underwear.
"That's one for the books," Pete sighed as they resumed patrol.
"Kids, they're something."
"Just you wait until you come home from work and Jean tells you Jimmy's on the roof."
"Already happened," Jim laughed as he tucked the report book under Pete's hat on the seat between them. "Came home after Day Watch shift about a month ago and she met me on the front porch. Smoke coming out of her ears, the whole bit. Told me that Jimmy managed to climb the trellis onto the porch roof and she had to call Harold-that's her dad-to come get him down. Little stinker wouldn't let her come close to him, and she was afraid the porch roof wouldn't hold both of them."
"So what happened?"
"Harold can talk a dog out of its bone. Jimmy crawled right to him."
"And why didn't you tell me this before?"
"Slipped my mind, I guess." He glanced over and saw Pete's disapproving stare. "Oh, come on, Pete. Don't look at me like that. If I told you half the stunts that Jimmy pulled, I'd be talking all day long."
"You already talk all day long. At least stories about Jimmy would be interesting."
"You're on a real tear lately, aren't you? You deliberately trying to run me off so you can get a new partner? Maybe Trevino or one of those other rookies?"
Pete laughed. "No way. Breaking you in was hard enough."
Jim decided to change the subject completely before Pete could send any more insults his way. "Are you ready for seven?"
"Sure, why not."
Amazingly, they got approval to take a meal break. Biff's was close, and as Pete pulled into the lot, Adam-17 pulled in behind them. "Looks like we'll have some company."
"Wells and that other new guy-what's his name? Paul something."
"Yeah, that's it. I can't keep 'em all straight."
"Trevino, Robertson, a gal named Olivia Baker, and Art Lincoln."
Jim grinned. "For a minute there I thought you were about to say Linkletter."
"Wells already pinned that moniker on him," Pete laughed as they got out of the car.
Ed Wells and Robertson met them at the restaurant doors. "Reed, Malloy," Ed greeted them. "What's shaking?"
"You don't want to know," Jim said.
"Only big capers, Ed," Pete countered. "We've decided we're no longer handling any of those nickel and dime calls. Gonna leave them to mere mortals like you."
"Terrific. That explains why we've been chasing cats out of trees and whinos out of doorways all day," Ed complained. "What a time for the crime wave to disappear, when I'm tryin' to train this overgrown teenager how to be a first-rate cop."
Robertson, who had a broad, freckled face that made Jim think of little red-headed boys with Aunt Bea's, grinned proudly. "At least I know all the ins and outs of coaxing a cat out of a tree now."
Jim laughed and held the door open for the three of them. Robertson was the last in before Jim, and Jim took the opportunity to size him up as they walked toward a booth. Robertson was big, taller than Jim and wider across the shoulders. Jim shook his head slightly. The Academy must be feeding them better these days. Trevino was built like a tank, Lincoln wasn't much smaller, and even the new lady cop looked big enough to handle just about anything. Jim was starting to feel like the runt of the litter. Until he looked at Wells.
They settled into a booth and a busboy gave them all ice water. Jim took a sip of his and nodded toward Robertson. "How's it feel to have two whole weeks on patrol under your belt?"
"Real good," Robertson said with another wide smile. "Officer Wells here is a good teacher."
Pete choked a bit on his own water.
"Did I say something wrong?"
"No, no," Pete assured him as soon as he quit coughing. "Wells here is a-"
"Watch it, Malloy," Ed growled.
"-fine officer," Pete finished, with a pointedly innocent stare at Ed. "He's very definite."
"What he means is I'm stubborn as a mule, arrogant, and liable to go off half-cocked at any moment," Ed said to Robertson.
Pete's eyes twinkled. "You said it, Ed, not me."
"I'm just saving you having to track down Robertson to educate him when my back is turned."
"Considerate of you, Ed," Jim said.
"Can it, Reed. You're barely out of training pants yourself."
"They took off my training wheels a year and a half ago," Jim countered mildly. "When do they take yours off?"
"Malloy, I swear you must have found your partner in a Cracker Jack box. He's a regular riot in blue dacron."
"It was a good year for Cracker Jacks, what can I say," Pete said. He laughed at Jim's speechless astonishment, then turned to Paul. "So, Robertson, I hear you worked Communication before you transferred to patrol."
"Yep. Wanted to see how it looked from the other side of the microphone."
"And how's the view so far?"
"Just fine, sir. Just fine."
"Hey, drop the 'sir'," Pete said.
Jim finally found his voice. "What made you wanna be a cop?"
Paul shrugged. "I don't know. Sort of born to it, I guess. My dad was a US Marshal. My uncle was with the LAPD for twenty-three years. And I have a couple cousins with the department, one in Northwest Division, another in Harbor Division. Couple of my high school buddies became cops. I guess I just fit in with the crowd."
"You work directly with Trevino when you were at Communications?" Pete asked.
"No, not much. He was on another shift, mostly. We didn't really get to know each other until we started at the Academy."
The waitress interrupted them with menus and a recitation of the special. Pete handed his menu back. "Beverly, you ought to know by now I have that menu memorized. Give me the open-faced roast beef sandwich and a cup of coffee."
"Same for me," Jim said.
Then it was Robertson's turn. "I'll take the same, with a caesar salad." He looked at the menu, then continued, "And a cheeseburger and fries. And a vanilla shake, biggest you got. And I'll want dessert-you got any peach pie?"
Jim realized his mouth was hanging open. He thought he was a healthy eater, but Robertson put him to shame. After Beverly left with their orders, he cleared his throat and said, "You sure that'll hold you?"
"I think so," Paul said seriously. "But if not, I can grab something from the machine at the station later."
Pete stared at Paul like he'd just discovered a new life form. "You can eat all that in forty-five minutes?"
Paul looked blankly at Pete, then at Jim. "Yeah, why?" He seemed genuinely clueless over their astonishment.
"Oh, no reason," Pete said. He pursed his lips in a soundless whistle, cocking an eyebrow at Jim.
Jim raised his water glass. "And you thought I was the one with the tapeworm."
Jim patted his stomach as he and Pete returned to the patrol car. "You know, my stomach hurts just thinking about all that food Robertson put away."
"I bet his father had to take on three jobs just to keep the family in groceries."
"I don't think I'll invite him fishing any time soon. Unless he brings his own food, I don't think I could afford to feed him."
"I'm not sure the ocean has enough fish to feed him."
Jim started to slide into his seat, but stopped as Wells came out the restaurant door and hailed them. "Where's your partner?" Jim asked as Wells approached.
"Finishing his pie."
"But he finished it before we left," Pete said.
"He ordered another slice."
"Unbelievable," Pete sighed. "Wells, you better be glad T.O.'s don't have to feed their charges."
"Oh, believe me, I know it." He glanced back at the restaurant, then his voice turned serious. "Look, fellas, about Robertson. He's a good kid, but I'm a little worried about him."
"In what way?" Pete asked.
"I know it's only been a couple days, but he's pushing a little, I think. Tryin' too hard, maybe because of all that family history he's hauling around. I think he feels like he needs to be supercop or something, just to keep up with the hall of fame hanging on the living room wall, know what I mean?"
"Well, if anybody can recognize the symptoms of being a supercop, it's you, Ed," Pete said dryly.
"Yeah, yeah, I know. But I'd rather not see Robertson take a shotgun blast for a cure."
"I don't know, Ed," Jim mused. "It worked on you."
"Reed, take your act elsewhere because this audience ain't laughing," Ed snapped. He settled his hat a little lower and stalked off to his own black and white.
Jim watched him go. "Gee, think I hurt his feelings?"
"Ed's? Are you kidding? He's got the hide of an alligator ."
"This is really turning into a nothing shift. Again," Jim groused.
"No argument here," Pete said mildly.
Jim suddenly straightened up in his seat.
"What've you got, partner?"
Instead of pointing out some crime in progress, like Pete expected, Jim turned sideways toward Pete, draping his elbow on the back of the seat. "I bet I know what Bobby's surprise is."
Pete barely kept himself from sighing. "All right, what?" he said with elaborate patience.
"I bet they're having a baby!"
Pete nodded thoughtfully. "Could be. Especially if Bobby's got the same domesticity bug you picked up."
Jim settled back forward, a satisfied smile wreathing his face. "That's gotta be it. Man, I can't wait to talk to him tomorrow."
Jim parked his brown Ford sedan along the edge of Bobby Owens' long curving driveway. He nudged Pete. "Wake up. We're here."
Pete snorted, then straightened in his seat and rubbed his face.
"You with me on this or not?"
"Gimme a minute," Pete yawned. He blinked his eyes several times, then opened his door and staggered out with a groan. "This is God's ultimate practical joke, you know that? Making fish early risers and man a late sleeper. It's no wonder St. Peter gave up the nets so easy."
"Come on, Pete. It's not that bad."
Pete grunted without saying anything. He eyed the large Mediterranean-style home. Jim followed his partner's gaze with appreciation. He'd seen the house maybe a dozen times, and it never failed to impress. White stucco walls gleamed a pearl-grey in the pre-dawn light. The roof tiles barely hinted at their red glow. The dewy air was laden with the scent of jasmine and gardenia.
"What'd you say Bobby did to make all that money?" Pete asked.
"Ever eat at Burger Haven?"
"His father's, then his. His dad started with one restaurant on Sepulveda about fifteen years ago, then decided to franchise it. I think there's about sixty of them at last count, all over L.A. and San Diego, San Francisco, even one up in Portland. Robert Sr. retired about four years ago and Bobby took over and has done really well. He's got a real knack for business."
"You hung out with this guy-so why aren't you a millionaire?"
Jim grinned. "Limo's don't come with lights and sirens."
They walked up the drive, but instead of heading for the front door, Jim steered Pete toward a small gate in a wrought-iron fence at the side of the house. "Bobby said to meet him at the boat. He didn't want us to wake up Sally."
They let themselves through, then descended a series of brick steps that led down the side of the cliff behind the house. Lamps tucked among the mandevilla vines blooming on the pergola overhead washed the steps in a soft light. Occasional openings in the canopy allowed glimpses of either the back of the house or the Pacific ocean, depending on which way they looked. "Beautiful," Pete sighed.
"Yeah, Jean would give her right arm to live here."
"Better start learning how to flip burgers."
They pushed through another gate and found themselves on a white-painted dock. A sleek, white Hatteras Sport Fisherman, a big 53-footer called Sally's Fancy, bobbed gently on its moorings. "Now that," Pete said, "is really beautiful." He rubbed his hands together in anticipation.
"Figured that'd wake you up." Jim hopped over the side and poked his head into the wheelhouse, then into the cabin below. "No sign of Bobby," he said, frowning slightly.
Pete followed Jim onto the deck, and then went straight to the stern to inspect the rods and reels. Another set of five bristled from the tower. He let out a low whistle. "He doesn't spare any expense, does he?"
Jim glanced around distractedly. "No, he doesn't. Hey, look, I'm gonna run up to the house and see if he's up and around. Maybe he overslept."
"It's only 5:45, Jim."
"Yeah, but if you knew Bobby, you'd know he was a stickler for punctuality, especially when fishing's involved. I expected him to be down here and loaded already. There's nothing in the galley at all-no ice, no food in the 'fridge." He lifted the lids to the bait wells. "The bait's not even ready."
"Want me to come with you?"
"Nah, I'll just be a minute." Jim hopped back onto the dock and climbed back up the long series of stairs. He was a little winded by the time he finally reached the top. He crossed the wide concrete patio. Normally he'd take the time to enjoy the endless view of the ocean, but instead he tried to peer into the ground floor windows. No luck. The shades were pulled. He reached the sliding glass patio doors and gave the handle a tug. It slid along its runner without protest.
Jim let himself in, sinking nearly ankle-deep in the plush white carpet of the Owens' dining room. Sure can tell he doesn't have kids, Jim thought with a smile. That carpet wouldn't last a day with drooling, slobbering, spitting-up babies crawling all over it. He paused for a moment, listening for any sounds of movement in the house.
"Bobby?" Jim called out in a hoarse stage whisper, cringing at the intrusion of his voice. He knew their bedroom was on the second floor, but he was hesitant to barge in on them. He dithered for a moment, then cleared his throat and said just slightly louder, "Bobby? You awake?"
Still no answer. The distant, gentle roar of the surf far below only emphasized the stillness within the house. Jim glanced uncertainly out the door behind him. Pete was waiting, the Pacific was waiting . . . heck, the best haul of their lives might be waiting, and here Bobby was, apparently dozing away, oblivious. Jim crossed the room and pushed open the door to the kitchen. "Bobby-"
He stopped. The kitchen was trashed. No other word could describe the mayhem. The floor was littered with flour, sugar, the contents of cereal boxes, coffee beans, even broken dishes. "Oh, no," Jim whispered. He backed carefully away from the mess and let the door swing shut. "Bobby!" he shouted. "Sally!"
The silence of the house pressed down on Jim. His mouth went dry. He stumbled on wooden legs into the living room. Bobby's beloved collection of LP's lay scattered in broken fragments across the carpet, the stereo system that played them missing entirely. Jim's mind sluggishly processed what he was seeing, told him to start acting like a cop, but he couldn't. Fear had caught him off guard. The panicked fist clenched around his chest made it hard to breathe. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He swallowed and tried again. "Bobby?" The fear he heard in his voice shamed him.
He had to go upstairs.
He didn't want to go upstairs.
He climbed the spiral staircase.
He found them in the hallway.
He stood for what seemed like hours, staring at their bodies, trying to tell himself that it was a nightmare, had to be just another one of those stupid dreams that haunt the nights of all cops. Dreams where you're walking through a silent house and find your family shot to doll rags and your gun, if you even have it with you, won't fire and the scumbag that did it is laughing at you from the other end of the hallway . . . and then you lunge awake, gasping and sweating and sometimes crying.
But this wasn't a dream. No one was going to suddenly touch his arm and whisper that it's all right, it's only a dream and brush his cheek with a gossamer kiss and stroke his chest until the hammering of his heart surrendered to the gentle touch.
Jim dropped to one knee and reached toward Bobby. His hand was shaking. He touched the side of Bobby's neck, but it was already cold. He looked at Sally's blue eyes staring sightlessly toward the wall. The back of her head . . . .
He didn't touch her.
Jim climbed stiffly to his feet. Something deep inside him hurt, but in a distant, dull way that couldn't break through the veil of numbness. He turned away and stumbled back down the stairs. The part of him that was a trained cop belatedly kicked in, and he made sure he didn't touch anything as he belatedly checked the house for the intruder. He didn't find anyone. The vandalism had been limited to the kitchen, living room, and the violence in the upstairs hallway. He walked out into the vague light of dawn. He needed to . . . . He stopped, not sure what he needed to do. He couldn't think. He shut his eyes, but all he could see were the bodies of two of his closest friends.
Pete. Pete was waiting. Jim managed to find his way down the steps. All those steps. He went slowly, making sure his feet didn't miss a step. He didn't want to hold the railing. Don't touch anything . . . don't touch . . .
Pete's voice snapped through the fog. Jim looked up, saw the comforting familiarity of his partner's face. "God, Pete . . ." he started, then his throat locked up. "They're dead," he finally said, disbelief making his voice higher than normal. "They're dead."
Pete grabbed Jim by the arm. He couldn't remember seeing his partner this distressed in the nearly three years they'd worked together. "Sit down," he ordered, pulling Jim to a seat on one of the wooden steps. Jim's face was whiter than a sheet, his blue eyes wide, no doubt still seeing whatever atrocity he'd just witnessed. "What happened?"
Jim seemed unable to bring his gaze around to focus on Pete. He slowly shook his head. "They're dead. Shot. Both of them . . . ."
Pete shook him gently, trying to bring Jim out of his shocked stupor. "Jim, you're a police officer. Start thinking like one."
Jim blinked, and then rubbed his face with both hands. "Okay, okay," he said, but his voice was shaking. He ran his hand across his hair. It hurt Pete to watch him try to pull himself together, but unless he did, he would never get through this. "It . . . it looked like a burglary. Maybe they interrupted him. I don't know . . . "
"You're sure they're dead?"
Jim's eyes were bleak. "The back of Sally's head was gone."
Pete felt like someone had plunged an ice-cold knife into his stomach. He looked up the long flight of steps toward the house. It sat peacefully, keeping its watch over the ocean with no hint of the horrors inside. "When do you think it happened?"
"I don't know," Jim said. "Few hours ago, maybe. I felt for a pulse-he was already cold." Jim shut his eyes and dropped his head to his drawn-up knees.
"Jim, I'm sorry," Pete said, feeling the inadequacy of the words. Sorry never cut it. You'd think by now we'd have come up with a better word, he thought bitterly. "Did you call the police?"
Jim shook his head without looking up.
"You better go up there with me, help me find a phone and secure the scene. Can you handle it?"
Jim finally raised his head. He swiped at his hair again. "Yeah. I'm okay. It just . . . I'm okay."
Pete knew Jim was far from okay, but a shadow of Jim's usual composure had returned. Pete had to stifle his natural instinct to lay a supporting hand on Jim's shoulder. He knew his partner well enough by now to know that Jim usually bristled at any open show of comfort, even when it was just the two of them. "Let's go, partner," he said briskly, falling into the familiar role of senior officer.
Jim glanced down at his feet for just an instant before squaring his shoulders and standing. He let the mask of professionalism drop across his face before turning and heading up the stairs. Knowing what it was costing Jim, Pete watched his partner's straight back and steady step with stinging eyes. He was glad that Jim was in front of him and couldn't see.
They climbed in silence and crossed the patio to an open sliding door. Jim stopped and wordlessly pointed. It was obvious he had no intention of going back into the house. Pete couldn't help touching Jim's arm as he passed him. Jim stiffened, but the brief contact told Pete what he needed to know-his partner was on the taut edge of control, fighting back the shakes. Pete hurried into the house.
He found the kitchen and located the phone in the midst of the chaos. After calling for the county sheriff, he replaced the handset and made sure he didn't touch anything else. He returned to the doorway. Jim stood staring at the ocean, his arms crossed tightly against his chest, as if he were shielding himself from a terrible pain. Pete figured that was exactly the case. "Jim, where are they?" he asked softly.
Despair made a flickering return to the blue eyes, but Jim's voice was steady. "Upstairs hallway. There's a circular staircase just off the dining room."
Pete nodded, then made the journey through the silent house. He had to shut his eyes and swallow hard when he saw the victims. God, no wonder Jim's in shock. At least I knew to expect something awful, walked in as a cop with my guard up and ready . . . . Pete turned his back on the scene, shaken to the core and glad that this time another agency would be handling the ensuing investigation. He retraced his steps, hurrying to get out of the oppressive silence of the dim house and into the noise and light of the day. The ever-present Pacific breeze helped brush away the horror. He took a cleansing breath of the fresh salt air. The smell was always the worse part of any murder scene.
Jim was still standing motionless, staring out to sea with clouded eyes. He didn't look at Pete, and Pete didn't say anything. Some things were too big, too horrendous for the limitations of language. Pete watched a gull dive and swoop on the offshore breeze. He couldn't even find words to pray. He finally gave up trying. He simply took comfort knowing that God would hear the prayer of Jim's tears.
They endured the questioning of the Sheriff's detectives, Jim telling them what he knew in a quiet, professional monotone. Pete kept a watchful eye on Jim the entire time, but if Jim was going to fall apart, it apparently wouldn't happen under the gaze of the homicide dicks or the uniformed officers swarming all over the property. Pete gave his own answers in clipped responses. No, he'd never been to the Owens' home before. No, he didn't know either of them. No, he couldn't imagine any reason someone would kill them. No, his partner never had any quarrels with the family. No, no, no . . . no answers could ever make any sense of this.
The detectives-Ericsson again, plus three others-finally finished with them and abandoned them by Jim's car. Jim tossed his keys in his hand. "I guess I know firsthand how victims' families feel now," he said, squinting back at the house.
"Better go home," Jim started, then stopped as his voice cracked. "I'll have to tell Jean."
Pete didn't think he could feel any lower, but the thought of how hard Jean would take this brought a fresh wave of sorrow. "I can drive, if you want."
Jim shook his head and got behind the wheel. He put the key in the ignition, but let his hands drop to his lap without starting it. "You know," he said slowly. "I keep thinkin' about Stenzler. We were going to go fishing together then, too."
Pete remembered the day Jim's Academy buddy had gotten shot and killed. Jim and Stenzler had made plans that very morning to spend the weekend fishing. Immediately after clearing the scene of Stenzler's shooting, Jim repeated all over again that just two days from then he and Stenzler were going up to Bishop to fish, almost as if he'd completely forgotten that he'd spent the entire morning telling Pete about their plans. For a while, Pete hadn't been sure Jim would be able to function, but Jim had pushed the shock aside. Pete studied Jim now, and knew Jim would be able to get past this, too. "I remember, Jim," he said softly. "I remember."
Jim couldn't remember much about the drive back. He shut his mind off except to concentrate on driving, on keeping the big Ford at exactly the speed limit, in exactly the center of the lane. Making the corners precisely. Keep a perfect two and half car lengths behind the guy in front. Don't think . . . don't think . . . don't think.
Pete didn't say a word until Jim approached the intersection to turn toward Pete's apartment complex. Then he simply said, "I'll go with you, if you want."
Jim faltered, the car swerving just a hair off center line. He took a deep breath and clamped the lid back down over his emotions. "Okay," he said, then silence fell once more along the final blocks to Jim's house.
Jim pulled in his driveway. Shut off the engine. Looked at the roses Jean had planted.
And tried unsuccessfully to fight back an up swelling of grief. He blinked and swallowed and finally just shook his head. "Sorry," he choked.
"It's okay, Jim," Pete said, his own voice cracking.
"I don't know how I'm gonna tell her."
"You'll find the words, partner. Just take it a moment at a time. I'll wait out here."
Jim took a deep breath and let it out in a controlled rush. "I'd rather you came in. I, uh, figure Jean might need you." He paused, then looked at Pete. "And I guess me, too."
"Any time, partner," Pete said. "Any time."
Pete never felt more like a third wheel than he did while following Jim up the sidewalk and into the Reed's house. He hung back, letting Jean see Jim first, then hesitating in the doorway as Jim awkwardly but tenderly pulled Jean into the living room and whispered the bad news in her ear as he held her close. She started to cry, burying her face against his chest. He guided her to the sofa, and then sat holding her tightly, rocking slightly. When he finally glanced up at Pete, his eyes were shiny with unshed tears of his own. Pete had the sense to know when to make himself scarce, so he slipped into the kitchen and did what anyone does in the aftermath of tragedy: he made coffee.
After he poured water into the percolator and turned it on, he leaned against the counter to do some thinking. He wondered how the sheriff's department would approach the investigation. On the surface, it looked like a straightforward, if gruesome, burglary/homicide. Pete envisioned Bobby Owens hearing a noise, getting up to investigate, and encountering the suspect in the hall. The sound of a gunshot would have brought Sally running to meet the same fate. A viciously sad scenario, one he'd seen often enough at crime scenes. But as Pete watched the first spurt of water burble up into the coffee pot's glass dome, he couldn't shake the feeling that if they investigated it solely on the surface evidence, they'd miss something of vital importance.
But he couldn't put his finger on why he felt that way. A gut feeling, maybe. Or more likely something he saw at the scene, some wrong little detail he didn't notice but which still registered on his subconscious. He closed his eyes and tried to relax, to call up whatever it was-
"Peeete!" a voice shouted from knee height. Pete gladly abandoned his gloomy thoughts and scooped up little Jimmy. Playing with his godson would be just the thing to untie the knot of grief in his chest.
"Hey, peanut! How's my boy?"
"Want a dwink!" he said, pointing at the water faucet.
"No," he suddenly said, vigorously shaking his head. "Want juice."
"Okay, juice it is."
"No, waber. Waber!" he insisted, pointing again at the sink.
"You want water?"
"Want juice!" Jimmy whined, and started to cry.
Pete felt like he'd suddenly walked into a pint-sized Abbott and Costello routine. "Okay, okay. Let's forget water and juice. How about milk?"
"Yay!" he beamed and pointed to the refrigerator. Pete set him down and he immediately started bouncing up and down on his toes, holding his arms up and whimpering. "Carry!"
"Look, buddy, I can't hold you and fix your milk at the same time."
"Waber!!!" Jimmy wailed.
"Pete, you don't have to do all this," Jean said as she hurried in. Her eyes were puffy and her cheeks splotched with red. She sniffed and snatched Jimmy up. "Hush, Jimmy. I'll get you your juice in just a minute."
Pete smiled sheepishly. "I couldn't tell if he wanted water or juice or milk."
"I don't think he knows half the time," Jim said from the doorway. His eyes looked pretty red, too.
"Jean, I just want you to know how sorry I am," Pete said softly.
She nodded, blinking rapidly as she concentrated on getting Jimmy some juice.
"If there's anything I can do, say the word."
She nodded, shut her eyes tightly for a moment, then resolutely finished her task. Jim watched her with worried eyes. He caught Pete's gaze and tilted his head slightly toward the living room.
"Excuse me, Jean," Pete said. He squeezed her arm as he passed her to follow Jim.
Jim fell onto the couch, where he leaned his head against the back and rubbed his face with both hands. "God, I can't believe this day."
Pete didn't say anything.
Jim straightened up. "I don't think it was a simple burglary," he said without preamble.
Pete had his own doubts, but he wanted to hear Jim's thoughts before he expressed them. "How so?"
Jim got up and began to restlessly pace around the living room. "I don't know why. I just have this feeling in my gut that says something's hinky about the whole thing. I mean, that's a really low crime area, right? Sure, there are sometimes break-ins, but there's been nothing that I know of in that area. And what got taken? I heard one of the detectives say a stereo system and a television set. That's all. Pete, Sally had a four thousand dollar wedding ring. Still on her finger. And Bobby wore a garnet signet ring that was worth at least a thousand."
That's it. The detail that was out of place. But he played devil's advocate. "Maybe when he shot them, the suspect panicked and ran."
"While carrying a television and stereo? Come on, Pete. You know this thing smells."
Pete nodded. "I do. I have the same gut feeling you do."
"Pete-" Jim paused, suddenly hesitant.
"What is it, partner?"
"I think it has something to do with that yacht."
"The one that burned?"
"Yeah. And the helicopter that I saw, and the pilot who saw the boat we were in."
Pete digested Jim's words for a moment, then shook his head doubtfully. "I don't know, Jim. I have my own doubts about the burglary angle, but that might be stretching it a little."
"Pete, think about it. Who else but the arsonist would have buzzed by a burning yacht in an unmarked helicopter and then flown off without helping? I know the Coast Guard doesn't put any stock in it, but I know what I saw. I know what I felt. I'll bet you my last paycheck that the guy flying that bird was there for a reason-to see that the fire sunk the boat without a trace, and without witnesses. But then he saw Bobby's boat and figured Jean and I were the owners, then tracked down Bobby and Sally and killed them. Or had them killed."
Pete knew his face was reflecting the skepticism he felt. Jim's wild theory sounded like a bad made-for-TV movie. "Jim, I . . . it's too soon for all this speculation. We need to wait for the facts to come in."
"When they do, you'll find out I'm right."
"I hope for your sake you're wrong."
Jim went still. "Because they'll discover their mistake and come after Jean and me."
"If you're right about the connection. But don't lose any sleep over it at this point."
Jim rubbed his eyes tiredly. "I know I must sound pretty paranoid. Seeing conspiracies behind every bush. I'm probably not thinking too straight right now."
"Maybe not. But if I were you, I think I'd be calling Ericsson."
"Yeah, " Jim said. He suddenly looked exhausted. "But it'll have to wait. I'm about at the end of my rope. Let me drive you home-"
"If it's all the same to you, I'd like to camp out here for a while. I can play with Jimmy and let you and Jean get some rest or whatever you need to do."
"Pete, you don't have to-"
"I want to, Jim." Then Pete smiled self-mockingly to lessen the melodrama. "I, uh, need to, partner."
Jimmy chose that moment to toddle into the room. He ran full tilt at Pete's legs. "Peete! Peete!"
Pete grabbed him and tossed him high in the air, making him squeal with delight. Pete caught him and gave him a hug, for a brief moment shutting out everything that had happened that morning. When Jimmy started to squirm, Pete opened his eyes and glanced over the top of the toddler's head at Jim. "I need to," he whispered brokenly.
Two days later, Pete and Jim cleared for P.M. Watch.
"How's Jean doing?" Pete asked as they pulled out onto the street. He didn't need to ask Jim how he was -- the dark circles under his still-troubled eyes said it all.
"She's doing okay. She's probably doing better than I am, actually."
Pete glanced over briefly but didn't say anything.
"I keep dreaming it, over and over. It's like a film that doesn't ever end, just keeps starting over at the beginning."
"That'll pass, partner."
"Yeah, I guess. It's just . . . this was worse than job stuff, you know? I knew them -- they were good friends. It's just . . . hard."
"I know, partner." Pete wished he had a magic wand to wave to make it all go away. His own dreams had been troubled, so he had a pretty fair idea of the hell Jim was going through over this. Bobby had been a close friend. Not knowing the victim gave Pete a measure of emotional distance, but still, the shattered bodies and the blood . . . those images would haunt him for a long, long time. He shifted in his seat. "Did you call Ericsson?"
Jim snorted. "Yeah, for all the good it did. He thought I was nuts."
"Didn't buy the connection theory, I take it."
"He told me I should quit watching so many second-rate detective shows."
"Well, if there is a connection, and Ericsson's worth anything at all as a detective, he'll uncover it."
"Yeah, but when? And while he's fumbling around, what if the suspects, whoever they are, get wind that it wasn't really Bobby and Sally in that boat?"
Pete didn't have an answer to that. "I guess we'll just have to be careful."
"'We'? What do you mean, 'we'?"
"Oh, nothing, really," Pete said, trying to make it sound convincing. From the look Jim was giving him, he knew he'd failed. "Okay, so I've been thinking about it a lot over the weekend and I think you might be onto something. But I just don't know how to proceed. We're not in the loop on the investigation, and not likely to become involved any time soon, if Ericsson's got the attitude you say he does."
"So what do 'we' do, besides buy a Rottweiler and change all the locks?"
Pete smiled. "That might not be a bad idea, partner."
"Oh, I can see Jean going for that."
"All right, that might be a little extreme. But there's nothing to keep us from keeping our eyes open."
"Open for what, is the problem."
"You got me, partner."
. . . Open for what, Jim thought as they cruised down Pico Boulevard.
They had a whole stack of traffic warrants to serve, as soon as rush hour settled into the quiet early evening where they might have a chance at catching people at home, but the collection of greenies tucked in his notebook was the farthest thing from Jim's mind. The Owens' murder was eating a hole in his gut. It wasn't that he didn't trust Ericsson to do his job, but he felt like Ericsson was wasting time looking in the wrong direction. But since Ericsson didn't seem inclined to change his course based only on some off-duty patrol cop's gut feelings, Jim wasn't sure what, if anything, he or Pete could do about it. Keep their eyes open. Sure. But look where? It wasn't like a witness to the whole thing was going to suddenly appear on Adam-12's beat with a sign saying, "Bad guys went that-a-way." And without the backing of the agency with jurisdiction, Jim didn't feel like he could barge in there and start asking his own questions and conducting his own investigation. He'd had enough squabbles with Central Division's own detectives when he tried to do things they felt infringed on their territory, and they were members of the same team. No, starting a turf war with the L.A. County Sheriff wouldn't help anyone.
"Did Bobby have any relatives in the area?" Pete asked.
Pete gave him an annoyed look. "Are you with me?"
"Yeah, Pete. I'm with you. I was just thinking."
"Well, answer my question. Did Bobby have any relatives around here?"
"Yeah, he's got a sister in Bel Air. They weren't exactly close, though. His father died last year. Mother's been gone for about ten years."
"I was just thinking it might be worth your time to call on her. You never know."
"I'll see her at the funeral, probably. Although I doubt with so many people there I'll get any chance to talk to her. She doesn't know me at all."
"When's the funeral?"
"Tomorrow morning at eleven o'clock."
"That's quick. They must have expedited the autopsies. LA County Coroner's usually backlogged."
Jim nodded. "Yeah. Guess somebody had some pull."
"Did you hear anything about it?"
"Not yet. I'm going to call Ericsson when we take seven, see if he knows anything."
They drove in silence for a few minutes, the soft chatter of radio traffic the only noise in the car. Instead of the impending routine traffic warrants, Jim longed for a nice long complicated call, one that would keep him from dwelling on the upcoming funeral. Of course, sometimes simple traffic warrants turned into full-blown three-ring circuses, but usually they just involved an officer having to listen to a lot tedious arguing and bitter diatribe. He needed a goofy drunk, or a good narco bust. Anything. But dispatch refused to oblige, and all the drivers around them were behaving themselves. "Quiet evening," Jim finally said.
"Gives me too much time to think."
"You want me to run over someone?" Pete offered.
Jim laughed. "Nah, guess not. I'm just wondering what I can do that won't step on Ericsson's toes."
"What was the name of that yacht?"
"I don't think I saw," Jim said thoughtfully. "And it wasn't in any of the local papers."
"Well, there's something you can do -- find out the name of the yacht and see if there's any connection with Bobby."
"I'm sure Ericsson already covered that base."
"He won't be connecting the two cases, though. He might miss something that you won't."
Jim pursed his lips, then nodded. "Thanks, Pete." He felt himself relax a notch.
"Does that mean I don't have to run over anyone?"
"You do what you want," Jim said. "You're the driver."
"1-Adam-12, return to the station, see the watch commander. Code 2."
Jim glanced at Pete. "Wonder what that's about?"
"Only one way to find out."
"1-Adam-12, do you copy?"
Jim snatched up the mic. "Impatient today," he muttered just before clicking the transmit button. "1-Adam-12, roger."
They were only a few blocks away, fortunately, and less then five minutes later, Jim pushed Mac's office door open. "You needed to see us?"
"Not 'us', Jim. You," Mac said.
Pete backed out the door. "I'll grab a cup of coffee," he said, then disappeared.
"Detective Ericsson called and wants you to call him back. It's about the autopsy. I didn't think you'd want to call him from a pay phone, so use this one. Phone number's right there on that pad. I'll be down the hall."
Jim nodded, touched by Mac's consideration. "Thanks, Mac." He waited for the stocky sergeant to leave, then took a deep breath and dialed. He got transferred a couple of times before Ericsson's gruff voice barked, "What?"
"Jim Reed. You left a message for me to call."
"Reed . . . oh yeah, the L.A. cop who plagues my nights with conspiracy theories about mysterious helicopters."
"My watch commander said you called about the autopsy reports on the Owens," Jim cut in, a bit of ice in his voice. He was in no mood to play patsy to the detective's odd sense of humor.
"Yeah, I did, didn't I. Sorry. Look, I'm doing you a favor, law officer to law officer. Technically, I shouldn't tell anybody the results until the D.A. sees them, but I figure since you found the bodies, and you were friends and all, and you sure ain't a suspect, you deserved to know."
"Thanks," Jim said, a little surprised by Ericsson's sudden change of attitude.
"You want the info over the phone, or do you want to come down here and look at the report yourself? The reason I ask, is that it might be a little upsetting, even for a cop like yourself."
Jim glanced around the relative privacy of Mac's office. "Tell me the gist of it now."
"Okay then," he said. "The coroner ruled cause of death on first victim, Robert Edward Owens, was a single gunshot wound to the chest, piercing the aorta. He died instantly. Cause of death on second victim, Sally Ann Owens nee' Pierce, was a single gunshot wound to the head, entering the frontal lobe of the brain and exiting through the brain stem and out the back of the skull. Cause of death on the third victim-"
"Wait a minute," Jim said. "Third victim? What third victim?"
"Sally Owens was pregnant."
Jim sat down heavily in Mac's chair. He covered his eyes with one hand, the other still tightly gripped around the receiver.
"Hey, Reed, you there?"
"Yeah," Jim finally found his voice. "Go on."
"This was why I didn't think you'd want to hear this over the phone," Ericsson said, slightly accusingly.
"I'm fine. Just read it."
"Well, basically it just says that the baby died as a result of the mother's death, only in a lot of medical mumbo jumbo. Look, buddy, I'm sorry. I guess you didn't know."
"No." Jim didn't trust his voice to say anything else.
"Well, that's pretty much all I had. Nothing new's turned up yet, but we're digging."
"Okay, thanks for calling."
"You don't have to thank me for that, Reed," Ericsson said quietly, then hung up.
Jim slowly replaced the phone, then sat staring at the blotter of Mac's desk.
"Got a surprise for you, Jim."
"Nope, buddy. Can't tell you over the phone. See you Saturday."
Those had been the last words Bobby ever said to him. And how ironic that when Jim finally did hear Bobby's surprise, it'd been over the phone. Jim slammed his fist against the desk. He wanted to destroy something, smash away at something -- anything -- until the anger at the injustice of it all went away. But instead, he sighed and got up. He closed his eyes briefly, gathered himself together, and headed out into the hallway. Mac was leaning against the holding tank window, talking to the inmate inside. Jim passed him on the way to find Pete. "I'm finished, Mac. Thanks."
Mac straightened up. "Everything all right?"
Jim shrugged. "More or less."
"Anything I can do?"
"No, not really. I, uh, need to find Pete, get back on the streets." He turned away from Mac, feeling bad for not explaining more to him, but he just couldn't bring himself to talk about it. Not yet.
He poked his head in the break room doorway. "Pete."
Pete detached himself from a conversation with Ed Wells and tossed his empty paper cup into the trash. "Everything all right?"
Jim didn't answer. He just turned around and headed for the unit. He climbed in and before Pete even had his door open, cleared them to resume patrol.
"You wanna talk about it?" Pete asked, hesitating before he started the engine.
Jim picked at invisible lint on his knee. "I was right. About Bobby's surprise."
"Sally Owens was pregnant."
"Jim, I'm sorry."
"Yeah, so am I," Jim said bitterly. "So am I."
It rained on Tuesday morning.
Jim huddled with his wife in the inadequate shelter of a large black umbrella. A blustery wind tossed mist-like rain under the umbrella and into their faces as they walked from their car to the grave site. The wet grass muddied his dress shoes and soaked the hem of his trousers, and flung muddy splatters on the back of Jean's hose. Funny how you notice those little things, Jim thought as he steadied Jean after her heel sunk into the wet mud. Anything to keep from thinking about what was really happening. Jean glanced up at him, checking on him, worrying as always. He met her gaze with what he hoped was reassuring calm and squeezed her shoulder. No sense letting her see how he really felt.
And angry. So full of rage he woke himself up nights shaking with it.
There was a tent set up beside the three graves, but it was only big enough to accommodate the immediate family members. Jim steered Jean to a spot on the outer edge of the crowd of mourners. He didn't know any of them, at least not by name, except for Bobby's sister Judith. Some of the other family members he recognized from framed photographs he had seen on the walls and bookshelves of Bobby's house. His throat tightened in a spasm of grief. Those walls would be bare soon, if not already. He had overheard a whispered conversation in the pew behind him that the house would be sold, and the proceeds and personal belongings parceled out to the family members and friends listed in their will. Jim would have liked to have had a portrait of Bobby and Sally to remember them by, instead of the casual snapshots that were the only mementos they had, but he didn't suppose he ranked high enough in the hierarchy of relatives and friends to merit anything like that. Bobby's legacy to Jim was the memory of five years of laughter and fun.
The wind swirled another icy splatter of rain into his face. He tilted the umbrella slightly and thought of how their friendship had flagged in recent years. He should have tried harder to keep in touch, but life had just gotten so busy. They would try to make plans, but either Jim would have to cancel or Bobby would, and they'd laugh and say they understood, but Jim always had a feeling of guilt about it, afraid that he wasn't trying hard enough to keep the friendship alive, to maintain the closeness they'd felt in college.
And now it was too late. Jim took a careful breath and tried to control the tremble in his chin. That's all funerals are good for, he thought bitterly. Throwing all your regrets in your face like the wind-driven rain. He blinked moisture out of his eyes. He wasn't sure any more if it was rain or tears.
" . . . we consecrate this ground to receive the mortal remains of Robert Edward, Sally Ann and Baby Girl Owens, united in life, parted only temporarily by death as they await the great resurrection . . . "
Jim's gaze strayed from the pompous tones of the minister to the Santa Monica Mountains, barely visible in the foggy, damp weather. I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help . . . my help cometh from the Lord . . . The mists closed over the mountains and Jim felt a momentary panic. God, don't hide yourself from me. I need your strength to get through this. He stared hard at the impenetrable clouds, but the mountains remained hidden.
The quiet whirring of the casket elevators descending into the earth cut through him like a knife. They usually wait until everyone's gone to do that. Why aren't they waiting? He snapped his head toward the sound in time to see the baby's tiny casket disappear beneath the shrouded edge of the grave. Sally's casket, then Bobby's, followed. Good-bye, my friends. The unfairness of it all suddenly overwhelmed him. His eyes flooded with tears he could no longer hold back. He tightened his grip on Jean's hand as he desperately tried to regain control over his emotions, then he abruptly shoved the umbrella into her hand. He shook his head slightly at her quizzical look, then turned away to walk blindly back to the car.
He leaned his arms against the roof, and there in the relative privacy of the line of empty parked cars, he gave into the sorrow eating him up inside. The sobs tore from his chest in waves. He didn't fight them this time, didn't worry about anyone seeing him and thinking him less of a man for crying like a small child. He just wanted the hurt to go away.
The tears finally subsided, but angry grief still burned a raw path through his soul. He looked up toward the mountains again, still locked away from his sight. He glanced back toward the tent and the knot of mourners-they seemed small, seen like this from a distance. And Jean especially looked lost and alone under her oversized umbrella. He suddenly felt like a heel for abandoning her to deal with her grief all alone. He shoved away from the car and headed back across the wet ground. Half way to her side, he spotted a man standing beneath a spreading sycamore tree, detached from the crowd not only by distance but by his demeanor. He was watching the grave-side service, but Jim had an inexplicable impression that he wasn't paying his respects so much as he was looking at the mourners, that he was searching for someone in particular.
Jim's steps slowed as he approached a particularly tall grave marker. He stood partially hidden behind the granite obelisk. Something about the man looked familiar . . . then his head turned.
The man in the helicopter.
Jim's mouth went dry. Jim was standing less than thirty feet away. All the man had to do to see Jim was turn his head a little bit more. But his attention seemed fixed on someone else. Jim followed the direction of his gaze.
Jim felt like someone had poured ice into this veins. He didn't know what to do. His first instinct was to run to Jean and pull her back to their car and take off, but that might only serve to attract attention to them both, and if the man hadn't recognized them yet . . . .
God, how could I have been so stupid! Letting my grief blind me when I should have been keeping an eye on the people. Any fool knows that sometimes killers attend their victims' funerals.
Jim watched the man for a few more minutes, memorizing his face and his build, methodically cataloging his description from head to foot. Then Jim moved out from the shelter of the gravestone. He bent his head, gazing at his feet as if too overcome with grief to look up. He ducked under the umbrella and grasped Jean's elbow. "Don't turn around," he whispered.
"Jim, what are you doing?" she asked, starting to turn around to look at him.
"Jean, don't turn around. The man from the helicopter. He's here, and he's watching us."
Jean went white. She fell silent, pressing slightly back against Jim. He put his arm around her shoulders. "It'll be okay," he whispered. She didn't look convinced, and he couldn't blame her.
"Jim, what are we going to do?"
"I don't know yet. Let me think." His mind raced, picking up ideas and discarding them just as quickly. I can arrest him. Arrest him for what? Attending a funeral? That was hardly probable cause. I could shoot him. He cringed at the thought of gunplay in the middle of a crowded cemetery. And again, no P.C. Nothing illegal or even threatening in standing and staring. We could stay here until everyone leaves and if he's still lurking around, hope the presence of the mortuary people keeps him from trying anything. He cringed even more at that. No way would he hide behind a mortician for protection.
No, better to try to slip away with the crowd. Then he could drive to the nearest sheriff's office and report what happened.
Except he didn't know where the nearest sheriff's office was. They'd had a hard enough time finding the funeral home out here in the godforsaken boonies of west of Topanga State Park. He wasn't entirely sure he was still in Los Angeles County.
He had Ericsson's card in his wallet. He could drive to a busy restaurant and call him. Jim took a deep breath. That would work. Then he noticed that the minister was bringing the service to a close. He grasped Jean's elbow a little more firmly. "As soon as the crowd breaks up, walk with me back to our car and keep your head down, like you're too upset to look up. Don't let him see your face."
"Okay," she whispered, her voice small and frightened.
The edges of the crowd unraveled as people separated themselves from the assembly and moved toward their cars. Jim and Jean let a few people pass them, then Jim steered Jean toward their car. He risked a very brief glance toward the sycamore. The man was still there, still watching them. Jim resisted the urge to run. They walked calmly to their car. He unlocked Jean's door and opened it for her, taking the umbrella from her as she slipped inside. "If I say the word, duck down immediately to the floorboards, cover your head and don't move."
She looked at him askance but nodded. She'd been with him in a tight spot before, and he knew he could count on her to remain steady. He gave her a grim smile. "Don't worry about it. At least this time you're not nine months pregnant. And it's not a gang of bikers, just one guy under a tree."
"Thank goodness for small favors," she muttered, and he almost laughed.
Jim folded the umbrella and tossed it in the back seat, then went around to his side of the car. As he unlocked his door, he chanced another look toward the tree. The man had moved from his post under the sycamore and was heading for a light grey Thunderbird parked several cars behind theirs. Jim slid behind the wheel and immediately adjusted his rear-view mirror so he could keep an eye on him. He couldn't see the car's plates. As far as he could tell, the man hadn't started his engine. He was just sitting there. Waiting.
"Here goes nothing," Jim said, trying to keep his voice light. He cranked the ignition and the Ford engine growled to life. He turned on his lights and eased out into the slow-moving line of traffic. Moments later, the Thunderbird's lights came on.
Jim figured they wouldn't have anything to worry about until they hit Topanga Canyon Road. Even then, the man may not actually try anything. He might just tail them to their home, find out who they were and where they lived so he could send another set of fiends for some midnight murdering. Jim clenched his teeth, his fear shifting to anger. He hadn't asked for any of this. All he'd tried to do was help someone in distress, and because of that, two of his friends -- no, three -- were dead and it looked very likely that he and his wife were next on the hit parade. He didn't know what kind of trouble the guy on that yacht had been into, but he was going to find out, and when he did, he was going to take the information to Ericsson and get him to acknowledge the connection, even if he had to hold a gun to his head to get him to pay attention.
He glared at the rear-view mirror. And he was going to bust the guy in the silver Thunderbird.
Jim pulled out onto Topanga Canyon Road. For the first few blocks, their car was in the middle of five or six other cars from the cemetery. And six car lengths back, the silver Thunderbird was keeping pace. Jim tried to make sure he didn't spend all his time staring into the rear-view mirror. The last thing they needed was for him to rear end someone.
"Is he still there?" Jean asked.
She was quiet for a moment. "Jim?"
"You are going to let the police handle this, aren't you?"
Jim glanced at her, amused despite the tension. "Honey, technically I am the police, but yes, I'm going to stop at the first busy restaurant I find, where we'll call Detective Ericsson and sit tight until he comes to our rescue."
"Why don't we just drive to the police station?"
Jim couldn't help squirming a little. "I, uh, don't know where one is."
"Oh. Well, why don't we just head back to the city and go to the station there?"
"I don't want to risk it."
"Because he might try something."
Jim nodded. "Yeah."
The cars thinned around them, as did the signs of civilization. Jim chewed on his bottom lip as they drove another two miles with no sign of any restaurants or grocery stores or even houses. "Jean, which way did we turn into that cemetery?"
"I think it was left."
Jim had turned left out of the cemetery, to stay with the biggest knot of cars. It was looking like he'd made a big mistake. He had no idea where this road went. He glanced at his gas gauge. At least they had plenty of gas.
The engine whined as they started up a steep hill. With the heavy cloud cover, it was impossible to tell what direction they were going, but Jim had a sinking feeling they were heading up into the mountains. Maybe Topanga circled back around. Maybe cows have wings . . .
"Jim, are we lost?"
"No," he said firmly.
"Do you know where you're going?"
Jim hesitated. "No," he admitted. He glanced back. The T-bird was still there, still hanging six car lengths back.
"Terrific," she muttered.
"Look, I may not know where this road goes, but I know how we got here, so we're not lost."
Jean continued to look doubtful.
Just because I'm a cop, people think I should know every road on the planet. Jim stifled his irritation and concentrated on the curves. Every so often, they'd pass a dirt side road. As Jim rounded another curve, he glanced in the mirror again. The T-bird had dropped from sight, and it gave him an idea. He pressed down on the accelerator.
"Jim, what are you doing!" Jean immediately protested, grabbing the dashboard as they slung around a corner about ten miles an hour faster than was safe.
"Honey, I'm a trained professional. Don't worry."
He need three sets of eyes -- one to watch the road, one to watch for side streets, and one to keep track of the T-bird. He kept his head on a swivel instead, looking for the perfect combination of curve and side road. They slalomed around curves and up hills and finally he saw what he was looking for. He slammed on the brakes and executed a sliding L-turn down a narrow dirt road that was shrouded by bushes on both sides. He immediately let off the brake and shut off his lights. The car rolled forward a few feet before it stopped.
Jean craned her head around to watch the road behind them, while Jim kept his eyes glued on the rear-view mirror. He reached under his jacket and pulled out his snub-nosed off-duty weapon and held it in his lap.
Ten seconds later, the Thunderbird passed the intersection. Jim immediately dove out of his car and jogged to the edge of the bushes. The taillights of the T-bird flashed as the driver tapped the brakes, and for a heart-stopping moment Jim thought the man had seen where they'd ducked off the road. But the T-bird merely slowed as he went around another curve and disappeared from sight. The swishing sound of his tires on the wet road faded completely.
Jim ran back to the car and started it. "He didn't see us," he said, and crashed the gears into reverse. He shot backwards out of the gravel road back onto Topanga, pointing the car in the opposite direction. He stomped on the accelerator and they raced down the mountainside at speeds that had the cop in him wincing. Fortunately, they didn't meet anyone on the way down, and he was able to keep the car from skidding off the road and into the ditch. Still, by the time they passed the cemetery and found themselves back in light traffic, Jim was drenched with sweat. He turned off the main thoroughfare at the first intersection they came to and started working his way through Topanga Beach's business district and residential streets.
"Jim?" Jean asked in a breathless voice.
"The next time I complain that you have to put in overtime at the driving course, remind me of today."
Jim laughed, a nervous release of pent-up anxiety. "Help me find a restaurant."
Bill Ericsson wove his heavy body with surprising agility through the crowded tables of the Big Buddy restaurant. Jim and Jean watched him approach their booth in the back of the dining room, a booth Jim had specifically asked for that was right next to the emergency exit. He was finished taking chances today.
Ericsson grunted a hello as he grabbed a chair and pulled it up to the end of their table. "You wanna tell me what all this cloak and dagger stuff is about? I swear, Reed, I'm too busy for shenanigans like this."
"It's not shenanigans, Detective. I saw the man from the helicopter at the Owens' funeral today. What's more, he saw us."
"Okay, okay, hold on." Ericsson pulled a dog-eared notebook out of his jacket. "Okay, first, gimme a description."
"Male, caucasian, maybe forty, forty-five years old. About my height, six-one or two, one-ninety. Dark eyes. Couldn't tell if they were blue or brown. Brown hair, thinning. Fu Manchu mustache. Receding chin. Wearing a black or charcoal overcoat, light gray trousers, black shoes. Drove a '72 Thunderbird, light gray or silver. One taillight out in the back. Didn't get a plate number."
Ericsson grunted. "Too bad. That would've helped." He finished scribbling, then looked up. "Okay, so what happened that made you think he was after you two?"
Jim told him the whole thing, from the moment he saw the man under the tree until they arrived at the restaurant still shaking and scared. Jim hated to admit that he was still frightened, but just the retelling of it made his hands tremble anew. He folded his arms on the table.
Ericsson finished jotting down his notes, then tapped his pen against the table thoughtfully. A waitress approached to offer him a menu, but he waved her away. "Okay, Reed. You win. There's a connection, obviously. Find this guy that's after you and we'll probably have the Owens' killer. But, finding this guy won't be easy. And my department's already stretched past the breaking point."
Jim brushed his hair back. While he was telling their story, an idea kept shifting in and out of the back of his mind. "What if --" He stopped, looking at Jean uncertainly. She'll never go for this.
"What, honey? Go on," she urged.
Jim switched his attention to Ericsson. "What if we try to set up a sting?"
"You mean use you as bait?"
Jim nodded, warming to the idea. "I'm a trained law officer. It's not like I'd be a vulnerable civilian out there. I'd be able to handle --"
"Oh, no you don't!" Jean said firmly. "No, no, no! Absolutely not!"
"Honey, it might be the only way to get out of this mess. If we don't do something, we'll be looking over our shoulders for who knows how long."
"But at least we'll be alive to look over our shoulders. Jim, he might succeed in killing us next time if you send out a written invitation like that. And think about Jimmy!"
"I am thinking about Jimmy. And you. And neither of you will be anywhere near."
"You're insane. Absolutely insane," she said, then glared at the ceiling. "I married a lunatic."
"Look, before you two start re-enacting a scene from the Honeymooners," Ericsson interrupted, "let me point out something to you, Reed. You have no idea who this guy is, or when he'll try to strike next. Just how in the world do you figure you can set up a sting operation?"
Jim deflated. He hadn't thought that far ahead. "Yeah, I see your point."
Jean looked distinctly relieved. "Besides which, it's a stupid idea."
Jim shot her a dirty look, but he didn't say anything. She simply glared back. Ericsson cleared his throat. "Look, we'll get on the stick looking for that helicopter. And we'll start combing Douglas' background a little deeper. From what we've culled so far, there might be something there."
"What'd you find?" Jim asked.
"Edgar Douglas was a Malibu businessman, importing Italian artwork, and on the surface looks mostly legit. But there's some funny-looking numbers in his books. His personal outgo seemed to outweigh his personal income, if you get my drift. He probably had some kind of sideline going. Wouldn't surprise me a bit to find he was laundering money for someone. Maybe the someone who just chased you up and down the mountains. Maybe he skimmed some off the top for himself, or threatened to rat on somebody. Could be any number of things, but he obviously made someone very, very mad."
"And we got caught in the middle," Jim said. "Thanks to my reckless urge to be a knight on a white charger."
Jean reached over and squeezed his hand. "It was me as much as you, Jim. Remember?"
"Well, what's done is done," Ericsson said flatly. "You can't undo it, so there's no sense in quibbling over who's to blame. What we need to do now if figure out a way to keep the two of you in one piece long enough to track down the murderer."
The hostess led a family of four and seated them in the empty booth behind Jean. Ericsson eyed them sourly. "Look, this is no place to discuss all this. Let's go down to the station."
They slid out of the booth and made their way out of the restaurant, stopping only long enough for Jim to pay for the coffees that neither he nor Jean had touched. As they followed Ericsson out into the rainy afternoon, Jim took Jean's hand. "I'm sorry," he said.
She interlaced her fingers in his. "It's okay."
Jim watched several cars splash through the wet streets. "I hope so. I really hope so."
"Yeah, Mac, I'll be late. Don't know how long. I may have to take a vacation day for this. We, uh, had some complications," Jim said over the phone. He had belatedly realized that he was due at roll call in a little over an hour and a half. Considering they were out past Santa Monica, still had to finish filing a report with Ericsson and conclude business at this end, it wasn't likely he could get there on time, even if he didn't have to drop off Jean and get changed into his uniform. He wasn't so sure he wanted to leave Jean alone anyway. The idea of working a shift without her in his sight put a knot in his stomach. He supposed he could hide Jean and Jimmy in a hotel room somewhere.
"Everything all right?" Mac asked.
"For now. Look, I'll tell you all about it when I get there, okay? Just, uh --" He paused as he looked at Jean. Maybe she can stay at Pete's apartment. "Tell Pete I need to talk to him as soon as I come in."
Mac assured him he would and rang off. Jim replaced the receiver. "Thanks," he said to Ericsson, who had fished out a cigar from a desk drawer and was busy torching it off.
"Want one?" he offered.
They sat in creaking wooden chairs facing Ericsson's battered oak desk. Ericsson spun a form around the platen of an ancient manual typewriter and used two chubby index fingers to peck out information from his notebook at a fairly impressive speed. "So," he said, his words mangled somewhat by the cigar clamped between his teeth, "you gotta be at work this afternoon."
"Yes, sir. PM watch starts at four o'clock. Doubt I'll make it in time." Jim felt distinctly odd, sitting on the other side of a detective's desk, the victim instead of the enforcer.
"You got a partner?"
"How long you been with him?" The sausage-like fingers never paused in their tapping.
"About two years. He broke me in."
"The best," Jim said.
Another flurry or two of pounding keys and Ericsson pulled the paper out of the typewriter. "Read it over, and if it looks right, I need you both to sign it."
Jim took the report, which didn't look much different from the forms they used at the LAPD. He read it all carefully, then scrawled his name at the bottom. Jean took a little less time reading it before she signed her name.
"I know you got to get to work and all, Reed, but it'd be a really good idea for you and your wife to go through the mugshots. I mean, if that cat trailed you all that time, he's got your plate number. Not that they want it spread around, but it don't take any kind of genius to get a plate run through DMV. The sooner we can get his identity pinned down, the safer for the two of you."
"Yeah," Jim said. "I've been thinking about that. Jean, I'm going to ask Pete if you and Jimmy can stay at his place, for tonight at least, maybe longer. I don't want to involve your parents if we can help it. Not this time."
She nodded. "I'd feel safer there, if he doesn't mind."
"I'm sure he won't," Jim said with a reassuring smile.
Ericsson blew out a smoke ring. "Guess that partner of yours is a good as gold. You ready for those mugbooks now?"
Jim nodded. "Yeah."
Forty-five minutes later, they'd looked through all the books without success. Jim rolled his head back and forth and stretched. There were a few possibles, and Jim had pointed them out, but without much confidence. Something about the man made Jim think that if he did have any priors, they would have put him away for life, or landed him on the FBI most wanted list.
Jean excused herself to use the bathroom, and that left Jim alone with Ericsson.
"Little lady seems to be taking all this in stride."
"Yeah, she's pretty steady," Jim said.
"How long you been married?"
"About five years."
"Look, kid. About that sting idea you had. While the little lady's not here, I just want you to know that it's not entirely out of the realm of possibility. What we'll probably do is contact your watch commander and make it an official inter-agency cooperative thing. But we really can't do anything yet, since we don't know who we're trying to sting, you dig?"
Jim nodded. He was starting to warm up to this gruff, unpolished detective. "Thanks."
"I have a feeling we'll all be thanking you by the time this is wrapped up, kid. Either that, or I'll be ready to kill you myself."