" . . . and we just thought it'd be safer to have Jean's mom meet us here, in case we were tailed," Jim said to Mac and Pete in Mac's office after he recounted their afternoon's tale of woe. Jean was with her mother and Jimmy in the break room. Louise had been watching her grandson at her home, but Jim had thought it more prudent to have her meet them at the station, just in case they were still being watched. No sense leading the killer right to the Carver's doorstep.
Pete, who to Jim's chagrin had gotten stuck on desk while Jim was AWOL, regarded Jim with worried eyes. "All of you are welcome to stay with me as long as you need to. If you think that's the safest place for them."
"Right now I don't know where the safest place is. The whole world feels unsafe," Jim sighed. He dropped into the chair in front of Mac's desk and tried to relax. He kept telling himself they were safe, here in the bowels of Central Division, surrounded by law officers, but his nerves were so jumpy he kept expecting killers to leap from the walls themselves.
"Relax, Jim," Mac said. "We'll get this worked out."
"If I just knew who to look out for, I'd feel better. Right now, I feel like I can't trust anybody." At Pete's raised eyebrow, he quickly added, "Well, not counting you two."
"This sting idea," Mac said. "Sounds to me like a good one. We'll talk it over with the lieutenant, see what he thinks. Surely between the L.A. County Sheriff and the LAPD, we ought to be able to pull it off."
"And then all I'd have left to deal with is Jean's wrath," Jim said glumly.
"She's not too keen on the idea?" Mac asked.
Mac gave him a sympathetic look, but refrained from commenting. "Look, take tonight off, get your family settled. For a change, I have an overabundance of manpower."
Pete let out a low whistle. "What happened? Is it a blue moon?"
Mac laughed. "No, just one of those rare but beautiful nights when four reserve officers called to request extra duty because they need to get their hours in for the month. In fact, I can replace both of you high-priced specimens with blue light specials, so Pete, go help your partner get things sorted out. Stay in uniform and on the air, though, in case you're needed. Consider it a special assignment."
"Blue light specials," Jim snorted. "I'm going to tell Al Porter you called him that."
"I mean it with all due respect. I love bargains," Mac winked. "Now get going."
Jim pulled Pete to a stop before they entered the break room. "Pete, I need to run by my house. Get my gun."
"I don't know if that's wise, Jim. Seems to me you better avoid your house for a while," Pete said. "Do you have any uniforms here?"
"Yeah, a couple. I guess I can just use them over and over and hope they don't get torn up. I've got my badge and ID card with me. But my duty weapon's at home in the closet."
"We'll talk to the kit room officer, see what he can come up with."
"I don't know. I hate not having my own piece."
"I'd hate not having my own partner if something happened while you were getting your gun."
Jim chewed his lip, then nodded. "I get your point."
"Good. Now let's get your family."
Jean and Louise sat at a table littered with candy wrappers. Jimmy's face was smeared with chocolate from forehead to chin. He beamed at his dad from his spot on Jean's lap. "Looks like at least one of us is having fun," Jim said, smiling at the grin on his son's face.
"Daddy!" Jimmy yelled, and held his hands out to be picked up. Jim lifted him from Jean's lap while she tried to wipe down his face with a wet towel. He squirmed and buried his face against Jim's dress shirt.
"Ugh," Jim grunted, and tried unsuccessfully to keep Jimmy from smearing more chocolate on his white shirt.
"Relax, honey," Jean said. "It'll wash out. At least you don't have your suit coat on."
"Keeping him clean is harder than keeping Queenie clean," Jim complained, then he stared at Jean, then Pete. "Our dog . . . I've got to go get her settled somewhere."
"We'll call a neighbor, have them check on her and feed her," Jean said.
"She's got the right idea, partner," Pete said.
Jim glanced at his watch. "Look, it's only been about three hours since we lost that guy. If he's gonna track us down through the DMV, unless he's a cop, chances are he hasn't had time yet. I can get over there, take care of Queenie, get my gun and anything else we need, then be out of there."
"Jim, no," Jean pleaded.
"Honey, I'll be fine."
Pete looked doubtful. "Jim, I'm with Jean. It doesn't sound like the best idea."
"Pete, I'll be fine. I'll be over there and back before you can give Jean the grand tour of your apartment." He glanced at his watch again. "As long as I leave right now."
"Let me go with you," Pete offered.
"No, I need you to stay with Jean and Jimmy. Just in case."
"If Pete needs to stay with me, then how do you justify thinking it's safe for you to go off by yourself?" Jean flared.
"Honey, if there's any trouble, I've got my off-duty weapon," he protested, then lowered his voice when Trevino and Brinkman and Robertson and Wells suddenly came into the break room. "But there won't be, so don't worry." He kissed her quickly, then dove out of the room before she could protest further.
It seemed like Jim could still feel the quivering waves of Jean's anger even as he drove out of the station lot. He hated making her mad like that, but she was being overly cautious.
At least, that's what he tried to keep telling himself. If he wanted to admit to the truth, he knew he was probably being unreasonably stubborn. He couldn't help balking at the idea that some maniac out there was making him jump through one hoop after another, unable to even walk into his own front door with any sense of ease. So, okay, he was taking a foolish chance, but his pride needed to thumb its nose at the danger. And there really wasn't that much danger . . . was there?
He glanced in the rear-view mirror. Nothing behind him except a city bus almost a block back.
He took a deep breath and a tighter grip on the wheel and sternly told the heebie-jeebies to go away. They didn't. They followed him all the way down the freeway and into his neighborhood and down his street into his driveway. He looked carefully at the house before shutting off the engine. It looked peaceful enough.
So had Bobby's house.
The teenage boy who lived next door was pushing a lawn mower around the front yard, the sullen scowl he perpetually wore on his face out in full force. Jim climbed out of his car and waved his hand to get Larry's attention. Larry shut off the racket and stared. "What?"
"You see anyone around my house today?"
"Nuh uh," he muttered.
"Anyone at all -- salesman, postman, anybody?"
"No, man. I ain't seen nobody." Larry gave him a look that said he thought Jim was a kook, then started his mower again.
Jim looked up and down the street. No silver T-bird. That didn't mean he couldn't come pulling around the corner any minute. Jim hurried to the back yard. Queenie barked once, her usual happy greeting bark. Not that she had an intruder bark. She was useless as a watchdog. He let himself in through the gate and took a moment to pet her and ruffle the fur around her neck. She immediately collapsed and rolled onto her back for a belly rub, all four legs waving in the air. Her tail thumped a tattoo against Jim's foot. "Crazy old gal," Jim said affectionately. He knelt down and rubbed her absently as he studied the back yard. The racket from Larry's lawn mower was muted by the house, and he could hear some birds in the birch trees along the fence. The garage looked undisturbed.
Queenie shut her eyes in unabashed rapture. He patted her one last time, then stood up and went to the sliding glass patio door. It was locked, as it should have been. He unlocked it and let himself in, stopping for a moment and listening. All he could hear was Queenie's loud panting. He pushed her back with his foot. "Scoot, girl," he said, then shut the door on her. She whined and gave him her best hurt look, but he ignored it. He'd had enough reproachful looks today from the women in his life.
The house was silent, a relaxed, waiting silence broken only by the ticking of the old regulator clock on the dining room wall and the buzzing noise of the electric clock in the kitchen. Safe, normal, recognizable sounds. Jimmy's goldfish Fred swam undisturbed on the counter. Jim sprinkled some food on the water. He had no sense of anyone in the house, no ticklish feeling along the back of his neck.
He made his way to the bedroom and fished his gun out of the closet where he kept it in a locked box. He checked the loads, then tucked it in his waistband. He started to put the box back on the shelf, then decided he'd be better off taking it with him. He grabbed a suitcase out of the closet, put the safebox inside, and then started packing a few outfits for Jean, trying to choose ones he'd seen her wear recently. He tossed in some of his own t-shirts and an extra pair of jeans, then also threw in some toiletry items from the bathroom. Laid his extra uniforms, still on hangers, on the bed beside the suitcase. He glanced around the room. Underwear. Socks. Slippers? The suitcase was starting to overflow. "We can go barefoot," he muttered. He had to sit on the suitcase to get it to latch. He grabbed an empty laundry basket and went to Jimmy's room for some toys. He hauled the suitcase and uniforms out to the car, then made a return trip with the basket.
Glanced up and down the street. Nothing.
He returned to the house and checked the refrigerator. He grabbed a grocery sack and put all the fresh food in it. No sense letting it spoil, and it would keep them from freeloading off Pete. He put the sack on the dining room table, then remembered he needed to get clothes and diapers for Jimmy, who was balking at the idea of potty training. One more trip down the hall to Jimmy's room, where he scooped diapers, lotion, and clothes into another grocery sack.
It was taking too long.
He ran back to the dining room, snatched the bag of food off the table, tucked the goldfish bowl under one arm, and then hurried out to the car. No one driving by in a silver T-bird.
He shoved everything but the food and Fred into the trunk. He stashed the food in the back seat, Fred in the front seat beside him, then started to get behind the wheel. "Queenie!" He slapped his forehead in disgust. Nothing like almost forgetting the main reason he was risking his neck.
He went back inside and grabbed the phone book and dialed their veterinarian. It seemed to take forever for the receptionist to answer. He tapped his fingers on the desk as he watched the street outside through the picture window in the living room.
No one out there. And the trunk lid had popped open. I need to take a look at that latch one of these days . . .
"Westside Animal Clinic, can I help you?"
He jumped at the voice suddenly booming in his ear. He stammered out who he was and asked about boarding Queenie. "I don't know for how long. Couple of days, maybe a week. Family emergency, out of town."
"Sure, bring her by. We'll be open until six."
"Okay, how . . ."
A car drove slowly past. A silver Thunderbird.
Jim dropped the phone without hanging it up. He pulled his duty weapon from his waistband and watched through the sheer curtains, hoping it was just a coincidence. There's gotta be hundreds of silver T-birds in L.A. Thousands . . .
The car slowed, then pulled into the driveway, blocking Jim's car.
Jim's first instinct was to run like hell and not look back. Then he calmed down and started thinking like the cop he was supposed to be. So far, they had nothing on this guy. Scaring the devil out of an off-duty LAPD officer might be annoying and rude, but it wasn't exactly a felony. Right now, all the guy had done was fly over a crime scene in an unmarked helicopter, follow Jim and Jean out of a cemetery, and pull into his driveway. Hardly P.C. for an good bust on murder charges.
The driver opened the car door and got out. Jim studied him through the haze of the drapery sheers. It was definitely the same man from the cemetery, fu manchu and all. He walked up to Jim's car and looked in the open trunk, then into the back seat. Then he made his first mistake. He reached down and lifted the door handle. "Gotcha," Jim whispered. "Go ahead, paw all over that car. Leave us so many fingerprints we'll have you busted in an hour."
The man bent in, looked over the items in the back seat, then to Jim's astonishment, took an apple out of the grocery sack. He took a bite out of it as he straightened up out of the car. "You're an arrogant bastard, I'll give you that," Jim murmured.
He leaned back into the car and pulled out the goldfish bowl.
Jim started for the door, then stopped. He wasn't going to risk his neck for a nickel goldfish from Woolworth's. Still, his hand tightened on the gun.
The man looked at it from all sides, then put it back. He walked casually up the sidewalk toward the front door. The unlocked front door. Jim cursed himself for making yet another stupid mistake. He flexed his hand around the handle of his gun. It was hard to think above the pounding roar of blood in his ears.
Just before he reached the porch, the man stopped and calmly bit into the apple again. He looked over the entire front of the house, his gaze finally coming to rest on the picture window.
He can see me.
Jim fought back a rising tide of panic. Logically, he knew there was no way the man could see him, not with the bright sunshine hitting the curtained window from the outside, and no light behind Jim to silhouette him against the sheers.
He can see me.
A trickle of sweat worked its way down from Jim's temple. He didn't dare move to wipe it away. He felt naked, exposed. Trapped.
Then the man smiled. He took another bite out of the apple, tossed the core onto the front porch, and turned away. Jim remained frozen, watching as the man got back in the T-bird and started the engine. As he backed out of the driveway, Jim's mind suddenly snapped free of the paralyzing fear that gripped it. While the man's head was turned to check for traffic, Jim parted the curtain just wide enough to clearly see the plates on the front bumper. Charles-Ocean-Zebra 451. Charles-Ocean-Zebra 451. He fumbled for a pad of paper and scrawled the numbers down before he forgot them. When he looked up again, the car was heading east, at a normal rate of speed, just another ordinary guy out for a Tuesday afternoon drive. He disappeared around the corner a block away.
Jim needed to sit down. He clumsily dragged the desk chair back and dropped into it as if his bones had disintegrated. He carefully put the gun down on the blotter, then ran shaking hands through his hair. For a long moment, he simply sat, head in hands, breathing heavily and listening to his hammering heart slowly quiet down. Then he became aware of a strange beeping, buzzing noise. The phone. He'd never hung it up. He checked to make sure no one was on the other end, then hung up. The receiver clattered loudly as he settled it in its cradle.
Then he picked it up again and dialed Mac's number at the station.
"I'm glad your sergeant called me," Detective Ericsson said as he polluted the air in Jim's living room with one of his fifteen-cent cigars. He was wearing a loud plaid jacket that hurt to look at. "Good to finally get a break in this thing."
"Yeah," Jim said. He was sitting on the couch, holding Fred's bowl in his lap, glumly contemplating the moment when he'd have to face Jean and admit that she had been right. He figured he had a month's worth of nights on the sofa coming to him, at a bare minimum. But at least he was alive to sleep on the sofa. That had to count for something. And right now he was so tired he could sleep hanging from a tree if he had to. Fred swam around calmly, oblivious to how close he'd come to being catfood.
"Cheer up, kid. I know you didn't catch him, but you were right not to try. He hasn't done anything to arrest him for yet, especially not for any murders. But by golly, we're on our way now. And we don't even have to mess with that sting idea." Ericsson blew a smoke ring, clamped his teeth around the cigar, and abandoned Jim to go check on the fingerprinting team.
Mac came in the front door as Ericsson was leaving. They nodded politely to one another, then Mac entered the room. He glanced over his shoulder to make sure the door was shut behind him, then grinned. "That Ericsson's quite a character. Wonder if he buys his suits the same place he gets those cigars?"
"They both make your eyes water," Jim agreed. "Guess you called Pete?"
"Not yet. You better, though. They're probably starting to worry."
"Yeah. What came back on the DMV?"
"Ericsson didn't say?"
Mac pulled out a notebook. "It's registered to a Ronald Carson, 6304 Rockwood, in Pasadena. There's a guy going out there now to check out the address." He looked quizzically down at Jim, who had neither reacted or moved. "You okay, Jim?"
Jim blinked. "Yeah. Been a long day, that's all."
"We'll be finished up here soon. Just relax, take it easy and enjoy letting somebody else file the reports for a change."
Jim gave Mac a faint smile as he left. He sat for a moment, feeling somewhere between gray and green. He wondered what the neighbors must be thinking, seeing a cop's front yard filled with officers. Might even be enough to wipe the surly look off Larry's face, if he bothered looking up from his lawn mowing. Mrs. Wannemacher down the street was probably in shock. Otherwise he was sure she'd have already shown up on his doorstep with comfort in the form of an apple pie. Hopefully he hadn't given her a stroke from all the excitement.
Jim finally dragged himself off the couch and went to the same window he'd stared through in such fear less than an hour earlier. He placed Fred on the blotter. Fred's bowl, like Jim's car, was a dusty gray mess from the fingerprint man. He idly brushed away some of the powder as he looked out the window. Officers from Foothill, Central and of course, the L.A. County Sheriff's office in the form of Ericsson, milled around on his lawn, chatting, sometimes laughing, probably swapping war stories. It wasn't too often officers got to work with anyone outside their own jurisdictions. Hooray for cooperation, Jim thought. He'd just as soon not have been the reason for a law enforcement lawn party.
He couldn't understand why Carson had been so bold, so overconfident. Leaving his fingerprints like that, and letting Jim have a clear view of his license plate. It didn't make sense, unless the man didn't realize Jim was a police officer and didn't think there'd be any way to connect him with another murder. But even the dimmest citizen out there has seen enough television detective shows to know not to blatantly leave prints everywhere.
Unless this guy wasn't the suspect. Maybe he was deliberately trying to throw them off the scent.
Or maybe the guy had some other ace in the whole. Maybe he figured he'd zip back to whatever hole he'd crawled out of before anyone could catch him.
Jim sighed. He was so tired he was starting to get loopy, coming up with such crazy scenarios and complicated conspiracies. He didn't need to sort it all out, anyway. Let the bright minds of the sheriff's office find the answers.
But as he thought about the snakelike gaze of those cold black eyes, he worried they might not come up with the answers in time.
"I know, I know, it was stupid. So sue me, but at least we know who we're dealing with now," Jim snapped as he shoved Fred into Pete's hands. He crossed the living room and collapsed onto Pete's recliner. He pushed back on the arms and popped the footstool out. He shut his eyes as he put his feet up and let out a loud groaning sigh. "I'm beat."
He could still feel Pete's disapproving stare through his closed eyelids. He opened one eye, then the other. "What?"
"No argument from me, partner. Jean may have a few choice words when she wakes up from her nap, but I've got nothing to say."
"How comfortable is your sofa?" Jim mumbled.
"Probably more comfortable than your doghouse."
"Thanks, Pete. You're all heart." He shut his eyes and went to sleep.
Something tickled his nose. He swiped at it, grumbled something, and tried to go back to sleep. The tickle came again, and this time he sneezed violently and woke himself up. Jean was staring at him from the arm of the recliner. She held a feather in her hand.
"Oh," he said. "Hi."
"Hi, yourself, sleeping beauty. Did you get Queenie taken care of?"
"Uh, yeah. She's at the vet's." He dropped her off on his way over to Pete's after the brouhaha finally calmed down. And after he'd washed the car. "What time is it?"
"Just about eight o'clock."
Jim's stomach growled. "Guess I missed supper. Where's Pete?"
"He went back on patrol." She ran her fingers over the feather. "He told me what happened."
"You took a stupid risk, you know that."
She flipped the feather into the wastebasket beside the recliner. "I'm glad you're all right."
"Me too." He lowered the footrest and she slid off the arm of the chair onto his lap. He held her close for a long moment, smelling her fresh, clean hair and her perfume and feeling very, very grateful he was still around to do so. "Me, too."
They sat that way, content to simply listen to each other breathing, until Jim's stomach growled again. "Are you hungry?" Jean asked.
"Yeah, come to think of it, I am. I tried to bring that meatloaf you made, but it sat out in the car all that time they were fingerprinting. I didn't figure we needed ptomaine on top of everything else so I threw it out."
"Don't worry about it. Pete went out and brought back a bucket of chicken."
"Bet Jimmy loved that," Jim smiled. "Hey, where is he?"
"Would you believe asleep already? Pete chased him around the apartment so much he wore him out."
"Being chased is tiring," Jim said.
Jean stared at him in disbelief, then couldn't help laughing. "I'll vouch for that."
The phone rang. Jean crawled out of Jim's lap and went to get it. Moments later she was back, dragging the receiver on its extra long cord over to Jim. "It's Mac."
Jim took the phone. "Hey, Mac."
"Jim, glad I caught you. I just wanted to let you know that the address on Carson as a fake. There's no 6204 Beachwood, never has been."
"So we're back to square one, unless NCIC turns something on those prints."
"Which looks unlikely, but try to keep a good thought."
Jim looked at the worried eyes of his wife. "Yeah, Mac. Sure."
"Aw, come on, Mac. I could be stuck on desk for the rest of my career!" Jim protested.
Pete tried to hide his amusement at the petulant whine in his partner's voice, but he must not have succeeded because Jim almost immediately aimed a scorching glare his way. That just made Pete smile all the wider.
Jim looked ready to pull his gun.
"Take it easy, Jim," Mac said. "You're being put on desk for a couple of days for your own protection."
"Mac, I can take care of myself."
"And for your partner's protection," Mac said without missing a beat. "Look, Jim, it's just for a few days until we're sure we've got this Carson character nailed. We're not trying to turn you into a career door greeter."
"Terrific," Jim muttered. He walked to the door. "Have fun on the streets, partner," he growled, then slammed the door behind him.
Pete folded his arms and smiled at Mac. "When should I tell him I'm working desk with him?"
"The mood he's in, I'm tempted to offer you an L-car."
"He always has been a grouch. I'm immune to it now," Pete said. He tossed the sergeant a mock salute, then made his way to the front desk. Jim was there, a sulky set to his mouth as he dug through the racks, making sure all the forms were in good supply.
"What do you want?" he snapped when he saw Pete slide through the door.
"Temper, temper. If this is how you're gonna act, I'll go tell Mac to put me in an L-car after all."
Jim's shoulders sagged lower, if that were possible. "He stuck you on desk, too? Look, Pete, if you can talk him into cutting you loose, you don't have to feel obligated to babysit me."
"Is that what's bugging you? You think you're being babysat?"
"Isn't that how you'd feel? I mean, I'm hiding out at your apartment. Mac won't let me out on the streets." He sighed. "I guess it's just starting to get to me. I had a gutful of looking over my shoulder constantly with that Stover character. I don't relish it the second time around."
"I understand, partner. But, until we find this guy, you're just gonna have to live with it."
"I know, I know. But I don't have to like it."
"Cheer up, partner. Maybe John Dillinger will walk through that door today and we'll bust him and be heroes."
"Boy, you are in a bad mood." Pete shook his head. "Gonna be a long shift."
"I'm sorry, ma'am, but there's nothing we can do about that," Jim repeated. Pete glanced over at his partner as he dealt with a diminutive elderly lady whose chin barely cleared the counter. From the knot of tension flexing in the corner of Jim's jaw, Pete figured he was about to crack a molar.
"But it's robbery, plain and simple! I want to file a report!" she insisted.
Jim took a deep breath and explained one more time. "Lady, I sympathize, but you can't press charges against the government for charging sales tax on your groceries. If you want to change the law, you have to contact your senator or representative."
"But that's who's robbing me!" she yelled.
Pete coughed into his hand, earning him a look from Reed that could have seared a good steak. Pete gave him the barest shrug, then turned his back on his partner so he could smile without exploding. Or getting a Reed fist across the jaw. If nothing else, this pint-sized granny is keeping Jim's mind off his other troubles.
"Ma'am, there's no need to yell like --"
"Young man, are you in charge of this station?"
"I didn't think so. You're too dense."
Pete suffered another choking fit.
"You get on that phone and get me whoever's in charge and we'll see whether I can't press charges or not!"
"I can let you see the watch commander. Sergeant MacDonald," Jim offered.
"Is he in charge?"
"Very well. Take me to him right this minute. If you're capable of doing as simple a task as that," she said. She straightened her already stiff-as-a-martinet shoulders and marched toward the doorway that led into the rest of the station. As she passed Pete, she stopped and dug in her purse. "Here's some horehound candy, officer. It'll take care of that catarrh, you poor dear."
"Why, thank you, ma'am," Pete said with a wide smile. Then he winced as Jim grabbed a pinch of skin on the back of his arm and twisted it as he passed behind him. Pete rubbed his arm as Jim and the little old lady disappeared through the door. "Now that was uncalled for."
"You left a bruise," Pete accused Jim as he returned, sans one irritating little old lady.
"'You poor dear'," Jim mocked.
"I bet Mac didn't appreciate you dumping your problem in his lap."
"Well, he can consider it payback for dumping me behind desk. Maybe some other officer who's not so dense could have figured out a better way to handle it."
Pete chuckled. "You did just fine, partner."
Jim pulled his stool back and sat down. Instead of facing the desk, he turned to face Pete. "What really bugs me is that she's right."
"About arresting the government?" Pete asked incredulously.
An annoyed frown came and went. "No, not that. When she said I was too dense. She's right. I've pulled so many boneheaded plays in the last day or two I think I must have lost every shred of common sense I had. Or thought I had."
"Jim, what are you talking about?"
"What am I talking about? Are you kidding?" He ticked the items off on his fingers. "I exposed my family to a criminal situation. Then, after a very threatening and dangerous situation at the cemetery, I went right back out and courted disaster by going to my house. Any fool could see it wasn't a safe thing to do. And then, when I was there, I messed around packing so much stuff that I nearly let the guy walk right in. And then I froze up when he did pull in. Pete, I didn't even have the sense to lock the front door!"
"Are you through?"
Jim blinked. "Yeah, I guess."
"Good. Take off your hair shirt and listen to me. The only stupid thing you did was go back to the house. But even that wasn't sheer stupidity. It was a calculated risk that went the wrong way. It could easily have happened to me or to any other guy in your situation. So lighten up on the guilt trip and let it go."
The troubled crease between Jim's eyebrows didn't fade.
"What else, partner?"
"Nothing. It's stupid."
Pete waited, and sure enough, the lid on the bottle of Reed woes loosened up a little more. "It's just . . . I know there's no way Jean and I are to blame for Bobby and Sally's murder, but still --"
"You wish you'd never taken that boat out."
Pete studied his hands for a moment before replying. "It's crazy, sometimes, how life takes a twist you don't expect. You wish you could go back to that moment when you took the wrong turn and go some other way, but you can't. All you can do is move forward."
"Bobby and Sally can't," Jim said almost inaudibly.
"No, but you can."
Jim cleared his throat and straightened around. "Yeah, I know," he said, his words clipped, the conversation at an end. Pete had the impression that he'd probably touched on a deeper pain than Jim would ever let on. But that was his partner. As caring a human being as Pete had ever known, but so often it seemed like he let the compassion turn self-destructively inward, recasting it into some failing on his own part for not having prevented the tragedy in the first place. Sometimes Pete worried that his partner would be crushed under all that guilt, but so far, he'd been able to shake off the pain, or at least lock it away where it couldn't cripple him. The shootings, the kids they didn't save, now this death of his friends -- there must be a hell of a dark closet somewhere in Jim's soul with a big strong padlock on it.
Pete just hoped that padlock never broke.
"Whatcha need, Mac?" Jim asked as he let himself in the Watch Commander's office. Mac had called him at the desk and told him to come back, Jim assumed, for a good chewing out over how he handled the little old lady with the sales tax grudge. He braced himself.
It must have shown on his face, because Mac immediately put him at ease. "Don't worry, it's not about her. You handled that just fine. Have a seat."
Jim laughed a little as he turned the chair around backwards and straddled it. "Then what'd you need?"
"Ericsson called. They just caught another break in the Owens murder -- found a partial print on the back door to their house. It matches the prints Carson left on your car."
Jim frowned as he digested that bit of information.
"It's good news, Jim. It's okay to smile and thank me," Mac chided playfully.
"Sorry, Mac. It is good news," Jim said, but the frown remained. "It's just that something really bugs me about this guy. He's coming on too strong, too arrogant. Like he's deliberately trying to get caught, or else has some sort of get out of jail free card. I don't get it."
"I had the same thoughts, to be honest. In fact, given the Italian import connection with Edwards, I even asked Ericsson about the possibility that Carson could be from some other country, with diplomatic immunity or at least a fast track out of the U.S. He didn't seem too taken with that idea."
"Well, yeah. It'd mean his big break isn't so big after all, and a case he thinks he can wrap up and get off his desk has suddenly turned into a three-headed monster. I sympathize with his caseload, but I can't help thinking we're being deliberately pulled by the nose down the wrong trail."
"Like he's covering for someone."
"Exactly. He may be the front man, but my gut tells me there's someone else pulling the strings from behind the scenes." And that's the one that really scares me.
"Ericsson doesn't seem to think so."
Jim rolled his eyes. "Ericsson might be a good detective. I don't know. But he seems a little too willing to call a horse a horse. Sometimes it turns out it is a zebra."
"And you think the stripes are starting to show on this one."
"Yeah, and the scary thing about zebras -- they're almost impossible to break."
Mac smiled ruefully. "Hang in there, Jim. We'll tame this one, don't worry. You holding up all right?"
"Yeah, I'm fine." He smiled a little mockingly. "Pete's been busy all evening giving me pep talks."
Mac smiled and started to say something, but his door opened and a harried female officer carrying an armload of papers and envelopes entered. She pulled a sheaf of memos from the center of the stack, dropped them on his desk, then left just as abruptly, juggling the precarious stack as she went.
"Olivia Baker?" Jim asked.
"Yep. She's a little, uh, overwhelmed by the tide of paperwork that floods this place," Mac said. He started to glance through the papers.
"I know the feeling. Better get back to the desk," Jim said. He stood up. "Thanks, Mac."
"You're welcome," Mac said distractedly. Then he held up his hand. "Reed, wait a minute!"
Jim stopped in the open doorway as Mac waved a sheet of paper.
"Hey, that idea of yours to rotate officers through air patrol is working out great," he said, then rattled the memo with a pained look. "But somehow I managed to screw up the schedule. The two officers supposed to go up tomorrow are both on vacation. I don't want to take anyone else off the street, and I certainly can't put you back out there, but I can put a couple reservists on the desk if you two want to take another turn. I doubt Carson can get at you if you're up in the air. What do you think?"
Jim hurried over and snatched the paper out of Mac's hand. "I think I'll tell Pete," he said.
"Shouldn't you ask him first?" Mac called as Jim hurried out the door.
Jim didn't slow down. "He'll do it. Trust me!" he called over his shoulder.
Jim hurried down the hall, feeling a weight lifting from his shoulders for the first time since the funeral. He burst through the doorway and thumped Pete on the shoulder.
"Ow, Reed! What have you got against me today?" Pete complained after he picked himself off the counter where Jim's blow had driven him.
Jim plunked the paper down in front of him. "Read that. We're off desk tomorrow."
Pete smiled. "How'd you manage to twist Mac's arm into this? Threaten a little ADW like you've been doing to me all night?"
Jim laughed. "Nope. His idea."
"I've always said he's a brilliant sergeant."
As soon as the twin skids left the ground, exhilaration soared through Jim's soul. He loved flying, loved just about everything about it, from the smell of av-gas and burnt coffee at little fixed-base operators like the one he'd worked at in high school to the throbbing hum of jet engines at LAX to the swishing whistle of the wind playing across any open airfield. But most of all, he loved the feeling of escape. Of slipping earth's surly bonds. He adjusted the headsets and watched the helipad shrink beneath them. Pete looked back from the front passenger seat of the Jet Ranger and caught his eye. "Kind of symbolic, isn't it?" he said, his voice tinny as it came through the intercom and into the earpieces of the headset.
Jim flashed a grin at him without answering. Pete understood. He always understood. Jim winked, then got down to the business of watching for criminals.
"We'll be heading toward Chavez Ravine," Bill Walters said as his confident hands barely seemed to touch the controls. "They've had some troubles with illegal dirt bike riders out by Dodger Stadium. You'd think with the Police Academy right there, nobody'd have the nerve, but go figure."
"There's never any accounting for the criminal mind," Pete said dryly.
Jim listened with half an ear to the banter between Walters and Pete. Those two had worked together on patrol at Central for several years before Jim had come on the scene, and while Jim considered Walters a friend, he didn't have the same camaraderie with him that Pete did. So Jim let Pete have the front observer seat when they found out it would just be the three of them flying today. After all that he'd been through in the last week, all Jim wanted to do was fly and catch some bad guys. And maybe spot one particular bad guy in a certain black and red helicopter. "Hey, Walters?"
"Yeah, Reed. Watcha got?"
"Nothing, just a question. How many private helipads do you suppose there are around the city?"
"What a question, Reed," Walters laughed. "Hell, how many million-dollar-plus homes are there in Bel Air?"
"Yeah, guess a lot," Jim sighed. Like finding a needle in a haystack.
"Jim's got his eye on one in particular," Pete said dryly.
"What, to buy? You gotta be kidding!" Walters said, twisting in his seat as if staring at Jim would somehow alleviate the insanity of the idea.
"Not to buy," Jim assured him. "To nail."
"Oh yeah, that black and red job, no numbers. We got a flyer about that. So how's that case coming?"
"We've got prints on one guy. Thought we had DMV, too, but the address came up fake, which probably means the name's also a phony. But still, whoever he really is, he may be good for the Owens' murders. Not so sure about the yacht killing."
"But you think the two are connected?"
"Gotta be. That's why I want to track down that helicopter. Seems to me if we can just track that thing down, the connection will become clear. Either Carson's the man, or someone else connected with that helicopter is and Carson is involved in some way. We want to get them both, if that's the case."
"So I don't guess you've seen any helicopters that match the description?"
"Nope, sorry. But keep your eyes peeled. Maybe we'll bump into it."
"Not literally, I hope," Pete said, looking uneasily at the clear skies all around them.
"Not if I can help it, anyway," Walters laughed.
Jim pointed. "There's Dodger Stadium."
Walters nudged the collective down and brought the chopper in a little lower, and they concentrated on the terrain around the stadium and the police academy. Jim noticed a group of cadets running up Suicide Hill. His legs ached in sympathy. Nothing else seemed to be moving. "Looks quiet," he said.
"Yeah, just our luck," Walters said. A lift on the collective and a nudge of the cyclic and Walters pulled the chopper out of the circling descent and pointed it south. Jim was having a hard time concentrating on the terrain. He was fascinated by Walters' expert handling of the helicopter. He kept finding himself watching Walters instead of looking out the window. "Might as well check out downtown. Maybe we can nab another jewelry thief in a high rise."
They crossed the city, climbing steadily as they passed between skyscrapers in the downtown area on the way toward the heart of Central's district. Jim yawned, trying to equalize the pressure in his ears, but shut his mouth in a teeth-jarring snap when the chopper hit a pocket of turbulence.
"Hello!" Pete yelped, grabbing his armrest. "Walters, do you mind swerving around the potholes?"
"Sorry. Air's a little unstable today. They're calling for thunderstorms."
"Can you stay in the air in a storm?" Jim asked. He silently took inventory of his molars.
"Only if it's an emergency. No sense risking lives or the equipment otherwise."
"Air-70, missing child, vicinity of Oakhurst Estates. Meet 1-L-20 on Tac 2."
Walters acknowledged, and the L.A. skyscrapers fell away behind them as they headed toward one of the newer residential sections. Mac's voice filled Jim's earphones. "Air 70, we've got a missing child. Seven year old female caucasian, blonde and blue, wearing a yellow t-shirt, blue jeans, white sneakers. She was last seen at the playground at Windemere Park about fifteen minutes ago. At this time, we think she's simply wandered off. Do a fly over of the area, see what you can pick up."
"Roger, L-20, ETA 30 seconds," Walters acknowledged. As they moved over a maze of residential streets surrounding a tree-dotted open area of grass, he pointed. "Okay, boys, there's Windemere Park. Start looking for a yellow t-shirt down there."
As Jim leaned toward his window and saw blocks and blocks of houses and trees, it seemed an impossible task to pick out one small girl. She could be under a tree when they passed over, or hiding beneath a bush, or simply standing on the wrong side of a building. He chewed his lip. The mother was probably frantic. They cruised as low as Walters dared. Jim didn't want blink, in case he missed her. Ten minutes passed, the tension in the helicopter was thick enough to reach out and touch.
"Try another sweep," Pete said tightly.
Walters wordlessly brought the chopper around in a tight circle, which sent an uncomfortable shiver of nausea through Jim's stomach. He wasn't sure if it was airsickness or worry. Probably both. For the first time since shift began, he wanted to be on the ground.
"Sure can't see much from here," Pete murmured, voicing the same frustration that gnawed at Jim's gut.
"No, but we can cover the same ground several times, where the ground units can't," Walters said. "Don't look for detail -- look for color. Anything yellow. You'd be amazed at what pops out at you."
Jim tried to adjust his focus to look simply for a splotch of yellow. He saw a garden full of yellow flowers, a school bus, a taxi, and a yellow Volkswagen Bug. But nothing small enough to be a little girl in a yellow t-shirt. They flew to the end of the park, turned, then started back along the park's eastern edge.
"There!" Pete cried. "Ten o'clock!"
"I don't see anything," Walters said. Jim leaned over the seat beside him to look out the starboard side of the helicopter, but he didn't see anything either.
"That line of pine trees-circle back around to the other side."
"Ah, I see it, Pete," Walters said finally.
Jim found the pine trees and shifted in his seat to keep it in his line of sight as Walters circled. As they flew over the top, he finally saw the speck of yellow in the brush surrounding the trees. "I see it," he said. He grabbed the bulky binoculars and focused in on the spot. He touched the gyro control and the bouncing, jarring field of view in the sights settled down, but didn't allow him identify her one way or another. "I can't tell," Jim said with frustration. He handed the binoculars to Pete. "See if you can make it out."
"I'll try to get a little lower," Walters said, "but those power lines will make it tricky." He deftly maneuvered until they were only a hundred feet above the ground, but far enough away to keep the prop wash from pelting her with debris, which kept them from positively identifying her. "You make it to be her, Pete?"
"Could be," he said.
Walters pulled the mic to his mouth and switched it to P.A. "Little girl on the ground, this is the police," he said, as gently as the booming amplification would let him. "If you can hear me, wave your arm."
The yellow spot remained motionless. Jim found himself biting his lip so hard he was afraid he'd draw blood. He forced himself to relax. "Try again," he urged.
Walters repeated the call. Nothing. He switched off the P.A. and broadcast their location as he climbed back to five hundred. "We'll just have to hover over this spot until someone gets here to confirm it one way or another," he told Pete.
"I don't like the looks of the terrain down there," Jim said. "Too rocky, too hilly. If that is her, she may be injured."
Pete nodded. "This is the part of air patrol I don't like," he said. "Not being able to do anything but watch."
"It takes getting used to. You have to keep reminding yourself that you've traded immediate involvement for speed and a greater field of vision."
"I guess," Pete said, but from the way he fidgeted in his seat, Jim knew his partner wouldn't be signing up for a permanent assignment any time soon.
"There's Adam-34," Jim said as a black and white unit rolled up to the edge of the hill. They watched in silence as the foreshortened figures of Wells and Robertson worked their way down the hill and through the brush. They reached the spot, and Wells immediately waved his arm back and forth at them. "Wonder what that means?"
"It means we can clear the area," Walters said. "It's her. She's getting up."
Jim let out the breath he'd been holding. "Hallelujah," he said with a heartfelt smile.
Pete glanced back at him with a smile of his own, then gave Walters' arm a light punch. "Okay, so maybe working air patrol has its perks."
By the end of watch, they'd helped on five pursuits, tailed a narcotics suspect, and looked for another missing child, who ended up being at an aunt's house.
They saw no black and red helicopters. Jim tried to tell himself he was crazy to have expected to find it, but as he climbed out of the helicopter and set foot on the apron, the acute disappointment seemed to climb onto his back and hang from his shoulders like a dead weight.
Pete didn't miss the downcast look. "You okay?"
Jim shrugged. "I was just hoping . . .."
"Yeah, me too. Well, maybe another day, partner. We'll stop by the station, see if Mac knows anything new."
Jim didn't say much on the ride back, simply sat locked in glum silence as he contemplated the traffic flowing around them. His heart still skipped a beat every time he saw a light-colored car. By the time they made the station, his nerves were nearly every bit as raw as they'd been yesterday at his house. Welcome back to terra firma, he thought sourly. Before following Pete through the door, he glanced longingly toward the sky.
"Jim, I was hoping to catch you before you left," Mac said as he walked into the locker room.
Jim turned from hanging his tie on the vents in his locker door. "We were going to stop by your office before we took off. What's up, Mac?"
"Got another phone call from Ericsson. You know, I'm getting a little tired of playing message boy for you, Reed."
"Mac, what can I say? You were the one who okay'd my going up in Air 70."
Mac glanced at Pete. "What's wrong with him, did he get airsick or does flying always make him this cranky?"
Pete smiled in vague sympathy, but he exercised the better part of discretion and didn't say a word.
"Mac, come on. What'd Ericsson say?" Jim asked impatiently.
"Nothing that you'll like, I'm afraid. NCIC came back a blank. No prints in Edgar Douglas' house match Carson's, nor do any on the yacht itself. In a nutshell, Ericsson said they can possibly pin Carson to the Owens' murders, but it's weak -- too weak for the D.A. to do anything on it. And the connection to Douglas is weaker yet, practically nonexistent outside of your eyewitness."
"Mac, I saw him, both times. There's a connection," Jim said, exasperation making his voice higher-pitched than normal. Pete frowned, but he didn't say anything.
"I know how you feel, Jim, believe me. And so does Ericsson. But you know how it works, Reed. The D.A. has to have it wrapped up tight. Your eyewitness testimony will strengthen a good case, but it can't make a case on its own merit. You'll just have to hang tight."
Jim balled up his uniform shirt. "Yeah, sure," he mumbled. "And in the meantime keep ducking in and out of Pete's apartment like I'm a wanted man." He forcefully threw the shirt in the bottom of his locker and turned his back on Mac.
Mac's sympathetic look was lost on Jim. He shrugged ruefully at Pete, then said his good nights. Jim didn't respond. He remained standing in front of his locker, leaning his arms against the opening as he stared into its depths.
"Jim?" Pete finally asked.
Jim shoved himself away from the locker and slumped onto the bench in front of it. He dug the palms of his hands into his eyes, then rubbed his face wearily. He still didn't say anything.
Pete straddled his own bench so he was facing his partner. "Want to talk about it?"
"What I want," Jim started, then sighed deeply. "What I want is my life back."
"You'll get it back. You just have to hang in there."
"For how long?" Jim asked bitterly.
"For as long as it takes."
"Pete, we can't live indefinitely in your apartment. We'll drive you nuts. We'll drive ourselves nuts. We need to be home."
There's the rub, Pete thought. Jim's foundation, his center, had always been his home. His wife, his child, the very idea of a home and a family . . . very early in their partnership, in the midst of some banter about marriage and Jim's rabid domestication, he'd told Pete very seriously that those were where the satisfactions were, and as time passed and he got to know his partner nearly inside and out, Pete had seen just how true that was. Jim needed a home, a stable place for retreat. Too much time without it would tear him apart. Even now, Jim was starting show signs that the seams were weakening. Pete cast about for something to say, some piece of wisdom to pass along to his younger partner, but he felt like the well of solace had gone dry this time. Home is where the heart is seemed a little trite, considering the situation.
"I'm sorry," Jim suddenly blurted, standing up and reaching for a brown v-neck sweater. He tried to give Pete a smile. "I'm just tired."
It hurt Pete to see the forced cheer, but he honored his partner's attempt to reglue the unraveling edges. "Sure, I understand. Jim, if it's any consolation, I'm having a blast playing with my godson every night. You might have to leave him behind when you move back."
A spark of genuine humor lit the dark blue eyes. "Not a chance, buddy. Not a chance."
Pete snapped his fingers in feigned disappointment. "Can't blame a guy for trying."
"Get your own wife and kid."
"Why should I? I've got yours."
Jim stared at him for a moment, the confusion on his face almost comical as he tried to figure out whether to laugh or get mad. He finally laughed. "You're something else, Pete."
"So you keep telling me. Hey, partner," he said, his smile fading. "Let's go home."
Jim nodded thoughtfully as he closed his locker. "Home is where the heart is, I guess."
"I couldn't have said it better myself."
Home it might be, but four hearts crammed together in an apartment intended for one had started to wear thin by the third day. Pete remained the consummate host, but Jim thought he was starting to see little signs that the Reed clan was starting to rub Pete's nerves raw. They needed to move out, soon.
Jim considered the possibilities, or lack thereof, while he pretended to doze as Pete drove them to work. They certainly couldn't move back into their own house. Not with Carson, and whoever he may be working for or with, still out on the streets. Jim had also quietly checked the status of the safe houses -- all full. He didn't want to mooch off the department anyway. Maybe they could rent an apartment or some small house somewhere. But a quick mental review of the state of their checking account nixed that idea. He'd have to work twenty-four hours a day to pull off paying his mortgage plus rent. He sighed without meaning to.
"You okay over there?" Pete immediately asked.
Jim gave up the pretense of sleep and opened his eyes. "Sorry. Just thinking about options."
"Stock options?" Pete joked.
Jim obliged him with a small laugh. "No, nothing like that." He didn't want to elaborate. He figured if he said anything about the situation, he'd put more pressure than ever on Pete to keep out the welcome mat.
He shouldn't have bothered. Pete read his mind, as usual. "Jim, if you're worried about overstaying your welcome, don't be. I'm enjoying this."
"Yeah, you're enjoying no privacy, girl stuff all over your bathroom counter, the aroma of smelly diapers, and a toddler who flushed your electric razor down the toilet. I'll buy you a new razor, by the way. And pay for the plumber."
Pete laughed. "You don't have to. The plumber comes with the building. And that razor was just about shot anyway."
"I'll still repay you," Jim said. "Anyway, I don't want to keep freeloading off you. It's not right."
"Jim, how many times have I stayed with you?" He lifted a hand off the wheel to tick them off on his fingers. "After I got shot at Duke's. After I wrecked the black and white at Griffith Park. When Mrs. O'Brien had to have the apartments fumigated for termites. And countless other overnight stays after rough shifts. You never would take a penny of my money to help cover expenses. And how many times have you had to stay with me? Zero."
"Yeah, but Pete, that's different. I'm married. And we've got the extra bedroom and all . . . and you're just one person. Not three."
"I don't see it that way," Pete said firmly, in his brook-no-argument voice.
Jim shook his head. "There goes that soft pump again."
"Just don't let it get around, okay?"
"I won't, as long as you let me buy you a new razor."
"You don't have to as long as you're living with me. I'll just keep using yours. That thing's stronger than a lawn mower."
"Well, when you have scrub like mine to whack off every day, you gotta have a shaver with some muscle. You baby-face types just don't need that kind of horsepower."
"Go back to sleep, Jim."
"Sorry to have to break up the set, but Pete, I need you out on patrol today. You'll be in 1-L-12, covering your usual district," Mac said as he rattled off assignments at roll call. "Reed, you're still on desk."
Jim didn't complain this time. He just nudged Pete's elbow and said quietly. "Be careful out there, Pete."
"Just don't get too comfortable behind that desk, partner."
"Not a chance."
Roll call ended and everyone filed out to start the watch. Jim took his time, letting everyone else leave before he stood up. Mac met him at the door. "How you holding up, Reed?"
"All right," he said honestly. "I guess I'm learning to put up with life in limbo."
"Funny what you can get used to."
Jim pulled at his ear. "Mac, thanks. For putting Pete back on the street."
"Don't thank me -- I did it because I had to."
"Well, I'm sure he'll enjoy the space."
Mac's gaze sharpened. "You two having some kind of problem?"
"No, no," Jim assured him. "But I'm just afraid he's going to suffer from Reed overload before too long."
Mac laughed. "Just like too much sun?"
"Yeah, something like that."
"Well, don't worry. From the looks of the vacation schedule, he'll have a lot of time alone in that L-car over the next week."
Jim wasn't exactly happy to hear that, but he simply nodded and they parted ways. Pete might enjoy being in an L-car, but Jim wouldn't enjoy hearing the calls go out to L-12 knowing he couldn't be there to back up his partner. "Gonna be a long shift," he whispered.
Three hours later, Jim was in his usual desk-induced antsy state of boredom. As the hands on the clock crept toward eight o'clock, the flow of people in and out of the station had let up, the phone had fallen silent, and he'd finished working the crossword. The other officer working desk was the new guy, Art Lincoln, and so shy that he'd barely spoken three words to Jim all night. Jim had tried to keep up a flow of chitchat at first, hoping to set Art at ease, but after getting continual one-word responses peppered with "yes, sir" and "no, sir", Jim gave up on the small talk. He drummed his fingers on the counter, then grabbed the phone and dialed Ericsson's number.
"Ericsson," the familiar gruff voice barked. His voice didn't soften appreciably when he heard it was Jim. "You got something for me?"
"No, I was hoping you had something for me."
"I got a pile of nothing, is what I got. I'd sell my sister to the gypsies for a lead on this thing."
"Anything on Carson?"
"Nothing. He did a vanishing act."
"Any word on helicopters?"
"Nothing. We sent flyers out to all the airports, big and small. Helicopter that flashy, you think somebody woulda seen it, but if they did, they ain't tellin'."
Jim chewed his lip thoughtfully, then remembered Pete's suggestion from the day before the funeral. Life had gotten so crazy Jim hadn't had a chance to follow up on it. "Okay, what about Douglas, the yacht owner? What's come back on him?"
"Not much. Autopsy showed cause of death consistent with a fire and explosion -- in other words, smoke inhalation, massive burns, blunt trauma. I'd go into more detail, but we all got delicate stomachs, right? If the guy had been married, we'd at least have a wife to question, but he wasn't. Haven't turned any steady girlfriends. Or boyfriends, but he didn't seem the type. He was just a swingin' bachelor, no strings, no family, nothin' but more money than he knew what to do with, thanks to some shady business deals that might have been cover for drug trafficking, but he hid his tracks too well, looks like. We still got a whole roomful of forensic accountants scouring the guy's books, but so far they haven't turned anything more sinister than some gambling debts, and who doesn't have some of those?"
Me, Jim thought, but he didn't say it. "Who'd he owe?"
There was a pause. Jim heard papers shuffling, a muffled curse, then more papers moving. "I don't know. Oh wait, there was something . . . ." More papers crunched. "Some casino in Vegas. Here it is . . . The Royale."
"Who's the owner?"
"Some conglomerate. We haven't tracked down any names yet. You know how these places can be. Individuals hide behind a corporate veil, that kinda crap."
"Can you find out any names?"
"Sure we can find out names," Ericsson huffed. "But it all takes time. And right now I've had three more dead bodies dumped on my desk, and one of them is that actress dame that got herself killed last night."
Jim stifled a sigh. He'd seen the story on the news, didn't connect it with Ericsson's jurisdiction. High-profile killings involving celebrities often brought investigations into other crimes either to a grinding halt, or at the very least, a temporary slow-down. "Maybe I can help out with something."
"Look, Reed, I know you're getting antsy to get this guy off your back, but trust me, we're moving on it as fast as we can. Until the accountants come back with something, I got nowhere to send you, even if I wanted to send you anywhere, which I don't."
"What about other yacht owners?"
"Reed." Ericsson stretched Jim's name out into a complaining whine. "We've stomped all over Marina Del Rey. Believe me, if something was there, we'd have found it."
"Who'd you talk to?"
"Is your middle name Relentless?"
"C'mon. If you're up to your eyeballs in other cases, you need all the help you can get. Maybe you missed somebody out there."
Ericsson sighed. "Reed, let me explain something to you that you should already know: potential victims do not make good investigators. Plus you're a witness and they know your face. If you go poking around anywhere, you'll just tip everybody off and that'll be the end of that. So do me a favor and concentrate on keeping yourself and that pretty little wife of yours out of harm's way and let the detectives handle the detecting. Are we understood?"
Jim didn't answer.
After a long pause, Ericsson sighed."You're going down to Marina Del Rey anyway, aren't you?"
"If you give me some names, it'd save us both time."
"You're middle name isn't Relentless; it's Bloomin' Idiot," Ericsson muttered. "I'm not going to give you anything. You'd be stupid to go down there, and you'd be interfering in my investigation."
"There's no law in L.A. County keeping an ordinary citizen from looking at boats, is there?"
"Reed. Don't. If those two are involved - -if anyone at the Marina is involved -- you could be walking right into a deathtrap."
"I'll be careful, don't worry."
"Don't worry, he says. Kid, the day I quit worrying is when they're shoveling sod over my face." With a click, the line went dead.
"I think it's a terrible idea," Pete said bluntly. He bit into his sandwich.
"Pete, come on," Jim argued as they sat alone, taking a late seven in the lunch room. "Ericsson's stalled because of that actress murder. Somebody needs to be out there asking questions and getting answers or I'm never gonna get my life back."
"And you think sticking your head in a nest of rattlesnakes is going to get you your life back," Pete said, giving Jim a classic Malloy stare of disbelief and reproach.
"Well, what else am I supposed to do? Sit around and wait for them to finally kill us?" He scraped his chair back and stood up, gathering the remains of his supper from the table.
"Carson. And whoever else he's working for."
"Let me go out there."
Jim stopped. "You?"
Pete shrugged. "Seems fairly obvious to me. They don't know my face or name. I'd just be another cop poking around."
Jim shook his head. "No, Pete. Can't let you do it."
"Can't let me? Look, you meatball, put aside that stubborn Reed pride for a minute and listen. I know just as much about this thing as you do, so there's nothing that you can think of to ask that I couldn't. Besides, you going to that marina could be suicide. Me going down there wouldn't. End of discussion."
"Pete, if you went down there and something happened, I couldn't live with myself. So forget it."
As they locked obstinate gazes, Jerry Woods chose that moment to saunter through the door. "Hey, fellas. Just the men I need to see!"
Jim was the first to break eye contact. "What do you want?"
"Whoa," Jerry said, stopping a few feet away. "Sorry, I didn't mean to break in on anything. I can talk to you guys later." Before either of them could stop him, he turned on his heel and hurried out the door.
Jim sighed and went back to clearing up his trash. "Look, Pete, I don't mean to come across as a stubborn jerk about this, but what I said is true. I've got a big enough albatross around my neck knowing I put my family in danger."
"Then how about letting me help you get rid of that dead weight, partner?"
After a long pause, Jim let out an exasperated laugh that fell just short of containing any humor. "Okay. But if you go and get yourself killed, don't come running to me."
The next morning, Pete applied his charm to a pretty young co-ed working in the marina office and obtained the slip number where the unfortunate Mr. Douglas moored his yacht when he wasn't out getting blown to bits. He also asked her if anyone else had asked her for information on boat owners in the last two weeks. She snapped her gum, stared at the ceiling, and finally told him not that she could remember, but to come back and ask Ziggy, who worked the days she didn't. Pete made a mental note to come back the next day and talk to Ziggy.
He walked slowly along the waterway, his feet thumping slightly on the boardwalk, until he found the right spot. There was already another boat moored there; marina managers didn't waste much time mourning lost customers, even if they did lose them through tragic means. Pete eyed the sailing yacht with more than a little envy. It would take a lot of shampoo-naming contests to win enough for one of these babies, he thought as he admired her lines. Neptune's Lover. Aptly named. He could imagine the clean hull caressing the ocean waves . . . .
"Help you?" a man called out from behind him.
Pete turned and saw a young man, not much older than twenty-five, standing in the boat directly across from Neptune's Lover. "Just doing a little drooling," he said with a smile. He looked over the one the man was standing in. "Nice yacht."
"Pride of the Pacific," the man said, with more than a touch of his own pride.
"Don't I wish," he laughed. "Naw, I just work for the owner. He's this Arab dude, lives over in Saudi Arabia. Comes over here about once every three or four months, takes the boat out for a spin. He wants it ready at any time, any moment, so he hired me to sail her now and then, keep her clean and maintained. I guess he's too spontaneous to want to haul it out of dry dock every time. Big waste of money, if you ask me, but I guess if you're swimming in oil these days, why not? Must be nice to be rich."
"I wouldn't mind giving it a try," Pete agreed.
"Jason Stevenson," the man said, extending his hand across the railing.
"You in the market for a boat?"
"No, not really. My friend used to have his moored here." He jerked a thumb toward Neptune's Lover bumping gently against the dock. "I just wanted to my last respects, but it's a little late."
"Yeah, shame, that. Douglas was a good guy."
"You knew him?"
"Yeah. Hard not to get to know the people down here. You spend much time on your boat, you get to make friends."
"And Douglas was a friend?"
Stevenson's gaze shifted subtly, from open friendliness to an air of caution. "Yeah. He was a friend." He jumped down to the boardwalk and walked over to stand in front of Pete. Stevenson topped Pete by at least two inches. His biceps bulged with muscles only hours in a gym could produce. It tired Pete out just looking at them. "So what's it to you?"
"Nothing," Pete said blandly to forestall Stevenson using those muscles to toss him in the drink. "I miss him, that's all."
"Funny, but I don't ever remember seeing you around here."
"I'm not really the boating type. I spent most of my time with him doing other things. Vegas, mostly."
The suspicion eased. "Yeah, he loved to gamble. If he wasn't on the water, he was in Vegas, Reno, Carson City . . . anywhere there was a big game, you know? He talked about it a lot. I guess he musta been a pretty good card player. He never seemed short of loot, you know?"
"Yeah, he was something, all right."
Stevenson laughed, suddenly looking a little embarrassed. "You know, it's crazy, but when I heard he died, I had this, like, wild thought that somebody'd killed him because he owed them money or something."
"What made you think that?"
"Too many late night movies, I guess," he shrugged. But he looked nervous.
"Guess this place was crawling with cops after it happened."
The nervousness jacked up a notch. "Yeah. They were asking people all kinds of questions."
"They talk to you?"
"Nah. I was surfin' that day. Big competition down at Malibu. I took third place," he said with shy pride. Pete was starting to like this big kid. "But I heard a couple of the owners complaining about it."
"Didn't like nosy cops?"
"Something like that, yeah."
"What about you? You got a thing against cops?"
Stevenson shrugged. "Don't guess so. I mean, they never hassle me much." He suddenly looked shrewdly at Pete. "I bet you never went to Vegas with Douglas. You're a cop, aren't you?"
"Guilty as charged." Pete pulled out his badge and an FI card to take notes.
"Aw, man. I can't believe I told you that wacky thought I had. You probably got me pegged as some kinda freak now."
Pete smiled. "No, not really. I am interested, though, in what made you think someone was after Douglas."
Stevenson chewed his lip as he studied something on the horizon. "I dunno, man. It's just this feeling, you know?"
"Something must have given it to you."
More examination of the horizon, then he quietly said, "There was this time . . . ." He stopped and shook his head. "Nah, it was just a coincidence. Forget it."
"Tell me anyway."
"Okay, it was about a month before he died. I was working on the Pride. It was a Saturday, lotta people all over, lotta helicopters buzzing around. Usual stuff, you know? But this one chopper, man, it kept buzzing back and forth, low enough to blow the water with the rotor wash, you know? I was getting really steamed, 'cuz like I was, like, working with fiberglass and he kept blowing sh- . . . oops, sorry, I mean like dirt and trash around and twice he blew stuff into the epoxy before it was dried. I about called the cops on him."
Pete kept his voice calm with an effort. "This chopper, what'd it look like?"
"Man, that's the thing. It didn't look like any chopper I'd ever seen around here. I mean, the radio stations and TV, they got those Jet Rangers, right, and they're like painted real boring, white with maybe a blue or red stripe. Like big whoop. But this Ranger was slick, man. Black with this wavy red pattern on the bottom and sides, and this far-out lion thing painted up above the doors. Looked like one of those coat-of-arms, you know? It was really something." He laughed a little. "Kinda scared me, a little. I mean, you gotta figure somebody paints his helicopter like that, no telling what kind of person he is."
"No telling," Pete said, amazed at how calm he was able to make himself sound. "Did you see if it had registration numbers?"
"Like a license plate or something?"
"Not exactly. It would have a series of numbers on it, preceded by the letter 'N'."
"Nah, man. Nothin' with an N."
"You see where it went?"
"Not really. I mean, it flew off toward downtown or somewhere but I don't know where exactly."
"You get a look at who was in it?"
"Some dude with a big mustache. And there was another dude with him, looked a little older. No mustache but he had this beaky nose and a real mean look."
"You could tell that?"
"I said he was flyin' real low, man."
"You ever see either man around here after that?"
Stevenson scuffed his foot along the wooden walkway. "Man, I dunno . . . if those guys killed Douglas . . ."
"We'll give you protection," Pete assured him.
"Against the mob? Ain't nobody that good."
"Who says it's the mob?"
"I dunno. Gambling. Those guys looked Italian. I just figured mob."
"They'll never come near you."
Stevenson jammed his hands in his pocket. "Okay. The day before Douglas took her out, the mustache guy was hanging around here."
"He go on the boat?"
"How long was he on it?"
"I dunno, man. I was down below, cleaning the salon and galley. I came up to toss out a bucket of dirty water and seen him jumping off the boat. He didn't see me. I didn't think nothin' of it, until I heard about the fire. He did something to that boat, didn't he?"
"Maybe," Pete said noncommittally. "Why didn't you go to the police about this?"
"Man, you know. Who wants to get blown up in his car driving down the 405?"
"Now that you've told me, will you testify to all of that in court, if we need you to?"
"Might as well," he said with a fatalistic sigh. "I mean, I figure I already slit my throat just telling you about it."
"I doubt you've gone that far," Pete said with a smile. He got Stevenson to give him his address and phone number; the kid rented a room above a garage in Santa Monica. "The LA County Sheriff department will be in touch. Hang in there."
"That's fine and dandy, but we still have to figure out who that cat in that helicopter is," Ericsson said as he lolled back in Mac's office chair. He had been downtown appearing in court, so he agreed to meet Pete and Jim at their station instead of making them come all the way out to the County. Mac had graciously relinquished his office for them.
"It's Carson. I know it," Jim insisted. He refused to let Ericsson rain on his parade. For the first time in a week he felt like there was a light glimmering at the end of the tunnel. Please don't let it be an oncoming train, he thought.
"I'm with Jim," Pete said. "From what Stevenson said, I'd say Carson and the helicopter pilot are one and the same."
"Okay, for now I'll give you that we might know who," Ericsson said grudgingly. "But where?"
Jim slowed only slightly in his pacing. "We'll find him. We've got the net cast out. It's just a matter of time." He slowed to a stop. "The helicopter."
"Yes, there's a helicopter," Ericsson said with exaggerated patience. "Malloy, I think your partner's starting to crack under the strain."
"Let him think," Pete said mildly.
Jim started walking again, four paces, turn, four paces back. "What if . . . what if Carson isn't American? What if the helicopter didn't have an N-number because it wasn't registered in the United States?"
Ericsson tossed his pencil onto Mac's desk in disgust. "Aw, come off it, Reed. It's bad enough you want me to find a phantom helicopter in the vastness of L.A., but now you want me to start looking all over the damned globe? You're outta your mind!"
"No, listen to me. Bell makes Jet Ranger helicopters here in the United States, but there's an Italian company . . . Acosta or something."
"Agusta," Pete supplied quietly.
"Yeah, Agusta," Jim said, giving Pete a surprised look. He never figured Pete really paid attention when he rattled off obscure aviation facts. "They make Jet Rangers in Italy. What if the one I saw wasn't a registered U.S. helicopter but an Italian version of the same helicopter? And that kid, he said both men looked Italian, and I can vouch for that. Carson definitely has Mediterranean features."
"But the helicopter itself should still have had registration numbers," Pete pointed out. "They'd just start with a different letter than 'N'."
"Did Stevenson say for sure there wasn't any number on it?" Jim asked.
Pete squirmed slightly. "Well, no, and that was probably my fault, the way I asked the question. I asked him if there was an 'N'-number on it. He said no, but if it was another letter --"
"It'd be an 'I'," Jim said. "We need to call Stevenson back."
Pete reached for the phone.
"Who cares what letter it is. Ain't no way anybody can fly a helicopter over the ocean," Ericsson said as he watched Pete dial the phone.
"They could have shipped it over," Jim said.
"Reed, you're making this way too complicated. All this aviation garbage . . . you're grasping at straws."
"I don't think so," Jim asserted. "It makes a lot of sense, especially if you know anything about aviation."
"Which is probably my trouble," Ericsson admitted. "So what makes you two such experts?"
"General interest, plus I worked at an airport," Jim said. "And Pete's worked with me long enough I guess some of it rubbed off."
"Too much rubbed off," Pete muttered as he waited for an answer on the other end.
Jim snorted in disgust, then waited as Pete connected with Stevenson. Pete asked about the registration number, beginning with I, and then all Jim and Ericsson heard was a series of non-committal grunts, a "yeah", a "thanks" and a "good-bye."
"Well?" Ericsson didn't even let Pete get the phone back on the hook.
"I-0705Z. I surprised he remembered, but he told me July 5th is his birthday."
"Why didn't I see any numbers?"
"Too distracted by the fire? They had them covered up? Who knows, partner." Pete reached for Mac's phone directory. "Who do you call to get registration information?"
"I'd start with the F.A.A.," Ericsson said. He shrugged at Jim's half-smile. "So I know a little about aviation. And I'm wondering -- so he's got a dago helicopter. Wouldn't he have to register it with the F.A.A. to fly it here in the U.S.?"
"I don't know," Jim confessed. "But if he scoffs at the law enough to commit murder, I doubt he's going to sweat bullets over some bureaucratic paperwork with the F.A.A."
"You got a point there, kid. Well, look, I'd love to sit and swap airplane stories all afternoon," he said as he pushed himself out of Mac's chair, "but I got bodies stacked to the ceiling back at the office."
"You'd think it'd smell," Pete cracked.
"It does, like about a dozen rats. I just gotta figure out which rat gets the rap pinned on his tail. See ya later, fellas." He lumbered out the door.
Pete found the F.A.A. number and shoved the phone to Jim. "You're the aircraft expert. You call."
Jim dialed the number, endured getting switched three times, then finally was told he had to call the Italian counterpart to the F.A.A. He hung up, frustrated. "I bet they could give it to me if I knew the right string to pull. But since I don't, I think budget-wise, we should punt this to the sheriff. Mac would have a heart attack if I made an overseas phone call on his line."
"You know, you're turning out to be pretty smart after all," Pete said.
"Gee, thanks," Jim said dryly. He dialed Ericsson's office, left a message with the details, then replaced the phone. "Well, what do we do with the rest of our day off, since you seemed to have solved the case? You want me to take Jean and Jimmy somewhere, so you can have some time to squander alone in your apartment?"
"No, I think if Jean can stand it, she should still keep a low profile."
"She can stand it. She's getting to be good friends with your landlady."
"Don't even say it. Next time Mrs. O'Brien gets miffed at the LAPD, Jean'll be out there picketing the station along with the rest of those old biddies."
"Hey, if it's a good cause . . ."
There was a knock on the door and Jerry Woods tentatively opened the door a crack. "Is it safe to come in?"
Pete laughed. "It's safe, Woods."
Jerry pushed the door all the way open. "Last time I walked in on you two, it looked like you were about to go for each others' throats."
"It was nothing that bad, Jerry," Jim protested. "Just a difference of opinion, that's all."
Jerry didn't look convinced. "Remind me never to walk in on any other differences of opinions you two have. Aren't you guys switching to AM Watch tonight?"
"Tomorrow night. We're off today," Pete said.
"I won't ask why you're hanging around here on your day off." He dropped a stack of reports in Mac's in-tray. "Where's our fearless leader?"
"Taking seven in the break room," Pete said. He riffled the thick report. "All one call?"
"All one call. You wouldn't believe it if I told you. Hey, did you hear about that guy over at North Hollywood?"
"No, what about him?" Jim asked.
"Rookie, still on probation. They busted him out of the ranks because they found out he was on the take. They sure don't waste time anymore. He'd only been out of the academy for two weeks."
"At least they caught him early, before he had time to do any real damage," Pete said.
"What was he doing?" Jim asked.
"Yeah, so Jim'll know not to do it," Pete interjected. He dodged a kick Jim aimed at his shin.
"Oh, it was a real enterprise he had going . . . running DMV's for a fee, pocketing a few dime bags on busts. You name it."
"How does somebody like that make into the Academy in the first place?" Jim wondered.
Jerry shrugged. "Guess they can't catch them all. And you know how it is -- some of 'em get a little badge heavy after they graduate. Hey, I gotta find Mac. See you guys later."
"That Woods, he's something else. Always has his ear to the grapevine." Jim shook his head.
"Just don't get any ideas about setting up shop out of the patrol car."
"Wonder if Trevino or any of our new guys -- and gal -- knew that North Hollywood guy?" Jim asked as they drove back to Pete's apartment.
"Probably. They would have been in the same class."
"That kinda thing burns me up. You'd think there'd be a better way to screen recruits that might turn bad."
"It's like Jerry said, sometimes they start out fine in the academy, but once they get that badge pinned on their chest, something snaps. Badge heavy isn't limited bashing around suspects. I've seen guys use their shields to get women, intimidate neighbors, you name it. And some of them were tops in their class."
"Guess so, but still, there oughta be a way."
"If you figure it out, you'll be able to retire a millionaire. And I'll retire with you and sponge off you for the rest of my life."
"After putting up with me and my family underfoot for a week, that's the least I can do for you, partner."
"It hasn't been that bad. At least you don't have any annoying habits like biting your toenails during dinner."
As they pulled into the parking lot, Pete pointed out a strange car parked at an angle, taking up part of Pete's usual spot and half of the spot next to it. "You know that car, Jim? The green Chevy?"
"No. Please tell me it belongs to one of your neighbors."
"Only if one of 'em bought a new car," Pete said grimly. Instead of pulling into his spot, he kept going and exited the lot via the alley. "There's a payphone at the service station. You can call Jean and make sure everything's all right."
Jim didn't bother replying, just unconsciously pressed his own right foot against the floorboards, as if that would hurry the car along. He barely waited for Pete to stop the car before he lunged out. He slapped the door open to the phone booth and fed a dime into the slot. He dialed without thinking, his mind remaining a block away, imagining no end of terrors going on behind the locked door of Pete's apartment. He listened to the rings. After six, he hung up and hurried back to the car. "No answer," he said curtly. "Go."
Pete dropped it into gear and hit the accelerator. They sped back to the apartment complex and Pete parked his car so it blocked the Chevy. Jim was out and running for the steps. He couldn't seem to make his legs move fast enough. He pounded down the outside corridor to Pete's door, then waited just long enough for Pete to catch up before reaching for the knob. It was locked. As it should be, he told himself, but fear was a palpable presence all around him.
Pete didn't bother with niceties like keys. He stepped back, lifted his right leg and rammed it against the door latch. The door flew open, and Jean shrieked and flew out of the recliner, and her parents, who'd been sitting on the couch, hit the floor in unison, covering their heads. Jimmy ran around the end of the couch yelling, "Cops and wobbers! Cops and wobbers!"
Pete staggered in, off balance in more ways than one.
"What in the name of God do you call that!" Jean yelled.
Jim stumbled in just behind his red-faced partner. He looked aghast at his in-laws lying on the floor. "Oh, no," he moaned. "That's their Chevy."
Pete turned his gaze on Jim. "Now you remember. Terrific."
"Jim, can we get up, or do you need to frisk us first?" came Harold Carver's muffled voice.
"Dad, of course not . . . I'm sorry. . . . here, Louise, let me help you," Jim said. He was sure his face was as fiery red as Pete's as he bent down to help Louise to her feet.
Pete steadied Harold. And Jean flew into her husband. "Did it ever occur to you to call if you thought there was a problem?"
He looked up from where he was helping Louise dust herself off. "I did . . . no one answered!"
"You may have called somewhere, but it wasn't here. The phone hasn't rung all afternoon."
Pete walked over and lifted the receiver. "It works. Guess you dialed the wrong number."
Jim groaned as the realization hit. "I think I dialed my own number."
Jean made a disgusted sound under her breath as she flopped back down in the recliner.
"Dad, Louise," Jim said, swallowing his embarrassment as best as he could, "I'm really sorry about this. We didn't mean to frighten you. We just saw the strange car downstairs, and I guess what with one thing and the other lately . . . " His words trailed off and he shrugged.
"Don't worry about it, Jim," Louise said. She patted him on the arm. "It's just nice to know you and Pete are working so hard at keeping our daughter safe."
"I thought it was kinda fun. Hardly ever get to see my son-in-law and his trusty partner at work," Harold said. He tugged his sweater as straight as he ever managed to keep it. Pete spied what he thought was a strand of carpet on Harold's sleeve and reached out to pluck it off. To his horror, a large part of the sleeve promptly unraveled.
Pete stammered out an apology, but Louise waved him off. "Don't worry about it. Harold's sweaters are all falling to pieces. I keep trying to get him to buy new ones, but he refuses."
"Okay," Pete said doubtfully. He handed Harold the ball of yarn that used to be his sleeve. "I'm really sorry."
Harold slipped his sweater off, revealing a rumpled white shirt with an ink stain on the front pocket. "Don't worry about it. Pete Malloy, right?"
"Destroyer of sweaters and overeager police officer," Pete said ruefully as he shook Harold's hand.
Louise laid a hand on Pete's arm. "Pete, I told you not to worry about it. I can't thank you enough for taking in our two big kids and our grandson," she said, with a wink toward Jim.
Jim felt another rush of heat fill his face. He hurriedly changed the subject. "Anyone call?"
"No, Jim," Jean said. "It's been quiet and peaceful. At least up until about five minutes ago." She tried to hide a giggle, but failed miserably.
"Ha ha," Jim growled. "If Carson had been here, you wouldn't be laughing right now."
"Speaking of Carson, what's new on the case?" Harold said, rubbing his hands together. "Got any hot leads? Gonna stake out anybody? How about setting up a dragnet?"
"Harold, stop," Louise said. "You watch too much television."
"It's okay, Mom," Jim said. "We have a few leads, but nothing concrete just yet."
"Well, if anybody can solve it, Jim here can," Harold said confidently. He sat back down on the sofa. "Nice place you got here, Pete."
"Thanks," Pete said. He caught Jim's eye and nodded his head toward the kitchen. "Partner, need to talk to you a minute."
"Hey, a cop conference!" Harold called after them. "Don't mind us. Mum's the word!"
"Daaaad," Jean said.
Once Pete got Jim into the relative privacy of the kitchen, Pete let out a quiet laugh. "What is with your father-in-law?" he asked. "You never told me he was so . . . so . . ."
"Flaky?" Jim sighed. He rubbed his face with both hands.
"Eccentric," Pete corrected. "He's priceless!"
"Someday I'll tell you about the first time I met him."
"I'm dyin' to hear that," Pete laughed, then sobered a bit. "Look, Jim, I don't wanna be a cranky host or anything--"
"But get rid of the in-laws. Don't worry, I'll take care of it."
"It's just better not to have much traffic in and out of here, in case Carson's watching Jean's family. I'd feel better if they did as little as possible to put themselves at risk."
"You're right. I'll talk to them about it," Jim agreed. Before he could return to the living room, the phone jangled on the wall behind him.
"Go ahead," Pete said when Jim glanced at him.
Jim snatched up the receiver. "Hello?"
"Is this Reed or Malloy?" Ericsson demanded.
"Much as I hate to say what I'm about to say, I'm gonna say it anyway."
Jim cocked an eyebrow at Pete, who mouthed, "Who?"
Jim covered the mouthpiece. "Ericsson." He spoke into the phone. "Say what?"
"You and that cockamamie Eye-talian jazz . . . you might be onto something. My accountants finally came back with information on the Royale Casino. Owned by a joker named Giancarlo Cunetto. Ever heard of him?"
"Should I have?"
"Nah, not really. He seems pretty clean, for a casino guy. But here's where things get interesting: he's got this brother, Roberto, who's a licensed pilot."
"Roberto Cunetto . . . Robert Carson," Jim said, not bothering to hide his excitement. He glanced at Pete, who looked about ready to explode from frustration at hearing only snippets of the conversation.
"Truly great minds do think alike, Reed-o my boy. Look, it's just a hunch, could turn out to be nothin', so don't get all excited about it. I mean, we ain't exactly tracked down any helicopter yet."
"But you will," Jim asserted.
"Maybe. I got your message, by the way. If it's all the same to you, I'd rather wait and see if the Las Vegas police can confirm that the Cunetto's have a helicopter instead of calling way the hell around the globe. My budget can't take that kinda expense."
"What's next then?"
"Well, we got a guy with the Vegas PD gonna see what he can track down on the Cunetto boys for us, including the helicopter connection. He's supposed to fax me pictures this afternoon. We'll know for sure then."
"Need me to come down?"
"You got any other plans?"
"Be here by two." With a click, the phone went dead.
Jim replaced the receiver and smiled at Pete. "We're closing in."
"Tell you on the way over to Ericsson's office."
Jim's palms started to sweat as he watched the photo facsimile machine whir. "Takes these things forever," he muttered.
"Be patient, Jim," Pete said. "You're this close -- you can stand a few more seconds."
"Easy for you to say." The picture fell into the tray and Jim snatched it up. "That's him," he said with grim triumph. "We've got him."
"What we got," Ericsson said as he snatched the facsimile out of Jim's hands, "is an identity and a face. What we ain't got is him. If he's still in LA, fine, but if he's sitting on a sidewalk café in Rome slurping spaghetti noodles, we got problems."
"Well, yeah," Jim admitted. He knew as well as the next cop that knowing who they were hunting was only the beginning of the battle. But he refused to let that dampen his hopes. "But we've got a direction to go in now."
"Yeah, and if we ain't careful, we got a whole lot more headaches and a whole lot more danger to you and your family. I'm not gonna jump to any conclusions or hang the Cunetto's with the Godfather stereotype, but given the Italian connection, we'll take this slow and careful."
"So where do you go from here?"
"I go back to the fourteen million other cases stacked up on my desk. You can help out yourself by going back down to Marina Del Rey and talking to that kid with the boat, Stevens? Stuart?"
"Stevenson," Pete supplied.
"Yeah, him. Take this picture down there and see if he makes Carson from it. And then pump him some more. Anything you can get. Oh, and do me a favor and let Mac in on the loop -- I ain't got time and he'll want to know. Now beat it."
"Of course I'm coming with you," Jim said as they stood outside Pete's car. They'd called the station, but Mac wasn't in. Trevino had answered, so they left a message with him. "The Marina's on the way home. By the time you try to drop me off and go back, Stevenson might be gone."
"I don't like it."
"Pete, I can take care of myself."
Pete jangled the car keys nervously, then shoved the key in the lock. "All right. But if you get yourself killed, don't come running to me."
Jim grinned. "Where've I heard that one before?"
"Yeah, that's the dude. I'm sure of it," Stevenson said as he squatted near the gunwales of the Pride of the Pacific. He handed the picture back to Pete. "You close to gettin' him?"
"Pretty close. Look, is there anything else you can tell us -- anything at all?"
Stevenson scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Not really. That name, Cunetto. It kind of rings a bell, like I might have heard it at a party or something, you know? But I can't say for sure."
"How about a car?" Jim asked. He and Pete stood side by side on the dock beside the boat. "You ever notice what he drove?"
"Seems like I mighta seen him in one of those real low sports cars. Ferrari or Lamborghini, one of them."
"You say you might have heard his name at a party," Pete said. "Who else might have heard of him, or know of him?"
"Anybody around, I guess. I mean, we all pretty much party the same scene, you know? There's a guy you could ask, though, named--"
A sharp cracking report shattered the calm afternoon. Pete and Jim instinctively ducked, recognizing the sound immediately. Stevenson was slower to react. He looked around innocently. "Man, was that a backfire or--"
"Get down!" When Stevenson gave him a look of total noncomprehension, Jim threw himself at the railing of the boat and hauled himself up. Another bullet buzzed just over Jim's head, hitting the chromed railing with a clang. "Get down! It's a sniper!"
Jim shoved Stevenson to the deck of the yacht. "Don't move," he hissed, keeping his own body partially across Stevenson's.
"Oh man, they're tryin' to kill me," Stevenson moaned. "I knew it, man. I just knew it."
Jim ignored Stevenson's self-pitying cries. "Pete?"
"Where's it coming from?"
"I can't tell. Can you get to the boat's radio?"
"What about it, Stevenson? Where's the radio?"
"In the salon. Below deck. B-but it's broken, man. I got it pulled out in pieces."
"Pete, you hear that?"
"Yeah, I heard," Pete called back. "Look, you two need to move to a more secure spot. Can you get to the other side of the boat? I think the shots are coming from the shore somewhere. I'm okay next to this other boat, but if he gets a better angle, you're both sitting ducks."
"Got it, Pete," Jim said, then raised to his hands and knees. "Can you swim?"
"Okay, buddy. Over the side."
Stevenson didn't waste any time clamoring over the side of the boat. Jim heard a soft splash, but then he had to duck again as another slug buzzed past his shoulder. Too close. He scrambled after Stevenson and fell in an ungainly dive into the water. He swallowed a good chunk of diesel-polluted water before he regained the surface. Treading water beside the boat, just under the boardwalk planking of the marina's dock, he looked around for Stevenson. He didn't see him. "Stevenson!"
"Here!" Stevenson called from the stern end of the boat, where he was hanging onto the ladder mounted on the side of the yacht.
"Stay where you are." Jim kicked toward him. "You okay?"
"Y-yeah," Stevenson said. His teeth were chattering, probably more from nerves than cold.
"Hang tight," Jim said, then smiled. "No pun intended."
Stevenson laughed nervously. "I guess this kinda stuff is no big deal for cops. Getting shot at, I mean."
"Well, it's not high on my favorite things to do," Jim said. He refrained from saying that he was so scared he felt close to throwing up. No sense ruining Stevenson's image of him as super cop.
"You get used to it, I guess."
"Not especially." Jim's hand slipped on the wet ladder and he went under. He came back up spitting out more diesel fuel than water. "Man, this thing have a fuel leak or something?"
"Uh, yeah. I found it today, in fact."
The fuel was doing a number on Jim's stomach. He grimaced. "Hope you didn't swallow any."
"I don't think I did. Not much, anyway."
"Where's the leak?" Anything to get the kid thinking about something other than getting his brains shot away.
"I don't know yet. Somewhere close to the engine, I think."
"Was it leaking yesterday?"
"Nah, don't think so. I just found it this morning."
Jim grunted. Spontaneous fuel leak this morning . . . sniper fire this afternoon . . . either I'm getting entirely too paranoid or somebody's got it in for Stevenson. "Be right back."
Jim heard Stevenson's startled "Where you going" as he dove under the boat. He squinted against the polluted water stinging his eyes and felt along the yacht's keel until his lungs couldn't take it any longer. He kicked back to the surface, took another deep breath and dove again. Nothing seemed amiss until he reached the propellor. Even in the dim light beneath the boat, he could see what looked liked a small box jammed between two of the blades. He kicked hard back to Stevenson. "Swim away from the boat, fast as you can," he gasped.
"There's a bomb! Stay under the dock and get as much distance from this thing as you can!"
Stevenson's eyes widened, but he shoved himself away from the shelter of the boat. Jim didn't waste time watching to see where he went, but dove back under the boat, taking the shortest distance to get to Pete, who he hoped was still crouched on the dock on the other side. "Pete!" he yelled as soon as he broke through. "Get away from the boat!"
"What'd you find?"
"Bomb, stuck between the propellor blades," Jim said as he hauled himself onto the dock. He and Pete bent low and ran as fast as the could to the shelter of a small maintenance hut. No one had fired at them, but that didn't mean someone wasn't still out there waiting.
"Timer?" Pete asked.
"Dunno. Didn't take the time to look."
"I told him to swim under the dock, as far away as he could." Jim's chest was heaving like a bellows as he crouched dripping beside Pete.
"I made it out that he was firing from the roof of that restaurant," Pete said, easing his head around the side of the shack. "I caught a glimpse of movement up there."
"Suppose anyone's called the police?"
"I bet the firemen did," Pete said, pointing in the opposite direction toward a two-story firehouse that overlooked the Marina. "I saw two of them run out onto that balcony, then disappear inside."
"We need to move further away."
Pete nodded. "Let's go."
They lunged out from the safety of cover and ran full speed down the walkway. Another bullet chipped splinters from the boards between Jim's feet, but he didn't slow down. They made it unscathed to the relative safety of the Marina office. They ducked through the door to find a frightened teen-aged desk clerk huddled under the counter. "Don't shoot me, man!" he shrieked.
Pete pulled out his badge. "We're LAPD officers. We're not going to shoot you, but you'd be wise to stay where you are because whoever's out there just might. Where's your phone?"
He wordlessly pointed to the far end of the counter. Jim was closest, so he snatched up the receiver and dialed the operator. "This is Officer Jim Reed of the LAPD, badge 2430. Give me the Los Angeles County Sheriff station, Marina Del Rey. It's an emergency."
Two clicks, and an officer picked up. As soon as Jim said the word "sniper", he was told that they'd already been notified by the fire department and were on the way. "Tell them to send the bomb squad. We found one under one of the boats, the Pride of the Pacific." He gave them the slip number, then hung up and looked at Pete. "I guess all we can do now is wait."
"And hope Stevenson keeps his head down, wherever he is."
Jim nodded. He was starting to shiver in his wet clothes in the cold air conditioning. He turned to the clerk. "I don't guess you have a towel anywhere?"
The sniper got away, leaving nothing behind but some scuffed footprints on the roof of the restaurant. Divers from the L. A. County Fire Department and the Bomb Squad relieved the Pride of the Pacific of its unwelcome addition, giving them the grim news that had the bomber not gotten the wires crossed, they would have blown up with the boat about fifteen minutes ago. They marked off the entire boat as a crime scene, and soon it was swarming with officers collecting evidence. Jim walked on squishing shoes over to where Stevenson sat in the back of a patrol car. Jim was somewhat drier, and after a session in the bathroom, about a gallon of polluted seawater lighter. His throat burned and he still felt a little green, but he guessed he'd live. "You okay?"
"Yeah, I guess. For somebody who just came an inch from getting killed. It was just a good thing you guys came around or I'd be fish food right now."
Jim smiled briefly. "Just doing our job. You remember what you were about to say before all this broke loose?"
"You mean about the party? Yeah. There's a guy you need to talk to. Wilbur Hunt. He knows just about everybody that prowls the docks, you know?"
"Where do we reach him?"
"There's a restaurant, down about five blocks. Bunch of palm trees all around it. He's a regular in the corner booth in the lounge. He'll probably be there tonight, around eight."
Pete wandered over from where he'd been chatting with one of the members of the bomb squad. "You feeling okay, Jim?"
"Drinking seawater from the Marina is highly overrated."
"I tried to tell you not to come."
"Yeah, well, chalk it up to being hardheaded," Jim said, then turned to Stevenson. "We'll be in touch."
They left Stevenson in the care of the deputies. Pete looked down at Jim's squishing shoes. "Guess we need to get you home and changed."
"Yeah," Jim sighed. He pulled at his wet shirt. "Jean's gonna have a conniption." He'd do anything to avoid telling her about his misadventure. "Hey, can we swing by my house, let me get cleaned up there so Jean won't--"
"Aw, come on, Pete. What're the chances?"
Pete turned on Jim. "After all that's happened to you in the last week, you're asking me what are the chances? You do the math, Einstein."
"You want to go to your house, call a cab, because I'm sure not taking you there."
Jim slowed a step and dug into his pocket.
Pete slapped at his arm. "I was making a joke. You're not calling a cab, and you're not going to your house. Jean would know something was up when you showed up in a different outfit anyway."
"I guess you're right."
"Of course I'm right."
Jim hesitated again before he opened his car door. "Pete, just one thing?"
"Let's tell Jean I tripped over a dog and fell in."
"Get in the car, Reed."