He took the old truck. Somehow the battered old Chevy seemed to match the way Jim felt. Dented, rusty, and misfiring on a couple cylinders. But still running.
Mac hadn't been in. The new guy, Trevino, had answered the phone, so Jim told him to leave Mac a message to call him at home, about his days off. Then he added that he might be heading to Marina Del Rey, so call between nine and ten.
Twilight had fallen by the time Jim parked in a lot along the edge of the marina. He found a shady spot to park, locked the doors, then jingled his keys lightly in his hand as he headed toward the sidewalk that led to the section of marina where he hoped Bobby's sloop was still moored.
As he approached the sleek white boat, a seagull wheeled high above Jim's head, laughing and chattering raucously as it scoured the area for a last-minute meal before nightfall. Jim watched it circle against the rosy sky once, twice, then a third time before it gave a final chuckling cry and flew off to beg food from a more likely source. Bobby had always loved gulls -- kept a bag of bread in the sloop whenever he was aboard, just to feed them and listen to them get all worked up. Jim smiled faintly. He should have brought a loaf of bread.
But he hadn't thought to. He really hadn't thought this out at all, beyond a vague idea that he might go to the Marina. He had just driven, and let the truck lead him to wherever he needed to be. But as he stood watching the gull, he knew he'd come to the right place. He needed to say a final good-bye to Bobby. A private good-bye. One that would let him hear the echoes of the hours of good friendship they'd had together. The funeral had been too crowded, too sad, and then too frantic and terrifying to give Jim any measure of peace, so hopefully now he could take a final look at Bobby's sloop, and maybe climb aboard her one more time and remember.
His throat started to ache as he climbed into the boat. He bit his bottom lip as he walked along the narrow deck. He could picture Bobby and Sally here, laughing, playing . . . loving. Just as he and Jean had barely a month ago. He reached the bow and stopped, one hand resting lightly on the furled sail as he looked back down the length of the boat. "It's not fair, Bobby," he whispered. He couldn't stop tears from flooding his eyes. "You need to be here, with Sally and your baby."
But they weren't, and never would be. Jim suddenly regretted coming down here. Bobby was no more on this boat than he was in that grave up in the mountains. At least Jim had that assurance. But he'd miss Bobby. He'd miss him something awful.
"Good-bye, old friend," he whispered.
He stayed on the boat until the sun slipped beneath the pearl gray of the ocean's edge. The offing, he thought with a smile. Lights blinked on along the boardwalks and in the parking lots, reflecting off the still waters. He listened to the gentle creak of boats shifting on their moorings. There was such a peace to be found on the water, and even the horrible memories of his last time out couldn't dim the contentment he found here. And as the quiet solitude of the water worked its magic, the violence that took Bobby and Sally seemed to fade like a half-remembered nightmare. Here on the water, something of Bobby still remained after all, if only in the memories of sunny days of laughter.
Jim sighed deeply, once, then climbed down from the boat. Time for life to move on. He stuck his hands in his pockets and walked slowly back toward his car. He studied his feet, lost in his thoughts.
Pete stared at Fred as he swam lazily around in his fish bowl. He expected Jim to stop in any time now and retrieve the little guy, but for now he was enjoying the solitude. With the exception of the goldfish, for the first time in two weeks Pete had the apartment to himself. To himself, the goldfish and the vague buzz that kept stirring the back of his neck like the first chilling breeze of an approaching cold front.
"We're missing something, Fred," he said softly.
They had both Cunettos in custody. There was no reason to believe anyone else was
involved . . .except for the hinky feeling that kept disturbing Pete's neck hairs. He reached back, hoping to find that it was just a mosquito or a loose string from his collar causing his neck to itch. But he knew it wasn't. He knew there was someone else out there. Someone they'd all forgotten.
He shut his eyes, thinking back over the last three weeks. The day they found Bobby and Sally, the day of the funeral . . . .
The funeral. He held his breath, waiting for the elusive thought hiding in the edges of his consciousness to come into the open. The funeral . . . the chase . . . Cunetto showing up at Jim's house . . .
Pete's eyes flew open. "We never found out how Cunetto found Jim's address."
Fred swam in a quick loop.
Pete reached for the phone.
As he reached the end of the boardwalk, Jim walked past a darkened boat rental kiosk. Somewhere between the kiosk and the gloom of some shrubbery growing beside it, a dark shadow sprang at him. Still lost in his thoughts, Jim was slow to react. He had a hazy impression of something swinging toward his head. He tried to duck, to throw his arm up, but a harsh blow against the back of his head and neck stunned him. His knees buckled as the city lights shattered into a fireworks display of disjointed shards of color.
He grabbed blindly for the wooden railing to break his fall and the baton . . . a police baton . . . came down again. The blow cracked against his left shoulder. His arm instantly went numb and he half fell, half rolled under the white railing and for the second time in a week hit the icy waters of the marina in a clumsy dive for his life.
For a disoriented moment, he couldn't move. Couldn't kick or even try to swim. He wasn't entirely sure if the attack had really happened or if this was some horrendous nightmare. The attack was so sudden, so brutal . . . . a police baton . . . it was a police baton . . . .
Time seemed to slow as he sank deeper beneath the surface, only half aware of the danger, of death hovering in the wings . . . dead . . . just like Bobby . . . just like Douglas . . . dead in the water . . .
No! He convulsively kicked and his will to survive came back to feeble life.
Who . . . who . . . a baton . . .
The question throbbed sluggishly through his aching skull as he tried to swim. His left arm was useless. He lashed out with his right arm and kicked, trying to put some distance between himself and . . . who?
He surfaced about fifteen feet away, and immediately heard the crack of a handgun. Water geysered into the air inches from his head. He took a deep breath and dove back under.
He didn't know. Couldn't imagine.
Doesn't matter. Swim, just swim. Find a place to hide.
He floundered directionless in the dark water, trying to figure out a tack that wouldn't earn him a bullet in the head. He finally made out the watery shadows of some boats, and headed for them. He needed to surface, to get air.
He emerged slowly between two of the boats, holding to one with his good right arm. Some feeling was returning to his left arm. He tentatively flexed it, relieved to find out that it still worked, but his shoulder still ached fiercely, and his head and neck throbbed sickeningly with each beat of his racing heart.
His teeth started to chatter. The water was cold. Or maybe it was shock. He wasn't sure. He wasn't sure of anything except someone had just tried to kill him. He needed to keep moving. Somebody . . . who? . . . wanted him dead . . . God, I thought it was all over . . .Cunetto's in jail . . . it was supposed to be safe . . . who?
He clung to the boat, pressing himself in as close as he could while he tried to slow his breathing. Get his bearings. See if he was still out there. Waiting.
Jim tried to sort through his fear-jumbled thoughts. Hazy impression of a police baton. Of brutal force. Of someone bigger and stronger than he was.
Someone he knew.
He almost slipped off the ladder. It was so hard to think. He leaned his forehead against the cold metal. Think! Who is it?
A throaty alarm suddenly blared into the night, a klaxon echoing across the water in a three-tone succession of harsh notes. Fire station. 110's. Right on the water's edge. Jim pushed away from the safety of the boat's shadow, just far enough to make out its red hull and the Los Angeles County seal on the side. He had somehow managed to swim right behind Station 110.
Diesel engines fired up from within the station, and Jim heard the spiraling howl of sirens move into the night. Even if the entire station had been called out, he could still get in there, use the phone. Get help. Please God, I hope they left the door unlocked.
Jim moved slowly through the water. Don't splash. Don't make a sound. He was still out there, with his gun.
Ignore the pain. Keep swimming. You're close. You're close. Careful. Careful.
No shots. No sudden yells of alarm.
Jim's neck and shoulder were on fire. But he clawed past the pain until he finally reached out and touched the rough concrete retaining wall marking the edge of the sidewalk that ran behind the station. A chain link fence stood above it. No way to climb it, not with only one arm. Despairing frustration engulfed him. To be so close to safety . . .
Keep moving. There'll be a walkway, access to the dock. Something.
Jim swam back toward the boat on his left, the one moored closest to the concrete wall. He followed it until he reached the floating dock. He paused, listening. Nothing.
With a few small splashes and a lot of warning twinges in his shoulder, he managed to heave himself out of the water. For a long time he lay sprawled in the shadows on the splintery wooden boards, simply breathing, waiting for the cramping pain in his shoulder and neck to die down. Wondering if an assassin's bullet was about to slam the life out of him. The world felt like it was rocking to and fro, keeping time with the throbbing rhythm in his head.
Concussion . . . banged-up shoulder. . . Jean'll kill me. . . who knows how many more weeks on desk . . .
But only if he lived long enough to report for his next shift. He pushed himself to his feet. He had to make a quick grab at a mooring rope when the marina took a dizzying loop around him. He let things settle, then walked on wobbling knees toward the fire station.
The night was still quiet. No one around. No one shooting. No one brandishing police batons.
He reached a closed gate and fumbled endlessly before he figured out it was locked. The gate was waist high. He eyed it tiredly for a moment, then grabbed it with his right hand and swung his right leg over the top, intending to execute a sort of clumsy one-handed vault. When he tried to follow suit with his left leg, the fabric of his shorts caught in the jagged top of the chain link. He felt a tug, heard a rip, then the fabric abruptly gave way, dumping him painfully to the ground on the other side. He was sure his loud grunt could have been heard all the way downtown, but no one came leaping out of the shadows, guns blazing or batons swinging. No one came out of the fire house to investigate, either.
He hauled himself back to his feet. As he looked into the quiet shadows around him, his fear ebbed, replaced by a growing sense of anger. He tried to keep it in check as he stumbled across the parking lot. The last thing he wanted was to lose control and do something stupid in a blind rage. He reached the back door and pulled. It swung toward him and he ducked into the safety of the fire station with a sigh of relief.
"Hey," he called out. He tried again, a little louder. "Anybody here?"
Silence. Jim stood for a moment, looking at the doorways lining a narrow hallway. Somewhere in this building there had to be a phone. He just needed to find it. Should be simple enough, even for a man whose skull had just been split in two. He reached back and gingerly felt the large knot on back of his head. He winced and the anger flexed its muscles.
He took a deep breath and walked down the hallway. After a frustrating five minutes of opening doors on supply closets and bathrooms and even the dormitory, he still hadn't found a phone, but he did locate the kitchen. He yanked open the freezer door. He needed ice. He started to pull out an ice tray, but a bag of peas caught his eye. He grabbed it instead, and laid it gingerly against the bump on the back of his head. As the cold seeped through his wet hair and skin, he felt some of the cobwebs start to clear.
He reached for the phone on the wall.
"Damn, I can't believe we let something that big slide through the cracks," Ericsson muttered. "Where's Reed? At home?"
Pete moved the phone to his opposite ear as he tugged his car keys out of his pocket. "No. I called Jean and she said that he headed out for a drive, didn't say where to. He told her he had to clear his head, which sounds like him. I have an idea he might be at the Marina. I'm heading there now."
"Where will I find you?"
"Bobby Owens had a sloop moored there. Jean gave me directions." He rattled them off. "Hopefully Jim'll be there, safe and sound. But if he isn't--"
"Then my headache just got a whole lot worse. He better be there."
Pete's phone was busy. Jim slammed down the receiver and dialed his own number, but hung up before the first ring. What could he tell Jean? Don't be scared, honey, but some madman just bashed me in the head and now he might be heading your way, so you might want to lock the door until I get there. The whole time Jim was floundering around in the water and stumbling around the fire station, the guy could have been in his car heading for the 405. He was probably halfway to Jim's house already.
Or was he?
And who was he?
Jim shut his eyes and leaned his forehead against the wall. His brain felt like it was full of oatmeal. Thoughts wouldn't come.
He lifted the phone and dialed Pete's number one more time. His relief at hearing the ring on the other end quickly turned to dismay when no one answered. He hung up once again, and dialed the station, thankful that Mac was still working PM Watch. He didn't have time for long explanations to a watch commander who didn't know the whole story.
Pete headed up the on-ramp to the 405. Marina Del Rey was almost eighteen miles away. If he was wrong, and Jim had headed up into the mountains or was sitting on the Griffith Observatory steps watching the city lights, Pete would have wasted a lot of gas and time. But his gut told him Jim would look for his answers where it all started.
His gut was also telling him that Jim might have already found more than answers waiting for him. He pressed harder on the accelerator, passed two slow moving trucks.
And told his gut to shut up.
"I'll get on it right now. Stay on the line," Mac ordered. Jim leaned against the wall and tried to chase away panicky thoughts. Less than thirty seconds later, Mac was back on the line. "All right, Foothill's got an officer on the way. Don't worry."
"Thanks, Mac. I guess all this makes my earlier message to you pretty moot, anyway."
Jim frowned. "I called earlier to ask you to call me about my time off."
"I never got a message."
"Sure, Mac, I left it with Trevino. He said he'd leave it on your desk." Jim gripped the phone tighter as a thought sent icy claws down his back. "Mac, Trevino . . . if you didn't get the message, then he's the only one who knows I came out here. I didn't even tell Jean."
"I'll get on it, Jim. Are you sure you're in a safe place?"
"I'm in a fire station, alone, but I think I'm okay."
"Stay there and wait for backup."
"No arguments. You sound . . . fuzzy. So sit tight, wait for backup and don't worry."
Jim didn't argue. "Okay, Mac." He hung up and staggered back to the kitchen table. He fell into a chair and picked up the bag of now-thawing peas and laid it gently across the back of his head. He'd had his bell rung several times in his career, whacked from ambush or punched or kicked in the jaw during a struggle, but this one took the prize. But he figured since he was still standing and still able to form complete sentences, fuzzy or not, he wasn't about to kick off any time soon. Although the way his brain hurt, he almost wished he would.
He wasn't sure how much time passed before he heard a noise in the apparatus bay. He stood up too quickly and had to wait for the room to quit bouncing around before he could move to the door. He opened it, expecting to find an L.A. County Deputy. The bay was empty. He hesitated, listening, then walked a few steps forward. As soon as he did, he felt a pressure against his lower spine.
"Don't move, buddy."
Jim swallowed hard and lifted his hands slightly. The familiar voice behind his left ear evoked images of a near fight in the locker room, of hard hands shoving him into his locker. Of a devastating rage on Jim's part as he turned and threatened to tear his attacker in two.
Jim's mind swirled. How did Burnside fit into all this? Trevino at least had the Italian connection, may even be related to the Cunetto's for all they knew, but . . . Burnside and Trevino worked together in Communications. But that still left them to figure out Trevino's connection. Being Italian was hardly enough to hang a murder rap on him.
Another prod in the back interrupted his speculation. "Hands up and move over against the wall."
"Why don't you just shoot me and get it over with," Jim growled.
Jim didn't have time to wonder at the surprised shock in Charlie's voice, because at that moment things suddenly and thoroughly came apart, almost too fast for Jim to take in. As Burnside reached out and pulled him around by the arm, a back door to the bay flew open. A voice shouted, then gunfire exploded into the vast silent room. Jim dove for the ground, but he wasn't hit. He rolled over and over until he reached the scant cover offered by a vending machine. He scrambled behind it and peeked around its edge. Burnside was down, not moving, and a large man was walking slowly across the concrete floor, gun out and pointed toward Burnside.
It took Jim a moment to place him. Robertson. Paul Robertson. He'd more than halfway expected it to be Trevino. Relief was a welcome flood of fresh air. He crawled out. "Am I glad to see you," he said.
Paul didn't answer immediately. He stood quietly studying Charlie. "I think I killed him."
Jim knelt down and pressed his fingers against Charlie's neck. He noticed that Charlie hadn't been carrying a gun--just a police baton. That was what he had stuck in my back-he probably lost his peace officer's rating and his license to carry along with it. But if he doesn't have a gun, how did he shoot at me earlier? He shook off the confusion, chalking it up to concussion. He'd sort it out later. "He's still alive. I'll call an ambulance. There's a phone in the . . . " Jim's words trailed off when he glanced up and saw that the black hollow of the gun was now trained on him. Probably his first shooting. Got him shook up but good. Jim kept his voice low-key. "Hey, might want to watch where you point that thing."
Then Jim noticed there was no evidence of the Mayberry smile in the hard blue eyes staring down at him. "I am watching."
Oh God . . .
Flashing reds and flickering strobes pierced the night. A fire engine was parked in the street, blocking one lane of traffic on Admiralty Way. Pete slowed the car down, wondering what was on fire, then slowed even more when he saw that all the activity was centered on the driveway in front of the fire station itself. He spied a sheriff's black and white and slowed further. He wanted to get to Bobby Owens' sloop, but something was telling him to pull in. After a brief internal tug-of-war, he pulled in and parked well behind the fire engine.
Pete jogged up the sidewalk. A fireman tried to stop him, but he flashed his badge and the man let go of his arm. "What's going on?" Pete asked.
"Damnedest thing. We were out on a run, came back and found the security guard from the hotel next door, shot and lying in a pool of blood right there in our apparatus bay." The man nodded toward the scene inside, where paramedics were working on a prone figure. All Pete could see were the victim's feet.
"You know the guard?"
"Charlie? Sure. He's a decent guy. Had some trouble before he took this job, but he's okay."
"You talking about Charlie Burnside?"
"You know him?"
But Pete was already hurrying into the station. Charlie's shirt had a large bloodstain just below the shoulder epaulet, but his eyes were open. When he saw Pete, he tried to sit up. "Malloy. Shoulda known you'd show up. You and Reed, regular Bobbsey twins."
"Hey, buddy, relax," a paramedic said, pushing him back down.
"Where is he?" Pete demanded, resisting the urge to reach down and shake the information out of Charlie. "What happened?"
Charlie let out a humorless laugh. "Sorry, buddy. I was looking at Reed's ugly mug when some kook came blasting through the back door. Reed ducked one way, and I ducked the other. My problem was I wasn't fast enough. Hit my head on the floor and that was the end of that until the fire department just about ran over me with their engine."
The deputy knelt down beside Pete. "We got a call to provide an off-duty LAPD officer some back up. Is that Reed?" At Pete's nod, the deputy continued. "We were told to meet him here at 110s, but nobody was around -- it was locked up. We checked the area on foot but we didn't locate him. Then the firemen came back from a call and discovered this guy, called us."
Pete stared at Burnside, thinking. For all they knew, Burnside might be in on this whole mess. He fit a lot of the details: has knowledge of DMV procedures and maybe access to the database through his security job. Works in the area, so he might have hooked up with Douglas at some point. And most of all, despite his pleas to the contrary, he had to still be carrying a grudge against Jim Reed. Pete hardened his voice. "What'd you do to him, Burnside?"
"I didn't do anything, I swear to God," Charlie said, his voice suddenly tired. "Look, I know what you're thinking, but I'm not a killer, least of all of Reed. I heard a shot, out over the water. Came out to investigate, saw somebody skulking into the fire station. So I worked my way over here, snuck in, and I found Jim Reed. And that's when the gorilla came in shooting. I'm sorry I don't have a cast of a thousand witnesses to convince you."
"Keep an eye on him," Pete told the deputy, then looked up at a fireman. "I need your phone. Now."
The fireman led him into a kitchen area. Two firemen were standing at the table, staring down at a bag of peas, one of them scratching his chin. As he dialed, he heard the other insist that he hadn't left them out. But then Pete tuned them out as he barked at the operator to connect him with Mac's office. Three clicks and a buzzing ring, and Mac answered. "Mac, listen . . . did Jim call you tonight?"
"Yeah, about twenty minutes ago, to send a unit out to his house. Where are you?"
"I'm at the fire station at Marina Del Rey."
"Good, is Reed there? Is he okay?"
"Reed's not here, Mac. But Charlie Burnside is, shot in the shoulder. Said he didn't see the shooter, but Mac, he could be involv-"
Pete blinked, stunned. "What?" he finally asked.
"When Jim called me last, he said he'd left a message for me earlier with Trevino. I never got the message. Up to that point, Trevino was the only one that knew where Jim had gone. It took me a while to track down Trevino--the Lieutenant apparently sent him on some errand--but just a few minutes ago I was able to question him about it, and he said that Robertson was at the desk when Trevino took the call. He offered to take the message and put it in my office. I didn't get a message, but Robertson did come into my office to tell me he had to leave. Said he had the flu."
"And he came out here," Pete finished for him. He couldn't comprehend how Robertson was connected to all this, but right now he didn't have the time to figure it out. "Do you have any idea where he might have taken Jim?"
"Trevino told me that Robertson's been living on a houseboat at the Marina for the last six months. Inherited it from his uncle or something. I'm sorry, Pete. I should have checked Robertson's package before this. His address is a PO Box in Marina Del Rey."
"You had no way to know, Mac. None of us did. What about Trevino--does he know where the boat is?"
"No, he said he doesn't. Wait a minute, Wells just came in . . . he's got it." Mac rattled off the directions. "Be careful, Pete."
Pete barely acknowledged as he hung up and ran out into the apparatus bay.
"I was gonna make it out, free and clear, but you and your stupid little wife had to blow it all for me." Robertson spat the words out as he yanked Jim's arms painfully behind him. Jim felt Robertson's hot breath against the back of his neck as he cuffed Jim's wrists and then shoved him down a short ladder to the salon of a small houseboat.
Jim crashed to the floor, his tenuous hold on consciousness threatening to slip away entirely. Everything seemed gray and murky. He'd put up a fight, back at the station house, but between his sore shoulder and concussion, it had only taken Robertson one clip of the gun alongside his jaw for Jim to crumple. He vaguely remembered stumbling down the steps outside the station. Tripping as he walked down a darkened sidewalk. Robertson's lighthearted voice telling some couple they passed that some folks just couldn't hold their liquor. But it was all a blur, a dream remembered only in shadows and snatches of sound. Only the scratchy carpet pressing against his cheek and the cold metal encircling his wrists had form and substance.
Time slowed. He drifted, somewhere in the murk, until a soft thump on the deck beside him signaled that Robertson had returned. He heard Robertson moving around the cabin, rearranging things, making small ripping noises, even brushing Jim's leg slightly with his foot as he stalked around. Jim felt a distant urge to try to trip him, but the message drifted away without reaching his legs.
He flinched when Robertson's face suddenly appeared just inches from his own. "I've got nothing now. You understand that? Nothing. I know what to do, though. Yeah, you and me, we're going out together. You got that? We're going out together."
"Don't . . . don't do this. Don't throw your life away like this. Let me help you . . ."
"Help me? That's rich. You screw my life up completely and then beg to fix everything? Fat chance, pal," Robertson snarled. "I'd heard you were a real social worker. But you can forget it."
His face disappeared upward and from his cheek-to-the-rug vantage point, Jim saw the LAPD issue navy pants and black shoes walk away and ascend the four steps of the ladder. A moment later, a growling hum shook the floor beneath him as the engine shuddered to life.
As he listened to the sounds of Robertson untying mooring ropes and preparing to depart from the pier, the muddle in Jim's mind slowly shook itself out into more coherent thought. He needed to get up, try to somehow sneak off the boat while Robertson was busy steering. He set his jaw and rolled into a sitting position. He squinted around the poorly-lit room for anything that might help him. Built-in benches for seats. A small table. Galley at the far end. He peered more closely at the table and felt the icy claw again scratch down his back. He now realized what had kept Robertson so busy. Strapped underneath the table were four sticks of dynamite. He followed the det cord as it snaked to the floor and along the carpet to another set of dynamite taped to the side of the cabin, probably right at the waterline. A cord led from there to some point above deck. The entire boat was rigged to blow.
The sight of all the explosives did wonders for clearing away the fog in Jim's head. He didn't bother trying to get free of the cuffs. He pulled his leg up underneath him and staggered to his feet. The room momentarily darkened, but he squeezed his eyes shut and reopened them several times and the lightheadedness faded. He looked out the open doorway. It was a clear shot from there to the bow of the boat and onto the dock. All he needed to do was climb that ladder. The boat moved slightly and he staggered forward.
Pete couldn't get his legs to churn fast enough. He counted off rows of boats, turned a corner, and found himself running toward Neptune's Lover and the Pride of the Pacific. Jason Stevenson stuck his head over the railing just as Pete passed. "Hey, Officer Malloy! Where's the fire?" he called, then he spotted Pete's gun. "Oh man. This can't be good. You lookin' for your friend? And maybe that other officer?"
Pete skidded to a halt. "Yeah. What do you know about a houseboat moored around the corner down there?" He waved in the general direction.
"Yeah, that's Robertson's. That's where your buddy is, too. I mean, like I saw Robertson come by about fifteen, maybe twenty minutes ago, still in uniform and everything. Your buddy was with him. Your buddy looked like he'd tied a few on, you know? Could barely stand up. 'Course, that Robertson, he's pretty into the whole party scene, for a cop. But I didn't think your partner seemed the type."
"He's not. Tell me, what kind of boats are moored around the houseboat?"
"None, man. It's at the end of the row. Nothing moored on the starboard side, and a straight shot to Hawaii on the port. You want some help?" He started to jump down.
"No, we'll handle it. There'll be some more officers heading this way. Just show them where to go."
"No problem -- hey, hear that? That's the houseboat starting up."
"Positive. It's got a big engine, but that guy, he don't take care of it. Nothing else along here makes that kind of racket."
Pete turned on his heel and somehow managed to coax a little more speed out of his legs. He still had that nightmare feeling of running through quicksand.
The houseboat finally came into view. The boat was backing out of its spot, and as it did, a figure appeared on the deck. Pete drew his gun, then recognized the familiar outline of his partner. It looked like Jim's hands were pinned behind him, but he still managed to jump up on the railing and make a wild leap across the widening gap between the boat and the pier.
He landed on the very edge of the wooden walkway, teetered for a heart-stopping moment, then fell forward. Pete started toward him, but Robertson emerged from the cockpit. He raised his arm and fired a shot toward Pete, forcing him to dive for cover. He saw Jim struggle to regain his feet. "Jim! Stay down!"
"Get back! He's got it rigged to blow!"
Pete cursed under his breath, fired off three quick shots, than dashed out from cover and grabbed Jim's arm. He all but hauled Jim to his feet. "Got you, partner," he said breathlessly. He threaded his arm around Jim's waist and half-carried him as they ran for their lives.
They had put about forty feet between them and the boat when a giant concussion seemed to split the very air around them. Pete felt his feet leave the boardwalk as a giant fist slapped him from behind. He landed on his stomach, his chin cracking painfully on the wood planking. His gun flew out of his hand into the night. He had no idea where Jim landed.
Another concussion rocked the world, and this time flaming bits of wood and fabric started raining down around him. One landed on his calf. He jerked and swiped it away, then crawled to his feet. He spotted his partner about fifteen feet away. Jim was trying to get to his knees, but not making much progress with his arms still cuffed behind him. Pete crawled on his hands and knees to Jim. "Need a hand?"
Jim managed a small grin. "Good to see you."
"Yeah, thanks for the warning." Pete pulled out his handcuff key and freed Jim's arms, noticing the welt along Jim's jaw. "You look like somebody used you a little rough, partner."
"Yeah," Jim sighed, touching his jaw and wincing. He started to lift his left hand, winced again, and moved his right hand to the back of his head, holding it like he was afraid his head was threatening to crumble apart. He cradled his left arm against a drawn-up leg.
"Let me see," Pete said, moving one hand away. He felt a large knot. Jim hissed and knocked his hand away.
"Take it easy, Jim. We'll get you to the hospital." Pete kept a steadying hand on Jim's back, but he turned to look at the burning houseboat. He couldn't see any sign that Robertson had gotten out alive.
"Paul Robertson, LAPD probationary officer with a side hobby of tinkering with explosives, supplied by the Cunettos, by the way, and providing same unsavory elements with DMV information that led Roberto Cunetto to Jim Reed's residence," Ericsson read from his notebook as he stood with Pete, Mac, Wells and Trevino in the waiting room of County General's emergency department. He squinted through his cigar smoke at Mac. "You guys really oughta screen your rookies better. This makes two out of that bunch that went sour."
"Is he dead?" Ed asked. Pete had never seen him look so grim.
"Yeah," Ericsson said with surprising gentleness. "The first explosion blew him clear. Fire department fished him out of the water. He was still alive at that point. Died en route to the hospital right after he gave me a dying declaration. Just as well, I guess. He was burned pretty bad. Life would have been hell."
Pete sighed. He'd been so busy helping Jim, and then riding in Jim's ambulance to the hospital, that he was only just now learning what happened back at the Marina. "So what's his story?"
"Basically, he was Cunetto's explosives expert."
"But what's his connection?" Mac demanded. "Why'd he ever get involved with Cunetto in the first place?"
"We put that very question to Giancarlo Cunetto while you boys were out rescuing Reed, and he cracked wide open. See, his brother Roberto isn't a U.S. citizen, but the older Cunetto is. No hope of diplomatic immunity for ol' Giancarlo, so he's suddenly playing John Q. Citizen, bending over backward to help us pin it all on his brother. Real filial bonds there, gotta love it."
"So what's the connection?" Mac interrupted impatiently.
"Little thing called blackmail. Apparently your boy was quite a maniac when it came to the party scene. He went to a party down there on one of the boats, about a year ago. Edward Douglas' boat, to be exact. There was some H floating around, lotta weed, reds, you name it. The usual party favors. And Roberto Cunetto was there. Here's where it gets interesting: we already know that Cunetto's got this hobby, see, of taking pictures. Sneaky pictures, if you know what I mean. LVPD found a whole drawerful of those little spy cameras when they searched his office. Real James Bond stuff, you know what I mean? And in a locked safe, a whole file folder full of pictures of people in, shall we say, compromising situations? No names on any of them, of course, but we sent LVPD the info on Robertson and they came back with the match. Giancarlo, naturally, is disavowing all involvement with the pictures, saying it was all Roberto's doing and he only recently found out about it, that whole sad song and dance. Who knows, maybe he didn't look too close at his brother's hiring practices when it came to employing hit men. Anyway, back to the unlabeled glossies: Roberto Cunetto was cagey. The LVPD are still trying to track down the people on most of the pictures. If there's any correspondence relating to the photos, LVPD ain't found it yet. But, still, we can figure that Cunetto probably found out party boy Robertson was due to graduate from the Academy in a few months, so along with a congratulations card, he sent copies of some photos showing Robertson getting cute with a little blonde thing, right in front of a coffee table full of fun."
Pete glanced at Ed. He couldn't tell if Wells was ready to cry or explode in anger. Ed caught him looking. "You think you know a guy," he started, then shook his head.
"Yeah," Ericsson said. "Kinda makes you wanna puke, good young recruit messed up like that. At least I guess he was a good recruit."
Ed nodded. "Was for the three weeks he rode with me."
"He was good," Trevino added quietly. "Too good to end up like this."
"You guys Academy buddies?"
"Yeah." Trevino looked at Ed and Pete. "I wish he'd said something. We might've been able to help him untangle the mess without him killing himself. Or trying to kill Officer Reed."
Ed nodded, and Pete smiled sadly. "Sometimes you can't save a person from himself."
"Yeah," Trevino said, turning away quickly to walk to the window, but not quickly enough to hide the tears in his eyes.
Ericsson watched him go. "That one, he a good kid?"
Wells cleared his throat. "Yeah. He's a keeper. On that one I'll stake my reputation."
Ericsson grunted. "Well, back to Robertson, he managed to tell me that he had to make the bombs or lose everything. What a choice. How do you balance being an arsonist with being a cop? Murdering with wearing a badge? I guess he just couldn't give up either one. Damn shame."
"He started out on the right path," Pete said. "Family heritage. His father, couple cousins, uncle. All in police work here and other places. He was following in their footsteps."
Ericsson shook his head. "And he threw it all away at some stupid party. Kids. What are they thinking? Speaking of kids, how is Reed, anyway? I heard it got rocky for him there for a while."
"I think he'll be okay," Pete said. "Doc said he has a concussion. Bruised jaw, bruised shoulder. Might have trouble eating for a few days until the swelling goes down."
"That'll kill him," Ed quipped.
"Oh, two final loose ends, both about that Stevenson kid -- that day you and Reed took sniper fire at the Marina? That was Robertson, too. He overheard Trevino telling your sergeant where you were going, and at change of watch he zipped home for a little target practice on you two. And before that, he planted the bomb on Stevenson's boat, per Giancarlo's instructions. Giancarlo got wind that Stevenson had ratted on him." Ericsson folded his notebook and stashed it away in a shirt pocket. "Well, there ain't anything left for me to do here, so I gotta scrambola and go finish up out at the Marina. On top of all this, got a couple firemen complaining that somebody broke into the station and stole some of their food outta the freezer. Like we got time to investigate frozen pea bandits." Ericsson rolled his eyes, shoved the unlit cigar back into his mouth and walked away. He turned around after a few steps. "Hey, Malloy. Do me one last favor -- tell Reed to stay off boats!"
Pete worked up a smile, but his thoughts were already drifting a thousand miles away. Like Trevino had done, Pete walked away from the others and looked out the window, wondering how Jim would take all this news. Jim didn't really know Robertson any better than Pete did, but any time an LAPD officer went bad, it made both of them sick at heart.
It would make all the papers. The eleven o'clock news. The full tabloid treatment. The esteemed members of the media weren't in evidence yet, but he knew any minute now they would barge in like a swarm of hungry locust, with their intrusive microphones and flashing cameras. Lately it seemed like every time he turned around, there was another headline flaunting the department's dirty laundry for the entire world to see. Each time it happened, it put a sour knot in Pete's stomach that nothing seemed to ease. Pete and Jim and every other decent LA cop ended up wearing the hat, going out on patrol in the aftermath and enduring the scathing looks, the attitudes, the glares. The lack of cooperation. Even in the best of times, most people only looked as far as the uniform. And when the uniform got dirty, people didn't bother to even try to look past the mud to see the badge. It made their already tough job that much harder.
Pete shook off his self-pity. What's done was done. At least they'd all come out of it in one piece.
More or less.
"So he's dead?" was all Jim said after Pete finished relaying Ericsson's report. He still had a killer headache, but two hours' rest in a quiet hospital room had helped clear his head.
"Yeah. Died on the way in."
Jim was quiet for a moment. Trying to reconcile the Mayberry kid so proud to wear the badge with a stone-cold killer. Burned to death. He couldn't do it, even though he'd looked straight into those eyes and seen the monster glaring back at him. "It's like he had an entire secret life."
"That's it exactly, partner. A life none of us even hazarded a guess at. Not even Wells."
"How's Wells taking it?"
"Pretty hard. It shook him."
"What about Charlie?"
"Heck of a thing, that. He took a slug to the shoulder, but he'll be okay. And they cleared him of any involvement. I had my doubts for a while."
"Me too. Guess I misjudged him."
"I don't know. I still wouldn't trust him with a badge, but apparently that hotel has another opinion."
"I guess I should be grateful they did. If I hadn't heard Charlie out there, I might have walked out and took a bullet from Robertson."
"Burnside the anti-hero. What a thought."
Jim smiled fleetingly, then looked hard and long at Pete. "This thing, it's like a nightmare that won't ever end."
"It's coming to an end now, partner."
Jim wished he could be as optimistic. He thought about Charlie Burnside and his badge heavy ways. About the North Hollywood rookie. And now Robertson. When will it end? How much tarnish can that badge take before it's too far gone to ever shine again? He didn't like the empty feeling he got thinking about it. "Pete?"
Jim shook his head. "Never mind."
"What's on your mind?"
A pause. "How hard it is to work when the silver's tarnished."
Pete smiled sadly. "This too shall pass."
"But will the next one?"
"I don't know, partner. I'm not a clairvoyant. But I do know one thing."
"I know I don't ever need to worry about the shine on your badge."
"No, you just need to worry I'll lose it falling into the water at the Marina," Jim snorted.
"Well, yeah, there's always that possibility." Pete grinned. "Want me to have it waterproofed for you, maybe put a flotation device on it?"
"Maybe you should."
"I've got a better idea," Jean's voice suddenly came from the doorway. "Stay away from the Marina." Jim smiled as Jean came into the examination room. She gave him a tearful kiss, looked at his swollen jaw and the sling on his left arm, touched a scrape on his chin. She shook her head. "I don't know what I'm going to do with you, Big Jim. I'm about ready to chain you to Queenie's doghouse for your own protection."
"She's got the right idea, partner."
"You call that protection? Queenie would bite my arm off. I'll take my chances with a sailboat any day. In fact, soon as the doc says it's okay, let's all go out to Catalina."
Jean's jaw dropped and Pete's eyebrows shot up. "You've gotta be kidding," he blurted.
"Well, why not? What are the odds of all this happening twice in a lifetime?"
"When it comes to you, partner, I refuse to speculate. Jean, take this meatball home and beat some sense into him, would you?"
"I would, but you know how hard that skull is. He's hopeless." But she smiled at Jim as she said it.
Jim grinned at his wife's playful teasing and squeezed her hand. I may be hopeless, but I'm alive. I'm sure enough alive, and my family is finally safe.
And that badge may tarnish but not while it's on my chest.
Not while it's on my chest.