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     ROBERT CRAIS: EXCERPT - HOSTAGE

Prologue

The man in the house was going to kill himself. When the man threw his phone into the yard, Talley knew that he had accepted his own death. After six years as a crisis negotiator with the Los Angeles Police Department's SWAT team, Sergeant Jeff Talley knew that people in crisis often spoke in symbols. This symbol was clear: Talk was over. Talley feared that the man would die by his own hand, or do something to force the police to kill him. It was called suicide by cop. Talley believed it to be his fault.
     "Did they find his wife yet?"
     "Not yet. They're still looking."
     "Looking doesn't help, Murray. I gotta have something to give this guy after what happened."
     "That's not your fault."
     "It
is my fault. I blew it, and now this guy is circling the drain."
     Talley crouched behind an armored command vehicle with the SWAT commander, a lieutenant named Murray Leifitz, who was also his negotiating team supervisor. From this position, Talley had spoken to George Donald Malik through a dedicated crisis phone that had been cut into the house line. Now that Malik had thrown his phone into the yard, Talley could use the public address megaphone or do it face-to-face. He hated the megaphone, which made his voice harsh and depersonalized the contact. The illusion of a personal relationship was important; the illusion of trust was everything. Talley strapped on a kevlar vest.
     Malik shouted through the broken window, his voice high and strained.
     "I'm going to kill this dog! I'm going to kill it!"
     Leifitz leaned past Talley to peek at the house. This was the first time Malik had mentioned a dog.
     "What the fuck? Does he have a dog in there?"
     "How do I know? I've got to try to undo some of the damage here, okay? Ask the neighbors about the dog. Get me a name."
     "If he pops a cap, we're going in there, Jeff. That's all there is to it."
     "Just take it easy and get a name for the dog."
     Leifitz scuttled backward to speak with Malik's neighbors.
     George Malik was an unemployed house painter with too much credit card debt, an unfaithful wife who flaunted her affairs, and prostate cancer. Fourteen hours earlier, at two-twelve that morning, he had fired one shot above the heads of the police officers who had come to his door in response to a disturbance complaint. He then barricaded the door and threatened to kill himself unless his wife agreed to speak to him. The officers who secured the area ascertained from neighbors that Malik's wife, Elena, had left with their only child, a nine-year-old boy named Brendan. As detectives from Rampart Division set about locating her, Malik threatened suicide with greater frequency until Talley was convinced that Malik was nearing the terminal point. When the Rampart detectives reported what they believed to be a solid location obtained from the wife's sister, Talley took a chance. He told Malik that his wife had been found. That was Talley's mistake. He had violated a cardinal rule of crisis negotiation: He had lied, and been caught. He had made a promise that he had been unable to deliver, and so had destroyed the illusion of trust that he had been building. That was two hours ago, and now word had arrived that the wife had still not been found.
     "I'm gonna kill this fuckin' dog, goddamnit! This is her goddamned dog, and I'm gonna shoot this sonofabitch right in the head, she don't start talkin' to me!"
     Talley stepped out from behind the vehicle. He had been on the scene for eleven hours. His skin was greased with sweat, his head throbbed, and his stomach was cramping from too much coffee and stress. He made his voice conversational, yet concerned.
     "George, it's me, Jeff. Don't kill anything, okay? We don't want to hear a gun go off."
     "You liar! You said my wife was gonna talk to me!"
It was a small stucco house the color of dust. Two casement windows braced the front door above a tiny porch. The door was closed, and drapes had been pulled across the windows. The window on the left was broken from the phone. Eight feet to the right of the porch, a five-member SWAT Tactical Team hunkered against the wall, waiting to breach the door. Malik could not be seen.
     "George, listen, I said that we'd found her, and I want to explain that. I was wrong. We got our wires crossed out here, and they gave me bad information. But we're still looking, and when we find her, we'll have her talk to you."
     "You lied before, you bastard, and now you're lying again. You're lying to protect that bitch, and I won't have it. I'm gonna shoot her dog and then I'm gonna blow my brains out."
     Talley waited. It was important that he appear calm and give Malik the room to cool. People burned off stress when they talked. If he could reduce Malik's level of stress, they could get over the hump and still climb out of this.
"Don't shoot the dog, George. Whatever's between you and your wife, let's not take it out on the dog. Is it your dog, too?"
     "I don't know whose fuckin' dog it is. She lied about everything else, so she probably lied about the dog. She's a natural born liar. Like you."
"George, c'mon. I was wrong, but I didn't lie. I made a mistake. A liar wouldn't admit that, but I want to be straight with you. Now, I'm a dog guy myself. What kind of dog you got in there?"
     "I don't believe you. You know right where she is, and unless you make her talk to me, I'm gonna shoot this dog."
     The depths to which people sank in the shadowed crevasses of desperation could crush a man as easily as the weight of water at the ocean floor. Talley had learned to hear the pressure building in people's voices, and he heard it now. Malik was being crushed.
     "Don't give up, George. I'm sure that she'll talk to you."
     "Then why won't she open her mouth? Why won't the bitch just say something, that's all she's gotta do?"
     "We'll work it out."
     "Say something, goddamnit!"
     "I said we'll work it out."
    
"Say something or I'm gonna shoot this damned dog!"
     Talley took a breath, thinking. Malik's choice of words left him confused. Talley had spoken clearly, yet Malik acted as if he hadn't heard. Talley worried that Malik was dissociating or approaching a psychotic break.
     "George, I can't see you. Come to the window so I can see you."
  
   "STOP LOOKING AT ME!"
     "George, please come to the window!"
     Talley saw Leifitz return to the rear of the vehicle. They were close, only a few feet apart, Leifitz under cover, Talley exposed.
     Talley spoke under his breath.
    "What's the dog's name?"
     Leifitz shook his head.
     "They say he doesn't have a dog."
    
"OPEN YOUR GODDAMNED MOUTH RIGHT NOW OR I'M SHOOTING THIS DOG!"
     Something hard pounded in the center of Talley's head, and his back felt wet. He suddenly realized that illusions worked both ways. The Rampart detectives hadn't found Malik's wife because Malik's wife was inside. The neighbors were wrong. She had been inside the entire time. The wife and the boy.
     "Murray, launch the team!"
     Talley shouted at Murray Leifitz just as a loud whipcrack echoed from the house. A second shot popped even as the Tactical Team breached the front door.
     Talley ran forward, feeling weightless. Later, he would not remember jumping onto the porch or entering through the door. Malik's lifeless body was pinned to the floor, his hands being cuffed behind his back even though he was already dead. Malik's wife was sprawled on the living room sofa where she had been dead for over fourteen hours. Two tac officers were trying to stop the geyser of arterial blood that spurted from the neck of Malik's nine-year-old son. One of them screamed for the paramedics. The boy's eyes were wide, searching the room as if trying to find a reason for all this. His mouth opened and closed; his skin luminous as it drained of color. The boy's eyes found Talley, who knelt and rested a hand on the boy's leg. Talley never broke eye contact. He didn't allow himself to blink. He let Brendan Malik have that comfort as he watched the boy die.
     After a while, Talley went out to sit on the porch. His head buzzed like he was drunk. Across the street, police officers milled by their cars. Talley lit a cigarette, then replayed the past eleven hours, looking for clues that should have told him what was real. He could not find them. Maybe there weren't any, but he didn't believe that. He had blown it. He had made mistakes. The boy had been here the entire time, curled at the feet of his murdered mother like a loyal and faithful dog.
     Murray Leifitz put a hand on his shoulder and told him to go home.
     Jeff Talley had been a Los Angeles SWAT officer for thirteen years, serving as a Crisis Response Team negotiator for six. Today was his third crisis call in five days.
     He tried to recall the boy's eyes, but had already forgotten if they were brown or blue.
     Talley crushed his cigarette, walked down the street to his car, and went home. He had an eleven-year-old daughter named Amanda. He wanted to check her eyes. He couldn't remember their color and was scared that he no longer cared.

 

CHAPTER 1
The Avocado Orchard

Bristo Camino,California
Friday,2:47 P.M.

     DENNIS ROONEY

It was one of those high-desert days in the suburban communities north of Los Angeles with the air so dry it was like breathing sand; the sun licked their skin with fire. They were eating hamburgers from the In-N-Out, riding along in Dennis’s truck, a red Nissan pickup that he’d bought for six hundred dollars from a Bolivian he’d met working construction two weeks before he had been arrested; Dennis Rooney driving, twenty-two years old and eleven days out of the Antelope Valley Correctional Facility, what the inmates called the Ant Farm; his younger brother, Kevin, wedged in the middle; and a guy named Mars filling the shotgun seat. Dennis had known Mars for only four days.
     Later, in the coming hours when Dennis would frantically reconsider his actions, he would decide that it hadn’t been the saw-toothed heat that had put him in the mood to do crime: It was fear. Fear that something special was waiting for him that he would never find, and that this special thing would disappear around some curve in his life, and with it his one shot at being more than nothing.
     Dennis decided that they should rob the minimart.
     “Hey, I know. Let’s rob that fuckin’ minimart, the one on the other side of Bristo where the road goes up toward Santa Clarita.”
     “I thought we were going to the movie.”
     That being Kevin, wearing his chickenshit face: eyebrows crawling over the top of his head, darting eyeballs, and quivering punkass lips. In the movie of Dennis’s life, he saw himself as the brooding outsider all the cheerleaders wanted to fuck; his brother was the geekass cripple holding him back.
     “This is a better idea, chickenshit. We’ll go to the movie after.”
     “You just got back from the Farm, Dennis, Jesus. You want to go back?”
     Dennis flicked his cigarette out the window, ignoring the blow-back of sparks and ash as he considered himself in the Nissan’s side-view. By his own estimation, he had moody deep-set eyes the color of thunderstorms, dramatic cheekbones, and sensuous lips. Looking at himself, which he did, often, he knew that it was only a matter of time before his destiny arrived, before the special thing waiting for him presented itself and he could bag the minimum -  wage jobs and life in a shithole apartment with his chickenshit brother.
     Dennis adjusted the .32-caliber automatic wedged in his pants, then glanced past Kevin to Mars.
     “What do you think, dude?”
     Mars was a big guy, heavy across the shoulders and ass. He had a tattoo on the back of his shaved head that said BURN IT. Dennis had met him at the construction site where he and Kevin were pulling day work for a cement contractor. He didn’t know Mars’s last name. He had not asked.
     “Dude? Whattaya think?”
     “I think let’s go see.”
     That was all it took.

The minimart was on Flanders Road, a rural boulevard that linked several expensive housing tracts. Four pump islands framed a bunkerlike market that sold toiletries, soft drinks, booze, and convenience items. Dennis pulled up behind the building so they couldn’t be seen from inside, the Nissan bucking as he downshifted. The transmission was a piece of shit.
     “Look at this, man. The fuckin’ place is dead. It’s perfect.”
     “C’mon, Dennis, this is stupid. We’ll get caught.”
     “I’m just gonna see, is all. Don’t give yourself a piss enema.”
     The parking lot was empty except for a black Beemer at the pumps and two bicycles by the front door. Dennis’s heart was pound-ing, his underarms clammy even in the awful dry heat that sapped his spit. He would never admit it, but he was nervous. Fresh off the Farm, he didn’t want to go back, but he didn’t see how they could get caught, or what could go wrong. It was like being swept along by a mindless urge. Resistance was futile.
     Cold air rolled over him as Dennis pushed inside. Two kids were at the magazine rack by the door. A fat Chinaman was hunkered be-hind the counter, so low that all Dennis could see was his head poking up like a frog playing submarine in a mud puddle.
     The minimart was two aisles and a cold case packed with beer, yogurt, and Cokes. Dennis had a flash of uncertainty, and thought about telling Mars and Kevin that a whole pile of Chinamen were behind the counter so he could get out of having to rob the place, but he didn’t. He went to the cold case, then along the rear wall to make sure no one was in the aisles, his heart pounding because he knew he was going to do it. He
was going to rob this fucking place. As he was walking back to the truck, the Beemer pulled away. He went to the passenger window. To Mars.
     “There’s nothing but two kids and a Chinaman in there, the Chinaman behind the counter, a fat guy.”
     Kevin said, “They’re Korean.”
     “What?”
     “The sign says ‘Kim.’ Kim is a Korean name.”
     That was Kevin, always with something to say like that. Dennis wanted to reach across Mars and grab Kevin by the fucking neck. He pulled up his T-shirt to flash the butt of his pistol.
     “Who gives a shit, Kevin? That Chinaman is gonna shit his pants when he sees this. I won’t even have to take it out, goddamnit. Thirty seconds, we’ll be down the road. He’ll have to wipe himself before he calls the cops.”
     Kevin squirmed with a case of the chicken-shits, his nerves making his eyes dance around like beans in hot grease.
     “Dennis, please. What are we going to get here, a couple of hundred bucks? Jesus, let’s go to the movie.”
     Dennis told himself that he might have driven away if Kevin wasn’t such a whiner, but, no, Kevin had to put on the goddamned pussy face, putting Dennis on the spot.
     Mars was watching. Dennis felt himself flush, and wondered if Mars was judging him. Mars was a boulder of a guy; dense and quiet, watchful with the patience of a rock. Dennis had noticed that about Mars on the job site; Mars considered people. He would watch a conversation, say, like when two of the Mexicans hammered a third to throw in with them on buying some tamales. Mars would watch, not really part of it but above it, as if he could see all the way back to when they were born, see them wetting the bed when they were five or jerking off when they thought they were alone. Then he would make a vacant smile like he knew everything they might do now or in the future, even about the god-damned tamales. It was creepy, sometimes, that expression on his face, but Mars thought that Dennis had good ideas and usually went along. First time they met, four days ago, Dennis felt that his destiny was finally at hand. Here was Mars, charged with some dangerous electrical potential that crackled under his skin, and he did whatever Dennis told him.
     “Mars, we’re gonna do this. We’re robbing this fuckin’ store.”
     Mars climbed out of the truck, so cool that even heat like this couldn’t melt him.
     “Let’s do it.”
     Kevin didn’t move. The two kids pedaled away.
     “No one’s here, Kevin! All you have to do is stand by the door and watch. This fat fuck will cough right up with the cash. They’re in-sured, so they just hand over the cash. They get fired if they don’t.”
     Dennis grabbed his brother’s T-shirt. The Lemonheads, for chrissake. His fucking brother was a lemonhead. Mars was already halfway to the door.
     “Get out of the truck, you turd. You’re making us look bad.”
     Kevin wilted and slid out like a fuckin’ baby.

     JUNIOR KIM, JR.
     KIM’S MINIMART

Junior Kim, Jr., knew a cheese dip when he saw one.
     Junior, a second-generation Korean-American, had put in six-teen years behind a minimart counter in the Newton area of Los Angeles. Down in Shootin’ Newton (as the LAPD called it), Junior had been beaten, mugged, stabbed, shot at, clubbed, and robbed forty-three times. Enough was enough. After sixteen years of that, Junior, his wife, their six children, and all four grandparents had bailed on the multi-cultural melting pot of greater LA, and moved north to the far less dangerous demographic of bedroom suburbia.
     Junior was not naïve. A minimart, by its nature, draws cheese dips like bad meat draws flies. Even here in Bristo Camino, you had your shoplifters (mostly teenagers, but often men in business suits), your paperhangers (mostly women), your hookers passing counterfeit currency (driven up from LA by their pimps), and your drunks (mostly belligerent white men sprouting gin blossoms). Lightweight stuff com-pared to LA, but Junior believed in being prepared. After sixteen years of hard-won inner-city lessons, Junior kept “a little something” under the counter for anyone who got out of hand.
     When three cheese dips walked in that Friday afternoon, Junior leaned forward so that his chest touched the counter and his hands were hidden.
     “May I help you?”
     A skinny kid in a Lemonheads T-shirt stayed by the door. An older kid in a faded black wife-beater and a large man with a shaved head walked toward him, the older kid raising his shirt to show the ugly black grip of a pistol. “Two packs of Marlboros for my friend here and all the cash you got in that box, you gook motherfucker.”
     Junior Kim could read a cheese dip a mile away.
     His face impassive, Junior fished under the counter for his 9mm Glock. He found it just as the cheese dip launched himself over the counter. Junior lurched to his feet, bringing up the Glock as the black-shirted dip crashed into him. Junior hadn’t expected this asshole to jump over the counter, and hadn’t been able to thumb off the safety.
     The larger man shouted, “He’s got a gun!”
     Everything happened so quickly that Junior wasn’t sure whose hands were where. The black shirt forgot about his own gun and tried to twist away Junior’s. The big guy reached across the counter, also grabbing for the gun. Junior was more scared now than any of the other times he had pulled his weapon. If he couldn’t release the safety before this kid pulled his own gun, or wrestled away Junior’s, Junior knew that he would be fucked. Junior Kim was in a fight for his life.
     Then the safety slipped free, and Junior Kim, Jr., knew that he had won.
     He said, “I gotcha, you dips.”
     The Glock went off, a heavy 9mm explosion that made the cheese dip’s eyes bulge with a terrible surprise.
     Junior smiled, victorious.
     “Fuck you.”
     Then Junior felt the most incredible pain in his chest. It filled him as if he were having a heart attack. He stumbled back into the Slurpee machine as the blood spilled out of his chest and spread across his shirt. Then he slid to the floor.
     The last thing Junior heard was the cheese dip by the door, shouting, “Dennis! Hurry up! Somebody’s outside!”

Part 2

     DENNIS

Their voices overlapped, Kevin grabbing Dennis’s arm, making the truck swerve. Dennis punched him away.
     “You killed that guy! You shot him!”
     “I don’t know if he’s dead or what!”
     “There was fucking blood everywhere! It’s all over you!”
     “Stop it, Kevin! He had a fuckin’ gun! I didn’t know he would have a gun! It just went off!”
     Kevin pounded the dash, bouncing between Dennis and Mars like he was going to erupt through the roof.
     “We’re fucked, Dennis, fucked! What if he’s dead?!”
     “SHUT UP!”
     Dennis licked his lips, tasting copper and salt. He glanced in the rearview. His face was splattered with red dew. Dennis lost it then, certifiably freaked out because he’d eaten human blood. He swiped at his face, wiping the blood on his jeans.
     Mars touched him.
     “Dude. Take it easy.”
     “We’ve gotta get away!”
     “We’re getting away. No one saw us. No one caught us. We’re fine.”
     Mars sat quietly in the shotgun seat. Kevin and Dennis were wild, but Mars was as calm as if he had just awakened from a trance. He was holding the Chinaman’s gun.
     “Fuck! Throw it out, dude! We might get stopped.”
     Mars pushed the gun into his waistband, then left his hand there, holding it the way some men hold their crotch.
     “We might need it.”
     Dennis upshifted hard, ignoring the clash of gears as he threw the Nissan toward the freeway two miles ahead. At least four people had seen the truck. Even these dumb Bristo cops would be able to put two and two together if they had witnesses who could tie them to the truck.
     “Listen, we gotta think. We gotta figure out what to do.”
     Kevin’s eyes were like dinner plates.
     “Jesus, Dennis, we gotta turn ourselves in.”
     Dennis felt so much pressure in his head that he thought his eyes were swelling.
     “No one’s turning themselves in! We can get outta this! We just gotta figure out what to do!”
     Mars touched him again.
     “Listen.”
     Mars was smiling at nothing. Not even looking at them.
     “We’re just three guys in a red truck. There’s a million red trucks.”
     Dennis desperately wanted to believe that.
     “You think?”
     “They’ve got to find witnesses. If they find those two kids or the woman, then those people have to describe us. Maybe they can, but maybe they can’t. When the cops get all that sorted out, then they have to start looking for three white guys in a red truck. You know how many red trucks there are?”
     “A million.”
     “That’s right. And how long does all that take? The rest of the day? Tomorrow? We can be across the border in four hours. Let’s go down to Mexico.”
     The vacant smile was absolutely sure of itself. Mars was so calm that Dennis found himself convinced; it was as if Mars had run this path before and knew the turns.
     “That’s a fucking plan, Mars. That’s a plan! We can kick back for a few days, then come back when everything blows over. It always blows over.”
     “That’s right.”
     Dennis pushed harder on the accelerator, felt the transmission lag, and then a loud BANG came from under the truck. The transmission let go. Six hundred dollars. Cash. What did he expect?
     “MotherFUCKing piece of SHIT!”
     The truck lost power, bucking as Dennis guided it off the road. Even before it lurched to a stop, Dennis shoved open the door, desperate to run. Kevin caught his arm, holding him back.
     “There’s nothing we can do, Dennis. We’re only making it worse.”
     “Shut up!”
     Dennis shook off his brother’s hand and slid out of the truck. He searched up and down the road, half expecting to see a highway patrol car, but the cars were few and far between and those were mostly soccer moms. Flanders Road from here to the freeway cut through an area
of affluent housing developments. Some of the communities were gated, but most weren’t, though most were hidden from the road by hedges that masked heavy stone walls. Dennis looked at the hedges, and the walls that they hid. He wondered if escape lay beyond them.
     It was like Mars read his mind.
     “Let’s steal a car.”
     Dennis looked at the wall again. On the other side of it would be a housing development filled with cars. They could crash into a house, tie up the soccer mom to buy some time, and drive.
     Dennis didn’t think about it any more than that.
     “Let’s go.”

     “Dennis, please.”
     Dennis pulled his brother out of the truck.
     They crashed into the hedges and went up the wall.

     OFFICER MIKE WELCH,
     BRISTO CAMINO POLICE

Officer Mike Welch, thirty-two years old, married, one child, was rolling code seven to the Krispy Kreme donut shop on the west side of Bristo Camino when he got the call.
     “Unit four, base.”
     “Four.”
     “Armed robbery, Kim’s Minimart on Flanders Road, shots fired.”
     Welch thought that was absurd.
     “Say again, shots fired. Are you kidding me?”
     “Three white males, approximately twenty years, jeans and T-shirts, driving a red Nissan pickup last seen west on Flanders Road. Get over there and see about Junior.”
     Mike Welch was rolling westbound on Flanders Road. Junior’s service station was straight ahead, less than two miles. Welch went code three, hitting the lights and siren. He had never before in his three years as a police officer rolled code three other than when he pulled over a speeder.
     “I’m on Flanders now. Is Junior shot?”
     “That’s affirm. Ambulance is inbound.”
     Welch floored it. He was so intent on beating the paramedics to Kim’s that he was past the red truck parked on the opposite side of the road before he realized that it matched the description of the getaway vehicle.
     Welch shut his siren and pulled off onto the shoulder. He twisted around to stare back up the street. He couldn’t see anyone in or around the truck, but there it was, a red Nissan pickup. Welch waited for a gap in traffic, then swung around and drove back, pulling off behind the Nissan. He keyed his shoulder mike.
     “Base, four. I’m a mile and a half east of Kim’s on Flanders. Got a red Nissan pickup, license Three-Kilo-Lima-Mike-Four-Two-Nine. It appears abandoned. Can you send someone else to Kim’s?”
     “Ah, we can.”
     “I’m gonna check it out.”
     “Three-Kilo-Lima-Mike-Four-Two-Nine. Rog.”
     Welch climbed out of his car and rested his right hand on the butt of his Browning Hi-Power. He didn’t draw his weapon, but he wanted to be ready. He walked up along the passenger side of the truck, glanced underneath, then walked around the front. The engine was still ticking, and the hood was warm. Mike Welch thought, sonofabitch,
this was it, this was the getaway vehicle.
     “Base, four. Area’s clear. Vehicle is abandoned.”
     “Rog.”
     Welch continued around to the driver’s-side door and looked in-side. He couldn’t be sure that this was the getaway vehicle, but his heart was hammering with excitement. Mike Welch had come to the Bristo police department after seven years as a roofing contractor. He had thought that police work would be more than writing traffic tickets and breaking up domestic disturbances, but it hadn’t worked out that way; now, for the first time in his career, he might come face-to-face with an actual felon. He looked either way up and down the road, wondering why they had abandoned the truck and where they had gone. He suddenly felt frightened. Welch stared at the hedges. He squatted again, trying to see under the low branches, but saw nothing except a wall. Welch drew his gun, then approached the hedges, looking more closely. Several branches were broken. He glanced back at the truck, thinking it through, imagining three suspects pushing through the hedges. Three kids on the run, shitting their pants, going over the wall. On the other side of the wall was a development of expensive homes called York Estates. Welch knew from his patrol route that there were only two streets out unless they went over the wall again. They would be hiding in someone’s garage or running like hell out the back side of the development, trying to get away.
     Welch listened to the Nissan’s ticking engine, and decided that he was no more than a few minutes behind them. His heart rate in-creased. He made his decision. Welch burned rubber as he swung out onto the road, intent on cutting them off before they escaped the development, intent on making the arrest.

     DENNIS

Dennis dropped from the wall into a different world, hidden behind lush ferns and plants with leathery green leaves and orange trees. His impulse was to keep running, haul ass across the yard, jump the next wall, and keep going, but the siren was right on top of them. And then the siren stopped.
     Kevin said, “Dennis, please, the police are gonna see the truck. They’re gonna know who we are.”
     “Shut up, Kevin. I know. Lemme think!”
     They were in a dense garden surrounding a tennis court at the rear of a palatial home. A swimming pool was directly in front of them with the main house beyond the pool, a big-ass two-story house with lots of windows and doors, and one of the doors was open. Just like that. Open. If people were home, there would be a car. A Sony boom box beside the pool was playing music. There wouldn’t be music if no one was home.
     Dennis glanced at Mars, and, without even looking back at him, almost as if he had read Dennis’s mind again, Mars nodded.

     JENNIFER SMITH

Sixty feet away through the open door, Jennifer Smith was thoroughly pissed off about the state of her life. Her father was behind closed doors at the front of the house, working. He was an accountant, and often worked at home. Her mother was in Florida visiting their Aunt Kate. With her mom in Florida and her dad working, Jen was forced 24/7 to ride herd on her ten-year-old brother, Thomas. If her friends wanted to go to the Multiplex, Thomas had to go. If she lied about going to Palmdale so she could sneak down to LA, Thomas would tell. Jennifer Smith was sixteen years old. Having a turd like Thomas grafted to her butt 24/7 was wrecking her summer.
     Jen had been laying out by the pool, but she had come in to make tuna fish sandwiches. She would have let the turd starve, but she didn’t mind making lunch for her father.
     “Thomas?”
     He hated it if you called him Tommy. He didn’t even like Tom. It had to be Thomas.
     “Thomas, go tell Daddy that lunch is ready.”
     “Eat me.”
     Thomas was playing Nintendo in the family room.
     “Go tell Daddy.”
     “Just yell. He’ll hear you.”
     “Go get him or I’ll spit in your food.”
     “Spit twice. It turns me on.”
     “You are so gross.”
     Thomas paused the Nintendo game and looked around at her. “I’ll get him if you ask Elyse and Tris to come lay out.”
     Elyse and Tris were her two best friends. They had stopped coming over because Thomas totally creeped them out. He would wait in the house until everyone was lying by the pool, then he would appear and offer to rub oil on them. Even though everyone said ooo, yuck, go away, he would sit there and stare at their bodies.
     “They won’t lay out with you here. They know you watch.”
     “They like it.”
     “You are so gross.”
     When the three young men stepped inside, Jen’s first thought was that they were gardeners, but all the gardeners she knew were short, dark men from Central America. Her second thought was that maybe they were older kids from school, but that didn’t feel right either.
     Jennifer said, “May I help you?”
     The first one pointed at Thomas.
     “Mars, get the troll.”
          The biggest one ran at Thomas, as the first one charged into the kitchen.
     Jennifer screamed just as the first boy covered her mouth so tightly that she thought her face would break. Thomas tried to shout, but the bigger boy mashed his face into the carpet.
     The third one was younger. He hung back near the door, crying, talking in a loud stage whisper, trying to keep his voice down.
     “Dennis, let’s go! This is crazy!”
     “Shut up, Kevin! We’re here. Deal with it.”
     The one holding her, the one she now knew as Dennis, bent her backwards over the counter, mashing the sandwiches. His hips ground against hers, pinning her. His breath smelled of hamburgers and cigarettes.
     “Stop kicking! I’m not going to hurt you!”
     She tried to bite his hand. He pushed her head farther back until her neck felt like it would snap.
     “I said stop it. Relax, and I’ll let you go.”
     Jennifer fought harder until she saw the gun. The bigger boy was holding a black pistol to Thomas’s head.
     Jennifer stopped fighting.
     “I’m going to take my hand away, but you better not yell. You understand that?”
     Jennifer couldn’t stop watching the gun.
     “Close the door, Kevin.”
     She heard the door close.
     Dennis took away his hand, but kept it close, ready to clamp her mouth again. His voice was a whisper.
     “Who else is here?”
     “My father.”
     “Is there anyone else?”
     “No.”
     “Where is he?”
     “In his office.”
     “Is there a car?”
     Her voice failed. All she could do was nod.
     “Don’t yell. If you yell, I’ll kill you. Do you understand that?”
     She nodded.
     “Where’s his office?”
     She pointed toward the entry.
     Dennis laced his fingers through her hair and pushed her toward the hall. He followed so closely that his body brushed hers, reminding her that she was wearing only shorts and a bikini top. She felt naked and exposed.
     Her father’s office was off the entry hall behind wide double doors. They didn’t bother to knock or say anything. Dennis pulled open the door, and the big one, Mars, carried in Thomas, the gun still at his head. Dennis pushed her onto the floor, then ran straight across the room, pointing his gun at her father.
     “Don’t say a goddamned word! Don’t fucking move!”
     Her father was working at his computer with a sloppy stack of printouts all around. He was a slender man with a receding hairline and glasses. He blinked over the tops of the glasses as if he didn’t quite understand what he was seeing. He probably thought they were friends of hers, playing a joke. But then she saw that he knew it was real.
     “What are you doing?”
     Dennis aimed his gun with both hands, shouting louder.
     “Don’t you fucking move, goddamnit! Keep your ass in that chair! Let me see your hands!”
     What her father said then made no sense to her.
     He said, “Who sent you?”
     Dennis shoved Kevin with his free hand.
     “Kevin, close the windows! Stop being a turd!”
     Kevin went to the windows and closed the shutters. He was crying worse than Thomas.
     Dennis waved his gun at Mars.
     “Keep him covered, dude. Watch the girl.”
     Mars pushed Thomas onto the floor with Jennifer, then aimed at her father. Dennis put his own gun in the waistband of his pants, then snatched a lamp from the corner of her father’s desk. He jerked the plug from the wall, then the electrical cord from the lamp.
     “Don’t go psycho and everything will be fine. Do you hear that? I’m gonna take your car. I’m gonna tie you up so you can’t call the cops, and I’m gonna take your car. I don’t want to hurt you, I just want the car. Gimme the keys.”
     Her father looked confused.
     “What are you talking about? Why did you come here?”
     “I want the fucking car, you asshole! I’m stealing your car! Now, where are the keys?”
     “That’s what you want, the car?”
“Am I talking fucking Russian here or what? DO YOU HAVE A CAR?”
     Her father raised his hands, placating.
     “In the garage. Take it and leave. The keys are on the wall by the garage door. By the kitchen. Take it.”
     “Kevin, go get the keys, then come help tie these bastards up so we can get outta here.”
     Kevin, still by the windows, said, “There’s a cop coming.”
     Jennifer saw the police car through the gaps in the shutters. A policeman got out. He looked around as if he was taking his bearings, then came toward their house.
     Dennis grabbed her hair again.
     “Don’t fucking say a word. Not one fucking word.”
     “Please don’t hurt my children.”
     “Shut up. Mars, you be ready! Mars!”
     Jennifer watched the policeman come up the walk. He disappeared past the edge of the window, then their doorbell rang.
     Kevin scuttled to his older brother, gripping his arm.
     “He knows we’re here, Dennis! He must’ve seen me closing the shutters!
     “Shut up!”
     The doorbell rang again.
     Jennifer felt Dennis’s sweat drip onto her shoulder and wanted to scream. Her father stared at her, his eyes locked onto hers, slowly shaking his head. She didn’t know if he was telling her not to scream, or not to move, or even if he realized that he was doing it.
     The policeman walked past the windows toward the side of the house.
     “He knows we’re here, Dennis! He’s looking for a way in!”
     “He doesn’t know shit! He’s just looking.”
Kevin was frantic, and now Jennifer could hear the fear in Dennis’s voice, too.
     “He saw me at the window! He knows someone’s here! Let’s give up.”
     “Shut up!”
     Dennis went to the window. He peered through the shutters, then suddenly rushed back to Jennifer and grabbed her by the hair again.
     “Get up.”

     MIKE WELCH

Officer Mike Welch didn’t know that everyone in the house was currently clustered less than twenty feet away, watching him through the gaps in the shutters. He had not seen Kevin Rooney or anyone else when he’d pulled up. He’d been too busy parking the car.
     As near as Welch could figure, the people from the red Nissan had jumped the wall into these people’s backyard. He suspected that the three suspects were blocks away by now, but he hoped that some-one in this house or the other houses on this cul-de-sac had seen them and could provide a direction of flight.
     When no one answered the door, Welch went to the side gate and called out. When no one responded, he returned to the front door and rang the bell for the third and final time. He was turning away to try the neighbor when the heavy front door opened and a pretty teenage girl looked out. She was pale. Her eyes were rimmed red.
     Welch gave his best professional smile.
     “Miss, I’m Officer Mike Welch. Did you happen to see three young men running through the area?”
     “No.”
    Her voice was so soft he could barely hear her. Welch noted that she appeared upset, and wondered about that.
     “It would’ve been five or ten minutes ago. Something like that. I have reason to believe that they jumped the wall into your backyard.”
     “No.”
     The red-rimmed eyes filled. Welch watched her eyes blur, watched twin tears roll in slow motion down her cheeks, and knew that they were in the house with her. They were probably standing right on the other side of the door. Mike Welch’s heart began to pound. His fingers tingled.
     “Okay, miss, like I said, I was just checking. You have a good day.”
     He quietly unsnapped the release on his holster and rested his hand on his gun. He shifted his eyes pointedly to the door, then mouthed a silent question, asking if anyone was there. She did not have time to respond.
     Inside, someone that Mike Welch could not see shouted, “He’s going for his gun!”
     Loud explosions blew through the door and window. Something hit Mike Welch in the chest, knocking him backward. His Kevlar vest stopped the first bullet, but another punched into his belly below the vest, and a third slipped over the top of his vest to lodge high in his chest. He tried to keep his feet under him, but they fell away. The girl screamed, and someone else inside the house screamed, too.
     Mike Welch found himself flat on his back in the front yard. He sat up, then realized that he’d been shot and fell over again. He heard more shots, but he couldn’t get up or duck or run for cover. He pulled his gun and fired toward the house without thinking who he might be hitting. His only thought was to survive.
     He heard more shots, and screaming, but then he could no longer hold his gun. It was all he could do to key his shoulder mike.
     “Officer down. Officer down. Jesus, I’ve been shot.”
     “Say again? Mike? Mike, what’s going on?”
     Mike Welch stared at the sky, but could not answer.

 

2

Friday,3:24 P.M.

     JEFF TALLEY

Two-point-one miles from York Estates, Jeff Talley was parked in an avocado orchard, talking to his daughter on his cell phone, his command radio tuned to a whisper. He often left his office in the afternoon and came to this orchard, which he had discovered not long after he had taken the job as the chief of Bristo Camino’s fourteen-member police department. Rows of trees, each tree the same as the last, each a measured distance from the next, standing without motion in the clean desert air like a chorus of silent witnesses. He found peace in the sameness of it.
      His daughter, Amanda, now fourteen, broke that peace.
     “Why can’t I bring Derek with me? At least I would have someone to hang with.”
     Her voice reeked of coldness. He had called Amanda because today was Friday; she would be coming up for the weekend.
     “I thought we would go to a movie together.”
     “We go to a movie every time I come up there. We can still go to the movies. We’ll just bring Derek.”
     “Maybe another time.”
     “When?”
     “Maybe next time. I don’t know.”
     She made an exaggerated sigh that left him feeling defensive.
     “Mandy? It’s okay if you bring friends. But I enjoy our alone time, too. I want us to talk about things.”
     “Mom wants to talk to you.”
     “I love you.”
     She didn’t answer.
     “I love you, Amanda.”
     “You always say you want to talk, but then we go sit in a movie so we can’t talk. Here’s Mom.”
     Jane Talley came on the line. They had separated five months after he resigned from the Los Angeles Police Department, took up residence on their couch, and stared at the television for twenty hours a day until neither of them could take it anymore and he had moved out. That was two years ago.
     “Hey, Chief. She’s not in the greatest mood.”
     “I know.”
     “How you doing?”
     Talley thought about it.
     “She’s not liking me very much.”
     “It’s hard for her right now. She’s fourteen.”
     “I know.”
     “She’s still trying to understand. Sometimes she’s fine with it, but other times everything sweeps over her.”
     “I try to talk to her.”
     He could hear the frustration in Jane’s voice, and his own.
     “Jeffrey, you’ve been trying to talk for two years, but nothing comes out. Just like that, you left and started a new life and we weren’t a part of it. Now you have this new life up there and she’s making a new life down here. You understand that, don’t you?”
     Talley didn’t say anything, because he didn’t know what to say. Every day since he moved to Bristo Camino he told himself that he would ask them to join him but he hadn’t been able to do it. He knew that Jane had spent the past two years waiting for him. He thought that if he asked right now she would come to him, but all he managed to do was stare at the silent, immobile trees.
     Finally, Jane had had enough of the silence.
    “I don’t want to go on like this anymore, just being separated. You and Mandy aren’t the only ones who need to make a life.”
     “I know. I understand.”
    “I’m not asking you to understand. I don’t care if you understand.”
     Her voice came out sharp and hurt, then both of them were silent. Talley thought of her on the day they were married; against the white country wedding gown, her skin had been golden.
     Jane finally broke the silence, her voice resigned. She would learn no more today than yesterday; her husband would offer nothing new. Talley felt embarrassed and guilty.
     “Do you want me to drop her at your house or at the office?”
     “The house would be fine.”
     “Six o’clock?”
     “Six. We can have dinner, maybe.”
     “I won’t be staying.”
     When the phone went dead, Talley put it aside, and thought of the dream. The dream was always the same, a small clapboard house surrounded by a full SWAT tactical team, helicopters overhead, media beyond the cordon. Talley was the primary negotiator, but the night-mare reality of the dream left him standing in the open without cover or protection while Jane and Amanda watched him from the cordon. Talley was in a life-or-death negotiation with an unknown male subject who had barricaded himself in the house and was threatening suicide. Over and over, the man screamed, “I’m going to do it! I’m going to do it!” Talley talked him back from the brink each time, but, each time, knew that the man had stepped closer to the edge. It was only a matter of time. No one had seen this man. No neighbors or family had been found to provide an ID. The subject would not reveal his name. He was a voice behind walls to everyone except Talley, who knew with a numbing dread that the man in the house was himself. He had become the
subject in the house, locked in time and frozen in place, negotiating with himself to spare his own life.

In those first weeks, Brendan Malik’s eyes watched him from every shadow. He saw the light in them die over and over, dimming like a television with its plug pulled, the spark that had been Brendan Malik growing smaller, falling away until it was gone. After a while, Talley felt nothing, watching the dying eyes the same way he would watch Wheel of Fortune: because it was there.
     Talley resigned from the LAPD, then sat on his couch for almost a year, first in his home and later in the cheap apartment he had rented in Silver Lake after Jane threw him out. Talley told himself that he had left his job and his family because he couldn’t stand having them witness his own self-destruction, but after a while he grew to believe that his reasons were simpler, and less noble: He believed that his former life was killing him, and he was scared. The incorporated township of Bristo Camino was looking for a chief of police for their fourteen-member police force, and they were glad to have him. They liked it that he was SWAT, even though the job was no more demanding than writing traffic citations and speaking at local schools. He told himself that it was a good place to heal. Jane had been willing to wait for the healing, but the healing never quite seemed to happen. Talley believed that it never would.
     Talley started the car and eased off the hard-packed soil of the orchard onto a gravel road, following it down to the state highway that ran the length of the Santa Clarita Valley. When he reached the high-way, he turned up his radio and heard Sarah Weinman, the BCPD dispatch officer, shouting frantically over the link.
     “. . . Welch is down. We have a man down in York Estates . . .”
     Other voices were crackling back at her, Officers Larry Anders and Kenn Jorgenson talking over each other in a mad rush.
     Talley punched the command freq button that linked him to dispatch on a dedicated frequency.
     “Sarah, one. What do you mean, Mike’s down?”
     “Chief?”
     “What about Mike?”
     “He’s been shot. The paramedics from Sierra Rock Fire are on the way. Jorgy and Larry are rolling from the east.”
     In the nine months that Talley had been in Bristo, there had been only three felonies, two for nonviolent burglaries and once when a woman had tried to run down her husband with the family car.
     “Are you saying that he was intentionally shot?”
     “Junior Kim’s been shot, too! Three white males driving a red Nissan pickup. Mike called in the truck, then called a forty-one four-teen at one-eight Castle Way in York Estates, and the next thing I know he said he’d been shot. I haven’t been able to raise him since then.”
     Forty-one fourteen. Welch had intended to approach the residence.
     Talley punched the button that turned on his lights and siren. York Estates was six minutes away.
     “What’s the status of Mr. Kim?”
     “Unknown at this time.”
     “Do we have an ID on the suspects?”
     “Not at this time.”
     “I’m six out and rolling. Fill me in on the way.”
     Talley had spent the last year believing that the day he became a crisis negotiator for the Los Angeles Police Department had forever changed his life for the worse.
     His life was about to change again.

     JENNIFER

Jennifer had never heard anything as loud as their guns; not the cherry bombs that Thomas popped in their backyard or the crowd at the Forum when the Lakers slammed home a game-winning dunkenstein. The gunfire in movies didn’t come close. When Mars and Dennis started shooting, the sound rocked through her head and deafened her.
     Jennifer screamed. Dennis slammed the front door, pulled her backwards to the office, then pushed her down. She grabbed Thomas and held tight. Her father wrapped them in his arms. Layers of gun smoke hung in shafts of light that burned through the shutters; the smell of it stung her nose.
     When the shooting was done, Dennis sucked air like a bellows, stalking back and forth between the entry and office, his face white.
     “We’re fucked! That cop is down!”
     Mars went to the entry. He didn’t hurry or seem scared; he strolled.
     “Let’s get the car before more of them get here.”
     Kevin was on the floor beside her father’s desk, shaking. His face was milky.
     “You shot a cop. You shot a cop, Dennis!”
     Dennis grabbed his brother by the shirt.
     “Didn’t you hear Mars? He was going for his gun!”
     Jennifer heard a siren approaching behind the shouting. Then Dennis heard it, too, and ran back to the windows.
     “Oh, man, they’re coming!”
     Jennifer’s father pulled her closer, almost as if he was trying to squeeze her into himself.
     “Take the keys and go. The keys are on the wall by the garage. It’s a Jaguar. Take it while you still can.”
     Dennis stared through the open shutters like prison bars, watching
the street with fearful expectation. Jennifer wanted them to run, to go, to get out of her life, but Dennis stood frozen at the windows as if he was waiting for something.
     Mars spoke from the entry, his voice as calm as still water.
     “Let’s take the man’s car, Dennis. We have to go.”
     Then the siren suddenly seemed to be in the house, and it was too late. Tires screeched outside. Dennis ran to the front door. The shooting started again.

     TALLEY

York Estates was a walled development that had been named for the legendary walled city of York in England, a village that was protected from the world by a great stone wall. The developers built twenty-eight homes on one- to three-acre sites in a pattern of winding streets and cul-de-sacs with names like Lancelot Lane, Queen Anne Way, and King John Place, then surrounded it by a stone wall that was more decorative than protective. Talley cut his siren as he entered from the north, but kept the lights flashing. Jorgenson and Anders were shouting that they were under fire. Talley heard the pop of a gunshot over the radio.
     When he turned into Castle Way, Talley saw Jorgenson and Anders crouched behind their car with their weapons out. Two women were in the open door of the house behind them and a teenaged boy was standing near the cul-de-sac’s mouth. Talley hit the public address key on his mike as he sped up the street.
     “You people take cover. Get inside your homes!”
     Jorgenson and Anders turned to watch him approach. The two women looked confused and the boy stood without moving. Talley burped his siren, and shouted at them again.
     “Get inside now! You people move!”
     Talley hit the brakes hard, stopping behind Jorgenson’s unit. Two shots pinged from the house, one snapping past overhead, the other thumping dully into Talley’s windshield. He rolled out the door and pulled himself into a tight ball behind the front wheel, using the hub as cover. Mike Welch lay crumpled on the front lawn of a large Tudor home less than forty feet away.
     Anders shouted, “Welch is down! They shot him!”
     “Are all three subjects inside?”

     “I don’t know! We haven’t seen anyone!”
     “Are civilians in the house?”
     “I don’t know!”
     More sirens were coming from the east. Talley knew that would be Dreyer and Mikkelson in unit six with the ambulance. The shooting had stopped, but he could hear shouts and screaming inside the house. He flattened on the street and called to Welch from under the car.
     “Mike! Can you hear me?”
     Welch didn’t respond.
     Anders shouted, his voice frantic.
     “I think he’s dead!”
     “Calm down, Larry. I can hear you.”
     Talley had to take in the scene and make decisions without knowing who or what he was dealing with. Welch was in the middle of the front lawn, unmoving and unprotected. Talley had to act.
     “Does this house back up on Flanders Road?”
     “Yes, sir. The truck is right on the other side of the wall that runs behind the house, that red Nissan! It’s the suspects who hit Kim’s.”
     The sirens were closer. Talley had to assume that innocents were inside. He had to assume that Mike Welch was alive. He keyed his transceiver mike.
     “Six, one. Who’s on?”
     Dreyer’s voice came back.
     “It’s Dreyer, Chief. We’re one minute out.”
     “Where’s the ambulance?”
     “Right behind us.”
     “Okay. You guys set up on Flanders by the truck in case these guys go back over the wall. Send the ambulance in, but tell them to wait at Castle and Tower. I’ll bring Welch to them.”
     Talley broke the connection, then pushed himself up to a crouch.
     “Larry, did you guys fire on the house?”
     “No, sir.”
     “Don’t.”
     “What are you going to do?”
     “Stay down. Don’t fire at the house.”

     Talley climbed back into his car, keeping his head low and the driver’s door open. He backed up, then powered into the yard, maneuvering to a stop between Welch and the house to use the car as a shield. Another shot popped the passenger-side window. He rolled out of the car almost on top of Welch. Talley opened the rear door, then dragged Welch to the car. It was like lifting two hundred pounds of deadweight, but Welch moaned. He was alive. Talley propped him upright in the open door, then lifted for all he was worth to fold Welch onto the backseat. He slammed the door, then saw Welch’s gun on the grass. He went back for it. He returned to the car and floored the accelerator, fishtailing across the slick grass as he cut across the yard and into the street. He sped back along the cul-de-sac to the corner where the ambulance was waiting. Two paramedics pulled Welch from the rear and pushed a compress onto his chest. Talley didn’t ask if Welch would make it. He knew from experience that they wouldn’t know.
     Talley stared down the length of the cul-de-sac and felt himself tremble. The first flush of panic was passing, and now he had time to think. Now he had time to acknowledge that what was happening here was what had cost him so much in Los Angeles. A hostage situation was developing. His mouth went dry and something sour flushed in his throat that threatened to make him retch. He keyed the mike again to call his dispatcher. He had exactly four units on duty and another five officers off. He would need them all.
     “Chief, I pulled Dreyer and Mikkelson off the minimart. We’ve got no one on the scene now. It’s totally unsecured.”
     “Call the CHP and the Sheriffs. Tell them what’s going on and request a full crisis team. Tell them we’ve got two men down and we have a possible hostage situation.”
     Talley’s eyes filled when he realized that he had used that word. Hostage.
     He remembered Welch’s gun. He sniffed the muzzle, then checked the magazine. Welch had returned fire, which meant that he might have wounded someone in the house. Maybe even an innocent.
     He shut his eyes hard and keyed the mike again.
     “Tell them to hurry.”

     JENNIFER

Jennifer whispered, “Daddy.”
     Her father held her head, whispered back.
     “Shh.”
     They snuggled closer. Jennifer thought her father might be trying to pull them through the floor, that if he could just make the three of them small enough they would disappear. She watched Mars peering through the shutters, his wide back hunched like an enormous swollen
toad. When Mars glanced back at them, he looked high.
     Kevin threw a TV Guide at him.
     “What’s wrong with you? Why’d you start shooting?”
     “To keep them away.”
     “We could’ve gotten out the back!”
     Dennis jerked Kevin toward the entry.
     “Get it together, Kev. They found the truck. They’re already behind us.”
     “This is bullshit, Dennis! We should give up!”
     Jennifer wanted them to run. She wanted them to get away, if that’s what it took; she wanted them out.
     The words boiled out of her before she could stop them.
     “We don’t want you here!”
     Her father squeezed her, his voice soft.
     “Be quiet.”
     Jennifer couldn’t stop.
     “You have no right to be here! No one invited you!”
     Her father pulled her closer.
     Dennis jabbed a finger at her.
     “Shut up, bitch!”
     He turned and shoved his brother into the wall so hard that Jennifer flinched.
     “Stop it, Kevin! Go through the house and lock all the windows. Lock the doors, then watch the backyard. They’re gonna come over that wall just like we did.”
     Kevin seemed confused.
      “Why don’t we just give up, Dennis? We’re caught.”
     “It’s going to be dark in a few hours. Things will change when it gets dark. Go do it, Kev. We’re going to get out of this. We will.”
     Jennifer felt her father sigh before he spoke. He slowly pushed to his knees.
     “None of you are going to get out of this.”
     Dennis said, “Shut the fuck up. Go on, Kevin. Watch the back.”
     Kevin disappeared toward the rear through the entry.
     Her father stood. Both Dennis and Mars aimed their guns at him.
     Jennifer pulled at his legs.
     “Daddy! Don’t!”
     Her father raised his hands.
     “It’s okay, sweetie. I’m not going to do anything. I just want to go to my desk.”
     Dennis extended his gun.
     “Are you fuckin’ nuts?! You’re not going anywhere!”
     “Just take it easy, son.”
     “Daddy, don’t!”
     Her father seemed to be moving in a dream. She wanted to stop him, but she couldn’t. She wanted to say something, but nothing came out. He walked stiffly, as if he was prepared to take a punch. It was as if this man in the dream wasn’t her father, but someone she had never before seen.
     He went behind his desk, carefully placing two computer disks in a black leather disk case as he spoke. Dennis followed along beside him, shouting for him to stop, shouting that he shouldn’t take another step, and pointing the gun at his head. Dennis looked as scared as she felt.
     “I’m warning you, goddamnit!”
     “I’m going to open my desk.”
     “I’ll fuckin’ kill you!
     “Daddy, please!!!”
     Jennifer’s father held up a single finger as if to show them that one tiny finger could do them no harm, then used it to slide open the drawer. He nodded toward the drawer, as if to show Dennis that nothing would hurt him. Her father took out a thick booklet.
      “This is a list of every criminal lawyer in California. If you give up right now, I’ll help you get the best lawyer in the state.”
     Dennis slapped the book aside.
     “Fuck you! We just killed a cop! We killed that Chinaman! We’ll get the fuckin’ death penalty!”
     “I’m telling you that you won’t, not if you let me help you. But if you stay in this house, I can promise you this: You’ll die.”
     “Shut up!
     Dennis swung his gun hard and hit her father in the temple with a wet thud. He fell sideways like a sack that had been dropped to the floor.
     “No!
     Jennifer lunged forward. She pushed Dennis before she realized what she was doing.
     “Leave him alone!
     She shoved Dennis back, then dropped to her knees beside her father. The gun had cut an ugly gouge behind his right eye at the hair-line. The gouge pulsed blood, and was already swelling.
     “Daddy? Daddy, wake up!”
     He didn’t respond.
     “Daddy, please!”
     Her father’s eyes danced insanely beneath the lids as his body trembled.
     “Daddy!”
     Tears blurred her eyes as unseen hands lifted her away.
     The nightmare had begun.
 


   
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