excerpt two


     Six minutes before he saw the two men, Joe Pike stopped at a Mobil station for air. Pike sensed they were going to commit a crime the moment he saw them. Venice, California, ten thirty-five that morning, warm sunny day, not far from the sea. He had checked his tire pressure before heading to the gym, and found the right front tire three pounds low. If he had not needed air, he would not have seen the two men and gotten involved, but the tire was low. He stopped for the air.
     Pike added the three pounds, then topped off his gas. While the pump ran, he inspected his red Jeep Cherokee for dings, scratches, and road tar, then checked the fluid levels.
     Brake fluid—good.
     Power steering—good.

     The Jeep, though not a new vehicle, was spotless. Pike maintained it meticulously. Taking care of himself and his gear had been impressed upon a then-seventeen-year-old Pike by men he respected when he was a young Marine, and the lesson had served him well in his various occupations.
     As Pike closed the hood, three women biked past on the opposite side of the street, fine legs churning, sleek backs arched over handlebars. Pike watched them pass, the women bringing his eye to two men walking in the opposite direction—blink—and Pike read them for trouble, two men in their twenties, necklaced with gang ink, walking with what Pike during his police officer days had called a down-low walk. Bangers were common in Venice, but these two weren’t relaxed like a couple of homies with nothing on their minds; they rolled with a stony, side-to-side swagger showing they were tensed up and tight, the one nearest the curb glancing into parked cars, which, Pike knew, suggested they were looking for something to steal.
     Pike had spent three years as an LAPD patrol officer, where he learned how to read people pretty well. Then he had changed jobs, and worked in high-conflict, dangerous environments all over the world where he learned to read the subtle clues of body language and expression even better. His life had depended on it.
     Now, Pike felt a tug of curiosity. If they had kept walking, Pike would have let it go, but they stopped outside a second-hand women’s clothing shop directly across the street. Pike was no longer a police officer. He did not cruise the streets looking for criminals and had other things to do, but everything about their posture and expressions triggered a dull red warning vibe. The women’s shop was an ideal place from which to snatch a purse.
     Pike finished filling his tank, but did not get into his vehicle. A BMW pulled into the Mobil station behind Pike’s Jeep. The driver waited for a moment, then beeped her horn and called from her car.
     “Are you going to move?”
     Pike concentrated on the two men, squinting against the bright morning light even behind his dark glasses.
     She tapped her horn again.
     “Are you going to move or what? I need some gas.”
     Pike stayed with the men.
     She backed up and moved to another pump.
     Pike watched the two men have a brief conversation, then continue past the clothing store to a sandwich shop. A hand-painted sign on the front window read: Wilson’s TakeOut-po’boys & sandwiches.
     The two men started to enter, but immediately backed away. A middle-aged woman carrying a white bag and a large purse came out. When she emerged, one of the men quickly turned to the street and the other brought his hand to his eyes, clearly trying to hide. The tell was so obvious the corner of Pike’s mouth twitched, which was as close to a smile as Pike ever came.
     When the woman was gone, the two men entered the sandwich shop.
     Pike knew they were likely two guys looking to surprise a friend or buy a couple of sandwiches, but he wanted to see how it played out.
     Pike trotted across the street between passing cars. The sandwich shop was small, with two tiny tables up front by the window and a short counter in the rear where you ordered your food. A chalkboard menu and a New Orleans Saints Super Bowl Champions poster were on the walls behind the counter, along with a door that probably led to a storage room or pantry.
     The events unfolding inside the takeout shop had happened quickly. When Pike reached the door, the two men had an older man on the floor, one punching the man’s head, the other kicking his back. The man had rolled into a ball, trying to protect himself.
     The two hitters hesitated when Pike opened the door, both of them sucking air like surfacing whales. Pike saw their hands were empty, though someone else might have been behind the counter or in the back room. Then the guy throwing punches went back to pounding, and the kicker turned toward Pike, his face mottled and threatening. Pike thought of nature films he’d seen with silverback gorillas puffing themselves to look fierce.
     “You wan’ this, bitch? Get outta here.”
     Pike didn’t get out. He stepped inside and closed the door.
     Pike saw a flick of surprise in the kicker’s eyes, and the puncher hesitated again. They had expected him to run, one man against two, but Pike did not run.
     The victim--the man on the floor--still curled into a ball, mumbled--
     “I’m okay. Jesus—“
     --even as the kicker puffed himself larger. He raised his fists and stomped toward Pike, a street-brawler high on his own violence, trying to frighten Pike away.
     Pike moved forward fast, and the surprised kicker pulled up short, caught off-guard by Pike’s advance. Then Pike dropped low and accelerated, as smoothly as water flows over rocks. He trapped the man’s arm, rolled it backward, and brought the man down hard, snapping the radius bone and dislocating the ulna. He hit the man one time in the Adam’s apple with the edge of his hand, the water now swirling off rocks as he rose to face the puncher, only the puncher had seen enough. He scrambled backwards across the counter, and bounced off the wall as he ran out a back door.
     The kicker gakked like a cat with a hairball as he tried to breathe and scream at the same time. Pike dropped to a knee, watching the back door as he checked the man for a weapon. He found a nine-millimeter pistol, then left the downed man long enough to make sure no one was behind the counter or in the back room. He returned to the kicker, rolled him onto his belly, then stripped the man’s belt to bind his wrists. The man shrieked when Pike twisted the injured arm behind his back, and tried to get up, but Pike racked his face into the floor.
     Pike said, “Stop.”
     Pike had neutralized the assailant and secured the premises in less than six seconds.
     The older man tried to sit up as Pike worked.
     Pike said, “You good?”
     “It’s okay. I’m fine.”
     He didn’t look fine. Blood veiled his face and spattered the floor. The man saw the red spots, touched his face, then examined the red on his fingers.
     “Shit. I’m bleeding.”
     The older man rose to a knee, but tipped sideways and ended up on his butt.
     Pike took out his phone and thumbed in 911.
     “Stay down. I’m getting the paramedics.”
     The older man squinted at Pike, and Pike could tell he had trouble focusing.
     “You a cop?”
     “I don’t need the paramedics. Catch my breath, I’ll be fine.”
     The kicker twisted his head to see Pike.
     “You ain’t a cop, an’ you broke my arm? You bitch, you better lemme up.”
Pike pinned him with a knee, making the kicker gasp.
     When the 911 operator came on the line, Pike described the situation and the victim’s injury, told her he had a suspect in hand, and asked her to send the police.
     The older man made a feeble attempt to rise again.
     “Fuck all that. Just throw the asshole out.”
     Pike had seen pretty much every violent injury that could happen to a human being, so he knew wounds pretty well. Scalp wounds produced a lot of blood and weren’t generally serious, but it had taken a hard blow to split the man’s forehead.
     “Stay down. You have a concussion.”
     “Fuck that. I’m fine.”
     The older man pulled his legs under himself, pushed to his feet, then passed out and fell.
     Pike wanted to go to him, but the kicker was bunching to rise.
     “Better get off me, ese. You gonna be sorry.”
     Pike dug his thumb into the side of the man’s neck where the C3 nerve root emerged from the third vertebra, crushing the root into the bone. This caused the man’s shoulder and chest to go numb with a sharp flash of pain. His diaphragm locked and his breathing stopped mid-breath. The C3 nerve controlled the diaphragm.
     “If you get up, I’ll do this again. It will hurt worse.”
     Pike released the pressure, and knew the man’s shoulder and arm now burned as if they had been flushed with napalm.
     “We good?”
     The man gave a breathless grunt, eyes rolling toward Pike like a chihuahua watching a pitbull.
     Pike straightened the man so he could breathe more easily, then checked his pulse. His pulse was strong, but his pupils were different sizes, which indicated a concussion. Pike pressed a wad of napkins to the man’s wound to stop the bleeding.
     The kicker said, “Who the fuck are you, man?”
     “Don’t speak again.”
     If Pike had not stopped for air, he would not have seen the men or crossed the street. He would not have met the woman he was about to meet. Nothing that was about to happen would have happened. But Pike had stopped. And now the worst was coming.
     The paramedics arrived six minutes later.

© 2010 by Robert Crais 

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