CRAIS: THE SENTRY
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
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.
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
“Are you going to move?”
Pike concentrated on the two men, squinting against the
bright morning light even behind his
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
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
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
“You wan’ this, bitch? Get outta here.”
Pike didn’t get out. He stepped inside and closed the
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
Pike released the pressure, and knew the man’s shoulder
and arm now burned as if they had
been flushed with napalm.
The man gave a breathless grunt, eyes rolling toward
Pike like a chihuahua watching a
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
The paramedics arrived six minutes later.
© 2010 by Robert Crais