excerpt three


     The paramedics were two sturdy, forty-something women who pulled on vinyl gloves when they saw the blood. They went to work on the victim while Pike filled them in.
     The banger, facedown on the floor with Pike’s knee in his back, said, “Dude broke my arm. He attacked me, yo? I need somethin’ for the pain.”
     The lead paramedic glanced at Pike. Her name was Stiles.
     “He the guy who did this?”
     “Him and a friend.”
     “His arm really broken?”
     She told Pike to let the man sit up, then nodded at her partner.
     “Check out the lovely. I have this one.”
     Stiles managed to rouse the victim, whose speech was muddy and slurred, but grew more focused as she checked his pulse and blood pressure. He identified himself as Wilson Smith, a transplant from New Orleans who relocated after the storm. Pike found it interesting Smith did not refer to Hurricane Katrina by name; he called it “the storm.” Pike also found it interesting Mr. Smith did not have what Pike would have called a Southern accent. He sounded like he was from New York.
     When Stiles flashed a penlight in his eyes, Smith tried to push her away.
     “I’m okay.”
     “No, sir, you’re not. You have a scalp wound with an open flap, and a concussion. My guess, you’re looking at ten or twelve stitches here. We’re bringing you in.”
     “I’m fine.”
     Smith tried to push her away again, but abruptly threw up. He settled down after that and closed his eyes. Pike watched the paramedics work as he waited for the officers to arrive. He was in it now, so he had to stay. There was nothing else to do.
     The first responding officers showed up within minutes. The lead officer was a middle-aged Latina with calm eyes and P3 stripes who introduced herself as Officer Hydeck, the Anglo name probably coming from a marriage. Her partner was a big, tough-looking rookie named Paul Macintosh who stood with his thumbs hooked in his Sam Browne like he wanted something to happen.
     Hydeck spoke quietly with Stiles for a few minutes, asked both the victim and the suspect how they were doing, then came over to Pike.
     “You the one called it in?”
     “Yes, ma’am.”
     The emergency services operator would have relayed the information Pike provided.
     “Uh-huh. And your name would be?”
     The banger, who was being fitted with an air splint, said, “Dude broke my arm, yo? I want him arrested. I wanna press charges.”
     Hydeck asked for their identification. Pike handed over his driver’s license, which Macintosh copied onto a Field Interview card along with Pike’s phone number. The suspect had none. Pike wasn’t surprised. Ninety-five percent of the people he had arrested while a police officer did not have a valid DL. The suspect identified himself as Reuben Mendoza, and claimed he had never been arrested.
     Macintosh towered over him.
     “You ganged up?”
     “No way, bro. I roll clean.”
     Macintosh pointed at the initials on his neck. VT, which Pike, the paramedics, and the officers all knew meant Venice Trece—Venice Thirteen, a Latin gang.
     “That why you’re inked Venice Thirteen?”
     “Them’s my initials.”
     Hydeck said, “How you get V. T. out of Reuben Mendoza?”
     “That’s how you spell it in European.”
     Pike told them what he knew to be true in short, declarative sentences just as he had been taught when he was a boot patrol officer, and gave Hydeck the pistol he had taken from Mendoza.
     “Had this in his pocket.”
     Mendoza said, “That ain’t mine, man, don’t put that on me. I never seen that gun before.”
     “Was he hitting Mr. Smith with it?”
     “Not that I saw. It was in his pocket.”
     Mendoza said, “I’m gonna sue you, bro, way you attacked me. He did something to my neck like Mr. Spock, yo? Gonna get pain and suffering.”
     Macintosh told him to shut up, then turned back to Pike.
     “What about the other one? He have a gun?”
     “Didn’t see it if he did. When I entered, Mr. Smith was on the floor. The other man was punching him in the head. This one was kicking him. When I took this one down, his buddy ran out the back. I didn’t see a weapon.”
     Macintosh arched his eyebrows at Mendoza.
     “Homie had your back, bro. Right out the door.”
     Hydeck passed the gun to Macintosh, told him to secure it in their vehicle and call in a second EMS wagon. The victim and suspect would not be transported in the same vehicle.
     Another patrol car and the second EMS ambulance arrived a few minutes later. The new officers took Mendoza out while Stiles and her partner brought in their gurney. Hydeck questioned Smith while the paramedics worked on him. Smith told her the two men asked for a sandwich, but he wanted to close so he could go to the bank, and told them to leave. He claimed the two men refused, and that’s how the fight started.
     Hydeck appeared doubtful.
     “So they didn’t try to rob you or anything like that? You got in a fight ‘cause they wanted a po’boy and you wanted to leave.”
     “I mighta said something. It got out of hand.”
     The paramedics were lifting him onto the gurney when Pike saw her enter through the rear door. She hadn’t seen the ambulances and police vehicles out front, and now the uniforms crowding the small room stopped her as if she had slammed into an invisible wall. Pike watched her eyes snap from the paramedics to the gurney to the police—snap, snap, snap--sucking up the scene until—snap—her eyes came to him, and that’s where they stayed. She looked at him as if she had never seen anything like him, and was scared of him and fascinated by him at the same time, and sensed he was somehow responsible. Pike guessed she was in her early thirties, with olive skin and lines around her eyes. She had smart eyes. She wore a sleeveless linen dress, flat sandals, and short dark hair. The dress was wrinkled. Pike liked smart eyes.
     Then Hydeck and Macintosh turned, and her eyes left him for them.
     Hydeck said, “May I help you?”
     “What happened? Wilson, are you all right? Wilson’s my uncle.”
     Smith shifted to see past the paramedics.
     “That’s Dru. She’s my niece.”
     Her name was Dru Rayne, and she moved between Smith and the police as they told her what happened.
     “You were assaulted right here? Right here in the shop? They attacked you?”
     “I was doing okay, then this guy here stopped it.”
     Dru Rayne studied Pike again, and this time she mouthed two words, as if the officers and paramedics and her uncle could not see or were not there, creating a moment between the two of them that included no one else.
     “Thank you.”
     Pike nodded once.
     Then she turned to the paramedics.
     “Is he going to be all right?”
     “They’ll keep him for observation. With head injuries like this, they like to keep them overnight.”
     “I’m not staying. They stitch me up, I’m outta there.”
     Dru Rayne moved to the gurney and looked down at him.
     “Wilson. Please don’t be like that.”
     Hydeck gave her card to Ms. Rayne, and informed her that detectives would likely interview her uncle at the hospital. The paramedics finished strapping Smith to the cart, and Pike watched his niece follow them out. She did not look back at Pike as she left.
     Hydeck waited until they were gone, then turned back to Pike. She still held his driver’s license.
     “You think what happened here was a dispute over a sandwich?”
     Pike shook his head, and Hydeck glanced at his license again.
     “You look familiar. Do I know you?”
     “Those tattoos ring a bell.”
     A bright red arrow was inked onto the outside of each of Pike’s deltoids. She could see them because Pike wore a gray sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off. Government-issue sunglasses shiny and black as a beetle’s shell hid his eyes, but the arrows hung on his arms like neon signs. They pointed forward. Pike was six feet one, weighed just over two hundred pounds, and his arms were ropey with muscle. His hair was quarter-inch short, his skin was cooked dark, and his knuckles were scarred and coarse.
     Hydeck thumbed the edge of his license.
     “Most people walk into a beat-down like this, they run. But looking at you, I guess you can handle yourself. What do you do, Mr. Pike?”
     Pike expected her to ask what kind of business, but she returned his license. If she noticed a bulge where one of the two pistols he carried was hidden, she ignored it.
     “Guess Mr. Smith is lucky it was you who happened by”
     She gave him a business card.
     “The detectives will probably call you, but this is my card. You think of anything in the meantime, call.”
     Pike took the card, and Hydeck left to join Macintosh at their radio car. Dru Rayne was with her uncle as the paramedics opened their vehicle. She clutched his hand as she spoke to him, and seemed very intent. Then she stepped away and the paramedics slid the gurney into their truck. Hydeck and Macintosh climbed into the radio car, flipped on their lights, and stopped traffic to let the ambulance leave. The paramedics headed toward the hospital. Hydeck and Macintosh turned in the opposite direction, already rolling to another call.
     Dru Rayne watched the ambulance. She stared after it until the ambulance was gone, then hurried back to the shop. Pike didn’t like the way she hurried. He thought it looked like she was running for cover.
     Pike said, “Why is he lying?”
     She startled, making a little jump.
     “You scared me.”
     Pike nodded, then thought he should probably apologize.
     She gave him another grateful smile, then went behind the counter.
     “It’s me. I’m jumpy, I guess. I have to go the hospital.”
     “Why is he lying?”
     “Why do you think? He’s scared they’ll come back.”
     “They’ve been here before?”
     She turned off the deep fryers and put lids on metal condiment containers, speaking as she worked. Wilson sounded like a New Yorker, but her accent was softer, maybe because she was a woman.
     “They live here, we live here, so we have to think about these things. People like that, they always come back.”
     “If you think they’ll come back, you should tell the police. Hydeck knows what she’s doing.”
     She cocked her head.
     “I thought you were the police.”
     “You look like a policeman. Kinda.”
     “Just passing by.”
     She smiled again, then offered her hand across the counter.
     “Dru Rayne. You can call me Dru.”
     “Joe Pike.”
     “Then that was extra nice, what you did, helping like that, Mr. Pike. Thank you.”
     They shook, then Dru Rayne turned back to her work, speaking over her shoulder.
     “Now, I don’t want to be rude or anything, but I have to get this place locked up so I can get to the hospital.”
     Pike nodded, thinking there was no reason he shouldn’t leave, but he didn’t. He clocked her hand. No wedding ring.
     “Would you like me to take you?”
     “That’s all right, no. But thank you for offering.”
     Pike tried to think of something else to say.
     “Talk to the police.”
     “We’ll be fine. You don’t know my uncle. He probably called them names.”
     She flashed a warm smile, but Pike knew she wasn’t going to tell the police any more than her uncle.
     She stacked the metal containers, then carried the stack into the back room. When she disappeared, Pike wrote his name and cell number on an order pad he found by the cash register. He wrote his personal cell number, not the business number he gave the police.
     “I’m leaving my number. You need me, call.”
     She was still in the back.
     “Okay. Thanks again.”
     Pike returned to his Jeep, but did not leave the scene. He found the service alley that ran behind Wilson’s sandwich shop, and waited at the far end. A few minutes later, Dru Rayne came out, locked the door, and hurried to a silver Tercel. It was an older model with paint scraped from the rear bumper, and it needed a wash. Pike thought she looked worried.
     He sat in the Jeep for a while, then got out and walked the length of the block, first in the alley, then on the sidewalk. He took in the people on the sidewalks and in the stores, and the rooflines of the surrounding buildings. He studied the people behind the wheels of the passing cars, thinking about something she said: They always come back.
     Pike was across from the gas station when a maroon Monte Carlo slow-rolled past with the windows down. Two young men were in front, with a third in back, all three showing gang ink and jailhouse faces. They stared at Pike as they passed, so Pike stared back.
     The man in the back seat made a gun of his hand, aimed, and pulled the trigger.
Pike watched them go, thinking how Dru Rayne had run for cover.
     They always come back.
     No, Pike thought. Not if they fear you.

© 2010 by Robert Crais 


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