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     ROBERT CRAIS: THE WATCHMAN
     
                                     excerpt three

 

2.

     Blasting north on the 101. Pike gave no warning before horsing across four lanes of traffic to the exit ramp. They fell off the freeway like a brick dropped in water.
     Larkin screamed.
     They hit the bottom of the ramp sideways, Pike turning hard across oncoming lanes. Horns and tires shrieked as Pike turned again up the opposite on-ramp, back the way they had come. The girl was hugging her legs, hunched into a knot like they tell you to do when an airplane is going to crash.
     Pike pushed the Jeep to the next exit, then pegged the brakes at the last moment and fell off again, checking the rearview even as they fell.
     The girl moaned.
     “Stop it. Stop—Jesus, you’re going to get us killed.”
     They came out by USC, busy with afternoon traffic. Pike cut into the Chevron station at the bottom of the ramp, wheeling around the pump islands and office, then jammed to a stop. They sat, engine running, Pike pushing bullets into the Kimber’s magazine as he studied the cars coming down the ramp. This time of day the ramp filled fast. Pike studied the passengers in each vehicle, but none acted like killers on the hunt.
     “Did you recognize the men at the house?”
     “This is insane. We’re killing people.”
     “The one in the front yard, you passed him. Have you seen him before?”
     “I couldn’t—God, it happened—no.”
     Pike let it go. She hadn’t seen the two he killed earlier, either; just dark smudges falling. Pike himself had barely seen them: coarse men in their twenties or thirties, black T-shirts and pistols, cut by bars of shadow and light.
     Pike’s cell phone vibrated, but he ignored it. He backed from the end of the building, then turned away from the freeway, picking up speed as he grew confident they weren’t being followed.
     Ten blocks later, Pike eased into a strip mall, one of those places where the stores went out of business every two months. He turned past the end of the mall into a narrow alley and saw nothing but dumpsters and potholes.
     Pike shut the engine, got out, circled the Jeep, and opened her door.
     “Get out.”
     She didn’t move fast enough, so he pulled her out, keeping her upright because she would have fallen.
     “Hey! What—stop it!”
     “Did you call someone?”
     “No.”
     He pinned her against the Jeep with his hip as he searched her pockets for a cell phone. She tried to push him away, but he ignored her.
     “Stop that—how could I call? I was with you, you freak. Stop—”
     He snatched her floppy Prada bag from the floorboard and dumped the contents onto the seat.
     “You freak! I don’t have a phone. You took it!”
     He searched the pockets in her purse, then pulled her duffel from the backseat.
     “I didn’t call anybody. I don’t have a phone!
Pike finished going through her things, then stared at her, thinking.
     “What? Why are you staring at me?
     “They found us.”
     “I don’t know how they found us!
     “Let me see your shoes.”
     “What?”
     He pushed her backwards into the Jeep and pulled off her shoes. This time she didn’t resist. She sank back onto the seat, watching him as he lifted her feet.
     Pike wondered if they had placed a transponder on her. Maybe she had been bugged from the beginning, which was how the U.S. Marshals and Bud Flynn had almost lost her. Pike checked the heels of her shoes, then looked at her belt and the metal buttons that held her jeans. She drew a deep breath as he pulled off her belt.
     She said, “Like that?”
     Pike ignored her smile. It was nasty and perfect.
     “Want me to take off my pants?”
     Pike turned to her duffel, and she laughed.
     “You are such a freak. These are my things. They haven’t been out of my sight since I went with the marshals, you freak! Why don’t you say something? Why don’t you talk to me?”
     Pike didn’t believe he would find anything, but he had to check, so he did, ignoring her. Pike had learned this with the Marines—the one time a man didn’t clean his rifle, that’s when it jammed; the one time you didn’t tape down a buckle or secure your gear, the noise it made got you killed.
     “Are we just going to stay here? Is it even safe here? I want to go home.”
     “They almost killed you at home.”
     “Now I’m with you and they’ve almost killed me twice. I want to go home.”
     Pike took out his cell phone and checked the messages. The three incoming calls were from Bud Flynn. Pike hit the send button to return the calls and wondered if they were being tracked by his phone, the signal triangulated between cell stations. To track him they would have to know his number, but Bud had it. Maybe if Bud knew it, they knew it, too.
     Bud answered immediately.
     “You scared the hell out of me. I thought you were done when you didn’t answer.”
     “They found us again.”
     “Get outta here. Where are you?”
     “Listen. She wants to come home.”
     Pike was watching the girl when he said it, and she was staring back.
     Bud didn’t answer right away, but when he did his voice was soft.
     “Now let’s take it easy. Let’s everybody calm down. Is she safe? Right now, is everything good?”
     “Yes.”
     “I want to make sure I understand—are you talking about the Malibu house or the house I just sent you to, the one in Eagle Rock?”
     Bud had sent them to a safe house in Malibu the night before, then put them onto the Eagle Rock house when the shooters hit Malibu.
     “Eagle Rock. You gave me two bad houses, Bud.”
     “Not possible. They could not have known about this house.”
     “Three more men died. Do the feds have me covered on this or not? I have to know, Bud.”
     Bud already knew about the two in Malibu. The feds had screamed, but promised to cover for Pike and the girl with the locals.
     Now Bud didn’t sound confident.
     “I’ll talk to them.”
     “Talk fast. I lost one of my guns, the .357. When the police run the numbers, they’ll have my name.”
     Bud made a soft hiss that sounded more tired than angry. Pike didn’t press him. Pike let him think.
     “All right, listen—she wants to come home?”
     “Yes.”
     “Put her on.”
     Pike held out the phone. The girl put it to her ear, but now she seemed uncertain. She listened for several minutes, and then she spoke once.
     She said, “I’m really scared. Can’t I come home?”
     Pike knew the answer even before she gave back the phone. Here they were in an alley in southeast Los Angeles, temperature in the mid-nineties, and this girl looked cold. She flew over places like this in her family’s private Gulfstream, but here she was, all for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and, for likely the first and only time in her life, trying to do the right thing. And now the right thing meant being with him.
     Pike took back the phone even as a car turned into the far end of the alley. He immediately put himself between the girl and the on-coming car, then saw the driver was a young Latina, so short she drove with her head tilted back to see over the wheel.
     Pike lifted the phone.
     “Me.”
     “Okay, listen—she’s good to stay with you. I think that’s best and so does her father. I’ll line up another house—”
     “Keep your house. Did you ID the men in Malibu?”
     “We have to get you safe. I’ll line up another house—”
     “Your houses are bad.”
     “Joe—”
     “They had us twice at your houses. I’ll get us a house.”
     “You can’t cut me out like this. How will I know—”
     “You gave her to me, Bud. She’s mine.”
    Pike shut off his phone. The girl was watching him there in the angry heat of the alley.
    She said, “Now I’m yours? Did you really say that?”
     “If you want to go home I’ll take you home. That’s up to you, not them. That’s all I meant. I’ll take you back if you want.”
     Pike knew she was thinking about it, but then she shrugged.
     “I’ll stay.”
     “Get in.”
     Pike helped her into his Jeep, then studied both ends of the alley. He wanted to start moving, but his Jeep was now a liability. The police would eventually know he was involved because of his gun, but if a witness in Eagle Rock had his license plate, the police might already be looking for a red Jeep Cherokee. Pike wanted to avoid the police, but he couldn’t just sit. When you weren’t moving you were nothing but someone’s target.
     The alley was clear. Right now, at this moment and in this place, Pike and the girl were invisible. If Pike could keep it that way, the girl would survive.
 

© 2007 by Robert Crais 


   
 
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