- Published: 30 March 2021
- ISBN: 9781761041877
- Imprint: Penguin
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 432
- RRP: $19.99
I looked up into the eye of a gun. She’d been that quiet. That fast. At the edge of my vision I’d half-seen a figure pass the front window of the Pump’n’Jump gas station, a shadow-walker blur against the red sunset and silhouetted palm trees. That was it. She stuck the gun in my face before the buzzer had finished the one-note song that announced her, made her real. The gun was shaking, a bad thing made somehow worse. I put down the pen I’d been using to fill out the crossword.
Deep regret: Remorse. Maybe the last word I would ever write. One I was familiar with.
I spread my fingers flat on the counter, between the bowl of spotted bananas at a dollar a piece and the two-for-one Clark Bars.
‘Don’t scream,’ the girl said.
As I let my eyes move from the gun to her, all I could see was trouble. There was sweat and blood on her hand, on the finger that was sliding down the trigger, trying to find traction. The safety switch was off. The arm that held the weapon was thin and reedy, would soon get tired from holding a gun that clearly wasn’t hers, was too heavy. The face beyond the arm was the sickly purple-grey of a fresh corpse. She had a nasty gash in her forehead that was so deep I could see bone. Fingerprints in blood on her neck, also too big to be her own.
Screaming would have been a terrible idea. If I startled her, that slippery finger was going to jerk on the trigger and blow my brains all over the cigarette cabinet behind me. I didn’t want to be wasted in my stupid uniform, my hat emblazoned with a big pink kangaroo and the badge on my chest that truthfully read ‘Blair’ but lied ‘I love to serve!’ I had a flash of distracted thought, wondering what my young son Jamie would wear to my funeral. I knew he had a suit. He’d worn it to my parole hearing.
‘Whoa,’ I said, both an expression of surprise and a request.
‘Empty the register.’ The girl put out her hand and glanced through the window. The parking lot was empty. ‘And give me the keys to the car.’
‘My car?’ I touched my chest, making her reel backwards, grip the gun tighter. I counselled myself not to move so fast or ask stupid questions. My bashed-up Honda was the only car in sight, at the edge of the lot, parked under a billboard. Idris Elba with a watch that cost two college funds.
‘Car, cash,’ the girl said. Her teeth were locked. ‘Now, bitch.’
‘Listen,’ I said slowly. For a moment I commanded the room. The burrito freezer hummed gently. The lights behind the plastic face of the slushie machine made tinkling noises. ‘I can help you.’
Even as I said the words, I felt like an idiot. Once, I’d been able to help people. Sick children and their terrified parents. I’d worn surgical scrubs and suits; no kangaroos, no bullshit badges. But between then and now I’d worn a prison uniform, and my ability to help anyone had been sucked away.
The girl shuffled on her feet, waved the gun to get me moving. ‘Fuck you and your help. I don’t need it. I need to get out of here.’
‘If you just—’
My words were cut off by a blast of light. The sound came after, a pop in my eardrums, a whump of pressure in my head as the bullet ripped past me, too close. She’d blown a hole in the Marlboro dispenser, just over my right shoulder. Burned tobacco and melted plastic in the air. My ears ringing. The gun came back to me.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Okay.’
I went to the register, snuck a sideways look at her. Gold curls. A small, almost button nose. There was something vaguely familiar about her, but during my time in prison I’d probably cast my eye over a thousand troubled, edgy, angry kids who knew their way around a handgun. I took the keys from the cup beside the machine.
‘This is a cartel-owned gas station,’ I said. I realised my hands were shaking. Soon I’d be sweating, panting, teeth chattering. My terror came on slowly. I’d trained it that way. ‘You should know that. You hit a place like this and they’ll come for you and your family. You can take the car, but—’
‘They’ll come after you,’ I said. I unlocked the register. She laughed. I glanced sideways at her as I scooped out stacks of cash. The laugh wasn’t humour, it was ironic scorn. Something sliced through me, icy and sharp. I looked at the windows before me, at our reflections. She was looking out there too, into the gathering dark. No one else was visible. We seemed suddenly, achingly alone together and yet terrifyingly not alone. I handed her the cash.
‘Someone’s already after you,’ I surmised. She gave a single, stiff nod. I slowly took my car keys from my pocket and dropped them into her hand. When the barrel of the gun swept away from me, it was like a clamp loosening from around my windpipe.
I watched her turn and run out of the shop, get in the car and drive away.
Through the windows, Koreatown at night seemed to breathe a sigh of relief, to become unpaused. Long-haired youths knocked each other around on the corner. A man returning home from work let the newspaper box slap closed, his paper tucked under his arm. The malignant presence I’d felt out there when the girl had been in the store was gone.
I could have called the police. If not to report the robbery, to report a girl running from something or someone with the furious desperation of a hunted animal, a girl out there in the dark, pursued, surviving for who knew how long. But Los Angeles was full of people like that; always had been. A jungle, prey fleeing predators. I’d give the girl a little head start with my car before I reported it missing. I lifted my shirt and wiped the sweat from my face on the hem, trying to regulate my breathing.
My addiction pulsed, a short, sharp desire that made me pick up my phone beside the register, my finger hovering, ready to dial. I forced myself to put the phone down. The clock on the wall said I had an hour left of my shift. I thought about calling Jamie but knew he’d be asleep.
Instead I went to the ATM in the corner of the store. I slipped my card into the machine and extracted four hundred dollars, about the amount I knew the girl had taken. I went back and put the notes in the register. Though I’d never met the gas station’s true owners, I’d known cartel women in the can, and had picked up enough Spanish over the years to eavesdrop on their stories. The girl, whoever she was, didn’t need the San Marino 13s on her tail. Neither did I.
I hardly looked at the ATM receipt before I crumpled it and let it fall into the bin. It was going to be a long walk home.
‘Here’s what I don’t understand,’ Wallert said. He’d been saying it all day. Listing things he didn’t get. Waiting for people to explain them to him. Jessica guessed they were probably into the triple digits now of things Wallert couldn’t comprehend. ‘What the hell did you do on the Silver Lake case that I didn’t do?’
She didn’t answer, just looked at Detective Wallert’s bloodshot eyes in the rear-view mirror. Jessica hated the back seat of the police cruiser, didn’t belong there. She was used to the side of Wallert’s ugly head, not the back. A biohazard company gave the back seat a proper clean-out every month or so, but everybody knew that it never really got clean. The texture of the leather wasn’t right. Gritty in places. But Wallert was looking at her more than he was driving. Combined with the frequent sips of bourbon-spiked coffee from his paper coffee cup, he was eyeing the road about one in every fifteen seconds. In this case, she was in the dirtiest but likely the safest place in the car. Detective Vizchen, who they were babysitting for the night, sniffed in the front passenger seat when Jessica didn’t answer Wallert, as if her silence was insolence.
‘I was there,’ Wallert continued. They cruised by a bunch of kids standing outside a house pumping music into the night. ‘I was in the case. I was available to the guy whenever he needed me. Day or night. He knew that. It was me who came up with the lead about the trucker.’
‘A lead that went nowhere,’ Jessica finally said. ‘A lead I told you would go nowhere before you began half-heartedly pursuing it. You weren’t of much assistance to Stan Beauvoir the few times he called on you.’
‘This. Is. Bull. Shit,’ Wallert snarled. He slammed the steering wheel with his palm to the beat of his words. Jessica said nothing. To say that Wallert wasn’t of much assistance on the Silver Lake case was an understatement. The nearly decade-old case had been handed to her and Wallert as a ‘hobby’ job, a spare-time filler, something Wallert hadn’t taken seriously from the beginning. The series of abductions and murders of young women taken from parking lots in the Silver Lake area had ended as suddenly and mysteriously as it had begun, four women dead within the space of three months in 2007. Wallert was sure that the killer had been a long-haul trucker, someone who probably carried on their killing spree in another state, making it someone else’s problem. He’d looked at the photographs of the four young women who’d gone missing when Jessica first handed them to him and yawned, then remarked on Bernice Beauvoir’s full, pouty lips. ‘You don’t get lips like that from suckin’ jawbreakers,’ he’d said. The picture was of Bernice’s head sitting like a trophy on a tree stump in the wooded area where she had been found.
‘House like that,’ Vizchen broke the silence. ‘Gotta be – what? Five million dollars?’
‘You don’t just give a five-million-dollar house to someone who worked on a case for you.’ Wallert’s eyes seared into Jessica in the rear-view mirror. ‘Just say you sucked his dick, Jess. It would make me feel better.’
Jessica felt her teeth lock together.
‘I’d suck a dick for five million dollars,’ Vizchen mused.
‘Vizchen, you shut your mouth or I’ll stick my gun in it. See how you like the taste of that,’ she snapped.
They pulled in to Linscott Place. Blackened houses, perfect stillness. Wallert kept the emergency lights off but gunned it to number 4652, where the sighting had occurred, and slammed the car into park. He wanted to get this over with so he could go back to his pity party.
Jessica got out of the car, checked her weapon, called in the 459 – possible burglary – and told the operator they were responding as the nearest unit to the scene. She looked at the moonlight reflecting off the stucco walls of the houses around her, dancing through diamond wire onto bare yards. No dogs barking. Wallert’s hand on her shoulder was like a hammer swinging down.
‘You’re going to take the house, aren’t you?’ He turned her too roughly. ‘Is it just like that? They just give you the keys?’
‘Get your fucking hands off me, Wally.’ Jessica shoved him in the chest. ‘I’ve had one phone call about this mess. One. I know as much as you do. I’ve got to meet with the executor of the guy’s will and see what it’s all about. This could all be a stupid goddamn mistake, you know that? You’re treating me like I’ve taken the inheritance and moved to Brentwood already, and all I’ve got so far is—’
‘Every house in Brentwood has a pool,’ Vizchen said. He was leaning against the car, his arms folded. ‘Place has got a pool, right?’
‘If there was any justice’—Wallert poked her in the chest— ‘you’d split the house with me. It’s only fair. I was on that case, too.’
‘You didn’t work it! You—’
‘I don’t see any goddamn prowler.’ Wallert stormed back towards the car and flung a hand at the surrounding neighbourhood. ‘It’s a false alarm. Let’s get out of here. I need a proper drink.’ He leaned on the car rather than getting in, big hands spread on the roof, his round belly pressed against the window. He looked at Vizchen. ‘Even if she gave me a quarter of what it’s worth, I’d be set for life.’
‘Set for life,’ Vizchen agreed, nodding, smiling at Jessica in the dark like an asshole.
Jessica heard the whimper.
She thought it was Wallert crying, and was about to blast him for a day’s covert drinking ending in a mewling, slobbering, pitiful mess. But some instinct told her it was a sound carried on the wind, something distant, half-heard. Sound bounces around the poorer suburbs. All the concrete. She looked right, towards the silhouette of the mountains.
‘Doesn’t Harrison Ford live over there?’ Vizchen wondered aloud. ‘I know Arnie does.’
‘Did you guys hear that?’
‘She got on pretty damn well with the guy. The father. Beauvoir,’ Wallert grumbled to Vizchen. ‘I mean, if you’d seen them together. She spent hours at his place. Just “talking about the case”, about the dead daughter. Yeah, right. Now we know the truth.’
‘Shut the fuck up, both of you.’ Jessica flipped her torch on. ‘I heard something. That way. We gotta go. We gotta check this out.’
‘You check it out.’ Vizchen jutted his chin at her. ‘You’re the hero cop.’
The sound returned, faintly this time, no more than a whisper on the breeze. Vizchen smirked at her as Wallert fished in the car for his cup.
Jessica headed east along the curve of the road, waiting for the sound to come again. Between the houses she caught a slice of gold light. Movement. Rather than continuing to follow the road around, she walked down the side of a quiet house, brushed past wet palm fronds as she found the gate leading into the yard. She vaulted it, jogged across the earth in case of dogs, vaulted the next fence. The house in Brentwood and Wallert’s rage were forgotten now. She could feel the heat. The danger. Like electricity in the air. She hit the ground and grabbed her radio as she headed for the garage of a large brick home.
A body. She knew the instant her boot made contact with it in the driveway, the sag of weight forwards with the impact and then back against the front of her foot. It was still warm. Damp. She bent down and felt around in the shadows of a sprawling aloe vera bush that was growing over the low front fence. Belly, chest. Ragged, wet throat. No pulse. Jessica’s heart was hammering as she grabbed her radio.
‘Wally, I’ve got a code two here,’ she said. ‘Repeat. Code two at 4699 Linscott Place.’
A sound in the garage ahead of her, up the driveway. The roller door was raised a foot or so, and from its blindingly bright interior she heard the whimper come again. A thump. A growl.
‘Wallert, are you there? Vizchen?’ she whispered into her radio.
‘Wallert, Vizchen, respond!’ She squeezed the receiver so that the plastic squeaked and crackled in her hand. Static. ‘Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.’
Jessica pulled her gun and headed for the garage. Stopped at the corner of the building to radio command.
‘Detective Jessica Sanchez, badge 260719. I’ve got a 10-54 and code three at 4699 Linscott Place, Baldwin Village. Repeat, code three.’
There was a flash in her mind of Wallert and Vizchen laughing. Another officer might have wondered about the two of them, why they weren’t responding. If they were in danger. But not Jessica, not today. She’d heard Vizchen’s words, knew she would hear them again in the coming weeks, from her brethren at the station. You’re the hero cop. No one was coming to help her. She’d betrayed them all with the Brentwood inheritance. She’d marked herself as a traitor.
She sank to the ground, flattened and rolled under the garage door, rose and held the gun on him. He was a big man, even crouching as he was, a heaving lump of flesh, bent back straining. At first she thought the old woman and the young man were kissing on the ground. Intimate. Mouth to throat. But then she saw the blood on his hands, all over his face, her neck. Jessica thought of vampires and zombies, of magical, impossible things, and had to steady herself against a pool table. Her mind split as the full force of terror hit, half of it wailing and screaming at her to flee, the other half assessing what this was: a vicious assault in progress. Assailant likely under the influence of drugs. Bath salts – they’d been hitting the streets hard in the past few weeks, making kids do crazy things: gouge their own eyes out, kill animals, ride their bikes off cliffs. She was watching a man eat a woman alive.
‘Drop her!’ she shouted. An absurd part of her brain noted she was talking as if to a dog. A wolf. A werewolf. ‘Drop her! Stand back!’
The man raised his bloody face. The old woman in his hands bucked, tried to shift away. Too weak. Almost dead. Every vein in the man’s body was sticking out like a slick blue rope on his sweat-soaked skin. He wasn’t seeing Jessica. He was trapped in his fantasy.
‘Back up now or I’ll shoot!’
The man lifted the woman to his lips. Jessica fired over his head, hit a dartboard hanging on the wall, sending it clanging to the ground. He got up, staggered away from the noise. She fired again and hit him in the left shoulder. The bullet flecked his shirt with blood, embedded itself in the muscle. He didn’t flinch. The man came for her, gathering speed in three long strides. She fired again, a double tap in the chest. A kill shot. He kept coming. A big hand seized her face and shoved her into the wall, then dragged her towards him with the strength of an inhuman thing. The gun fell from her fingers.
She thought of Wallert as the man’s teeth bit down into the flesh of her bicep. Her partner out there, somewhere in the dark, laughing at her.
Jessica grabbed at the man’s rock-hard shoulders and landed a knee in his crotch. They went to ground, rolled on the floor together. He pinned her on her front, his belt buckle jutting into her hip. Another bite on her left shoulderblade, the pop sound of the fabric as his teeth cut clean through her shirt. Jessica pushed off the ground the few inches she could manage and smacked her elbow into the man’s face. The crunch of his nasal bone. He bit her left shoulder. Clamping down, trying to tear the flesh away, a good mouthful. She looked into the eyes of the now-dead old woman only feet away from her and thought again about how no one was coming.
He tried to get on top of her, accidentally nudging her dropped gun within reach. Jessica grabbed the weapon and twisted under him, put the gun to his forehead as the teeth came down again towards her.
From where she sat at the back of the bus, the driver’s death was a confusing spectacle to Emily Jackson.
BookShots are short, high-impact stories by James Patterson and other writers that can be read in one sitting.
She was perfect. And so rarely the perfect ones came, fluttering out of the darkness like moths into golden light. Swift and uncatchable.
I WASN’T PRESENT at the courthouse in Erva, Alabama, on that morning in June, when events unfolded that would suck me into the undertow of Douglas County.