By the time they made it back to the house Carlton’s car was already gone. Juliet could see that, but she threw her own car into park and jumped out anyway. She was halfway across the yard before Brannigan and McNab were parked and following her in.
“Carlton!” she called.
The door was unlocked, just as he’d promised.
There was no answer, of course. No movement downstairs. A clean house but for the boxes and baby toys. Juliet bolted upstairs and it was the same there.
If Lassiter hadn’t remembered about the montering on his phones before, he remembered now. He knew they’d come back. He was gone.
“Carlton, no!” she gasped.
The master bedroom was the last place she looked, and it was the only place there was any evidence Lassiter had been here at all. The clothes he’d been wearing were on the floor and the closet was open. That was it.
No. Not it.
There was an empty space on the nightstand next to Lily’s first baby picture. The missing frame was abandoned on the edge of the bed, by a wrinkled place in the otherwise perfectly spread comforter just large enough for someone to have sat there. The glass was covered in new fingerprints.
Carlton and Marlowe’s wedding picture.
Brannigan was calling from downstairs. Juliet blinked, clearing moisture from her eyes. She left everything as it was and hurried back down the stairs.
“What?” she questioned sharply.
Brannigan and McNab were standing over the kitchen table.
“This isn’t good, is it?” McNab asked. He looked from Juliet, to the table, and back again.
A briefcase sat in one of the kitchen chairs. The three things left in the middle of the table were Carlton’s badge, his cell phone, and his life insurance policy.
Shawn was roughly prodded awake by the barrel of Salamatchia’s gun. He was still in the trunk, but his hands were tied...with shoelaces and duct tape?
The Petrovich place. There’d been all those shoes left behind. They were here.
“Get out of there,” Salamatchia demanded.
Shawn groaned. “I would love to, but my head kinda hurts. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you?” The older man growled at him and started to yank him up forcibly from the floor of the trunk. “Ok, ok!”
He climbed out, unsteady and taking absolutely no solace in the fact that he probably had a concussion to match Lassie’s between the two different impacts to the head.
He wondered why the guy had bothered to wake him up now, until he remembered the trap door down into the old hideout. There was no way Salamatchia would have gotten anybody unconscious down there on his own.
Shawn also knew he wouldn’t normally have forgotten a detail like that, even for a moment. Now he was relatively sure there had to be some damage.
The left side of his face felt sticky. Why hadn’t he noticed that the last time he was awake? Maybe it had only been wet then. Maybe he’d thought it was sweat, but now the blood was drying.
Yeah. Definitely not good.
The trap door was still open from when they’d been here last night with Brannigan and Buzz. They’d found it that way, and they’d left it that way. Salamatchia urged him down through the hole and down the ladder at gunpoint. His hands were bound in front, so he could do it, but that didn’t mean it was easy.
Shawn made a face at him. “Dude! What I’ve got to deal with here is your fault, you know. Entirely your fault. And was the duct tape really necessary? Seriously. Pulling hair here. Because I’m a man. And I have arm hair.”
They made it to the bottom of the ladder and Shawn was prodded around the corner, down the dark concrete-walled corridor and around to the basic wooden stairs that led up the loft in the underground space that had once been an office of sorts for Petrovich. Where they’d found the leftovers of Salamatchia’s explosive preparation.
Salamatchia ordered him into a chair and found a rope long enough to tie him to it.
“Is this still supposed to be about some kind of justice? Or...balance, or whatever?” Shawn questioned.
“That’s all I’m trying to do.”
“Then why’d you kill your ex-wife? What’d she ever do to you?”
The older man froze for a moment, not looking at him. He polished off a knot before he pulled away and turned his back. “She stood in the way of justice.”
Shawn snorted. “You mean she wouldn’t hide you after you escaped from prison and started killing people again?”
Salamatchia spun on him. “I am not killing people! I’m bringing balance to past wrongs!”
“Tell that to Carlton Lassiter!” Shawn shouted.
The guy hit him. More of a backhand than anything—nothing really, compared to being knocked out twice. Still didn’t feel very good. Shawn heard himself cry out, and he was still trying to blink the stars out of his vision when Salamatchia took the rant back up.
“Lassiter should be dead. He will be dead. My son can’t rest until he is, and neither will I, you hear me?”
Shawn coughed and cleared his throat. He was pretty sure his lip had split. “Yeah, well...good luck with that. You think he’ll just walk in here and let you shoot him?”
“He’s on his way, isn’t he?”
“Sure. But he’s got a plan.”
Salamatchia shook his head. “He’s stupid, but he’s not that stupid. Any funny business and his daughter is next. He knows that.”
“And you’re stupid if you think you’ll ever get anywhere near Lily Lassiter now. Not to mention: super bad idea, that threat. Probably all that accomplished was pissing him off. When he was already pissed off. I assume. I would be. I didn’t really stick around after his wife died.”
Shawn swallowed. There was that whole air thing again. Where it was hard.
“Her name was Marlowe. She was a person, man, and she never did anything to you or your son. She never did anything to help any drug operations. She never endangered any kids. She did go to prison for a little while that one time, but, you know, she just stole some blood in a bag, she was just trying to keep her brother alive.”
His vision was getting blurry, and he could blame the bumps on the head if the fuzziness wasn’t clearly swimming and and all liquidy. He really needed to stop before that stuff went anywhere other than right there in his eyes, but he was on a roll now. He had to finish.
“She was kinda weird, sure, but she made him happy. She helped us solve cases. She didn’t take any crap—from Lassiter or anyone else. She let Lily keep the stuffed dog toy I gave her even though Lassie was sure it had to be infested with me-germs. She was good people. And you...you killed her.”
Salamatchia was glaring him down. “Are you done?”
Shawn really wanted to be done, but the words kept tumbling out. “You know what? No! I’m not done! What is wrong with you, man? How is destroying another family supposed to make anything right!”
There it was. The anger. Good. The other stuff was going away, and this he could deal with. This he could do.
“Sometimes that’s the way it has to be,” Salamatchia huffed.
“No! It’s really not!”
They split up the places Salamatchia might be, the places Lassiter might be going, and Brannigan sent McNab with Juliet.
“She needs someone with her authorized to operate in this city. The last thing we need is trouble later over this.”
McNab nodded, and didn’t hesitate to go around to the passenger side of Juliet’s car instead as they hurried from the house. Brannigan opened the trunk of theirs and tossed him his bulletproof vest.
“Detective O’Hara? You good?” she asked.
“I’ve got mine,” Juliet confirmed. Brannigan was already shedding the jacket of her pantsuit to put hers on. Juliet dug hers out of her trunk and donned it over her t-shirt and jeans. By the time she was done Buzz was in the car and ready to go.
“I’ll call the station and have them on standby to send reinforcements as soon as one of us has confirmed the location,” Brannigan said, before she climbed into her car. “And I’m sending a protection detail to the hospital to keep an eye on the chief’s daughter.”
“And have everyone looking for Carlton’s car!” Juliet called.
Brannigan waved in agreement before she shut her door. “Yeah! And the APB is still out on what Salamatchia was driving; LAPD says Mr. Guster confirmed he hasn’t switched vehicles yet. We’ll find them.”
From the sideways glance Shawn managed to get at Salamatchia’s (probably stolen) watch, it was barely nine thirty when they heard movement down the corridor below, back in the entryway.
Way early. Please say that’s, like, Brannigan and a whole task force and not Lassie.
Salamatchia was well on alert. The chair he’d tied Shawn to was already facing the top of the stairs and pulled several yards back. He moved behind it, and then there was a tight hand on Shawn’s shoulder and the cold metal of a gun barrel against his temple. He went still like any normal human being would have.
I may be screwed either way. Fantastic.
“Salamatchia!” The call came from below and still some distance. “Where are you? I know you’ve had time to get back here!”
“Up here!” Salamatchia answered loudly.
After a moment there were footsteps on the stairs, and this time Shawn said what he wanted to say out loud.
At least the barrel of Lassiter’s gun led into view first as he came up, rather than his face. “Shut up, Spencer.”
He’d changed, too, all suited up now. If he was going to die he was going to do it dressed like the police chief he was. Strange how that made Shawn feel a little better.
Not that he planned on letting anything happen to Lassie.
They were all there now, Shawn with a gun to his head and Lassiter at the top of the stairs with a gun trained on Salamatchia. The gun was in Lassie’s left hand thanks to the cast on his other wrist, but Shawn wasn’t stupid enough to think that would affect the chief’s aim at all and he didn’t think Salamatchia was either.
Lassiter looked Shawn over once and glared up at the perp behind him.
“What happened to not hurting him?”
“He started talking,” Salamatchia retorted.
Any other day Lassie probably would have found that funny. Even in the middle of a standoff. Today it fell flat and all he did was glare. Shawn couldn’t blame him; he didn’t feel like laughing, either.
“How is this—?”
Salamatchia didn’t let Lassiter finish. “Drop your weapon and kick it over here, and I’ll let this one go.”
Lassie shook his head immediately. “I don’t think so. I’m not dropping anything until he’s out the door.”
“I don’t think you can tell me—”
“Actually, I can,” Lassiter cut in angrily. “I have what you want. Me. I could turn around and walk out of here and let you kill him if you want to, and you’d lose your chance. You’d never get to my daugher. You’d still be back in prison by the end of the day. So if you want any chance of having what you want, I suggest we do this my way. Personally, I think the way you went about this entire thing was stupid, but that’s just me.”
“That’s what happens when you’re crazy,” Shawn offered. The hand on his shoulder pinched tightly and the barrel of the gun pushed in painfully. He made a face, and that’s when Lassiter reacted.
“Hey!” Lassie called. “Don’t worry about him; he’s an idiot. What’s it going to be?”
Salamatchia hesitated, but after a moment the hand on Shawn’s shoulder was gone and the guy was working at the knots at the back of the chair while still keeping the gun to his head.
Lassiter waited. Shawn took the opportunity to talk some sense into him in a stage whisper Salamatchia could totally hear, but there was no way around that.
“Lassie, this is stupid!”
Shawn glanced over his shoulders, trying to see if there was any chance Salamatchia wasn’t paying close enough attention, but no dice. There was nothing Lassiter could do. The guy’s eyes were pinned on Lassiter and he was pulling the knots out without looking at them.
“Of course it’s stupid.”
“No, I mean go home!” Shawn insisted. “Or, you know, get me out of here a different way, which would be preferable. But this is stupid.”
“Shut up before I shoot you myself,” Lassie shot back tiredly.
The rope fell away and Salamatchia hauled Shawn to his feet. His hands were still bound, though. He swayed, really starting to feel the cracks on the head now.
“Shawn?” Lassie. Lassie using his actual name. How bad did he look?
“You all right?”
Lassiter dug in a pocket with his free hand and tossed something jingly to Salamatchia. “Give him those and let him go.”
Over Shawn’s shoulder Salamatchia growled a little and pushed the jingly thing between his bound hands. Lassie’s keys. He didn’t have time to really look at them; Salamatchia shoved him from behind and he fell forward a few steps.
“My car’s outside,” Lassie was saying. “There’s a pocket knife on the keyring. Get out of here, Spencer.”
Shawn got his balance back and looked from the keys, to Lassiter, to Salamatchia, and back to Lassie. “Are you guys crazy? I’m not going anywhere.”
“Go!” they yelled at him at once.
He heard Salamatchia’s gun click behind him and Shawn scurried forward at least as far as Lassiter’s side. “Fine! Geez…”
He paused, suddenly really needing to catch his breath and not sure why. The stairs fell away beside him and he looked sideways at Lassiter.
He said it quietly. There was actually a good chance Salamatchia couldn’t hear them now, here by the stairs.
Shawn wanted to say for what. He wanted to say he was sorry about Marlowe. He was sorry for this mess only making it worse. But he thought especially the first thing might be more of a distraction than anything else right now, to remind him, and Lassiter didn’t need that. He needed to get out of this.
Lassiter swallowed once, and it was the only new emotion he showed. He didn’t look over; he kept his eyes on Salamatchia. “Get going, Spencer.” He paused. “O’Hara needs you.”
“Yeah, and Lily needs her dad, genius.”
“So I don’t plan to die today if I can help it. Move.”
That was better than nothing, and the last thing Shawn wanted to do now was make Salamatchia any angier by lollygagging too long—since it had been made clear he wasn’t welcome to stay. So he nodded a little, and he really didn’t want to but he took the first step down the stairs.
“Yeah?” He paused on the top step.
“If anything happens to me and you and O’Hara screw up raising my daughter, I will come back to haunt you.”
Shawn blinked. “Ok then.”
“Well?” Salamatchia said, once Spencer was gone.
Carlton glanced to his gun and back up. “What? You think I’m going to make this easy for you? You said come alone; I came alone. That’s all you get.”
After a moment the other man shrugged. “All right. Maybe a fair fight is better. Before we were interrupted last time I was starting to feel it’d be flat, killing you unarmed.”
It was taking every ounce of willpower not to just fire. To wait. To look for the best opportunity to get out of this alive. To keep both of them alive if at all possible, because as much as he hated it O’Hara had been right.
It would be so easy just to fire. Right between his eyes. Carlton was sure of his own aim, his own speed, even in his current state—with his left hand and the concussion. He’d trained himself that well.
He could fire right now and Salamatchia would be dead, but he’d probably get a shot off first. That likelihood was higher now. Carlton wasn’t as steady as he’d like. He could compensate for it but he’d telegraph more. It could just as easily end with him dead, too.
“You’re a real piece of work, you know that?” he growled, stalling for time.
“You and Petrovich made me this way when you took my son,” Salamatchia answered dangerously.
“I didn’t do anything to your son, or to you. Life is choices, Mr. Salamatchia. You did this to yourself. I was willing to give you the benefit of the doubt last time...to let your grief take the blame. We are so far past that now.”
After several long seconds of lurching back and forth in the corridor in indecision and face planting into a wall once after losing his balance, Shawn finally made up his mind. If he could get to the car he could use the radio.
He pushed off the wall and made for the exit, but he didn’t even get as far as the ladder. He rounded the corner and bounced off Brannigan instead.
Shawn bounced back into the wall and Brannigan and rocked back on her heels. Her sidearm came up at him briefly, but lowered again when she realized it was him.
“Brannigan! Holy crap, am I glad to see you!” he whispered.
“Where’s the chief?” she demanded, following his lead on the volume.
“Up in the office...loft...thing. He really needs some help back there. At least a third party to make the standoff a Mexican. Something.”
She nodded and hurried around him, keeping low. Shawn followed her to the base of the stairs, and they could hear the voices above.
Then Shawn remembered something. A finger went to his eyebrow.
“Wait!” he whispered, urgent. Brannigan looked back at him, at eyebrow up, telling him to go on. “There’s another way up there. You don’t want to go up this way; Salamatchia’ll be looking straight at you.”
He remembered the hints of another staircase, on the far side of the loft. He’d gotten a glimpse when Salamatchia brought him up.
Brannigan seemed to agree with his assessment, because she listened. She backed silently away from the staircase and they followed the concrete passage around looking for the second one.
“You know, it’s almost a shame to kill you right now no matter what the circumstances,” Salamatchia said. “I should let you suffer a little longer.”
A high pitched whine in his ears, the flash of a still form in his memory, and Carlton’s next breath breath came with that much more difficulty.
At least he didn’t have to answer. The other man just kept talking. Maybe he was stalling, too.
“Your friend let slip what happened in the crash.” Salamatchia shrugged a little. “I don’t think he let it slip, really; I think he was trying to shame me. He was angry.”
Carlton’s fingers tightened around his weapon. He was almost surprised when his trigger finger didn’t flex with the rest of them.
“I’m angry.” It wasn’t much more than a gasp.
No. No no no. Don’t do that. Don’t let him get to you. You do that and he gets the satisfaction. You do that and you’re dead.
It had never been this hard before.
Why can’t I just kill him, O’Hara?
That was when he saw the movement on the far end of the loft. The top of a blonde head. His first thought, as silly as it was, was maybe the wish had brought her here.
But it was Brannigan who crept silently up the stairs and planted her feet before Salamatchia ever knew she was there.
“SBPD! Drop it, Mr. Salamatchia!” she called. “No sudden movements! Put the gun on the ground!”
He had nowhere to go. He was covered from both sides. He should have done as he was told.
Salamatchia made a move as if to turn, to fire at Brannigan. She fired first and he was down, the wound in a shoulder.
Carlton moved in to cover him. He kicked the dropped gun away, over the edge of the loft, and heard it clatter down the wooden stairs behind him. He only glanced up long enough to see Brannigan crossing the loft, Spencer coming up the stairs behind her, and then the world was tilting sharply.
Spencer’s voice reached him as he hit the ground. A dull ache in one ankle told him Salamatchia had pulled him down from the ground. Maybe he shouldn’t have fallen so easily, but his balance was still off. His head was spinning now. His gun was pulled from his hands before he could reorient.
Carlton lurched for the movement, reaching. He found purchase on cold metal and pulled back. He was working more on feel than anything to keep the barrel pointed away. Just as he was sure he’d have the gun back Salamatchia slammed their arms out together, enough to send the weapon over the edge rather than let him have it.
“What are you doing! Shoot him again!” Shawn shouted.
“I can’t be sure I won’t hit the chief!”
Brannigan stopped to aim when Salamatchia dragged Lassiter down, but there was no good shot to be had. She took off across the loft again instead.
The rest of it took maybe ten seconds.
Lassie’s gun went over the edge. That should have been the end of it. Lassiter kicked at the guy and yanked free. He was going for his ankle, for the smaller gun he kept there. Shawn was ready to be glad it was over, but Brannigan wasn’t there yet and with his uninjured arm Salamatchia was reaching under his jacket, for his waistband.
“Gun!” Shawn shouted. He had a second gun. Shawn hadn’t seen it before. He’d been too busy shouting at the guy. Or he’d had concussion brain.
His fault. Either way, it was his fault.
Salamatchia had the gun out, aiming from the ground, Lassiter in the crosshairs. Lassie had been trying to get his balance back enough to draw and he hadn’t been fast enough, and Brannigan had no time to pull her own weapon back up before Salamatchia fired.
Brannigan ran straight into Lassiter instead. He was closest. Her momentum carried them onto the stairs.
Salamatchia fired. Brannigan was hit instead. The impact tore her away from the chief and knocked her over the landing, sending her straight to the ground.
Lassiter fell out of view to the right, tumbling down the stairs. Shawn heard him cry out on the way down.
Shawn dashed back for the second set of stairs behind him before Salamatchia could turn over to find him. A bullet splintered the wooden railing over his head as he ducked down.
Everything hurt. Carlton couldn’t see straight. A particularly bright flare of pain tore through his right shoulder, but it wasn’t a bullet. He knew what those felt like.
He was upside down on the last few steps of the wooden stairs.
Where was Brannigan? Did the railing at the top of the landing break? He remembered the splintering sound but then he was falling.
Someone was still firing.
Crap. Spencer. Where was Spencer?
Not dead, then.
The call echoed through the underground hideout, and he thought maybe he heard running footsteps but Carlton couldn’t see much.
He could make out the edge of the loft above him. And a figure. Leaning over the edge. Looking for him. He heard Spencer calling from elsewhere so it could only be Salamatchia. Carlton reached again for the gun at his ankle, and the only instance he’d been more glad it was there was his wedding day.
A flash of red and Marlowe’s smile. His chest tightened. The figure above him took aim.
This time Carlton fired first.