“This isn’t the way it was supposed to end,” Carlton said.
His voice was quiet and desperate, and Juliet had no answer. She stood at the end of the bed and she didn’t know what she should do. She took a step closer, and a hand came up instinctively, reached for him.
She pulled it back down. A moment ago she’d been holding onto him and now she didn’t know whether she should touch him. She didn’t know anything.
At least his back was turned as he hunched on the edge of the hospital bed. He didn’t see her fumble.
“They…” Juliet had to clear her throat before anything else would come out. “They said take as much time as you need,” she said. It came out barely a whisper, and then she did reach out again. She let her hand rest on his shoulder for a moment. Carlton nodded faintly, but he didn’t turn.
“I’ll be right outside, ok?”
Another small nod.
“Ok…” Juliet sighed.
Gus sprinted to catch up with Shawn, who was nearly halfway across the parking lot already. He made it just in time to jump into the passenger’s seat of Juliet’s green car before his best friend pulled away. The door barely closed behind him as they squealed off.
“Shawn, really? This isn’t even your car,” he said, holding tightly to the ceiling handle.
“Shut up, Gus.”
He didn’t take the rudeness personally. Not when Shawn was this worked up.
“Shawn…” Gus said more gently. “Are you sure you want to leave right now? Lassie—“
“Has Jules. And my dad, if that counts. And we have more important things to do.”
“More important than being there for our friend, Shawn? And yes, I know it’s weird I’m the one pointing out that Lassie is our friend. The relationship may not be traditional, but he is. Even I’m willing to put aside our usual dynamic to admit that at a time like this. What could possibly be more important than that?”
Shawn snorted. “He’s Lassiter, Gus. He wants Jules. He even likes my dad more than he likes either of us, and you know it. He doesn’t want us there. He sure as hell doesn’t want us there now.” He was pounding on the steering wheel to punctuate his point. “And what’s more important than being there with Lassie? Gee, I don’t know, maybe finding the son of a bitch who murdered his wife!”
Shawn’s voice splintered on the last sentence, and he had to stop and clear his throat and blink. Gus swallowed hard.
“How are we supposed to do that right now? We haven’t heard anything from Brannigan.”
“We don’t need Brannigan,” Shawn said, far too confident.
Gus regarded him skeptically. “What are you talking about?” He realized then that Shawn was headed for the interstate. “Shawn! Where are we going!”
“It’s barely five in the morning!”
“Then it’ll be at least six thirty by the time we get there. That’s not so bad. Old ladies get up early, don’t they?”
Henry was still in the hall, alone, when Juliet emerged from the room and closed the door behind her. She looked around once, saw it was only him out here now, and leaned against the wall beside him.
“Shawn’s gone, isn’t he?” she asked.
“How bad was it?”
Henry shrugged. “On a scale of relatively to pretty bad? Probably worse. Gus went with him. Maybe he’ll be able to keep him out of trouble.”
“Fat chance of that,” Juliet sighed. She scrubbed at her face, but her hands didn’t come back down. Instead she doubled over and sobbed quietly, and Henry caught her around the shoulders to hold her up.
The lapse didn’t last long, but when she straightened he left an arm around her.
“I’m sorry,” she sniffed. “I’m sorry, I just—I can’t believe this is happening…” She gulped a difficult breath. “I...crap. Before I left I told him everything happens for a reason. It was crap. How could I do that? There’s no reason for this!”
Juliet was shaking her head, arms crossed tightly over her chest. “He said...he said ‘this isn’t the way it was supposed to end.’ In there. H-he said that. And of course it isn’t! How could it be? I...I couldn’t say anything. What was I supposed to say? What was I supposed to tell him?”
“Juliet...Juliet, you didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Yes, I did! I left!”
Well. Then that was what this was about.
“You didn’t have a choice,” Henry reminded her. “Shawn told me what happened. You’d have been transferred somewhere else if you hadn’t gone with Karen.”
She was still shaking her head. “He wanted to give it up. Carlton...he would have given it up for me. We could have just...we could have gone back. To the way things were. I-I wouldn’t let him. I made him take the job. And I left. I left. How could I do that?”
Henry squeezed her shoulders. “You did the right thing. It was time for a change, and letting him give up that step forward wouldn’t have been any good for either of you. You needed to take one yourself. This did not happen because you weren’t here. You haven’t second-guessed yourself until now, have you? Why start?”
Juliet doubled over again, leaning hard back into the wall, hands on her knees. This time is was only deep breaths. Henry rubbed her back in circles until she came up again, pressing the heels of her hands into her eyes.
“You done?” Henry asked.
“Yeah,” she sighed. “Crap…”
He could feel her shivering. She let her hands drop from her face and crossed her arms tightly. Henry rubbed her arms until she warmed again and she was calm.
“Ok. I’m ok,” she said, clearing her throat.
Henry nodded and let go of her, going back to simply leaning against the wall beside her. “I’m starting to feel like the guilt police,” he said.
Juliet snorted a sudden, gulping laugh at that. “Yeah. Why am I not surprised?” She grimaced, and the pained humor faded to worry as her gaze strayed to the closed door. “He wanted to blame himself for the accident somehow, didn’t he?”
“Idiot,” she murmured. She let out a new breath, and her eyes closed tiredly. “At least we know Lily’s ok.”
Henry straightened, heart pounding. “We do?”
Juliet’s eyes opened wide. “What? Yes!” She studied him briefly. “Sorry...I’m sorry, you’d drifted off when I told Shawn. They said so about an hour ago, I guess. She’ll be fine. She just needs a few days here to recover, from surgery and...you know, everything else.”
Relief. It had been awhile since he’d felt something like that so strongly. Not since the last time Shawn had nearly gotten himself killed, anyway. It took him by surprise, how much tension was suddenly gone and how his vision misted so quickly. Certainly he’d never felt this way for anyone who wasn’t Shawn or Maddie.
Crap. Gone and gotten attached...
“Henry?” Juliet, peering over at him, concern written in the way her eyebrows were bunching together.
“Yeah.” He coughed once to cover clearing his own throat. “Sorry. Fine.”
Juliet wasn’t sure what she expected to see when Lassiter emerged from the room, but for some reason—even though she knew him—the mask of composure he’d put on was not something she was ready for.
He closed the door behind him, looked at them blankly, and for some reason it broke her heart all over again.
“Anything from Brannigan?” he asked.
“No,” Henry supplied. “I’m sorry.”
Juliet got the feeling he was apologizing for more than the lack of news—a condolence slipped in in disguise—and Carlton nodded silently as if he got it.
Sometimes she wondered why she surrounded herself with people who were completely incapable of dealing with their emotions in a normal, healthy fashion. Everything done too loudly, or not handled at all.
Then again, maybe it had something to do with the fact that she wasn’t sure if she dealt with her own any better. Often she fancied herself more mature than the rest of them, but sometimes she wondered if she were merely differently mature.
But now was not the time for deep inner thoughts. Lassiter was stalking off down the corridor with a purpose, and that could not be good.
“Carlton?” Juliet took a running step or two to catch up with him, and Henry followed. “What are you doing? Where are you going?”
“To the station.”
“You need rest. Maybe you should let us take you home so you can try to get some real sleep. At least try. Lily’s going to be fine; there’s nothing more you can do here.”
She’d hoped reminding him of the one good thing they had going for them right now would help, but it bounced off of him as if he hadn’t heard. “I’m fine,” he quipped shortly.
“You have a concussion.”
“One of us can stay with you,” Henry pointed out.
“You both need sleep yourselves,” Lassiter countered. He slowed to a stop and rounded on them. “Especially you, O’Hara. Go home.”
“My home is in San Francisco, Carlton.”
He made a face at that, and then glanced around as if he’d just realized it was only the three of them. “Where are Spencer and Guster?”
Juliet crossed her arms and sighed. “Not here.”
“Right…” Carlton trailed. “And they probably have the key to Guster’s place with them.” He dug in his pocket and pressed his own keys into her hand. “Have Henry take you to the house. You can sleep there. There’s still furniture and everything in the guest room; he threw it in, said he had no use for it.”
“Really more of a closet with a bed,” she remembered, from the grand tour the first time Henry invited them over for dinner, once it was public knowledge she and Shawn were dating.
“It’s there,” Carlton stressed. “Spencer’s old bed is still in Lily’s room if you’d like that better. There are no sheets on that one though…” He shook his head, maybe to clear his train of thought. “Just sleep, O’Hara. You look like crap.”
“Gee, thanks. You look worse.”
He rolled his eyes and started walking again. She noticed he was doing much better on that front—not toppling over—but he still wasn’t entirely steady.
“Carlton! You don’t have a car, and you shouldn’t be driving anyway. How are you going to get anywhere?”
“I’ll have Brannigan pick me up.”
“And then what?”
“I’ll be there. I’ll help. You said it yourself; there’s nothing I can do here. What do you want from me, O’Hara?”
“I want you to stop being stupid!” Juliet grabbed at his arm, but he didn’t stop. “Carlton!”
She swung into his way, latched onto both of his forearms, planted her feet, and ground them to a stop just short of the double doors that led out into the waiting room. Henry hovered behind them in case he was needed.
“Carlton, stop,” Juliet said. “You are smarter than this. You know you can’t get involved in this case. Not only are you about as emotionally involved as anyone could be, but you were in that crash. You were hurt. You’re a victim. You know the rules better than anyone, and you know you have to sit this one out.”
Lassiter didn’t try to get around her. He gripped the arms that held his and went quiet for a moment. The look in eyes she’d seen in that hospital room came back—lost, confused. It didn’t go away, but before he looked her in the eyes and spoke again anger had clouded it.
“What?” Juliet swallowed.
“Why?” Carlton repeated. He continued quietly, and somehow it was far more frightening than if he’d shouted. “Salamatchia has to be found. He threatened my family. He tried to kill all of us, and he’s succeeded in taking my wife from me, O’Hara. Don’t I deserve to go after him myself?”
Her stomach twisted in her gut. Over Lassiter’s shoulder she caught a glimpse of Henry shifting anxiously, inching closer, sensing the same danger she did.
“Not according to the law.” Juliet answered evenly, but it came out scarcely audible. She didn’t have enough air. “You can’t, Carlton. You have to keep your head here. You’re the chief of police, and you have your daughter to think about. Don’t do anything you’ll regret.”
“I wouldn’t regret killing him,” he growled.
Juliet squeezed his arms tighter. She curled her fingers and let her fingernails dig in and hoped it helped her reach him. “Yes, you would.”
His breaths were coming shorter and quicker, and his eyes wandered.
“Carlton! Carlton, look at me.” He wouldn’t, or he just didn’t hear her anymore, and she reached up to his face and made him. “Carlton, please.”
She didn’t mind that her voice cracked. When it did Carlton blinked, and he held her gaze long enough to visibly calm. His breathing slowed and some of the tension in his shoulders drained. Most of the anger melted away, at least for now, and he just looked exhausted.
Juliet let out a breath of relief and pulled him into an embrace. Henry relaxed and squeezed his shoulder.
“Do you want us to take you home?” she asked when she let Lassiter go. Well...she hadn’t quite let go of him entirely. She was still rubbing his arms as if that might do any good. As if she could fix anything. As if the small amount of added warmth might make anything better.
Carlton shook his head. “No, I um...I think I’ll just go back to Lily’s room.” He looked down to check that Juliet still had his keys. They were hooked around her thumb. “You should go.”
She didn’t plan to, but she kept the keys and pushed them into her pocket so at least he’d think maybe she would. Also so she’d know if he decided on anything different later. He’d have to come looking for her and his keys if he did. “Is there a couch or something in Lily’s room? Or near there?” she asked.
“It’s mostly vinyl, but yeah,” he said dully.
Juliet and Henry followed him as far as the waiting room and let him go. Juliet made sure he was headed the right direction before she spun on Henry.
“Crap. Shawn. What did he say when he was leaving? Where did he say he was going?” she asked quickly.
After all of that, now that her mind was more clear, she was realizing just how likely it was that her fiance was up to something just as stupid as what Carlton wanted to do.
“Just...somewhere he could do something,” Henry answered. “That’s all he said.”
“Crap,” Juliet swore. “I can try Shawn, but I don’t have Brannigan’s number. Do you?”
“No, but she’s probably still at the station. Do you know something I don’t know?”
She nodded, already digging her phone from her pocket. “We both know he’s an idiot, but what you don’t know is he already had a relatively likely hunch he could be idiotically following right now.”
“Shawn, this is a bad idea. This an awful idea. What are we doing?”
“We’re dispensing Justice, because Lassie can’t without losing his job. Also because he can’t stand up straight right now.”
Gus shook his head. “That is not what I meant. It’s a bad idea for you to be doing this when you’re this upset. It was a bad idea when your dad got shot, and it’s a bad idea now.”
“Well we got the guy then, didn’t we?”
“That’s not the point, Shawn.”
He didn’t answer, and there was nothing but the drone of wind and the car bouncing in rhythm over the inconsistencies in the interstate pavement.
When Shawn’s phone started to ring, he picked it up, took one look, and put it down without answering it.
“It’s Jules. She’ll just tell us to turn around.”
“And she’d be right. If you’re gonna do this again, where’s my out?”
“You want an out in the middle of the interstate?” Shawn questioned.
“You could always pull over somewhere, you know.”
He seemed offended. “Buddy! I wouldn’t leave you in the middle of nowhere!”
“This isn’t nowhere, Shawn. It’s the interstate. There are gas stations.”
“Come on, son. You wouldn’t take the out, anyway.”
“It would still be nice to be offered one! What happened to the rules? Don’t you still have to give me one?”
Shawn rolled his eyes. “Fine. This is your out, Gus. Do you want out?”
Gus made a smacking sound and an Are you crazy? face. “No. How else am I supposed to keep you alive if I don’t stay?”
“Thank you. See? I told you. Man, we have really got to review these rules sometime soon. They just waste time.”
“I beg to differ.”
Juliet tried three times, but there was no answer from Shawn. She kept trying until Henry, several feet away on his own phone, hung up. She shoved hers back in her pocket and met him in the middle of the short space they’d claimed at the fringes of the waiting room.
“He’s not answering,” she said.
“I didn’t think he would. I filled Brannigan in, though. She’ll get in touch with the LAPD, but there’s no knowing how quickly they’ll be able to get someone over there. And that’s after she gets through,” Henry sighed.
He looked at his watch. Juliet looked at her phone, trying to figure out how long Shawn and Gus had been gone and how much longer it would take them to get to Salamatchia’s ex-wife’s house.
“Should we go after them?” she asked.
“You could get in just as much trouble doing that as Carlton could going after Salamatchia on his own. You could get in trouble for flashing your badge back there.”
Juliet wanted to say she didn’t care. She didn’t. But she was supposed to be the reasonable one.
“It’s been half an hour,” Henry reminded her. “If they hit the road as soon as they left—and knowing Shawn they did if that’s what he’s doing—we wouldn’t catch them before they got there. Not in my truck, which is all we’ve got right now. And we’d waste just as much time going back to the station for your duty car.”
She swore again. “You’re right.”
“Keep calling him.”
“Yeah.” Juliet took a deep breath and realized she was shaking again.
Henry frowned. “You’re weak. If you won’t sleep, let’s at least get you something considerably more substantial to eat than coffee.”
“As long as there can be coffee, too.”
The house was in the middle of a small but teeming retirement community, and not seemingly the best place for hiding.
Which, of course, probably made it all the better.
Dogs barked at their unfamiliar car as they drove through the gradually lightening streets looking for the right house number, Shawn wincing because he knew something like that would have alerted him immediately. He didn’t know about Salamatchia.
All of the lights were off in the house they were looking for. Shawn drove past and parked around the corner on the street.
“Are you coming?” he asked Gus, who’d been quiet the rest of the way.
In answer, his best friend unbuckled his seatbelt and opened his door.
There was only one car in the driveway of the house—not the one Salamatchia had been driving—but there were faint tire tracks behind it in the dust on the concrete that did not match the tires on the car that was there.
Also, it was almost seven and, again, there were no lights. If the woman who lived here was anything near typical of people her age, that wasn’t a good sign either.
“Shawn, you have deduction face,” Gus said quietly.
Shawn nodded and pulled him behind the bushes at the edge of the driveway. “I think we’re too late.”
“Too late for what?”
“I don’t know.”
“Real helpful, Shawn.”
Shawn’s phone started to ring again, and he pulled it out and hurriedly put it on silent. “Come on,” he said.
He led them on a circuitous route up to the front door, ducking under windows and pressing himself theatrically to the front of the house. Gus just stayed low and stuck with him.
The front door was unlocked. “Well, that’s bad,” Shawn announced in a whisper.
“You think? We should go back to the car and call the police here. Or at least Juliet or Brannigan. We should not go in there,” Gus insisted.
“But if we didn’t we wouldn’t be us, would we?” With that he pulled the door open further and slipped inside.
“Shawn!” Gus called softly. He followed, though, because he always did. He closed the door carefully and quietly behind them. By then Shawn was standing in the entryway, and he didn’t need his keen observational skills to know there was something wrong here. There were knick-knacks in the entry and living room that were clearly out of place, a smashed vase—so cliche—and above all, it just felt wrong in here.
“I don’t like this,” Gus said, at his shoulder now.
Shawn nodded in agreement and followed the trail of destruction to the hallway. There were too doors standing slightly ajar, but the particularly mussed grain of the carpet in front of the door at the end led him there. He crept down the hallway, still listening for anything out of the ordinary. He heard nothing, which told him they were alone for now, but this was still bad.
“You may want to stay out here, Buddy,” he said. Gus looked at him with that slightly-sick face that said I know I’m not gonna like this, but I’m with you all the way.
Shawn carefully inched the bedroom door open. He was sort of expecting what he saw there, but that didn’t make it any less crappy to find Salamatchia’s ex-wife dead in a nightgown and bathrobe at the foot of the bed.
There was a pool of blood under the older woman’s head that suggested she’d been clubbed with something rather than shot—probably still with a gun though, from the looks of it. There was no bloody blunt object lying around, either. Maybe Salamatchia hadn’t wanted to fire a weapon in the middle of the night in such a populated area. Smart. Crap. Though how no one had heard the fight that obviously led to this was beyond him.
“Oh, man,” Gus moaned.
“He’s lost it,” Shawn agreed. His stomach was twisting. “He lost it in there. He’s completely off his rocker now; he has to be. Before he just wanted some sick form of justice for his son’s death and on Lassie for not being able to put Petrovich away on a bigger charge. It was all about something. This is just...crazy.”
“Maybe he started to blame her for not noticing their son was involved with drugs?” Gus suggested weakly.
“Maybe…but he’d have to blame himself, too. I don’t know, man.”
They backed out of the room and down the hall.
“Now we should call the police. This is a crime scene,” Gus said urgently.
“I think you’re right. I think he’s gone. There’s nothing for us here. Just let me look around some more to make sure.”
“If you want to go to the car, go to the car, ok? I’ll be right there.”
Gus whimpered a little, but stuck with him.
Juliet was full now, but that didn’t make worrying any easier. They’d been trying to reach Shawn and Gus for more than an hour, and they still weren’t picking up their phones.
“The LAPD called Brannigan back,” Henry said, hanging up his cell. “They’ve got a couple of black and whites headed that way, finally. She traced Shawn’s cell phone to the area, too. They’re there.”
“Please tell me Brannigan told the LAPD to pick them up.”
“Oh, she did. They’re not getting into any more trouble today.”
She sat down for the first time in twenty minutes. The cafeteria chairs were no more comfortable than the waiting room chairs, and she squirmed trying to find a good position. “They’ll call when they have them?”
Gus was ready to demand once more that Shawn give it up and come back to the car with him, when Shawn abruptly shoved him behind the couch in the living room.
“Gus, get down!”
“What? What’s going on?” He stayed down.
“Crap...he’s coming in the back…”
“He? Salamatchia?” Gus hissed.
He couldn’t help noticing Shawn was not down. He was still standing, and in fact was in full view of the sliding glass doors that led to the fenced-in backyard.
“Yeah,” Shawn confirmed.
“Then why aren’t you hiding!”
“Stay here,” he said, instead of answering.
Gus heard one of the sliding doors open with a bang, and Shawn was gone.
Salamatchia saw him. Shawn had meant for him too. He stayed exactly where he was, except maybe for creeping closer to the glass doors, and when the older man looked up halfway across the yard and saw Shawn standing in the living staring him down, he turned and started running.
Shawn ran after him.
The wooden door to the fence slammed shut in front of him. He got a splinter or two yanking it open again to follow Salamatchia into the alley.
The old guy was fast. He was already halfway down. At the end of the alley Shawn saw the nose of a car, the car they were looking for. Maybe Salamatchia had been out for supplies to take care of the body. Either way, if he got to the car they’d lose him again.
“Hey!” Shawn called. “You think we’ll let you go? We will find you, and the longer you drag this out the worse it’s gonna be! HEY!”
Salamatchia turned enough while running to fire at him. Shawn flinched and stumbled, but the shot missed widely—enough it had to be purposeful.
“Don’t follow me, son! I have no reason to hurt you!”
Shawn got his balance back. He looked up to find Salamatchia had paused to level his weapon at him. Shawn glared. He didn’t move forward, but he didn’t back up either. “You might wanna rethink that, cause I’ve got plenty of reasons to hurt you!”
“Is Lassiter dead?”
Shawn’s fists clenched at his sides. “No. No, he’s still alive and kicking, no thanks to you. You failed epically at that one. And what, you don’t have the guts to follow through anymore?”
“He’s the chief of the Santa Barbara Police Department now. It’d have been all over the news by later today if I’d succeeded.”
“But you’d have been close enough here to try again if you didn’t. Yeah. Sure. Nice one. Only thing is, it’s still gonna be all over the news. And maybe your escape wasn’t that big a story to anyone outside Santa Barbara, but this will be.”
Shawn realized he was kind of shaking. What was that about?
“Because you killed his wife, you bastard! The wife of the chief of the SBPD. Your face is gonna be everywhere, man, and you’ll have to go so much farther to find somewhere you can hide—so far you’ll never get another chance. So you royally screwed up! You were a coward the way you did it, and it’s over. You’re done. Even if you get away right here, you’re done.”
The whole air thing was getting really hard. That was not going to be good when he started running again. Because he was going to. No way he was letting Salamatchia get away now, even if what he was saying was true.
The old guy stared him down for a while longer. What seemed like forever. Maybe processing. But he still had a gun pointed straight at him, so Shawn stayed put and calculated if he could get to him in time when he made a break for the car.
Shawn thought he could.
When it happened, he was ready. He thought he was ready. He had a plan, but it didn’t come off as smoothly as he’d envisioned. He couldn’t be blamed for the fact that the guy had special ops training. It was rusty, maybe, and the guy was old, but it was still special ops training.
Shawn went for the gun, mostly because he didn’t want to get shot. They grappled, it went off in the air, and he had about a tenth of a second as the butt of the thing came for his face to realize this whole thing had indeed been a really, really stupid idea.
Then everything went black.