Paint it Black

The Ghost and the Darkness

The apartment was empty. Not just empty but cleaned out. He'd cooled his heels for five minutes while the slumlord who managed the rat hole dug around to find the right key. Only after Lassiter had shouldered the door open and stepped inside had the man thought to share that Rollins had checked out two hours ago.

He wanted to kick the walls. He wanted to kick the slumlord too, that spongy son of a bitch. Mostly, though, he wanted to kick himself. And not in some figurative, emotional way but with a literal size twelve to the ass. He never should have dropped his surveillance to just a few days a week! Now that bastard was in the wind and more than likely had booked a ticket to the first tequila stocked watering hole in Tijuana.

The only question was, did he have any stops planned on his way to the airport?

His phone was out and partner dialed before he'd exited the apartment. He'd take whatever backlash the Chief threw his way for going behind her back but right that moment, he had to act.

In moments, O'Hara was searching all flights out of the country. He had no solid reason to think that Rollins would be on the run – no reason he should be if he was actually innocent. But there was a stench about this that Lassiter couldn't shake free from.

His next call was to Henry.

“I was just heading out, detective, what can I do for you?”

Lassiter didn't question the motive for his destination. Whatever transparent phantoms communed with Spencer, they had nothing on the creature roaring in Carlton's gut.

“Is Shawn with you?”

A pause that was filled with the rustle of cloth.

“I was going out to look for him now. Kid keeps wandering off and, God help me if I sound like a fuddy-duddy but I don't like the idea of him outside after dark.”

Carlton turned down the last street – the red and white house at the far end of his low beams, the outside light flipping on as he neared the driveway.

“I'm almost there. I'll go with you.”

He saw Henry stepping out of the house as he pulled up – phone still held against his ear.

“Carlton, what's going on?”

The blunt shape he assumed was a gun only nudged him once, when he stumbled through the sand walking ahead of the other man. Rollins. John Rollins.

A week ago his memory had begun to return.

Speckles. Pieces. Fragments. Triggered by anything or nothing. He'd remembered the chair and the tape. He'd remembered running, gasping, through the forest with Bigfoot's only slightly smaller brother puffing after him. He'd remembered the bullet cutting through his shoulder and the feel of hard dirt as his body had collided with the ground.

His father had tried to help him remember more. He hadn't told him to close his eyes. The trying had hurt. The migraine always throbbing in his neck had ripped through his temples when he'd pushed too hard. Felt like blood vessels bursting under the skin. He'd remembered only a little.

Now... now he remembered it all.

Rollins had one hand on his arm; not so much to steady him, though. The hand was gripped in a claw, would leave narrow bruises along his bicep. Would... if he didn't die.

He was going to die.

Rollins had tried once and failed. He meant to try again and succeed, and then move on with his life. Take care of an irritation. A nuisance. A bump on his road to happiness. Shawn wondered if he'd dust off his hands when it was over. He wondered if he'd feel the bullet before he died. He wondered if he'd see his life flash before his eyes – to finally see again right before it all ended.

He was breathing fast, taking in gasps of air flavored with waterlogged wood and dead fish. The sand was packed firm under his feet. They were close to the water. Cold wet lapped up against his shoes. He felt it seeping through the loafers he'd slipped on before walking out.

His fingers still throbbed from the slivers shoved beneath the skin. The throbbing seemed to connect to his head and beat a deep bass between his ears.

“Stop here.”

Dav-Rollins... Rollins spoke like a guy reading aloud the sports scores from the paper. Like someone barely entertained by the activity. Barely... but still slightly enjoying himself. The gun pulled away from Shawn's spine and his body tipped back into the space it had left. He felt like he was floating in open air without that hard support shoved into his back. He felt lost. He remembered playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey. Dad didn't trust him with anything as dangerous as a needle so they'd used tape instead. He remembered the blindfold going around his eyes and then hands spinning him round and round and round. It felt that way now. And he desperately wanted to take the blindfold off.

Softest crunch of sand as Rollins stepped backward. There was no time left to remember. There was no time left to live.

Shawn licked his lips and tasted seawater. “The cops will know it was you. Look, you haven't killed anyone yet. You don't have to...”

“You so sure I haven't killed anyone?”

He gulped and licked his lips again. He wasn't sure. The way Rollins had so easily put a bullet in his head. He hadn't even hesitated. Why would he hesitate now?

Shawn whirled, arms swinging towards the source of the voice. His left wrist smacked metal and the underside of the pier echoed with the crack of gunfire – heat puffing out from the exiting cartridge and leaving Shawn with ringing ears and the blackened taste of the fired weapon on his tongue.

Rollins made a sound that was part snarl, part yell and Shawn felt a fist bash against his right ear so hard his hearing went numb on that side.

His fighting style had always leaned towards dirty with a side of desperate. He wasn't proud of it but then, he hadn't been brought up by a man that believed in waiting for the bad guy to throw the first punch.

His swing was wild – going for quantity over quality and hoping for the best while frantic to avoid the worst. He could swear he heard the whoosh of air from the complete miss and, if he weren't currently trying to avoid becoming dead, would have been embarrassed by how that would have looked.

The punch thrown by Rollins, however, didn't miss. Granted he had sight on his side and while he was falling towards the sandy earth, Shawn wondered why the guy didn't just shoot him. What was the point of smacking him around? He hit the ground and did his best to roll to the side, knowing he'd avoided another hurt by the curse Rollins let free. A curse that identified his location.

“And you think Rollins is after Shawn?”

Henry had about a ten foot lead on Carlton, who'd stopped once, hopping on one foot, to pour the bucket of sand from his left shoe.

“I don't know that for sure. It's just a feeling. Bastard's been playing us this whole time.” He finished in a low mutter.

The poster child for performance enhancers didn't bother to look back as his stride sped towards a jog. Grousing in the man's wake, Carlton stomped his shoe back in place, cursing as the back folded under his heel, and put his longer legs to good use catching up.

“Have you tried calling him?”

Henry snorted and shook his head. “I would have except he left his phone on the-”

The sharp crack had them both diving to the sand, Carlton pulling his weapon and both of them scanning the beach. The handful of civilians left wandering beside the purple tinged waves looked around at the noise before shrugging it off.

The two men that had recognized the sound of a gun firing locked in on the most likely source at the same time. Two hundred yards away, the long pier stretching out over the waves.

“Henry, I need you to call this...”

“If you think I'm going to argue this with you, you've got another thing coming, buster.” Henry had already begun moving before the sentence was finished, breaking into a run before Carlton could snatch him back. Growling, weapon in hand, he grabbed his radio from his belt and followed.

Shawn, still low to the ground, launched himself at knee height and impacted denim covered fleshiness.

He landed on the other man and swung towards where a face should have been, and shouted in pain when he slammed his knuckles against damp wood instead. One of the support beams beneath the pier. Rollins didn't have that disability and rolled them – reversing their positions. It was as Rollins placed both of his hands around his neck and started to squeeze that Shawn realized he must have knocked the gun away with that first swing. They'd been standing near the water. It must have gone under – out of reach.

Thumbs dug into his throat. He sucked at the air, rancid as it was, and wondered if he'd know when he was passing out if he couldn't see his vision going dark. His nails scraped at the fingers sinking tighter into his flesh. He could feel Rollins bearing down – pushing him into the sand. He bucked under the weight and the frantic need for air. He only had seconds before he'd lose consciousness. Letting go with one hand, he scrabbled with his fingers for anything, anything that would serve as a weapon no matter how small, but only found sand.

Sand. Gouging a handful of coarse grains, he swung it at Rollins' face. A yell and the immediate release of his throat was a clue he'd struck a direct hit. With luck, Rollins would be blinded for a short time. Come on in, the water's fine, he thought, sourly – though not without a blush of vindictiveness.

Choking on the briney taste he sucked in with every stuttered gasp, Shawn rolled from the depression his body had created and pushed to his knees. He didn't even have time to wobble to his feet before a snarled animal sound preceded the flying tackle that sent him straight back to earth with a mouthful of sand as a bonus.

If those hands got around his neck again he knew he'd be finished. Twisting and swinging, he managed to embed an elbow into sensitive flesh and before Rollins could recover, again, Shawn had lurched to something resembling upright.

Where the hell to go? Away, somewhere – but the sounds were baffling under the pier. Water clopping against wood beams and pouring up against the shoreline, his own breath, rasped and shallow echoing back at him. He needed to get into the open where someone might see him!

He couldn't operate with the sling on his arm and yanked the strap over his head, letting the soft support fall as he stretched out his hands and moved at a pace between a fast walk and a slow jog. He couldn't run, though he felt the need screaming through his legs. Even going slow like this, he stumbled and tripped and bashed into the supports. Fingers and knuckles were scraped, arms bruised, fear somewhere left of Pluto. Rollins should have caught up to him by now.

His bad shoulder slammed into a support and he gasped out a pained shout. Keeping his feet by grabbing that same support, he actually looked over his shoulder before sense kicked back in.

The laugh he heard didn't come from behind.

He had a panicked second of not wanting to let go of the beam. It was the only thing solid and real; a protection amidst all the nothing. But it would also be as good as a headstone if he didn't get the hell away from it.

It should have been easier to let go but damn, his hands were frozen to the wood and digging in. His breath hurt the way it pumped from his chest. More than any other sound he could hear his heart thumping – could feel the beat pounding beneath the third button down on his shirt. Somewhere, beyond the capsule of his fear, was Rollins. He couldn't hear him though. He sure as hell couldn't see him. The only thing he tasted was salt. Salt from the water. Salt from the sand. Salt from the blood after biting his tongue.

Something thumped on the sand a few feet to the left and he whirled towards it only to hear another chuckle at his back.

The tread was light but he could hear it now. Either Rollins was letting himself be heard or he hadn't been moving earlier.

Shawn spit and raised his chin as he pressed against the beam. “You know, my dad's a big worry potato these days. Hardly lets me out of sight for longer than twenty minutes.”

Laughter behind him again and he spun around – trying to keep Rollins before him.

“You trying to tell me daddy is going to save you?” Glass broke – a hollow, splintered sound.

Shawn held the beam as he edged around it; placed it between himself and Rollins. Pain in his head and shoulder. Pain ringing his throat in a choking noose. His face pressed hard against the beam. Hard enough to emboss the rough wood against his lips. It was freezing next to the water – icy cold with the sun leaving the sky.

It would be dark now, too. And under the pier, even the moonlight wouldn't reach them. Shawn puffed his cheeks, then let his breath out in a slow glide. Fingers trembling, he let go of the beam.

No sound from Rollins. But then, Shawn hadn't heard him earlier so maybe the guy was going all cat footed again.

Right now, Rollins knew where he was. Shawn had no clue, however, where the other man was standing. He could be an inch away for all he could tell. The balance needed to be weighed more in his favor. A lot more. It would help if Gus were there. Not that he wanted Gus going head to head with a greasy baddie but his best friend would provide the perfect amount of weight to the scales that tipped back and forth between survival and pathetic scary death.

One step back. Still close enough to reach forward and touch home base. Another step. He could press his fingertips against the beam if he stretched.

His heel sank into softer sand. He was on his own. A step forward would bring him back within grasping distance to the beam. He wanted to hug his arms around it like a kid clinging to his daddy's legs.

“Are you afraid?”

Shawn jumped and jerked away from his safety. It wasn't safe any longer – the voice had been right in front of him. He heard the swipe through the air and felt the lightest scrape across the collar of his shirt. His feet tangled on something, seaweed or driftwood, he didn't know but he started to trip just as the air wisped again – and a sharp edge seared across his throat.

No time left to hope Rollins was just as blind as he was, he twisted as he fell and was just able to get his right hand down to save him from a debilitating face-plant. He couldn't wait for his breath to come back. Rollins meant to end it. Right now.

The toes of his sneakers dug grooves in the sand as he gave up on quiet and snatched onto desperation.

He heard nothing. He'd been chased before, also in the dark. That pursuer had snarled and yelled and puffed curses between gasps of breath. He'd almost caught his prey before a wide based tree had become a sanctuary for a few hours. Long enough to slow the bleeding.

He was bleeding. More than a scratch too, he could feel wet on his chest that was too sticky for sweat. His body struck solid wood and he tumbled around it. He used both hands to break his fall this time and grunted when the shock of hitting the ground reopened the agony in his shoulder. He felt the pain of trying to breathe rasping in his lungs. Terror was making it worse. He scrubbed at his eyes with his palms, frantic for anything – even shadows – anything that would tell him where to go.

“I'm coming for youuu...” Sing-songy whisper, he couldn't place the direction and he crab crawled backward until his shoulders hit a flat surface. He'd been moving uphill for several seconds but hadn't thought about his direction until now. He'd reached the base of the pier. Swiping his hand to to the left, he struck the wide base of a support beam – bone dry this far from the water. Grasping to the right, he felt the angled corner of the pier.

He was trapped.

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