A Matter of Time, Part 2
"Marco, why're you pulling off the road?" Graddock asked anxiously.
"Maybe I'm tired of drivin'," Ciroppolli sneered.
"I'll drive," Graddock offered.
Ciroppolli burst into laughter. "No way, man."
"Why'd you stop, then?" Graddock asked. "There's too many people around here! We just went through that little town."
"It's time to conduct the experiment," Ciroppolli said.
"Ciroppolli," Jim spoke up, "Whatever you've got planned, don't do it."
"Shut up, pig. You ain't got no say in this," Ciroppolli growled. He slammed the car into park and killed the motor.
"Don't make it worse, man!" Jim exclaimed. His heart pounded harder. He's gonna bait someone and kill 'em! With my gun! "Don't involve anybody else. If you're goin' to Vegas, then just get on the road and go!"
"Yeah, Marco!" Jeremiah seconded. "Don't stop here! I'm nervous, man. Let's just go!"
"Shut up, both of you!" Ciroppolli yelled. "I got somethin' to do here!"
"Ciroppolli, listen to me," Jim pleaded. "If you shoot someone here, with my gun, it'll be the biggest mistake you could make. Not only will you draw attention to yourself, but they'll get a fix on your location. They can trace bullets, you know...and in this black & white...it's like an advertisement. You're begging to get caught!"
"Listen to him, Marco! He's right! He's right! We're far enough outta L.A. now that it looks weird having an L.A. cop car on the side of the road...and you got the cop's gun." Graddock's voice held raw fear. "It's no good!"
"Think it through, Ciroppolli," Jim said, lowering his voice. "This is a bad decision. You've got a plan...you need to stick with it. Start the car and get back on the road. This -- experiment -- is a lark; a dangerous deviation. It'll only get you caught."
The only sound that came from the front seat was that of Ciroppolli drumming his hands on the steering wheel.
"Marco...." Graddock began, but Ciroppolli cut him off.
"Shut up, I'm thinkin'!" he exclaimed.
"Well, think fast, man!" Graddock cried.
"All right, all right!" Ciroppolli slammed both hands down on the steering wheel and cursed. "All right, not here. Not here." Ciroppolli's breath came in short, rapid gasps.
Jim made a conscious effort to stifle his sigh of relief. Maybe he'd saved someone's life.
"Great man, let's go," Graddock said, relief evident in his voice.
"But don't either of you think for one second that I'm not completely in control! The plan's gonna go on! It's gonna work!"
"Okay, man, it'll work, it'll work," Graddock agreed. "Let's just go."
"You bet it'll work. You'd better believe...."
Flashing red lights suddenly illuminated the inside of the black and white, and Jim heard the sound of car tires crunching on gravel from behind them. The part of him that desperately wanted to be rescued felt a surge of hope, but the other side of his emotions sank into despair. Some unwitting, well-meaning law enforcement officer was probably gonna get his brains blown out. No! I can't let that happen!
Graddock whirled around to look. "Oh, damn, Marco! It's a cop! It's a cop!"
"Shut up, Jeremiah, I know it's a cop!" Ciroppolli hissed. "Shut up and sit still! Don't look at him!"
"Ciroppolli, please!" Jim begged. "Don't do it! You can't do it!"
"He's seen us. He has to die," Ciroppolli said.
"Oh, God," Graddock moaned.
Jim heard fabric rustle and knew his captor had drawn his gun. I can't let this happen, I can't! Jim shifted on the floor and struggled to draw his knees up under him so he could get up.
"Keep him still and quiet!" Ciroppolli growled quietly. "Put your foot on his face, if you have to, or knock him out, but just keep him still! Cop, if you say one word, I'll plug you right here and now."
Jim felt Graddock's heavy foot dig into his shoulder. Graddock shook him hard with it, sending jarring pain arcing through his upper body.
"Do what he says and be quiet!" Graddock whispered tersely.
Jim heard the officer's door open, then slam shut. Quick, confident footsteps followed. "For God's sake, Ciroppolli! Don't do it!"
"Everybody stay cool," Ciroppolli whispered. He rolled down the driver's side window.
"Mornin', buddy," the officer called as he approached. "You havin' a....what the hell?"
"Back off!" Jim screamed at the top of his lungs.
Jim's desperate warning came too late. Ciroppolli whirled in his seat and popped off three shots in quick succession. No answering shots came, and Jim heard the officer grunt, then hit the pavement. Jim heard Ciroppolli shift in his seat again, and out of the corner of his eye saw him lean out the open window. One more shot sounded, then Ciroppolli shifted back, cranked the engine, and pressed the accelerator of the black and white to the floor. The cruiser lurched forward and sped down the highway with a shower of gravel and squeal of tires.
Jim rested his head against the front seat and fought down the sick feeling in his stomach. Oh, my God...my God.
Judy jumped at the sound of her name. She turned to see the nurse who had assisted her earlier walking toward her, a tall, broad-shouldered doctor in tow. "Yes?" Judy stood on somewhat shaky legs, anxious for news on Pete's condition, yet dreading hearing it at the same time.
Judy had spent almost forty-five minutes waiting on news about Pete. During that interminable period, she'd had time to both worry about Pete and grieve over Jim's dire circumstances. Jerry Woods had sat with her, offering silent support, a calming cup of coffee, and a shoulder to cry on until she'd managed to pull herself together. Judy had desperately wanted to call Jean to check on her, but she'd held back, wanting to wait until she'd talked with Pete. Judy's heart broke with the knowledge of what Jean must be going through, and she offered up as many prayers for Jim and Jean as she had for Pete, wondering at the insanity of life around police officers.
"This is Dr. Tomlinson," the nurse, whose name Judy still didn't know, introduced her colleague. "He's been treating Officer Malloy."
"How is he?" Judy asked, trying to keep the quaver from her voice. Woods stood beside her and placed a supportive hand on her back.
Dr. Tomlinson smiled wryly. "Oh, he's doing just fine," he assured them.
"Oh, thank God," Judy breathed, feeling part of her heavy heart lighten. Woods echoed her sentiment.
"He's very fortunate," Dr. Tomlinson continued. "The bullet grazed him over the right eye. It dug a fairly deep trench, but it's really nothing to be upset about. I cleaned it, butterflied it together and bandaged it. It should heal nicely. He does have a minor concussion, but he got that from the fall he took down the hill, not the bullet. He has a bit of a lump on the upper occipital area of the skull." The doctor turned his head and pointed out the general location on his own head. "He's also got assorted minor bruises and cuts from his tumble, especially on the hands, which we've treated as necessary. Oh, and also, a king-sized headache."
"How about his vision?" Judy asked.
"It's beginning to clear, but he'll probably be a little blurry for several more hours. It's normal after a concussion. It's nothing to be alarmed about. There's no evidence of any serious skull or brain injury."
"May I please see him?" Judy asked.
"Yes, and I'm going to ask for your help," Dr. Tomlinson sighed.
"What can I do?"
"I'd like to admit him for overnight observation, just as a precaution. There's always an outside chance of complications with any head injury. But he's adamantly refusing. He wants to get out now and go join a search."
"Oh, that's Pete, all right," Jerry commented.
"The last thing he needs is to go out and run around," Dr. Tomlinson said gravely. "He needs quiet rest where he can be observed for signs of post-concussion syndrome or other complications. I need you to convince him that staying here is the best thing for him to do."
Judy lifted her shoulders in a small shrug. "I'll do my best," she promised, "but I doubt he'll listen. You see, his partner's been abducted..."
"I know. He explained that to me. Loudly and repeatedly," Dr. Tomlinson interrupted. The wry smile returned to his face. "I can understand his concern, of course. But my concern is his welfare, which is best served by his remaining here overnight."
"Pete's not the kinda guy to sit around and do nothing," Jerry said. "He's real close with his partner and his family. Pete wants to do something to help him."
"Again, I understand that," Dr. Tomlinson nodded. "And I can't force him to stay. But in my medical opinion, if he leaves, he'd be placing himself at risk."
"What about a compromise?" Judy asked. "What's a minimum amount of time he could stay and be fairly certain he'd have no complications?"
"If you could convince him to stay at least through mid-afternoon, that'd be better than nothing."
Judy nodded. "Okay, I'll give it a try. May I see him now?"
"Sure. He's in Treatment Room 3. Down this hall, second door on the left."
"Come on, Jerry," Judy slipped her hand around Wood's wrist. "Come with me. I know Pete'll want to pick your brain for anything you know. Besides, I might need back-up."
Jim figured that Ciroppolli must be doing at least seventy on the winding, bumpy road. For a while after the shooting, Ciroppolli had stayed on the main state highway, but then he'd made a sharp left turn, and then shortly thereafter, a right-hand turn onto the two-lane road they were on now. Jim felt every direction shift, pothole and bump in his stiff and aching body. Graddock had been panting and whining in fear ever since the shooting incident, and Ciroppolli had responded by screaming almost hysterically for the younger criminal to shut up. It hadn't worked.
"Marco! Man, I can't believe you did that! You didn't have to do that!" Graddock whined again, his voice so shaking with fear he could barely be understood. "You gotta get us off this road, man! We're gonna get caught!"
"Shut up, just shut up!" Marco screamed.
"Jeremiah," Jim said quietly, "You'd better calm down; you're only making it worse." Inside, Jim wanted to scream, too. He wanted to rage at Marco Ciroppolli; no -- he wanted to put his fist right through the lanky criminal's face. First Pete, now that officer. This guy is insane. He's a total sociopath. The sickness and anger Jim felt inside threatened to overwhelm him.
"Tell him, man, tell him!" Jeremiah panted. "Tell him we've gotta ditch this car! It's like a beacon! They'll find us in no time!"
From the heavy breathing and muttered curses coming from Ciroppolli, Jim doubted he'd listen to anyone or anything -- except for whatever inner voice was driving him to do what he was doing; whatever drove him to carry out his "plan."
Graddock's heavy foot shook him, hard. "Come on, man, talk to him!"
"I don't wanna hear anything the pig has to say!" Ciroppolli spat. "I told him to keep quiet back there -- and what did he do? He tries to warn his pig buddy! You'll be sorry for that, Officer Reed."
Jim snorted. "What are you gonna do? Kill me?" he asked derisively. "That's been the plan all along. What've I got to lose?"
"A man can suffer a lot before he dies," Ciroppolli said. "He can suffer a whole lot."
Pete lay on the gurney in the treatment room, clenching his bandaged hands
in frustration. Every fiber
of his being screamed to be out there, looking for Jim. He needed to be out there. He wanted to be out
there. Unfortunately, he had to acknowledge that his body wasn't quite up to it. At least not right now.
But his mind rebelled against the idea of lying here useless any longer than he had to. No way I'm
staying overnight. No way. I've gotta get outta here and do something.
He unclenched one of his fists long enough to rub the side of his head with the tips of his fingers. The pounding, roaring pain had reduced itself to a dull ache, but his stomach still insisted on doing the cha-cha if he moved around too much or sat up too high. Despite the discomfort, he couldn't keep his mind off Jim and going to find him. Or at least going to Jim's home to take care of Jean. Pete knew with certainty that Jim would want his family cared for in a trying time like this, and if he couldn't go look for his partner, he could at least take care of his partner's wife. Oh, God, please, don't let them kill him.
Pete Malloy the friend desperately held to the hope that Jim was still alive; that somehow Jim's training, courage, and quick wits could get him out of a desperate situation. But Pete Malloy the cop, the eleven-year veteran of L.A.'s streets, knew that hope was probably in vain. Still, he couldn't accept the fact that his partner, his friend, might be dead. God, give him strength and a clear head. Just give him a chance. Just a chance...
The door to the treatment room opened, dragging Pete's thoughts away from his silent prayers. He hoped it was the doc, so he could convince him to let him go home. But Judy poked her head into the room instead.
"Hi, Pete, dear. Can I come in?"
When Pete caught sight of Judy, something inside of him gave way and a flood of emotion washed over him. He could barely stammer out, "Sure," before embarrassing tears pooled in his eyes. Pete blinked them rapidly so that Judy wouldn't see the tears as she crossed the small room to his side.
"Oh, Pete, what am I gonna do with you?" Judy whispered. She leaned over and kissed him gently on the lips and took one of his battered hands in hers.
Pete gripped her hand desperately, despite the pain it caused, needing the comfort of her presence and the reassurance of her words. He couldn't fight the emotions that still pressed on his soul, and he couldn't get any answer to Judy's whisper past the constriction in his throat. Suddenly, at this moment, he finally completely understood where Jim Reed was coming from when he would say how much he needed to be with Jean during emotionally charged times.
Judy reached out with her free hand and brushed Pete's hair off his forehead. Her fingertips tenderly caressed his face, and Pete had to squeeze his eyes shut to keep from completely losing it in front of her. He needed to tell her about Jim, but Pete knew if he said a word right now he'd come undone. He gripped her hand tighter.
"I know about Jim," Judy told him, her own eyes becoming bright. "I'm so sorry." Her voice caught, a single tear leaked from her right eye, and suddenly she was holding him tightly.
Pete reciprocated the hug, and for a few moments they clung to each other. Judy cried quietly on his shoulder and Pete found himself unable to stop a few of his own tears from falling as well. Finally, though, Pete pulled himself together enough to speak.
"Judy, I have to get out of here," he husked.
Judy pulled away from him and wiped her eyes. "Pete, no. You're too sick."
"Judy, I can't just do nothing!" Pete slammed his hand down on the side of the gurney. Answering pain reminded him that those hands held numerous cuts and abrasions.
"I know you're worried, but the doctor says you need quiet and rest." Judy took Pete's hand again and patted it.
"Rest? How can I rest when Jim...." The knot returned to Pete's throat and he had to stop and swallow. After a beat, he managed, "He needs me."
"Jim wouldn't want you to risk your life."
"Judy, you don't understand," Pete struggled to sit up, but Judy laid a hand on his shoulder. "I owe Jim my life...a dozen times over. I wouldn't even be here now if Jim hadn't risked his life for me."
"Pete, the doctor says you could have complications..."
"Judy, about three years ago, Jim had a bullet in his leg and had been bleedin' for hours, and he still fought for me. I was about five seconds from eternity and Jim, sick, and weak, disarmed a madman to save me. And I don't have to remind you what he risked for me last year." That doesn't even cover the time he disobeyed Mac's orders to find me in Griffith Park...
"Judy," Pete cut her off, and removed her hand from his shoulder. He sat up slowly, using Judy as a brace. He had to stop and regain his equilibrium before he could continue talking. Judy moved closer and slipped her arm around his waist. "I could never live with myself if I just lay here and did nothing while Jim's going through God knows what."
"Pete, what can you do?" Judy asked. "You don't even know where he is."
"That's the point. I can help look. I saw the suspects. At least one of 'em," Pete frowned.
"It's the one you didn't see that gotcha, huh?" Judy smiled grimly and pointed toward the generous bandage swathing his forehead. Tears swam in her eyes again. "Pete, you could have been killed. A bullet hit your head, honey. Just a little lower and..." Judy's lips trembled and she stopped.
"Hey, I'm all right," Pete assured her, gripping her hand tightly. "I know how it sounds, and it looks...bad..." Pete suddenly stopped and stiffened slightly.
"What's wrong?" Judy asked quickly. "Are you in pain? Do I need to get the doctor?"
"No, no," Pete said, his voice strained. "I was just thinking of what Jim saw...how it must have looked to him. My God, Judy...Jim probably thinks I'm dead." Pete started to slide off the gurney. "Help me down. I'm gettin' outta here."
"No, Pete, no!" Judy objected. "You can't leave now! Listen, Pete, Jerry Woods is right outside the door. Let me bring him in here and he can update you on what's happening with the search. Please, Pete."
"Jerry's here?" Pete asked.
"Okay, get him in here." Pete agreed. "I'll talk to him."
"Marco, look at all these cars!" Graddock exclaimed. "We gotta get off this road!"
Jim estimated that twenty minutes had passed since Ciroppolli had ambushed the officer. In all that time his captor had kept to the same road and kept the accelerator pushed to the floorboard. Several times Ciroppolli had had a hard time keeping the black and white on the pavement as he took curves. Jim had heard several cars pass them on the opposite side, some of them honking furiously as Ciroppolli apparently hogged more than his own lane. Graddock had not stopped whining the entire time, nor had the theme of his complaint changed. Ciroppolli had stopped responding to Graddock and simply ignored him, all the while driving as fast as he could.
"Come on, Marco, you killed another cop! How long do you think it's gonna take for word to get out? And this patrol car's like a neon sign! We gotta ditch it and get another!" When Marco didn't respond, Graddock turned more insistent. "Didja hear me, Marco? We gotta ditch this car! You know somebody saw! We're too easy to spot now!" Graddock shook Jim's shoulder with his foot. "Tell him, Reed! Tell him how fast they'll know!"
Jim grit his teeth against the pain that Graddock's shaking stirred to life. "Faster than you can imagine," he gasped angrily.
"I'm not stupid!" Ciroppolli screamed, then repeated, more quietly, "I'm not stupid. We're out in the middle of nowhere now. We'll have to go on foot, then find a car to steal. I'm just trying to find the right spot to take this beast off the road. I'd rather get us a little closer to the next piece of civilization."
Some of Graddock's tension seemed to ease. "All right, all right. Just don't wait too long, man. We're gonna get caught."
"No, we're not," Ciroppolli said with determination. "In fact, I see just what we need right up ahead."
"What?" Graddock asked.
"Looks like a camp road, or something," Ciroppolli hit the brakes and made a sharp right-hand turn.
The black-and-white bounced and groaned in protest as Ciroppolli gunned it down what Jim deduced to be a small, unpaved road, judging from the amount of dust swirling around the windows. Rocks and sticks pinged against the undercarriage of the patrol car, and long branches from trees lining the road slapped against the sides. Jim's heart rate accelerated. He's taking us into the woods. Jim wiggled his toes inside his shoes and began to flex his feet back and forth, trying to get the circulation going again in his legs. The pins-and-needles sensation he'd experienced for quite a while lessened only slightly. My legs are all I've got. My legs and my brains. God, show me what to do and give me the strength to do it.
Ciroppolli drove for about another minute on the dusty, rough road before slowing down considerably, and making another right turn. From the sound of it, Jim figured Ciroppolli had turned the patrol car off the camp road directly into the brush. After about fifteen seconds of creeping through what sounded like wooded terrain, the car came to a stop.
"Okay, this is it, pig," Ciroppolli announced. "End of the line."
Jean Reed sat curled up into a ball in the corner of the living room couch, sipping on a cup of hot tea to try and settle both her stomach and her nerves. She paid very little attention to the flurry of activity that had suddenly bloomed around her, instead focusing her thoughts inward, trying to make sense of the nightmare that had befallen her.
She failed miserably.
Since Mac had come and gone, she'd been sick twice, the persistent nausea only made worse by the fear and anxiety the sergeant's news had brought. She took a shuddering breath and placed a hand protectively over unborn baby. You're not going to grow up without a daddy! You're not!
Jean's sudden intake of breath caused her sister, Annie, to look up at her in concern from her seat on the opposite end of the couch. Thanks to phone calls from Mrs. Smithson, the entire immediate family, including her father, Jim's sister Jane, and both Annie's and Jane's spouses, had stopped what they had been doing to come to the Reeds' home to lend a hand and wait for news.
"Jean?" Annie asked. "Are you gonna be sick again?"
Jean shook her head and took another sip of the rapidly cooling tea. She didn't trust herself to speak, fearful she'd fall completely to pieces. No one here could understand the agony she felt, thinking about Jim at the mercy of two escaped convicts.
At least she didn't have to worry about little Jimmy. They were all being careful to hide their fears from the little four-year-old, and so far it seemed to be working. He simply thought all his aunts, uncles and grandparents were here because it was some sort of holiday. It helped that Jean's mother was in the kitchen baking up a storm, falling back on her standard remedy for any calamity: cooking and lots of it.
The front door opened, and Jane's husband Phil walked in. He'd been speaking with the plainclothes officer Captain Moore had sent to the Reeds' home to act as liaison between the family and the department. The officer had discreetly stationed himself in his car, following the search via his radio. Jean looked at Phil expectantly, but he shook his head.
"Nothing new, Jean," he reported quietly.
Jean took another sip of tea and fought down a fresh surge of nausea.
"Jean, honey, please go lie down," Annie begged. "You need to rest."
"No," she whispered. In her heart, she knew Annie's advice to be sound, but how could she rest when Jim was out there...somewhere...Oh, God, please protect him!
Jean looked yet again at the family portrait that sat on a shelf at the far end of the room. She could hardly draw her eyes from it. She stared at Jim's image, his handsome face wreathed in that killer smile that had swept her off her feet nearly ten years ago and still turned her knees to jelly. The thought of never seeing that smile again, never feeling his strong arms around her in the night, or never hearing his huskily whispered "I love you's" made her heart break with despair. She squeezed her eyes shut to keep more tears from falling. Oh, Jim, Jim! Please come home to me!
"So, how's Jean doing?" Pete asked. Pete had sent Judy to call the Reed home to check on Jean, after he'd reluctantly agreed to stay in the hospital under observation for a few more hours.
Hospital orderlies had moved Pete from the treatment room to a small, windowless observation room right off the Emergency Department. Not only did the room not have a window, it didn't have a phone, either. In fact, all the room held was a bed, a chair, and a tiny bathroom. Woods had left to return to the command post for fresh news on the search, leaving Pete and Judy alone in the drab, tiny room.
"I only talked with her mother," Judy said. "She says Jean's doing about the best she can. Of course, she's upset. And she's still sick."
"I should be there," Pete fretted.
"She has plenty of help." Judy told him about all the family support. "And Captain Moore came by and left a plainclothes officer, too."
"Mrs. Smithson didn't say, honey. Jean did ask about you, earlier, and had her mother call here to check on you. Of course, they didn't tell her much, so I told her you were fine, just ornery and worried." Judy smiled weakly at Pete.
"What about Jimmy?" Pete had worried almost as much about his godson as he had Jean. He couldn't stand the thoughts of the little boy grieving over his daddy.
"He's oblivious," Judy assured him. "They're taking turns playing with him, keeping him occupied. He knows Jean's been sick, so he doesn't suspect anything yet."
"Try not to worry, Pete," Judy reached out, took Pete's hand, and squeezed it. "Everything that can be done is being done."
"No, it's not. 'Cause I'm not doing anything."
Judy rolled her eyes. "You're impossible."
"Just worried and frustrated," Pete blew out a breath.
"Relax." Judy stroked his head lightly, avoiding the bandaged wound.
A light rap on the door interrupted their quiet conversation. Jerry Woods appeared in the door, looking grave.
"Jerry? What is it?" Pete sat up quickly, immediately regretting it. His heart quickened at the look on his colleague's face. Don't let it be bad news. "Did they find Jim?"
"No," Jerry shook his head and walked in. "But there is a development."
"Well, spit it out!" Pete demanded.
"We just got word that a San Bernadino County Deputy was shot and killed outside of Powderly," Jerry said.
"Oh, my God," Judy breathed.
"And?" Pete prompted.
"There was a witness. The witness said the shots were fired by a policeman in an LAPD black and white."
"Powderly!" Pete exclaimed. "I assume they've sent searchers?"
"Oh, yeah. The San Bernadino Sheriff's Department's already started the search, and Mac's sending some assistance."
"What else did the witness see?" Pete asked, allowing himself to feel a thread of hope that Jim might be found quickly.
"Wait a minute!" Judy interrupted. "The witness said a policeman shot the deputy. You don't mean Jim shot him?"
"Of course not!" Pete said, a little more testily than he intended. "I'm sure one of 'em took Jim's uniform," he continued, his voice calmer. "I found a prison shirt, remember? I'm sure he swapped shirts with Jim somehow. You can't just drive an LAPD black & white around in civilian clothes. That would attract too much attention. Besides," he added, a bit wryly, "if Jim had a gun, I wouldn't be lying here worried about him."
"Oh," Judy said. "Okay, of course."
"So, what did the witness see, beside that?"
"I don't know a lot of details," Jerry said. "They're wiring pictures of Ciroppolli, Graddock, and Jim to the sheriff's substation in Powderly for the witness to take a look at. But I do know that the witness said there were only two people in the car -- the 'policeman' in the front, behind the wheel, and a person in the back seat."
Pete blinked and didn't say anything for a minute. Only two people. Two convicts, two people... "It doesn't mean anything," he finally said. "Jim could have been on the floor. Or they could have let him out."
"Sure," Jerry said half-heartedly.
"No need jumping to conclusions yet," Pete declared. Who am I trying to convince? Them, or me?
Jerry shuffled his feet. "Mac's also sending extra men to search some of the back roads between the freeway and Powderly," he reported quietly.
Pete nodded, though his stomach lurched at the dire thoughts those words brought to mind. "Makes sense. Do you know if they've told Jean about this yet?"
"Mac said he was going to contact Gidley...that's who he put at Jim's house. Let him tell them."
Pete sighed. "I need to be there. Jean'll probably panic." He slid off the bed.
"Pete, no!" Judy exclaimed. "It's barely been an hour!"
"I can't stay here any longer. I'm leaving, and no one's gonna talk me out of it this time." Pete gently moved Judy aside and gathered up his shirt and shoes Judy had placed on the chair.
"Pete, this isn't a good idea," Jerry warned.
"If I keel over, you can all say 'I told you so'," Pete growled. "Now, is somebody gonna drive me to Jean, or am I gonna have to walk?"
"Jeremiah, get the pig out," Ciroppolli ordered.
"O-okay, Marco," Graddock agreed. "Are you sure we're hidden here?"
"As well as you can hide a black and white cop car," Ciroppolli said.
Jim heard the front door of the patrol car open, and Ciroppolli slid out. The temperature in the unit dropped as cold air filtered through the opening. Jim tensed, heart hammering against his thin t-shirt.
More chilly air washed over Jim as the rear door at his feet opened.
"Bring him out this way," Ciroppolli said.
"Okay." Graddock opened his door and got out.
Jim shivered. His t-shirt offered little protection from the unusually cool fall air. Get ready. Get ready
Graddock called to him from the opened door. "Come on out."
Jim stared the younger felon down and didn't move. If he wants me out, he'll have to take me himself.
"What're you waitin' for?" Graddock asked with a scowl.
"Just jerk him outta there," Ciroppolli ordered.
"Right, Marco," Graddock reached in and took Jim by the upper right arm, then roughly pulled him out of the car.
Jim grunted as his head and side jangled with pain, protesting the rough treatment. His legs still tingled, but he managed to get them to move. Jim felt solid ground under his feet, and with a final tug, Graddock pulled him upright and kept an iron grip on Jim's arm, though he looked around nervously, as if afraid the bogeyman would leap from behind a tree.
Jim stretched the stiff kinks out of his back and took a quick look around. Area's heavily wooded. Not much light but a lot of underbrush. Jim's gaze lighted on Ciroppolli, who stood at the front of the car, looking odd dressed in Jim's uniform shirt, hat and equipment belt over gray prison-issue pants. The sight turned Jim's stomach. Jim had to fight back the urge to lower his head and ram the rail-thin convict right in the gut. Stop it. You don't have time. Jim pushed the anger back and made an effort to study Ciroppolli with a cop's eye. He's holstered my gun. He seems distracted.
Ciroppolli turned toward him suddenly and gave Jim a long, hard stare. Jim returned the stare, refusing to show any fear. He lifted his chin almost defiantly at Ciroppolli. Come a little closer, you punk, and let me have a crack at you.
As if reading his mind, Ciroppolli took two long strides and stood face-to-face with Jim. Without a word, he drew his arm back and slammed an iron fist into Jim's mid-section.
Jim doubled over with a grunt as the blow forced the air from his lungs and sent fresh pain through his side. As his knees buckled, only Graddock's grip on his arm kept him from falling completely to the ground.
"That's for trying to warn the deputy," Ciroppolli growled, then sent another blow slamming into Jim's abdomen.
Jim gagged and coughed, and this time, his sagging weight caused Graddock to lose his grip on Jim's arm. Jim went down to both knees, gasping for breath.
"I told you a man can suffer a lot before he dies," Ciroppolli sneered. The convict leaned over Jim. "And I'm just gettin' started. You're gonna do a lot of penance for your sins, pig."
Jim shook his head, trying to clear the spots that swam before his eyes. The threatening tone of Ciroppolli's voice cut through his mental fog. I've gotta get away. I've gotta make a move.
"Get up, pig, so I can take you down again," Ciroppolli said, from right over Jim's head.
Jim sucked in more air, got his right foot underneath him, and made a decision. God help me... Using a reserve of strength he prayed wouldn't fail him, Jim surged upward, pushing off on his right foot, and drove his head straight into Ciroppolli's chin.
Ciroppolli fell back from the jarring impact and hit the ground with a groan.
Jim didn't even stop to look. He scrambled to his feet and bolted into the tangled underbrush.
"Would you look at this?" Pete said in disgust, as Judy turned her car onto the Reeds' street. She had become Pete's reluctant chauffeur after he insisted upon leaving the hospital.
"Oh, my," Judy gasped. She had to slow the car to a crawl to maneuver around the tangle of cars and vans bearing the media that choked the usually quiet street.
"Vultures," Pete muttered, angry at the intrusion of Jean's privacy. He could add dealing with the press to the things that would make his aching head and churning stomach feel worse. "It was only a matter of time."
"Looks like they're keeping them away from the house," Judy pointed out a black-and-white parked on the side of the street, an officer standing beside it, ready to challenge any car driving through, including theirs.
"That's Stewart," Pete said. "He's a reserve officer. Must've had to call in reinforcements. Roll down your window and stop."
Judy rolled down her window and stopped the car as Stewart sauntered up to her door. Pete leaned over so the officer could see him.
"Stewart," he called. "What's going on?"
"Oh, Malloy!" the young reservist exclaimed. "I thought you were in the hospital!"
"Not anymore. When did the press get here?"
"About ten minutes ago," Stewart said. "As soon as the news on the San Bernadino shooting came out, the whole thing came unraveled. They started crawling all over the place. Gidley called for help. So I'm here." Stewart frowned. "I'm really sorry about all this, Malloy. Reed's a great guy -- I'm hoping for the best."
"We all are," Pete said.
"There's a lot of cars at the house, but I think you can squeeze in next to Gidley," Stewart said.
"Thanks," Pete said.
"Take it easy, Malloy. I know this is rough."
"Yeah," Pete nodded.
Judy eased the car forward and managed to find a place to park it without denting a fender. She looked over at Pete. "Are you ready for this?" she asked. "Because I don't think I am."
Hell, no, I'm not ready. Pete had to look out the window when he saw the tears gathering in Judy's eyes. He didn't want his own to water right now. Pete had been wondering how Jean might react when she saw him, and he'd been trying to steel himself in preparation for the flood of emotion that he would encounter. He knew that no matter what, he had to be strong. No matter how bad he felt, Jean felt worse.
Pete reached over and took Judy's hand. "Jean needs us."
Judy sniffed and wiped at her eyes with her free hand. "I know."
"Come on, let's go in."
"Pete, promise me you'll take it easy," Judy begged.
"I'll try. Come on."
Pete made a beeline for Gidley when he left Judy's car. The plainclothes officer got out of his unmarked unit when Pete approached.
"Malloy," Gidley greeted him, surprise in his voice. "Are you sure you're well enough to be out of the hospital already?" He pointed to the bandage on Pete's forehead. "They said you had a concussion."
"I need to be here," Pete explained. He could feel Judy's eyes boring into his back.
"I can understand that," Gidley nodded.
"Any new developments?"
"Not really. As you can see, the media's gotten ahold of the story and they descended here like buzzards on roadkill," Gidley sighed. "MacDonald's deployed three units to help the San Bernadino sheriff's department look for the guys in the area of the shooting. He's got four others searching the back roads between Powderly and the freeway. Of course San Bernadino's called out every available man."
"Look, Pete, I know you want to be out there. If I was in your shoes, I know that's where I'd want to be. But they've got plenty of volunteers. Jim's got a lot of friends, and you know they'll turn heaven and earth to find him." Gidley gave him a sympathetic look. "Try to relax."
If I hear that phrase one more time, Pete thought bitterly. He knew that everyone meant well, and had his best interests at heart, but no one, no one, understood what he was feeling right now. I couldn't do anything. I couldn't help him. And I still can't...
"Besides," Gidley broke into Pete's thoughts, "It's good that you're here. It's a bad scene in there." He nodded toward the house.
"Yeah?" Pete said.
"Yeah. Reed's wife...she's pretty upset. And sick, too. She's got her family here, but they're not in much better shape. I just thought I'd warn you."
"Thanks. I'd better get in there."
"I'll update you as soon as there's any news," Gidley promised.
"I appreciate that," Pete said, then took Judy's hand and walked to the front door.
Pete didn't even have to ring the bell. The door opened as he and Judy approached, and Jim's sister Jane stepped onto the landing. Jane suffered from severe diabetes, and Jim worried about her constantly. To Pete, she always looked frail, and today she seemed even more so.
"Pete!" She exclaimed. She wiped at her eyes that were red and puffy. "What are you doing here? Never mind, I know." She blinked back fresh tears. "Thank you for coming." Jane held her hand out to him. "You, too, Judy. Jean'll be happy to see you both."
"I had to come," Pete said. He took her hand and squeezed it gently, fighting back his own emotions. "I'm just so sorry...so sorry."
Jane nodded. "We're glad you're okay," she choked out. "Jean was worried."
"How's she holding up?" Pete asked.
"About like you'd think. Come on in." Jane pulled him through the door gently.
Pete followed Jane into the living room that was as familiar to Pete as his very own. He spent a great deal of time here, with Jim, Jean, and his godson. He'd shared a lot of love and laughter in this home, and unfortunately, a few tears, too. Pete always felt comfortable here. But not today. Irrational guilt plagued him, and being in Jim's home only made it worse. His gaze automatically went to the long couch where Jean sat curled up in a tiny ball on one end, looking fragile and alone.
Jean met Pete's gaze and stared at him for a few seconds without speaking. Then she said shakily, "Pete. Oh, Pete..." She dropped her head into her hands and began to cry.
Jim ran as hard as he'd ever run in his life. He crashed through the thick woods, dodging trees, leaping over fallen branches, big rocks, and tangles of thick underbrush. Jim ignored the throbbing pain in his side and head, and ignored the tight band of pressure across his chest as he gulped in air. Between the ferocious rush of adrenaline and his exertion, it seemed he couldn't breathe fast enough. But still he ran.
With his hands cuffed behind his back, Jim couldn't use his arms for balance, or move branches out of his way. The dense plant life of the woods tore at his face, his chest, his legs. He didn't dare look behind him, lest he inadvertently ram into a tree or trip over a log, but a part of him stayed attuned to the noises behind him, listening for sounds of pursuit. He prayed for strength. He prayed for balance. He prayed for endurance.
Jim ran, realizing that the zig-zagged path he was taking actually took him deeper into the woods rather than toward the road, but right now, he didn't care. He just had to get away. If he could lose Ciroppolli and Graddock, or make them chase him long enough, maybe they'd give up and go back to the black and white and make a run for it. He could always circle back later and get to the road.
Jim ducked under a low-hanging tree limb, but some of its lower branches grabbed at his head, tangling
in his hair. He jerked free
, feeling the jagged wood bite into his scalp and tear some of his hair out by
the roots. Still, he ran.
In the near distance, Jim heard the first sounds from his pursuers. Over the pounding of his heart and the blood rushing in his ears, he heard Ciroppolli's voice, inflamed by anger.
"Come on, Jeremiah! He's gettin' away! Circle around to the left!"
They're splitting up. Distance is my only chance now. Jim pushed his overtaxed body even harder. He angled his trajectory only slightly to the right, his mind divided between the path before him, his pursuers behind him, and his next decision. His life depended on making the right decisions.
"You can't get away, you stupid pig!" Ciroppolli's voice sounded closer. "You're gonna die!"
Not if I can help it! As he fled through the forest, Jim dragged in precious air, the sound of his breath rasping harsh and loud in his own ears. His legs protested, his body ached, his chest felt as if it would explode. Despite the chill in the darkened woods, sweat poured over him, soaking his shirt and hair. It ran burning into his eyes, and he blinked it away, ignoring everything but the desperate need to save his life. But he didn't know how much longer he could ignore his body's warning signals. He was tiring rapidly.
But still he ran.
Jim could now hear loud crashing behind him as apparently one of the convicts had picked up on his trail. He didn't think he could run any faster, but he had to try. He considered going to ground, but so far, he hadn't seen anything that would provide him proper cover. And he really hadn't run long enough to make Ciroppolli give up hunting him down.
Jim's foot suddenly snagged on an unseen rock and he lost his balance. He stumbled forward, fighting to regain his balance, trying to stay on his feet, but he crashed headlong into a tree with his shoulder and fell into the brushy ground. Without his arms to help him with his balance or break his fall, he went down hard, driving what little breath he had left from him. He lay there, chest heaving, his entire body hurting and trembling from exhaustion. Meanwhile, the crashing sounds behind him drew closer, heading straight for him. Get up. Get up. You've gotta move! Jim rolled over and attempted to drag himself to his feet, but his exhausted muscles and sore ribs screamed at the strain, and he fell back with a moan. Rocks and limbs jabbed through the thin material of his t-shirt; it felt like a bed of nails under his chest. Jim knew he had to get up, so he gritted his teeth, tensing against the pain, and finally managed to get a foot underneath him. He lurched upright.
He took a deep, shuddering breath and started to run again.
"I hear you, Officer Reed! You can't get away!" Ciroppolli's voice filtered through the crashing sounds of broken limbs and crushed plants.
The pure venom in Ciroppolli's voice drove Jim to run faster. Can't let 'em catch me...can't leave Jean, Jimmy...my unborn baby...alone. Jim barreled between trees, avoiding obstacles, ignoring everything except the drive to survive. God had given him a strong, athletic body and fast legs. Jim had always been able to run fast and long. As a child, he'd done it for fun; in high school and college for the thrill of competition; in his job, it gave him an edge. But now, that ability to keep going and to go fast was the only thing separating him from freedom and certain death.
Jim ran on.
Low-hanging branches and tall plants slapped Jim in the face and chest. His eyes watered from the stinging blows.
You've gotta teach Jimmy to play ball.
Sweat covered Jim's body and his lungs demanded more and more oxygen. His chest burned.
Jean needs you.
The muscles in his legs began to cramp and ache. Every stride became a test of courage, every second he ran a struggle for life.
You gotta avenge Pete.
The noises behind Jim continued. Ciroppolli taunted him, his distant voice still cold and filled with enough hatred to chill Jim's blood.
"I'm gonna catch you, you pig! And when I do, you'll beg me to kill you!"
Keep going, keep going. He'll give up. You're in better shape. Keep going.
As Jim thundered on through the woods, he began to notice the trees thinning. He could see further ahead, and he noticed a bright gleam peek through the foliage, like sunlight reflecting off metal. Jim angled his run toward the brightness and squinted past the glare.
It's a metal roof...a building! Maybe someone's there...maybe I can get some help! Maybe I'll make it after all! If can just hang...
Jim's right foot hit on a patch of uneven ground, slid, and snagged in a hole hidden under a tangle of leaves and low weeds. Momentum kept his upper body moving forward, and the disadvantage of being handcuffed once again kept him from recovering. Jim fell forward and felt something pop in his ankle. He cried out and hit the ground face-first with a force hard enough to cause him to see stars.
Jim lay on the ground, stunned and breathless. His cheek and chin burned from the scrapes the fall had caused, and a warm liquid trickled down his neck. A tangy, metallic taste rose in Jim's mouth, and he swallowed what had to be blood. His right ankle throbbed with hot threads of pain. Experience with previous sports-related injuries made Jim fear he'd torn a ligament or tendon. He moaned aloud, wanting with all of his heart to just stay there on the uneven ground and rest. He gulped in mouthfuls of much-needed air, despite the currents of pain breathing deeply stirred in his side.
The sound of crackling limbs and swishing plants jarred Jim from his near-stupor.
He's getting closer! Get up! Now!
Jim pulled his left leg underneath him for leverage, then tugged at his right leg. It would not budge. He tugged harder, but his foot remained trapped. Jim tried to twist his foot sideways, but the resulting pain forced him to stop. Then he tried pointing his toe downward and sliding his foot out, but the heel of his shoe jammed itself deeper in the dirt. What the hell am I stuck in? Maybe a gopher hole...come on, come on!
The sound of his pursuer got louder.
God, no! This isn't fair! Help me! Jim struggled harder, the pain from his freshly injured ankle causing the edges of his vision to haze. If he only had his hands!
"I'm coming to get you, Reed!" Ciroppolli's voice, now frighteningly close, sounded through the still woods.
Jim jerked his leg as hard as he could. I'm not gonna lay here and be executed! The sweat, already soaking his shirt and hair, flowed more freely with his exertions. He grit his teeth against the excruciating pain and continued to work to free himself. But try as he might, no matter how he struggled, he simply didn't have the leverage to free his foot from its snare.
No! Jim's spirit railed against the unfairness of it all. Just a few steps from freedom....
Fear started to take over, choking him with cold fingers, clouding his mind when he needed most to think calmly.
Okay, think. What can you do? No hands, can't pull it out. Can't hide under anything. Maybe if I lay real still, he'll miss me. He'll go right by me.
Don't be a fool...you're right out in the open. No, you've gotta get out! God help me!
Jim made a conscious effort to calm his ragged breathing. Okay, relax. Relax. Relax the foot. Go limp with it.
The crashing seemed to pick up in intensity, the rhythmic noises increasing in speed.
He's closing in! Desperate, Jim pulled his left knee up again and strained to get upright on it. It took some doing, but he finally managed to push his torso up and get partially upright. He thought that the change in position would give him a better angle so he could free his trapped foot. Jim strained and pulled his leg until he thought he'd pass out from the pain. And still his foot refused to budge. He sagged back to the ground, utterly exhausted.
The crashing noises behind him suddenly stilled.
Pete didn't know quite what to say. He felt his resolve to stay strong and calm begin to unravel as he watched Jean sob quietly into her hands. Pete opened his mouth to say something comforting, something reassuring, but his throat tightened and nothing came out.
Judy crossed over to the couch, sat down next to Jean and put her arms around the younger woman for comfort.
"I'm sorry," Jean choked out between sobs. "I'm...sorry."
"Shhh," Judy soothed. "It's okay." She rocked Jean gently and patted her back. The only sound in the room was Jean's quiet crying.
Guilt continued to gnaw at Pete. He'd had no idea how hard it was going to be to watch Jean grieve so. He'd had no idea how seeing her would amplify his feeling of shame at not being able to be there to help his partner. Pete stood, staring at Jean, paralyzed by that shame, the grief, the helplessness, and finally had to close his eyes against the heart-wrenching sight.
Jean whispered his name and Pete forced his eyes open. She held out a hand to him, and blinked away her tears. "Please...come tell me what happened."
Jim held his breath. The sudden silence hung like a heavy, eerie curtain. The absence of Ciroppolli's noises unnerved Jim even more than listening to the felon close in on him. A cool breeze stirred in the forest, chilling him as it evaporated the perspiration from his shirt and brow. Leaves and plants rustled a whispered response, but the thundering of his heart rang louder in Jim's ears than any sound in the woods.
What's he doing?
Jim struggled to free his foot yet again. He stayed as quiet as possible, straining to hear anything from behind him, but he pulled and twisted and wiggled his foot until the pain became almost unbearable.
Damn, I need my hands! God help me. Please. I want to go home to my family.
His foot would not budge.
Jim lay back down on the ground, trembling from cold, exhaustion, and fear. The chilly breeze ruffled his hair and moved the fronds of some ferns in an almost gentle caress against his arms and face. It would be so easy to give in to the fatigue and the pain. It would be so easy to give up.
Something snapped, loudly and crisply, in the woods nearby. Jim flinched out of his helpless stupor. No! Your family needs you! Come on, try again. Again! Just once more. Just...
And then he heard the rhythmic swishing of fabric against plants.
He's coming this way!
Jim's struggles grew more frantic. He had to get loose. If Ciroppolli found him, he'd likely shoot him on sight. Please, God, help me! Jim bent his leg and yanked. Once. Twice. Three times.
He pulled on his leg until cold sweat dripped from every pore, until his chest ached for breath and his muscles screamed in protest.
He couldn't escape.
The rhythmic swishing evolved into quiet sounds of footfalls on brush. Twigs snapped as the footfalls came closer, and Jim flinched with each crackle.
He's almost on me...come on! Think of your family. Think of all the things you haven't done. Think of Jean all alone, Jimmy without a father, a baby who'll never see its daddy! No, God, I'm not ready to go!
A frustrated sob fought to get past Jim's clenched jaw as he tried again to rip himself free, to no avail. The footfalls grew ever closer. God, why? Why won't you help me? Why do I have to go like this?
"Well, well, well, what have we here?"
Jim snapped his head around. Ciroppolli stood about ten yards behind him, between two trees, pointing Jim's own gun straight at Jim's chest.
Pete walked over and sat on Jean's other side. He took the hand she offered and squeezed it. He started to stammer out an apology, but Jean beat him too it.
"I'm sorry, Pete," she said quietly. "I didn't mean to break down like that."
"Understandable," Pete assured her, his voice uncomfortably husky.
"They said you had to stay in the hospital overnight," Jean wiped at her eyes with her free hand. "Are you sure you should be here?" She touched the bandage on Pete's hand gently. "Your hands..."
"I'm okay. I had to be here," Pete told her. "I couldn't just...lay there."
Jean gently squeezed his hand and managed a tiny smile. "Thanks, Pete. It means a lot to me for you to be here. And it will to Jim, too, when he finds out. And he will find out. He's going to come home, Pete. He is."
"Of course he is," Pete said, with a conviction he did not feel. He met Judy's and Annie's eyes over Jean's head and saw doubt in their eyes as well.
"Jim's smart. He's strong. He'll be okay," Jean said.
"Sure he will," Pete said, as Jean looked to him for confirmation.
"Jean," Mr. Smithson walked into the living room from the den. "Oh, Pete, I didn't know you were here."
"I just got here."
"I'm glad to see you're doing okay," Mr. Smithson said quietly.
"They're talking about what happened on the TV now," Mr. Smithson said. "You might want to come into the den and listen."
Ciroppolli advanced slowly toward Jim, the gun still pointed at him.
This is it, Jim thought in despair. He's about to kill me.
The felon had an odd expression on his gaunt face, one of half-amusement and half-anger. "Looks like you're in a bit of a jam, Officer Reed." Ciroppolli stopped walking just out of reach of Jim's free leg. "Jeremiah! I've got him! Get over here!" Ciroppolli yelled for his companion, then fixed Jim with a sardonic smile. "Nice try, pig. I gotta hand it to ya, you've got some guts."
Don't show him any fear. Don't give him the satisfaction. Jim held his face very still and blinked sweat from his eyes. The gentle breeze picked up in intensity, but Jim refused to shiver, despite his chill.
"Too bad guts won't save you," Ciroppolli continued. He knelt down and examined Jim's foot. "Looks like you stepped in a gopher hole. I'll get you out when Jeremiah gets here."
Jim couldn't keep a look of surprise from his face.
"Don't look surprised," Ciroppolli said. "I can't kill you yet. I promised you suffering. You haven't suffered enough. Besides, it has to be done right." The felon stood. "Jeremiah! Where the hell are you?" Ciroppolli shook his head. "That boy. He's dumb as dirt. He's probably lost." Ciroppolli looked down at Jim and shrugged when Jim didn't say anything.
Ciroppolli looked around briefly, and then asked, "Hey, pig, did you see that building down there?"
"I saw it," Jim said, clipped.
"That's where you was headin', right?" Ciroppolli took a few steps to his right to get a better view. "I don't blame you. It's gettin' cold out here. Feels like it might rain."
Jim moved his head where he could study Ciroppolli. He couldn't figure him out. One minute he ranted and raved like a madman, and the next -- well, now he was being conversational. He's a headcase. A real nut.
Ciroppolli walked back to Jim and knelt again beside Jim's free foot. He reached out and grabbed Jim's foot, turned it, and started untying the shoelace.
"What are you doin'?" Jim asked. He turned, as best he could, onto his right side so he could see.
"Oh, just a little assurance you won't be runnin' off again when we get ya outta here." Ciroppolli yanked Jim's shoe off and tossed it aside, then pulled off the sock and tossed it away as well. "Can't run too far in the woods barefoot."
You just watch me. If you give me half a chance, I'll be gone again. Jim worried more about his injured right ankle than being barefoot.
"Hey, Marco! Where are you?" Graddock's voice filtered faintly through the woods, far to their left.
"Over here!" Ciroppolli yelled back. "Follow my voice! Hurry up, willya? It's gettin' cold!"
"He'd better hurry," Ciroppolli muttered under his breath. "I figure we're gettin' pretty hot around here. We need to move on."
"You know you're gonna get caught, no matter what," Jim said.
"Okay, here it comes," Ciroppolli scowled. "I've been waiting for your cop speeches to start."
"No speech, just fact," Jim stated.
"I'm too smart to get caught," Ciroppolli bragged.
"You got caught once before," Jim reminded. "You'll get caught again. You've left a trail of dead bodies that are gonna point straight to you." A pang of sorrow sliced through Jim's gut, as he thought of Pete being part of that tragic trail.
Ciroppolli's scowl deepened. He moved up to Jim's head and knelt beside him. He stuck the gun hard into Jim's chest. "And I'm about to add one more to that trail," the convict growled. "You'd better enjoy the view while you can, pig. You're about to join your pig buddy in hell."
"You've got it all wrong, Ciroppolli," Jim snapped, anger flaring anew as the felon once again mentioned Pete and hell in the same sentence. "Hell isn't made for a man like my partner. But it is custom made for slime like you."
Ciroppolli took his left hand, grabbed the front of Jim's t-shirt with it and jerked him up so that they were virtually nose-to-nose. "What do you know about hell?" Ciroppolli screamed. "What do you know of eternity? I'm on a mission! God's judgment is at hand, and....."
Loud crashing noises in the nearby woods interrupted Ciroppolli's rant and heralded the arrival of Graddock. The younger felon ran breathlessly to join his companion as he finally caught sight of Ciroppolli.
"Marco, what's goin' on? Did you shoot him?" Graddock asked between gasps of air.
Ciroppolli glared at Jim one last time before pushing him roughly back to the ground. "Not yet." Ciroppolli stood and gestured toward the shining roof with the gun. "You see that shiny roof down the hill there?"
"Yeah," Graddock nodded.
"Get down there and check it out," Ciroppolli ordered.
"Just shut up and do it!" Ciroppolli screamed. "Make sure it's empty."
"What if it isn't?" Graddock whined. "What if there's people there?"
"See how many there is, and get back up here. We'll take care of 'em if it's easy. Thanks to Officer Reed here, I got enough ammo to last quite a while."
"And be quiet, willya? Don't let 'em see ya or anything. And hurry! We've gotta get movin'."
Everyone followed Mr. Smithson to the den, where the muted theme music of a television news program bid its urgent summons.
Jean clung to Pete's arm as they walked the short distance to the den; Pete could feel her trembling as he supported her. Even after Pete had seated her on the comfortable den sofa, Jean held onto him as if holding Pete's arm somehow connected her to her missing husband.
"They've got a reporter out at the command post," Mr. Smithson said. He tweaked the volume control up a notch. "He's about to give an overview."
The picture on the TV screen switched to a scene Pete immediately recognized as a parking lot of a vacant department store two blocks north and east of Mulholland. A local news reporter stood in the foreground, but behind him, a fleet of black-and-whites, including Mac's wagon, and a complement of officers accompanying them scurried busily about. Pete recognized many of the men as Central Division officers, but some he knew worked other divisions. He did not see Mac.
The reporter adjusted something in his ear, looked into the camera, nodded, lifted the microphone and began to speak.
"I'm standing in the parking lot of the old Westmeyer Department Store, now serving as a command post that is the hub of activity in the frantic search for a missing Los Angeles Police officer, believed to have been abducted just a few blocks from here, on Mulholland Drive, by two escaped convicts. According to police officials, the focus of the search has shifted from Los Angeles to San Bernadino County, where it is believed these same two convicts are responsible for the death of a San Bernadino County Deputy.
"The tragic turn of events began this morning, somewhere between 2 and 6 a.m. when Marco Ciroppolli and Jeremiah Graddock escaped from the Santa Barbara County Jail." The reporter paused, then held up pictures of Graddock and Ciroppolli and motioned for the camera to zoom in. Soon, pictures of the two felons filled the screen. The reporter's voice droned on, reciting both men's felony records.
"Which one shot you?" Jean asked.
"Ciroppolli, the dark headed one," Pete said. "The blond was talkin' to Jim about the tire."
The reporter lowered the photos and continued. "Prison authorities speculate that the two men used a piece of wood scrap obtained from the prison shop to lift up a part of the electrified fence that surrounds the Santa Barbara lock-up and crawl underneath. From there, Santa Barbara officials believe they headed into the woods and made their way to County Road 145, where they encountered their first victim. Forty-one-year-old San Diego businessman Richard Tremont suffered a bullet wound to the head and a knife wound to the neck. His body, his stolen car and a prison-made knife were found along Mulholland Drive when officers responded to an officer-needs-help call from Central Division Officer Peter J. Malloy, an eleven-year veteran of the LAPD. According to police reports, Officer Malloy and his partner, Officer James A. Reed, responded to an apparent motorist in trouble and were brutally attacked...."
Pete tensed, but in sketching out the story, the reporter didn't go into any details that Jean didn't already know.
"...Officer Malloy is listed in good condition at County General Hospital. "
"They don't know you flew the coop yet," Judy whispered.
The reporter continued, "Officer Malloy's partner, Patrol Officer James A. Reed, age 28, is now missing, along with the patrol car they were driving. Officer Reed, who just last spring won the LAPD's highest award, the Medal of Valor, will mark his 5th year with the department in just two weeks.
"Originally, the search for Officer Reed was centered in the Los Angeles area. However, that changed when the San Bernadino County Sheriff's Department reported that a sheriff's deputy was shot and killed 5 miles northeast of Powderly. An eyewitness reported that the deputy was shot by a man in an LAPD patrol car, wearing an LAPD uniform. The eyewitness said that the patrol car fled the scene, heading north on highway 17. The identity of the slain deputy is being withheld pending notification of next of kin. Both San Bernadino County and Los Angeles Police are coordinating a massive search for the black and white, its occupants, and the missing officer.
"Sergeant William MacDonald is in charge of the LA command post, and is coordinating the search for Officer Reed and the escapees from this end. Sergeant MacDonald has agreed to speak with us and answer a few questions." The reporter motioned off-camera, and Mac joined him on screen, looking worried and frazzled.
"Mac hates doin' this," Pete said.
"Sergeant MacDonald, can you tell us what happened to your officers this morning?" the reporter asked.
Pete leaned forward, listening to Mac give a bare-bones summary of the report he'd given from the hospital. Hearing it told on television from his watch commander's mouth somehow made it seem unreal, almost as if it had happened to someone else. For a shaky moment the world seemed to fade away and Pete almost wondered if it had indeed happened to someone else. But then he felt Jean's hand convulse tightly on his arm and cold reality slammed the unwelcome truth at him: Jim was missing, and no amount of shocked denial could bring him back.
He pulled his concentration back to Mac. "...but by the time Officer Malloy was able to crawl to the top of the hill and get some help, nearly an hour had passed, and the trail was cold."
"Isn't it unusual for your officers to be out of touch for such a long period of time?" the reporter asked.
Mac shrugged. "Not really. It was a quiet morning, and no other calls came through for their unit, so dispatch would have waited for them to clear before making contact. It's not unusual for a unit to be out of service for 45 minutes to an hour on a similar call."
"Tell us about what you found once Officer Malloy made his statement."
"We discovered the body of the registered owner of the car stuffed in the trunk, with his throat slashed and with a single bullet wound to the head. We recovered what appears to be a homemade knife, believed to be the murder weapon, and the prison uniform belonging to Graddock."
"Where did Ciroppolli get the gun he used to shoot Officer Malloy ?" the reporter asked.
"We're still investigating that," Mac sighed, "but we believe the gun belonged to the deceased. We have information from San Diego police that Tremont was a traveling salesman who often drove alone. He reportedly carried a gun for protection."
"And you believe that the shooting of the San Bernadino County deputy was the work of Ciroppolli and Graddock?"
"The evidence certainly points that way. The eyewitness account confirms that the shots came from a Los Angeles police cruiser. We're in the process of sending pictures for ID purposes, and the bullets that struck the deputy are being removed for ballistics testing."
"The eyewitness reported that the shooter was wearing what appeared to be an LAPD uniform," the reporter said. "What do you think that means in terms of Officer Reed's safety?"
Pete felt Jean's grip again tighten on his arm. He patted her hand with reassurance he didn't feel.
"We're hoping for the best, of course," Mac said thoughtfully, quietly. "I wouldn't want to speculate beyond that at this time."
"You have men searching the back roads between the freeway and Powderly," the reporter pointed out. "Does that mean you think that Officer Reed may have been left somewhere before the deputy was shot?"
"We don't want to overlook any possibility," Mac said, his voice hardening. "Our goal is to bring Officer Reed safely back to his family. Whatever we need to do to accomplish that goal is what we'll do."
"Sergeant, what do you think the chances are that Officer Reed is still alive?" the reporter asked bluntly.
"As I said before, I don't want to speculate," Mac's voice took on an even harder edge. "Officer Reed is an outstanding police officer and a good friend. We all choose to remain optimistic. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have work to do."
Way to go, Mac, Pete thought. You handled that well.
"I hate reporters," Mr. Smithson grumbled, as the TV news reporter droned on. "I know they've got a job to do, but I think all this does more harm than good."
"Pete," Jean said quietly, "you didn't hear any gunshots after you were shot?"
Pete could see the raw fear in Jean's eyes. He wished he had better words with which to reassure her. He wished he knew the answer to that question for certain, himself.
"No, I didn't," Pete told her. He grasped her hand. "And I didn't see any blood on the roadside, either. I was unconscious for several minutes, but the lack of blood on the ground by the car is a good sign."
"But Jim's so fast, Pete, and strong," Jane said. Her voice was none too steady, and she looked almost as frightened as Jean. "If they didn't shoot him, how could they take him?"
The similarity of Jane's piercing blue eyes to her brother's was almost too much for Pete to handle. He covered with an imperceptible shrug. "There are a lot of ways, unfortunately. Graddock's a big man, and he had a tire iron in his hand. I'm sure that after I was shot, Jim probably had a moment of shock or surprise, long enough for Graddock to get the drop on him."
"Would Jim have willingly handed over his clothes and gun?" Mr. Smithson asked. "Or do you figure he was knocked out?"
The stubborn, well-trained Jim Reed that Pete Malloy knew would never have turned over anything willingly. The Jim Reed Pete knew would have gone down fighting. Or, as Mr. Smithson asked, would have been out cold. But Jean's nails started to dig into his skin again, and Pete measured his response carefully.
"I wish I had answers for you," Pete said. "but I just don't know. When you're at gunpoint, fighting to stay alive, to survive to get back to your family...when that time comes, you only have a split second to make a decision. Jim's a fighter, I know that. It's hard for me to imagine him doing anything other than that."
Jean suddenly dropped her hold on Pete's arm, made a little sound like a half-sob, and stood quickly. "Excuse me," she said, then fled the room, hand over her mouth.
"Looks like she's sick again," Annie hurriedly stood and went after her sister
Pete's worried gaze followed her out of the room. He didn't blame Jean one bit for feeling ill; he felt pretty sick himself. God, I wish I had some answers for her. And for me.
"It's empty, Marco, it's empty," Graddock reported breathlessly half an hour later as he returned to where Ciroppolli stood guard over Jim. "Looks like ain't nobody been there in years."
Jim held his breath as Ciroppolli stopped his restless pacing. As the chilly air and fear worked to steal the warmth from Jim's body, he couldn't chase away the memory of another cold, dark night just two years earlier, when he and Pete had been taken hostage by two would-be armed robbers. Even though Jim had feared for his life then, neither he nor Pete had ever given up. Even when Pete had faced execution at the hands of Steve Deal, they hadn't given up. Their determination to survive had paid off, and they'd lived to tell the tale. But Pete was there with me. We had each other. Now, Pete's dead, and I'm alone. He fought against the encroaching tide of hopelessness. Think! If I'm gonna make it, I have to think!
"Is it a house?" Ciroppolli asked.
"Nah, it's a barn or a stable or somethin'," Graddock said between gulps of air. "There's stalls in there and a big ol' open space. It's about to fall down, it's so old."
"And you're sure it's empty?" Ciroppolli asked again.
"Good. Let's get him outta this hole and get down there." Ciroppolli gestured with the gun to Jim's trapped foot. "Pull it outta there."
Graddock knelt down by Jim's foot and wrapped his meaty hands around his ankle.
"Don't try anything, pig, or I'll shoot you where you're layin'," Ciroppolli warned.
Jim grunted as Graddock twisted and pulled at his foot. Hot pain raced up his ankle and calf. Jim felt beads of sweat re-form on his brow and he chewed his lip to keep from yelling.
"Man, you're really stuck!" Graddock exclaimed. "I'm gonna have to dig your heel out." Graddock fished around, located and picked up a nearby stick, and started digging around Jim's heel with it.
"Hurry up, Jeremiah," Ciroppolli urged.
"I'm hurrying, Marco, really. He's dug the heel of his shoe in there, and it's wedged tight." Graddock moved the stick around a few more minutes, then finally stopped. "There. That oughta do it."
The big young man grabbed Jim's ankle again, pulled, and this time, his foot slipped free. Jim couldn't help but hiss a little as the sudden change in position started his ankle throbbing anew.
"Take his shoe and sock off," Ciroppolli ordered.
Graddock untied Jim's shoe and pulled it off, followed by the sock. "Man, your ankle's really swollen," he said, with a shake of his head.
Ciroppolli peered over Graddock's shoulder. "Is it broke?"
Jim grit his teeth and experimentally flexed the foot. It hurt like the dickens, but he could move it. "What's it to you?" he ground out.
"Well, we ain't carryin' you down to the barn," Ciroppolli drawled. "So you'd better be able to walk."
"I'll make it," Jim growled.
"Help him up, Jeremiah."
Graddock moved to Jim's side and helped him get to his feet. He kept a strong grip on Jim's right arm.
"Come on, let's go. This wind is getting too cold," Ciroppolli motioned with the gun. "You two first."
Jim took his first step on the injured foot, and went down to his knees when it refused to support his weight. He couldn't keep from crying out as pain spiraled up his lower leg.
"Great. Just great," Ciroppolli said angrily. "This better not be a trick."
"No...trick." Jim gasped, as Graddock helped him back up.
"Well, at least you can't run away again," Ciroppolli said. "Come on, Jeremiah, you're gonna have to help him."
Jeremiah put an arm around Jim's waist, and after a few awkward tries, the two of them managed to get into a rhythm so that they could walk. With Graddock's help, Jim could put a small amount of his weight onto the ankle, and he managed to hobble alongside the larger young man.
Even with help, every step over the uneven, wooded terrain bordered on agony for Jim. Forget running. I can barely walk. The path Graddock chose took a downward slope, and though the trees thinned, the underbrush grew thicker. As they moved downslope, Jim's legs kept tangling with the overgrown weeds and vines blanketing the ground. Twice he stumbled and nearly fell when he just couldn't find the strength to lift his aching and bleeding bare feet high enough to clear an obstacle. Both times Graddock roughly yanked him back upright.
Each painful step drove Jim deeper into despair. He had counted on strength and speed to help him escape, but with one unfortunate misstep, he had lost both. Despite his earlier determination to never give up, to somehow find a way, the reality of his helplessness began to set in. Hands cuffed. One bad ankle. Can't fight, can't run. What can I do? God, help me! I need a way out.
Jim's strength faltered, and he stumbled to the ground again.
Ciroppolli struck him in the back with the side of the gun. "Get up! This is takin' too long! You're stallin'!"
"No...I'm not," Jim wheezed. "This is...as fast as I...can go."
Ciroppolli waited until Graddock pulled Jim up from the ground, then he struck him in the small of the back again. Graddock's grip held strong and kept him upright.
"Get movin', pig! I'm cold! Come on, Jeremiah!"
They stumbled on. The wind picked up, driving a cloud across the sun, plunging the already dimly lit forest into near-darkness. Jim looked up from watching his step and what he saw sent a shiver down his spine that had nothing to do with the disappearance of the sun's warmth. The barn loomed just ahead of them, a hulking beast of a building, decrepit and falling to pieces. Black gaping hollows from missing boards stared out over the clearing like the death watch of a skull, the tin roof bleeding rust stains down the rotting walls. Every horror movie Jim had ever watched suddenly seemed to come to life as he stared in heart-trembling fear at the sagging, decrepit building.
If I go in there, I'm not coming out alive.
Jim tried to hold back, but Graddock pushed him forward.
They stumbled into the semi-clearing surrounding the old barn, and Ciroppolli pushed ahead of Jim and Graddock to open the warped wooden door. Long-unused hinges screamed an eerie protest.
"Come on, get him in here!" Ciroppolli barked.
Graddock shoved Jim through the door. Ciroppolli reached out and grabbed Jim by the arm, jerking him from Graddock's hold. The older felon shoved Jim to the dirt floor of the barn, and he hit face first, hard. Before he could recover, Ciroppolli rounded on him and kicked him hard in the side.
Jim moaned and tried to roll away from Ciroppolli's assault, but the wiry man stepped over and kicked him yet again. And again. And again.
"That's for all the trouble you've caused, pig!" Ciroppolli yelled. "We shoulda been long gone by now! I shoulda shot you back in the woods!"
"Why...didn't...you," Jim coughed, gagging and gasping for air.
"Because," Ciroppolli said, with another kick that sent waves of pain arcing through Jim's side, "I'm such a nice guy." Ciroppolli kicked him once again, hard, then leaned over Jim and grinned in his face, as Jim gasped for precious breath.
Jim had never before wanted to spit in a man's face; he considered it the lowest form of contempt. But as Ciroppolli leaned over him with that condescending, evil grin in place, it took every ounce of willpower he had to keep from doing so. Had he not been in such pain, and desperate for a deep breath, he might have done it anyway. A quick death is better than this torture...Jean, I'm so sorry...
As suddenly as Ciroppolli's assault had begun, it ended, and Jim lay still, dragging in gasps of dusty air.
"Where's your wallet, pig?" Ciroppolli asked.
"Huh?" Jim wheezed, startled by the question.
"Where's your wallet? Jeremiah and me, we gotta have money. That jerk Tremont only had ten bucks on him. Can you believe that? All that trouble, and all we got out of it was a car with a bad tire, a flat spare, and ten bucks. Ten bucks ain't gonna get us to Vegas." Ciroppolli narrowed his eyes. "Do you have money, dontcha? I know you cops don't make much, but you gotta eat. Where's the wallet?"
Jim coughed and dragged in a painful breath. "Back...left pocket."
Ciroppolli rolled Jim over and dug the billfold out of Jim's pocket. He stood and opened it.
"How much we get, Marco?" Graddock asked.
"Better than Tremont, but not much. Fifteen." Ciroppolli pulled out a ten and a five that Jim had in his wallet. He handed the five over to Graddock. "Here."
"Thanks for nothin'," Graddock grumbled.
"I'm the brains, I get the biggest cut," Ciroppolli said, matter-of-factly. He thumbed through the wallet some more. "Hey, paydirt! Here's a couple credit cards. We can use the gas one." Ciroppolli pulled the credit card from its plastic sleeve. "Hey, pig, is this good-lookin' broad your wife?"
Ciroppolli flashed a picture of Jean and Jimmy at Jim.
Jim tensed. Every part of him rebelled at this scum talking about Jean, or even looking at her picture. He fought down panic as he realized that Ciroppolli had his driver's license, and thus his address. Ciroppolli could go back and get to his family.
"Oh, don't worry, pig, I won't be goin' back to L.A. anytime soon," Ciroppolli apparently sensed Jim's concern. "Although, a good-looking broad like that, she'd be worth the risk."
Jim fought down his anger and for the first time pleaded with his captor. "Please don't hurt my family," he whispered.
Ciroppolli gave Jim a sharp look. "How long you two been married?"
"Eight years," Jim said. Eight wonderful years. It's not enough!
"Not bad, these days," Ciroppolli allowed. "This the only kid you got? I can tell he's yours, he looks just like ya."
"Je-- My wife's...expecting," Jim told him, though why he should tell this jerk anything was beyond him. It was obvious Ciroppolli was incapable of any sympathy.
"Congratulations," Ciroppolli sneered. "When's she due?"
"Too bad you won't be around to see it, pig," Ciroppolli flipped the wallet to the ground. "My grandmama used to say that children that never saw their daddies was charmed. Magical. So you can die knowin' that you'll have a charmed kid."
Ciroppolli reached down and jerked Jim up by the front of his t-shirt. "Get on your knees, Officer Reed. It's time to join your partner."
Jim's heart began to jackhammer in his chest. This is where I buy it. Somehow I never figured it this way. From the moment his friend Stenzler had died just weeks after their academy graduation, Jim had been forced to face the fact that he might die on the job. He'd faced it, accepted it, worked and trained and did everything he could to avoid it, and moved on, doing his job the best and safest way he could. Jean still worried, but he did his best to reassure her. Forgive me, Jean. I've put you through so much. I'm so sorry.
Ciroppolli roughly settled Jim on his knees, then looked down at him. An almost serene expression settled on Ciroppolli's face. He looked upward, toward the rafters high overhead. "It is meet and right so to do," he murmured, then he looked back at Jim. He rested the gun briefly on Jim's right shoulder, then his left. He smiled almost beatifically, a crazed light in his eye that flashed Jim right back to that desert night and another man's insane gaze.
"You're last... you're mine...."
Everything inside Jim wanted to shut out Ciroppolli's face. But he recalled the moments when Steve Deal had put Pete on his knees and held the gun up to execute him. Jim remembered his own frantic efforts to free himself so that he could save Pete. But what stood out in Jim's mind was the one brief look he got at Pete's face in the split second before he had jumped Deal and kept him from executing his partner. That look on Pete's face was one Jim would never forget. Pete had been composed, cool, calm...and had looked Deal straight in the eyes, as if daring him to shoot. Pete had faced imminent death with perfect equanimity, never giving Deal a second's satisfaction from any fear Pete might have felt.
Jim wanted to die with a dignity like that. He ignored his captor's parody of a smile and settled his gaze straight into Ciroppolli's eyes. Inside, fear, sorrow, and regret tore at him. But those emotions would not reach his face or eyes. They would not.
Ciroppolli lifted the gun and pressed it against Jim's temple. The steel of the barrel felt cold against his skin. Jim never flinched; he stared straight at Ciroppolli.
"I---I'm gonna step outside," Graddock stammered, then stumbled out the door.
"Lousy coward," Ciroppolli spat.
Jim said nothing. But his mind raced. Give me strength, God. Don't leave me now.
The thoughtful, almost peaceful look returned to Ciroppolli's face. "You know, in a way, I hate killin' ya, Officer Reed. You got a lot of courage. After all I've done to ya, killin' your partner and all, you haven't whined a bit. You haven't begged me not to kill ya. In fact, you seem more concerned about others than you do yourself. I gotta hand it to ya, Reed. I admire that."
"I'm touched," Jim said. He didn't trust himself to say much more.
Ciroppolli pressed the gun in harder. Jim willed himself not to sweat. Not to shake.
"Any last requests?" Ciroppolli asked. "I'll give you a minute to plead for mercy and tell me why I shouldn't put a bullet in your brain."
What Jim wanted more than anything was to say good-bye to his family one last time. To hold Jean just once more...just one more kiss...to tell her how much he loved her...
"Yes," Jim whispered. "I do."
"Name your request."
Jim swallowed and fought back overpowering emotion. Jean, I've failed you. "The picture of my wife and son...will you take it out and put it in my hand?" He had to stop and clear his throat before he continued, "Since I can't say...good-bye, I want her to know...my last thoughts were of her and our son."
Ciroppolli lowered the gun. "Easy enough," he agreed. He leaned over and retrieved the wallet. He pulled the picture out and studied it closely. "You really love her."
"Very much," Jim husked. Dammit, Jim, don't fall apart. Don't give him the pleasure.
"She faithful to you?" Ciroppolli asked.
"Totally," Jim nodded.
"Lucky man," Ciroppolli mumbled. He leaned over and placed the picture in Jim's hand.
Jim curled his hand around the picture and nearly came undone as he caressed the glossy paper. He closed his eyes and swallowed, then took a deep breath. I love you, Jean. I love you, Jimmy. Please forgive me for leaving you alone.
"Anything else?" Ciroppolli replaced the gun at Jim's temple. He pulled the hammer back and a bullet slid into the chamber. The sound chilled Jim's blood. "I hate to rush ya, but we're in a bit of a hurry, now."
Jim swallowed again and looked into Ciroppolli's eyes. "Will you give me one minute to set things straight with God and ask him to look after my family?"
Ciroppolli lowered the gun again. He said nothing, just nodded once.
Jim closed his eyes and bowed his head. He'd settled the account with God a long time ago, but somehow talking to Him now seemed the right thing to do. He needed this final moment of peace before he faced eternity. God, give me courage to do this. Please look after my family. Somehow just let them know how much I love them. God, I....
A shuffling noise from Ciroppolli caused Jim to open his eyes. His captor had moved to stand over him, an unreadable expression covering his face. He looked at Jim and announced solemnly, "Your faith has saved you."
Before Jim could react, Ciroppolli lifted the gun and struck Jim on the back of the head, and the world around him blanked out.