Authors: Karin Slaughter
So much for the element of surprise.
The board clattered to the floor. Her tailbone felt like it had been cracked. There was a sharp, biting pain in her scalp where her head had met the sharp edge of the laminate counter. Her helmet had tipped forward, smashing her safety glasses into the bridge of her nose. Lena put her hand to the back of her head. The hair was wet. She looked at her fingers: blood.
Paul stared at her, his brow furrowed, like he couldn’t understand how she’d screwed up something so easy. Lena couldn’t either, but there was no time to figure it out. She pulled herself up, keeping an eye on the closed door. She tried to shake it off. Her vision was blurry. Her nose felt like a metronome was pounding inside. She took off the safety glasses. They were cracked at the bridge. She tossed them into one of the open cabinets.
There was a low whistle from the other room:
. Keith came into the kitchen. Mitch followed. They were both big guys, their shoulders so wide that they made the kitchen feel more like a closet.
Lena felt a bead of sweat roll down the back of her neck. She used her hand to wipe it away. Her fingers were sticky. It wasn’t sweat, it was blood.
Paul chewed his tongue between his front teeth, a tic she’d spotted their first week working together. It meant he was about to disagree with her. He didn’t do it much, but when he did, he meant it.
Lena opened her mouth to take back command, but by some silent agreement, Mitch and Keith stepped forward, pulling out their flashlights as they stood on either side of the door. They all looked at Lena, but this time it was with irritation rather than expectancy.
Reluctantly, she moved over to the sink and jammed the shotgun to her shoulder so she could at least back them up. The laugh
track on the television seemed to mock her. Lena couldn’t make out the words, just the low rumble of Weezy’s voice followed by a high-pitched response from George.
Mitch swung open the basement door. No one shot him, so he went down the stairs. Keith followed. Paul stood at the top, Glock pointing down in case someone managed to get past the combined four hundred–plus pounds of cop.
And then the waiting started.
Time changed. Even the particles in the air floated at a different frequency.
Paul didn’t move. Sweat dripped from his hands, spotted the floor. Lena held her breath as she waited for some kind of resolution—guns firing, men yelling. Her head ticked down the seconds. Five. Ten. Another roar of laughter came from the television. Weezy again. Then Lionel.
Twenty seconds. Paul still hadn’t moved. He was like a statue.
Lena quietly let out the breath she’d been holding. She inhaled again.
Finally, Keith called, “Clear.”
Paul’s hands lowered. Lena felt her lungs shake as she exhaled.
“Do the second sweep,” she ordered, propping the shotgun against the counter so she could take off her helmet. There was a string of curses from below, but Lena didn’t care. Three dead men were in the house—a house that had been under twenty-four-hour surveillance. She’d spent a million bucks of the department’s money on this clusterfuck. She’d managed to rip open her scalp and bruise her nose. Her ass ached like a motherfucker. Her head was pounding. Meanwhile, Sid Waller was probably on a beach somewhere sipping a margarita and wondering which woman he was going to follow home and rape tonight.
Lena looked down at her watch. The timer was still running. They’d been in the house four minutes and thirty-two seconds.
“Shhh-it,” Lena drew out the word. She looked up at the ceiling. The bare rafters showed white specks of mold. A clump of plastic bags was shoved into a hole in the asphalt shingles. She heard heavy bootsteps in the next room as the rest of the team came in to see what had happened.
Lena raised her voice so it would carry through the house, ordering, “We clear out of here A-SAP. This is an active crime scene.”
DeShawn called back, “Branson’s on the way. Coroner’s thirty minutes out.”
“Great,” she said. “The more the merrier.”
Paul took off his helmet. He ran his hand through his sweaty hair. “You okay?”
Lena shook her head, too angry to speak. This was supposed to change things. This was supposed to make everything better. The only goddamn thing she had in her life right now that was working was her job, and she’d managed to screw that up, too.
She unstrapped the Velcro around her vest so she could breathe. Her shirt was stuck to her back. She knew her neck was covered with blood. This wouldn’t stop with Denise Branson. The chief would want answers. The brass would show up. Internal Affairs. Lena would need to call her husband to bring her a change of clothes so she didn’t look like she’d gotten her ass handed to her while they chewed her out. Not that Jared was answering her calls. Not that he probably even thought of himself as her husband anymore.
Lena covered her face with her hands. Shook her head. She had to get her shit together. She couldn’t fall apart now.
“I’ll back you up with Branson,” Paul said. “Whatever you need.”
Lena dropped her hands. “I need to know why that door was braced.”
Paul’s brow furrowed again. She could see he hadn’t thought that far into it.
Lena said, “You butcher three guys and you get the hell out. You don’t stick around inside the house. You don’t barricade the basement.” She indicated the door. “Look at the edge of the wood—somebody pounded it in.” Lena wiped away the sweat pooling on her brow. The house was like a kiln. “Goddamn it. Branson’s probably gonna bust me down to patrol for this.”
“You and Jared can ride together.”
“Go to hell.”
“Hey.” Paul put his Glock on the counter. His hand was on her arm, then her face. He smiled at her, trying to make everything okay.
Lena pulled away from him. She stamped her boot on the floor so they’d hear her in the basement. “Cabello? McVale? What’s taking so long down there?”
“Found some money!” Keith called back. “We’re rich!”
“Thank God.” Lena headed toward the basement. “Please let it be a million dollars.” A drug seizure like that would at least pay for all the overtime.
She told Paul, “Get everybody out of the house. Tell CSU they’re gonna need to bring lights. I want to talk to the coroner when he gets here.”
He gave her a curt salute. “Yes, boss.”
Lena took her Maglite out of her pants pocket as she headed downstairs. She searched the wall for a light switch as she reached the bottom landing. The electrical panel was open. She could see old fuses plugged into slots. She tapped a few, but nothing happened.
As predicted, the basement had been chopped into tiny rooms. The beam of Lena’s flashlight picked up buckling, cheap paneling, and busted-open bags of trash that had been tossed down the stairs. The back of the stairs was open, empty but for more trash. There was no hallway, just a series of open doors, one room leading directly into the other. There were four doorways in all, so five rooms, counting the one she was standing in.
She saw a soft glow of light in the distance, probably Keith and Mitch counting the stash of money in the last room. Lena’s eyes blurred on the light. She put her hand to the back of her head, suppressing a string of curses. The blood was coming out in a steady stream. She would probably need stitches. Her head throbbed with pain. Her nose felt cracked. The day’s humiliations were piling up. Her only chance of salvaging the operation was finding a mound of hundred-dollar bills that was high enough to touch the ceiling.
Lena opened her mouth to call to the guys, but something stopped her. Sixth sense. Cop’s intuition. There were no voices. Keith and Mitch couldn’t take a dump without narrating it for all to hear. They’d found a pile of cash and weren’t joking about how they were going to spend it?
Something wasn’t right.
Lena’s hand wrapped around her Glock. She turned off the flashlight, then waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness.
She strained to pick up sounds, trying to block out the noise from the television set upstairs.
She made her way into the next room. As carefully as Lena moved, it was impossible to not make a sound. There was too much trash on the floor—empty beer cans, glass crack pipes, aluminum foil. The carpet was thick and wet, like a suction cup against the soles of her boots. Every sound was amplified in the crowded space. She might as well start singing.
What she really should do is go upstairs and get backup. You never went into a room alone. You always worked in pairs. Lena was breaking her own cardinal rule.
But she’d already fallen on her ass, cut open her head, and spent a fortune capturing three dead men and securing a crime scene that probably contained more DNA than a men’s toilet at
the local truck stop. She wasn’t going to risk what was left of her reputation based on feeling some bad juju.
Still, Lena felt for the loose strap around her Kevlar vest and pulled it tight against her waist. She moved forward, her knees bent, her center of gravity low in case she had to dive to the ground or fight off an attacker. The closer she got to the last room, the more certain she was that something had gone horribly wrong.
Twenty feet. Fifteen. Lena was approximately ten feet away when she saw the tip of a boot. Black leather. Steel toe. It was just like the one she was wearing, only three sizes larger.
And pointing up toward the ceiling.
Lena froze. She blinked her eyes. Her vision doubled. Blood was pooling up around the collar of her vest. Her mouth was bone-dry.
She took another step. Lena could just make out the floor in front of her. The flashlights from the other room were walleyed, one pointing toward the door, the other toward the wall. There was a suitcase opposite the door. Money spilled out onto the floor. Hundreds, just like she’d prayed for.
Lena two-handed the Glock. She wasn’t sweating anymore. She didn’t feel any fear. All extraneous thought left her mind. She counted out her steps—one, then two, then she was in the last room and pointing her gun at Sid Waller.
He had Keith in a choke hold, the muzzle of a Sig Sauer nine-millimeter jammed into the man’s neck. Mitch was flat on his back. His scalp was ripped open. Blood covered his face.
From the moment they put a gun in your hand at the academy, they taught you to always rest your finger on the trigger guard, never on the trigger. This gave your brain a few extra milliseconds to process what you were looking at, to tell whether or not you were drawing down on friend or foe. You never put your finger on the trigger unless you were ready to shoot someone.
Lena put her finger on the trigger.
“Get back,” Sid Waller ordered.
Lena shook her head. “No.”
He made a show of tightening his grip on the Sig. “I want a car. I want the road cleared.”
“You’re not getting anything.” Keith’s eyes went wide as Lena took another step closer. “Let him go.”
“Get a negotiator.”
“I’m your negotiator,” she told him. “Let him go or die.”
“Back up.” Waller jammed the Sig harder into Keith’s neck.
“I’ll do it.”
“Do it.” She took another step forward. There was no way in hell she was letting him take Keith out of this basement. “You’re gonna kill him either way. Do it now so I can go ahead and kill you.”
“I mean it.”
“So do I.”
Waller’s eyes turned jittery. This wasn’t the first time he’d stared down Lena, but it was the first time he’d done it with a gun pointed at his head. “You’re fucking crazy.”
“You’re fucking right.” Lena took another step forward. She felt numb, like she was watching someone else do this. A different woman held her Glock. A different woman stared down this murderer, this child rapist. “Put the gun down.”
Keith let out a sob. He whispered, “Please …”
Waller turned the Sig on Lena. “I’ll kill you, then. How about that?”
She glanced into the dark nothingness of the muzzle. “See if you make it up those stairs.”
“Back the fuck up!” Waller screamed, spit flying from his mouth. “I’ll do it!”
“Do it.” Lena was less than two feet away.
“Do it!” she screamed. “Pull the trigger, you fucking pussy!”
Waller’s hand moved quickly. There wasn’t even a blur. One second, the Sig was pointed at Lena, the next it was pressed to his
head. His finger jerked. There was a flash, and the side of his head exploded.
“Jesus Christ!” Keith slapped at the pieces of skull and brain that had sprayed his neck. “Christ!” He scrambled to get away, his feet sliding on the wet carpet.
Lena braced her hand against the wall. All the buzz left her body. “Check on Mitch.”
“Fuck!” Keith pushed himself up, stumbled from the room.
“Lee?” Paul trampled down the stairs, his voice filled with panic.
“Get the paramedics!” she shouted back. Lena knelt down beside Mitch, made sure he knew she was there. “Take it easy,” she managed. “We’re getting help.”
Mitch coughed. His chest heaved from the effort. His eyes were as wild as Keith’s.
“What the—” Paul took in the scene with visible shock. “What—” He didn’t say anything else, just kicked the gun out of Waller’s hand like a guy with half his head missing was still a threat.
DeShawn’s voice came from the other side of the basement. “Y’all okay?”
“We’re okay. Stay where you are.” Lena sat back on her heels, slid her Glock back into the holster. She told Paul, “Waller shot himself in the head.”
“No shit,” Paul said. “Mitch? Are you—”
“Get me outta here.” Mitch reached up, touched his fingers to the bare bone of his skull. He stared at Lena. She couldn’t read his expression. Either he was terrified or impressed. She still wasn’t sure when he told her, “You gotta fuckin’ death wish.”
“Come on.” Paul folded Mitch’s scalp back into place like it was a piece of cloth. “Can you stand up?”
Mitch tried, but Paul did most of the lifting, telling Lena, “Branson’s five minutes out.”
Lena felt something tickle her neck. She put her fingers to the spot and rubbed away the grit of Sid Waller’s brain. Flashlight beams came from the other end of the basement. Lena guessed most of the team had come down the stairs when they heard the gunshot.