Chapter Fifteen

I am but a poor tortoise, plodding along with this little story. I do not know who the hare is in this metaphor.

-x-x-x-x-

Lassiter rode in grim silence, the blue strobe of his portable police siren spraying flashes of light on the road around him. An ice-cold anger pooled in his belly, and the chill of it helped him compose his thoughts, focus his energy. Spencer had given him an address in an industrial district that he knew to be practically abandoned at this time of night and, worse, he knew that O'Hara would have known that, too. If she'd gone into a dangerous situation without backup…

He shook his head. O'Hara wasn't stupid. Sure, she listened to the fake psychic far more often than she should, and even followed his harebrained theories sometimes, but she wasn't foolish enough to stumble into anything truly life-threatening by herself. Right?

Lassiter pressed harder on the accelerator, revving past a hatchback dawdling by the library.

He'd left Deborah with a rushed apology, pausing only long enough to pull out a small stack of twenties from his wallet, which he dropped unceremoniously on the table. Then he ducked out, realizing that, with this departure, whatever relationship he might have had with her was certainly over.

It was just as well – better to end now than for them to exchange awkward messages over the next few weeks before they let things fizzle out. Because Lassiter had expected this outcome all along, he couldn't even dredge up any bad feelings about it.

He calmed himself by the time he reached the warehouse, but felt his ire rise again immediately when he noticed Spencer and Guster standing at the curb, waving. Looking worried but still far too casual for the situation, that of his partner in peril. He parked at an oblique angle, leaving the light flashing, and got out of the car. "Where's the patrol unit?" he called. His voice was probably louder than necessary considering they stood only a few feet away.

They looked confused. "What patrol unit?" Gus asked.

Lassiter tried to keep himself from shouting. "You didn't call the station for backup?" he asked, teeth clenched.

"You're the backup!" Shawn cried. Up close, his eyes looked wilder than usual, panic still evident in his manner. For once, it seemed, he actually understood the gravity of the situation he'd placed them in.

Lassiter advanced on him slowly, taking perverse pleasure in the obvious intimidation caused by his height advantage over Spencer. Shawn allowed himself to be steered backward, step by step, to the brick exterior of the warehouse.

"How long has she been inside?" he asked quietly.

Shawn glanced past his shoulder, toward Gus. The latter answered for him. "About twenty minutes."

"And have you tried calling O'Hara?" His voice still low, threatening, like a cobra waiting to strike.

Shawn swallowed. "We didn't want to give away her position."

Lassiter refused to acknowledge the reasonableness of this decision. "Did she try calling you?"

He shook his head.

A lot could happen in twenty minutes, Lassiter thought. It was a big warehouse. Just finding her way through to another exit – after a thorough search, as he knew she'd do – could take some time. But no check-in call, to them or to Lassiter? He didn't like that.

"Oh, come on, Lassie," Shawn said abruptly, frustrated. "We caught the guy. What more do you want from us?"

Lassiter fixed his eyes on Shawn's, and something in his expression must have quashed Spencer's insouciance. "Capture usually implies resolution. Success," he said shortly. "All you've done is drag O'Hara into another of your obnoxious misadventures, preying on her inability to see through your bullshit."

"Shawn, I think you should tell him." Gus sounded cautious yet firm, and Lassiter unleashed his full-strength interrogation glare, trying to determine what else they might be hiding from him.

Shawn glanced over at Gus again, aggravated and apparently deliberating whether to share his next piece of information. "We did hear a loud crash come from inside a few minutes ago."

Before he realized it, Lassiter had Spencer by the throat, lifting him ever so slightly off the ground. His sneakers scrabbled at the pavement, attempting to find purchase. As he contemplated how much effort it might take to bust through the wall using Spencer's body, Lassiter dimly heard his name. It was Guster, frantically begging him to stop, and he forced himself to loosen his grip. Panting, he tried to regain control of himself. "If you get my partner killed, I swear to God…" He left the threat unfinished, having made his point clear enough already.

Shawn took a moment to catch his breath, coughing weakly. Finally, he said, "Relax, man. We don't want her to get hurt any more than you do." He looked up. "That's why we called you, remember? So you can do your manly cop-hero thing and tackle this guy?"

Lassiter looked back at Gus, who lifted his arms in a sort of mimed wrestling move.

He sighed and walked back to his car, popping the trunk. There wasn't much inside – a duffel bag packed with some basic supplies, a baseball mitt for their department softball league (no bat, alas), and… yes.

His hand finally settled on what he was searching for, the cool metal of a crowbar. He pulled it out, testing its heft with a few taps on the palm of his left hand. That settled, he called the station and requested a patrol car to investigate a disturbance, opting not to mention that the most disturbing part so far was the annoying psychic fidgeting nearby.

Satisfied, he followed Shawn and Gus over to the door through which they said O'Hara had entered the building. Lassiter studied the door, methodically searching for a weak spot. Sturdy metal, opening mechanism on the inside. There was no place for a crowbar to find purchase, and certainly no way to enter without creating a ruckus. He moved on to the loading dock door, lifting the handle to confirm that it was secured. Probably mechanized, too, so not an easy point of entry even if it were by some miracle unlocked.

His thoughts returned to O'Hara. Why didn't she call him? Granted, he'd have been pissed if she had interrupted his date to chase after a Spencer hunch. But she wouldn't have known he was on a date, since he hadn't mentioned it to her. Honestly, he'd have assumed that O'Hara would be the one out with company on a weekend night. So why was she wandering alone in a derelict warehouse in the middle of nowhere?

A good partnership promised that you'd never find yourself in such a situation without backup. Even as Lassiter was irritated at O'Hara for flouting basic protocol, he worried that this was a symptom of a larger problem. Her problem with their partnership.

Was this his payback for giving her the impression that he didn't trust her? Of course he trusted her implicitly in any police activity – it was just in his personal life he felt a little cagey about her.

For God's sake, he'd tried to explain it to her in the car on that stakeout – a night that felt like it was months in the past but was only just over a week ago. It was better for partners not to get too involved personally; he knew this from experience yet couldn't explain it to O'Hara then without revealing some uncomfortable truths about himself. Truths that he'd eventually copped to regardless.

Now she'd run off half-cocked without Lassiter at her side. It wasn't that he saw himself as her protector or anything absurd like that. No, she was as likely to have his back as he hers – that was the whole point of a partnership. He liked it that way, knowing she would be at his side and understand what he was thinking exactly as he thought it, because she was thinking the same.

Lost in his thoughts, Lassiter circled around to the front of the building, finding a glass-paned storefront partially concealed behind a rolling metal grate. A quick survey proved the grate was sealed shut, held in place by a padlock at shin level. He studied the window decals, peeling but still legible. Some kind of auto parts depot, from the look of it, long closed.

Dimly, he noticed Shawn and Gus trailing him, watching his every move. Shawn seemed especially jittery.

"Lassie, what are you waiting for?" he said, nodding at the door.

He turned fully to face them. Both appeared to be sweating, and the fact that they were quieter than usual suggested they were taking things seriously for once. "What do you mean, what am I waiting for?"

Gus gestured toward the crowbar in his hand. "Aren't you going to open the door?"

"For that matter, don't the police have battering rams?"

"They definitely have battering rams."

"Dude, do you think it's named after rams like the sheep?"

"Shawn, obviously it's named after the sheep."

"Wouldn't it be cool if there were official police sheep they could use to bust down doors? Like the K-9 patrol, but sheep?"

"Right. Like Turner and Hooch, except Hooch is a bighorn sheep."

"Of course, that would make me Tom Hanks."

"Or more like K-9, except you're Jim Belushi."

"Gus, that still makes you the dog."

Lassiter let his gaze move slowly back and forth between them. "Are you done?"

Still bickering, reduced to clicking noises, the boys took a moment to redirect their attention to Lassiter.

Lassiter sighed. "In case you haven't noticed, I'm off duty. That means no equipment: no Kevlar vests, no handcuffs, and no service weapon. I'd be just as much good to her right now as you two." He paused. "Well, not that bad. But I'm confident O'Hara can handle herself just fine."

Except that wasn't really true, was it? Lassiter had been resisting his first instinct, to blast through whatever entrance he could, guns blazing, to retrieve his partner. His training, however, warned him against such a rash move. Instead, he would evaluate the situation, and wait for the backup that O'Hara had missed.

Shawn bounced on the spot, anxious again. "But Jules has been in there forever. What if she's injured?"

Lassiter had been trying to keep that thought out of his head. "We'll assess appropriate action steps as soon as the responding officers arrive."

Suddenly, Shawn's body jolted, and he half-collapsed, bringing one hand to his ear, two fingers pressed to his temple. "I'm sensing he has a gun!"

Despite his general tendency to ignore Spencer's fits of mania, Lassiter stepped forward, grabbing him by the shoulder. "You sense or you know?"

Shawn looked up, alarmed, and it took Lassiter a moment to realize that he was holding the crowbar aloft in what might be described as a threatening manner. Slowly, he lowered his arm. "I… think," Shawn said.

Lassiter studied him, trying to decide what to do with this information. Shawn was still watching the crowbar warily. Lassiter abruptly turned away, pacing away from the grated storefront and back again. It was bad enough O'Hara was in danger; he didn't need to deal with a distraction like Spencer at the same time. Could he rely on whatever bizarre information he had to share, from whatever fever dream served as his information source?

He stopped pacing just as suddenly as he'd started. "Why here?"

Shawn and Gus resumed arguing with each other in another wordless exchange. "All right!" Shawn exclaimed, apparently after losing the argument. "The ex – "

"Steve Pollack," Gus supplied.

" – tried to get access to Anita at the hospital, probably to finish her off, but she was already gone. He knows he's in trouble, so he's been hiding out in here." Hand to his temple again, back with the schtick. "I'm sensing he had a job nearby, so he knew which building was vacant."

Lassiter waited. "The gun?"

Shawn hesitated. "Well, wouldn't you find a gun if your first attempt failed?"

Weak rationalization, and both he and Lassiter knew it. Whatever knowledge he was privy to, he wasn't going to share it, and Lassiter hoped that it wouldn't get any of them killed.

Shawn's eyes zeroed in on the crowbar again, as if he wanted to take it out of Lassiter's hand or at least distract from the question. "Do you think you're gonna hunt a crow with that?" he asked, but looked too nervous for the joke to land.

Lassiter lifted it again menacingly. "If you're not careful, you'll be eating it before the night's out."

Normally, O'Hara would be around to catch him from acting on his more violent impulses when it came to Spencer. He checked his watch: though it felt like an eternity, only five minutes had passed since his call to the station. Still, plenty of time for a uniform to show up. He'd have to have a word with the operator about priorities later.

He stalked past Shawn and Gus, who shied well out of range, to stop at the metal grating again.

Sidling up next to him, Shawn tried another tact, feigning a conspiratorial manner. "Look, Lassie. Jules told me you guys were fighting about something. But don't worry – I'm sure she didn't charge in there because she was trying to show you up or anything."

He broke off suddenly as Lassiter snapped his head around, stricken.

But before he had a chance to react, a gunshot echoed somewhere around them. He knew immediately that the weapon that fired the shot was not O'Hara's.

Almost instinctively, he aimed the crowbar at the padlock securing the gate and swept his hand down. The lock snapped open, and he yanked it off. Then he pulled the grate up until it rolled into place above, heedless of the noise. He wanted whoever was inside to know he was on his way. After a quick check to ensure the front door wasn't already unlocked, he landed another blow in the bottom half of the glass door, sweeping the crowbar across to clear the glass fragments.

Grim, he turned back to Shawn and Gus, who had backed away from the flying glass and swinging crowbar. "Stay here," Lassiter ordered, and for once, he felt confident there would be no argument from Spencer. "When the patrol car arrives, tell them I need a full assault team on standby." Lassiter knelt to retrieve the .22 holstered at his ankle.

Shawn's mouth gaped open. "I thought you said you didn't have a weapon!"

Lassiter glanced down. "This little thing? Hardly counts." Without another word, he folded himself under the door's crossbar and climbed into the entryway.

Pausing a moment to allow his eyes to adjust to the dim lighting, Lassiter surveyed the foyer. If the shop had closed down, the equipment hadn't been removed: the front counter and base to a cash register still stood against the far wall, and several racks, emptied of merchandise, were planted around the store. The front section was unremarkable, and Lassiter found a side hallway that led back to the area O'Hara would have accessed through the rear door.

As he swept through the hallway, he listened for any voices or movement, but heard nothing. He tried to convince himself that the silence didn't mean what he feared it meant.

Lassiter reached the rear of the building, the warehouse proper, immediately noting a sleeping bag unfurled in a corner beside a lit camping lantern. The light faintly illuminated the loading zone, where a stack of pallets had spilled, half-splintered, across the floor. Beyond it, rows of steel racks stood in a line, once used for staging shipments. Most were empty now; some held an assortment of dirty wooden crates. One line of racks had been toppled domino-style, as if pushed from the far end. Lassiter caught sight of a rusty wrench and other abandoned tools strewn across the floor. Signs of a struggle, but no sign of a body.

Off to the right, he noticed the red glow of an Exit sign hovering above a fire door, propped open. As he approached, he saw that the doorway led to a stairwell. Satisfied that the loading zone was clear, he moved quietly up the stairs.

The door leading to the second floor was closed and too thick to hear through, and Lassiter hesitated. He could see the steps led upward to a third floor, but no farther. The wisest move was still to retreat and wait for reinforcements, but he'd already ignored protocol. He wouldn't stand idle while his partner might lie bleeding out somewhere in the building.

Lassiter opened the door.

The sound of it echoed down the hallway. Upstairs, the space was split up into offices around the perimeter, with an open central area cordoned off by three-quarter-height walls. It almost had the air of an artist's studio. Emergency lighting along the ceiling kept the hall illuminated at regular intervals, while remaining dark enough to conceal movement.

He listened for a moment, then picked a direction.

It didn't take long for his hunt to pay off – he heard a voice, deep and harsh, slightly muffled by the material of the cordon. Lassiter lifted his sidearm and strafed along the hallway, angling around the corner.

O'Hara was backed into the corner, against a table and partially shielded by some large metal contraption, her gun raised at a dark-haired figure, who in turn fixed a gun on her. She looked determined, and Lassiter felt a swelling of pride that his partner had long ago overcome the anxiety she felt in high-stress encounters such as this one.

As if she'd sensed his relief, she glanced up at Lassiter then, and the tension in her face settled, and though the situation still looked dire, he knew that they would be all right.