Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: Karen Stillwater in Deadly Currents

KS 3-1

It was her first murder.

Detective Karen Stillwater knelt over the body of the young Black man lying in the street, his face turned upwards to the sky, his eyes wide, lips slightly parted as though bewildered by what had happened to him. His gray t-shirt had been dyed red from the three bullet-holes lined across his chest.

It was an ugly sight: tragic, senseless, and cruel. It made her feel queasy. But Karen couldn’t let anyone know that.

Be professional, she told herself. Do your job. Show them you can.

Methodically, without turning a hair, Karen studied the dead man, forcing herself to take in every detail. She looked closely at the wounds, examined his clothes, then checked his hands and his shoes.

She frowned and sat back on her heels, thinking.

“Well, Stillwater?” said Detective Larry Pallin, her new partner. “You done?”

“Yes,” she said, rising to her feet and letting the CSI guys get back to work. She put a hand under her chin, thinking.

“Not a pretty sight, is it?” said Pallin. “Third big shoot out this week, and always someone else getting hurt. Welcome to the big city.”

Karen looked from the dead man lying in the middle of the street to the second crime scene down at the corner, where Detectives Crane and Archer were dealing with the aftermath of the clash between the Gallano crime syndicate and the Mexican cartel. The two powerful crime gangs had been tearing up northern and eastern LA for as long as she’d been on the force, and the police were under more and more pressure to get a lid on things.

Well, she had wanted a challenge.

“You know,” Pallin went on. “You don’t have to go over every body with a fine-tooth comb, especially in a case like this where we know what happened. I know you’re trying to impress us city folk, but you’re overdoing it.”

Karen felt a surge of indignation at his patronizing tone, but didn’t show it. She didn’t like Pallin. He was a heavy-set man with bad skin and small, pig-like eyes; the kind of man she instinctively avoided most of the time. She suspected she’d be paired with him as a kind of hazing ritual; seeing whether the small-town cop could hold her own with the city guys. Well, the fact was that she could. At least, that’s what she told herself. In any case, she wasn’t going to let Detective Pallin spoil this opportunity for her. She pushed her feelings aside and focused on the matter at hand.

“Pallin, does anything strike you as strange about him?” she asked. She had a very unusual voice: low for a young woman, and with slight, but peculiar accent. The product of growing up with an English father and a Mexican mother.

Pallin looked at her and laughed.

“Oh, come on! Don’t try to make a mystery of it…”

“I’m serious,” she said. “Take a closer look.”

He sighed, then as though to humor her looked at the body.

“Nothing strange,” he said. “An unlucky kid walking down the street runs into a shoot-out, gets hit. Happens all the time.”

“Look at his hands, and his left knee,” she said. “They’re freshly scraped. Here!” she said, speaking aloud to the CSI guys. “Check the pavement between here and the curb; look for fibers and blood residue.”

“What are you talking about?” Pallin asked.

“That shows he stumbled,” she said. “Maybe tripped, maybe he was running.”

“Of course he was running; people were shooting half a block away.”

“Then why would he run out into the street?” she asked. She pointed at the sidewalk from which, judging by the position of the body, he must have come.

“There are plenty of places to take cover back there; he could have ducked into the doorway of the shop, or behind a car, or a few more feet he could have gone down an alleyway, instead he races out into the open so eagerly he falls and scraps his knee?”

Pallin looked from the body to the curb to Karen. He waved a hand as though trying to hold her off.

“No, you’re overthinking this,” he said.

“Then what would you say happened?” she said. “How do you account for those scrapes?”

“He could have gotten them earlier today,” he said.

“They look fresh to me,” she said. “Besides, that’s why I’m having them check the pavement. Anything?” she added, addressing the forensic guys.

“Little bit of blood here,” said one of them, pointing.

“Of course there’s blood; he got three 7.62 round through his chest! Look, Stillwater, you probably haven’t been around bodies a lot back in little old Springwood, but most of the time they’re pretty straightforward. This is not a mystery. The kid just got caught in the crossfire. Nothing to see.”

“Maybe that is what we’re meant to think,” she said, swallowing her irritation.

Pallin laughed again, and it took all of Karen’s self-control to maintain her outward calm. If she lost her temper, then they’d all say she couldn’t do this job. They’d call her overemotional and touchy and say she wasn’t cut out for the stress. Or if they didn’t, she herself would.

“What’s going on?” asked Detective Crane, drifting over to see how their branch of the scene looked. “You find anything?”

“Yes,” said Karen before Pallin could speak. “His hands and knee are scraped as if he tripped.”

Crane raised his eyebrows. He was a thirty-year veteran, solid and reliable. If he said there was nothing in it, Karen might decide he was right.

“What do you mean, tripped?” he said.

“Could have happened anywhere anytime,” said Pallin.

“I think,” said Karen, ignoring her partner. “That it shows he was running, running out into the street. Or else…” another idea had just struck her. “Or else that he was pushed.”

“Pushed?”

“Pushed into the line of fire,” she said.

“That’s ridiculous!” said Pallin.

“Does sound a little far-fetched,” said Crane, tapping his chin. “How long have been on the force, Stillwater?”

She sighed.

“About ten days.”

“Before that you were in…Springwood, isn’t it?”

“That’s right,” she said. She wanted badly to say that she had received many commendations in the Springwood PD, that she had been the youngest officer to be promoted to detective in that city’s history, that she’d had a nearly flawless record of solving crimes, even if she’d never had a murder before. But she held her tongue.

“Not a lot of murders there, I imagine.”

“No, sir,” she said. “This is my first. But,” she added, unable to help herself. “That doesn’t change the fact that this man fell to the ground and scrapped his hands and knee shortly before death. But, as far as I can see, that doesn’t fit with the idea that he was just casually crossing the street when he got caught in the crossfire, which is what Detective Pallin says must have happened.”

Crane examined the body, noting the scrapes.

“What do you think, Pallin?” he said.

“I think she’s making a lot out of nothing, sir.”

“Well, I don’t think it’s nothing,” he said, standing up. “All right, Stillwater, this is your rabbit; you chase it. Find out what you can about this guy, see if anyone might have a reason for wanting him out of the way, especially anyone connected with either gang.”

“Yes, sir,” she said, trying very hard not to show how thankful she was. Pallin rolled his eyes.

###

All her life, Karen Stillwater had wrestled with feelings of inadequacy. She didn’t think much of her own appearance; slender, medium height, black hair, dark eyes, nothing special there. She knew most people were smarter than she was, more talented, more athletically skilled. She had that odd voice and was overly emotional.

But, though she was, in her own estimation, unremarkable in every way, she did have a strong capacity for hard work. And so, ever since she was a girl, she’d thrown herself into mastering every challenge that came her way. She wasn’t especially smart, so she’d studied hard every night to maintain straight ‘A’s in school. She wasn’t naturally athletic, so she’d practiced relentlessly until she became captain of the school softball and soccer teams. And when she became a police officer, she’d worked unceasingly to master her job, to make detective, and then to get a job with the LAPD. Life, as far as Karen was concerned, was a series of challenges to be met and overcome through discipline and hard work.

This case was no different.

A little basic investigation revealed the dead man’s name was Rudy Moran, that he had no known living family, and that he worked down at a marina about two miles from where his body was found. Accounts from co-workers were that he was a nice kid who drove his boat well and was generally liked by the customers. Upon further inquiry and some careful guesswork, however, Karen learned that Moran had sometimes done work for a rather unsavory group of men, most of them Mexican, who sometimes hired him for jaunts at night, past the usual times the boats were supposed to be out.

“Rudy needed the money,” his friend Colin explained. “Only, I’m starting to think there must have been something wrong with the whole set up, because he seemed to be getting kind of depressed the last few days. Like, confused, you know? He kept saying like he wanted to get out of this job and do something else, but didn’t know what. I figured he was just getting restless, wanted to move on with his life.”

Karen noted this down carefully and after a little more questioning to ascertain a description of Moran’s unsavory business partners, she radioed it in and received word that the description fitted a gang of suspected low-level dealers who operated out of a crack house down by the LA river

So it was that a little before noon the day after Rudy Moran’s death, Karen Stillwater marched up to the dilapidated old house with her partner trailing reluctantly behind.

The house smelled bad; body-odor, vomit, blood, and urine in a repulsive cocktail of smells. As bad as the smell was the sound; profane rap music cranked obnoxiously loud. The door was opened by a tattooed youth with a shaved head and a mean eye. His first reaction on seeing Karen was to eagerly look over her body, until she held up her badge, whereupon he looked suddenly angry, almost affronted, as though she’d tricked him.

“LAPD,” Karen said in Spanish (she was fluent in the language, having grown up speaking Spanish and English interchangeably). “We have some questions.”

The man leaned against the doorframe, eying her with a predator’s gaze.

“Do you?” he said. “Why don’t you come in and ask them?”

He stood back and gestured at the interior. She could see several more young men, all looking at least as mean as her host, and all turning in her direction like dogs that had scented prey. She suddenly had the nasty impression that, for all she was a cop, she wasn’t the one in authority here.

“Think we can settle this here,” she said. “What can you tell me about Rudy Moran?”

The young man’s eyes flashed with surprise, then anger. Several of the others approached the door, looking at each other.

“Not a damn thing,” he said. “Never heard of him.”

The gang members drifted out onto the porch, fanning out, all looking at Karen like jackals circling a bit of carrion. Karen glanced back at Pallin, who stood behind her on the porch. She didn’t care to rely on him, but he seemed as alert as she could hope, one hand on his sidearm.

“Really?” said Karen, determined to maintain her poise. “Because I am told that you often hired him to take you out to sea at night.”

“We like the water,” said the man, grinning and showing his yellow teeth. “We like being wet.”

“Then you do admit to knowing him?” she said.

The gangster opened his mouth, the abruptly realized his crude comment had cost him his excuse. His face went from a leer to snarl with animal swiftness.

“What do you think you’re doing, girl cop?” he said. “You trying to trick us, are you?”

“You knew Rudy Moran. You paid him for the use of his boat after regular hours,” Karen said, her voice steady even as she tensed with alarm. One hand rested on her sidearm, the other on her chin as though in thought, but really ready to block in case he tried to swing at her.

“So what?” the man snarled.

“So he was killed last night under suspicious circumstances,” she said. “Where did you all happen to be last night?”

The gangster licked his lips and looked at the others. They seemed to waiting his signal, glaring at Karen with dangerous expressions.

“You got no right to ask that,” said the leader. “Now get out, bitch cop! Get out and don’t come back unless you want a hard greeting.”

Karen looked straight at him and raised her eyebrows in an expression of disdain.

“Very well,” she said. “If that’s how you want it.”

She backed away and she and Pallin descended the porch, careful not to turn their backs as they retreated. The gang memebers watched them go, then drifted back into the house.

“That was instructive,” said Pallin once they got back into the car. “What was he saying anyway?”

Karen, who was trying to quiet her nerves following the alarming scene, was unable to disguise a look of irritation. She drew a deep breath, then gave him a summary before adding, “You know, being a cop in LA, you really ought to learn Spanish.”

“Why do you think we hired you?” he said, taking out a cigarette. “Though if we knew what a pest you’d be…”

He trailed off, blew out a stream of smoke, and said, “So, since you’re apparently the expert now, what do you recommend we do?”

“I we report back to Crane, let him know what we found out,” she said. “I think it’s clear these guys are hiding something, so I’ll recommend returning with backup, possibly getting a search warrant. Then we’ll go from there.”

“Interesting,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I was just thinking, we don’t really have a lot to go on; only our own impressions, right? Impressions that these guys are clearly involved somehow.”

“What of it?”

He gestured at the house with his cigarette.

“They know we’re onto them now, right? And if they went through all that trouble to make Moran’s death look accidental, then they must be scared of something. They’ll figure something leaked and maybe try to find a way to plug the hole.”

“You mean…”

“I mean, if we keep our huevos on them, they might just give themselves away.”

Karen smiled. She couldn’t help it. She’d won Pallin over, and at the moment he didn’t seem quite so bad.

“I think you mean our ojos,” she said. “Eyes.”

“Oh, yeah?” he said. “What’d I say?”

“You said huevos. That means ‘eggs.’ Though it also can mean…something else.”

He glanced at her, and they both laughed.

The old house where the gang had its headquarters was separated from the river by a narrow lot that was in the process of being turned into a gas station. No one was working there today, and bits of equipment stood empty while the huge storage tanks remained half-buried in the earth. There were, however, still clumps of bushes by the riverside, from which they could watch the house without being easily seen themselves. In particular, they had a clear view of the rusty van parked behind the house. If the gang was going to go anywhere, they’d be using that.

They didn’t speak much as they watched the house, and the hours crawled by with agonizing slowness. Karen had been on stakeouts before, and she knew the boredom that came with them, though this was worse than usual as, despite their new-found understanding, she still didn’t really feel like talking to Pallin. The neighborhood around them was oddly quiet, apart from the blaring sounds coming from the crack house and the churning of the river behind them (they had had a wet summer and it was running unusually high). So, she ran her fingers over the rosary in her pocket, mentally reviewed all she could recall of the LA penal code, and watched the huge black storm clouds gathering around them.

“Looks like we’re in for quite a storm,” said Pallin after four hours of waiting with nothing better to comment on.

“That will complicate things,” said Karen. “Maybe we should call Crane to have someone else out here…”

“We’ll see it if they try to go anywhere,” he pointed out. “Don’t worry; a storm’d be as big a problem for them as it would be for us.”

Karen didn’t see it that way, but before she could argue the point Pallin opened the door.

“Gotta go take care of a little business,” he said. “Keep an eye on the place, will you?”

He climbed out and Karen couldn’t prevent herself from rolling her eyes. He hadn’t been gone more than a minute or two when the storm broke.

There was no drizzle or lead-in to the storm; it was as though a giant hand had turned over an enormous bucket in the sky, dumping torrents of huge drops upon Los Angeles. They had already had more rain than usual this year, and this storm was already promising to be a monster. The house was almost completely blocked from sight within moments, and the van was soon hidden in the mist and rain.

Swallowing her frustration at this turn of events, Karen tried to consider it calmly. The storm had been predicted on the morning weather report. You could see the cloud build up for hours. Obviously, the gang members in the house had known it was coming. Presumably, they had been waiting for it. It would give them the cover they needed to slip away unnoticed, despite Pallin’s assurances to the contrary. But that cover would work both ways.

She reached behind the seat for her poncho, pulled it over her head, and stepped out into the storm. The rain hit her like bullets, and she pulled the hood down low over her face. Hastily, she made her way around the edge of the construction site, keeping as much to the bushes as possible. She meant to find a spot where she could watch the car in the driveway.

Part way there, however, the heavy figure of Detective Pallin loomed suddenly into sight, his head bowed against the driving rain. They nearly ran into each other.

“Stillwater!” he exclaimed. “What are you doing out here?”

“Keep it down!” she snapped. “I can’t see from the car, so I’m going to watch from the bushes. I’ll radio you when they’re leaving, then you can follow them.”

He gave her an odd, frustrated look.

“No, you go back to the car: I’ll watch…” he said.

This was patently absurd.

“You don’t even have a poncho,” she said. “Anyway, what does it matter?”

He groaned, shaking his head in irritation.

“Damnit, Stillwater, you should have stayed in the car.”

With that, he reached for his gun.

Perhaps he was banking on surprise, or maybe he expected the small-town girl to be slow to react to danger. But Karen had put herself through rigorous defensive training, and as soon as she saw his hand going for his pistol, she reacted instinctively. They were only a few feet apart, and she closed the remaining distance with the speed of a striking snake, seized his wrist to keep the gun in the holster and drove her knee into his groin. He made a noise like a landed fish and sank to his knees, one hand clutching his crotch, his meaty face purple with pain. Karen tore the gun out of his limp grip and stepped back, aiming it at him.

“What,” she gasped. “Are you doing?”

He heaved a deep breath, gritted his teeth, and looked at her with fury.

“You think you’re so smart,” he gasped, speaking in fluent Spanish. “You figure it out.”

Karen’s heart was racing, but her mind was scrupulously clear. She began to put things in order. Moran had been involved with the Mexicans, helping them bring in their shipments. Colin had said he was getting uncomfortable with the job. He wanted out. He probably suspected that what he was doing was illegal, so he would naturally go to the police. He’d speak to a detective…someone like Pallin. Pallin, who had been so reluctant to admit there was anything wrong with the body, whom Moran might have trusted, and who therefore could have been in a perfect position to lure him into a trap. Why? Because he were on the same payroll as the thugs in the house.

“You’re under arrest,” she said.

“Don’t bet on it,” he grinned.

Karen sensed movement to her right. She turned, saw two of the gang members heading toward her out of the storm, weapons in hand. She turned and fired, dropping them in three quick shots. She turned back to Pallin, but he was already up and on her, his huge arms encircling her slender body, pinning her arms to her side. She kicked out, but he’d learned his lesson and blocked his groin with his knee. He fumbled for the gun, trying to make her drop it. It fell from her grip onto the muddy ground, and she kicked it as hard as she could before he could grab it, sending the gun flying off into the storm. She still had her own weapon holstered by her side.

Pallin realized this too, for he suddenly released her and grabbed at her pistol. She caught his wrist as he drew it from her holster, twisting it hard. He was much stronger than she was, but with the right leverage, that didn’t matter. He yelled in pain, and the gun slipped from his grasp. Elbowing him in the face, she dove for the weapon, caught it up from the ground, but slipped in the mud as she tried to rise. Pallin caught her wrist and wrenched it hard. The gun flew from her grasp and went spinning out of sight.

Karen used a reversing technique to break his hold, but with both guns lost she was at a disadvantage. She thought she was likely the more skilled fighter, but Pallin had several times her body mass, and that, she knew, counted for much more in the end. Her best option was to get out of there and call for backup.

With that in mind, she turned and ran. She would be faster than he was, she didn’t doubt it. With the driving rain, she could easily evade him, find a place to radio headquarters.

Karen was not a girl who normally forgot important details. She had a gift for noting and retaining vital information regarding the world around her, which was one of the things that made her a much better cop than she herself would admit. But, in this case, she did forget one very pertinent detail; that they were in a construction site.

She hadn’t gone more than ten paces, when the ground seemed suddenly to give way beneath her. She pitched forward, her knees landing hard on the smooth metal surface of one of the underground storage tanks that had not yet been fully buried. She scrambled to rise, but as she did so, Pallin caught up to her. He shoved her back down, then pulled open the lid of the tank. As she struggled to rise again, slipping on the smooth wet surface, he wrapped his powerful arms around him, lifted her kicking and screaming into the air, and dropped her straight down into tank itself.

The tank was huge; at least six feet around, and already the bottom was covered in rainwater. Karen landed hard on the curved inner surface, falling onto her behind. As she staggered to her feet, a heavy piece of rebar was jammed across the top of the opening, while at the same time the lid was closed over it, leaving about three inches through which rainwater continued to pour in.

Karen jumped up, caught the edge of the opening, and tried to push the lid up. But it wouldn’t budge. On closer examination, she saw that the rebar had been jammed through the gap between the lid and its hinges, meaning that the bar blocked the lid from opening further, while the lid held the bar in place. It would probably be possible to dislodge it by hand, but not from her position.

She dropped back down into the tank, just as Pallin spoke into the gap.

“Can you hear me, Stillwater? This would have been so much easier if you’d just sat in the car. Then when I shot you it would have just looked like the gang had gotten the drop on you. I don’t know what they’ll think now, but by then I’ll be long gone, and so will you. Oh, look at that!” he added with a cruel laugh. “The river’s starting to overflow! Don’t see that very often. Enjoy your swim, Stillwater.”

Momentarily losing control, Karen shrieked a curse at him as he walked off, still laughing.

The water was rushing in at a frightening rate. This was a once-a-decade kind of storm. The heavens were throwing gallons upon gallons of water at the Earth, as though God were again seeking to drown all life. The filthy water surged about Karen’s knees as she paced anxiously across the bottom of the tank, trying to think of a way out. She couldn’t dislodge the jammed rebar, and she couldn’t open the tank without removing it. Her radio, she found, had been knocked free during the struggle.

The water rose about her thighs, and still nothing was occurring to her. The bundle of nerves that was always present in her heart, but usually kept quiet was beginning to quicken. But she still had time. Time to think…

Then more than rainwater began to flow in. The stream became an onrushing flood, and the water seemed to leap up about her body. She knew at once what had happened: the river had indeed overflowed its banks under the downpour and now was beginning to flow across the construction site into the tank.

The water climbed to her waist within minutes and mounted still higher.

“Help!” Karen shouted, panicking at last. She grabbed the edge of the tank and got as close to the opening as she could without putting her face into the onrushing water. “Hello! Can anyone hear me? I’m trapped! Help me!

No one came. No one could hear her over the rushing water, the pouring rain, and the thunder rumbling overhead. She kicked frantically, trying to propel herself higher. The tank was better than half full already and climbing rapidly, and still there was no way out.

Karen had considered that she might die in the line of duty, but she’d never expected an end like this. It seemed wrong, somehow: unfair. To be trapped, helpless, and have to watch her own doom rising about her was not how a policewoman should die.

If only she’d been smarter! If only she’d noticed the signs of Pallin’s duplicity sooner. If she were as clever as she pretended to be, she wouldn’t be about to die like this…

Get a grip on yourself! She thought in sudden fury. You are not stupid, and you are not helpless! Just calm down and think!

Holding onto the edge of the tank, the water climbing up her torso, Karen drew a deep breath of damp, stale air and willed herself to be calm. This was only another challenge, like any other: how does one escape an underground tank that is rapidly filling with water?

The only way out was the hatch. The hatch was jammed. So, she had to remove the jam. Half hanging, half floating, the onrushing water pouring over her head and shoulders, Karen grabbed the bit of rebar and tugged. It was wedged into the latch mechanism; the lid was holding it in place.

So, she had to take some of the pressure off of the latch.

Karen transferred her grip from the edge of the tank wall to the lid itself. The water was now past her chest; if she were still standing on the bottom of the tank it would have been over her head. But the rising water level was a help in a way; it made her buoyant and gave her easier leverage to attack the jammed rebar.

Holding onto the edge of the lid with her left hand, Karen gripped the rebar and pulled. It didn’t budge. She braced one knee against the side of the conical entrance and pulled again. This time it yielded a little, just a little, but enough to convince her its removal was possible.

Only she was rapidly running out of the time. The water was about her throat now, her black hair was floating about her face in a dark halo. She tugged hard and the rebar gave another inch. She spat out a stream of water and pulled again, and it gave a little more.

With terrifying swiftness, the waters rose past her face, and Karen abruptly found herself submerged. Terror bubbled up in her chest, but she couldn’t lose control now, not now of all times. She let go of the lid entirely, gripped the rebar in both hands, braced her feet against the side of the tank and tugged with all her might. The bar gave several inches more, but in the churning, filthy water she couldn’t see how much there was to go.

Karen’s lungs were aching. She was fading fast. She had maybe seconds left before she blacked out. She braced herself and gave one last tug with all her might, and felt the end of the bar come free.

Kicking her legs, feeling as though her lungs were ready to burst, Karen kicked upwards, caught the edge of the tank with one hand, then pushed the lid back with the other, pulling herself up…

Her head broke the surface and she inhaled a great lungful of soggy air. She cough, retched, and pulled herself away from the tank, into the six-inch-deep sheet of water that now covered the entire lot and was spilling over the road. Her arms were sore from the tremendous effort she’d just exerted, and she felt weak and sick.

Crawling, she made her way to the pavement, feeling like a drowned rat. She staggered to her feet, still gulping air as though she could never have enough. She was trembling all over, the terrible thought of just how close she’d come to death pounding on her mind’s door, demanding to be heard.

But she didn’t have time for that. She still had work to do.

Taking one more deep, shuddering breath to steady herself, Karen thrust aside all consideration of what she’d escaped and focused on a single idea: get to a phone. Don’t let Pallin get away.

Moving as fast as her wobbly legs would take her, Karen set off down the road in search of a payphone. She hardly noticed the downpour anymore; she was already as soaked as she could get. All her mind was on this one object.

It seemed to take a long time, but at last, a few blocks from the flooded construction site, she found a phone booth, fumbled a few waterlogged coins out of her pocket and dialed Detective Crane’s number.

“Stillwater?” he said in surprised upon hearing her voice. “What are you…”

“Listen,” she said, interrupting him. “There’s not much time; we might be too late already.”

Hastily, she laid out everything that had happened and what she had deduced of Pallin’s treason. Crane listened with shock.

“I can’t believe this,” he said. “He’s been with the department for almost ten years; we’ve never…”

“Well, that’s over now,” said Karen. Between her impatience to be after Pallin and her recent near-death experience, her self-control was being pushed to the breaking point. “I am telling you, he is in the pay of the cartel and he has already tried to murder me twice. You have to get after him now, or he will be gone!”

“What direction did he go?”

Karen heisted. She really didn’t know. But if her judgment was correct…

“The marina,” she said. “He’s going to take a boat to Mexico. Tonight.”

“In this storm?”

“Perfect cover; no one else will be out. No one will see him go.”

“And he’s liable to drown himself,” Crane muttered. “All right; I’m on my way there. Where are you?”

She gave her location.

“All right; I’ll send a car to take you back to the station…”

“No!” she said. “I want to be there when you get him.”

He groaned.

“I’m getting really tired of girls with pluck,” he said. “Fine; I’ll have them bring you to the docks, and we’ll see if you get there in time.”

He hung up. Karen leaned against the wall of the phone booth, shivering a little. She was just realizing how chilly the rain was. She hugged herself tightly, hunched her shoulders, and watched for her ride.

While she waited, her natural insecurities began to reassert themselves: had she guessed right? What if Pallin was making for the border in a car? They might lose precious hours and he might get away. Then it would be her fault.

She tried to push the thoughts aside, but it wasn’t as easy this time as it usually was. The terrifying experience in the tank had left her more shaken than she would care to admit. Her emotions were pressing against her mind, demanding to be let out. But she couldn’t let go yet. Not yet.

At last the promised patrol car arrived and she got in behind the driver seat.

“Get to the marina,” she ordered to the two patrolmen. “Fast!”

They stared at her for a moment, no doubt shocked by her waterlogged appearance, but they obeyed. Karen brushed her soaking wet hair out of her face and was dismayed to see her hand was trembling violently.

“And I will need one of your side arms,” she added.

Again, the trip seemed to take too long. Surely Pallin would have had time to escape by now, and in this storm even the coast guard probably wouldn’t be able to catch him.

Calm down, she ordered herself. Keep a grip on yourself.

They arrived at last. Crane and Archer’s car was already there. So was Pallin’s. She’d guessed right, but were they in time? Karen leapt out of the squad car and hurried onto the docks. The sea was crashing against the shore, causing the moored ships to buckle and surge, along with the floating piers. Lightning flashed overhead and thunder pealed, but beyond that Karen thought she heard something else: something not unlike thunder.

Gunshots.

Staying low, holding the borrowed pistol high and ready, Karen proceeded along the dock, her eyes peeled for movement. Suddenly, a heavy figure appeared running up the pier towards her. She was behind a piling; he didn’t see her. Karen rose, aiming at him.

“Don’t move!” she shouted. “Drop it, or I’ll drop you!”

Pallin froze, staring through the rain at the soaking wet apparition of his former partner.

“But…but you’re…”

“Drop it!”

He obeyed. The sight of her had broken the last of his resistance. A moment later, Crane came running behind him, cuffs in hand. As he apprehended the dirty cop, he looked at the young small-town detective and laughed.

“Good work, Stillwater,” he said.

Karen lowered her pistol and let out a deep sigh of relief.

###

They were back at headquarters. Pallin, along with the surviving gang members from the drug house, had just been booked and Karen had sworn out her statement against him.

She had learned that Archer was hit in the shootout; Pallin had gotten him in the hip. Fortunately he wasn’t in any serious danger, but it did mean he’d be out of commission for a while.

The paperwork on this was going to be a nightmare, but for now Crane had insisted on treating her to some of the brown sludge that passed for coffee around there.

“This is getting out of hand,” said Crane in a low voice, sitting next to her on a bench in the hallway and eying the cops going to and fro with an uneasy expression. “Bad enough these gangs are turning parts of LA into Juarez, but now they’re getting cops on their side. Cops I would have thought untouchable.”

“We’ll get them,” she said. “It isn’t the first time the LAPD has had to deal with this sort of thing, right?”

“Mm,” Crane said in a dubious tone. “I’m not sure. There’s something different about it this time. Even for a crime syndicate, Gallano seems to have too much money; too many connections. Same with the Mexicans. And despite all the blood and shooting, this is the first real arrest we’ve had in the case. I can’t figure it; it’s as if…as if there’s more going on. More that we can’t see.”

Karen looked at him in surprise and some alarm.

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know. That’s the trouble.” He sighed and gulped his coffee. “Time will tell, I guess. Always does.”

The old man looked at the girl. He suddenly smiled.

“You know,” he said. “Times like this you appreciate having a good cop to back you up. I’m lucky in that I got one for my partner, but thanks to this business Archer’s gonna be out of it for a while. So, looks to me like we’re both in the market for backup, so to speak.. What would you think of going into it together, at least until this mess is settled?”

A smile pulled at the corners of Karen’s mouth. She fought to keep it down.

“I would appreciate that,” she said. “Thank you for the opportunity.”

“Good,” he said, shaking hands. “Now, since I’m your partner, I can take car of your paperwork. You go home and get some rest.”

“No, I’m fine…”

“Karen,” he said, in an unexpectedly gentle voice. “I’ve been doing this job for nearly thirty years; I’ve seen cops like you before, trying to keep yourself completely in control all the time. After a day like this, if you don’t take some time to rest and let all that inner turmoil out, you’re going to snap like a bowstring. And like I just said, we need cops like you.”

The last thing Karen wanted was to show how badly she had wanted this. So, using up the very last of her self-control, she simply smiled, thanked him politely, and walked out of the station.

The storm was still going when she reached her car. Karen was glad of that. For, with the rain still pouring down, no one would be able to see her when she finally permitted herself to let go.

 

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