Without a badge to hide behind any longer, he enlists the help of his drug-addict drummer Marco to help him solve the crime. Over the course of ten days, they survive vicious beatings, car chases, love triangles, kidnapping, and betrayal on Salem’s road to self-discovery.
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Old people slip and fall in the shower all the time.
The front door and windows of the small beachfront bungalow were all locked, but the kitchen door was propped open for the cat. The refrigerator was more of an icebox, and the stove had the sturdy feel of postwar American industrialism. It was charming, in a way, despite the paint chipping from the cabinets and the stained counters. The built-in shelves and breakfast nook would be a big selling point once they were updated. A lot of work had to be done and time was running out.
The boxy tube TV was the centerpiece of the living room, which also included an avocado-green sofa, spindly wooden coffee table, and matching end table. A colorful throw blanket that was laid carefully across the rocking chair looked like it had been crocheted by hand. There was a curio in one corner bursting with decorative plates and figurines. A pendulum swung silently behind glass in the mounted wall clock. Some of this stuff might actually be worth a few dollars to one of the local antique shops once the place was cleared out. But somebody else could worry about that.
The hallway was lined with framed pictures from the sixties, seventies, and eighties. Faded Little League teams and family vacations, mostly, mixed in with more recent weddings, graduations, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. It was hard not to linger and ponder how such a long life could be summed up in a few feet of paneled wall. A couple of unremarkable bedrooms on the right and left were the last stop before the single bathroom. The door creaked as it swung open, releasing a puff of steam from the shower.
It was disappointing to see that the bathroom needed updating as well, but no real surprise. People learn to put up with a lot of small imperfections when they lived in the same house for decades. The location is the important thing.
One last check of the rubber gloves and a yank on the rattling shower curtain. Some of them dropped dead from the shock alone. Others required a little more coaxing out of this world.
It was all so familiar now. The wrinkled body. The shower rail screwed into the old tile. A look of resignation and horror.
Don't over think it.
Just grab the wet, gray hair and bring the skull against the tiles in a single, fluid motion. You only get one chance.
Nobody slips and falls twice.
Then let the water keep running while the moans slowly fade.
The plausibility of the accident was worth a little water damage, hard as it was to watch.
Greg Salem was a long way from the beach. Thin streams of sweat raced from his short, blond curls and down his neck. The tips of the tattoos that covered his back and chest poked up just above his collar, like the tentacles of a giant squid. His hands shook as he forced a clip into the Glock. It was almost impossible to concentrate over the sound of the woman shrieking, but the sickening silence that followed was worse. Greg tensed and waited for the shooting to start.
His partner was a rookie — so new to the force that they'd only met that day. The third partner he'd had in as many months. The last one left the force to become a private security guard for some Hollywood starlet. Greg didn't keep in touch with any of them.
The rookie was pressed against the hallway wall making ridiculous hand signals that he must have memorized at the academy. Greg winced. Some part of him still hated taking orders from cops, even though he'd been one himself for a decade.
The sleeve of his partner's nylon jacket made a soft scratching sound as he motioned. The high-pitched ringing in Greg's left ear drowned it out. Tinnitus was a dubious badge of honor from years touring the punk rock circuit. It only got worse when his heart raced.
Greg swung into the hall, lifted his foot, and kicked hard with the sole of his boot. The door split away from the jamb, spraying splinters. His partner slipped into the apartment ahead of him, waving his gun from side to side. A bedroom door slammed shut on the far side of the living room. The woman began shrieking again, louder this time, like a caged animal. Greg followed his partner deeper inside.
They split up — Greg securing the kitchen while his partner checked the closets. The coast was clear, leaving only the bedroom. The two officers edged toward the door slowly. Tense moments ticked by. The shrieking was replaced by muffled sobbing. His partner checked the doorknob. Unlocked.
Greg turned the knob and let the door creak open. The officers waited for any sign of movement. There was only stillness and a faint humming sound. They traded looks, silently daring each other to go first.
Greg always thought of his brother Tim in situations like this, when everything was on the line and there was only one person in the world to rely on. Whatever was waiting for them inside that room, he knew it wasn't going to be his brother. He closed his eyes and tried to clear his thoughts before entering.
A middle-aged woman sat tied to a chair, tears streaming down her round cheeks. Balled-up socks were lodged in her mouth and held in place by a pair of nylons tied around the back of her head. She watched the two men with terror in her eyes. Her panties were down around her ankles and she was shifting in her seat in a vain attempt to edge the hem of her skirt forward. An oscillating fan was behind her, mindlessly scanning the room and ruffling the curtains around the open window.
His partner untied her while Greg made sure the room was clear. The woman collapsed into his partner's arms, never taking her eyes off Greg's Glock.
"No more guns, please ..."
Greg was turning back to check on her when he saw something move outside the window. He spun around with his gun leveled. The suspect dropped to the street from a drainpipe that ran vertically along the corner of the building. Greg ran out the apartment door, taking the stairs two at a time. He looked up at the bedroom window to get his bearings and then started off down the street at a sprint.
He was almost forty years old, but still pretty fast thanks to all those early-morning runs on the beach. The sidewalks were mostly empty, except for the occasional warehouse worker wheeling dollies full of boxes between buildings. He bounded at full speed from block to block, looking for the blue baseball cap and white T-shirt. The plastic sheath that held his badge swung from the string around his neck and banged into his chest.
The blocks passed by in a blur. His lungs burned from the suffocating industrial air, so he stopped to catch his breath. He was bent over with his hands on his knees when a blue-and-white streak flashed between two slow-moving busses across the street. He ran out into the light weekend traffic, narrowly dodging trucks as he crossed. He kept his eyes focused on the blue cap bouncing in the distance a few blocks ahead of him, and watched as it vanished between two buildings. Greg used his last burst of energy and rounded the corner into the small service alley, several agonizing moments later.
The kid in the blue cap stood on top of a Dumpster, trying to climb into a second-story window that was just out of reach. Greg pointed his weapon and shouted, "Stop! Police!" The kid half looked over his shoulder in disbelief while groping for the sill. Greg repeated his warning, motioning with the Glock toward the ground with a series of exaggerated gestures. The kid's hands slowly left the wall as he raised them up above his head in a practiced motion.
Greg acknowledged his surrender. He gestured for him to climb down off the dumpster. The kid reached the ground and spun to face his captor. Greg watched the fear flicker in his eyes as they darted from side to side, desperately searching for an escape route. Greg planted his feet and leveled his weapon at the kid's chest to discourage him from making another run for it.
Moments passed. Greg inched forward, closing the distance between them. The kid looked young, not much older than his friend Junior's son. He was halfway there when the kid reached into his waistband, bringing his hands up in front of him.
Greg had practiced for this. He instinctively squeezed off two shots, the first he ever fired in the line of duty. A deafening sound echoed off of the tall brick walls surrounding them. A black object flew from the kid's hand and spiraled up into the air before clattering across the pavement and out of sight.
He seemed to fall in slow motion. His body twisted and his arms flailed around him as he spun from the force of the bullets. Greg couldn't see any blood on the white T-shirt yet. He prayed he had missed, but he had spent too many hours at the firing range to have that kind of luck.
The kid's legs crumpled under the weight of his own limp body. His eyes rolled back in his head as he fell to his knees and slumped to the pavement headfirst. The blood quickly pooled under him the moment he stopped moving. Greg's feet felt like they were bolted to the ground.
Footsteps came thundering down the alley. Horrified gasps followed as the first witnesses ran past him and found the kid lying there in a heap. They shouted for him to lower his gun, pleading with him. It became the soundtrack of Greg's unfolding nightmare. It took everything in him to finally obey. He only did it so that the growing crowd would stop yelling at him. Where had all these people come from?
First they were yelling at him in the alley and now they had him seated on a curb. Endless questions. The people around him now seemed more familiar, or at least their uniforms did. They wore rubber gloves and shined bright lights in his face. Their voices sounded like a chorus of nonsense, like endlessly reverberating drums during sound check in an empty club.
The kid — where was the kid? The people around Greg wouldn't let him stand. His knees felt weak, like they couldn't possibly hold his weight anymore. He never got the chance to test them. Somebody stood behind him with both hands planted on his shoulders. He threw his head back to see his police chief's concerned eyes peering down at him.
Greg blurted out the only thing on his mind.
"Where's the kid?"
The police chief motioned with his head. A siren came to life a few feet away from where he sat. Greg craned his neck to watch the ambulance speeding away.
"Did they find the gun?"
"Not yet. They're still searching the alley."
"He pulled a gun, Chief."
"We'll find it, if it's still there. A lot of civilians have already been through here tonight."
"He had a gun, Chief. He had a gun ..."
Greg's low-top sneakers squeaked along the linoleum floor. The cardboard box was half empty but felt heavy in his thick arms. It had been a week since the shooting and he was still in a haze.
There were only two other officers in the station at the moment and they both made eye contact with him to give silent support. The police chief strained to hold the heavy glass door open for him at the end of the hallway. Outside the bright Los Angeles sun beat down on factories and processing plants surrounding Virgil Heights Police Station.
"It's only a couple of weeks, Greg. We'll get all of this straightened out and you'll be back on the job before you know it."
"Then why take my badge and gun?"
Greg could see his baby blue 1970 Chevy El Camino. It flickered in and out of view between the crisscrossing semi trucks. The car looked like it floated on the heat that rose off the pavement. He could picture the backup Glock in the glove compartment, but there was no backup badge to go with it.
Two more officers arrived, pushing a handcuffed suspect between them. Greg sized up the scrawny teenage kid wearing a white T-shirt and blue baseball cap. The suspect fixed him with a cold glare in return. Greg's fingers dug into the side of the box until his fingernails started to hurt. All teenage boys were starting to look the same to him.
"Greg. Hey! Are you all right?"
He felt the police chief's hand on his arm before he even heard the words. His gaze traveled up to meet the older man's stare. Greg studied the familiar face. He noticed the creases and bags that framed his tired eyes, split by a nose that shot toward his mouth like a lightning bolt. Small red veins fanned out from his nostrils and gave his papery cheeks a rusty patina.
Greg knew that the mangled nose was courtesy of a car chase gone wrong, and that the red face was a daily reminder of his recovery from alcoholism. What lasting effects would a lifetime in law enforcement have on his own face? He might never get the chance to find out.
"Listen to me, Greg. This isn't going to be easy. You'll think you see that kid everywhere you look. But he's not dead. And you didn't do anything wrong. Do you hear me?"
The police chief gave Greg's arm a squeeze before letting go. Greg turned his head and squinted as he took a tentative step out into the summer heat. The sun beat down on his head and he was overcome with an urge to go surfing, to bob along on the rolling waves and forget all about the world back on shore — everything that had gone wrong in Virgil Heights, especially the kid in the blue cap.
"Might be a good idea to take a vacation. You know, lay low for a while until this investigation blows over. Didn't your dad have a cabin in the mountains?"
Greg wanted to remind the chief that the cabin was his now, but couldn't see the point in bringing it up. Maybe he was just trying to avoid saying goodbye to the man who had gotten him admitted to the police academy despite a lengthy juvenile record. Or maybe he just didn't want to talk about his dead father.
"Sounds pretty good right about now."
"Well, whatever you do, stay out of Virgil Heights."
Greg didn't think that would be hard. His eyes traveled around the concrete skyline and imagined the thousands of teenagers who followed their dreams to Los Angeles every year from whatever town they grew up in. None of them had even heard of Virgil Heights when they first arrived. And he doubted they were any wiser when they went back home with their tails between their legs a few years later. For every one of those forgotten dreams, a thousand other people had to work dead-end jobs in towns like this just to keep the lights on Hollywood Boulevard glowing for the tourists.
He wasn't exactly sure how he'd ended up in Virgil Heights himself.
"I'll give you a call in a couple of days. Hoping we'll have some more news by then."
Greg nodded and stepped out into the four-lane street. It was easy enough to wind through the slow-moving industrial traffic. Unlike most of the other small cities that ganged up to create the greater Los Angeles sprawl, Virgil Heights was primarily a factory town with only a couple square blocks of run-down apartments for migrant workers and their families. The streets teemed with refrigerator trucks and flat beds from sunrise to sunset, quickly becoming a ghost town after dark and on Sundays.
With a population of 250 full-time residents and a crime rate that was almost non-existent, the VHPD was known as little more than a glorified security company.
But that all changed one Saturday afternoon when they got a frantic call.
Greg opened the unlocked car door and glanced back at the station. The police chief stood in the open doorway, watching him. Greg nodded and bent low to get his tall frame into the cab. He twisted the key and the engine growled to life.
Greg turned up the volume knob on the stereo and rolled the window down, all in a single, fluid motion. The Pennywise anthem "Fuck Authority" was already mid-chorus as he merged into afternoon traffic toward the freeway and home.
Greg's phone rang as the El Camino sped up the on-ramp. He lifted it up to look at the number and nearly swerved into a sparkling-green Chevy Impala in the carpool lane beside him. Greg stomped on the accelerator, narrowly avoiding a collision. He waved in the mirror to apologize, but the other car was already fading into the distance.
"Did you drop your phone or something?"
"Nope. Just driving."
"Hope you're going hands free. I heard you can get busted for that these days."
His best friend chuckled. Greg didn't join in.
"I'll chance it."
"I'm calling about sound check."
Greg punched the steering wheel. He'd completely forgotten about the gig.
"I don't know, dude. It's been kind of rough today. I might have to bail."
"No way! This show's gonna sell out and most of them are coming to see your ass. There's gonna be a full-blown riot if you no-show."
Greg knew it was true. This is what he got for only performing a couple of times a year.
"Yeah, whatever. What's the deal?"
Excerpted from "Bad Citizen Corporation"
Copyright © 2015 S. W. Lauden.
Excerpted by permission of Rare Bird Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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