Chapter One

 

EVERY COP had their own bible of superstitions.

Down in vice, cockeyed Jimmy Daley swore that every time he pulled in one particular red-haired hooker, the week went to hell. Lieutenant Frome would never admit it out loud, but whenever he hit red at the Mendes and Third intersection, he brought a black mood to work with him. When Deputy Kelly Tancredi was pregnant last year, her biggest complaint was that her lucky bra was uncomfortable.

Cloister knew it was going to be a bad night when the devil winds came rolling in from the desert. It was a given that Southern California was always hot, but the winds parched it dry as well. You couldn’t even sweat without it turning to salt, and where it wasn’t salty, it was sandy.

It was more than just batterers and brawlers pushed over the edges of their own worse natures, though. The winds blew in the sort of bad shit that stuck in your nightmares—little corpses, bruised thighs, questions that never got answered.

Worst thing was, there was no calling in superstitious in the Plenty Sheriff’s Department. You knew everything was going to go to hell, but all you could do was turn up for work and wait for the shit to hit the fan.

Three hours into the midnight shift, and Cloister was still waiting. Maybe he was wrong, but the drunk-and-disorderly collar of a barefoot meth head didn’t weigh on his conscience that much.

Ignoring the yelled orders to “Get down!” and “Put your hands where I can see them!” the weathered, desert-dried-out man had scrambled out of a broken window and run across the parking lot. He ran like an Olympic athlete in the weeds, with his arms pumping and his head thrown back so the tendons in his neck strained under his faded blue tats. It wasn’t going to do him any good, but he put his all into it.

“Why do they always run when it’s hot as hell?” Cloister asked. Nothing ran like a guilty conscience, whatever the weather. Besides, his partner wasn’t one for much chat. Cloister stooped and unclipped her collar in one smooth, practiced motion. She perked up, and her shoulders tensed under her thick ruff of tan-and-black hair, but she held herself back. Cloister put the command snap in his voice. “Fuss!”

She went.

Cloister had worked with a lot of dogs over the years, from his stepdad’s hunting pack to an idiot-savant spaniel in Iraq—it ate rocks but could find explosive residue after five days—but none of them had a prey drive like Bourneville. The black shepherd went off the blocks like a greyhound and cleared the window in a long, clean leap—low enough to make Cloister wince as the shards of broken glass in the frame brushed through her fawn stomach fur. She hit the ground running.

He flicked the leash, wrapped the heavy nylon around his wrist, and took his turn through the window. He felt the constriction of the bulletproof vest as he ducked, and the glass caught in the heavy canvas fabric of his trousers as he folded his six-foot-two length through the dry-rotted wooden square.

Across the parking lot, the meth head scrambled up and over the chain link fence. The barbed wire at the top caught his shirt and ripped it off, leaving a flapping, bloodied rag dangling. He kept running and dodged behind a row of houses.

Bourneville didn’t lose a step as she jumped onto the hood of a parked truck, not even stopping to measure the distance. She stumbled over her paws on landing, nearly cracked her chin, and then was up and off again.

The fence rattled as Cloister hit it, and it swayed as he scrambled up and over. He caught his hand on the wire, and a spur dug into the meat under his thumb. The jab of pain made him grimace, but he didn’t slow down.

He dropped onto the other side and followed the wolf brush of Bourneville’s tail down the back of the houses. The shout and scuffle of the raid at the drug house faded behind him. The habit of risk assessment made him drop his hand to his gun, and his fingers found their familiar spots in the molded plastic grip.

The Heights wasn’t a bad area of town. It was just poor. Unlike some of the other deputies, Cloister had grown up in a place where it was important to know the difference. Poor still meant closed curtains and minding your own business because the sheriff’s gratitude didn’t have the half-life of the local gangs’ resentment.

Couldn’t really blame them. They had to live there, raise their kids there. The last thing they wanted was trouble.

So Cloister kept his hand on his gun, but the gun stayed on his hip.

At the end of the alley, the meth head grabbed a recycling bin and spun it around to shove behind him. It tipped over and spilled bundles of cans and crumpled plastic bottles onto the ground. The obstacle gave him a second’s head start on Bourneville as the dog scrabbled briefly to dodge the skidding box. He gained a few more when Cloister had to kick it out of the way.

It was enough for Cloister to lose sight of Bourneville for a second as she skidded around the corner while he skidded on a piece of greasy plastic wrap. He swore under his breath, put on a burst of speed, and nearly tripped over Bourneville as he raced around the corner to find her just standing still.

Her head was cocked to the side, and she watched the meth head with a confused look. Cloister couldn’t blame her. The scrawny man—all bone and muscle under shrink-wrapped skin—had grabbed a little girl’s bike from the garden. It was pink and still had training wheels on, but the guy was trying to ride it to freedom. His bare feet balanced on the narrow pedals, his skinny ass was in the air, and his knees pumped furiously. All that effort didn’t do him much good. There was more side-to-side motion than forward, but he seemed committed.

“Jesus,” Cloister muttered.

He glanced down at Bourneville, and she looked up at him with the “what now?” tilt to her head that meant her training had briefly been derailed. Her head went to one side and then the other, and her fuzzy black ears flopped.

“Yeah, I’m with you, girl. This is going to be fun to write up.”

He gave her an ear rub and a “Good girl.” She’d done her job. Then he stalked after the slow-motion getaway, grabbed the meth head’s clammy shoulder, and dragged him off the bike.

“You made me run for this?” he asked as he put the man back on his feet and glowered at him. It usually worked. The Wittes ran to big, blond, and mean-looking, and Cloister had come into the world ready for a fight, with his fists up and his nose already broken. Little kids liked him—God knew why—but everyone else kept their distance. Although apparently enough meth diluted the impact.

“Did y’see that bear?” the meth head asked. “Fucking bear chased me. Minding my own business.”

“In a crack house?” Cloister asked. Meth head shrugged and tried to look insolent. He mostly looked stupid. Under the bad ink and the drug years, the guy and the bicycle might almost be age appropriate—early twenties, maybe even late teens if he shot a needle into his vein as young as some did. Physically he might be young enough to recoup what the drugs had taken—if he ever got clean—but there was nothing much left behind his murky blue eyes. Cloister sighed. “Right. Turn out your pockets.”

He didn’t expect to find anything. Any junkie worth his salt knew to ditch whatever was on them when they ran. Sure enough, he pulled lint, sand, and a half-licked mint out of his baggy jeans.

“Right, Bozo, you’re under arrest,” Cloister said as he fixed the plastic zip-tie cuffs snugly around scrawny, scabby wrists. “You have the right to—”

His radio crackled.

“Deputy Witte,” Mel said. “What’s your situation?”

There was something tight in Mel’s voice that made Cloister’s stomach tighten nervously. Thin, tin-sharp Mel had been at the job longer than any of them, grandfathered in from when Plenty had its own Police Department instead of a sheriff’s station, and she knew the town. When she sounded unhappy, it was time to pay attention.

“I was in pursuit on a 390,” he said. “Just reading him his rights now.”

“We’ve got a request from the Feds for a K-9,” Mel said.

Cloister grimaced. “Is there no one else available?” he asked. “Last time I was seconded to them, I ended up on a disciplinary after I nearly decked the Special Agent in Charge.”

“Sorry,” Mel said without sounding it. “All the other teams are fully committed or not in the area.” Then she dropped the shoe he knew was coming since he heard the wind that morning. “It’s a 920C out at the Retreat.”

Shit.

Cloister “copy’d” her and got the location. He shoved Bozo back down onto the bike, and the cheap pink leather seat cut into his bony ass.

“Your lucky night, Bozo,” he said. “I’ve got somewhere to be.”

Bozo grinned sloppily. “That’s me,” he said. One eye wandered, briefly detached from whatever fired in Bozo’s skull. “Lucky boy.”

He held up his hands. The plastic tag stuck up between his thumbs like a handle. He looked expectant.

“Not that lucky,” Cloister told him. He stepped back and radioed in to the other deputy on the raid. “Witte here. Got a 390 in custody, but I’ve been called to a 920. You send someone out to pick him up? Round the back.”

Confirmation came quickly and without the usual complaints. Cloister closed the line and glanced at Bozo. “Stay where you are. If you make them look for you, they’ll get the bears out again.”

He snapped his fingers to call Bourneville to heel and left Bozo on his little pink bike. If he did manage to get loose or pedal away before someone picked him up, he’d just get picked up again the next week. Cloister’s boots hit the ground as he pushed himself into a hard, distance-eating jog. Bourneville stuck to his heels like a shadow, panting happily because it was just a run and not a chase. He passed Jim on the way to collect the wayward dealer.

920C. Missing child and the Feds. Just once he’d like to be wrong about a shift going to hell.