He crouches in the shadows, peering from the alley with an expression of careful fear written on his face. The streetlights illuminate most of the road, but there are patches that the light doesn’t quite reach - and those patches concern him most. Although he strains his eyes, he cannot see into the darkness, leaving him uncertain if anything is lurking there. His eyes dart back and forth as he tries anyway, and he holds his breath, trying to still his ragged breathing so he can listen. Nothing gives itself away, and after counting off five minutes, he swallows and makes his decision.
Darting from the shelter of the alley, he makes sure to hug the shadows. He makes his way down the street as quickly as he can manage. For his speed, however, there is also caution in his movements; he swivels his head back and forth, taking in his surroundings as he goes. Something clangs against the pavement off to his right, and he jumps as the sound reverberates down the empty street. When no sounds follow it, his shoulders relax slightly, but his sneakered feet do not slow until he reaches the end of the street.
He peers around the corner to check first one way, then another. A moment later, seemingly satisfied, he takes the right turn and melts into the darkness, the muffled slap of rubber soles against asphalt fading into the distance.
Head detective Carlton Lassiter’s head snapped up from his computer screen. Santa Barbara’s most annoying citizen grinned around a mouthful of Funyuns, crinkling the bag as he reached for another.
“Spencer, do you have nothing better to do?”
“Umm, let me think about that…” Spencer cocked his head to the side, feigning deep thought, then he shrugged. “Nope!”
Burying his face in his hands for a brief moment, Lassiter took a deep breath and reminded himself that his partner would not be happy if she came back from lunch to find Spencer in a cell. “Spencer,” he said slowly, dropping his hands and narrowing his eyes, “you have precisely one minute to vacate my immediate premises.”
“Aw, Lassie, you don’t mean that. Funyun?” Spencer held the bag out in what he must have meant as a gesture of goodwill. Well, that or he was purposely trying to be as annoying as possible. Lassiter wouldn’t put it past the man.
Lassiter just glared at him. “Fifty-nine. Fifty-eight.”
It wasn’t until Lassiter hit “fifty” that Spencer seemed to take him seriously. He scrambled up from the chair and retreated towards the station’s front doors.
“He left his stupid Funyuns on the chair,” Lassiter grumbles. He crosses his arms and frowns at the recollection.
From her seat beside his bed, O’Hara hides a smile. He’s sure she would tell him it is at his grumpy expression, but he doesn’t think he’s being ridiculous by any means. “If it’ll make you feel better, I’ll make sure they’re gone before you get back to work.”
“Good,” he sniffs. “And find out from that doctor when he’s going to let me go. I barely have a scratch; keeping me here for… ‘observation,’ or whatever term they decided to make up, is absolutely ridiculous.”
“You were unconscious when they brought you in, Carlton,” his partner objects, adopting a maternal tone as she raises an eyebrow at him. “You have staples in your head for crying out loud!”
O’Hara huffs a sigh and crosses her own arms, but before she can retort, there is a knock at the door. A moment later, Guster sticks his head in the room. The man looks incredibly worried, a look that O’Hara catches immediately.
“Gus? What’s wrong?” O’Hara is halfway out of her chair before she finishes the question.
Guster’s eyes are wide. “Shawn’s gone.”
“What do you mean he’s gone?” Lassiter snaps at the young man. Not only is Guster interrupting his debriefing with his partner, the interruption is about Spencer, of all things. Can’t there be just one night where the subject of the childish consultant doesn’t come up?
Guster’s eyes widen even more as he looks between the two detectives. “I mean he’s gone! I came back from grabbing coffee, and his bed was empty. Henry’s still at the house where you sent him to shower,” he directs that particular statement at O’Hara, “and I was in the cafeteria, so there was no one else in the room. I… I figured I could leave him,” he stammers, “for just a few minutes. He was still asleep, so I didn’t think that would hurt.”
“Gus, it’s not your fault,” O’Hara says firmly, putting a hand on his arm before pushing the door further open to pass him. “Let’s go back to the room. Maybe he just got confused and is nearby.” She sounds as if she is trying to convince herself as much as she is Guster.
“Where would Spencer even have gone?” Lassiter demands, annoyed that even a hospital visit isn’t enough to keep Spencer out of trouble. He starts to push himself out of the bed, determined to get to the bottom of whatever the confusion is. Then the room spins around him, and he’s forced to stop his upward motion, putting a hand to his head and leaning back in an attempt to bring things into focus again.
When the world rights itself, O’Hara is beside him, a worried look on her face. One hand is on his arm, the other resting against his forehead. Guster is nowhere to be seen, but the quick appearance of a nurse speaks to where he may have gone.
The nurse looks as pleased as O’Hara. “Detective Lassiter, please lie still,” she says as she fiddles with one of the machines beside his bed. She then turns her attention to him and shakes her head slowly. “This is why the doctor wants to keep you here overnight. You definitely have a concussion.” She’s doing other medical-related things, checking his vitals, and Lassiter concedes to himself that she’s right - if only because he can’t physically assist O’Hara with the search for Spencer. And as much as he hates to admit it, he knows he has to give in for the greater good. Whatever good locating Spencer actually is.
“Like I said,” he waves a hand in O’Hara’s direction, “he probably just wandered off somewhere.” Or did she actually say it? “I won’t be surprised if you find him on a couch in a visitor’s corner of this place.”
O’Hara looks slightly amused under the obvious worry she’s carrying for Spencer. “We’ll keep that in mind.” She turns for the door, grabbing Guster’s arm on her way out. “Come on, Gus. Let’s go find Shawn.”
Then whatever the nurse had injected into his IV begins to take over, and Lassiter settles back against his pillow and lets his eyes drift shut.
Lassiter swung the car door shut and started the engine. He had finally finished his report once Spencer had left him alone, and now that his paperwork was done, he was ready to listen to his grumbling stomach. Normally he and O’Hara grabbed something to eat together, but she’d had a dentist appointment, so he was on his own.
Less than ten minutes later, he pulled up to his favorite sandwich shop. It was past the lunch rush, so he hoped there would be few to no other patrons so that his errand would be quick. He strode inside, noting with pleasure that there was no one in line… then he groaned in annoyance as a man jumped up from the table to his left.
“Lassie!” Spencer was much too excited to see him. “Fancy meeting you here!”
“Spencer,” Lassiter grit out with as much patience as he could muster, “my plans for the afternoon do not include baby-sitting you. Follow me anywhere else and I won’t think twice about handcuffing you and dumping you in my trunk.”
“Oh so harsh,” Spencer tsked. “But don’t you remember? I’m the kid whose dad taught him to escape from the trunk of a car.”
“Don’t worry. When I get through with you, you won’t,” Lassiter snapped.
Then Spencer frowned as Lassiter’s previous statement registered. “Wait… ‘follow’ you? I was here first!”
“Only because you…” Lassiter trailed off. He wasn’t about to admit that Spencer knew it was his current favorite lunch spot. Even though the man did, Lassiter was not about to give him the pleasure of admitting it. Spencer would be only too glad to rub the acknowledgement in his face. Then he realized that Spencer was now staring at something over his shoulder with a look of what could have been called concern. Lassiter turned to follow his gaze, then his eyes narrowed as he took in the man who had just entered the restaurant.
He was mid- to late-twenties, Caucasian, dark-haired. To anyone else, he looked like a construction worker on lunch break, but Lassiter’s trained eye caught the bulge under the man’s shirt and his nervous stature. The detective was sure Spencer had seen it as well; Lassiter would never admit it aloud, but Spencer had a knack for observation. He turned back to Spencer and leaned forward. “Call for backup,” he hissed, pushing the younger man towards the restrooms at the rear of the store. “And stay out of sight.” To his credit, Spencer did as he was told. Lassiter saw him mashing at the screen of his smartphone as he retreated. With any further luck, Spencer would stay out of sight until the situation was under control… although Lassiter wasn’t about to bet any amount of money on that.
Lassiter didn’t wait for the door to swing shut behind Spencer before turning his attention back to the newcomer, who was proceeding towards the counter. He headed for the line as well; he did need to order his food, after all. There was the chance this newcomer was only there for food and would soon be gone without any trouble.
However, that hope was dashed less than a moment later when the man reached down and produced a pistol from his waistband. “Nobody move!” he bellowed.
He’d found an empty warehouse in which to pass the rest of the night. It wasn’t the most luxurious of accommodations, but it was out of the elements and there was only a slim chance of something getting at him while he slept. Sure, the place probably hadn’t seen life for several years, and it could use a good spring cleaning, but it was better than nothing. As soon as he was inside, the exhaustion and pain that he had been ignoring for the better part of the night had overtaken him, and he’d barely made it to a wall before he collapsed against it. He’d slid down to the ground, already drifting off into a netherworld of shadows and dreams.
Patches of light flash through his dreams, accompanied by blurred images that he can’t quite grasp. They float just out of reach, taunting him with their almost-but-not-quite clarity.
Dozens of faces, their exact features just out of reach, encircle him as they whirl past, ebbing and fading, like the tide on the beach. He turns around and around to try to focus, but they just swirl faster.
He reaches out for a hand… an arm… anything to anchor him to these people.
And then the fear hits.
There is something cold and terrifying, made even more so by the fact that he knows it is there but can’t identify it. It creeps up the back of his neck, prickling the hairs and sinking his stomach in icy knots.
Then something dark and heavy drops into his hands. He can’t make it out, but something in his gut tells him it’s a gun.
There are screams. Terrified screams that seem to come from all around him.
He drops the object in his hands, hearing a deafening echo as he does. He puts his hands to his ears, wincing at the pain that is now blossoming in his head. He squeezes his eyes shut tightly, bending over and pressing his hands harder in an attempt to control the pain.
It subsides just enough for him to straighten and look around, and then he notices the utter quiet.
All of the faces, the screaming, the swirling… it is all gone. It’s gone, and all that is left is a cold, dark, empty space.
And then he realizes his eyes are open, and he’s blinking into the darkness, trying to make out something. It is still cold, however. And not just cold. Freezing. His fingers are already going numb. He feels dampness against his legs and back. And somewhere nearby, there is an oddly metallic trickling sound. It’s too dark to see from where it’s coming, but it’s there somewhere.
Whenever his surroundings lighten up, he’ll be able to see what’s around him. For now, he tucks his hands into his armpits for warmth and pulls his legs up tightly against his chest, ignoring the shooting pain in his side in favor of preserving body heat.
Lassiter quickly glanced around the restaurant, taking in the rest of the room. The cashier seemed to be frozen in indecision, poised between the register and the door to the kitchen. If he had to guess, Lassiter would say the kitchen staff were already gone out the back door. He noticed all of this in a matter of seconds, then made his move.
“SBPD!” He drew his own weapon in one quick motion, aiming at the gunman’s head to back up his command. “Put your weapon down now!”
The man whirled to point his gun in Lassiter’s direction. His eyes darted back and forth, and he tightened his grip on the pistol as he bit his lip nervously. “Why don’t you put yours down? Before someone gets hurt?”
It didn’t make the detective feel any better to see that the man’s finger was resting on the trigger of the gun rather than outside of it. Idiots these days and their movies, he thought. That’s no way to hold a gun. One twitch of a finger and that weapon goes off.
But rather than voice his concern over the man’s gun control, Lassiter just raised an eyebrow. “It’s not hard to see how this is going to end up going down. Either I shoot you now, or you keep going with this standoff, and you get shot when my backup arrives.”
“Or I just shoot you, take my money, and get out before your backup gets here.” A moment later, the man’s attention drifted to something behind Lassiter, although his focus snapped back when the detective started to move forward. “Stay there!”
Lassiter was briefly tempted to look back to see if he should be worried about what had distracted the gunman, but no sooner had the thought occurred to him than he heard the one voice he most definitely did not want to hear at that moment.
“I’d do what he said, dude.” Spencer sounded like he was chewing on something - no surprise - as his footsteps sounded behind Lassiter. “He’s usually serious about shooting people, especially when he’s grumpy because someone interrupted his lunch.”
With a heavy sigh, Lassiter tightened his jaw in frustration. “Spencer,” he said, still keeping his full attention focused on the gun being aimed at him, “I thought I told you to stay out of sight.”
“Oh… Oh, you meant completely?” Spencer asked innocently. “I thought you just meant while I was on the phone. Jules says ‘hi,’ by the way.”
Whatever Lassiter was about to say in response was interrupted by the cashier finally making up his mind to run for it. The young man’s motion and the subsequent banging of the kitchen door were quick, but because they occurred almost out of his peripheral vision, they were enough to grab Lassiter’s attention. It was a brief second, one which also caused the would-be robber to turn his head towards the quick movement. The man’s gun remained aimed in the detective’s direction, however, and Lassiter’s greatest fears were realized just then, as the would-be robber’s finger tightened on the trigger.
The bang of the gunshot mixed with Spencer’s shout of “Lassie!” and then there was a forceful impact against his spine that drove him forwards and sent him skidding across the shiny linoleum. Lassiter had a brief moment to notice he was moving in the wrong direction for getting shot from the front before his head impacted with something sharp and solid. A bright, white light took up his vision as pain exploded in a burst inside his skull, then everything went dark.
When his eyes open again, it still isn’t light. He tries to go back to sleep, back into a world where there isn’t any pain, where the discomfort fades away as dreams take over. Unfortunately, even though he desperately wishes for it, it doesn’t come. He’s not sure how long he spends trying to fall asleep before he gives up, but it seems like forever.
Then when he finally concedes defeat in that area, the temptation to give into the pain is right there, pulling at him insistently. It’s in his side as well as his head, throbbing and making everything feel like it’s on fire. The amount of sheer… hurt is enough to cloud the edges of his vision. All he wants to do is to just lie down and give up.
But something in his mind is telling him to focus past the pain. He’s not sure where it comes from, but the little voice is there. It’s gruff and stern, and it sounds oddly disgruntled with his weakness. He frowns. There isn’t much around to inspire other thoughts, unless he counts the utterly bone-chilling cold seeping through his skin, but somehow he doubts that is the best option for distracting himself.
Positive thoughts, he tells himself. Positive thoughts.
He squints and looks at the wall opposite him. There is one single window high up in the corrugated metal surface, and for as much as he wishes that he could see just a little bit of daylight, just a hint of hope and warmth. Regardless of what he wants, however, it stays stubbornly dark. It’s as if the world itself is mocking his pain… and he realizes he can’t remember its start. He can’t remember where he acquired the source of the pain either in his head or his side, and that bothers him. It would be one thing to have a painful reminder of… well of whatever event occurred to cause the pain. But he can’t remember anything at all.
Concentrating only serves to increase the pounding in his head, and before he realizes it, the darkness overtakes him once again.
Lassiter awoke with a start. He lay still for a moment, trying to place where he was and how he had gotten there. He could have sworn he had just been… And then he sat up with a start as he remembered the events leading up to his losing consciousness.
Or rather, he attempted to do so. He had every intention of leaping to his feet and finding the man who had held up the sandwich shop. Instead, everything around him tilted crazily to one side before his head was six inches off the ground. He lifted his hands to his head to massage away the pain, but he felt something catch on his right hand. His left went to it in confusion, and he looked down to find an IV line fading in and out of focus. It looked as if he had two, as well as two right hands.
Then someone’s hands were on his shoulders, pushing him back down onto the soft surface beneath him. “Detective, you need to lie back,” the voice that must belong to the hands said firmly. Lassiter looked up to the hazy face of a young EMT. The man didn’t look like he was leaving any room for argument. “You’ve had a pretty good whack to your head there; we need to get you to the hospital to get checked out.”
“I… don’t need a hospital.” Lassiter was slightly embarrassed at the slurring of his words, but he felt helpless to control them. “I’m just… just fine.”
“Right,” the EMT replied. He didn’t sound like he believed Lassiter. “Let’s just make sure, though, shall we?”
Then the surface Lassiter was on started moving, and he belatedly realized he was on a stretcher. Which made complete sense, come to think of it. A moment later, he realized something else, and he blinked. “Where Spencer?” he demanded.
“Spencer?” the EMT asked from beside him.
Unimpressed with the delay in information, Lassiter nodded - and then immediately regretted the action, as it made his head spin and his vision spotty. “Spencer!” he growled.
A new arrival entered his field of vision, and Lassiter had to blink a few times to focus on the person’s face. When he realized it was O’Hara, he raised a shaky hand to point in her direction. “O’Hara! What… where… Spencer?” His words weren’t cooperating. This was certainly embarrassing.
“Shawn’s in the other ambulance,” she told him. Her voice sounded as steady as his hand had been a moment before. “Do... you remember what happened in there, Carlton?”
He frowned. “That’s what I want to know.”
O’Hara sighed heavily. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
Then the EMT stepped forward. “Your questions will have to wait, Detective. Sorry, but we need to get him to the hospital. That head wound needs attention.”
“Yes, of course,” O’Hara agreed. She patted Lassiter on the leg. “We’ll talk soon, okay?”
And then there was an upward motion as the stretcher was lifted into the ambulance and the vehicle’s doors swung closed.