It was four A. M. and Alexa had just arrived from Parker Center, where she had been sleeping on a cot when Shane called. “Why didn’t you stay there at Stone’s and wait for the police to arrive?” she said as she stood before him in the hospital waiting room. “According to Westlake P. D., you left one dead and two down at the scene.”
Shane had come crashing down from his adrenaline rush of an hour ago. He felt irritable, tired, and wanted to change the subject even more than he wanted to change his moss-stained clothes. Chooch had lied, saying he was Delfina’s brother, and was now upstairs with her in the psychiatric trauma ward.
“I didn’t wait because Chooch was with me.”
“You mean in spirit or something? ‘Cause I’m sure you’re not trying to tell me you took our son to a shootout.”
“He was in there with me. He helped me get her out. I didn’t want the police to find him there. If this gets goofy, and we get some kind of backfire prosecution, I don’t want Chooch named in it.”
“How the hell could that happen? They were all armed, holding a sixteen-year-old girl at gunpoint.”
“I just don’t want him involved.”
“How could he not be involved? You took him with you!” She seemed floored by all this.
“Well, theoretically, that’s one way of looking at it.”
“What’s the other?”
“He took me with him. Matter of fact, honey, he was the one who found where they were holding her. He came to me for help. There was no way to stop him. He loves her. He was going whether I said so or not.”
“You think?” He held her gaze and finally she sat on one of the vinyl-upholstered chairs. Her eyes were red from lack of sleep.
“I did the shooting,” he continued. “All he did was handle the diversion and help me carry her out of there. So how ’bout we just pretend he was never there. Can we do that?”
“Now I’m supposed to lie.” Her anger was escalating. “It would have been better if I didn’t know. Why did you have to tell me?”
“I never lie to you.”
“I trust your judgment then. It would mean a great deal to me if you would keep our son out of it,” he said softly.
Suddenly her cell phone rang and she pulled it out of her purse and opened it. “Yeah… okay… Just gimme the headlines.” She listened. “Okay… okay… sure. You can reach me on this phone.” She hung up, looked up at Shane. “The Westlake P. D. is policing the crime scene. The paramedics have the two wounded Crips at USC on the lock-down floor.”
“Who was the D. B.?”
“They’re printing him, but one of the Westlake blues on the scene said he wrote him for a taillight infraction a few days ago when he was out at Stone’s place-a gangster named Darnel Sweet. I know him. I’ve been studying Crip arrest sheets and F. I. cards all damn week. His street name is J Rock. His gang profile says he’s Russell Hayes’s first cousin.”
“He’s the one Amac thinks killed Stone.”
“A lot of people killed Cordell. He had so much lead in him, we almost called a crane to lift him onto the coroner’s gurney. Stone got it from so many directions, it’s a miracle they didn’t waste each other in the crossfire.”
A half-hour later Chooch called from upstairs and asked Shane and Alexa to come up to the psych ward on the second floor. They rode up in the elevator, then sat on worn-out sofas behind a screened-off lounge. A few minutes after they arrived Chooch came out of the ward and joined them. Like Shane, he was filthy, tired, and drawn.
“They made me leave. Every time Delfina looked at me, she started crying.” Then he faced Alexa. “Thanks for coming, Mom.”
“Thank God you’re all right. But what you two did was harebrained.” Alexa took Chooch into her arms and hugged him. Shane thought he saw tears in his son’s eyes.
Then Chooch pulled back. “Mom, don’t be mad at Dad, okay? I made him do it.”
“I’m not mad at him,” Alexa said. “I’m just frustrated.” She heaved a sigh. “But I guess if I ever really got him rewired, he’d be too normal to hang with.”
Chooch said, “If SWAT had been called in, they would have-“
“Spare me your SWAT evaluations, okay?” Alexa interrupted. “You guys don’t know what SWAT would have done. Maybe they could have actually rescued her without wasting anybody.”
“Or maybe they would have killed the whole bunch,” Chooch said softly. “Delfina included.”
“We’ll never know.”
They were all so tired that it was impossible to continue the conversation. The sun was just coming over the San Bernardino Mountains, throwing shafts of orange light into the gray, sterile corridors of the psychiatric ward.
They waited for further word from either the Westlake police department or the doctors examining Delfina, but none came. They were all bone-tired so they stretched out on the sofas, and almost before his head hit the imitation leather, Shane was asleep.
The dream was as disturbing as it was bizarre. Shane, who was dark and Mediterranean in life, was blond and pale in the dream. He was wearing a three-piece light gray suit, standing in a wood-walled stable or stall of some kind, washing a huge brown animal with a soft brush. Strangely, with each stroke, Shane removed pieces of skin from the howling beast, the hide coming off in ugly, bloody strips. The animal sometimes looked like a buffalo, and sometimes more like a Clydesdale horse. It bucked and cried as he scrubbed its skin off. Shane was alarmed at the damage he was doing and kept checking the brush, trying it on himself to see how it was possible for it to do such damage. When he brushed his own skin, the bristles felt soft as velvet. Reassured, he continued washing the animal, and once again, would be skinning the shrieking beast. Occasionally, he would look up and see his reflection in a mirror hanging in the grooming stall. Was it really him in the mirror with this strange three-piece suit and weird blond hair? Shane was frightened by his unfamiliar appearance and by the damage he was doing, but knew it was important for him to finish. Then he would turn to the animal and begin the torturous task all over again.
Suddenly somebody was shaking him. He left his bizarre animal-washing project and drifted up into a world that was equally disturbing. Shane sat up and found himself looking into the probing eyes of a gray-haired woman who introduced herself as Dr. Elizabeth Sloan. She said she was a psychiatrist and looked the part: horn-rimmed glasses and a white hospital coat with her name and degree stitched over the pocket. “Could we have a little chat?” she asked as Alexa and Chooch sat up rubbing their eyes. “We might all be more comfortable in my office.”
They followed her down a wide linoleum corridor lined with painted metal doors that had wire-reinforced glass observation windows cut in the center. Dr. Sloan turned the corner at the end of the hall and showed them into a cluttered office with an old sofa, a desk, and two pull-up chairs. She sat in one of the pull-ups; Chooch and Shane took the sofa, leaving Alexa the remaining chair.
“How is she?” Chooch blurted.
“It’s very complicated, but I think you need to know what you’re facing. Are you her mother?” Dr. Sloan asked Alexa.
Alexa reached into her purse, pulled out her badge, and showed it to the psychiatrist.
“Lieutenant Scully?” Dr. Sloan furrowed her brow. “Do you know where her family is?”
“They’re in Cuernavaca,” Chooch answered. “She only has an aunt. Her parents are both dead.”
“But you’re her brother?”
“No, I’m sorry. I lied. I’m her boyfriend,” Chooch confessed.
“Doctor, could you tell us what’s going on? What’s happened to her?” Alexa probed.
“She’s a juvenile, only sixteen. I’m afraid I can only consult with the parents or a responsible member of her family.”
“She was kidnapped,” Alexa said, trying to control her frustration. “One of her kidnappers died in a shootout while police were effecting her rescue. This is a felony abduction case with an attendant homicide. Her parents are deceased and she doesn’t have any relatives here except for a second cousin who is a Mexican Mafia gang leader and a fugitive. She’s an essential witness to a long list of class-A felonies. So why don’t you forget all this neat med school protocol and help us understand her condition?”
Dr. Sloan smiled, then leaned back in her chair. “Does this in-your-face style work well at the LAPD?”
“Works great. Gonna work here, too. If I have to go over your head, I will. How’s it going to help her to withhold information?”
“Please,” Chooch pleaded.
Dr. Sloan saw the desperation on his face, then sighed and finally nodded. “I think your friend has severe post-traumatic stress disorder. I’m prohibited from making PTSD her official diagnosis until I can observe her for at least two weeks. But from what I can see, particularly since I now know she was kidnapped and raped-“
“Raped?” Chooch interrupted.
Shane reached out and put a hand on his arm. Now that Alexa had her talking, he didn’t want to break the doctor’s flow. “Keep going,” he said.
“We’ve done some vaginal swabs and, from our preliminary examination, it looks like she was sexually assaulted, maybe by more than one person. The DNA tests will hopefully sort all that out.” She paused to evaluate their reactions. “There are certain diagnostic criteria for PTSD, and she fits quite enough of them to warrant the preliminary diagnosis.”
“What are they?” Shane prodded.
“When a person experiences a severe traumatic event outside the range of what we might call normal human experience, PTSD can occur. The kind of severe stressor I’m talking about might include the threat of violence, a deadly threat against a loved one, war experience, or abduction, and most certainly a multiple rape.”
“And the symptoms…?” Alexa asked.
“She doesn’t remember much after last Tuesday, when she says she was walking near her aunt’s house. This short-term memory loss is known as psychogenic amnesia. She’s a little dazed and not focusing too clearly. She seems to have a feeling of detachment to events currently going on around her. Of course, we’ve sedated her, and that could be partially responsible, but she’s also not falling asleep with tranquilizers or sleeping pills, which is very consistent with this condition. She has an exaggerated startle response-another supporting symptom. If you come up behind and surprise her, she almost jumps out of her skin. Once she finally falls asleep, she’s most likely going to dream about the inciting traumatic event and, therefore, her subconscious fear of these dreams is keeping her awake. In short, since it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, in two weeks I’m probably going to be able to label it a duck: post-traumatic stress disorder.”
“I thought you only got that in combat,” Shane said.
“Well, isn’t that exactly where she’s been? But aside from military combat, it hits when we’re emotionally overridden by an experience we can’t absorb, and our defenses start shutting systems down until we can deal with it.”
“But she’ll eventually be okay?” Chooch asked. He had flinched at the first mention of rape but was now focused on the more important issue of Delfina’s recovery.
“She might; she might not. Sometimes things short-circuit in our heads when we’re under too much stress. That’s not a very medical way of putting it, but in essence, it’s what can happen. All we can do now is wait and see.”
“I want to stay with her,” Chooch said.
“I don’t have a problem with that,” Dr. Sloan replied. “It might help to have a friend here.”
“This girl was being held in connection with the gang violence that’s taking place in L. A.,” Alexa said. “She’s probably still in some danger, so I’m going to assign a police officer to watch her room.”
Dr. Sloan nodded. “Okay, but you’ll have to set that up with the hospital administrator.”
The three of them thanked her, then walked out of the office into the corridor.
“Chooch, if you stay here, I want the officer guarding her to keep an eye on you, too,” Alexa said.
“Come on, Mom, I’m not in danger.”
“No ‘Come on, Mom.’ Just call it a justifiable parental overreaction.”
“I agree,” Shane said. “I did what you asked, now you do this for us.”
“Okay,” Chooch finally relented. They left him in the waiting room and walked to the elevator.
“I’ve got to go back to North Chalon Road and change clothes, then make a conference at the studio at noon,” Shane said. “Unless you want the LAPD Detective Services Group to end up owing millions, I better not miss that meeting. I’m sure you and Filosiani can clean up this little mess I made out in Westlake Village.”
She smiled at him as the elevator arrived and they got aboard. “A little mess is when you drop a plate, Shane. When you drop three assholes, it’s called a major incident.” They rode down to the lobby, and after they exited Alexa took his hand.
They walked out into the sunshine and kissed in the parking lot, then headed to their separate cars.
The Acura was boiling hot, so he quickly rolled down the windows. It was ten-thirty, and the temperature was already in the high seventies. The Valley was headed toward another triple-digit day. The northern winds that had cleansed the city and kept it cool for the last half week had left as suddenly as they had arrived. Now the Basin was baking in one of its classic inversion layers. As Shane started his car, he looked up at the hospital windows on the second floor and wondered what would happen to Delfina. Would she carry these scars forever, or could she find the strength to bury the ugliness and leave it all behind? Where there’s no fault, there should be no guilt, he thought. But then a soft voice argued from inside his head.
Some things can be true and, at the same time, have no meaning.