Note: There is a reference to my previous story "Charades." Not that that's a hint or anything.
Ace in the Hole
Chapter 2: The Ace
The Five-0 team caught one glimpse of their friend, then a shot cracked and the wall where Danny had been disintegrated in a thunderous explosion.
Windows above blew inward. Cries of pain and fear came from within the apartments.
"Danny!" Kono screamed. She lunged toward the corner, but Chin caught her around the shoulders and threw her down. A shot smashed into the wall where they had been.
The explosion splashed Steve's face with blood and rained chunks of gory meat and shards of brick on the dumpster where he recoiled. Bits of cardboard fluttered down after. The explosive filled the air with its own acrid odor. Steve wiped a smear of blood off his cheek and felt sick.
Steve's head spun with images, Danny's tearful daughter mixed with images of a military convoy under attack. He heard Danny's voice, "I could get killed and you wouldn't even notice." He noticed.
"Steve!" Chin called, but got no answer. Steve's mind was spinning upside down, spilling out a flood of guilt and helplessness.
Across the alley, Kono sobbed. "He's dead!" Chin shook her. "Pull it together, rookie, or you'll get us all killed," he ordered sharply, fighting down his own sick sorrow. Kono gulped, wiped her face on her sleeve, gritted her teeth and nodded. She twisted her shock into fury. Chin nodded and gave a small smile of approval. She was a Kalakaua, no denying.
Chin's pep talk reached across the alley, too. Steve angrily scrubbed blood, brick dust and tears from his face. He'd lost one man, but he still had two to lead.
"Steve!" Chin barked, wondering if his boss had been injured in the explosion.
"I'm good," Steve answered, knowing he would never be good again. "Chin, that was a different rifle."
"Copy that," Chin agreed, he searched for the second sniper and spotted a slight movement on the warehouse, one landing lower than the first sniper.
Danny knew he was still alive because his right ankle hurt like the devil. He'd thrown himself around the corner, but his right leg had still been exposed when the blast went off. His ankle and calf had been peppered with wood and brick shrapnel.
His dive had driven the breath from his body and the explosion made his head spin. It seemed to take forever — but was actually a fraction of a second — before his conscious mind understood his reflex dive for cover. He had recognized the smell of plastic explosive. Of course, he couldn't have beaten an explosion in a footrace, but his reflexes had been faster than those of the sniper who had triggered the blast.
Despite the ringing in his ears, Danny could hear the voices from the alley. His heart ached for the pain in Kono's scream, but he couldn't respond until he wheezed the air back into his lungs. By then the moment had passed.
"That's one down, cops," he heard Barrett' voice taunt the others. "Now we can play three-on-three."
The derisive voice didn't come from the balconies. "What are we playing?" Steve called back, trying to locate the cop killer.
"Hide and seek," Barrett gloated. "My friends are going to keep you in the yard, while I hunt you down like the mangy dogs you are."
"What do you want, Barrett?"
"To kill you, McGarrett. Like we killed that worthless snitch, like we killed your pal."
Cold fury mounted in Steve like a tidal wave rising, seeking a frail human to smash. If Steve had to dodge snipers while trying to catch a homicidal madman, fine. Barrett didn't know that McGarrett had played that game before.
"I hear a lot of 'we,' loudmouth," Steve said, trying to locate the lunatic. "But it seems to me you let your friends do all the dirty work."
Barrett laughed. "If you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life," he taunted. "We just love killing cops."
Head spinning, Danny sat up on the sidewalk, automatically pulling the largest splinters from his leg as he listened to Barrett threaten his friends. Danny realized that everyone thought he was dead. He had to make that count for something.
He cudgeled his clanging brain into action.
"C'mon, Danny, think!" he said groggily. "Your friends are in a hole. They need you. They need an ace in the hole."
He remembered falling in the hole in the forest-I-mean-jungle. "Shooting fish in a barrel." That's what Barrett liked to do. He'd set up the Five-0 team neatly in their own personal barrel with all the exits blocked but one. Danny looked at the building beside him. Business on the two lower floors, apartments on the top two. And the apartments backed up to Barrett's killing ground. Apartments, windows, fire escapes. His foggy thoughts cleared.
"Fish. Barrel. Two can play that game," he muttered.
Danny levered himself up using the butt of the rifle and limped toward the entrance.
Down the street, he could see the cleaning lady. She'd stopped and was talking into the phone. Her gestures described an explosion.
As if in reply, a second explosion boomed from the alley, then a third.
A rush of adrenalin erased the pain in Danny's leg. His hobble became a trot, then a sprint.
Steve studied the area where the explosion had taken out his friend and compared it to his last image of Danny. There had been a poster where the center of the blast was now. A poster with a big pink X, like a target, he thought bitterly.
The poster must have covered the explosives and a detonator that could be set off by a bullet impact. Steve realized there were two more posters like that in the loading yard. One was too damned close to him. He needed to move.
"Chin!" Looking around the edge of the dumpster at ground level, Steve saw his friend peering from beneath the truck. The commander pointed and gestured until he was pretty sure Chin and Kono knew what he had in mind. Then he held up his fingers, 1, 2 …
He fired at the poster on the opposite wall. Under cover of the explosion, expecting the snipers to flinch at the unexpected roar, Steve threw himself toward Chin and Kono's position, while Chin fired in Steve's direction. The blast from the final poster shoved dumpsters and trashcans around. They caromed off each other like billiard balls and ended up scattered at random in the middle of the yard.
Kono hauled Steve into the minimal safety of the engine block as a shot punched through both sides of the pickup's bed before slamming into the wall. It would have hit Chin, if he hadn't moved as soon as he'd fired at the poster. As he crawled back to the others, he could hear Barrett cursing. Steve's explosion had been a little too close. The swearing was music to Chin's ears, because it helped him pinpoint Barrett's location near the box truck.
"Boss, are you hurt? There's blood all over your face," Kono said in concern.
"It's not mine," Steve said flatly.
He wiped his forearm across his face, smearing the blood into a fierce mask that reminded Kono of war paint.
"Oh." She swallowed. "Then hold still." She pulled out an evidence bag and used it to pluck a piece of meat caught in Steve's hair. It was the tip of a man's finger. Visibly shuddering with suppressed retching, Kono packaged the finger and put it in her pocket.
Chin gripped his cousin's shoulder. Her bleak eyes turned to him.
"I understand, but Danny wouldn't want us to get killed because we couldn't focus," he said.
"Why are we sitting here?" she hissed fiercely. "These bastards killed Danny. What are we going to do about it?"
Chin told the others about the sniper in the refrigerator box "duck blind," and about Barrett's probable position near the box truck.
"If I can get to the box truck, I think I can get a shot at the sniper on the third floor, the one who set off the explosion."
"OK, Barrett thinks he's hunting us. I'm not waiting around for him. Kono and I are going to hunt him."
"What about the sniper with the high powered rifle?" Kono asked.
"If we can get under him, he won't be able to bring that rifle to bear. We can go right up the stairs after him," Steve answered.
The other two looked at their boss doubtfully. It was a wide killing zone to cross with no cover that the armor-piercing rounds couldn't penetrate. But neither of them had a better idea.
"For what it's worth, I don't think the snipers will go after us in earnest while Barrett is still playing with us," Chin offered. "They'll just try to keep us pinned down."
"See, easy," Steve said.
Danny charged through the door into a cluster of people gathered nervously in the lobby. A woman screamed at the sight of his gun.
"Police! Five-0!" Danny yelled, waving his badge for everyone to see. "Everybody stay away from the rear of the building. Don't go outside," he ordered. "There's a gun battle in progress. Stay put. You're safer here."
Danny pounded up the stairs, taking two at a time, shouldering his way upstream through the flow of residents fleeing the shots and explosions. The rifle and the fact that he was muttering to himself, made the bystanders press to the sides and leave the crazy man a clear space.
"'A gun battle in progress'? You must still be loopy from the explosion," he told himself.
He continued to wave his badge as he climbed, warning people to move to the front of the building.
On the fourth floor, he saw an elderly man standing shaking in the door of his apartment. His face and arms were covered with cuts and his eyes were wide with shock.
"The window. It blew up!" he mumbled.
Despite Danny's desperate hurry, he couldn't abandon the injured civilian. He led the man to the steps where he could sit down.
"Sit here, sir. Paramedics will be here soon. Wait here," Danny said kindly.
"OK," the dazed man agreed. "But what happened?"
"Bad men in the alley. I'm going to take care of them right now," Danny said, hefting the rifle.
"Give them what for," the old man said, as Danny ran into his apartment. "Damned vandals broke my window."
Steve told Kono to follow him and stay low, but he let his head be seen as he wended a way between the scattered dumpsters. He pushed a trashcan aside, so it rolled toward the padlocked gate, shoved a dumpster forward to block a gap that would leave Kono exposed and threw an empty cardboard box high in the air just to confuse the watchers. Kono kept after him, crouching so low she touched the ground with her left hand to keep her balance. Her right hand clutched her automatic.
Steve was acting as a stalking horse, to hold the attention of Barrett and his sniper friends while Chin Ho moved to the left to get an angle on the third floor sniper. Steve was also bait to draw Barrett into Kono's line of fire.
The young woman was sick with dread that she would see Steve's head blown apart by a bullet; but nausea did not interfere with her resolve to back him up.
And it seemed her cousin's guess was right. Instead of firing, the snipers shouted directions to Barrett. They'd even worked out a code. Instead of shouting left, right, dead ahead or cold, hot, hotter, they were yelling beagle, setter, pointer — all hunting dogs. Recognizing the sick joke didn't make Kono feel sicker. She felt better, because there was no indication they'd spotted Chin.
When the snipers began shouting to Barrett, Chin crawled on his belly past the chain-link gate, hidden from view by the trashcan Steve had rolled into place. He slipped behind a dumpster and edged around the nose of the box truck. He was safe between the truck and the warehouse wall, out of view of everyone else in the loading yard; but he hadn't gone there for cover. He wanted height.
Pulling his weapon, Chin moved slowly to the tail of the truck and snapped a quick look inside the back. The back door was open and cargo area was empty, except for a half-eaten sandwich and an empty bottle of beer, showing how Barrett had passed the time waiting for his trap to close.
Chin measured the angles with his eye and determined he'd have a good shot at the third floor sniper from the roof of the truck. He moved back to the front of the truck and waited for McGarrett's distraction.
The snipers' shouts grew more excited, telling Steve that his stalker was close. He dropped his hand, palm back, signaling Kono to halt; then he darted past a gap between two dumpsters. He halted, taking a peek around the far side.
The snipers fell silent, as good as telling Five-0 that Barrett was about the make his move. Barrett came through the gap behind Steve, all his attention focused on his prey's exposed back. He never saw Kono at all.
"Freeze! Police!" she barked.
Barrett started violently and spun, gun in hand.
Kono didn't hesitate an instant. She fired twice, hitting Barrett in the chest. He fell flat, revolver spinning from his hands. Steve scooped it up.
Barrett moaned and clutched his unbloodied chest.
"Not dead. How disappointing," Steve said. "They'll let anybody buy a bulletproof vest these days."
Steve knelt to handcuff the suspect. The cop killer rolled on his side, hands behind his back, and drew his legs up to his chest as if in pain; then he kicked out violently, knocking the empty dumpster away and exposing the two kneeling cops to the snipers.
Steve dived to cover Kono, but knew with a sick feeling that the armor-piercing bullet would go though both of them, vests and all.
A rifle cracked. The headless sniper crumpled, tilted over the fourth-floor balcony wall and fell to land with a dull thud in the alley below. His rifle with its armor-piercing rounds clattered to the ground.
"How? Who?" Steve looked around wildly, then, on the fire escape opposite, he saw Danny taking aim at the other sniper. The fire escape partially blocked the detective's view of the lower floor. All Danny could see was an elbow, but he hit it.
The sniper jerked back with a screech, and tried to bring his rifle to bear on the detective. Danny's next shot hit him square in the chest, just a fraction of a second after Chin Ho's pistol shot hit him between the shoulders. The double blow made him drop his rifle off the balcony. He fell back, moaning.
Chin bounded down from the truck and ran up the steps to secure the prisoner.
Kono bucked beneath Steve, not trying to escape him, but trying to prevent Barrett from escaping. Her leg sweep knocked the cop killer to the ground again. Steve transferred his poundage to Barrett's back and handcuffed him properly, then looked up at the fire escape.
Danny counted rapidly and came up with three friends, apparently uninjured. He let out the breath he'd been holding.
"I thought I'd give you a hand," he called. "You looked like you were in a hole," he mocked gently. Danny patted the fire escape railing. "I don't do jungles, but alleys and fire escapes are my natural habitat."
The world turned right side up again, making Steve dizzy. He swayed and Kono caught his arm.
"You all right, boss?" she asked.
"I think I'll sit down for a minute," Steve admitted. He dropped down on Barrett's back.
HPD arrived and took Barrett and his remaining sniper friend into custody with gleefully grim grins that did not bode well for their safety in lockup. The bodies of the other sniper and the informant, and the shattered remains of the homeless man, were taken to the medical examiner's office.
While officers took statements from the cleaning woman — who returned Danny's phone — and the residents of the apartments, paramedics treated the injured. The most senior EMT, Ab Riley, claimed the privilege of looking after his Five-0 friends.
"I'll have to start giving you a discount as a repeat customer," the paramedic told Danny, as he tweezed splinters out of the detective's calf.
"It's because you do such good work," Danny said. He owed his life to the EMT's skills. "At least you won't need your scalpel this time."
"Not this time," Riley agreed.
Steve sat on the oil-stained concrete with his back to the blast-scarred brick wall. His face was pressed against his knees and his hands cradled the back of his neck. He looked exhausted, yet every muscle seemed taut with tension.
Riley nodded at him. "He all right?" the paramedic asked Danny.
"Never since I've known him," Danny quipped promptly.
"Be nice," Chin ordered, lightly punching Danny's knee. "It's been a tough couple of months for the commander," Chin explained to the paramedic, who'd been there for some of it. "I think it's all caught up to him."
"Danny, we thought you were dead," Kono said reproachfully. She pulled a blanket around her shoulders to still her shivers of reaction.
Danny reached for her hand and squeezed it. "I'm sorry, kid. The blast knocked the wind out of me. By the time I could shout, it seemed better not to. I was your ace in the hole and Barrett couldn't know about me. Forgive me?"
Kono hugged him.
"Better forgiveness than funerals," she said.
"I think Steve looks a little shocky. Maybe you'd better take him a blanket, too," Riley suggested to Kono, who did.
Then to Danny, Riley said, "I don't see any more splinters. Feel any I missed?"
The EMT probed gently at Danny's ankle and shin. The detective felt sparks of pain from the cuts, but no sharp prick from an undetected splinter.
"OK, let me clean up these cuts," Riley said.
When the paramedic turned to rummage for antiseptic wipes, Danny slid off the bumper and walked over to look down at Steve now draped in a blanket. Riley pursed his lips, but didn't say anything. He just gestured at Chin to hold out his scraped arm.
The detective was more concerned now that he was closer and could see Steve's muscles quivering with tension.
"So, you noticed," Danny said.
"I noticed." Steve gave him a smile so fleeting Danny wondered if he'd imagined it; then looked down at the pavement again. "I thought you were dead," Steve said without looking up. His voice was as tight as his muscles. "You've been bitching since I've known you about how I was going to get you killed, and now I had. Like…" He stopped abruptly.
Kono hovered in helpless concern.
Danny sat next to his partner, fanny-bumping him, as if he needed more space. Steve slid over automatically; then realized Danny had a whole wall to sit against. That small irritation distracted Steve, as it was meant to. Danny was his usual self, annoying, breathing, decidedly not dead. Some of the tension seeped out of the Five-0 leader.
"The worst was picturing Grace's face when I told her I got her father killed," Steve continued. "I've written the letters, but I've never had to tell a little girl to her face that her daddy wasn't coming home."
"It's no fun," Danny commented in the voice of experience. "But you will, won't you?"
Steve didn't understand.
"If it comes to that, you'll tell Grace yourself?" Danny clarified. "You won't leave it to some stranger, or make Rachel do it."
"I'll tell her," Steve promised.
"Not that we're aiming for that," Danny added. "I'd rather have you give my eulogy from a walker with Grace and her kids and grandkids all too polite to tell you they can't understand a word because your false teeth don't fit right."
Steve chuckled, but bent his head again.
"What else?" Danny asked patiently.
Steve rubbed his hands together. Kono sat beside him, trying to ease his distress with her body heat. Arm bandaged, Chin Ho crouched in front of him. Steve was surrounded by his teammates. Their support gave him the courage to say the unthinkable.
"I froze," he admitted. He could see that Chin and Danny weren't surprised.
"Why, boss?" Chin asked, with no condemnation in his voice. "Kono has an excuse. She's a rookie. You've been through worse."
"I had a flashback to worse," Steve said. "To Korea when Hesse's goons nearly wiped out my unit because he traced my cell phone. My fault. Like this was my fault," he said bitterly. "Then I heard you scold Kono and I knew I had to move or I'd get you two killed, too."
"Have you talked to anyone about Korea?" Chin asked.
Steve's silence was answer enough.
"It's SOP to talk to the department shrink after a shooting incident," Danny said. "I'll bet the Navy has something similar. But you slid out of the Navy and into Five-0 and dodged all that."
"I've been busy," Steve protested.
"You can hide behind busy, but that won't help the rest of us," Chin said. "You need to talk to somebody."
"The Navy must have a psychologist or two," Danny suggested.
"Not the department psychologist?" Kono asked.
"She's maybe heard a little too much about Steve to be wholly objective," the detective answered with a false look of innocence.
"You never stop talking about me, do you?" Steve asked, sounding more like himself.
"Is it safe for me to talk to the department psychologist?" Kono asked. "Because I think I need to."
Danny reached past Steve to pat Kono's shoulder. "I have an appointment with the department shrink on Tuesday. You can have my time, because I'm not bothered at all about killing that sniper."
"You already had an appointment?" Steve asked.
"Since I met you, I've had a standing appointment," Danny retorted, then continued earnestly. "I've got a daughter and I want to be a good father. I don't want to become one of those psycho whack job cops who doesn't care how many people get hurt."
He went back to the ambulance where Riley was waving his disinfectant wipes with increasing insistence.
"Do you think I'm a psycho whack job?" Steve appealed to Chin, but Danny answered from the tail of the ambulance.
"If it's any comfort, I don't think you're an irredeemable psycho whack job."