I was LAPD and this was an L.A. Sheriff's Department rollout. As I picked up my briefcase and headed toward my black Acura, I told myself, leave it be, I've got enough action on my on beat.
But something big was definitely going down...I reached into my car and switched to the Impact channel on my police radio. They used Tactical Frequency 4. I switched it on and immediately heard somebody screaming:
"...Deputy down! Thirty-Mary-Four is down! He's layin' up on the porch right in the door. Every time we try and get to him, the sonofabitch inside starts pourin' lead at us". You could hear the adrenaline in his voice.
Fifteen LASD's cars were already on the scene. At least twenty-five deputies were fanned out hiding behind garden walls and parked squad cars. Some were pouring 9 mm rounds from handguns into a house at the end of the cul-de-sac.
Just then, a shooter appeared in one of the downstairs window and let loose with an AK-47. The weapon tore holes right through the sheriff's van parked in the center of the street. Then the gunman ducked back out of sight. Two sheriff's air units and a TV news chopper added to the wall of noise as they circled relentlessly overhead. I rolled out low from the Acura, hung and ran toward the sheriff's vans and the Suburban TCV parked in a semicircle in the middle of the cul-de-sac.
The shooter's house was a phony Georgian with fake trim and Doric columns. Sprawled across the threshold of the front door was a uniformed deputy. He wasn't moving. But I recognized those shoulders, that short black hair. It was Emo Rojas. Flat on his face, lying in the vertical coffin.
I moved away and ducked down behind the engine compartment of a sheriff's car. The deputies pinned behind the brick wall were trying to retreat, but every thirty seconds or so the shooter would appear in another window of his house and start firing. I knelt and thumbed the useless, standard 9 mm Winchesters out of my clip, then started feeding the Teflon mag rounds. Once I had all thirteen loaded, I slammed the clip home, chambered the gun, then peeked up over the hood of the car. Emo was still up on the porch. It didn't look like he'd moved at all. Nobody had the stones to try and go up there. If you made a run and timed it wrong, it was pretty much suicide. You were gonna get chopped in half by that AK.
I told myself that even though Emo wasn't moving, it didn't mean he was dead.
Ten yards away I spotted Sonny Lopez crouched down behind a squad car with another deputy. Both held shotguns at port arms. Their Ithacas were useless in this situation, and you could tell from their strained expressions that they knew it. I moved up from behind and tapped Sonny on the shoulder.
He jerked around to look at me. His face was pulled tight. "Scully, whatta you doin' here?"
"Not to be a critic, but shouldn't we go get our guy off the porch?"
"Can't. The perp's got armor piercing shit. He's blowing holes right through car doors. We're calling for more backup."
"Why doesn't somebody get him on a cell phone, try and cool this down?"
"The lieutenant tried talking to him. Guy won't come out. An incident commander's on his way. Captain Matthews wants to sit tight and wait for him."
Then, in an attempt to explain why all these cops were on their faces eating dirt, Sonny added, "This asshole is nuts," which was more or less obvious.
"Look, that's Emo Rojas up there, right?" I said.
"You know him?"
"Yeah. If we could get one of those two SWAT teams to work the right side of the house, maybe they could draw the guy over there and you and I could make a run and pull Emo off the porch."
"You outta your mind?" Lopez said.
"Probably," I answered. "Wanta try it?"
He thought about it for a moment, looked skeptically toward the house.
The shooter popped up again. He was upstairs this time, and let go with a five-second burst, aiming at the squad car we were behind. The black and white rocked hard with the impact from a stream of lead that sliced through the door panels like they were plywood. Windshield glass and side mirrors shattered and flew. Then the man ducked back down. It seemed to help Sonny make up his mind.
"Let's go," he said hotly, "Lemme get my Loo to sign off on it." He moved off to find his lieutenant.
There was walkie-talkie madness all around me. People screaming, shouting counter instructions, stepping on each others' transmissions. While all this was happening, I decided if I was going to try to get Emo off that porch, I was going to need some better intel. I looked up and saw that there were now three news helicopters swirling overhead. Pinned down, I couldn't really risk rising up to case the situation. I looked behind me. The neighbors' houses across the street had all been evacuated. I waited until the shooter popped up and greased off another burst. After he finished I sprinted across the street to the nearest house. Luckily, the front door had been left ajar. I hit the front porch, crossed it in two steps, and kicked the door wide, entering the house.
I ran through the downstairs and collected two small portable TVs, one in the kitchen and one in the office. Then, carrying them into the den, where I found a big-screen TV. I turned it on and plugged in the two portables. Every thirty seconds or so, the AK cut loose out front. Bullets whined and ricocheted in a deadly concert of tortured metal. I couldn't hook up all three sets to cable, but I was able to pick up the local news stations with rabbit ears on the portables. I flipped around the channels, stopping at three different stations that were carrying the shootout. KTLA had a bird up. So did KTTV and KNBC. For the first time, I could see the entire scene.
The sheriffs had the house completely surrounded, front and back. The long lenses from the news cameras kept zooming in tight, and now, when the shooter appeared and fired, I got a pretty good look at him. This asshole was dressed head-to-toe in black body armor and was wearing a gas mask. He would pop up, looking like an extra in a Steven Segal movie, and squeeze off a five-second burst, then disappear. His window choices seemed random.
I took off my watch, set it on the table in front of me, and started to time him. First he worked the downstairs. He'd shoot through three or four different windows at random, then move upstairs. After watching for about three minutes I could see the pattern.
Downstairs, he was all over the place shooting short bursts. But he always ended at the window on the far left side of the house. He'd fire a long stream of lead from that position, then be gone for thirty to forty seconds before reappearing upstairs. He'd shoot randomly out of the upstairs windows, then be downstairs again. But his last firing position on the ground floor was always that same window on the far left of the house. My guess was that the staircase was over there.
It took him thirty seconds to get upstairs and start shooting again. He probably needed another ten seconds to change C-clips at the top of the stairs before again going to work in the upstairs window. The time for me to make my move up to the porch was after he shot the long burst through the far left downstairs window.
I turned off the TVs and decided to test my theory. Moving to the front door, I waited for him to shoot out of the last window downstairs, then ran out of the house and across the street. I settled down behind the same squad car where I had been earlier, easily beating the next burst of gunfire from the upstairs window.
Sonny was already there and turned when I arrived. "Where were you?" he asked.
Sonny gave me a strange look, so I said, "Are we good to go?"
"Loo says no. The captain wants to wait for the incident commander from the downtown bureau."
"What is he, some kinda desk commander?", I said.
"More or less," Sonny agreed.
"Then I say screw him. Emo could be pumping dry. He could be dying. We can't just leave him up there."
Sonny didn't speak, but after a second he nodded.
I told Sonny my plan. We both tried to watch the shooter take one more lap around the house so Sonny could see for himself. But in truth, it was damn hard to keep your head up while he was pouring those lead cores down on us.
"Next time, after he does the last downstairs window on the left, we go," I said. "Okay?"
Sonny licked his lips and nodded grimly.
Excerpted from VERTICAL COFFIN © Copyright 2004 by Stephen J. Cannell. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved.