Chapter 3: Devil's Arcade
Charlie: Maybe that's why you are the way you are.
Don: Yeah, how's that?
Charlie: Never allowed to be afraid.
Don: Believe me, I get afraid all the time.
Charlie: You never show it.
Don: Well, that doesn't mean it doesn't exist, you know. I mean, I got a lot of people counting on me.
The public storage facility in Fontana was on Foothill Boulevard, the main road through town and part of the former Route 66, the road and the city both caught halfway between the faded glory of that most famous of American highways and the standard suburban sprawl that marked every city in the country. By prearrangement, they pulled into a Burger King parking lot a block away and walked to the public storage facility on foot, carefully checking their Kevlar and weapons before leaving the shelter of the Suburbans.
The self-storage facility was bordered by power lines on the east and a vast concrete ditch on the west that was probably labeled as a river on the map, but would have water in it only once or twice a year if a major storm hit up in the mountains. From the aerial photo he'd perused earlier, Don knew the southern end of the property bordered on a trailer park, probably one of the reasons for the "Fon-tucky" nickname Liz had noted earlier. The outer gates were closed, the main office dark, but at a casual touch of Colby's hand, the gate slid silently open. "Whoops," he said. "Guess they forgot to lock it."
David checked the small GPS unit in his hand. "Still picking up the signal from those RFID chips," he said quietly. "Probably the southwest corner, back by the power lines."
Don squinted into the twilight sky. "Is that a power substation near the back?"
"Looks like it," Colby replied. "That wasn't on the map I saw."
"No, it wasn't," Don grumbled. "Nice of them to make sure we know about everything that might interfere with our communications."
"Do we need to call for more backup?" Liz asked, checking the clip in her gun.
"I would if I thought there was any chance of getting it," he muttered. "Look, we've verified the stuff is here, right?" When David nodded, he went on, "And there's no sign of anyone inside. So, a little observation, a little GPS tracking, and we'll identify the containers and get the local cops to get them back to their owners. Everybody okay with that?"
They all nodded, Liz a little reluctantly. He queried her with his eyes, but she shook her head almost imperceptibly and straightened her shoulders. "Okay then," Don said. "Let's do it."
Ten minutes later, Don was crouched next to Colby at the end of one of the long rows of storage buildings. They'd gone around the eastern edge of the parallel rows, Liz and David around the west, both pairs of agents making their way one set of storage sheds at a time to where the GPS receiver said the missing cargo was stored. A quick peek around the corner and he crossed the empty space to the next source of cover, noting the dark shadow out of the corner of his eye that was David doing the same thing a hundred yards away. He signaled to Colby, who followed him over and then took the lead around the next row of storage units.
There were ten rows in all, and it wasn't until they had cleared five of them that Don heard something. He was in front at that point, and he held out a hand behind him. "Warner, do you copy?" he said quietly into his comm unit.
"Go ahead," came her soft reply.
"Do you hear something?"
There was a pause, and then she replied, "Affirmative. Voices coming from the back of the property."
Then there was a rumbling sound like a garage door sliding open. Far ahead, at the last row of sheds, light was spilling out over the asphalt that had previously been lit only weakly by the sporadically-placed streetlights overhead. Don ducked back into the row of storage units, asking softly, "Any idea how many?"
It was David's baritone that rumbled a reply. "I hear at least three different voices, Don."
Great. He thought for a moment. Four on three wasn't so bad, although they had no way of knowing if the individuals they were overhearing were the cargo thieves they sought or random civilians storing their stuff. And the way the facility was set up, there was no way they could get a look until they were visible themselves.
He looked at Colby. "What was the configuration of that last row? Same as the others?"
The green eyes went distant for a moment, and then he replied, "No, they were larger units. Big enough to drive a semi into, some of them."
Don pressed his lips together. That both was and wasn't what he wanted to hear. It meant it was probably their quarry, but on the other hand, that meant things had just gotten a lot more dicey. "Okay, here's what we're going to do," he said into his comm, looking at Colby at the same time. "Granger and I are going to make our way down to the next-to-last row, get up on the roof and see what we can see. You two are going to stay put and watch for any signs of trouble."
"Got that," Liz answered as David said, "Affirmative."
"Okay." He adjusted his earpiece to fit more snugly in his ear, knowing they were all going to have to keep their voices a lot lower. "You ready?" Colby nodded, and they moved out, this time with weapons out and with extra pauses to listen before they advanced.
In a few minutes, they were at the north end of the next-to-last row of sheds, and Don signaled to Colby to keep watch as he climbed the metal ladder at the end of the row. He returned the favor as Colby silently made his way up the rungs. They both made their way quickly and quietly to the edge of the roof, dropping to the tar-paper and gravel surface as they got closer. On their stomachs and elbows, they cautiously looked over the edge.
The last row of sheds was indeed larger. Instead of a series of small units backed up against each other, Don saw larger units that went all the way through the row, with garage doors on both the north and south sides. About halfway down the row, fifty yards away, one of the doors was open. Two white panel trucks were parked nearby, their rear doors open. He inched forward, but Colby's warning hand on his forearm held him back. A figure was moving out of the well-lit space, looking up and down the aisle. Don held his breath, but in a moment, the man in the bright green shirt moved back inside.
Don moved until his head was next to Colby's. "We've got to get closer," he breathed.
"Gonna be hard on this surface," came the quiet reply.
He grimaced. Then he remembered a piece of equipment he'd stuffed in his vest pocket at the last minute. Slowly unzipping the pocket, he withdrew a small pair of field binoculars and unfolded them. Leaning back on his elbows, he raised the small binoculars to his eyes and scanned across the scene.
Don waited patiently until the same green-shirted figure came back into view, this time speaking to someone still inside the storage unit. His brow furrowed as he looked, and he adjusted the focus knob again as if it would change the identity of the person he was looking at. Finally he swore under his breath. Handing the binoculars to Colby, he said quietly, "Tell me if that's who I think it is."
There was a pause, and then Colby spoke, his voice lower and flatter than it had been. "That's Hector Simeon."
"That's what I thought, too."
Colby lowered the binoculars and turned to face him, speaking more quietly and intensely. "That's the guy the rest of the office is out in the Valley trying to take down. The second-in-command who took over operations after Tabakian testified against the cartel's leader."
Don nodded grimly in reply.
Colby stared at him for a moment and then shook his head. "If I was the paranoid type, I'd think we've been set up."
"You mean you're not?" After what you've been through? he didn't have to add aloud.
The other man gave a wry grin, his voice still barely audible. "The way I see it, once you find out they really are out to get you? It's not paranoia any more."
Don raised his eyebrows in agreement. "Come on," he said, starting to retreat from the edge of the roof. "Let's get out of here." He spoke quietly into the comm link on his shoulder. "Sinclair, Warner, we're pulling back. You copy?"
There was no sound in his earpiece, no reassuring voice telling him that they had heard and were following his commands. A tendril of nervousness wormed its way into his gut.
"Sinclair and Warner, do you copy?" he asked more insistently, afraid to raise his voice.
There was still no reply.
He exchanged a quick look with Colby and saw the stirrings of concern that he was feeling reflected on his teammate's face. "All right, that's it." He lifted his wrist and said, "3695 to Control."
Again, only silence came back to him. He repeated the call with no more success. "Damn power substation," he muttered. They were going to have to back away a lot farther to be able to call into central dispatch.
"You radio for backup, I'll find the other two and tell them to retreat," Colby said, reaching behind him and drawing his weapon.
"No," Don said, putting a hand on the other man's shoulder. "We're already split in two, we don't need to go any further."
Colby opened his mouth to argue when they both froze at the sound coming from the far end of the row of storage units they were standing on top of. It was unmistakably a gunshot.
They both scrambled to their feet and started moving in a careful crouch towards the far end of the row. Don tried to keep to the tar paper and avoid the gravel, but his haste was making it hard to do so. Once or twice he heard a crunch under his feet and winced, checking to see that he was out of sight of the open door below and to his left. He didn't hear any shouts or running feet, and somehow that alarmed him even more. Surely Simeon and his colleagues would be investigating the sound of a gunshot.
Unless one of them had fired it and knew they didn't need to fire again.
The tendril of nervousness blossomed into a full-fledged knot of fear, and he had to force himself to go slowly and watch where he put his feet to stay as silent as possible. They were within a hundred feet of the edge now, and he slowed further, checking over his shoulder to be sure Colby was close at hand. He pointed to himself and to the left, and then to Colby and to the right. The other man nodded, and they slowed further, weapons at the ready, inching their way forward.
There was no one visible at the end of the rows of storage sheds, in either direction. The knot in his stomach grew tighter. David and Liz were supposed to be waiting down there about four rows back. Okay, ideally they were waiting on the other side of the sheds, out of sight, but he was still worried. Signaling to Colby to cover him, he made his way towards the metal ladder. Feeling horribly vulnerable, he moved as quickly as he could without clanging his feet against the rungs. He nodded at the agent still on the roof and kept a wary eye out as Colby descended. Then he pointed towards the exit, eight rows behind them. With Colby watching his back, he darted forward across the aisle, turned to cover his temporary partner as he made the same dash, and turned back to repeat the process.
Later, he would wonder if the early phone call that cut his sleep short left him unable to react quickly enough, or if the undercurrent of tension among his team members had thrown them all off. Or maybe the bad guys had simply gotten lucky for once. But all Don thought when the three armed men stepped out from behind the next row of storage units and surrounded them was that it would serve the Assistant Director right to have an entire team killed in an ambush because he didn't think they were capable of working well with the rest of their colleagues.
Don measured the distance between him and each of the three men, then held back a grimace. There was no way he could take out more than one of them before one of the others returned the favor, and at this close range, there were plenty of spots not covered by Kevlar for them to hit. So when the tallest one barked, "Hands up!" he exchanged only a brief look with Colby before obeying.
The gun was snatched from his hand by the shortest of the three, a guy who looked younger than Charlie, wearing a Dodgers t-shirt and brandishing a .38 special like he knew how to use it. "Hands on top of your head and interlace your fingers," he sneered. "Isn't that what you guys like to say?"
"You know how much trouble you're getting into?" Colby asked calmly as he obeyed. "Assaulting Federal agents isn't small-time stuff."
"We're not exactly small-time," the first man said, looking over Colby's Glock before tucking it into his waistband.
Don's eyes narrowed. The face was familiar, but he couldn't place the name. Then the man, who was actually shorter than him, turned slightly, and the profile jogged his memory. Luis Garcia Esteban, originally from El Salvador, lately of East L.A., wanted for murder, various drug charges, and suspected of involvement with human smuggling. No, not small-time at all, he thought, feeling his heart sink further.
They were in big trouble.
"Turn around," Esteban said, motioning with his gun. "Let's go."
They were marched back in the direction they'd come, then down the aisle to the open door of the storage unit they had been observing earlier. Don couldn't help the sigh of relief that escaped him when he saw Liz and David inside, both with their hands on top of their heads and with a man holding a gun on each of them, but both apparently unhurt. He exchanged a brief look with Liz, asking her with his eyes if she was okay and receiving a tiny nod in response.
The building they were standing in was taller than the other storage units and twice as deep. Behind all of the closed garage doors, Don estimated it took up half of the row by itself. They'd obviously done some modifications to the standard U-Stor-It layout. Along the far wall was a row of large metal boxes each about forty feet long, each open at one end. Ten missing containers, check. Three black vans were backed up to the containers, five of which looked to be empty. They'd obviously come upon the Salvadoreans in the act of transferring the stolen goods from the containers they'd been stolen in into smaller vehicles for transport.
Hector Simeon came forward as the group of five entered, giving both Colby and Don an appraising look. He asked something in rapid-fire Spanish, and Esteban answered with a brief, "No, solo ellos." Simeon's eyebrows went up briefly before he smiled, his look that of a man for whom things were going exactly as planned.
It wasn't a look Don liked at all.
Esteban walked around from behind them, stopping in front of the two agents. That left a man behind each of them. Don surreptitiously looked around, evaluating each of the gunmen and their positions relative to himself and his team members. David and Liz were about twenty feet away, each with an armed man in front of them. That meant six hostiles and four unarmed agents. All of them held their weapons confidently, with no nervousness visible at holding federal agents at gunpoint. Definitely not a good sign.
"Which one of you is in charge?" Simeon asked suddenly.
Don lifted his head and took a step forward. "I am," he said clearly, although all of his instincts were telling him that speaking up was a very bad idea.
Esteban's gun swung up towards him, and he flicked off the safety with his thumb. Don understood then all too clearly what was going on, and his breathing started to come faster. It was a classic control strategy: remove the leader of a group, literally or figuratively, and the rest of the members would be so dispirited and cowed that they would do as they were told.
Eyeing the gun aimed at him, Don felt a dark certainty that in his case, the removal was meant to be both literal and permanent.
Then he caught movement out of the corner of his eye. Colby was stepping forward and saying in a tone of quiet authority, "He's trying to protect me. I'm the team leader."
Esteban turned sharply, eying Colby up and down.
Then David and Liz spoke at once, the same insistence in both of their voices as they carried across the cavernous space of the storage unit. "No, I am." "No, I'm the leader."
Don had never been prouder of their bravery or loyalty. They had to know as surely as he did what the purpose of Simeon's question was, and yet they were willing to put themselves on the line for him. Whatever difficulties they'd been having earlier today, they were obviously united right now.
He'd also never been angrier at them for doing something they weren't supposed to. If Simeon wanted the four of them dead, he would have ordered his men to fire on them, not just to disarm them. No, he wanted one person to make a sacrifice, and that was Don's responsibility.
"No, you're not," he barked, staring the three of them down in turn. He knew what they were trying to do, and he appreciated it more than he could ever say, but there was only one right answer to Simeon's question. "I'm the leader of this team," he said firmly, putting five years' worth of command experience into his voice as he looked his counterpart in the eye.
Don knew it was coming, but when the gun came back up to point at his head, he still flinched. Funny, he thought as his heart beat faster, I always thought that giving up my life for my team would mean diving in front of a bullet, not standing still waiting for one.
He heard David shouting something off to his left, and he heard the scrape of footsteps behind him as men moved out of the way. But his world had narrowed to the half-inch wide aperture at the end of the gun barrel three feet in front of him. Don had to fight the urge to close his eyes. If his death was coming, he wanted to stare it in the face. He watched as Esteban's finger began to tighten on the trigger, and he thought, Dad is never going to forgive me when he hears about this.
"Wait." Simeon spoke from where he stood a few feet away, his expression thoughtful as he looked back and forth between Don and the other three agents. He took a few steps forward and addressed Don. "Your men." His gaze flickered to Liz and then back. "Your people. They are loyal to you, yes?"
Don hesitated, not because he had any doubt about the answer to the question, but because he wasn't sure what Simeon would do with his answer. Finally, horribly conscious of the pistol still aimed at his head, his heart pounding hard enough that it almost hurt, he replied as levelly as he could, "Yes."
"They will do what you ask of them?"
He stared at the other man for a moment as if he could read his mind. What was it that Simeon was going to ask of them? "Up to a point."
David made a noise, but the man in front of him raised his gun higher, and he fell silent.
Simeon nodded. Then he said, "Take off your vests. All of you."
Don slowly lowered his hands to remove his Kevlar, exchanging quick glances with the rest of his team. They wore determined looks tinged with fear. It was fear for him, he was sure, not for themselves, based on their willingness to stand up for him a minute ago. His fingers fumbled a little as he unbuckled the straps of his vest, and when he let it fall to the floor, the rush of cool air hitting his sweat-soaked body sent a shiver down his spine. He slowly put his hands back on top of his head, wanting to appear as unthreatening as possible.
Not that the five men holding semi-automatic weapons had much call to feel threatened at the moment.
The rest of his team was doing the same thing as Simeon and Esteban exchanged a few words in Spanish. David tossed his vest on the concrete a few feet in front of him, glaring defiantly at his captor, who was a good four inches shorter and looked to be pointing the agent's own gun at him. Liz dropped her vest to the floor, her eyes nervously flickering back and forth between Don and the slender man holding her at gunpoint. Colby was the calmest of the three, easing the Kevlar over his head and slowly placing it on the ground before following Don's lead and putting his hands on top of his head.
"You. Leader." Esteban had backed up to one side of the room, and now he gestured with his pistol to the concrete in front of him. "Kneel down here."
Don hated to put himself in such a vulnerable position, but he could hardly be more vulnerable than he had been a minute ago. So he took a few steps forward and carefully went to one knee, then both, hands still clasped on his head, facing the cinder-block wall. Esteban stepped around him, and in a moment, he felt his handcuffs being removed from his belt. "Put your hands behind you," came the command. Don grimaced but obeyed, turning his head to keep his eyes on Hector Simeon, who was supervising as his men relieved the other three agents of their backup weapons, cell phones, and communications equipment.
A second later, Don felt steel closing around his wrists. He formed his hands into fists, trying to increase the size of his wrists, but the man behind him twisted his arm so sharply that he had to let go, and the handcuffs were soon biting into his skin. He glanced at Simeon but then abruptly tensed as he felt the barrel of a gun against the back of his head.
The leader of the cartel was regarding him calmly. "You see, this is more efficient," Simeon said. "Instead of my men having to expend their efforts on making sure your people are under control, they can all work together to load the trucks, knowing that if any of your people do anything out of line, Luis here will not hesitate to put a bullet in your head." He turned and surveyed the other three FBI agents. "Is that clear?"
Don looked up at them, furious at his helplessness and the position it put them in. Not only he himself, but all four of them were being controlled by Simeon and the very visible threat that he had made. Colby was giving a short nod, David was glaring at the cartel's leader as if he could kill by looks alone, and Liz's tense gaze was shifting between Don and the man standing behind him holding the gun. She finally nodded, her jaw tightly clenched.
"Good." Simeon gestured at the large container boxes behind him. "Now, if you please. Everything in these needs to be packed into the vehicles in here and outside. Refuse to obey or do anything to hinder us, and your leader will pay the price. Do as you're told, and the four of you will live through the night."
Don's throat was almost too dry to speak, but he managed. "How do we know that you'll let any of us go?" he demanded.
The man in the green shirt gave him an almost amused smile. "I suppose you don't. But at least this way you have some hope, yes?"
Don stared grimly at the other man, knowing he was speaking the truth. If he refused on behalf of his team and Esteban pulled the trigger, or, if God forbid, all four of them were killed, they'd just go right on unloading the stolen cargo. "Fine," he ground out from between his clenched teeth.
As if he really had a choice.