Chapter 4: Into the Fire
Don: I couldn't deal if something happened to you.
Liz: You got my back, right?
Don: Yeah, for sure.
Liz: Okay. I got yours.
Liz's arms were getting tired, but she gritted her teeth and kept on carrying boxes. It wasn't a question of pulling her own weight, as was so often the case when she was the only woman in sight, but a question of keeping Don safe. He already bore the mark of Colby's failure to move quickly enough to satisfy their captors: a cut on the edge of his forehead, courtesy of Luis Garcia Esteban's pistol-whipping, was trickling blood down the left side of his face.
She'd had to bite the inside of her cheek hard to keep from shouting at Esteban when Don was hit, and now the coppery taste in her mouth matched the trail of red on his cheek. She didn't want to think about what would happen if the creeps holding them figured out that she and Don were involved. What better way to humiliate the leader of their team than to do something to his woman? It would totally be in line with the machismo of these guys. She knew their type from her years in Organized Crime, the Latin American gangs that moved back and forth between the U.S. and the countries to the south, led by men arrested in the U.S. who brought their hard-earned skills from prison back to their home countries and built up powerful and feared organizations.
The Salvadoreans were a prime example. She'd recognized Hector Simeon as soon as the two guys who ambushed her and David dragged them into his presence. She didn't know if he recognized her or not, but she doubted it. When she'd been in the field chasing down the head of the organization that he had replaced, he'd still been in El Salvador, consolidating his power on the home front. The arrest of the U.S. leader, thanks to Ivan Tabakian's information, had left a power vacuum that Simeon had very quickly filled. But by then, Liz been posted to L.A. and part of a different unit.
Still, she kept her head down, not wanting to be recognized. The threat to Don aside, she didn't have any doubts about what these men would do to an agent that had been party to taking down a major part of their operations.
Luis Garcia Esteban was also familiar, if only from surveillance photos. He was now the second-in-command, a distant cousin of the man running the show, and apparently content with his role. The other two men who had brought Don and Colby in were also known to her, although she couldn't think of their names. As for the two young punks who had ambushed her and David, she'd never seen them in her life, although considering their tender age, that made sense. Not enough time to develop a rap sheet, she thought.
Liz hefted the box she was carrying up and into the panel truck, ignoring the leering glance of the younger of the two unfamiliar men. Turning around, she made her way back to the open containers, sneaking a glance at Don as she did so. He hadn't moved since her last pass through the garage-like space they were in: still facing the wall, hands cuffed behind him, shoulders rigid and head held high. Esteban had backed up a few paces so that the gun wasn't resting right against the back of his head, but she had no doubt that Don knew it was there.
Swallowing hard, she looked away.
David was walking past her with a large box gripped in his arms, his face wreathed in anger and frustration. He gave her a nod, his eyes grim. She matched the look and strode on.
Colby was backing away from one of the vans parked next to the containers. Despite Simeon's comment about all of them working together, his men were content to let the three FBI agents do most of the heavy lifting. None of them were lounging around -- she was sure that they wanted to transfer the stolen goods as quickly as possible -- but they were doing a good deal more supervising than lifting. The man who had marched Colby into the storage unit earlier was standing behind the open doors of the van, watching closely. Francisco Perla Ortega, she suddenly remembered. Which would make the one in the Dodgers shirt his brother, Armando.
"No, no, no," he was saying to Colby, and she stopped in her tracks, resisting the urge to look at Don again.
Colby straightened up. "You said to put it in the van. En el camión," he repeated.
There followed a more rapid-fire sentence that she didn't catch. Colby opened his mouth and then looked over at Don's back. "All right," he said abruptly, his gaze going back to Francisco. "I'll put it in the truck."
Liz reached the back of the van in time to see Colby awkwardly shifting a wooden crate in his arms. He took a step back and then suddenly leaned forward, trying to deposit the crate back on the floor of the van. But it fell out of his grasp and onto the ground, the corner of the crate hitting the ground with a thunk and the lid popping off, revealing the contents within. Colby drew in a sharp breath and looked up at Liz. She quickly looked down and froze at what she saw. Oh, God, she thought, looking back up again to meet Colby's eyes. He quickly slipped the lid back on before any of their captors could see that it had come off.
The sudden noise had caught the attention of everyone in the storage unit, and in a few seconds, Hector Simeon came walking over, his voice measured as he asked, "Is there a problem?"
Colby's jaw tightened as he looked from Liz to the far corner of the room and back. She couldn't make herself follow his gaze, afraid of what she might see.
But a few seconds later, when Simeon repeated his question, she didn't need to look. The distinctive sound of the gun at Don's head being cocked turned her blood to ice.
"No, there's no problem," Liz snapped in a voice higher than it should be, willing Colby to pick up the damn box and get on with it. She realized suddenly that she was scared to death like she hadn't been since the first time someone had pointed a gun at her for real, four months out of Quantico. But it wasn't her own safety that had her frightened; it was that of the man kneeling on the concrete thirty feet away, the man whose life visibly lay in their hands and in the decision they had to make right here and now.
If she looked at Don, she was sure she was going to scream. So she turned towards Colby and said in a low voice, "If we don't do this, they'll shoot him and make us do it anyway." She took a quick breath to force out of her head the image that her words evoked and kept her eyes locked on his, willing him to listen to her. Dropping her voice further to keep Simeon from overhearing, she added, "I'd be saying the same thing if it was you or David over there, and you know it."
Colby regarded her for a moment. "The thing is," he said so softly she had to strain to hear it, "I don't see how they can let us go. This isn't about fencing televisions or Christmas toys."
As his words sank in, a shiver ran down her spine, and suddenly her fear was no longer entirely for Don. "We don't have a choice," she replied bluntly. "At least this way there's a chance."
Looking into Colby's eyes, Liz could see that his thoughts were matching her own: serious doubts that this night would end with anything but a bullet in the back of the head for all of them.
Finally, Colby raised his voice and said, "No, there's no problem," with a meaningful glance at Simeon. He bent over to pick up the fallen crate, pounding the lid into place with a fist. Liz helped him lug it over to the closer of the two trucks. She noticed two crates already inside, and she exchanged another glance with Colby. Who knew how many more of the things there were?
Simeon followed, keeping a careful eye on both of them. When they had deposited the crate, he gestured to Liz to stand back and Colby to move back toward the containers. Once the two of them were separated, he nodded to Esteban, who uncocked his weapon.
Only then did Liz feel like she could breathe again.
When he heard the click of the safety being put back on the gun, Don briefly bowed his head and closed his eyes, the first time he'd let himself show any emotion. Twice now in the space of an hour, he'd been certain that his next breath was going to be his last. He didn't think his nerves could take a third time, and he doubted his luck could hold much longer, either.
He turned his head to look over his shoulder, but all he saw were his three agents walking back and forth carrying cardboard boxes and crates. He shrugged his left shoulder against his cheek to wipe away the trickle of blood that had made its way down from the blow he'd taken from Esteban. He wished he could reach up and feel the place where he'd been hit, but his hands were firmly restrained. For the same reason, he couldn't follow his compulsive habit of watch-checking, although he could estimate that at least forty-five minutes had elapsed since they'd been overpowered.
Forty-five minutes of nerve-wracking tension and fear, not just for himself but for his team. He knew they were being used as pack animals for the moment, but what incentive did Simeon have to let them go? It was that tension, as much as the more immediate matter of the gun aimed at his head, that was twisting the knot in his stomach tighter with every minute that passed by.
By straining his head, Don could see the insides of the five open containers. Three of them were empty, another nearly so, which meant that they had maybe fifteen or twenty minutes left. If he was going to think of any way to get them out of this, that was all the time he had to do it in.
But as the minutes crept by, he became more and more pre-occupied with fighting back the rising panic that was threatening to overwhelm him. It was one thing to be facing down armed men when he himself had a weapon and options available. It was another thing to be completely helpless and used as a hostage against his own team, feeling time ticking by and knowing there was absolutely nothing he could do. He softly swore under his breath.
It didn't make him feel any better.
Peering over his shoulder again, he saw that one of the younger men had pulled Liz aside and was holding a gun on her. Don started to protest, then caught her eye and thought better of it. If Simeon thought he was treating her differently than either one of the other agents, they would both be in a lot more trouble than they already were. He couldn't quite read her eyes from this distance, but her expression was grim as she looked back at him, her gaze occasionally drifting to the man behind him, the same way his eyes kept falling on the gunman in front of her. Don finally looked away, unable to take it any longer.
A few minutes later, the sounds of activity behind him changed, and he turned to see that David, too, had been pulled off to the side. Things were clearly winding down, and the Salvadoreans didn't want to take any chances that their captives would be able to try anything. Don felt panic rising again and tamped it down. The moment of truth was coming, and if talking his way out of this was all he could hope to do, he had better be able to talk coherently.
The last crate came out of the container. Colby slid it into the van, and the guy in the Dodgers shirt drew his weapon and motioned the agent back. Colby obeyed, eyes flickering among the six armed men and the three other agents.
Simeon walked forward then, looking over the three standing agents before turning to Don. "All right, leader. Now it's time for you to choose."
Don felt a chill run down his spine. "Choose what?" he asked, unable to keep the uneasiness out of his voice.
"We're going to take one of your team with us as insurance," Simeon said. "You get to pick which one."
That was easy. "Take me," he said, lifting his chin a little higher.
The blow to the side of his head sent him reeling sideways, his left shoulder hitting the concrete and thankfully breaking his fall enough that his head only landed on the ground instead of slamming into it. Great, symmetric pistol-whipping, he thought, closing his eyes for a moment to steady himself. At least the scars will match.
"That's not one of your options," Esteban snarled behind him. "Which one of them comes with us?"
"You said you'd let us go," Don replied quickly, straining his ears for the sound of another approaching blow. Instead, an arm hauled him back up onto his knees, the gun jabbing into the back of his neck, a rough hand on his shoulder keeping him in place, staring at the cinder-block wall in front of him.
"And we will," came Simeon's smooth voice. "Just not all of you, and not yet. Now decide, Agent."
Don's mind raced. He wished he could see the faces of his team, although he had the feeling that all of them would be silently signaling that they could handle it. But David might be too prone to lashing out and getting himself in trouble, given his recent attitude, and he couldn't contemplate turning Liz over to a group of roughnecks who would do who knows what to her. Even though he knew how it would look to his team members, there was only one choice he could make.
Praying he would forgive him, he said, "Granger."
"That's me," he heard Colby call in a firm voice, and he turned his head and opened his mouth to apologize.
He heard the rush of air a fraction of a second before something slammed into the back of his head. Then everything vanished into utter darkness.
Don heard someone calling his name, the sound piercing through the fog surrounding him. He felt something irritating his cheek, and when he tried to reach for it, his hands wouldn't move. It took him a second to feel the metal bracelets around his wrists.
Then memory returned in a flash, and he sat up abruptly.
The ensuing dizziness almost forced him back down, but he bowed his head and fought it. "Liz?" he called out, squeezing his eyes shut and willing himself not to pass out.
It was David's voice that answered. "Over here, Don. They took our handcuff keys, but they didn't take yours."
He carefully turned around and opened his eyes. It was pitch black, but the musty smell was the same as that of the storage unit where he'd spent the last tension-filled hour, and the cold concrete floor was all too familiar to his aching knees. Lifting his arms behind him, he fumbled in the pouch at his waist. "Liz, you okay?" he called.
There was silence for a moment, and he lifted his head, fingers stilling around the small key. "David?"
His heart sank when he heard David's angry voice. "They took her."
Don's hands clenched into fists. He'd been sprawled unconscious on the floor while a gang of criminals had abducted the woman who -- no, he couldn't let himself think about that right now. It was bad enough that it was a member of his team who was gone. Anger washed over him, and he had to collect himself before he could speak. "How long ago?" he asked through clenched teeth.
"At least ten minutes."
Damn it. Too long to follow, assuming their own vehicles were still in the nearby parking lot. "They took Colby, too?"
"No, he's here, but he's unconscious. He tried to stop them from taking her." David's voice was tight with worry, and Don realized he must have tried to wake up his former partner with less success than waking up his boss.
"Hang on." Don twisted his hands around, straining to get the tiny piece of metal in the slot where it was supposed to go without dropping it behind him. His head was pounding and his stomach was tied in knots, but he shut his physical discomfort away and concentrated on the key. In a few more seconds, he heard the quiet click of the key turning and sighed in relief. He shrugged off the handcuffs and stood up, feeling his way along the wall until he got to the door. There was a handle at the bottom, just like the garage door at home, and he gave it an almighty shove, sending it flying upwards and crashing to a halt at the top.
He turned to see David seated next to the large metal container boxes, handcuffs securing his wrists to the handle of the container door above his head. A couple of yards away lay Colby, face down on the concrete, his hands cuffed behind him. At a nod from David that he was okay, Don moved to Colby's side first, unfastening the handcuffs and throwing them behind him, hearing them clatter across the floor. Colby was starting to stir, and Don helped him ease his way to a sitting position.
Colby raised one hand to his forehead, rubbing at a smear of dried blood that indicated where he'd been knocked out. He looked up at Don and froze. "Oh, God," he said suddenly. "They took her, didn't they?"
Don gave a short nod and rose to his feet, going over to David to cut him loose. "What happened?" he asked tightly, aware that he was only barely keeping a lid on his anger. Whether it was anger at the gang for kidnapping Liz or at the rest of his team for allowing it to happen, he wasn't sure, but he did know that it was the only thing keeping him from breaking down with worry, so he held on to it.
David rubbed at one wrist and then the other as they were freed. "After they knocked you out, they were about to walk off with Colby. Then Simeon looked like he was thinking about something, and he told Liz to come along with them instead. Colby started arguing, and they knocked him out, too."
He stared at David, biting his lip to keep from saying what he was thinking. And what were you doing to keep them from taking her? he wanted to ask, but knew that he wouldn't be asking the question if it was any member of his team other than the one he was involved with.
David seemed to see the question in his eyes anyway, for he said in a clipped tone of voice, "Then Esteban stood over you and pointed his gun at you and said they weren't going to ask again."
Don closed his eyes and let out a long breath, feeling the anger shift from David's direction to Simeon's. He'd been used as a hostage yet again, this time to enable them to take Liz while not allowing him the ability to refuse. Not that he could have refused, he supposed; they could well have shot him and taken her anyway.
"Why her?" he demanded, including both Colby and David in his gaze. "Why ask me to make some kind of decision and -- and then take her instead?"
"I don't know," Colby said, still rubbing at his forehead and looking down at the floor. "I wasn't resisting or anything."
Don looked at him more closely. "Colby," he said loudly enough to get the other man to look him in the eye. When he had his attention, he asked, "Do you know why I said your name back there?"
The green eyes looking back at him held an expression of resignation. "I can guess," he said wearily.
Don shook his head. "It's not that."
"It's not what?" Colby asked more sharply, scrambling to his feet with a poorly disguised wince of pain.
"It's not punishment, Granger. It's a decision I had a split second to make, and I thought you were the one best able to handle it." He shot David a quick glance of apology, but not before he saw a flash of anger across the other man's face. He let out a gusty sigh. This was not getting them any closer to finding Liz. "Do you have any idea which way they went?" he asked David, getting back to business.
David shook his head. "They drove the vans out the door and then shut it behind them. I'm sorry, Don."
They hadn't removed his comm link like they had from the other agents, but when he tried it again, he found it still down. "Goddamn power substation," Don muttered, adding a few more expletives for good measure. "I've got to get away from the interference," he said as he started to sprint towards the front of the property. "See if there's anything we can use to trace them," he called over his shoulder. He had no idea what he meant by that, but every second those bastards had Liz was a second they could be doing God-knew-what to her.
As he ran, he tamped down the fear that he felt for her, focusing on the here and the now. Call Control. Get backup. Find Liz. And then find out what the hell had gone wrong with this operation tonight.
Fifteen minutes later, he had done what he could to accomplish the first two. A team of four agents was on their way to the U-Stor-It to gather evidence and secure the premises, not that there was much left to secure. David had volunteered to stay behind and wait for them while Don headed back to the office with Colby to start searching for Liz. The two men jogged back to where they'd left the vehicles, Don automatically climbing into the driver's seat once they'd reached the parking lot.
All of a sudden, his hand was shaking so badly that he couldn't get the key into the ignition. He clamped his left hand around the steering wheel, willing his other hand to stay still and just put the damn key in.
Then a hand closed over his own, and he jumped in the seat. Colby's fingers were closing over his, his other hand coming to rest on Don's shoulder. "I think you'd better let me drive," he said pointedly.
Don stared out the windshield at the Burger King drive-thru, fighting to keep his voice level. "You were knocked out and unresponsive. There's no way someone with a head injury like that should be driving a vehicle."
"Then there's no way you should be driving one, either."
He jerked his hand out of Colby's grip. "I'm fine," he growled, shoving the key into the ignition and turning it so sharply he was surprised the metal didn't snap.
Colby held up his hands. "It's not going to do anyone any good if we spin out on the 10 because the driver can't keep his concentration on the road." The words were bland enough, but the tone of his voice was sharper than it had been a minute ago.
Don clenched both hands around the steering wheel. Colby's voice had the same tone it had an hour ago, when he was trying to distract Esteban from executing Don. He suddenly dropped his head. "Colby, I -- " Don shook his head. "Thanks for standing up for me like you did," he said, his voice rough. "If you guys hadn't done that…."
He'd had plenty of time to think, kneeling on the concrete with Esteban hovering behind him like an angel of death, aware at every moment of the gun inches from his head. And it hadn't taken long for him to figure out that it was his team's show of loyalty that had caused Simeon to change his plans and keep Don as a live hostage rather than make him a dead warning. He owed all of them his life.
"I told you we had your back," Colby replied. "And that's all I'm trying to do here."
Don looked up and met the other man's eyes. He knew that urgency and fear were written all over his own face, and he could see them in Colby's expression as well. You're not the only one who's worried here, Eppes. And you're not the only one who can do this job. He pressed his lips together and gave a short, acquiescent nod. "Okay," he said, letting go of the steering wheel and opening the car door. "You drive."
Once they had swapped seats and were on their way, lights flashing and sirens wailing, Don voiced a question that had been bothering him for at least half an hour now. "Colby," he started, trying his hardest to keep a demanding tone of voice rather than a curious one, "what was in that crate?"
He saw the other man's Adam's apple bob as he swallowed. "Uh, what crate?"
"Damn it, the one that I nearly got my head blown off over." Come on, Granger, give me a break.
There was silence for a moment. "I, uh, I'm not one hundred percent positive, but what it looked like, and Liz saw it too, was…well, it was full of rocket-propelled grenades."
"RPGs?" He turned sideways in his seat, staring at Colby, his voice dropping to a low, tight growl. "You guys were unloading crates of RPGs and you let them go?"
"We can get the weapons back, Don." Even in the near-darkness of the vehicle, Colby's hazel eyes were as intense as he had ever seen them. "There wouldn't have been any way to get you back."
He let out a long, slow breath. "Yeah, but that might not have been the right choice to make. I mean, do you really think an East L.A. street gang has a need for those things? We have no idea where they might be headed or who they might be intended for."
Colby was shaking his head. "If you're telling me we'd have been better off letting them pull the trigger, I'm gonna have to respectfully disagree with you, boss."
From a self-preservation view, he could hardly argue. But from an FBI agent's point of view, he understood that sometimes an individual's life was worthless compared to the common good. And this might well be one of those times. "How many?" he asked more quietly.
Colby shrugged. "Probably a dozen in that crate, at least two more of the same weight and size."
"Damn." Don pressed his lips together and leaned back against the seat. Thirty to forty RPGs somewhere in Greater L.A. One missing agent. He rubbed a hand over his jaw. They'd probably take her to the same place, right? So if they concentrated on trying to find Liz, they'd find the grenades, too. It was a gamble, but with the limited resources he had until the rest of the office returned from their wild goose chase in the Valley, it was the best command decision he could make. At least that's what he told himself as he dug out his phone and pressed the second speed dial button.
And God help Hector Simeon if he so much as touched a hair on Liz's head.