Chapter 6: Long Walk Home
Liz: I don't want to get hurt.
Don: I know. Kinda goes with the territory though, doesn't it?
"Agent Warner, can I get you anything? Coffee? Water?"
The woman standing in the doorway of the glassed-in conference room was about the same age as Liz but looked infinitely more alert. "No thank you, I'm fine," Liz replied. She'd already had two cups of coffee since arriving in the office; any more and it was going to start coming out her ears. She bounced one leg up and down, as if to demonstrate that she already had enough caffeine in her system. Of course, at the same time she felt that if she put her head down on the desk, she would pass out from exhaustion before more than a few seconds had passed.
"Okay." The petite brunette entered the room and let the door swing closed behind her. "By the way, I'm Special Agent Theresa Pennington, here for your debriefing."
"Nice to meet you," Liz said, half-rising from her chair to extend a hand.
They shook hands, and Theresa sat down, tucking one jean-clad leg beneath her. "Likewise, although I'm sure we both wish it were under other circumstances."
Liz raised her eyebrows in agreement. "Have you been in the L.A. office long?"
Theresa shook her head. "Nearly two months. How about you?"
"About six months full time, but I was here earlier on a case."
Theresa uncapped her pen. "That would be the Tabakian case, right?"
"That's right." Liz sat up straighter, folding her hands on the table in front of her. Straight to the point -- she liked that.
She started talking about her previous knowledge of the Salvadoreans, careful to avoid her hurt feelings at being left out of tonight's raid, although a sympathetic smile from her questioner told her that the other woman heard what she wasn't saying out loud. At Theresa's prompting, she then started telling the story of what had happened earlier tonight on their own ill-fated raid. The other agent was good; she almost made it feel like a conversation rather than a formal process, and Liz found herself relaxing back into the office chair. Maybe this wouldn't be as bad as she'd feared.
She figured that in the room next door, Don was saying pretty much the same thing. He had finally agreed to start his debriefing once Charlie and Amita had gone home and she'd been safely ensconced in this room. The professors had offered their delighted greetings when she entered the bullpen, and Don had given them a couple of moments with her before gently but firmly herding them off. She was half-surprised that Don had let her out of his sight, but then she realized that through the glass walls, she could catch a glimpse of him in his black t-shirt, seated across the table from a Hispanic man she vaguely recognized from some gang task force or another. It was reassuring to know that he was there, even if she had no intention of talking to him until she was done here.
Before she knew it, the questions had gotten more specific, and she was explaining how she and David had been ambushed, giving a detailed description of the two men who had overpowered them and the three more who had escorted Don and Colby into the oversized storage unit. She knew it was going to get tricky from here, and she sat up straight again, taking a deep breath.
"So you can positively identify all of the men who were there?" Agent Pennington was asking.
"Except the youngest two, yes. And the man who was in the car with me later."
"We'll get there," Theresa said with a warm smile, reaching up to re-do her ponytail and smoothing back some strands that had escaped the elastic band. "You need a break?"
Liz looked at the wall clock and was surprised to find that an hour had passed already. "No, I'd rather keep going," she said in a firm voice.
"Okay then." Theresa looked down at her notes. "What happened once the four of you were in the storage unit?"
She licked her lips and started in a low tone to talk about the threats to Don, first the initial one of eliminating him as the leader of their team, and then the way he'd been held as a hostage in front of them. Theresa's brown eyes went wide when she described how close he had come to being shot in front of them not once, but twice. Liz didn't know if the other woman was aware of her relationship with Don, but if she was, she was hiding it well. Then again, if she'd only been in Los Angeles for a couple of months, she might not be familiar with all of the inter-office entanglements.
Liz stopped talking for a moment, giving her questioner a moment to finish the notes she was taking. The conversation was being recorded, of course, but the notes were a valuable backup in case something went wrong with the recording. They also were used to save non-verbal details not apparent on the video, as well as any thoughts or leads that the debriefer wanted to note but didn't want to interrupt the flow of the story by saying out loud.
"Okay, so then what?" Theresa asked. "They made you unload the rest of the stolen cargo?"
"Right." Liz wetted her lips and went on, going over the details of that terrifying forty-five minutes. She started to tense up when she got to the part where she and Colby had inadvertently seen the contents of one of the boxes, leading to another immediate threat to Don's life. But Theresa's expression indicated that she already knew of the RPGs. Liz frowned. "I guess I'm the last one to get debriefed?"
"Yeah, I talked to Granger earlier when you were on your way back. We've already got a dozen agents searching for the contents of those crates and more on the way."
Liz kept going on an even keel until she got to the point where Don was forced to choose among his team members and then knocked unconscious. Then she started jogging her foot up and down, the remnants of the caffeine apparently surfacing again. "Then Simeon looked me over and said he'd changed his mind, and I was going to come along with him. Colby started fighting the guy who was holding him, and they knocked him out. Then Simeon said he would kill Don if I didn't go, so…" She shrugged and met Theresa's eyes, pushing back the memory of the Salvadorean standing over Don's unconscious body and aiming a gun at his chest. "So I went."
The brunette nodded and scribbled down a few words. "Did they take you in one of the trucks?"
"No, Simeon had a car parked up near the front. He must have come after we entered. It was a fairly new BMW, dark color, license plate 5DTX 213. The driver was already in the car. Simeon made me get in the back and kept his gun on me the whole time."
"And where did they take you?"
"We turned left out of the lot, and in the rearview mirror, I saw all of the trucks and vans going the other way." She gave an apologetic shrug, and Theresa nodded with a small frown. "Simeon said we were going to his place, that he had something special planned." Liz rolled her eyes and tried to show that she had just shrugged off his threats, but the truth was, she had been terrified. She hadn't heard any gunshots when they left Don and the others behind, but that didn't mean they were all right. Even if they were, she knew there was no way for them to track her, and being alone in the hands of these men was one of the worst things she could imagine.
"That must have freaked you out," Theresa replied, her eyes wide again.
She thought for a moment about how to phrase it. "The thing was," she said slowly, "what scared me more than anything else was that the longer I was with him, the more likely it was that he would recognize me. Especially once it seemed like it was all part of his plan."
The other agent tilted her head to the side. "That kidnapping you was part of his plan? How could that be? How could he have expected to run into you out there?"
"I don't know." Liz shook her head. "See, at first, he was talking about how upset my...my boyfriend must be, and that the FBI was going to spend all of their time looking for me and never find me, and that in the meantime, his crew was going to get away free and clear."
"Your boyfriend?" Theresa was frowning in confusion.
So she didn't know, Liz thought. Then something else occurred to her, and she looked at the mirror hiding the recording equipment and grimaced. Guess this makes it official. "Agent Eppes and I have been seeing each other for several months," she said matter-of-factly.
The petite agent's mouth formed an O for a second, but she recovered quickly. "That's why they took you?"
"That's what he told me." As frightened as she'd been in the car, she'd also been furious: at Simeon for taking advantage of their relationship, at herself for obviously not being able to hide her emotions well enough in the U-Stor-It, and even irrationally at Don for getting them into this mess. It was a worst-case scenario come to life, and there was nothing she could do about it.
And then the scene had changed. Liz said, "But then he called someone and said, 'I have her,' and then from what I could hear, it sounded like he was discussing the details of handing me over to someone else."
"He said all that in front of you?" Theresa's expression was skeptical.
"In Spanish, yes. He thought I couldn't understand any of it."
Her head tilted to the other side. "Why is that?"
Liz licked her lips. "When we first started driving, he and the driver...well, they made some pretty graphic threats about what they were going to do to me once we were at our destination." She took a deep breath. "I knew he was watching me -- they were both watching me -- and I managed to look uncertain, like I had no idea what they were talking about. So they figured I couldn't understand them, and then they talked freely."
Theresa's expression was full of sympathy. "That must have been awful for you."
"Yeah, it pretty much sucked," she said in the understatement of the year, staring down at the table and forcing back the memory of the fear she'd felt at their threats of violation, while trying to hold on to the sensory details of what she had heard and seen. "I saw the driver's eyes in the mirror, but no more of his face than that. Light brown eyes, dark brown hair, medium to light complexion. Probably less than six feet tall, but I never saw him standing up. He wasn't a native Spanish speaker, although he was fluent."
"What makes you say that? Did he have an accent?" Theresa was scribbling furiously on a sheet of paper she'd torn off from the pad.
"No, no accent. But his phrasing was a little too formal, he didn't use any slang, things like that. It made him sound like he'd learned from a textbook rather than out in the real world."
"Anything else?" Theresa waved at a colleague passing by in the hall, motioning him to come in. When Liz shook her head, she folded the piece of paper and handed it to the man, who Liz suddenly realized was the same one who had been taking Don's statement, which meant he must be finished. She looked around as Theresa gave instructions to the man about where to deliver Liz's description of the driver, but she didn't see him. Probably watching through the one-way glass, she thought grumpily. On the other hand, if he was, that meant she wouldn't have to tell her story twice.
"Okay, go on."
Theresa's voice startled her, and she twitched in her seat. "Right. Um, so we drove down the 10, back into L.A. I knew that the gang used to be based out of East L.A, so I figured that's where we were going. Then just as we hit West Covina, Simeon got a call. It was one of his underlings, telling him about what went down in the Valley."
"Which was a whole lot of nothing," Theresa muttered. At Liz's quizzical look, she went on, "Twenty field agents and a SWAT team, and we get five glorified messengers and a mid-level, thoroughly expendable runner."
Liz leaned forward and folded her hands on the table. "I'm not so sure she was expendable."
Theresa's eyebrows went up. "How did you know it was a woman?"
"Because I overheard Simeon. He was furious. Berated the guy who called him for at least sixty seconds, said this was going to ruin everything they'd been working for, and then he hung up on him." She remembered sitting there in the dark interior of the sedan, praying that he wouldn't turn and take out his anger on her because of the FBI shirt she still wore. "He was quiet for a few minutes, then he told me to hand over my wallet. He pulled out the driver's license, handed it to the driver, and told him to go there."
Theresa winced. "Did he say he was going to let you go then?"
She shook her head. "No. And the driver said, 'What about your…'" She hesitated, searching for the word. "Something between 'partner' and 'client'. Simeon blew him off, though, and we kept going down the 10, all the way to my apartment."
"So they saw your name on your driver's license?"
Liz thought for a moment, forcing herself to envision the scene. "Simeon just pulled it out and handed it to the driver; I don't know if the driver read my name or just the address. I mean, one's right on top of the other, so I don't think he could have missed it, but he didn't say anything about recognizing my name." Thank God, she added silently. Her face might not be known to Hector Simeon and his compatriots, but her name surely was, given her involvement in Ivan Tabakian's testimony against them.
"Good," Theresa said. "But they knew you're FBI, right?"
For answer, she pointed to the bright yellow letters on the upper left part of her shirt.
Theresa nodded and frowned. "It's strange that they would let you go, then. I mean, if we caught a bigger fish than we thought we did tonight, you would think they would want to hold on to you as some kind of bargaining chip." She quickly added, "Not that it's not a great thing that they let you go."
The corner of her mouth turned up. "Yeah, I was wondering that myself." Something struck her, and she paused, brow furrowing. "The driver said their client was going to be unhappy, but Simeon reminded him that they knew where to find me, and that dealing with the fallout had to be their top priority. Then the driver muttered something about how their partner would be unhappy even if they did bring me to him, but Simeon was dialing his phone, and I don't think he heard that."
"What do you think he meant by it?"
"I don't know." Liz shook her head. "I have no idea who they were talking about, but it wasn't someone who was part of the Salvadorean organization. There was a kind of distance in the words they used to describe him."
Theresa pursed her lips. "So they kidnap you and tell you out loud that it's to distract your boyfriend and put a stumbling block in the way of your team finding the stolen cargo. Then they say behind your back that they took you as part of a deal with some third party. But when things go south up in the Valley, they decide to just drop you off at home?"
"That pretty much sums it up, yeah."
There was a pause. Then Theresa said, "That's weird."
Liz raised her eyebrows in agreement, refusing to voice the thought that had been bothering her ever since Simeon pulled out her driver's license. Of course, they do know where I live, so if they change their minds...
"All right, did they say anything else in the car?"
She shook her head. "That last phone call Simeon made was to the Ortegas, two of the guys who were with us in the storage unit. But he was just asking them if they had arrived without any trouble, and they said everything was fine."
"What time was that call?" Theresa asked quickly.
Liz blinked. I should have thought of that. "I'm not sure. We were west of downtown at that point, so probably an hour after we left Fontana."
"So the stolen goods are somewhere within an hour's drive of where they started."
"Less than that; I heard one of them say that they'd been waiting for Simeon's call."
"Good." Theresa wrote that down and looked up at her. "And then what happened at your place?"
She swallowed and looked down. "Simeon forced me inside and the driver stayed in the car. He, um, he took my handcuffs and restrained me, said that by the time I got free, they'd be long gone."
"Did he handcuff you to something?"
She really hoped Don wasn't in the monitoring room listening to this. "Yeah. To the headboard of my bed."
Theresa's eyes shot up to hers, full of sympathy and shock. "Did he -- "
Liz shook her head firmly. "He looked at me like..." She stopped and licked her lips nervously. "He made my skin crawl, but he didn't make any threats. The only time he actually threatened me was in the car, in Spanish, and I think that was just to see if I understood him."
"Well, that's something, at least." They shared an understanding smile, and Theresa went on, "So how long did it take you to get loose?"
"Almost an hour." She'd struggled with herself over whether to try to break the railing of the headboard, but in the end she'd been too stubborn to destroy one of her only real pieces of furniture. The bottle of hand lotion on the nightstand had made her wrists slippery enough to wriggle out of the cuffs, although it had taken much longer than she expected. She'd worked frantically, wondering if anyone was looking for her and worrying all the while about Don, unconscious on that cold cement floor. "Then I called Don as soon as I was free, and he and David came by and collected the evidence." She frowned. Someone was going to have to go back for the handcuffs, since she'd completely forgotten to have them bagged. Subconsciously, she probably hadn't wanted to mention them in front of Don, but she was a little too tired to be analyzing and second-guessing herself right now.
There would be plenty of time for that in the morning.
Theresa asked a few more questions for clarification, but now that the story was over, Liz felt like she could barely keep her eyes open. Noting the clock on the wall, she realized that she'd been awake for almost twenty-four hours, with multiple adrenaline rushes in between that had further sapped her strength. The other agent seemed to notice her flagging energy, for she kept her questions short and simple, giving her a reassuring smile now and then, and all in all acting like being up all night was no big deal. "Were you on the raid earlier?" Liz asked abruptly.
"Yeah, I was," Pennington replied. "But then, I'm a bit of a night owl, so they often call me in when there's a late-night operation. Gives me an excuse as to why I'm bleary-eyed before noon the next day, unlike my usual sleepy-owl imitation." She gave a small smile and said, "Well, I think that's it. Get some rest now, you hear?" She reached across the table and laid a hand on Liz's forearm. "Glad it turned out okay."
I'm not sure it has yet, Liz thought, but out loud she said, "Thanks. Thanks for everything." She gestured at the note-taking paraphernalia, trying to convey her gratitude at everything the other woman had done to try and put her at ease.
When Theresa opened the door to leave, Liz wasn't surprised to see Don waiting on the other side. The shorter woman gave him a warm smile and gestured for him to go in, flashing Liz a quick wink before she turned away.
Liz rose from her chair as he came in, and they wordlessly embraced. She laid her head on his shoulder, not caring if the entire office was watching, although a quick peek told her that the bullpen was empty. Considering that it was somewhere between four and five in the morning, she wasn't surprised.
Don's arms were tight around her, one hand gently stroking her upper back in a calming, repetitive motion that made her relax further into him. Liz could feel his heartbeat underneath her right ear, and it was so beautifully reassuring after the terrors of the night that she wanted to stand there forever.
But she was exhausted, and she knew he must be, too, and so she pulled back slightly to look at him. For a moment, she caught a flash of emotion in his eyes so deep and intense that she knew that however impulsive his earlier words on the phone might have been, he truly meant them.
And that was something she really wasn't ready to deal with right now.
Liz opened her mouth to say something, but Don tilted his head forward and dropped a kiss on her lips. She responded briefly, then pulled back, looking around a little nervously. He gave her an understanding smile and caressed her hair once before letting her go. "Don't worry, I'm not gonna make a habit of it," he said lightly. "Special circumstances and all."
"Yeah," she agreed with a tired smile.
"So, uh, you ready to go?"
She nodded. "Ready when you are."
"Okay. I figured we'd go to my place tonight and then tomorrow morning -- well, in a few hours, I guess -- I can take you to your place to grab a few things."
Liz frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Well, you're going to need some clothes and things for the next few weeks, right?"
Either she was more tired than she knew, or she had missed something. "What are you talking about?"
Don raised a hand to scratch the back of his neck. "I mean, you don't have to stay with me if you don't want to, but there's no way you're going back home right now."
She folded her arms across her chest. "And why not?"
"Liz, I heard what you said." He gestured towards the table where she and Theresa had been sitting. "They know where you live. They know how to get to you. Until we catch these guys, there's no way you can stay in your house."
"Don, the FBI has been trying to catch these guys for over two years. What makes you think it's going to happen any time soon?"
His jaw stubbornly set, he went on, "I will not let you put yourself in danger like that."
"Oh, you won't let me, huh?" Liz took a step closer, her tiredness suddenly gone. "And are you going to let me be an agent and do my job, or am I going to find myself assigned to desk duty for the foreseeable future?"
Don stared at her. "What the hell are you talking about?"
She drew in a deep breath as she suddenly realized what she was saying. The words she hadn't said to Theresa, the thoughts she hadn't shared about the implications of what had happened tonight, were about to come spilling forth, and she was not about to let that happen in the confines of the FBI office, especially in a room with one-way glass and microphones. "Nothing," she replied wearily, asking with her eyes that he let it drop, at least for now. "I'm sorry, I'm way too tired right now."
"Okay, it's all right," Don said, the wrinkles on his forehead and the hesitant tone of his voice indicating that he didn't understand what was going on, but he wasn't going to push it. "Listen, I -- " He reached out to touch her face but then drew back. "I'd be saying the same thing if it was Megan or any other female agent, you know. Heck, I'd probably even say it if it was Colby or David, though I'd definitely make them sleep on the couch."
The corners of her mouth turned up. "Yeah, okay," she replied softly.
"So, can I take you back to my place? Or there's a spare room at Charlie's, if you'd prefer; I'm sure he wouldn't mind."
That's better, Liz thought. Don't just tell me what to do. Aloud she said, "Your place is fine." The thought of going back to her condo, of trying to sleep in the bed Hector Simeon had chained her to, made her stomach turn. While she wasn't opposed to the idea of staying somewhere else for a while, it was the way Don had taken control of the situation and assumed she would do whatever he said that had raised her hackles. If the helplessness of her abduction had brought to life one of her worst fears, the professional fear of being reduced to someone who had to be protected and coddled was almost as strong. She knew the implications of the Salvadoreans knowing where she lived, and it was only a matter of time before they figured out exactly who she was and what she had done to them. But it should be her call as to what to do about it, not Don's.
That's how they train us to deal with victims, she suddenly thought. Don't take away their ability to make decisions, allow them to keep some measure of control. She put her hand over her eyes briefly and squeezed her temples. I'm not a victim, she told herself. Nothing happened to me.
"You all right?" Don asked, concern lacing his voice.
"Yeah, I'm fine," Liz replied quietly, looking up at him and tentatively reaching out to take his hand. To reassure him, she gave him a smile that probably didn't reach her eyes, but was the best she could do at the moment. "Let's go home."
End of Part 1
Part 2, Chapter 1