Sometimes the truth just ain't enough
Or it's too much in times like this
Let's throw the truth away
We'll find it in this kiss
In your skin upon my skin
In the beating of our hearts
May the living let us in
Before the dead tear us apart
--Bruce Springsteen, "Worlds Apart"
Chapter 1: Thunder Road
Megan (to Colby): Why don't we try and only break one law a day.
Los Angeles International Airport, better known as LAX, is a hodgepodge of individual terminals and gates. Some were recently rebuilt in steel and glass, some were renovated for the 1984 Olympics and were now more than a little dated, and some should be in a museum as an example of 1950s architecture and design, not still in use as a modern airport terminal. Megan wondered why it was that she always seemed to end up in one of the latter, especially when she was bleary-eyed from spending five hours in a tin can and being up since -- she squinted at the scratched plexiglass covering the clock on the wall -- 3 AM local time.
She docilely followed the crowd down the escalator towards baggage claim, willing the caffeine from the coffee she'd had somewhere over Arizona to combine with the three hours of catnapping she'd had between Kentucky and New Mexico to keep her awake enough to drive home. She mentally corrected herself -- after listening to her voice mail while taxiing to the gate, she realized she wouldn’t be going "home" per se. Not that the FBI office wasn’t the next closest thing, for all of the time she spent there.
Then again, she thought as she passed the unsmiling TSA guard and exited the secure area, if what was going on with her team was important enough to intervene with her DOJ assignment and drag her back here the day after she'd left, she should expect to be heading right to the office. After reading the files that had been faxed to her this afternoon, she'd understood just how important this was. Her blood had chilled at the stark words on the sleek fax paper describing the previous night's events, her behaviorist's mind already filling in the blanks and trying to understand what was going on in the heads of her teammates in the aftermath of what they had all gone through. Nothing good, of that she was sure.
The voice calling her name startled her badly, and her right hand was halfway to her side before she took in the familiar voice. "Whoa, Megan, easy there."
She turned and saw Colby moving towards her, his hands upraised. "Granger, what are you doing here?" she snapped before she could help it.
He lowered his hands. "I guess that hypothesis of Don's about you being short on sleep was right on the money. Good thing I'm here to make sure you don't plow into the median on the drive to the office."
"I thought Charlie was the one with the hypotheses." She briefly laid a hand on his shoulder in silent apology, and they started walking towards the carousels.
"Yeah, well..." Colby reached up and scratched his ear. "That's one of the updates I'm here to tell you about."
She stopped in her tracks, hearing a muttered curse from the person behind her who had to swerve their luggage cart around her. "Did something happen? Besides what was in your guys' statements?"
"More like the aftermath of what already happened," he assured her. "I don't know if Don said anything about it, but apparently Charlie made some kind of error in his calculations that meant the bulk of the L.A. field agents were on a semi-wild goose chase last night and not around to back us up."
"No, he didn't mention it," she replied, starting off again at a slower pace and adding one more piece to her mental jigsaw puzzle. "How big an error?"
"Well, Charlie spent this morning at the office going over the expressions he'd used to come up with his results, and when he figured it out, he pretty much went white. I eventually got Larry, of all people, to put into words small enough for me to understand." She nodded impatiently, and he went on, "Remember a couple of years ago when that Mars probe got lost because NASA was using feet and the European Space Agency was using meters?"
Her eyes widened. "That's what Charlie did?"
"No, not exactly, but Larry said that was close enough. Charlie stomped out of the office and won't return anyone's calls. Don finally got a hold of Alan, who said he's okay, just won't talk to anyone."
Megan pursed her lips. "So I take it you're dropping me off at the Eppes' house?"
"I would be, except for the other thing that happened since you got on the plane." The warning buzzer started going off at the baggage carousel, and they subtly elbowed their way forward.
"Which is?" She lifted a hand to her forehead and rubbed at the growing ache there.
Colby lowered his voice. "They found the driver who took Liz."
She looked at him and matched his quiet tone. "Not we have the driver, but they found the driver?"
He nodded and reached out a finger to tap twice in the center of her forehead. "Scared the janitor who found him enough to contact the police."
"Where?" she asked, looking away long enough to sweep her gaze over the long span of the conveyor belt and verify her bag wasn't approaching.
"Behind an office building on Wilshire. Cleaning crew found him about three hours ago. They were still working on ID when I left."
She nodded distractedly, noticing her suitcase rounding the far bend and heading towards them. "Not much I can do to help with that."
"No, but once we know who he is, we'll need to know why Simeon, uh, dealt with him like that." Colby cast a sideways glance at the young woman standing next to them who had her head cocked sideways like she was listening in. "And to be honest, I think we're all a little too close to this right now. We're hoping that a fresh pair of eyes will help things to make sense."
"Well, you've got me instead." Megan rubbed her tired eyes for emphasis. "Excuse me," she said to the young woman, noticing the rose tattoo on her shoulder that was nearly covered by her long, dirty blond hair. She moved aside, and Megan stepped forward.
"Which one?" Colby asked.
"Which one what?"
"Which bag is yours?" he asked with more patience than she would have expected, considering how obvious the question was.
She pointed towards the medium-sized suitcase at the back of the belt, half-buried by a huge cardboard box with a return address of the Philippines. "The black one," she added helpfully.
Colby shot her a look but stepped forward, reaching out with one arm and deftly snagging her bag as it rolled by, hefting it over the large box and setting it on the ground wheels-down. He snapped up the handle and said, "Let's go."
"I hope you're not expecting a tip, Granger," she said as they started towards the exit.
The corner of his mouth turned up. "Naw, if that were the case, I'd've asked to carry the other one, too." He gestured at the smaller black bag slung over her shoulder.
Megan patted its side. "Then you'd have been out of luck, because this one isn't supposed to leave my sight."
Colby raised an eyebrow, but didn't say anything. The contrast to their boss's exasperated words when she'd called him yesterday morning was remarkable. But then, if anyone on this team was going to understand the necessity and the difficulty of keeping state secrets, it was the man walking next to her.
Exiting into the balmy California air, she noted the palm trees waving in front of the parking garage as a welcome reminder that she had left Washington behind. They crossed past the lanes of cars and taxis picking up arrivals, pausing at the traffic light at the main ring road that connected the multiple terminals.
"So where are you parked?" Megan asked.
"Right across the street." He stepped off the curb as the light changed, dragging her suitcase behind.
She bit her lip. "Do you mind if we take my car instead? It's in the same garage, up a few levels."
He stopped and turned to face her. "Don really did send me here because he thought you'd be too tired to drive."
"I trust you behind the wheel," Megan said easily. "Look, I don’t want to have to come down here and get my car tomorrow or in a couple of days."
"It's not like I took the bus here," he said pointedly, starting across the crosswalk as the walk sign changed to a flashing red hand.
"You drove an FBI vehicle, right?" When Colby nodded, she went on, "Get a junior agent to take a cab in the morning and get it."
Both eyebrows went up. "That's not the most efficient use of resources."
They were almost inside the parking garage, and she could see the black hulk of a Suburban two spaces down from the entrance. "Come on, Colby. Please? I'll even let you use the onboard GPS." She couldn't bear the thought of making a special trip down here in the next couple of days, as crazy as they were likely to be.
"Not like I don't know where I'm going," Colby grumbled, but he turned in the direction of the elevators, and she hid a smile behind his back.
Five minutes later, Megan's bags were stowed in her trunk and she was buckling herself into the passenger seat, fighting a huge yawn that threatened to split her jaw. Colby echoed the gesture as he turned the key in the ignition, shaking his head as if to clear it. "You okay there?" she asked casually.
"Don't worry, I'm not gonna run us off the road," he retorted more sharply than she expected.
That, of course, got her antennae up, and she turned to look at him. He must have noticed her movement, for his head turned towards her as he finished backing out of the parking space. "Sorry, I'm just a little tired of everyone asking if I'm okay."
"You've been through a lot," Megan replied neutrally. "And not just in the last day."
"Yeah, you could say that," he answered. "Been through a lot of debriefing and monitoring and checking up, too."
She didn't have any idea of whom he'd talked to or for how long after his rescue from the Chinese freighter, in terms of either intelligence-gathering or mental health. She could guess about the latter, though: next to nothing. "All right, but I've got my eye on you," she said lightly.
"So how are you doing, Megan?"
The serious note in his voice took her by surprise. "I'm fine," she replied automatically.
Colby negotiated a tight turn out of the ramp and said, "Something about a pot and a kettle is coming to mind here."
She gave a small smile. "I'm not the one who was in a hostage situation yesterday."
"Doesn't mean you've been taking a walk in the park." Colby paid the attendant and pulled away from the booth.
That's for sure. She'd felt guilty at the relief that had swept over her this morning when she got Don's urgent message -- not just relief that everyone was okay, but that she would be leaving her DOJ colleagues much earlier than expected. She'd wanted to turn this assignment down from the start and had tried everything she could short of outright refusal, for all the good it had done her. When she'd gotten the call early Monday morning, she'd had the uncomfortable feeling that not only had she not been able to turn down the assignment in the first place, she was never going to be able to get away from it. Getting involved with the Department of Justice shouldn't feel like getting involved in organized crime, she thought ruefully.
They drove in silence for a few minutes, Colby concentrating on merging with traffic and Megan rubbing her eyes and actually looking forward to the coffee in the office. Once they were safely on the freeway, he said, "You know, after six months I stopped reporting on you guys."
She blinked. "What?"
Colby set the cruise control and sat back, still looking straight ahead. "Part of my assignment was to monitor and report back. I decided all the monitoring I was going to do was related to Dwayne Carter and no one else. My, uh, my handler didn't like that very much, but he knew who the big fish was and that I was the only one who could get to him. So we had to do things my way."
There were a number of questions swirling around in her head right now, but the one Megan voiced was, "Does this have something to do with what happened yesterday?"
"You could say that." There was a pause, and then Colby went on, "David...well, we aren't really talking, and Don has too much on his plate right now, especially after yesterday." He cast her a quick glance. "I thought when I was on the freighter that I wasn't going to get to tell my side of the story, and that bothered me as much as thinking that I wasn't going to make it out of there. So, I guess I learned that I have to when I have the chance."
"Does telling your story include sharing top secret information?" Megan asked with raised eyebrows.
"Nah, it was part of my deal." At her quizzical look, he went on, "They agreed that I could tell you guys the stuff that pertained to you. Which actually isn't anything, which is my point."
Megan pursed her lips as she thought. They were approaching the flyover ramp from the eastbound I-105 to the northbound I-110, a high arch of concrete connecting the two sets of carpool lanes and soaring over the multiple lanes and ramps below. Normally, she would have enjoyed the view, with the glittering sprawl of L.A. spread out in front of them, the downtown skyscrapers visible in the distance and two parallel lines of lights way overhead and to the east marking a dozen planes on approach to the dual sets of runways at LAX. Tonight, though, there were low clouds -- she hadn't seen the ground from the plane until they were a few blocks from the end of the runway -- and all she saw was the orange glow of millions of streetlights reflecting off the dark clouds.
"I don't mean for you to do anything with it, I just wanted to tell someone." Colby glanced in the rearview mirror and went on with a shrug of one shoulder, "And let you know that if you need anyone to talk to, I'm pretty good at keeping secrets."
"What is this, you show me your classified material and I show you mine?" She deliberately put a playful note in her voice, trying to tell him that she understood what he was saying.
"Classified material, huh?" His eyes twinkled in a way she hadn't seen in months as he pretended to leer at her. "Is that what they're calling it these days?"
She pressed her lips together to hide a smile and swatted his shoulder. Inwardly, she was pleased that he was making a joke, not just after what had gone on in the last twenty-four hours, but in light of all that had happened in the last three months. "Watch it, Granger."
"Yeah, I know. Normally if a guy makes a comment like that to a woman who's taken, he's gotta watch his back. No offense to Dr. Fleinhardt, but I don't think I have to worry about him kicking my ass."
"Not since I'm more likely to be the one kicking his ass," she muttered. She hadn't even told Larry she was going out of town for the week; given how early she'd left, she didn't think it necessary to inform him, and it had somehow slipped her mind in the intervening days. Considering how uncommunicative he'd been lately, she didn't think he'd notice.
Colby's voice cut into her thoughts, not the teasing response she had expected, but sounding more serious. "Hey, Megan. Can that thing tell us how to lose a tail?" he asked, jerking his chin at the GPS unit on the dashboard.
"No, that feature's still in development," she joked. But then she saw him look in the rearview mirror again, and her tone of voice changed completely. "Colby?"
"There's a white sedan that's been behind us since the airport." His voice was calm, but there was an underlying tension behind it.
"Yeah, this is the main route from LAX to downtown. There are lots of vehicles you could say that for."
"Not just since the airport: since the parking garage. And it's catching up awfully fast."
"Are you sure you're not being -- " Megan paused, trying to think of a more delicate way to phrase it.
"Paranoid?" The headlights from the opposing traffic illuminated the tight grin on Colby's face. "Funny, you're the second person to ask me that in the last twenty-four hours. And we both know what happened the last time."
She didn't need anything more than his words and her trust in his instincts. Reaching for the cell phone at her belt, she flipped it open and hit the second speed dial button. The FBI dispatcher at the other end took down her information and said that there was an LAPD unit two miles behind on the freeway that they'd be sending along. She relayed the information to Colby and cast a glance in her side mirror.
She was just in time to see the passenger window roll down on the vehicle behind them and an automatic weapon extend in their direction.
"Colby!" she shouted, but he'd already seen it. He swerved out of the carpool lane as the rattle of automatic weapons fire came from behind and to their left. Fortunately, there was no one in front of them, so the bullets didn't strike anything but pavement. Their pursuers quickly mimicked their move, and Colby jerked the wheel to the right again, throwing a quick glance over his shoulder. It might have been after eleven at night, but there were still more than a handful of cars on the road, too many for him to veer across multiple lanes at once.
Megan turned in her seat, reaching for the gun at her back only to come up empty. Damn it, she'd decided it was faster to go through security if her weapon was packed away in her checked bag. "I need your gun," she said quickly.
"Take it," Colby replied as he hit the accelerator.
She smoothly pulled the weapon from its holster at his side. What are the odds my car insurance covers shot-out windows when it's the owner doing the shooting? she thought as she aimed out the rear left window.
But there was a beat-up pickup truck in the lane next to them, the three people crammed in the front seat oblivious to the drama going on around them. The white sedan came roaring up on the pickup's left, and Megan shouted, "Get down!" As the sedan drew even with the truck, she saw the driver's eyes widen at the sight of the armed man hanging out the passenger window, and the squeal of brakes was followed by the pickup dropping back and out of sight.
That left their pursuers two lanes over with a completely clear shot.
"Look out!" she warned, but Colby had already slammed on the brakes. The spray of bullets went past the hood of the car and into the concrete wall on the side of the freeway. The white car hit its brakes as well, and Colby followed by pounding on the gas, sending them lurching forward. Megan took aim out the rear window, but there was a city bus in the carpool lane, directly opposite the white car. "Damn it," she muttered.
"We gotta get off the freeway," Colby called. "There's too many other people, and it'll only get worse the closer we get to downtown."
"You're right," she agreed. "Just don't telegraph it."
A quick glance at the speedometer told her they were doing nearly ninety, but it was going to take more than that for her little Acura to outrun the people behind them. City streets were more likely to be empty this time of night than the 110, and it would be easier for LAPD to block in their pursuers. She fumbled for her cell phone as they sped along, Colby occasionally swerving to one side or another, trying to keep both themselves and the other drivers on the road out of the line of fire as much as possible. After updating the dispatcher on their situation, she dropped the phone on the back seat, keeping the line open.
The *ping* of something striking the back bumper had her ducking for cover, and Colby lowered his head over the steering wheel. They were in the center lane of five at that point, with an exit sign coming up fast. "Hang on," he called. Then he swerved towards the exit, shooting across two lanes and squeaking past the exit sign and the bright yellow collision barrier.
They rocketed down the exit ramp, brakes squealing as they slowed from ninety to near zero in a matter of seconds. The stench of burning rubber tickled her nose. Looking behind them, Megan saw the white sedan overshooting the exit, then screeching to a dead stop on the freeway. Then they dropped below the elevated freeway lanes, and she couldn't see anything more.
When they came to the traffic light at the bottom of the exit ramp, Colby yanked the wheel to the right and hit the gas again, speeding through the deserted streets and periodically taking a cross-street, turning the wheel left or right seemingly at random. Megan kept facing the rear of the car, watching for their pursuers, some corner of her mind registering gratitude that she wasn’t prone to carsickness. But the one time she saw a white car, it turned into a driveway a couple of blocks behind them.
Finally, at least ten minutes after they had left the freeway, Colby slowed to a normal driving speed. "Any sign of 'em?" he asked.
"No, none." She turned around and lowered the gun to her lap, leaning her head back against the headrest, watching the boarded-up shop windows pass by and feeling her heart rate slow down to something approximating normal.
There was a pause. Then Colby said dryly, "So, welcome back to California."
She snorted. "Remind me not to have you pick up any of the Bureau's out-of-town guests from LAX if this is how you're gonna show them around town."
He stopped at a red light, the first one he hadn't blown through since leaving the freeway, and squinted up at the street signs. "Do you have any idea where the hell we are? Besides the middle of South Central?"
"Didn't you get the memo, Granger? The mayor renamed it 'South L.A.' to get rid of the neighborhood's bad reputation."
Colby gave her a you've got to be kidding look. "Yeah, it's sure done wonders to increase the police presence around here. That's why no one noticed us driving along at fifty and skipping all of the red lights."
A tired smile stretched across her face. "Told ya you could use this thing," she said, reaching out to switch the GPS unit on.
He pulled over to the side of the road beneath one of the few functioning streetlights and studied the box on the dashboard. "You okay?" he asked after a moment.
"Yeah, fine. You?"
He nodded. Then he turned to look at her, the streetlight above throwing the troubled expression on his face into stark relief. "The thing I want to know is," he said, voicing the same thought that was on her mind, "who exactly were they after?"
Megan met his eyes. "Like we didn't all have enough on our plates right now," she replied, and he nodded again in grim agreement.