Chapter 2: The Fuse
Colby: Come on, man, how can you not trust people who are working to help orphans?
Don: Well, same way you don’t trust anybody….How well does anyone know who they're working with?
Colby: The way I see it, you got a team, you gotta trust 'em. That's just the way it works.
--"Money for Nothing"
Colby pulled the silver Acura into the FBI parking garage and found a spot close to the elevators, which wasn't hard to do at a quarter to midnight. Two LAPD cars followed, one on either side, and he turned off the ignition and sighed. "Think we can pull rank and say we got it from here?"
In the passenger seat, Megan rubbed her forehead. "Don't I wish."
They climbed out of the car, slowly, just in case the conversation they'd had through the FBI dispatcher on the way here hadn't convinced the cops that they were the good guys. But there was no mistrust on the part of the uniformed officers, who'd been following them ever since they got back on the freeway, and Colby realized that using his keycard to get the gate of the FBI garage to go up was probably a big clue that they were legit.
Before he could say anything, the elevator doors slid open and Don stepped out, his black shirt making his pale face stand out against the darkness of the garage. "Hey, you guys all right?" he asked.
"We're fine," Colby answered. "Not a scratch."
Don looked pointedly down at the bumper as he approached, where a couple of holes denoted that more than one bullet had hit at least part of its mark. One of the LAPD officers whistled, and he turned to her. "Special Agent Don Eppes," he said in that firm, I'm-in-charge voice that Colby had heard for years in the military. "Thanks for the escort, but we've got it from here."
The blonde officer started, "Agent Eppes, these two were involved in a high-speed car chase right through the heart of Los Angeles. We can't -- "
"These two are my people, and we have jurisdiction. Our ballistics people are on their way down to check out the car, and we'll be taking their statements." He shrugged one shoulder as if to say, That's all.
"Thanks for the escort," Colby added, keeping his expression sincere.
The blonde pressed her lips together and then whirled around. "You'll be hearing from my captain later today," she said as she stalked away.
Colby waited until she and her colleagues were inside their cars before looking at his watch and saying, "Unless he calls in the next ten minutes, today's gonna be over soon."
Don gave him a sideways look and walked around to the driver's side of the car, ignoring the police as they pulled away. "So, what happened?" he asked, squatting down next to the front tire.
"Not much more than what Megan told you on the phone on the way here," Colby replied, going over to see what he was looking at. He whistled when he saw the two jagged holes near the center of the hubcap. "Lucky neither of those hit the tire."
"Yeah," Don said, rising to his feet and continuing around to the front. He pointed at another bullet hole at the left corner of the fender and kept going. "Did you get a good look at them?"
Megan answered, "The one with the gun had a ski mask on, and I never really saw the driver. Did you?" she asked Colby
"No, I was too focused on staying on the road." He tried to remember what he'd seen in the rearview mirror that had raised his suspicions in the first place. "You know, I think the driver had one on, too. I couldn't see their faces when they were behind us, and I thought that was strange. Then when they started speeding up, I got even more suspicious."
"Did they get close enough for you to see their eyes, anything?" Don asked.
He shook his head. "Sorry, no."
Megan was squinting off into the distance. "I might have been able to, but I was too busy trying to get a shot off. I want to say the last two digits on the plate were 63, but I can't be sure."
"Could they have been Chinese?" Don asked abruptly.
Colby stared at him. "That's what you think this is about?" With everything we're already going through right now, you have to bring that up?
Don's eyebrows raised. "You don't?"
"That doesn't make any sense. I wasn't even in my own car, and if they followed me to the airport, why would they wait till I had a passenger?" He paused for a moment and added, "Besides, there's no reason to think they would be after me. That's over and done with."
"Aw, come on. They probably want to know how much of your intel was legit, right?" Don replied, watching him closely.
He licked his lips and drew in a breath, keeping his eyes locked on Don's. "None of what I told Dwayne to tell them was legit, or at least none of it was unique to me," he said deliberately. "We've been over this before."
"Well, it can't be Megan." Don held out his arm, palm up, pointing towards her. "No one except a handful of people in the FBI and the DOJ knew she was on that flight tonight. Unless you want to tell me it was a case of mistaken identity and they were trying to kidnap someone else in a silver Acura."
"They weren't trying to kidnap us, they were trying to kill us," Colby snapped back.
Don shook his head. "Look at the bullet holes," he said, waving his arm at the car before dropping it to his side. "I don't need a mathematician to tell me what that pattern means."
Colby registered the sharpness in his tone at the word "mathematician," but he ignored it for the time being. He looked down at the car. One in the left front fender, two in the left front hubcap, two in the left rear bumper. "It means they were on our left side," he said, deadpan. "Which we kind of already knew."
Don rolled his eyes. "Megan?" he asked, turning towards her.
She pinched her lower lip between her thumb and forefinger. "They're all low," she finally said. "Either there was something wrong with the gun, or we happened to hit a bump every time they fired...or they weren't shooting at either of us, they were shooting at the tires."
"Yeah, but you lose a tire doing ninety, you're not just gonna coast to a stop," Colby retorted.
"No, but there's got to be a reason they aimed so low," she replied more evenly.
He thought about it for a minute. He'd only gotten a quick glimpse of the white sedan when the pickup between them backed off, but as he slammed on the brakes, he thought he could recall the muzzle of the automatic rifle aimed not at his head, as he'd expected and feared, but lower down. At the time, he'd figured they just hadn't brought it up to aim yet, but if Don was right...
A shiver went down his spine. If Don was right, his nightmare might not have ended with Mason Lancer's death. It might not be over by a long shot.
Don was rounding the back of the car, walking past Megan and coming up to him. "Look, Colby, things are tough enough around here right now, okay? Something like this is not what we need."
Colby stiffened. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. "What, you think I asked them to chase me?" he asked coldly.
"No, but -- " Don let out a huff of breath. "I'm gonna be honest with you. If I thought something like this was going to happen, I might have had second thoughts about having you stick around."
He opened his mouth to retort, but Megan was laying a hand on Don's upper arm. "Don, take it easy, okay? Until we know what's going on, we shouldn't be..." She removed her hand as he gave her a sharp glance. "We shouldn't be saying things we might regret later."
"We are just concerned about our team," he replied in a low tone. Holding up his finger and thumb a half-inch apart, he went on, "We came this close to having our head blown off yesterday -- twice -- so excuse me if we are a little touchy right now."
Colby had never seen Don like this, so ... well, "touchy" was actually a good word for it. He'd certainly seen his boss pissed like this. But then, he'd blocked out the memory of the excruciating hours of interrogation at the hands of his teammates that in the end had been harder to endure than Mason's threats and injections. This Don wasn't as blindingly angry as that one had been, but he was on edge in a way that Colby wasn't used to seeing, and it was disturbing.
Colby exchanged a quick glance with Megan and saw the same cautious concern on her face. "Just back off for a second, okay?" he asked, modulating his voice and trusting his boss would follow suit.
Instead, Don rounded on him and said, "Are you telling me what to do, Granger?"
"No, I'm not. Sir." He snapped his reply in the same tone of voice he would use to address a superior officer, automatically straightening his shoulders but resisting the urge to snap a salute.
Don actually flinched. Then he put both hands over his face for a moment before dragging his fingers downward, elongating his features. "Sorry, guys. It's been a long couple of days, you know? And then I've been in interrogation half the day, so it's probably gotten to me a little. I shouldn't be so..." He trailed off, shaking his head.
"Cranky?" Megan supplied.
Colby suddenly had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from breaking out in a grin.
Don glared at her, but it was the look of a put-upon older brother, not a pissed-off federal agent. "Touchy," he repeated insistently. Then he dropped his hands to his sides and looked up. "I'm sorry, Colby. I don't have any right to imply that you might have brought this on yourself." His eyes grew more serious. "And I sure as hell don't mean to say I regret having you around. Not after last night."
Colby returned the gaze, reading the truth of Don's words in his open expression, his dark eyes, and remembering the brief but emotional gratitude that he'd expressed the previous night. He wanted to hold onto the anger that had sparked within him a few minutes ago, but suddenly he was too tired, unwilling to hold any more grudges than he already did. "It's all right," he finally said, extending a hand.
They shook hands, and Don leaned forward and clapped him on the shoulder. "Come on, the ballistics guys are gonna need to take a look at the car, and then we need you," he reached over to touch Megan's shoulder as well, "to tell us what we're up against."
"What do you mean?" she asked, her brow furrowing.
Don's expression turned slightly sheepish. "I forgot to mention that we identified the dead driver. Liz verified it just before you guys got here. We'll explain it all upstairs."
He turned to lead the way towards the elevators, and Colby exchanged a glance with Megan. Keep an eye on him, they told each other silently, and then followed him out of the garage and up to the bullpen.
The elevator dinged as the doors opened, and David watched from the war room as the three teammates stepped out, each looking exhausted but intact. "There they are," he said to Liz, who was tacking some photos to one of the bulletin boards.
She looked up. "Well, I can still see a thundercloud over Don's head, although it does look smaller than it did a few minutes ago."
He quirked up the corner of his mouth. "Downgraded from hail and damaging winds?"
"Yeah, now it's just a torrential downpour," Liz replied, matching his smile.
After their disastrous evening yesterday, they'd been integrated with the rest of the office working on the Salvadorean case after it had merged with the trucking case, and Don had fought to keep himself near the top of the chain of command. David didn't doubt the man's ability to handle it, but on top of the lack of sleep and the terrifying experience he'd been through, he might not be in the best shape to be in charge. Not that David would ever say that if asked by anyone outside their team, but it meant he was keeping an eye on their boss in a way he didn't usually do.
Don's level of strain had been visibly increasing throughout the day, from his arrival with bloodshot eyes only six hours after leaving with Liz to a phone interview with the chairman of Lytle Trucking, who swore up and down he had no idea there were RPGs in the containers on his hijacked trucks, to the silent woman in custody whom Liz had overheard Simeon say was key to his operation. Then Megan phoned in to tell them about the bullet-dodging she and Colby had been engaged in on the 110, and Don nearly blew his top after hanging up with them. Now David watched them all carefully as they approached, but none looked worse for the wear.
The glass door swung open, and the three agents stepped in. "You guys all right?" Liz asked, jabbing the remaining push-pins in her hand into the cork and stepping towards them.
"We're fine, thanks to some fancy driving," Megan answered, nudging Colby with an elbow. "So, did I miss anything while I was gone?" she asked brightly.
Liz let out a snort. Next to Megan, Colby was starting to smirk, and David found himself matching the expression out of habit. Then their eyes met, and he looked away, his face falling. "Glad you're both okay," he said quickly.
"So, what have you got?" Don planted himself on top of one of the tables and looked at him expectantly.
Guess it's back to business, David thought. "Okay, here's our guy." He pointed at the image on the screen behind him. "Joseph Beachy, last known address Palisades Beach Road in Santa Monica, age 43."
"That's an alias, right?" Megan asked.
"No, that's his real name." David saw her disbelieving expression and shrugged. "But he is -- or was -- more commonly known as the Broker."
"He made a living arranging deals between parties that normally wouldn't have anything to do with each other, mostly within Southern California, and taking a percentage from each side." Liz explained. "Like a Mexican gang and an embezzling Orange County CEO, or a group of human traffickers and an old-fashioned protection racket."
"Or a Salvadorean gang and someone who has a need for rocket-powered grenades," Don muttered.
"Right." David took over again. "So he knew a lot about the L.A. underworld in all its various forms, and although he was never arrested, he'd been on a lot of agencies' watch lists for quite a while." He tapped a key on the laptop before him, and the screen changed to a set of four photos, each blurry blown-up images of what looked like security camera footage, each showing a man about the same height and weight as Beachy, each in a different setting and with a different group of people. He'd already identified one group as the East Side Longos from Long Beach, and Liz had noted a passing resemblance to one of the Albanian organized crime families she'd investigated before coming to L.A.
"So what was he doing hanging around with Hector Simeon?" Colby asked. "I get that he was brokering some kind of deal for him, but wouldn't he be doing that from afar?"
"Beachy was a hands-on kind of guy," Liz answered. "He called it his brand of customer service. We think he was there last night to make sure all of the transfers went smoothly, because of the complexity of the situation."
"There's not much that's complex about moving crates from one location to another," Megan said, confusion apparent in her tone.
"The crates weren't the only thing Simeon wanted to transfer," Liz reminded her quietly.
They all looked at her for a moment. David cleared his throat to break the awkward silence. "The thing is, they knew we were coming. They were prepared to have FBI agents in the middle of their operation last night. What don't know is how they knew."
Megan blinked. "That part wasn't in your statements. Any of you," she said, sweeping her arm around to indicate everyone else in the room.
"I would have been the only one to say it, but I'm sure I mentioned it in mine." Liz frowned. "I'm pretty sure."
"Okay, so what else don't I know?" Megan asked, folding her arms in front of her chest.
"A whole lot of things, like the rest of us." Don cut in, ticking off points on his fingers. "Who they got the RPGs from. Where the weapons are now. What Simeon's men are planning on doing with them. Why they wanted Liz and why they let her go. The name of the woman who's been sitting in interrogation all day and why she hasn't said a word since we got her here."
"Well, we do know Beachy's address," David said. Someone had to look on the bright side here. "We have a request in for a warrant, and as soon as it comes through, we're on our way." He didn't give any indication who that "we" would be, although in the interest of fence-mending, he was hoping it would be his old partner.
Megan shot a glance at him, then at Colby, and he could almost see the wheels turning in her head. "Okay, do we know why he's dead?" she asked, jerking her chin towards the pictures of Beachy.
"Liz and I were talking that over." David ran a hand over his head and looked at the junior agent. She nodded, and he went on, "We think that maybe Simeon found out at some point later last night her connection to Tabakian. He saw her driver's license, he knew her name, but he didn't tell Simeon. When Simeon found out that Beachy let her go..." He trailed off, not thinking it necessary to complete the sentence.
"He got pissed off and took it out on the Broker," Liz completed, her voice betraying nothing of the unease she must be feeling at the amount of rage that implied on Simeon's part.
"But Beachy wouldn't have known that you meant anything to Simeon," Don said to her. "Would he?"
"He had a lot of connections," David reminded him, "so it's hard to see that he wouldn't. But then it's hard to see why he would have let her go at all." He shot Liz an apologetic glance and went on, "Particularly if she was another part of the deal, or another deal altogether."
Megan was chewing on a thumbnail. "Liz, all I've seen is a fax of the typed-up statement that you gave. I think I need to watch the recording of your debriefing. All of you, actually," she said. "That's easier than asking you to repeat what you said."
David glanced at Liz, who was looking at Don, who fixed Megan with a hard look as he said, "That's not what I had in mind when I pulled strings to get you back here."
She let out a huff of breath. "Don, all we know about this guy is what Liz heard him and Simeon say. Even if she wanted to go through all of the details again, the statement she gave last night is going to be a more accurate representation of what actually happened than if she says it all again now. The same goes for all of you." David could hear a note of frustration in her voice. "I have to know everything that happened last night."
Don looked at her for another moment before nodding. "All right, go find Agent Pennington. She can get you started." Megan nodded and left the war room.
The four of them were silent for a moment. Then Don said, "Any word on the car?"
David shook his head. Liz's detailed description down to the license plate had been out on the airwaves for the last day, but none of the tips they'd received had panned out. "They've probably got it holed up in a garage somewhere."
"And the vehicles we saw?"
"Same story." The vans and trucks probably had had their license plates swapped out by now, or were probably on their way to the scrap heap after being observed by four federal agents.
"Damn." Don rubbed his hand over his jaw. "Liz, anything on the woman in interrogation?"
"You'd have to ask Theresa, but I don't think she's suddenly decided to tell us her name after keeping quiet all day. The other suspects they got last night have all been talking, but they're all low-level types who don't know a whole lot anyway."
"Do they know her name?"
"If they do, they're not saying it."
Don suddenly turned and looked around the bullpen, empty but for a janitor. "Why are we the only ones here?" he asked. "I thought this was the biggest sting in months, and when it goes south, everyone just goes home for the day?"
David exchanged a glance with Colby, who met it for a moment before looking away. "It is after midnight," he said cautiously.
"You wanna go home, feel free." Don waved a hand at him. "But there's an awful lot of work to be done here."
"And some of us need a fresh outlook to be able to do it." Liz walked over and laid an arm across his shoulders. "I'm taking you home, Eppes. You need some rest. God knows you didn't get any last night."
"Look who's talking," Don muttered, turning his head towards her.
The look that he gave her said that there was no innuendo in their words, just concern for each other's well-being. Two days ago, David knew, they wouldn't have displayed such intimacy in front of their teammates. But after what had happened yesterday, neither he nor Colby would object, or begrudge them any opportunity to do what they needed to for each other. "She's right," he said, keeping his tone light. "Why don't you go and catch some rest. We'll hold down the fort."
The look Don gave him said he wanted to object, but he was too tired to do it. Emotional more than physical exhaustion, David thought. The way the older man's shoulders were bowed said that he might have taken on too much this time, although there was no way he would ever admit it.
At Liz's urging, Don slid off the desk and made his way to the door, her arm slung around his back. When they got to the door, she cast a quick glance at the two of them before pushing the door open and heading out.
There was silence for a few seconds. David cleared his throat. "Think they'll be all right?"
"Yeah, Liz is one tough lady." Colby watched the two figures retreating towards the elevator. "And Don, well. You know."
The corner of his mouth turned up slightly. "Yeah, I know."
There was a pause. Colby looked up at the screen, four images of a dead man looking back at him. "So if things were different, I think we would be watching Charlie carry out some kind of analysis on the last known associates of Mr. Joseph Beachy to figure out who the RPGs were going to."
"Right." Don hadn't mentioned his brother's name all evening, ever since the last phone call to his father made it clear that Charlie was not getting involved at the moment. "You think we're gonna be able to do that at some point?"
"Charlie's tougher than he looks. He'll come back around."
"I hope so. We sure could use him."
Silence fell. David tried to think of something else to say about the case, but there were too many things swirling around in his head to grasp just one. Instead, he blurted out what he'd been wanting to ask ever since his former partner entered the room. "So, who do you think those guys were after? You or Megan?"
Colby looked back at him, eyes as grey and flat as his tone of voice. "Don thinks it was the Chinese."
Neither of them had said that word, had said anything related to that word, since Colby's release from the hospital two months ago. And while avoiding the subject as part of pretending it hadn't happened might have been working, slowly, to get them back on the same page, that kind of time was a luxury their team didn't have at the moment.
So David rolled his eyes and said, "I know what Don thinks; I was here when he got your phone call. I want to know what you think, man. You're -- " He paused to carefully choose his words. "You're the only one of us who's qualified to judge whether or not it might be them. The Chinese," he added unnecessarily, not because he didn't think Colby knew who he was talking about, but because he wanted to say the word, get it out on the table, show that he wasn't afraid of it. "So we gotta be able to respect your opinion on it."
Colby looked at him for a long moment, and David looked back openly, unflinchingly. He thought he saw something loosen, some small part of the guardedness that his former partner had been carrying around for months slip away. Finally Colby sighed and said quietly, "I don't know, David. I really don't know."
He could see in the other man's expression that he didn't know for sure, but that he was afraid Don might be right. And someone who didn't know Colby Granger as well as David did -- and he understood that he did know the man, had always known him -- wouldn't have seen the flash of genuine fear that accompanied his words. He gave him a tight smile. "In that case, d'you think Megan would be offended if I said that I hoped it was her they were after?"
A tired smile graced Colby's face. "I think she'd understand," he said quietly, a little more of the guardedness leaving his expression.
The beeping of the fax machine interrupted, and David stepped over to pull the paper off the roll. "Hey, here's our warrant for Beachy's condo."
"At 12:30 in the morning?" Colby asked through a yawn.
David gave him a half-smile. "Throw in a mention of possible terrorist connections, and it's a lot easier to find a judge who's willing to disturb his beauty sleep to get us this," he said, holding up the paper.
Colby sighed. "All I can say is you're driving, because I've had enough of being behind the wheel for one night."
"Actually, I think I'm driving."
They both turned to look at the petite brown-haired woman standing in the doorway. "Theresa Pennington," she said, coming forward and extending a hand to David. "Agent Granger and I have already met."
"Pleasure to meet you," he said, receiving a firm handshake in return. "Didn't I see you here last night?"
"More like this morning, but yeah, I was the one taking Agent Granger and Warner's statements."
"And you're here past midnight again?" he asked.
"What can I say, I like the night," she replied with an easy smile. "Agent Eppes mentioned this afternoon that you guys could use a little help on your investigation, and since I'm between teams at the moment..." She shrugged her slender shoulders. "I talked with Agent Reeves just now. I understand you had a little excitement on your way here this evening?" she addressed Colby.
"You could say that," he responded laconically.
Theresa smiled. "Well, if it makes you feel any better, I've been trained in defensive driving by the Secret Service. So if they come after you again tonight, you're safe with me."
David had to work to keep back a smile at the thought of this woman, who must be five-foot-three if she was an inch, protecting six-foot Colby. But thanks to his interactions with Liz and Megan and Terry over the years, David was all too well aware that size didn't mean everything, and that women in the FBI were just as tough, if not more so, than their male counterparts. So he kept his expression neutral and looked at Colby out of the corner of his eye to make sure he was doing the same.
The glimmer he saw in his partner's eye made David's lips twitch again. Nope, don't think he's going to mind having her driving him around, he thought. "Here," he said, waving the warrant at them. "Good luck." And don't let that pretty face distract you, he thought but didn't say out loud.
He didn't want to get on the bad side of either one of them.