Chapter 3: Dancing in the Dark
Charlie: Don’t assume I’m being so irrational, just because I’m not as detached as you are.
Don: Hey, hold it. Look, you’ve got no idea the daily horrors my job serves up to me. Detached, yeah, you’re right I’m detached, that’s how I function.
"Hey, sleepyhead, we're here."
Don jerked upright in the passenger seat and muttered, "I wasn't asleep."
Next to him, Liz gave a chuckle as she turned off the car. "Okay, well in that case, you can stop resting your eyes now."
He shot her a mock glare. "That sounds like insubordination to me, Agent Warner."
She reached out and patted his cheek. "We're off the clock, you know."
"Yeah, I know." He stretched out his arms and yawned. That was one of the rules they had established early on: their work relationship wouldn't be part of their personal interactions, and vice versa. No PDA in the office or in the field, but also no reminders of their relative positions in the FBI hierarchy while they were somewhere else. He'd broken that rule big time when he'd asked her to tell him how Colby was doing back on the team, and she'd been right to smack him down for it. He'd been trying harder since then to keep home and work from getting in the way of each other, but so many of his defenses had been worn away in the last day and night that he was surprised he was functioning at all, much less following the protocols they'd agreed on. "Sorry."
"No problem. Special circumstances and all," she said, echoing his words from the night before.
"Yeah," he agreed, opening the door. They left the Suburban and climbed the steps to his apartment hand-in-hand, Liz digging the key out of her pocket with her left hand so that neither of them had to let go. Inside, once he pushed the door shut behind them, they simply stood there for a long moment, arms around each other, enjoying the closeness that they'd had to forego all day.
Don soon found himself completely torn between two different desires. On the one hand, he was about to fall asleep standing up. On the other hand, Liz's body close to his reminded him that when they arrived at his place early this morning, they'd tumbled into bed and passed out without doing anything more than holding each other. And part of him still wanted very much to block out the events of the previous night -- the part of him that started slowly stroking gentle circles on her back, that tilted his head to the side and started nuzzling at her neck.
Liz arched her head back, which he took as a sign of encouragement, and he pressed his lips to her neck and started tracing a line up to her ear. But a moment later, she briefly tightened her arms around him and then pulled away.
He reached out and touched the side of her face, tucking her hair behind her ear. "What's wrong?" he asked softly.
She shook her head. "Nothing's wrong, I'm just tired," she said, pressing a kiss to his palm before stepping back.
He let his hand fall to his side and swallowed back his disappointment. "All right," he said. In other circumstances he would have pressed it, would have stepped forward and taken her in his arms and persuaded her to follow his lead and follow him to bed. But he wasn't about to pressure her in light of the threats Simeon had made -- in her own bedroom, no less -- and so he took a step back and let her go.
She gave him a smile that said she appreciated his understanding. "It's just that I haven't been by myself since you and David showed up last night, and I need a moment alone, you know?"
"Yeah, sure," he replied. "I understand." But what if what I need is you?
Liz trailed her fingers down his cheek before turning away. "I'm gonna take a shower," she said, retreating towards the bathroom.
Don knew better than to ask if she wanted any company, so he turned towards the kitchen counter, rifling through the growing pile of mail to see if there were any bills that needed paying in the next couple of days. He couldn't muster up the energy to sort out the junk mail and toss it, so he left the pile where it was and slouched into the living room, where he dropped onto the sofa and reached for the remote.
Fifteen minutes of fruitless channel surfing later, he hit the mute button and leaned his head back against the top of the sofa, staring up at the ceiling. His mind felt completely empty, utterly blank, and it was a wonderful feeling. So much information had been thrown at him from so many quarters in the last thirty-six hours, and he hadn't had a spare second to process it. He just needed a little sleep, a chance to catch his breath, and he could dive right back into this monster of a case. He looked at his watch. One in the morning. Yeah, a few hours of sleep and he could be back at the office by seven, when most of the other agents would be rolling in.
He heard the shower start up on the other side of the wall, and he acknowledged that Liz was probably right about them taking a few minutes away from each other. The thought lingered that if he had his way, he'd be taking her off somewhere safe and guarding her until Simeon and his fellow creeps were locked up. She had to be shaken up after what she'd gone through, but she sure wasn't showing it.
Then again, part of the reason he was so tired was the energy it was taking to block out the corner of his mind that kept wanting to relive the terror of staring down the barrel of a cocked gun. Even if his time spent with Dr. Bradford had made him aware that talking about what he felt had its plus side, he didn't have time to deal with that now. There were far more important things to deal with, like the threat to Liz.
And the threat to Colby. Don rubbed his hand over his eyes. Why did this have to happen now? Hell, why did it have to happen at all? Colby had been through enough, was still going through enough. Don thought guiltily of his accusatory tone earlier that evening and sighed. The man had done an incredible job in a difficult situation, and he wouldn't have blamed him at all if he took the DC job and never looked back. But he was glad to have such a good agent on his team, and he had faith that the rough patches would get smoothed over eventually. Despite the fear and helplessness that last night had engendered, at least it had shown him that when it came down to it, he had good people watching his back, and he didn't want to lose any of them.
The flickering of the television distracted him from his thoughts, and he abruptly switched it off. He rubbed his eyes again and slowly rose, making his way to the bedroom. Once there, he went through the automatic ritual of removing the necessary paraphernalia of his job -- the weapon, the restraints, the phone -- and laid them on the nightstand. Liz's set of the same items was on the other night table, and he paused for a moment at how domestic the scene looked. Then he shook his head with a rueful grin. Matching guns and handcuffs -- you're such a romantic, Eppes.
The water was still running in the shower, so he stripped off his shirt and jeans and left them in a heap on the floor. He'd shower in the morning -- he'd need it to wake him up, he was sure. He crawled into bed but left the bedside lamp on for Liz when she came out. Then he put his head down on the pillow and closed his eyes.
It took about five exhalations for him to fall asleep.
The dip in the mattress from Liz's weight on the edge of the bed brought him out of unconsciousness. He murmured a sleepy protest, and she turned to him with a "Shh, go back to sleep." But instead he watched through half-closed eyes as she combed out the long waterfall of her hair. He loved that hair, loved to run his fingers through it, loved it falling like a curtain around them when she was above him. It made her look like a completely different person when it was down, falling to her waist instead of neatly pinned up like she always wore it at work. The phrase "letting your hair down" had special meaning for him now, for it was when he saw her like this that he was reminded of how lucky he was to be the one who got to be so close to her, to have her in his life.
He bit back the thought of how suddenly that could all be taken away.
After a few more minutes, Liz laid down the comb and turned out the light, sliding underneath the covers. He was suddenly aware of how near she was, feeling the slight heat from her body radiating towards him, but he closed his eyes and tried to reach for the sleep that had claimed him so quickly before.
There was silence for a few minutes. Then Liz said, "Don?" so softly he almost didn't hear it. She reached out and laid a tentative hand on his thigh, and that was all it took for desire to flare within him like a lit match.
He swiftly rolled over and covered her body with his, seeking out her mouth with his and arching into her as she trailed her hands down his back. And then he was completely lost in touching her and kissing her and relishing her hands and lips warm on his body, any remaining tiredness suddenly swept away in that burning need to feel close to her, to feel her skin against his...the need simply to feel.
And if once or twice their movements were a little too frantic, almost out-of-control, he chalked it up to lingering fear from the events of the night before. And if once it was all over, she rolled away from him and promptly fell asleep, he told himself that they were both exhausted, and that he'd have something to tease her about in the morning. So he curled up behind her and threw an arm over her waist, breathing in the sweet scent of her damp hair and falling into a peaceful sleep.
At about the same time, a black Suburban was pulling up to a beachfront condo in Santa Monica. Colby whistled as he got out of the vehicle. "Nice place," he said.
Downtown Santa Monica overlooked the sandy beach and the Pacific Coast Highway along the water's edge. A few lucky souls had property immediately behind the beach, a collection of pastel beach houses and Spanish stucco that made a great postcard picture by daylight. The address they were headed for was on the edge of a row of houses equipped with full-story windows, patios, and balconies taking full advantage of the literal oceanfront views. Here in the dead of night, the low marine layer of clouds meant the only view was thick grey mist, obscuring the waves that were audible on the other side of the expanse of sand.
"Guess making deals with every lowlife in town pays well," Theresa Pennington replied, slamming the driver's door shut.
"Makes you wonder what his neighbors do for a living," he said, walking around the front of the SUV and following her up the flagstone steps through the tiny, neatly manicured front yard.
"Probably Hollywood types," she said. "That's what we would assume back home."
"Where's that?" he asked as they came up to the front door.
"Michigan." She cast a sideways look at him. "You a local? You look like you could be the surfer type."
The corner of his mouth turned up. "Nope. Not a whole lot of waves to catch in Idaho."
"Ah, a mountain man." She pressed the doorbell and knocked sharply on the sculpted metal door. They listened for at least thirty seconds but heard nothing. Theresa rapped on the door again, and they waited once more to no avail. She pulled a set of keys out of her pocket. "These were on Beachy's person when they found him; one of them has to get us in."
Colby turned around and looked out over the empty stretch of sand, picturing it full of sunbathers and swimmers during the day. L.A. was probably too crowded for some folks, but not him. He understood the attraction of this place. There was so much energy, so much life - a colorful collection of people and places, but loosely knit; things weren't all crammed together like DC or New York. There was room to breathe out here. Personal and professional relationships aside, he'd been glad to get the opportunity to stay.
There was a click behind him, and he turned to see the front door swing open. "We're in," Pennington said quietly, putting the keys back in her pocket and drawing her weapon. She slipped inside before Colby could argue that he should be taking the lead.
The house was all sleek lines and modern style, a combination of glass and steel and metal that looked more like a Soho loft than a Santa Monica beach house. Most of the downstairs was visible from where they stood, and the stairway and upstairs hallway were open to their view as well. Colby tapped Pennington on the shoulder and indicated that he'd take the upstairs. She nodded and started moving across the living room.
He climbed the stairs silently, the treads consisting of some kind of transparent slabs that were somewhat unnerving when he looked down. The two bedrooms and bathrooms were empty of life, the indicators of a single man's household spread out over the bathroom counter and the dresser top. The toiletries were much more expensive than the stuff in Colby's apartment, and the clothing in the closet was definitely several cuts nicer, but it had the same bachelor feeling as his own abode.
He went back to the top of the staircase. "Clear," he called down.
"Clear," Theresa's voice came back up, and he holstered his weapon.
"Anything interesting?" he asked.
"He ate a lot of takeout," she replied. He could see the light from the inside of the refrigerator spilling out over the gleaming white floor.
"Sounds familiar," he muttered under his breath, then added in a louder tone, "I'll look around up here."
He poked through the guest bedroom and bathroom, both of which were immaculately clean and sparsely equipped. Beachy obviously didn't have many guests, which wasn't surprising considering his line of work. Colby rifled through the nightstand and desk drawers, all of which were empty. Nothing was under the bed but a collection of dust bunnies that would rival his own, and nothing was in the closet but a couple of suit jackets still in their dry cleaning plastic with a date from two weeks ago on the paper tag.
Walking back down the hallway, he heard drawers slamming downstairs. His temporary partner was obviously giving the kitchen a thorough search. He listened for a moment; she muttered something, although he couldn't make out the words. The corner of his mouth turned up. It was nice for once to be able to focus on the job at hand and not worry about what the other person in the room thought of him. On the other hand, it was also a nice change of pace to think freely -- and well -- of his second. He shook his head to clear it as he pushed open the door to the master bedroom.
This room was obviously used more, although everything was still neat and organized. He took note of that to tell Megan later for her analysis of the dead man. The roll-top desk had papers arranged in a series of cubbyholes, and as he sifted through them, he noticed a few addresses that sounded familiar. There were no names of people listed, or dates, which he knew he was naive to hope for. He opened all of the desk drawers, hoping to find something like a datebook or weekly planner, but all he found were office supplies and back copies of The Economist.
Eventually Colby straightened up and put a hand to his lower back. He looked at his watch and was surprised to find that half an hour had passed. Cocking an ear towards the door, he heard the faint sounds of Pennington rummaging around downstairs. Going back out to the hallway, he cast an eye towards the walk-in closet, between the master bath and the door to the hallway. The closet was going to have to come next.
He stopped in the doorway and furrowed his brow. There was something strange, but he couldn't put his finger on it. He looked back and forth between the doorways to the bedroom, the closet, and the bathroom. Finally he pitched his voice towards the stairway and called, "Hey, Pennington, c'mere."
In a few seconds, he heard her footsteps pounding up the stairs. She burst into the room a second later, one hand resting on the butt of her gun. Colby raised an eyebrow at her. "If I was in trouble, I would have said, 'Help,' you know."
Theresa looked him up and down, her eyes lingering over his biceps and the olive green shirt that had shrunk in last week's wash and was now stretched a little too tightly across his chest. "With some agents, you can't count on that."
He folded his arms over his chest. "And what agents would those be?"
"The macho ones," she said straightforwardly.
Colby snorted, thinking of those dark moments on the Chinese freighter when he would have given anything to be able to call for help. Or the earlier desperate phone call to Don that had been a complete leap of faith but had saved his ass in the end. "Trust me, I'm not that type."
Her eyes slid across his arms again before rising to meet his. "I'll take your word for it," she said blandly, her tone of voice indicating that she thought otherwise.
He almost smiled. It was definitely good to be working with someone who didn't treat him like a strange combination of pariah and hero, like the majority of the office. His team seemed to be okay with him but other voices lowered when he passed by, and he hated that. He'd almost learned to ignore the looks, which were worse than the voices, but he steadied himself in the knowledge that at least the person standing in front of him took him at face value. If there were more agents willing to do that, he figured he'd be having a lot better time of it.
"What you see isn't always what you get, you know," he replied, his voice suddenly going serious.
She met his gaze, and then her eyes twinkled. "That's a shame, 'cause I kind of like what I see."
Colby blinked. "I'll keep that in mind," he said slowly. He might have been a little out of touch from his last two years of enforced singlehood, but he was pretty sure he knew flirting when he saw it. What surprised him was that he wasn't quite sure how to respond. He settled for saying, "Actually, that's why I asked you up here."
Her fine eyebrows raised. "Excuse me?"
He held back a grin. "Take a look," he said, gesturing at the doorways behind her. "Doesn't something seem a little off?"
Theresa eyed him warily, but turned halfway and examined the scene. He saw confusion play across her face, which quickly morphed into a questioning expression. She poked her head into the closet and then walked around to the hallway. "They don't line up," she said.
"Exactly," he replied. The walk-in closet wasn't as deep as the bathroom on the left or the hallway on the right.
"The heating ducts are on the other side of the unit," she mused, walking back and forth, "and there's no notch on the outside of the building that would correspond to it." She stopped and shrugged. "Might just be empty space."
"Do we know how long Beachy lived here?"
She frowned, her eyebrows drawing together. "No, but judging from the style, it can't be more than five or six years old. He could have been the original owner, I guess."
"Which means he could have had some special built-ins installed."
"Like a secret room?" Pennington looked at him sideways. "You read spy novels in your spare time or something?"
He stiffened involuntarily before he realized she had meant the question innocently. "Something like that," he responded, brushing past her and going into the closet.
He knew what he was looking for, and it was only a matter of minutes before he found it: the slightly discolored spot where a shelf met the back wall, the white paint tinged with grey from the traces of oil on the skin of the person who had repeatedly pressed that spot, just like so...
A panel clicked open, and he pushed it aside to reveal a room about three feet by two feet, containing a table piled high with stacks of paper and a bookshelf filled with small, unevenly stacked boxes. Megan would have something to say about this guy's subconscious, he thought as he stepped inside. The first box he opened contained a Walther P88, the wooden grip and metal-blue barrel gleaming like it had been recently polished. The second one contained a wicked-looking combat knife that was all too familiar to Colby -- he'd carried one like it through Afghanistan.
Behind him, Theresa had entered the secret room and was standing nearly back-to-back with him in the small space. "You're good," she said. He heard her picking up a pile of papers and shuffling through them.
"Chalk it up to experience," he muttered. He turned around and peered over her shoulder -- over the top of her head, more accurately, considering he had about eight inches of height on her. He reached around her and grabbed another stack of papers. She started and turned her head, then stepped sideways and back out of the small space. "Sorry," he said, looking up.
"Just a little claustrophobia." She smiled nervously and kept going, out of the walk-in closet and back to the bedroom.
Colby looked after her for a moment, then returned his attention to the papers. They all contained series of handwritten strings of numbers and letters, page after page of them, some with a handful of lines, some with dozens. Charlie'll know what to do with this, he thought, then frowned. If we can get him back in the office, that is.
Flipping through the remaining pages, he found nothing comprehensible. Then he heard Theresa say, "Hey, Granger, take a look at this."
He made his way out of the closet and over to where she was seated on the bed, the papers spread out around her. She pointed at the two closest to her. "The last numbers in the top row."
Picking up the paper, he read aloud, "Nine two three three four."
She held out a second piece of paper. "And nine one four nine six."
He took the page from her and studied it next to the first one. In each case, the first row had two strings of six numbers, followed by six letters and five numbers. He squinted at them as if that would reveal their meaning. "I don't -- " Then something struck him, and he shook the first piece of paper she'd given him. "The first six numbers are yesterday's date, year-month-day."
She nodded and reached up to tap the second sheet with a chewed-on fingernail. "And this one is from last Friday."
"So this is like his datebook?"
"Could be." She eyed him for a moment. "You don't get the rest of it, do you?"
Colby shook his head. "You do?"
"Zip codes. The one with yesterday's date is Fontana, where you and your team were last night. And the one with Friday's date is where the rest of us were last night."
He dropped the pages and stared at her. "You're serious?"
She nodded grimly. "There was something going down in the Valley, all right. It just happened three days before we got there."
He looked out at the dozens of pages spread over the bed, then over his shoulder at the stacks of paper still in the hidden room. "This is Beachy's entire network laid out for us."
"And all we have to do is read it," Theresa replied dryly. "Piece of cake."
"It will be if we can get a hold of the right person," he said over his shoulder as he strode back into the tiny office to scoop up the remaining stacks of paper, trying to decide whether to bother his exhausted boss with this or to wait until morning. Another thought entered his mind, and he grimaced.
Charlie, don’t you let us down.