Chapter 4: Reason to Believe
Alan: You just remember how Charlie is. Can’t seem to quit a problem. He’s still working on the same one he’s had since grade school.
Don: And what’s that?
Alan: Trying to impress his big brother.
Don turned his key in the lock and opened the door. Inside, he smelled coffee and pancakes, and a small smile crept onto his face. How'd you know I was coming, Dad?
As if he'd been called, Alan appeared in the kitchen doorway, wielding a spatula. "Donnie, now you're not just picking up ribeye on that radar of yours, but pancakes, too?"
"Hey, Dad." He shut the door behind him. "Charlie up yet?"
"Not a peep. From him or from Amita," Alan said with a raised eyebrow.
"Oh, yeah? That a regular thing?" He'd known that his brother was getting more serious with his former advisee -- watching the two of them when he and Liz were around was proof of that -- but he hadn't known she was staying over on a regular basis. Given that it was Wednesday morning, this clearly wasn't a date that had expanded into something more, but a planned event.
"Pretty much," his father replied. He waved the spatula and said, "I must say, it is nice to have someone around who appreciates your mother's pancake recipe."
"Hey, I appreciate it," Don replied, putting on a tone of mock injury as he headed towards the stairway. "Keep 'em warm for me, will ya?"
He climbed the stairs and knocked on his little brother's door, juggling the stack of file folders tucked under his arm. "Charlie, you in there?" he called out.
There was a soft yelp followed by a female giggle. Don rolled his eyes. "Charlie?"
There was a pause. Then, "What do you want?" came the exasperated reply.
"I want to talk to you."
He heard through the door, "I have class in an hour and meetings the rest of the day."
"Charlie, you never have meetings." He looked down at the hardwood floor, his eyes catching on the gouge in the wood he'd made with a Matchbox car when he was five years old. Charlie never made any scratches in the floor like that. But scribbling on the walls was another story, he thought, remembering the time Mom and Dad had simply given up and repainted the hallway rather than try to clean off all of the childishly-scrawled equations six-year-old Charlie had proudly displayed to them.
There was a low exchange of voices. Amita's voice called out, "What do you need help with, Don?"
He hefted the file folders in his hand and thought about opening the door. Nah, as much potential as it had to embarrass Charlie, he might see some things he really didn't want to. And he needed his brother's help, so ticking him off was not the best strategy at the moment. "We've got a code that we need cracked. Dates, locations, and what we assume are the names of people or groups. It could be key to taking down some of the biggest crime organizations in L.A."
"And there's no one at the FBI that can do it?" came Charlie's voice.
He stared at the door, eyes tracing the grain of the wood. God, why does everything have to be so difficult all at once? "Not as fast as you can. And speed is of the essence." He was still peeved at Colby for waiting till the sun rose to give him a call with the news of what he'd found at Beachy's house, although having four full hours of sleep was probably much better than none at all.
"Then I'm not your man," came the curt reply. "Speed is what got me in trouble the last time. You're better off finding a consultant who doesn't make stupid mistakes that put people's lives in danger."
He laid a hand against the door, knowing this would be so much easier if he could see his brother's face. "Charlie, it's not your fault. Any of it."
"Why were you guys on your own out there in Fontana?" Without waiting for a reply, Charlie rushed on, "Because I told them to divert all of their resources to the Valley, because that's where I told them Hector Simeon would be. Because I screwed up. And you almost lost your life because of it. Liz was kidnapped because of it. I -- I can't risk that again."
Don drew in a deep breath. "Charlie, there's way too much that went on the other night for it to all be on your shoulders. The Assistant Director made the decision to send us to Fontana by ourselves, not you. There was no way we could have known everything that was going to happen. And besides, it appears that one of the people they did catch because of your analysis is pretty important to the organization."
"How so?" It was Amita asking the question.
"Well, Simeon blew a gasket when he found out we had her, so she must mean something." He looked down at the folders in his hand. "If we knew what this code meant, maybe we could figure out exactly what."
He heard a snort from the other side of the door and a muttered, "Real subtle."
His hand turned into a fist and pounded once on the door. "Damn it, Charlie, it doesn't matter whether you're hiding or not, we still need to do the work. We've got dozens of RPGs out there, a creep who wants nothing more than to get his hands on Liz again, and the Chinese trying to catch up with Colby. We still need -- "
"You what? What about Colby?"
That's what gets through to him? "He and Megan were shot at on the 110 last night coming back from the airport. No one outside the office knew she was coming back, so it had to be someone following him."
There was a pause. Then Amita said, "We'll be out in a minute. Can you wait for us downstairs?"
"Yeah, sure," Don replied, suppressing a sigh. He made his way down the steps and plunked himself at the table. The table was set for four, but he would be surprised if anyone other than his father ended up eating here. He hoped Amita was talking some sense into Charlie; if not, he was liable to start yelling at his younger brother and make it a really great start to the day. It was true, there were other people they could call on to figure out what Beachy's records meant. But considering that a handful of the pages he was holding held dates that were still to come, either this week or farther in the future, they needed to know as soon as possible what they meant. And no one could be faster at it than his genius brother.
Don leaned his elbows on the table and rested his face in his hands. Liz had woken up before him and insisted on being dropped off at the office before he headed up to see Charlie. He hadn't wanted to leave her side, although he knew it was silly to worry about her at the FBI office. She'd been a little distant all morning, even napping in the car on the drive in. He wondered if he should talk to Megan, see what she thought of Liz talking to someone like Bradford. She'd been through a lot and it wasn't good for her to keep it inside.
Like you should talk, argued a voice in his head, but he shushed it.
The kitchen door swung open and Alan appeared with a plate of pancakes in one hand and a jug of maple syrup in the other. "Well, at least there's one of you here," he said, setting down the plate. "Go to it, I know you'll probably have to run off again in a few minutes."
"No, I'm stayin' for as long as it takes," he replied, rubbing his eyes and holding back a yawn.
"Until the coffee kicks in, you mean?" Alan folded his arms over his chest. "How's Liz doing?"
"She's okay. Says she is, anyway," he muttered, lifting a pancake and dropping it on his plate.
His father's gaze turned shrewder. "You two do have a lot in common."
He rolled his eyes. "Dad."
Alan disappeared through the doorway again, and Don dove into the pancakes. They really were good. He hadn't planned on much in the way of breakfast today, so this was a pleasant surprise.
His pleasure lasted for about another sixty seconds, as long as it took for his cell phone to ring. Muttering an expletive that he hoped his dad hadn't heard, he flipped it open. "Eppes."
"Hey, Don, we've got something." David's voice was disgustingly cheerful, considering the early hour. "Our friends at the trucking company say they've picked up the signal on the RFID chips again."
"No kidding?" He eyed the remaining stack of pancakes and inwardly sighed. "Where are they?"
"A warehouse in Banning, halfway out to Palm Springs. The chairman of the company you talked to yesterday said he drove right past the location this morning and the signal was coming in loud and clear."
"All right, I'll swing by the office and – " He looked at his watch. Still the height of rush hour. "Scratch that, I'll meet you there." No sense in fighting the downtown traffic when he could go straight east and get a head start.
"Okay, ETA of ninety minutes and the four of us will see you there."
He opened his mouth to protest, then stopped short. Charlie had come down the stairs and was standing there looking at him. For some reason, his accusing expression brought to mind something Liz had said right after giving her statement, asking him out of nowhere if he was going to let her do her job after what had happened. He'd been on the verge just now of coming up with some excuse for her to stay at the office, like claiming that she was too much of a liability if they encountered the Salvadoreans because of their special interest in her, or that she needed to talk to a mental health specialist to verify she was fit for duty.
Yeah, and then I'll be sleeping by myself for the next month.
So he swallowed and said, "Right, see you there." He folded the phone shut, still looking at Charlie.
"What is it?" his brother asked.
"I gotta go," he replied, shoveling the last of the pancake into his mouth and standing up. "But I know you're too busy to hear about it, so..."
"Don." Charlie's voice was sharp. "Don't."
"Well, what do you want me to do?" He held his hands out, palms up. "The job has to get done, Charlie. I'm sorry if your ego is too wounded to help us out, but we still gotta find these weapons and the guys who stole them."
"You think I'm upset because my ego is damaged?" Charlie took a step forward, his voice rising. "I couldn't care less about that. What matters is that I made a mistake that had real, serious consequences. Your colleagues relied on my results, and my results were wrong." His voice dropped to a near-whisper. "And I think you're better off not relying on me."
"Aw, come on." Don lowered his hands to his sides. "You can't give up completely just because you found out you aren't perfect."
Charlie looked back at him, his dark brown eyes huge in his face. "I asked you once what happened if you were wrong, how you dealt with being wrong. You said, 'We can't be wrong.' That's the truth, isn't it? You can't be wrong, not when your team is depending on you, not when thousands or millions of people are depending on you. And if you can't be wrong, then you obviously can't rely on me."
"I also said once that I'd put my life in your hands any day of the week." He took a few steps closer, looking intently at his brother. "That's the truth, too."
Charlie's face crumpled, and he turned away. Don saw Amita standing on the stairs behind him, her face troubled as she looked back and forth between the two of them. "Leave them," she said, gesturing to the files in his hand. "We'll take a look."
"Amita – " Charlie said in a warning tone, turning and looking up at her.
"Fine, I'll take a look," she said with a little more heat in her voice. "Maybe it'll be easier for me to make my own contribution here than it is at CalSci."
Don saw Charlie's mouth tighten and hurt flash across his eyes. Then he pushed past her and up the stairs. "I've got class to prepare," he threw over his shoulder as he disappeared out of sight.
Don and Amita looked at each other for a moment. "He'll come around," he finally said, infusing a confidence into his voice that he wasn't sure he felt. Then he added with a quirk of his lips, "And if not, he's not the only mathematician in town."
She gave him a halfhearted smile in return. "I'll see what I can do," she said.
"Thanks, Amita." He hesitated for a moment. Something was going on here, something that had nothing to do with him showing up at 7 A.M. and demanding Charlie's help. He would have pushed it, but he had a warehouse to get to and some RPGs to retrieve. Besides, Amita was a smart girl. She'd figure out what to do with Charlie and crack Beachy's code before he even got to Banning. "I'll give you a call later."
She nodded, and he called a good-bye to Alan before slipping out of the house and back on the road. No rest for the weary, he thought as he turned the key in the ignition and backed out of the driveway. No rest at all.
The ever-bumpier condition of the freeway pavement finally woke Liz up. She'd been dozing on the bench seat in the rear of the Suburban both because she was exhausted and to avoid talking to her two teammates. Sitting up and leaning forward, she saw that Megan was slumped against the passenger-side door, apparently taking advantage of the same opportunity for some shut-eye. From the driver's seat, David's eyes flickered to hers in the rearview mirror. "Hey," he said softly. "About another twenty minutes."
"Thanks," she murmured, yawning and stretching. When she was done, she shook her head and ordered herself to feel alert. Waking up quickly was a valuable skill to an FBI agent, one she'd had to work at over the years. It was still hard to bring to bear when she desperately needed sleep as much as she did right now.
The night of her abduction, she'd barely gotten a couple of hours of restless sleep between nightmares, and even last night, she'd only dozed briefly before giving up and simply watching Don sleep next to her. It had been a strange combination of reassuring and disquieting, listening to his soft, regular breathing and thinking of how close it had come to stopping altogether. Finally, she'd gotten up and paced around his apartment, making a list of everything she wanted to get from her place for what looked like a couple of weeks she'd be away, and waiting for daylight to come so she could get back to the office and start doing something.
Well, she'd certainly gotten her wish in that regard, now that they were on their way to what might well be a second confrontation with the men who had abducted her and almost killed Don. She leaned forward, forearms on her thighs, and asked David, "Any word from the scene?"
He shook his head. "Local PD is staying out of sight like we asked, which also means they don't have anything to tell us. No traffic in or out of the site, which is something."
"Yeah, I guess so." Liz rubbed her hands over her face. "I don't suppose they're likely to be hanging out there at eight in the morning, anyway."
"Probably not." She looked up in time to catch the tail end of David's glance at her in the rearview mirror. "You sure you're up for this?"
She opened her mouth to snap back a reply and was caught off guard by a yawn. So she settled for giving David a slightly sheepish grin. "If you're asking if I'm awake enough, you did say there's twenty minutes to go, right?"
He smiled back. "Yeah, that's right."
"Good." Liz looked out the windshield at the freeway interchange they were approaching, the multiple levels ramps and flyovers crossing and re-crossing in what was almost a work of art. They'd gotten off at this interchange the other night on their way up to what they had thought would be an easy retrieval of the stolen cargo. A shudder ran through her, and she shook her head. You sure you're up for this? she echoed David's question to herself. She paused for a moment to get her thoughts straight and then said aloud, "I'd rather be here than waiting back in the office, anyway." At another glance from David, she added quickly, "Not that my head's not in it."
"No one would blame you if it wasn't." Megan joined the conversation, her tone casual as she stretched in her seat. She turned her head to look at Liz. "No one would blame any of you guys, actually, but especially you."
She had an out if she wanted it, and she had thought once or twice about it in the last hour. The desire to get the bastards was waging strongly with her fear at facing them again, topped off with the objective, professional concern that she might not be at her best right now. "No," she said, shaking her head firmly. "We've got a job to do, and we're going to do it."
"Good to hear it," Megan said warmly. She looked into the side mirror, and Liz turned her head as well to see the second Suburban behind them, a curve in the road allowing her to see the two FBI vans behind it. To the amusement of everyone in the lead vehicle, Colby had volunteered to drive their newest ad hoc team member out to the site, muttering something about wanting to talk over what they had uncovered at Joseph Beachy's place last night. Looking more closely into the front seat, she let out a small snort. So much for Colby's unspoken hope of getting to know Theresa Pennington better. "Seems like we're not the only ones catching a nap," she said, turning back around.
"She did say she wasn't a morning person, didn't she?" Megan asked.
"I think it's still the end of the day for her." Liz paused for a moment. "Seems to me it would be like having jet lag without actually having gone anywhere."
"The way air travel is these days, she's probably better off enjoying the jet lag at home," Megan muttered.
"I take it you had a rough trip?" David asked.
"Nothing like making two transcontinental flights in two days on either side of spending ten hours a day with people who make your skin crawl." Megan fixed her with a look. "Not that either one of you heard me say that."
Liz held her hands up. "Didn't hear a thing." Dying to ask, but keeping my mouth shut.
"And then once Don called..." Megan shook her head and looked out the windshield. "I can't tell you how much I wish I'd been here."
"Why, so you could stand there at gunpoint with the rest of us?" David's voice had a slight edge to it. "Didn't matter who was there. They were going to take what they wanted no matter what."
The two women regarded him for a moment. Then Megan said quietly, "That's not what I meant. Look, I'm responsible for you guys to a certain extent, for making sure your heads are on straight and everything's okay. I wasn't there, so I don't know exactly what happened, and it's keeping me from doing my job right now."
"Taking care of us isn't your job," Liz retorted. "We're all here to catch the bad guys, period." When Megan turned to face her, surprise on her face, she went on, "Which means it's probably best that you were gone, so that you can be more objective about things now." Which was the closest she was going to get to acknowledging that maybe she wasn't one hundred percent, mentally speaking.
"If I'd been there instead of you, you wouldn't have been abducted," came the cool answer.
As much as Liz liked the other woman, she hated how sometimes she wasn't sure if Megan really meant what she was saying, or if the behaviorist was just trying to get a reaction to her words. "You can't know that. Maybe they would have grabbed me later. Besides, who's to say they wouldn't have taken you instead?"
Megan met her gaze for a few seconds, and then looked away again. She bit her lip and then said quietly, "I can't help but feel responsible. If I hadn't been called to Washington, I would have been the one out there with the team, Liz, and you wouldn't be dealing with everything that you are right now."
There was silence for a mile or so while she digested what Megan had said, David kept all of his attention on the road, and Megan fiddled with her seat belt. Finally David broke the silence. "I understand where you're coming from, all right? But you read what happened. It was a close thing, Megan. A damn close thing. And who's to say that you might not have done something another way than Liz that led to a completely different outcome." One where Don died, he didn't have to add.
"The butterfly effect," Liz mused.
"I s'pose Charlie would say you're applying the concept wrong, but yeah, that's it." David cleared his throat and continued to stare out the windshield. "Believe me, it doesn't help anything to spend all your time thinking about how things might have gone differently." His eyes shifted to the rearview mirror and back, and Liz was sure he wasn't just checking on the traffic.
The silence was a little more awkward that time. Then David shook his head and said, "Man, maybe one of you should be asking me if my head's in the game here."
Liz frowned. Of the four of them who had been held hostage, David was the hardest for her to read. Now she was somewhat embarrassed to realize that she hadn't considered at all how he'd been affected. Don – she was worried about him in spades. Colby – she couldn't help but wonder how much more the guy could take. She was even starting to wonder about Megan a little, based on the guilt complex she'd just admitted to and her mysterious and apparently unpleasant DOJ assignment. But David – he was the most solid, the most dependable one of them, even if his equilibrium had been thrown out of whack by the whole Colby thing.
Finally Liz said, "You're too conscientious of an agent not to let us know if you weren't up for it," deliberately echoing his comment to her roughly thirty-six hours ago and a few miles back on the same freeway.
David met her gaze in the mirror and smiled, showing that he recognized her turn of phrase and appreciated it. "Thanks," he said quietly.
They passed the remaining ten minutes in relative silence, Megan checking in with Colby and Liz with Don by cell phone, making sure they were going to converge on the same place at the same time. Before she knew it, they were exiting the freeway and driving through dusty streets past the warehouse complex they were headed for, looking out through their tinted windows for any sign of life and seeing none. David continued past the front entrance and pulled off the road in about half a mile at an abandoned gas station. The second Suburban pulled in behind him, and as they got out of the SUV, the tactical vans followed.
It wasn't more then sixty seconds later before Don's vehicle pulled up as well, and Liz was surprised at the funny thump her heart gave when she saw him. She must be more nervous than she thought. She'd left him two hours ago, for goodness' sake.
"Now this is more like it," Don muttered loud enough for them to hear as he walked up. "Glad we finally rate some backup."
Liz exchanged a quick look with Megan. Neither one of them wanted to say that they had almost been the backup, that A.D. Wright had had to be talked into letting Don's team lead the assault. It took a well-planned and executed argument by Megan, backed up by a strong performance from Colby, whose judgment the A.D. seemed to trust more heavily than he ever had, to give them the go-ahead to take the lead.
"What've we got?" Don asked more loudly.
Liz hung back while the second team leader conferred with Don and David, sharing their updates on the situation and spreading out maps and aerial photos over the hoods of the vehicles. There weren't going to be any surprises this time in terms of power lines or miscommunication. There were going to be a dozen heavily-armed FBI agents well aware of what they might be walking into.
Still, she couldn't remember feeling so nervous before an operation since her first time in the field.
"All right, we move in five." Don was stacking up the aerials and handing them to a member of the backup team. Then he turned around and looked at her and everyone else under his command.
She could almost see the wheels turning into his head. God, every decision had become political now. If he partnered himself with her, people would talk. If he didn't, different people would talk. Then there were David and Colby, who at least were simply looking uncomfortable with each other, not as if they were barely suppressing fury. Behind them stood an apparently wide-awake Theresa Pennington, trying to conceal a hopeful look that Liz recognized from her own experience: wanting to be accepted as one of the team, no matter how much of an outsider she might feel.
She lifted her head slightly to catch Don's attention, then flicked her gaze towards Colby, Theresa, then back to him. Start there, and the rest will fall into place, she thought.
Don's brow furrowed the tiniest bit, then cleared. "All right, Granger and Pennington, you two stay together and lead the team through the side door. Megan, you're with me. David and Liz, you're leading the third team around back."
Blinking to hide her pleased surprise, she looked at David and gave him a nod. Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw a smile flicker across Theresa's face, but when she looked more closely, it was gone.
"All right, everybody ready?" Don called to the group at large. After a series of nods and quiet agreements, he said, "Then let's do this."