Chapter 5: Real World
Charlie: Einstein said that one has either time for science, or family, but not both.
Larry: Well, now that’s spoken like a man who can appreciate our predicament.
Charlie: I wonder, though, is our work the actual cause, or is it an excuse?
Larry: That’s a fair hypothesis, isn’t it? I suppose the real trick is in finding the solution while it still matters.
"Larry, how often do you talk with Megan?" Charlie asked as he fidgeted with the paper icosidodecahedron perched on the edge of his friend's desk.
The physicist steepled his fingers and propped his chin precariously on top of them. "In person, on the phone, or through a chat window?"
Charlie's brow briefly furrowed at the thought of Megan and Larry LOLing and BRBing with each other like a couple of college kids, while he rotated the thirty-two-sided shape in his hands. "In person, let's say."
Larry's head tilted slightly through the side as he replied, "Three times a week, approximately. Although we communicate by telephone more frequently than that."
"Has she ever accused you of not respecting her?" The question blurted out before he could come up with a more subtle way of framing it.
A raised eyebrow was his reply. "The woman carries a firearm with her at all times. Respect is not something she has to worry about, from me or anyone else."
Somehow Charlie didn't want to contemplate the thought of Amita packing heat, given the current state of their relationship.
Larry was going on, "Would this have anything to do with why a beautiful young combinatoricist was, for lack of a better term, sulking around the hallways this morning?"
"Amita was sulking?" Charlie asked quickly.
Larry waved a hand absently. "As I say, for lack of a better term. May I inquire as to whether there are difficulties in your relationship?"
Larry Fleinhardt had been a mentor in many different ways to Charlie over the years, from his teenage gawkiness on through his maturation into a professor in his own right. He'd advised him on matters of teaching, on navigating the often treacherous shoals of academic politics, and on the finer points of restoring a Victorian home. Rarely had he provided relationship expertise, but Charlie knew that in this case, his old friend was one of the few people he knew who could really understand the situation. "Not difficulties, per se," he answered while mentally crossing his fingers to negate the white lie. "It's just...Amita thinks that she's being treated unfairly because of her relationship with me."
Charlie waved his arm to indicate the world outside Larry's office. "The mathematical community."
"You'll have to elaborate a bit more, I'm afraid."
He shifted in his seat. "I'm not sure how much of this is confidential."
Larry nodded. "A wise response."
Charlie rubbed his eyes for a moment, willing away a nascent headache. "Say there was this newly minted female physicist who accepted an assistant professorship at the university where she'd gotten her Ph.D. Say there were rumors that she was romantically involved with her former advisor. Would you think less of her own work, or think that her former advisor was doing the work for her?"
"Ah." Larry sat back in his chair and tapped a finger against his chin. "The Marie Curie problem."
He looked across the desk quizzically. "I'm not familiar with that one."
"Oh, it's not a mathematical problem, at least not in the conventional sense of the term. No, Marie Sklodowska was a doctoral student of Pierre Curie at the University of Paris, ironically studying magnetism, when they realized their mutual attraction. Of course, the sciences were hardly welcoming towards women at the time, but her marriage to her former advisor cast a long shadow over her own scientific accomplishments, even though she outlived him by many years."
"Yes, but didn't she win the Nobel Prize along with him?" Charlie let the icosidodecahedron fall back onto the desk and dropped his hands into his lap.
"Not only that, she remains the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences. Nevertheless, the French Academy of Sciences refused to elect her as a member."
Charlie frowned. "I'm not sure where you're going with this."
"It's not an easy road for Amita. What's worse is that you have to let her walk it, at least in part, on her own. I can only speculate as to if this is the case, but you can't fight any battles for her."
"Yeah, tell me something I don't know," he said, slumping back in his chair.
Larry spread his hands apart. "You came to me, Charles. I'm only being forthright with you."
He was silent for a moment, contemplating his friend's words. Finally he said, "I know. I guess I just wanted to hear an easy answer."
"Fie on easy answers. They're always incomplete and unsatisfying."
The corner of his mouth turned up. "Easy for you to say. Your girlfriend isn't 'sulking' around the office."
"No, but that doesn't mean I don't have other concerns." Larry leaned forward in his chair, resting his elbows on the precious little clear space on the top of his desk. "For one, I believe I owe you an apology."
He frowned. "What for?"
Larry shifted slightly in his seat. "It appears that I may have made a grave mistake in taking it upon myself to explain to the gathering of FBI agents precisely how you had erred in your work."
Charlie's frown deepened. He might have come to Larry to ask him for advice about Amita, but that didn't mean he was willing to discuss everything in his life. "I don't understand," he said flatly.
The physicist reached up and scratched one ear. "Have you been in contact with your brother since the debacle at his office the other night?"
"Yeah, he came by the house this morning to try and bully me into working on the case again."
"Well, I feel that it's my fault that you have chosen to remove yourself from that case."
Charlie leaned slightly forward in his chair. "What do you mean?"
Either Larry's ear was really itching, or he'd forgotten he was scratching it. "I don't wish to play amateur psychologist, but based on the available evidence, it seems to me that by comparing your mishap to a well-known and catastrophic yet simple-minded error, I have made it irredeemably awkward for you to go back to your consulting work."
"I guess you and Megan do talk pretty often," he muttered in reply.
A faint blush tinged Larry's cheeks. "Charles, if there's anything I can do to assuage your concerns, you have but to ask."
"So you think this is about you?" Charlie asked, unable to keep the incredulity from his voice.
The slight embarrassment on his friend's face was turning to alarm. "That's not what I meant at all, no."
Charlie let out a gusty sigh and sat back in the chair. "I'm sorry, Larry, I don't mean to take anything out on you."
"Then what's the problem?" Larry hastily added, "If I may ask."
He folded his arms across his chest. "I just think they're better off using someone else on this one."
Larry didn't respond, just sat there looking at him thoughtfully. Charlie shifted in his chair and waited. Finally, he couldn’t take it anymore. "What?" he blurted out.
"I have known you for half of your years on this Earth," Larry began slowly. "I've seen you work as a student and as a teacher and as a researcher without peer. And I can count on one hand the number of times you've expressed a lack of self-confidence."
Now it was Charlie's turn to have his cheeks go pink. "That's not what this is about," he muttered.
"Then what is it? You've made mistakes before, and you'll likely make them again. FBI agents aren't perfect, either--they occasionally make an error in judgment that leads to serious consequences. I'm sure none of them have an issue with your performance."
"But maybe I do." He raised his head and looked Larry in the eye. "And maybe I don't want to risk anyone's life if I make another mistake."
"Have you considered that you might be making things worse by your recalcitrance?"
Charlie frowned. "Worse in what way?"
"Well, far be it from me to stroke your ego, but have you stopped to consider the difference that you have made to the FBI in the years you've worked with your brother? The criminals you have helped to capture, the lives that you have saved?"
Charlie shifted in the chair again. "I haven't totaled them up or anything, if that's what you're asking."
Larry leaned forward. "I don't wish to overdramatize or put undue pressure on you, but every day that you withhold your assistance from the FBI is a day they are not performing as well as they could be. You don't want to risk anyone's life by making a mistake, but you may well be risking lives by staying away."
He swallowed as the meaning of Larry's words sunk in. In a small voice, he said, "Don's out on a raid right now."
"And I'm sure he's in capable hands," the physicist said reassuringly. "He has a fine team."
The teasing retort sprang to his lips automatically. "I suppose one member of that team is especially fine, hmm?"
The shrewd look he got in response told him the change of mood had been successfully achieved. But all Larry said was, "Your assistance is not of highest value in the field anyway. But it is of extremely high value in the office."
Charlie dropped his gaze to the floor. "You think I should go back."
"Of course I do. Charles, one mistake does not wipe out years' worth of contributions."
"But it might." He lifted his head, his expression bleak. "One mistake is all it takes for a bullet to be in the wrong place, for—" He couldn't finish the sentence. For Don to be killed.
"And that's where you have to understand that your contributions are part of a team," Larry said insistently. "You are not the FBI. You are not even one team. You are Charles Eppes, not responsible for the actions of criminals or agents or firearms." He tilted his head slightly sideways. "But Charles Eppes still matters a lot."
He was silent for a minute. Then he said, "You've thought about this before, haven't you."
The tone of Larry's voice was as serious as he had ever heard it. "You're not the only one with a loved one who is in the line of fire on a daily basis."
He pressed his lips together. Of course Larry would have thought about this before. "I suppose you're right," he said quietly.
All he got in response was a sage nod.
"He's all yours." Colby let go of the kid's arm and gave him a small shove in the back to propel him towards the waiting agent. He watched as Francisco Perla Ortega was loaded into the back of an FBI sedan, looking around frantically at first before focusing his gaze on his brother, who was being shoved into the back of a nearby Suburban.
There were three others being taken into custody, but the Ortegas were the only two who'd been in the U-Stor-It in Fontana the other night. Colby had recognized them right away, his breath coming in sharply and causing Theresa Pennington to give him a quick look. At the time, they'd been hunkered down for cover behind a crate that looked like the ones they were searching for, so he'd been too concerned with finding cover that wasn't likely to explode if it got hit by a bullet to pay her much attention. Liz and David finally bursting through the back door had provided the distraction they needed to move closer, and it was only a matter of minutes before the warehouse was full of shouting FBI agents and cowed perpetrators. Quite the contrast to two nights ago.
Unfortunately, once it was all over, the crates they'd been hiding behind turned out to contain nothing but iPods. On the bright side, that fit the description of the missing cargo from Lytle Trucking. On the other hand, their original goal of finding said cargo had become subsumed under the much more important material that wasn't on the trucking company's manifests: the missing RPGs. So far, searching the other boxes and crates in the warehouse, they'd come up empty.
Two blond agents were walking past, part of the crew that Colby had led into the warehouse. He'd seen them once or twice around the office, but they looked enough like each other on a regular day that seeing them in their tactical gear made it impossible to tell them apart. So instead of trying to remember whether it was Baines or Edmonds who wore a wedding ring, he said to them both, "Hey, good job in there, you guys."
They both looked at him as though he had spoken in another language. He tried again. "That was good cover fire you provided. Made it a lot easier for me and Pennington to get close enough to grab the Ortegas."
"No problem, Granger," the taller one finally replied. "Just doing our job. The one with the FBI, that is."
Colby swallowed and watched them walk away, their feet kicking up puffs of dust on the dry ground. He felt his jaw clenching, and he forced himself to relax. Just remember this for later, he told himself. When you need to call on something to psych yourself up for interrogating the losers we arrested today, remember those two.
Colby turned to see Theresa Pennington watching him, her head cocked slightly to the side. "Yeah, I'm fine," he said brusquely. He turned and flung open the back door of the Suburban. It was way too hot out here to have his gear on for any longer than he had to. Reminded him of the deserts of Afghanistan, which was never a good thing.
She came up next to him and flipped open the latches on a square black box, lifting the lid to reveal grey foam padding with two blank spaces for Glock pistols. "You know, one of the problems with being the new person in the office is that you never know what's going on, especially when it comes to what people think of each other."
He cast a quick glance over his shoulder at Baines and Edmonds and said, "Yeah, office politics can be tricky."
"It can make it hard to know what's going on in the field, not just in the office." Theresa pulled the two weapons out from the holsters strapped across her chest and laid them in their protective case. "You do something to get on their bad side?"
Colby snorted. "I did something to get on everyone's bad side."
"And yet you're still here. Leading an assault team, no less." She removed her vest and laid it in the back of the Suburban before pulling the elastic band out of her hair and shaking her short brown hair free. "That means you're on Agent Eppes' good side, at least."
Wouldn't be too sure about that, he thought, remembering how Don had gone off on him the previous night. But she had a point. There were a dozen FBI agents here, and he'd been in charge of a third of them. That did say something about his boss's trust in him.
Out loud he said, "It's a long story, but I kind of had two assignments going on at the same time." He watched her out of the corner of his eye, curious as to what she already knew about him.
"That can be a bitch, can't it?" was all she said.
"No kidding." Colby ripped open the Velcro and pulled his vest over his head, relishing the weak breeze on his sweat-soaked back. "I'm surprised you haven't heard anything about it," he said casually, hoping he didn't sound too much like he was fishing. Whatever gossip was being spread around the office about him, his team members weren't any likely to hear it than he was; seeing as how they'd been the ones to rescue him, that put them firmly in his camp in the eyes of people like Baines and Edmonds. But an outsider might be able to provide him with some useful information about what the L.A. Field Office thought of one Colby Granger.
Theresa turned towards him, folding her arms across her chest. "I suppose I've heard a few things. But it's always seemed to me that rumors and gossip say more about the people who're telling them than they do about the person they're about." She paused, and a tiny frown furrowed her brow. "If that makes any sense."
"Yeah, it does," he replied, dropping the vest into the back of the SUV and returning her gaze. She looked like she was waiting for him to say something, her green eyes regarding him steadily. He opened his mouth to spill the whole story, to tell her about his now-unclassified undercover assignment, his arrest and escape and rescue, and then he paused. "You know what?" he asked.
Colby lowered himself to sit on the tailgate of the Suburban, partly so that he wasn't towering over her and partly because he was exhausted. He'd gotten about three hours of sleep last night after returning from Santa Monica, and the adrenaline of the raid had definitely worn off by now. "See, on the one hand, after what happened to cause those rumors and gossip, I've become a big fan of complete honesty. No holds barred, nothing hidden, I'm gonna come out and say exactly what I think."
"But on the other hand?" Theresa asked, her expression shrewd.
He quirked up the corner of his mouth. "On the other hand, I think I like having someone around who isn't going to look at me funny and want to know if I'm okay all the time."
"Yeah, but I already blew that." She gestured towards a spot a few feet away. "At least, the asking if you're okay part. I don't think I've looked at you funny. Not yet, at least."
He opened his mouth to give a hopefully witty retort when raised voices caught his attention. He looked across the dusty parking lot to the boarded-up gas station where two agents stood, still in their full tactical gear, one gesturing with his spread hands while the other was putting her hands on her hips.
"Oh, boy," Colby muttered, coming to his feet.
Theresa turned to follow his gaze and let out a short sigh. "That happen often?" she asked.
Colby's hackles rose. "Does what happen often?"
She must have heard the defensiveness on their behalf in his tone, for she shook her head and returned to packing away her gear. "Nothing."
He looked at her for a second before turning away and striding across the cracked concrete. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Megan approaching from the opposite direction, while David was moving to deflect any curious agents who wanted to know why the commander of their operation was raising his voice at one of his team members. Or why Don Eppes was yelling at his girlfriend, depending on your interpretation of events.
As he got closer, Colby heard Liz say, her voice level, "Don't you dare try that with me, Eppes. You delayed giving us the signal, and I want to know why."
Don's back was to Colby, but he could still hear the older man retorting, "So you're telling me you would have done things differently? Maybe entered the warehouse earlier, when there were two guys with a clear line of sight to the back door, instead of waiting for me to give the command?"
"What's going on, guys?" Megan's voice was calm but insistent, warning them that they weren't exactly in private. Colby hung back a step, wanting to give them room to work it out, ready to step in if need be.
Liz spoke, her voice taut, "We're having a difference of opinion over the timing of the operation. It seems to me that our leader was overly cautious in sending David and me into the warehouse."
Now he understood why David was standing guard so many feet away. He didn't want to be forced to take sides in this. Colby could hardly blame him. He hoped no one asked him for his opinion, since as far as he was concerned, Liz was right. He'd been expecting the third team to swing open the back door at least two minutes before they actually had. It hadn't been a problem, but it might very well have led to his team being pinned down or even surrounded if some other factor had been a little bit different.
Looking at the hesitant expression on Megan's face, he realized that she would know even better than David what had gone on. After all, she'd been at Don's side while he coordinated the operation. "Don, what's your opinion on that?" she asked.
Don lowered his hands to his sides and spoke in a low tone. "My opinion is that I'm the one making the decisions when my team is in the field, and that's what counts."
Colby heard Liz make a scoffing noise. "And we're not supposed to question your judgment, is that it?"
Don briefly pressed his lips together before saying, "Not in front of the rest of the damn team, no, you're not."
Liz's gaze flickered around past Megan and Colby to the agents standing by the vans a few feet away. He wondered if they could make out any of the words that were being said here, but then their body language was probably speaking loudly enough. "This affects everyone, Don," she said more quietly. "It affects Colby and his three agents who were waiting for us to give them cover. It affects you and Megan and the guys with you who might have been fired on because we were late moving in."
"I didn't stall on telling you to move in!" Don barked, running a hand through his hair. "Why aren't you hearing that?"
His words echoed off the metal overhang covering the defunct gas pumps. Then the only sound for a couple of heartbeats was the rush of traffic from the interstate a quarter mile away. "Well, I guess everyone is hearing it now," Liz said, her words precisely spoken, her chin high as she looked at Don.
"Aw, come on," Don was saying, but she had already turned away and started striding towards the vehicle Theresa was standing next to. Colby watched him watch her go, and then he exchanged a glance with Megan. She jerked her head towards the side, and he silently obeyed, slipping away to finish stowing his gear and apparently to drive Liz back to L.A.
"You okay?" Theresa was asking Liz as he approached, and he felt a small smile creep onto his face. It was the same tone of voice she'd used on him just a few minutes ago. Bet she didn't think being part of this team would mean checking up on all of us, he thought as he looked at the petite brunette, who was regarding Liz with an air of deliberately casual concern.
"Fine," Liz said tightly, ripping off her vest and tossing it into the back of the SUV. "I'm fine."
He turned to look back at Don and Megan, the low rise and fall of their voices barely audible from this distance. And it's not like we don't need to be checked up on, either. At this rate, the suits upstairs were going to be pulling this team apart within a few days.
Assuming they didn't take care of it themselves first.