Lights out tonight, trouble in the heartland
Got a head-on collision smashin' in my guts, man
I'm caught in a cross fire that I don't understand
But there's one thing I know for sure, girl
I don't give a damn for the same old played-out scenes
I don't give a damn for just the in-betweens
Honey, I want the heart, I want the soul, I want control right now
--Bruce Springsteen, "Badlands"
Chapter 1: Better Days
David: That's the thing about friends: sometimes they turn on you.
Alan: Yeah, that's a big test, isn't it? How do you deal with that really close friend who lets you down?
David: Mr. Eppes, he did not just forget to pick me up from the airport.
Colby tapped one finger on top of the steering wheel, strains of Toby Keith from this morning's radio alarm still running through his head. A motion to his right caught his eye, and he turned to see David shifting in the passenger seat, annoyance on his face. He stopped the finger tapping.
They were heading east on the 10 for the third time in four days, this time on their way to interview the CEO of Lytle Trucking about how his missing containers had turned up with RPGs inside. Don had questioned the guy over the phone, but now an in-person visit was called for. When Colby had shown up a little before seven, he'd found an e-mail from Don ordering the first two arriving agents to head out to Fontana ASAP. He'd looked up from his desk to see David watching him. "Just like old times," he'd muttered before picking up the coffee he'd barely taken a sip of and heading towards the elevator, not bothering to check to see if David was following.
They hadn't said more than a couple of words to each other in the half hour they'd been on the freeway. Colby sighed. Far as he could see, it was up to David to make the first move. With his luck, David was thinking the same thing. He'd just been complaining to Don about how the two of them hadn't gotten a chance to talk. Now here they were, the perfect opportunity, and the only sound was the thrum of the tires on the pavement. Up ahead, the brown cloud of smog was thickening the farther east they traveled, blown along by the offshore winds. What a beautiful day, Colby thought. Not.
A white sedan sped past them on the left, and Colby jerked upright in reflex. He watched the car as it wove in and out of the light traffic, not relaxing until it was at least half a mile ahead. Then he let out a deep breath, feeling his heart thumping in his chest and willing it to slow down. That's all I need, he thought. One more thing to have flashbacks about.
"You all right, man?" David's tone held more concern than he'd heard out of him since – well, more concern than he'd heard from him in months.
"Yeah, I'm fine." He realized the reply was a little too brusque and went on, trying to keep his voice light, "Guess it's a little shell shock, you know?"
"Sure." A long pause, and then David said, "That wasn't the car from the other night, was it?"
He let out a soft snort. "You know how many white sedans there are in L.A.?"
"Three million, six hundred thousand, two hundred and sixty."
"Approximately?" he asked, lifting his eyebrows.
"Yeah, I can't remember the exact number." When Colby shot a curious glance towards the passenger seat, he couldn't read David's expression with his sunglasses on. "I tried looking it up the other night, but there were too many to do anything with without a license plate or at least a make and model."
"Don really had you trying that?"
A short pause. "Naw, it was after you left with Theresa. I thought I could…well, never mind."
They passed another half a mile in silence, Colby wondering how to take advantage of the crack that had just opened in David's armor. It was his partner who broke the silence, surprising him. "I don't like the thought of them out there looking for you."
"You and me both," Colby muttered. "I thought it was all over."
"So that means it was the kind of assignment that could be over?"
He heard curiosity rather than accusation behind the words, and so he replied, "It all hinged on Dwayne. Without him…." He shrugged. "It wasn't about busting the Chinese. It was about busting our leak to them."
He looked over to see David leaning his head back against the headrest. "How'd you end up on Taylor Ashby's list then?"
Damn it, ask me anything else. "David, I'm sorry, but I can't talk about that."
There was no response for a moment, and he was sure he'd blown it. Finally, "That's cool," came the measured reply. "I should have expected that."
Colby let out a sigh and slid his hands around to the bottom of the steering wheel. "It's not that I don't want to, you know."
"Yeah, I know." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw David turn his head to look out the side window as he let out a deep sigh. "You do what you gotta do."
"Well, I guess you'd know about that." The bitter words slid out before he could stop them, and his hands clenched around the wheel.
"And what is that supposed to mean?"
He'd known this was going to come to a head at some point, but he hadn't expected to be doing seventy-five down the San Bernardino Freeway while he hashed out months of misunderstanding and hurt with the guy who had been his best friend. But there was no turning back now. "I tried to put myself in your shoes, you know. What I would be thinking if you were the one sitting in the interrogation room, and I'd just been told by some unverified voice recording that you were a spy."
"Now wait a minute--"
Colby kept going, raising his voice to override his partner. "And I kept coming back to one thing. There aren't many people I've been closer to in my life than Dwayne, and I had to spend two years watching him sell out our country so he could make a few bucks. But when they first told me what was going on, what they were asking me to do?" He shook his head. "It took me two weeks to believe them, and even then, up until I saw Dwayne actually making a drop, I thought there had to be a mistake." He accelerated to get past a big rig, then slowed back down to ten miles over the speed limit. "I suppose I should be flattered that you were so quick to believe me. All I had to do was say the word."
"Come on, Granger." David's reply was as sharp as his own had been. "You don't know anything about walking in my shoes. Not a thing."
A hot retort sprang to his lips, but he forced himself to take a deep breath. He'd envisioned this conversation dozens of times during the past few months, and he'd never managed to get past the part where they were shouting at each other, or maybe even came to blows. It had been cathartic to picture it like that, but this was reality, and if there was any chance of keeping this partnership, this team, together, he had to take a different tack.
So instead, he said quietly, "Then why don't you tell me about it."
There was silence, and for a moment he thought he'd lost his chance. Then David started in a low voice, "Thing is, where I grew up, I learned that everyone let you down sooner or later. Parents, family, friends…they either did something wrong or something happened to them. They fell in with the wrong crowd, they turned into someone else and you didn't know who they were anymore. It's hard to trust people when that's what you're used to."
Colby hadn't even thought of that. All of those imaginary conversations had included various excuses on David's part that hadn't, of course, been enough. But then, he hadn't really been trying to think of an explanation, hadn't looked past his own hurt to try and see it from the other man's point of view. Still, it didn't quite ring true. "You didn't have any trouble trusting your friend when he was accused of murder," he retorted.
The reply was simple and pointed. "He told me he didn't do it." And you told me you did, was the unspoken follow-up.
Colby drew in another deep breath. There wasn't much he could say to that. After all, what reason would someone have for admitting they were a spy when they weren't? Only someone who was deep undercover -- and your average FBI agent didn't expect that of the person they'd been closely working with for two years. It was on the tip of his tongue to say that Don hadn't believed it, but he didn't know that for sure anyway. It was only conjecture, based on his reading of the man during his interrogation and how he'd responded to Colby's desperate call from the subway. Heck, for all he knew, his boss simply couldn't admit that he'd been wrong.
David shifted in his seat again. "Besides, it doesn't matter now. Now you're Colby Granger the Hero, and I'm just Special Agent Sinclair."
"Oh, come on, what're you talking about?" It hurt to hear David say that. Colby had been going out of his way to avoid any mention of commendation for what he'd done; the medal from the White House had been dropped into a box in his closet, and he'd absolutely forbidden any mention of it beyond the obligatory press release. He just wanted to forget the whole mess had ever happened, or at least to the extent that the occasional nightmare would let him.
"Hey man, it's okay. Makes you popular with the ladies, right?"
He shot a look across the front seat. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
David's eyebrows raised above his sunglasses. "Agent Pennington?"
Colby snorted. "She doesn't know anything about it."
"You kidding? Everyone who works in the L.A. field office knows something about it."
That time, he could feel a little bit of panic in the look he gave the other man. "What do you mean?"
"Hey, we couldn't have everyone thinking you were…well, you know. Not one of the good guys. So there might have been a few e-mails sent around before you got back, setting the record straight and all. I'm pretty sure she was here by that time. Something about a Presidential Medal of Freedom?"
Colby let his head fall back against the headrest for a brief second. So much for the White House not notifying his superiors. It sounded like they'd notified the whole goddamn office. "Oh, hell," he muttered.
"Something tells me it's not just overblown modesty that's got you saying that," David replied.
Colby thought for a moment about how to phrase it. Finally he said, "I guess I don't want two years of my life erased and replaced with some story about being someone I'm not. I don't--" He let out a short sigh. "I don't want everything about me to be defined by that one thing I did."
Silence fell. He flipped on the turn signal, starting the trek across five lanes of fast-moving traffic to reach their exit. He'd made it halfway there when David spoke up. "Fair enough," he said. "But you can't act like it doesn't define you at all. You're trying to walk around like nothing ever happened, and it doesn't work like that. You are not the same person we all thought you were, Colby. I'm not saying that's a bad thing. But you cannot pretend that nothing is different from how it was last year at this time."
He mulled that over for a moment, punching the accelerator to get past another semi before cutting over into the exit lane. Finally he said, "David, I'm the same guy I've always been. Don't think that you don't know who I am, 'cause you do."
"Eh, I don't know about that." David paused before going on, "You're a lot tougher than I ever thought you were, and believe me, I didn't think you were a wimp."
He hesitated for only a second before saying, "If you guys had gotten to that ship two minutes later, my so-called toughness would have been irrelevant. I owe you a lot."
"I wish we'd been two hours earlier." He could hardly make out the words, since David was turning towards the window as he said them. Still, the sentiment was clear.
Colby gave a half-smile as he came to a stop at the traffic light. "I hear you," he said fervently, meaning it at least two different ways.
Silence fell for a moment. Then David said, his tone lighter, "So does this mean we're gonna be trusted to work together now? I keep wondering if Don's going to call in Charlie to figure out what permutations he can make of the team without causing any trouble."
"I don't know, I didn't think it was so bad." Colby quickly went on, "Since I've been partnered with Agent Pennington."
"Uh huh." A teasing note entered his partner's voice. Damn, he'd missed that sound. "You thinking of doing a little special investigating?"
"If that's what you want to call it," he drawled as he made the right-hand turn off the exit ramp. David's answering chuckle made him smile.
Whether it was a smoggy day outside or not, the air in the car suddenly felt a little bit clearer.
"So that's the main difference between the first derivative and the second derivative," Charlie finished, looking over his shoulder at the two students sitting in front of his desk.
The guy's face was scrunched up in confusion, but he could see a light bulb coming on over the girl's head. "So for the second problem, we should be taking the second derivative and setting that equal to zero?"
"Exactly." He beamed at them both. Seeing the puzzled expression of the first student, he said, "Amy, why don't you see if you can explain it to Chad?" He watched as she sketched out a diagram in her notebook that was very similar to the one he had drawn on the board, talking excitedly as she did so.
Slowly, the boy's furrowed eyebrows straightened out, and eventually he said, "Hey, yeah, I get it. It made a lot more sense that time." Then he looked up at Charlie and quickly said, "No offense, Professor Eppes."
"None taken," Charlie said with a smile, spreading his hands wide. "Sometimes all it takes is a different perspective on the same material. That's why your homework sometimes attacks the same kind of problem from different points of view; what makes sense to one person might be harder for someone else to understand."
"Cool," Amy said. Looking up at the clock, she said, "Oh, crap, we've got chem in ten minutes. Thanks for the help, Professor," she said as she shoved her notebook into her book bag, Chad following suit.
"Any time," Charlie said as they hurried out. Then a smile curled the corners of his mouth. As hard as he tried to be friendly and accessible, freshmen often felt too intimidated to come to their professor for help, preferring a TA or a classmate. It always felt good when one or more of them actually came to his office hours.
He was almost done erasing the integrals and line graphs from the chalkboard when the phone rang. Expecting Don, he picked it up with a casual, "Yo."
He unconsciously stood up straighter. "Yes, this is he."
The voice went on in a British accent, "This is Ian Thrift, editor for the Journal of Combinatorics. I have a couple of questions for you about a paper you recently submitted, and rather than go through – "
Charlie cut him off. "Sorry, but are you sure? I don't think I've submitted anything to your journal recently."
"Let me see, ah, here it is. 'A combinatorial algorithm for minimizing submodular functions of directed lattice paths.'"
He frowned. "I think you're confusing me with someone else, Dr. Thrift." Come to think of it, that title sounded familiar, but he couldn't place it.
There was the sound through the phone of a throat clearing. "Yes, well, I understand that the paper was submitted under the name of Amita Ramanujan, but it seemed wise to consult you directly."
Right, that was where he'd seen the title before: on Amita's printer at the top of a stack of paper ready to be proofread before final submission. He'd offered to look it over, but she'd declined, saying she wanted to submit it as quickly as possible. "I don't understand," Charlie said, slowly sitting down. "Haven't you contacted Dr. Ramanujan?"
"As I said, Dr. Eppes, I'm already circumventing the formal contact process, so it seemed best to go straight to the main author. Now, in the second section, you say that – "
"Hold on." Charlie frowned. "I'm not the author. I just said that."
"Ms. Ramanujan was your graduate student, I believe?"
Charlie rolled his eyes. Every once in a while he ran into one of the last of the dinosaurs, an old-timer who had trouble believing that female mathematicians were more than secretaries. Apparently this was one of those idiots. Why else would he refer to her having gone to grad school and then ignore her title? "Yes, Dr. Ramanujan was my advisee, but I can assure you, I had nothing to do with this paper. She produces her own results and is actually considered an expert in combinatorial algorithms."
There was a pause. "I see. Well, perhaps I was mistaken."
The snippy tone caused his hackles to rise. "Do you always assume that papers submitted by assistant professors are written by their advisors? Because if that's the case, I'm going to advise all the combinatoricists I know not to publish in your journal, no matter how long they've had their Ph.Ds." Sure, this might be the lead journal in the field, but if enough people stopped publishing in it, it would sink down into the depths of the basement library shelves where the dust went undisturbed for months, if not longer.
"Oh no, not at all," Thrift hastily replied. "There's nothing wrong with giving a little helping hand to a former student; we've all done it from time to time. But in this case, I understand that the two of you are, shall we say, frequent collaborators?" The knowing tone on those last few words made it clear that Thrift was using them as a euphemism and not in their usual academic meaning.
Charlie shot to his feet, remembering just in time that his office door was open. "What do you mean by that?" he asked, his voice turning cold.
"Now, Professor Eppes, I don't mean to give offense." The Englishman cleared his throat again. "My apologies."
His tone wasn't exactly sincere, but right now all Charlie wanted to do was slam the phone down and never speak to this guy again. He had a horrible sinking feeling that this cad's reasoning was similar to the morons who had rejected Amita's from the Munich conference, and that she was right: there wasn't a whole lot he could have done about it without making things worse.
But at least he could do something here.
"Let me make this clear," he said, casting his mind back to the last time he saw Don chew someone out and trying to project that same air of deadly calm anger, "Dr. Ramanujan is a fine mathematician who has more than earned her Ph.D. and her current faculty position. Any work she produces is her own and does not deserve to be tainted by innuendo or gossip. Is that understood?"
Another pause, and another throat-clearing. "Quite."
"Good." With a small amount of childish satisfaction, Charlie dropped the receiver back onto the base. He ran his hands over his face. He didn't get blindingly angry often, and when he did, it took a bit of effort to return to normal. As long as no students walked in for the next few minutes, he'd be okay.
His head whipped up, and he saw Amita standing in the door. No students or Amita, he amended in his head. "Uh, hi."
She entered the office, her brows puckered in concern. "Are you okay?"
He nodded, a little too vigorously. "I'm fine. How are you?" And how long were you out in the hallway?
"I'm fine." Her head was tilted slightly to the side, her eyes clearly demonstrating that she didn't believe a word he'd said. "Was that Don on the phone? You seem kind of upset."
"No, it, um, it was a journal editor." That much he could tell her at least. With a forced laugh, he said, "Sometimes they want you to make so many changes to the paper, you might as well write a different paper, you know?" He looked down and rearranged some papers on his desk. "Don't you hate it when they review the paper they think you should have written instead of the one you actually did?"
"Uh-huh." Her tone indicated that she didn't buy it. He looked up to see those beautiful dark eyes focused on him, and he silently begged her to just let it go. "Charlie, what's going on?"
Message not received. He took a deep breath. "Amita, did you actually talk to the organizers of the Munich conference?"
"No, not directly." Her eyes narrowed, and she added a drawn-out, "Why?"
Charlie looked down at his desk. "I, uh, was just talking to a journal editor who seemed to be laboring under a similar misconception about your work."
She let out a sigh and flopped into a chair in front of his desk, the stack of papers she was carrying dropping onto her lap. "Let me guess, they wanted to get your opinion of the paper since you were obviously part of the research that went into it?"
He reached up and scratched his ear. "No -- well -- they actually thought I had written it."
Amita's cheeks flushed and she lowered her head. "Well, that's a new low," she said softly.
He stood up and walked around the desk to sit beside her. Reaching out to take her hand, he said, "Amita, what can we do about this?"
The corner of her mouth quirked down. "If I knew, I'd already be doing it."
"How -- how much of a problem is this? How common is it?" He'd never had his students' work questioned before, but then this was the first time he'd been romantically involved with a former student. Maybe that changed things.
She shrugged one shoulder and turned to face him. "In other fields they have blind reviewing, where the author's name isn't known to the reviewer, so there isn't this cloud of suspicion over junior faculty. But math has so many tiny little communities that we all know each other's work anyway, so most reviewers know whose paper they're reading. Or at least they think they do," she added with a roll of the eyes.
"If that's the case, why can't people seem to figure out that it's your work and not mine?"
She shook her head sadly. "I don't know, Charlie."
"Well, I'm pretty sure that the jerk I talked to understands what's going on now," he said, trying to sound confident. "If we take them on one at a time, that's what we have to do."
"I'm not sure it works that way," she said. Then a small smile lit her face. "But I love you for trying."
He smiled back and leaned forward to kiss her. If only everything could be solved this way, he thought. Of course, maybe then I'd want there to be more problems in the world…