Chapter 3: This Hard Land
Colby: I haven't had a serious date in, like, two years.
Don: What, two years?
Colby: Well, L.A.'s tough, man, even when you're not working undercover with the Chinese.
The elevator doors opened, and David motioned for Colby and their suspect to go first. He followed, scanning across the bullpen and looking for Don. At first, the only two people he saw were Liz and Theresa, both emerging from the break room. He was pretty sure he wasn't imagining the smile that flashed across the younger woman's face when her eyes lit on Colby, and David had to duck his head to hide a smile of his own. Maybe his partner would get to do some of that "special investigating" he'd been talking about in the car.
"I'll get Don," he said out loud. "You get set up in one of the conference rooms." Properly speaking, it would be in an interrogation room, but the man they were bringing in had been cooperative so far; there was no need to scare him off.
He strode through the cubicle maze until he got to their team's area. "Hey, Don," he called, then raised a hand in apology when he saw the other man was on the phone. He waited around the corner until the conversation ended, overhearing a few words about property records.
Then Don hung up and turned around in his chair. "What is it?"
David jerked his thumb back towards the room where Colby and their guest were. "We brought in the head of the trucking company, and you're going to want to hear what he has to say."
"Yeah?" Don rose from his seat and grabbed his coffee mug in one fluid motion. "Let's go."
A moment later, the two of them had joined Colby and their suspect in the glass-walled "conference room". He was pretty sure Liz and Theresa were headed for the other side of the one-way glass. When they were all seated, he said, "Mr. Lytle, this is Special Agent Don Eppes. We're going to need you to tell him everything you've already said to us."
Jim Lytle was a man in his late 40s who was starting to lose the battle with his waistline and his hairline. He leaned his elbows on the table and rubbed his hands over his face. "Okay," he said as if preparing himself. He looked over at Don. "You the boss?"
"That's right," Don replied. "I'm also the guy you've talked to twice before when you said you didn't know anything about how three cases of RPGs got into a container hauled by your company."
"And I still don't." The older man laid his hands flat on the table. "Six months ago, one of my employees came to me and made a suggestion about starting up a side business, as he called it. Once I figured out he was talking about smuggling, I fired his ass on the spot. I don't do that sort of thing."
David exchanged a quick glance with Colby, who quickly rolled his eyes. "Then what?" he prompted.
Lytle drummed one hand on the tabletop. "A week later, the first shipment was stolen. Two weeks later, another. It took a little while, but I finally figured it wasn't a coincidence."
"Why didn't you contact the authorities?" Don asked mildly.
The other man's eyes shot over to his. "I did," he said pointedly. "Do you know how many containers are stolen in the Inland Empire every year? Half a billion dollars' worth. Port security is focused on terrorism, so it all trickles down to the local cops. Until someone gets killed, it's not a big deal."
"But someone did get killed," Colby reminded him.
Lytle let out a sigh. "Yeah, he did. After the third theft, I hired a guard. Things were fine for a little while. Then there was another hijacking. The second guard didn't last a week." His gaze turned darker. "Apparently that finally got someone's attention."
David cleared his throat. "Do you know how to get in touch with your former employee?"
"Madreno? Nah, I tried, but the phone number was disconnected."
"We called it in, Don." Colby looked across the table at their boss. "John Madreno, age thirty, recent resident of Mira Loma, no priors. We got a picture from his personnel files, and they're working it up into an APB right now."
"How long had he worked for you?" Don asked Lytle. He was sitting with his closed hand in front of his mouth, thumb resting between his parted lips, watching the CEO like a hawk.
"Six months. There's a lot of turnover, guys moving from one company to another, but I didn't think there was anything fishy about him." He shrugged. "Guess I was wrong."
This was the point in the story where David had started to ask some tougher questions. His gaze flickered between Don and Colby, curious as to what would happen next. A second later, Don said, "So, Mr. Lytle, why target your company? Did this Madreno want to get back at you for firing him?"
Colby smirked at David, and he could almost read his partner's thoughts. That was the same question he had asked. Lytle was going to think they had planned this.
The older man's eyes dropped to the tabletop, and he scratched its surface with his thumbnail. "Could be."
"Okay. What was his job?"
Lytle paused. "Scheduling. He knew what trucks were taking what routes, who the drivers were, what time of day they were coming, things like that. That's why I figured it was him."
Don held his hand out in front of him, palm up. "What, and you didn't change your scheduling once the thefts started?"
Lytle's eyes shifted back and forth, and David exchanged another glance with his partner. Same body language as in the man's office, even though he'd already confessed. Being in the FBI office always made it more real. He looked back at the CEO in time to hear him say, "We did as much as we could, but we're constrained by when the ships come in, you know?"
"And where the ships come in," Colby said pointedly.
Lytle pursed his lips. "Yeah," he said, his eyes still focused downward.
"Everything you told us, Mr. Lytle." David leaned forward in his seat, fixing the other man with his gaze. When he looked up, David raised his eyebrows and tilted his head forward. Every time this guy told his story was an opportunity for another detail to slip out that could get them closer to their objective.
He sighed. "We could change the routes and the times a little, but not a whole lot. Madreno knew that, and I'm sure he's been taking advantage of it."
Now Don was looking back and forth between David and Colby, and his eyes were narrowing. David recognized the signs of impending impatience, so he prompted, "And why couldn't you change your routes?"
Lytle folded his hands in front of him, the overhead lights gleaming off the gold band on his left hand. "The arrival times aren't flexible enough."
David quickly looked at Don and then gave Colby a slight nod. The younger agent supplied, "Apparently the port down in Tijuana has been siphoning traffic away from L.A./Long Beach. Mexican Customs is a little faster, and if the cargo takes an inland route, there's a border crossing where the lines aren't too long."
"And the inspection isn't too thorough," David filled in, his tone slightly harder. "At least at certain times of the day."
"Okay. Okay, I get it." Don was regarding their suspect with a little less friendly attitude. "So you have to wait until the customs agents who can be bribed are on duty, which means you can't adjust your transit times."
Lytle looked up, his face pale. "I swear, there's no smuggling going on. Nothing gets in my containers that isn't supposed to be there. I just need the stuff to move faster. Time is everything in shipping, and for a little guy like me, if I can move faster than the big guys, I have a chance to stay in business."
"I think you lost that chance, Mr. Lytle." Don's voice was cold. "Because something definitely got in your containers that wasn't supposed to be there."
"I know." Lytle laid his hands on the table, palms up, and David noticed for the first time the calluses on the fingertips. This was a man who worked hard, who had started his own business and built it up into something, but not without a shortcut or two along the way. He might well still be paying to have his goods "fast-tracked" across the border if someone hadn't slipped a few crates of RPGs inside. "And I'll do whatever I can to help you figure out how those weapons got there." His expression turned pleading. "But I swear, I had nothing to do with it."
David watched as Don stared at the man for another few seconds. "All right," he finally said, rising from his chair. "We'll be back."
The three agents left the room and rounded the corner. Don started, "So what do you figure, this Madreno guy was already smuggling, tried to bring the boss in on it to make it easier, and got fired for his trouble?" They nodded, and he went on, "Now he's still sneaking stuff in even though he doesn't work there?"
"It could have already been set up," David answered. "Certain ships, certain days of the week. His supplier doesn't even have to know he was fired."
"Lytle told us he doesn't get all of his cargo through the Mexican route, although all of the stolen containers have come that way, right?" Colby looked at him for confirmation, and David gave a quick nod. "He has another shipment coming in this afternoon, one tonight, and two tomorrow."
"Through Mexico?" When David nodded, Don rubbed his hand over his jaw. "Can we find out who the Customs agent is?"
"Apparently it's a friend of a friend kind of thing, but we'll work on it," Colby replied.
"Probably not in time," Don replied wearily. "How many drivers does he have?"
"Uh…" David reached for the notebook in his pocket, but Colby beat him to it. "Sixteen. Most of them have been with him a couple of years. All of the ones who have been hijacked have quit, so it's unlikely they're involved."
"Although a couple of them did stick around to get hijacked a second time," David added.
"Okay, so we could ride along with them, right?" Don asked.
He shared a quick look with his partner and shrugged. "As long as they know how to drive a semi, yeah."
"Guess that leaves us out," Colby muttered, looking slightly disappointed.
"Don't tell me you're harboring a secret desire to be a trucker, Granger," he shot back, eyebrows raised.
Colby grinned. "I don't know: the open road, seeing the country, seeing the women in the next lane in bikini tops…"
"C'mon, man, this is L.A. There's no such thing as an open road." David suddenly realized that Don was eyeing the two of them very carefully. "What?" he asked, feeling self-conscious.
Don didn't say anything, just looked back and forth, a knowing look in his eyes and a faint grin on his face. Then he clapped each of them on the shoulder. "Okay, David, you take care of booking Mr. Lytle. Colby, you're looking for John Madreno. I'm going to get another team set up for these upcoming shipments, and we're going to stop this at the source."
David gave him a brisk nod. As Don turned away, he opened his mouth to say something else, but then stopped. Colby was giving him a curious look, but he shook his head. Anything he wanted to say to their boss about white sedans and keeping a close eye on his partner was probably best done out of range of said partner. There was no reason to think that the Chinese were giving up just because Colby had successfully gotten away once. But for now, David intended to stick like glue to the other man.
Now that he'd gotten his best friend back, he wasn't about to let anything happen to him.
Two hours later, Don was still feeling pretty good. He'd followed Megan's advice and delegated some of the work, calling on a second team to take charge of substituting drivers for the scheduled shipments. With any luck, they'd soon have the cargo thefts solved, maybe even identifying the pipeline back to where the smuggled weapons had come from.
Of course, that still left Hector Simeon, Luis Esteban, and thirty-some rocket-propelled grenades to find. He let out a sigh. One thing at a time.
Leaning back in his chair, he mentally ran through his team's whereabouts. Liz was working with Charlie and Megan on cracking Joseph Beachy's datebook code; Colby was tracking down the connection between the trucking company and the stolen cargo; and David had popped by a few minutes ago to say he had finished booking Jim Lytle and was taking a lunch break. Don looked at his watch. He should be eating something himself. But the thought of going all the way downstairs to the cafeteria, grabbing some questionable-looking sandwich and coming all the way back up was not inspiring. He opened his lower desk drawer and spied a couple of energy bars. That would have to do.
He looked up to see Theresa Pennington standing in the aisle. "Yes?"
She tucked a stray piece of hair behind one ear and said, "Liz suggested I come by and see what's on the top of the priority list right now."
Looking at her, Don realized how much she reminded him of some of the recruits he'd taught at Quantico: eager to dive into a problem and do whatever they could to solve it. How long had Megan said she'd been out of the Academy? Four years? Not long enough to get cynical, he figured. "How are you at interrogation, Pennington?"
She shrugged one shoulder. "Can't say it's my strong point."
"No?" Don leaned back in his chair. "What's your specialty then?" he asked. He hadn't exactly had the time to take a detailed look through her personnel folder yet. Besides, he liked hearing an agent's estimation of their own skills: it told him a lot about their true strengths and weaknesses.
Theresa's eyes briefly slid away before meeting his again. "I'm good in the field, though I suck at anything that involves keeping still for long periods of time. Pretty good with picking out patterns in conversation, numbers, things like that. Probably comes from knowing languages."
That was right, Colby had told him how quickly she identified part of Beachy's papers as being zip codes. "What languages?" he asked out of curiosity, trying to figure out what task to hand off to her.
"Fluent in Spanish, plus some of the cognates like French and Italian," she said. "And passable in Russian and Arabic."
Don's eyebrows rose as he started re-estimating the woman in front of him. "Those aren't exactly closely related."
The corner of her mouth quirked up. "Have I mentioned I have a short attention span?"
"What, too many times changing your major in college?" Don rose to his feet, sure now of what to assign her, already reaching for the relevant folder.
"No, I spent a few years at Monterey." Theresa spoke casually, but he still looked sharply at her. The Defense Language Institute in Monterey, CA, was where experts in the military, intelligence, and anti-terrorism communities went to learn foreign languages. Most came in and out with fluency in one language, not years' worth of study. Most didn't then go work for a domestic agency like the FBI.
In answer to his unspoken question, she gave another of her easy shrugs. "I thought I was going to go down a different career path."
I guess so, he thought. Out loud he said, "Well, lucky for us." She cocked her head to the side, and he went on, lifting the folder in his hand, "Marta Luz Moreno. The woman you helped apprehend the other night." When we were on our not-so-wild goose chase. "She still hasn't said much to us. Maybe a fresh approach will help with someone who knows her language."
Theresa took the folder from his hand and quickly rifled through it. "She knows where the RPGs came from."
"And that's what we need to find out."
She gave him a brisk nod. "I'll see what I can do."
Don followed her into the interrogation room, where the Salvadorean woman sat with her cuffed hands on the table. She looked up as they came in, fear and resignation flickering across her face, followed by curiosity as she noticed Theresa. The information they had on her said she was in her mid-20s, but the lines on her face and the rough condition of her hands made her look much older. Don had been in here a couple of times already, on his own and with Liz. He'd already established himself as the glowering senior agent, so he took a chair against the wall and let Theresa lead the way.
She started off gently, and even if Don couldn't make out all of the words, the tone of her voice was clear. Marta didn't respond until Theresa closed the folder and pushed it to the side, asking something about the other woman's family. Then she visibly started, leaning back in her chair as if to distance herself from a threat, her dark brown eyes going wide. Theresa reached forward with a hand and murmured something reassuring, but the other woman's frightened eyes kept flickering to Don. He kept his face blank, trying not to look threatening, but it didn't seem to matter. They'd been down this dead end before, their suspect clamming up no matter what strategies they tried. He'd finally figured it was fear rather than defiance that was keeping her silent, but for many reasons, that was harder to work around.
Marta said something quietly, and Theresa's head jerked up. "¿En El Salvador?" she asked. When she got a short nod in reply, she went on, "¿Y cuanto tiempo?"
All Don could make out in the reply was "Simeon," but it was enough to make him lean forward in his seat. The movement caught Marta's attention, and she abruptly dropped her head to her chest and stopped speaking. He let out a frustrated sigh.
"Agent Eppes?" Theresa's voice was soft but insistent. "I think maybe I should talk to her alone."
Don hesitated only a moment before nodding and rising from his chair. He shut the door behind him and walked around to the observation room. Somehow, he wasn't surprised to find Colby watching the scene. He joined him in leaning against the back wall. "You find Madreno?" he asked casually.
Colby shook his head, folding his muscular arms across his chest. "Got an APB out; called his former landlord and got no forwarding address or friends to contact. No credit cards used since he was fired. David's working on the train and plane records to see if he's left town."
Don opened his mouth to ask what he was doing here instead of helping, then shut it again. The younger agent looked exhausted, and a few minutes off would probably help rather than hinder. But as he watched Colby watching Theresa, he noticed the clench of his jaw and the tight lines around his eyes. Something was bothering Colby, but from the way his eyes kept shifting around the room, Don didn't think it was the conversation that Theresa was coaxing out of their suspect.
Then with a jolt, he realized that this was the same room where Colby had been interrogated, both upon his initial arrest and in later questioning. Don had sat in front of these monitors and replayed the tape so many times he later heard it in his sleep. He could only imagine how many times Colby had relived the scene, sitting in federal prison and waiting for the chance to break out with Dwayne and make the whole charade worthwhile, while everyone he knew and trusted thought he had turned against them. His throat tightened for a moment. "You okay?" he asked quietly.
Colby's head whipped around, and the startled look that crossed his face told the real story, no matter that he opened his mouth to say, "Yeah, I'm fine." Then his eyes slid away to the other side of the one-way glass, the tension remaining across the line of his shoulders.
Don nibbled on his lower lip. He'd been thrilled a few hours ago to see signs of the return of easy camaraderie between Colby and David, but there were always reminders that everything wasn't back to normal. It would take a while for all of them to move on, longest of all for the man standing next to him. "What's she saying?" he finally asked, nodding towards the Salvadorean woman.
He got a quick, unreadable look before Colby replied, "She came to the U.S. a couple of years ago, following her brother. Both of them were smuggled across the border by coyotes who work for Simeon." He paused, and the corners of his mouth tightened in frustration. "Sorry, she's using some words I'm not familiar with."
Theresa didn't seem to be having any problem, judging from her lengthy reply. After a moment, Marta folded her hands in front of her and said softly, "Dos hijos y una hija."
"Two boys and a girl?" Don asked, sure that he remembered that much from the first level of Berlitz tapes.
Colby nodded. "Her kids. They're still in El Salvador." He slumped against the wall and leaned his head back, his face suddenly looking weary. "That's why she hasn't been saying anything, Don. She's the only one who knows how to contact the suppliers, but Simeon knows where her kids are. She was smart enough to know that as long as she didn't tell him where the RPGs came from, her kids would stay alive. But if he can make that connection without her…"
An ominous silence fell. Then Don said quietly, "So the longer she's in here, the longer Simeon has to find the suppliers as well."
A grim nod was his only reply.
Don pushed himself off the wall and took a step forward, leaning his hands on the table with the TV monitors and staring at the two women on the other side of the glass. Marta had apparently decided that telling them everything was her best hope at this point. A torrent of Spanish poured forth, way too fast for him to follow. Theresa's fingers occasionally twitched, like she wanted to be writing this down, but she would know that it was all being recorded and that they couldn't afford Marta clamming up again.
He looked back over his shoulder at Colby and got an impatient nod.
"Give me a sec," the junior agent said, his eyes darting back and forth between the two women. Then he let out a big sigh. "I can't follow all the names and places, but it sounds like she knows some guys from El Salvador and thought she could make a good impression on her new boss by getting him a pipeline to some heavier-duty weapons than he was used to dealing with."
"Simeon," Don said.
"Right. By the time she realized he wasn't going to play nice, it was too late."
Don tapped his fingers against the tabletop. And of course, she couldn't go to the authorities because she was here illegally, on top of the fear of herself or her children disappearing. "You know, for someone who says she's not great at interrogating, Pennington's pretty damn good. We've been trying to get something out of this woman for days, and here she waltzes in and gets her to open up like nothing."
"Well, she's pretty easy to talk to." Don turned to look at Colby and was amused by the faint blush that started to spread over the younger agent's face. "I mean, she's the one I gave my statement to, you know. Didn't hurt at all."
"Uh huh." A teasing comment sprang to mind, but he closed his mouth against it. If anyone deserved a little enjoyment out of life right now, it was Colby Granger.
Then again, what marked a return to normalcy better than a jibe or two? So Don said, "I guess if Megan wasn't already dating Larry, we could pair her off with David and then we'd all be set."
Colby blinked, and then his face flushed slightly darker. He held his hands up in front of him. "Don, I don't -- I mean, I haven't -- "
"Relax, Granger." He shot him a grin. "Just keep it low-key, huh?"
The deer-in-the-headlights look was not something Don was used to seeing on the junior agent's face. For some reason, it amused him even more.
He opened his mouth to add something when the door flung open and Theresa bounded into the room. "So, did you get that?" she asked.
Don straightened up and quickly looked away from Colby. The other man cleared his throat and said somewhat sheepishly, "We, uh, got it up to the point where she was talking about Simeon, and then we got sidetracked."
Apparently not noticing the reddish tinge on the taller agent's face, Theresa said, "Well, I'll have to watch the tape to get all the details, but she laid out names, places, and dollar amounts. Basically everything we need."
Don felt excitement rising up in him. "Then we can cross-check that with what Lytle told us and trace the weapons back to their source."
Theresa nodded. Then the lines around her mouth grew tight. "There's more. Although she doesn't know who was buying the weapons, she said they wanted one other thing as part of the deal. La mujer." She jerked her head to the side, indicating the view Marta Moreno would have had from the interrogation room.
Across the bullpen, he could see Liz standing in the war room, examining the papers tacked up to the bulletin board. She paused to say something to Megan and Charlie, both of whom looked up from where they were seated at the large table. Then Liz turned back to the board, apparently unaware of three sets of eyes on her.
Don's hands curled into fists. It was bad enough that Hector Simeon had kidnapped Liz. But to think of her as payment…it was enough to make him see red. He took a deep breath, aware of Colby and Theresa watching him. "Well, that's not going to happen," he said through clenched teeth.
"You got that right," Colby replied determinedly. He nodded at Theresa. "Let's go track 'em down."
Her eyes lit up. "You bet."
They turned to go, and Don called out, "Hey, Pennington." She and Colby both paused mid-stride and she looked back over her shoulder. He gave her a nod. "Good job."
Theresa flashed him a quick smile. "Thanks." Then Colby's hand went to her lower back and he escorted her out.
Don turned back to look at Marta Moreno, who was still staring at the blank wall across the room. Her expression was resigned, as if she had thrown the dice and now could only wait. He felt a little bad for her, but then again, no one had forced her to try and get the rocket-propelled grenades into Simeon's hands. He rubbed a hand over his face. The pieces were finally fitting into place. Hopefully it wouldn't take much longer before Liz was safe and the weapons were secured.
He hoped it didn't make him a bad FBI agent for thinking of it in exactly that order.