Chapter 4: The Price You Pay
Alan: Come on, you've got to allow yourself a few mistakes in life.
Don: Yeah, well, people die that way.
Megan looked up from the laptop in front of her and rubbed her eyes. It was decision time: grab a candy bar from the vending machine and plow on ahead, or break for dinner and count on a long night? The clock on the wall read twenty after six; she'd slipped upstairs to deliver her message to A.D. Wright an hour and a half ago, and it had taken her a few minutes to get her head back on straight after refraining from telling the man exactly what she thought of his request to report on her team. He'd accepted her observations without comment, although the look in his eyes had been slightly apologetic. Maybe she and her team weren't the only people under pressure right now.
"How are you doing?" Amita asked from her seat at the other end of the conference table.
Megan sat back and eyed the pile of papers next to the keyboard. "About halfway done."
Amita grimaced. "Sorry."
"Not your fault." Megan sighed and sat up straighter. "I should be able to get into the guy's head from the notes he left."
"It's not like they're lecture notes," Amita replied. "They aren't supposed to mean anything to anyone but him."
"I know." The neat columns of numbers and letters on the pages spoke of someone who was methodical, careful, and unable to leave things to chance. It matched with the description of Joseph Beachy as someone who went out on the jobs that he arranged to see for himself that things were being done right.
So what she still couldn't figure out was why he had allowed Simeon to let Liz go. If Marta Moreno was right, and Liz had been part of the payment for the RPGs, Simeon might have figured that without Marta as a contact to the suppliers, there was no way they could demand their payment and that it would be too much trouble to hold an FBI agent for an undetermined time period. But that didn't jive with the cautious man that the "datebook" presented. She frowned, trying to remember something from Liz's statement that had bothered her ever since she listened to the recording a couple of nights ago, something about their customer being unhappy if Liz was brought to them. What was that supposed to mean?
Megan shook her head and let out an "Argh!" When Amita looked up, startled, she gave a swift smile in apology. "Sorry. There's too many things I'm trying to keep hold of at once, you know?" She reached out with one hand and grasped at empty air. "As soon as I remember one thing, something else slips away."
"Then perhaps a brief respite is in order."
The familiar voice came from the doorway behind her, and Megan whirled around so quickly the swivel chair smacked into the table. "Larry?"
He was standing in the doorway, his trademark gentle smile on his face. "A small member of the class Aves told me you might be in need of a distraction."
The translation from Larry-speak took her less time than it used to, and she wondered if it meant she was getting smarter or weirder. "And who might that little bird be?" she asked, unable to stop a smile from curling her lips despite her foul mood.
He gave a slight shrug and stepped forward. "I'm not going to name names."
No doubt a curly-headed blackbird, Megan thought, her eyes narrowing as she recalled Charlie stepping out of the war room about an hour ago and making a call out in the bullpen. He'd since disappeared to grab some dinner, or so he said. But as he came up behind Larry, even though his arms were full of takeout bags, she had a sneaking suspicion he'd driven farther than the Chinese place down the street. "Charlie," she said warningly.
His face beamed with innocence. "Orange chicken or beef and broccoli?" he asked.
"Neither, if you please," Larry replied, turning sideways in the doorway so Charlie could pass. "Some of us have other arrangements."
Megan tilted her head to the side. "You came all the way down here and you're not staying for dinner?"
"And neither are you," he replied firmly.
She shook her head. "Larry, I've got to get through this tonight."
"Then we'll return so you can finish. Right now, I have special dispensation to make sure you take a break."
Beyond Larry, she could see Don standing up in his cubicle, looking their way. When he noticed her eyes on him, he made a waving gesture towards the elevators. Go on, he mouthed.
Megan sat back and folded her arms over her chest. "I really appreciate the thought, but I can't spare the time."
"In case you haven't noticed," Charlie said, pulling white cardboard containers out of the plastic bags and setting them on the table, "none of the rest of your team is around. They're all eating dinner or resting. Or about to," he added under his breath, looking across the bullpen at his brother. Then he gave her a friendly smile, eyes glimmering with mischief. "Sorry, but you're outnumbered."
"Charlie." The tone of her voice said she was losing the battle.
And then Larry piled on the guilt, and she knew she was done. "I'll have you back here by eight, Megan, with plenty of time to finish your task this evening." He paused and cleared his throat. "It would be nice to spend a few moments with you now that I'm here."
She rolled her eyes and stood up. "Okay, fine."
An under-the-breath "hurray" came from Charlie's direction, but when she turned sharply towards him, all she saw was the top of his head as he opened containers of food.
"We'll be here when you get back," Amita said. "Go on and clear your head."
Megan followed Larry out of the war room and down the hall to the elevators. "Do you have anywhere in mind, or are we walking to the closest restaurant that's open?"
"I was thinking the Thai establishment next to your apartment would do quite nicely. The monks make delicious food, but the tranquility of their lifestyle appears to extend to their spice cabinet."
You would think after all this time I would stop cracking up when he talks like that, she thought as a giggle escaped her lips. Then again, I hope I never do. "Okay, as long as we order three dishes so I have the leftovers."
Larry spread his hands wide and managed to maneuver one around her back as the elevator arrived. "Whatever you say, my dear."
They went down to the parking garage in silence, though not without a more private means of greeting than they had been able to exchange up in the office. Megan's cheeks were slightly flushed when the doors opened on the concrete ramps. "I'm sorry I haven't been up to see you," she said, digging in her pocket for her car keys. "Things have been a bit overwhelming here right now."
"I understand." Larry cleared his throat. "Charlie's been struggling as well, so I have an idea of the difficulties of the case."
"Well, whatever you said to him worked, because he's thrown himself back into things like he never left." She put a hand on his arm as they reached the car. "Thank you."
He gave a small smile and looked away. She knew that he didn't like to be thanked for what seemed like obvious things to do: obvious to him, perhaps, if not to the average person.
They climbed inside the silver Acura and settled into the seats. Megan was glad to have her car back, even if the bullet holes had yet to be repaired. Forensics had gotten what they could from it in the initial round, and given that she parked it in the garage every day, they knew where to get a hold of it if needed. She grimaced, thinking of the wild ride with Colby the other night. The poor guy sure didn't need to be chased down by the Chinese after everything he'd already been through. She hoped that once this case was resolved, they could make sure that Colby wouldn't have to keep watching his back.
"Are you making progress?" Larry asked as she started the car.
"Some." She pulled the car out of its space and started the slow, winding spiral up and out of the garage. "There's basically three parts to the case, and we're homing in on one."
"That's good to hear. And I trust there have been no more escapades like the other night?"
His voice was slightly reproachful, and she sighed. No wonder he hadn't said anything about the bullet holes. "No, nothing on that front."
"Then what's troubling you, Megan?" She shot him a quick look, and he went on, "I know that the case is putting pressure on all of you, but you seem more distant than is your wont."
"Hold on." Megan fumbled for the key card and rolled down the window. When they'd passed through the gate and she'd tucked the card away again, she said, "You can't tell anyone I said this, okay?" She looked over at him and got a serious nod in reply. "A.D. Wright asked me this morning to let him know how the rest of my team was doing."
"I'm not sure I follow," Larry replied.
She let out a sigh and pulled up to the edge of the street, waiting for the traffic to clear. "He wanted to know how everyone is coping with what happened the other night, how they're interacting, what kinds of difficulties they're having." She bit her lip. "Larry, he wanted me to profile my own team."
"Oh." It might have been a short word, but it carried a wealth of meaning. "And what did you say?"
"I said I wasn't comfortable with what he was asking me to do." There was a break in the traffic, and she pulled out onto the street. "Not that that's been a valid excuse before," she added under her breath.
"Your trips to Washington."
A short nod was her only reply. It occurred to her that she ought to wonder how Larry had known about the drive from the airport with Colby, but she wouldn't have to go much farther than the CalSci math department for that. Same with her most recent flight to DC, she was sure.
There was silence for a moment. Then Larry said, "Megan, I hope you understand that my reticence doesn't indicate lack of interest on my part. I simply haven't developed a sense of what is and isn't appropriate to ask, or what you can and can't divulge." Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him spread his hands wide, palms up. "I don't want you to feel pressured to answer questions if it's inappropriate."
Megan thought about that for a moment as they came to a stop at a traffic light. "Well, now I feel like a total idiot," she finally said.
When she turned her head, she saw Larry's eyes going wide with dismay. "Why?" he asked, concerned.
The corner of her mouth turned up. "You'd think someone who's supposed to be a behavioral specialist would have figured that out. Instead, I've been feeling a little resentful that you don't seem to show much interest in what I do every day."
"Oh, Megan." He reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. "Don't you know by now that I'm interested in everything about you?"
Her face softened into a smile. "Some day I'll take the time to delve into my own insecurities," she said lightly, reaching up to pat his hand. "In the meantime, how about no shop talk for the next hour?" she said.
Larry looked at the dashboard clock. "No mention of the FBI until 7:32 P.M. Agreed." His fingers intertwined with hers, and when the light changed, she kept driving with only one hand.
Maybe Charlie had been right: a little time away from the office was turning out to be a wonderful idea.
Don wasn't entirely sure that it was the best use of resources to send Megan away at the moment, but after being thrown for a loop this morning with the request to report back on the team, she probably needed the break. He'd noticed her quietly disappear not long before five o'clock and return with a downcast look on her face. It hadn't taken much persuading to get Charlie to make a run up to Altadena and pluck Larry out of his monastery.
He remembered his assessment of Megan to Bradford what seemed like a lifetime ago. He'd called her smart and tough and Bradford had twisted it around into concern that she was overly compassionate. Of course, that was before her forced leave to Washington and whatever it had entailed. He wondered now if he shouldn't be worrying about her the same way he had about David: that one day, something would just be too much for her and she'd quit. In the meantime, whatever he could do to keep her going -- to keep all of them going -- was worth it.
Don entered the war room in time to see Charlie dishing out the last of the Chinese food onto a paper plate, scraping the carton clean. "Gee, thanks, guys."
"No, this is for you." Charlie pushed the plate towards him. "Come on and have a seat."
He looked at his watch. "Yeah, okay. I can eat while you fill me in, all right?"
"Give us five more minutes," Amita said from the other edge of the table. A plate of food sat near her elbow, barely touched.
"Sure thing." Don dug into the food, only then realizing how hungry he was. Had he even had lunch? Somewhere between watching Theresa interrogate the Salvadorean woman and following up on the team that was replacing the truck drivers tonight in hopes of stopping the cargo thefts at the source, he'd managed to skip a meal. He cast a wistful glance at the empty containers Charlie was tossing in the trash. So much for seconds. That's what you get for staying at your desk too long, Eppes.
He'd just taken a mouthful of orange chicken when Colby and Theresa appeared in the doorway. "Hey, Don, good news," Colby said.
About time, he thought, but all he could do was wave them in. Apparently Colby understood the unspoken command to continue, for he said, "We've been in touch with Customs and told them what Jim Lytle said about the containers. They're gonna put some extra men on and see if they can figure out who's letting stuff get by without inspection."
Next to him, Theresa put her hands on her hips. "Don't you think he might want to know the other thing first?"
Colby looked down at her. "Geez, hold on, I'm getting there."
Don swallowed the last of the chicken and said, "What other thing?"
Colby made a sweeping "after you" gesture, and Theresa let out a huff of breath. "We found John Madreno," she said to Don. "They're booking him right now."
"Who's that?" Charlie asked.
"The guy who knows which cargo shipments to hide RPGs in," Don tossed over his shoulder. "What has he said?"
"Nothing so far, but we haven't really started talking yet." The tight grin that accompanied Colby's words made it clear what kind of "talking" he meant.
"All right, that's good." Don leaned back in the chair. Finally, things were starting to come together. "You guys eat?"
"Yeah, we, uh, stopped on the way back. From picking up Moreno."
He looked back and forth between the two of them, wondering why Colby was rubbing the back of his neck and why Theresa was carefully not looking at anyone in the room. But before he could say anything, Amita burst out, "Yes!" Everyone turned to look at her, and she flushed a little. "Sorry. The analysis is done, if you're ready," she said, looking up at Charlie.
"Oh, great!" The mathematician came around the table and looked over her shoulder.
Don watched Charlie's eyes track back and forth as he studied the laptop screen. After a few seconds, impatience got the better of him, and he said, "Got anything you want to share with the rest of the class?"
Charlie shot him a look from under his eyebrows that might have struck terror into the heart of an undergraduate, but only made Don grin. "One second, please," he said, reaching over Amita's shoulder to tap the trackpad a few times. "Okay, great," he finally said, straightening up and moving to the front of the room. He toggled a switch on the projector, and the contents of Amita's monitor flashed up on the white screen. "Ready?"
"For what?" Colby asked, reaching out to snag a chair and dropping his six-foot frame into it.
"All the secrets of Joseph Beachy's mind," Charlie said dramatically, gesturing towards the screen.
"Or at least a good start," Amita added. "We've been going over the papers that the two of you found in his apartment the other night, and we're most of the way towards cracking his code."
Don sat up straighter. "All right! What've you got?"
As Charlie started speaking, Don noticed Colby lean over to whisper something in Theresa's ear. He had no idea what it was, but the fact that her features remained expressionless while her eyes danced with amusement was to her credit. "Okay, so besides the date, each entry has six numbers, right?" the mathematician said. "That seems to refer to the two parties involved in the deal Beachy is brokering, three digits for each. We've isolated 815 as the digits corresponding to Hector Simeon, and 312 as the series for the RPG buyers."
"Do those digits show up elsewhere?" Don quickly asked.
"Yes, they do," Amita said, tapping at her laptop.
"It's okay, we'll get to that later," Charlie said. "Now, there's also a series of six letters for each entry, and those have been tougher to figure out. We ended up having to use divide and marriage before conquest."
Colby leaned forward slightly as he opened his mouth, but at a look from Don he closed it again without a word.
Oblivious, Charlie went on, "It's an algorithm that breaks everything down into small pieces before putting some of the pieces together to solve subproblems. From that, we can work our way back up to the big problem."
"Which is figuring out where the RPGs are," Don said impatiently.
Charlie shot him a quick glance. "Actually, so far it's just been figuring out what the codes mean."
"Okay, so what've you got?" Don was starting to feel like he was repeating himself, something he really hated to do.
"Well, we started with the entry from three days ago to establish the codes connected to the storage facility in Fontana. We found the same set of numbers a week earlier, meaning the same two players were involved, and then again with today's date."
"Today?" Don leaned forward. "What's going down today?"
"Or what was supposed to go down today," Colby said. At a quick look from Don, he waved a hand and said, "Well, since Beachy's dead…"
He looked back at Charlie. "Is today when the weapons were supposed to be delivered?"
"We think so. Maybe." Charlie nodded at Amita, and a different table shot up on the screen. "In the six-letter combinations, we're pretty sure that AXL stands for a delivery of something; it always seems to come towards the end of any set of interactions between two players. Monday's code included an AXL, and so does today's."
Theresa broke in for the first time. "But they didn't deliver the weapons on Monday, they took them."
"That might not have been the original plan," Don said. "I mean, I'd like to think that something we did the other night made a difference to these guys."
"Could be," Charlie said. "At any rate, there appear to be two different items that are being delivered; one must be the RPGs, and one must be something else."
"Or someone else." Colby spoke reluctantly. "The weapons weren't all that was taken from the warehouse."
Don inhaled sharply. According to what Marta Moreno had said, Liz was part of Beachy's deal. He stared at the screen for a moment, battling back the memory of those desperate hours when she was gone. What if she was supposed to be 'delivered' on Monday, and the RPG delivery was scheduled for today? Then he firmly shook his head. "They couldn't have known we were going to be there. I didn't know we were going to be there until that day, and Liz was only there because Megan was in Washington. It couldn't have been in Beachy's schedule."
"Okay, so we assume the first code refers to the RPGs and they had to change their plans when we showed up." Colby leaned forward. "What's that second delivery, and where's it taking place?"
"That's the strange thing." Amita said. "The last five digits are the key to the location, like you noticed. " She nodded at Theresa. "Nine double-oh two six is a residential area; it's the Silver Lake and Echo Park neighborhoods of Los Angeles. What's weird is that the action code is reversed; it's not Simeon's men who are taking the action, it's the buyers. It's like Simeon was providing them access to something that they had to go and pick up themselves."
Don's stomach dropped. "What if it's where they're planning to use the RPGs?" An area that close to downtown would offer a myriad of targets for a rocket-propelled grenade. LAX and the other area airports had been on high alert since the weapons went missing, but there were plenty of potential targets elsewhere in the metro area.
"Not based on the codes," Charlie said. "I mean, I guess they could be, but Beachy brokered deals between people. He didn't keep track of what they were going to do with the items once they had them."
"So what's in that zip?" Don asked, leaning forward and focusing on the screen.
Amita moved her fingers around on the touchpad, and a map appeared with downtown L.A. in the lower right-hand corner. "Like I said, it's almost all residential. No major attractions except Dodger Stadium, and they're out of town tonight; we already checked. On the other hand, it's easy to get in and out of since there's lots of freeway access."
"Yeah, Megan's said that before; it's her neighborhood." He peered more closely at the map and the tables still in the background of the image. "Charlie, what else has Beachy done for the buyers?"
The curly head bent over the laptop screen. "Uh, looks like other weapons deals, though none within the past year. There's a possible connection to Iraq."
"Iraq?" Colby blurted out. "You mean there's a terrorist connection?"
"No, not that. It's -- "
Suddenly the door swung open and Liz came striding in. "Guys, where's Megan?"
Don checked his watch. "She left with Larry about twenty minutes ago. Why?"
Her face was grim. "We have a problem." She jerked her head back towards the interrogation rooms. "I went in there to confront Marta Luz Moreno, and she -- "
"You what?" Don stared at her. "Look, Liz, I know you're bothered by the thought of them being after you -- "
Liz cut him off with an upraised hand. "Except they're not."
He could feel the lines forming on his forehead as his brow furrowed further. "What?"
"I wanted to confront her face to face to see if she could think of anything else about the buyers if the person they wanted was right in front of her." Liz drew in a quick breath to hide a hitch in her voice. "She'd seen a picture of the woman they wanted. And it's not me."
"But she said the woman they were after was here in the office," Colby replied with a frown, pointing towards the floor. "She pointed you out."
"No, she pointed the room out. And I wasn't the only person here at the time." Liz held up a photograph of Megan. "This is the picture she recognized."
And the realization hit Don like a ton of bricks. "Oh, God."
Across the room, Colby was looking at him, his eyes widening with the same sudden understanding. "It wasn't me they following from LAX," he said slowly. "It's never been the Chinese."
"And it wasn't me who was supposed to be kidnapped," Liz added, her eyes dark with anger and worry. "If Megan hadn't been called to Washington, she would have been at the storage facility. That's why Beachy said their client would be unhappy if they brought me to him."
Don's stomach twisted into a knot. By assuming that Liz was the intended target and that Colby was the one in danger, he'd completely ignored the possibility of a threat to anyone else. Based on what Charlie had just shown them, that threat was suddenly looming extremely large.
He reached for his phone and pressed the third speed dial button. A second later, there was a ringing sound on the table. He whirled around to see Megan's phone sitting next to her laptop, merrily chiming away.
Don barked an expletive and hung up, already rising from his seat. "Larry doesn't have a cell phone, does he?"
Charlie shrugged helplessly. "I don't know if he kept it when he went to the monastery."
"Well, try to reach him, can you? Do you know where they were headed?"
His brother shook his head, curls flying. "I think Larry said something about the Thai restaurant next to her place, but I don't know if that's where they ended up going."
"All right then, let's go!" Liz and Colby were already racing out of the room, Theresa a heartbeat behind. He followed them to their desks, where they all grabbed spare weapons and vests, exchanging quick worried looks as they did so. As they raced back past the war room, he called out, "Charlie, get a hold of David and tell him to catch up with us, okay?" He caught a nod from his brother as he hurtled towards the elevators. The other three agents dashed inside, and he pounded the button to send them downstairs.
Colby cleared his throat as the elevator started down. "I never thought I'd say this, but I hope we're on our way to busting up a romantic moment between Megan and Fleinhardt."
"So do I, Colby," Don said, watching the numbers descend and doing his best to channel the tension suffusing his body into readiness rather than fear. "So do I."