Chapter 4: Cover Me
Colby: Look, Alan, there's no instruction manual for how we handle these situations. I mean, not really. You know, we make our best guesses out there, and we just hope.
Alan: So how do you wrestle with that? Having to make these big decisions, having people's lives literally in your hands? I mean, sure, it's not every day that your best friend's life is on the line, but . . .
Colby: Actually, a lot of days it is.
They were still a few miles away from their destination when the semi truck started to slow down. "What's going on?" Don asked, instantly going on alert.
Saul, the driver, nodded at the rearview mirror. "Cops."
Don frowned. Okay, so he hadn't had time to notify all of the local authorities about their operation tonight—he'd barely had time to find the truck they wanted and inform the driver that he'd be riding along—but he didn't think they'd been going over the speed limit. "Guess you'd better pull over," he said, reaching down to his waist to make sure his FBI badge was there.
The big truck eased to the side of the road in a dark patch between streetlights. It looked like there was a school next to them, the parking lot silent and deserted at this time of night.
Don wanted to hop out of the truck and explain what was going on, but he knew that was a bad idea. Law enforcement officials didn't take kindly to anyone approaching them from a pulled-over vehicle, much less a large vehicle like this in the dark. So he waited, watching in the side mirror as the doors of the sedan opened and two men stepped out and started to approach the truck.
He realized that he didn't even know if the procedure was the same in a big rig as in a car. "You got your license and registration handy?" he asked the driver.
"I can get it," came the reply, pretty casual for someone who'd just been pulled over by the police. Then again, Don figured, guys who drove for a living probably spent a fair amount of time pulled over. If Lytle Trucking was paying Customs agents to speed their goods through the border crossing, they probably considered speeding tickets part of the cost of doing business.
The first policeman had nearly reached the driver's side, and Don sat back in his seat, willing to let the driver start the explanation. No use making any sudden moves and startling the men with guns. His own weapon was holstered at his side, its comforting weight a steadying presence.
Don looked at the side mirror one more time, and something prickled at the back of his neck. The man approaching his side of the truck didn't look like he was wearing a cop’s uniform.
Then movement caught his eye, and he saw a third man getting out of the car behind them. "Saul, we need to move it," Don said urgently. "These aren't the police."
His hand was moving towards his gun when he heard an all-too-familiar clicking sound, and he froze. Slowly turning his head, Don's stomach sank when he saw the driver calmly pointing his own gun in Don's direction. "No, they ain't," Saul said. "Too bad for you, Fed."
Don stared at the barrel of the gun for a moment, wondering if he could reach for it in the close confines of the cab and get a hold of it before Saul fired. He lifted his eyes to the other man's, trying to judge in the dim light how steady his hands were on the gun and if Don stood a chance.
Then the door behind him opened, and Don heard the click of a second gun being trained on him. "Hands on the dash, Agent," came a voice, and Don had no choice but to obey.
Jaw clenching, he carefully leaned forward and put his hands on the broad dashboard of the semi cab, his mind racing. There wasn't much he could do at the moment, with two guns trained on him, but at some point he'd get a chance, and he'd have to take it.
The gun was plucked out of his holster, and then Don felt the handcuffs being removed from the pouch at the back of his waist. A second later, rough hands were pulling his arms behind him, and then he felt the unforgiving metal being snapped around his wrists, making him even more helpless.
Then something occurred to him, and he wanted to smack himself for being so stupid. He might be alone in this truck, but he wasn't the only member of the FBI out here. Taking a breath and making sure his voice was loud and clear, Don turned his head to the side and said, "Kidnapping a Federal agent is a pretty serious felony. You'd be better off letting me go, whoever you are." That would telegraph to Colby and Megan that not only was he in danger, but he didn't know who had taken him.
The only response he got was a sharp tug on his elbow that had him nearly tumbling out of the cab, scrambling to keep his feet under him. They hauled him down to the ground, gravel crunching under his feet, pausing only briefly before slamming him back against the truck.
A second later, a figure Don realized was the third man from the "police car" was approaching, another gun in his hand. Before Don could move, the gun was pressing under his jaw, pinning his head back against the side of the truck.
He went perfectly still, arms trapped between his body and the truck, gun at his throat. When the gunman shifted slightly to the side and the nearest streetlight dimly illuminated his features, Don's stomach sank even further.
It was Luis Garcia Esteban. Simeon's second-in-command, the same man who'd had Don at his mercy back in the U-Stor-It and had only let him go at Simeon's order. From the triumphant look on his face, Don had the feeling that same mercy wasn't going to be shown this time.
"You got a radio on you, Fed?" Esteban asked. "Communicating with your people?"
"Just the cell phone, Esteban," Don replied, aware of the gun moving with his throat as he spoke, hoping desperately that the man's name had gotten through to the people at the other end.
Esteban lifted the gun for only a second before sharply bringing it sideways, pistol-whipping Don and making his lip split open. "You think you're clever," he retorted. "Whoever's listening won't be able to help you once you're dead."
Don looked back at him grimly. "Is that what's going to happen?" he asked as levelly as he could.
Esteban's face twisted into a cruel smile. "Yeah," he said. "You want it now?"
Don looked back at him for a long moment, keeping his face blank despite the emotions that were churning close to the surface. Finally, he said in a low voice, "No."
"Then tell me how you're communicating with your people," Esteban insisted.
On the one hand, it wasn't likely they were going to let him go this time, so maybe it didn't matter. But the survival instinct was strong, and if giving up his communication link kept him alive long enough for his team to find him, Don would take it. "Earpiece," he finally said. "Right ear."
A second later, Esteban's fingers were digging at his ear, and Don felt the small receiver being removed. The shorter man dropped it and ground it hard under his heel. "Now, with us," he said, stepping back and motioning towards the car they'd come in.
The man who'd opened the door and dragged Don out spoke up. "¿Y el otro?"
Esteban shrugged, his eyes never leaving Don. "No lo necesitamos."
"Comprendo," came the reply, and Don understood enough Spanish for a sick realization to form, but there was nothing he could do as the first man disappeared around the front of the truck.
A moment later, the two rapid-fire gunshots confirmed that Saul was, in fact, no longer needed.
Esteban was watching him closely. "Let's go," he said with a shove, and Don had no choice but to obey.
Behind the sedan that had pulled them over, its red and blue lights still flashing on top, Don saw nothing but empty road. Come on, guys, he thought. I'm counting on you.
When she got the call from Megan, Liz's first impulse was to hightail it out of the medical office parking lot she was sitting in and take off to Don's last known location. Megan anticipated this, though, and she talked her out of it before Liz could voice the desire. Colby had gone silent, presumably talking with Theresa, and that was a conversation she couldn't even imagine having right now.
Then she heard Don's voice in her ear, and her heart skipped a beat when she realized what was going on. The agent side of her was taking in the information he was so cleverly giving them, but the rest of her was terrified for him. When Don said Esteban's name, she had to clamp her hand over her mouth to keep from shouting out loud, which surely would have been heard by the men who had Don.
And then it didn't matter, as the sound went to static.
There was a brief pause, and then Megan's and Colby's voices both leapt to life. Megan took control, and Liz's heart thumped again when she realized that she was the senior agent now, at least for the moment. Colby briefly explained what Theresa had told him about the leak in the FBI office, and Liz pounded on the steering wheel in frustration at the thought of having their plans turned over to the enemy like that.
Maybe it was a good thing that Don had planned so much of this operation on the fly—at least the rest of them were safe so far.
Ten agonizingly long minutes passed until flashing red and blue lights appeared in her rearview mirror and a silver Corvette slowed down enough for Colby to wave Come on! at her. She was behind them in seconds, no lights flashing on her vehicle, but Megan's voice was still warm in her ear, giving her updates.
"David's okay," Megan said, and Liz felt a tiny bit of relief. "We got the local cops to pull over the truck he was riding with and take the driver into custody."
"Was he part of it, too?" Liz asked.
"No idea," Megan said, sounding distracted. "Theresa, you're coming up on it."
Through the earpiece, Theresa's voice was too faint to be heard, but Colby was relaying the information on. "We see a semi pulled over on the side up ahead," he said.
"Be careful," Megan warned unnecessarily.
Liz's hands tightened around the steering wheel. "Do we know how many of them there are?" she asked.
Theresa's voice came faintly again, and then, suddenly, much more clearly. Apparently Colby had brought a spare comm device for her. "From what the guy we caught said, there could be two or three, plus the driver."
Following Colby's suggestion, they drove right past the truck, wanting to make it appear to anyone watching that the cars with the flashing lights were on their way somewhere else. As they sped past, Liz looked to the right as much as she dared, knowing that Colby was devoting his full attention to scoping things out.
When she saw the body next to the driver's side of the cab, she reflexively slammed on the brakes. "There's a man down," she said, swerving off in front of the truck, fighting down the fear that was rising up in her throat.
"Is there anyone else there?" Megan demanded.
"No one that I saw," Colby replied, his voice barely audible over the screeching of tires as Theresa slammed on the brakes and brought her car around in a U-turn, headlights illuminating the scene.
Liz drew her gun as she stepped out of her SUV, holding it in a steady, two-handed grip as she approached the man on the ground. In the glow of Theresa's headlights, she could pick out a dark red puddle on the ground, and her stomach turned over.
"I got your back," Colby called, and she heard the slamming of a car door behind her. Carefully, listening for any other signs of life, Liz stepped forward until she was standing over the figure.
It wasn't Don, and the breath left her lungs in a whoosh. "Unknown male," she spoke aloud. "Two shots to the forehead."
Behind her, she heard Colby moving around the front of the truck, and she kept going down the side of the trailer, cautiously edging towards the back. There was no sign of anyone else here, but that didn't mean they weren't going to learn anything from looking around.
Liz made it to the back of the truck and mentally counted to three before swinging around the corner, gun extended in front of her. There was no one there, and the truck was closed up tight and locked. To her left, tire tracks in the gravel showed that a vehicle had been right behind the semi and then gone in reverse. "Clear," she said quietly as she rounded the corner to where Colby was.
He was crouching in the gravel, holding something small in his hand. When he held it up, she wasn't surprised to see a small electronic device crushed into pieces. "Do we have any way to track him?" she asked.
"His cell phone's here under the truck," Colby said grimly. "So unless one of you attached a GPS device to Don's shoe while he wasn't looking, no, we don't."
"Damn it!" Liz burst out. She put a hand to her forehead. It hadn't been hard at all to imagine what Don had gone through the other night when she was taken, and now it was playing out before her eyes in living color, something she definitely could have done without.
"Do we know where they might have taken him?" Megan asked.
"Probably wherever they've been the last few days, which we never managed to figure out," Liz snapped back.
"What about that zip code that Charlie identified?"
It was David's voice in their ears, and Liz saw Colby's shoulders sag in relief. "Hey there, partner," Colby said. "Good to hear from you."
"Good to be heard from," David responded easily. "You remember that Charlie identified where the original buy was likely to take place?"
"In Chino, right?" Colby replied.
"That's right next door," Theresa's voice added from where she was still sitting in the car. There wasn't any traffic on this industrial park road, and her headlights were still providing their only light.
"I'll get on that and see if they've narrowed it down any," Megan said quickly.
"I think that's our best bet," Colby said, turning towards Liz.
She straightened her shoulders. "Then let's go."
Hang on, Don, we're coming.
It was another hair-raising fifteen minutes with Theresa behind the wheel, but Colby was barely paying attention. He was too busy talking back and forth with Megan, Liz, and David, tracking the progress of the FBI team that had been following Theresa and was now a few miles behind them. Charlie and Amita had narrowed down the likely location to a cluster of warehouses up against the Chino hills, and they were headed there now.
"Guys, they found something else," Megan said. "There's a warehouse that's rented out through a couple of shell corporations to the same organization that owns the U-Stor-It in Fontana."
Colby's jaw clenched. "That has to be it."
"Where am I going?" Theresa asked.
Megan rattled off an address, and Colby leaned forward to punch it into the onboard GPS. A moment later, they were chasing the imaginary red line down the street in front of them, Theresa having to slow down a few times because Liz couldn't make the turns as fast as them.
"We're at least fifteen minutes behind you," David said. "The rest of the backup caught up with me, and we're going as fast as we can."
"Roger that," Colby said. "We might have to go in without you."
"Colby, this might be where they're storing the RPGs, too," Megan reminded him. "You're only doing reconnaissance right now."
"Unless Don needs us sooner than that," Colby replied, and he got no argument from anyone on that channel.
Theresa turned off the flashing lights when they were a mile or so away, slowing down so as not to appear suspicious in case anyone was watching. She turned into another industrial park, the roadway lined with palm trees like it was a hotel entrance rather than a bunch of warehouses. "Last one on the left, it looks like," she said, nodding towards the cluster of vehicles outside one of the long, low-slung buildings.
"Copy that," Liz said. Colby turned to see her vehicle making the same turn into the industrial park. "How are we playing this?" she asked.
"On foot the rest of the way," he decided, tapping Theresa's arm and pointing towards an empty parking lot. She turned in, Liz following, and they came to a halt in a loading dock behind the building, a short distance across scrubby grass to the building with the cars out front.
They climbed out of the car, checking weapons and ammunition as they went. Colby looked over his tiny team, hoping that all they would have to do was observe until the bigger guns arrived. God only knew how many people were inside that warehouse, if it was Simeon's headquarters.
He looked at Liz, checking the straps on her vest, and then swung his gaze to Theresa. He blinked. "You don't have a vest," he said.
"Didn't have time to grab one," Theresa replied, pulling a second gun out of a holster and checking it over.
"But you're—" he started, not sure what he was trying to say.
She gave him a pointed look. "Just because my supervisor is IA doesn't mean I don't know what I'm doing in the field. Besides, we're only doing reconnaissance, right?"
Colby inwardly groaned. "Right, just like the other night in Fontana," he said with a look at Liz.
She had impatience written all over her face and was practically bouncing where she stood. "Can we go already?" she asked in a low voice.
"ETA twelve minutes," David's voice came through the comm link.
"We'll save the fun stuff for you," Colby promised. To the rest of his team, he motioned. "Okay, let's go."
They silently made their way across the scrubby grass and into the parking lot. It wasn't well-lit, but Colby wouldn't be surprised if there was a surveillance camera or two keeping track of them. He'd have to hope that no one was manning them, or at least that it wouldn't matter by the time their backup arrived.
They crept past the loading dock, Colby shaking his head when Liz gave him a querying look. That was likely to lead into a large open space, making them too visible to whoever was inside. The smaller door halfway along the back looked more promising.
When they reached it, he held his breath as he reached for the handle. It turned silently in his grip, and he turned toward Liz, mouthing, One, two…
Colby eased the door open and let the muzzle of his gun enter first, the rest of him close behind. Liz was almost close enough behind him to feel, and he saw out of the corner of her eye that her weapon was aimed low as she came in behind him. He trusted that Theresa had both of their backs, not even thinking about her earlier betrayal with the surety that out here, they were all on the same side.
They were in a hallway, cinder block walls painted turquoise, bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. Cautiously, they inched forward. Colby strained his ears to hear something coming from the main part of the building, but there was only the hum of the ventilation system. At the far end of the hallway was a door with a square window set in it, and he motioned to Liz to stand by near where the door would open as he inched his way up and peered through.
He saw a large, cavernous room, probably the entire building minus the hallway they were in. Overhead florescent lights gave an orange glow to the place, with about a dozen shipping containers stacked against the far wall. Scanning around, Colby saw a group of crates that looked way too familiar—he'd been forced to load those same crates in a truck while his boss was held hostage, and he wanted to pump his fist in triumph at finally finding those damn weapons.
But as his gaze kept sweeping the room, he saw something else that made him freeze. "Shit," he whispered.
"What?" Liz hissed back.
He dropped below the level of the window and looked at her. "Don's off on the side, nearer to where we came from. They've got him tied to a chair, and it looks like they've been taking turns going at him."
Liz flinched, but that was all, and his already-high estimation of her rose further. "How many people guarding him?" she asked quietly.
"I can't tell," Colby replied. "There's a group of crates to the right of the door; if we can open it without being seen, they should provide us with cover."
Theresa leaned closer, her attention still focused on the door they'd come through even though she was speaking to them. "Can Liz go back and enter through the loading dock? Is that closer to Don?"
"Yeah, it is," Colby replied, his mind racing as he tried to figure out the likely layout of the place, given his limited information.
"I can signal to him, let him know we're here," Liz said. She fixed Colby with a look. "That's all I'll do."
"Yeah, that works," he replied. We'll wait thirty seconds for you to get in position and then enter."
"Good luck," Liz said with a squeeze of his shoulder and then a nod to Theresa.
Colby counted down the seconds and exchanged a glance with Theresa. "Let's go," he said, pushing the door open and mentally crossing his fingers.