Don’t own Numb3rs or Buffy: the Vampire Slayer.
"How can it be so hard to track four guys dressed as blue aliens?" FBI Special Agent Colby Granger asked.
His partner, David Sinclair glanced over at him. "You're kidding, right?" he asked as he turned his attention back to the road. "This is
LA," he continued as the light changed. "As in, Hollywood."
"I get that
man," Colby ran a hand through his light brown hair. "But it’s not like the guys could just wander off-set, even if anything were being shot anywhere near the robberies. Somebody
had to think something was up."
David laughed. "It's the fans and wannabes roaming around on vacation. Trust me, you stay out here long enough, you cross paths with some bizarre folks."
"Maybe," the tanned agent replied. David could hear the skepticism in his voice.
"You've been here what, eight months?" David asked. "Trust me; LA can be a freaky place." He pulled into the CalSci east parking lot and found a free space. The two agents got out and began the short hike to the mathematics building. "Nothing like Idaho."
Colby scoffed. "Idaho isn't exactly mundane," he commented as they turned past the student union. "You'd—"
Both agents turned to the steps of the student union. A muscular man walked down the stairs, coffee cup in hand. Broad-shouldered with short, brown hair, the man had the same ex-military vibe to his stance as Colby, amplified by his olive green tee shirt and tan slacks.
A grin split Colby's face as he headed over to the steps. "Graham Miller!" he exclaimed as he shook the man's hand. "Don't tell me you've gone back to school."
Miller chuckled. "Not anytime soon. I just popped by to visit an old friend who helped me with my Master’s thesis. What about you?" The man gestured at Colby's and David's three piece suits. "You're a little overdressed to attend this school."
Colby laughed. "Nah, I'm hanging with the FBI. This is my partner, David Sinclair." Miller extended his hand, which David took. "David, this is Graham Miller, we served together briefly a few years back."
"Good to meet you," Miller said as he stepped back from the handshake.
"Likewise," David replied. "So, Afghanistan?"
Miller's eyes darted briefly to Colby's. "Training," he said bluntly. "I'm guessing you're not here for the fabulous food court."
Colby laughed. "Nah, business. And we need to get going. But we should meet for beers later tonight and catch up."
"I have plans," Miller replied. "But maybe lunch next week. Say Thursday, Friday? I'll give you a call." The other man turned the way Colby and David had come.
"Don't you need my number?"
"I'll look up the main FBI line," Miller held a hand up over his shoulder as he walked away. "Harass the switchboard into connecting me." He turned the corner and was gone.
"'Harass the switchboard'," David echoed. "Your friend has a strange sense of humor."
"You have no idea," Colby muttered. "Come on, let's go see Charlie."
Dr. Charles Eppes was in the middle of class. Colby and David slipped into the lecture hall and waited for the class to end. The professor glanced briefly at the two as they sat in the back of the auditorium, but otherwise he ignored them for the rest of his lecture. For the next thirty-five minutes, Charlie was in perpetual motion: writing on the boards, stepping back to explain his scribbles, meandering around the stage while gesturing with his hands. Colby had always thought that Charlie talked too much when explaining his math miracles to the FBI team, but he went into far more detail for his class. He focused on the actual math more than when in the bullpen, but when he used analogies, he gave them more detail as well.
He also talked faster. Only a little, but Colby thought that if he knew enough math to follow what Charlie was talking about, he would still have trouble following his lecture. When the class ended, most of the students filtered up to the doors. However, a handful of students walked up to Charlie with questions. The black-haired professor took his time talking with them as Colby and David waited off to the side. "He really was made to teach," David murmured to Colby as Charlie started talking to the last one.
Colby grunted. "He's certainly taking his time at it. He knows we're here."
The dreadlocked girl shifted uneasily while Charlie placed a reassuring hand on her arm, and continued speaking to her. She relaxed and asked a few more questions before bounding up the stairs. Charlie shoved a folder into his bag before he strode over to David and Colby. "I'm not at your beck and call," he hissed, glaring into Colby's blue eyes. "Teaching may not be considered national security, but it's my job, and a damn important one. I'll spend whatever time's required to do it well." Charlie blinked and then turned to David. "You should have called. I'd have stopped you from wasting your time."
"We were in the area," David commented, "and I enjoyed seeing you in full teaching mode."
"No," Charlie shook his head. The ends of his brown curls brushed his shirt collar. "I mean I can't take on any FBI consulting right now. I have too much going on." He started to walk past them.
"Look man," Colby reached out to stop him. "I'm sorry if I dissed your class or students, but this is important—"
"I love working with Don,” Charlie replied sharply.
“Then, why…?” Colby trailed off as his brain caught up with him. "Gray?" he mouthed.
“I can’t get into that now. Just… if I say I can't do something, I. Can't
." Charlie pulled his arm free from Colby's grasp and started up to the exit. "Tell Don I'm sorry," he called over his shoulder. In a minute he had vanished, leaving Colby to stare after him, thoughts of his first meeting with genius on his mind.
The bullpen was a flurry of activity. Ian Edgerton maneuvered his way through to the cubicle of Special Agent Don Eppes, only to find Eppes, and the rest of his team, absent. With a sigh, Edgerton turned to scan the conference rooms, glad for the LA office's abundant use of clear Plexiglas for internal walls. "Edgerton!" a voice called from behind him. He turned and saw Megan Reeves, beckoning him to the interrogation area. Eppes' profiler had a stack of folders in her arms. "Thanks for coming by," the blonde said, a weariness in her green eyes, as she lead him into an observation room. "We could use all the help we can get."
"No problem," Ian replied. "With my deposition on McHugh postponed, I wasn't doing anything, and working with the Eppes brothers has proven interesting."
," Megan said. "Charlie's not working this one."
Ian blinked. Since transferring to the LA office, Eppes had called his brother in so often, Ian had assumed Charlie would consult for the case. Certainly, Ian had gotten used to seeing the boyish man every time a case brought him to the LA area. Setting aside his disappointment at missing the mathematician—something he would examine later—Ian followed Reeves through the door. “Nothing his math can do for this one, then?”
As the door closed behind him, Ian was greeted by the sight of Don Eppes scowling at him as he shoved his cell phone into a pocket. Colby Granger sat at the monitors, watching Sinclair interview some non-descript balding man. “Agent Edgerton, glad you could come in,” Eppes said, reaching out to shake Ian’s hand.
“Glad to do it,” Ian replied as he grasped Eppes’ hand. “What’ve you got?” he asked as Granger mumbled a greeting before returning to his task.
“A spree of bank robberies. Two late yesterday, and five throughout today until closing. Four men, all dressed as a blue alien plant woman from some cable show. We recovered a piece from one of the masks, but no DNA, and they wore gloves. The rest of their costumes are not easily shed, yet no one within a block saw them. No sign of a getaway car. David’s interviewing the manager of the last bank, but I don’t see him being any more helpful than the other witnesses.” Eppes handed over a file. “I know your tracking expertise is more suited to the wilderness, but I’m hoping you can come up with some way they could have concealed their escape.”
Ian took the file, and frowned as he flipped through the location photos. “Urban tracking is a different beast than wilderness, but I know some tricks. These getups…” Ian studied a surveillance photo of the suspects. The masks were obviously cheap Halloween ones, but the outfits appeared to be a greater quality. Off-white knit robes over brown trousers and shirt with dark brown boots. From the fit, each outfit was tailored for each man. “I’ve seen them before.” Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the other agents turn to him. “Not the bald, scaly head masks,” he elaborated. “But the rest of it. I can’t place it, but…” Ian bit his lower lip as he continued staring at the photo. He prided himself on his near-eidetic memory for images, but the outfit stubbornly drifted on the edge of his consciousness, refusing to clarify. Treating this as if he was sitting behind his sniper’s scope, he forced himself to take several deep, centering breaths. He ran through his usual concentration exercises…The scent of a campfire with a pungent herb drifted on the wind… A violet haze over the half-moon…
Ian quickly shoved the picture to the back of the stack. “I can’t place it,” he repeated sharply. Maybe a little too sharply, he realized as Reeves frowned at him. So did Eppes, who knew about the hole in Ian’s memory.
“Something ethnic, I think." Ian slipped the photos back into the folder. "Perhaps without the masks, they don’t stand out as much. I can scout around the banks, see what I can find.” He glanced out at the window at the darkening sky. “It’s best done in daylight, though. And I’m assuming you expect more robberies?”
“There’s no reason to think they’re going to slow down,” Reeves replied.
“I may be more useful tracking them after their next hit. There’s no way of predicting it ahead of time?”
Eppes shook his head. “Our tech boys tried running it through the predictive analysis models, but they can’t discern a pattern. We have Amita trying it through some of Charlie’s advanced algorithms, but it hasn’t turned up anything yet.”
Ian blinked. “Amita?”
“Charlie’s former grad student,” Reeves replied. “She’s helped Charlie out on many of our past cases.”
“Oh,” Ian replied. “Is the professor ill?”
“He'd better be,” Eppes muttered sourly. Ian blinked, and Eppes suddenly straightened, as if just aware that he had spoken. “Figure out your best course of action; if you need another pair of hands, take Colby.” He pulled his phone out of his pocket and left the room.
“Charlie blew us off,” Granger said as he turned away from the monitor. Sinclair was escorting the bank manager to the elevator. “Said he was too busy to take on any FBI consulting,” the brown-haired agent continued. “And he’s apparently ducking Don’s calls.”
Ian frowned at that. The professor seemed to genuinely enjoy helping his brother out. “Is the university cracking down on the amount of consulting he can do?” he asked as he and Granger followed Reeves out of the room.
“Maybe,” Don sighed, flipping his phone closed. “He’s always put his students first, and his consulting for us had been considered a good thing for the school. But… They've been searching for a new chair for his division.” Don turned and led the way back to his desk. “He could at least have the guts to tell me himself.” Eppes muttered that last line so softly, Ian thought that it was not intended to be heard.
“Don!” Sinclair called sharply as he strode from across the room. “We just got a report of our guys hitting a hotel downtown.”
Eppes looked up in surprise. "They're going after hotel safes now?"
"No. They smashed into one of their long-term residency units and killed the occupant."
“They just walked in as if returning from a sci-fi convention," LAPD Detective Natalie Knight reported as she led the FBI agents down the hallway. "No one thought anything of them until they steamrolled through the door. Witness reports are varied and vague. Most just called to complain about the noise. One claimed to have seen three of the subjects struggling with a woman, maybe two, in the alley, but he was a little out of it—said they'd left through the wall at the end. Also, the desk was clear that only two subjects entered the hotel." Knight turned left, and as Don followed, he could see the splintered doorframe of the unit the subjects had kicked in. “However, the front desk does remember Miller arriving with guests that we haven’t accounted for. I have a tech pulling up the security footage.”
“Miller?” Edgerton asked.
“Graham Miller. The room’s occupant. Night manager confirmed he was the victim.”
Miller?” David repeated sharply before he turned to Colby. “Isn’t that your army buddy’s name?”
“Yeah,” Colby replied tightly as the group reached the suite. He stopped and looked at the body splayed just inside the door. “That´s him.”
Don looked sharply over his shoulder. Colby's stony face looked paler than normal. "You going to be okay?"
"Yeah, just… I'll be in in a moment." The former soldier leaned against the wall next to Miller's apartment with his eyes closed.
Don nodded and walked into the room. Miller's body lay several feet ahead, his dead eyes staring up at the ceiling. Blood pooled around him from an angry gash in his throat. Next to him, lay the body of one of the “plant women”. He appeared to have bled out from a wound in his side, and the blue mask had fallen aside to reveal a pale orange face with a pattern of lavender warts over his eyes and the bridge of his nose. The alien mask was hiding alien makeup?
Don thought. Perhaps we should recheck that movie idea…
A bloody weapon—some sort of short sword or long dagger lay between the men.
The room itself was a disaster. Chairs, coffee table, cabinets and bookshelves were all in pieces, many of which had bloodstains. The remains of a computer monitor sat in the kitchenette’s floor. A sofa had been overturned. Books and papers littered the floor, along with a smashed desktop computer, several disks, and a crushed cell phone. To the left, the bedroom door was open.
Edgerton quickly put himself to work examining the numerous footprints made in the blood. Crime scene technicians walked around the room, taking photos and bagging evidence. “We had started processing the scene before dispatch matched the case with your bank jobs,” Detective Knight said as a medical examiner, an older woman with short, gray hair, arrived.
Don nodded. “So we were told. Dispatch paged a couple ERTs, but it looks like your people have things under control.” Knight nodded. “Have they found anything yet?”
“A lot of smudged prints and blood samples. With all the wreckage, it’s hard to account for anything missing, except the computer’s hard drives were pulled out.”
“What about his laptop?” Don asked. At Knight’s questioning look, he pointed at a black bag tossed or kicked onto a broken lamp in the corner. “My brother uses the same style bag, and if they were after something Miller was working on…”
One of the crime scene techs walked over to the bag. She snapped a few quick photos before opening the main zipper and pushing the button on a digital audio recorder. “No laptop,” she reported as she snapped a picture of the open bag. “Just a bunch of papers, some energy bars, a half-eaten bag of popcorn—spilled,” the technician reached into the bag. She continued taking inventory and snapping shots with one hand as she routed through the bag’s contents. "Dried pineapple, some rocks—the kind you find on the ground, not jewels.”
"Someone help me with this," a guy called from next to an overturned cabinet. "There's something under it." David and another SID guy went to his aid.
“Ibuprofen, pens,” the redheaded tech continued her spiel into the recorder, “markers, assortment of flavored condoms, gum, keys, pebbles, chalk, some change, that’s it. No disks or flash drives.”
“Maybe the papers will tell us something,” Megan commented.
Don nodded. “We’ll go over them at the office.”
The technician shook her head. "Don't bother. They're some sort of math quiz. Something on highway slope design and failure—"
Don grabbed the papers out of her hand before he realized he realized that he moved. He felt all the heat seep out of him as he read the information in the upper right-hand corners of the quizzes. “Don?” he heard Megan ask. At the same time, Edgerton and Detective Knight asked “Eppes?”
“The professor?” the technician asked before Don could find his voice.
“These are for one of my brother’s classes,” Don said. “But wha… He didn’t know Miller.”
“Yes, he does. Did.” Colby stood in the doorway. “Miller led my ROTC squad at UC Sunnydale when Charlie guest lectured there. Besides… we're not his only alphabet soup.”
"What?" Don asked.
"Miller's NSA." David held up a badge wallet as he knelt in the rubble where the cabinet had fallen. Shattered glass from the cabinet's drawers filled the area. A few swords, an axe and a crossbow appeared to have fallen from the cabinet. At David's feet were a brown jacket, and a purple purse that seen better days. The remains of a chair lay among them. "This was in his jacket. The woman's Dawn Summers, age twenty-one."
"Summers?” Colby frowned thoughtfully. “A thirteen year-old linguistics prodigy by that name started UCS my last year there.” He walked over to the body of the dead subject and knelt for a closer look at the makeup.
“But if this was one of his cryptography consults…” Don trailed off as his stomach clenched. Charlie’s turned-off phone took on grim implications.
“They were taken,” Edgerton said coming up beside Don. The tracking expert gestured to the blood-smeared floor. “Most of the bloody footprints match our subjects' costumes or Miller's, but there are some from running shoes, men's size seven, and partials for high heeled shoes, likely a woman's nine."
Don nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
"One of Charlie’s footprints is on the bedroom wall, three feet up, just next to the doorframe. It looks like he kicked it while struggling against someone carrying him. One of the woman’s heels broke off on the fire escape. Also, the window off the fire escape's been smashed from the outside in. I think the crew split up, and attacked each entrance simultaneously."
"Trapping them in the suite," Don continued, seeing Edgerton's direction. "In the ensuing fight, Miller was disabled. They killed him, and…”
“They didn't need him,” Megan observed. “Charlie and the woman must of some value to them."
Edgerton nodded. "All your suspect photos showed men taller and far more muscular than Charlie, yet from smudged footprints on the bedroom carpet, he broke free and apparently tried to help the woman. In the end, they were both dragged out through the window. You don’t put that much effort into an abduction without strong motivation.”
Edgerton’s words made sense. “But what're they after?” Don asked. And what'll they do to get it?
“And why was it here?” Don growled. “With just Miller for security?”
“Maybe it was something they wanted to keep low-key.” Megan suggested.
“Or they didn’t think it was sensitive,” Edgerton said. He shook his head. “The assailants’ flamboyant costuming doesn’t make sense, though.”
“Maybe they cared more about their goal then secrecy,” Megan suggested. “Or it could be misdirection.”
“Perhaps,” Don said. “But such elaborate costuming should make them easy to trace. Even if they ditched the blue masks, that
,” he gestured at the orange and lavender face, “should stand out. We should have plenty of witnesses and an idea of where they’ve taken Charlie and—” Don swallowed roughly against the stone forming in his throat. Whatever these guys wanted from Charlie and Summers, once given, his baby brother and the girl would become expendable. And Don had seen too many of the methods they could use to get it. “—Summers. We need to talk to the witness who saw the struggle in the alley.”
“And I want to look at the alley,” Edgerton said.
Don nodded. He turned and handed Charlie’s quizzes back to the redheaded SID tech. “Megan, you and—”
Colby stood and turned toward Don. “I need to make a phone call.” His voice was low and quiet, but carried a resolve that Don had never heard from the rookie agent.
Don nodded. “Family?” To his surprise, Colby hesitated.
“A buddy of Graham’s from his old unit, actually. He should hear it from a friend, and his current position should allow him to find out what everyone was doing here.”
“No need,” a voice said from the door. Don turned and saw a brown-haired man, dressed in black with a military bearing and a scar running above and below his left eye.
“Riley!” Colby said. “You were on this project too?”
“Something related,” the man answered. “We got a word- when someone recognized a 911 call as Graham’s address.” He walked into the apartment and extended a hand to Don. “Agent Riley Finn.”
“SSA Don Eppes. What’s all this about?”
“That’s what I’m here to find out.” Finn’s stony expression faltered when his gaze fell on Miller’s face. The assistant pathologist finished zipping the bag closed, and Finn rebuilt his mask of professionalism. “I know the FBI has jurisdiction over murder of federal agents,” Finn said as he studied the make-up job on the subject. “But what made this an FBI case to begin with? Graham didn’t share the nature of his work with his neighbors.”
“Armed Bank Robbery,” Don answered flatly. “What was Miller working on?”
Finn frowned up at him. “Bank robbery? What does that have to do with this?”
Don shook his head. “No, it’s your turn now.” Unfortunately, Colby had started speaking at the same time as him. “Your HSTs pulled seven jobs over…” Colby trailed off under Don’s glare.
!?” Finn asked sharply. “When
Don remained silent and tried to stare Finn down.
“Not what you expected from this group?” Colby asked dryly.
“We should have known if they were robbing banks.”
“They were wearing alien plant woman masks.” Colby gestured at the fallen mask.
“Oh for the love of…” Finn stared at the ceiling and muttered several curses. Most were not in English. Then he sighed loudly. “I need to—”
“HEY! MISS!” Edgerton’s voice carried from the next room. “THAT ALLEY'S RESTRICTED!”
Ian frowned as he squatted on the fire escape ledge, half-listening to the conversation between Eppes, Granger and NSA Agent Finn. He wanted to know what could possibly have landed the professor in trouble. But as the academics had no training to resist attack or aggressive interrogation, they had little time to find Charlie and Summers before they became disposable.
If it was not already too late.No
, Ian angrily clenched his fists. He would
find the professor before it was too late.
The grate of the ledge made it impossible to spot legible footprints, but Miller’s apartment was only one floor up from the ground. And Ian doubted that the hotel kept linen carts in the alley—even ones that were not spilled on their side with the linens spread out. So, enough of a drop to wind them, but they wanted to ensure they weren't seriously hurt. Then they upset the cart to further disorient their captives…
Ian frowned at the cart. They had to have placed it before they attacked the apartment. That level of forethought fit with the cautious planning everything save the flamboyant costumes suggested. He restlessly tapped his fingers against his leg as he thought back to the orange and purple face paint. It made him uneasy, filled him with the sense that things were even direr than he had thought—and that he should know what the face meant.
Yet, despite the months-long gap in his memories, Ian was certain that he had never seen an orange and purple face before.It’s all the Sunnydale connections cropping up,
Ian thought as he pointed his flashlight to the ground below the ladder. Camp Sunnydale was
the site of his memory-wiping accident, after all. And from the rumors he had heard, unusually tied to UC Sunnydale’s ROTC program. He j—
A flicker of light drew Ian out of his musing. A slim figure had slipped into the alley. In the dim light, Ian could not make out any details, besides white, female, and black clothes—without any type of identifying letters on her back. "HEY! MISS!" he called down to her as he started down the ladder, his slim flashlight in hand pointed down. "THAT ALLEY'S RESTRICTED!"
"I'M ALLOWED," the woman called back calmly as she knelt beside the overturned cart.
Ian took one last look at the ground under him to make sure he would not trample any evidence before he dropped to the ground. His knee protested the impact as he landed in a crouch. "I can't just take your word for that," he said as he focused his flashlight on the ground in front of him. The woman walked further into the alley. Ian took a close look at the ground illuminated by her powerful flashlight as he neared her. Some dirt on the ground had faint footprints that matched some Ian had seen in the room. "Who are you?" Ian demanded.
"Sam?" Agent Finn called from the fire escape as Granger scaled down the ladder. Behind Finn, Eppes climbed out the window. "You find something?"
"A witness who saw a struggle in the alley," the woman called up. "There are some tracks leading further in. They didn't cut back into the laundry room, so there's no obvious egress. Yet." She walked further into the alley. Ian fell into step beside her.
"From what I saw in the room, Soldier, we're dealing with a group known to make use of tunnels—"
"Already looking low, Agent."
"Tunnels?" Eppes asked.
"Yes, sewer and maintenance—"
"Manhole!" Ian called as both their flashlights glinted off of metal.
a manhole, Finn," Sam called back.
"Well, you didn't marry him for his quick wit," Granger drawled as he strolled up. "Good to see you again," he said and gave Sam a quick hug. "Sorry about the circumstances."
"Married?" Ian raised an eyebrow. "That's unusual to see in the field."
Sam smirked briefly. "Technically we're on separate projects. They do try to give us related ones so we're not posted too far apart."
"Graham's our friend as well as my teammate," Sam said as she knelt by the manhole cover. She and Granger pried the lid off. "I couldn't just tell Ri to stay at home when I know he can maintain his professionalism." A reasonable explanation—for this case. Ian decided against pressing as the woman aimed her flashlight down the manhole.
Under the unusually powerful beam, Ian could see what looked like a mattress at the bottom. Ian also saw fresh blood smears on the sides of the hole, as if one or both academics scraped against it when they were dropped down. Ian frowned at the hole. While wider than most manholes he had seen, a person still had to be upright to fit down it. These guys must be stronger than they look to force two adults down it…
"This was definitely their route," Sam said as Finn and Eppes approached. "We can call in backup, send teams in to sweep the tunnels, but if they have hostages, we need to start after them now. With luck, there will be enough dirt to track them."
Finn nodded as he pulled out his phone. "If not, it seems our guys have pulled several banks jobs over past couple days. Perhaps we can narrow down a search grid based on the locations…" He pulled his phone from his pocket. "Could you grab the gear from the truck?"
"I'll help," Granger said quickly and followed Sam as Eppes gave Finn his objections.
"Don's not going to just let you assert jurisdiction," Colby told Sam as soon they cleared earshot.
"He won't have a choice," Sam replied. "I know Riley played nice in Graham's when he was trying to determine the nature of the attack, but now that we've confirmed HST involvement, it's ours."
"Charlie's his brother. He won’t stay out of it, no matter what he's told. Neither will the team."
"Fuck. We don't have time to bail out civilians running off on their own. Anyone else on your team even know about demons?"
"I doubt it. I know they're not equipped to come face-to-face with them. At this point, I'm even not sure I am. I've been out so long, and I couldn't think of anything that remotely resembled the body's species."
"That's because they're normally peaceful and weren't in any area of interest during your time with the unit. Fortunately, they're simple kills: anything that works on a human. They are twenty percent stronger than the average human, but if you've kept in shape, you'll be fine." Colby frowned. If Riley did not know the nature of the assault until he arrived at the crime scene— "Finn sent me a photo," Sam said, gesturing with her phone.
"Of course he did." Colby sighed as Sam unlocked a black SUV with tinted windows. "Man, I've forgotten procedures, and it never once occurred to me that the robbers could be making their getaway via storm sewer.”
“It’s the collective unconsciousness at work,” Sam said as she opened the side door of the SUV and entered. “You believe your coworkers don’t know about demons, so the natural instinct is to overlook anything that could put a case in the preternatural or supernatural realms.” She tossed a set of black demon-hunting gear onto the middle driver's side seat. “Get in and change.”
Colby blinked. “What?”
“You might be rusty, but you know what we’re chasing. We could use an extra pair of hands or two if we catch up to the Pa-looms before what backup we have available mobilizes. Since you’re about Riley’s size, we might as well have you armored, though you'll have to make do with your own shoes.”
Colby climbed into the vehicle. "I so did not miss changing in cramped semi-public places."
"You don't have anything I haven't pretended not to see before."
"No shit and ditto," Colby retorted as Sam followed him into the SUV and then slammed the door closed. “What are you planning to tell Don?” he asked as Sam turned her back to him and started digging through the equipment in the back.
“That we have the skills to start a search ASAP. Do you know if Edgerton has remembered anything from his time assisting the Initiative?”
“If he has, he hasn’t approached me.” Colby tossed his trousers onto the driver’s seat. "Though all things considered… Riley told you want went down?"
"He may not want the reminder of what he'd done while possessed. I know. I think that's why command stopped pressing into whatever Alderman did to him after 314 and Adam were shutdown. Anyway, by all accounts, Edgerton's at least as a good a tracker as I am, so we can't just leave him behind. Whatever the reason for taking Dawn and Charlie, we—"
"Whatever the reason?" Colby glanced at Sam's back. "Wouldn't it have to do with whatever Graham had them working on?"
Sam sighed and shook her head. "They were working on a Pylean passage relevant to a localized apocalypse that might threaten Illinois or Ontario next week. Time-critical, but not anything Pa-looms should care about. Nothing anything
in LA should care about."
"The book isn't exactly mint condition. There are two possibilities for a Pylean numeral critical for the latitude calculation. Of course, that's assuming this is even the alternate dimension the in-Pylea prophet referred to, and that the prophecy's still valid, which Charlie and Canada's expert were still calculating odds on. Well, trying to. Charlie did verify the date calculations."
"How'd he do that?" Colby asked as he pulled on Riley's black sweater. Converting Earth-bound dating systems could be tricky enough, and time flow was not always constant between dimensions. "Never mind. It would just go over my head." Colby grabbed his dress shoes and started lacing them back on. "How big an event are we talking about?"
"Dawn says the book mentions survivors, so not total. Other than that…" Sam shrugged and threw a backpack over her shoulder. "Let's hope we don't find out firsthand."
Working for the government, Don was used to secrets, both the ones he kept and the ones kept from him. Any case that did not involve his baby brother's safety, and Don would have happily respected Finn's decision not to read him in to whatever mess this was. Or grumbled, but let it go. This time, he wanted nothing less than to wring Finn's neck demanding details. Never mind the fact that it would not get him anywhere. Finn and his wife were clearly too tough and too reserved to be easily intimidated.
Of course, if this search did not pan out, Don just might throttle Finn for the hell of it.
He sighed and glanced at Edgerton. The tracker knelt several feet down the tunnel to Don’s right, studying a patch of mud beside the trickle of water running through the tunnel's center with one of the Finns' powerful flashlights. Don shifted his weight and grimaced as some more water worked its way into his left shoe. Nothing beat a small eternity of walking through water-logged tunnels to reveal tiny holes between shoe and sole.
Don walked to the side of the tunnel and leaned against the wall next to the tunnel they had just left. Once of the bricks jutted out from the others and poked Don in the back. He glanced down at his watch. They had been in this subterranean maze for over an hour. If they could not pick up their pace, they would be too late when they caught up to Charlie.
If they caught up to Charlie.No
, Don's fists shook furiously. We
will find Charlie.
We have to.
Edgerton stood up. Finn sent a questioning glance his way. Edgerton silently shook his head and moved further down the tunnel. With his stomach sinking, Don turned to look down the other side of the tunnel where Mrs. Finn had similar lack of luck picking up the tracks. If they had lost the trail…
If Don had to be honest with himself, it was lucky that they had followed the trail as long as they did. Besides the water in the storm sewers, the grime on the tunnel floors could not always hold prints, and large stretches of water-free concrete were surprisingly dirt-free. Somehow, between the tracking skills of Edgerton and the Finns—mainly Mrs. Finn, though Finn had proven capable when they had to scout three tunnel branches—and the handheld "pheromone sniffers" in the Finns gear, they had kept on the trail of Charlie and his abductors until now.Hopefully.
If the group had not followed Charlie's trail, Don had no idea how they would ever find him. Despite the cramped, sometimes claustrophobic, closeness of the walls, the tunnels under LA felt vaster than he had ever imagined. And the way the tunnels turned and branched had shattered Don’s sense of direction. Literally. One of the Finns' gadgets showed their current the position as west of the hotel, when Don could have sworn they were southeast of the murder site. Finding his brother felt increasingly like a needle/haystack search.
Don checked his watch again. A full sixty-three seconds since he had last glanced at it, and they were no closer to finding a direction. Don had never felt more useless than now, unable to do anything but stand and wait. Even Colby could do more than Don, as he currently worked with Mrs. Finn, one of the Finns' mechanical bloodhounds in his hands. Colby's ease with the device made him wonder just what Colby had done while in the army.
Colby shook his head at Mrs. Finn. Don furiously tapped the flashlight Mrs. Finn gave him against his leg and turned to check on Finn and Edgerton. Edgerton examined another bit of the tunnel under his flashlight beam while Finn adjusted his electronic sniffer.
Don checked his watch again before folding his arms over his chest and stared at the water under his feet. He knew his impatience would not help anything and he wondered if he should have stayed behind. The hotel was still being processed, and he could… be going nuts with worry there. Here, at least he could know they were doing everything possible. And Charlie would need him if th—when
they found him. Charlie did not do well when removed from his academic bubble, and a kidnapping and torture would cause anyone distress.
Footsteps approached Don from both sides. He looked up as the rest of the search party rejoined him. All had grim faces. “The sniffers have nothing,” Finn said quietly as he tapped on his phone. “And we can’t find a physical trail before either tunnel branches again. We can split into two groups and go down the most promising branches, but we need to coordinate with the backup teams to do an efficient search. It shouldn’t take long but we'll be here a few minutes."
Don growled in frustration. He clenched his fists as he fought the desire to punch the wall. “They’re doing everything they can,” Colby said quietly as he leaned against the wall next to Don.
“I know. It’s just that it’s Charlie. I can’t…”
“Sam and Riley are good at what they do. And Charlie’s tough. We have to trust that will give us enough time.”
“Charlie’s a mathematician. He shouldn’t have to face this.”
“No one should,” Ian said as he joined them. “The professor’s stubborn. That should help him.” Don would have found that more convincing if Ian did not sound like he was trying to convince himself. “And I get the feeling he’s tougher than he lets on—”
“Shh!” Colby cut Ian off and started walking down the tunnel to Don’s left, his head cocked to the side.
“CG?” Finn asked.
Colby gestured to his ear, and Finn fell silent. As Colby shined his flashlight on a section of wall six feet down the other side of the tunnel, Don frowned and tried to think of what Colby might have heard. Mrs. Finn walked over and added her light to his. Don stood to help, sensing Ian doing the same. Before they could move, however, part of the wall began to back away from the rest of the tunnel. “…s like asking if I’d still have been a prodigy if you weren’t in Buffy’s awareness when the monks worked their will,” a woman’s voice drifted out into the tunnel as the section of wall swung further back. “The what ifs—”
The woman’s voice cut off. Movement flickered in the shadows of the opening. Then the tip of a sword and some sort of an ax blade appeared in front of the stone door. “Sam?” the woman’s voice asked as a voice far more familiar to Don exclaimed “Colby!”.
A brunette matching the description of Dawn Summers slid through the opening, the ax in her hand. Don ignored her as he rushed to the door. “Charlie!”
!?” Charlie asked incredulously as he wormed his way into the tunnel. Charlie looked intact. Definitely the worse for wear, with split lip, bruised eye, scraped check, and torn clothes splattered with the same orange stuff on the end of the sword Charlie hastily brought to his side. But Charlie was in one piece.
Don pulled his brother into a tight hug. “Damn it, Chuck! What the hell did you get into?”
Don felt Charlie's head jerk to the side. “The room we were in wasn't the neatest,” Charlie said as he pulled out of the hug.
"I didn't mean the orange stuff," Don said as he wiped a hand on the side of his trouser. The stuff splattered on Charlie's shirt felt tacky, like drying blood. "What were you doing that got you kidnapped?"
Charlie shoved away from Don. "I didn't do anything to cause this," he hissed.
"Charlie, that's not what I—"
"Neither did Dawn or Gray." Charlie whirled away from Don. "Gray took a bad hit and went down. I didn't see—"
"They slit his throat," Colby said. Summers cursed as Colby continued. "I'm sorry, man. I know he meant a lot."
"Thanks. What are you guys doing here?”
“Looking for you,” Don said.
“The 911 call described subjects that matched our bank robbery team,” Colby said.
"What about them?" Edgerton asked as Charlie nodded.
"Long gone," Summers answered. "They were paid muscle. And their hirers aren't the most attentive guards. They didn’t even bother to set one after they assumed they locked the door… Anyway, they left and we decided to find our way up to the surface. Speaking of which, I don't suppose any of you have an extra pair of shoes?"
Don blinked at the woman.
"What?" Summers looked around at the rescuers. "Barefoot in the sewers is not exactly hygienic, no matter how impossible it is to move in boots with a broken heel."
Finn sighed. "Let's get you two somewhere safe. How far away were you held?"
"The place we just came out of," Charlie answered. "It's some old subbasement or speakeasy that has been sealed off from its building. There's nothing there but some old junk, though if you want to post a team to try and trap the rest, I heard something about two hours."
Finn nodded as Summers played with her hands while Mrs. Finn comforted her. "I'll post Quent's team. They're almost here. Let's get you two out of here."
Summers nodded and followed behind the Finns. Charlie wormed his way over to follow next to them. "I need to talk to Crowley. I was in the middle of confirming the northern location when—Anyway all our data was trashed. We'll need fres—"
"Whoa!" Don protested as he caught up with Charlie and seized his arm. "Buddy you're not going anywhere but the hospital and home."
"I'm fine." Charlie pulled his arm away from Don. “And we’re under a time crunch here. We have to—”
“Damn it, Chuck! This already got you kidnapped once! If they can't be bothered to protect you, you shouldn't—”
“HEY! If we'd known—” Finn protested at the same time Charlie yelled "You don't decide wh—"
A shrill whistle filled the tunnel and hurt Don's eardrums. "If you're all quite done trying to warn off any Hostiles that have wandered back early," Dawn Summers said lowly, her arms crossed over her chest. Don flushed as he fell silent. Across from him, Finn's face became a stony mask. "Good." Summers locked eyes with Don. "Can the overprotective big sister routine. It would not impress, even if you were any good at it."Sister?
Don thought as he heard coughing that sounded suspiciously like laughter from Colby.
And outright chuckles from Edgerton.
"Charlie, use your brains and ignore him," Summers said and turned to Finn. "And you, what grade did you get in covert ops, again?" Summers sighed and ran a hand through her hair, scowling as the fingers hit knots. "Anyway, it wasn't the codex. Someone didn't get the memo that the Byzantium map was a fraud and expected us to decode the 'treasure's' location."
"But they knew to find you both at Graham's?" Finn asked.
Charlie and Summers both nodded. "From the way they went after Gray's PC, they knew he had, well, something
about the map," Charlie said softly.
Finn frowned unhappily. He glanced at his wife, who was already dialing her phone. "We'll find the leak."
"I know," Charlie said as Summers said, "We know.".
"Now where's the closest manhole out of here?" Summers asked as she stalked back the way they came.
"I couldn’t help but notice the lack of Canadian disasters on the news last week," Colby said as he sprawled on the Finns' sofa and reached up for the beer bottle Riley handed him. “So was the prophecy a dud, or are we the wrong dimension?”
"Maybe neither," Riley said as he plopped down next to Colby and propped his feet on the coffee table. He took a sip of beer as he grabbed the television remote. "We're hearing rumors of an epidemic ravaging the Greater Ontario Sasquatch population. As isolated as Sasquatch keep themselves, the RCSD has been unable to confirm the outbreak." He quickly found the channel, and then muted the pre-game chatter.
"Sasquatch Apocalypse?" Colby asked as Sam came in carrying a large bowl of popcorn. He frowned as thought over what little he knew about Sasquatch species. "If it’s true, it's unlikely to affect us, right? Their biology's too different?"
Sam sat in the chair perpendicular to the sofa and propped her feet on Riley's legs until he put his feet on the floor. "As far as we know there's never been a case of a virus jumping between the two species," Sam said as she set the popcorn on the coffee table. "And they usually react to different bacterial toxins than us. It's not impossible for the illness to crossover, but if there is an epidemic, it’s safe to assume the prophecy was never about humanity.”
“Good for us,” Colby said as Sam grabbed her beer from Riley. “Though if the prophecy had
to be about an ST species, it would have been nice if it was a hostile one."
Riley grunted in agreement and snagged a handful of popcorn.
"So… It was hard to tell in the tunnel, but Dawn was giving Sam hand signals while she and Charlie bullshitted about their abductors leaving them unlocked and unguarded, right?" Colby set his beer on the coffee table and grabbed his own handful of popcorn. "Were there really more hostiles due to return, and did you catch them?" Colby popped a few pieces of popcorn into his mouth.
"Oh Dawn and Charlie killed the Zégis good," Riley drawled, more than a little pride in his tone. "He hasn't told you anything?"
Colby shook his head. "I haven't had the chance to speak to him alone. Though sniping at Don's overprotectiveness seems to help Charlie cope."
Sam chuckled at that. "Isn't that just like him? Anyway, we've had no luck tracking the Pa-looms."
"If only we knew why they set out to raise $47,000 in such short timeframe," Riley said.
"$47,000?" Colby asked.
"The evidence in the speakeasy shows that they hired just before the kidnapping with a non-negotiable fee of $8500. As the bank jobs only added up to $38,543—"
"Actually, since the average bank job only nets around $4000, they did well," Colby couldn't help but say. "But that does suggest they needed set amount by a certain time.” He tapped his fingers against the side of his beer bottle. "Still, $47,000's an odd amount for some of the things I can think of, like ransom or blackmail. I wonder if that's the full amount or if they already had some saved up."
"If we knew that, we'd at least know who they are."
"Sorry, CG," Riley said. "I just can't shake the feeling that not knowing their motivations could come back to bite us in the ass. Anyway, that's not what we needed to talk to you about."
"Don's unhappy to be out of the loop, but as Charlie's safe, he'll eventually let it go," Colby said. "And from what I've seen of Edgerton, I don't think this jogged any memories."
"Good to know," Sam said. "But Parker Abrams was the leak."
Colby's eyes widened. He never liked Abrams, even before Colby's part-demon status became common knowledge within the unit. But the man never struck Colby as capable of treason, and— "Wasn't he with us when we determined the map was a fraud?"
"That doesn't mean he has to tell those he sells info to," Sam said dryly. "Though he swears that all he did was talk with some guys that left the unit after Sunnydale."
"Which is where we could use your help," Riley said. "Nothing that could impact your current position. Just a couple of conversations to ensure that we get everyone involved…"
Ian stood and stretched after he broke down the last of the boxes. Just a trip to the cardboard recycling bin, and after weeks of hassle, his move across the country would be complete. Ian walked to the apartment's kitchen to grab a glass of water. As he filled the glass, his mind drifted back a couple weeks.
While glad the professor had come out unharmed, the whole thing had brought Ian's lost time to the forefront of his mind. The trip through the sewers had convinced him that LA held more links to his lost time than he had realized, and that if he kept the links close, he would eventually remember. For all the hurt that the brass had decided not to read him back into whatever classified op he had been training for, Ian found himself ambivalent about reclaiming those lost days. He could not shake the feeling that those days would change everything if they came back to him. Ian had rebuilt his life as well as he could without them, and liked where he was now. But now that he would be based out of LA…If it happens, it happens,
he told himself firmly as he drank the water. You're not going to hide, even if you won't go looking.
Ian set the glass in the dishwasher and decided to spend the rest of the evening sketching after he came back from the bins. Maybe that lake he liked during the Heinz case.
If he could avoid drifting into that strange sci-fi kick he seemed to be on lately.
Each of these fandoms has a character that is kidnapped so often in fanfic I find it clichéd… And I go and kidnap them. I hope you haven’t found it too unoriginal.