The Collector

Chapter 1

...

She stood unmoving, unable to look away from the violence taking place on the television, her mind filling with memories of her past. Realizing her tea had gone cold, she sat down to pour another cup, this time fortifying the delicate blend with a shot of her favorite scotch as she continued to monitor the chaotic events unfolding not too far away. The face of a looter screamed into the camera, his friends laughing as they carried anything they could carry out of the shattered storefronts of the neglected neighborhood. She quickly gained admiration for the local news crew covering the story, knowing just how difficult it was to navigate in the chaos going on around them. This may not be labeled a war, but it was no different in her mind, and although it wasn't as bad as the Rodney King riots, she knew people would die nonetheless. This one had resulted from the release of four LAPD officers who had been exonerated in the shooting deaths of two supposedly unarmed boys from South Central. A simple, relieved smile by one of the released officers during a comment to the media sent mobs raging into the streets. She thought about calling the Operations Manager of the Office of Special Projects to see if he had any pertinent information to add, but their meeting earlier in the day had not gone well so she let the thought go. She had been sent out from Washington by her director to evaluate the man and provide recommendations for a replacement if she confirmed that his work was unacceptable and his attitude lacking, which she most certainly had.

Her attention was drawn back to the news by the now strident voice of the woman reporter, an attractive black woman she had been watching from the beginning. She admired her coolness in the face of the anarchy going on around her, but the situation had gotten dangerous and the crew had returned to their van, the cameraman continuing to film as they wove through the dark streets. Suddenly a garbage can hit the windshield, shattering it into a web of broken glass, and the van served and collided with a burning car. They were quickly attacked by a roaming band of angry rioters, who began rocking the van back and forth, the voice of the frightened driver yelling for the crew to get out. They managed to escape, fighting their way through the mob, running desperately for whatever safe haven they could find, the jerky movement of the filming adding to the intensity of the scene, and underscoring their dire situation. The driver pulled the reporter into an alley, but a heavy object flew past the camera lens and knocked the man down, his face streaming with blood when he appeared again as the reporter helped him to his feet. The woman tried to reason with the group of men advancing on them, shouting out her sympathy for the two young boys who had been killed, but her words were derided with hostile, angry curses.

The film blurred as a police car drove into the camera's view and stopped, separating the shouting mob from the brave, but shaken crew. A well-built African American cop got out quickly and yelled for the news crew to get in the car, while his disheveled partner stepped out to face the mob. He was without a hat, his slightly longish hair a tangled mess and there were fresh bruises on his face and a bleeding cut above his eye. When one man charged he knocked him down with a baton, his gun remaining in its holster and Hetty was instantly curious as to how he was going to handle the volatile situation. He appeared calm and intense at the same time, constantly scanning the crowd of men gathering in front of him. He surprised her by encouraging the men to go steal something instead of attacking innocent people, telling them there was a fire sale on big screen TVs going on around the corner on west Forty-Third.

"I got a TV, man," a rioter shouted back at him as the cameraman continued to film.

"Yeah, but Christmas is coming, dude," the cop said, flashing a cocky smile. "Don't you have a girlfriend you want to impress?"

"You're one crazy fucker for a cop," the rioter laughed.

"Your choice, man," the young officer replied. "A broken skull or a flat screen."

Two men charged and he beat them back effectively with the baton, making the others unsure, holding his ground while keeping up a continuous stream of witty comments as his partner helped the injured driver and the news crew into the vehicle.

"Get in the car Deeks," his partner shouted as he revved the engine.

"Take door number one, dude," the young cop shouted as he got in. "Make your girlfriend happy."

The cameraman filmed the universal hand gesture the man gave in response and Hetty nodded as she committed the young blond officer's name to memory.

...

Deeks checked the mirror one last time to make sure the band-aid the nurse had given him had stopped the bleeding cut over his eye. She had offered to put in a stitch, but he had quickly declined, getting a laugh and a derisive shake of the head out of his partner. They were finally back in the car after the embarrassing hugs the news reporter had lavished on both of them in the ER, finally pressing her business card into his partner's hand as they left, asking him to call her in a very sultry voice.

"What the hell were you doing out there, Deeks?" Vernon James asked as he jammed his hat down on his head and pulled out of the lot. "You should have pounded that guy into the ground, man."

"Just giving you time to make points with the sexy reporter," Deeks grinned. "She's got the hots for you, brother, thanks to me."

"Hell, Deeks, I was a wide receiver at USC, remember?" James boasted before laughing. "I don't need help getting a date from a scroungy surfer dude like you."

"I'm charming," he replied as they cruised through the ravaged streets. "Women love me, especially nurses."

Things had calmed down a bit and they saw only a few straggling looters, who ran as they approached. The area was littered with discarded merchandise and as they turned the corner onto a familiar street, Deeks swore softly when he saw the devastation done to a local market. The windows were shattered and the door hung loosely on its hinges, the metal security gate bent and useless. The store was dark and crushed fruit filled the air with the sweet smell of apples and melons. They knew the owners, having foiled a robbery here earlier in the year.

"Heads up, partner," Vernon said softly.

"God, I hope the Montoyas went home before this happened," Deeks said, his stomach clinching into a hard knot.

After they had stopped an armed man from robbing their store, the Montoyas had invited them to dinner at their house. His partner had to back out at the last minute, so Deeks had gone alone, having not had a home cooked meal for quite some time, his longing for a sense of family drawing him to the old couple. Their small bungalow had been a revelation, tidy and warm with mementos of their three children, all college graduates with families of their own, their faces smiling at him from the array of framed pictures on a sideboard. Mrs. Montoya had sensed his melancholy and had invited him to join her in the kitchen, giving him the task of chopping up tomatoes for the salsa she was making, while she told him stories about her grandchildren. They were good, kind people and his heart raced as they pulled to a stop in front of the ravaged store.

Deeks stepped quietly across the threshold, his flashlight beam cutting through the heavy darkness. The store was in shambles, but the smell inside was anything but sweet.

"I've got a body," he called out to his partner.

A man was lying face down in front of the counter, his khaki work shirt drenched in blood from two bullet holes in his back. Deeks knelt down and checked for a pulse and closed his eyes briefly when he saw that it wasn't Mr. Montoya.

"It's not him," he said softly.

"I'll call it in," Vernon James said, gently squeezing Deeks' shoulder. "You okay?"

"Yeah. This shouldn't happen to nice people like the Montoyas," Deeks said as he looked around. "They work so hard."

"Get your head together, Marty," Vernon said firmly. "And go check the back."

Deeks nodded and took a deep breath. He could hear his heart thudding in his ears, swallowing hard as he pulled his gun, moving toward the small office in the back. Stepping past overturned racks of chips and candy, he entered the dark hallway, the flashlight beam finally settling shakily on the closed door.

"Mr. Montoya? It's Officer Marty Deeks, sir."

He leaned his shoulder against the doorframe, his body tense and his palms sweaty against the grip of his weapon, listening intently for any sign that the shooter was behind the door. He saw the knob turn and he took a step back, bringing his gun up, leveling the barrel at the crack that appeared in the door.

"Marty? Dios mio. I am so glad it's you," Angelina Montoya whispered, her eyes wide as she opened the door. "They shot Luis."

Deeks holstered his gun and walked quickly into the tiny room lit only by a few candles and crowded with a group of very nervous people. Luis Montoya was propped up in the corner, his face a grimace of pain as he clutched at his bleeding arm. Seeing the early signs of shock, he knelt down to check on him, tightening the bandana someone had tied over the wound.

"You having a party in here, Mr. Montoya?" He asked with a quick grin, as he looked up at the people surrounding him, all scared into silence.

"Just a few neighbors," the storeowner answered softly with a tired smile. "We were the last store they hit and by that time everyone had come here."

"Let me update my partner and then we'll get a van down here to get you all to safety," he told them, feeling pride as they nodded, trusting him because he was a cop.

It felt good to be helping these people, the thought distracting him as he walked back through the debris of what was once a neighborhood mainstay. He could see his partner sitting in his seat, calling in the details on the radio, when a sudden blur of a man rushed past the car and stopped, shooting Vernon in the face when he looked up. Deeks screamed his name and fumbled for his gun, running toward his partner, as he brought his weapon up, ready to fire. When he got outside, the street was empty. He kneeled by his partner, his hand trembling as he gripped the bloody uniform of the man who had taught him how to be a good police officer and partner, who laughed at his jokes and had his back on every patrol, teaching him about loyalty and service in the brief time he'd known him.

"Officer down," he whispered into the mic, his eyes watering from the painful loss. He knew a cop wasn't supposed to cry, but the tears came anyway and they were angry ones.

"Come out you sonofabitch," he shouted into the night.

A whoosh of fire sent him reeling as the first Molotov cocktail landed inside the car, followed by a second and then a third, the flames flashing hot as he desperately tried to pull his partner from the car. He heard harsh laughter and vicious taunts echoing around him as the intense heat made him retreat just as the gas tank exploded, slamming him back against the brick wall of the store, leaving him dazed on the glass littered sidewalk, his legs splayed out in front of him. He stared at the silhouette of his partner's body against the engulfing flames, his vision slowly graying, and his ears dull to the sound of the roaring inferno. Then he saw them. Two armed men walking out of the reflected shadows of the fire, their faces hard as they laughed and he brought his gun up and fired, killing them both, and feeling nothing at all. He dropped the gun into his lap, his hands sweaty as he gripped it tightly, his eyes leaving the bodies of the dead, watching the flames lick across and curl the insignia of the LAPD on what remained of the side of the patrol car, turning the paint to ash, and leaving nothing but a residue of violence.

His eyes rested once again on the bodies of his partner's killers and he worried that he felt no remorse. He had only been a cop for five months and had never killed anyone before, this being only the second time he had ever drawn his weapon while on patrol. He searched his mind for what to do next, but could remember nothing but what the academy drummed into every recruit..."protect and serve"...and that was what he was going to do.

"Marty? Are you hurt?" Mrs. Montoya asked as she nervously grasped his arm.

"We have to go," he choked out as he struggled to get up. "They'll be coming."

"Where's Vernon? Isn't he with you?" She asked as she stared at the burning car.

"Not anymore," he said and turned away, guiding her quickly back inside the store.

...

Hetty muted the sound of the newscast as the rescue of their reporter and her crew replayed over and over on a seemingly endless loop. She picked up one of the Russian black lacquer boxes her mother had collected and stared at its intricately painted scenes, turning it over reverently in her hands as her mind wandered. Her collections had always been a way for her to deal with the stress of her job. They calmed her, allowed her to focus and finally come to terms with whatever she'd had to do. She had been born into a family of collectors, spending some of her happiest moments trolling through musty antique shops with her parents and later alone, exploring shops that catered to wealthy men and women searching for rare items of curiosity. She had gotten the bug early and her houses were filled with objects and antiquities that had taken her fancy, never tiring of finding and collecting the best the world had to offer.

She found herself doing the same when she entered her current profession, only this collection consisted of human beings who through intelligence and determination had overcome whatever life had thrown at them, becoming rare men and women she could guide toward the path she herself had taken. She sought out survivors, usually those with no family connections, finding the ones who welcomed her guidance, but who had been toughened by life and showed little fear when faced with adversity. The young cop she had been watching on screen had impressed her when he'd smiled at the mob confronting him. She had known then that he had faced violence before, and that it was not new to him at all. Some might have thought him reckless, but she saw something else. She saw a young man to be watched and tracked, a man who was brave enough to use humor to diffuse a volatile situation, to humanize himself to those angry men, keeping them off balance by his odd response to the moment. He had surprised them and he had surprised her, which was why she pulled a file folder and wrote his name at the top.

She wondered if he would become part of her surrogate family. She had several men and women she thought of in that way, some becoming very special to her over the years and she watched over them as carefully as she could, even though she put them in harm's way. G Callen was now undercover with the CIA and Lauren Hunter was in Eastern Europe and out of contact for the foreseeable future. Others were scattered across the world, serving in different agencies or in the military or hidden in secret back rooms full of technical equipment analyzing data. She wasn't sentimental, but she did care deeply for them all.

She watched the repeating scene once again and felt the insistent prick of curiosity. She needed more information on this man and she smiled as she recalled another asset she had discovered and hidden away here in Los Angeles. He was a graduate of MIT, and a hacker extraordinaire. His skills had gotten him noticed by an unsavory group who had used him to hack into a military database in search of sophisticated technology they intended to steal. It was only his hesitancy at the end that had caused him to be discovered and she had interrogated him herself. She had found a nervous young man so brilliant that he'd become bored, which had gotten him into trouble. It would have been a waste of talent to put him in prison, so she had found a place for him locally, warning him that she would always be watching and that one slip up and she would send him to the dark recesses of prison where he would have no computer privileges. That had done the trick. Now she loaned his services to whatever intelligence agency needed his particular skills, the kind she needed now.

"Mr. Beale, I'm in need of your services."

"Hi Hetty. Who's it for this time?"

"That would be me," she answered. "I need you to find everything you can on an LAPD police officer named Deeks."

"That cop on the news?" He said quickly. "Hetty, I'm not sure he's still alive."

"What have your heard?" She asked slowly.

"I've got a friend who's monitoring LAPD frequencies," he replied softly. "They found his burned out patrol car and there was a body inside. Neither he nor his partner has called in since the initial report of a man down. Hetty, they think he's dead."

She took a deep breath to steady herself, surprised at her emotional reaction. She quickly sifted through all the information and shook her head.

"Do as I asked Mr. Beale," she told him firmly. "And keep me posted on any intel from your friend."

"You don't believe he's dead, do you?"

"There is no evidence to prove me wrong," she said softly.

"I've watched the video a couple of times," Beale said. "He's pretty cool. I'll watch out for him for you."

"I know you will, Eric," she said with a tight smile before saying goodbye.

She poured a good portion of scotch into her empty porcelain tea cup and sat quietly at her desk watching the video, pausing it on a profile of the young cop with the unruly blond hair who had captured her attention, his cocky grin convincing her that he was another one of those survivors who should not be written off so easily.

...

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