Title: Ports in a Storm
Rating: T (language, violence)
Summary: A suspected smuggling operation leads to a case that even Charlie's math skills can't handle. Will he go too far trying to help solve it, especially once Don gets in over his head?
Author's notes: Many thanks to Susan for her excellent beta reading and for helping me identify the missing ingredient. Also thanks to N. for help with the math. Any errors that remain are my own.
For those of you who asked for a sequel to "Someone to Watch Over Me"… this isn't it, but it's the best you're going to get. :)
Disclaimer: The characters here are not mine (except the ones you don't recognize!), but the property of Cheryl Heuton, Nick Falacci, and the good folks at CBS. I promise to put them back when I'm done playing with them.
Monday, June 13, 2005
Port of Long Beach, Pier K
"Are you and the customs guys ready, Don?" a quiet voice buzzed into his ear.
"Yeah," he replied, pressing against his headpiece to make David's words clearer as he looked out across the dark water. "Looks like the crew is almost finished tying up the ship."
"All right," came David's response from where he was stationed on the other side of the harbor, keeping watch for the ship they had been expecting. Now, that large ship was gently bobbing up and down in the water in front of Don, full of the forty-foot-long metal boxes called containers that were to be offloaded onto semi-trucks and railroad cars for their journey to various destinations across the country. "This is definitely the right one: the 'Buir Lake.'"
"Yeah, I see the name." Don twiddled the focus knob on his binoculars. The overhead lights, high on top of the huge cranes that were used for unloading the container ships, made it possible to read the lettering on the cargo freighter a hundred yards away. "Hey, does that say Mongolia?"
There was a pause. Then David's voice crackled through the earpiece, "Yeah, it does. Does Mongolia even have a coastline?"
"No, it's between China and Russia. I guess if Switzerland can have a navy, Mongolia can have cargo ships."
Someone tapped Don on the shoulder. He turned his head to see Jason Ramos, the senior customs official for the port. "Hang on, David." Twisting the mouthpiece slightly to the side, he asked, "What's up?"
The short, dark-haired man said, "We're ready to go when you are. Once the gangplank is down, the ship is ready for boarding, and it looks like they're about to lower it."
"All right. You hear that, David?"
"Copy. We'll keep an eye on things from here."
"All right, see you in a bit." Don turned his attention to Ramos. "Are your men ready?"
"The men and the dogs, yes, we are. You're sure about this tip of yours?"
"He hasn't failed us in the past." Don paused to check the clip on his gun. "Last time it was a million dollars of marijuana, hidden inside a shipment of fresh flowers from Peru. He didn't say what was in this one, but with the Asian origin, I'd expect heroin.'
"Well, our dogs are the best trained on the West Coast. If there's anything on that ship, they'll find it."
Don nodded. "All right then, let's do it."
Two hours later, Don was frustrated beyond belief. The Filipino crew claimed to know not a word of either English or Spanish, which made communication more than a little difficult. Once they understood that the customs inspection was not optional, however, they largely stayed out of the way. He was astonished that it only took six men to run the massive ship. But then, the loading and unloading was all done by crane, and it wasn't like there was much to manage once the vessel was underway.
And there wasn't much for the FBI or Customs to manage, either. The dogs had sniffed every container they could access, and had come up empty. Ramos had assured him the animals could smell contraband not only through the steel walls of the containers, but up to 150 feet away. Don had watched the ship's captain shuffle his feet nervously a few times when the dogs neared the bow of the ship, but the animals never signalled that they had found anything.
"Looks like a bust," Ramos said, coming up to where Don stood leaning against the ship's rail with his arms folded.
"I can't believe it. I've gotten tips from Everett half a dozen times, and they've always been reliable. We must be missing something." He'd contacted David over the radio, but nothing was being dropped overboard to avoid detection. Whatever the illegal cargo was, it was still on the ship. If it was there at all.
"Not to put too much emphasis on the canines, Agent Eppes, but if they haven't found any drugs, then there's none to be found." Ramos looked over at where his men were leading the dogs around the boxes and coming up empty. "Anonymous tips aren't always the best way of getting information, you know. I did a six-month stint in a couple of Japanese ports in a kind of an exchange program a couple of years ago. You'd be amazed at how few anonymous tips they get. Fear of the yakuza. Means they have to do their work the old-fashioned way."
"Yeah, I understand the Japanese mafia are a force to be reckoned with." Don frowned as he looked off the side of the ship. Then he suddenly looked up at the customs agent. "What if it's not drugs?"
Ramos spread his hands wide. "Then it could be anything. Endangered species, bootleg videos, cigarettes…we see it all."
"Yeah, but most of those, the dogs would notice, right?" When Ramos nodded, Don went on, "What kinds of things that get smuggled don't have a scent, but are fairly high-value for their size?"
"Anything that's smuggled is high-value for its size, or it wouldn't be worth the risk. Agent Eppes, we can't go looking through random containers and hope to find something. There's nearly a thousand of them on this ship. I'm sorry, but we don't have the manpower to do that detailed a search on the basis of one tip, no matter how reliable your source usually is. We keep asking for more money and men from Homeland Security, and they keep sending us squat."
"Yeah, I understand." Don let out a frustrated sigh. His gaze wandered toward the ship's captain, who looked more relaxed than he had a couple of hours ago. Then he looked thoughtfully toward the bow. "Do me a favor?"
Ramos sighed. "This whole night's been a favor."
"And I appreciate it, believe me. But could you check inside a couple of the containers closest to the bow? Captain Balandra there gets a little twitchy whenever someone gets too close to them."
The Customs agent checked his watch. "In half an hour I'll have to start paying overtime, and I can't afford to do that. With the four men I have, that'll probably get us through eight, maybe ten boxes."
Don echoed the man's earlier gesture, spreading his hands apart. "If you don't find anything in half an hour, we'll call it a night."
As the customs officers started moving towards the ship's bow in response to Ramos's commands, Don nodded at Terry, who was watching the captain from off to his side. She moved away from the railing where she had been leaning, ready to move if necessary.
As the first container was opened, Don noticed Balandra stiffen, and the first officer who had been standing beside him began to move towards the interior of the ship. Don casually strolled forward, keeping one eye on the man and one eye on the customs agents.
Two containers had been opened with no results, but the Filipinos only grew more tense. Then the first officer stepped inside the bridge, and the captain followed. Don signaled to Terry, and she moved away from the rail, calling out to the two men to stay where they were.
Don had long remembered his instructors at Quantico telling him that FBI work was hours of patient waiting and preparation leading up to a few critical moments of furious activity. They had been proven right many times in his experience. All of a sudden, tonight was another one of those times.
A shout came from the bow of the ship. Don turned to look, and saw one of the customs officials signaling Ramos. He swiveled back towards the bridge in time to see the captain drawing a gun and aiming at the woman behind him. His heart leapt into his throat. "Terry, get down!"
She ducked as the bullet whistled over her head. Don had already drawn his weapon and pointed it at the two men, one of whom was doing something inside the bridge with a pile of papers. "Drop it, now!" he shouted.
Gunshots to his right drew his attention. Two other crew members had come out from belowdeck and were firing on the customs officers. One fell back against the side of the ship, then another. Ramos and the three remaining agents were pinned down behind a stack of containers.
"All agents up here, now!" Don barked into his headset. "You, don't move!" he snapped at the ship's captain, who still has his pistol out.
The captain hesitated. Then there was a small flash and a loud bang from within the bridge, and the first officer came stumbling out.
Don started forward, keeping his gun aimed at Balandra. "Drop it!" The captain exchanged a glance with his first officer, then lowered his weapon. Apparently some things translated just fine. "Terry, you all right?"
She had already stood up and was pointing her own weapon at Balandra. "Yeah, he missed me."
"All right, take care of the two of them." Don darted toward the ship's bow, taking cover behind a stack of containers. Heavy footsteps on the gangplank told him the rest of the team was on their way. He leaned forward and squeezed off a shot at the crewman he could see who was still firing at the customs officers. The man went down with a cry, his gun discharging harmlessly into the air.
"Don, where do you want us?" David had come up behind him, followed by two more agents.
"Adams, you help Lake secure the captain and first officer. Sinclair and Gutierrez, you come with me."
In a matter of minutes, they had subdued the other armed man and located the rest of the crew, both of whom were hiding unarmed belowdeck. One of the customs officers who'd been shot was dead. Don called in the paramedics for the other officer and the man he had shot, both of whom were only slightly wounded.
When all the action had died down, Don wandered over to where Jason Ramos was standing, sorting through the contents of the container that they'd been searching when all hell broke loose. "So what have you got there, anyway?"
The shorter man indicated a stack of boxes inside the large metal container, each of which were as tall as he was. "Take a look."
Don peered inside and saw "N20" stamped on all of the boxes. One had been opened to reveal a row of tall metal cylinders with valves on the top. Instead of the same chemical symbol that was on the outside of the box, the tanks read, "CFC-12." "What kind of gas is that?"
"Chlorofluorocarbon-12," Ramos explained. "One of the compounds better known as freon."
Don stared at him. "Freon? These guys are willing to kill people to smuggle in the stuff that goes in your air conditioner?"
"The stuff that used to go in your air conditioner. For the past ten years, it's been illegal to produce. Breaks down the ozone layer." He made a vague gesture towards the sky. "Of course, older machinery still uses it, so there's a huge black market." At Don's shake of his head, he shrugged. "I told you, we see it all."
"Yeah, I guess you do." He turned to David. "Merrick's going to love this."
"Next time, don't promise him a drug bust when you don't know what the cargo is ahead of time," the younger agent said.
"Yeah, yeah. All right people, let's get our guests here rounded up. Gutierrez, call ahead and see if we can round up a Tagalog interpreter this time of night, in case the crew really doesn't understand Spanish. We're gonna figure out why these guys were so eager to defend a cargo of chlorofluoro--whatever the hell this stuff is."
Personally, he couldn't wait to find out what a Los Angeles customs official getting killed by a Filipino sailor on a Mongolian-registered ship had to do with a hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. "It's a small world after all," Don muttered, following his team off the "Buir Lake."