Special Agent Don Eppes could only imagine what his brother, Professor Charles Eppes, was actually looking at.
The scene was one reeking of recent chaos. That it was a murder, no one had any doubt. The body hadn't yet been taken away, and the blood still sluggishly oozing from the single bullet wound in the back of the neck—execution style, Don noted grimly—was a dead giveaway. Pun intended. Don grimaced; he had been told that the body was already out of the way. If he'd known that the statement was a gross exaggeration, he would have insisted that Charlie wait in the Suburban until it was a little safer for civilian consultants to be present. A little cleaner, actually.
The office where the body resided was not one that included the trappings of wealth. Far from being a plush carpet, the floor was faded linoleum, the edges curling up and crumbling and in extreme need of replacement. Sunlight was being kept from entering through the windows not by the blinds that covered them but by the heavy accumulation of dust and grime that coated the slats and put a far thicker layer of dirt on those slats than was ever intended by the original manufacturer. And there was no way that any of the three folding chairs in the office could ever be described as comfortable. They were lucky to remain upright. Their fourth companion, shoved into the corner with an amputated leg, had not.
The condition of the chairs was unimportant to the corpse. He would never be using them again.
Don himself peered more closely at the body. There were several things that disturbed him, beyond the obvious bullet wounds. The man didn't look as though he belonged here. The beard was scruffy, but it was newly grown. The clothes seemed a little too careful with the grime. There was always a difference between a hole in the jeans that arrived there by ripping versus one that was honestly earned through repeated wearings and washings until the fabric shredded from sheer exhaustion.
And the hands. Those blared out fake. Anyone in a place like this had done plenty of hard labor, and that would show. It should show in the tattooed-in dirt under the fingernails that would never come clean even with multiple scrubbings. These facial features were even and regular—hell, Don was even willing to bet that there was expensive dental work in this man's past.
He looked around the rest of the office and sighed. There would be plenty of work here, plenty to keep him and his team busy for hours if not days. There were reams of papers to be gone through and, given the trashed look of the office, it was likely that there wouldn't be one clue left that would actually point them in the right direction. And there were slivers of glass shattered all over the place. The only really useful papers were smoldering in the trash can, now just so much ash. As good as the FBI Forensics Unit was, Don really doubted that even they could pull anything out of that mess.
"Forensics gonna get here anytime soon?" Colby griped. He leaned over to stare fixedly at a spot on the desk and snapped another still photo. "I think this is a spot of blood, and I think it's fresh."
"Maybe. I'm thinking it's too far away for that. Maybe the killer's?"
Don agreed with him. The dark smudge that Colby had found was on the other side of the desk from the victim, just the right place for someone to have been sitting when the slivers of glass were flung in all directions. Speaking of which… "Charlie?"
"I'm going to need the location of each glass fragment," his brother announced distractedly, still staring at the silicon crystals.
Don blinked. Charlie hadn't flinched when Don had brought him in, his eyes only on the glass pieces that Don had asked him to look at. At the moment Don wasn't even certain that Charlie had noticed that there was a corpse. It was just something more for the glass pieces to be on, around, and over.
"It shattered, and just recently." Charlie picked his way over to the desk, even stepping over the corpse's leg, blind to everything else. "This black burn spot on the desk is a dead giveaway. The glass object shattered, most likely from heat." He looked up at his brother. "Once I know the shape and composition of the fragments, I can determine the size and shape of the vessel as well as what was most likely the cause of its breakage. There may have been some sort of liquid inside that became unstable in response to heat, though the energy source must have been fairly intense in order to cause this sort of shattering."
Still oblivious to the body on the floor. Don thanked his lucky stars for small favors, and all of that. 'Hyper-focused' was what they called it these days, as if concentration were a disease. Hated to say it, but once his brother realized what it was that he was stepping over… Well, there was a reason that math professors stayed locked in ivory towers.
Charlie had retrieved a largish piece of previously molten glass. Don rescued it hurriedly. "Charlie, we have to wait for Forensics to clear the room. Then you can pick up the pieces. We can't have your fingerprints on it."
"Oh." Charlie looked around, finally realizing what else was in the room. He paled.
Damn. Just what I didn't want to happen. Why didn't you wait in the car, like I told you, buddy, until we cleared the scene?
"That's…" There wasn't any place to sit down.
"Yeah." Don took his brother's arm. "Why don't you go back to the car, see if any of those equations of yours will fit what's going on here?"
"I think that's a good idea," Charlie said thickly, stumbling to the door. Don watched him a moment to make sure that his kid brother—dammit, gotta stop thinking of him like that. He's a grown man with a higher security clearance than mine—got out into the fresh air and was able to push away the nausea with a deep breath.
Don looked the body over again, wondering just when Don himself had gotten so blasé at the sight of 'violent'. Takes a lot a turn my stomach these days, he thought, cringing. Not that it can't be done.
"Who are you?" he muttered out loud.
Megan, though, heard him. "John Doe, for the moment. Whoever did this took his wallet and all of his ID. After the ME pronounces, I'll get some prints and run them." She too looked at the corpse. "Who do you think did this?"
Don shook his head. "Good question. The easy answer is 'drugs'."
"But you don't think so."
Don frowned. "I think someone may want us to think 'drugs' and dismiss it. Look at the guy, Megan. What do you see?"
"I see a man with a bullet through the back of his head." Megan sounded just as detached as Don felt. "I see someone who's been on the streets, someone who…" she trailed off. "Not on the streets. If he were, he'd look a lot scruffier." Now Megan too frowned. "Don, this is a set up."
"Let's see if we can't hustle the ME along so that we can get those prints run. See to it, will you, Megan?"
Charlie looked better once Don rejoined him in the Suburban. As Don had hoped, Charlie had already plugged his laptop into the car battery and was pouring data into the little black box.
Don deliberately refrained from mentioning the corpse. "You got something I can use?"
"Not yet." Charlie sounded grim. He looked up. "I'll need all the fragments you can find in order to reconstruct that glass object."
"You got it. Forensics said that they'll have the place turned in a couple of hours. You want to look at 'em at Headquarters? I can sign 'em out of Evidence if your office would be better."
"Headquarters will be fine." The dark head remained poised over the laptop.
Something wasn't right. Yes, Charlie would dive in head first into any problem that Don cared to throw his way, but there was an undertone of something else. And Charlie was pretty focused on his computer, even more than usual. "Charlie?"
"Charlie?" A little more insistently this time.
The voice penetrated. Charlie looked up. "Don, I know that man. I think."
"Who, the dead guy?" Once the words were out of his mouth, Don winced. Charlie, demonstrably, didn't have Don's detachment when it came to the seamier side of life.
Charlie flinched. Yup, struck a nerve. "Yes, the dead guy," he repeated, trying to match Don's aplomb and failing. He put his head back down to the laptop.
Don gave him just enough time to make certain that Charlie wasn't going to come up for air on his own. "Who was he?" he prodded gently.
"Charlie?" Gotta push here, buddy. Need the name. Maybe an initial, then purchase a vowel.
Let's get this over with. It'll hurt less. "You knew him?" Past tense.
Charlie apparently came to the same conclusion about 'less hurt' independently. "Yes. I recognize him. But I can't remember from where."
"Maybe." Charlie sounded doubtful. "Probably not. He's older, and I tend to remember the older students in my classes. They're usually the ones with their heads screwed on straight, understand that it takes work to do well. They tend to ask the toughest questions that show the most insight into a theory." He strove for a grin. It didn't quite come off. "They tend not to whine about grades."
That stumped Don. "Charlie, you've met a lot of people. No clue as to who it might be? Someone in academia, maybe?"
"No." Charlie bent his head over his laptop. "It'll come to me."
"Sooner rather than later would be better, buddy."
That final 'no' came a little too quickly, Don reflected, heading back toward FBI headquarters after dropping Charlie off at CalSci. Charlie knew something, Don was certain of it. He never could keep a secret, not from Don. Don could always wangle it out of him. Interrogation techniques were a joke around Charlie. One twist, and the answer would come spilling out. Usually trying to get Charlie to shut up was the problem.
Which made this more puzzling. What could possibly be so important that Charlie wouldn't talk?
Damn. This would eat away at Don until dinner time. Then, Don knew, the agent would saunter home in time for some of his father's good cooking and a little surreptitious questioning of a certain math professor. Don fully expected that the answer would be his by eight o'clock tonight. In the meantime, Don intended to continue looking into the homicide. It was supposed to look like a small time murder, just two old 'friends' coming to blows and the winner walking off with the purse, but the very fact that Charlie was spooked had just turned up the heat.
Don walked into Headquarters, heading straight for his office, intending to make a few pertinent phone calls. He caught Megan on the way. "Anything on those prints?"
"Not a thing," she called back. "Drawing a blank there; they're not in any database across the country. But the Area Director wants to see you and me as soon as you got in."
Uh-oh. Pit of the stomach time. Sometimes it was a good thing to be called up to talk to the boss. Notice of a commendation could be a reason, although that tended to happen once in a blue moon. Usually it was because someone complained, or threatened a lawsuit that had a reasonable chance of being a nuisance or worse. Whatever it was, Don really preferred that meetings with Area Director D'Angelo were instigated by Don himself.
Wouldn't get better by dawdling. Don grabbed his jacket, just in case a formal resignation was called for, and escorted Megan up.
Naw. Couldn't be a termination. Not if the Area Director was calling for both of them. D'Angelo had class; he'd have them come up one at a time and fire them separately, then allow them to commiserate on the way down to clean out their desks. Don started to feel a little better. Just a little. Not much.
There was a guest in Area Director D'Angelo's office, and Don was suddenly very glad that he'd stopped to pick up his suit coat. Both D'Angelo and the guest were formally attired, which suggested that the guest was visiting talent from an upper level deparment. D'Angelo looked up as the pair approached, Megan knocking politely on the edge of the door. "Come in. Mr. Tanner, this is Special Agent Megan Reeves and Special Agent Don Eppes."
"Pleasure." Tanner didn't offer his hand, nor did he look particularly pleased to meet them.
Don took a moment to size the man up, pulling back the hand that he had started to put out. There was nothing special about D'Angelo's guest, just an ordinary man, and Don came to the rapid conclusion that Tanner liked it that way. Average height, light brown hair that could be described as dark blonde in the right light, eyes that seemed to alternately be hazel, brown, or green depending on which glimpse you paid attention to. The body was well-honed, though; Tanner spent time in the gym working out. Don started to get that hinky feeling about the man, and spared a glance for the hand. Yup, there it was: that little shiny dark area on the trigger finger that came from hours and days and weeks spent on the firing range, honing target skills until you could hit a gnat up side the head and leave the antennae wiggling. And there was that sense that the man knew everything that was going around him, like he had a second sense for that sort of thing…
All of which left Don wondering what a spook was doing in D'Angelo's office. Spook for who? CIA? NSA? Secret Service? Had to be an American agency; D'Angelo would have kicked out anyone from a foreign power until they came armed with a couple of senators and a note from their mommy.
D'Angelo didn't leave them in suspense. "Sit down. Agent Reeves, Mr. Tanner is here because a fingerprint search you authorized came up positive."
Megan frowned. "Which one? The ones I ran last week drew a blank. I've got one in progress right now, but I don't expect the results until—"
"Those results are positive, Special Agent Reeves," Tanner interrupted. "Whatever case they are involved in, that case is now closed as far you're concerned. Give me what you have, including any physical evidence, and I'll take it off of your hands."
"Really." Don could recognize a turf war when he saw it. D'Angelo had that look on his face that told Don to feel free to fight back. "I think we'll need a little more information before we come to that conclusion." In the background, he could see the barest nod of approval by the Area Director. Yes, the battle had been engaged.
"That's too bad," Tanner replied. "There will be no further data." He folded his arms, daring the agents to continue.
Don took that dare. He folded his own arms. "Then I don't think that this case is closed yet." He leaned forward, throwing down the gauntlet. "Convince me."
"Agent Eppes, this is a delicate operation—"
"Which is why the FBI needs to be informed." Don interrupted in the same manner that Tanner had just moments ago. "I wouldn't want us to go blundering about and ruin whatever sting you have going on. What agency did you say you represent? That's right; you didn't say."
Tanner glared. "Central Intelligence Agency."
Point to the FBI. Don deliberately put a puzzled look on his face. "CIA? Forgive me, Mr. Tanner, but I was under the impression that the CIA was responsible for overseas intelligence. That the FBI handled domestic affairs. What was your man doing here in L.A.?"
The glare this time didn't seemed to be aimed at the FBI agents but at the absent victim. "That's what we'd like to know. He was last posted in Damascus."
"What was his assignment?"
Tanner shifted the glare back to Don. "That's classified, Agent Eppes."
"And everyone of us sitting in this room has Security clearance," Don replied blandly. "What was his assignment?"
But Tanner wasn't a pushover. "Find a connection between the case you're working on and my man, Agent Eppes, and I'll tell you."
Don froze. Tanner didn't know that the John Doe was deceased. He probably thought that the FBI had questioned John Doe and was engaging in a little follow up. The CIA operative was fishing for information just as much as the FBI.
Time for a little shock therapy. Don leaned forward. "I'll tell you what the connection is, Mr. Tanner: your man is dead, which is why you are sitting in this office trolling for clues on the basis of a fingerprint search. That enough of a connection for you?"
Tanner's face went cold. Bingo! Don thought. Tanner hadn't known. He eased himself against the back of the chair, putting forth an impression of a man totally in control of the situation. "Now, Mr. Tanner, I'll ask you again: what was your man working on?"
Tanner sighed heavily. He looked away; the open window behind Area Director D'Angelo showed the afternoon of L.A. with remarkably little smog for this time of year. It even looked pretty. "Gun running."
Lie. Don knew it as well as he knew his own name, knew that both Megan and Area Director D'Angelo picked up on it as well, knew that they wouldn't be getting any straight answers out of this guy; not yet. But they had to go through the motions.
"Garrison Kellman. Although I doubt that's the name he was using in this area."
Another lie, and the fingerprint search that Megan was running would come up with yet another false name, Don had no doubt, if it came up with anything at all.
"Next of kin?"
"We'll take care of notifying them," Tanner said, adding, "they're not in this part of the country. They're not part of the puzzle."
"Right." Don let that sit for a moment of uncomfortable silence, just enough to let Tanner know that everyone in the room knew that ignoring that detail was really poor procedure and that Don was willing to let him get away with it—for the moment. Especially since that was the only truthful part of Tanner's information. "Local contacts?"
"Good question. As I said, we thought that he was in Damascus."
"So you have no idea what he was doing here, in a dirty downtown office, waiting for someone to come and execute him?" Don let the words hang out in the air, bald and cold.
Tanner winced. "No."
Time to get rid of this bozo, and get on with the real work of solving the murder. "Mr. Tanner, it seems to me that it would benefit us both to investigate this case cooperatively. You will find out more about your gun runners"—keep the sarcasm a little lighter, Eppes. This man is supposedly intelligent enough to catch your drift—"and we remove a major criminal operation in this part of the country. We all walk away a little happier."
Translation: the FBI ain't giving up this case, guy.
"You'll keep me appraised of your progress?" Translation: so that I can keep the FBI from making fools of certain CIA personnel? It's okay to make fools of yourselves. That's why we keep you around. You make us look good.
"We will be as forthcoming with information as you have been with us," Don reassured Mr. Tanner glibly. No translation needed: you lie to us, and we'll lie to you, buddy. Enjoy the rest of your day.