The old mine entrance looked less desolate with two FBI agents milling around, trying to keep out of the sun. A camper had been pulled up a few feet away from the entrance, the power on and functioning at top capacity to keep the air-conditioner inside going. Both of the agents tried hard to think up an excuse to go inside even for a moment to cool off. It rarely worked; the barrel outside with melting ice had several cases of water and soda for the purpose of agent hydration.
Yellow 'keep out' tape had been posted across the entrance to the mine, and the FBI agents were there to make sure that those instructions were carried out to the letter. The Atomic Energy people had been notified and were even now making their way to the site to recover the uranium. The fact that the material had had its origin in another country was unimportant. It was uranium, and it was radioactive, and it could go boom. The AE people were welcome to it. In fact, the FBI was willing to turn it over as quickly as possible, to get out of the hot desert sun even more than the remote danger of radioactivity leaking out from behind the lead container that the uranium had been stored in by the terrorists.
And here they come now. The FBI agents spotted a large truck rumbling down the highway, one man jumping out of the cab to make certain that the huge wheels wouldn't get bogged down in the soft sand across the mile or so to the mine entrance. They were in luck; there were enough rocks to support the weight. Some of the tires might not be much good afterward, but that was why the truck had multiple wheels. That, and a few spares in the back, should get them through to complete the job of hazardous material containment.
The man who jumped out from behind the wheel of the truck was a gum-chewing, flaming red head of a man. His average build belied the muscles underneath the heavy plaid shirt that he wore. The shirt was hot for the desert but once away from the site and driving through the mountains the truck driver would be happy for it. He proffered a sheaf of papers on a clipboard to the agents guarding the mine and wiped his sweat-laden forehead against his plaid sleeve. "You the FBI guys?" he asked, as if the pair didn't have 'FBI' plastered in yellow across their vests. "You got a pick up for us?"
"That's right." One of the agents accepted the clipboard, barely glancing over it as he scrawled his name across the bottom. "You're welcome to this stuff. Scary shit."
"Yeah. Makes you glow in the dark," his partner chimed in. "Give me a firefight any day."
The truck driver shrugged. "Not that bad, if you know what you're doing." He waved at the pair of workers in the cab of the van. "Okay, we got it. Let's haul this stuff out." He turned back to the FBI agents. "The uranium still inside the mine?"
"Yeah. We left it where we found it. It was booby-trapped."
That rocked the truck driver back a moment. "They said that the bomb was already exploded."
"Yeah, it was. But who knows how many bombs are in there? We're working with some seriously crazy dudes."
The truck driver snorted. It had a curiously unconvinced air about it. "Who'd be nuts enough to waste the effort on a second bomb?" He waved again at his men. "C'mon. Let's go haul some scary shit out of this mine and save the FBI agents from worrying about their kids growing up with three eyes."
"All yours." The FBI agents ripped down the yellow barrier tape, unpadlocking the rusty door so that the men from the Atomic Energy department could enter. The three truck workers disappeared into the dark, carrying the lanterns that they'd brought with them as well as a portable unit which, presumably, held a Geiger counter. "We'll be back before you know it," one called back over his shoulder.
One FBI agent remained to watch the now open entrance to the mine, listening to the receding footsteps as the AE people walked deeper into the mine, stepping over the rubble left by the bomb. The other opened the door to the camper and climbed the steps to get into the air-conditioned interior. He breathed deeply, appreciating the break from the heat.
One of the camper's inhabitants looked up and grinned. "Nice acting, David. Don't go looking for a Hollywood agent; I still need you here."
"Thanks. That him?"
Don lifted his shoulders. "Could be. Right size, right height. Looks all different, though. That red hair keeps distracting me. Megan?"
"Me, too," she admitted. "If it's a disguise, it's a good one."
"It's him," the third occupant said, no trace of doubt. Dark curls framed his face, the light from the computer screen reflecting into his eyes. He bent over the keyboard. "If it were really people from Atomic Energy, they'd be calling for the bomb squad, right?" For Charlie, it was logic. The hypothesis fit the facts.
"Right." Don grinned, a predator's expression. "But it still might not be him. I'd rather catch him with dirty hands at the scene of the crime." He leaned over his brother's shoulder, peering at the computer screen, careful not to put any weight onto the mathematician. "How're you coming with this? You gonna be able to come with the answer before he gets all the way inside?"
"How should I know?" Charlie responded irritably, concentrating on his work. "Leave me alone. Get me the headphones so I don't have to listen to you."
His brother looked awful, Don decided, but it was all cosmetic. The bruises would fade. The rib would heal. Even the nightmares—Don had spent an uncomfortable night in a hospital chair for just that reason, sending his father home—would vanish with time. Still, Don was proud of his brother. Not that he'd tell him so. There were just some things that you didn't tell your little brother, no matter how old you were and how genius he was, Don mused. No, Don was proud of the way that Charlie had insisted on coming here, back to the site where he'd almost lost his life.
Of course, this was a very different circumstance. This time, there were no terrorists dragging him into the dark tunnels, never expecting to come back out. This time, Charlie was surrounded by trained FBI agents, drawing the suspects into a trap. A trap that Charlie was helping to set up. For Charlie, this was payback.
"They're coming into range." Megan, her own set of headphones now down around her neck, flipped the switch that would allow the conversation inside the mine to filter into the camper. "The microphones around the uranium have been activated."
The voices from the mine were filled with static. "You find it?"
"Not yet—wait, here it is. Bring that light over here."
"Is it Ned's or Mo's?"
"You'd better be able to tell. One, I can work with. The other'll blow us right out of this mine. Who the hell thought that Ned Ames would be stupid enough to blow up his own code key? Without that code, we have no diagram of the second bomb that he put in here."
"Back off. Give me time. I can do this."
"You'd better. There's a hell of a lot of money riding on this."
"Then shut up. You're making me nervous."
Back in the camper, Don looked at both David and Megan. "They're making me nervous. How much firepower was in that second bomb?"
David shook his head. "No way to tell, not with the time we had to look at it. Doesn't sound like they're going to be able to do this, Don. How 'bout I tell Colby to back away from the entrance?"
"I'm liking that idea," Don admitted. "Megan?"
The woman had returned to listening to the suspects deep in the mine. "They're trying," she said. "They're scared. Doesn't sound like they know how to disarm the second bomb."
"And the cave-in isn't helping." Don wasn't certain which scenario he wanted to have played out: the suspects disarm the bomb and emerge to be arrested, or the bomb explode and take the suspects with them. The second possibility would certainly save the taxpayers the cost of a trial but ran the distinct chance that the lead lining to the uranium would crack and let a lot of ugly radiation out into the general public arena. An arena that included four FBI agents and a grumpy consultant.
Didn't matter. The only way to recover the uranium was to disarm the bomb one way or another. One way was to see if the suspects knew how to do it, a route that was looking less and less likely. The other way to disarm the bomb was to decipher the instructions.
And Charlie was working on that right now.
Megan held up her hand for attention, opening up the channel again so that all could hear the conversation inside:
"What was that?"
"Rocks shifting. It happens after an explosion. We need to finish up here and get out."
"I don't know. This doesn't look good."
Cursing. "We can't leave without the uranium. What are they going to think, outside?"
"They're gonna think that we need a bomb squad."
"By that time, the real AE people will be here. You've got two minutes to tell me that you can disarm that bomb. And it better be the right answer."
Snort. "I don't care whether it's the right answer or not. I can't do it. Not in two minutes, not in two days. This thing has got blind alleys and switches that it would take hours to trace. Gotta cut our losses and run. Better alive and broke than rich and dead."
Voice from the third man. "Guys, we have a problem! The Geiger counter just started chattering!"
"What? The lead lining was supposed to be—"
"Well, it's not! The first bomb must have cracked it! These rocks in here are shifting!"
"Pack it up." There was resignation but no hesitancy. "We write it off. We'll tell the FBI guys that we have to go call in our own Bomb Squad and that we're going to wait in some place air-conditioned." Pause. "Don't mention the Geiger counter. We may need that to keep 'em busy, later."
"Think they'll buy it?"
"Three of us, two of them. Don't worry about it. Just get to the truck where we have the rifles. Don't let them stop you. Got it?"
Inside the camper Don went into nervous action. "Colby? Tell me you rigged a little Geiger counter surprise for our friends, just to hurry them along."
"Wish I could, boss. Maybe their Geiger counter is screwy. There wasn't any radiation on the machine that I brought out with us just an hour ago. I'll haul ours out and check again."
"Make it fast," Don warned. "It's going down as we speak. Grab your gear, everyone. Charlie? Charlie!" He shook his brother's shoulder.
"Ow! What?" The headphones slid off, and Charlie looked up in annoyance.
"Down on the floor, buddy. There are going to be bullets flying in about two minutes."
"Oh." Charlie looked half-unhappy and half-worried. "The floor."
"Yeah." Don took him under the shoulder—the good one—and helped his brother ease himself down to the floor, taking the laptop with him. But Don handed Charlie a flak jacket. "Put this on. Just in case a ricochet comes through the window."
"Okay." Not half-unhappy any more. Completely miserable. But Charlie slipped the jacket on.
He started to replace the headphones that allowed him to concentrate, but Don stopped him. "When the bullets start flying, I want you flat," Don warned. "I don't care how close you are to a solution. Flat. Hear me?"
Charlie nodded. Resigned. Scared. "Be careful, Don."
"Hey, that's my middle name."
But Don was already out of the camper, following the rest of his team.
The four FBI agents took positions around the mine entrance, carefully taking advantage of the natural protection in the form of boulders. Colby put himself behind the truck. And they waited.
The redhead was the first out of the mine. He glanced around, carefully casual, and knew instantly what was going on. The FBI guards had disappeared. That was the only clue that he needed.
"FBI!" Don yelled. "Come out with your hands in the air!"
There may have been rifles in the truck, but the trio inside the mine weren't empty handed. Don ducked back; a bullet from a handgun chipped a bright and shiny new divot in the boulder he was hunched behind. The three AE people, clearly revealed as the fakes that they were, darted back inside the mine. Don peered around his boulder, trying to spot them.
"We've got you penned up," he shouted at them. "Don't be stupid! We can keep you there until you rot!"
The redhead pulled off the wig, revealing medium brown hair beneath. It was too hot to keep it on any longer. Yup, it was Tanner. Don felt no sense of satisfaction at being right.
"You can't keep us in here," Tanner yelled back. "You're in as much danger as we are. The uranium is leaking like a sieve."
Don went for his radio, clipped to his shoulder. "Colby? Tell me that you rigged that up as a treat for our suspects, to hurry them along."
"Sorry, boss. Wish I could. I think it's the real thing. My Geiger counter just started hollerin', too."
"Then we're dealing with a hot zone. Damn." That was more than a little scary, and not something that Don had planned on. The uranium was supposed to stay nice and quiet behind its lead lining, not leaking radiation into the surrounding rocks and men. "We're going to have to move fast, people, if we don't want this to blow up in our faces, no pun intended. Megan, the rest of us will open fire. Get to the camper, call the AE people and warn them. Tell them that the scene is now out of control. Find out if they have anyone who can take down a bomb. Gentlemen, on the count of three. One, two—"
No one waited for three. Don, David, and Colby threw lead as fast as they could, forcing the trio of suspects back behind the mine entrance. Megan scuttled to the camper, opening the door and throwing herself inside, dragging the door shut behind her.
"Not now, Charlie." Megan got on the long range radio.
She had the answer for Don in moments. "Don, the AE people are five minutes from here. I have them waiting away from the scene, safe. They're unarmed, and they don't have anyone with expertise in conventional bombs. And they say it will take several hours to get someone out here. They're putting the call in to their people right now."
"Dammit." Don couldn't spare the time for any really effective swearing. The radiation was just beginning, and would take time to build up to a level where it would affect civilization just a few miles away, but to prevent that from happening Don and his team would have to shut the source down now. And to get to that source, they needed Tanner and his cronies out of the way.
Three suspects versus an entire metropolis.
This is why they pay you the big bucks, Eppes. To make these kinds of decisions.
Hah. I don't get paid squat.
"Tanner!" he yelled. "Let's deal."
"We're walking out of here, Eppes. Step away from the truck. We'll leave, and you can have the uranium."
"You can walk out of here, but you keep walking. Throw out your weapons. And no truck. That stays."
"With the deposit I made on it? No way."
"You can walk out of the desert, or you can get carried in lead-lined body bags. You're a lot closer to the uranium than we are."
"Didn't take that into your calculations, did you, Eppes? Not so smart."
"Neither did you," Don called back. "What'll it be, Tanner? We won't stop you walking away, but the truck is ours. How fast can you run in the desert?"
"Fast enough that you won't catch me, Eppes. We're coming out. With our guns. One shot, and we're back in the mine and you won't get us out for days. The people of Los Angeles won't be very happy with that outcome, Eppes."
"Do it slow," Don warned. He tapped his radio. "Hold your fire, people. Priority one: we need them out of the way. We'll lose them, but we'll have a clear way into the mine."
"I can drop 'em, Don." Colby didn't want to let the suspects get away.
"And then the survivors go back inside, and we'll never flush them out. Not before the entire L.A. basin goes radioactive. Sorry, Colby. Tanner wins this round. Hold your fire. Here they come."
The trio slowly emerged, handguns ready, bunched up with the wall of the mine at their backs.
"No shots, Eppes," Tanner warned again. His head glistened with the hair gel in the sun, gel that he'd used to slick his own hair down before applying the red wig. Don didn't envy him; Tanner's head had to have been baking.
"Stay away from the camper," Don told them in return, nervously watching as the suspects tried to edge in that direction. The camper was filled with gas. It wouldn't be fast, but it would be faster than the truck, and it would contain a hostage or two. He spoke into his radio. "Megan, convince them that they don't want our transportation."
Megan heard him. The door eased open, and a long barrel pushed its way out.
The trio backed off. "We can still shoot," Tanner said.
"I know. We're compromising, Tanner. We get the mine, and you get to escape. Neither of us is happy, so hurry it up."
The suspects did, breaking into a run less than one hundred yards away from the mine. Within three minutes they were out of range entirely.
"You let them go," Colby grouched.
"Didn't hear a better idea, Colby."
"I know, boss. But it grates." Colby pursed his lips. "The bomb?"
Don was equally unhappy. "I'll have to defuse it." He started to hand his gun over to David, removing his flak jacket.
Colby disagreed. "Boss, I've got more experience with bombs than you. I'll—"
"Colby, you heard them. This thing has more wires and dead ends than anything they'd ever seen." Don carefully didn't say what they were all thinking: that this was a long shot, and that there was a better than even chance that the only way to disable this bomb was for some fool to trigger it and go up with the explosive.
Don looked up. Charlie had come to the door of the camper. "Charlie? Tell me that you…"
"I decoded it."
Charlie nodded. "And the instructions on how to disarm it."
Radiation suits, Don decided, were even more uncomfortable than flak jackets. But Don was really grateful to be wearing one at the moment.
"Don? Can you hear me?" It was Colby on the other end.
"Okay, Colby. Talk me through this. Nice and slow and, above all, be right."
"I should be in there, boss."
"We already talked about this, Colby. You understand the diagram; I don't. Tell me what to do."
Sigh. "Set up your field, Don. Lots of light. Just look the thing over, and tell me what you see."
"Lots of wires, Colby. And a little black box that they go into."
"Don't touch the box, not until I tell you."
"Let me guess: that's where the business part of the bomb is."
"You got it, Don."
It seemed like he worked for hours but later Megan would tell him that it was only twenty minutes. Twenty minutes of sweating into a hot radiation suit, twenty minutes of holding his breath each time a wire was snipped through. Twenty minutes of gently lifting the black box into the air, opening his eyes when it didn't erupt in his hands, twenty minutes of walking out and climbing over the boulders strewn across the floor of the mine where the previous explosion had tossed them. Twenty minutes of begging the mine to allow the second Eppes brother to emerge alive just as the first one did. Preferably in better condition than the first.
Don finally put the bomb down nearly half a mile farther into the desert, far enough away so that the explosion wouldn't do more than shake up the jackrabbits. Then he backed away. An AE man ran a Geiger counter in his vicinity. "Hot, but interior is safe. Take off the suit; a radiation shower is in our van."
"Thanks, but I've got a bomb to dispose of first." His hands were shaking.
David grabbed his arm. "You did it, Don. The bomb is out; AE is already climbing all over the uranium, putting it into a better container. You can relax." He grinned. "I don't have to shoot you in the back anymore."
"Gee, thanks." Don had forgotten that part of this mess. "I really appreciate it."
"Should we call in the bomb squad for that thing?" David indicated the black box sitting alone in the desert, looking remarkably innocuous for such a dangerous piece of equipment.
Don considered, then shook his head. "Blow it, David. Before it kills anyone."
David nodded, tried to hand Don the rifle. "Here. You earned it."
Don handed it back. "The way I'm shaking?" He laughed, the sound as wiped as he felt. The radiation shower, tepid against the lead-lined suit, hadn't done anything to wash away his nerves and his hands were still trembling from the left-over adrenalin. "I don't think I could hit the broad side of that mine. You do it."
"So you let him get away."
Two days hadn't improved his brother's appearance, Don decided. If anything, Charlie looked worse with the bruises doing the rainbow thing. Good thing it's a long weekend, Don thought. Hate to be the professor trying to lecture looking like that. Don shrugged. "Stuff happens," he said. "It's not like I had much choice."
It was lasagna tonight, and their father was cooking. Charlie had been taking it easy, lounging around the house instead of his usual peripatetic working in the garage. Don knew that because he himself had been a more frequent guest for the last two days. He couldn't get the image of Charlie out of his head, the image where Charlie was pinned beneath a boulder in the mine, waiting for the ceiling to finish falling in on him, coughing and babbling about Colby not being dead…
"What if I hadn't been able to decode the rest of the message in time?" Charlie demanded. "You couldn't have detonated the bomb inside the mine. The mine would have collapsed, and the radiation would have been leaking for days trying to dig it out."
"Tanner didn't know how to defuse the bomb either," Don pointed out. "No better option, Charlie."
"But you let him get away!"
"Shit happens." Don felt as tired as when he'd set the bomb down in the desert. "We'll probably never hear from him again. Guy like him, he'll retire and hide somewhere with an early retirement plan."
"That's what Rob Derrick said." Charlie looked down for a moment, then peered sideways at his brother. "He asked me if I thought you might go work for him."
"For the NSA?" Don raised his eyebrows. "You gotta be kidding, right?"
"Yeah. Said something about wanting more Eppes-style fireworks." Charlie watched his brother very closely. "Sounds like you impressed him, brother. Rob Derrick isn't easy to impress."
"Yeah, well…" Don stretched, put his arms behind his head, more to buy himself time than to ease his muscles. "Don't think so, buddy. Those twists and turns are beyond me. Give me a straight-forward crime any day." He levered himself upright, held out his hand to his brother. "C'mon. Let's go impress some lasagna."