Warning – drug references.
Disclaimer – I don't own them, I just borrowed them. Numb3rs and its characters are the property of those that created them. No copyright infringement intended. No financial reward received. All real organisations are used in a fictional sense. Original characters and the storyline are mine however.
A/N: Inspired by the recent California bushfires. Thought I'd try something a little different, a slower story with less action and more emphasis on character interactions. It will be short as well, just six chapters but I'll still squeeze in some pain for Don (can't help it!). Let me know how it goes.
"Man, it's really getting thick out there." Don observed as he stood fixing himself a coffee in the break room. The view out the window was virtually non-existent almost totally obscured by the thick blanket of brown haze that had covered Los Angeles for the last few days. The area where the smoke was coming from was completely lost to view. But it would take a rare fine day to be able to see that far anyway due the normal levels of smog in LA.
"Tell me about it." Megan grumped as she poured and rapidly downed a glass of water. A faint miasma of smoke hung about her.
Don sniffed the air. "You've been outside."
"That's why they made you team leader." Megan downed another glass of water. "Mind like a steel trap."
And hot outside too, Don deduced. "And don't you forget it, Agent Reeves."
She finally turned to face him and his mischievous smile. He'd sent her outside to try to catch up with a witness on a case that was going nowhere fast. It was all his fault, she gave him a light glare. The witness had been a bust. She'd just wasted an hour that she could have spent in the air-conditioned Los Angeles Field Office where the smoke was filtered out of the air. "And what does your brilliant detective mind tell you now, Special Agent Eppes?"
The tone from the ceiling mounted PA system interrupted them. "All agents not involved in critical operations to report to briefing rooms in five minutes. That is all."
"That we have a briefing to go to my dear Watson."
"Lead on Sherlock."
The briefing was short. The fires currently raging up in the hills above San Bernardino were out of control. Local law enforcement, forestry department and fire fighters were overwhelmed. The fires had been burning for almost a week harmlessly in unoccupied and inaccessible areas but the wind shift three days ago had blown the fire from Cedarpines Park towards the towns of Lake Arrowhead, Green Valley Lake, Running Springs and Big Bear City. It was turning into a monster, linking up with smaller spot fires that were springing up all along the ridge without warning. Other small towns were soon to be affected. Mandatory evacuation orders had been issued a day or so ago and needed to be enforced. Reinforcements were sought. LAPD were supplying as many officers as they could but due to a recent flu epidemic their numbers were already stretched painfully thin. The FBI Field Office was the next cab off the rank. Not really their line of work but the director saw it as a good public relations exercise.
Three hours later the black SUV pulled into the small parking lot outside the Green Valley Lake fire department building. The appliances were out in the field but the space was filled with vehicles. Don ended up double parking behind a forestry service truck.
Don climbed out and sucked in a lungful of high mountain air. At least that was what he wanted to do. He coughed melodramatically, waving his hand in front of his face as if that would clear the smoke. He'd thought it thick down in LA, up here it was nearly ready to carve. It was darker too, almost like an early twilight with the pall of smoke from the approaching front towering up into the sky. "Remind me again why we volunteered for this?"
Megan thumped him gently on his back to help clear his 'coughing fit'. "After all those years in New Mexico I thought you'd like a trip to the great outdoors."
"New Mexico is desert, Reeves. Not forest engulfed in wildfire." Don's reply was good natured. He was the one who had thrown their names into the recruit pile. They'd both been feeling frustrated by their current case and this was too good an opportunity to pass up, allowing them to give it a rest for a day or so. About forty agents all up had volunteered to help out. They'd been dispersed to various communities all along the ridgeline above Los Angeles.
But it was Megan who had chosen their actual assignment: Green Valley Lake, the smallest, highest altitude community on the board. The road getting up here had been ridiculous, switchback on switchback. The steepness making the engine in his SUV work hard to pull the heavy vehicle up the narrow road. Their first stop had been the gas station to refill the tank.
They walked up to the building and produced their ID to the teenager at the door. He was obviously screening those who entered. He looked at them doubtfully trying to compare the standard image of FBI agents in suits to the two agents in front of him wearing jeans and long sleeve shirts. His eyes lingered for a moment on their holstered sidearms and the badges clipped to their belts before lifting again to their faces. The boy had seen them arrive in the SUV and had noted the government tags so decided they were legit. "Wow. Real G-men." He said handing back their IDs.
"G-woman." Megan corrected, leaning closer and smiling at the archaic term. She thought he would have gone with 'fed', but what the hey, the kid must have been watching too many old movies.
"Uh, yeah." The boy stumbled seeming to be in some degree of awe. He was all of fourteen years old. "Dad, ah, the Sheriff's set up in the vehicle bay. Go right on through."
That explained why he got guard duty, Don thought. With man power running short the family of the town sheriff was just as good as the real deal. "Come on G-woman, let's go find the Sheriff."
"Sure thing, boss." Megan flashed a quick smile at the boy before they rounded the corner.
Upon reaching the vehicle bay they saw that temporary tables had been set up along with some whiteboards. A large local area map was the main focal point and was a permanent fixture on the wall opposite the door they'd just come through. Other laminated maps were stuck to the whiteboards on which one man was currently drawing some lines with a marker pen.
"Sheriff?" Don inquired as they got closer. He wasn't sure. The man was wearing a baseball cap with 'Sheriff' on the back and had a holstered pistol at his hip but was otherwise in plain clothes.
"Sheriff John Towers." The man acknowledge, turning away from the board.
They held up their badges. "FBI. I'm Don Eppes and this is my partner Megan Reeves."
"They told me we were getting help from the feds. I hope Max wasn't too excited to see you?"
"My boy on the door keeping the media at bay."
"Nah. He's a fan of the old movies I take it."
"You could say that. I wanted him to follow in my footsteps here but he has his sights set on Quantico."
"Is that a bad thing?" Megan asked, not sure what the sheriff was getting at.
"Nope." The sheriff smiled. "I was just looking forward to a third generation Sheriff. I'm sure he'd like a few minutes of your time at some point to talk about the real FBI."
"I'm sure we can manage that." Megan answered.
"So what would you like us to do?" Don asked, getting down to business.
"Have you folks had lunch yet?"
"Picked up something on the way." It was nearly 1:30 in the afternoon. If they were going to be useful today then they needed to get started.
"Okay then. How well do you know this area?"
"We don't. But if you give us a good map I'm sure we'll find our way around."
The sheriff suddenly looked a bit doubtful. "Spent much time out of the big smoke?"
"A few years in fugitive recovery. I've done my share of hiking and tracking." Don reassured the man.
"Okay. Here's a map." The sheriff decided that perhaps these feds would be okay to send out after all. He'd been worried when he'd been told he was getting some FBI agents to help out. He needed to be sure what their abilities were before he sent them out on jobs. Feds who'd spent their entire careers in the city would be useless to him. But Agent Eppes seemed matter of fact about his skills, not boastful which would have set off his alarms. Plus he'd heard about the boys in fugitive recovery, tough bunch. "You know about the mandatory evacuation notices?"
"We had a quick briefing at the Field Office."
"There are some folks up Crab Flats Road here that aren't too keen on the idea. I haven't been able to get any of my men up there yet." He traced a line on the map beside him that wound its way through the forest north of the lake and township. "What kind of vehicle have you got?"
"Chevy Suburban. Four wheel drive."
"Good. That road's not the best. I'll get you the sheets." The sheriff went to another table and sorted through a pile of papers before pulling out a set clipped together. "Here. These are all the landholders that we know of up there."
"That you know of?"
"Some of that terrain is a bit rough. Occasionally we find folks squatting in that area, so keep an eye out when you're up there."
"Sure." Don looked around. From all the vehicles parked outside he'd expected more people in the fire station. "Where is everyone?"
"All out either fighting the fire or trying to get folks to evacuate." At that moment an elderly man came in from the hall door. "All except Gene here, who is helping to keep my maps up to date."
"Gene Dixon." The man said coming over to meet them. He was wearing an old Forestry Service shirt. He noticed their looks after introductions had been made. "I retired two years ago after forty years service. I'm a bit past it to go off into the hills now, even if I do know them like the back of my hand. Where is John sending you?"
Don spread his new map out on the nearest table. He pointed out Crab Flats Road and showed Gene the list sheaf of papers. Gene spent the next five minutes going over the map and marking in pencil where each of the properties they were to visit was located.
"Then we're good to go." Don announced folding up the map.
"Take one of those bags with you." The sheriff pointed at a few large red bags stacked near the roller doors at the front of the vehicle bay. At the agent's raised eyebrow he explained. "Emergency kit. It's got water, first aid stuff, a shovel and some wool blankets. You know what to do if the fire catches you away from your vehicle?"
"Yeah. Dig a hole, wet the blanket and lay underneath it."
"First rule is don't get caught. The fire front's still a fair few miles off yet and we don't expect it here for a while yet so you shouldn't have any trouble."
"Got it." Don said as he collected a bag. "Comms?"
"Radios over there on the charger. The channel is preset so you can't go wrong."
"FBI will do."
Simple enough. "And yours?"
"Firebase. Be back in by nightfall. Those roads are hard to see in the dark and the front is expected to be a touch close for comfort about then."
Five minutes later they were turning right off the Green Valley Lake Road and onto the strangely named Crab Flats Road. They'd had to drive back out of town towards LA to reach the intersection. The road was made of dirt and twisted and turned its way up the slope away from the lake and houses. At one point they'd seen some fire fighters at work with heavy machinery to clear some firebreaks to try to protect the township.
Two hours later and they had been successful in getting the residents they'd visited to pack up and move. It seemed that the involvement of feds convinced them of the seriousness of the situation. It had been slow going however, the driveways into the properties on their list were long and in even worse condition than the road. Now they just had one more property to visit belonging to an M. Hambly. The road, for want of a better term at this point, suddenly came to a fork. "Which way?"
Megan scrutinised the map, trying to correlate their twisted route to the line drawn on the paper. "We go right." They started to turn and a marker 'NF-3N16' came into sight which matched the number printed on the map, alternating with the name Crab Flats Road.
"Firebase to FBI."
"FBI, go ahead Firebase." Megan answered.
Megan read out the road they were on and the junction they'd just passed.
"Don't worry about the Hambly place, they've arrived in town. But they just told me that they saw someone head up road MF-3N16Q on a motorbike as they were coming down. Looked like some fool camper. Can I get you to back track and take a look up there?"
"Received that." The other road meandered off further north, towards the fire front.
"About two miles up there's a track to the left not marked on your map. Go up that half a mile to a big clearing. That's the most likely spot he would have gone to."
"Received. Show us proceeding."
"Watch the conditions, FBI. The fire front is approaching that area. Once you've had a look it's time to come in. Don't take too long about it."
"Received. FBI clear."
By the time Megan put the radio down Don had completed his ten point turn murdering a sapling or two in the process. He didn't think it mattered much, they were about to be kindling anyway. The difficulty in manoeuvring the large vehicle on the narrow track just reinforced his opinion that they really didn't want to be stuck up here when the fire front came through. He'd seen Megan track their new route on the map, straight towards the fire front. Hopefully as the sun started to set and allowed the day to cool the progress of the fire would slow and give them some more time.
They headed up the other track and finally twenty minutes later he saw the spur off to the left. At the slow speed they were travelling due to the condition of the track he clearly saw the scuff mark in the dirt where the motorbike had powered through the turn. There was just the one mark, no sign that the bike had returned. Eventually they reached the clearing at the end of the spur. It was a relatively large space with an impressive rock outcropping sitting squarely in the middle.
The motorbike was parked against the rocky face. It was the best place to park, well away from the trees which would soon feed the fire. Don pulled up next to the flash red machine. It looked like it belonged to someone from LA proper, some idiot city slicker come up to watch the fire.
There was no time to waste. Don jumped out to inspect the bike and the ground around it, soon locating a trail in the dirt leading off towards the edge of the clearing. Don followed it over and went a short way into the forest. He saw some more scuff marks that gave enough of an indication to show that the man had headed down into the start of a valley. There were definitely no return tracks, but as the bike was still here that was a given.
"He's gone down through there." Don announced as he hurried back to his SUV.
"Could you see him?"
"Nah. Left a good trail though, looks like he was in a hurry to get somewhere."
Megan had opened the rear doors of the suburban to grab a mouthful of water as Don had checked the tracks. She handed him the bottle before grabbing the radio and reporting in.
"The conditions are deteriorating and the fire is generating its own wind and crowning. I'll give you half an hour. If you don't find him get back to your truck and get out of there." The sheriff instructed.
"He's definitely down there Sheriff." Megan protested.
"I'm not loosing two people to find one. That's an order, FBI."
"Received. Half an hour search only. FBI clear."
"He's right Megan. The fire's getting close." He now had to tip his head right back to see the columns of smoke that rose from the front. Don tossed the bottle aside and pulled out the red bag. It had straps like a backpack so he put it on and adjusted it so it sat snugly against his back. "Let's boogie."