A/N: Thanks for all the well wishes. My son had the H1N1 virus, but responded extremely well to the Tamiflu medication. He is now a happy bubbling picture of health. I have also taken the anti-viral medication, but I don't think I ever had the actual flu. No fevers. I think I was just run down. In any case we are both doing well and we appreciate your patience.
I also want to thank those readers who jumped to my defense against a flamer. Unfortunately there will always be people like Jitendra Pankajakshan and dark angel in this world. She isn't the first nor will she be the last. She did, however, brilliantly demonstrate the main point of this story and how utterly pointless cruelty and intolerance can effect the world around you, although I'm pretty sure that was not her intention.
Don arrived at the office and immediately asked David to pull up any footage they had on the area where Pankajakshan disappeared. The only footage they had gotten thus far was problematic due to the tanker explosion. It was such a huge explosion with its main force going straight up, it nearly knocked the helicopter out as the bird tried to keep the van in sight. The helicopter had to pull back and move away from the tanker as a blistering shock wave of heat rocketed into the sky. As it was, the camera mounted to the undercarriage of the bird was damaged, which meant landing the helicopter and switching out the camera with a spare that was stored on board. The entire process took just over half an hour.
Don was stunned by the feed coming in. "This guy caused a plane crash and blew up a tanker just so he could get away? That is definitely a terrorist mentality. How many were hurt out there today, David?"
David was on the phone with Noah Sargent and held up a finger before he could answer Don. "Agent Sargent, can you give me a casualty count?" There was a pause, then David said, "I hear you. I'll keep the line open, so let me know what's happening as you get intel. We're getting live feed from the bird now. Yeah, okay, keep me informed."
David disconnected the call and looked up at Don. "So far we only have one casualty reported, Don; a local police officer's cruiser was literally sliced in half by a flying propeller blade. The officer is in bad shape but he is alive."
Don looked shocked as he viewed the devastation on the screen, but David continued. "We don't know about any of the passengers or crew on the plane yet. The fire department is still working on the fire so that they can get close enough to the plane to get the passengers off. The tanker explosion blew out all the windows on the left side of the aircraft and we have to assume that we will have more casualties as we get to those people."
Don looked at the helicopter footage on the plasma screen in the war room. The bird was flying low over the park and had come across the charred remains of the van. He knew this park very well and asked David to put up a topical map of the area. After studying it for a few minutes he pointed out the delta area and river bed.
"Pankajakshan is not familiar with the park, but he has spent a lot of time in this kind of terrain considering his background with the Abu Nidel. We need to catch this guy before nightfall, because if we don't we are gonna loose him. If I were him I'd head for the river bed. It heads north up into the hills of the park..." Don trailed off as he looked more closely at the map and then at the live feed.
The helicopter had already chosen to work its way up the main riverbed and Don noticed the small tributary leading off to the Northwest. "If it were me, I'd head this way." Don said, as he stepped up to the screen and pointed to the smaller tributary. "There is more cover from the steep craggy banks along this tributary than along the main riverbed and it still leads up into the north end of the park. If he went this way we may catch a break."
David moved in closer to see where Don had indicated. "Why?"
"This tributary leads directly into Box Canyon. There are only two ways out of that canyon - a service road to the northeast of the canyon and the riverbed leading into it, but it is also an excellent hiding place. The canyon walls are steep and filled with recessed caves. The walls are too high and dangerous to climb out without exposing yourself to aerial pursuit, but some of the cave systems in this canyon go on for miles. He could easily get lost in there. Have a contingent of men get to the service road and set up a blockade there and get that helicopter to circle back and search along the riverbed."
Colby and Megan approached Nelson Hibbard's home cautiously. They knew that Pankajakshan wasn't there, but they followed protocol just the same. A terrorist with experience in a faction of the Abu Nidel could easily have left behind booby traps as Colby knew all too well. The garage was their point of entry. There was no vehicle naturally but it was clear by the tire marks and mud on the floor that one had been parked there recently.
Penny Arbonne had insisted that Mr. Hibbard should be home considering he didn't ever go out anymore, so as the agents entered the home they called out to the elderly man hoping against hope that he was alive and simply tied up somewhere inside the house. As they entered through the kitchen they were immediately assaulted by the smell. Moving quickly through the kitchen and into the dining room they first saw surveillance equipment, specifically a radio receiver, on the table. When they moved into the dining room next to the front living room they found Mr. Hibbard lying on the floor in the living room. A cane was also on the floor tangled up in his feet and to all appearances it looked as though the old man had tripped over his cane and fallen, hitting his head on the coffee table, but the agents knew better.
Colby flipped open his phone and contacted the office to give them an update and to get the FBI crime lab techs out and on-scene. Once he had briefed David about the situation he stepped over to the receiver and flipped a switch and listened. There was no sound coming through but that wasn't surprising.
"Megan how much you wanna' bet that the transmitter to this is somewhere in the Eppes house?"
Megan shook her head, "I won't take that bet. I have a key so stay here and I'll head over there."
Colby looked a little dismayed by that decision. "Oh sure, you get go to the clean odor-free house while I stay here? I'll flip you for the duty."
"Not a chance, Granger!" She said with a wrinkled nose as she headed quickly for the door.
Colby moved into the living room and looked sadly at the old man. "I'm sorry you ended this way old timer. It wasn't what you , or anyone, deserved."
He moved off to the window and opened it up wide to try and air out the smell a little before going back to the table with the receiver on it. Within moments he heard the sounds of Megan entering the Eppes home. "Okay, Colby let's see if you can hear me."
A second later his cell phone rang on his belt and he answered. "Hey, Megan, yeah I heard you go in. Keep talking as you walk around and I'll tell you if you get louder."
Megan walked slowly through the living room speaking in a normal tone of voice. I don't see anything out of place here in the living room, but a bug could have been placed anywhere. The question is; how did he get it into the house unnoticed?" Megan's voice began to fade slightly as he looked under lamp shades and around the edges of the pictures on the wall near the bay window.
"Megan you are fading a little. I can still hear you but I think you are moving away from the transmitter." Colby said, into the phone.
"Okay I'm moving toward the base of the stairs and closer to the dining room. How am I coming in now?"
"Your stronger now. You must be moving toward the transmitter. Keep talking."
Megan looked around wondering what the bug could be in. There were a million different hiding places that it could be in and she wished that the tech guys were here so that she could use a bug sweeper to locate the transmitter quickly.
"You know Granger, this place has been under constant surveillance since Amita was attacked. I don't think that Pankajakshan could have gotten in here to plant a bug. It must be something that was delivered, but no deliveries have been made since then either. Even for the BBQ, nothing new was introduced or delivered to the house. Let me try the kitchen." she said, as she moved over to the swinging door.
As soon as she moved through the door her voice dropped to a muted sound on the receiver and Colby spoke into the phone. "No. Megan go back. It must be in the dining room."
Megan came back through the door and into the dinning room. "Okay can you hear me now?"
Colby resisted the sarcastic retort that automatically formed on his lips at that question.
"Yeah nice and clear. What do you see in front of you?"
Megan looked around. There was an old maple hutch filled with china to her right. The staircase to the left. In front of her was the dining room table with books and papers scattered across the left end of the table. A vase of flowers that Amita's students had sent her was in the middle of the table and a wooden bowl set that had been moved from the hutch sat on the right end of the table.
"The flowers! That must be it. Larry brought the flowers from Cal Sci a few days ago."
Colby pulled the phone away from his ear and looked at it as though it had grown testicles. "What! Megan you said Larry brought the flowers over. You're not accusing, Larry..."
"No, of course not, Granger!" Megan replied, in an irritated voice. "Hang on a second."
Megan put her phone on speaker and set it down as she reached for the vase. "Larry found the vase of flowers on Amita's desk when he went in to teach her class. There was a card that all of her students had signed and he brought it back here with him. He never thought twice about who actually purchased them..."
Megan had been looking through the flowers in the vase trying to find the transmitter nestled into the bouquet as she spoke.
"Well you are coming through on the receiver loud and clear now." Colby said, into his own phone.
As soon as Megan actually lifted the vase up off the table Colby heard the sound of her hands touching the ceramic of the vase and the clink of her ring along it's surface.
"Yeah, Megan, you're right. I can hear you picking up the vase."
Megan ran her fingers along the surface of the slender neck of the vase up to the overhanging lip. In a moment she found the bug. "Got it!" she called, triumphantly.
Megan set the vase back down on the table not moving the transmitter at all. That would be up to the evidence techs to collect and process. It didn't matter that she had left fingerprints on the vase because everyone who had touched it had. The important thing was for her not to touch or interfere with the planted transmitter.
"Okay, so now we know how this guy has been one step ahead of us the whole time. I'm on my way back to you. Call David, and tell him what we found."
Colby was glad to be able to leave Mr. Hibbard's house. He felt badly for the old man and didn't want to disrespect him, but the stench was powerful. Mr. Hibbard had obviously been dead for a few days, and Colby was glad to have a reason to step out into the bright sun and fresh air.
Don sank down in a chair in the war room, stunned by the news that Pankajakshan had murdered Nelson Hibbard.
"Charlie and I were just talking about him last night. We planned to go and see him after this was all over, because we had lost touch with him over the years. He was a decent man, David. He didn't deserve to have his home invaded or to be murdered out of convenience! Jitendra Pankajakshan has no conscience, which makes him the most dangerous kind of fugitive. He won't even bat an eye at killing his way through FBI agents or local law enforcement. He has nothing to loose. We can tie him to two murders and two attempted murders – so far. Has the fire department been able to rescue any survivors from the plane yet?"
David had been receiving regular updates from Noah Sargent as to the progress of the disaster out at Chiriaco airport.
"The pilot is dead, but the co-pilot is alive. Several people were injured when the windows blew out on the plane but so far no one has died among the passengers."
Don shook his head and got up. He moved over to the map of the Joshua Tree National park and looked at it then to the live feed from the helicopter running pursuit up the main riverbed.
"Where are they now?" he asked, indicating the helicopter search.
David pointed to the map to show Don how far up the riverbed the helicopter had flown as of his last report two minutes ago. The helicopter had flown low over the river bed nearly five miles up without a sign of their fugitive.
"No. There is no way Pankajakshan could have gotten that far. Have them back track and check this side tributary. They'll have to get even lower to spot him if he is there due to the overhanging banks. Have them look for any signs of shale dropping down the sides. His passage through here won't be invisible. We need to corner this guy before he makes it into the cave systems in Box Canyon. He won't escape but it could cost countless lives to go in after him."
David stood thoughtfully for a moment then looked back at the map on the screen. "If you think he is headed to Box Canyon then why not get there first and set up an ambush?"
"Yeah, that's a great idea IF that is where he is going, but what if I'm wrong? If we allocate our resources to that plan and he is elsewhere then he gets away - again."
David realized that Don had a valid point but in the years that he had known Don he had come to trust his instincts. The man was rarely wrong. The bottom line here was what was he willing to risk. He was in charge of this maneuver, what ever decision he made rested on his shoulders alone. After another moment of thought he dialed Noah Sargent.
"Recall the helicopter. Get as many agents as possible on board and head directly to Box Canyon. The priority goes to sharp shooters. Get an ambush set up. We think he is headed up the left tributary off the main riverbed that heads directly into the canyon. Keep the local teams working up the main riverbed as well. They will know the area better than we do. Let me know when you're set up."
David hung up the phone and Don was looking at him with an appraising eye. "You're taking a chance with this David, you know that."
David's mind was made up and he wouldn't change it at this point. "Yeah, I know, but that's my call. I'll take the heat if he gets away."
Don sat back hoping that David wasn't making a huge mistake by trusting his instincts, but he completely respected the man for taking the role of leadership and shouldering the consequences if he made a bad decision. David would make an excellent squad leader, and he filed that nugget away for the future.
A/N: Just one more note to say that Fraidycat has faithfully beta read this document right from the beginning. I want to thank her for her patience and perseverance. It must be difficult to beta for someone who has lost her muse – but she hasn't given up on me. Thanks, Cat.