"Eppes. Wait up."
Don turned at the sound of his name, David and Colby turning with him. An older man was striding toward them, trench coat flapping behind. Don swiftly sized him up: not particularly tall, features unremarkable. This was a man built to fade into a crowd, someone to be dismissed as a mid-level manager trying very hard to hang onto his job during the economic fall-out.
Don was not taken in. There were many people who knew his name, knew that he was in D.C., and most of them had just finished listening to Don make a fool of himself on stage a mere couple of hours ago. It didn't matter that both David and Colby insisted that he'd done fine. Don knew better. He knew that he'd screwed up the directions on that one slide. How could he have said 'east' when it was 'north'? He was a blithering idiot.
The FBI agents in the crowd, however, had dispersed quickly, heading for home and a quiet hour or two before turning in. Don, David, and Colby had tried a local bar or two, found them singularly unappealing, and had finished up their evening in the hotel lobby, Don brooding over his mistake. They had just been ready to head upstairs to their rooms when the man walked in and scanned the lobby.
"Special Agent Don Eppes?"
That narrowed it down for Don. Only FBI types knew that he was here, let alone how to find him. Don acknowledged the identification. "Yes?" Who wants to know?
The man pulled out his own identification, and the FBI badge gleamed in the muted lobby lighting. "Special Agent Tobias Fornell. I've been looking for you."
Fornell? That name rang bells, and from the looks of things, both David and Colby also recognized the name. The man was almost a living legend in the FBI, known for accomplishing a few minor miracles. The only reason why the guy wasn't running the whole department, it was said, was because he had a hard time dealing with idiots. Don could sympathize; he too disliked the political maneuvering that went on in the upper levels of administration.
On the other hand, this was D.C. Dealing with politicians was the name of the game. And why was Fornell looking for one Special Agent Don Eppes? The tone of Fornell's voice wasn't the gee, I wanted to ask for your autograph sort of sound.
Still, Don and his team were guests in this town. Don kept his own tone polite. "How can I help you, Agent Fornell?"
Fornell didn't beat around the bush. "You've heard that there's a stray message floating around."
"I heard something of the sort." Don didn't say that it had been the main topic of conversation, interspersed with the usual congratulatory comments that he'd received after his lecture. He'd been grateful at the time; it meant that most of the agents in the audience had their attention split, so that they weren't paying as much attention to him as they normally would. The 'message' was actually something in code, something about bin Laden's whereabouts maybe, or something getting smuggled into the country. Scuttlebutt had it that both sides wanted it: the U.S. so that they could send a smart bomb with bin Laden's name on it, and bin Laden so that he could determine just who was coordinating his travel itinerary with the infidels. That was assuming that it really did contain a location; the other story was that it was a recipe for hummus that bin Laden sent just to watch all of D.C. run around like chickens with their heads cut off. Really funny.
"The whole D.C. team's on alert," Fornell continued. "I got people at headquarters surfing the 'net and tracking phone calls. We need it back, Eppes."
It sounded like Fornell was leading up to something, but for the life of him, Don couldn't figure out what. D.C. had plenty of people, plenty of high talent worker bees. They didn't need Don and his team, and certainly not at this hour of the night. Good as they were, three people weren't going to make the difference.
As much as he didn't like them, Don still knew the rules of polite agency behavior. He stifled a yawn, hoping that his breath didn't stink from his last beer, and asked, "how can we help?"
Okay, so Colby didn't actually groan in dismay. Fornell returned a tight little smile, acknowledging the self-control showed by the Los Angeles department. "You've got a reputation, Eppes, for the innovative use of consultants, guys that other cities wouldn't consider let alone hire. I hear your math guy is in town." Fornell took a breath. "We need 'im, Eppes. We got nothing, and we may be looking at something big. Call him in."
Just like that. Call him. At something close to midnight, this Fornell guy wanted Don to call Charlie away from the academic equivalent of DisneyWorld to find a needle in a haystack. Was this how Fornell had gotten his reputation, by pushing everyone else into doing his bidding? Don would have thought that the man could do better, considering his record.
Fornell wasn't going to take 'no' for an answer. Don could see that. Any objections, and Fornell was ready to push the 'national security' crap buttons. Don briefly wondered whether or not to push back, what the consequences might be for the L.A. office. He sighed: might as well get this over with. With luck, Charlie would say no. With even more luck, Charlie would be so engrossed in his post-lecture debates with colleagues that he wouldn't even realize that his cell was calling. Then they could all go back to the City of Angels with a clear conscience and let the D.C. chickens run around in circles, squawking about whatever. D.C. had fixed problems like this in the past, and they could do it again, all without the help of the Los Angeles folks and their consultants.
Don stifled the second sigh, and pulled out his cell. Speed dial four went to Charlie, and he listened to the ringing on the other end, actually relieved when the call went to voicemail. "Hey, Chuck, it's me. Call me ASAP, okay? My D.C. connections have a question for you." There. That ought to be sufficiently vague that no one could accuse him of leaking information, yet still let Charlie know that this would be official. Don turned back to Fornell. "Not picking up. Give me your card; I'll let him know what the story is tomorrow when I pick him up. I'll see if I can persuade him to take a look."
Fornell shook his head. "Not good enough, Eppes. This thing is going down now." He looked away, coming to a decision. "I'm temporarily attaching you to the D.C. office, Eppes. As of now, the three of you are on the clock."
"Hey, wait a minute," Colby protested. "You can't do that!"
"I just did, Agent Granger," Fornell told him, proving that he'd done his homework. Fornell knew exactly who he was dealing with, every name of each agent on Don's team and their special talents and skills down to the mole on Don's ass. "You can pick up your overtime pay on the way back to L.A. when this thing is over. Like I said: this thing is big. Now, where's this math thing that your brother is doing? Is he still there?"
"I don't know." Don was very glad that he didn't have the answer. It helped to salve his annoyance. "This is pretty high-handed of you, Fornell—"
"You're right; it is, and I'll apologize later, after we get the code back into safe hands," Fornell broke in. "My car is out front. Where is your brother doing his thing?"
"Gibbs? Any word?"
"Chatter's getting hot and heavy. Everybody's getting called in."
"I'll be there in ten minutes."
"I already got hold of DiNozzo. You heard from McGee? He's not picking up."
"That's not like him," the Mossad officer observed. "Tony, I would expect to try to dodge your call, but not McGee. Perhaps his phone is in a dead area?"
"Possibly. Try him on your way in. Tell McGee to get his butt in here like the rest of us."
Fornell was finally forced to use the flashing strobe that he carried in the back seat of his car to get through the mass of vehicles. The conference center, surrounded by hotels, was only mildly busy despite being a Friday night. Don was reluctantly impressed by the man's driving abilities, Fornell edging the car forward as if he intended to knock people down if they didn't get out of the street and out of his way. Fornell flashed his badge at the rent-a-cop outside. "FBI. Where's the math conference being held?"
"What math conference?"
"The one where a guy named Eppes was speaking. It started at seven, in one of the conference halls."
"Beats me. We had three conferences going on. The last one's just letting out. You want me to call somebody?"
"Yes, I want you to call somebody," Fornell growled. "I want you to call somebody who knows where the hell the math conference was held."
Which is how they found out that the math conference, sponsored by Intro-verse, Inc., and co-hosted by GW University (both names in large letters overshadowing all the lecturers and the topic of the conference), was in Conference Area Number Three, an area so small that no donors had tried to purchase the rights to have the area named after them as yet. Fornell tossed a glance at Don.
Don shrugged. "It's not as though he's lecturing about 'The Attraction Equation'," he offered.
"Right. Would have been a mob scene." Proving yet again that Special Agent Fornell had a lot more going on upstairs than he cared to let on. Don was willing to bet that Fornell had an equally thick mental file about one Charles Eppes as he did on Don or any or his team.
Fornell pulled his car into one of the slots designated for VIPs near the main entrance, and tossed an FBI sign onto the front dash. He caught Colby's eye. "Around here, Agent Granger, this qualifies as VIP." With that cryptic remark, he led the way into the Conference Center, pushing his way upstream through the lessening crowd.
He cornered the kid at the information kiosk, in the center of the lobby, and flashed his shield. "The math conference. Which way is it?"
This one was clearly a student at one of the local universities, earning her spending money for college. She returned Fornell's shield flash with a brilliant flash of her own, this one with teeth straightened with Mummy and Daddy's money. "And which math conference would that be, sir?"
Don broke in, before Fornell could break some of those teeth. "Conference Area Three. Where is it?" As if there was more than one math conference going on at any time in the known universe? I doubt it.
"Ah." Another picture-perfect smile from Kiosk Barbie. "Conference Area Three is in the north wing of the Conference Center. Follow the blue corridor, not the yellow, and keep to the right at all times in order to allow exiting patrons to exit."
"Thanks," Fornell growled, not meaning it in the slightest, leading them in the direction of the blue corridor, not the yellow, but failing to keep to the right at all times.
Colby leaned in to David. "And they think that people in L.A. are looney-toons."
They found Conference Area Three. The lecture hall still boasted a neon sign with letters marching across the banner stating 'Intro-verse, Inc.' and 'GW University' but not giving any hint that a lecture on higher level mathematics had taken place inside. The lecture hall itself was dim, and all the lecturers and listeners had long since departed. The only two people left were the janitors, sweeping up after the crowd.
That didn't stop Fornell. "You," he called, pointing at one janitor and holding up his badge. "Talk to me. Is this where the math guys were lecturing?"
Both of the janitors looked nervously. They looked at each other. One said something incomprehensible to the other.
Fornell sighed, and pulled out his cell. He dialed a well-known number. "Baker? Fornell. Get me Sergei. Sergei, yeah, it's me. Listen, I got a couple of guys here. I need to know where the—that's right." He handed his cell over to the janitor. "Listen," he instructed them, forgetting that the English word wouldn't mean anything to the pair.
It didn't matter. The one with Fornell's phone looked puzzled for a moment, spoke a few words, then let a voluble torrent flood forth. There was a little more give and take, and then the janitor handed the cell back to Fornell. Fornell listened briefly. "Thanks, Sergei." He closed up the cell. "This way," he told his newly-hired team.
David caught up to him. "What was that? They weren't speaking Russian."
"Nope. Azerbaijani." At David's not quite believing stare, Fornell added, "this is D.C., Sinclair. You think we play around? I got experts on about three hundred different languages on the other end of my phone, and believe me, I need 'em."
"I," DiNozzo grumbled, "was not meant to sit in front of a computer, tracking signals. Where's McGee? He likes this sort of stuff."
"I don't know, DiNozzo." Gibbs's voice had that dangerous quality to it, the note that said that he was more than displeased and that if he couldn't taken it out on the person who had displeased him then he would be more than happy to slap DiNozzo upside the head as a less than adequate substitute. "Suppose you try to find him."
DiNozzo hastily tried to deflect the coming retribution. "Been doing that, boss. No answer on his cell. No answer at his home. Want me to put out an APB, boss? I'm on that screen right now."
"No, DiNozzo, I do not. I told McGee to keep his cell close at hand. I want you to keep your butt in that chair and monitor the chatter."
"Right, boss." DiNozzo turned his attention back to the computer in front of him. "We have here a call from Benny the Snitch to the Chinese Embassy. Now, what would Benny be calling the Chinese Embassy for? Why do I not think that he's calling for take-out?"
Ziva held up her hand for quiet, listening carefully to the voices coming over her headset. "Hush, Tony. This is important."
DiNozzo shut up instantly, Gibbs rising to loom over her.
Ziva put the call on loudspeaker, though the words coming through meant nothing to either Gibbs or DiNozzo. Ziva started whispering over the conversation, translating on the fly, the digital recorder picking up the call for later, more intensive translation. "Five million U.S. dollars is the opening bid. Alternately, a maintenance fee of one million per year for services ongoing, with results going to all who contract with them—damn, I don't know who 'they' are—contracts are verbal, monies going to Banc Suisse…that's all," she finished.
"Who was that?" Gibbs asked.
"The call came in from Yuri Schinoff. My people have long suspected him of international gun-running, but as long as we know about him and he stays little time, we allow him to continue."
"Small time, Ziva. It means unimportant."
"I know what it means, Tony, and Schinoff is indeed little time. He is useful to us because he is careless in his dealings. Until the day that his carelessness gets him killed, my people will continue to monitor his conversations. Such as this one." She indicated the technological set up on her desk that had finished recording the phone call. "I do not know to whom Schinoff made the call. The time spent was too short to trace." She tossed an annoyed glance toward the empty desk to her left. "And McGee was not here," she added, implying that the outcome might have been different had that problem been rectified.
"What was that about a 'maintenance fee'?" Gibbs wanted to know.
"Schinoff was not clear. It appears that someone in this country wishes to open a service to the intelligence community by offering to slice and dice any code. One gains access by paying a maintenance fee, and then receives a certain number of low-level deciphered codes plus the ability to purchase additional code-breakings."
DiNozzo whistled. "Wow. Somebody's come up with a new work-at-home business: Code-Breakers R Us."
"More than that, DiNozzo. There aren't too many people in the world who could do that sort of code-breaking." Gibbs had moved on to the next step. "That requires some heavy duty computer tools and, more important, some top notch talent. That will narrow down the players."
"What code-breakers have recently left their country of origin?" Ziva followed along the same path. "None from Israel. Syria and Lebanon have none worth the effort. Russia and the Ukraine do, but none are known to have left their homes. Our people keep a close eye on them."
"Possibly, but they typically watch their own talents too carefully for any to try to defect," Ziva thought.
"The CIA should have more information on that," Gibbs told them. "DiNozzo, notify CenCom. Tell 'em that we're going to investigate. Get your gear." He halted, tossing a glare toward the empty seat in the far corner of the bull pen. "And give McGee another call. Tell him to get his ass in here now."
DiNozzo and Ziva exchanged a sympathetic glance. Neither one wanted to be in McGee's shoes when the boss finally got hold of the errant NCIS agent.
Don, his team, and Fornell walked swiftly toward the salon in the adjoining hotel to the Conference Center. The corridor switched from utilitarian linoleum to a plush carpeting, and large windows lined the walls allowing the pedestrians to look out over the night lights of D.C. in air-conditioned comfort. They used the enclosed bridge to cross over the three lane highway masquerading as a parking lot from the conference center to the hotel, the exiting patrons of Conference Areas One and Two pouring out slow as cold molasses flowing uphill. Don knew intellectually that there were some patrons of Conference Area Three from Charlie's lecture in the crowd, but the numbers were somewhere in the range of one percent. Charlie would be able to estimate the percentage at a moment's notice, but that wasn't why they were after his brother. Fornell had more important ideas in mind.
Come to think of it, what did Fornell have in mind? Don caught up with the smaller FBI agent, stretching his legs to keep up. "Just what do you think that Charlie can do, Fornell?"
Fornell didn't miss a step. "Good question, Eppes. What do you think?"
"You're the one asking for his help, Fornell. You haven't even filled in me or my team on this. You're just dragging us along."
"You're right, Eppes, but you're probably better off not knowing. This is D.C., Eppes. This is big time. This isn't Hollywood movie stars OD'ing on crack."
"We get our share, Fornell." Don couldn't help the warning note in his voice. "And we work better when we're not kept in the dark. You're the one who dragged us back on duty."
This time Fornell did deign to toss a glance in Don's direction. He kept his voice low. "We think that the missing code details where to pick up something that will make nine eleven look like a kiddy brawl in a sandbox, Eppes. We know that it's from bin Laden—or at least, from some of his people—and we know that it's coming into this area. Once we find it, the NSA can crack it with their people and we can intercept. Nobody will know how close we're coming to a national disaster except for the President and a few key members of Congress."
"Charlie consults for the NSA," Colby observed.
"Right. That's not why I want him," Fornell said. "In order for the NSA to crack the code, we have to get our hands on it. We've got too many directions to go, children. We need to narrow down our search."
"Which is where Charlie comes in," David nodded.
They entered the hotel itself, the lobby almost empty. There was a dark and crowded bar off to one side, lonely businessmen and women trying to fill an empty spot in life. Don passed it by; not where they'd find Charlie.
"Over there." Fornell pointed to a set of double doors, a doorman standing with another man, arguing. None could hear what they were saying over the distance.
There was something familiar about the man arguing with the doorman, Don realized. He looked like…He sort of looked like…
Geek, but without Charlie's mop of dark curls. After the fuss that Charlie had made a few years ago, Don had taken a few minutes to track down information about Charlie's rival. The two math whizzes had been classmates, and Charlie on more than one occasion had noted—at the top of his lungs—that he disagreed with Penfield, that Penfield embodied all the character traits that Charlie despised, and that if he never saw Professor Penfield again it would be too soon. Don had simply hidden a smile and gone about his business, certain that an opportunity to tease his younger brother would eventually arise.
Tempting, but this was not that opportunity. Don very much doubted that Special Agent Fornell would appreciate the humor that Don would bring to the table.
Penfield looked down his nose at Don, using his spectacles to his best advantage. "Do I know you?"
Come to think of it, that was the way that Don had met Charlie's rival the first time, too. Getting offended was not the way to advance his own objectives. Don ignored the challenge, and offered his hand. "Don Eppes. Charlie's brother."
"Ah. The FBI agent." Penfield turned back to his own dilemma, ignoring Don's effort to be polite. "I mislaid my ID from the conference. Tell this man that I am expected inside."
"Sorry, sir. Only people on the guest list are invited. You don't have proper identification."
Something was wrong, something beyond the typical nervousness that most people showed when approached by members of law enforcement. Everyone felt guilty over something, that Don knew, but this was setting all of Don's nerves on edge. The doorman smelled of guilt.
He flashed his badge. "FBI. We need to go in there."
The doorman tried. "Sir, I was told to keep everyone out. Everyone, sir."
More wrong signals flashed forth. Why wasn't Penfield being allowed inside? Even without a conference ID, he should have been on the guest list. Why was the doorman sweating? Why didn't Don hear voices coming from inside? Knowing Charlie, there would be some heated discussions happening inside, with his brother in the thick of it.
Something was happening. Something bad.
Fornell felt the same thing. His gun appeared in his hand, and David and Colby followed suit. "Hold him," he instructed David. "Eppes?"
Don placed himself along the edge of the door. This quiet, there was always the possibility of something lethal being fired through the door as it opened. "On three. One. Two. Three—" He shoved the door open with his foot.
"FBI!" Fornell snarled, advancing, gun in both fists.
It wasn't what they had expected. At first glance, it looked like the end of an orgy. There were sleeping bodies all over the room, glasses falling onto their sides and long since spilling the contents onto the carpet. Not too long ago—all of the wet spots were still soggy. Nothing had had a chance to evaporate. The bodies too had fallen over themselves, some onto the wet carpet.
Fornell spoke first. "What the hell—?"
Don knelt, and peeled back the eyelid of one of the sleepers. "Drugged," he diagnosed swiftly.
"All of them," Colby agreed, checking another of the sleeping bodies.
"Charlie?" Don scanned the room, aware that Fornell was doing the same thing. "Charlie?" None of the bodies belonged to his brother. "Where is he? Why isn't he here?"
"Could he have left before this happened?" Fornell asked.
David dragged the doorman inside the salon. "Talk," he demanded. "What happened?"
The doorman was openly sweating now. "I swear, I don't know, man. They just told me not to let anyone else in. I swear!"
"Who told you?" David snarled. "Buddy, you are in big trouble right about now. I'd start spilling my guts, if I were you."
Dr. Penfield poked his head inside the salon, and his eyes grew large. "Good lord!" His gaze roamed over the various bodies. "Heavens! Dr. Boen-Tylock! Professor Parker! What was going on in here?"
"Stay out," Don ordered. "We have a crime scene in here. Don't touch anything, Penfield." He turned to Granger. "Colby, call for emergency response. We'll need to get these people to a hospital."
"This is terrible!" Penfield babbled. "What's wrong with them? What happened?"
Colby pushed by him. "Go sit in the lobby, Dr. Penfield," he instructed the math professor. "We'll get to you in a moment. Don't go anywhere."
"Good heavens, man, you can't think that I'm involved!"
"We'll get to you in a moment," Don repeated Colby's words, turning back to the doorman. He loomed over the man. "Listen to me very closely, because I'm only going to say this once. This is a national security matter, which means that if you're involved with this, they're going to try you for treason. That means that you're going to be executed for this. Got it?"
Right move. Don's gut had been dead on. The man broke in front of them.
The story wasn't complex. The man was out of work, desperate to earn some cash by working as a doorman while he looked for something along the lines of his old job in the financial sector. A man had come along and offered him one thousand dollars to make sure that no one else entered the salon after all the guests had been let in. It was what he was supposed to do, the doorman told the FBI agents, so he'd accepted; if a crazy man offers money to do what you'd do anyway, take the cash and run. The doorman had carefully checked off all of the invited guests, then turned the list over to the man who had walked away and disappeared into the elevator. It wasn't as though there was anything important going on inside, just a bunch of math teachers getting together for drinks and pi. It wasn't supposed to involve National Security! It was just a quiet party with a bunch of stuffy math teachers! After the man had disappeared into the elevator, it had been even quieter, then he'd let in four additional businessmen who hadn't been on his list. The doorman was almost in tears.
"We need another copy of the list," Fornell realized. "We need to see who's missing besides your brother, Eppes."
It hit Don with all the delicacy of a tsunami. Charlie was missing! His brother was gone. His brother was not among the snoring, sleeping mathematicians whose post-lecture debate had been so rudely interrupted by spiked liquor. He had known the fact, but when Fornell said it… Don grabbed at a straw. "Maybe he wasn't here, for some reason. Somebody check the bar. The men's room, maybe."
"Maybe." Fornell's face showed what he thought of that.
"Got a copy of the list right here, Don." Colby handed it over. "Got it from the front desk."
Don shoved it under the doorman's nose. "Who was here? Who didn't show up? What about a guy who looked pretty young compared to the others, dark curly hair and brown eyes? Did you see him?"
The doorman's nose was red and his eyes blotchy. He didn't need to look at the sheet of paper. "They were all here. I checked off all of the names."
"Not mine," Penfield piped up from his seat nearby. "I didn't get in."
"Look, Don." Colby pointed to the list. "Penfield's name is right here, clear as day. Somebody went in, posing as Penfield. Maybe that's why his ID was missing. Somebody pinched it off him. That could have been the person who spiked the drinks."
"Maybe." It was a possibility. "Count the people who are here; quick, before the ambulances arrive to cart them away. How many are missing? Besides Charlie, I mean."
Fornell did a head count. "Just two, Eppes: your brother and whoever was posing as Penfield. All the rest match the names on this list." He glared around him, glared at the ambulance attendants dragging stretchers toward the scene. "What the hell is going on?"