“Okay, for now,” the big man said quietly with a gentle smile that caused tears to cloud his eyes.
“Let it go, man. Just let me go,” Deeks said.
Sam nodded, squeezed his shoulder and left him standing in the bullpen alone, his throat constricted with unwanted emotions. He clutched his box of mementos and took one last look around, and walked down the long hallway, the sound of gunfire from the shooting range following him out the door.
She felt her annoyance growing as she watched her partner of six months patiently trying to explain to Hetty and Callen what he had tried to do that morning. She had refused to be in the meeting, knowing she might just punch the guy again if she got too close to him. He had come so close to blowing their cover she had actually steeled herself to being shot. If Callen hadn’t walked into the meet and told her partner to shut up and then taken over, the whole operation might have been blown. Sam had calmly talked her down over the comms as the meet went sideways, and it was his steady confidence that kept her from pulling her weapon. If she had, she might not be standing next to her desk devouring a disgusting energy bar her partner had brought her that morning. Who the hell eats this garbage unless they have to, she wondered.
“Jensen still trying to cover his ass?” Sam asked as he came in, the pissed off look on his face not having changed since they’d all managed to walk away unscathed.
“How can a guy who looks so squared away become a blithering idiot in the space of two minutes?” She sputtered, the words rushing out as she swallowed the last bite of the energy bar. “I don’t think he had any idea what he was saying. He was a nervous wreck in there, Sam. Why would Hetty put me with someone like that?”
“Because you refused to talk to the last partner she gave you,” he laughed. “This guy was a Marine. A decorated Marine. She knows you like Marines.”
“Well, I don’t like this one,” she said. “Deeks would have picked up on what was happening today and spun out a story to ease the guy’s mind in two seconds.”
“Yeah, well, Jensen ain’t Deeks,” Sam said.
“No he isn’t,” she answered softly as her latest partner walked toward her.
When she’d first been introduced to Joshua Jensen, she had been taken by his good looks and impressive physique. He was a big, strong man, an excellent shot and had good language skills, but with a hint of condescension toward those he didn’t think measured up to his own abilities. Josh was somewhat arrogant and the minute she met him, she knew Deeks would have found all sorts of ways to make fun of him, but she had stopped herself from thinking that almost immediately, knowing it would only bring her pain.
“Hetty wants to talk to you,” Jensen said with a touch of resentment. “You got my back, right partner?”
“What do you mean?” She asked.
“Back me up with the little boss lady,” he answered. “Tell her I had everything under control, or would have if Callen hadn’t barged in.”
“Are you serious?” Sam roared. “Callen saved your ass today and Kensi’s ass too. We don’t lie about what happens during an op. We heard you over comms. You were digging such a deep hole with Salazar I didn’t think G would be able to get you two out of it. I even had Eric call in a tactical squad.”
“Enough gentlemen and Ms. Blye,” Hetty said as she entered the bullpen. “We still have missing weapons to recover and you still need to find out who killed the previous undercover agent. Miss Blye. My office.”
“It had to be Salazar,” Jensen said quickly. “He’s the logical one.”
Hetty stared at him with utter contempt, freezing him with one icy stare before turning without a word and motioning for Kensi to follow.
“I would replace that man immediately if we weren’t in the middle of a case,” Hetty said when they reached her desk. “I apologize, Miss Blye. He’s one of those people who looks good on paper, but falters when faced with the stark reality of this job. He came highly recommended, but that’s no excuse. Mr. Callen and Sam will go in for the next round with Salazar. We know he’s probably second in command, but hopefully after another, less tense meeting, we will discover the head of this dangerous little group and the name of their inside man.”
“Are we off the case?” Kensi asked.
“No, but I can’t in good conscience send you undercover with a man who has no talent for it,” she answered. “You and Mr. Jensen will be on overwatch. After this operation, I will begin a search for his replacement.”
“I’m sorry Hetty,” she said. “I should have taken over. I might have been able to salvage it.”
“Today was not your doing, Kensi,” Hetty said. “You were used to working with Mr. Deeks, who could fly by the seat of his pants in these kinds of situations. Mr. Jensen’s pants just seem to catch on fire whenever he tries to improvise.”
Kensi laughed at that and made her way back to the bullpen, her mind recalling some of the funnier improvs her former partner had pulled during their years together. She felt her eyes water as she remembered him, totally ignoring her new partner as she headed for the firing range, once again needing to rid herself of unwanted thoughts that only brought back her longing and regret.
Salazar paced back and forth in front of the metal desk in the claustrophobic room near the loading dock of the trucking company that was his base of operations. He occasionally made a comment to whomever he was talking to on the phone, and Callen caught Sam’s silent communication, both knowing instinctively that they were in trouble. The tension in the room grew as two more armed men entered and took up positions along the wall, joining the four men already crowding the room. Callen could hear Kensi and Jensen arguing over the comms about the situation, but it just irritated him, doing nothing to calm his heart or relieve the itch between his shoulder blades that told him he was in danger. Salazar had questioned him extensively when they’d arrived, wanting details about former deals and about who they had dealt with before, his questions and tone of voice setting off warning bells in his head. He glanced over at their confiscated weapons now lying on the desk, trying to calculate just how fast he could reach them if things deteriorated even further.
“My boss thinks you’re lying,” Salazar said as he held the phone to his chest. “He doesn’t trust you and he can’t reach the people who recommended you.”
“Let me speak to him,” Callen said in the thick Ukrainian accent he had adopted for this op. “My money is good, and my people need these weapons.”
“He doesn’t give a fuck about your people or your country,” Salazar said harshly. “He thinks you might be playing him.”
“Yuri Kulish does not lie,” Callen said belligerently. “Tell him Terrell. We worked many deals together.”
“My boss never heard of him either,” Salazar said as he pulled a weapon and pointed it at Callen.
The sound of weapons being cocked sounded around the room, and Callen knew even if he got the safety word out, no one would be able to get to them fast enough to save them. He swallowed hard, preparing himself as Kensi shouted in his ear that they were on their way. He wanted to tell her not to bother, that she would be putting herself and her partner in danger, but he couldn’t risk it, hoping he could talk his way out of the volatile situation.
“Who you gonna kill, Ricky?”
The familiar voice was deeper than he remembered and sounded completely uncaring as if asking about the weather, but there was no mistaking the black leather jacket and dirty blond hair of Max Gentry as he sauntered into the room. His beard was rough and he looked tired, his fingernails grimy with dirt and his hands nervously twitching as he came to a stop next to Ricky Salazar.
“What the fuck are you doing here, Max?” Salazar asked, but he began to smile as soon as he said it.
“Got bored,” he said with barely a flicker of a smile, but it briefly softened the hardness of his face. “You working that deal you told me about?”
“Yeah, man,” he answered. “But my boss thinks these guys might be cops.”
Yuri? A cop?” Max laughed coldly. “Terrell maybe, but definitely not Yuri Kulish.”
Deeks walked up to Callen and hit him solidly in the mouth, knocking him back against the wall. Before Callen could react, he pressed his forearm against his throat and pressed his head back, watching him struggle for breath until Terrell took a step toward him.
“Back off, Terrell. You know he owes me an explanation,” Max growled, his face just inches from Callen.
“I owe you nothing, Max Gentry,” Callen choked out. “You left. Your choice.”
“Never got what she saw in you,” Max said as he shoved himself away, and turned to look at Sam.
“She’s a one man woman, Max. You know that, brother,” Terrell said. “And that man ain’t Yuri.”
“You know these guys?” Salazar looked stunned.
“Yeah, I know ‘em,” Max said as he sauntered over and took a drink from the bottle of whiskey on the desk. “Worked a couple of deals with these two down south. Yuri’s a sleaze, but Terrell is solid and they both pay their debts. Just don’t let Yuri near your girlfriend. Hard to believe, but he’s a real charmer with the ladies.”
Salazar said a few words into his cell and then closed it and walked over to shake hands with Yuri Kulish. They set up the buy for later in the week, this time with an appearance by his boss, Alejandro Munoz. Salazar promised high-grade military weapons and Yuri got his attention with a generous price offering. Before they left, Yuri turned to stare at Max, his eyes stormy and his jaw tight and Max glared back as he sat on the edge of the desk, dangling the whiskey bottle between his knees.
“Fern said to say hello if I ever saw you again,” Yuri said. “I think she probably is missing you.
Max blinked hard at the words, his expression faltering and he quickly took a swig of whiskey to hide his emotions.
“This woman must be something,” Salazar said with interest.
“Yeah, brother. You can say that,” Max said, hopping off the desk and sauntering back out as nonchalantly as he’d come.
Come back tomorrow for Part Two of the conclusion of ‘Button Up, Mr. Deeks!’