Although the Veteran’s Administration hospital was not set up to deal with the ‘off the street’ emergency that Tiny’s case presented, one flash of Callen’s badge and a curt statement about the big man being a material witness in a federal investigation, the staff jumped in quickly to render the needed treatment. It wasn’t as serious as they had feared, and the doctor assured them that they would take good care of the patient until he was fit to be released on his own recognizance. Once that was settled, they left the ward to search for the Marine who should have been there by then.
“Something’s wrong guys… he should have been here a long time ago.” Deeks hustled down the hallway, Sam and Callen hot on his heels.
Sam called out gently from behind. “Maybe they wouldn’t let him in… nothing personal, but you guys look a little rough.”
Deeks found no offense in his comrade’s assessment of their appearance but he also knew Gunny wasn’t one to let anything or anyone stand in his way. “It wouldn’t have mattered; if he’d wanted in, he’d be in here to check on his friend.”
Callen caught him just as they reached the front doors. “Point taken, but let’s not run off half-cocked, okay?” He was glad when he saw the man’s demeanor relax slightly, his quick pace slowing so his look was not so panicked. “He’s probably outside trying to get Monty to stop chasing his own tail.”
The light-hearted comment succeeded in breaking some of the tension, causing the detective to let out slight chuckle. “You’re probably right, but if he’s not right outside, can you give me a ride?”
“Sure thing…” Callen wasn’t finished with the good-natured teasing. “…but you’ll have to ride in the back. Sam was right, that jacket should be condemned.”
“You guys are just jealous… you two couldn’t pull this look off even on your best… ” Deeks’ retort was cut off as a familiar auburn-haired female rounded the corner and stopped suddenly when she saw him.
“Hey… uhhh… Stretch, right?” The counselor’s eyes brightened at seeing the man she’d met earlier that morning.
Deeks hoped that she hadn’t heard any of his previous conversation, and the friendly expression on her face gave him hope that his cover was still intact. “Yes, nice to see you again Carmen.” He was again struck by her friendly manner as her hand came up to shake his.
Carmen’s smile faltered when she saw the two familiar NCIS agents following so close behind the kind blonde and her eyes cut between them, assessing what it could mean. “I hope everything’s okay…” Then the thought of what their presence on the treatment floor and the absence of the former Marine could mean. “…wait, where’s Gunny? Is he okay? Did something happen?”
As her hand came up to wrap around Deeks’ forearm, there was a hint of fear and apprehension in the woman’s voice that went far beyond simple concern. She was scared.
Deeks dropped his hand to cover hers. “It’s not Gunny. We were coming back from the park and bumped into Tiny. He was in a poor state, so we were bringing him here when these guys stopped and gave us a ride.”
After nodding in gratitude to Callen and Sam, Carmen’s eyes continued to scan the area for the man who just wouldn’t get out of her head. “Well then, where is he?”
Callen stepped up to help alleviate her concerns and to help Deeks maintain his cover. “There wasn’t enough room in the car for all of them, Stretch rode in with us while Gunny stayed behind with their dogs.”
Each of them watched as the tension in woman’s body relaxed at the news, her eyes revealing a lot more than what she had intended for them to see. “Well… okay… that’s good then.” As she regained control of her emotions, Carmen appeared more like a child caught with her hand in the cookie jar than the professional counselor that she was.
Sam, who had seen the sudden shift in her emotional state, moved to her side. “We were just heading to check on them, would you like to join us?”
“No… no, I’m sure he’s fine… I mean, I know he’s fine…” Carmen’s mouth seemed to be about three steps ahead of her brain. “… wait, that’s not what… I don’t know if he’s fine or anything… I… geez…”
Deeks was about to choke on the laughter that was trying to bubble out of him at her frustration, but he just gave her an understanding smile. “Come on, it was only a few blocks… we’ll be there in no time.”
“You sure you guys don’t mind?” Carmen felt her apprehension escaping.
“Absolutely not.” Callen walked through the automatic doors, silently beckoning them to follow. When there was no Gunny or dogs waiting outside and no one at the security desk had seen them, the quartet made their way down to the parking lot where Callen’s black BMW sat slightly askew at the curb. Sam opened the passenger side door for Carmen, and when she was settled, he shot Deeks a quizzical look over the car’s roof. For his part, Deeks shrugged his shoulders before climbing in behind the team leader.
When they pulled out into traffic, Callen caught the concerned expression on the woman’s face and wondered at the implications that such a response could mean. Whatever the connection between the man and woman, it was a strong one if her reaction was any indication. Although it wasn’t far to where they met Deeks and Gunny, it did take a few minutes to make the short trip and for some reason, the conversation remained light. It was as if they all knew something wasn’t exactly right but were too afraid to say anything that might raise the level of tension.
Just when he was about to force himself to relax, something caught Callen’s attention at the entrance to an alleyway only a block or two from the hospital. His head was snapping back for a second look when Deeks called out from the back seat.
“That’s Monty!” He canted his body toward the window so fast, his head nearly bumped the glass.
Callen cut the wheel hard to the left, counter-steering as he hit the brakes, sending the car skidding across three lanes of traffic. There were horns and yells but the four people in the BMW were focused on the scruffy mutt sitting patiently on the sidewalk. As soon as Callen brought the vehicle close, Deeks and Sam both piled out of the backseat and clamored over to the animal.
Deeks was on his knees in an instant, furious that Gunny would leave his dog but then he saw the splatter of blood on the ground. His anger turned into abject concern as he noticed the anxious expression in the animal’s eyes. “Hey boy… what happened?”
The dog responded with a sharp bark, his eyes cutting up the street then back to his friend.
As the others gathered around him, Deeks rose to his feet and nodded toward the blood. “Something’s wrong. Monty’s on edge and that’s fresh blood.”
Carmen’s face paled, her hand coming up to cover the gasp that threatened to escape her lips. Callen and Sam exchanged a quick look before glancing to Deeks, asking for him to make the call. “Please, I need your help guys.”
Sam was already tapping a speed dial number on his phone and he spoke as soon as the line connected. “Eric, we need the feed from the traffic cameras between Ponce De Leon and Monticello… look for anything suspicious in the past thirty minutes at the alley with the green dumpsters.”
As they waited, Deeks patted Monty on his back, trying to alleviate some of the animal’s tension, while Carmen simply circled them as Callen took a few pictures of the blood droplets. “It’s still wet… means it hasn’t been too long since whatever happened, happened.” He chose his words carefully, trying to maintain Deeks’ cover and reassure Carmen at the same time. “It isn’t much, probably a small wound… nothing major.”
Carmen was growing more concerned the longer they stood there. She was not even sure if this had anything to do with Gunny’s whereabouts but until she knew he was safe, she knew she would not be able to relax.
Sam’s face twisted as Eric relayed the information that the camera’s video had captured. “Thanks Eric… see if you can pick it up again… we’ll let you know what we find.” He dropped the call but his face remained downcast as all eyes turned to him. “The camera shows Gunny and the dogs getting into it with the occupants of a black Escalade… they struggled before they managed to drag Gunny into the back before heading to the north… the cameras lost them a few blocks over.”
It took a moment, but the mention of the vehicle caused Deeks’ head to snap up. “Was the driver’s side mirror broken?”
After passing the question on the Eric, the big SEAL simply nodded in response.
“Damn! We had a run-in with the driver a few hours ago… almost ran over me and Monty.” Deeks was now getting angry. “Gunny and the driver shared some words and it almost got physical.”
“Did the guy seem dangerous?” Carmen stepped up, her hands curled into fists at her sides and she looked like if something bad happened to Gunny, there would be even more blood spilled.
The blonde shook his head lightly. “No, not really… but there was something off about him.”
Callen was already heading toward the car. “Come on… we’ll see if we can pick them up…”
“Wait!” Deeks was back kneeling beside Monty, whispering something that only the dog could hear. Monty gave another quick bark as he lowered his head and began to sniff the ground in an ever widening circle. Even though there was probably no scent left by either the vehicle or Gunny, if Short Round was on foot, the dog’s distinctive smell would be easy for Monty to track. “Monty will find them.”
Sam and Callen tried not to roll their eyes and it was hard to hide their reluctance to put any faith in the abilities of the retired bomb sniffing dog. The team leader turned once more toward his vehicle, his partner falling into step with him. “Come on, we’re wasting time…”
He didn’t get to finish his statement as Monty suddenly tore off up the street, his ears swept back and his tail rigid behind him. Deeks was sprinting off after his dog and all the other three could do was watch. When he reached the first corner, he called back over his shoulder. “Just trust us and follow!” Then he took off once more.
Sam stepped over to the waiting vehicle, an unbelieving expression on his face. “Did he just tell us to follow?”
“Just get in… maybe Eric and Nell can find something to help us out.” Callen waited until both of his passengers were fastened in before pulling back into the street. As they followed Deeks as he ran down the sidewalk, it shocked him to find that with the heavy and slow traffic, the man and animal on foot were actually pulling ahead and might even leave them behind. “Traffic’s slowing us down Sam… see if Eric can help us out.”
After activating the vehicle’s Bluetooth, Sam spoke to the team back at ops. “Eric, can you do anything about the traffic? We’re getting tied up.”
There was a pause then the Tech’s voice resonated through the speakers. “I’m doing what I can, but there’s a big concert tonight over at the stadium… traffic’s a lot heavier than usual.”
Carmen’s arm shot out, pointing toward the windshield. “They’re turning right.”
“Got it… but they’re getting too far ahead.” Callen was getting a little frustrated at the way the chase was unfolding. With an unknown enemy and a possibly wounded former Marine at the end, things could get dicey in an instant. “Eric, can you track them?”
“I’ll do what I can but they’re heading into the warehouse district; there aren’t a lot of traffic cams in those areas.”
Callen let out a sigh as he finally made the right turn. “Just do what you can and keep us posted.”
Deeks had managed to keep pace with Monty for the first hundred yards, but the further they ran, the more the animal started to pull away. His lungs began to burn and his legs were beginning to feel the strain of running after his four legged companion. He was about to call out when Monty glanced over his shoulder and gave him a quizzical tilt of his head and seemed to understand that his master needed a little break. The detective was relieved when Monty slowed his pace, allowing him to close the distance in just a few strides. “Thanks partner… you can’t get too far out in front… you’ve got four legs while I’ve only got two.”
They had stopped at the mouth of a long access road that ran behind a row of abandoned warehouses that ran parallel to the street they had just been on. Deeks nodded toward the pavement. “Is this the way they went?”
Monty gave him a quick yelp and started running down the dusty street. Taking a deep breath, Deeks took off after the dog that was already several yards ahead.
“I’ll take that as a ‘yes’.”
Then he heard a single gunshot.
Short Round had watched helplessly as his master was yanked away from him and snatched into the back of the big black box. He still had the taste of the big man’s blood on his tongue and he’d hoped that he had been able to cause some serious damage to the one who had hurt his friend. Just when the door had slammed shut and hidden his master from sight, he’d heard the trusted voice call out the quick command. While the animal didn’t know that it was in German or even know what language was all about, he knew exactly what it meant.
As the big black box pulled away with his master trapped inside, the dog fixated on the shape and distinctive odor of the vehicle, locking in on it through the strength of the neural scent receptors in his canine brain. Now, as long as he could maintain line-of-sight with the moving box, they would not get away.
When they pulled ahead slightly, he applied more power to drive his legs, keeping them in sight while not getting so close that they might notice him and make some drastic evasive maneuver. They made a quick right turn and Short Round had to slip between two larger moving boxes on the curb to keep them in his sights. As a tracker dog in Iraq, he’d been trained to follow suspected terrorists through much worse streets than anything that LA had to offer and without people shooting at him all the time, this was going to be a cakewalk.
But the further he ran, the more he began to fear that something bad would still happen before he could save his friend. The man who smelled just like his first master had been so kind and gentle with the animal when the sounds became too loud and he began to fear the world when the big light in the sky went behind the horizon. His new friend spoke kind words and knew the tickle spot under his front leg that made his back arch and his entire body twitch with pleasant sensations. This was not just the man who had taken care of him since his return from the land of the scary sounds and smells… he was the only family that the dog had and the animal would die before he allowed anything or anyone to hurt him.
Several pedestrians had to step out of the way as the shepherd mix bolted along the sidewalk and some even expressed their concern for the determined set of his eyes and body. Though none dared get in his way, their eyes could only follow behind him as he pursued whatever had captured his attention. Whatever it was, it looked as if he would chase it to the gates of hell before he stopped. And even then, the animal’s determination might not even stop.
Short Round was only a short distance behind the black box when it suddenly turned into smaller street, one with lots of dirt and refuse scattered throughout. The animal paused at the mouth of the avenue, scanning the surrounding area for choke points and places where he could be surprised at the last moment. When the black box stopped moving several yards down the path, the animal slunk low, staying under the human’s field of view. As he crept up to where they sat, he could hear their muffled voices that were filled with anger and tension, setting his heightened senses on full alert.
As he moved up behind the black box, Short Round slipped under the rear-end, his ears perked up and listening to the creaks of the vehicle as the humans moved around on the inside. There was the sound of moving metal and the muffled voices grew louder.
“Get him in the back of the warehouse.” The driver opened his door and stepped out onto the dirty street, pointing toward a short chain link fence that enclosed a walkway to the back of a metal-walled building. “Once inside, we’ll take care of our friend here.”
There was movement in the back seat as Tony and his comrade began to drag a weary Gunny from the rear of the vehicle. When his feet touched the ground, the two behemoths began to drag him the short distance to the rear of the building, their leader out in front, his stride cocky and arrogant.
“You know, I’ve only been in this area for a few weeks and I have to admit, most of my customers can’t seem to get enough of my product.”
Gunny’s chest ached from the beating, but he managed to speak with conviction. “You’re the one… the drugs…”
“Why yes, that’s me.” The man actually stopped and turned to take quick bow.
The Marine stood on his feet, causing the men at his arms to pause in their steps. “People have died… you’ve killed…”
“An occupational hazard of the business.”
His dismissive attitude made Gunny’s blood boil. “How can you say that? They were people… my friends…”
The man’s face morphed into a look of utter disgust. “They were nothing but common street trash. No one on this earth will ever miss them… just like no one will miss you.” He reached out poked Gunny in the center of his chest, but something moving behind him in the alley caught his attention. When he turned, a disheveled old bag lady had crept out from between a pair of grungy dumpsters. “See, just like her… nothing nobody would ever miss.”
That was the wrong thing to say.
“You talking about me, sonny?” Her voice sounded tired but there was something in the words and her stance.
“Just get out of here, grandma… you aren’t even worth my time.” He stepped up as if to shove her out of the way, he saw the shift in her eyes, but by then it was too late. He felt the explosion of pain between his legs as Stella brought her cane up into his groin with a speed that belayed her age. As his body deflated to the ground, the gangster wondered if he could simply pass out and end the pain that emanated at his testicles and seemed to reach every part of his body.
Tony had watched his boss challenge the little old bag lady and then witnessed her strike to the man’s groin. He shared a quick glance to his partner before they dropped the restrained man between them to close on the woman. They were a few feet from her when a deep voice spoke from off to their right.
“You hurt Gunny? Not a smart thing to do.”
Tony had just enough time to turn his head slightly before a man’s fist slammed into his left temple, causing his world to explode in pinpricks of bright lights. His partner fared little better as another enormous man stepped up to slam a fist the size of Montana into his midsection, sending him doubling over in agony.
When Gunny looked up at his saviors, his was met with smiles from the two giants. “Franklin? Titus?”
The two men gave him a sheepish look, before looking down at his bound feet and hands. “You alright Gunny?”
“I am now. Thanks guys.”
They moved to him quickly, their big hands catching him as he stumbled slightly.
“What are you guys doing here?”
The gazes turned to where Stella was ambling over toward them. “We… uh… we were making sure Stella got home okay. You know, to help make up for how we acted this morning.”
Gunny gave them each a warm smile but suddenly his expression faltered as a cold laugh interrupted them. When they all looked to where his eyes had locked, they found the man in the expensive suit leaning against the fence and pointing a big, ugly pistol right at them.
“Well, now it looks like I’m going to do a little more street cleaning than I had originally planned.” His smile eased into a snarl, but his eyes remained empty, like he was looking at something on the bottom of his shoe.
The Marine could see the man’s hand muscles tensing to squeeze the trigger when something furry and brown shot past his legs and launched itself at the man’s outstretched arm. The man swung the weapon down and Gunny could only call out just as a single gunshot cracked through the air.
To be continued…
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