As they closed, Deeks caught sight of a man with a pistol in his right hand and a dog clamped onto his arm. There was shouting and yelling as Titus and Franklin were ducking behind whatever cover they could find as Gunny moved closer. The gun went off again, the bullet striking the front fender of the black Escalade and the man let out a primal scream, redoubling his efforts to shake the animal loose but Short Round had no intention of letting go any time soon.
The detective was about to call out but then he saw his own dog preparing to enter the fray, Monty bracing to leap onto the well-dressed man. It all went to hell quickly when the second animal piled on, knocking the man completely off balance and causing him to stagger along the fence. When he finally lost his footing, Short Round had to release his hold or risk being crushed under the man as he fell. The dog skittered away out of range, preparing to charge once more.
At that moment, the gunman showed surprising agility by springing to his feet, the gun leveling straight at the animal turning toward him. The gun discharged for the third time, the bullet catching nothing but air as Gunny managed to shoot over and slam his shoulder into the man’s side, sending him to the ground with the Marine right on top of him. Still restrained, he could only lace his fingers together and pummel the man under him with his linked hands.
“Stop… shooting… at… my… dog!” His clenched hands landed again and again, striking the man’s head over and over as his rage found a release.
Deeks stepped up, seeing that the man on the ground was almost unconscious, his face becoming a bloody mess as Gunny’s joined fists continued to rain down on his flesh. He stepped up and placed a firm hand on his friend’s shoulder, giving him a squeeze to let him know backup had arrived. “Hey Gunny… he’s out… you got him.”
The words must have been lost in the breeze because they seemed to make no difference as the fists continued to fall. Taking a tighter grip, Deeks gave him a more solid tug, turning the man’s body slightly and calling out more forcefully. “Knock it off Gunny… he’s had it.”
It was like the switch suddenly flipped inside the Marine, his hands pausing in mid-air and his shoulders relaxing as his chest heaved, his lungs sucking in air. His breaths came in ragged pants, his eyes ablaze in anger at the man under him and fear for what could have ended with the loss of his best friend on the planet. He turned slightly to look up at Deeks and the understanding smile on the man’s face causing a wave of relief to wash over him. “Stretch?”
“Yeah, it’s me Gunny.” Deeks stood up straight, glancing down at the man on the ground and Gunny’s bloodied knuckles. “You good?”
Gunny inclined his head toward the supine man under him, a slight smirk forming on his lips. “Better than him.”
With his legs still zip tied, Gunny struggled to gain some footing so he could stand, but before Deeks could move to help him, two pairs of thick arms caught the Marine under his arms and gently lifted him up enough for him to get to his feet. Franklin and Titus held him between them, their eyes concerned and a little fearful of what they had just been through. Titus tipped his head toward the man they were all standing over as Franklin pulled a sharpened piece of metal from his pocket and cut away the zip ties. “Who is that, Gunny?”
Gunny almost spit out the words. “He’s the one responsible for the overdoses… he’s the one putting the coke out on the streets.” The expression on his face was one of restraint but also one of revulsion.
Stella moved up beside them, her cane still clutched as if she was going to use it like a club once more on the man who was moaning softly on the ground. “Let him back up… I got some more licks left in me.”
Gunny held up his freed hands. “Whoa there girl… I don’t think he’s up for round two.” Something pushed against his legs and he dropped to his knee, Short Round nuzzling into him as the man tugged the animal tenderly to his chest. “Hey boy… God, you really saved my butt back there.”
Short Round was panting heavily, but his eyes were bright and excited, like he’d just had the time of his life. His tongue came out and licked across his master’s left cheek, leaving a trail of saliva in its wake. Gunny ran his hands over the animal’s back and sides, taking a moment to check for wounds just in case one of the bullets might have grazed him.
As Gunny finished his assessment, the dog turned his head to the side as Monty ambled up, looking a little dazed. Deeks reached down and ran his hand along the dog’s back, petting him affectionately across the top of his head and tugging on one of his floppy ears. When Monty looked up with an approval seeking expression in the depths of his eyes, the blonde leaned down while pulling the dog against his chest.
“Monty, that was like something out of the ‘Avengers’… totally kick-ass.” The words were full of bravado but on the inside, Deeks’ heart was still pounding a mile a minute at the danger his dog had put himself in. He made a mental note to buy a new doggy bed and whatever else his friend wanted when they got back home.
His thoughts were interrupted when a dark BMW skidded up behind the Escalade, the red passenger door flying open even before the vehicle came to a complete stop. Carmen was moving toward them as Sam struggled to catch up with the auburn haired firebrand and she was in front of Gunny before he could even register what was happening. The punch to his right arm announcing her displeasure with the roller-coaster her emotions had been on in the past few minutes. “You idiot… you could have been… argh!” When the words failed her, she spun away, frustrated at her outburst and the way her heart felt lighter knowing that he was actually okay.
Gunny cast a perplexed look over to Deeks. “What did I do?”
Deeks shook his head in sympathy for the older man who was now cautiously following Carmen with his eyes. “It’s just a ‘woman-thing’ man… just take it and move on.”
Callen approached the little group, his hand discretely at the side arm on his hip that was hidden under his shirt. “You guys okay?” He looked at each one’s face in turn, receiving firms nods in response as Sam retrieved the dropped firearm while giving the two henchmen a look that would have melted case-hardened steel. They chose to remain splayed out on the ground, their bodies still aching from the punches delivered by Titus and Franklin who were still towering over them, standing guard as the wails of distant sirens came closer and closer.
Soon, the dealer and his two goons were laying side-by-side, face down in the dirt, their hands cuffed behind their backs, the expensive suit ruined beyond repair. A pair of Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department patrol cars and a lone ambulance were parked along the street, the deputies taking everyone’s statements, leaving Callen and Sam to take custody of the two bit dealer and charge him with the deaths of the veterans who had died when the drugs had taken their toll. After getting checked by the EMTs, Deeks and Gunny found themselves leaning against the trunk of Callen’s BMW while Carmen rested against the front bumper of one of the LEO’s vehicles a few yards away.
“Hell of a day, Stretch.” Gunny took a sip from the water bottle that Callen had provided.
Deeks tugged his ragged cap off his head, letting his blonde hair spill out along his shoulders. “Yeah, but a good one.”
“So, those guys friends of yours?”
The Marine’s question causing a dull burn to start in the pit of the detective’s stomach but he swallowed the feeling before it took root. This man had been instrumental in bringing down the poison that was killing and he deserved the truth. “Yeah, about that…”
Gunny’s hand came up to stop him. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”
When he glanced over, Deeks caught the glimmer in the other man’s eyes and knew the gig was up. He dropped his eyes to the ground and kept his voice low. “How’d you know?”
Gunny gave him a warm chuckle. “I may talk slow, but that doesn’t mean I’m stupid. Two NCIS agents showing up out of nowhere, the silent conversation you guys had with just your eyes, and the feeling in my gut that something nefarious was going on.”
Deeks looked over. “Nefarious… really?”
“I have a few big words left in my lexicon, but I only bring them out on special occasions.” Gunny gave his friend a lopsided grin. “LAPD?”
Deeks nodded. “Yeah, but I need to keep my cover for as long as possible.”
“I’ll take it to my grave, brother.” Gunny pointed toward Deeks’ disheveled appearance. “From the look of it, this is something that you’ve put a lot of effort and energy into… I don’t want to mess up your gig.”
Opening his mouth to respond, Deeks paused when Callen and Sam walked over, opting to address them instead. “We got this wrapped up?”
Callen caught on that Gunny was onto the operation but played it safe by keeping the relayed information to just the basics. “Yeah, we got ’em… and they had about half a kilo of coke under the rear seat. We’re pretty sure it’ll match the stuff they found in the victim’s bloodstream.” The agent’s watched the Marine’s demeanor fall slightly. “Gunny, you okay?”
The older man gave him a crooked smirk. “Just wish that so many hadn’t died before it all stopped.”
That poured a bucket of cold water on any of the elation they were all feeling about the relative ease at which a major drug distributor was taken down. The deaths had resulted from nothing more than one man’s greed and desire for power and money. People who had been willing to give their lives in defense of their country had died alone and helpless on the dirty streets of one of America’s largest and wealthiest cities.
After a moment or two, Deeks cleared his throat. “So, what did you find out over at the hospital?”
Sam tucked his hands into his pockets. “We think that we’ve got the source over there nailed down. LAPD is taking these guys into custody and we’re going back to track down one of the nurses who may have been supplying the medications to the people on the streets.”
Gunny looked like he’d been slapped. “You mean… there’s more to this?”
“Unfortunately… yeah, there’s more.” Deeks let his eyes fall to the ground, knowing that explaining this to the Leatherneck was going to be a very hard conversation indeed. Just before he began to lay it all out, he took a moment to look over at Carmen who was watching them all with wary eyes. The fear and anger from earlier had vanished to be replaced by concern for the man standing beside him.
To the seasoned detective, it appeared as if she was forcibly holding herself back from running over to wrap her arms around Gunny as she fought some of the emotions warring on the inside. There was more going on than simple worry over a man she barely knew and if he didn’t know any better, Deeks would have to say she looked almost stuck.
Later, at the boatshed…
“He looks scared.” Sam leaned back against the conference table in front of the monitor screen, his arms folded across his wide chest.
Callen’s head tilted slightly to the right. “Well, considering that he probably knows why we brought him in here… he should be.”
Pushing himself off the table, Sam inclined his head toward the screen that showed a very nervous and clearly agitated Angel Vellegas squirming in the metal chair in the small interrogation room. They had left him alone in there for the better part of an hour and the longer the clocked ticked, the more nervous the younger man became. “So, how do we play this? Good agent, bad agent? Bad agent, very bad agent?”
Stepping up beside his partner, Callen’s expression was a little more relaxed. “I don’t think any of those scenarios are what we need. From what I’m seeing, he looks like he’s about to crack all on his own.”
As they moved into the narrow hallway, Sam nodded in agreement. “You may be right. My own feelings may be affecting how I see this.”
“This guy isn’t a cold drug dealer like Evans… at least that’s not what I’m picking up.” Callen paused with his hand on the door knob.
Sam let out long breath, clearing his lungs, it was going to be hard for the SEAL to simply sit back while the interrogation proceeded. “Then I’ll let you lead and I’ll only come in when… or if… I’m needed.” He knew the feelings of anger and rage at the deaths of the homeless veterans, no matter if the PTSD drugs that Angel had supplied weren’t the main culprits, were not going to be easy to rein in and control.
“You good?” Callen’s question was laced with concern.
Sam nodded and gave his friend a confident smile. “Yep. Let’s do this.”
Angel almost jumped out of his chair when the door was suddenly flung open and the two surly agents blew into the small room. The smaller man, who had identified himself earlier as Agent Callen, plopped down in the chair on the other side of the table, a large manila folder in his hands, while the muscled one leaned casually against the wall in the corner to Angel’s left side. The dark skinned agent had a passive expression on his face, but there was something dangerous lurking behind the man’s eyes and demeanor. Standing just inside Angel’s peripheral vision, the nervous man was torn between looking at the agent across from him and the man behind him who was making him even more nervous with each passing second.
The room remained in silence for far too long and Angel was only aware of the sound of his rapid heartbeat thumping in his ears. Just when he could take it no longer, the calmer agent spoke up.
“Do you know why you’re here, Mr. Vellegas?”
He tried to play it cool, as if this sort of thing happened every day, but when he spoke, he sounded more like a teenage boy whose voice decided to change the moment he spoke to the cutest girl in the class. “No – squeak – ahem… I mean… no, I haven’t the foggiest.”
Callen’s eyes were locked on the folder in front of him and without raising his head, he paused for a moment before glancing up. “Hmmmm…” That was all he said before turning his attention back down to the folder which he opened slowly, dragging the anxiety out even more as he read first one page then another… then another.
Angel felt the heat in the room rise several degrees in the long wait before the agent finally sat back in his chair and locked a pair of steel-gray eyes onto his own. The young man wished that the man had kept on reading.
“You are one of only four people with access to the sign out logs at the hospital’s pharmacy, isn’t that correct?” Callen kept his voice soft and even, his facial expression neutral.
“Uh… yes. I guess so.”
“According to the documents that the hospital provided… then it’s a definite yes.”
Angel nodded because he just couldn’t get his mouth to work right.
“Also, the security cameras and witnesses place you in or near the pharmacy at some, shall we say, odd hours.”
“In fact, you were there earlier today… on a Saturday… when the pharmacy is supposed to be closed.” Callen paused between his phrases, letting the truth of the matter slowly seep into the young man.
“I had some paperwork to catch up on… we have an audit next week and we are way behind.”
Callen’s eyes cut to his partner who was remaining silent and watchful in the corner. “Sounds like the actions of a dedicated employee, don’t you think so, Sam?”
“Could be…” Sam’s voice wasn’t as gentle. “…or it could be someone trying to sneak in and cover his tracks before it all blows up in his face.”
Angel shifted in his seat, his hands knotting together as he tried to hide his ever growing panic. “Yeah, coming in on the weekend lets me work without being disturbed.”
“Or discovered.” Callen’s tone had made a slight and darker shift.
When the young man’s eyes dropped to the tabletop, the senior agent leaned over the table, placing his hands palm down on either side of the open folder. “Let me tell you what we’ve discovered. A short time ago, it was brought to our attention that there had been some deaths among the homeless who populate the area around the VA hospital where you work. It was also discovered that those people died as a result of some very nasty, uncut cocaine that they had injected into their systems.”
Angel’s eyes shot up. “I’m no drug dealer! And if that’s all you’ve got, then I’m going to…” He almost rose from his seat, but the cold, threatening glare the agent sent him had him sinking back into the chair.
Callen waited until the man’s moment of bravado passed before he continued. “As I was saying, these people died as a result of the coke in their systems… but there were other drugs there as well.” Without looking down, he slid a piece of paper across the table, turning it so that Angel could look down and read it if he chose to. When the man made no move to look anywhere but at his own hands, the agent spoke as he tapped the forensic chemical report. “They had levels of certain prescription drugs in their systems, ones mainly used for the treatment of PTSD and the resulting depression. Drugs that are kept in abundance in the pharmacy where you have access.”
Both agents could see something shifting in the young man, an emotion that strongly resembled regret but he was still fighting it. “That doesn’t mean anything… they could have gotten them from anywhere… from anyone.”
This time Sam spoke from the corner where he had been hovering. “Yes, that’s possible.” He pushed himself off the wall and moved to stand at the edge of the table where he rested his thick hands. “But when we showed a group of pictures to a man our partner rescued off the street… the funny thing was… yours was the one he picked out, even called you his ‘Angel’.”
The younger man’s face fell to his lap, the shaking in his hands ceasing.
Callen slipped the report back into the folder, his gaze fixed at the man across the table. “The anti-psychotic drugs made it impossible for the victims to know that something was wrong… left them in a haze that only allowed them to fall under the cocaine’s power and, for some, the combination of the two turned out to be fatal.”
Angel’s resolve broke at those last words. “Oh God…” He dropped his head into his hands, the enormity of the situation crashing over him like an errant wave at the beach. “…I didn’t mean for that to… oh God, what have I done?”
Callen and Sam waited a moment before the blue-eyed agent spoke, his voice calm and understanding. “Angel…” When the man looked up, there were tears at the edges of his eyes. “…tell us, how did this start?”
Angel let out a long sigh, the truth the only way to ease the pain in his heart. “I was only trying to help… I didn’t mean for this… any of this…” He swallowed the burning in the back of his throat and fixed his eyes on a spot on the wall over Callen’s shoulder, his confession spilling out in a low monotone. “I saw them, day in and day out… coming to the hospital for help… but there were so many of them and not enough doctors, not enough help to go around. I started slipping out some of the samples that the pharmaceutical companies sent to the hospital… you know, the free ones that no one really keeps track of?”
Callen nodded, his mind catching on to the motivations behind what the nurse had done. It didn’t make it any easier to handle the deaths that occurred; but at least now, he could see the why behind the man’s actions.
“But those soon ran out… so I started changing the prescriptions that some of the doctors were writing for their patients. With their lousy handwriting, it was simple to make a three into an eight… or a one into a four. When I filled the orders, I simply kept the difference and handed them to the ones out on the streets that seemed to need them the most.”
Sam’s anger faded slightly, the man’s intent fairly decent but with a horrible execution. “But you aren’t a physician… nor a psychologist… you had no right to do that. You didn’t take into account their poor nutrition, health, mental status… any of it.”
“Do you think I don’t know that!? I was only trying to help when no one else would!”
It was a scream of frustration and bitterness, but Callen didn’t let it go much further than that. “And people died because of it.”
After a second or two, Angel broke. “I’m sorry… I’m so… I didn’t mean for any of this to… I’m so sorry.”
Callen simply closed the folder, and with one final and sympathetic glance at the sobbing man, he followed his silent partner out of the room. Their thoughts over the next few days would be haunted by the anguished cries of a man and his misguided attempt to lend aid, only to cause heartache in the end.
To be continued…
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