Editor’s Note: You can read a prequel of sorts to this story in RobbieC’s earlier piece, The Ochoa Report.
Sam hit the door like an enraged bull, which was pretty much how he hit every door we ever got near. Callen broke right, and I followed Sam to the left, snapping off shots from my SIG at the targets on the kill room walls. Behind me Kensi followed Callen, clearing her sector with same precision she always did. Then the buzzer went off and the lights came up, ending the drill.
Sam was grinning at me. “Not bad, Deeks. Most of those were center mass.”
I gave him my Dummy Deeks grin, knowing all my shots were center mass. Normally I’d have a choice word or three, but I kept thinking of the phone in my pocket and how I needed to check the message. “We can’t all be super Navy SEAL’s, Sam.”
Callen chuckled. “No, but that was a nice drill. Let’s do it again, but with some lineup changes.”
That was my cue. If they started again we’d be here all day. Pulling out my phone, I took a quick look at the screen. Wiltshire Field 1500. “I’d love to stay and dance, but I gotta head back to Ops. Looks like some mandatory training just came open.”
“More Inspector Shaggy classes?”
“That’s Investigator Shaggy to you.” I grinned again. Sam’s joke was getting old. Like most of his jokes.
Kensi checked her SIG. “I didn’t know you had training.”
“Neither did I, baby. They said the waiting list for these classes was huge, but that spots could open at any time.” I shrugged. “Looks like I get to go to K-9 training. Maybe I can pick up a friend for Monty.”
“That is the last thing we need, Deeks.” She slugged me on the bicep.
“Aw, come on, baby. What’s wrong with a cute little killer St. Bernard puppy? We can name him Cujo Junior. CJ for short. Or maybe a Great Dane just for Sam. If we get Nell some glasses she can be Velma, and you’d look so hot dressed up like Daphne. And Callen’s gotta have an ascot stashed somewhere.” I knew I was babbling, but it was the best way to cover.
Callen shook his head. “Better get going, Deeks. We’ll finish up here.”
“And I am gonzo, gonzeville, outa here.” I turned to Kensi. “I’ll text you when I find out how long the course is.” Then I gave her a quick kiss and headed for the door. Callen didn’t know how right he was. I had less than an hour to get my stuff in order and make it to the airport. And on the way I had to drop by Ops and tell the Nellverine I was off to training. I knew Deputy Director Ochoa would have everything in order when she went looking.
I found an executive jet waiting for me on the tarmac. One of those fancy things the FBI types on Criminal Stupidity or whatever the show was were always zipping around on. A big guy in a well-cut suit waited by the stairs, and he took my go-bag and waved me on board.
Louis Ochoa sat in one of the banks of seats that faced each other, so I sat down across from him and did my best to look cool. He actually smiled. “What training did you say you had?”
“Good.” He raised his phone. “Program Deeks as being at K-9 training at McDill.”
“Florida?” I let a look of horror take over my face. “Heat I can deal with. Surfing, too. But humidity?”
“We’re actually going to Miami.” His dark eyes were serious, and I shifted in my seat. Pushing my nerves well back in my mind. Things were getting real now. “I’d hoped for something a little bit closer to home for your first assignment. Something easier, too.” He raised his hand. “For both of us. But events don’t always cooperate.”
“Tell me about it.”
Ochoa smiled again. It wasn’t a Granger shark smile, but there was no mistaking the teeth. “Our Miami field office is having some issues. I’d like you to take a look and report back.”
“Any juicy tidbits I should know?”
He smiled again. “We’ll talk more once we’re in the air.”
We were somewhere over what I guessed was Utah or maybe Missouri. Hard to tell from ten thousand miles up. I wasn’t sure why he waited. Maybe it was to give me time to think about this job. My first job as… whatever I was called. I kept thinking back to Granger’s letter. And I found myself wishing he was on the plane with us.
Ochoa poured us each a cup of coffee. “The Miami field office has been having issues,” he said as an image flashed on the big monitor on the front wall of the cabin. “Complaints of excessive force. Late reports from the new agent in charge. And a feeling in my gut that something’s not right there.”
“And it was the last thing that made you pick up the phone, right?”
“Yes.” I thought back to the next to last line in Granger’s letter. Trust your gut. “It’s an active office as you might guess. Liaison work with DEA, the Navy, and Coast Guard with quite a few interdiction programs. Their last SAC was a solid agent with fifteen years of field experience.”
“So why the problems?”
“She was killed by a car bomb in Little Havana. Miami PD and ATF traced it back to one of the smaller local gangs, contracted by the Cordoba Cartel.”
I nodded, feeling cold fingers on my spine. We’d run into more than a few cartels in L.A., and they were nasty as they come. “That’s never easy.”
“No. And the new SAC was promoted in-house.” He shook his head. “I’d understand if this had happened right after the assassination. Not condone it, but understand it. But she was killed six months ago. And the problems didn’t start until two months ago.”
“Ouch.” I watched as faces started flashing on the screen.
“Exactly.” A bland ID card photo stopped on the screen. The guy had the hard face of career military and brown eyes that looked to have seen too much. “This is the SAC. Walter Burns. Former Marine who came over to NCIS ten years ago. He spent his first few years in the Twenty-Nine Palms field office before being transferred to Miami. He’s got a good arrest record.”
I nodded, letting my brain sort through what I saw on his face. As well as what I didn’t see.
“The excessive force complaints center on two special agents.” The screen changed to show two faces, one a Hispanic man with pinched features and what I’d consider mean eyes and the other a narrow-faced blonde woman with light blue eyes and a nasty scar on her forehead. “Special agents Juan Mendoza and Lisa Silvers. Mendoza’s been assigned to the Miami office for four years, and Silvers was transferred in about a year ago.”
“Are they partners?”
Ochoa nodded. “Not until about three months ago. Mendoza’s original partner was injured in the blast that killed the SAC, and Silvers’ partner requested reassignment right before the attack.”
I nodded, accepting the personnel files Ochoa handed me. It always bothered me, seeing a person’s life reduced to a few sheets of printer paper, but I understood the utility. And I also understood what they didn’t show. As a lawyer and then a cop, people had always been my stock in trade. More than anyone else in OSP understood if I was being honest with myself. “Did Silvers’ partner give any reason for the request?”
“No. And in the aftermath of that attack we didn’t really ask.”
“Yeah. It’s always hard on a group when things like that happen.” I’d seen what the killing of Dom had done to OSP, and he hadn’t even been with them that long. Granted it happened before Hetty recruited me, but the damage was there if you knew where to look. And I always seemed to know where to look. “What about Mendoza’s partner?”
“Medical retirement. He hasn’t filed yet, but his rehab is going slowly and the doctors say he’ll never be seventy percent even with a complete recovery. The blast left him deaf in one ear and he lost part of his right arm.”
I nodded, flipping through the files. “So what’s the plan?”
“You tell me, Deeks.”
No pressure, right? I looked over the top of one of the folders at him and shook my head. “What’s the desired outcome?”
“I want to know if the team can be fixed or if we need to reassign everyone. And what caused the problems. Do we have rogue agents or is it a case of failed leadership?”
“OK.” I looked at the images some more, then went back to the folders. It was there in black and white, but I’d always had a weakness for the color version. “I’ll need to see the team in action first. From the file, it looks like this Burns has been through a lot. Multiple tours in Iraq before NCIS. Looks like he handled a couple of nasty domestics at that base he was at before Miami.” I knew the toll any kind of domestic call took on a cop, especially when there were bodies involved. And then his boss gets blown up not long after he transfers in. I didn’t mean for it to, but my mind wandered back to Dom. I knew what it felt like to be on his side of the blast.
“And the other two?”
“I gotta say I don’t feel all warm and snuggly about two agents with excessive force complaints being partnered, but I get it. Not enough agents, too many cases. You can’t bench the whole office.” I thought back to LAPD. “But cops like that feed off each other. It’s like watching Shark Week when they dump the bloody chum in the water. But I’ve also seen excessive force complaints that weren’t justified. I won’t know if this is a bucket of chum or a snow job until I see them in the field. But you can also tell a lot by what the paperwork says… or doesn’t say if you know how to read between the lines.” I was thinking of Silvers’ partner.
Ochoa chuckled. “Granger always said you had a way with words. What’s your plan?”
“I don’t know all the fancy details yet, but I do know I want to see them from the other side of the badge. At least at first. What are they working on right now?”
“The Coast Guard thinks they’ve got a lead on a human trafficking ring working South Florida. One of the smaller ones, so they asked the Miami office to lend a hand. ICE and Homeland aren’t involved yet, so the field’s pretty open.”
I nodded, feeling a crazy idea forming in my head. Ok, maybe it wasn’t crazy, but it was what Bates would have called unconventional. “Are Mendoza and Silvers working undercover?”
Ochoa looked at his laptop. “Not at this time. Burns has them doing straight liaison work with the Coast Guard.”
“OK. That’s gotta be burning them up, right? Two hotshot special agents put on the bench to do paperwork. Means their fuses are gonna be short. Has anyone from Internal Affairs talked to them about their complaints yet? No? Good. They’ll be acting normal, then. Not on their best behavior because mom and dad are looking out the kitchen window into the backyard.” As fast as I was talking, my brain was working faster. “How secure is that field office?”
“They’re working out of an undeclared branch office. It lets them meet with the Coast Guard’s people.”
“Even better.” I smiled. “All I’ll need from you is tomorrow’s color of the day and a message to their SAC deconflicting an ongoing operation from another field office. San Diego, maybe. Just let me know which one you pick so I can have my story straight.”
Ochoa nodded, his fingers flying over his laptop keyboard. “The message has been sent, and the color for tomorrow is yellow.” He paused. “Do I want to know what you’re going to do?”
“I’m just gonna pay them a friendly little visit.” I chuckled. “Or I should say someone I know is gonna pay them a visit.”
Ochoa actually sprung for a decent hotel, so I didn’t change there. The last thing I wanted was to be thrown out before I had a chance to order more room service and sample the mini-bar. We’d landed well after dark, so I didn’t do much more than check in and crash out after sending Kensi a quick text complaining about wet dog smell and cockroaches. Her response was short, telling me to stop being a baby, so I knew she was still pissed about the ‘training.’ I thought about calling her, but changed my mind. She sounded like she was in the mood for a fight, and I wasn’t. So I just texted back ‘love you’ and waited for her reply before trying to read some of the case files. The next thing I knew it was morning and I’d drooled all over one of the printouts. I’d never been much for staying awake when I was trying to read in bed.
The branch office was near the beach, but so was most of Miami, so it wasn’t hard to find a public restroom. Finding one that wasn’t in use for any number of other activities was harder, but I was good at improvising. In less than five minutes Marty disappeared and Artie stumbled out of the bathroom and was on his way.
Artie was a malodorous composite of about six homeless guys I’d known during my patrol days with LAPD. Suffering from any number of psychiatric disorders, digestive complaints, and usually reeking of cheap booze, Artie could disappear in just about any urban landscape as easily as a discarded water bottle or crumpled newspaper. I liked using him for routine surveillance operations, but he had other abilities as well.
I’d gone with what I called “Nam Artie” today… switching out the coat stored safely in a freezer back in California for a lighter green fatigue shirt with tattered patches that could have come from Vietnam. A pint bottle of some cheap whiskey peeked out from the lower left pocket, and torn green fatigue pants and stained work boots completed the look. I’d even found a ratty old flop brim hat to round things off. Nam Artie could have stepped right out of central casting for a bad ‘80s TV cop show, and that was the point.
By the time I got near the branch office I’d visited enough dumpsters to have the look and smell of Miami firmly imprinted on Nam Artie. I knew I’d gotten it right when I staggered past a group of homeless guys smoking cigarettes and drinking from tallboy beer cans in paper bags. One of them gave me a wink and muttered, “Miami PD just busted six guys a block over.”
“Thanks, brother.” I offered him and his pals a nip from my bottle, reminding myself to get rid of it as soon as I could. “Got run outa a 7-11 back that way.” I waved my hand in the general direction of L.A.
“Bastards.” One of the other guys spoke now. “But you best watch that office over yonder.” He nodded in the direction of the branch office. “Some asshole and his lady. Place used ta be a good spot to raise some funds. One of them little malls tourists get lost by.” He hoisted his beer can. “But they took up there an’ ran us out.”
“They call the cops?”
“Naw, brother. They did it their own selves. Chick damned near busted my ribs, too.”
“Thanks.” I waved away the bottle. “You dudes enjoy that. Got another back with my bedroll. My momma always said t’ share.”
I made a show of staggering back the way I’d come, but ducked into a side alley as soon as they couldn’t see me. Stories on the street had a way of taking on lives of their own, but this one felt real to me. It was immediate, and at least one of the people involved had been there. That and as far as they knew I was one of them. Street folk didn’t lie as quick to each other.
The strip mall could have been lifted right from L.A. and dropped between two rows of palm trees. I looked it over from a couple of different angles first, Artie disappearing into the landscape like he always did. Half the storefronts were empty, windows blocked by faded ‘for rent’ signs from real estate agents whose names and numbers had been bleached almost white by the Florida sun. The primo corner spot was taken by a hair and nail salon that probably moonlighted as a meeting spot for streetwalkers and a couple of ambitious dealers. Another office was occupied by a travel agency on its last legs, and then there was a suitably mysterious firm named after what you were supposed to assume was the owner. I’d found the covert office.
I knew I couldn’t really give them a hard time about their choice of locations. After all, OSP worked out of a derelict building and a boat shed. The only thing we were missing was a phone booth with a disappearing floor… although I did stash the idea away for later. It was the kind of thing that would give Nell fits but would appeal to Beale. Maybe I could put one in the bar once things got back to normal.
The two “unmarked” gray sedans parked in the lot told me the two special agents were there, and that like most cops they were creatures of habit. Like Sam and his habitual black Challengers. Or the LAPD surveillance van that always looked like a kidnapper’s ride. Some things never changed.
I watched the place for a few more minutes before pulling a second pint bottle out of my jacket. Splashing the cheap booze on my face and letting it drip down on my shirt, I put the bottle away before pinning a bright yellow ribbon on the left side of the jacket. Once the color of the day was right where they couldn’t miss it, I rolled my shoulders a little bit and then put my feet into stagger mode. It was time to go to work.
I picked the cleaner of the two cars, going on the reverse Kensi theory that the female agent would be more particular about her ride. Stumbling over, I leaned against the hood and made a show of pretending to blow my nose. Then Artie took the stage. “Whoo! That was a good one! Hey, anybody got any smokes around here? I’m out an’ that ain’t good.”
Even though I hadn’t seen it, I was sure they had a camera trained on the parking lot. They proved me right when they came out the front doors, her in the lead like I’d figured. “Hey! Get your mangy ass off my car!”
“Car? What? Where? Oh, this is a car? My bad. I thought it was the bus stop. You seen the bus stop that’s supposed t’ be here?” I sprawled against the car for effect, bracing inside for what I was hoping wasn’t coming.
Lisa Silvers was taller than her picture made her look. Faster, too. Lots faster. She crossed the space between the door and the car before I could do much more than grin my stupid Artie grin. I got a brief look at Mendoza, who was shorter and slower than his picture, and then Silvers grabbed my arm. Hard. Way harder than the situation required. “I said get your mangy ass off my car!”
I thought I was ready, but I also hadn’t expected her to lead off with a punch to the gut. It took me a very long moment to get my breath back, keeping my arms up to ward off the blows she was aiming at my head. “Color of the day is yellow.” I hissed the words so they didn’t carry. “See the ribbon? Yellow.”
Mendoza finally huffed his way over. If I had to guess, he’d been enjoying the show until he heard that last word. “Hey, partner? Ease up. He’s got the color of the day.”
“My ass he does.”
“No. He does.” Peering through my raised arms I could see lines of worry spreading on Mendoza’s sweaty forehead. “I think he’s the guy the boss said we should watch for.”
The look in her eyes changed from something animal to fear, and I had to really fight back an urge to punch her. Just once. “Boss didn’t say anything about him leaning on my car.”
“It’s called a cover. You should try it sometime. Great way to conduct surveillance, blend in, and bum free rides on public transportation. Sometimes you even get spare change.” I straightened up, grinning to cover a stab of pain as something in my lower ribcage pulled. I wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction. “Now make a show of running me inside so no one gets suspicious if they’re watching. And you always gotta assume they’re watching.”
The office air conditioning felt good. Heat I could take, but humidity was something else. I just stood there letting it soak in, watching as Silvers hung back and Mendoza kept grinning like he’d hit his head on something. “So you’re the special agent from San Diego?”
“Looks like it, doesn’t it? This must be that famous Miami hospitality we hear so much about out in California. Your partner always beat up newcomers? Is it some kind of initiation thing?” I knew I was pushing it, but I needed to see just where her line was. And where his was.
Her upper lip curled in a snarl. “You could have identified yourself earlier.”
“Like I said before, I’m undercover. That means you don’t pin your badge to your jacket pocket and walk in with a dozen of Dunkin’s finest. The gang I’m tracking doesn’t play nice with others.” I watched her eyes as I spoke, trying to keep memories of Boyle’s eyes locked away. “And you didn’t really give me a chance before you laid into me.”
Her eyes changed, and I almost sighed with relief. She was embarrassed. Boyle was never embarrassed. “I… I guess I didn’t, did I?”
Mendoza cleared his throat, and I could see he was getting more nervous by the minute. “Did you need our help with this case? Can you tell us anything about it?”
Nodding, I gave them the short version of the story Ochoa had planted for me while we were still in the air. It was a sad tale of a Marine at MCRD San Diego who’d gone missing, along with a number of M-4s. “He’s got ties to the Miami area,” I finished, “so they sent me down to take a look around and see if he or the rifles turned up here.”
Mendoza shook his head. “By ties you mean gang ties?”
Silvers snorted. The sound reminded me of Sam’s many grunts of disapproval. “I thought they screened for that stuff.”
“Yeah. But kids lie.” Mendoza gave me a world-weary smile. “How can we help?”
“Information mostly. This isn’t my turf, so I don’t know the players. And it’s mainly the rifles my office is interested in, so anyone who might handle that kind of merchandise is a bonus.”
“Lots of guns moving through this town.” Mendoza shifted so the air conditioning wasn’t blowing Artie’s smell up his nose. “We’re seconded to the Coast Guard on interdiction right now, but before that I worked a bit with ATF. Lisa only transferred in a few months back.”
“Still getting up to speed.” She smiled, but I could see bitterness in her eyes. “Close to a year you’d think I’d know the players, but they change every day.”
I nodded. “Yeah. Learning a new beat’s never easy. It took me a couple of years to get used to San Diego. Where’d you come from?”
“Memphis. Right out of training.”
“Maybe you should talk to our SAC. He’ll be here in about fifteen minutes.” Mendoza jerked his head toward a closed door on the far side of the room. “Bathroom’s over there if you want to wash some of Miami off before he gets here.”
Silvers nodded. “Might not be a bad idea. He’s a former Marine, and you know how they are.”
Now it was my turn to nod, tossing a grimace on my face for good measure. “Tell me about it. My first SAC was a former Jarhead. And boy did she never let you forget it.”
I took my time in the bathroom, letting what I’d seen swirl around in my head while I washed the grime and dried whiskey off my face and hands. Nam Artie’s jacket would stay here, too. Not much I could do about the fatigue pants, but they didn’t smell as bad as the jacket. All I knew is I hadn’t liked what I’d seen.
Even though she was newer and younger, there was no question in my mind Silvers ran the team. Body language alone made that clear as day. She set the tone and Mendoza followed. Not that he was innocent; it took a willing follower to rack up the kind of excessive force complaints the two collected.
She’s not Boyle. I said it in my head, even though I knew I’d pay more attention if I actually spoke the words. But I’d learned in OSP you could never know who was listening. It was a good reminder. Her eyes weren’t as empty as Boyle’s had been. Not yet, anyhow. And with luck they never would be.
SAC Walter Burns was the guy you knew had been a Marine the second he walked into the room, and not just from the crazy buzz-cut I’d learned from Kensi they called a “high and tight.” It was more in how he kept his shoulders back, how he sized up the room the second he came through the door, and a certain something about his eyes. He had funny brown eyes, and right now they looked more tired than certain. “You must be the agent from the San Diego field office. Higher told me you were coming in.” He looked at his two agents. “Hope they gave you a good Miami field office welcome.”
I let the silence fill the room for a second. “They did just that, SAC Burns. Made me feel right at home.” Even Silvers’ eyes showed a flash of gratitude.
“Good.” I could tell by the way he shifted his head he wasn’t convinced, but also that he didn’t want to make an issue of it. “HQ didn’t tell me much about your assignment.”
I gave him the same tale of stolen M-4s and the kid’s gang ties, trusting Ochoa had enough of the basic facts right to pass muster. “…But what I really need is the local knowledge.”
“I’m surprised they didn’t just hand the case off to us.”
“Well, we’ve got sun and surf in San Diego, so I didn’t con them into sending me for the ocean and a tan.” I grinned then got serious again. “I worked the San Diego end of the case, and I know the kid pretty well. As well as I can without taking him to the mall for frappuccinos, at least. Talked to all the other recruits in his company, his DIs, and even some of the local strippers he met before he went over the hill.” I paused. “They still say that, right? Over the hill?”
“They do, Special Agent Gentry.” Burns gave me a long-suffering smile. “They certainly do.”
I think Ochoa thought it was funny that I was using Martin Gentry as my cover name. To me it made sense. “The way I see it, the kid stole the rifles figuring he could sell them in San Diego. But it’s a tight crowd there, and he didn’t know the right secret handshakes. Plus the bangers there really like their AKs. I mean they really like them, so no market, right? But the kid’s already made his play. So what’s he gonna do? Run for home. At least that’s what I’d do. And it’s what he did. Stole a car and made it to Nevada and then started buying bus tickets.”
Burns nodded again, and I could see Silvers starting to fidget. Tapping her long fingers on her thigh like she was sending Morse code. If Burns saw he didn’t admit it. “What gang does this kid run with?”
“A crew called the 10th Street Disciples.”
“I know them. Mostly small time. A few liquor store stickups. Stuff like that. But they got ambition. I could see them wanting to get their hands on M-4s.” Mendoza turned to Burns. “I heard about them back when you had us working with ATF before…”
“Yeah. I remember.” Burns cut him off with a quick look, but I knew what ‘before’ meant. “And you’re right about them being small time but ambitious. Both Miami PD and Miami-Dade have files on them. And you’re sure this kid’s connected?”
“Family ties, we think. He enlisted in Fresno ‘cause his mother was there, but he’s got an uncle, three cousins, and who knows what else in Miami. Lived here for a few years when he was younger. According to his barracks roommate he talked about the place all the time.” I knew I was laying it on thick, but I needed to build a cover for an invisible man strong enough, and confusing enough, to keep them guessing until I had what I needed.
Burns sighed. “Look, I don’t know how much help we’ll be able to provide. We’re understrength here, and most of my people are tied up with a case out of McDill. SOCOM-connected, so it’s all hands on deck.” He winced and shifted.
Mendoza reached out and laid a hand on his shoulder. “It’s all good, boss. We got this.”
“Damn arm.” Burns nodded to his agent and then turned back to me. “We had an incident a few months back and I caught some shrapnel in my arm. Hurts like hell from time to time.” His eyes clicked into rewind, and I knew he was seeing the bomb go off again. I knew the feeling. I still heard dental drills now and again.
“Sorry to hear that. Any casualties?”
Mendoza laughed, although it was more like the bark of a pit bull. “You could say that. My old partner’s on his way out the door.”
“The bomb took out our old SAC, too.” Silvers had a mean glint in her eyes, and I knew where her anger came from. Nothing hit home like losing a loved one. “I hadn’t been here that long, but…”
“Yeah. Any time you lose a fellow agent it hits hard.” I turned back to Burns. “Look, I’ll appreciate any help your office can give, even if it’s just a ride to the airport. But it’s late now, and I still need to get settled in and check in with my own SAC. That way I can tell him I’ve checked in with your office and you’re providing as much assistance as you can.” I looked down at the stained fatigue pants. “Got to settle a cover in, too. It’d be a big help if you could pull together what you’ve got on the 10th Street Disciples before tomorrow morning.”
Silvers started to say something but bit her words back when Burns raised a hand. “Be glad to help as much as we can.”
“I get you got a lot going on. I’ll let my boss know that, too. We didn’t know about McDill.” I was wondering if Ochoa knew about McDill or if this was some kind of smoke screen, but I also knew I’d learn more if I kept playing Dumb Deeks. “No way I’d expect you to divert anything from that. Good local intel should be enough to keep me moving.”
He nodded. “That and Silvers and Mendoza should be able to help some.” I pretended not to notice their groans. “This Coast Guard and ICE thing is mostly liaison stuff, and if I didn’t have the regional command leaning on me I’d have sent them to McDill, too.”
Ochoa laughed when I mentioned McDill. “The Miami office has nothing going in that direction. According to his latest report, Burns has his people working a couple of cases involving Reservists in the Miami area.”
“I read as much from his body language.” Even though I was in my hotel room I had the TV on and a couple of Beale gadgets running on full power. I was getting a vibe from the locals I didn’t like and wanted to cover all my bases. “He doesn’t like me, but that’s because I’m from out of town.”
“What’s your first impression?” The connection was clear enough it was like the deputy director was sitting next to me. To be honest, I wished he was.
“Silvers is the one driving the train, at least where she and Mendoza are concerned.” I paused. “I don’t think she’s completely gone.” I paused for a moment, seeing Boyle’s eyes in my head again. “Not completely gone,” I said, repeating myself like I did when I was nervous about something. “But we gotta get to her quick. Mendoza’s a follower, but he’s not comfortable with how she rolls. You can see it in his eyes, too. But he wants to be part of the team.” Another pause as I thought back to my own struggles with that… both with LAPD and later NCIS. I’d chosen not to bend, but that was a hard, lonely road I knew wasn’t for everyone. “Breaking them up might do the trick.”
“Pair him with someone good and her with someone who will take charge?”
“Yeah. They both can still learn, but it has to be from the right people.”
It was the question I knew was coming but dreaded just the same. “I don’t know yet, Ochoa. I wish I did. Seems like a good agent. Solid, and cares about his people. But why spin me a story about McDill? That doesn’t leave me with a warm, fuzzy feeling about him. This team’s taken a lot of losses… I think that’s what pushed Silvers mean. And Burns doesn’t seem to be dealing with them at all. But I’m just not sure yet.”
“Take your time, Deeks. Maybe meet with Burns tomorrow and dig deeper. I need to know if he can handle being the SAC there or if we need to make some changes.” Now it was his turn to pause. “But I don’t want to hurt the man. He’s a good agent, and some people just don’t understand these things.”
“No, they don’t.” There were a few things I could add, but I bit my tongue. Ochoa was a good guy, one of the really good ones as far as I could tell. And if Granger trusted him I owed him that respect, too. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
I’d just taken a bite of something they called a Cuban sandwich delivered by a guy who looked to be about twelve when the phone chimed. Kensi. “Hey, baby! How’s my girl?”
“Deeks…” The tone of her voice told me all I needed to know before she said another word. “You wouldn’t believe the day I had!” For ten minutes I got to make the occasional noise as she told me all about some raid they’d been on… how great Sam and Callen had been… how great Roundtree had been… the usual. Finally she had to stop for breath. “You know, I did kinda miss you. It’s strange being in the car and not finding at least one burrito wrapper.”
“You know those are all you, baby.”
She protested like she always did, but I’d spoken the truth. Kensi, beautiful, darling Kensi, the love of my life, was a slob. To the core. “You know I don’t eat those things!”
“The wrappers tell a different story.” I paused. “I’m glad the raid went OK.”
That set off another flurry about Roundtree and Fatima. I listened, making encouraging noises from time to time, knowing I wouldn’t get a word in until she wound down. Then, finally, it happened. “How was your day?”
I wanted to tell her the truth. To tell her I was working a special project for the deputy director. But instead what came out of my mouth was “How would you like getting sniffed in really inappropriate places by a big freaking German Shepherd all day? And I don’t know what they feed those monsters, but you need a full size trash bag to clean up after one and not those little poop bags.”
“How much longer is this class going to run?” She dropped her voice, and I wondered if she was calling from the office and didn’t want the others to hear. “I miss you.”
“At least a couple more days. They might extend it, and if they do I’ll let you know.” I wanted to ask why she had to drop her voice to say she missed me, but I bit my tongue. Again. “Call me tomorrow, OK?”
“You know I will. Goodnight, Deeks.” And then her voice was gone.
I sat on the bed, staring at the TV without seeing it. Letting the day run back through my mind along with the call I’d just had. And you can bet the two got jumbled up awful damned fast. Old Mr. Boggs, my foster father, would have known what to do. Granger, bless his Kevlar-coated heart, would have, too. But me, good ol’ Marty Deeks? I had no freakin’ clue.
Half the problem in the Miami station was already solved as far as I could tell. Break up Silvers and Mendoza, and keep a close watch on Silvers so she got back on the right path. Mendoza was a follower, so all you had to do was pair him with a solid, plodding agent and he’d plod his own way to retirement without breaking a sweat. But Burns… he was a different story.
I didn’t like the fact he’d lied to me about McDill. Didn’t like it one bit. All he needed to do was say he couldn’t spare agents. Any SAC could say that. So why make up a story about a case that didn’t exist? He seemed like a solid guy aside from that… good record, the full deal. But you could see the pain in his eyes. It was the look of a man who’d seen a lot in his time. Maybe too much.
Callen and Sam would just make some snide comment if they were here, but I’d like to think that’s why Granger had picked me for this job. Pain, I knew from hard-won experience, was cumulative. And not everyone has the same storage capacity for it. I had no doubt Burns had a damned big tank… he wouldn’t be where he was if he didn’t. But he’d also soaked up quite a bit, both his own and that of his team. He was the kind of leader who did that… took on the hurt for his people so they could keep doing their jobs. I knew something about that, too.
Sighing, I lay back on the bed and shut off the TV. Tomorrow was another day, or at least that’s what they told me. But before I fell asleep, one thought smacked me upside the head. Why did Kensi always sound so happy on the phone when I was gone? Nothing like a kick in the ol’ self esteem to prevent a good night’s sleep.
Burns was waiting with Silvers and Mendoza when I showed up at the ‘covert’ office in the strip mall. It was still pretty early, but already Miami was sweating under what the locals called tropical air. Me? I was missing L.A., waking up next to Kensi, the morning run, and coffee from the Pump N’ Go down by the beach.
Silvers handed me a thick folder, and from the look on her face you’d think she was giving up all her family secrets and the deed to some old estate out in the country. “This is what we’ve got on the Disciples. Some of it’s Miami-Dade… we worked a case a month or so back involving a sailor who’d gotten mixed up with them on a drug buy.”
“Thanks.” I decided to throw her a bone. “I’ll be sure to let my SAC know you guys have been a big help in this. He likes writing long reports, and since he went through training with some of the higher-ups in DC…” I let the thought trail off, and was rewarded with a glitter of ambition in her eyes. Nothing like appealing to someone’s more base nature to get them on your side. Or at least stop them from working against you. In this case it was pretty much the same thing.
Burns nodded. “That was a nasty case. The Disciples are a pretty rough crew. If you’re going to tangle with them, you’re gonna need more than those unwashed fatigues you had on yesterday.”
“We get Blood and Crip sets in San Diego all the time, so I’ve worked my share of gang-related cases. Don’t worry, boss, I’m not gonna take any dumb chances.” It was time to fish a bit. “And I won’t ask your people to take any, either.” I looked him straight in the eyes. “If that’s what you’re worried about.”
He nodded, then looked at Silvers and Mendoza. “I couldn’t push that meeting with the Coast Guard back, and Homeland’s gonna be there as well. You two head out, and I’ll finish briefing Special Agent Gentry.” Once they were gone he sat down with a sigh and waved me to a chair. “I’m sure you know that file’s only part of the story.”
“That’s how it always is, boss.” I kept using the term to put him at ease… maybe get him thinking I was part of his team and not some outsider he needed to keep in the dark. So far it felt like it was working. “Especially with gangs.”
“You know, D.C.’s always hung up on cartels. Sees them behind every rock and palm tree down here. But they aren’t the biggest problem. It’s the gangs who want to up their visibility with the cartels who cause most of the mayhem. And the cartels use them, too. Contracting out hits, buys, you name it.”
“Like the bomb your people were talking about?”
Pain flashed hard in his eyes. “Yeah. Something like that. The Feds are tying it to the Cordoba Cartel, but we’ve got local intel saying they contracted it out to a local outfit.”
“We get that, too.” Time to build more sympathy. “Every time there’s a drive-by, D.C. wants to tie it to the Vera Cruz Cartel or Sinaloa when it’s really just some Bloods settling a score. And they always know best because there’s some scratchy cell phone intercept the NSA scooped up that might be a hit order but also might be some guy in a border village ordering tacos for carryout.”
“Tell me something, Gentry. Do you really think you’ll get those M-4s back?”
I shook my head. “You know, I doubt it. I really do. But I think it’s more important to get our UA Marine back. And maybe find out why he jumped like he did. I don’t know about you, but I don’t see many Marines cutting and running like that without a good reason. Or what they think is a good reason.”
He just looked at me for a minute, and I started to think I’d overplayed the hand. “You really believe that?”
“I do, boss. File says he was a good Marine before he went UA. Not outstanding, but not a brig rat either. I did some talking, and the guys in his squad liked him, too. He’ll do time, especially if the M-4s are already on the street, but that doesn’t have to be the end of it.” It was an easy line for me to take, because for me it was true. I’d seen plenty of guys when I was LAPD who’d made bad decisions for what they thought were good reasons. And not all of them were the bad guys.
“I used to think that way, Gentry. I really did. Back when I was active duty I tried to run my platoon that way, too.” He made a sound in his throat that was supposed to be a chuckle. “Funny how things change after you scrape someone off the front of your shirt.”
I was in dangerous territory now. His eyes were distant, and there was a catch in his voice. But I couldn’t let it go. “But do they really change, boss? I mean down where it matters. Like, down where we are who we are.” I paused. “I had a case a couple of years back. My partner was in trouble. Like real, serious, about to be killed in a really nasty way trouble. And I had a prisoner who knew here he was being held.” I took a breath. I’d almost said she. Couldn’t give that away. “So I worked him over. Something I swore I’d never do. Thing is, he didn’t break.”
“Well, here’s the kicker. I was about to go at it again when I stopped and took a good look at myself. And I’ll be damned if I didn’t like what I saw. There I was, giving up on everything I believed in, and the guy was just laughing at me. So I stared thinking. Turns out the guy was related to the guy who had my partner.” It sounded funny, putting that kind of spin on what had happened in Afghanistan… one of the few times in my life I’d crossed my own line. “We worked a straight-up trade. My partner for that guy.”
“I’m still waiting for the punch line.”
“Sorry. I’m a talker. Punch line’s this, boss… It’s not worth crossing the line. Not in the long run. If I’d have kept working that guy over, I would have killed him. No question. And then we wouldn’t have learned about him being related and all that.” I thought back to Mosley and the look on her face when Kensi and I caught her in that warehouse beating a prisoner. I never wanted to see that look on Burns’ face. Never. “Seen another guy go over that line, too. It ended bad. Really bad. They were lucky to get out alive. Really lucky.”
“I hear you. Most days. But there’s those other days.” He was opening up now. I could feel it, like you did in the interrogation room when that connection clicks and you’re in the perp’s head. “Those other days,” he repeated, looking away.
“I’ve been there, boss. Not sure what gets me through, to be honest. But you’ve got one thing I don’t. You’re a Marine. Always Faithful, isn’t it? Words to live by, brother. That’s a serious code. You always gotta be faithful. To your team. And to yourself. That good part of you that made it through combat… that got your guys home. Man, you gotta stay faithful to that.”
There was an old battery-powered clock on the wall, one of those that looked like an old school classroom clock, and its ticking was suddenly the loudest sound in the whole world. He kept looking down, and I was starting to wonder if I’d lost him. “There is no case at McDill. I didn’t… I guess I wanted to keep my people away from the 10th Street Disciples. They’re a rough crew, and…”
“It’s OK, boss. You don’t know me. I get that. No way I’d expect you to risk your people on someone you don’t know after what happened to your old SAC.”
“No… That’s the problem, Martin. What happened to the SAC shouldn’t matter. Not when it comes to this.”
I knew I had him when he used my first name. “That’s what the book says, yeah. But we both know it isn’t always what happens. You’re the boss, so you gotta make the calls. Good and bad. And you gotta own all of ‘em.” I chuckled. “That’s why I stay a special agent.” But now I had to let him down easy. “You know NCIS has resources, right? I had to use them myself after that case I told you about.” It wasn’t quite true, but it was close enough for government work. “No mark in your record, either. I gotta say it helped me. Don’t know if I would have made it through that otherwise.”
“Not my place to do anything but listen, boss. And say what helped me get through that dark time. One thing I do know, I was useless to my team until I did that.”
We sat there for a couple of minutes, listening to the clock and the hiss of the room’s central air. He was the one who broke the silence. “Look, I appreciate it. I’ll… I’ll think about it. But now, we got your case to get through.”
“I need to check in with San Diego, too. Last time I called, my SAC was making noise about some new local lead. If it’s legit I might be out of your hair sooner than we thought.”
He nodded, but his eyes were still distant. “Let’s get over to the main office. There’s some additional stuff on the Disciples you might want to see.”
Ochoa didn’t say a word as I made my report, but when I finished he sighed. “It sounds like Burns is in a bad place.”
“He is, but I think he wants to find his way out.” The sun had vanished half an hour ago, and I was sitting on the hotel room’s balcony trying to convince myself the surf I heard was L.A.’s. But it didn’t work. Each beach had its own tune, and this one wasn’t familiar at all. No matter how hard I tried to make it that way. “What I’m trying to say is I think he’s worth saving if we can.”
“So do I, Deeks. Do you have any suggestions?”
“The SAC was killed in a pretty public way. Doesn’t NCIS mandate counseling after things like that?” I knew the answer, and the reality, but I wanted to see if he did.
“We do. But I know as well as you do it isn’t always enforced.”
“Make an exception here. You can use it as partial cover for splitting up Silvers and Mendoza, and if we get Burns with the right shrink it might just save his life.”
“No. But it’s not a long walk from where he is to that place.” We’d lost a couple of detectives in my unit to suicide when I was LAPD, and in most cases we’d all known they were on that path. And all too often no one did a damned thing. “I’d suggest sending Getz if he’s available. Burns will open up more to someone who’s been in the field and can walk the walk. And Nate can make it feel like a normal debrief until it isn’t. He’s an easy guy to talk to. And if we get Burns back in the game and break up that toxic duo I think you can stop worrying about the Miami office. But be careful who you put Silvers with.” I thought back to her eyes. “She’s borderline, and it won’t take much to push her over that line. She’s got something deep eating at her and it might be worth finding out what it is before putting her back in the field.”
We talked for a few more minutes, and he agreed to route a formal request for my return to San Diego through channels that wouldn’t make Burns nervous. Then I ended the call and started writing up my report. But before that I tried calling Kensi. It went straight to voicemail. I stopped after the third try. If she was working a case, she’d call me when she got free.
I guess it didn’t matter if I talked to her or not. After all, I couldn’t tell her what I’d done. How I might have saved the careers of three agents. The work I was doing, and how Granger himself had recommended me for it. How important this work was for keeping NCIS on the right side of things.
But all I could do is lie about scooping dog poop and listen to her brag about the latest exploits of Callen and Sam. Looking down at my report, I had to wonder what I’d say about them if Ochoa ever asked. Actually, I didn’t wonder. I just wasn’t sure if I’d tell him the truth. But then Ochoa already knew. He’d watched the team up close and personal for months.
Sighing, I closed the laptop and looked out toward water I couldn’t see. The old Miami Vice theme was playing my head, but I couldn’t see the charm for all the neon. As far as assignments go this one hadn’t been bad. But it was also my first time out, and it stood to reason Ochoa would line up an easy gig to get us both a win. And now all I had to do was wait for Kensi to call…