Disclaimer: Not Universal/no profit
Echo Park, Los Angeles
Lug nuts. Lug nuts were the best damn therapists.
Rome jerked the crowbar fiercely. Loosening the bolts, after the crash had nearly snapped his back left tire clean off took all of his strength and most of his concentration. For a second, he couldn’t do anything but work ‘em loose. The bolts were jammed so tight, it made his muscles bunch. Which kinda sucked, because, holy hell, if he had to replace the goddamned axle without Brian’s…
And just like that the anxiety was back. Because Brian, the fucker, hadn’t been around for almost four days and had left Roman neck deep in it with just two phone calls to tide him over. And Rome had already boxed a few rounds with furious and was now moving into a sparring session with freaked out.
He straightened, wiped his sweaty hands on a rag and fished his phone out of his back pocket. No missed calls. No voicemails. Son of a bitch. Rome pressed Brian’s speed dial again muttering to himself. It clicked straight to voicemail. Rome clicked the phone shut angrily; he’d already left two voicemails at a volume that didn’t exactly leave his feelings in doubt.
He was going to brain that fluffy-headed white boy when he saw him again. Seriously, gonna hit him so hard with, like, a brick.
But there was a quiet engine sidling up outside. Rome took a deep breath of anticipation, relief and rage. He looked down at his hand. Nah, crowbar was too much. He ran up the few stairs to the second level, there was a baseball bat up there somewhere, he just knew it.
“It’s about damn time, motherfu—“ Rome closed off on the word abruptly when he realized that the face looking up at him wasn’t close to…
“Not who you were expecting?” Special Agent Bilkins looked up at him dryly, before casting a vaguely disgusted look around the garage.
Rome blinked rapidly, but didn’t say anything, because the likelihood of saying something stupid seemed to be pretty high. He stared laser-like at the back of Bilkins’ grizzled head until Bilkins deigned to look at him again and speak.
“You know this’d be almost the last place I’d look for Brian O’Connor.” Bilkins said kind of vaguely. ‘Course, you guys mastered that ‘do what everyone least expects’ crap back in Miami.”
Bilkins actually appeared to be musing, Rome suddenly noticed that the man was swaying on his feet a little. He looked bone-tired. That didn’t make Roman feel sympathetic, only wary.
“What do you want?” Rome made it sound flat, took out almost all the attitude, because he just didn’t need the hassle that Bilkins could dole out, not now, not ever.
Roman shrugged expressively.
“You don’t know, or you don’t wanna tell me?” Bilkins had also flattened his voice, taking all the inflection out.
“Little of both,” Rome decided honesty couldn’t hurt at this stage.
Bilkins sighed. “Pearce, do you really think this is a social call?”
“Shit, I sure hope it’s not,” Roman jeered a little. “We ain’t got that much in common.”
“Son, we don’t have anything in common,” Bilkins said calmly. “And if you think I’ve got time to spar with you, you are even dumber than you look.”
Rome would have bristled, but however dumb he looked, the significance of having one of the FBI’s SAIC coming to call wasn’t lost on him. “Something’s gotten fucked up.”
Bilkins shook his head, but not like he was denying it. “Where’s O’Connor?”
“Went down to Baja for a couple of days,” Rome shrugged, like he didn’t really give a damn what Brian did or what Bilkins thought.
Bilkins scowled, slightly harder than he’d been scowling before. “He’s on vacation?”
“Something like that,” Rome spoke airily. Somehow having Bilkins annoyed lessened his own annoyance. Made it more bearable.
“Christ,” Bilkins stood still for a second, hands on hips. He yanked a cell phone out of his pocket and pressed a number on speed-dial. “Callie, O’Connor’s in Mexico, could you call your guy at Customs and whoever you know at CBP to get us a line on his crossing? And run a trace on this number….” Bilkins glanced back at Roman and made a ‘talk quickly, jackass’ gesture.
“Civil liberties, much?” Rome leaned on the side of the car and folded his arms. “Why don’t you back up a bit and explain to me why I should.”
Bilkins took two steps forward and Rome stiffened. Bilkins had always seemed kind of harmless back in Miami. Fatherly, almost. Right now though, Rome was getting the sense that Bilkins wasn’t just a pencil pusher, and the man was big. And angry.
“Don’t have time for this, Pearce,” Bilkins said just short of a snarl. “If he’s still your friend, I’d cough it up double-time, before this shit gets any deeper.”
Rome blinked. Momentarily, his common sense took possession of his mouth. “213-555-7556”
Bilkins turned back to his phone without acknowledgement. “Did you get that? Good. Pearce is coming into PC now, if you or Quinn get anything, you call me. I’m coming in to Wilshire.”
Bilkins clicked the phone shut and Roman set his feet a little harder, widened his stance. “What’s PC?”
“Protective custody, Pearce.” Bilkins sighed. “You know that.”
“Did I do something? I don’t remember doing something.” Rome tried not to sound as freaked out as he felt. “You gonna run me in, you better mirandize me or something.”
Bilkins looked like he would cheerfully body-check Roman and just drag him to the car, so Rome talked fast. “Man, give a little, take a deep breath and maybe I can help you out.”
“Go get in the fucking car, Pearce,” Bilkins growled.
“You tell me what’s going on,” Rome said firmly. He narrowed his eyes at Bilkins, flexing his shoulders mulishly.
“I’m serious, Pearce!” Bilkins barked. Then he muttered to himself something that sounded like, I can’t believe this.
When he raised both hands to rub his eyes, his jacket pulled up and Rome could see his holster. “Do you boys ever watch the news?”
Rome just blinked at him and Bilkins gritted his teeth. “Newsfeed nationwide this past month about one particular well-heeled fugitive? Busted out on his transport from SFRC to Union Correctional. Not ringing a bell? It would have been a name you recognized.”
“I’ve been busy,” Rome’s skin thrilled with defensiveness. He was a working man, for God’s sake.
Bilkins blew out his breath. He swallowed and rubbed his eyes again. Man looked like he hadn’t slept for a week. That more than anything else sent chills crawling up Roman’s back. “Tell me what happened.”
“Agent Markham, you remember him?” Bilkins started. Rome grimaced.
“He has two children. Ten and twelve.” Bilkins still sounded flat. It seemed like he could only sound flat or angry. “They’re both in the hospital right now. Burns. They’ll recover. His wife might not.”
Rome started chewing the inside of his mouth. It tasted like hot, metallic meat. Sweat prickled under his arms and on top of his cheekbones. Bilkins reached into his jacket pocket and Rome backed up a step, but all Bilkins pulled out was a crumpled manila envelope, thick and bristly with glossy photographs.
Bilkins didn’t say anything and just turned toward their makeshift office, stopping in front of the battered table that was still adorned with Brian’s spot welding kit and the remnants of a fast food meal. He tilted the envelope up carefully, gently, like he was freeing some dangerous animal.
The pictures spilled out over the table. They were black and white and they looked like the inkblots the prison psychologist had occasionally made Rome study. “What is this?”
The photos looked like modern art, all dark splotches and body parts.
“That is…” Bilkins paused and cleared his throat. “Or rather that is what is left of Monica Fuentes.”
Rome’s own throat closed, which was bad because at that moment the contents of his stomach decided they would much rather get some light and air. His tight throat worked with gulped heaves while he shook his head. Bilkins continued talking somewhere up in the ether, while Rome braced his hands hard on his knees and tried to force the color back into his vision. Grayness wavered in the corners of his eyes.
“I’ve been tracking him for four weeks. He’s obviously still got a lot of folks on his payroll, and we’ve got more leads to run down than people we can spare. Prelim signs are that he’s here. It took me four hours to find you punks, can’t imagine that it would take him much longer. So we need to find O’Connor and you need to come with me. When was the last time you spoke with Brian?”
Rome spat a gout of saliva on the floor and tried to stand upright without giving himself a head rush. His knees were shaking, so he leaned harder on the car. He managed to grunt, “Coupla days ago.”
“Fuck me,” Bilkins looked pop-eyed for a second. He reached for his cell phone and then seemed to think better of it. “Pearce, go get in the car. You know you’re not safe here and this way you can help O’Connor.”
“How?” Rome took a deep breath through his nose. Anger was beginning to slice through the nausea. “How’m I gonna help him, you guys gonna put me in the basement of some federal building?”
Bilkins had shoved the photographs helter-skelter back into the envelope. He contemplated Rome, like he was considering whether he had an argument that was worth a damn or if it would be easier to just clock him.
“Get in the car, Pearce.” Bilkins said softly. “Let’s not do this the hard way.”
“Shit, man,” Rome took another deep breath, feeling steadier on this familiar ground “Hard way is the only way I know. I ain’t going with you.”
Rome shifted his weight forward onto the balls of his feet. He could totally outrun old Bilkins, the problem was, he didn’t have a car option that wasn’t missing some vital moving piece and Bilkins was big and angry, had at least one gun, probably two and the full weight and breadth of Authority behind him. Shit, he might even have a partner out in his car, even if Rome doubted it. Rome sucked his teeth and hardened his eyes. Odds like that weren’t anything new.
Bilkins was still looking at him balefully. “You really are even dumber than you look.”
It didn’t sting so much this time. “Whatever, man. I still ain’t going anywhere with you that ends with me on the sidelines while God knows what goes down. That ain’t me.”
Bilkins still looked like something pulled off of Easter Island, so Rome talked faster. “I’ll be your decoy. Whatever it takes, man, you know I hate that motherfucker.”
“Hate’s not enough, Pearce.” Bilkins said sadly. “I have a responsibility to keep you safe.”
“Man, that shit wasn’t bothering you so much last time!” Rome shouted exasperatedly. “I can’t fucking believe this shit. You’re the ones who let him get out and now you’re worried about keeping us safe? What the fucky fuck is that action, huh?”
Bilkins’ teeth flashed white below his moustache. “Pearce, for the last time, go get in the car .”
“No,” Rome folded his arms and leaned back on the quarter panel of a Honda. “It’s too late.”
“Pearce, so help me God, I will…” Bilkins jabbed his hand toward his waistband.
A low voice swelled out of the shadows around the door. “He said he wasn’t going.”
Rome was watching Bilkins as closely as a dog watches a steak, so he didn’t miss that Bilkins froze for a second before snapping his sidearm free of his holster. Bilkins froze for just a nanosecond and Rome thought it might have been from disbelief.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph.” Bilkins enunciated very distinctly. He pivoted like the hand of a clock, gun tracking the deepest part of the shadow. “Toretto, you’ve got some balls, I’ll say that for you.”
Toretto stepped into the light, led by his own 9mm. Rome squinted a little. It was a very shiny piece. Dom gestured at him with it for a second and Rome gawked at him stupidly before he realized that of course what Dom was indicating was ‘make your choice who you’re leaving with’.
Rome started edging sideways, trying not to bob conspicuously. There were a lot of firearms and temper loose in the room. The sick feeling in the pit of his stomach made him almost dizzy. He’d thought this whole situation couldn’t go much further south, obviously someone upstairs had something to prove.
“Toretto, so help me God, you don’t know who or what you are messing with,” Bilkins’ voice was tight with fury. “I’ve been looking for an excuse to put you away for over a year now.”
“Which do you think is more likely?” Dom Toretto said calmly, though his eyes looked like holes in his head. “That you won’t shoot me, or I won’t shoot you?”
A muscle in Bilkins’ jaw twitched. “I’m not here for this, for you, and I got more important things on my mind right now, so I suggest you just walk away. Now. And keep walking.”
“Can’t,” Toretto said soft as a purr. He jerked his chin and Rome edged up on his sinister side.
“Pearce, you know he’s out for blood,” Bilkins said, lowering the gun a bare inch, so Rome could see all of his face. “Brian’s as good as dead, if we don’t find him.”
“I’ll find him,” Roman promised. “Better than you can.”
Bilkins grunted a little and shook his head, almost like he was darkly amused. “This is gonna end badly.”
“Just…” Roman held up his hands as if to block punches. He suddenly realized that the Man with the Shiny Gun was no longer behind him, but Bilkins wasn’t moving, was still just shaking his head. An engine roared to life behind him but no lights went on. “Just…”
Rome turned and bolted for the passenger side of a Honda which was already rolling out of the lot, no lights, the dome light didn’t even go on when he wrenched open the door and tossed himself inside.
“Go, man,” Rome thumped the dash in time with the rhythm of his heart. “Go, go, go!”
“Man, who?...what? What the fuck…?” Rome tried to stick the questions in between deep rolling breaths. It felt like there was not enough air to breathe or talk in. It was like the air wouldn’t hold his voice, it kept evaporating.
Dom Toretto glanced at him sidelong and turned back to the road without saying anything.
“Say something!” Rome demanded. Toretto had just driven almost 10 city blocks without turning his lights on. Which you could do in L.A. for a while after dusk, but they were sliding quickly into the dark side of the light city.
“Finish a question,” Toretto suggested reasonably and Rome barely restrained himself from smacking Toretto in the mouth.
“Why are you here?” That wasn’t the first question that Rome had, but it was the first one that he could verbalize.
“Brian got snatched,” Toretto said so low that Rome had to strain to hear it.
“Yeah, how’d you know that?” Rome clamped down on the coldness that spread through his belly at Toretto’s words. “I just found out myself and no-one spelled it out for me, so how’d you know, are you psychic?”
“I had someone watching,” Toretto’s voice seemed to catch deep in his throat. “He called me.”
“OK….OK, I’m not even gonna get mad right now. Raincheck on the mad.” Rome rubbed the tips of his fingers together quickly to keep them from going numb. The big splash of outrage gushed into his chest but it was quickly subsumed by a wave of chilled fear. “When’d he call? What’d he say?”
Toretto glanced down at the dashboard. “Four and a half hours ago. Took me a while to clear the border.”
Rome jiggled his head, refusing to acknowledge that border troubles aside, Toretto must have driven like he was piloting a fighter jet. “And?”
“I didn’t wait for all the details,” Toretto had pursed his lips sternly, but his eyes were darting around in a way that made the stillness of his face eerie and not calming. “Figured you might know stuff, so you were my first stop.”
“Yeah,” Rome bit off the words. “Yeah, I know stuff.”
Rome rolled his lips tight over the nausea and closed his eyes tightly, trying to follow all the crazy angles and lines around until they made a clear picture. His eyes flew open and he recoiled into the side of the door a little. Toretto felt Rome’s gaze and looked over at him warily.
“Are you even on my side here?” Rome couldn’t believe he’d actually let time pass, been too caught up in his own head to even cover the basics. “Why are you here? You gonna help me or are you thinking that the enemy of your enemy is your friend or some such bullshit?”
Toretto shook his head and rolled his eyes heavenward. He gripped the wheel tighter while Roman watched expectantly.
“Man, I just pulled a gun on a cop,” Toretto said. A muscle twitched underneath his eye. “That should leave you in no doubt as to where I stand, yeah?”
Rome’s mouth twitched marginally. From a far distance, it was almost funny. “Hey, man, hate to break it to you but that was no cop.”
Toretto turned his head as they pulled up to an empty stoplight. He raised his eyebrows.
Rome turned to face forward, still watching Toretto from his peripheral vision. “That was a G-man, dawg. Special Agent in Charge from the Eff Bee Eye.”
Rome couldn’t keep his lip from twisting when a shadow seemed to roll across Toretto’s face, Toretto’s jaw worked for a second and he jerked open his low-slung door, leaned out and spat on the pavement. Rome bit down on a sour chuckle and then it all rushed back in on him, far too real.
Coming back to himself was like struggling to breathe. He was pretty sure he was doing it, but there was a pounding in his head and lethargy in his limbs that felt a lot like drowning. He tried to sit up, thinking the air would come easier but that just turned the pounding in his head into a lance of pain so sharp he forgot to breathe altogether.
Then it was muddy darkness and the scent of stale air that smelled like rot and old grease and ammonia that made him sneeze. He automatically reached for his nose only to fail and slammed his head back.
He almost passed out again, his ears ringing from a metallic clang and the pain in his skull exploding again.
He had snot in his nose and a salty, metallic taste in his mouth that made him want to gag. He almost choked on it and only barely managed to turn his head enough to cough it up and spit it out.
He remembered just in time not to let his head drop back again and forced himself to ease down, swallowing carefully to keep from choking again.
He couldn't move his arms, or not much. Couldn’t move his legs either and cautious tugs told him his wrists were held fast against some metal piping and a half-assed tap of his foot rang on metal again. He could flex his knees and his arms but not enough to sit up or roll over. He could, he found, twist enough and stretch one arm enough to bring his face closer to his hand long enough to wipe at his nose and mouth, but the bindings cut into his wrists with a painful sharpness.
It wasn't totally dark here, he realized. Light glinted off the metal pipe his wrist was secured to and every move he made caused a scraping sound as the rivets on his jean pockets scraped metal. He blinked and swallowed again. Squeezed his eyes shut and opened them blinking.
His head was killing him. He lay back down, taking stock. Trying to figure out how he'd gotten here, where here was. He'd been outside the garage. Had just locked his door. That was it. That was all he remembered. He didn't remember getting hit, but he must have been given the size of the goose egg he felt on the back of his skull every time he laid his head back.
His eyes adjusted and he sniffed. Tasted blood and snot again and swallowed, nausea edging out the pain in his head for his attention. Concussed, and who knew what else but his nose didn't feel broken. He tested his mouth and lips with his tongue and found the split, a tear in his lip from the inside to the corner of his mouth. Probably from his own teeth.
His fingers tingled and he twisted again -- carefully -- studying the white plastic binding strips that secured his wrists to the upright pipes. He could almost get close enough to get his teeth into them, could just brush his face with his fingers. Any further, though, and he felt like he'd dislocate his opposite shoulder.
Below him was more metal, stainless steel, and he stared at the pipe then up, seeing shadows above but only directly above. Another twist and he could catch the glint of more faint light on metal, the light seeping in from up above where narrow transom windows had been painted black. A couple of them were broken and what light there was came from outside.
It took him another couple of minutes to make sense of what he was seeing. He was tied to a stainless steel table, like the ones used in restaurant kitchens. Sinks and more steel counters lined the wall below the windows. On the other side of him was the stoves and grills, fryers and more sinks. A kitchen. The smell of old oil and rotting food -- a restaurant kitchen, then, fairly good sized. But there was dirt and dust and cobwebs up near the windows. The kitchen was abandoned, empty, it could be any of a hundred of them spread out around LA.
He couldn't hear anything. No traffic sounds leaked in from the broken windows but he couldn't tell if it was day or night and the light bleed came from street lights.
He tested his feet again but if anything, the bindings on his ankles were tighter than those on his wrists; figure-8's wrapped tight enough that he'd be bleeding if his socks hadn't offered some protection from the plastic.
He closed his eyes again and forced himself to relax. He didn't know what this was, who this was. But he was still breathing so that was good. So far. But it was hard -- no impossible -- not to let a little panic sink in. Somebody wanted him, alive for now but why? This had a little too much finesse to be anything but pro. This wasn't gangs, or random…he checked that. Random. Serial killer random maybe.
Great thought. Just keep thinking that, O'Connor.
If he tilted his head a little he could ease the pressure on the knot at the back of his head. Made his neck ache and he had to piss in the worst way suddenly. He couldn't get loose. He didn't know where the fuck he was.
He started yelling. It was the only plan he had. Yell and listen. Yell some more and listen. Try to work up enough saliva to keep yelling and not choke on his own spit.
Fifteen minutes of that and he was hoarse already.
He tapped his head lightly against the table and gave half a thought to doing it hard enough that he might just knock himself out again. It pissed him off, giving up. Even thinking about it. Taking a deep breath he twisted again, feeling the strain on his shoulder. If all he had was his teeth and his wits they'd have to be good enough. He could feel the burn in his left shoulder as he strained, finally getting teeth to plastic. Trying not to tense his wrist up so that he couldn't work at the thick stuff. The burn got sharper, racing across his shoulder and down his spine. He couldn't just bite through it, he'd have to gnaw on it.
He'd actually made a groove in the plastic when he heard a clang of metal not caused from where his leg was trembling from holding the awkward position.
Doors and footsteps, sounding flat and hollow on tile. The bounce of a light across the ceiling through the grimy plastic of the kitchen's pass-through doors. It danced across the ceiling as the door was shoved open, the sudden light differentiation rendering him blind again for a moment. He could only make out a vague form behind the light -- just one he thought but couldn't be sure -- but then he had to squeeze his eyes shut as the light hit him full in the face and he forgot to listen as well.
"What's going on? What do you want?" he asked, daring to crack his eyes a little. The brightness of the flashlight made his eyes water. He didn't get an answer but the light flickered away for a second, across him to his wrists, to his feet, checking the restraints. "Who are you?"
"Think of me as a ghost," a disembodied voice said but not near his head, near the door. There had been two of them. A shadow moved forward. "Get the lights. In the back."
He knew that voice, remembered the almost accentless cadence of it. The flashlight bobbed away but after a minute he heard the hard click, barely remembered to close his eyes before the overhead lights came up in all their fluorescent glory.
When he opened them again his captor was leaning over him, hands pressed to the table near Brian's armpit and hip.
“Long time no see,” Brian pulled his lips off his teeth; his mouth was completely dry. “Verone.”