Warnings/Squicks: Guns and a little bad language.
Notes: Realized I hadn’t done a case related chapter yet. This I think is the longest and pushing to definition of vignette but oh well. We’re closing in on the end so lots of feedback please
Beta(s): The great goddess of the beta who probably pulled her hair out on this bit irena_adler .
A Direct Threat
Megan hurried down the school hall looking over her shoulder every few steps. She peered through the thin window of the classroom door before opening it. Megan walked straight to the teacher
“Agent Fleinhardt, FBI.” She flashed her ID. “I need Miss Eppes to come with me.”
Esther jumped up for her desk. “Aunt Megan what’s wrong?”
“Archimedes,” Megan replied.
Esther’s face went hard and she quickly gathered her books.
“This is very irregular,” the teacher protested.
“Give this note to your principal immediately. If anyone suspicious approaches the area, contact the police immediately and keep the students inside.”
Esther was at Megan’s side as they hurried back down the hall.
“Turn on your phone.”
Esther clicked on her phone and it rang almost instantly. “Dad?”
“Esther, honey, are you ok?” Colby asked.
“I’m fine. I’m with Aunt Megan.”
“Good. Stay with her.”
“What’s going on? Where are you?”
“Not on an unsecured line. Megan will explain. I love you.”
“I love you too, dad.” The line cut off. “What’s going on?”
They had reached the front of the school and Megan motioned her down. Esther dropped into a crouch her heart racing. An unmarked van sat in the school’s loading zone. The side door opened and a hand reached out and made a complicated gesture.
“Move.” Esther and Megan ran to the van, keeping low. Esther jumped in the back to find her Uncle Larry in a bullet proof vest, nervously holding a gun.
“Put on a vest.” Megan ordered. “And take the gun off Larry.” Esther tossed a vest over her head and took the gun with far more ease than Larry had handled it. Dad had insisted on FBI daughter right-of-passage on the gun range, and while Esther was about as comfortable with guns as her other dad, she knew she was head and shoulders above Uncle Larry.
“Ok. What’s going on?” The van was headed east.
“There’s been a direct and specific threat.”
“Against me?!” Esther squeaked.
“Against everyone. We found surveillance photos of the entire family. You, Don, Alan, Becca, Aaron, me, Larry.”
“Are we going to a safe house?”
“Yes, but we have evidence of an internal mole.”
“So this is just family, understand?”
“Yes.” Esther said coldly. She’d gone from fear to anger very quickly.
‘How dare they!’ She thought not even knowing who they were. ‘How dare they threaten my family!’ Esther felt the gun still heavy in her hands. For the first time in her life, she wanted to use it. Instead, she made Uncle Larry drill her on stars in various constellations as they drove into the hills out of town.
The safe house was little more than a shack with a couple of old-style solar panels. Inside they found Agent Philip Matheson setting up secure surveillance and communications equipment. Esther gripped the gun a little tighter. No one had thought to take it off her. “I thought you said no FBI?”
“I was also on the threat list.” Matheson said. “They’re going for anyone close to Agent Granger and your uncle.”
“Well, welcome to the family.” Esther said sarcastically. There was a complicated knock at the door. Megan approached it gun drawn, Matheson covering. Don rushed in dragging Becca with Aaron in her arms. The little boy was squirming, not understanding what was happening, only knowing that he was too old to be dragged around like that.
Esther gave her Uncle Don a hug and he took the gun out of her hand.
“Have you seen dad or dad?” she asked.
“They should be right behind us, but we came using separate routes.” On cue there was the sound of wheels on gravel out front. Don peeked through the small front window. There was a knock and Charlie, Colby and Alan were let in. Charlie and Colby ran to their daughter.
“Are you alright?” They asked touching her face as if to make sure she was really there.
“I’m fine. I’m fine.” She reassured them. Colby had instantly imagined the worst when he saw the surveillance photos of his daughter’s classrooms across three different schools.
Charlie was holding Esther in a tight hug when he looked up at Larry. “I’m so sorry Larry.” he said.
“It’s hardly your fault Charles, or yours Colby.” He said preempting Colby. “Life is always a calculated risk and I am wearing my lucky shirt today so I have no fear.”
“Is that what that smell is?” Alan said.
“Very funny. This shirt has survived publishing, poker and six months in space. It will survive this with me in it.”
Esther knew Uncle Larry was terrified. He was rubbing his fingertips along the palms of his hand which he normally only did if he had a complete stinker of a hand in poker.
“Ok everyone,” Don said. “Family meeting. You too, Matheson.” Everyone gathered round the rough plank table. “Ok here are our two top priority problems. One, a leak in the office. Now Colby, Megan, and I will have to go back to the office so the leak doesn’t get suspicious but we need to be watching everyone. Matheson, you have the stomach flu, you’re staying here.” When Matheson saw the surveillance photos of himself earlier that day he had run to the men’s room to be sick so that wasn’t a stretch.
“What’s problem number two?” Alan asked.
“This.” Don dropped a half ream of paper on the table. “This is their way of passing messages.” Everyone looked at the pages of gibberish symbols.
“Can you decode it?” Alan asked Charlie.
“That is decoded.” Charlie whined. “It took me over a week to break their encryption and this is what we got. Scans of some hand written code which has managed to choke every cryptographer and algorithm we’ve shown it to.”
Charlie’s frustration was evident. Matheson felt his stomach sink again. Like the rest of Don’s team, he had been converted to the First Church of Charlie, taking perverse joy in watching his numbers dazzle visiting agents. He looked across to Esther Eppes who looked more angry than anything else. Her look was almost identical to the look on her uncle’s face when he realized the bad guys were targeting his family.
It was decided civilians, children, and Matheson would stay at the safe house while Charlie kept going with the decoding. Charlie objected when Don gave Esther back the gun.
“She qualified with a .38, man,” Don said. “She’s a better shot than you.”
“Aaron’s a better shot than me that’s not the point.” Charlie growled.
“It’s ok, dad. I don’t mind.” Esther said.
“No dad,” Esther cut off her father. “Really, I don’t mind.” Charlie sighed and decided he would cry and scream and rage about the look he saw in his daughter’s eyes later, when they were out of danger and there was time for such things.
Becca, with the calm sensibility inherent in primary school teachers, set about arranging sleeping assignments as well as mentally rationing the food stores for a several day siege.
Esther was quickly bored. A quick search of the building turned up two second rate novels both of which she’d read.
Charlie was mentally pounding his head against a wall as his new algorithm spit back gibberish when he became aware of odd noises. He turned around. Esther was holding one of the sheets of code and making random noises.
“Um, Esther honey, what are you doing?” Esther looked up.
“Oh, um, some of these symbols are international phonetic alphabet. I was just practicing.” Esther put the page down and turned to leave.
“No wait, show me. These symbols have been kicking my ass. I don’t even recognize half of them.”
“Here.” Esther pointed to a Greek letter Charlie was used to using in math. “That’s a bilabial fricative.”
“I’d tell you not to cuss if I knew what you said.” Charlie wondered if this was how people felt around him.
“It’s an ‘f’ sound like friend or phone. If you were writing using a full IPA chart you’d use this symbol to start either word.”
“What about the rest of these?” Charlie asked. He felt like something was about to happen for the first time in weeks.
“Alveoar lateral fricative.” She said pointing to another symbol “Velan nasal, retroflex plosive.”
“What about these?” Charlie pointed to a few that had looked slightly familiar but he hadn’t been able to work out. Esther laughed.
“Your bad guys are nerds or at least whoever’s sending messages for them are. That’s Klingon and Elvish, Quenya and Sindarin.” Esther looked more closely at the sheet in her hand, the symbols beginning to jump out at her. “These are Hebrew, Sanskrit.”
Agent Matheson had wandered in to check on Charlie’s progress. He easily recognized the look on Esther’s face as ‘Eppes about to be fucking brilliant.’ He’d seen it on Don, Charlie, Alan and even a slight version on Colby that he must have picked up over the years.
“Oh, oh.” Esther breathed “I’ve got it. This word I’ve got it!” Esther’s hands were shaking.
“What is it?” Charlie asked.
“It’s money. It’s money. It’s money said in French, spelled out phonetically in four different alphabets. Your guy, or guys it’s got to be two of them one on each side. They’re getting messages, translating each word into different languages, saying them out loud and picking a different alphabet it represent each sound.” Esther pointed to another set of characters. “That’s shipment, in mandarin. This is why your algorithms weren’t working. It has nothing to do with how anything is spelled. If one of these guys has a thick Boston accent then your computer is going to go looking for the letter usage rate for ‘r’ and not find anything. These guys are really, really smart and I’m sure they know more languages than me ‘cause I only started Sanskrit last week.”
“Do you think you can break these?” Esther gave Matheson a look. “Never mind, dumb question.”
“What do you need?” Charlie asked with mixed feeling of pride and a little shame for not working out the code himself.
“Pencil, paper, and I need Agent Matheson to get me online. These guys feel like showoffs. They’ve probably got words in Hopi or Welsh or some shit like that and I’ll need to look them up.”
“We’ll get you set up.” Charlie gave his daughter a hug. She hugged back with only one arm, still focused on the paper in front of her.
The wall clock said 3:57am, not that Esther had looked at a clock in hours. There were over 200 pages that needed translation, so far most of them had been about arms and drugs without much clue as to who or why. She heard a small clunk and looked up. There was a cup of coffee in front of her and standing slightly beyond that was Philip Matheson.
“I’m not allowed to drink coffee.”
“It’s 4am and there’s lots of cream and sugar.”
Esther took a sip. There was also a spoonful of hot chocolate stirred in from the taste of it.
“How’s it going?” he asked.
Esther sighed. “Slowly. Codes inside of codes. They don’t always write right to left, sometimes it’s left to right, sometimes up and down. It’s like those word searches in the news paper. Plus I think these guys have to be related, they talk in a shorthand sometimes, or make reference to random things, plus there are these weird made up squiggles which I’m sure represent whole words but the only people who know what they are, are these assholes.”
Matheson tried to put on a sympathetic face. He was never sure what to do around agitated girls. “Is the coffee ok?” He finally asked, feeling helpless.
“It’s fine, thank you.” Esther looked down at her translation. “I mean, what the hell does this mean? ‘Crow’s first nod’ and they’re making reference to a person doing something.”
Matheson stared at the ceiling. “Russell Crow, first Oscar nod, 2000 for the Insider.” He looked back down and found Esther staring at him like he had a second head.
“Ok. You need a life.”
Matheson shrugged. “Best I could come up with.”
“Actually it fits, ‘cause I think they’re talking about their guy in the office.”
“Now if they’d just tell us his name.”
“These guys are arrogant shits but they’re not that stupid.” Esther took another sip of her coffee. “Ok Mr. Random Knowledge. James’ 17th book?”
Agent Matheson stared at the ceiling again as if he could read the answers right off it .“King James bible, book 17, Esther.” He looked at Esther, her face falling. “I mean that’s just a guess...I.”
“No. It fits,” she said softly. “Especially if this little made up squiggle means Eppes.” She pointed to an odd symbol that looked like a tic tac toe board with a chunk missing. “Numbers Eppes, that’s dad.” she said as she wrote out the new translation on a clean page. “Number’s bitch, Dad.”
“What am I?” Matheson asked.
“Number’s bitch’s bitch”
Esther gave a little giggle.
“Pretty close, Orwell’s nightmare?”
“Big brother,” Matheson said.
“Uncle Don.” The rest came fairly simple but Esther pondered one of the final on the list. “The Dude? Who the hell is the dude.”
“Jeff Bridges.” Matheson said without hesitation, quickly finding a deeper answer on the ceiling, “Who in the mid 80’s did a B sci-fi movie with John Carpenter called Starman.”
Esther nodded slowly. “Ok. When we get out of here you and Niki need to stop beating around the bush 'cause you need a date.” Philip blushed a little, his non-relationship with the young physicist had been the butt of jokes for years now. “Starman, that’s Larry, and that’s everyone.” Esther neatly wrote out the rest of the translation and walked to the kitchen.
The next thing Matheson heard was the sound of someone being sick in the sink. Matheson grabbed the translation and ran to the kitchen.
The carefully-made cup of coffee was now in the sink and Esther was sobbing uncontrollably. Matheson quickly looked at the translation. It was a kill order for the entire family and the hit was to be that coming evening. The human in Matheson wanted to wrap his arms around the poor girl and tell her everything would be ok. The survival instinct told him that under no circumstances, for any reason should he ever be found with his arms around a hysterically crying, barely-teenaged girl, especially at five in the morning with her father in the house. He reached out with one hand and tried to rub what he hoped were comforting circles on her back.
The kitchen door opened and Charlie came in. “What’s going on?” he asked. Esther threw herself into her father’s arms, crying even harder. Matheson held up the translation where Charlie could see. “Oh honey, that won’t happen, I promise you it will not go down like that. No one is touching a hair on your head or anyone else’s. No shots fired. Everyone will be safe.”
“I’ll get this to Don.” Matheson said. Charlie just nodded and Matheson slinked out feeling like a voyeur in the room.
In the end, there was some shooting. Actually there was a lot of shooting. Esther managed to bang out a few more translations that morning that resulted in one shot being fired in the halls of the FBI Los Angeles field office and lots of other shots being fired at warehouses around the state.
Esther ran down the hall of the Field Office to her dad, putting only the slightest thought into sidestepping a large blood stain on the carpet. Colby picked her up even though she was nearly as tall as Charlie already.
“You’re ok?” she asked.
“Not a scratch on me.”
The rest of the family had caught up. Don had his arms around his little boy and wife and was silently thanking anyone who was listening that they were safe. They had arrested one suspect outside of Becca’s school and another outside of Aaron’s.
Colby put his daughter down and put his arms around his husband. The two usually kept public displays of affection non-existent in the office but Colby really didn’t care. The guy they grabbed in the CalSci parking lot had a very good sniper rifle and now a very broken arm. He kissed Charlie much to Charlie’s surprise.
“Just needed to know you were really here.” Charlie nodded in understanding.
Esther pulled on her dad’s sleeve. “Dad, dad, dad, did you get the code guys?”
“Yes, we did.” Don answered.
“Can I meet them?” Esther asked.
“You want to meet them?”
“I was awake for 24 hours breaking their code, of course I want to meet the fuckers.”
“Esther! Language!” Charlie and Colby scolded but were ignored.
“Sure.” Don said. “Why not, you deserve to gloat at them. Arrogant shits the both of them.”
“Don! This is where she gets it from.”
“Mark and Matt Cromwell,” Don said.
Charlie looked thoughtful for a second. “Those names sound really familiar.”
“They should.” Alan said. “One of them bit you.”
“Remember we sent you to that special school for a week? They were there. Meant to be music and language prodigies or something. Just seemed like angry, screwed up, little kids to me. Your fourth day you got into a fight with them, one of them bit you. Your mother had to come get you. You had to get all these shots.”
Esther looked at her father. “You got in a fight?”
“In my defense, I have no recollection of that incident.”
“Yeah, right. Can we go home now?”
Charlie gave his little girl a hug. “Yeah, let’s go home.”