The scruffy profile of BCPD Detective Russell Agnew was not exactly the prettiest view Special Agent Milton Chamberlain had ever been presented with of a morning. But under the circumstances, he didn't think anybody would blame him for greeting the sight of that resting scowl and five-o'clock shadow with a grateful smile.
"Hey, Russ," he rasped, turning his head toward his partner.
Russ looked up from his phone and quirked a weary grin in return; an honest one, Milt was pleased to realize, the one he usually saved for Holly, or grieving wives, or admiring nurses. There were a couple of butterfly bandages in his hairline and some bruising on the side of his face, but he wasn't wearing scrubs, so whatever damage Brock had done with all that kicking after Russ had refused to leave him must not have been that bad. That was good to see.
"Hey, Milt. Feeling better?" Russ replied, offering him a paper cup of water from the bedside table.
"Is that a literal question, or a metaphorical one?" Milt scoffed, carefully taking the cup and draining it in long, thirsty sips. Things were never just surface level with Russ; the longer he'd known him, the clearer that had become. Either way, though, Russ was right; something else that had become an irritating, and surprisingly comforting, constant since Milt had moved to Battle Creek. "If it's the former ... pretty sure I feel better than you look."
"Yeah, yeah, laugh it up, pretty boy." Russ's grin shifted to a smirk as he took the cup back and refilled it from a pitcher. "Gonna be a couple weeks before you can admire yourself in the mirror again, either."
Milt's smile automatically faded a little at that; at the thought of every mirror he'd looked into over the last six years since Roger's and Casey's deaths. Curiously, though, it didn't sting as much as it usually did, even on the days when he felt like he'd managed to tip the balance back toward the other side of the scales a bit.
Maybe it was the drugs; the shoulder he'd been shot in felt only distantly achy, and the rest of the bruises he knew he'd earned weren't announcing their presence, so he knew there had to be some kind of chemical intervention going on. But watching Russ steadily watch him back, as if he knew exactly what he'd just said, as if he knew Milt, something Milt had gone to some pretty considerable lengths to prevent before Brock had shown up to pull down his carefully reordered life....
"That'd be a change," he replied, the corner of his mouth tugging up crookedly. Then he cleared his throat and glanced away, nodding at the table full of vases behind Russ. "I guess word hasn't gotten out yet that I got you kidnapped while obstructing justice to pursue a personal investigation, then held a gun on Detective White after he came to our rescue?"
"Aw, who doesn't want to hold a gun on Font sometimes?" Russ waved a dismissive hand at Milt, still smirking. "Guy's just too nice to be real. So nice, he already asked me to have a little compassion for once and not spread the details about that part around, 'cause he thought you'd been through enough with this case already."
"Is that so?" He raised his eyebrows, some part of him still automatically braced for the 'nice to finally see those feet of clay' he'd have expected any other place he'd been posted in the last six years. Judging from Russ' previous near-psychic ability to continually put his thumb on similar sore spots, this would have been the perfect time for it. But if there was any competitive triumph in Russ' expression, Milt couldn't spot it.
"Yup. And as far as Guz is concerned, we got kidnapped on our way to turn the evidence over to the FBI like you said you were going to, which you only did rather than let the BCPD process it in the first place because of the fact that the original file was sealed and you needed to get it unsealed before filling us in on the details. Just shitty luck all around."
Russ looked proud of himself for that little exercise in creative reporting, as if he wouldn't have been chomping at the bit to throw Milt under the bus only the day before. And yet, the response seemed totally unfeigned, as much as anything else Russ had ever said to him when it came to professional matters. Which was odd, because it also seemed genuine on a personal level, which wasn't usual for Russ; practically the only time he'd seen the man with all his walls down had been when Milt had barged into the basement of Veronica's place after the detective had been kidnapped the first time. He'd practically lunged at Milt, burying his face against Milt's shoulder, the minute he'd recognized him. But seconds later, he'd been his usual pugnacious self again.
"Yeah. Luck." Milt shook his head, bemused.
That very first case he'd worked in Battle Creek, Milt had looked at Russell Agnew and thought he knew what he was seeing. Most of the other detectives and officers in the BCPD had seemed like nice, friendly folks, as much in person as they were in their files; competent at their jobs, supportive of their coworkers, determined to catch the bad guys, and for the most part team players. Except for Russ. Records as full of censure as they were praise, of which there had been more than a little – Milt had taken one look at the detective's bruised, sullen face, and known that this was the one he wanted to work with, if he had to work with any of them at all.
The one guy he wouldn't have to be 'on stage' for, because for some reason, when everyone else in the office had responded to the big smile and the big laugh and the polished presentation ... Russ hadn't. That first week starting over in yet another FBI office, finally reassigned somewhere he couldn't make anyone else look bad just by trying to do the job the way it was supposed to be done, Milt had balked at the prospect of having to put on that perfect, friendly mask any more than he absolutely had to. Detective Agnew's caustic questions, disdain for Milt's FBI tech, and blunt intransigence every time Milt had interrupted his clearly well-established deduction routine had been – in a bleak kind of way – a relief.
...And also, he wouldn't even try to deny it, an excuse to vent a little on someone that no one could say didn't maybe deserve it. Being the primary on that first case, getting to assign his own partner, Milt hadn't even thought twice. Getting to deliberately rub a narrow-minded small-town big fish the wrong way while cheerfully and ostentatiously doing things by the book had been a small spark of joy in a pretty dreary day. After the detective's reactionary 'Battle Creek way' bluff had backfired, he'd even done the noble thing and talked to Commander Guziewicz and the DA on Russ' behalf; not that he wouldn't have anyway, but he'd already known by then exactly how Russ would take that and had looked forward to the man's reaction.
He hadn't counted on Russ getting shot. Or the way the rest of the case had unfolded. Like a sharp reminder from another book – judge not lest ye be judged – and of the reasons Milt had set himself on his present course in the first place. We cannot be defined by our mistakes.
Russ was a good detective, even though he was an asshole. And striving to be as good an agent as he could possibly be hadn't made Milt any less of an asshole. What a surprise.
He'd been digging himself out of that hole ever since. They'd worked a lot more cases together over the next several months; Russ would rant on about not trusting him while doing reprehensible things in the name of solving a case, and then turn right around and perform some backhanded kindness or come up with a brilliant deduction that Milt would never have considered. One minute, it was like working with his own arrogant self from before the Acevedo job, just asking to get hoist with his own petard and doom some innocent to pay the price; the next, Russ would turn into someone who could easily have outshone Milt if he'd only put a little more effort into his social game. A man who was refreshingly and unrelentingly open about his opinions, if not always honest; followed the evidence even when it hurt his case to do so; and genuinely cared about his community's wellbeing more than his career.
Before long, Milt had found himself looking forward to the cases they worked together for more than just relief from sitting around alone in an office all day; the give and take, and the challenge of figuring Russ out as much as their success as a team. Which had pretty much led directly to their present situation.
"And Font said you need a little compassion?" he continued wryly. When Russ let himself express it, he had more compassion than most of the agents Milt had ever worked with; certainly more than anyone except Holly and Commander Guziewicz seemed to give him credit for. "Doesn't he know you better than that?"
The week before, Russ would have put the worst possible construction on his comment; today, Russ just chuckled. "Yeah, well. Font hasn't been my partner long enough to know me as well as Guz does, so."
"What's my excuse, then?" He was honestly curious. "I've only been your partner for three months."
"I know, even quicker than Kim. One for the record books." Russ agreed, nodding indulgently. "Guess it's true what they say about shared trauma. And the good drugs. You're loaded, man."
A remark which, Milt realized, was both true and not at all explanatory, depending on how you looked at it. Leaving it up to Milt how to take it.
"I promise to still respect you when the drugs wear off," he promised, solemnly. Though he still wasn't more than half sure he wasn't hallucinating the whole exchange; that he'd actually, finally confronted Casey's father and managed to walk away from the encounter. So to speak.
"Ugh, not with the eyes," Russ scoffed, getting up out of the chair. The words were annoyed, but the tone oddly fond, increasing Milt's sense of unreality. "Cut that shit out, man; I believe you already."
A yawn overtook his next remark before he could finish composing it. "You ... do, huh?"
"Yeah," Russ replied, then clapped him on the unwounded shoulder. "So get some more rest, all right? See you soon."
Milt yawned again, nodding and drifting out to the sight of Russ walking out of his room.
'Soon' worked out to another couple of weeks, as it happened. Milt's gunshot wound had turned out to be nearly as inconsequential as Russ', for all he'd lost a lot of blood; a nice symmetrical bookend to his first three months in Battle Creek. Despite his single-minded pursuit of revenge, Brock had apparently never bothered to practice firing a gun – or else his nerve had failed him at the end. The rest of the BCPD made it to the hospital in ones or twos before Milt's discharge, confirming what Russ had said about the case; only Font and Guziewicz betrayed any recognition of the fact that he'd deliberately handed a man who professed to want him dead a loaded weapon.
Russ didn't show up again, but there was a wheat bag for heat pack application sitting on the counter when he first got home; and after the casual way Russ had announced he'd broken into Milt's place for his laptop during the Henderson case, he wouldn't put it past him to have done it again. And Holly brought him a casserole later that afternoon, probably the first decent one he'd been cooked in years by someone he hadn't just met. (Petty bullshit like overbaked lasagna and oddly-spiced red sauce had gotten old a long, long time ago.)
It tasted like friendship. And given the choice between golf with Obama and sitting on his couch with the wheat bag on his shoulder and a slice of home-cooked dinner on his plate... he knew from painful experience which was the more precious.
By the time Milt put on his suit to go back into the glass-walled office in Battle Creek's municipal building, he realized with some surprise that he hadn't quoted his daily mantra or indulged in a therapeutic scream in weeks; not since the morning Brock had blown up his car with him still in it. He stood in the hall between his office and the Battle Creek Detective Squad's and stared up at the FBI logo with a wry expression, wondering how long the reprieve would last.
He was still exiled to Battle Creek, with little hope of greater responsibility or promotion for the foreseeable future, and there was still no way he could ever make up for using Casey as bait to trap a drug dealer and then getting him killed. But maybe, just maybe, living up to the expectations he'd set for himself didn't have to mean unrelenting misery any more.
"Forward, positive," Milt murmured with a wry smile, staring through the glass doors toward his desk. Then he glanced over his shoulder toward Russ' across the hall, catching an intent, evaluating look on the detective's face as he stared back in the other direction.
Russ tipped his chin up in a half-welcoming nod and turned back to his paperwork. Milt took a deep breath and stepped into the resident office, embracing the day.
Battle Creek being Battle Creek, he found another excuse to cross the hall before long. One of the files on his desk concerned a potentially suspicious death that had occurred while he was on medical leave, an older man who'd collapsed in his home from what had initially looked like natural causes. Witness reports of a strange car in the driveway the afternoon before the death, accompanied by loud voices overheard by a neighbor, had led the BCPD to take a second look. Detectives Funkhauser and Jacocks had already been to the scene, but while the ME's lab reports weren't back yet, the FBI files had turned up a minor discrepancy or two in Mr. Jones' history that Milt thought Russ might be interested in chewing over.
Holly looked up with a smile as he pushed the door open, crossing the line from federal jurisdiction to local. The office manager's body language had become more self-assured since she and Russ had finally acted on the tension between them, with the bonus effect that she treated Milt even closer to a regular human being than she had already. Smiling back at her didn't take any effort at all.
"Hey, Milt! You're back. How are you feeling?" she said warmly, standing to greet him.
"Ah, I'm fine," Milt replied, patting the strap of his sling with his free hand. "Almost as good as new. Been busy around here while I was gone?"
"Ah, about the same as usual. Even in a city the size of Battle Creek, there's always something." Her smile tilted ruefully.
"Hey, Milt! Good to have you back, man," Font approached next, followed by Niblet, who echoed the sentiment. One of these days, Milt was going to have to get the real story of that moniker out of the squad's mildest-mannered detective; owning your nickname was one thing, particularly if your birth name wasn't anything to brag about, but Milt had seen the man's file, and it wasn't that bad an alternative.
"Good to be here, guys." He exchanged handslaps with both of them, then looked around for the others; Commander Guziewicz was bent over something at her desk, reading glasses in place, and it appeared the Aaron-Erin team was out again. But Russ was still there, hands in his pockets as he leaned back against his desk.
"Milt," he said, offering a nod of welcome.
"Russ," Milt replied, nodding back.
"No éclairs this time, I see," Russ commented, tilting his head as he eyed the file tucked in behind Milt's sling. The words were as confrontational as ever, but there was a curious lack of hostility in his posture; it seemed the détente from the hospital hadn't been a hallucination, after all.
"Well, I thought about it, but the FBI's budget doesn't really extend to thanking local law enforcement for making me feel welcome again after they'd almost managed to get rid of me," Milt replied, testing the waters further with an extra-cheerful smile.
Russ snorted, the fine lines around his eyes crinkling as he nearly managed to suppress a smile of his own. "Figures. So what did you bring us, then? You just got back this morning; surely you haven't stolen a case out from under us already."
"Russ!" Holly objected, looking half-scandalized by the challenge.
"What?" Russ shrugged, pulling his hands out of his pockets to spread them wide. "It's a valid question."
"It is a valid question," Milt agreed, keeping his demeanor helpfully bland. "Though the correct term isn't 'stealing'; just a more efficient assignment of resources. In this instance, though, it's not a new case: just a background search my office was running for the Jones investigation. The folder was on my desk when I got in."
A spark of interest lit in Russ' eyes at that; he straightened up, shifting his balance back onto his feet. "And you bothered to walk it across as soon as you found it, rather than send it with the assistant of the week, which means there must be something good in there. What did you find, a long-lost love child? Massive debts left behind in the city? Maybe even the witness protection program?"
"I couldn't just have wanted to see your smiling face?" Milt replied lightly, moving especially slowly as he untucked the file and held it just far enough away from Russ that he'd have to take a step to grab it.
"Are you sure the only injury was to your shoulder? Because you seem to be having some difficulty with your memory," Commander Guziewicz said wryly, appearing in the doorway of her office. She removed her glasses, then she schooled her face and continued in solemn, professional tones. "Agent Chamberlain; welcome back."
"Commander," he replied with a nod. It wasn't so difficult to smile at her, either; there was no judgment in her gaze, just an objective evaluation of his fitness. "Call it mood congruent memory bias, I suppose. He has smiled at me before. I'm pretty sure, anyway. At least once?" He cocked his head in Russ' direction.
Russ scoffed as he reached to swipe the folder out of Milt's hand. "Ha, ha, very funny," he said, gaze dropping to the contents as he spread it open. Then he frowned, mood abruptly shifting. "Hey. Where's the rest of the file? This can't be all you've got."
He lifted the sheet of paper displaying Mr. Jones' vital statistics out of the folder and turned it over, then glanced up again. "I know banks and such didn't start requiring people to have social security numbers until sometime in the sixties, but he should have had some records before then; the guy was nearly eighty years old. And nobody's life is this straightforward. One job? Ever? No marriage? Nothing?"
"Not so much as a speeding ticket. All taxes filed on time, the same week every year; all bills paid promptly; one checking account, one savings account, and not so much as a store line of credit since he showed up in Battle Creek at the age of twenty-eight," Milt confirmed. He'd thought that would pique Russ' interest.
"At the age of ... huh," Russ wrinkled his brow. "And nothing before that?"
"Nothing at all."
"So either this guy lived his childhood and young adult years off the grid, then suddenly decided whoops, it's time to join the world after all ... or whatever records existed before that time were under another name."
"Sounds like your witness protection theory," Holly put in, then wrinkled her brow as she rethought the idea. "Wait, did the witness protection program even exist that far back?"
"Not formally, if I remember right, but the government had been doing it informally on a case by case basis since the late 1800's, so it's not impossible," Russ replied, glancing away from Milt to answer.
That was interestingly specific knowledge. "The WITSEC program was officially established in 1970 under Title V of the Organized Crime Control Act," Milt hastened to clarify, "but before then, you're right; the FBI did sometimes craft new identities to protect witnesses anyway. Have you run across a case like this before?"
Russ scoffed at that, wry smile making a reappearance. "No. You remember what my mother does for a living, right? If an identity loophole existed at any point during her lifetime, she's made use of it. In fact – I wouldn't be surprised if whatever this guy turns out to be, he stayed in Battle Creek for a lot of the same reasons she did. Bachelor living alone for that long? He had to have been going somewhere to take care of business."
"We're only about two hours from Detroit, and you can get to Chicago, Columbus, Indianapolis, and Cleveland all in about half a working day, easy. But the local population's a fraction of any of those cities; which gives you small town security in close range of big city opportunities, if you can manage to keep from playing in your own back yard," Font agreed, with an apologetic grimace for Russ.
"Yeah, but even Russ' mom got caught at least once – sorry, Russ–" Niblet spoke up.
"Kind of a matter of public record, Niblet," Russ rolled his eyes.
"And she's pretty sharp; she sure fooled me. Either this guy was even sharper than that ... or he really was just that boring," Niblet concluded with a shrug.
"Then let's find out which," Guziewicz put in. "Russ?"
"Yeah?" Russ slapped the file shut and glanced up at his boss, every line of his posture practically vibrating with the same anticipation Milt felt.
"Take Font and go back to the house; go over the place with a fine-toothed comb. If there's something to find there, find it."
"Uh, ma'am? Since the FBI developed this information, I'd hoped to be a part of the investigation." After all the effort he'd put in to find the excuse, Milt was not going to go back and sit around in that office all day.
The commander's eyebrow went up, and she scanned him over one more time. "I thought you'd be restricted to light duty for a while. But if you're sure you're up to it...."
"Even if it hadn't been my non-dominant arm, the sling doesn't restrict my ability to use a micro x-ray fluorescence detector," Milt pointed out, deliberately turning up the charm.
She shook her head at him, but didn't deny it. "All right, then. Russ and Milt, go check out the Jones place; Font, Niblet, take some unis and re-interview the neighbors and co-workers. Deep background this time; behavior patterns and anything unusual that happened in his vicinity, no matter how long ago or seemingly inconsequential."
"Got it," Font nodded, turning to his desk chair to retrieve his suit jacket, trailing Niblet behind him.
Russ picked up his keys, then shot Milt a querying look. "My car this time? Unless you feel like a little masochism to go with your morning coffee?"
"That isn't on my agenda for today, no," Milt replied, dryly.
"Good." Russ smirked at him again, then handed the file folder back to Milt and headed for the doors.
"Good luck," Holly said as Russ passed her by, exchanging smiles with him; then she bit her lip as Milt approached. "Be careful out there today?"
"Don't worry; we'll keep an eye on each other," he assured her, then followed Russ out to the car.
The drive to the residence of one Gregory R. Jones, septuagenarian of mysterious origin, followed much the same pattern as similar ride-alongs had before: filled with idle bickering and speculations on the case, with the exception of a marked lack of the bitter undertones that had plagued their partnership since the beginning. As if everything had changed underneath, without changing on the surface at all.
After a desultory segue through the topic of hospital Jell-O – Russ apparently hadn't been offered any the last time he'd been there, so he had no opinion on the relative palatability of blue versus orange – and the best neighborhoods to investigate for a more permanent apartment than the safehouse he'd been living in, they finally reached the Jones residence: a single family home built in the fifties, since updated with pale gray vinyl siding. Three bedroom, one bath, detached one-car garage; it had a blandly appealing façade with one of those little porch overhangs over the front door.
"Good god," Russ muttered under his breath as they pulled up to the curb. "Like home, like homeowner. Could it have any less character? There is definitely something in there to be found."
"You're sure about that? We still haven't definitively ruled out the possibility that this is a case of an excitable neighbor who may have thought he saw more than actually happened," Milt offered, playing devil's advocate.
"Yeah, and pigs might fly. But it won't be in Battle Creek, and I won't be there to see it," Russ shook his head, getting out of the car. "Life is chaos, Milt; the inevitable decay of order through entropy. Nobody lives a life that ordinary, that long without cleaning something up after themselves. If Mr. Jones was that unexceptional, there should be at least one noteworthy incident on his record. But there isn't."
Milt fumbled one-handed with the belt buckle, then rolled his eyes as Russ circled the car and lifted the door handle for him. "It's been two weeks, Russ; I can open my own doors," he frowned.
"You're welcome," Russ snarked, then turned and headed for the house. "Now, c'mon."
Milt retrieved the fingerprint scanning device from the back seat, then got out of the car and followed.
The interior of the house had also been updated sometime since it was built, probably the moment olive green and harvest orange appliance colors had fallen out of date. Enough time had passed since then that wear patterns had developed in the carpeting and the eggshell white walls had acquired faint streaks of grime above every heat source, but apart from such ordinary wear and tear the place seemed in decent repair. The living room furnishings weren't anything out of the ordinary for a thousand square-foot home occupied by an elderly bachelor, either: a recliner and TV tray in front of a console television, shelves holding a decades-old set of Encyclopædia Britannica and a bunch of Reader's Digest edition books, and scenes of nostalgic Americana on the walls. It seemed a little messy, but it was hard to tell if anything was deliberately out of place, or if the owner just hadn't been feeling well enough to clean for a few days before he died.
"Where was Mr. Jones found?" Milt asked, glancing around.
"The third bedroom, back that way; the one he'd turned into an office," Russ said, pointing down the hall. "If you want to start there with your scanner and work back, I'll start digging around for anything unusual."
"Expecting to find anything in particular?"
"I don't know. A box of letters to a mystery correspondent? Books in a foreign language? There's gotta be something; I'll know it when I see it." Russ shrugged.
"I doubt it'll be that obvious, but it's a place to start," Milt agreed, turning on the scanning device as he followed Russ down the hall. The software had been programmed to exclude Mr. Jones' prints from the results before they came; as he ran it over the eleven by ten foot room at the end of the hall, crossed-out whorls appeared on nearly every flat surface, highlighting the residual skin oils left on everything he'd recently touched.
There were certainly plenty of flat surfaces in the room to inspect. A big, heavy desk that smelled faintly of lemon-scented furniture polish occupied the space in front of the window; an aging computer with a boxy CRT stood atop it, next to a metal inbox tray containing a stack of bills, opened and paperclipped to their return envelopes. More bookshelves and a filing cabinet occupied the flanking walls, and the half-open door on the wall opposite the desk revealed a linen slash storage closet, full of folded blankets, sheets, and boxes of extension cords and the like labeled in heavy black marker. Pictures of local scenery had been framed on the walls – just the scenery, no people; he really had been a solitary man. Russ prowled around the edges of the room while Milt took his readings, then started poking around in the desk, turning up a half-used checkbook lacking carbon receipts and little else.
"Anything?" he asked, looking over when the scanner beeped.
"Hm, only one set other than his; we'll have to compare them against that home nurse the talkative neighbor mentioned, if we can manage to track the man down. He was probably in here quite a bit while Mr. Jones was healing from his broken hip last winter."
"But that was months ago – you sure a print would have lasted that long?" Russ wrinkled his brow skeptically.
"Prints are on the desk," Milt said, gesturing toward the space next to the keyboard. "The scanner detects them based on elements such as potassium and chloride present in the print residue, which could have been preserved by the polish if the nurse was the last one to dust in here. We'll see if any fresher ones turn up in the rest of the house; medical personnel would certainly have access and ability, if no obvious motivation, to make a death look natural."
"Hunh. I'll call Jacocks and see if she's been by the hospital yet – she and Funkhauser were headed there to investigate the nurse angle," Russ said, gesturing with his phone as he walked back out into the hall.
"Knock yourself out." Milt continued processing the various flat surfaces in the house, one room at a time, as Russ paced back and forth in the living room. After the voices stopped, the back door opened twice, a few minutes apart; Milt figured Russ had found something to investigate, and gave it little thought. He'd just circled back around to the guest bedroom next to the office, checking shelves and drawers this time, when Russ poked his head into the same room; he scowled at the closet door, then opened it and shoved aside the winter coats it contained to probe the back wall of the modest-sized space with his hands.
"Problem, Russell?" Milt asked, frowning over at him.
"Ah, it's just ... you notice the disparity in the walls between this room and the office?" Russ replied, pensively.
"Closet space, I assumed," Milt said, looking down into the drawer of the end table next to the bed. The floor of the drawer felt oddly thin; yet it had bowed just slightly under the pressure of his fingers, until it pressed up against something much firmer underneath.
"Which would make sense, if the measurements added up – but they don't. The closets would have to be much deeper to justify all that extra space. You see a laundry room in this house?"
"Ah – no?" Milt replied absently, carefully feeling around the sides of the drawer until the tip of a gloved finger caught on a slight depression in one back corner. He carefully pried the wood up, feeling a sense of anticipation – only to find himself staring down at an electronic tablet, not the gun or safe box he'd been half-expecting.
"Yeah, me neither, so I checked the detached garage. He had the washer and dryer hooked up out there, next to the car. But houses with this floor plan usually have the laundry room indoors."
Milt lifted the tablet from the drawer, pressing the on button as he glanced up at Russ. The detective had crossed his arms, tapping his fingers along his biceps as he continued to stare into the closet's depths. "You think he walled it off – created a secret room?"
"I know it sounds crazy," Russ snorted. "There's nothing to suggest an entryway here, the closet in the office is full of shelves, and if there was ever a door in the hall, it was sheetrocked over a long time ago. But the dimensions of the rooms just don't add up; there's something missing."
The tablet didn't seem to have been passcode locked; the screen lit up readily under Milt's touch, and revealed itself to be an ereader loaded with books titled in Cyrillic. Milt was only minimally familiar with the alphabet, but he did recognize a few of the titles; his high school education had been more than usually broad.
"Maybe not so crazy," he mused aloud. "I just found a Kindle hidden in a false drawer, full of Russian literature."
"What? Are you serious?" Russ blinked over at him.
Milt tipped the ereader toward him, displaying the screen. "One of these things is not like the others, Russ; all the other books in the house are titled in English. But this is the guest bedroom – it might not've been his."
"Because people usually hide things in false drawers in their host's bedrooms," Russ raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Find any other fingerprints in here to support that theory?"
"Well, no, but...."
"Because you won't," Russ shook his head and stalked back out of the room, toward the office.
"I was going to say, I haven't had a chance to scan it yet!" Milt called after his partner, an exasperated smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.
"Well let me know what you find, because – wait, are you kidding me with this?" The last words were almost shouted, muffled only slightly by the walls between.
"Russ?" Milt called after him, checking the scanner again; it showed no prints on the ereader at all, not even Mr. Jones'. "Russ, are you okay?"
"I'm something, all right," Russ called back, loudly. "Milt, come here; you've got to see this."
For lack of an easier way to carry it, Milt tucked the ereader into his sling, then shut the drawer, picked up the scanner, and headed back toward the office. Halfway into the room, he stopped and stared. One of the shelves in the room's closet had been cleared of blankets ... and the entire back wall of the closet had pivoted inward, leaving a narrow gap a man could just about fit through if he scooted sideways. A muted glow shone within, consistent with a low-candlepower pocket flashlight.
"There really is a secret room?" Milt blurted. He looked back down at the ereader he carried, then at the space behind the closet wall, and shook his head in disbelief. Two and two made four; but in central Michigan? "This is new."
"Yeah, well, I bet you'd never played a taster for a syrup cartel before, either," Russ snarked. "Welcome to Battle Creek. Speaking of which, what's the hold up? Come in here, you asshole, and bring that fancy fingerprint thing with you. This is unbelievable."
Milt eyed the gap again, then sighed, approaching the closet. "Nice to hear you admit some of my technology might be useful, for once," he said, making conversation as he tried to inch his way past. The sling made it problematic if he didn't want to bang his wounded shoulder on the wall or the corners of the shelves; he ended up having to remove it, tucking it under his arm as he gingerly squeezed through.
Russ grunted. "I still think it's a lazy shortcut, and one we shouldn't let ourselves get used to in case the FBI decides to shut the satellite office back down or transfer someone in who doesn't give a damn about local cases. I mean, you heard the Mayor – he's using your presence here as an excuse to cut our funding further, not make up for past shortfalls. We'll end up stuck in the same situation as before, only this time no one'll even remember how to do so much as a simple fingerprint lift."
"Ah." That did make a certain amount of sense; not that the entire detective squad would actually be helpless if Milt left, but that Russ' concerns had had more dimensions than simple obstinacy and petty one-upmanship.
"But. That isn't to say ... I mean." Russ paused to take a deep breath, shifting the flashlight beam to shine at their feet as Milt finally emerged into the inner room. "If you tell anyone else I'll shoot you again – but I have to admit, it is sometimes helpful. So I decided I might as well enjoy it while I can."
Milt stared back at him, momentarily at a loss for words as he tried to parse all the layers of potential meaning in that statement. "That's, uh. Good to hear, Russ," he managed. Then he registered the décor and turned in place, seizing on the distraction to examine the other walls. "You were right, this is pretty unbelievable."
Shelves stacked with reel-to-reel tape and several more file cabinets were packed into the tight little room, leaving barely enough room for them to move around – and plenty of flat surfaces to be scanned. What few clear spaces were left on the walls had been covered in tacked-up maps and photographs of various locally recognizable public buildings. It was like something out of a 007 or Mission Impossible movie: the kind of hidey-hole you'd expect to find in an expensive mansion or clandestine European hotel, not middle-income suburbia.
"I know, right? What are we, in a Bourne movie or something?" Russ shook his head.
"Speaking of, ah, making use of FBI forensics, I think it might be time to call in my team," Milt replied, setting the discarded sling down atop one of the file cabinets before yanking at an upper drawer. It only opened a few inches, exposing folders labeled in Cyrillic, each one yellowing with age; he didn't recognize any of the names. "I hate to say it, but there's way more here than just the two of us are going to be able to get through in any kind of reasonable time frame. And the national security implications alone...."
"You could have stopped at reasonable time frame," Russ groaned. "You're not seriously going to tell me I have to walk out of here without looking at any of this stuff, are you?"
"Well...." Judging by the yellowing of the maps and the curling edges of the photographs, none of the evidence in the room pertained to a particularly urgent matter, so he didn't see what it could hurt. But legally speaking....
"Wait. Hold that thought," Russ interrupted him before he could answer, holding up a hand and dropping his voice to a low whisper. "Do you hear that?"
"No...? Wait, that isn't...?" Milt frowned; it sounded as though the front door had just shut behind someone.
"Not my team; and you haven't called yours yet," Russ said, then moved toward the closet entrance, carefully inching his body past Milt's. The sound of heavy footsteps and at least two unfamiliar voices carried from the direction of the living room; Russ waited with his hand on the secret door for a moment, then swore under his breath as the footsteps began advancing up the hall. He dropped his hand to the butt of his service weapon, then glanced over at Milt and reconsidered, returning his hand to the back of the door instead and carefully pushing it closed.
"Russ...." Milt hissed. He was stiff and sore, yes, but not that impaired.
"Shhhh!" Russ shook his head at him, wincing as a soft click announced that the door had fully shut. Then he clicked off his flashlight, leaving them wrapped in complete darkness.
And not a moment too soon, as the muffled sounds of the visitors finally reached the home office. Milt inched closer to the door, biting his lip on a curse as something clattered and crunched under his foot; he bumped his arm on something else he couldn't see as he hastily recovered his balance, then abruptly stopped at the feeling of an elbow pressed into his chest.
"...sure there was something to find, man?" a young, petulant male voice carried through the wall.
"There has to be! Nobody's that secretive without something pretty big to hide," a slightly older, more confident voice replied. "I caught him putting something away on the shelves in here that one time, but by the time I got the chance to look at them later, he'd hid whatever it was away. And you know I didn't have much time to search the other day; the old man keeled over before I realized he was lying to me. We're lucky the cops didn't twig anything was wrong, or the place would still be taped off and it'd probably be gone. Did you check behind all the blankets? Maybe there's one of those fire-safe boxes in there or something."
Thumping noises sounded just feet away from them, and the arm pressed against Milt's chest shifted as Russ drew his gun. Milt couldn't see him aiming in the dark, but he could picture it in his mind's eye; the ready posture, the slight tension in his arms as he waited for what would come next.
The sounds of searching hands finally stopped, though, without thumping around on the shelf Russ had already cleared – the one that concealed the trigger for the false wall.
"No, I don't see anything. Did you check all the drawers?"
"Yeah, but there's nothing there, either. The guy always paid me in cash, though, I swear; it's got to be in here somewhere!"
"Fuck," Russ breathed softly, shifting again as his arms lowered.
"Sounds like we've found our motive," Milt breathed back. "Can you text one of the others?"
"Think I better wait 'til they leave the room," Russ replied, equally softly. "Phone screen's kinda bright, and it's cloudy outside today. You be okay if we sit tight a while?"
"I'd be better if I actually could sit, but beggars can't be choosers." He could probably use another dose of Tylenol, as well, but he'd left the bottle in his desk back at the office.
A chorus of slamming noises carried through to them next: the two men sliding the desk drawers open and closing them again, probably, discovering all the same miscellanea Russ had before them.
"Least it's not a trunk this time," Russ snorted quietly, shoulders shifting under his shirt in an audible shrug.
"Yeah; the lack of handcuffs is definitely a plus as well." Milt shook his head, then reached out to balance himself against something; his waving hand bumped into one of the cabinets, and he carefully turned to put it at his back.
A few seconds later, fabric brushing softly against metal informed him that Russ had made the same call. Milt shifted slightly until his shoulder was braced against Russ', then winced as a cascade of thudding noises announced the sweeping of a bookshelf in the next room.
"Let's just hope they don't set the place on fire while we're still in here," Russ whispered sourly.
"Yeah, because that's all this situation needs," Milt sighed.
They settled in to wait.
Some indeterminate amount of time later, the pair of human wrecking balls finally moved on to another room, and Russ breathed a sigh of relief. "Finally," he growled, then shifted to extract his phone from his pocket.
At least, that was what Milt assumed he' been doing; he stiffened a second later, then shoved away from Milt's shoulder and the file cabinet entirely, and a lot of hasty fabric-rustling noises ensued.
"Something wrong, Russ?"
"I can't find my phone. Damn it; I must've I left it out in the garage. I remember hanging up when I saw the washer and dryer, and then I set it down to look behind them for the hookups. After that ... God, I'm an idiot."
"It's all right, we'll just use mine," Milt murmured, then reached into his own pocket ... which was, to his abrupt surprise, also empty.
He froze, remembering that crunch under his foot right after the light had gone out, then swore under his breath. If it had somehow fallen out of his pocket ... well, there was a price to pay for always buying cheap phones in bulk, so it would cost less to replace them when they inevitably ended up in the shattered graveyard of the bottom drawer in his office desk.
"Problem?" Russ said, as the silence dragged on.
"I hope not. You still got that flashlight? Aim it back down toward our feet."
"You did not just do what I think you did," Russ groaned, but did as he'd asked; a moment later, a quiet click heralded the return of the soft white beam, illuminating the tile in a dim circle under their feet.
A few feet away, about where Milt had been standing before the light went out the first time, he saw what he'd been afraid of: from the way the case was split, there was little chance his phone would even turn on again, never mind find a signal.
He glanced over at Russ. In the dim shadows of the room, the other man looked like the archetype of a film noir detective. "Well, so much for that idea," he said, with a rueful chuckle.
Russ sighed. "New plan: when the house goes quiet for good, open the closet back up and call from the landline. Should be plenty of new evidence from the racket they're making."
"Provided Font or Niblet don't finish the canvassing first and come looking," Milt pointed out, hopefully. "Or the nosy neighbor might call it in; there's still a chance they might be caught in the act."
Russ rubbed a hand over his mouth. "Man, you don't quit, do you. I'd wondered, after, you know, everything." He made a vaguely circular gesture in the air.
"What do you mean?"
"You remember how you said that who you are, and who you were, are two completely different things? And I called bullshit?"
"Yeah, I remember." One of Russ' many interruptions when they'd been trapped in the trunk of Brock's car, and Milt had been trying to explain what had brought them there. "Because you don't believe people can change."
"Oh, I believe they can, just that they don't," Russ made a face. "I still call bullshit; but I get it now."
"...You do, huh?" Milt gave him a skeptical look. He actually had heard that before, from previous partners who'd tried to get him to open up; it seldom led anywhere favorable.
"Mmm. Just so long as you don't expect me to live up to your sterling example," Russ replied, with a sudden, there-and-gone grin. "I own my misanthropy, man. I'm friends with it. It keeps me warm at night."
Milt blinked; that was not where he'd been expecting Russ to go with that line of thought. "I think Holly might have something to say about that," he replied in bemusement.
"Yeah, well." Russ cleared his throat, glancing away again. "Anyway, the point is, we do the good cop, bad cop thing pretty well; it just wouldn't be the same if we were both the same cop."
The end of the sentence faded out a little as he frowned and titled his head at the door; then he took a step forward, the circle of light moving with him. He lifted the flashlight, playing it over the seams of the false wall, then began feeling around its edges with the fingertips of his other hand, searching for something. "I think she may have something else to say to me today, anyway. You see anything in here that looks like a lever, or a button, or a switch?"
"...You have got to be kidding me," Milt groaned, then turned to take in every inch of the room he could see or reach with his fingers.
"Shit," Russ sighed after a long moment, then dropped his hand and leaned his forehead against the wall.
After several long minutes spent attempting to quietly search the hidden room for an opening mechanism by the glow of Russ' flashlight, Milt reluctantly concluded that it was too well hidden to find in a timely manner. Either that, or it had been built to be opened only from outside as part of Mr. Jones' security measures; the walls seemed unusually solid, as well. Regardless, it would be wiser to conserve energy until someone came looking for them.
Empty, the room might have been three or four paces long by two wide; encumbered with shelves and filing cabinets, there was barely enough tile exposed for two long strides by one. Maneuvering around each other to search the space meant tight quarters and bumping shoulders and a sincere desire to swat Russ every time he thrust a hand in his pocket and fidgeted, deep in frustrated thought. Lacking a chair or stool or anywhere else to sit, Milt ended up awkwardly taking a seat on the floor; and when Russ finally wound down, he joined him there, bracing his elbows on his knees and staring at the back of the door.
Milt scrubbed a hand over the back of his neck, kneading at tense, pained muscles and the aching band over his shoulder where the sling had cut into the skin. "No sounds out there in a while. Think they left again?" he murmured, breaking the silence after several minutes of joint brooding.
"Knowing our luck," Russ sighed.
"What, you wanted them to break in here and find us?"
"I wanted to arrest their asses. And not have to be rescued again. What do you think the odds are Mr. Gotta-Be-In-Here-Somewhere wasn't the nurse we were looking for?"
"Well ... I wouldn't bet against it," Milt admitted, then shook his head. "I'm still having trouble believing we may have uncovered a genuine spy ... and that he may have been killed not for talking to the wrong person, but for not talking to someone who mistook his tradecraft for another kind of concealment."
"A retired Russian spy," Russ pointed out. "The aging of the paper, the way those drawers stuck – he hasn't come in here in a really, really long time, except maybe to keep the hinges oiled as a safe room."
Not that that would make much difference when the reporters and Milt's superiors got hold of the story. He could just picture the headlines now. But it was a loose end, and he knew Russ' penchant for picking the important threads to pull. "I wonder why he never carried out whatever the task was that brought him here? You think he managed to put down roots in the community, became a citizen in earnest?"
"Or just got old and sort of retired in place after the Soviet Union went down and the KGB turned into – whatever the hell it is now."
"The SVR or the GRU, depending on whether his targets were civilian or military – if I remember right," Milt filled in. Foreign intelligence agencies weren't exactly his area of expertise, but he could hardly have escaped knowing at least the broad strokes between his childhood and his current occupation.
"Figures you'd know," Russ chuckled. "You know, I hadn't thought about it in a while – I try not to put too much thought into the things my mother says to me – but once, when I was really young, she tried to convince me that's why I never knew my dad. That he was a Russian spy, and after she found out they decided it was too dangerous for them to stay together."
"You don't actually think...." Milt blinked.
"No, no. Growing up, I had all these grand theories about who my dad might be, each one more elaborate than the last. Even that young, though, I knew better than to buy into a story that appealing. I figure whoever it really was had to've been more like Henry Briggs; one of Mom's criminal partners, left behind when she found something else more important."
Better Russ' dad left behind than Russ himself, Milt thought. But that probably wasn't a sentiment Russ wanted to hear. "My father was a consular officer at the embassies in Monaco and Tehran – that's why I grew up overseas," he offered in return for the confidence. "And no, it wasn't a euphemism or legal cover. My mother taught English as a second language, both places. But the embassy kids I went to school with – we used to tell each other stories like that about our parents all the time."
"Spy kids' school. Nice," Russ said. "That why you went into government service, too?"
It might have been easier if that was the case; his mother might still be speaking to him if it was something that mundane. "No, that was more ... you ever hear about the Manjil-Rudbar earthquake? 1990, Iran?"
"No, but ... 1990? You, what, had to've been in high school when it happened?"
"Yep," Milt nodded, then took a deep breath and let it out. He didn't talk about that time very often, but in the dark, with Russ leaning warm against his back, the memories seemed somehow less harrowing. "Just after junior year. It hit northwest of Tehran on June 21; a strike-slip earthquake, magnitude 7.4. Tens of thousands killed; twice as many injured; and hundreds of thousands displaced, both by the initial earthquake and the aftershocks and dam break that followed. My father was one of the fatalities. Afterward, my mom brought my sister Marjorie and I back to the States. But I couldn't stop thinking about the things I'd seen; not just the devastation, but the way people preyed on each other in the aftermath. And I wanted ... well, I wanted to make a difference."
Not that it had worked out the way he'd intended. His mother hadn't approved his career choice. And when his public career had later intersected with her private coping methods ... well. She hadn't willingly spoken to him in years.
"Man, you really have seen the worst of humanity, haven't you?" Russ replied, sounding vaguely appalled. "No wonder your trust everyone crap feels like it's applied with a trowel, sometimes. That's because it is. You must really have to work at it to get the smile that perfect."
"Careful, Russ; you almost sounded admiring, there," Milt replied, casting a glance back over his shoulder. "Speaking of which ... it's been bugging me all day. After everything that went down with Brock. Why trust me now? After I admitted exactly how much I'd been lying to you all along?"
Russ bit his lip, shadowed expression deep in thought. Then his eyes met Milt's, and he quirked a faint smile. "How about we trade answers? A question that's been bothering me, first."
"What the hell. Shoot."
"...Why have you had so many assistants? I've noticed a new one every week, except when you were out on leave."
"What, you think I have a Bluebeard's chamber tucked away somewhere?" Milt's eyebrows climbed his forehead.
"Ha, no; but see, that's the point," Russ lifted a finger to point at him. "I'm genuinely asking the question. Because I get it now. Like I said before."
"...It's okay that I lie to you, because you get me?" Milt ventured to summarize.
"No; because I know when you're lying," Russ corrected him. "And because I know where it comes from, now. It's like my mom said, ironically enough: for you, it's not about the glory, it's about the job."
Milt glanced away from Russ again, processing that. He would have said it was about penance, but Russ wasn't wholly wrong, either. The reasons he'd become an FBI Agent hadn't changed; only the way he went about it. Using every resource available to him, from the agency's tech to his connections to his looks, to solve cases without having to do risky things like putting a kid like Casey out on a limb, ever again.
That had won him a lot of enemies, over the last six years. But it seemed it had also, all unlooked for, earned him a friend. Because of his reasons for making the change, no less, rather than in spite of them.
"The assistants are temps," he replied with a sigh. "If one of them ever lasts a whole week without ogling my ass or sending personal email on company time...."
"Ah, say no more," Russ chuckled, and took a breath to say something else–
–but whatever it would have been, Milt cut him off, brain seizing over the words that had just come out of his mouth.
"Email!" he blurted, scrambling to his feet. Where had he put the damn ereader?
"Milt ... what?"
"Kindles have email! And none of the utilities have shut service down yet, so it should still be able to connect to the wifi router." Milt finally found it atop the file cabinet with his sling; he flipped the cover back open and hastily tapped through the icons until he found one that would let him access the email account Mr. Jones had associated with the device.
He tapped the button to create a new message, gave it a suitably descriptive subject line, and hastily laid out the broad bones of his and Russ' situation. Then he sent it to Guziewicz, copied to Font and Holly so someone should get the message right away.
"Damn, I should have thought of that," Russ said, climbing to his own feet and grinning appreciatively at Milt.
"Never mind that, I should have thought of it sooner. Making use of technology is supposed to be my contribution to this partnership, after all," he grinned back.
They waited impatiently for a few minutes; then the Kindle made a noise as a new message came in, and Milt's grin widened as he saw Font's return address on the From: line. "Font's on his way; we'll be out of here in a few minutes," he summarized the contents. "Oh, and Meredith's report came back; it was poison, a lethal dose of one of Mr. Jones' medications."
"None of them are ever going to let us live this down, you realize," Russ sighed. "A Russian spy. In Battle Creek. And we managed to get locked in his closet together while the suspect came back to rob the place blind."
"A retired Russian spy, I believe you pointed out ... which reminds me." Milt schooled his face back into helpful blandness, struck by an imp of the perverse. "Did you want me to have the FBI run a DNA test, just in case?"
He couldn't quite keep all the teasing out of his tone; and was gratified by Russ' sputtering in return.
Two weeks before, Russell Agnew had claimed Milt Chamberlain as his partner after months of fighting him at every turn; minutes later, he'd clutched Milt's hand as he bled into the corn and told him he was going to be okay.
After six years of trying to balance the scales, to do enough good in his life to outweigh the bad ... for the first time, Milt thought he actually might be, one day.