They had guns.
Charlie had gotten so used to people with guns that it didn't immediately strike him as strange--never mind threatening--and then the guns were pointed at him, and hard hands were yanking him off his bike. They barely let his feet touch the ground as they hustled him toward a car. He looked around desperately in the gray light before dawn, and saw only two other people, one on a bike and another walking.
He opened his mouth to yell--for help, as a warning--but someone hit him hard in the mouth. He was still seeing stars as a gun fired twice, very loud, very close to his ear. He saw the walker and the person on the bike both crumple to the ground as his mouth filled with blood, and he didn't even think about resisting further. A rough hand reached into his pocket, took his cell phone and tossed it to the ground with a small plastic clatter, and then they shoved Charlie into the backseat of the car.
No one had said a word.
Don heard about the mess at CalSci about ninety seconds after he got into the office that morning. The shootings kicked up jurisdictional issues out the ass with one body in the street and one on university property, and three or four different agencies were fighting over turf. So far, the Bureau was keeping its nose out. If the rumors floating around were true, though, about single-shot kills from a distance, sooner or later people would start thinking sniper, and then they'd be hauled in again. If it was another copycat, months after the last sniper case, kicking off another chain of copycats... Don didn't want to think about it.
Through the day, Don left Charlie a handful of voice mails: breezy, annoyed, teasing, and terse in succession, calling whenever he could spare enough time to get to a part of the office with decent cell reception. He and Terry and David were up to their necks in evidence for the Magruder case, trying to get warrants. Don knew it was stupid to be stealing attention from it to worry about Charlie--he was Dr. Charles Eppes, people would be talking about it if anything had happened to him, and they would be talking about it to Don--but it nagged at him anyway.
He went over to the house for dinner, hoping to see Charlie and stop thinking about the damn shootings, get his head back into his own work--or get the scoop on them, if Charlie had been incommunicado all day because he'd been sticking his nose into the case--but his dad said Charlie had been at school all day.
"He called last night at midnight and told me he was going to stop by his office for a few minutes before he came home," his dad said, waving a hand. "I locked the doors and went to bed. Charlie probably fell asleep at his desk. He does that sometimes when he's got a big project."
He gave Don a little look, like he was scrupulously not saying A big project involving math, not that you pay any attention to Charlie's work when it doesn't involve your work, which was a lot to not say in a split-second glance. Don heard it loud and clear anyway, including his dad's merciful decision not to get into it right then. "He'll come home when he gets hungry."
Don grinned. "He's not a cat, Dad."
He thought about mentioning the shootings, but bit his tongue. There was no need to worry his dad if he didn't know about it. It was early yet; maybe the rumors were wrong, maybe it wasn't any kind of sniper at all.
His dad smiled back and said, "No, he's a grown man, and he'll be here when he gets here. Now grab a couple of plates, dinner's almost ready."
They ate together, just Don and his dad, and Don soaked up his dad's total unconcern over everything. They talked about baseball, and about his mom, which they never did with Charlie. His dad told Don stories about when Don was little--before Charlie was born--and Don tried to remember the last time he'd hung out with his dad without Charlie around. It was kind of nice.
The doorbell rang as they were clearing off the table, and Don went to see who it was as his dad made up a plate to put in the fridge for Charlie. It was Amita, and she smiled as brightly as ever at Don. He smiled back automatically.
"Hey," Amita said, "I just needed to talk to your brother," and right then Don knew, even though Amita was still smiling, even though his dad was still humming in the kitchen.
He saw Amita's eyes widen as he said, "He wasn't at school today?"
He had to get his voice under control; that had come out harsh, unsteady. He had to be under control for this.
She shook her head, starting to look scared instead of just startled. "I haven't seen him all day--I tried calling twice, but he didn't answer, and Larry hasn't seen him--"
Behind him, his dad called out, "Don, who is it? Don't keep them standing on the doorstep there, you're as bad as your brother."
Don shut his eyes, shut out the sight of Amita's face, closed off the thought process--he should call local law enforcement, he should call Terry, he should give Charlie's cell a call just to rule it out--and put a calm, professional smile on his face.
"It's just Amita," he said, looking back at his dad's untroubled face. "Charlie gave her a message for me, that's all. I'm gonna go get him."
"Oh," his dad said, frowning slightly, but Don could see him dismiss it. "All right, then."
Don nodded, grabbed his keys, and stepped out onto the porch. Amita was still standing there, and she looked more scared than ever.
"Don," she said in a small voice.
"Come on," Don said, "I'm gonna want you to tell me everything you know in the car."
He called Terry, because it was still hours too early to call anybody in an official capacity without some kind of solid evidence. She didn't bother telling him any of the things he already knew about time frames and procedures, just said she'd meet him on campus. They checked Charlie's office first, and though it was a mess there was no sign of struggle. Nothing seemed to be missing. Charlie's backpack and jacket were gone. Amita checked some programs he'd left running on the computer and said it looked like he'd been there until around five in the morning.
They checked the nearest bike rack next. Amita seemed encouraged when they found Charlie's bike was gone, and Terry shot Don a grim look and sent her back inside, telling her to keep trying Charlie's cell phone.
"Okay," Terry said, when Amita was out of earshot. "So he took his bike from the rack and headed for home at five in the morning, and now it's been fourteen--"
"Closer to fifteen," Don muttered, looking around, checking the lines of sight to the bike rack.
"Close to fifteen hours," Terry finished, her voice clinical, steady, as if this was just a case. "If he'd been in some kind of accident, he'd have turned up by now, since he appears to have had his ID with him. If he decided on his own to disappear--"
"The shootings were over here," Don said, and started down the sidewalk, not quite letting himself break into a run. When he got out of the shadow of the building, he was looking out at the street and parking lot where the bodies had been found, and--
"Home's that way," Don said, pointing. "If Charlie took his bike from here and headed on a straight line toward the house, he'd have biked right through that parking lot at five in the morning."
"Word is the bodies were found about five-forty," Terry said. "So we've got at least a circumstantial connection."
Don started walking, and Terry followed him without saying a word. He passed one scuffed chalk outline and then another, skirting the remaining streamers of crime-scene tape. Don looked around desperately, trying to triangulate to--to what? To where Charlie's body had fallen? To--
He just stood there, staring into the falling darkness, his mind skipping from one possibility to the next: crime-scene snapshots of Charlie, bloodied, beaten, Charlie's wide eyes blank, Charlie, Charlie, and then Terry said, "Don," in a low, urgent voice. She'd gotten ahead of him, and when she started running, he had to sprint to catch up. When she stopped short between two cars, he nearly ran into her.
He didn't understand what was going on until she dropped to her knees, and when he crouched beside her, he heard it, saw it. Charlie's cell phone was vibrating on the asphalt, rattling in a slight indentation. Of course it was on vibrate, Charlie would never hear it if he was working, but usually he'd feel it in his pocket, or he'd leave it balanced somewhere and hear the clatter when it fell. Charlie complained sometimes that they should offer interesting vibration rhythms as well as ringtones, Charlie--
Don lunged for the phone, hand grasping for that tiny plastic connection to his brother, but Terry held him back. "Don, gloves."
She reached into her pocket for one and used it to pick up the vibrating phone. Don spotted the smear of blood on the blue plastic just as it went still.
Don sat down like his strings had been cut, right about the time the local PD showed up to check into this possible third crime scene to go with their murders. Terry took the liberty of calling the AD to alert him to the potential kidnapping case--Charlie being who he was, the AD didn't say a word about her calling him directly, just said he'd assign a couple of agents right away--while Don sat on a curb with his head down. Terry was tempted to join him, but one of them had to keep going, and if this was a real case--involving Don's baby brother--he really shouldn't be any closer to it than he absolutely had to be.
Terry was standing beside Amita, keeping a steadying hand on her shoulder as the police began to question her, when Don's phone started to ring. Terry squeezed Amita's shoulder and went to Don, who had taken his phone out of his pocket and was staring at it like he'd never seen it before.
"Don," she said, looking around for a police officer, wondering how they could record the ransom demand, "Don, is it--"
"It's my dad," he said. His voice sounded rusty, and he shut off the phone altogether, stopping the sound in mid-ring. "Probably wants to know where I am. Where Charlie is."
Terry looked away while Don buried his face in his hands, and then he said, "I'm going to have to--Terry, I have to go, I have to--"
"I'll drive," she said firmly. "You're in no condition."
Don just nodded, and she gave him a hand up. He let go as soon as he was on his feet. He didn't say a word, not to Terry, not to Special Agents Henne and Preston, who'd shown up and started taking over the scene, flashing their badges and pulling rank on the police--not even to Amita, who was trying desperately to hold herself together. Terry told Preston where they were going, and Preston gave Don an unhappily assessing look which Don, thankfully, didn't seem to notice. Preston took down the address and said he'd see her soon.
Terry kept her hand on Don's arm, guiding him through the parking lot to where she'd left her car. He buckled himself in and then sat frozen; she didn't think he was even breathing. She couldn't let herself think about what they were about to do. She'd had to deliver a lot of bad news in her career, but never like this. Never to family.
Don flinched when she turned off the car in front of the house, and she said softly, "Don, do you want me to tell him?"
Don shook his head. "I've got to. I can't let him hear it from someone else."
At any other time she would have objected to the idea that she was "someone else," but Don sounded like nothing but his resolve was holding him together and there was no point keeping him out here arguing about it.
Terry nodded and said, "I'll come in with you."
Don didn't object, or give any other sign that he'd heard her.
The front door was locked, though there were lights on in the living room. Don let them in, and they only made it as far as the foyer before Mr. Eppes appeared. "Don! I've been trying to call both of you, where have you--"
He stopped short when he spotted Terry, and gave her a puzzled smile. "Hello, Terry."
"Mr. Eppes," she said, nodding, and set her hand lightly at the small of Don's back.
"Dad," Don said, and Mr. Eppes' attention was immediately riveted on his son. Don's voice sounded broken, sounded naked like she'd never, ever heard it before, and he reached out a hand to his father. Mr. Eppes took it in a tight grip; she could see the tendons standing out in his wrist.
"Dad," Don repeated. "Dad, Charlie is--"
Mr. Eppes pressed his free hand over his mouth, his eyes widening as his face went sickly pale, and Terry could hear Don choking on the word missing while the word dead hung horribly almost-audible in the air.
"We believe he's been abducted," she said quickly, because she couldn't leave either of them to suffer until Don could get the words out. "He hasn't been seen since early this morning, and we found his phone near a crime scene. The investigation is getting underway right now."
Mr. Eppes stared at her blankly, and then pulled Don to him in a tight hug. Don leaned his head on his father's shoulder like a little boy. Terry could see him shaking, but stayed where she was, outside their two-man knot of grief. She heard Don say, "I'm sorry," in a faint, unsteady voice, but she had no idea who he might be apologizing to.
Charlie, probably, knowing Don.
"I'll go," she said quietly. "Don, don't forget to turn your phone back on."
It was a very strange sensation. Charlie could feel that he was cold, and he could feel the place where the inside of his elbow hurt because they'd stuck him with needles, and he could even feel the place where they'd hit him in the mouth hard enough to bleed, but he didn't care.
He didn't care about much of anything, but he could still think, in a slow scattered fuzzy way. He thought he had good reasons not to answer their questions, so he didn't. He giggled when they got angry with him, even though it wasn't exactly funny. He recited digits of pi whenever they asked for numbers, no matter what numbers they asked for. He knew a lot of digits of pi. Probably all the numbers anyone could want were in there somewhere, if you went on long enough.
They asked him a lot of things he didn't know--things nobody knew, codes and decryption keys, impossible things--but he never told them he didn't know. He had a feeling it was important for them to think he knew.
They dumped a bucket of water over him and left him shivering on a dirt floor until he started to care again, the giggles and the floating sensation ebbing away into the muddy floor. Caring was a sick cold feeling in the pit of his stomach, a throbbing behind his eyes, fear rising up to choke him--but he knew it was all just a matter of time. He was holding up his end. He was keeping them talking. He was staying alive, mostly unhurt. Don would be there soon. Don would find him.
Nobody had to tell Don not to go to work when there was a command post in the dining room, but Terry showed up around nine in the morning to tell him anyway.
"You're on leave for at least the rest of the week, no matter what, AD's orders," she said.
Don just nodded. He hadn't slept, but he'd showered and changed clothes and downed a lot of coffee and talked, one at a time, to Henne and Preston and Abrams and Cash, watched them come and go and make a lot of quiet, urgent phone calls. Everything was sharp-edged and remote. Charlie had been missing now for twenty-eight hours. There had been no ransom demand, no contact from the kidnappers.
Don wasn't allowed to touch the files being assembled six feet away. His father was handling production of coffee and breakfast for everyone in the house. Terry was crouching in front of him where he sat in an armchair, looking up at him intently.
"David and I have the Magruder case under control, don't even think about it."
"Yeah," Don said. "No, I won't."
A latex-gloved hand touched his shoulder, and Don looked up at a woman in a vaguely medical uniform.
"I need to take a sample," she said. "For DNA testing."
Don stared blankly for a moment before he nodded and rolled up his sleeve. Terry squeezed his shoulder and disappeared.
Larry's first impulse, when he came around the corner and spotted Amita sitting on the floor with her back against his office door and her face in her hands, was to flee. It might save steps, to go straight to Charles and ask him what on earth he'd done now, and get him to apologize before the star-crossed love of Doctors Eppes and Ramanujan destroyed the delicate departmental détente between Math and Physics.
He became distracted by the words--delicate departmental détente--and stopped walking, and then Amita looked up. She was pale, her face bare of makeup and tear-stained, her eyes red. Larry remembered abruptly--how could he have forgotten?--that Derek Albright from Applied Physics had been shot dead yesterday morning, along with an undergraduate named Casey from over in GeoSci. Just possibly, Amita and Charles' nascent romance was not the issue here.
He hurried across the short distance as Amita pushed herself to her feet, his mouth was open on a question he couldn't voice as Amita said, "Larry, the killers--they took Charlie."
His verbal skills never really blossomed under stress, but Larry knew he would think later that staring mutely at Amita, his mouth hanging open, was a particular low point. For now, he didn't care: Amita was crying again and Charles was lost.
Larry thought he should probably hug Amita, or at least bring her into his office, but she blocked his path to the door. He stood staring out the windows at the bright morning sunshine, listening to Amita's muffled sobs in the summer-silent corridor, thinking about all the things you could never really grasp when you first heard about them: black holes, an infinite universe, zero Kelvin. And this.
Don spent a couple of hours thinking of things Henne should be doing, and telling Henne to do them. After Don's dozenth good idea, Henne said, "Fuck, Eppes, I know how to do my job, let me do it!"
He ended on a near-shout that woke something Don had been trying to let sleep, and Don was swinging quicker than he could think. He'd have broken Henne's nose if his father hadn't caught his wrist, jerking him back and forcing him to turn away.
Don yanked out of his father's grip, rubbing his shoulder awkwardly with a hand that didn't want to uncurl from its fist, not looking at anyone, fury shaking through his veins. His father said, "Why don't you go outside for a little while, Don," and he went.
He knew there was nothing he could do. He just couldn't stand doing it.
Don was standing in the garage, looking at the chalkboards, when Henne came out to talk to him. Charlie had erased something sloppily on one of them, so there were broken bits of numbers around the edges. Don reached out and touched the smear of chalk dust, and when he took it away there were clean, empty spaces on the board where his fingers had been.
He turned around at a knock on the doorframe, and Henne was standing on the threshold, only a little warily.
"You wanna sit down?" Henne asked, gesturing vaguely toward Charlie's papasan chair. Don kicked over a milk crate and sat on that instead, letting his hands hang open between his knees, and Henne walked over and crouched in front of him, looking him steadily in the eye.
"We found the car they took him in," Henne said. He didn't sound happy about it, and Don was glad he hadn't been macho enough to stay on his feet for this. His stomach was somewhere around his shoes as it was. He covered his eyes with one hand and nodded, and Henne went on.
"It was abandoned in the parking lot of a 7-11 in Glendale. No surveillance tape, and we haven't found any witnesses yet. There was a small amount of blood in the back seat. The type matches Charlie's, we're still running the DNA comparison. We found fingerprints on the rear window. They were smeared, but we picked up partials, and they match Charlie's. They were the only useable prints we could pull from the entire vehicle."
Don looked up, trying to think. "Smeared, like--they started to wipe them off and didn't finish?" That could be good, if they were getting sloppy, or bad, if they were feeling pressed.
Henne's mouth went tight, and he shook his head a little. "Dragged," he said, clipping the word off sharply. "Three or four inches."
Don could see it, sickeningly clearly: the mark of a hand trying to gain purchase on a smooth surface, pulled away. He put his head in his hands and tried to push the image away, to think. Everything he wanted to suggest now--check tire tracks, check for stolen cars in the vicinity, check, check, check--Henne and Preston and the others who were actually seeing the evidence would already have thought and tried. Henne was only being polite, updating him like this.
"We're trying to run down the attendees of the lectures he gave last month on his work with you, but they were pretty much open to the public and no one's come forward to mention anyone suspicious yet. We're doing everything we can, Don, you gotta believe me."
"I know," Don said quietly. He did know; he'd watched enough of their activity to know. The case just wasn't breaking. No ransom demand, no contact, no sloppy trail of evidence, just Charlie's blood and prints in a car in Glendale.
"Thanks," he muttered, and Henne nodded, straightened up and left. Don waited until he was gone before he got up and stumbled as far as Charlie's chair, sinking down into its unsteady hollow and closing his eyes.
Sometime around thirty-six hours they found Charlie's backpack, abandoned on a public transit bus in North Hollywood. About the same time, Charlie's bike turned up at another bike rack on campus, a quarter of a mile from where they'd found his phone, locked up with Charlie's bike lock. That night, a plastic bag containing his clothes--right down to socks, shoes, and underwear--was found in a bathroom stall at LAX. The fingerprint and DNA searches for the spaces involved yielded up dozens of possibilities, a dizzying array. The prints were almost certain to be mostly worthless, and odds were good any real evidence would be lost in the noise. There were no prints or DNA on any of the items themselves except Charlie's.
There was blood on Charlie's shirt, and wrapped up in his jeans was a Ziploc bag full of what appeared to be Charlie's hair. It had all been cut, not pulled out, so there was no testable DNA.
Don looked at the plastic bag, the mess of dark disconnected curls under the harsh light, for barely a second. Then he turned and walked into the kitchen and threw up in the sink.
Charlie started answering their questions properly after they broke the little finger on his left hand (it wasn't fair for something so small to hurt so much, he couldn't believe how much it hurt, couldn't think of anything but how much it hurt and how many more fingers he had). He stammered and mumbled and repeated himself, making things up when he didn't know what they meant.
He only said "I don't know," when it wasn't true, I don't know, I don't know in time to the beat of his heart and the nauseating waves of pain. I don't know, I don't know, and it drowned out everything, even Don is coming, Don will find me.
At 4:59 AM--forty-seven hours and fifty-nine minutes after Charlie disappeared--Don was sitting on the edge of the tub in the bathroom he'd once shared with his brother, his cell phone in his hands. It hadn't rung since his father had last tried to call him.
The time turned over to 5:00 and Don held his breath, the bright white light of the overhead fixture seeming brighter, stinging his eyes. At 5:01 he tried to inhale and started to cry in wracking, painful sobs, inadequately muffled against his hands, even as he told himself that forty-eight hours didn't really mean anything. He didn't stop until he passed out on the floor, half from hyperventilation and half because he hadn't slept in days.
He woke up twelve hours later. His dad had tucked a folded towel under his head and covered him with a blanket, but Don hadn't missed anything. There were no new developments. Sixty hours in, Charlie was just as missing as he'd ever been.