Actions

Work Header

Wise Guys

Chapter Text

Don squinted in the LA afternoon and fished for his sunglasses. There had been more than a few side effects of his promotion. One had been less firm abs and less sculpted thighs due to less running around like a lunatic, or at least chasing lunatics. The other had been not getting out of the office nearly as often and becoming a little sensitive to the noon day sun. Charlie paused just a step ahead of him. One good thing about the promotion was that he could skip out to take lunches with Charlie or his Dad more or less at will.

“Charlie!” a voice called out across the walkway.

Don turned to see a large man heading their way. He was in a brown suit with a large satchel over one shoulder. Don instantly thought the face looked familiar but couldn’t quite place it. A little middle-aged lumpy, a bit of a tan, receding black hair, but with hardness under the face, and scar across one cheek.

“Tommy,” Charlie called back as a huge grin split his face.

Don suddenly realized where he knew the face from. It was the face of Tommy Rossi Junior, the current head of the Jersey mob, and he was pulling Charlie into a bear hug taking Charlie right off the ground. When he finally put Charlie back down he took a step back and looked him over. “Well look at you Mini Teach, you went and got tall.”

“Bullshit, but you’re looking good.”

“Bullshit right back at you.”

Don cleared his throat a bit. “Oh, right. Tommy this is my brother Don Eppes. Don, this is Tommy Rossi.”

Don found his hand in that of the most investigated man on the eastern seaboard. “Nice to finally meet you. Charlie used to talk about you all the time.”

“Yeah, nice to meet you too.”

“So,” Charlie continued. “You pass math then don’t call, don’t write. What are you doing out here?”

Tommy’s face went serious. “Actually I came to talk to you. I need a favor.”

“Sure, anything,” Charlie said automatically. Don whipped his head around. He’d seen every letter of Charlie’s file and there was not a single word about him having even the tiniest connection to the mob let alone doing them favors.

“Um… Charlie?”

“Actually, I’d like to talk to both of you.” Tommy tilted his head towards the Federal Building. “We can make it official if you like.”

‘State’s evidence,’ was all Don could think. ‘Tommy Rossi is going to turn State’s. What other reason could he have to walk into an FBI office?’

“Um… Sure. No problem.”

Don shoved all thoughts of lunch out of his head as he got Tommy through security. The ride up to the sixth floor was an odd one. Tommy seemed nervous but Charlie seemed more worried than anything else. Don bypassed the interrogation room and took over the conference room instead, trying to ignore the looks as other agents recognized one of the faces on their general briefings.

Don sat them down. “So, what can the FBI help you with?”

“Not too interested in the FBI, more in your brother. This is more a courtesy.”

“What’s up?” Charlie asked gently.

Tommy didn’t say anything right away. “How have you been doing Charlie? Got a wife yet, kids?”

“Wife, yes. Amita. No kids yet but we’re trying.”

Don filed that bit of info away. Amita and Charlie had been married for a couple of years but he hadn’t heard them mention kids.

Tommy nodded. “Kids are great. I’ve got… had three. Tommy the Third, name was my wife’s idea. Mikey and Angelica. My little angel. She died. A year ago. Well a year, two weeks and four days.”

“Oh Tommy, I’m so sorry. What happened?”

“She was killed. Shot. Random act of violence the cops say.”

“You don’t believe that.” Don stated.

Tommy sneered a little. “I know what you’re thinking Agent Eppes. I know what people think of me. Thing is everyone came forward. I mean everyone one. Every family. Even the new guys, the Russians and Filipinos. Within an hour. She wasn’t killed by someone gunning for me or trying to get to me. Not that anyone can figure. Random they say.”

“What do you say?” Charlie asked carefully.

Tommy looked down at his hands. “She was ten. She was ten years and three days old. We hadn’t even finished cleaning up from her birthday party. She was on her new bike, a big girl’s bike. Blue, not pink. She hated pink.” Don heard the same crack in the throat that he’d heard from dozens of parents who had lost their children. “Ten years and three days.” He repeated. “About a month later I saw a thing in the paper. Little boy way the fuck on the other side of town caught a stray bullet from somewhere. They had his birthdate in the paper, he was ten years and three days old. About two weeks later a little girl way on the county line.”

“Ten years three days?”

“Yeah. One is a tragedy, two coincidence.”

“Three, you’re looking at a pattern.”

Tommy reached into his satchel and pulled out a stack of folders and a couple of cardboard tubes. “I went to the library, started working backwards. Dozens over five years. All ‘random’, all ten years and three days old.”

Don opened one of the folders. There were printouts of newspaper articles, county death certificates, even some police reports. Tommy opened one of the tubes and pulled out a map of Hudson county. There were dots all over it. “Red is where they died. White is their home. Some have two dots. Divorced parents. Blue is their schools, green the parks where they played. I even did a timeline. Noted what kind of ammunition or weapon was used each time if I could find out. Vehicles.” Tommy pulled out a second roll that had five years of dates on it. Don was impressed. The work was a diligent as any proper investigation. “They seem to come in clusters, a few all together then nothing for months but I can’t see a pattern.”

“Did you take this to anyone?” Don asked.

“You think I’d be all the way out here if I could get anyone to listen to me? The kinder agents gave me pamphlets for grief counseling. The less kind ones told me they’d look at it if I turned State’s. I’m not hallucinating this.”

“No,” Charlie said looking over the map. “Definitely not. There is a pattern here. I can’t see it but…” Charlie’s brows pulled together as he ran his finger along the dots. “What the hell kind of morons do they have working in the Jersey office?”

Tommy laughed but it had the harsh edge of a swallowed sob. “I knew coming to you was a good idea. I kept an eye on you, saw things about how you were chasing down serial killers with math. I thought maybe… Maybe Little Charlie can help?”

“Absolutely.” Charlie replied without hesitation.

Don had to agree with Charlie. He might not know the numbers but he’d seen enough of Charlie’s maps that he could squint at one and start to form a bit of his own idea.

Tommy collapsed in on himself and ran his fingers through his thinning hair. “Even my wife has been telling me I’m nuts. She sent me to Father Isaac to try to talk to me. He said some bullshit about God and I don’t even know…”

Charlie lay his hand over Tommy’s “Questo non è un problema.”

Don felt his eyes go wide even as Tommy laughed. He tried to figure out how the hell Charlie having mob connections and knowing even two words of Italian slipped under the FBI background checks. He was also aware of the fact that he was being more or less ignored.

“I always knew you were paying attention.” Tommy said still grinning.

“I’m smarter than you guys ever gave me credit for. Seriously though, I’ll throw everything I’ve got at this.”

“Thank you.”

“One question though and I want an honest answer.”

“Anything.”

“That first session. You guys drugged me didn’t you?”

Tommy hissed and looked guilty. “Tweak might have slipped a half a valium in your soda. But it’s not like you didn’t need it.” He finished quickly.

“I will concede that point.”

Don was still staring at his brother his brain formulating questions faster than this mouth could even begin to process them.

“How is Tweak?” Charlie asked.

“Doing ten for possession.”

“No surprise there. How about the rest of the gang?”

“Little Mike is doing a bit of time.”

“Again, no surprise there.”

Tommy grinned. “Oh, but you don’t know what he’s doing time for.”

“I am going to be horrified?”

“Cattle rustling.”

“Bullshit. Mike couldn’t tell the difference between a cow and lump of wood.”

Tommy waved a finger at Charlie. “Ah, that’s where you’re wrong. You know how Little Mike didn’t sleep a lot.”

“Yeah.”

“Well one night he was up and saw some late show on farming, you know one of those ones that makes you never want to touch a cheese burger again. Anyway there’s this thing about how it’s too much trouble to put a boy cow with a girl cow any more so instead there is some bastard that sits under a boy cow and like collects all the spunk.”

Charlie slapped his hand to his face and started shaking with barely suppressed laughter. “Oh, god, he didn’t?”

“Turns out this cow spunk is really expensive and it aint like there’s tight security on it.”

Charlie pressed his face to the desk his whole body just vibrating.

“He made a bit a dough for about a year before they busted him but when his lawyer went to plea no one could quite figure out what he should plea to.”

Charlie finally lost it and started to whoop with laughter tears running down his face. Don had to admit he was holding back some giggles himself.

“It’s like the first case of cattle rustling in Jersey for a fucking century. I didn’t even know we had fucking cows.”

Charlie wiped at his eyes. “Oh, god,” he choked out. “I always figured he’d get shot trying to do an Ocean’s 11 in Atlantic City.”

“He’s up for parole in a couple of years, he’s still got time to manage that.”

Charlie’s laughter settled down a bit. “How long are you staying in LA for?”

“I’m booked in for a week. Can’t be out of town for too long. If you take your eye off the ball in the sanitation business...”

“Everything goes to shit?” Tommy gave a roar of laughter. “Here,” Charlie pulled out one of his business cards and scribbled his address on the back. “I’ve got some late lectures this evening but give me a call and come by the house tomorrow. You can meet Amita. One of us can try to cook.”

Tommy put the card in his pocket then stood up holding out his hand. Charlie took it. “Thanks Charlie.”

“My pleasure. I’ll show you out so no one gets the wrong idea.”

Don got up and followed them both out. They parted with a hug on the walkway and a quick handshake for Don. Charlie took out his cellphone and put on the stop watch function.

“Okay, Charlie how in the hell...”

Charlie waved Don off. “Just a minute Don.”

Don waited a minute, then another. Two agents approached and flashed their badges at Charlie. “Dr. Eppes, I’m Agent Dobson, this is Agent Edwards. We’re with the Organized Crime task force. Could you come with us please?”

“Two minutes and fifty five seconds. And no, I will not come with you, but you can come with me.”

Charlie turned back towards the building and Don once again followed caught up in the wake of some strange chapter of Charlie’s life he knew nothing about. Charlie led them back to the conference room where all of Tommy’s evidence was still laid out.

Charlie sat and leaned back in his chair. He steepled his fingers under his chin. He looked relaxed and under control. Don hated to say it but he put out the air of a mob boss.

“Agent Dobson, Agent Edwards. You wanted to say something?”

The two agents actually looked a little uncomfortable. Agent Dobson cleared his throat a bit. “We wish to inquire-“

“As to my relationship with Thomas Rossi Junior?” Charlie finished off for them. The agents shifted a little. Don was both impressed and horrified at how quickly Charlie had both agents on the back foot.

“Yes. How do- "

“I was his math tutor.” Charlie cut in again. “His family gave a generous donation to Princeton where I attended starting at age thirteen. When Mr. Rossi and his fraternity brothers decided to fail math en mass I was sent to be their tutor. This I believe was a sick joke on the part of the math department.”

“During your time as his tutor did- "

“I witness anything illegal or was aware of an illegal activity? Yes. On my sixteenth birthday they snuck me into the nastiest strip joint in the entire state of New Jersey and bought me a lap dance. They wanted to buy me a hooker but I didn’t feel like starting my sixteenth year with a case of hepatitis.”

“Has he-"

“Been in regular contact with me?” Don could see the agents getting quite agitated whereas Charlie was getting the slightly evil look on his face that he usually got when completely owning someone at chess. “No. This is the first contact I have had with Mr. Rossi, any of his fraternity brothers or associates since my graduation from Princeton.”

Agent Dobson seemed to rally a bit. “And the reason for his visit today- "

“The reason for his visit?” Charlie suddenly snapped causing both agents and Don to jump. “The reason for his visit is that you have a killer of children running around leaving a trail so obvious our janitors could follow it.”

“Now just one- "

“No.” Charlie snapped again. “Mob bosses are your thing, serial killers are my thing. Now I have classes to teach, papers to grade, a killer to catch, and I still haven’t had lunch so we’re going to nip this pissing match in the bud.” Charlie took out his phone and dialed a number. He held the phone a little away from his ear so everyone could here. A woman’s voice told them they had reached the Director’s Office. “Hi Ann,” Charlie greeted cheerfully putting the phone to his ear. “It’s Charlie Eppes... Yeah, I’m good. Is your boss in by any chance? I kinda need to talk to him... Sure no problem.” Charlie cupped his hand over his phone. “He’s just coming out of a meeting.” Charlie stage whispered then held his phone at arm’s length for a second so everyone could hear the hold music. Then the music stopped and someone picked up.

“Hey Mike, how’s it going?”

Don watched the other two agents balance as Charlie greeted the director by his first name. Don wasn’t far behind. He knew Charlie knew the director but not on that level.

“Good, good, how’s Karen?” Charlie leaned back in his chair. “Well that’s great... Actually I’m sitting in a room with a couple of your agents and I’ve got a bit of a problem.” Don watched alternating fear and anger flash across the faces of the agents as Charlie explained the problem with an obvious amount of bias. “Sure, just a sec.” Charlie held out the phone to the agents. “Director wants a quick chat.”

Agent Dobson took the phone like it might be lethal. “Hello?” His voice was tentative at best. “Yes sir... yes sir.” Agent Dobson went dead white. “Yes sir, of course sir.” He suddenly went red again. “But sir... Yes sir, I understand sir.”

Agent Dobson handed the phone back to Charlie. “Hi... Yeah, no, it’s no problem. Oh yes, well it’ll have to be spun carefully but you’ve got people for that.” Charlie listened for a second then laughed. “I totally understand... okay... Tell Karen I said hi.” Charlie hung up and put his phone back into his pocket then looked at the two agents with a question on his face.

Agent Dobson cleared his throat. “It appears Dr. Eppes that you are a great asset to the Bureau especially in the area of serial crimes and should you come to our office you are to be afforded every possible curtsy.”

Charlie smiled and leaned forward. “Agents, it’s not that I don’t want you to be able to do your jobs. I completely understand. But you see I have no information that can help you. I also have a folder full of the faces of dead children with a grieving family behind each one. You go catch the mobsters, leave me to the sociopaths.” There was something creepy in Charlie’s voice at the last word.

The two agents squared their shoulders, gave quick nods and walked off without another word. Don waited until they were out of sight.

“Charlie, how the fuck do you know Tommy Rossi?”

“Told you, I was his math tutor.”

“Seriously?”

“Yep.” Charlie checked the time. “Shit, I need to get going.” He scooped up the evidence still on the table and tucked it under his arm. “We’ll grab lunch some other time. Talk to you later.”

“Yeah, talk to you later.”

Don meandered his way back to his office to make sure Charlie was gone before logging into the system and calling up all information on Tommy Rossi Junior.

~

Don tapped on the door of the Craftsman before letting himself and Robin in. It was just after six. According to his father’s message dinner would be about six thirty and some old college friend of Charlie’s was coming around. Charlie himself had been ignoring any of Don’s messages. His Dad and Amita were setting the table.

“Hey guys. How’s it going?”

“Oh, just fine.”

Don sniffed the air coming from the kitchen. It smelled spicy and quite good.

“What’s for dinner?”

“Amita is cooking.”

“Really?”

Amita cooked a little more often than Charlie and a little better but not much. He’d been truthfully hoping for brisket but between Amita not eating red meat and a very stern lecture his father got from his doctor about his overall health, beef based meals were becoming rare.

“I’m making sambar over rice with curried potatoes. Payasam for dessert.”

“I was going to make lasagna but for some reason Charlie said no.”

“Amita, do you need a hand with anything?” Robin asked. Don recognized the tone of the question. It wasn’t so much an offer to help in the kitchen as it was a suggestion that they find some corner and talk about whatever it was women talked about. Truthfully it always worried Don when he saw them with their heads together. Either Amita or Robin on their could be formidable, but when they decided to gang up on their husbands they became forces of nature.

Amita just tilted her head towards the kitchen and the two women quickly disappeared into the other room.

“It always makes me nervous when they do that.”

“It should. Your brother’s in the garage by the way.”

“I figured.”

“I didn’t know you were working a serial killer case. I haven’t seen anything on the news about it.”

“I’m not. Special request from another office.”

“Your brother’s reputation precedes him.”

“Tell me about it.” Charlie had been in England all off six weeks when the FBI got a call from Scotland Yard asking for Charlie’s file so they could clear him to work on cases there.

Don let himself into the garage expecting to find Charlie scribbling away on his boards. Instead Charlie was standing stalk still staring intently at a large red blotch tapped to one of the boards. “Hey, what’s that?”

Charlie didn’t turn to look at him. “That, is a hot zone.”

Don looked more carefully at the blotch. It was laid over a map and seemed to cover almost the entire county. There were a couple of very thin rings denoting lower probability areas.

“That doesn’t look right.”

“I know. This predator, if there is just one, feels confident over every inch of that county.”

“What do you mean just one?” While not unheard of, serial killers working in pairs was incredibly rare.

Charlie shook his head. “Tommy was right when he said there was no obvious geographical or victim pattern. Only the ages of the victims. Different schools, neighborhoods, hobbies, friends, doctors, dentists. Different races, religions, genders. Different weapons used, different calibers. And while there are clumps there is no pattern to the timing I can see yet.” Charlie took a few steps until he was just inches from the map. He reached down, picked up a fresh stick of chalk, then snapped it in half.

Don jumped at the small crack and moved to try to take the broken chalk from Charlie’s hands. “Okay, buddy. Take a deep breath. You’ve been on this case barely a day. Even you aren’t that good.”

Charlie dropped the chalk and went to one of his other boards. He spun it around. Tapped to it were the faces of children. Most were school photos, others were more candid shots. There were also copies of newspaper clippings as well as printouts of official police reports but the words all blurred under the bright smiles of young faces.

“If I could find a pattern in the timing I’d know how much time I had available. As it stands I could be adding another face to this board tomorrow.”

Don didn’t try to feed Charlie any platitudes about doing his best. Those days were long gone. He took crimes involving children or young people as badly as Don. As a teacher he possibly even took them a little worse. He also knew Charlie had more than one trick up his sleeve and if none of those worked he’d just invent a new one.

“What are you going to tell your friend?”

Charlie shrugged. “What do you usually say to the parents of dead children? I’ve always been one step removed from that.”

“I tell them we have our best people working on it. That we’re not going to give up. That we’re following every lead.”

Charlie thumped the board with his fist right next to a picture of a girl with long tussled black curls. “Yeah, that may have flown a year ago, and frankly Tommy can smell bullshit a light year away.”

“Um… Charlie?” Don just knew he was going to regret asking his next question but he needed to know. “Um… Do you owe Rossi anything? ‘Cause if you do we can…”

The look Don got from Charlie was a cold as any he’d ever seen. “Did mom ever tell you how I ended up in the hospital my second semester at Princeton?”

“Yeah, you fell down some stairs or something.”

“I didn’t fall down stairs. I fell onto the fist of a varsity lacrosse player who thought he should be getting a better math grade. I guess I was a little smaller than the people he was used to knocking around. Or he just didn’t feel like pulling his punches. He informed me as I was laying on the ground at the edge of the parking lot, with three broken ribs, a broken nose, a ruptured kidney, and general internal bleeding that I had slipped on some ice and tumbled down the stairs and I’d be sticking to that story or else. About a minute after he drove off Tommy and Big Mike showed up. They tossed me into Big Mike’s car, drove me to the hospital, and the whole time I was telling them I fell down stairs. A little later once I was out of surgery and seriously wacked out on drugs I told them what really happened. By the time I was out of the hospital that player had managed to slip on some ice and go down a flight of stairs breaking both of his legs in multiple places in the process. From what I understand he never walked properly again and I had jocks begging for extra credit assignments. So yes Don, I owe Tommy Rossi Junior my god damn life, and yes he is collecting. And before you get on any kind of high fucking horse I’m not cooking books for him, I’m not working on betting schemes, I’m not planning a smuggling operation, or a jail break, or a casino heist. I am helping find the sociopath who killed his daughter and a lot of other kids as well. Are we okay with this?”

Don leaned away from Charlie who was practically snarling at him. “Yeah. Yeah, we’re fine.”

“Are the people listening in on the bugs that are probably in here already okay with this?” Charlie shouted out.

The distant ring of the doorbell slipped into the garage. Charlie sprinted out of the garage and into the house opening the front door before anyone else could reach it. He gave Tommy a back slapping hug before showing him into the house. Tommy looked around, a bottle of red wine in his hand. “This is a really nice place you got Mini Teach. Doing well for yourself.”

“I manage.”

Robin and Amita had emerged from the kitchen and were looking the new arrival over as they approached. Don watched Robin’s head tip as she obviously found Tommy’s face familiar. He hadn’t told her who the dinner guest was going to be just in case she got weird about it.

“I brought you this.” He handed Charlie the bottle of wine. “It took me a few minutes to remember you were old enough to drink it.”

“Like that would have stopped you.”

“True.”

Charlie turned to their dad first. “Dad, this is my old friend Tommy from Princeton.”

Tommy took Alan’s hand in both of his. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you sir. I remember Charlie talking a lot about you. And can I just say I was so sorry to hear about the passing of your wife. She was a good woman. Lot of class to her.”

“Thank you. That’s very nice of you to say.”

Charlie handed the bottle of wine off to his dad as he turned towards Amita. “This is my lovely wife Doctor Amita Ramanujan.”

“A doctor.” Tommy gave her and handshake and a kiss on the cheek. “Another math professor?”

“Combinatorics and Astrophysics.”

“I don’t even know what one of those things are so I’m just going to assume you’re smarter than Mini Teach here.”

Charlie rolled his eyes even as Amita grinned. “And this is my sister in law Robin Brooks. Lawyer.” Charlie gave a loud stage whisper.

Tommy laughed even as he gave Robin a handshake and kiss on the cheek. “I’ll watch what I say then.”

“Dinner should be in a few minutes.”

“Actually, I just checked and it’s basically done.”

“Oh! Well then, I guess we eat.” Charlie gestured everyone towards the table.

Robin hung back and grabbed Don’s arm. “What is Tommy Rossi Junior doing in this house?” She asked quietly.

“Short answer; Charlie was his math tutor. Long story I’ll tell you later.”

She gave him a hard look but didn’t make any other comment.

Amita and his Dad ferried the food from the kitchen. Amita really didn’t cook very often and he’d only seen her cook Indian a few times but there seemed to be three Indian dishes she could cook really well.

The food got served up and the wine poured (even though wine didn’t really go with sambar and rice) before the conversation of the evening really got started.

“So,” Alan started. “Charlie tells us you met at Princeton?”

“Oh yes. Mini Teach here got the job of keeping myself and my boys from failing math.”

“And in return you and your boys set out to make my life… interesting.”

Tommy gave a deep roaring laugh. “Well someone had to drag you out of those classrooms once in a while. And if we hadn’t the world would never have gained important information, like how many sheets of newspaper and how many buckets of poster paint does it take to cover seven faculty sedans.”

Charlie dropped his face into his hand. “I only let you do that because it was the theology department.”

Tommy grinned and so did Amita. “At last. Someone other than Larry to dish the dirt on your Princeton days.”

Don had to admit he was curious. The idea of Charlie doing anything resembling a real college prank never crossed his mind.

“Oh I got lots of dirt. Charlie here was a terrible influence on us.”

Charlie bolted straight up. “I was not. You lot were the ones always trying to get me into trouble.”

“Who exactly worked out how to turn the pool purple the night before a big swim meet?”

Charlie shook his head. “Nope. That was a purely hypothetical thought exercise into some basic chemistry. I would never have actually done it.”

“Of course not. That’s what you had us around for. Mad scientist and evil geniuses always have their teams puttering around the labs and building their death rays and stuff.”

“If I thought for one second I could have gotten a single one of you into an actual chemistry lab I would have bought a white cat and grown a mustache to twirl.”

“You did try growing a mustache.”

“You did? Are there pictures?” Don had missed that particular story of Charlie’s college years, just like he had apparently missed Charlie’s early steps towards becoming a criminal mastermind.

“Yes, it was bad, there are no pictures.”

Tommy chuckled. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that.” Charlie’s eyes went wide. “I think you were still trying to work it during that ski weekend we took you on and Little Joey was going through that photography major phase.”

Charlie’s eyes went wider. “What does he want for the negatives?”

Tommy waved a hand. “Forget about it. He got pinched with Little Mike helping him with his little animal husbandry scheme.” Don watch as confusion flickered across the faces of both his dad and Amita.

Charlie pinched the bridge of his nose and let out a long sigh. “Why do I feel like I somehow failed all of you.”

“Hey, your only job was to get us through one semester of math. And you didn’t completely fail. Giant Jimmy’s an accountant.”

Charlie rolled his eyes. “Bullshit.”

“Hand to sweet Jesus.”

“I invented whole new levels of strange extra credit to get Jimmy a C. He could barely count.”

“I swear to God he’s an accountant and a pretty good one. You know how he was a kinda big guy?”

“I think the term in morbidly obese.”

“Right, sure. And you know he liked to drink a bit.”

“Borderline alcoholic comes to mind.”

“Well about a year after you left Jimmy mashed his toe against a door or something. Shouldn’t have been a problem except instead of getting better it goes all black and he ends up in the hospital short a toe with the doctors telling him he’s diabetic. He’s got to clean up and no more booze. He starts doing the AA thing, gets sober, loses a ton of weight, but he’s mainly sitting around doing nothing except feeling sorry for himself. He’s sitting around at his old man’s one day, and his old man was running numbers at the time. He starts flipping through the books and starts finding things that are wrong and off and what have you. Turns out once he was sober he had a pretty good head for numbers. Went back to school, he’s a CPA now.”

Don looked to Charlie. He knew the face Charlie was making. It was his post finals face. The face he made when he was grading papers and obviously just wanted to throw in the whole teaching towel. Charlie groaned. “Well tell him I say hi and to watch his rounding.”

Tommy laughed again. It was a big booming laugh that filled the room and made Charlie smile. “I’m sure all the guys would love to see you again.”

“Only with a chaperone. You were all a bad influence and I really can’t afford to get pinched these days.”

“Again.” Robin muttered.

“Again?” Tommy grinned. “You went and got yourself pinched for something?” He reached and ruffled Charlie’s hair with a large meaty hand.

“I didn’t do anything illegal. It was an act of protest. I willfully surrendered. And it’s a very long, dull story I’ll tell you some other time far, far in the future.”

Tommy hadn’t stopped grinning. “If you were processed it counts.”

“Mug shots and everything.”

Tommy picked up the bottle of wine and refilled Charlie’s glass to the brim. “That, Mini Teach, calls for a drink.”

Charlie sighed a bit, picked up the glass and drank it down.

The rest of dinner was one story of Charlie almost getting into trouble after another. And if not personally getting into trouble than working out bits of ‘theoretical’ math that lead to things like the most successful panty raid in Princeton history. Don could see Robin taking metal notes, while Amita did her best to mask minor shock and a tad of horror. Charlie’s statement to organized crime had only been loosely true. Charlie was obviously drawing a wiggly line in his head between prank and illegal acts. It possibly helped to explain some of the CalSci pranks over the years.

The names Charlie was throwing around were also catching Don’s attention. In Tommy Rossi’s file there had been a long list of known associates. Some of them had obviously been at school with Tommy while others were general hangers on. But Charlie apparently knew a whole stack of guys who had the words Big and Little in front of their names, many of whom have since been pinched for one thing or another, and a couple got ‘dealt with’ for one reason or another. Charlie just worked his way through the sambar and wine like it was any other discussion with an old classmate.

By the time the desert plates were clear Charlie probably had half a bottle of Italian red in him, but it only seemed to be showing in a little flush of his cheeks. Charlie grabbed an unopened bottle of brandy and gestured to the garage.

“We’re going to just go hang out for a bit. Shoot some pool or something.” He told Amita.

She shooed Charlie, Don and their guest towards the garage.

Charlie turned the big board of faces around before Tommy could get a good look at it.

“Look at all these chalkboards. That brings back memories.”

“The classic never go out of style.”

Tommy poured himself a bit of the brandy and took a seat on the couch. “So, I know it’s only been a day but have you got anything?”

“I didn’t get what I was expecting but that in itself is interesting.” Tommy just raised an eyebrow and stared at Charlie. Charlie went to the map. “Okay, so the first thing I do with serial killers is try to find a hot zone. I can look at where murders take place and use it to calculate an area where a killer would spend the majority of their time. Home or work usually.”

“So you can tell me where this bastard lives?”

Charlie grimaced. “Not in this case.” Charlie pointed to the map. “I ran the numbers several times weighing different variables and the smallest hot zone I got shows what you probably already knew, it covers basically the whole county. But…” Charlie quickly continued. “While this might not narrow down geographical area it does narrow down the type of person we are looking for. I mean I’ve lived in Pasadena my whole life but I wouldn’t know the area well enough to produce a map like this.”

“So we’re looking for someone who would know the whole fucking county.”

“Exactly, and that narrows the field considerably. Think… cab drivers, meter readers.”

“Cops?” Tommy’s voice went cold.

“Could be.” Charlie said carefully. “But in the case of say police or ambulance drivers a hot zone equation would be more likely to show their patrol area, but right now we can’t rule out anyone.”

Don looked at that map himself. It might not be his case but if Charlie was dancing with a serial killer and a mob boss he was going to do all he could to help. He went to the case files. Charlie had apparently been in touch with people and each file was filled with a considerable number of printouts. He went for the earliest one and flipped it over. A little boy with flaming red hair looked up at him. “Did you find anything unique about the first victim?” Don wasn’t used to asking these kind of questions to criminals, or the family of a victim, but Don really couldn’t fault the depth of the research. “Often the first victim has a much more personal connection to the killer.”

“No. And I went looking. I read some books by that John Douglas guy. He wrote a bunch about victim zeros.” John Douglas had been one of the Bureau’s first profilers and had written a lot on victim selection that was still used at Quantico. “That kid,” Tommy pointed at the file. “His mom’s a drunk now, his old man moved away, and the cops turned up bupkis. He was just like the rest."

“Okay,” Charlie said. “That’s an interesting point of information right there. Most first victims are a little different from the rest in a pattern but the fact that this one was typical is in fact atypical. It probably means we haven’t found a victim zero yet.”

“I went back through records as far as I could.”

Something tickled at the back of Don’s mind. “Hey, where were all the victims born?”

“Different hospitals, I checked that to.”

“But were they all in the county?” Both Charlie and Tommy perked up a bit. “I mean the age is so specific, you’d need access to records for that. Birth certificates, school enrollment forms, things like that to plan things out. There would probably be some record of access.”

“And this is why we keep him around.” Charlie wiped a bit of board clear. “This is good. We’re talking set theory here. Did I ever explain set theory to you guys?”

“Um…” Tommy stared into the rafters “Union, intersection. Some things are birds, some things swim in water, where they overlap you get penguins?”

“Wow. I was dumbing it down, wasn’t I?”

“You were trying to teach Tweak. Don’t beat yourself up over it.”

“Right. Well in this case we’re looking at multiple sets.” Charlie drew some large circles. “We’re looking at people who know the county. People who have access or regularly gain access to records. We’re also looking for which records are being used. If we can narrow down which pool he is choosing his victims from that will allow us to narrow down the field even more. This is good.”

Charlie started scribbling on the board and occasionally looking at the files.

“You know in another minute you’ll be able to break an eraser off the end of a pencil, flick it at the back of his head, and he won’t notice.”

“I always noticed.” Charlie said, not turning around. “I simply chose to rise above it. Then assign extra homework.”

Tommy chuckled a bit. “My old man never wanted me to go to college. Said I didn’t need it until I turned sixteen then he suddenly got a bug up his ass that I should go to college and a good one. Fuck if I know what he did to get me into Princeton but he made it really clear that I better get a degree of some sort or he was taking my tuition out of my hide.”

“Can I ask what degree you got?” It hadn’t been listed in Tommy’s file.

“Art history.”

Charlie snorted.

“It’s a valid subject.”

“It’s the subject that let you look at pictures of naked women all day.”

“Not my fault painters are perverts.”

Charlie just snorted again and kept at his math.

Don remembered a time when Charlie lost in math would annoy him. When he wanted to shake his brother, tell him to live in the real world. Much to his occasional guilt Don knew he had succeeded. The board full of faces of dead children was proof that Charlie had fully acknowledged the real world. And Don now found the tap hiss of the chalk on the board oddly soothing.

“Do you understand any of that?” Tommy asked nodding his head toward Charlie’s ever growing equation.”

“Not a single number of it. But he gets there in the end.”

Tommy just nodded. There was no more conversation after that for at least half an hour. Tommy sipped his one glass of brandy until it was dry and watched Charlie scribble on his chalk board, click away on his laptop, and occasionally flip through a case file.

“You know, I was expecting to hear he’d gotten a Nobel Prize in math by now.”

“There’s no Nobel Prize for math.” Don point out.

“Really?”

“According to Charlie, and possibly legend, Nobel’s mistress was doing a mathematician on the side and Nobel was a bit jealous.”

Tommy chuckled. “So one of them was good in the sack and the rest of them miss out.”

Charlie made a small noise but apparently chose to rise above it all.

“That’s the story.”

“Makes sense. Your brother had one of those hot sorority chicks interested in him for a bit.”

Charlie’s chalk froze on the board and he turned around. “She was interested in me as a boyfriend for her gay little brother. Something you neglected to mention to me.”

“We didn’t know.”

“So you say.”

“And you have to admit you had a fun time that day.”

“Right up until the moment I realized who I was supposed to be on that date with. First and only time I ever had to give the ‘it’s not you it’s me’ speech. It was mortifying.”

Tommy just grinned. Charlie shook his head and turned back to his equations. An unfamiliar twinge of jealousy curled up Don’s spine. Don had always pictured Charlie’s Princeton years as being cooped up in a classroom with Larry, being an uber-nerd. And he was sure there was plenty of that but it seems like Charlie also did a lot of ‘normal’ college stuff that this mobster knew about and Don didn’t. It just felt wrong that someone under chronic federal investigation, for crimes that included murder, should know more about any aspect of his brother’s life than he did.

There was silence again after that. For another twenty minutes or so Don and Tommy just watched Charlie work. Don knew what kind of zone Charlie was in just by the speed of his chalk. It wasn’t a sprint, he’d settled in for a marathon. He’d be surprised if Charlie even made it to bed.

There was a knock on the garage door and Robin popped her head in. “Am I interrupting anything?”

“Nope.” Don waved her in.

“I think we need to get going. I’ve got court in the morning.”

“Right, sure.”

Tommy stood as well. “I should probably be calling it a night as well. I’m still on Jersey time.”

Charlie stopped midstream and checked his watch. “When did it get late?”

Tommy laughed. “Don’t worry about it Mini Teach.”

Charlie walked them all to the door giving Tommy one of those backslapping hugs. “I’ll give you a call tomorrow if I get anything new going.”

“I know you will.” He gave Charlie another slap on the shoulder before shaking Alan’s hand. “A pleasure to meet you Mr. Eppes.

“You as well.”

He gave Amita’s hand a shake as well and headed to the rental parked in the driveway. Don looked Charlie over.

“What?” Charlie asked.

“Nothing. Just thinking we’re probably going to have a talk later.”

“I’m sure we will.”

“Are we going to be having a talk as well?” Robin asked Charlie.

“No. Probably not.”

Robin blinked a few times at Charlie’s blunt reply. “Okay.”

Don cringed internally. He’d had the feeling for a while that under everything Charlie didn’t really like Robin, but 99.9% of the time he was friendly and polite to her so it was hard to tell. “I’ll tell you about it later.” Don said quickly before giving Charlie a smile and getting himself and Robin to the car. They made it to the corner before Robin turned to him.

“Don, why did we just have a very nice family dinner with Tommy Rossi Junior?”

“Because Charlie was his math tutor.”

“And?”

“And he thinks his ten year old daughter was the victim of a serial killer a year ago and he want’s Charlie to prove it.”

“And what do you think?”

“I think his daughter was the victim of a serial killer, and the guys in Jersey are idiots, and I want Charlie to prove it.” Robin’s silence spoke volumes. “Look, I had no idea, absolutely zero, that Charlie was a math tutor of the kid of a mob boss, I swear to god. I just found out yesterday and the organized crime crew already tried to question Charlie. I looked over Charlie’s files, Tommy’s files, not a hint that they ever crossed paths let alone went on a panty raid together.”

“How bad do you think this could blow up?”

“Charlie is trying to find a serial killer for a guy who supposedly kept the yakuza off his turf by sending them back one of their guys in twenty pieces, each wrapped in butcher paper. Honestly I’d love to tell Charlie to run for the hills except Jersey does have a serial killer, and Charlie likes the guy, and he likes Charlie.”

“So… Bad.”

“Yeah, bad.”

Chapter Text

Don looked up at the tap on his door just as Liz let herself into his office. She dropped a stack of papers onto his desk then dropped herself into the other chair. “Here you go boss. Annual reviews of everyone and everything that has ever set foot on the fifth floor.”

“Thank you Agent Warner.” Don eyed them up and knew he’d really just end up skim reading them. If there was any major problem with his old team Liz would have brought it to his attention ages ago.

“Seriously, how did you find time to do these things every year?”

“I didn’t. I did them in full maybe twice while I was running violent crimes.”

“Now you tell me.”

Don grinned. “Do as I say, not as I did.”

“Sure. By the way, do you know if your brother is pissed at me or something?”

“No.” Don was quite startled by the question. As far as he knew Liz and Charlie got on great. Charlie’s success rate had even gone up a bit under Liz’s rein. “Why?”

“He’s just been ducking my calls the last few days. Amita said he’d got something big he’s working on, and that’s cool, but usually he just says ‘I’m working on something’ instead of just avoiding me.”

“Do you need something for an active case, ‘cause I’ll talk to him…”

“No, was just looking at some cold cases that I thought could you maybe do with a little math.”

“Okay.” Don knew what Charlie’s big thing was. The same big thing he’d been working on for almost a week. “He’s working a case for another office and it’s kinda eating his brain.”

“Define eating? Like P v NP eating, or there is a chance he can solve it and we should just back up and let him work?”

“How do you know about P:NP?”

“I make it a point to know about my major consultants.”

“More like Posdner.”

Liz straightened up a bit. “Another stealth predator?”

“Yeah, and kids are involved this time.”

“Shit. I’ll give him some space then.”

“Actually, he could probably use a bit of cheerleading. He got handed the case unofficially and under the table and the whole Bureau hasn’t learned to speak Charlie yet.”

Liz quirked her lips into a half smile. “Does anyone really know how to speak Charlie?”

“Okay, they haven’t learned to smile and nod and have a little faith that Charlie might know what he’s doing. Of course there was a stint where even I didn’t know how to do that.”

“I’m sure you learned quick.”

“You weren’t here the first time I let Charlie onto a case. Spent the whole time sure I was out of my mind and about to tank my career but I was fucking desperate.”

“And now someone else is fucking desperate.”

“Yeah.” Don didn’t want to think about how many felonies the person who was desperate was suspected of. “Tell you what, I was going to swing by his place anyway. I’ll put a bug in his ear about at least picking up your calls.”

“Thanks, and if he needs to borrow a room or something, we’re all one big happy Bureau.”

“I’ll be sure to pass that along.”

~

Don walked up the driveway to the craftsmen just as Tommy Rossi was walking down it towards a rental car. He gave a nod to Don. “Flying out in a few hours.” He said. “Thought I’d drop by, see how Charlie was doing.”

“I’m doing the same.” Tommy just gave another nod. “For what it’s worth Charlie’s got an obsessive streak a mile wide.”

“I know. I watched Mini Teach take his driving test eleven times at four different DMVs. Most people would have just given up or slipped someone a bribe.”

“You know he got his licensed yanked for speeding a while back. He tried to argue in court that the math used to calibrate speed guns was flawed.”

“How fast was he going?”

“About a hundred and three on the freeway.”

Tommy chuckled. “Good for him. I’ll see you around Eppes.” Don watched as Tommy got into his generic rental and drove off before heading into the house himself.

It was quiet but the garage door was open. Don could just make out the tap of chalk on a board. Inside, the garage had been transformed yet again. Plastered around the garage were star charts, moon charts, and graphs of plants. It looked more like a project for the astronomy department than a homicide investigation.

“Hey buddy. Saw your friend outside.”

“Yeah. I was hoping I’d have something more concrete to give him before he left.”

“I’m sure you’re giving it everything.” Charlie didn’t answer. “So… Star charts?”

Charlie waved his arm towards a board with a scatter chart of dates. “I’m trying to work out a timeline to the killings. They come in clumps, slightly seasonal, but different every year and they’re not in any kind of easily identifiable pattern. Many serial killers work on some sort of lunar or seasonal cycle but this guy won’t be that easy. I’m thinking maybe some complicated astronomical thing, and I know it’s not completely vital but…”

“But if you figure it out you might get inside his head a bit.”

Charlie dropped down onto the couch. “I’ve spent the last five days on the phone with every detective for every case. Not a single one of them had overlapping suspects. Plenty of theories. Gang or drug related mostly. A few of them suspected unhinged ex’s of partners. There was even a few arrests made but nothing that could stick. A few times the weapons would show up dumped somewhere but never with forensic evidence. In a few cases the bullets were matched up with ones from other unsolved crimes but it was always crimes where the gun was probably just sold off to the next thug, then the next.”

“Did you tell the detectives what you were working on?”

“A few of the more intelligent sounding ones. I kept Tommy’s name and the FBI’s out of it. No need to get anything stirred up yet but I’ve got a few that are going back through old case notes and statements for me. If I could get just one tiny hint of a suspect…”

“You’ll get one.” Charlie flopped an arm over his eyes. Don noticed a couple of grays in Charlie’s hair. He’d been in the grocery store just the other day and had been contemplating a box of men’s hair dye for himself. He didn’t feel old enough to have gray hairs and his baby brother having grays was just wrong. “Did you really take your driver’s test eleven times?”

“Yes.”

“Which part did you fail?”

“All of it. I could drive fine with mom, or Larry. Drove great with Tommy or Little Mike, but once the exam guy got in next to me I’d just stress out, start over thinking everything. Babbling.”

“You’d go driving with Tommy?”

Charlie rolled his head to look at Don. “Tommy taught me how to shave, okay? You weren’t around. Dad wasn’t around. Larry was Larry. Tommy had a Firebird and he let me drive it some days. He taught me to shave. Little Mike explained how to unhook a bra one handed. Big Jimmy showed me the trick to making Jell-o shots set. Robbie…”

“I get the picture. You didn’t have any strong male role models so you took what you could get.”

“It wasn’t about role models it was…” Charlie shook his head. “They liked me and I like them. They were friends. And it was also about safety. Everyone knew who they were and as long as I hung out with them I was safe. First time in my life I could say that.”

A ball of leftover, childhood, guilt worked its way up Don’s spine. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. But you know what you can be sorry for on some level?” Charlie hopped up and picked up a glass of water from the edge of the pool table and held it out to Don.

Don peered in. At the bottom of the glass was a bug and not the six legged type. “I found it five days ago. I left it in place until right after Tommy left so I couldn’t be accused of hiding anything.”

“Then you dropped it in a glass of water?”

“Then I read it the riot act, then dropped it in a glass of water. Now, would you be so kind as to take it to your wife and ask her to find out exactly who requested and granted a warrant to bug the house of the man who works on top secret projects for just about every branch of the federal government? I want to know exactly whose career I get to nuke from orbit when I report it. Which I’d have to even if I didn’t want to, but you know what? I really want to.”

Don’s knee jerk reaction was to defend the FBI but Charlie was right. He worked on all kinds of secret shit that Don knew he’d never get anywhere near and the NSA or CIA or whomever probably wouldn’t want some field level FBI agent in a van finding out whatever secrets they were entrusting to Charlie. “I’ll see what I can do. How’d you even find it?”

“I’ve been sweeping for bugs every week since Colby and the Janus List thing. He swore he never bugged this place but it did make me realize someone else may have. Colby even comes by every so often to do a really through check.”

“Have you ever found any?”

“Just that one. And whoever place it should get sent back to Quantico. I hardly had to look.”

Don fished the bug out of the glass. “I’m sorry. And I’ll try to get you a name.”

“Is McGowan still around? Because you can’t tell me he wouldn’t be skipping with glee…”

“He retired last year.”

“Any chance he left apprentices?”

“I’ll check, and I’ll be sure to get you a name. You just keep working on this.”

Charlie looked up at the star charts then back at the boards. “Yeah, I’ll just keep working.”

“Oh, and give Liz a call. She thinks you’re avoiding her.”

“Does she have an active case?”

“No. Just some cold ones. But call her and tell her you’re not pissed at her about something.”

“Like I could ever get pissed at Liz.”

Don chuckled. He knew Charlie and Liz had nearly come to blows about a month after she took over the job. They had both sulked in their corners until Don and Amita worked out that it had all been a big miss communication and they really had no reason to be mad at each other. It had still taken three days to get them into a room because neither was going to apologize first.

~

Don waited until after dinner to show Robin the bug and explain the situation. She just stared at it.

“Oh, please tell me you weren’t the one involved in this. He had the director chew the ear off one of the organized crime guys already.”

“No. I did put my ear to the tracks thought and it looks like someone is moving stuff into place to make a real run at the Rossi family. They’re still involved in a lot of money laundering, protection rackets, shady union deals…”

“The standard mob stuff.”

“Yeah.”

“Any chance Charlie will get caught up in this?”

Robin picked up the bug and turned it around in her fingers. “I don’t know. I guess it’ll depend what they overheard.”

“I don’t think Charlie talked about anything but the case but I can guarantee he’s already been on the phone with NSA, CIA, CDC, DHS and just about everyone else who’s ever cut him a check. He wants a name so he can nuke someone’s career from orbit. And that’s a direct quote.”

Robin put the bug back into the little evidence bag Don had put it in. “Not to criticize your brother but do you ever get the feeling there’s something… cold inside his head?”

Don let out a breath. He thought he was the only one who ever noticed. “All the time. Ever since we were kids. 99% of the time he wore his heart on his sleeve then I’d catch these looks. He’d stare at some jock in gym class like he was calculating the most efficient way of dissecting the body. I don’t know, maybe he got shoved in one locker too many, but I’ve got to say, especially lately, I have never been so glad he’s working for us.”

~

Don knocked on Charlie’s office door before letting himself in. He only got a few feet. This time it had been Larry who called him with concerns. During Charlie’s year in England Don had slowly trained Larry to be a little more direct when he communicated, at least with Don. So it was Larry’s five minutes of rambling that had Don worried. That and hearing second hand that Amita and Charlie were fighting.

The aftershocks of Charlie’s temper tantrum over the bug were still being felt radiating down through every federal agency. Neither Don nor the government needed Charlie to get upset again.

Charlie’s office was covered in different color strings, running floor to ceiling and wall to wall. Most of the furniture was missing and it looked like a giant spider on hard drugs had gotten sick then wandered off. At the intersection of each string there was the face of a child or a blank piece of paper with a large question mark on it. Charlie was standing in the middle of it all, his eyes closed, his head bowed, and his laptop at his feet was playing Uranus from Holst’s The Planets.

Don waited until the end of the piece to say anything. “Charlie?”

“Yes.”

“How’s it going?”

“I am trying to find the elegant in chaos. My very first case for you I went looking for the mathematically elegant solution. But when you are dealing with humans elegant seldom if ever applies, so at the end of the day one must redefine what actually constitutes elegant.”

“Okay. What’s with the question marks?”

“They’re missing people.”

“He’s kidnapping as well?”

Charlie’s head snapped up. “No. Or, I don’t think so. I’m not… When Dmitri Mendeleev was developing the periodic table of elements he wrote down all known elements on cards and would play chemical solitaire on train trips. Other chemists had tried before but their big problem was that many elements had simply not been discovered yet. When Mendeleev finally put together his table he left empty spaces and said ‘an unknown element will go here and it will probably look like this’. It was an incredibly bold statement. Those question marks are unknown people that the killer is interacting with in some way and I believe those unknown elements are somehow linking the children together.”

“Ah.” Don touched one of the strings as he tried to climb over it. They were all pulled tight and it sent all the pictures and question marks fluttering. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“No.”

“Any luck with the timing?”

“No, I think his patterning is random.”

That was a bold statement coming from Charlie. Don ducked under another couple of strings getting closer to Charlie. “I thought you said nothing people do is random.”

Charlie pointed to one blackboard with a very complicated looking formula on it. “That is the equation I get when I try to reverse engineer his pattern. It’s similar to the algorithm in ipods that randomizes your playlist.”

“He’s using an ipod to decide when to kill?”

“No. It’s more random than that. It approaches true randomness.”

“So you don’t know when the next killing is going to be?”

“No. Was there something particular you wanted from me?”

“Larry’s believes you’re obsessed with the case and is worried you might be melting down a bit.”

“Yes I am and no I’m not.

Don wiggled himself between a few more strings until he got to the small clear area where Charlie stood. He realized Charlie must have built this model from the outside in, basically paining himself into the middle of the room.

Don spun around. From the center things looked very different. Still random but at the same time constructed. More like the spider had dropped acid instead of just getting sick. “Do you see anything Don?”

“I don’t know.”

“This is what has been constructed from the killer’s mind. This is where he would stand.”

Don reached out, plucked a string, and watched how the surrounding bits of paper fluttered about. He plucked another and watched the waves go down a different set of strings. “Ripples.” Don whispered to himself, a haze of a thought starting to form. He reached out into the web and plucked a string attached a question mark and watched other bits of paper bounce around.

“What are you seeing Don?”

Don was seeing a lot of things. Stones in ponds, the plucking of piano strings. He plucked a string attached to a child next and his mind flashed of the feel of a baseball bat vibrating in his hand after catching a piece of a fastball.

“Vibrations. You hit a curve ball you feel it come down the bat. You hit a 95 fastball you feel it in your hands for the rest of the game. Pull a string next to a question mark a few other strings wiggle. Pull a string next to a kid and half the room shakes.”

“Of course! You’re brilliant. If you want to go for maximum effect, really rattle a family or community you kill a child. Oh, this guy is sick.”

Don spun around again tracing the strings with his eyes as quickly as possible. He reached out and plucked two strings. One connected to a child one to a question mark. There was less movement. “Interesting. Still doesn’t tell us who the question marks are and how the killer finds them.”

Charlie dropped cross legged and hunched over his laptop. “Assuming the question marks are other deaths whose death doesn’t create ripples.”

“All kinds.” Don had learned that early on in his career. There were certain people whose murders got very little notice. “Gang members, drug users, prostitutes, shut ins, people already in jail. It’s a long list.”

“So a junkie gets stabbed in an alley and this guy kills a kid?”

“I’ve heard weirder reasons. Have you tried looking at micro cluster things?”

Charlie had begun to type. “No. I dismissed that theory early on. Maybe I shouldn’t have.”

“While we’re talking about Posdner, any chance you can’t find a good victim zero because this guy has moved?”

Charlie’s hands froze for a second. “Yes. I’m running searches for all unsolved shooting deaths of children age ten, in any major urban area, but it’s taking a while because these all count as local crimes so they’re not all in the same databases.”

Don reached out and plucked another two strings. Both connected to children. Half the room shook. “Tell me when you’re going to Jersey.”

“What makes you think I’m going to Jersey?”

“Come on, you’re not going to solve this from all the way over here. Tell me when you decide to go to Jersey so I can go with you. I’ll be your math translator.”

“You’re going to translate my math?”

“Someone’s got to. Besides, I want to make sure you don’t fall in with hardened criminals again. Someone has got to keep you on the straight and narrow.”

Charlie paused in his typing just long enough give Don the finger. Don laughed then tried to figure out the best way out of the office.

~

It was three days and rumors of another fight when Charlie walked into Don’s office, shut the door, and crashed into the empty chair. His eyes were ringed in black and his stubble was headed more towards a full beard. “Do you know how many ten year old children are gunned down in this country every year?” Charlie asked quietly.

“Too many?”

“Yeah. And a surprising number at ten years and three days.”

“But you found clusters didn’t you?”

Charlie nodded. “Going back 18 years. Baltimore County and Wayne County, Michigan.”

“Both high on crime levels.”

“Easy for… I don’t know.”

“What about micro clusters?”

“Nothing. Not even blips but I’m sure those question marks are other killings. It’s just…” Charlie rubbed at his eye then took a deep breath. “Pack your bags, warn who you need to warn. I’m going to Jersey.”

“Do you have a suspect yet?”

“Not even close but there’s no way I’m going to get one here.”

~

Don adjusted his tie. He’d gone back to wearing one every day for about the first month of his promotion before just giving up. After that he kept a couple of ties and a clean shirt folded in his desk in case he suddenly needed to play dress up. But for visiting a another office, with the roadshow that was Charlie, he decided it would be best to look professional as possible. Especially once he started helping Charlie explain why even wasn’t the same as random.

So far they had been greeted politely and treated well with implicating that someone much higher up the food chain and told them to. They’d gotten hairy eyeballs from the organized crime guys but the violent crime squad seemed pretty relaxed, showing them to the war room. They had a couple of active cases on but they gave Charlie one of the meeting rooms to set up in.

An agent approached Don with long strides. He was in jeans and a t-shirt and he instantly reminded Don of himself ten years earlier.

“Agent Eppes?” he held out his hand.

“Yes indeed.”

“Mark Cromwell. I run violent crimes.”

“Pleasure to meet you. Sorry we’re jumping on your turf here.”

“No apology necessary. And I’d just like to state for the record I never heard anything about a serial killer from any other agent or cop.”

“From what I gather certain things were shortstopped before they got too high up.”

“So someone had to go out to California to get our attention?”

Don just shook his head. “It’s complicated.” Don peeked through the glass walls into the conference room to see how Charlie was doing. He’d commandeered Don’s carry-on luggage allotment to bring as many maps and files as possible.

“So… That’s the LA math guy.”

“Yep.”

“Your brother?”

“Yep.”

“I heard he was some kind of idiot savant they kept locked in the basement.”

“Well, his spelling can get kinda bad, but I hear that’s pretty common for mathematicians. And he does have a habit of locking himself in the garage when he gets his head really into a problem.”

“The garage?”

“He has it filled with chalkboards.”

“As you do.” Agent Cromwell watched as Charlie started putting an equation up on a white board. “Look, I’ve got two dead postal workers, a couple of bank jobs, and a corpse found in about fifty pieces on some federal park land. I can bring in my whole team for you to brief but until you can give me a solid lead I can’t give full man power. I got the memo saying you guys get the red carpet but…”

“I ran violent crimes out in LA for six years. I get it. If you’ve got someone kicking around who has a math or science degree, or is willing go way outside the box we’ll take them. Well, I’ll take them and I’ll tell Charlie to deal.”

“How about we’ll let your brother brief and we’ll see who takes to it.”

“Sure. And for what it’s worth Charlie’s got some pretty neat tricks for analyzing bank jobs.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Come on. I’ll introduce you.” Charlie had started fiddling around with some cables trying to get his laptop connected to a TV. “Charlie.” Charlie looked up. “This is Agent Mark Cromwell, he heads up violent crimes here. Agent Cromwell, Doctor Charles Eppes of the California Institute of Science and Technology.” Don figured it was probably best to introduce Charlie by his full title, or at least as full as Don could remember. He was pretty sure Charlie had a few extra letters he got to put after his name on special occasions.

“Nice to meet you Agent Cromwell. I’m really sorry about this, we don’t have any intention of trying to step on your turf but in the end there was only so much analysis I could do from California. I mean I’ve still got out super computer doing some sorting for me but…”

“It’s fine. Really.” Agent Cromwell leaned back a bit from the first on slot of Charlie babble. “I was telling your brother here that we’ve got a couple of cases running hot right now so I won’t be able to get you a whole team until you have a stronger suspect list but I’ll let you brief everyone and see who take it as it were.”

Charlie opened his mouth and Don recognized the look on Charlie’s face. It was his breath away from launching into a full blown argument face. Don gave him a hard look and Charlie forced on a smile. “Whatever we can get we’ll take. Though if you’ve got an IT person running around here that would also be good.”

Agent Cromwell nodded. “I’ll send Mary your way. Think you can brief in ten?”

“Not a problem.”

Mary it turned out was a twelve year old computer whisper. Okay, she was probably in her twenties, but her blond hair in two long braids, she was a little shorter than Charlie, and was dressed in pink. She looked twelve. She also looked horribly disappointed when she noticed the wedding band on Charlie’s finger.

She got Charlie’s system hooked up to the TV just as everyone started shuffling in. Don looked over the agents. They all looked reasonably young but no one looked too green. It was a bit of a balance with violent crime divisions. You had to be young and fit enough to go through doors with SWAT teams but you needed to have enough experience to not get killed doing it. They were all eyeing up Charlie and his equation. A few whispered to each other.

“Okay, everyone.” Agent Cromwell piped up. “This is Doctor Charles Eppes, and Special Agent Don Eppes out of LA. They are here to tell us about a serial killer we didn’t know we had. And yes this is the LA math guy that keeps their solve rates five percentage points better than anyone else’s so let’s all listen up.”

Charlie cleared his throat and pressed a button on his computer. A map of Essex County came up on the large TV screen. A second later it was overlaid with the faces of children. “Yes. Hello. First thank you for the welcome. And we’ll just jump right into it. You have a serial killer. Each of these children here were victims of random gun violence over the last five years, except it wasn’t random. It has only been made to look that way by a very sick mind. Each one of these children was ten years and three days old. Exactly ten years and three days old. Not ten and two day, not ten and four, ten years, three days.”

“Wait,” a slightly older agent put up his hand. “I’ve been here four years and I haven’t heard anything about a bunch of dead kids.”

“Yes, well there are many factors surrounding that. The big one being is that no shootings happened within the same city, town, or township, twice in a row. As you can see by this time laps animation.” Charlie pressed another button. “The killer crisscrossed the county and since they are tragic but random shooting deaths they were all handled by local authorities. No solid suspects are identified, cases go cold. It should also be noted that on paperwork when people note the age of a victim they just go by year. It makes it difficult to notice a pattern of ten years and three days.”

All the agents were giving Charlie hard looks.

“For what it’s worth California had a stealth killer that went for 20 years in three cities. He changed his MO with every killing so it made him tricky to pin down.”

“But someone noticed.”

Charlie tilted his head towards Don. “He got stabbed and I over compensated by looking at every unsolved murder in LA county.” The agents blinked at him. “We all cope with stress in our own ways. But on that note.” Charlie brought up two more maps and two more timeline animations. “Baltimore County, Maryland and Wayne County, Michigan. Starting 18 years ago and ending 12 years ago Baltimore county had a cluster of child shootings all ten years and three days. Between 11 and 6 years ago it was Wayne County, Michigan. And starting five years ago, Essex County.”

“So there has been someone shooting ten year old kids for 18 years?” The agents all took in the collage of young faces on the screen.

“Yes.”

“Do you have a suspect?”

Charlie shifted a bit. “I’m narrowing down a list So far we know it is someone who lived in Baltimore County, Wayne County and Essex County over the last 18 years.” The agents all just stared at Charlie. “I have a super computer going through census records and tax returns right now. It’s throwing a lot of names but not a completely unmanageable number.”

“So, what 30, 40?” A younger woman asked.

Charlie checked something on his laptop. “Currently 5,008.” Again the agents stared at Charlie. “But, we can take out anyone under the age of 30. I’m willing to remove women for the time being. Individual with certain physical handicaps. I have talked with the detectives for every single killing and each have given me a list of suspects. We can cross reference those names. The person responsible for the killings is probably getting access to county birth certificates from somewhere so when we get closer there maybe be records of access.”

The agents were all still staring at Charlie, their minds obviously still stuck on the number 5,008.

“Okay.” Don stepped forward. “I know that looks like a huge number but it’s really not once you start scooping out the people it can’t be. Believe me I’ve seen suspect lists go from ten thousand to twenty. But math can only go so far. We are on a time limit before the next killing so the more hands we can get going through old reports the better. If we can find a pattern in the type of car used. Or if two witnesses described a similar looking person ten years apart.”

“How much time have we got?” Cromwell asked.

Don turned to Charlie.

“We don’t know.” Charlie brought up the timeline. “I have studied the timing patterns of every serial killer I could get records on. Many are on lunar cycles or there is a set amount of time it takes the compulsion to ramp back up. Some are seasonal. But this one is about as close to mathematically random as you can get.” Charlie brought up an equation. “This is what I got when I tried to devise an algorithm to work out when the next killing might be.” The agents looked at each other as if to see if one of them might actually understand what was on the screen. Charlie put up another two equations that looked similar. “The first one her is the algorithm that card shuffling machines in Vegas use to randomize deck stacks. The other is the one used to randomize the play list on your ipod.”

“He’s using an ipod to decide when to kill?” A young agent asked sounding horrified. Don tried not to smile.

“No. His trigger, I believe, has something to do with this.” Charlie hit a few keys and the screen suddenly filed with a computerized version of Charlie’s string covered office. The question marks light up. “I believe these question marks are the triggers and I believe they are deaths that occurred sometime around the death of the child but I have found no recurring pattern of killings running in parallel to the killings we are already aware of.”

“And how did you come to this conclusion?” Cromwell asked.

Charlie picked up a whiteboard marker and began to write. The equation took three lines of reasonably small handwriting that went from one end of the board to another. Charlie ended the third line with =0. “That’s how.”

“Any way you can explain that to us. Clever analogy?” Don asked.

“It’s a piece of math similar to the one used by astronomers to detect patches of dark matter by analyzing the slight variations in light refraction from known stars do to the gravitational pull exerted by particularly dense dark matter. Of course this is an abridged version of the equation. I don’t have enough board space for the whole thing.”

“Any way you can dumb that down a little more?” One of the agents asked.

Charlie shook his head. “Usually, yes. I can explain some very complex mathematical principals invoking penguins and raindrops but this.” Charlie waved his hand towards the board. “This even stretches my brain a little. I know it’s a lot to say trust me because you don’t know me but those question marks are dark matter. They are exerting some kind of force towards the killer, bending him in one direction or the other. This is my box.” Charlie waved at the equation again. “I need help thinking outside it. Someone is killing children in every corner of the county, indiscriminate of all factors except for age. A very particular age. Any ideas?”

There was dead silence in the room. The agents all had their eyes glued to the equation as if it were a particularly bloody crime scene photo.

An agent in the back of the room put his hand up. He looked a bit like Colby but rougher around the edges. “I’ve got a question?” He had a smirk on his face Don didn’t like. “Where did you get this case from? I mean none of us have heard about it.” The agent asked the question like he already knew the answer and wanted to see Charlie squirm. Don knew that wasn’t going to work.

“The father of one of the victims.” Charlie answered primly.

“Which one?”

Charlie clicked his mouse a few times and a picture of Angelica Rossi came up on the screen. It was a school photo. She had a bright smile and a mess of dark curls. “Angelica Rossi. Ten years, three days old. She was riding her new bike. Blue. She hated pink. I was her father’s math tutor and it seems some of my lectures on probabilities and patterns actually sunk in. He flew out to California and brought the issue to my attention.” Charlie’s voice was cool and strong and the agent in the back shifted uncomfortably.

A young woman who was sitting up front, and looked a bit like the dead little girl, raised her hand. “I’m not getting any forensics back on these bank jobs for at least a day. I’m not one for math but I’ll help you go through witness statements and stuff.”

Charlie smiled. “Thank you.”

Cromwell gave a nod. “Anyone else want to try to wrap their heads around this?” The rest of the agents shook their heads still eyeballing the equation. “Okay, well stick it in the back and with any luck the professor here will get a lead that will let us jump on this sicko quick. Until then, everyone back to work.”

There were some nods and the other agents shuffled out. The young woman stood and held out her hand. “Agent Susi Marino.”

Charlie took her hand. “Charlie. And thanks for volunteering.”

“No problem. My granddad worked for the Rossi’s. He wasn’t made or anything but I’m a little more comfortable dealing with them than the other guys.”

“I’ve got a picture of Tommy and half his… oh god, lieutenants I guess, wearing t-shirts that read I Like Pi. Spelled P I for extra credit.”

Agent Marino laughed. “I would love to see that.”

“Well, he’s got pictures of me at age fifteen trying to grow a mustache. It’s sort of a game of blackmail Chicken neither of us want to lose.”

“I can understand that. So.” She clapped her hands together. “Let’s get this started.”

Charlie pushed a stack of files over to her and another stack over to Don. “These are for you two, and I’m going to hunt dark matter.”

Chapter Text

Don rubbed at his eyes as he poured himself some coffee. It had been a couple of years since he’d sat and gone over police files looking for missed details. It was grueling, frustrating, work. He’d once had a lawyer tell him that he hated eye witnesses and would much rather work a case on forensics and circumstantial evidence and that was because eye witnesses could never remember shit and were easily made worthless on the stand. Don had to agree. With each case there were always a half dozen witnesses giving a half dozen different stories. It made him glad he’d taken the management bump.

He put some sugar into his coffee and took a sip. He promptly choked at the burnt bitterness of it.

“Oh, yeah, don’t drink the coffee out of the red pot.” Agent Cromwell said stepping into the break room. “It’s there for suspects and lawyers we don’t like.”

“Good to know.” Don took another sip to see if it got better. It didn’t.

Cromwell took the mug from Don, dumped the contents down the sink and put a preset coffee cartage into a fancy Nespresso machine. “We’re not supposed to have this. It was supposed to go to the bigwigs upstairs but there was a typo on the form so it got delivered to us. The bigwigs weren’t really supposed to have it either so they couldn’t kick up too much of a fuss.” He handed Don a cup of coffee that smelled faintly of vanilla.

Don took a sip. “Oh, that’s better.”

“How’s your stuff coming?”

“Slowly, but faster than if we were doing it by hand. Charlie’s got access to a lot of databases and more than a few super computers so that’s going to cut down on the worst of the grunt work.”

“What do you think are the odds you’ll get this guy?” Cromwell’s voice sounded casual but there was tension in his body.

“We’ll get him.”

“I’ve been running this team for four years now and I do not like the idea that someone has been slaughtering children under my nose.”

“I get it. I really do. And look, Charlie, mathematicians in general I think, have got this obsessive streak. There’s this thing called Fermat's Last Theorem. Some weird little math problem that this guy called Fermat thought up in like the sixteen hundreds but died before he wrote the answer down anywhere. Mathematicians finely worked out as answer in the mid 90’s. They don’t like giving up on problems. It messes with their sense of the universe. Charlie’s been working with Violent Crimes almost nine years now so he gets that he can’t take three centuries to work out a problem but he doesn’t let things like this go.”

“That’s good to know. Was he really Tommy Rossi Junior’s math tutor?”

“Yes. Yes he was.”

Cromwell shook his head. “It’s a weird world out there isn’t it.”

“Drink a half a bottle of Tequila with a depressed cosmologist and then talk to me about weird.”

~

It was after dark, and Agent Marino had already clocked out, when Don finally dragged Charlie out of the FBI. He’d managed to acquire three more whiteboards, two computers, a second large flat screen TV, and a pin board turning the little conference into something he felt he could work in. Don thought of it as nesting and he knew he’d have a hard time getting Charlie out of there once he truly settled in. Before starting on a new equation, and while something else was compiling, Don grabbed Charlie with the intent of feeding him and possibly dumping him into one of the hotel beds. He wasn’t sure if he’d manage the second one so he’d try for food.

Agent Marino had given him directions to one of the local diners that was supposed to be reasonably good. He pulled the rental car up under a neon sign that read Mom’s. A small thread of fear curled around Don’s stomach. In his fugitive recovery days he’d gotten more than a few cases of food poisoning from places called Mom’s. He poked Charlie in the shoulder to get his attention up from his notebook. “Food.”

Charlie looked around before getting out and heading into the dinner. The air didn’t smell too toxic, just a healthy combination of caffeine and grease. A teenaged waitress showed them to a booth and dropped the menus in front of them. Don scanned his eyes over it looking for a vegetable. Billy had always teased him about his attempts to eat halfway healthy on the road.

Charlie flipped his menu over and gave a little snort. “Hey Don. Buy me a milkshake.”

“What?”

“The last time we were in New Jersey together, aside from my graduation, you took me out for a milkshake. So, we’re back in Jersey, buy me a milkshake.”

Don remembered that trip. It was supposed to be a few days of family get together over spring break but instead their parents had disappeared for a weekend leaving Don to babysit a fourteen year old Charlie. He’d mainly crashed on the couch and watched TV while Charlie did math.

“We are back in Jersey, aren’t we?” The waitress came over. Charlie ordered a cheese burger, coffee and a chocolate milk shake. Don broke down and ordered a cheese burger as well. “So, last time we were here you were fourteen, right?”

“Sounds about right.”

“What did you think you’d be doing now, I mean at the time, where did you think you’d be by now?”

Charlie looked at himself in the back of a dingy spoon. “I’d be teaching. MIT, Harvard, CalSci. Maybe still at Princeton. I’d probably have a few government projects. Satellites and stuff. Per review work. Be a thesis advisor.”

“Chasing down serial killers wasn’t anywhere on that list was it.”

“Not even a blip at the far edge of the spectrum. What about you? Where were you supposed to be?”

“Well, after a good career in the majors and be coaching or maybe be a general manager of a decent sized club.”

“Chasing serial killers?”

Don’s coffee arrived. “I never told mom and dad but that was sort of plan B.” Don put sweetener into his coffee to make up in some little way for the cheese burger that was coming. “Any regrets, Chuck, doing this, instead of, I don’t know, going over thesis papers at MIT?”

Charlie smiled. “No. I know I should. People tell me I should but… no. I mean, yeah I’m probably never going to work out the Hodge conjecture but they’re never going to know what it feels like to see a kidnapped child returned to their parents and know that you had a hand in making it happen.”

“I know that feeling. It’s a good feeling.”

“It’s an addictive feeling.”

“It is.”

Charlie’s milkshake arrived in a tall glass. “What about you Don, any regrets?”

“No,” Don answered without even thinking. “I mean little things. I probably should have sucked it up and gotten married earlier. But for the big things, no.”

Charlie nodded and they fell into silence but it wasn’t the pained, uncomfortable silence of their youth. It was simply comfortable with no need to fill up the empty space with emptier words.

Their cheese burgers arrived with a thick pile of fries next to each.

“So… You and Amita are trying for kids?” The question had been sitting at the back of Don’s mind for a few weeks now.

Charlie shrugged a little. “We’ve been trying pretty much since day one. I mean neither of us are getting any younger. We’ve got a doctor’s appointment penciled in in a couple of months. Just in case.”

“I’m sure everything fine. You’re timing and everything’s probably just a bit off.”

“That what we’re hoping. How about you and Robin?”

Don gave a half shrug as well. “We’ve talked about it but… I’m a little past prime and she’s still working 60, 70 hour weeks. I mean if something happens, it happens but…”

“I don’t know if this helps or not but I think you’d make a good dad.”

“Really?” Those were not exactly words he ever expected to hear from Charlie.

“Sure. You look out for people. You push them but not more than they can handle. You like to teach. You have an amazing amount of patience.”

“You fall under all those categories as well.”

Charlie ducked his head a bit. “Yeah, but I’m also capable of locking myself in a garage and working on one math problem for twenty hours at a stretch.”

“Nothing to say you can’t take the kid in with you. They make those little baby sling things. It would be cute. Mathematician and child.”

“Tempting. We’ll see.” Charlie took a couple of sips of coffee. “What if I can’t get this guy, Don?”

“No. You’re still too early in the case to go into self-doubt faze. You will get this guy. I’m sure if it.”

“I’m sure if I just work out those question marks…”

“You’ll work them out. You’ll put this guy in jail. You’ve taken on harder and done more with less and you know it.”

Charlie nibble on a fry. “Just keep telling me that, will you?”

“Not a problem.”

~

Don squinted at the bedside clock as he heard the shower start to run. It was 5 in the morning which made it stupidly early Californian time. The shower only ran for a couple of minutes before Charlie came out, quickly toweling himself dry.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Don mumbled from his own bed.

“Had an idea and there should be less load on the supercomputer at this time of night. Go back to sleep for a few hours, I’ll grab a cab.”

Don pushed himself up. “No. I’m awake. Give me five minutes and I’ll go in with you.”

Don was asleep again by 5:30 but it was sitting up in a chair in Charlie’s new nest. When he opened his eyes again it was due to vanilla scented cappuccino being waved under his nose by Agent Cromwell. Don wrapped his hands around the cup gratefully. “Thank you.”

“No problem. Have you been here all night?”

Don looked over to Charlie who was scribble away at the whiteboard and solidly plugged into his ipod. “No. I got him to snag a couple of hours.”

“That’s it?”

“Scientists are as bad as FBI agents when it comes to things like that. Possibly a bit worse.” Don yawned and took another big swig of coffee.

Cromwell leaned against the table sipping his own coffee. “Did you guys make any progress yesterday?”

Don shrugged a bit. “The census coughed up a little over 10 thousand names for us to start with. The blunt force algorithms got that down to fifteen hundred. So mathematically speaking loads of progress.”

“You can’t exactly go knocking of fifteen hundred doors.”

“No. Charlie is still sure that the dark matter is the key.”

“Dark matter and warped starlight?”

“He found a stealth predator by running unsolved crimes through the same math SETI uses to look for little green men. And while he’ll sooner eat his degree than admit to it, he’s developed pretty good gut instinct as to where he should be looking for answers.”

Agent Marino came in holding her own coffee. Don grabbed a loose paperclip and flicked it at Charlie to get his attention. Charlie whipped around and pulled out his ear buds.

“Charlie, your team is here. Where do you want us looking today?”

“Keep cross checking names from reports with the filtered census list. I’m going to keep working on this.”

Agent Marino grabbed a file from a stack. “Sounds like a party.”

~

It was noon and Don was starting to go cross-eyed trying to decipher hand written case notes. His stomach was also pointing out that he hadn’t had breakfast. Charlie had taken a step back from one of the boards and was just studying the equation. “Charlie.”

“Yes.” He didn’t turn around.

“Come on. Let’s put some food in you.”

“I’m not hungry.” Charlie wiped out half the equation with his hand and grabbed the pen again.

“I am. I’ll bring you back a sandwich.”

Charlie just nodded. Don knew he could have just confessed to being the real Green River Killer and Charlie would have just nodded.

He’d seen a sandwich shop just around the corner from the Federal Building. It looked like the kind of place agents might go to pick up a quick lunch and coffee. It was a sixth sense Don was sure most people in law enforcement developed, the ability to drive down a street and just sort of know where the cop bar is or where the feds go for a quick bite.

Inside a couple of young men were behind a counter slapping together sandwiches and pouring coffee. There were a couple of deep booths but most people seemed to get their meals to go. Don checked the time and was sure that Charlie probably hadn’t even noticed he was gone. He ordered a roast beef sandwich to eat in and another to go.

He was about to slip into a booth when he heard someone say his name. He looked around. In one of the booths Tommy Rossi Jr. lowered a newspaper that had been hiding his face. “Take a seat,” he said nodding to the other side of the booth. Don looked around. “Don’t worry, my federal shadows won’t be showing up for another ten minutes. And they make good sandwiches here.”

Don slid into the booth. “How did you...?”

“Charlie told me you two were in town. Had a hunch.”

“Right.”

“So. How’s the case?”

“I really can’t talk about an active investigation.” Tommy stared at him hard. Don stared right back. He knew he was about as safe as you could get staring down a mob boss.

“You can’t give me anything?”

“I really can’t talk about an active investigation. It’s Bureau policy.”

Tommy smirked. “Oh, I know all about Bureau policy.”

“I don’t know how they do things out here but I run a tight ship on my coast and Charlie learned from me.”

“And yet he got nicked for sending genetic information to Pakistan.” Don wasn’t able to mask his surprise quickly enough. The smirk hadn’t left Tommy’s face. “Not everyone keeps a tight ship.”

“It was an act of protest and Charlie is fucking lucky he’s not rotting in a SuperMax without parole and he knows that.”

“He would survive. Your brother is tougher than you think. Bit angrier too I bet.”

“On occasion.”

Tommy pointed to the scar on his cheek. “You know how I got this scar?”

“A bullet from the Carvaci family,” Don answered. It was common knowledge.

Tommy chuckled. “Yeah. That’s what I tell people. I got it from your brother.”

“Bullshit.” Was Don’s instant answer bypassing any filtering.

“I thought if my grades were crap enough my old man would drop this whole college education crap. Instead he made some calls and arranged for me and my boys to have a math tutor. So one day they herd us all into a classroom and your brother is standing there trying to look all grownup. Tie and everything. We laughed our asses off. But he took a breath and started doing his thing. And he had this long stick so he could point to stuff high up on the board. Soon as his back was turned I loaded up a spit wad. Nice big wet one and let it fly. Hit him right on the back of the neck. Perfect shot. He froze and we laughed and it must have been one spit wad too many because he whipped around and brought that stick of his down across my face. Split it right open. Now you got to understand Eppes, only person to lay a hand on me since I was eight was my old man. And I could have snapped your brother’s neck right there but I didn’t. I didn’t move a fucking muscle and neither did anyone else because if I did I fully believe Charlie would have come at my throat with his teeth. Now I’ve seen pissed, and I’ve seen angry, but I swear to god that was the first time in my life I ever looked at someone and saw rage. He spent five minutes telling us at the top of his lungs just what he thought of us, and what we would amount to, and how important math was to everything, and how we were wasting his time, and to this day I have never heard so much cursing in one place and my old man was a grand champion of cussing. My first word was fuck but your brother that day… I mean your brother had a baby face that should not have known how to use the words ‘cunt sucking’ in a sentence. Five solid minutes I felt the blood dripping down my face and none of us moved. Then he just stopped mid-sentence. Took a deep breath and turned back around like nothing had ever fucking happened.”

Don tried to process what he’d just heard as quickly as possible. As far as he could tell he didn’t think Tommy was lying. Who would make up a lie about having his face split open by a math tutor? “I’d like to say I could never picture Charlie doing that.”

“But you can. You know under all that math is a guy who’ll do a hundred on the freeway and try to argue that the radar gun was wrong.”

“Yeah.”

“When we took a break Tweak, who was always holding something, slipped a half a valium into his soda. Once he relaxed we found out he was a pretty cool kid, just under way too much pressure. You know they were nagging him about picking a journal to publish in? He was fourteen for Christ sake. The only journal he should have been thinking about were your hand me down Playboys.”

“So he splits open your face and you decide to adopt him?”

“Someone had to keep him from turning into a dweeb like the rest of them. And sitting here right now I don’t regret it. I bet he doesn’t either.”

Don looked at his roast beef sandwich. “I can’t comment on an active case but the fact that Charlie has picked up the show and brought it here is something you might be able to draw some conclusions from.”

Tommy nodded, folded up his newspaper and stepped out. Don pulled out his phone, turned on the stopwatch function, and started on his sandwich. After three minutes and twenty two seconds Agent Dobson sat down across from him.

“He wanted to know where we were on finding the person who murdered his daughter. I told him I can’t and don’t comment on active investigations and no I don’t know how he knew I’d be here.”

Agent Dobson sat still and silent for a minute and four seconds (Don hadn’t stopped the stopwatch function), his jaw clenching and unclenching, before getting up and walking out.

~

Charlie was hunched over his laptop, and Agent Marino was out, when Don got back to Charlie’s nest. He dropped Charlie’s sandwich on the table next to him. “It’s roast beef and I ran into your friend. He wanted to know where we were on the case.”

Charlie looked look. “What did you tell him?”

“That we don’t comment on active investigations.” Charlie nodded and returned his focus to his laptop. “He also told me how he got that famous scar on his cheek.”

Charlie’s head snapped up and his face went bright red. “I wasn’t having the best day.”

“No shit. You have got to be running low on your nine lives. Did you even know who he was?”

“He was a dumb jock, who was failing math, wasting my time, and trying to make my college years as miserable as high school. That’s who he was.”

“And you just decided to snap.”

“It wasn’t what you could call a conscience decision. It was more like a split personality or an out of body experience. I could hear the words coming out of my mouth but I couldn’t actually make myself shut up. It was a very disturbing sensation.”

“So, unbelievably lucky. Where’s Agent Marino?”

“They got another bank job.”

“Violent crew?” Don hadn’t actually looked at the details of any of the Jersey case load.

“Not yet, but I did tell them the cautionary tail of the Charm School Boys.”

“Did you explain Heisenberg's uncertainty principle along with it?”

Charlie pinched his lips. “I can’t tell if you’re teasing me.”

Don grinned. “Only a little.”

Charlie pushed some folders across the table to Don. “Keep reading.”

It was almost evening by the time Agent Cromwell and his team came dragging back into the office still in their TAC gear, looking sweaty, dirty and absolutely wrecked. “I’ll take a guess and say that your nonviolent bank robbers didn’t stay that way?”

“Two of them went down in a hail of bullets, one got away, and I’ve got about a million years’ worth of paperwork to do now.”

“Anyone hurt?”

“Just the bad guys and one civilian who got a good knock on the head for trying to be a hero.”

“There’s always one.”

Cromwell looked over his shoulder to see if anyone was listening. “We weren’t going to bring the heavy armament but your brother gave Agent Marino some lecture about a bank case he’d worked on, and something about particle physics, and she put her foot down while we were heading out the door and made us grab the big guns.”

“That was Charlie’s second case with us. Crew we called the Charm School Boys. Non-violent, amazingly polite, low danger, right up until the moment they opened up with automatic weapons, blew up a car, shot an agent, stole my weapon, shot at me. Chuck showed up at the scene just in time to see dead getting shoved into body bags. First and only time he ever got sick at on a scene, but he’s always been a little funny about bank jobs after that.”

“Well, funny saved our asses so if he needs some extra hands in there he’s got them.”

“I’ll pass that along. Agent Marino’s been a big help already.”

Cromwell smiled. “I think she’s got a bit of a crush on him.”

“He’s married to a woman with twice as many doctorates as he has.”

“I’ll be sure to pass that along.” Suddenly Agent Cromwell’s back started to curl up. “Is there a red head in a tight dress coming up behind me?” he whispered harshly.

Don checked. A stunning redhead in an obscenely tight business suit and spiked heels was heading their way. “Yes. AUSA?”

“Yes.”

“Agent Cromwell.” The lawyer barked out. “We need to have a discussion.” Cromwell cringed and didn’t turn around.

“Word of advice, I married ours.” Cromwell’s eyes went wide as Don grinned then made a run for it.

~

Don wasn’t sure if he wanted more coffee for the caffeine or if he just wanted an excuse to get out of the Classroom as the local agents had taken to calling Charlie’s commandeered meeting room. It was starting to look a bit like Charlie’s old office. They’d been there close to a week and over that time Charlie had managed to acquire several whiteboards, a small server box which Mary may have flat out stolen from somewhere, and every inch of wall that wasn’t being written on had pictures and police reports stuck to it. Charlie had even taken to using the whiteboard markers on the windows when he ran out of board space.

And despite all that, and the added help of Cromwell’s team, their killer still seemed as far away as patches of galactic dark matter. They had managed to get a suspect list down to a few hundred but the local judges weren’t about to grant search warrants on three hundred people based on mathematical probability. Don realized that there were a couple of judges in LA that they had trained up well enough that they could maybe get a warrant on a hundred.

Suddenly Charlie’s whiteboard marker was flung across the room with enough force to make everyone jump. “I’m taking a walk.” Charlie announced already taking long strides out the door. Don got up to follow but Charlie waved him off. Don sat back down and plugged another name into Charlie’s laptop. The computer started to churn. He realized that Cromwell and his team were staring at him.

“What?”

Charlie marched back in. “Agent Cromwell, may I borrow a Glock and 20 minutes on your range?”

Agent Cromwell looked at Don. “He shoots 290.”

Cromwell shrugged. “Sure, why not.”

Charlie turned back around with Agent Cromwell following. The other agents were still staring at Don. “He keeps his shooting certificates on his office wall right over this policies on academic honesty.” The agents chuckled and went back to the files.

Almost an hour later Charlie came back in looking a bit more focused and a bit more relaxed. Agent Cromwell followed looking suitably impressed. He signed 2 9 2 to his team as Charlie turned back to boards. Several sets of eyebrows went up and Agent Marino looked down right predatorily. Don wondered what Mary would say. The two women seemed to have some sort of quite competition going over the completely unavailable and unaware Charlie.

Agent Cromwell’s phone rang and he quickly stepped out of the room. About a minute later he popped his head back in. “Um… Professor, there’s someone down in the lobby who wants to talk with you.”

“Really.”

“Yeah, but I don’t think it’s who you’re expecting it is.”

Charlie put down his pen looking curious. “Okay then.” Charlie headed out and Don followed. Down in the lobby was a big man in his 40s was standing with his back to the wall, dressed in a powder blue track suit looking uncomfortable as agents walked by. He smiled as soon as he saw Charlie.

“Mini Teach.”

“Jimmy.” Jimmy pulled Charlie into a backslapping hug. Don wasn’t sure which Jimmy this might be but there was no doubt he had to be one of Tommy’s crew. “Jimmy, this is my brother Don. Don, Jimmy Valentino.”

A large meaty hand enveloped Don’s. “The infamous Donnie Eppes, nice to meet you.”

“You too.” Don managed to retrieve his hand as Jimmy turned to Charlie.

“So, what can I do for you?” Charlie asked. Don cringed internally. He really wished Charlie would stop asking mobsters that.

“Not really here for anything. Tommy told us you were in town and… Well I was Angelica’s god father.”

Charlie’s face fell. “I’m so sorry.”

“Yeah, it wasn’t right, what happened. We all thought Tommy was a little off when he started talking about a serial killer but now we hear you’re here and he was right.”

“Looks that way. I mean I really can’t talk about active cases.”

“Yeah, I know. Just wanted to make sure something was actually happening, and it wasn’t Tommy losing it or something.”

“You don’t have to worry. He’s not losing it. And I’m not giving up on this.”

“That’s good to hear. And I brought something for you.” Jimmy picked up a pink pastry box from one of the benches that lined the walls of the lobby. “My mom did them up for you. She remembered how much you liked them.”

Charlie took the box and peeked into it. A blissed out smile covered his face and he pulled out a cannoli. Don broke out in a cold sweat as the theme from The Godfather started running through his mind. Charlie took a bite, closed his eyes and rolled back his head. Don had the horrible realization that aside from possibly being thirty seconds away from being wacked,, he was probably witnessing something very close to his brother’s sex face.

Charlie shook his head. “First time I had these I actually proposed to your mother.”

Jimmy laughed a booming laugh that caused every agent on the floor to look their way. He slapped Charlie on the back. “You would have been better for her than my old man.”

Charlie took another bite. “Tell her thank you.”

“Sure. I’ll let you get back to your thing. Tommy spread the word, no one gets in your way during the case, but after you find this bastard, before you go back to California, you should come to dinner. Everyone would love to see you again.”

Charlie smiled. “I’d love to see them too.”

Jimmy gave him another slap on the shoulder. “Take care Mini Teach.”

“You to.”

Don waited until Jimmy was out of earshot. “Which Jimmy is that?”

“Big Jimmy.”

“The accountant?”

“No, that’s Giant Jimmy.”

“Of course.”

Charlie checked the clock on the wall and preceded to lick the cream out of one end of a cannoli in a way that looked more than a little indecent. After two and a half minutes the organized crime guys showed up.

“He was Angelica’s god father. He wanted to know how things are going. I told him we don’t comment on active cases, and he brought me a box of his mother’s cannolis which are really, really good.”

The organized crime guys both looked like they wanted to say something but instead they just ground their teeth and walked off.

“Seriously Charlie, stop antagonizing those guys, it’s only going to get you dragged before a grand jury or something.”

“Where I will reveal to the world Big Jimmy’s secret formula for the perfect Jell-O shot.” Charlie headed back to the elevators still licking cream off his fingers.

Don wondered just how he’d missed the obvious criminal streak in his little brother for all those years. Throw together the driving, the pranks, the very risky ‘protests’, and the ability to regularly find uses for technology that ‘aren’t yet illegal’, some hither to unknown connections to the criminal underworld and Charlie was one good push away from going dark side. Or at least he probably had been at some point in his life.

“Can I try one of those?”

Charlie curled himself over the box. “Get your own cannolis, these are mine.”

“There’s like two dozen, you’ll make yourself sick after three.”

“They’re still mine.”

Don rolled his eyes. They were still bickering when they got back to the room.

“Everything okay with your visitor, Professor?” Cromwell asked.

“Just fine.” Charlie opened the box. “Cannoli? They’re homemade.”

“He gets one and I don’t?”

“It’s his house, we’re guests.”

Cromwell peaked into the box, selected one and took a bite. Don quickly got the feeling he was seeing a version of Cromwell’s sex face as well. “Oh, my god these are good. What’s in them?”

“No idea. I think Mrs. Valentino blends the cream in a certain way.”

Charlie held out the box to the three other agents in the room. Within seconds there was a completely inappropriate amount of moaning and sex faces going on. Charlie finally handed one to Don. It was good. Really, really good. The pastry was crunchy without being brittle and not too heavy or oily. The cream was light and fluffy, sweet without being saccharin, and blended with a bunch of other flavors Don couldn’t come close to identifying.

“You proposed to the woman who made these?” Don asked Charlie once he could think clearly again.

“Yep. I was fifteen.”

Don took another bite. “I can completely understand that.”

Chapter Text

The cannolis ended up being the highlight of the day. As well as the next day and the few after that. As the first week slipped into the second it became nearly impossible to get Charlie to sleep, eat or even leave the office. It was looking dangerously like a P:NP situation except an answer was actually out there and Charlie new it, which sent his levels of frustration even higher.

Cromwell cornered Don in the break room as he tried to decide which flavor of cappuccino he would start his day out with. “So… Eppes, how long do these math cases usually take you?”

“Trying to get rid of us?”

“Well I wouldn’t mind my meeting room back but I’m just trying to think ahead.”

“They take less time than a case would take without the math.”

“That’s a hell of an answer. Try the green cartridge.”

Don picked up a green coffee cartridge. “If it was a cold case I’d drag him home but unless this guy picked up and moved in the last month he’s still out there waiting on whatever his trigger is.”

“Any chance he’s moved?”

“If he has we’ll find out. Charlie has his databases set to ping at him if any child of the right age comes up shot.” The machine spat out an espresso that had a slightly nutty smell. “At this point I think only an act of God will take him off this case.”

Charlie chose that moment to walk into the break room. He poured himself a cup of coffee from the red pot and, without milk or sugar, emptied the cup and walked back out. Don sipped his espresso. “Of course Charlie doesn’t believe in God.”

~

By noon Don was praying for an act of God. Or at least a fire alarm. The redhead who had Cromwell shaking in his TAC gear, a Jenna Maple, had showed up to talk to Charlie about how he ‘really’ knew the bank robbers were likely to turn violent. She also took the opportunity to ask Agent Cromwell if he truly believed that math homework was the best way to catch a serial killer and the best use of his agents’ time.

Don had been amused for the first ten minutes watching Charlie carefully and patiently explain concepts that were old hat to the LA office now, only to have Ms Maple leap into a long legal argument about the validity of evidence gathered, and explaining it to juries. Charlie had countered with actual cases he’d worked and given testimony on. And to Don’s surprise Charlie could quote the case numbers.

Things had started going downhill from there with Ms Maple spouting legalese and Charlie throwing back math hot and heavy. Cromwell and his entire team stayed in the room watching the two go tooth and nail. Don knew what was happening. Ms. Maple was worried about a new player in her sandbox possibly messing with her cases and she was determined to make it very clear who the top dog in Jersey was.

She was obviously not expecting to get pushback from a math teacher.

She had obviously never met Doctor Charles Edwards Eppes, Crown Warrior Prince of the Ivory Tower and Best Selling Self Help Author.

Cromwell and his agents were watching in rapped attention.

“Oh for Fuck sake.” Charlie snapped letting the first curse word into the argument. “If a guy called Tweak can understand that there is a difference between penguins and fish than a jury can…” Charlie stuttered to a halt. Don sat up.

“A jury can what, Doctor Eppes?” Charlie didn’t answer just stared at a point on the table. Ms. Maple started to open her mouth but Don waved her silent.

“Penguins and fish,” Charlie whispered.

The other agents looked at each other in confusion but Don motioned them to be quiet. This was the moment Don had been waiting for, when something in Charlie’s brain clicked with something else setting of a chain reaction letting Charlie see something in the chaos that had been missed.

“Penguins and fish,” he whispered again. He turned towards the wall with the most number of question marks. “Not all things that swim are fish. Not all birds can fly.” Cromwell looked to Don considerable concern across his face. Charlie turned towards one of his boards. “All murders are deaths. Not all deaths are murders.”

A light bulb went off in Don’s head even as Charlie began franticly erasing a board full of math. A half second later Don saw all the other agents clue in.

“We’ve been looking for murders.” Charlie called out as he began to spread fresh equations across the board. “We’ve been looking for murders because I am an idiot. I am too locked into my current thinking.” Charlie whipped around to his laptop and began to type. “I need records of every death to happen in the county before each killing. Let’s say a week and we’ll stretch it if I have to.”

“What are you talking about?” Ms. Maple finally asked obviously irritated at the sudden lack of attention she was getting.

“We found dark matter.” Agent Cromwell stated plainly.

Agent Marino jumped onto another laptop. “That’ll be a lot records.”

“More data is always better.”

“If you’ll excuse us Counselor, but we’re going to catch a serial killer with math now.” And with one quick move Cromwell ushered her out the door and closed it. “I’m going to pay for that.”

“Tell us what you’re thinking Chuck.” Don said. He knew the other agents hadn’t learned to take a lot of Charlie’s math on face yet.

“I’m creating an set analysis algorithm to filter all the deaths leading up to each killing and to find a common factor. It’ll look for age, gender, race, cause of death, number of days removed from crime. If our killer’s trigger is 87 year old females who die from strokes then we will be so much closer.”

Charlie’s fingers were flying over the keys of his laptop and the server box began to hum and click. Don looked around and realized there wasn’t much he could and at that stage and he didn’t have any other case files to work on or suspects to talk to. “Coffee anyone?”

Charlie and a few of the other agents put up their hands. Feeling more than a little like his dad Don went to fetch coffee.

~

Charlie got his code written in a reasonably short amount of time but then it became a matter of computing power. As the county records coughed up death after death Charlie ended up on the phone with Amita talking about virtual boxes and network speed. The conversation lasted about five minutes before Charlie handed the phone over to Mary who looked a little annoyed.

Charlie sat down next to Don and took a swig of his tepid coffee. “I have been so stupid.”

“Your personal bar for stupidity is a lot higher than most people’s.” Charlie took another sip. “Come on Chuck, between you and me, you’re already five steps ahead of this. Where are we going?”

“I don’t like conjecture.”

“Come on.”

“We find the trigger. We find the distance. We find the next child who is ten years and three days.”

“We scoop up the killer without breaking a sweat.”

“Long shot still. There’s still the question of how the killer knows about the deaths. I’m thinking he must work for the county on some level. Maybe we’re just looking for the guy who files the death certificates.”

“That would make sense.”

“But it’s not him. I checked. He’s lived in the county his whole life.”

“Oh well.” Charlie didn’t answer, just closed his eyes. Charlie’s fingers tapped only on his coffee cup, in no desirable order or rhythm. He had done that since he was a kid, tapped out strange little beats with his fingertips. Don never asked what he was doing. He always figured it was Charlie’s way of counting on his fingers, physically keeping track of huge numbers or complicated algorithms the same way a kid might work out his times tables. Charlie’s fingers froze on his cup and he opened his eyes.

“I want this one Don.”

“We all do.”

“No. I really want this one.” Charlie’s voice was low and soft. “I want to make this arrest myself. I know I can’t. I know I never will. But I want to. If I had to shoot this bastard I do not believe my hands would shake.”

“If we could we’d let you.”

“I know. It’s good that you can’t.” There was a ping from some computer. “Here we go.”

Charlie went to his laptop. On the large screen a three dimensional scatter plot was displayed with a new point being added every couple of seconds. It was a lot of deaths but Don’s eyes were already trying to find the pattern in the randomness.

Agent Cromwell popped his head in. “How’s it coming?”

Don waved him in. “Charlie’s got the computers crunching away at the numbers and we’re getting first results by the looks of.”

Cromwell looked at the scatter plot. “That doesn’t look helpful.” A few points dropped off the plot. “Okay, that’s a bit more helpful. I think.”

“Asian Males, within two days of the killings are only present within 19.3% of the cases. Hispanic females, within three days, only 17.2%. Other children, under the age of 11 within a week only present within 5% of cases.” More points dropped off and others came back on as Charlie shuffled them from one set to another like Mendeleev elements.

“Are you looking closely at the three day mark?” Don asked.

“Of course I am.” Charlie looked up at a timeline printout that was taped on one wall. “Fuck I’m an idiot. I am getting old and I am never allowed to drink anything every again. I’m killing too many brain cells.” Charlie slapped the peaks on the timeline. “Flu season, flu season,” He slapped the largest peak. “Particularly bad flu season. The CDC had me doing analysis. I knew I’d seen something like it before.” He tapped his computer and a bunch more dots dropped out. “I’m taking out all the suicides.”

“That’s a lot of suicides.” Agent Marino commented.

“Come on.” Charlie snarled at the computer. “Faster you piece of…”

Don could feel his heart speed up. He may be out of the field but the old reactions were still there and Charlie worked up the way he was meant it would not be long before he had a name to chase down.

Cromwell started bouncing on his toes. “Why do I think I should just suit up now?”

“Because you’re not an idiot. By the way this is your bust. This isn’t officially my case and I don’t want to drag myself out here for every trial and appeal.”

“No problem.”

The scatter plot flashed and a bunch of death certificates came up on the other screen. “Here we go.” Don whispered to himself.

“Female, Caucasians, over the age of 65, all died in their homes three days before each killing.” Charlie announced still hunched over his laptop.

The final death certificate came up on the screen. Don checked the date. “Chuck, this one is from only two days ago.”

“I know.” A few dozen birth records popped up on the screen. “Those are your potential victims.” The printer on the table beside Don started churning out copies of the records. “Find them, lock them down.”

Cromwell looked at his team who were all blinking, and looking a little poleaxed. “You heard the man.”

“I’m staying here and getting back on the suspect list.” Charlie announced.

Don gave Charlie’s shoulder a squeeze. “You did- "

“Don’t.” Charlie cut him off. “Not until someone is in cuffs or dead.”

“Okay.” Don grabbed a few more sheets off the printer and went to help.

~

It turned out to be harder than one would think to put security details on 40 ten year olds. The first trick was finding them. Some had parents who had moved away. Some had parents who were divorced and quick searched didn’t say anything about which parent a kid was with. There was one kid who’d lost their parents and was now somewhere in the county foster system.

According to Charlie none of the killings had happened before 7 am, which gave them 16 hours to find and protect all the children, or better yet just find the killer. Everyone in the federal building with field status had been called in. Only by some minor miracle had they kept the investigation out of the press but the cat was clawing its way out of the bag and if they didn’t catch this guy there would be a million kinds of hell to pay.

~

It was almost midnight and Don’s eyes were gritty. Since he wasn’t really official there he’d been stuck in the office monitoring stakeout and protection teams across the county as they got into place.

Charlie stopped trying to put the couple of hundred suspects through a mathematical sieve and was now analyzing them one at a time. It was slow work but they still had a few hours.

“Don?”

“Yes?” Don didn’t look up from his monitor and he could still hear Charlie typing.

“When I was fifteen I read an article about the Rossi family. They were in the middle of a turf war with another family. The article was pretty in depth. More of an exposé. It had lists of the family members and lieutenants, what they were fighting over, things like that. I had just gotten into game theory and I wrote up a little paper, changing names and stuff. I called it War and Peace. I worked out what kind of deal would make both sides happy for peace and who exactly would need to be killed for the most efficient war victory on either side with minimal collateral damage.”

Don had looked up from his monitor and was staring at Charlie. Charlie was still hunched over his computer.

“What happened to this paper?” Don asked carefully.

“I misplaced it.”

Don dug back through his memory. If the files were right the Rossi family had solidified their place with an unexpectedly quick and decisive victory over another family when Charlie was about fifteen. “I’m going to pretend I didn’t just hear that.”

“I gave almost identical math to the Pentagon once. They didn’t use it.”

“Charlie, please just stop talking.”

“Okay.”

They sat in silence for another half hour or so before Charlie banged the table. “Got you,” he hissed.

“What?” Don jumped up to look over Charlie’s shoulder.

“James Jacob. Works as a part time assistant at the county morgue. I dismissed him because he lives two blocks from the morgue and doesn’t have a car. But, when he was 22 he was picked up working as an under the table mechanic at a second rate chop shop. He has also been known to moonlight as a cab driver.”

Don’s heart began to race. “So if he’s working as a mechanic somewhere he’ll have access to cars. Depending on the clientele possibly access to weapons and if he’s working as a cabbie he’ll know the county. And working at the morgue he’ll be able to monitor the dead coming in and probably be able to sneak computer access to the county databases.”

Charlie hit print on the file. “Call Cromwell and arrest this guy.”

“On it.”

Within an hour Don’s heart was thumping not in excitement but in anger and frustration. Apparently there was not a judge in the county who was will to grant an arrest warrant at one in the morning based on mathematical analysis.

“For fuck sake!” Charlie threw a thankfully plastic cup across the room. “We know who he is! We know where he is! I have triple checked my math. He had similar employment at two other counties. And when he was 19 his 70 year old grandmother died of pneumonia in his home on his little sister’s tenth birthday and three days a later she was gunned down in a random act of violence, and he was the sole caregiver for both. A jury would need all of 30 seconds to prosecute!” Charlie threw a pen next.

“I know. I know. Cromwell is staking out his place. He’s not going to be able to move a muscle without someone knowing about it.” Charlie took several deep breaths then looked down at his phone where it was sitting on the table. He stared at it hard. “Don’t do it.”

“You don’t know what I’m thinking.”

“Yes I do. because I’m thinking it too, but don’t.”

“And you’ve never crossed a line.”

“I’ve never ordered a hit on someone and that is what it would be. That wouldn’t be crossing a line that would be driving across it at a hundred and three.”

“He’s killed children Don. Lots of them.”

“I know.”

Charlie closed his eyes and took several long, shuttering, breaths, his fists clenching and unclenching. “If he kills today I will hate myself forever for not making this call and I will feel no extra remorse for picking up the phone then.”

“Have a little faith in the system, Charlie.”

Charlie sat down and pushed his phone away.

~

There was a faint brush of pink on the eastern horizon when a call came in from Cromwell and the rest of the surveillance team who were sitting James Jacob. “He’s on the move.”

Charlie handed Don his coat. “Go meet up with the surveillance team.”

“They’ve got plenty of people.”

“If we lose track of this guy the best place I can be is here running capture and evasion math but for maximum efficiency I need you in the field translating as it were.”

“You’re not going to do anything stupid if I step out?”

Charlie didn’t so much as blink. “Just go arrest the bastard for me.”

Don took his coat from Charlie’s hand, gave his shoulder a squeeze, and headed out, quietly praying that Charlie’s moral compass would hold true.

~

Don caught up with Cromwell as Jacobs was letting himself into a rundown auto repair shop. He slipped into the back seat behind Agent Cromwell and Agent Marino.

“Second rate chop shop, just like you boys said.”

“People are creatures of habit.”

A few minutes later a 10 year old Camry pulled away from the shop. Cromwell radioed in the plate number and description.

Don’s phone rang. “What’s up Charlie?”

“If you relay his location to me, turn by turn, I can do an analysis on the fly which will narrow down which victim he’s heading towards. It’ll also help you find him again if you lose him.” Charlie paused. “Don’t lose him.”

“We will do our best.” Don put Charlie on speaker. “And he’s turning right onto Fifth Street right now.”

As Jacobs headed out into the suburbs Don relayed every turn, and lane change while Charlie sent back lists of which protection unit should be on high alert. Then Don relayed a simple left turn onto a good sized road.

“Kerry Sanders.” Charlie declared. “63% chance he’s going after Kerry Sanders.”

“How good are those odds, really?” Cromwell shouted towards the back seat.

“The next victim on the list is Lee Kim and he’s at 18%.”

“Kerry Sanders it is.”

Kerry Sanders’ house was on a sheltered suburban street shaded in wide, old maple trees. The Camry pulled to a stop across the street from her house and waited. Don began to worry that maybe Jacobs had made them. But then the man had been killing for 18 years without the law getting a single whiff of his existence so with any luck he was cocky or at least unobservant.

After five minutes of staring out the house Jacobs got out of his car and jogged across the street. Cromwell and Marino got out if his car and intercepted Jacobs before he could get as far as the lawn.

“James Jacobs? Mark Cromwell, FBI.”

What happened next took less than a second. There were two moves, one pop, and Jacobs hit the ground, his gun hitting the sidewalk while Agent Marino’s weapon was steady in her hands. Agents rushed towards the sound from other cars and one from the house.

Cromwell kicked the gun aside and crouched down beside Jacobs. “Fuck me, he’s still alive.”

~

In the time between Jacobs hitting the ground and him being admitted to the hospital for a gunshot wound to the lung the story had gotten out with every conceivable fact completely wrong and half the reporters in the western hemisphere had descended on the hospital. This was the other reason Don was more than happy to let Cromwell take the entire collar.

Charlie met them at the hospital managing to sneak in just before the reporters.

Cromwell held out his hand to Charlie. “Thank you.”

Charlie shook his hand but didn’t say anything. He just stood there looking as exhausted as Don felt. Don was sure there was a time when he could go 24 hours and be fresh as a daisy. And he knew for a fact that Charlie used to be able to do it as well.

Suddenly there was a bit of a commotion behind Don down by the nurses’ station. Charlie’s eye’s went wide and he sprinted towards the trouble. Don and Cromwell followed.

“Charlie.” Tommy shouted from the other side of a couple of large nurses. “Have they got him?”

Charlie pretty much threw himself between Tommy and the nurses. “Yes, but-“

“Good. I can kill him myself.” Tommy snarled.

“No.” Charlie grabbed the nearest thing at hand which happened to be a clip board. Don’s hand went to his own weapon. “I’m not going to let you do that.”

Tommy sneered. “You going to hit me with that, Teach.”

“Damn fucking right I am. You don’t get to kill him.”

Tommy leaned in until he was inches from Charlie’s face. “He murdered my baby girl.”

“I know. And I’m sorry but you don’t get to be selfish with your grief.”

“I’m being selfish?”

“He hasn’t been killing for five years he’s been killing for eighteen.” Charlie snarled right back. “Eighteen years in three different cities. There are hundreds of mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters who all want a chance to spit in that bastard’s eye and rip off a pound of flesh and you don’t get to call dibs.”

“Do you know what I could do to him?”

“Yes I do, and you will go to prison for it.” Tommy gave a dismissive snort. “And what would your sons do if you were doing time?”

“They’re tough.”

“Yeah, how tough are their memories? Are they going to remember their dear sweet tragically lost sister fondly? Or are they going to remember their sister as the one who got shot, sent dad off the deep end, and that’s why he spent their teenaged years in prison instead of helping them become good strong men.” Don saw Tommy’s jaw tighten as well as his fist. “And what will happen to the rest of the family if you go down for this?”

“I need to do this. I need to do one thing- "

“You did do something. You came to me. You called in a favor, and I promise you, for all the people you know, I know more of them. You want to go in there and kill him? That’s too good. That’s too quick for what he has done and you know it. He will go into the deepest blackest hole this country has to offer and I will call in all my favors to make sure of that. I am your act of revenge, so you can have peace.”

Tommy’s jaw was still clenching but Don could see the tiny twitches at the corners of his eyes and the way he was swallowing hard. Charlie must have seen it too.

“Come on.” He took Tommy firmly by the arm. “Let’s take a walk. Just you and me.”

Don watched as Charlie lead Tommy back down the wide hallway and around a corner.

Cromwell stepped up to Don’s side. “So, does your entire family have balls of titanium or just your brother?”

“I think he got them from our mom.”

~

Don couldn’t handle the idea of going back to the office and pulling case notes together. Especially considering it wasn’t his case. Instead he went back to the hotel and fell face first into the bed. The clock told him he’d been asleep for about an hour and a half, and it wasn’t even noon yet, when he heard Charlie come in and crash down onto the other bed.

“We’ve been invited over to Tommy’s place for dinner tonight.” Charlie mumbled

“Can I sleep for another hour, first?”

“No problem. They always eat late.”

“How is he?”

“He’ll live. And so will everyone else.”

“Good to hear.” Don closed his eyes and fell back asleep.

~

Charlie knocked on the door of a reasonably stately suburban home a large bouquet clutched in one hand. After a nap they had spent the afternoon putting together case notes, breaking down the war room, and watching Cromwell do an amazingly inspired victory dance around Ms Maple which may have bordered on sexual harassment.

Don could already hear talking and music coming from behind the door. A woman opened the door and flung her arms wide. “Charlie!”

The woman had obviously dyed auburn hair and a thick layer of makeup. Don guessed her age as someone over 60 but he couldn’t tell from there.

“Mama Rossi.” Charlie was pulled into a tight and extended hug. “This is my brother Don.” Charlie said when finally released.

“This is Donnie.”

Don held out his hand but found himself pulled into a hug as well.

Charlie handed over the flowers. “For you.”

“Such a sweet boy. Come in.”

Don’s heart was pounding a little. Knowing his luck there was a whole multi agency squad waiting to the bushes to sweep in and he was about to get swept up with it. By the door a large statue of some saint sat in an alcove but the rest of the house was sleek and fairly modern and if Don had to guess only recently remodeled.

“Tommy told me you were coming and we were all so excited to hear. I even used the special recipe for the meatballs.”

Charlie rolled his eyes but was still smiling. “I told you years ago I’m not kosher.”

“Are you saying you don’t like my meatballs?”

“Don’t you put words in my mouth. I love your meatballs and you know it.”

They were led into a large living room that was full of men standing around, each holding a beer. Don recognized half the faces from files and briefings. They spotted Charlie and there was a cheer followed by much back slapping, hugging, one nuggy which Charlie bore with far greater humor than he ever had before. Don was the recipient of a fair share of back slapping and meaty handshakes himself before a beer was pressed into his hand.

Don drank it. It was cheap and in a can but Don did not care. If he was going to get through the evening alcohol was going to be involved. A particularly tall guy, at least six and a half feet, and maybe 200 pounds of muscle approached Charlie. Charlie threw his arms wide his jaw dropping.

“Hey Mini Teach, you got tall.”

“And you got tiny!”

Don wasn’t sure how six five counted as tiny and figured this had to be Giant Jimmy. Jimmy grinned. “Dropped two forty.”

“That’s like two of me.”

Don coughed into his beer. “You wish.”

Charlie scowled at his brother. “Jimmy, Don, Don, Jimmy.”

Jimmy’s abnormally large hand wrapped around Don’s enveloping it. “Nice to meet you.”

“You too.”

Charlie gave Jimmy a little backhanded slap on the arm. “You’re an accountant?”

Jimmy grinned. “Yeah, turns out I’m pretty good with numbers. Not half bad with stats to. Been doing pretty well at the whole fantasy baseball thing.”

Charlie dropped his face into both hands. “How much really strange extra credit did I have to think up for you to get a C?”

“A lot of it.”

“Imagine if you’d showed up sober for class. You could be a mathematician. Striking fear into the hearts of grad students.”

“Hey, I wasn’t half as bad as Tweak.”

“Yes, but they called Tweak, Tweak for a reason.” For some reason this got a laugh from the crowd. It turned the conversation towards who got pinched for what. Who was out, who was still in. Tommy brought up Charlie’s speeding much to the laugher and delight of the crowd.

Don finished his beer and another found its way into his hand. He sipped at it knowing he’d be driving later but Charlie wasn’t pacing his second any more than anyone else. Don tried to slip away from the main conversation knowing he had nothing to add and didn’t really want to accidentally overhear certain things. However he was followed and found himself craning his head back to look at Giant Jimmy.

“So, I hear you’re FBI.” Jimmy started without any warm up.

“Yep.” Don took a sip of his beer to calm his nerves.

“Charlie always talked about you doing baseball.”

“Made the minors, turned out I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. Had to do something else.”

“Your mother must have loved that, being an activist and all.” Don choked on his beer. “She was always making us sign petitions and trying to get us to vote, and she told us how your old man got arrested by the FBI and spent three days in interrogation but didn’t squeal on anyone.”

“Yeah. It was a tricky conversation. She got a little more forgiving when she realized I spent more time hunting down psychopaths, rapists, arsonist, and terrorists, than busting hippies. Of course now I’m middle management. Haven’t actually arrested anyone in ages.”

“Miss it?”

Don shrugged. “Don’t miss the paperwork.” Charlie’s laugh cut through the room and drew Don’s attention. He wasn’t sure what the joke was but Charlie’s face was already flushed and he was grinning from ear to ear. That’s when it hit Don, what had really been bugging him every time Charlie was near one of these guys, it wasn’t that Charlie was comfortable with them, it was that Charlie was happy with them. Not that Charlie was the depressed type but there was almost always an edge of seriousness in him whether it was as teacher, scientist, investigator or husband. Here Charlie was just an old college friend, and an actual friend, not an academic rival.

Mama Rossi came in announcing that it was time for dinner and shooing all the men into the dining room. There was a huge table groaning with food and red wine and more cooking smells were still coming from the large kitchen.

There was some shifting around of the seating arrangements until Charlie was sitting at Tommy’s right hand. Don was one down from there and across from a couple of teenaged boys. Tommy’s other children he guessed.

Once everyone was settled Tommy stood and held up a glass. The table went silent. “A year ago we lost an angel too young and too soon. I didn’t think I’d survive this but today I’m starting to believe that she, and too many other children, are now at rest, now at peace. And that peace would never have come without our dear old friend, Charlie Eppes. Salute.”

Everyone raised their glass as well while Charlie ducked his head a bit. Then someone started dishing out the food.

Some meatballs were placed on Don’s plate and at the first bite he thought he just might die. He’d had meatballs before. Or at least he thought he had but this was a whole special level of amazing. It was like a perfect hamburger, in ball form. “Oh my god this is good.” Don mumbled around a full mouth.

“Try the tiella barese when it comes by.” Charlie whispered in his ear.

Don swallowed. “I have no idea what that is but absolutely.” Don tried everything that went by and wanted more. The pasta was homemade, the colors of the herbs and vegetables were bright. He ate something that he was told was eggplant which was odd because Don hated eggplant but whatever he’d just eaten was really good.

While Don was stuffing his face like an idiot, and somewhat shamefully wishing Robin could cook better, Charlie was chatting away with Tommy and his wife about this and that. There was the sound of a phone ringing and 90% of the table patted their pockets to see if it was theirs.

Charlie checked his and jumped up. “Sorry. I need to get this. Sorry,” he said as he dashed out of the room. Don used the opportunity to steel another bit of eggplant off Charlie’s plate. Tommy reached over and filed Don’s glass with more thick red wine.

Don tried to shake his head. “I’m driving tonight.”

Tommy smiled at him. “Ah, don’t worry about it.”

Don decided it was probably best not to worry about it. If all else failed they could abandon the rental and take a really expensive cab ride back to town. Don drank the wine and was about to jump into a conversation about the designated hitter rule when Tommy look up and over Don’s shoulder.

“Hey, Mini Teach, what’s wrong?”

Don turned around. Charlie was standing in the doorway, his face slack and his eyes unfocused. His fingers were tapping away franticly on the edge of his phone. The room got quiet. Don got up and went to him.

“Hey, buddy, what’s up? Talk to me. Who was on the phone?”

Charlie’s eyes focused a little. “Amita.”

“What’s happening?” Don’s mind began running through worst case scenarios as fast as possible.

“She…Um…she was at the doctor’s…” Charlie’s brows came together.

“What’s wrong?”

Charlie’s face twitched before he finally made eye contact with Don. “She’s… um… She’s pregnant. She’s eight weeks pregnant.” A smile crawled across Charlie’s face at the final word and a giggle bubbled out. Don grinned back. “She didn’t want to wait to tell me. She’s pregnant.”

A cheer rose up from the table as Don pulled Charlie into a hug. He could feel Charlie’s shaking and just squeezed him a bit harder. Someone called out for more wine. Someone turned up the music.

When he finally let go of Charlie others were there to take his place giving Charlie manly hugs and slaps on the back. A glass of wine found its way back into Don’s hand. ‘A baby.’ Don thought ‘Charlie’s baby. Charlie and Amita’s baby.’ Don looked at his baby brother who still had a goofy grin plastered to his face. He was going to be a father. His baby brother was going to have a baby of his own. Don emptied the glass of wine.

Things quickly shifted from a nice meal with friends to a party. At some point the wine was traded out for something much stronger. Charlie did shots of it even as he held his sides with laughter. Someone started making toasts, half of which Don didn’t even recognize, but he emptied his glass with each one. Someone started the dancing.

Don found himself being spun around the room by the wife of one of the Jimmys, adding to the spinning in his head. He tried to calculate just how much he was going to hurt in the morning but the best he could come up with is that he’d probably hurt less than Charlie who was being whipped around at astonishing speeds by Mama Rossi herself.

It was sometime after midnight when Don crash landed into an overstuffed sofa and had to close his eyes as the room spun.

“How you holding up there, Eppes?”

Don opened his eyes. Tommy was standing over him looking disturbingly sober. “How are you not drunk?” Don slurred out.

“I’m drunk, I’ve just got more practice faking it.” He sat down next to Don. “How wasted are you?”

“Well I’m not driving anywhere.”

“No shit. Giant Jimmy’s sort of the permanent designated driver seeing as how he’s permanently off the booze.

“Good to know.”

“Not sure if you’ll remember this but I talked with your brother today and he and I are square. Not that he ever really owed me but him and me, we’re square.”

Don did hope he’d remember that and did his best to lock it in. “Good.” A thought tried to swim its way up through the alcoholic sludge that was his brain. “Charlie wrote you an essay.”

“No, no. Mini Teach always made us do our own homework.”

Don shook his head and wished he hadn’t. “No. Theory. Game theory about… stuff.” Don tried waving a hand because he couldn’t find the words.

“Oh. That essay.” Tommy got up and Don closed his eyes again.

Don wasn’t sure how long his eyes had been closed. He was pretty sure he hadn’t actually slept, just drifted, but he snapped fully awake when Tommy sat down next to him again. He handed Don a worn and slightly discolored stack of papers, stapled together.

It took a moment for Don’s eyes to focus enough to read it but at the top of the first page were the words War and Peace by Charles Eppes.

“Charlie left it in my room and I brought it home on the weekend and showed it to my old man. I actually had hoped he’d read the Peace bit but he wasn’t interested in that. But when he finished it he smiled at me like I’d just given him the best fucking father’s day present ever and he asked if I was planning on bringing Charlie up to hang out for a weekend.” Tommy let out a long breath and tilted his head back. “You know maybe if I’d liked my old man a little more. Maybe if I’d liked Charlie a little less. As it was I never let my old man in a room alone with Charlie.”

“Thank you.” Don mumbled and actually meant it.

“Take that essay home and get rid of it. The feds are going to kick in these doors in the next few months, I just know it. And when they go digging through my stuff they don’t need to find that, even if he was a kid when he wrote it.”

“Thank you.” Don said again. “Oh, and your mom is a really, really good cook.”

Tommy grinned. “Yeah, I know.”

Don grinned back and felt the world begin to fade out.

~

Don woke up and wished he hadn’t. He knew he was in his hotel room by the awful bed spread his face was pressed against. He tried to remember how he got there. He found a hazy memory of a drive and Charlie trying to sing Rainbow Connection for some reason.

He could hear the shower running which meant Charlie was probably up. Don guessed that Giant Jimmy must have hauled their incredibly drunk asses back to the hotel.

He tried to sit up and felt his head pound and his stomach lurch. There was something always particularly bad about red wine hangovers and he’d certainly been drinking enough of it last night. There was a stack of papers on the nightstand and Don hazily remembered a conversation with Tommy about them. There was also a note telling him that the rental was down in the lot.

The shower stopped running and a few minutes later Charlie came out wrapped in a too small, complementary bathrobe. He sat down next to Don looking surprisingly good.

“Why don’t you look like hell?” Don asked because it didn’t seem fair.

“Considered what I drank last night and the fact that it isn’t that late, if my calculations are correct I’m still legally drunk and probably will be for another couple of hours.” Don leaned forward and put his throbbing head in his hands. “We made the papers. Well the case made the papers, and just about every other media outlet on earth.”

“Not surprised.” Don suddenly remembered something else from the previous night and sat back up. “You’re going to have a baby.”

“Well, Amita is.”

“You’re going to be a father.”

“I know.”

Don pulled Charlie into another hug. “You are going to be a great dad.”

“Thank you but tell me that about five hundred more times before the kid arrives so maybe I’ll start believing it.

“Absolutely.” Don gave Charlie one more squeeze. “You did good work on this. The case and everything.”

“Someone was killing children. I couldn’t exactly say no.”

“I know. But it’s done with now. Why don’t we get home?”

Charlie let out a long sigh. “Yeah, let’s go home.”