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Wise Guys

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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