The first thing that hits Carlton is the smell.
It smashes him in the face like a fist, more disorienting than the screaming (and there is a lot of screaming), or the ankle-deep trash, or the spitting, snarling man McNab is wrestling to the ground. Carlton gags: it's a combination of smoke and stale beer and piss and rotting things.
"A little help here," O'Hara says. She's got the source of the screaming -- a skinny blond woman in a filthy tank top and cut-off shorts -- pinned to the couch with one knee and is struggling to capture her flailing arms. "Carlton."
"Sorry." Carlton swallows hard and moves to her side. Together, they pin the woman's hands and cuff her.
"Fuckers, goddamn it, you've got no right, I know my rights," the man howls, while the woman just screams.
"Oh, your rights," Carlton mutters. He gives the woman an extra yank, and she falls to her knees.
"You fucking fuck," she shrieks. She's missing several teeth.
And that's when Carlton hears the baby.
O'Hara's eyes gaze locks with his. Her eyes are wide. "Carlton," she says.
"Stay here," Carlton replies, and heads toward the back of the apartment. He checks the bedroom: stained mattress on the floor, ashtrays everywhere, laundry piled in the corners, food wrappers and pizza boxes pushed against the walls. No baby. He turns around and gags again. The bathroom looks as though it has never been cleaned. A thick layer of grime over everything, even the clutter, and the bathtub --
There's a baby in the bathtub.
It's the filthiest, most pitiful creature Carlton has ever seen. Naked but for a diaper. Strapped into a car seat that's so dirty it's almost black. It's crying, and Carlton can see its ribs move with every breath.
"O'Hara, we got a kid," he yells, reaching for the car seat. "Jesus."
"We're taking these two to the cruiser," O'Hara yells back, over the screaming. "I'll call a bus."
Carlton hears the door open and close, and it's suddenly quiet. Except for the baby's high, piercing wail.
He fumbles with the buckle on the seat. Finally gets it open. A moment's wrestling with the straps and he has the kid in his hands.
The first thing he notices is that the baby is tiny. Babies are supposed to be solid; this one feels ropy and frail. Carlton holds it awkwardly, one hand beneath its head, the other supporting its rear.
The second thing he notices is that the diaper is soaked.
"Jesus," he says again. He loosens the diaper tabs: feces everywhere. No clean diapers in sight. No clean anything in sight. He tosses the diaper into the bathroom.
Beneath the diaper: baby poop smeared over bright red skin. It's a girl.
He can't bear the thought of putting anything from this repulsive, awful place near her. So he takes off his jacket -- carefully shifting the arching, howling baby from one hand to the other -- and wraps her in it. It will occur to Carlton later that the jacket was new last week, but at this moment, with this wriggling scrap of life before him, there is nothing else he can do.
He tucks her into the crook of one arm and gets the hell out of there.
O'Hara and McNab are standing by the cruiser, watching the yelling couple inside. McNab's expression is somewhere between amusement and repulsion. When O'Hara sees him, and the baby, she runs over. "Carlton -- "
"She's okay," Carlton says. The baby is still crying and he bounces her in his arms. "Did you call for the bus?"
"Yeah." O'Hara is reaching for the baby.
He takes a step back. "I got her," he says.
Her eyebrows go up. "I didn't know you liked babies."
"I don't." He frowns at her, then looks down at the baby. "She has to be hungry."
"Poor thing." O'Hara tilts her head, her lips pushing out in a little pouty frown. "She's cute."
She isn't, really, in Carlton's opinion, but it isn't her fault. She's too skinny, all eyes and a shock of red hair, and absolutely filthy.
He looks at the couple in the car, now pounding the windows and yelling and pointing furiously at the baby. And suddenly, like a shock: this is their child and this is how she's spent her entire life.
He hates them. Hates them. Like he's never hated anyone.
The ambulance pulls up minutes later. "Where's the patient?" the EMTs want to know, and Carlton has a hard time handing the squalling infant over. She's still wrapped in his jacket.
"No car seat, huh?" the blond EMT says, and O'Hara looks at Carlton.
Carlton thinks about the dirt-blackened car seat in the apartment. "No," he says.
"One of you wanna ride along, or what?" The other EMT is scrawling notes on a clipboard.
"I will," Carlton says immediately, and O'Hara gives him a scrutinizing look. He raises his hands defensively. "What?"
"You like babies," O'Hara says, and then she smiles.
"Oh, can it," Carlton mutters. He climbs into the ambulance. "See you in a while."
"Call me when you get there," he hears O'Hara call, as the ambulance doors close.
Because there is no car seat and the ambulance doesn't have a transport incubator, he rides strapped into the gurney and holding the baby. He feels ridiculous, but she's stopped crying and is lying quietly against him, a tiny slip of warmth on his chest. And, looking down at her, at the matted red hair and the smudges of grime on her head and face, he feels a wave of protectiveness so fierce it takes his breath away.
She looks up at him at one point, craning her head back, gives him what he could swear is an assessing look. Then she closes her eyes, and a moment later she is asleep.
They arrive at the Santa Barbara Children's Hospital less than twenty minutes later. The EMTs let him climb off the gurney and carry the baby inside.
"Oh, bless your heart," the triage nurse says. "Look at her. Scrap of a thing." She tilts her head to look at the baby. "What's her name?"
Carlton frowns. "I don't know," he says.
"Not a problem." She enters Doe, Girl into the computer.
They're put into an exam room in the emergency department; it's new and nice, with a crib, but Carlton keeps the baby in his arms. She's still asleep and he can't stop checking that she's still breathing. They're not there five minutes before a freckle-faced nurse comes in.
"I'm Angie," she says. "I'll be your nurse."
"Nice to meet you," Carlton mumbles. His eyes are on the baby.
"Oh, this poor baby." She lifts the baby from Carlton's jacket and takes her temperature and blood pressure. Weighs her -- a scant ten pounds, two ounces -- and then: "Let's get her clean and fed."
She washes the baby efficiently, experienced hands scrubbing away layers of dirt; the baby hardly cries. "Look at this diaper rash," shaking her head, "just awful." She dresses the baby in a onesie and wraps her in a blanket before handing her back to Carlton. "I'll be back with a bottle as soon as the doc says it's okay."
And now he can see that she actually is kind of cute. She's too skinny, yes, but her eyes are big and brown and her red hair looks like wet feathers and she's looking at him seriously, as though she's about to tell him something of utmost import.
He sits down, turns her to face him. "Hi," he says to her.
She purses her lips, resembling for all the world a disapproving auntie.
"I'm Carlton," he says, and he hears a little singsong tone come into his voice. "You never have to see that apartment again, no, never again." Almost cooing now.
She smiles. And Carlton's heart shatters.
Later, he will look back at that smile as the moment his life as he knew it fell to pieces. As the moment his entire paradigm shifted and blurred and refocused on a red-haired baby girl.
He feels shaky, unbalanced, and when his phone rings, he almost jumps out of his skin.
"I thought you were going to call me when you got there," O'Hara says.
"Sorry." Carlton pins the phone between his shoulder and his ear. "It got busy."
"So it looks like both parents have priors," O'Hara says, as though she hasn't heard his apology. "The father's rap sheet is as long as my arm. Most recent is for selling black market OxyContin."
"So there were warrants." Carlton makes faces at the baby; she laughs and he does too.
"Oh, there were warrants." Carlton can almost hear O'Hara rolling her eyes. "And get this, Carlton, the baby was delivered at home."
"What?" He holds a finger over her face and she grabs for it. Laughs again.
"She's six months old. The mother said that the baby has never been to a doctor. Doesn't even have a name, apparently. They were just calling her Baby."
Carlton's smile drops. He feels sick. "That's awful."
He hears the smile in O'Hara's voice. "She needs a name, Carlton. You want to name her?"
"What?" He looks at the baby. She looks at him. "Name her?"
"We're getting a social security number issued now. She's in the custody of the state. She has to have the mother's last name, but they're not going to let the parents give her a name now." She pauses. "You can name her. If you want."
Her eyelashes are so long, framing those bright brown eyes. She has a dimple in her left cheek, he sees, now that she's smiling.
"Charlotte," he says.
"Charlotte," O'Hara repeats. "You sure about that?"
"I'm sure." He watches Charlotte shift and wriggle. Watches her eyes go to the door as it opens and Angie comes back in. "I have to go. I'll call you later."
He hangs up as Angie hands him a bottle. "Here you go," she says, and starts to leave.
"Wait," Carlton says.
She stops. Looks at him. Then, with a smile: "Oh."
She takes the bottle out of his hand and shows him how to tuck the burp cloth under Charlotte's chin. How to hold her, head in the crook of his arm, so she's not lying flat. She wedges a pillow under Carlton's arm for support.
"Comfortable?" she asks, and when he nods, she hands him the bottle.
Carlton puts the bottle near Charlotte's lips; she opens her mouth at once. Clamps it firmly around the nipple. Her hands come up and she plants them against the bottle as though she's trying to hold it. Her eyes get big and she looks up at him, swallowing and swallowing and swallowing, as though she might never eat again.
"You were so hungry," Carlton says, and that feeling washes over him again, that feeling he can't identify.
Charlotte has gotten ahead of herself; she coughs, gags, and Carlton panics. "She's choking," he says, pulling the bottle out of her mouth.
"She's okay," Angie says, and indeed, Charlotte seems to have recovered: she makes a little O with her mouth, sucking on air. "She just needs a little pacing."
When Carlton looks at her blankly, she smiles. Puts her freckled hand over his and guides the bottle back to Charlotte's lips. "Just take it out of her mouth every couple minutes and let her have a break," she says. "Burp her when she's done."
"I don't -- " Carlton starts to say, helplessly.
"I'll help you," Angie says. "Don't worry. I'll help you."
He watches Charlotte, fascinated by the little cooing grunts she makes, by the minute perfection of her lips, by the way she coordinates her swallowing and breathing. He never thought he'd be so interested in watching someone eat. And she looks right back at him, her eyes wide and solemn. It's serious business, eating.
She doesn't break eye contact until the bottle is empty, and then she spits the nipple out and scrunches up her face. He thinks she's going to cry but she yawns instead.
"Sit her up," Angie instructs, and Carlton does. He tips her forward, supporting her chest with his hand, and pats her back the way Angie shows him. She burps. Yawns again.
"What a sweetheart," Angie says.
"Now what?" Carlton asks.
Angie's eyes crinkle. "Now you hold her."
So Carlton pulls Charlotte against his body, and leans back in his chair, and holds her. Her eyes keep trying to close; she struggles to open them, to keep looking at him, but in moments she's asleep.
"The doctor will be in soon." Angie's hand is on the door.
"Thank you," Carlton says, and he means it.
Angie smiles at him. "My pleasure," she says, and she's gone.
The next two hours are a blur: a blood draw, a CT scan, and X-rays of every bone in Charlotte's body. So many faces, nurses and doctors and techs, measuring and examining and asking questions. They're cheerful and friendly and they call Charlotte peanut and pumpkin and kiddo, and they make jokes and ask to hold her and Carlton is suddenly overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by everything, by the questions and IVs and monitors, but also by the kindness of all these people. All these people, doing all these things, for ten pounds and two ounces.
She's going to be admitted, they tell him. He's welcome to stay. There will be a case worker from Child Protective Services coming to talk to him in the morning, to assess the baby, to figure out where she'll go after she leaves the hospital.
Carlton already knows.
He calls the Chief as soon as Charlotte is moved to her hospital room. Tells her he's cashing in some of his accumulated vacation days.
"Are you okay?" she says, sounding concerned.
"I'm fine," he says. "I'm sorry for the short notice."
Vick laughs. "Carlton," she says, "I've been telling you to take vacation for three years. I'm glad you're finally listening to me." Then: "Where are you?"
He hesitates, afraid he'll sound ridiculous if he tells her. "I'm at the hospital."
He hears real alarm in her voice now. "Are you all right? Carlton, if you're sick -- "
"I'm not sick," he interrupts. "I'm with the baby O'Hara and McNab and I brought in."
"Still?" Vick says. "Isn't she about tucked in by now?"
"She's..." Carlton trails off, looking at Charlotte asleep in her baby seat. "I didn't want to leave her."
A pause. "Detective Lassiter, is there something I need to know?"
"No," Carlton says quickly. "Nothing."
"All right," Vick says, and why does everyone sound so damn smug tonight? "Call if you need anything, Carlton."
Charlotte's new nurse brings him a set of scrubs and he showers and changes, grateful to be clean. Then he stretches out on the hard plastic couch next to Charlotte's crib and tries to sleep.
The night is one of the longest of Carlton's life. He gives Charlotte a bottle every three hours. In addition to that, the nurse comes in every four hours to take her vital signs. By the time eight AM rolls around, Carlton is exhausted. All he wants is to go to sleep, but now there is a constant stream of medical students and residents and nursing students, one after another, and finally he gives up. The third time someone asks him "how was her night?" he stops answering.
It's not until rounds at ten AM, when the entire team assembles at Charlotte's bedside, that Carlton gets the whole story. Although there are eight people in the room, only the intern talks.
From her, Carlton learns that the series of X-rays -- what they call a skeletal survey -- show three healing rib fractures and a newer femur fracture. The CT scan of her head shows possible chronic bleeds.
“Wait,” Carlton interrupts. “What does that mean?”
When the intern fumbles and stammers, the attending physician smoothly steps in.
“We’ll have to confirm it with an MRI,” she says, “but it’s a finding concerning for abusive head trauma. What used to be called shaken baby syndrome,” she adds, when Carlton looks at her blankly.
Shaken, Carlton thinks. He looks down at her, asleep in his arms, and is suddenly nauseated.
“So it’s definitely abuse,” Carlton says.
“It looks that way,” the attending says sympathetically. “Her weight is low, too – below the third percentile for her age. Makes us concerned for neglect as well.”
Carlton knew she was small. He knows she isn’t able to do the things he remembered his nephew doing at six months -- she can't sit up, and he hasn't seen her roll over at all – but hearing the mistreatment verbalized makes him dizzy with rage. He vows to himself that he will never, never, not while he is breathing, let her go back to the care of those people.
So when the CPS caseworker shows up a little after eleven, the first thing he says to her is "I want to take her home."
The caseworker's name is Cecilia, and she is young and tired-looking. When Carlton says this, even before he introduces himself, she sighs heavily.
"That's not a good way to lead," she says.
"Sorry." Carlton takes a step back, pulling Charlotte's monitor wires out of the way as he sits back down on the couch. She coos and smiles when she sees the bottle he's holding and Carlton shifts her in his arms. He's fed her four times already and is feeling fairly proficient. "I haven't had a lot of sleep," he adds, putting the bottle into Charlotte's waiting mouth.
"Understood." Cecilia sits down. "So. You want to foster her."
"If it's possible.” It takes all of Carlton’s self-control not to interrupt or talk over her. He’s not used to this urgent, anxious feeling, this desperation to know that Charlotte will be safe.
"The doctors say she's going to need a lot of care. Not just regular doctor visits." Cecilia narrows her eyes at him. "Physical therapy, speech therapy. Neurosurgery."
"I know." Carlton holds her gaze.
"It's a big responsibility." But her expression is softening as she looks at Carlton and the baby.
"I know," Carlton says again.
A sigh. "I think..." Cecilia's forehead creases. "I think it could work. When we're done here, I'll make a few phone calls. See what we can do about getting things approved quickly."
And that's why, three hours later, he's meeting a CPS supervisor at his house for an inspection. Why, four hours later, he's signing the paperwork. And why, the next day, he's walking into his house carrying ten pounds, four ounces (two ounces of weight gain in two days, small victories).
"You're mostly crazy, you know that," O'Hara says, from the second bedroom, where she's tucking a sheet around the crib mattress.
"I'm aware," Carlton says. He unbuckles Charlotte from her car seat and lifts her into his arms. "Hi, baby girl."
She waves her hands and coos and smiles, and Carlton thinks she might be the most beautiful baby on the planet.
O'Hara comes into the living room. She folds her arms and cocks her head. "You two look good together," she says, and her expression is fond.
Carlton scowls at her. "Don't get sappy, O'Hara."
"Sor-ry," O'Hara says, but she's still smiling. "You want me to hang around?"
Carlton looks at Charlotte. Charlotte looks at Carlton.
"Nah," he says. "I think we'll be just fine."