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the world is a curse (it’ll kill if you let it)

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Claremont is a dedicated correctional facility meant to house the well-off malefactor, who can’t be trusted on work release programs and who require more individualized psychiatric care than a larger facility can provide. Or that was the intent twenty years ago; now, it’s as under threat of overcrowding as any other prison in the state or federal system.

Money may have helped Martin avoid the death penalty and ensure a steady supply of reading material and two-ply toilet paper, but it can only forestall a downgrade in his comfort for so long. They’ve already been giving him extra recreation time to retrofit his cell with an eye for doubling up, probably intending to saddle him with someone like Ridley, who is at least tolerable when not trying to convince the other inmates to join in on his delusional fantasy life.

A preference for a private cell hardly means Martin enjoys isolation. Rather the opposite, and he carefully regulates his behavior to allow for taking his meals in the cafeteria whenever possible. Today, as he’s escorted in, there’s a buzz in the air, the sort of excitable murmuring amongst the tables that often signals fresh meat.

“Who’s the newbie?” he asks the guard shadowing him. He nods towards the tight cluster of chattering idiots, who are always the first to swarm a new face. The usual lunchroom CO keeps a close watch on the knot of patients, and Martin can barely see the crown of the man’s head as he holds court with the gaggle of bootlickers.

“Your kind of psycho,” Martin’s escort replies.

“A murderer? How exciting. Or do you mean serial killer…? What’s his body count?”

“Less than yours, I’m sure, Dr. Whitly.”

“Flatterer,” Martin says, but then, when the group shifts and the man lifts his head enough for him to get a clear look at the shape of him—the nape of his neck, his shoulders, the trim narrowing towards his waist—he slows and smiles. “Ohhh, on second thought I wouldn’t be so sure.”

 


 

A few weeks earlier

Coming up out of Penn station, Malcolm spots Gil almost immediately. He’s not entirely inconspicuous waiting at his car near the line of cabs. The Le Mans stands out anywhere, but especially in Manhattan. The moment Gil catches sight of Malcolm he pushes away from the hood and comes striding towards him.

“Bright! I didn’t think you’d say yes, but then I get a call from your supervisor today that you’re on your way. You couldn’t tell me yourself, city boy?”

“Well,” Malcolm says as he approaches, “to be completely honest, I almost didn’t agree to consult; this isn’t the sort of thing I really want to get involved with. But I owe you one, don’t I, Lieutenant.”

He eases his duffel off his shoulder and drops it to let Gil pull him into a hug. It’s nice. He still smells the same, lived-in leather and bay rum aftershave; after a heartbeat, Malcolm relaxes into the embrace.

“That’s debatable. Still, I’m glad you’re here, kid,” Gil tells him, and gives him one last squeeze plus a hearty clap on the back that drives the breath from his lungs. At the car, Gil pops the trunk to load in Malcolm’s bag. “Fingers crossed I’m wrong about this case, and I don’t actually need your crazy ass.”

“I hope so.”

The idea of the Surgeon having a copycat has been eating at Malcolm for days now, sitting leaden in the pit of his stomach since he’d first received the email from Gil. On the train ride up, he’d skimmed the reports with a trembling hand, and it isn’t looking good. ’Once is happenstance, twice coincidence, blah blah blah…’ Except two women with the same rope marks in addition to the injections already screams pattern.

He’d also called his sister from the train to let her know he was going to be back in the city, and Malcolm could hear it in her voice that she was hiding something, which meant a scoop, which meant another body… which meant Gil picking him up in the middle of the workday probably has to do with—

“We have a third body?” Malcolm asks as Gil navigates through Midtown traffic.

“Maybe.”

Sometimes, Malcolm hates being right.

Gil introduces him to the team at the crime scene. The pair of detectives are understandably prickly—interagency operations rarely go smoothly.

“So, this is a federal case now?” JT asks when it takes Malcolm all of two minutes to confirm Gil’s suspicions.

“I’m just here to consult,” Malcolm assures the guy. He’s pretty sure the Bureau loaned him to Gil less because of his unique expertise and more to try and foster a bit of goodwill with a major police force after ‘every cop between DC and Tennessee’ had tried to get him canned for his handling of the Springer case. If he can get the NYPD to owe them some favors, the higher-ups will turn a blind eye to the bent rules and badly ruffled feathers that went along with that broken nose and help hasten shoving that mess under the rug. It’s still very thin ice to be on.

It feels thinner still with the truth staring up at him in the shape of a body. He clenches his hand and puts on a smile; if he believes that he’ll catch the perpetrator, he can make it a reality. My presence is my power.

But, in truth, he’s not at all prepared to see his father’s handiwork—imitated or otherwise—in the literal flesh. Let alone three-fourths of the Quartet.

That night Malcolm sleeps so poorly that the basic under-bed restraints he brought with him to the hotel nearly work their way loose by morning. He sits at the edge of the bed, pinching the bridge of his nose as exhaustion burns behind his eyes. Three hours with only one long, sleepless break in the middle isn’t the worst, but it’s going to drag at him throughout the day. He sighs and stands, rubbing at his wrists and hating that he’ll probably need to bind his ankles tonight to be safe and keep the travel restraints in place. Being that restricted isn’t a sensation he particularly enjoys outside of a session. Waking up when his legs are trapped can be just as terrifying as the nightmares. There’s an alternative, but….

He wrestles with a very different sort of dread as he chokes down pills and breakfast and summons up the nerve to call his mother and ask if she’s put everything in storage or kept his loft livable.

“I would hardly call that space livable, Malcolm,” she replies. “You know you have a perfectly good room here in the house whenever you want it.”

He puts his hand briefly over the speaker and silently screams his frustration until he can calmly reply. “Mother, just answer me: is my bed still there and usable? I’ll be in the city for a while on a case. I need a safe place to sleep.”

“Have your night terrors worsened again?” she asks, and where Malcolm is generally so good at reading people, he can still never quite tell if her concern is genuine. “Why don’t you—”

“Quit my job?” Malcolm says, interrupting the lecture before it has a chance to gain momentum. “People are counting on me. If you don’t want me to use the place, fine. I’m sure the concierge here will be happy to help me figure out a solution.”

“Don’t be silly. Everything is still there. I’ll have Luisa go by and stock the fridge and make sure everything is all ready for you.”

He grinds out a thank you and a vague promise of seeing her and Ainsley for dinner before finishing his coffee and heading to the precinct.

 


 

The countdown towards a fourth body leaves a lot of tension in the air as Malcolm gets to know the team and the case better.

Holed up inside the situation room, he sifts through files and his own notes for what must be the twentieth time. Frustratingly, nothing new floats to the surface, and he tosses the autopsy photos towards the other end of the table to be free of them for a bit—those three submissives had trusted the man that did this to them. He leans back in his chair, rubbing his hands over his face. He must look like shit. He certainly feels like it.

He spots Gil stepping out of his office and heading straight for Dani’s desk, and the way he’s moving reveals a similar restlessness; he’s looking for an update—anything to show progress on a case that’s sitting too close to home for the both of them.

God. He’d thought he’d finally left this behind ten years ago. Gil probably feels the same way. The minute the trial was over, it was like Martin stopped existing to him. That is until it came out that, as soon as Malcolm turned eighteen, he’d been visiting his father unsupervised.

Malcolm hadn’t told Gil for a reason. The secret had almost driven a wedge between them too big to overcome, but somehow Malcolm had managed to tell him bits and pieces of the whole truth: that he’d been considering law enforcement, that he knew seeing Martin was bad for his mental health, and that he needed help.

What he hadn’t told Gil was that he had felt like an addict hooked to a drug and chasing that first perfect high over and over again until it was killing him. That every, single time a part of him wondered if there was a way to make Martin better. He’d gotten over that fantasy, but seeing Martin hadn’t been his only self-destructive habit in his late teens and early twenties. Gil and Jackie had been the ones who had gotten him through it all in one piece.

Malcolm reaches across the table to gather another stack of folders and keeps an eye on Dani and Gil. She’s on the phone, but Malcolm can see that she’s on hold. She places a hand over the receiver regardless as she looks up at her boss.

“Did the banks release those records yet?” Gil asks. He props his hands on his hips in part to keep them occupied, and in part because there will always be a bit of the beat cop in him.

“One of the vics didn’t control any of their own finances, so we’re still waiting on permission, and there’s a problem with the system for the other two,” Dani says. “Same bank. They’re working on it.”

“Tell them to work faster. We need to find this guy, and this is the best lead we’ve got.”

In the end, they arrive at the dom’s apartment building a few minutes too late. An explosion blows out the windows and sets off car alarms up and down the block, and when the body in apartment J comes back identified as Nico Stavros, Malcolm knows their killer has just cleaned up a loose end and they’ve been dropped right back at square one.

Later, when Gil shows him the drawings FID had found in what was left of the apartment, a fresh chill takes up residence in Malcolm’s guts. He can feel the shape of the question Gil’s holding back; the thing he wants to ask but cares too deeply about Malcolm to put into words.

Malcolm rubs absently at his shaking knuckles. “My father has got to know something,” he says, naming the elephant and already working out solutions. There truly aren’t that many options, and all of them lead to places he doesn’t want to go. Chiefly, Claremont. “I need to go inside.”

“I don’t want to ask you to do that, kid.”

“I know, and you’re not going to like what I’m going to suggest, either, because I don’t mean a visit with a guard perched at the door. I need my father to think I’m on his side.”

Understanding Malcolm’s intent immediately, Gil’s rebuke is sharp and swift. “Out of the question. There’s no chance I’m letting you go in there undercover. Malcolm, that’s insane.”

“If we get a fourth body, the guy’s not going to stop, and you remember what the next set was like. He’s accelerating, this killer, and learning quickly,” Malcolm stares out over the city, the glitter that’s never going to stop feeling like home. “This is going to get uglier, and if the copycat has Martin’s help, that’s a lot of lives at risk.”

“We’ll do the legwork, we’ll figure this out.”

 


 

After the Quartet is complete, it’s less than a week before the bodycount hits five. The killer’s methodology for choosing new victims remains opaque, and he’s clearly evolving. The fourth body in the Quartet hadn’t borne any rope marks, a consequence perhaps of uncovering the first three’s connection to Stavros. A killer with enough intelligence and control to change tactics is alarming enough, but on this latest body, the wound pattern is even more aggressive. If he finishes this new set, he might not remain a copycat.

Reluctantly, Gil relents and okays Malcolm’s plan. Which is a good thing, because Malcolm had already gone behind Gil’s back and done all the paperwork with the Bureau over a week prior.

“Can’t believe they fast-tracked this,” Gil says, dropping the communique in front of Malcolm. “Looks like you got your wish, Special Agent Bright.”

Titles, cool. That doesn’t sting. Malcolm runs a hand through his hair and looks up at Gil. “It’s not as if I’m going to enjoy this. It wasn’t exactly a healthy relationship ten years ago, and this is going to be… tricky.”

Gil visibly softens. He leans down and lowers his voice, his hand flattening to the table and corded with tension. “C’mon, kid. There’s got to be another way.”

“There isn’t time. We might have more to go on if I could interview Burkhead. Men like him—wealthy, connected, willing to exploit the system—it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that he’s a sociopath like half the CEOs out there.”

“Well, he’s connected alright, and he had a solid alibi for more than one killing. Brass and that army of lawyers Burkhead’s got isn’t going to let you anywhere near him without probable cause.”

“Which brings us right back to that fact that my father is our best option. If I go in to interview Martin under the Bureau’s authority, he’s going to play games in order to control me and you and this case via the flow of information. You know that. If he believes I’m finally following in his footsteps, he’ll be far more likely to tell us what we need to know. Maybe we’ll even learn something about the Surgeon’s unknown victims.”

Gil pulls a face and takes the chair next to Malcolm. “I know you think—”

Malcolm is tired. Tired of arguing and tired of waiting for another body to hit the morgue from a killer the media was already calling the Surgeon’s Apprentice. Tired of seeing that box in his nightmares and having zero leads beyond his own faulty memory.

“Martin kept every mention of me that hit the papers from kindergarten to age ten. He’ll have kept doing that, even in prison. He’s not an annihilator, Gil, his obsession with me is what’s going to keep me safe. I can do this. You have to trust me.”

Gil exhales slowly and a deep furrow appears between his brows. “I do trust you, but Jackie’s not here to worry about you anymore so…” he trails off with a faint and fond smile before he sets his hand to Malcolm’s back. The rest of the team doesn’t know their background, only that Gil’s known him since he was a boy. What must it look like to them? That he’s some weird rich boy pity case? Not far from the truth, he supposes.

“Once you sign those, you’ll be put in the system. Dani has experience in undercover ops, so she’s in charge of organizing communication protocol and an outline of the contingency plan, not you,” Gil says, emphasizing the last part. “The Bureau has one agent transferring in as a temporary CO, but Claremont doesn’t see the sort of overtime that other facilities suffer, so to avoid suspicion he’ll only be stationed there twice a week: Thursdays and Sundays. That’s not a lot of backup, so hopefully you get what we need fast and we can pull you out in a couple days tops.”

“I can do this.”

“I know you can. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

“Well,” Malcolm says, staring at the trembling of his fingers as he draws in a deep steadying breath, “that makes two of us.”

 


 

Day One, Monday: the welcome wagon

Malcolm goes through processing with a single-minded focus. Terror is a constant buzz in the back of his skull, and he fights against its constant screaming for him to turn around and run, to flee before he’s standing in front of Martin again and caught in the trap of his father’s easy smile.

There’s a constant burning in his throat as he’s shown to his cell for the first time.

Claremont has two main wings joined together in the middle by shared facilities. Malcolm had sought to be embedded in the same wing as his father, but that was one part of the plan that Gil remained steadfastly against. It’s frustrating, but he can’t blame Gil for looking out for him, even if it’s going to make his job harder in the end.

Without the ability to shout down the hallways or convince a guard to play courier and pass notes back and forth all day, Malcolm will need to make do with getting the information he needs during meal and recreation time. Which means a lot of waiting. He sits on the edge of the bunk and scans his temporary new residence. It’s a far cry from the relative luxury that Martin enjoys on the other side of the building. Malcolm’s cell is a standard five-by-ten space with no rows of books, no rug to hide the pitted concrete of the floor, no room for a full-sized writing desk and chair. He’d been permitted no personal items aside from a set of colored pencils no longer than his thumb, a notepad, and the restraints looped through the frame of the bunk. The freedom to buy additional items from the commissary won’t be allowed until he proves he can follow rules.

Absently, he rubs his wrists. It took a fairly sizable bribe for the administration to allow him to use them on his own recognizance, and the risk of being prescribed sedatives remains worryingly high.

With any luck, the COs won’t be punitive and will treat him like Martin, more interested in the dollars in his trust fund than making his life miserable.

He closes his eyes and spends an hour meditating, and afterwards, still facing another hour until mealtime, Malcolm gets to his feet, stretching his arms high overhead and figuring he might as well pass the time with some yoga. He slips out of the soft-soled shoes they’d given him and grounds his feet, drawing in a breath that fills his belly, the exhale taking out some of the restlessness that’s trying to creep back into him.

He starts his practice, but before he’s able to find his center, he’s thrown off balance by the ugly memory of being barefoot in the basement, the chill of the stone numbing his toes. He has to open his eyes to avoid picturing the box yawning like a hungry trap as he goes into a forward fold. The box always seems to be waiting for him, ready to snap him up and lock him in there with the nameless girl’s body.

A series of deep breaths and repeating a remembered affirmation steadies him again, and he resumes the flow, eventually finding a bit of clarity and calm.

Between the yoga and doing some mindfulness meditation, he’s feeling remarkably centered and alert when he’s released from his cell and taken to the cafeteria. It goes to a hush briefly as the scatter of inmates recognizes that he’s a new face. A special case—like Martin—who requires a personal escort to and from his cell.

A few men rise to their feet once he’s gotten a tray and moved through the line. They wait as he’s served and come to circle around him, not as threats but as gadflies. Malcolm profiles each and every one of them on autopilot. None are a serious threat; they’re the remoras of this place, seeking to feed off his status or take in gossip to trade. He lets them draw him back to sit with them, clocking the people they shy away from as he takes a seat. He ends up with the door behind him, which brings the anxiety gnawing at the edges of his calm, but he reminds himself that no one here knows he’s law enforcement or Martin’s son. To them, he’s just another killer.

The inmates ask him question after question, and he answers them with as little duplicity as he can. Many have nothing at all to do with him and everything to do with what’s happening outside.

All at once, there’s a ripple in the room; a whispering murmur that gathers glances as it spreads. Martin, he thinks. Knows. He tracks the eyelines of his seatmates until he feels the heat of a body coming up behind him. Despite expecting it, he can’t help but go tense when a hand brushes lightly across his shoulder as Martin skirts the table with a tray in hand.

“Doctor Whitly,” Malcolm says, glancing up only when Martin takes the seat across from him. The other patients scatter like birds. The tension stays in his shoulders, something Martin can surely see.

Alone with him at the table, Martin looks him up and down. “A special agent in Claremont for murder and not a word in the press…. How does that happen?” he asks quietly with shrewd and sly intimation.

Rather than fight the flinch that a hit so close to the truth triggers, Malcolm lets it show. “Former special agent,” he says, aiming to get Martin to associate his unease with the crumbling of his career and not the sudden fear that he truly can’t do this. “Word will get out eventually, I’m sure. Not a lot of people know who I am.”

“Well, former Special Agent Bright, if no one knows, mums the word. It’ll be our little secret,” Martin whispers.

Malcolm’s stomach goes ice cold, something primal and terrifying stirred up at the way Martin says ‘our little secret’ and a flash of almost-memory. There are so many gaps in his past and things he doesn’t know about himself. He's spent ten years trying to be okay with that, trying desperately to fill in the void where his childhood should be.

“My boy, you worked so hard to earn that job. What were you thinking?”

It had been harder than Martin could ever know. Changing his name was the easy part. Malcolm swallows and clenches his fingers tight. “That I wasn’t going to get caught, for one.”

“Like father like son,” Martin quips, and then he smiles broadly and reaches for Malcolm. He takes Malcolm’s trembling hand in his own. “I can’t say that I’m glad you’re here or that your psychogenic tremor is still affecting you, but I am very happy to see you. It’s been so long, Malcolm. Look at you.”

It’s harder than he’d expected to be face-to-face with Martin again. When you’re in a room with him, everything revolves around him. He creates his own gravity.

Martin retrieves his hands before the guards object. “Tell me: how many?” He beams, not even questioning if Malcolm would even be capable of murder. This is music to him. A long-awaited debut album he’s been trying to get made since Malcolm was eighteen. Maybe a decade before that if Malcolm’s darkest fears about his own memory are correct.

A trickle like ice water runs down Malcolm’s spine, and he closes his eyes, breathes deep, and weaves the lie that will seduce his father most completely. He’s already thought it through: enough kills to impress, but not enough to rival Martin’s count. “Eleven. Thirteen if you count the need to clean up loose ends.”

“And how many did they know of?”

“Two.”

He sits back, pride written all over him until a heartbeat later his expression tilts to concern. “So what happened, Malcolm?”

“Well, the one that got me cau—”

“Not the murders. Tell me about those later. I mean it’s been what, ten years without a visit? Not even a letter? I want to hear about you.

 


 

Once he’s back in the safety of his cell, Malcolm vomits up every single thing he’d eaten and collapses into the narrow space between the toilet and the wall. He’d held it together well enough, but now, without all those eyes on him—without Martin’s eyes on him—everything he’d kept under a tight lid bubbles up.

He buries his face in his hands, sucking down air by the lungful to hold for a count of eight. Over and over. Until his hands stop their tingling, and he feels like he can stand again. He clambers to his feet to brush the bitterness from his mouth and finds he has to hold the toothbrush in his fist like a child, his fingers too weak around the plastic for finesse.

There are tears stinging behind his eyes. Some of it is his body reacting to violently rejecting everything he’d put in his stomach, but it’s not only that. There’s a confusing miasma roiling inside him—disgust and terror and a dozen other things. He’d known seeing Martin again would stir up a whole host of emotion, but….

Malcolm stares blankly at his fingers. His father’s touch had been so firm and yet so gentle. How can he still crave Martin’s tenderness after all this time? His stomach heaves, and he grips at the edge of the sink, but there’s nothing left in him but acid.

The rest of the day he doesn’t leave his bunk, staying curled on his side and fingering the soft leather of the restraints. If he manages to sleep when it’s lights out, what’s going to come calling? And if he can’t sleep, will he be sharp enough to keep Martin from guessing the truth?