Mike's plane arrived on time and the two men greeted each other with a heart felt hug.
"How was the flight?" Alan asked, as he picked up his brother's carry-on bag.
"Extremely comfortable thanks to someone."
"What do you mean?"
As they walked over to the escalators to go down to luggage claim Mike eyed his older brother suspiciously before continuing to speak.
"Someone, who whished to remain nameless, upgraded my coach ticket to first class."
Alan looked over at Mike in complete confusion. Mike had stressed the word 'someone' now twice as if he should know what this was all about.
"Are you doing that well that you can afford to drop nearly a grand just to get me out of coach?"
"You think I…
Mike, I am doing fairly well especially since I sold the house to Charlie and my consulting business has taken off, but I can assure you that I had nothing to do with your travel arrangements. Didn't the airline tell you who had changed the tickets?"
"All I was told was that the new accommodations were made out of gratitude for my time in service to National Security. I immediately assumed that they had confused me with some other passenger but they asked me if I was Michael Eppes traveling from LaGuardia to LAX and when I told them I was they assured me that there had been no mistake. At that point all I could think was that you had arranged it and that the National Security bit was some sort of cryptic message to me."
Alan was staring at his younger brother with a sort of smirk on his face and an incredulous look.
"You do know something about this don't you?" Mike accused seeing the look on his sibling's face.
"Well, not exactly but I think I might know who made the change to your ticket class."
They stepped off the escalator at the ground floor and once they had cleared out of the way for the passengers behind them Mike stopped dead in his tracks and said, "So!"
Alan seemed to come out of a brief reverie and smiled.
"Charlie consults for several agencies including the NSA. He is a close friend to the director and during this whole affair we've had NSA agents protecting us. I would guess that it was Director Thompkins who may have arranged for the change in your ticket. He seems to be very fond of Charlie and as I have come to realize it is an extremely good thing to have people in positions of power be fond of you. Without their help it is entirely possible that you might have been flying out here for a different reason."
The fact that Alan's voice trailed off and his face went pale at that suggestion drove home to Mike how perilous the situation out here with his family had become.
Alan moved over to the benches along the far wall of the baggage claim and sank weakly down burying his face in his hands. All of the sudden the ramifications of everything that his family had been through hit him like a ton of bricks. He began shaking as the pent up anxiety and anguish washed over him like a flood.
Mike sat down next to his brother and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. He felt the ripples of his siblings muscles as waves of emotion coursed through the older man. Mike only had sketchy information about what had been happening out here. He knew that FBI agents had been killed in a brutal manner and that Donnie had almost been one of them. He knew that an assassin had targeted both of his nephews so that they couldn't testify against this FBI killer. He knew that both boys had been injured seriously enough that Charlie needed surgery and Donnie was going to be off duty for at least another month but other than that he didn't really know much.
"I almost lost them, Mike; both of them."
Alan had regained some control but he had fat tears welling up in his eyes that refused to fall. He stared off into space remembering all of the things he had felt over the last several weeks. He didn't know how he had managed to keep it all together for this long and wondered faintly why he chose this moment to succumb to the fear and anxiety that he had kept at bay for so long.
"But you didn't, Alan. Donnie and Charlie are fine. They're home right now putting up with that wonderfully charming aunt of theirs."
Mike used a fair amount of sarcasm in his voice when describing Irene in an attempt to lighten Alan's mood. He didn't really know what else to say. He was never very good with words; not like Alan who was always so sure of himself. Alan was the confident one in the family and could always find just the right thing to say to put everything into perspective. Mike felt awkward trying to comfort his brother and was sure that nothing that he was saying would help but it did. A small smile spread across Alan's face as he turned to look at his brother.
"She's not all that bad, Mike"
Mike just looked at his brother with a deadpan expression, which made his Alan laugh out loud.
"Well; maybe she is, but never the less she certainly knows how to get the boys to rest and follow the doctor's orders."
The brother's got up and moved over to the conveyer belt that slowly began to fill as luggage from the flight appeared from behind the flaps separating them from the unseen bowels of the airport's baggage transport system.
"Well I, for one, am glad that you and Charlie have friends in high places. Flying first class is a whole different experience than flying coach."
By the time the elder Eppes brothers arrived back at the house Don was beyond relieved to see them. He had no desire to rest and Irene had scolded him as though he were a youngster three times when she caught him trying to leave the den.
She had finally allowed him to come out for some lunch which he at that point had no appetite for. This however did not stop Irene from literally hovering over him to make sure he ate an acceptable amount of food. Don found himself quite envious of his younger sibling who had managed to escape this fate by still sleeping soundly on the couch.
Looking at Charlie's chest rise and fall rhythmically in deep sleep from the dining room table Don actually began to feel a little worried about him. He had been asleep ever since they had come home from the hospital and that seemed wrong. He went over to rouse the younger man much to the consternation of Aunt Irene who relented only when Don said that he was concerned because of the concussion.
Don gently shook Charlie's shoulder to waken him but didn't get a response until he shook him again with a little more strength. His younger brother cracked an eye open and seemed to look around to see who had disturbed him before his gaze fell on his older brother.
"Where is she?" came the soft whisper from the recumbent man.
"She's in the kitchen. Hey have you been awake this whole time?"
Charlie opened his eyes fully and Don helped him to gingerly sit up.
"I've been dozing on and off but I feigned deep sleep anytime she came in here."
"That's not fair. I have been dealing with her all afternoon."
Charlie smiled slightly. "What's unfair bro; the fact that I thought of it or that you didn't?"
It was at that moment that the front door opened and Alan and Mike walked in. Seeing his sons sitting together on the couch smiling wiped the last vestiges of angst from Alan's heart.
Over the next three days Mike somehow managed to charm Irene, and her normally sharp nature softened somewhat much to the surprise of everyone. The agents watching the house were reassigned as the last of the arrest warrants were served on the mob family and Trip was scheduled to fly back to the east coast the next day.
Charlie's mood had remained subdued. He wasn't acting doleful any longer but he lacked his customary enthusiasm. His ribs were part of the reason for that because they seriously limited his ability to move comfortably. Larry and Amita had visited frequently as had Stan, Megan and David. On the evening of his third day home Charlie was quite surprised to get an unexpected visitor.
Alan warmly greeted Robert Thompkins when he showed up at the front door while Mike thanked him heartily for the upgrade to his plane ticket. Don was pleased to finally meet this man but found it a little difficult to be easily casual with the director of the National Security Agency. Director Thompkins spent some time talking with Don and Alan before he asked to see Charlie who had spent the last two hours sitting outside next to the Koi pond.
Don found the director had a very subtle yet extremely effective manner of obtaining information. Before he realized it Don had told this man that he had just met more things about his brother and himself than he would have thought possible. He even went into detail about the conversation that he had with Charlie that afternoon in front of their mother's grave.
Alan escorted Director Thompkins out to the yard where Charlie was sitting and quietly moved back inside to give the men some privacy. The warm evening breeze whispered softly through the branches of the Japanese Maple next to the pond. Charlie was sitting cross-legged in the grass under the little tree just staring at the large dappled fish as they moved ceaselessly through the clear water.
Bob stood there for a moment studying his young friend. To the casual observer it seemed as though the mathematician was simply sitting there enjoying a lazy summer evening but to the eyes of the man observing him, however, the scene was anything but peaceful.
Bob noticed how carefully Charlie adjusted his position making it clear that he was still experiencing quite a bit of pain from his multiple broken ribs and wondered briefly how long it had taken the young man to get himself seated on the ground.
The director had worked closely with the mathematician in the past and had observed Charlie while he was lost in thought, as he seemed to be now. The difference that struck Bob so strongly at that moment was the fact that for as long as he had know Professor Eppes even when he was at rest he was never really still, as he was at that moment. Charlie seemed to be missing something; an integral part of his personality was noticeably lacking.
Bob could see now why Trip and everyone else had seemed so concerned. The complete lack of frenetic energy was such a glaring absence that it stuck out like a neon sign saying 'Something's Wrong'.
"Have you found your answer yet?"
Charlie turned his head in surprise at the voice and immediately regretted it. The sudden movement sent pain racing through his chest and back but he recovered quickly.
"Bob! What are you doing here?"
"I came to see you and to talk to you about this."
Bob Thompkins hunkered down sitting next to Charlie on the grass beneath the delicate tree and handed a folded sheet of paper to the young man. It was the letter he had sent along with the disk. Charlie didn't need to open the paper; he knew what was on it.
"The way you were staring at those fish it seemed as though you were waiting for an answer."
Charlie smiled a little inwardly. That wasn't so terribly far from the truth.
"Some questions don't have answers. It's like P vs. NP. There is no way to solve the problem, it just… is."
Bob took in Charlie's appearance. His face was still fairly swollen and the bruising was at its peak making him look as though he had gone a few rounds with the heavy weight champion of the world. As he sat on the ground his usually incessantly moving hands lay limp in his lap and dullness had taken up residence in his normally expressive eyes.
"You look terrible, Charlie."
"I distinctly remember advising you to be careful and not to tangle with these people."
Bob got no answer from Charlie so he continued.
"You know as well as I do that you could easily have been killed. Why didn't you call me? You know I would have done anything to help you, even sending someone to watch your back when you met with DiBenedetto."
Again he got no response.
"How did risking your life like that help your family? If you had been killed how would that have saved your brother or your father?"
Charlie turned his head and looked at the Director for a moment.
"I understood the risks going in, Bob. I willingly accepted them if there was a chance that I could get that contract off our heads."
Bob scrutinized his friend once more. It was clear that there was more to what was bothering Charlie and he wanted to get to the bottom of it.
"Ok, let's say that you understood the risks and accepted them. You had a purpose in mind and you accomplished that purpose. The contract no longer exists whether it is because of the deal you made with DiBenedetto or the fact that the entire syndicate is in custody; the end result is the same. That being the case; I am having some difficulty figuring out why you are sitting here looking for answers that are unsolvable? What's still bothering you Charlie?"
"Do you believe in evil, Bob; evil as a single definable presence?"
"People can be evil; I have seen more evidence of that then any one person should. Shelley Arbury is evil, a fact that you have seen and experienced personally, but evil as an entity of some sort? I guess I'm not sure what you mean."
"Is she evil or was she made into someone who is evil? If she was not evil on the day of her birth, yet she is now where did that evil come from? Can evil be defined as a compilation of experiences that twist a soul into what Shelley Arbury is now? If that is the case then can't it be argued that evil is an actual definable presence? Is evil something that can be measured or predicted?"
"I don't believe that evil is something that can be predicted. I have seen so many examples of people who have experienced unbelievable horrors in their lives and yet they overcame those experiences and became stronger more caring people. I have also seen people who have become angry twisted bitter individuals who lash out at an unfair world for the perceived wrongs it has afflicted upon them. There is no real way to predict human behavior or the way in which people will handle traumatic experiences."
Charlie continued to stare at the Koi and heaved a small sigh. Bob could see that the young man was thinking about what he had said and trying to reconcile that with whatever internal demons he was struggling with.
"I guess the question is; which kind of person am I. I have known true hatred; I have felt it. I didn't just want to see her dead, Bob. I wanted to kill her myself! I didn't consider the ramifications to innocent lives when I decided to blackmail Alto DiBenedetto. When I found out that his nephew, the man who had hired the hit man to kill Don and me, had been stealing from him I didn't hesitate to use that information to broker a deal with DiBenedetto. I knew perfectly well that once Alto found out what his nephew had done he would kill him."
"You do realize that I have read every file associated with this case don't you? You had a perfect opportunity to kill Shelley Arbury and it would have been a clear case of defense. She was about to stab your brother. She raised that knife to plunge it into your brother's chest and you acted on instinct. You shot the arm holding the knife but you didn't kill her. As for your deal with DiBenedetto; outside of it being a very dangerous thing that you did, I don't view your actions as wrong or even immoral. These men were trying to kill you and your family. A nearly successful attempt on your brother had already been made. You did the only thing you could to save your family, but you know this, so what is the problem?"
"The problem is the fact that if I had it all to do over again I would make the same choices. I would still give that disk to DiBenedetto knowing full well that he would kill his nephew.
The problem is that when we go to trial and Shelley Arbury is sentenced to death I will be there to watch her die and I'm not bothered by that. I know that there is a large part of me that actually looks forward to it.
The problem is my heart has turned cold and I don't know how to feel anymore. I'm not the same person I was before all of this started. All experiences in life will effect a change in us; I'm just not sure I like the person I have changed into."
Bob watched Charlie as he spoke and saw how each statement seemed to weigh more heavily on his friend than the last. This was a question of morality and it was not going to be easy for the logically minded professor to come to terms with these raw human emotions.
"Your moral obligation was and is to yourself and your family Charlie, not to Alto DiBenedetto, Anthony Saborgia, or Shelley Arbury. You feel anger, rage and the desire for revenge just as these dissolute people do too but there is a difference between them and you."
Charlie looked at his friend not really believing those words. The only real difference that he saw between himself and the people he was comparing himself to was the fact that he hadn't actually purposely killed anyone. Not directly anyway.
"Do you really think that Alto DiBenedetto or Shelley Arbury are sitting in their cells bemoaning the fact that they have destroyed so many lives? Do you think that either of them has lost a moment's sleep feeling guilty for the atrocities that they have committed? That is the difference between you, Charlie. You have spent the last week questioning your own morality. You have a conscience that is telling you the difference between what's right and wrong.
You asked me if I believed in evil as a definable presence. Evil is the absence of conscience. Shelley has no conscience, nor does Alto DiBenedetto, and because of that lack of conscience we see in these people the manifestation of evil. So I guess in answer to that question; yes I do believe in evil, but I do not believe that you are evil, or that you are becoming evil. You're struggle with this proves beyond any doubt that you're conscience is fully intact and functioning. Just because you are experiencing the uglier side of human emotion; rage, revenge and hate does not make you a monster, it simply makes you human."
Bob thought that he might have gotten through to Charlie because the young man's eyes took on a thoughtful expression.
"I'm tired, Bob; tired of feeling this way. I'm not sure I can go through a trial. I don't know if I can get up there on the stand and testify to everything that she has done. I don't want to relive all of this again; I don't want to live it anymore. I don't want to find out what it will feel like to see Shelley Arbury charged, sentenced and then put to death. These emotions that I'm feeling may be part of human nature but they scare me. The fact that I can even feel this way scares me. I want this whole thing to be over but it's not and it won't be for a long time."
"Charlie, don't worry about the trial. That is months away. For right now, it is over. Now is your time to heal and recover. Leave tomorrow to tomorrow and you will find that when the time comes you will have the strength and resolve to get through it."
Charlie looked at Bob and for the first time the director saw the dullness fade and some life return to his young friend's eyes.
"Thanks, Bob, for everything."
"I am always here for you, Charlie. I hope you know that."
"You certainly have proven that over that last few weeks. I really am grateful for everything that you did to help us, but now can you do one more favor for me?"
"Can you help me get up?"
Charlie smiled at this but he was quite serious about needing help. Bob helped Charlie get to his feet with quite a bit of difficulty. The young man had become so stiff that he couldn't move very well and had confided in Bob that he had tried to get up a couple of times before he came out to see him but had been unable to manage it on his own.
Bob Thompkins stayed in LA for two days. He visited Colby Granger along with Don and Charlie. The grafting surgery had gone well but there was some doubt as to whether or not he would recover enough to go back to field duty. Only thirty percent of one side of his back was affected but that still amounted to a fairly large area of damage. Colby's father had stayed by his side the entire time and had spent a good portion of that time trying to convince his son to quit the FBI and move back home.
Director Thompkins left his card and told Colby that if he ever did decided to leave the FBI he would be welcome to come to Baltimore and work with the NSA. Granted that wasn't home but he could find challenging work that didn't require the same level of physical activity as a field agent for the FBI.
Charlie's mood improved after his talk with Bob Thompkins and both Alan and Don were thankful that he had come to speak with him. Alan's biggest concern about his son's emotional state was his upcoming surgery. He knew from long experience that having a positive outlook was sometimes essential to the outcome of a surgical procedure.
Aunt Irene stayed until Charlie had his surgery and had been home recovering from that for three days before she went home. Mike had to go back to New York and after a total of three weeks of helpful relatives and friends all of the Eppes men were glad for a little peace and quiet around the house.
Both Don and Charlie had recovered enough to reclaim their old rooms and both had also agreed to go to PTSD counseling together. Don expected to be back on the job within two more weeks and Charlie would be able to resume teaching by mid semester.
The only black cloud, at this point, that hung over their heads was the upcoming trial. The DA's office had an extremely strong case against Shelley Arbury who was now being represented by a public defender. Her lawyer had abandoned her case right after the raid on Saborgia's mansion claiming that she did not have the funds to continue to retain his services.
Becky had been transferred to the county jail and through a screw up in cell block assignments she ended up placed in the same block as Shelley. As soon as the DA's office got wind of this they immediately tried to have the women separated but by the time a transfer order had been processed it was too late.
Rebecca Cantor had made a shiv and hidden it in her clothing and waited for her chance. In the middle of the mess hall Rebecca stabbed Shelley Arbury to death in full view of all of the other inmates and guards. Rebecca was disarmed and moved to solitary confinement where she will remain until she is arraigned on murder charges.
The news of Shelley Arbury's death affected all of the Eppes men differently. Alan was relieved that his sons would not have to go through a trial and be forced to relive the horrible things that this woman had done to them.
Don's first thought was that she got what she deserved and then his thoughts focused on Rebecca. He couldn't help feeling sorry for this woman. Her cousin had destroyed her life from the time they were children and now that she was finally free of Shelley she would spend the rest of her life behind bars.
Charlie didn't know how to feel. The counseling that he and Don were attending had helped him to gain some perspective on the whole situation. The fact that he was going through this experience with his brother was more of a catalyst for recovery than anything else, but he found his senses reeling with the news that Shelley was dead. Could this all be over with? There would be no trial now, at least not which concerned him or his family directly. A part of him felt cheated somehow, but he clamped down on that emotion quickly.
He and Don had a session the afternoon after they got the news about Shelley. The last thing Charlie wanted to do was to sabotage his recovery efforts but he found it difficult to talk about what he was feeling. Even after everything that his brother, Bob Thompkins and his friends had told him he still felt as if he were treading a dangerous emotional path.
The pure and simple fact that a small part of him still wanted to watch her suffer her fate bothered him and stirred the now familiar sense of an impending anxiety attack. It had been weeks since he had had an actual attack. He was still taking the antidepressant and anti anxiety medications but at a far smaller dose than what had previously been prescribed.
Once again Charlie found his greatest solace in his brother. Don did not look down on Charlie for what he was feeling, and as a matter of fact admitted to similar feelings in the matter.
"Charlie, what you're feeling isn't wrong or even bad. It's normal. That woman put both of us through hell and it is only natural to want to witness the payback. It's like the old saying 'What goes around comes around' It's just that you are very rarely actually there to see it come around. I will admit that I would have like to see them put that needle in her arm; to look her in the eye as she died for her what she did. Does that make me sick or twisted? Maybe; maybe not. What it does make me is human, just like you little brother."
Don threw his arm around Charlie's shoulder as they walked back to his car. It was a beautiful day and they didn't have any more appointments until the following week so instead of driving them back to the house Don headed down the coast.
"Hey Charlie, lets get some ice cream. We'll take our shoes off and walk in the waves along the shore. We can wash all of this away, you know like sort of being reborn or baptized or something. I know that sounds a little hokey but sometimes feeling the sand under my feet and the water splashing up my legs makes me feel kind of like we did when we were kids; care free and innocent. I think we could both use a dose of that right now, don't you?"
"That sounds like a good plan."
Well one year and one moth later we reach the end of our journey. I thank each and every one of you who have stuck with me for so long. At the end of the last story I wrote I did a page where I personally thanked each reviewer but this story had well over 550 reviews so that isn't really practical. I will put out a request to anyone who might be interested in beta reviewing /editing this tale. I did have one lady offer to do that but after I sent her the first half of the story I never heard back from her. I can sort of understand. I mean this thing is as big as a full length novel!
I am now going to dedicate my time and energy into finishing the first fan fiction I ever wrote and still have not completed. It is a Harry Potter piece that is as large if not larger than this one. That being the case it will probably be a little while before I write another Numb3rs fic.
Outaknowbetter and I have been toying with a collaboration Numb3rs piece but real life and other obligations keep getting in the way, but look for that one at some point in the future. On the topic of Numb3rs fics,
I actually dreamed a plot snippet this morning after I got out of work. It has Charlie and Don on a hiking trip. There is a land slide and a hurt Don with Charlie being the only one who can get them out and back to safety. Hmmm. Maybe I'll dream the next bit tomorrow morning.
If anyone is interested I think I have come up with a good idea for an original piece that I might even be able to submit for publication. Would any of you read a story centered on Shelley and Rebecca? My idea is to go back to their childhood and write their story all the way up to when Rebecca murder's her cousin in jail. Any reference to Numbers characters would of course be completely omitted and it would probably be told from Rebecca's point of view. If that does start coming to fruition I will post it on my website but no where else.
Well my wonderful friends I have truly enjoyed writing this tale for you and I am so happy that you have enjoyed reading it. Have a wonderful summer and feel peace.