Whenever Edgerton joins the Eppes boys you know that something exciting is bound to happen. Of course lots of good things happened in Toxin, but there's always more angst and physical injury to go around! And thus comes Mea Vincula—"My Prison." Storyspindler gets thanks for a beta and all-around inspiration.
And you heard right: Mea Vincula is the official sequel to Mea Culpa! I'd recommend reading the latter first, since what happened within it plays a crucial role in this story as well. This one will be shorter and I guarantee it will get posted much faster than its companion did!
Updated 12/12 to fix some typos. Sorry 'bout that.
Charlie could not check a wince as Agent Edgerton dry fired his rifle. Even the quiet click, nearly indiscernible, sent tremors through his body. He glanced away from the agents, hoping his brother would not notice his distress.
"… Chaos ensues and he slips away," he offered, struggling to steady his voice.
Chaos. Screams and gunshots. Blackness, an unknown terror.
Charlie barely heard the other men's subsequent conversation, other thoughts overwhelming his concentration. At one point he barely discerned Edgerton asking him something and mumbled an answer in response, but if asked ten minutes later he would be unable to recall the question or its response.
Leaves rustled beside him as Edgerton unwrapped himself from around the tree and vanished out of sight.
Don flipped the keys to his brother. "Why don't you get back to the hotel?"
"Okay," the mathematician replied. "But why?"
"Fresh sign," Edgerton called, appearing suddenly from behind the cover of the foliage. "One, maybe two hours."
Don whipped back to face his brother. "That's why."
Charlie hesitated for merely an instant, keys clutched tight in his hand. As he turned away, he heard Don pause in giving orders into the walkie-talkie long enough to call out to him over his shoulder. The words echoed in Charlie's ears as he descended down the trail.
"Be careful, Charlie."
"After a while I'll let you go out into the field again—but the first sign of any gunfire and you're out of there, understand? Right now you're an anomaly and I sure as heck want to keep you that way."
Charlie understood. He would never openly admit it, but standing in the continual presence of Edgerton's rifle—and even his brother's—petrified him. Every so often his shoulder would twinge with phantom pains of the injury nearly six months in the past, a distant gunshot would echo vividly in his mind.
The Sniper. Charlie tried to push the memory from his mind, focused not on the pain but on finding his way through the woods. He tried to drown out the sound of gunshots, of his brother's scream—all so vivid in his memory and ringing in his ears as if right beside him. So absorbed was he in his thoughts that he did not notice how close he had wandered to McHugh's front porch.
Charlie whipped around, startled. McHugh's wife was staring him down from the foot of the porch stairs, looking very small, even afraid.
"I-I—uh—I'm sorry, Mrs. McHugh, I didn't—"
She took a step toward him. "You're not an FBI agent, are you?"
Her blatant remark caught Charlie off-guard, and he stumbled over his response. "I—uh, no."
McHugh's wife smiled charily. "You… don't look like one of them."
Charlie tried his best to restrain his laughter. "No, I guess not."
Mrs. McHugh retained a stoic expression as she spoke. "I don't know what you're doing with those two agents…"
"I'm a consultant, actually."
"I assure you my husband is innocent," she continued unperturbed. "Please tell me you don't think like those agents do."
Charlie hesitated. "Uh … Elyse. We know for a fact that your husband is innocent. We have mathematical proof. We told you that already."
"Then why are they still pursuing him? Please, why can't these people just leave us alone!" Elyse McHugh flung her arms wildly, fighting to hide her tears of frustration.
Charlie paused, calculating his next words carefully. "To … clear his name. We may know he's innocent … but his accusers need to know too…"
Elyse could sense the hesitation and uncertainty in his voice. She folded her arms across he chest, fixing a steely glare on the young Eppes again.
"That's not the only reason, is it?"
Their eyes met, and Charlie fought to keep his gaze steady. But Elyse could see straight through his bluff. Her hand—oddly cold—came to rest on his forearm.
"Where are my manners? Mister …"
"Charlie," he replied.
"Charlie. Forgive me. Come on inside, we can finish this conversation there." Her lips curled into a smile that did not quite reach her eyes. It was an expression dulled from months of federal agents knocking at her door, of a deteriorating marriage, of the last threads of hope she struggled to keep in her grasp.
She led Charlie through the front door and all but slammed it behind him, locking two deadbolts in her wake. Grabbing him by the upper arm, she dragged him over to a small, worn couch in the middle of the room. She fidgeted; her eyes flickered around the room for several moments before she spoke, her face downcast.
"Do … do you know what it's like … to be … afraid, Charlie? Really, truly, afraid?"
Afraid. The mere word unlocked a myriad of horrific images Charlie would rather forget. Shattered, disjointed memories intermingled with black voids of thoughtlessness; sheer terror, strange feelings, lingering agony. He remembered the pain. The hospital. The long recovery. Phantom pains surged again, a tingling burn deep against his heart.
"I … yeah." Charlie scrubbed his hands across his face as if suddenly exhausted. "Yeah, I do."
Elyse hesitated, not expecting that response. "You—really?"
Charlie nodded, his face eluding her eyes.
"…Why?" It was quiet, almost childlike. "What … happened?"
A shiver ran involuntarily down Charlie's body. He shook his head. "It—it was nothing."
Elyse sighed and shook her head, nearly oblivious as to having done so. She had done the same action so often it had become second nature.
"… Bob really hasn't been the same … since then. I'm afraid for him. For the ranch. I … hardly ever see him anymore … Every day I worry that somebody will find him and he…" She had to pause, her words breaking. She looked away from Charlie, unable to hide the tears on her cheeks. "He … won't come back again."
For several moments both sat silent, Elyse drawing rapid, shaking breaths to steady her frantic tears. She sighed again.
"Sometimes … it helps to talk about it, Charlie." She managed a somewhat soggy laugh. "I … gosh, I apologize. I didn't mean for this to turn into a therapy session … I just…" She wiped her eyes. "Well, you know."
Charlie remained staring into the far-most wall, distant, hesitant.
"Ah, Hell," Elyse muttered. "Tell me, Charlie. I'll—I'll let you be on your way after that."
After a long pause, Charlie stammered, "I—I'm not so sure about that, Mrs. McHugh."
She reached over and touched his knee, instantly causing the young Eppes to flinch. "Please."
An even longer silence. Finally, Charlie rose, pacing the room furiously. He folded his arms against his chest, suddenly becoming very small. His voice was rapid, thready.
"I … I was … sh-shot. By … a sniper. "
He didn't notice the horrid grimace that flashed across Elyse's now pale face. "I—the one LA? J-Just a few months ago? Oh God—I saw it on TV…"
A bitter gall burned the back of Charlie's throat.
"Oh—Charlie, I'm so sorry."
Charlie bit his lip. He turned toward the door, staring at it. "Yeah … I'm sorry for everything that's happened, Mrs. McHugh."
"Oh Charlie," Elyse paused to organize her thoughts. "You're not—"
Quite suddenly a loud crash resounded from the back of the house and Charlie recognized it instantly as a slamming door. Heavy footsteps followed, an infuriated but urgent man's voice carrying to every corner of the room.
"Elyse! Where are you! Elyse! We're getting' the hell out of here!"
Elyse's face blanched. The expression she shot in Charlie's direction conveyed a wordless terror. She rushed up to him, pushing him toward the door.
"Elyse! Where are you!"
Charlie had just undone one deadbolt, but it was in vain. Bob McHugh rounded the corner into the living room, his gun in one hand and a stricken expression on his face. He did not notice Charlie until he was several steps into the room and instantly fixed his line of sight on the younger man. Every inch of Charlie's body froze in terror. Elyse, who had been facing the young Eppes, stumbled around to face her husband with an agonized expression on her pale face.
"Elyse." McHugh's voice was eerily calm, unperturbed, but riddled with fire. "Who is this?"
The voice made her flinch, sent waves of terror shooting through her veins. "He's … no one, Bob."
"Oh, is that right?" A sinister smirk parted McHugh's lips, his entire body shaking with tension. A demonic sort of half-laughter, half-snarl bubbled up his throat. Suddenly he flung his arm—gun included—in a violent gesticulation, bellowing a curse. By instinct Charlie and Else closed the distance between them and this infuriated McHugh beyond his natural bounds.
"I spend seven moths running for my damn life, and this is how you treat me, woman!" He took a step forward, training his gun on Charlie again.
He was no longer human. He could no longer think. His very veins pulsed in a beast-like rage, primal instincts tearing him apart. He took a step closer to Charlie, paused for only a moment, and then in a fraction of a second crossed the room, threw his wife aside with one swipe of his arm, and closed both hands around Charlie's neck; the gun, still in his hand, pressed painfully against the younger man's face. Gunshots echoed afresh in Charlie's mind.
"Son of a...!"
McHugh overpowered him with little effort. The gun plastered to the side of Charlie's head rendered him immobile through pure fear and he offered no resistance. Charlie's knees unexpectedly gave out from beneath him, and McHugh held him suspended by his neck. A millisecond later, with a cry of rage, McHugh spun and hurled Charlie toward the wall. The young Eppes tumbled into the credenza beside the door, knocking his head against the wall and crumbling to the floor like a dead man. McHugh steadied his gun at Charlie's head and pulled back the hammer, the ominous cocking sound as loud as a gunshot itself.
Elyse darted from her stunned position across the room and flung herself against her husband's body. She reached for his shooting arm, trying against hope to disarm him.
"Bob, no! Bob, listen to me! It's not like that, Bob! H-He's with the FBI!..."
She regretted the words as soon as they left her lips. Bob's body turned to cement. He turned his head to look into her eyes—everything moved so painfully slow.
"Oh, is he, now?" McHugh's eyes trailed between Charlie, dazed and unresponsive on the floor, to his wife, pale and terrified at his side. "The FBI, you say?" Again, his smooth voice belied his animalistic rage.
His black laughter surfaced again. Without warning, while still staring his wife in the eyes, McHugh pulled the trigger. The bullet screamed only inches from Charlie's head and slammed into the credenza, chips of wood darting against Charlie's face. Elyse collapsed at her husband's side; Charlie erupted from his daze with nothing short of a scream, feeling as if, for a short moment, his heart had stopped beating.
McHugh sneered, taking a swing at Charlie's extended leg with his shoe. "Elyse," he sneered, "go get some rope."
Elyse remained frozen, crying silent tears.
"ELYSE!" McHugh bellowed, so loud his wife could feel her every bone shake from the sound. "Get me some rope, woman!"
Elyse shied away on her knees, stifling a cry. Barely seeing through her tears, she stumbled to her feet and shuffled away. McHugh kept his gun trained on Charlie, but the younger man would not have moved had the entire building caught fire. Panic, agony, and fear rooted him to the spot. His eyes saw only the gun in McHugh's hand. His heart pounded. He was drenched in sweat. His heart thundered against the pain that radiated in his shoulder. He could not control his ragged breaths. He saw the sniper. He saw himself bleeding on the ground. He saw the ambulance, the hospital, his brother.
And he could not take his eyes off that gun.
A moment later Elyse returned, still fighting to silence her tears. McHugh tore the rope from her arms and slammed his gun into her surprised hands.
"If he moves," he told her, "shoot him. You understand me?"
Between her muted sobs, Elyse managed a nod.
McHugh started toward Charlie. He grabbed the younger man's shoulder and flung him onto his stomach, painfully wrenching each of Charlie's arms behind his back. He wrapped the whole of the coarse rope around Charlie's wrists numerous times and in several directions, until a large mass nearly obscured the younger man's hands from view.
Adrenaline thundered in Don's ears. Yardley had been pursuing them, about to exact Graybridge's revenge on an unsuspecting McHugh when Edgerton shot him down. McHugh had heard the shot and vanished into the trees and Don had given chase. They had come too close to lose him now. Anger, failure propelled Don forward as he struggled to follow McHugh's tracks.
Losing his prize in the thick foliage, he regretfully paused to recover his bearings. Only a moment had passed when the leaves crunched beside him and he whirled, gun clutched in his hands.
"Eppes," Edgerton held up his hand in defense, his gun at his shoulder. "You find him?"
"No," Don sighed, lowering his gun and wiping his hand across his brow. "I chased him this far… but now I think I've lost him." He paused, suddenly cocking his brow. "How did you find me?"
"Oh, between the two of you it was easy to follow the trail," Edgerton replied almost nonchalantly. He scanned his eyes over the ground for a second and suddenly gestured off into the wood. "He went that way."
Don examined the distance beyond Edgerton's outstretched hand, examining deep into the trees.
"Wait," he began, "isn't that the way to—?"
He checked his words as a gunshot echoed from the distance. The same gunshot that, only milliseconds before, had slammed into the wood just inches from Charlie's face.
Don whirled to face Edgerton at the same time that the other man muttered, "McHugh's ranch."
Both agents took off toward the sound, Edgerton in the lead. Don shouldered his rifle and pulled out his walkie-talkie. He barked out orders as he ran, gathering the plethora of FBI agents scattered across the mountain to converge on McHugh's cabin.
"There's no way for me to get off this mountain, is there?" McHugh prowled back and forth before Charlie like a caged predator. "Agents everywhere, huh?"
Charlie kept his eyes downcast. Looking up meant looking at McHugh's gun. Just thinking about it made his stomach churn.
"They're going to be barkin' outside any minute now, aren't they?" McHugh continued, pointing his gun toward the window. "How many are they going to think I killed this time?"
"McHugh," Charlie swallowed hard, his entire mouth had the texture of sand. "We—"
"McHugh!" Don's voice tore through the cabin's thick walls, crystal clear to the occupants inside. McHugh swirled to face the door, a snarl on his face. Charlie tensed, hope and fright waging war within his body.
"We know you're in there, McHugh!"
McHugh scoffed. "Just like I said," he spat in Charlie's direction. "Seven months and it has to go down like this."
"Give it up, McHugh!" Don continued. "Don't make this harder than it has to be!"
McHugh snarled and spun to face Charlie on the floor. He swooped down and snagged the younger man by his upper arm and yanked him to his knees. Charlie hissed as violent spasms raced down the length of his body.
Charlie struggled to his feet, the entire world spinning in violent circles. McHugh steadied his gun in his hand and removed the safety. Keeping a firm hold on Charlie's arm, they moved as one toward the door. Charlie was all but being dragged, unable through fear and weakness to move on his own power. McHugh kicked the door open with his foot.
"Stay here," McHugh hissed in Charlie's ear. "And don't say a word."
He pushed Charlie against the wall and stepped just outside the door, visible to the FBI agents but still within arms reach of his hostage, whom Don and the others could not see. McHugh kept his gun lowered at his side. He had a plan.
At least a dozen FBI agents greeted him, Don and Megan in front. He could not see Edgerton, hidden deep within the trees several yards away from his comrades, eyeing the situation through the sight on his rifle.
"I've told you idiots a dozen times," McHugh called out. "I'm innocent. I don't need to surrender to anyone."
"We know you're innocent, McHugh," Don countered. "Put the gun down. We just want to talk."
"Liar," McHugh snapped. "The whole lot of you couldn't give a damn about talking to me." He swung the gun as he articulated his words with his hands.
Don tensed. Edgerton fixed McHugh in his sights, finger on the trigger.
"McHugh," Don continued. "Calm down. Don't make this turn violent."
"Violent, eh?" McHugh's voice cracked in a near-rage. "What are you going to do? Shoot me?"
Don watched McHugh vanish into the house. Seizing the moment, he whispered something to Edgerton through the walkie-talkie. Seconds later McHugh returned, dragging someone behind him. It was only when the fugitive flung his hostage hard against the wooden deck in full view of the FBI agents did Don recognize the curls, the clothing.
The walkie-talkie hit the ground. Don's insides turned to liquid. He could scarcely utter the first name that came to his lips, speaking so soft that only Megan, standing at his side, could comprehend it.