Author's Note: This is set shortly after the episode "In Plain Sight," so there are certainly spoilers for that episode.
The text on the monitor slid into a blur. Charlie blinked, feeling the scratch of tired, dry eyes, but the letters refused to resolve. He sighed and leaned his face into one hand, fingers and thumb lightly pressed against his eyelids. When he let go and blinked again, just enough moisture had gathered to let him focus.
Google entry 144 out of 746,217. Which meant he was on page-- Charlie divided the list automatically. 49747.7, or 49748 pages actually created by the search engine. He was on page 9. The list at the bottom here told him that, and it was accurate.
And this was the fifth search he'd tried. Nothing relevant had turned up under the search terms jessica cartman, jessica cartman pictures, jessica elizabeth cartman, 13378 5th st. south pasadena, or los angeles graduating class 1993.
Search engines, Charlie thought, were not nearly as precise as they could be. Even one set up in a neat hierarchy of probability (like Google) wasn't able to give results that were narrow enough to be useful.
How could he, Charlie, narrow this search?
Resting both elbows on the table in front of him, Charlie put his head in his hands. He'd tried. Internet search engines had a low probability of finding someone with such a common name, especially with no recent information to help sort the data. During the day, he'd called several local newspaper archives, had tried to find her number through Directory Assistance (which led to 23 awkward phone calls), tried to find her parents' number (after prodding his own father's memory for the adults' names). He'd tried the elementary school they had both attended. He'd even called the Missing Children department of the FBI office. Don would have his head when he found that out.
The end result had been nothing. Not even zero, just . . . no solution.
The heirloom clock on the wall behind Charlie hollowly chimed the quarter-hour. He didn't bother lifting his head to check the exact time; it had to be after 2 am. Instead, he tried to come up with places to look that were legal for a civilian to access. Unlike DMV records, which had been his first idea.
He hadn't looked at obituaries yet.
That previously unacknowledged thought slammed him to a stop. For a moment, throat tight, he couldn't breathe. The image of little Libby, dark tangled hair, bruised, pained eyes shifting in fear, melted into that of another dark-haired girl. She shrugged her father's hand off her shoulder, staring at Charlie as he sat on his bike waiting for her to come and play.
She'd sat in the corner of his yard for a while, and Charlie hadn't known what to do. "Are you okay?" he'd asked. It had taken her such a long time to say "yes."
Her eyes had looked just like Libby's.
Charlie dragged in a breath. His hands were shaking, and damp where they covered his eyes. Maybe, maybe that was okay, just right now, just for a minute, since he couldn't manage to do anything that would actually help him find her.
A gentle touch on one shoulder made him jump.
"Charlie?" His father's voice was quiet. Concerned. "What's wrong?"
"Dad." Charlie found his voice too thick to speak properly. He wiped his hands across his face and cleared his throat. "What, ah, what are you doing up?"
"Got up to get a drink, and then . . . ." Alan pulled out the chair next to Charlie's and settled into it. "I heard you crying." Patiently, hands resting on his knees, he waited.
Charlie swiped the heel of one hand under his left eye. "I'm fine." His father gave a disbelieving snort, and Charlie glared at him. "I am. Just a little frustrated. I haven't found any information that could be the same Jessica."
Alan leaned past him to squint at the laptop screen. "Google, huh? Did you try all the high school graduating classes?"
"Yeah." Charlie stared at the text without really reading it. He should click on the next entry, #145, or he should type a new search term into the engine. But what use would it be? "I've been looking for over 2 days now. Not a thing. It's like she disappeared."
"Oh, come on. There's no rush, is there?" Alan shifted in his seat. "I mean, it's not going to make a difference if it takes you two days or two weeks to find her."
Charlie bit down on a sharp retort. "Maybe there's no rush for her."
A hand closed warmly on his shoulder. "Charlie," his father said. "Let it go. It was not your fault."
"Dad. I know." Charlie cut him off in mid-admonition. "I was a kid, that's . . . that's it. But you didn't see her eyes." He closed his own, trying to will the memory back into its childhood box. "I am an adult, now, and when I saw Libby's picture, the one we found, I knew exactly what it was that I'd only sort of . . . sensed . . . back then. And I still . . . I can't find her." Charlie thumped a fist lightly against the tabletop. That was it, and that wasn't it at all, and God, this wasn't fair.
Alan squeezed his shoulder, and then offered, in an annoyingly practical voice, "Why don't you ask Don to help you look?"
Startled, Charlie looked straight at his father. "Where have you been the past week? I doubt Don's going to want to parcel out Bureau resources for his little brother's private search. Especially since . . . ." Charlie tried his laugh and found it both shaky and short. "I don't think Don would have time to help me out with this. I mean, it's not that important, Dad."
"Charlie, Charlie, Charlie." His father sat back, rubbing one hand across his forehead. "It's pretty important to you. I figure it would be important to anyone who has to see that kind of pain in this world."
Charlie shrugged, gaze fixed on the monitor. Maybe, but that didn't mean Don would want to help.
His father suddenly vented a half-chuckle. Charlie looked over to see the older man shaking his head. "I always knew you had a big heart," he said wryly, "but I never figured you had a responsibility complex as big as Don's."
"Don?" Charlie combed hair back from his face, trying to find a mental equation that would set his own failures against the competent, quick temper of his brother, and make the two sides balance. His brother, who had seemed to treat the fallout of his agent's death as more important than finding a living little girl.
Now his father really smiled. "Don thinks he's everybody's big brother, not just yours." His eyes crinkled in thought. "I suppose I'm glad you picked that trait to copy, but that doesn't mean you have to let this eat you alive. You helped rescue Libby." Alan leaned forward. "Keep looking for Jessica, if you need to. But don't let the results dictate your happiness."
"What if I don't find her?" Charlie found his voice calmer than it had been so far, as he shaped the numbers into words his father could understand. "Out of American kids between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four, one in every thirteen will at least attempt suicide. A girl is three times more likely to attempt suicide than a boy. Approximately sixty percent of those girls were abused. What if she didn't make it?"
Alan pointed a finger into Charlie's face. "You were her friend," he said firmly.
Charlie felt his throat close up again, and the room blurred. The words were barely a whisper. "What if that wasn't enough?"
The answer came just as softly: "What if it was?"
The words hung in silence, the other half of the equation that had been throwing off his thinking since they found Libby's picture. The computer screen swam back into focus. 3:27 am. Charlie reached for the keyboard. "It's getting really late. I can pick this up tomorrow."
"Finally." Alan grunted a little getting to his feet, but the pat he gave Charlie's shoulder on the way out of the room felt both approving and satisfied.
Charlie watched him go, then pressed the power button and let the screen go dark.