A is for Arbitrary

Chapter 1

"Special Agent Eppes, I am the Arbitrarian. I know you and your brother the mathematician have worked together to solve many cases. I'm pretty sure you won't be able to find any pattern in my crimes. Just this week, I have murdered a man I didn't know for no reason at all. I raped a woman. And I robbed a mom and pop grocery store. These, and my future crimes are totally random. I would wish you luck, because you're going to need it, but you can understand, I'm sure, why I don't want you to figure out who I am."

Don held the note in his gloved hands, and read it over and over again. He didn't know, but he was sure the note would provide no physical clues. He was guessing there were no fingerprints. The note was printed on a common computer printer on paper sold in thousands of chain stores throughout LA. The note had been tucked in the pocket of the murder victim, an elderly man who had lived alone in an efficiency apartment and apparently had no family and precious few friends. LAPD had noticed the note, and contacted the FBI. It had taken them minutes to be put through to Don.

Now he just had to find the right rape victim and the right mom and pop grocery store. He didn't even want to guess now many rapes and robberies had taken place in the past week. But these two crimes had left at least two living witnesses that had to be found and questioned. Data. Lots of data. That would be Charlie's specialty.

Don slipped the note into a plastic sleeve and sealed it. He knelt beside the old man. The crime scene team would be here soon enough. Don just stared sadly into the man's face. I don't know who you are, or why you died, he thought. But I'm going to find the man who did this to you, and I am going to see that he's punished.

"Don?" Megan stood beside him. "The crime scene techs are here."

Don stood and made room for the techs to do their work. He handed Megan the note. "What do you make of this?"

She read it, shaking her head. "Well, he's clearly got it in for you, and maybe for Charlie. It may be personal, or he may just enjoy the challenge. I would guess the latter." She handed the note back to Don.

"Do you think Charlie's in any danger?"

"I don't know. But I don't think he's going to harm either of you. What he really wants is to stump you. Intellectual assault, not physical. And if he were to come after you, or after anyone close to you, he would risk exposing himself and losing the game."

"Game?" Don said, incredulous. He glanced back at the murder victim. "This is not a game, Megan."

"Not to us, but it is to the Arbitrarian," she said.

"Let's stop by at Cal Sci on the way to the office, and run this past Charlie," Don said, walking toward his car.

Charlie wasn't in his office when they arrived, but he had left his door unlocked, so Don and Megan sat down and waited for him. Don opened his cell phone. "Hey, Colby, I'm at Charlie's office. He's going to be looking for data, so I want to give you a head start."

"Okay, Don, what kind of data do you need?"

"Our victim had a note on him, addressed to me. He's claiming responsibility for a total of three random crimes this week."

"What type of crimes?"

Don read him the note.

Colby said, "So we're looking for rapes and the robberies of mom and pop grocery stores, all within the past week."

"Yeah. I'm hoping Charlie can find a link."

"How big an area do you want?"

"Just start with the LA area."

"Okay, Boss. I'll have it for you as soon as I can."

"Great. Thanks Colby. I'm hoping Charlie will be able to come back with me and get right on this."

"All right, so I'll have it even quicker. See you later."

"Okay, talk to you later." He closed the phone. "He wasn't thrilled," he said, grinning at Megan.

"I can't say as I blame him. What's he looking at? Thirty or forty crimes? More if this Arbitrarian keeps going and branches out to different fields of endeavor?"

"Yeah. LAPD has already started canvassing the area where the old man was found. Hopefully someone will have seen or heard something that Charlie can use." Don checked his watch. "Maybe I should try calling him. If he's not going to be back for a while, I can have him meet us at the office later." Don took his phone out again and dialed Charlie's number. "It's going to voice mail... Yeah, Charlie, can you give me a call? I need your help on a case. Megan and I are in your office right now, but we're going to leave in a few minutes if you don't show up. Call me."

Megan grinned. "Has he finally started listening to his messages?"

Don shrugged. "Not always. But at least now his phone beeps at him until he opens the message. That's a start, anyway."

A moment later, Don's phone rang. "Eppes."

"Don, what's up? I just finished a seminar and turned my phone on. Are you still in my office?"

"Yep, we're here. We've got a murderer who is showing interest in the fact that you consult for us."

There was a long moment of silence. "What?! Why should a murderer be interested in me? I'll be right there." Charlie ended the call.

Don closed his phone and glanced at Megan. "That piqued his interest."

"That's putting it mildly, I would imagine. I'm thinking more along the lines of 'freaking him out.'"

A few minutes later, a breathless Charlie burst through the door. "Hey, Don. Hi, Megan." He dropped his computer bag on his desk and waited for Don to get out of his chair.

"Sorry, Buddy," Don said, standing and making a show of brushing off the seat of the chair. "Here you go. I warmed it up for you."

Charlie grinned as he sat. "Hey, you changed the height." As he adjusted the chair, he said, "So what's this about a murderer taking an interest in me?"

Don handed him the note. Charlie read it. "Where did you find this?"

"It was sticking out of the pocket of an elderly man he had murdered."

Charlie grimaced. "Is this the murder he refers to?"

"We're assuming it is."

Still staring at the note, Charlie said, "The Arbitrarian, huh? Interesting. So he's setting out to avoid a pattern in the hopes that we won't be able to detect his pattern." He looked up at Don. "But as we know, it's very difficult to do anything in a truly random manner."

Don nodded. "I've hung out with you long enough. I remember that. But if he knows you're going to be looking for a pattern, will he be able to pull it off?"

Charlie scowled thoughtfully. "Possibly. He sounds intelligent, and egotistical. If he thinks his actions through and is careful about how he implements them, he might just be able to fool me."

Don said, "I didn't think that was possible."

Charlie narrowed his eyes as he looked at Don. After a moment he said, "You're serious, aren't you? You're not just trying to get to me."

"I am deadly serious, Charlie. You always seem to find the pattern, even when the rest of us are convinced it's not there."

Charlie looked again at the note. "These crimes. They're... they're awful. Murder. Rape. Just to prove a point." He looked at Megan. "What kind of person would end a human life or violate an innocent woman just to prove a point? He's a monster."

"Yeah, Charlie," Megan said softly. "He is a monster. I don't think you're in any danger..."

Charlie shook his head. "I'm not worried about that. We've got to stop him before he does this again. We've got to find the pattern."

"Colby's collecting information on all the rapes, murders and robberies in LA during the past week," Don said. When can you come to the office?"

Charlie consulted his watch. "I have another class in half an hour. It'll be over at three thirty. Then I have a meeting, but I can skip that. I need to be back here at seven for a seminar. How about I meet you there around four?"

"Four's good," Don said. "I know you're busy..."

"Never too busy to do whatever I can to stop a monster like this."

Chapter 2

It was closer to four thirty when Charlie appeared at Don's desk, disheveled and breathless. "Sorry, Don. One of my students wanted to talk after class."

"That's okay, Buddy. Colby just brought the files into the conference room. Lieutenant Tyner of the LAPD is in there with him. I don't think he wants to let go of these cases until he's sure it's a federal issue."

"And what exactly makes it a federal issue?" Charlie asked. "Not that I'm objecting. Just curious."

"Well," Don said with a slow smile, "that's a real sticking point. We were originally contacted because the note was addressed to me. I am going to insist that gives us the right to investigate it. Because you have consulted with other federal agencies, I am going to try to make the point that the implied threat to you is a matter of national security."

"Wow, I think that's carrying things a bit too far," Charlie said. "Unless you really do believe there is an implied threat against either of us."

Don waited a little too long before he answered. "I don't know if there is a threat, but I'm going to insist that you take some precautions."

"What precautions?"

"Well, locking your office door when you're not there, for starters."

Charlie looked confused. "But I do."

"You didn't today. Megan and I just walked in. It was closed but not locked."

"I must have forgotten. I was running late today. But I'll be more careful from here on in. How about Dad? We should tell him about this."

"Why? So he can stress out?"

"No," Charlie said impatiently. "So he can take precautions too. There's no reason to keep it from him, and I would feel better knowing he was aware of a possible threat. I know he wasn't mentioned in the note, but if you think this guy is going to come after either or both of us, what would prevent him from going after Dad?"

"All right. We'll tell him. Listen, we should get into the conference room. Just be ready for a bit of a turf war."

"Am I going to have to convince yet another cop that math can help solve crimes?"

"Probably. I haven't had much chance to talk to Lieutenant Tyner. You up to it?"

"Of course. I just wonder if I should make a video you can show these guys. You know, the basics of mathematics in criminology."

"Dr. Mathman Explains It All?" Don said, chuckling.

Charlie grinned. "Do I get to wear a superhero getup?"

"We'll talk to Merrick about it," Don said as they entered the conference room.

Colby was stacking folders on the table while Megan and David were talking with a tall, gray-haired man with a weathered face. They looked up as Don and Charlie entered, and the man stepped forward, "Agent Eppes, I don't know why you need all these..."

"Lieutenant Tyner, this is my brother, Dr. Charles Eppes. He's one of our consultants, a mathematician. He's going to analyze these cases to try to find a connection with our murder victim. Has the victim been identified yet?"

Tyner shook Charlie's hand. "Nice to meet you, Dr. Eppes. And, yes," he turned to Don, "our victim was Louie Ellsberg. He lived alone, had no living relatives, and rarely spoke to the neighbors. My men are still canvassing the neighborhood. So, Dr. Eppes," Tyner turned back to Charlie.

"Charlie."

"Charlie. This sounds fascinating. How are you planning on doing this?"

"Well, I want to see what kind of data you have first. But I'm intending to try to find a rape and a grocery store robbery that have common elements. Then, hopefully I can connect those two crimes with whatever your men find out about Mr. Ellsberg's murder."

Tyner nodded. "That makes a lot of sense." He noticed Don and Charlie exchanging glances. "What?"

"I'm sorry, Lieutenant..." Charlie began.

"Bill," Tyner said.

"I'm sorry, Bill, it's just that I'm used to having to defend what I do," Charlie said. "I was surprised at your reaction."

Bill Tyner grinned. "Yeah, I could see that. My wife is into mathematics, so while I don't understand everything, I do get bits and pieces of it here and there. And, unlike most law enforcement officers, I do see how math can work with what we do."

"Wait," Charlie said, "is your wife Millie Tyner?"

"Yep," Bill said. "Do you know her?"

"Not personally. I know of her. She's doing some amazing work. Is she still at USC?"

"Yes, she is. She'll be thrilled when I tell her I met you."

Megan laughed. "Don, I think Charlie has found a kindred spirit."

"Well," Charlie said, "it doesn't happen all that often in this building." Rubbing his hands together, Charlie walked to the table. "So, what do you have for me?"

Colby waved at the first stack of folders, "These are your grocery store robberies. These," he pointed to the second stack, "are your rapes. And these," the smallest stack, "are your murders. We've got six murders, fourteen rapes and forty five robberies."

Charlie nodded. "Okay. I'm hoping this will be enough data. It's not a whole lot to go on."

"Charlie," Don said, "That's one week's worth of crime in LA. Do you want me to pull the files on the surrounding areas too?"

"No," Charlie said, "I don't think that will be necessary." He glanced at Megan, "Unless you have some reason to believe he is operating in a larger area?"

"I don't really know, one way or the other. We don't have a whole lot to go on. Sorry."

"Nah, that's okay. I'll just start with this. Hopefully something will connect. If not, we can add the outlying areas." Charlie glanced at his watch. "I can stay for another hour and a half, then I really have to go. I'll see how far I can get by then." He took his laptop out of its bag and set it up on the table.

"I appreciate it, Buddy," Don said. "I'll be at my desk. Let me know if you need anything."

"Okay. I'm going to grab a cup of coffee while my computer boots up."

Lieutenant Tyner stood and stretched the kinks out of his back. "Well, I should be getting back. Charlie, Agent Eppes, let me know if you need anything more."

"It's Don," Don said as he shook Tyner's hand. "And thanks for all of your help. I know it's hard to let a case go."

"Oh, I don't look at is as letting it go," Tyner said. "I look at it as asking for backup. You guys are a lot better equipped to figure this out. Charlie, it's been great meeting you." He shook Charlie's hand.

"Same here. Tell your wife I send my regards."

When Charlie returned to the conference room with his coffee, his computer was ready to go. He turned on his Ipod and put the earbuds in his ears and started reading the files. By six fifteen he had designed the program he needed, and had started inputting data. He packed up his computer, stuck the file folders in the computer bag and went in search of Don. "Don," he said, his voice croaking from disuse. He cleared his throat. "I've got to get going. Okay if I take these files?"

"Yeah," Don said. "How far did you get?"

"About a third of the way through the files. I'll finish inputting them after my seminar. Which I'm going to be late to if I don't leave right now. I'll call you with the results when I know anything."

"All right. Get moving. I'll talk to you later. And Charlie?"

"Yeah, Don?"

"Get some rest."

Charlie sighed. "That's not likely, Don. Goodnight."

Don's cell phone rang. "Eppes," he answered it. "Another one? Where?... I'll be there... Any fatalities?... I'm on my way." Don hung up. "Colby! Let's go. We've got another one."

Charlie was still waiting for the elevator when Don and Colby ran up. "Don? What's up?"

"We'll have another set of files for you. Hit and run this time. And carjacking."

"Crap," Charlie muttered. "Anyone killed?"

"Yeah. A teenage kid. He was just crossing the street at the wrong time."

Charlie rubbed his eyes. "Call me as soon as you have anything. I"ll be out of the seminar a little after nine."

The elevator arrived and the three men rode it down to the first floor, each one lost in his own thoughts. As they parted, Charlie said, "I wish I could skip this seminar, but it's too late to call it off."

"Don't worry about it, Charlie. I'll call you."

Chapter 3

Don and Colby showed their badges and entered the crime scene. They could make out Lieutenant Tyner's tall figure standing next to the body. He looked up and waved them over. "Don, Colby, here he is. Seventeen year old, named Jason Charles. He was hit by a 2004 Taurus. The car was abandoned in the next block. Witnesses saw a man wearing a clown costume leaving the scene. This," he handed Don a note in an evidence bag, "was on the driver's seat of the car."

Special Agent Eppes, I can now cross two more things off of my to-do list: carjacking and hit and run. Have you asked your brother to look for a pattern yet? I know he's good at what he does, but I don't think even he can find a pattern in all this. Sometimes there is no pattern. The Arbitrarian. P.S. I didn't pay for the clown costume. Was that a crime too?

Don swore and handed the note to Colby. He knelt beside the body. "Kid looks too young to be seventeen." He looked up at Tyner, who had knelt beside him. "Have you reached his family yet?"

"Not yet. I've got an officer on it though. The ME should be here in a few minutes. Hopefully they'll tell us he never knew what hit him."

"Witnesses?"

"Over there. My officers are getting their statements." Tyner pointed to a cluster of four or five civilians and two officers. "The clown costume is complicating things."

"Let's hope he abandoned it nearby," Colby said. "And that he left his DNA all over it."

Tyner smiled sadly. "Ah, an optimist, Colby? Our luck, he's tossed it in an incinerator somewhere."

The three men stood, still looking at the body. A young officer approached, carrying a cell phone. "I just reached his mother," he said, his face stricken. "I'm on the way over to see her. You want me to bring her here or wait until he's in the morgue?"

Tyner looked down at the kid. "There's no visible injuries. You can bring her here, but give us time for the evidence techs to check him over. It shouldn't take long. The driver never got out of the car. Call Dan over there when you're on your way. He'll be handling the scene" He looked into the eyes of his young officer. "And, Tommy, thanks for handling this. You're good with families."

Tommy gave his boss a sad smile. "Yeah, thanks. I'll call Dan." He turned and walked away.

Tyner watched him leave. "They're all getting to be so young."

"I hear that," Don said. "It can't be that we're getting older."

"I'll take you to the car. The evidence techs are working it over now."

The car was a red Taurus with California plates. Techs were swarming all over it, but Don could see a purse in the front seat and a baby seat in the back. Tyner must have heard his quick intake of breath. "We've already contacted the owner. The driver was the only one in the car, and she's fine. Just a little shaken up."

"Good," Don said. I'd like to interview her right away."

"She's in my office." Tyner pulled out his cell phone. "Hey, Mike, can you ask Mrs. Marshall if she'd mind waiting a few more minutes? Agent Eppes here would like to ask her a few questions... Okay. We'll be there in fifteen minutes. Thanks." He closed the phone. "Let's go."

Betsy Marshall looked to be in her twenties. She held an ice pack to a bruise on her cheek, and had been crying. A young police woman sat next to her, talking quietly. The police woman stood as Tyner, Don and Colby approached. "Mrs. Marshall," she said, "This is my boss, Lieutenant Tyner, and ..."

Tyner introduced Don and Colby and said, "Are you up to answering a few more questions, Mrs. Marshall? Special Agent Eppes thinks this may be connected to a case the FBI is investigating."

Betsy's blue eyes widened and she nodded. "Of course, I'll do anything I can to help."

Tyner brought in chairs for Don and Colby and then closed the door. "Would anybody like coffee? It's not the best, but it's hot."

Don and Colby shook their heads. Betsy smiled. "No thanks. Ofiicer Sandoval here already brought me some tea."

"Okay, Mrs. Marshall," Don said, "I know you've probably told half a dozen people what happened, but would you mind telling me?"

She smiled at Don, "Not at all, Agent. I was on my way home from work. This man, dressed in a clown suit, was standing beside a car. He flagged me down. I figured he was having car trouble, so I stopped. When I rolled down the window, he grabbed me by the hair, unlocked the door and pulled me out of the car and drove off."

"Did he show a weapon?" Don asked.

"No."

"What kind of car was he standing next to?" Don said gently.

"It was light colored, silver." She closed her eyes as she tried to remember. "I was focusing on him, so it's hard..."

"You're doing fine," Don said. "Don't try to fill in the blanks, just give me whatever impressions you have of it."

"Silver, and it had that symbol that looks like devil horns. You know, the circle with the curved lines on top?"

"A Toyota?" Don took out his notebook and drew the symbol.

"Yeah, that's it."

"All right, you're doing great, Mrs. Marshall. Did you get the impression he had gotten out of the car?"

"No, not really. I just assumed since he was standing beside it.."

"That's okay. It's a natural assumption. Do you know where it happened? We'd like to have a look at that Toyota just in case."

"It was where the officers picked me up," she said, looking at Tyner. "I just sat on the curb and called 911 from my cell phone."

"That's great. You did a great job, Mrs. Marshall. Now, unless Lieutenant Tyner has anything else," he glanced at Tyner, who shook his head, "let's get you home to your family."

"Thank you," Betsy's lips trembled and she sniffed. "I'm sorry..."

"Don't be," Don said gently. "You've just been through a very traumatic experience. But you survived with just a few bumps and bruises. The police found your car, and your purse."

Tyner added, "We'll bring your purse to you later. We just want to make sure this guy didn't leave any evidence in it. Your car was ... well, it was used in a hit and run, so we're going to need to keep it for a few more days."

Betsy nodded numbly, and tears started running down her cheeks. "Was anyone hurt?"

"Yeah," Tyner said softly. "But we'll get the guy who did it. Don't you worry about that. Would you like Officer Sandoval to drive you, or would you rather have someone pick you up?"

Betsy glanced at the police woman. "Would you mind?"

"Not at all," Officer Sandoval replied. "Just let me get my stuff. You'll have to give me directions, though." The two women left the office.

Don sighed as he sat back down. "You know, this guy has got to be the worst kind of criminal. He's messing up peoples' lives just for fun. I mean, Mrs. Marshall there will be fine physically, but what's she going to think the next time she's driving? Especially with her kids in the car."

Tyner leaned back in his chair and rubbed his eyes with both fists. "I'll fax you everything we've got on this so Charlie can add this new data."

"Okay, thanks Bill." Don and Colby stood to leave. "I'll let you know the minute I have anything."

"Thanks, Don. Same here." Tyner stood and shook hands with the two agents.

They walked back to Don's SUV in silence. Finally Colby glanced at his watch. "You think Charlie's out of his seminar yet?"

The minute he stepped out of the room, Charlie turned his cell phone on. Beside him, Larry Fleinhart was saying something. "Hmm?" Charlie said, looking at his friend.

"I was just saying you seemed distracted tonight, Charles."

"Oh, yeah. I guess I was. Don's latest case..."

"Charles, you're beginning to let Don's cases interfere with your work here."

"Was I that bad tonight?" Charlie said with a weak smile.

"No. In fact, I'm willing to say that none of the students noticed anything amiss. But you're tired, distracted, and not your usual enthusiastic self."

"Well, this case is disturbing."

"How so?"

"This guy, he calls himself The Arbitrarian, he's committing random crimes, and leaving notes addressed to Don. He mentioned me in the first note. Not by name, but just as Don's mathematician brother. And he's killed two people."

"Oh, Charles. That is horrible. I can understand why it's bothering you so much. I hope you don't feel in any way responsible..."

"No," Charlie said quickly. "It's just..."

"You do feel responsible, don't you?"

"In a way. I can't explain it, but I feel like it's my duty to help Don stop this guy." He rubbed his eyes as they reached his office. "I've got some data to enter. I might as well do it here before I go home."

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

"Thanks, Larry. If you don't mind..."

"Charles, if there's anything I can do to get you out from under this cloud, I'm more than willing to help."

Charlie grinned as he unlocked his office door. "Well, I've entered the data from twenty two files. I've got another forty three to go."

"Well, we'd better get started then," Larry said.

Charlie and Larry had gone through another six folders when Charlie's cell phone rang. "Hello?"

"Charlie, it's me. Colby and I are heading back to my office. Tyner is going to fax me his reports on the carjacking and hit and run tonight. Can I bring them over to you?"

"Sure. I'm in my office right now. I'll probably stay here until I can't keep my eyes open any longer, and then head home. Larry's giving me a hand."

"I'll call before I come over, then."

"Good idea. Hey, did the carjacking victim see the guy?"

"Yeah, but he was wearing a clown costume, so she couldn't ID him. We do have a lead on a car he may have been driving before he carjacked her."

"Is she okay?" Charlie said softly.

"Yeah. Some bumps and bruises, but she's fine."

"That's good. Don we've got to stop him before he..."

"I know, Charlie. We will. Just keep focused on the task at hand. Don't let ..."

"Don't let my emotions get in the way?" Charlie said.

"Yeah. I know it's hard. But it's the only way you're going to be able to do this."

"Okay. I'll focus."

"And, Buddy, thanks. I know this is hard on you, and you're busy at your real job, but I want you to know how much I appreciate this."

"You're welcome, Don. Listen, I should get going..."

"Yeah, me too. See you later."

Charlie closed his cell phone and slid it into the pocket of his jeans. He looked at Larry across the desk. "He's bringing more data."

Larry rubbed his face as he looked dubiously at the pile of folders. "Just what we need."

Chapter 4

Charlie's eyes had drifted shut again when Larry nudged him. "Charles, you had better get home and get some sleep. It's after midnight."

"I'm fine," Charlie muttered. His cell phone rang. "Hello?... Okay, yeah. ... I'm still in my office, but Larry seems to think I'm on my last legs... Okay. See you." He closed the phone. "Don's on his way over."

Don arrived, carrying three Starbucks cups in a carrier in one hand, and a stack of folders in the other. "I come bearing gifts."

Charlie opened his eyes and stared uncomprehendingly for a moment. "Oh, hi, Don," he finally murmured. "Caffeine! Thanks."

"Don," Larry said, "I have been trying to get Charles to go home and get some sleep. Perhaps you could talk some sense into him."

"It's been thirty years, and I haven't been able to do it yet," Don said as he handed Larry and Charlie their cups. He sat next to Larry and put the note on the desk in front of Charlie.

Charlie blinked a few times, and finally focused on what he was reading. "Oh, God. He is sick. Who was the latest victim, the hit and run?"

"Seventeen year old kid."

Charlie buried his face in his hands and took several deep breaths. "Larry's right. I need to get some sleep. Anything I do right now would just turn out to be crap."

"Let me drive you home," Don said. "Your car will be safe here overnight, and I'll drop you off in the morning."

"Okay," Charlie said. "Larry, can we drop you off?"

"I'm fine, Charles. I took a power nap this afternoon. It was wonderful."

Don helped Charlie pack up his belongings and carry them to the SUV. He was afraid he was going to have to carry Charlie, but the coffee must have given Charlie a burst of energy. They walked Larry to his car and then climbed into Don's SUV. Charlie pointed his key at his own car and pushed the "lock" button until his lights flashed and the horn beeped. "Just making sure," he replied to Don's curious glance.

Don was glad he'd insisted on driving Charlie home. His brother was asleep before they pulled out of the parking lot. They entered the house quietly, and tiptoed to their bedrooms, not wanting to wake their father, but that instinctive parental sixth sense had kicked in. "Charlie? Is that you?"

"Yeah, Dad," Charlie said. "Sorry, we didn't mean to wake you."

Alan opened his bedroom door and stared at his two sons. "Are you two drunk?"

"No, Dad," Don said. "Just dead tired. We were working on a case. I drove Charlie home because he was too tired to drive himself."

"All right. Well get some sleep."

"We will," Don said. "Sorry we woke you up." After Alan closed the door, Don said, "What time do you have to be at work tomorrow?"

"Not until nine," Charlie said, yawning. "This morning it was seven."

"No wonder you're knocked out. See you later."

The next morning, Charlie woke to his alarm and the smell of coffee. He showered and dressed and came down the stairs. Don and Alan were already at the table eating. Don grinned at Charlie, "Good morning, Sleeping Beauty."

Charlie poured himself a cup of coffee and sat heavily. "Good morning yourself."

"I've been telling Dad about the case."

"Good," Charlie said, helping himself to a bagel.

"He showed me the notes, too, Charlie. You two had better be careful."

"We are, Dad," Don said with a grin. "Charlie's even locking his office door when he's not there."

"This isn't funny, Don. This guy sounds like he's got it in for you two."

"I"m not saying it's funny. It's just how I deal with things."

"I know," Alan said. "More coffee?"

"Yeah, thanks."

"So have you been able to come up with anything, Charlie?" Alan asked as he poured coffee for his sons.

"I have a program, but I'm still entering the data. Larry and I came close last night, but we ran out of steam." He caught Don's grin. "Okay, I ran out of steam. Larry had taken a power nap. I've got a class at nine, but then I'm free for a few hours. I should be able to input the rest of the data."

Don sipped his coffee and said quietly, "Larry's been pressuring you to give up consulting, hasn't he?"

Charlie shrugged. "Not really pressuring... But, yeah, he's not thrilled that I'm doing it. He thinks I'm damaging my career."

"Charlie, if you ever believe the consulting is damaging your career, I want you to tell me. We'll take you off the list. Do you understand?"

Charlie nodded. "Yeah, I do, Don. And thank you. But this is one I can't let go." Charlie finished up his bagel and glanced at his watch. "We should get going."

As they pulled in to the parking lot, Don said, "What the..."

"What?" Charlie looked up from his laptop. There was a large group of students milling around in the parking lot around a campus security car. Don drove as close as he could and then pulled over. Charlie jumped out of the car, put his laptop on the seat and ran toward the crowd. "Don! That's my car!"

Don showed his badge and got them through the police line. Charlie's car had been repainted a bright red. Black letters proclaimed, "It's arbitrary, Dr. Eppes."

Charlie stood, staring numbly at his car. Meanwhile, Don found the campus cop who was in charge and explained that this was part of an active FBI investigation. When he returned, Charlie had stepped forward and rested his hand on the hood of his car. "Charlie, you shouldn't touch it. It's evidence."

Charlie stepped back, nodding. "Was there a letter?" He said softly.

"They haven't found one yet. I've called the FBI techs. I'll wait for them. You should get to your class."

Charlie looked at his watch. "Yeah. I need to get my stuff out of your car."

Unfortunately, the vandalism of Charlie's car was the talk of the campus. As he entered his classroom, four minutes late even though he had run straight from the parking lot, one of his students said, "Hey, Dr. Eppes! Nice paint job."

Charlie turned and scowled. He caught himself and bit back the answer. The students didn't know about the Arbitrarian. They had no clue that this wasn't a harmless prank, but was part of a case that had involved two deaths. He forced a smile. "Thanks, Aaron. Now I'd just like to find out who did it so I can thank them personally. Now, let's get to work."

At the end of class, Charlie spent a few minutes helping students who needed help. Then he grabbed his stuff and went to his office. As he unlocked the door and pushed it open, he noticed an envelope on the floor. "No," he said softly. "Not again. Not here." He carried the envelope to his desk and was about to open it when he was distracted by a knock on his door.

Don entered, and the first thing he noticed was the stricken look on his brother's face as he held the envelope in his hands.

"Oh, God, Charlie. Is it...?"

"I don't know yet. Should I be wearing gloves?"

"Nah. Go ahead and open it."

Charlie pulled the envelope open and took out the sheet of 20# bond paper. "Dr. Eppes," he read, "I am assuming your brother has already shown you my other letters. It's very sweet that you two are so close. Anyway, you can add vandalism to the list. And while you're at it, you might want to check on all the assaults outside of bars in the last six days. I rolled a drunk. It was an interesting experience. They are so very easy to roll. And remember the words of Goethe: "Pity on the person ... who ascribes to the arbitrary some sort of reason..." The Arbitrarian."

Don took the note from Charlie's trembling hands. He took his cell phone and dialed. "Megan, we've got another one. The Arbitrarian vandalized Charlie's car and slid a note under his office door. He also claims he rolled a drunk outside a bar in the past six days... Okay. Thanks... Yeah, I'm in his office now... Okay, I will."

Don smiled at Charlie. "Megan said to tell you she'll bring the files over here as soon as she can get her hands on them."

Charlie nodded. "Good."

"You should have a quick look and see if anything is out of place."

"Why? He slid the note under the door."

"Just humor me."

Charlie stood and walked around the office, looking at the assorted piles and bizarre knickknacks. "Nope. Everything is where I left it." He gave Don a wry grin, "And don't you dare even ask me how I can tell."

Don gave Charlie a look of wide-eyed innocence. "Would I do a thing like that?"

"Yeah," Charlie said. "Hey, if you're planning on hanging around here, why don't you give me a hand with these files?"

A short time later, they had entered all the information from the remaining files, and Charlie started the program running. "Admittedly, there isn't a lot of data. The results won't be very good, but they'll give us a place to start. When Megan arrives with the other files, I'll put them in."

"Want to go get a cup of coffee while this runs?"

"Sure," Charlie said. He closed and locked the door, making sure Don saw him test the knob.

Chapter 5

As they crossed the quad, they noticed Amita running towards them. "Charlie!" She said breathlessly. "Are you okay? I saw your car."

"Hi, Amita. I'm a little upset, but I'm okay. We're going for a cup of coffee. You want to join us? My treat."

"Well, in that case," Amita said, smiling, "sure! Do I dare ask what you two are working on? And don't use that 'I could tell you, but I'd have to kill you' line on me!"

"Well," Charlie said, "there is a case, but it's not of the killing variety. And," he added, "if you have the time, I could use your help."

"I knew it! What? I'm sorry." she said, seeing the expression on Charlie's face. "What is it? Is it related to what happened to your car?"

"Yeah," Charlie said, "There's been a series of crimes committed by a guy who calls himself the Arbitrarian. He's been leaving notes for Don at these scenes. Today, after my class, I found a note he had slid under the door of my office."

"Is he threatening you?"

"Not overtly," Charlie said, "but he has killed two people already. He claims his crimes are completely random and is challenging me to find a pattern."

"And you haven't found the pattern yet."

"Not yet. The program is running now, but I don't think there's nearly enough data to come up with anything meaningful. I figured a fresh pair of eyes..."

"I'll be happy to do anything I can. But if you can't find it, I don't see how I can."

"Don't sell yourself short, Amita," Charlie said as he held the door of the coffee shop open for her. "You have a way of seeing things I miss."

The students and faculty in the coffee shop all stared as they entered. Apparently word of Charlie's reaction in class had hit the grapevine, and the students weren't sure what to say. Amita nudged Charlie and he looked up. "Hi," he said, giving a small wave. "In case you haven't heard, someone vandalized my car. I am not happy, but I'm not about to commit suicide over it either. If any of you has any information, you know where to find me. Now, enjoy your coffee."

The crowd visibly relaxed, and went back to talking, leaving Charlie, Don and Amita free to order their coffee in peace. A few students spoke to Charlie, expressing their sympathy, but generally they were left alone. Coffee cups in hand, they returned to Charlie's office. He unlocked the door, then glanced involuntarily at the floor. No notes. The program had finished running, and had come up with four pairs of crimes that had elements in common. Charlie erased a blackboard and wrote the information on the board.

Don said, "So what are we looking at, Charlie?"

"Well, since we're looking for a single person who committed rape and robbed a mom and pop grocery store within the past week, we put in key information from those two crimes trying to find commonalities. The program has returned these four pairs." He turned to Amita, "Admittedly this is too small a sample to give us accurate results. Unfortunately, The Arbitrarian also admitted to rolling a drunk outside a bar within the past six days. We're going to have to put those cases in, too."

Don handed Amita the three notes. "Here's what we've gotten from him so far."

She read the notes, shaking her head. "My God, Don, this guy is disgusting." She started to hand the notes back to Don, then stopped. "Wait a minute, you said you were comparing rapes and robberies. What about the clown costume?"

"Hmm?" Charlie said, turning from his board. "What about it?"

"He said in his note that he didn't pay for the costume. It's a real leap, but you could check any reports of stolen clown costumes."

Charlie laughed, "You are amazing, Amita!"

Don was already on his cell phone, calling Megan to have her do a search for stolen costumes. After he hung up he said, "Well, I hope there hasn't been an epidemic of clown costume thefts this past week."

"I hope there's been at least one reported to the police," Charlie said, turning back to his board. "But as it stands, we've got a rape and a robbery that took place in the same geographical area, two pairs of rapes and robberies with similar descriptions of the perpetrator, and one pair where a similar suspicious vehicle was spotted." He went to the stack of folders and pulled the files on the eight cases, sorted them into pairs and handed them to Don.

"All right. This will give us a starting point, anyway." He started to browse through the folders while Charlie showed Amita his program. A few minutes later, Don's cell phone rang. "Eppes," he said.

"Don," Megan said, her voice tense, "Our Arbitrarian has struck again."

"What now?" Don said wearily.

"He kidnapped a little girl."

Don rubbed his eyes. "What happened?"

"She was playing in the front yard. A car pulled up, a man got out and he grabbed her. He drove off before the mother could stop him."

"Oh, God. How do we know it's him?"

"He dropped another note when he grabbed the girl."

"What'd it say?"

"'Dear Special Agent Eppes, You can add two more to my resume. I stole the car I used because I didn't want you tracking me down. I'll be dropping the little girl off in a safe place. She is merely a means to an end. Give my regards to your brother. I hope he liked the paint job. The Arbitrarian.'"

Don had taken out his notebook and was writing as Megan read the note to him. "Did they find her yet?"

"Not yet. We've got an Amber Alert out on her. I'll let you know as soon as we know anything."

"Okay, thanks. Listen, Charlie has gotten some preliminary results. I'm coming in with the files his program kicked out." Don closed his phone and took a deep breath before telling Charlie and Amita about the latest developments.

"Don," Charlie said, his voice shaking, "we've got to stop this guy."

"I know, Charlie. I know." He picked up the folders. "I'm going to take these back to the office." He patted Charlie's shoulder as he passed. "Thanks, Buddy. I'm pulling out all the stops to find this guy. See you later."

"Okay. I've got another class this afternoon, but then I'll come over to your office."

"All right. I'll see you then. Bye, Amita, and thank you, too."

"Any time, Don."

By the time Don arrived in the office, Megan had the files on drunks who were rolled in the last six days, and had found two reports of stolen clown costumes.

"Two?" Don said incredulously. "Okay, well Charlie is going to come in here after his class this afternoon, so we'll just hold these for him. But I have got to look at the clown reports. This is nuts."

One costume had been shoplifted while the store was open. The other one was taken off of a mannequin in a store display window sometime after the store closed for the night. The files each had very detailed descriptions of the missing clown suits. Don pulled out the report on Betsy Marshall's carjacking and called her. "Ms. Marshall, this is Don Eppes from the FBI."

"Oh, hi, Agent Eppes. How are you?"

"Fine. Busy. Say, we may have a slight break in your case." He described the clown costumes to her.

"That first one, the one with the polka dots, that sounds like the one the guy was wearing when he took my car."

"Okay, thanks. I'll let you know when we have any more information."

"Do you have any idea when I can get my car back?"

"No, but I'll transfer you to the guy who will be able to tell you, okay?" After he had transferred Betsy, he walked over to Megan's desk. "She ID'd the one from the mannequin."

"That's great. Maybe we'll get lucky."

"One can only hope," Don said.

"You don't sound very hopeful. Say, how's Charlie holding up? That thing with his car must have been a real shock."

"Yeah, I'll say." Don chuckled. "He's planning on coming over here this afternoon. I'll bet he forgot he doesn't have a car."

Chapter 6

Charlie did remember he didn't have a car. In fact, he spent the hour before his class explaining the situation to his insurance agent. When the agent told Charlie he needed a police report, Charlie called Don. "Hey, Bro. What do I have to do to get a police report to turn over to my insurance company?"

"Give me his fax number and I'll send it right over. Say, I forgot to ask you if you need a ride here after your class."

"Well, I managed to impose on Amita. I think she's interested in the case."

"I think she's interested in you, Buddy," Don said, grinning.

"What? I think we've got a bad cell." Charlie said. "Okay, I've got to go. I'll see you later."

Don sent Megan and David, along with a crime scene technician, over to the scene of the clown costume burglary. Looking at the folder, he knew the LAPD had understandably not given this investigation priority status. It was a long shot, but he hoped something would turn up. Meanwhile, he and Colby started going through the files Charlie had given him.

"Hey, Don," Colby said after a few minutes. "Have you considered the possibility that this Arbitrarian guy is someone who has a grudge against you?"

"Yeah, but I don't think..."

"But it's still possible. We're not exactly swimming in leads here. Why don't you have Charlie wave his magic wand over your cases and see if anything pops up?"

"You know how many cases I've handled?"

"Hey, Charlie always wants more data. That'll keep him happy for hours and hours."

"Try days and days. Okay. I'll mention it to Charlie when he gets here. We'll see what he thinks."

When Charlie and Amita arrived, the first thing Charlie said was, "Don, have you heard anything about the little girl?"

Don shook his head sadly. "Not yet. I was hoping to hear something by now, too."

"How do you handle this?" Charlie asked. "I mean, don't things like this just tear you apart?"

"Yeah, they do. But I have to set that aside so I can do my job. It's later, when things quiet down..."

"I remember. Your head becomes a bad neighborhood."

"Yeah. I guess I'm lucky there isn't much quiet time around here. Hey, you know, Colby had an idea. I told him I'd run it past you."

"Okay, what's his idea?"

"He thinks this Arbitrarian guy might be someone involved in one of my old cases. Colby suggested I give you my old case files so you can put them in the mix too."

"I like it. You know, the more data the better, and it is possible that this guy has a personal vendetta against you."

"Or against you," Don said. "He does mention you in each of the notes."

"Or against both of us," Charlie said. "Say, why don't I start with the cases we've both worked on? I'll be done faster, and I can always add your other cases if that doesn't work."

"Sounds good," Don said. "Here are the assault files and the information on the clown suit burglary. You can get started on these while I grab my files."

As Don reached the door of the conference room, his cell phone rang. It was Tyner telling him the girl had been left, unharmed, at the Salvation Army on Hollywood. After he hung up, he turned to Charlie and Amita. "The little girl is safe. The guy dropped her off at the Salvation Army on Hollywood. LAPD has a team on the way to talk to her. They're going to call me with a report."

"That's great," Charlie said, grinning broadly, "I'm glad she's okay."

"Me too. Hey, I want to let the rest of the team know. I'll be back with the files Megan collected for you."

Charlie turned just in time to catch Amita wiping her eyes. He touched her cheek and said, "It's okay."

Amita nodded. "I know. These are happy tears. I know guys probably don't understand the difference."

"Oh, you'd be surprised," Charlie said.

"Hey, you two," Don said as he entered the room. "you want me to pull the blinds?"

"Are those the files?" Charlie lowered his hand and took a step toward Don.

"Yep" Don grinned as he handed Charlie the folders. "These are the drunks who got rolled in the last six days, and the clown costume. Believe it or not, there were two clown costumes stolen, but this is the one Betsy Marshall – the woman who was carjacked – recognized."

"All right, we'll enter the drunks and the clown and see what happens."

"I sent Megan and David and a crime scene tech to the costume shop. So they may have more information for us. Colby's following up on those files you found first time around. So I guess I'd better start digging out the files from the cases you and I worked on. It may take a while."

"Yeah, there have been a few over the last couple of years, haven't there?" Charlie looked up from booting his computer.

"Sure have, Buddy. Hey, you guys know where to find the coffee if you feel like taking a risk" Don said as he left the room.

A short time later, Don returned with Megan, Colby and David. "Okay, here's a start on our files, Charlie. But I figured you'd want to hear the latest."

"Sure," Charlie said. "What have you got?"

"Well, first of all, the little girl who was kidnapped? She's fine. He didn't do anything to her. But he did give her a letter to give to me."

Don opened the note and put it on the table in front of Charlie and Amita. Dear Agent Eppes, I told you the little girl would be returned unharmed. I knew you'd have her house under surveillance, so I decided to do it this way. Oh, and I set a little fire over in Westwood. Has your genius brother found a pattern? I've been so very careful to keep this all random. The Arbitrarian

Charlie sighed. "So now it's arson, too. Well, the more data I have the more likely I am to find a common thread connecting his crimes."

Amita looked up at Charlie. "I don't remember him being this hostile towards you before."

"What do you mean?" Charlie asked.

She shrugged and looked at Megan. "I don't know. I thought 'your genius brother' sounded hostile. What do you think?"

"Yeah, Amita, it does. You know, we're looking at Don's cases, and Don and Charlie's cases, but I wonder if we should check into people with grudges against Charlie."

"Grudges? Against me? I don't know of anyone..."

"Anyone you've flunked lately?" Megan asked, "Anyone who thinks you're not giving them enough attention? Anyone you've gotten into an argument with?"

"I can't think of anyone."

"But, Charlie," Amita said, "what about that argument you had in your freshman class a couple of weeks ago? You said a few of the students were really ticked off at you."

"Well, yeah, but I can't believe any of them would do the kind of things this guy has done."

"Charlie," Don said, "what was the argument about?"

Charlie suddenly looked ill. "It was about whether anything could be truly random."

Chapter 7

"Charlie!" Don said. "You argued about whether anything could be random, and it slipped your mind until now?"

"Don, it was an intellectual exercise. Sure, voices were raised, and I'm sure some of the kids got angry, but none of them could do this."

"You don't know that, Charlie," Megan said. "I think we should have a talk with the students involved in that discussion."

Charlie shook his head. "No. I'm sorry, but I can't involve them in this."

"One of them may be involved," Don said. "You can trust Megan."

"I know, Don. This just doesn't feel right."

"I could get a warrant," Don said.

"You wouldn't," Charlie started to close the programs on his computer. "Amita, would you mind giving me a ride back to campus. I think we're done here."

"Charlie," Megan said, "You know I'll be discrete."

"Megan, I'm afraid I can't do this." Charlie turned off his computer and stood. "Don, I'm sorry. You're going to have to get that warrant."

"Charlie!" Don said, grabbing Charlie's arm. "Please don't make me do it. All I want to do is talk to your students."

"No. I'm sorry. I can't." Charlie walked out of the conference room.

Amita turned to Don. "I'll take him back to his office. And I'll try to talk him into giving you the information."

"Thanks," Don said.

Amita caught up with Charlie at the elevators. "Charlie,..."

"Don't. I am not going to hand my students over to the FBI."

"Don't you trust your brother? Or Megan?"

The elevator came. Charlie started toward the open door and then stopped. "Okay. You're right. But I'm going to set some limits."

Don looked up from his desk, "Charlie!" he said, surprised.

"Don, I'll give you the information about the students, and I'll tell you what happened in class that day. But I don't want you browbeating them, and I do want to know who you're going to talk to and what you're going to ask them. And I want you to know that I still don't like the idea of you getting my students involved in this case."

"Okay," Don said. "Thanks."

They went back into the conference room, and Charlie turned his computer back on. "I'll print the list of the students in that particular class. They're mostly freshmen, a few sophomores, all in the seventeen to nineteen year old range. I still don't believe any of them is capable of the kinds of crimes the Arbitrarian has committed. There are sixty four students, thirty eight female and twenty six male. Since one of the crimes was rape, I trust we can eliminate the female students." He looked up at Megan. "Right?"

Megan nodded, "I think you're right. I'm not even going to consider the girls." She took the list Charlie handed her. "You know I'll be discrete, Charlie."

"Okay," Charlie said. "What can I do to help?"

"Tell me about the argument. Which students put up the biggest argument against what you were saying?"

Charlie tapped on the table with his fingertips. "Okay, the first one to disagree with me was Jason Vinciguerra. He was joined by three other guys, Ravi Raman, Tony Galster, and Jimmy Curtis. Some of the girls were also involved."

"How bad did it get, Charlie?" Megan asked.

He took a deep breath and released it slowly. "It was bad. Jason was the first to raise his voice, and unfortunately I did too. I don't think it would have gone as far as physical violence, but we said some pretty hateful things."

"How did the other students react?"

"A few of them walked out. Most just stared with their mouths hanging open. I'm thoroughly embarrassed by my behavior that day, and I did apologize to the students at the beginning of the next session."

Megan had taken a pen and was putting check marks next to the four names Charlie had mentioned. She then put a light line through each of the girls' names. "Were there any who expressed agreement with what you said?"

Charlie mentioned the names of seven more of the boys. "Though it's possible they just didn't want to affect their grades," he added with a weak smile.

"Okay, I'll start with the four who opposed you. Then we'll check on the fifteen non-committed boys."

"What are you going to do?"

"I figured I'd start by running them through out computer system and see if any of them have criminal records. Then the next thing will be to start interviewing them individually."

Charlie buried his face in his hands. "Isn't there another way?"

"Well, I could just say we're investigating the vandalism."

"The FBI investigating vandalism?" Charlie said incredulously.

Don said, "How about a little white lie? Megan, you can tell them Charlie was borrowing one of our agency issued cars."

Colby looked up from what he was doing. "You guys get cars?"

Don chuckled. "No, but what college student is going to know that?"

"Cute," Megan said, "I like it. What do you think, Charlie?"

"But how will that help?"

"Well, the vandalism is connected to the other crimes. Plus, don't forget I'm a profiler."

"Yeah," Colby said, "she'll be reading their minds. Nobody can put anything over on the Profiler."

"Colby," Don said, "since you're so confident in Megan's abilities, you can go along with her. David, meanwhile you can tell us about your visit to the costume shop."

"Well, the plate glass window in the front of the store was broken. It's a small place, owner's just barely making it, and he let his contract with his alarm company lapse."

"So, no alarms," Don said.

"No alarms. And because we were on the scene days after the burglary, the evidence had been mostly cleaned up."

"Mostly, not completely?" Charlie said.

"Fortunately, there was a little bit of blood in the window sill. The lab's got it now. Apparently our perp cut himself climbing through the window."

"That's great, David," Don said, "Listen, we got a new note from the Arbitrarian. He claims that he started a fire in Westwood."

David nodded, smiling. "More data for Charlie's program. I'm on it." He patted Charlie on the shoulder as he walked past him. "Hang in there, Charlie. We're getting closer."

Charlie leaned back in his chair and sighed. "I hope so." He looked at the stack of folders Don had brought in. "Well, I guess we'd better get to it."

When David brought them three files on suspicious fires in Westwood, Charlie gladly abandoned the stack of Don's cases and started looking through the new files. He stopped and rubbed his eyes. "I wonder how Megan's doing."

Don said, "Why don't you take a break, Charlie? It sounds like you're about at the end of your rope."

"Nah. I"m just distracted. Maybe I will get some coffee. Amita, you want anything?"

Amita checked her watch. "I've got to get back to campus soon."

Charlie glanced at Don. "Then I should get going too." He shrugged. "Amita drove me here."

"I can give you a ride," Don said.

Charlie was clearly torn. Go back to campus with Amita or stay here and know the minute the agents knew anything about the case. He made his decision. "Amita, go ahead without me. And thanks for the ride. I really appreciate it."

"You're welcome, Charlie. I'll see you later."

Charlie walked to the elevators with her, and then stopped in the break room for a cup of coffee. His path led him past Megan's desk. "Hey, Charlie," Megan said when she saw him. "So far none of your guys have criminal records."

"Well, that's good."

"When does this class meet again?" Megan asked.

"Tomorrow afternoon."

"Okay, I'll try to talk to them before then. I'd like you to let me know how they react after the fact."

"And you're just going to ask them about the vandalism?"

"I'll start there and see where it goes."

"All right," Charlie said. He took a sip of coffee and grimaced.

"That bad?"

"That bad," he said. "Well, I'll get back to those files. And, Megan?"

"Yeah, Charlie?"

"I do trust you to be discrete. Let me know if there's anything else I can do."

Chapter 8

It was after nine o'clock when Don and Charlie finally left Don's office. Charlie had entered the data in his computer, but he and Don were both tired. "I'll run it when I get to the office in the morning," Charlie said. "I'll call you if it comes up with anything interesting."

"Sounds good. I wonder what Dad fixed for supper tonight."

"Oh, man," Charlie said, "I forgot to tell him I was going to be late. .I hope he's not too ticked."

"And I'll bet you turned your cell phone off, too," Don said, grinning.

Charlie checked. "You're right." He turned the phone on, and it immediately beeped, indicating there were waiting voicemail messages. "Let's see who called. Three calls from Dad, one from Larry and one from one of my freshmen students."

He listened to his messages and they walked to the elevators, and then called Alan. "Dad, I'm sorry I didn't call. Don and I... Okay. We're heading home now... No, you don't have to... Okay, thanks. See you in a bit." He hung up and grinned at Don. "He's heating up leftovers for us."

"Good man," Don said. "Dad's leftovers are better than any fast food we could find on the way."

"True dat. I'd better see what Larry wanted." He listened to the message, smiling. "He just wanted to make sure I was all right after the events of the morning." He dialed Larry's number when they left the lobby. "Hey, Larry, sorry I didn't get back ... Oh, yeah, I'm fine... I've been in Don's office... Really? What'd she say?... Oh. Okay... Say, I'm going to have Don drop me off on the way to the office tomorrow, so I'll be in nice and early... Okay, I'll see you then... Goodnight." He hung up as they approached Don's SUV. "Can you give me a ride in the morning?"

Don laughed. "Yeah, sure, Buddy. What did Amita say?"

"Amita? Oh," Charlie blushed. "She told Larry that she thought I was working too hard on your case."

"Do you think you are?" Don asked as he started the engine.

"Nah. It is stressful, I have to admit. But it's something that has to be done, like finals. I don't think she and Larry understand how important these cases are."

"To you," Don finished.

"To everybody. Larry wants me to help him win his Nobel prize, but I think stopping a serial killer, or a rapist, or even a corporate criminal, is more important."

"Good," Don said softly. "Hey, what was the other call about? The one from your freshman?"

"Don't worry. It wasn't one of the kids Megan is interviewing."

"Ah, one of the brown noses?"

Charlie laughed. "Yeah. Jeff Ruddick. He's not the brightest kid in the class, but he works harder than the rest of them combined. He's a mechanical engineering student, a whiz with machines, but a little slow with numbers. He just wanted to make an appointment to see me tomorrow morning."

"Maybe you can have him look at your car when you get it back."

"Funny, Don. I'm supposed to contact my insurance company about a loaner. They weren't too helpful when I talked to them earlier. Maybe once they get the police report, things will go a little smoother."

"Don't worry. You can ride with me until you have wheels again. It's the least I can do. Say, what did Amita say to you to change your mind about giving us the names of your students?"

"What makes you think she said anything?" Charlie glanced suspiciously at Don. "You didn't put her up to it, did you?"

"No. It was her idea. I just didn't expect you to cave so quickly."

Charlie sighed. "Well, she really didn't talk me into it. She just asked me one simple question, and that made it all clear to me."

"What question?"

"'Don't you trust your brother?'" Charlie said it so softly that Don barely heard him. "When she asked me that, I decided I had to trust you to do the right thing with the information. It just made sense."

Don smiled. "You can trust me, Buddy. You know, Dad warned me more than once to be careful because you would do anything for me."

"What?" Charlie asked sharply. "Am I that predictable?"

"No. I don't know if Dad really understands the whole brother thing. I did remind him that I would do anything for you, too. It comes with the territory. But it did make me think long and hard about how I use you in these cases. I don't want to take advantage of you."

When Don opened the front door of Charlie's house, they were met with a mouth-watering scent. "Oh, man, Dad," Don said, "that smells great! You didn't have to go to all that trouble."

Alan came in from the kitchen. "No trouble, Don. Charlie, Larry called for you."

"He left me a voicemail too. I called him back before we left the FBI office."

"He told me about your car," Alan said, bringing beers for his sons. "He was worried about how you'd be taking it."

"Well, I'm not happy about it. But we're dealing with it. I've already contacted my insurance company. And Don thinks it might be related to a case we're working on, so the FBI has taken over."

"A case?" Alan shot Don a warning look.

"Dad," Charlie said after swallowing a sip of his beer, "it was my decision to work on this case. It's a nasty case, and it needs to be solved quickly. And I decided that I can contribute to stopping this guy before he hurts anyone else."

"But you're a professor, not..."

"And I have the ability to help stop this monster. It's my choice, Dad. Don didn't pressure me into doing this."

"Just don't let it interfere with your own work."

"You have been talking to Larry," Charlie said with a laugh. "He's convinced that I'm depriving the world of my genius by pursuing this work. I want both of you to stop worrying. I'm doing what I believe is right."

Alan nodded. "That's all I can ask, Son."

"Good," Charlie grinned. "So what is that tempting smell coming from the kitchen?"

A little while later, they settled in for a tasty meal of salad, ziti with sausage, and garlic bread. "Pasta is a lifesaver," Alan said. "It tastes even better reheated than it does the first time around."

"Only when prepared by an expert," Don said.

"Flattery will get you everywhere, young man," Alan said with a grin.

The three men cleared the table and took their beverages into the living room so they could watch some baseball together. All talk of the case and Charlie's car was forgotten for a few hours.

The next morning, Don dropped Charlie off in front of the math offices. "I'll stop by after your freshman class," he said as he pulled to the curb."

"Okay. I'll let you know how it goes. Thanks for the ride."

Charlie rarely arrived on campus this early. His dad had made sure he and Don had eaten a good breakfast, but he was in need of caffeine. He ran into Amita at the campus coffee shop and they walked to his office together. "You're up bright and early," she said.

"If I were bright, I wouldn't be up this early," he quipped. "I had to catch a ride in with Don."

"No wonder. How are things going with the case?"

"Okay. I can't wait to see how my freshmen react to being questioned by the feds. I'll probably have the ACLU breathing down my neck."

"Your office hours should be interesting today."

Charlie rolled his eyes as he unlocked his office door. "Tell me about it." He pushed the door open, and glanced at the floor. No note.

"Have you run the program with the new data?"

"Not yet. It got to be too late last night. I'm going to run it now and call Don with any results it kicks out. And I figured I'd catch up on some work I promised Larry as long as I'm here at the crack of dawn."

An hour later, Charlie had his results, Amita had left for her class, and Larry arrived looking for the work Charlie had promised to have a week ago. Charlie was on the phone with Don when Larry came in. Charlie mouthed, "Have a seat," and waved at a chair. "Hey, Don, the program came up with a couple of interesting items... Yeah... Yeah, I'll email it to you. Okay. See you later." He hung up and sat down to send Don the data. "Hey, Larry, I've got your calculations for you."

"Thank you, Charles. I really do appreciate it, but that wasn't why I came here this morning."

"Really?" Charlie hit 'send' and turned his attention to Larry. "What's going on?"

"Well, I just wanted to see for myself that you are doing all right. I know you reassured me over the phone last night, but, well, I just had to see with my own eyes."

"And what do your eyes tell you?"

"Welllll... I believe you're a little fatigued, and perhaps under some stress, but I suppose that could just be the rigors of your class load."

"Or it could be the FBI case I'm working on." Charlie met Larry's eyes and smiled slowly. "Larry, I am fine. Really. As I explained to my father last night, I have chosen this path. I am doing something I'm good at, something that is desperately important. And if that means I have to delay some of my other work, then so be it."

"But, Charles, your cognitive emergence work IS important. And your classes..."

"Larry, are you implying that I am neglecting my classes?"

"No. No. You are doing great work with your classes. But that argument you had in your freshman class may be indicative of a heavy workload."

"Or it may be indicative of students who haven't been trained to think critically, and resist leaving their comfort zones. Larry, let's not argue about this. I have made my decision, and I will not let you talk me out of it."

Larry raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. "All right, Charles. I give up. For now. Now, show me what you have for me."

Chapter 9

Charlie's office hours were due to start at ten o'clock. By nine, Jeff Ruddick knocked on Charlie's door. "Dr. Eppes? I'm sorry to interrupt..."

"That's okay, Jeff. Come on in." He saved his work and pushed the FBI files aside.. "What can I do for you?"

Jeff sat down in the chair in front of Charlie's desk. He looked like he was about to cry. "Why were the FBI questioning us?"

"It's nothing to worry about. They're investigating the vandalism to my car."

"Why? That's not a federal crime."

"Didn't Agent Reeves explain it to you?"

"Yeah, she said something about you borrowing an FBI car. But it was the same car you've been driving all semester."

"She didn't give you a hard time, did she?"

"No. She was nice. But she didn't tell us the truth. It was your car, not an FBI car."

Charlie sighed. "Okay, Jeff, I don't want you discussing this with anyone else. I do some consulting for federal agencies. At least one of those agencies interpreted the vandalism as an attack on one of their consultants, and insisted the FBI handle it."

"That's crazy."

"I thought so too. But it would have jeopardized my clearance if I gave them an argument. Listen, I shouldn't be discussing this with you. You left me a voice mail about wanting to see me today. What about?"

"Oh, uh, I was worried about the next test. I don't know if I'm ready for it."

Charlie spent the next half hour helping Jeff review for the test. Finally, he said, "I think you're getting the hang of it."

"Okay, I think so too. Thanks, Dr. Eppes. And thanks for seeing me outside of your regular office hours." Jeff glanced at the stack of FBI folders. "You consulting for the FBI again?"

"Hmm? Yeah, but I really can't discuss it." Charlie leaned on the folders, trying in vain to conceal them from Jeff's view.

Jeff shrugged. "See you in class."

Charlie had just started working again when there was another knock on his door. He looked up and saw Jason Vinciguerra. Jason was a big, athletic guy. Not the kind of guy Charlie wanted to anger. He hoped his smile wouldn't look too phony. "Hi, Jason. What can I do for you?"

Jason crossed the room and flopped into the chair Jeff had recently vacated. "You can tell me why you sicced the FBI on me. Can't take people disagreeing with you?"

"It's not that," Charlie said. "Listen, Jason, I did not sic the FBI on you. They are involved because it was their car that was vandalized. I was borrowing it for a few days. And the feds are always under pressure to cut waste, so they have to follow up on losses like that."

"Oh, wow. Really? So I guess whoever did that is going to be in big trouble."

"Yeah, I would think so. Do you have any idea who did it?"

"Nah. I wouldn't put it past some of these bozos, though. Some of the guys were pretty ticked off at you after that stupid randomness argument."

"Including you?"

Jason laughed. "Yeah, including me. I still don't buy what you were saying, but if it's on the test I'll regurgitate what you said."

"That's not what I want. If you can give a valid argument for your side, I don't need you to agree with me."

"Really? I may just take you up on that, Professor."

"But remember, you have to have a valid argument."

Jason shrugged. "I'll see what I can do." He stood and started to leave. "See you in class later."

Charlie leaned back in his chair and sighed. This afternoon's class was going to be very interesting indeed. His cell phone rang. He glanced at the caller I.D. "Hey, Don."

"Hey, Charlie. Sorry I couldn't talk earlier. Is this a good time for you?"

"Sure. I've got office hours, so we may be interrupted, but so far I'm free. What's up?"

"Those results you sent me. You've linked two of the arsons to two of the groups you linked earlier."

"Right. So now we have two groups that have all the cases in common. But I'm still not satisifed with the amount of data. We need more to have a truly valid connection."

"I know. But I've sent David and Colby to investigate them. Megan just got back from Cal Sci..." Don's voice trailed off as if he were waiting for Charlie to react.

"Two of my students have already stopped by to complain. One of them, Jeff Ruddick, wasn't on the list of students I thought she was going to interview."

"He was your suck up student, right? The one who left you a voicemail yesterday?"

"Yeah. What led Megan to talk to him? He was pretty upset. And he saw through her story about the FBI car. He noticed I'd had the same car all semester. Why'd she talk to him?"

"His name came up in one of the other interviews. Apparently he expressed reservations about your arguments after class."

Charlie shook his head. "That's the problem with suck ups. At least with the guys who argue with you, you know where they stand. He was probably just afraid I'd knock points off his average."

"Charlie, I've seen you with people who disagree with you. I wouldn't put it past you to knock points off his average."

"Don! I don't like it when people dispute my work. Or when they dismiss my work as irrelevant. Both of which I've heard in your office before, by the way. But I am more than willing to listen to a well formulated argument, especially from my students. It's my job to teach them to use their minds, and if that includes listening as they challenge what I present to them, then so be it."

Charlie could hear the smile in Don's voice. "Well, I have to admit I've never heard your students challenging you, especially the girls. They seem too interested in staring at the professor to argue."

Charlie laughed. "Then you really need to sit in on more of my classes. Girls have changed since we were in college, Don."

"All right, I'll have to believe you, since I don't have a well-formulated argument to present."

"You'd better believe it, big brother. You gotta listen to the professor." A knock on the door caught Charlie's attention. Ravi Raman stood in the doorway. Charlie waved him in. "Hey, Don, I've got to go. Was there anything else?"

"Nope. See you after your class."

"If I'm still alive," Charlie chuckled. "See ya." He flipped the cell phone shut and looked across the desk at Ravi. "So, are you here about the FBI, too?"

Ravi smiled. "Yes I am. I take it I'm not the first."

"No. You're the third actually. So..."

"So, I'm offended that you would take this action against us just because we disagreed with you."

"First of all, I did not take this action. Didn't the agent explain why she was interviewing you?"

Ravi made a dismissive gesture. "She made up some silliness about your car belonging to the FBI."

Charlie shrugged. "Why do you find that so hard to believe?"

"Because, like Jeff, I remembered that you have driven the same car all semester."

"Okay, I'll tell you what I told Jeff. But I have to ask you to keep it to yourself. I consult with several federal agencies. One of those agencies interpreted the attack on my car as an attack on their agency." He held up his hand as Ravi started to interrupt. "I know it's stupid, but whoever said federal agencies are intelligent?"

Ravi laughed. "Now that makes sense."

Charlie leaned forward. "So you and Jeff discussed the interviews?"

"Several of us did. And none of us was happy about it. But then we realized that she didn't just interview those who disagreed with you. We learned that when we learned Jeff had been interviewed." Ravi stood to leave. "I hope you find whoever did that to your car. You should be free to express your opinions without fear of reprisal. Even if I believe your opinions are incorrect."

"I'm glad to hear that, Ravi. And next time I try to convince you otherwise, I promise not to lose my temper."

"Ah, but your temper is a sign of your passion. I admire a man who is passionate in his beliefs..."

Charlie grinned, "... even when he's wrong?"

Ravi nodded and turned to leave. "See you in class, Professor."

Charlie glanced at his watch. It was a few minutes before noon, and the end of his office hours. He turned his computer on and checked his email. After a few minutes of deleting spam, he came across a message sent thirty five minutes ago from an unfamiliar address – "Oh, crap," he whispered. There were no attachments, so he was reasonably sure there were no viruses. He wondered if he should call Don, but then dismissed the thought as needlessly paranoid. It was probably just a joke from one of his freshmen students. He clicked on the message.

Dear Professor Eppes,

So you and your brother haven't been able to find me yet. You think you're getting closer, but you're still looking for a non-existent pattern. There isn't always a pattern, Doctor. I guess you'll have to learn that the hard way.

The Arbitrarian

Author's note: I made up the address. I have no clue if there is such a person, so please don't try sending email to him or her. Who knows, it may be some nutcase stalker.

Author's note: Here's the link to Chapter 9: 10

A few minutes later, Charlie's cell phone rang. He looked at the caller ID. "Hey, Don," he said.

"Charlie! Are you okay? I just read that message. We're trying to track down where it came from, but it's not easy with hotmail."

"Don, I'm fine. Just a little bit freaked out. What did he mean by learning it the hard way?"

"I don't know, Buddy. I wish I did. What time is your freshman class?"

"Two. Why?"

"Well, you wanted me to attend one of your classes, and I think now's as good a time as ever."

Charlie smiled in spite of himself. "You going to try to blend in with nineteen year olds?"

"Hey, I could be a non-traditional student," Don said with a chuckle.

Charlie shook his head, forgetting Don couldn't see him. "Hey, Don, does Megan have a feel for who it could be?"

"The Arbitrarian or the vandal?"

"Either or both. Don't you think it's the same guy?"

Don sighed. "I have no idea. Say, have you had lunch yet?"

"I'm not really hungry," Charlie said, rubbing his eyes.

"Charlie, you can't let it get to you. Why don't I bring over some lunch and then we can go to your class together?"

Charlie took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Okay. What do you think? In-N-Out Burger?"

Don laughed. "I thought you weren't hungry."

"I'm not. Just bring me a double double with fries and a chocolate shake. If I were hungry, I'd eat a 4x4."

"Okay. See you in a bit."

When he put his cell phone down, Charlie noticed Amita standing in the doorway. "Hi, Charlie."

"Hi, Amita. You want me to have Don bring you something from In-N-Out?"

"No, that's okay. I just wanted to see if you'd heard anything more." She pulled a chair over and sat beside Charlie.

"Yeah." He brought up the email he had received and showed it to her.

"Oh my God," she breathed. "Did you tell Don about this?"

"I forwarded it to him. That's what we were just talking about. He has decided that today was the day he should sit in on one of my classes."

"You don't think he just wants to learn some math?" she said, smiling.

"I wish that's all it was."

"Were there any results from your program?"

"A couple. Don had David and Colby following up on them. You sure you don't want to join us for lunch?"

"I'll join you, but I'm not in a mood for a burger. I've got a salad and a sandwich."

"Okay," Charlie said, "just don't try to make us feel guilty for clogging our arteries."

By the time Don arrived, Amita had returned with her lunch. "I come bearing burgers!" Don announced as he entered Charlie's office. "Hi, Amita. You should have had Charlie call me. I could have brought you something."

"That's okay, Don. I told Charlie I'd rather eat something a little healthier." She studied Don's outfit: jeans, sneakers, black tee shirt and backwards Yankees cap, "Charlie says you're sitting in on his freshman class today. I see you dressed the part."

"Now if I could just get rid of fifteen years or so, I'd be fine," Don said with a chuckle. "Hey, you know, it's beautiful out. Why don't we eat outside? Get the stink off?"

"Sounds good to me," Charlie said, closing his laptop and standing up.

"Don't forget..." Don said.

"I know," Charlie interrupted, "lock the door."

As Don, Charlie and Amita walked out the door, Charlie took a deep breath, "Ah, Don, you're right. It's a perfect day for dining al fresco."

They found a spot near the fountain and settled in to eat among several groups of students. Behind them, a girl squealed, "Eww! Jimmy! You shoot Bambi?"

Amita laughed and whispered, "God, I hope I never sounded like that!"

Don chuckled, but Charlie could see that he was straining to hear Jimmy's reply. "Naw, Bambi's a baby. I shoot Bambi's daddy."

Don looked questioningly at Charlie, who glanced over his shoulder. "That's Jimmy Curtis," he whispered.

A second male voice said, "Hey, you know the herd benefits when controlled hunting takes place."

Charlie glanced again. "Jeff Ruddick," he whispered.

"That's not true," the girl said. "Hunters only take the strongest, biggest deer."

"Sorry, sweetie," Jimmy Curtis replied, "but the ones with the biggest racks aren't always the strongest in the herd."

"Jimmy!" the girl squealed.

Amita winced, embarrassed for her whole gender.

Jeff continued, "Studies have shown that the oldest bucks, the ones with the biggest racks, are often past their prime as breeding stock. So with them out of the way, the better bucks are able to mate with the does. And that improves the herd."

"Do you hunt, too, Jeff?" the girl asked.

"Yeah," he said.

"But you're from New York," another voice objected.

"Hey, Tony, New York isn't just cities. There are mountains and farms and wildlife too," Jimmy said.

Another boy said, "So I guess you guys aren't planning on coming to the PETA meeting next week."

Charlie glanced over his shoulder again, attempting to identify the speaker. Jimmy noticed, and said, "Hey, Dr. Eppes! How's it goin'?"

"Great, Jimmy," Charlie said. "How's it going with you?"

"Dr. Eppes," Jeff said, "did you hear what I said about hunting improving the species?"

"I caught a bit of it. Were there studies?"

"Yeah, it's pretty cool."

"Well," one of the girls said, "I think it's just propaganda from the hunting lobby."

"Dr. Eppes, if I bring you the articles, could you have a look at them?" Jeff asked.

"Sure. I'm not a biologist, but statistics are statistics."

Jeff grinned, "And if anyone can make sense of statistics, it's you."

Amita laughed. "Jeff, if you keep that up, Dr. Eppes is going to get a big head."

The kids laughed, and Don gave Charlie a playful punch on the arm. "Yeah, we wouldn't want Dr. Eppes to get a bigger head than he already has."

"Hey, keep your hands to yourself, bully!" Charlie said, shoving Don and laughing.

"Now, boys," Amita said, "Behave or I'll send you to your rooms!"

Charlie took a big bite of his burger. "Just let me finish eating this first. You know, when Mom and I were in Princeton, we used to get White Castle burgers. She said they were little square bits of heaven. Of course, it would probably take six of them to make one of these."

Amita raised her eyebrows as she swallowed a bite of her turkey wrap sandwich. "Don't they call White Castles sliders because they're so greasy?"

"I always thought it was because they slid down so easy," Charlie said.

"Because of the grease?" Amita said, grinning.

Charlie licked his fingers and checked his watch. "Okay, it's one thirty. I need to stop by my office before class."

They stood, picked up their litter and headed toward Charlie's office.

Author's Note: I've never been to an In-N-Out Burger. I hope Don & Charlie like 'em.

Author's note: Here's the link to Chapter 10: I want to thank StatsGrandma for checking my math homework and beta-ing Charlie's lecture for me!

Chapter 11

Don and Charlie walked to the classroom together. Don slid into a seat in the back row as Charlie walked to the front of the class. If the students were curious about the visitor, they didn't show it. All eyes seemed to be glued on their young professor. Don wondered if it was because of the vandalism, or if Charlie really was a math rock star. He slouched back in his seat and waited for the excitement to begin.

It didn't take long. While Charlie was unpacking his bag, one of the students – one Don hadn't seen before – spoke up. "Dr. Eppes, why did the FBI question us?"

Charlie looked up from his bag. "They're trying to find out who vandalized my car. It became a federal case because I was borrowing the car the government issued to my brother."

Several of the girls were whispering to each other, and one of them said, "Dr. Eppes, none of us was questioned."

"I am not privy to the investigation, but I assume they have some indication that the perpetrator was male," Charlie said, "Now shall we get down to business? Did any of you find the answer to the question I posed last session?"

Several hands went up, and class was under way. Don was able to follow most of the discussion, but a few of the questions were over his head. It was fascinating to watch Charlie interact with his students, though.

Then Charlie settled in to his lecture, and Don watched in amazement. Of course, he had been in Charlie's lectures for a few minutes here and there, when he was waiting to talk to him about a case. But this was the first time he was there to actually listen. Charlie spoke with the same dynamic creativity he used when addressing law enforcement agents who didn't know a hypotenuse from a hole in the ground, pacing, waving his arms, gesturing to punctuate his points.

"Okay, let's get started," Charlie said as his students pulled out their notebooks and pencils. "You're all familiar with Occam's razor." He glanced at the students, looking for signs of doubt. "Okay, hearing no objections, I'll continue." He turned and wrote on the white board as he spoke, "Of two equivalent theories or explanations, all other things being equal, the simpler one is to be preferred." He turned back to face the students. "Now, there have been complaints that this is too vague, so others have set out to refine it. Einstein rephrased it as, 'As simple as possible, but no simpler.' My particular favorite is Leonardo Da Vinci's 'Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,' which applies in fashion as well as in science."

Don chuckled along with the other students. Charlie, master of timing, waited for the chuckles to die down before continuing, "Now, it's all well and good to say to 'keep it simple, stupid,' but how do you know what's important and what isn't? Or what is useful for your particular calculation. That's where Bayesian model comparison comes in..."

Another term Don had heard Charlie use many times. He made a mental note to Google "Bayesian" when he had the time.

Charlie had turned back to the whiteboard and was writing what looked like gibberish to Don. "Okay," Charlie said as he wrote, "we all know that Bayes' theorem is a result in probability theory. It allows us to relate the distributions of random variables."

Don suddenly felt left behind, and was grateful when he felt his phone vibrating in his pocket. He slipped out of the lecture hall to answer it. "Eppes," he said softly.

"Don," Megan said, "We've got another one."

"What this time?"

"Arson. Along the Angeles Crest Highway. A passing driver saw a vacant building burning and called 911. The fire department found an envelope addressed to you."

Don took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "What'd the note say?"

"Dear Agent Eppes, You and your brother are not playing fair. He was supposed to waste his time looking for a pattern. Tell him The Arbitrarian is not happy with either of you."

Don sighed. "He's getting even more belligerent. How do you read him, Megan?"

"Belligerent is a good word," she said, "I think you should keep a close eye on Charlie. In spite of what he says, I'm convinced this is connected to him more than to you. The angrier this guy gets, the more he focuses on Charlie."

"Yeah, I'll stick with him. He hasn't gotten a rental car yet, so I'm his transportation for now. Gives me a chance to stick with him without being too obvious about it."

"Where are you now?"

"Outside of his freshman lecture. I actually understood the beginning of what he said."

"Which part? 'Good afternoon.'?"

"Funny, Reeves. He was talking about Occam's razor, and I knew it had nothing to do with grooming. Listen, when Charlie finishes, we'll head out to the scene on the way home."

"Angeles Crest Highway is on your way home? Where the heck's he lecturing? Mount Wilson?"

"Okay, so it's not on the way. I just want to see the scene for myself."

Megan gave him directions, and he closed his phone and slipped back into the lecture hall. Charlie had his back to him, writing on the board. Now Don was hopelessly lost, so he took out his notebook and started making notes on his conversation with Megan.

He became aware of movement around him. Students were starting to leave. He looked up and caught Charlie's amused expression. As soon as the students had left, Charlie packed up his belonging and approached his brother. "Hey, Bro," he said, turning to see what Don had written, "looks like I'd better not give you a pop quiz."

"Sorry. I was paying attention at the beginning, but just when you got into Bayesian model comparison, Megan called. The Arbitrarian has struck again."

"Oh, no," Charlie said, dropping into the seat next to Don. "What was it this time?"

"Arson fire up on the Angeles Crest. If you're done here, I'd like to leave now and stop by there before we get you home."

"Yeah, I can be done," Charlie said. "I'll just leave a note on my door before we go. Was anybody hurt?"

"No, thank God," Don said. "I guess it was a vacant building. But there was another note." He met Charlies' eyes. "It was the worst one so far. He said we're not playing fair. You were supposed to be wasting your time looking for a pattern. And he said to tell you he was not happy with either of us."

Charlie lifted both hands and rubbed his eyes. "Did Megan have any ideas?"

"Yeah, she thinks he's directing his anger at you, and not so much at me. That lends credence to the idea that it's someone in this class."

"When did the fire start? They were all here today."

"That's one of many things I'm going to need to find out. You ready?"

"Yeah. I need to stop in my office first." Charlie stood, shouldering his computer bag. "You know, I was thinking that I need to filter out some of my data. I originally thought there was too little data, but I think it's just that I have the wrong data."

"What do you mean?" Don said, standing and putting his notebook and pen in his pocket.

"Well, going with Megan's idea that this has more to do with me, I think I was wrong to look at your cases."

"Makes sense to me. You're still convinced this has something to do with cases? Or do you just not want it to be about your students?"

Charlie paused at the doorway to look up and down the hallway before leaving the classroom. Seeing no students, he answered, "I'm not sure. You saw them today. Do you really think any of them could have done these horrible crimes?"

"Charlie, nobody thought Ted Bundy was a serial killer either. You've got to look at this objectively, Buddy. You can't let it get personal. Objectively speaking this has something to do with one of your students. Not necessarily your freshmen, but definitely one of your students."

"Okay, so I've wasted my time on this case. I guess I won't be sending you a bill."

Don laughed, "Yeah, I think the bean counters would give me an argument on this one."

"So where do I go from here?"

"Sit down with Megan and give her everything you know about your students. Maybe together you can profile them and come up with something. Though..."

"Your spidey sense is leading you towards Jeff Ruddick," Charlie said as he unlocked his office door. "I'll find out whatever I can about him. They've really limited what information we can get about our students these days. Privacy and all that."

"With your connections,..." Don began, but stopped when Charlie scowled at him.

"My connections?"

Don shrugged, "Just trying to consider all possibilities. I guess this isn't really a Patriot Act case..."

"You're incorrigible," Charlie muttered as he collected some things from his desk. He grabbed a piece of paper, and wrote a quick note in Sharpie pen. No office hours this afternoon. Sorry. Dr. Eppes.

"Hey, I could come back and pick you up after I finish up there."

"Nah. They'll just want to talk about the vandalism and the FBI interrogation. And I'm sick of talking about it."

"Charlie, I'm sorry."

"Don't be. None of this is your fault, Don. I've just got too many things spinning around in my head right now to put up with that extraneous crap. Let's get going." He locked the door and taped the note to the glass.

Chapter 12

They climbed into Don's SUV for the drive to the scene of the arson. Charlie watched out the window as foothills turned into mountains. "How far do we have to go?"

"Megan said it's about twenty miles out of La Canada Flintridge. Why?"

"Just curious. I love this area. There are some incredible hiking trails up here. Have you ever hiked up here?"

"Nah. Why don't we come up here when we have some spare time?"

Charlie laughed. "The probability of both of us having spare time at the same time is..."

"Too small to matter," Don finished with a grin. "Why don't we schedule a time? You tell me when's good for you and I'll put in for vacation. At least then we'll have a slightly higher probability of going hiking together."

"Works for me," Charlie said, grinning. "I think you'd really enjoy it." He leaned his head back against the seat. "I'm sorry I wasted everybody's time. If I hadn't ignored everybody's suggestion that it could have been one of my students..."

"Don't, Charlie. As many times as you've saved our bacon, we can allow you a little slipup every once in a while."

"You said yourself once that we can't afford to make mistakes."

"But, Charlie, you're a consultant, not an agent. You do the calculations and we're supposed to interpret and apply what you've given us. If I'm not satisfied with what you provide, it's my job to tell you."

"And it's my job to listen. But when I get my mind set on something, I'm not always willing to listen."

"Not always? Charlie, when you get your mind set on something, you're NEVER willing to listen," Don said, laughing. "And you've got good instincts, Charlie. I like the fact that you're like a Jack Russell terrier, Buddy."

"A Jack Russell terrier? Like Eddie on "Fraser?" How am I like a Jack Russell?"

"Stubborn. I had a friend who had one of those little guys once. He would keep up at his toys until he had them completely dismantled. I even heard of one that was so anxious to get through a door, he actually scratched and scratched until he broke a bone in his paw. And then he kept scratching. If that's not you, Buddy, I don't know what is. You don't give up."

"Even when I'm wrong."

"Well, there is that. But you're wrong so rarely, it's worth it."

They rode in silence for a while, enjoying the scenery, and enjoying just being together. Finally, Don pointed. "It's just down that little trail to the right." They saw the burned out shell of what looked like a visitor's center. One police car and a couple of black SUVs were still on the site, but it was clear the excitement was over. Don pulled up next to Colby's SUV, and waved at David and Colby, who sat inside, drinking coffee.

David rolled the window down. "Hey, Boss. Took you long enough."

"Hey, I was in a class on Bayesian model configuration..."

"... comparison," Charlie corrected.

"Yeah, comparison. And Occam's razor. So don't give me any crap, Sinclair."

David grinned. "Well, I would never think of it."

"Whatta ya got here?"

"Clearly arson. The fire investigators found signs of accelerant and something even more interesting." He opened the door. "You've got to see this." David and Colby led the way to the still-smoldering remnants. An arson investigator stood next to a pile of charred pieces of metal. "Derek Wells, this is Special Agent Don Eppes, and Professor Charlie Eppes. Don, Derek has found some pretty interesting stuff."

Wells wiped his hands on his pant legs and shook hands with Don and Charlie. "Nice to meet you guys. David tells me you're after some kind of nutcase who's committing crimes just to prove he can."

Don nodded grimly. "Yeah, that about covers it. Though I don't know if nutcase is the official terminology..."

Wells grinned. "I supplied that particular term myself. But you're not here to discuss semantics. Here's what I found." He held up a scorched metal box with what looked like wires coming from it. "I'll have to study this stuff back in the lab, but this is some kind of remote charge that was used to start the fire. I don't know if it was triggered with a remote control or a timer."

Don looked at Charlie. "So this stuff could have been planted and just set to go off today. After the perpetrator is long gone."

Charlie turned and walked back toward the cars. He felt numb. His last remaining objection had just been crushed.

"Charlie," he heard Don come up beside him. "You okay?"

"Yeah. I just don't like being wrong," Charlie gave his brother a rueful smile. "I've got some thinking to do before I sit down with Megan. Do you need me over there?"

"No. I just wanted to make sure you were okay."

"I am. Go on back and do what you have to do. I'm just going to sit over here, " he indicated a rock outcropping under a tree, "and think. Just don't leave without me."

"I won't." Don patted Charlie on the shoulder and went back to the smoldering rubble.

Charlie sat on the rock and leaned against the tree, drawing his knees up and linking his arms over them. He closed his eyes and just enjoyed the breeze and the sounds of the birds. He would have enjoyed the pine smell, but it was too smoky for that. He had intended to think about the case, and his students. But he was startled when Don woke him up. "Come on, Chuck. I could hear you sawing wood all the way over there."

"I do my best thinking when I'm snoring," Charlie muttered.

"Sure you do, Buddy. Come on, I'll help you up."

"Did you find out anything else interesting?"

"Yeah, looks like they found some DNA. I won't go into details, but apparently our guy found himself away from facilities when nature called."

"Eww," Charlie said, trying to shake the image from his head. "Who made that discovery?"

"One of the crime scene techs."

"They don't pay those guys enough."

"I know. I couldn't do what they do."

The sun had started to go down, and it was getting chilly. Charlie turned and waved to Colby, David and Wells. "How long are they staying?"

"Just a little while longer. They've got it under control, so I figured maybe we'd get back to your place in time for supper." Don unlocked the SUV doors.

"Sounds good to me," Charlie replied as he climbed into the passenger's seat.

"Did you get your thinking done?"

"Nah. I just enjoyed the breeze and the sounds. Next thing I knew, you were waking me up."

Don pulled back on to the highway and headed back towards Pasadena. He pulled his visor down to block the setting sun. "You must have needed the rest."

"Yeah, I think I did." Charlie noticed Don glancing in the rear view mirror. "My brain has recuperated enough to be useful, at least for simple tasks."

"Yeah, like what? Multiplying seven digit numbers?"

Don glanced at the rear view mirror again, and Charlie finally had to ask, "What's wrong, Don?"

"Hmm? Oh, nothing."

Charlie turned and looked through the rear window. "Well, the only other car on the road is that silver pickup truck. How long has he been following us?"

"Since about a quarter mile after we left the crime scene. He's keeping pace with us."

"Maybe he just doesn't want to pass on this road.."

"I'm sure that's all it is. That last note just has me a little jumpy, that's all." They were approaching one of the many hairpin curves, so Don slowed. The pickup slowed too. Charlie glanced back again, and Don forced a grin. "He had to slow down or he was going to rear end us. Come on, Buddy. It's nothing. I'm just trained to think the worst. Hey, do you think this arson was the one he mentioned in that earlier letter?"

"I have no clue, Don. He's doing a damned good job of avoiding a pattern." Charlie shook his head. "Thank goodness you and your team are..." he stopped as Don suddenly looked at the mirror again. "What?" He turned in time to see the pickup truck turn off the road down a driveway on the right. "Well, finally. See, he wasn't following us after all."

"Nope, I guess not. Now what were you saying?"

"I don't know. Oh, yeah, I was saying that it was a good thing you... What was that?"

"Those two popping sounds? I don't know... Hey!" Don tuned the steering wheel sharply. "The steering's busted." He pumped the brakes. "Damn. The brakes are gone too." Don engaged the parking brake, shifted into neutral and shut the engine off, but the right wheels had already gone off the road. The car picked up speed as it rolled down the slope. Thankfully, it was a relatively gentle slope.

But then the left front wheel struck a large rock, and both driver's side tires left the ground. The car, now careening down the hill, hovered in a brief moment of apparent indecision before it tipped to the right. Charlie raised his arms to protect his head,. The airbags deployed, and the side airbag opened before Charlie slammed into the door. The airbags deflated almost immediately, and Charlie's elbows and forearms struck the roof of the car. His legs slammed into the bottom of the dashboard and his right leg erupted in pain.

The car continued sliding down the hill as it rolled sideways. Charlie heard Don's cry of pain as he was slammed into the driver's side door. In the fraction of a second the car was back on its wheels, Charlie turned his head, trying to see his brother. Then Charlie was slammed into his door, and he felt Don's arm striking him as it flailed limply. His arms struck the ceiling again, and the car stopped rolling as it continued to slide down the hill.

Author's note: My understanding of firearms is rudimentary at best. I hope none of you are experts.

Here's the link to Chapter 12: 13

When the car slid to a stop on its roof, Charlie opened his eyes and turned toward Don. They were hanging, suspended by their seatbelts and shoulder harnesses. Charlie was relieved to see Don moving, and smiled weakly as Don's eyes focused on him. "Hey, Buddy. You okay?" Don said.

Charlie took a second to assess his condition, and said, "I think so. How about you?"

"I think my shoulder's broken, or something. And I think my head's bleeding."

Charlie reached out and touched Don's head. "Yeah, you're bleeding."

"Well, we can't hang upside down forever. I'm going to see if I can get my door open." He reached across his body with his right hand and pulled on the door handle. To the amazement of both brothers, the door opened without any problem. "Okay," Don said, "I'm going to brace myself against the roof, and I want you to unhook my seatbelt."

"You sure?" Charlie said. "Your shoulder..."

"It's not going to get any better like this." Don pressed his right forearm against the car roof. He tried to lift his left arm, and grunted in pain when the arm would only lift a few inches. "Okay, I'm as ready as I'm ever going to be."

Charlie swung to face Don. He was able to reach with his right hand and support Don's left shoulder. Then he reached with his left hand and undid the seatbelt. Don dropped like a sack of potatoes and cried out as he hit. He swung his legs out the door, and rolled onto his right side. He lay for a few long moments, gasping in pain and clutching his left arm. Finally, he pushed himself to a sitting position and gave Charlie a shaky grin. "Your turn."

Charlie braced himself with both hands and tried to prepare himself to support his full weight and ease himself down to the roof. Don unhooked the seat belt and Charlie dropped, hitting his knees against the bottom side of the dashboard. He gasped as pain erupted in his right leg. Like Don, he lay for a moment, catching his breath before he could crawl toward the open door. "Well," he said between gasps, "that wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. You okay, Don?"

"No," Don grunted as he pulled out his cell phone. "No signal."

"Of course," Charlie murmured. "What now?"

Don blinked and rubbed his eyes as he looked at the hillside. They were about a mile from the road, give or take, and the slope was gentle enough that they could walk it. "There," he pointed to a cluster of trees about halfway up the hill. "We'll have some cover up there, and hopefully the phones will work and we can call for help."

"Why do we need cover?" Charlie asked, dreading the answer.

"Charlie, those two popping sounds we heard just before we crashed? I'm guessing either gunshots or some kind of small explosive device, like the arsonist used. Either way, someone caused this, and I don't want to be sitting here if he comes to look at his handiwork." Don pulled himself to his feet and stretched to look at the belly of the SUV. "Yep," he said, "here's the remnants of a small charge by the brakes. And here's another one." He sniffed. "And I'm smelling gas. Let's go."

Charlie sat up and tried to stand. His right leg buckled and he caught himself against the side of the car. He tried to put weight on his right foot, and winced as pain shot through his leg.

"Here," Don said, coming to Charlie's right side, "let me help you." He took Charlie's right arm and draped it over his shoulders. He hissed with pain as Charlie's arm contacted his left shoulder. "Crap. We're a mess. Listen. Just try to put your weight on my right shoulder, okay? Try and steer clear of the left."

Charlie nodded and kept his body away from Don's left side. Together, they hobbled slowly away from the SUV. Don kept glancing back, blinking and shaking his head. Finally, Charlie said, "Don, are you having trouble seeing?"

"Yeah. I must have a concussion. I'm seeing two of everything, and they're both blurry." Don reached up and patted Charlie's hand. "Don't worry. We'll get out of here."

"Who do you think did this?" Charlie asked.

"I'm guessing it was that Arbitrarian guy."

"Makes sense." Charlie gasped as he turned his ankle on a rock. "I'm okay," he said. "What makes you think Jeff the suck-up is the Arbitrarian?"

"Let's sit for a minute," Don said. They were about a quarter of the way to their goal, and the hillside had gotten a little steeper and a lot rockier. Don's face was very pale, and he swayed as they stopped walking.

Charlie stopped leaning on Don, and gingerly put some weight on his injured leg. He turned so he could take Don's right elbow and support him. "Okay, can you sit down without falling?"

"Yeah," Don whispered. He eased himself to the ground and then held up his right hand for Charlie to steady himself as he sat down. Then he cradled his left arm in his right hand and closed his eyes.

Charlie carefully stretched his legs out in front of him, and leaned forward to run his fingers along his right shin. He grimaced when his fingers reached a swelling a few inches below his knee. He glanced at Don to make sure his brother hadn't heard his sharp intake of breath. Don was gazing at him. "You okay, Buddy?"

Charlie shook his head. "I think it's broken." He nodded toward Don's shoulder. "How's the shoulder?"

"Probably dislocated. Maybe broken."

"And your head?" He scooted closer to Don and gently explored his scalp. "Looks like the bleeding's slowing down. How's your vision?"

"Still bad." Don sighed. "We should probably keep moving. If I sit here too much longer, I'm not going to want to get up again."

"Okay, but why not try your phone first?"

Don flipped his phone open. "Still no signal. How about yours?"

Charlie checked. "No signal."

"Okay, let's go," Don lurched to his feet then reached down to help Charlie up.

Once they were underway again, Charlie said, "So what evidence do you have that Jeff Ruddick is the Arbitrarian?"

"No evidence There's just something not right about him. I don't know what it is, but I just wondered how well you knew him."

"Not very well, really. I mean, he is a freshman, and we aren't that far into the semester. And after you told me about Jeff – how'd you put it – 'expressing reservations' about my arguments to the other students, well, I'm beginning to realize I don't know him at all."

They trudged on in silence, hoarding their strength. Charlie was beginning to feel as if every square inch of his body was bruised. He glanced at Don occasionally, and knew his brother was in much worse shape. "Don?"

"Hmm?"

"How's your vision? Any better?"

"Not really. But I'll live. How's the leg?"

Charlie shook his head. "Hurts. But I'll live." He grinned feebly at Don. "We're quite a pair, aren't we? You know, Jeff is a mechanical engineering student."

"Yeah, you said he was a whiz with machines," Don said. "So he could have figured out how to blow my brakes and steering. Do you know what he drives?"

"No idea. You guessing a pickup truck?"

"I'm afraid so," Don said. He looked up. "Hey, I think we're almost there."

"Good," Charlie gasped. "I don't know how much longer I can do this."

Don reached up and squeezed Charlie's hand. "Hang in there, Buddy. We'll make it."

When they were within a few yards of the trees, Don looked back again. He blinked and grabbed Charlie's hand. "Charlie! What's that?"

Charlie turned around and saw a figure moving toward the SUV, parallel to the road. "It's a guy with... oh, no... he's got a gun, Don."

"Crap. Hurry." Don dragged Charlie toward the trees. Charlie gasped and stumbled as he put weight on his broken leg. "Sorry, Charlie. We've got to hurry. We can't let him see us."

When they reached the trees, Charlie dropped with a soft groan, clutching his leg. Don crouched beside him. "Charlie? You okay, Buddy?"

Charlie nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

Don squinted down the hill, trying to see the gunman. "I don't think he saw us, but I can't tell what he's doing..."

Charlie pushed himself to a sitting position, grimacing and looked at the SUV. He whispered, "He's going around to the driver's side. He's bending down..." a shot echoed through the valley. Both brothers jumped. "He didn't even look in the door. He just ... oh, now he's looking. He knows we're not there." He watched in horror as the man straightened and looked around the valley and up the hill. Charlie hissed, "He's looking up here."

Don touched Charlie's arm. "Here, take this," he said, handing Charlie his service weapon.

Charlie's eyes widened in horror. "I... I can't."

"Well, I certainly can't do it. I wouldn't know which blurry guy to aim at. Here," he pressed the gun into Charlie's hand, "this is the safety. This way, it's off. The gun is loaded, so be careful. Hold it in your right hand and sight down the barrel. If you want you can steady your right hand with the left." He took the gun back and aimed. "Like this. Aim for the middle of his body. You have a better chance of hitting something that way." He handed it to Charlie. "Get the feel of it, now, Charlie. It could mean the difference ..."

"Between life and death," Charlie whispered, aiming the gun at the gunman. "How close does he need to be?"

Don pointed to a spot about one hundred yards away. "The closer the better, though. Unfortunately he could hit us from a lot further out."

Charlie closed his eyes and shook his head. "We're dead."

"No, Charlie. You can do this." He pulled out his cell phone. "Hey, we've got a signal." Don dialed Colby. "Granger, listen," Don whispered. "We were forced off the road, we're both injured, and there's a guy with a gun looking for us."

Charlie ran his fingers over the metal of the pistol in his hands as he stared at the gunman. The man had crouched, and Charlie guessed he was looking at the blood stains, trying to figure out which way they had gone. Without thinking, he pushed himself back, deeper into the skimpy cover of the trees and brush. Beside him, he heard Don finish his call. "Okay, Charlie. David and Colby are on their way. And they're calling an ambulance, too." He nodded in the direction of the SUV. "Can you tell who it is?"

Charlie bit his lip and shook his head. "I'm not sure. It could be Jeff. Similar build. But I haven't gotten a clear look at his face." He stopped. "Don, he's standing up, looking around again. He's starting to walk along the valley."

"That's good," Don said with a sigh.

Charlie turned to look at him. "You okay, Don?"

Don had closed his eyes again, and had found a tree to lean against. "Not really. My head is killing me, and my shoulder hurts every time I move. I hope David and Colby get here soon."

Charlie turned back to watch the gunman. "Oh, God, Don, he's heading this way." He fumbled for the gun, checked the safety and leaned forward. The gunman bent and touched something on the ground, then continued toward them. Charlie gasped. "It is Jeff Ruddick, Don." He looked down at the gun in his hands. "I can't..."

"You can if you need to, Charlie." Don opened his eyes and examined Charlie's face. "You can do it if it's him or us. Listen, when he gets closer, I'll tell him to put the weapon down. See how he reacts."

Charlie nodded. "Okay." He watched as Jeff approached. When he reached the spot Don had indicated, Charlie said, "He's in range."

Don nodded. He took a deep breath and bellowed, "Ruddick! FBI! Drop the gun!"

Beside him, Charlie raised Don's gun, aiming it at Ruddick's chest.

Ruddick raised his rifle. "Agent Eppes! You're injured, and you and your brother are the only ones here. You can't do anything to me."

"Want to bet?" Don yelled.

"Yeah," Ruddick yelled, aiming his rifle in the direction of Don's voice.

"Now, Charlie," Don whispered.

Charlie nodded and squeezed the trigger. The gun jumped in his hand and he watched in horror as Ruddick spun and collapsed, the rifle dropping from his hands.

Chapter 14

Charlie stood shakily, bracing himself against a tree, and started to take a step toward Ruddick. Don grabbed his arm. "Charlie, don't." He eased the gun from Charlie's fingers and put the safety on. "We'll wait for David and Colby."

"But he might still be alive. We need to help him."

"You wouldn't get two feet with that leg, Charlie. Sit down. I'll go check on him."

"Be careful, Don," Charlie's voice shook.

"I will. Sit," Don said, gently pushing down on Charlie's shoulder. When Charlie was seated, Don took his brother's chin in his right hand. "I'll be right back."

Charlie nodded numbly, and watched as Don stumbled down the slope toward Ruddick. He rubbed his leg absently and blinked back the tears that were collecting in his eyes.

He heard a car. The engine stopped, car doors slammed, and he heard Colby's voice, "Don! Charlie!"

"Down here," Charlie yelled, not taking his eyes from Don. Don had his gun out and was approaching Ruddick carefully.

At the sound of Colby's voice, Don turned. Charlie gasped. Something in him expected Ruddick to jump up. But he hadn't moved since Charlie had shot him, and he didn't move now.

Colby ran past Charlie toward Don. David stopped and knelt beside Charlie. "Charlie? You okay?"

Charlie looked up at him, not really seeing him. "I... I... "

"Where's it hurt, Charlie?"

"My leg is broken. David, I shot Jeff Ruddick. One of my students. I think I killed him."

David gripped Charlie's shoulders and looked into his eyes. "It's okay, Charlie. I'm sure you had to do it."

Charlie laughed mirthlessly as he looked down the slope toward Don and Colby. "Second time I've fired a gun in my whole life, David, and I've killed someone."

"Charlie," David said, "look at me."

Charlie forced himself to meet David's eyes. "What?"

"Tell me about what happened."

Charlie shook his head and looked away. "I can't."

"It'll help," David said.

"Will it?" Charlie's voice had risen and he fought the hysteria that was building inside him. He took a deep, shaky breath. "Okay," he whispered. "We were driving, just talking, just... just together, you know? And we heard two popping sounds. And Don lost control of the car. He said the steering and brakes were gone. We went off the road, and rolled over. I hit my leg. I think Don hit his shoulder, and his head. He has a concussion, David. He's got to get medical attention..."

"The paramedics are on the way."

Charlie nodded. "We got out of the car. Don said we had to get up here, into the trees and bushes, so we'd be able to hide. He knew. He knew Arbitrarian would be coming for us. We just barely got here when he showed up. He had a rifle, David. He... he fired into Don's car without even looking. Then he started looking for us. Don couldn't see right. His concussion. He couldn't focus. So he gave me his gun. Showed me how... how to use it... He warned Jeff. He yelled for him to drop his gun. But he didn't. He pointed it at Don. And I ... I ..."

"Charlie," David said softly, "you did what you had to do."

"But if I hadn't ignored the evidence, it never would have come to this. I was the only one who didn't see that the Arbitrarian was one of my students. I didn't want to see. If I..."

"Charlie, don't," David said firmly. "You can beat yourself up about this all day and it won't do one damned bit of good. It's over and done with. You have to move forward from here, or you'll drive yourself crazy."

Charlie closed his eyes and fought back tears.

"I know it hurts, Charlie. And it will hurt for a long time."

Charlie opened his eyes and looked at David. "You understand," he said softly.

"Yeah, Charlie, I do. I've done it too. I've killed someone, and I've beaten myself up over it until I was no use to anybody. Don't do that to yourself, to your family, to your friends."

A tear escaped and ran down Charlie's cheek. "Okay," he whispered.

He and David looked up as Don and Colby returned. Don sat beside Charlie and put his arm over Charlie's shoulders. "He's dead, Buddy. I'm sorry."

Charlie nodded, gazing off into the distance. "Me too."

A siren shattered the silence, growing closer. "Sounds like the ambulance is on the way," Don said.

"Good," Charlie said. He turned to meet Don's eyes and smiled. "My leg hurts like hell."

Colby stood. "I'm going up to flag 'em down."

Don squeezed Charlie's shoulder and they sat together, waiting.

Don turned and watched Charlie. His brother stared straight ahead, blinking and chewing his lips. Charlie could never hide his emotions, and now his expressive face reflected sorrow, horror, shock. All the things Don had felt the first time he killed a man. Well, he corrected himself, not just the first time. Every time he had to kill someone, he felt the same things. He never wanted Charlie to have to feel that. He shifted and pain ran through his shoulder, and his vision blurred. Charlie glanced up at him. "Don?"

"I'm okay. Just a little sore..."

Charlie smiled sadly, "A little? I feel like one big bruise."

"Hey, I just thought of something," Don said. "Do you want to call Dad, or should I?"

"Oh, man," Charlie said, "want to flip for it?"

"Oh, no! You're not going to get me with that one!"

Charlie took out his phone. "Since this is all my fault, I'll do it."

"It's not your fault, Charlie. But you can make the call."

Charlie dialed. "Hey, Dad. How's it going?... Yeah, I'm with him... Hey, you know that case we were working on?... Yeah, that's the one... We solved it... Yeah, yeah... Well, the bad news is the bad guy sabotaged Don's SUV, and, well, we were in a little accident... Well, Don has a concussion, and his shoulder is messed up. And I broke my leg... No! No, Dad, it's okay. The paramedics are on their way now... Yeah... No, I don't know which hospital... I'll call you when I find out... Sure..." he held the phone out to Don. "He wants to talk to you."

Don rolled his eyes and took the phone. "Hey, Dad..." He closed his eyes and rubbed his face. "No, Dad, I did not... Dad... listen..."

Charlie reached out and took the phone from Don. "Dad, this wasn't Don's fault... No, it wasn't... They guy who did this was after me, not after Don, and it had nothing to do with my work for the FBI... Okay, here." He handed the phone back to Don.

"Yeah?" Don said. "No, Dad, that's okay. Don't worry about it. It was a natural conclusion... Okay... Yeah, listen, the paramedics are here. Yeah, thanks... I love you too... I will." Don closed the phone and handed it back to Charlie. "Thanks for telling Dad..."

Charlie grinned. "I couldn't let you take the blame, Bro. Not the one time it's NOT your fault." Don laughed and punched Charlie on the arm. "Ow! Hey, what are you beating up on me for? I saved your bacon with Dad.".

"Okay," Colby said, leading a group of paramedics to Don and Charlie, "Help is here, guys."

Author's note: Here's the link to Chapter 14: and a reminder: I don't own Numb3rs, I'm eternally grateful to Nick Falacci & Cheryl Heuton for creating these wonderful characters, and I am not profiting from their hard work.

Chapter 15

Suddenly, their peaceful hillside erupted in sound and activity. Besides the paramedics, there were crews from the coroner's office and crime scene techs. Charlie had gone back to staring at Jeff's body until his view was blocked by an earnest young face. "Sir? Sir? Can you hear me?"

"Yes, of course," Charlie said, hoarsely. "I'm sorry, my thoughts were elsewhere..."

"It's understandable. You've been through a lot. What's your name?"

"Charlie Eppes. Dr. Charles Eppes. I'm a consultant with the FBI. This is my brother, Special Agent Don Eppes."

"Okay, thanks. Do you know what day today is?"

Charlie chuckled. "No, but if you ask my brother you'll find that isn't because of head trauma."

The paramedic grinned. "I'll take your word for it." He flashed a tiny penlight into Charlie's eyes. "Okay, your pupils are responsive." He brushed Charlie's hair back and examined his face and scalp. Charlie winced. "Sorry. Looks like you bumped your head. Okay, anything else hurt?"

"I think my right leg is broken."

"Okay, I'm going to put a splint on it. It'll hurt like hell when I move it, but I promise you, I'll be as gentle as I can."

"Okay." Charlie braced himself and watched as the paramedic placed a huge splint next to his leg. The paramedic ran his fingers carefully from Charlie's ankle toward his knee. When he reached the bump, Charlie gasped. "All right, sorry." He continued to the knee, moving it carefully and watching Charlie's face for reaction. "Mike, wanna give me a hand here?"

A second paramedic joined the first and while one held the splint open on the ground, the other slipped both hands under Charlie's leg, one below the break, and one above, and lifted slowly. Charlie bit his lip and groaned. Beside him he noticed Don turning to look. "It's okay, Don." he murmured. After the splint was secure, the two paramedics helped Charlie move his aching body onto a stretcher. He looked over at Don. His big brother was still sitting, wearing a neck brace. His left arm was bound to his body. "You look like crap, Don," Charlie said.

Don turned his whole upper body so he could glare at his little brother. "You're no prize either, Chuck."

"Okay, Agent Eppes," the paramedic standing next to Don said, "let's get you onto the stretcher."

"I can walk," Don said, starting to stand.

"Nope," the paramedic said, holding him down. "Legal liability and all that happy horse manure."

Don grinned in spite of himself. "All right, you're the boss."

Charlie chuckled. "On this day in history, Don Eppes finally admitted that someone else was the boss."

"Don't get used to it," Don snarled as he let the paramedics help him onto the stretcher.

Alan was waiting outside the emergency entrance when the two ambulances arrived, followed closely by a black SUV. He stepped forward as Don was unloaded from the first ambulance. "Donnie," he gasped as he saw the neck brace, the bandages swaddling Don's arm, and the IV tubes.

Don's eyes opened and he grinned, "Dad! It's not as bad as it looks. Most of this junk is required legally, not medically. See ya," he said as they rolled him through the door.

Next to arrive was Charlie, with bruises, IV tubes, and his right leg in a huge bright orange splint that covered him from his toes to halfway up his thigh. "Hey, Dad," he said softly. "It's..."

"I know. It's not as bad as it looks, right?"

"Right. I take it you've seen Don already."

"Yes, I have. See you later, Son."

Charlie waved as he was wheeled into the hospital. Alan started to follow his sons through the door, when he was suddenly flanked by Colby and David. "Hello, Mr. Eppes," David said.

"I thought I told you to call me Alan."

David grinned. "That you did, Alan."

"How are they, really?"

"They'll be fine. Charlie's leg is broken and Don's shoulder is probably just dislocated. And Don has a concussion. They're both bruised from head to toe."

Alan nodded as the three of them sat down in the waiting room. "So, what exactly happened?"

Colby took a deep breath. "We didn't get to the scene until it was all over, but I've talked to Don, and David talked to Charlie, and I think we'll be able to give you the Cliff Notes version."

"Okay. Start with the case that got them into this. What did Charlie mean when he told me the guy was after him and it had nothing to do with his work for the FBI?"

"You do cut to the chase, don't you, Alan?" Colby said. "We're not sure of the details, but one of Charlie's freshmen students committed a series of crimes, and left notes for Don. We all assumed it had to do with Don, but the notes also mentioned Charlie, and as time went on, they got more and more hostile towards Charlie. And today he set a fire off the Angeles Crest Highway, and tampered with Don's car. After Don and Charlie left the scene of the arson, Don's brakes and steering went, and they went off the road, and rolled the car."

David continued, "The student, a kid named Jeff, came on the scene, apparently to make sure they... Well, Don realized he might be back, so he and Charlie had left the car and were hiding in some woods a ways up the hill. Don had his gun..."

"He didn't shoot the kid, did he?"

Colby and David exchanged glances, and David continued, "No, with his concussion Don's vision was blurred. He couldn't... So he gave the gun to Charlie and ..."

"Oh, my God," Alan grabbed David's shoulders. "Charlie shot his own student?"

David nodded.

"Did they take him to another hospital?"

Colby said, "No, Mr. Eppes. Jeff is dead."

"How did Charlie handle that?"

David smiled. "He'll be fine, Alan. I talked to him for quite a while. He knows it's something he had to do. The guy was aiming at Don. He had to shoot him."

Alan sighed. "I guess it's a good thing Don taught him how to shoot a gun during that sniper case you guys had."

David saw Colby's questioning look and said, "It was before you joined the team, Colby. First time I worked with Edgerton. Charlie wanted to get some hands on experience so he could understand the sniper a little better."

Colby shook his head. "Charlie's a real piece of work." He caught Alan's sharp glance. "Sorry, Alan, I meant that in a good way. He never lets go until he has the answers."

Alan smiled sadly, "I hope he finds his answers this time."

Author's note: Here's the link to Chapter 15: 16

Alan, being a very convincing negotiator had managed to convince the hospital staff to put his two sons in the same room, in spite of a hospital policy of putting law enforcement officers in private rooms for security reasons. Don arrived first, his left arm in a sling, and stitches in his forehead. Charlie, unfortunately, needed the services of an orthopedic surgeon to reset his right leg, and wouldn't be out of recovery for a while yet.

Alan sat patiently, concentrating on his sudoku puzzle as Don slept. He heard movement in the doorway and looked up. "Hi, Megan. Come in, come in!" he said, standing to greet her.

Megan came into the room and gave Alan a hug. "How are you holding up, Alan?"

"Surprisingly well, thank you. I was able to talk to Colby and David about what happened, and I think both boys are going to be fine. Charlie's in recovery now. They had to knock him out to reset his leg. And Don," he nodded at his older son, "hasn't been much of a host."

"Hey," Don muttered, "I heard that." He worked to open his eyes. "Hey, Megan."

"Hey, Don," Megan stepped to his side and took his hand. "How are you feeling?"

"Been better. How's Charlie?"

Alan said, "He's still in recovery. They had to reset his leg. He'll be here in a little while. I arranged to have both of you in one room. I'm too old to be running around from room to room." Alan sat and touched Don's arm. "David and Colby told me what happened. The case, your car crash, and Charlie having to shoot that boy." He blinked back tears.

"Have you talked to Charlie about it?" Don asked.

"Haven't had a chance. David says he thinks Charlie will be okay, though." Alan pulled a chair over for Megan. After she was seated, he said, "Megan, what do you think? You know Charlie, and you know how people handle these things."

"I'll talk to him, but I trust David's assessment. Charlie is a lot stronger than he sometimes seems. He's got a strong support system and a great family. He'll be fine."

"I just wish we'd figured out about Jeff Ruddick faster," Don said with a sigh. "Then Charlie never would have..."

"Stop it, Donnie," Alan said. "I don't know anything about the case, but I get the feeling that this came out of left field. None of you had any idea it was this Ruddick kid."

"But I did, Dad," Don said softly. "I had a bad feeling about the kid, and I didn't do anything about it."

Alan shook his head. Turning to Megan, he said, "So have you found out why Ruddick did this?"

"Not yet. They're searching his dorm room, and contacting his family now." She touched his hand. "Don't worry. We'll find out why he did it. And, Don, you know as well as I do that for every 'bad feeling' we have about a perpetrator, there are hundreds of 'bad feelings' we have about an innocent person."

"You're right of course," Don said grudgingly. "But I still wish this didn't have to happen."

"We all wish that, Don."

They heard the rattling of a gurney outside the room, and turned to watch as Charlie was wheeled into the room. The orderly pushing the gurney tapped Charlie's shoulder, "There you go, Professor, I told you your brother would be here waiting for you."

Charlie raised his head and grinned groggily. "Donnie! How you doin'?"

"Hey, Chuck, I'm doing fine. How are you doing?"

"Not feelin' a thing, And don't call me Chuck." Charlie slurred.

"They got you on the good stuff, I see," Don laughed.

"Yep, they do. Not looking forward to when it wears off, though."

"Okay, Professor," the orderly said. "You stay put. I'm gonna get the nurse to help get you into your bed."

"Okey dokey," Charlie said. "Hey, Dad, Megan, how's it goin'?"

Alan touched Charlie's cheek, "Just fine, now."

Once Charlie was settled into his bed, and the nurse had taken his vitals, his eyes had drifted shut. The nurse whispered, "It'll take a little while for the anesthesia to work its way out of his system. The doctor said the leg looks good, by the way. He'll be by to talk to you later."

"Thank you," Alan said.

Charlie's eyes opened, and he said, "What?"

"I was just talking to the nurse. How are you doing, Son?"

"I'm okay," Charlie said, looking vaguely surprised. "They said everything went as planned, and I shouldn't have any long lasting effects."

"Colby and David told me you had to shoot a murderer today, Son."

Charlie nodded. "I wish I didn't have to. But, Dad, he killed a couple of people. He raped a woman. He kidnapped a little girl. I don't know why he did those things, but when he aimed at Don... I had to."

"I know, Son.. And you did the right thing." Alan patted Charlie's hand. "I also know you're a tender hearted young man, and you couldn't do such a thing without it having an effect on you."

Charlie closed his eyes and nodded.

Alan continued, "I just wanted you to know that I knew, and that I understand."

"Thanks, Dad," Charlie murmured, his eyes still closed. His breathing evened out and soon he was snoring softly.

Alan glanced at Don, who had also fallen back asleep. He smiled at Megan, "Well, I'm glad they're both here, but they're not much company."

"Alan, why don't you stretch your legs, get some coffee, take a break? I'll stay with the two sleeping beauties."

Alan looked at his two sons and nodded, "Thank you, Megan. I won't be long."

When Alan returned with coffee for himself and Megan, Colby and David had arrived, and Charlie and the four agents were involved in a lively conversation. Alan entered the room and handed a cup to Megan. "If I'd known, I would have brought more coffee," he said.

Colby and David both stood, and Colby said, "I'm sorry, Mr. Eppes..."

"It's Alan, and don't be sorry," Alan said. "Do you know anything more about this Ruddick kid?"

They sat, and Colby answered, "We did find some stuff in his room. He apparently had been obsessed with Charlie for a few years. We found a scrapbook of math journal articles, news articles, photos from lectures, all sorts of things. He even got copies of some of Charlie's school papers."

Charlie shook his head. "I don't know how he got some of that stuff."

Alan looked from Colby to Charlie. "Did you know about this, Charlie?"

"Not at all. I mean, he was always trying to please me. But that's not different from a lot of freshmen."

"So, what changed? Why did he go from being the teacher's pet to trying to kill you?"

Charlie shrugged and pointed to Colby and David, "You'll have to ask these guys."

David said, "Well, something pushed him over the edge, but we're not sure what it was."

Megan took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I can take some guesses, and, Charlie, maybe you can help me with this. You're the only one of us who ever met Ruddick before today."

Charlie nodded. "Okay."

"Okay, Ruddick started this whole Arbitrarian thing, what, two weeks ago, as near as we can figure. So, Charlie, did you notice anything going on with Ruddick two weeks ago?"

Charlie rubbed his face as he shook his head. "Megan," he said, looking up at her, "you know that sometimes I'm not the most observant..."

"Don't sell yourself short, Charlie. You care about your students. You know more about them that you think you know. Did he come in to talk to you? Did you blow him off? Did he flunk a test?"

"There was a test.. Don, you remember the other day I told you Jeff was not very good at math? Well, he flunked his first test, and just barely squeaked by on the second one. And that was only after I tutored him for four hours the day before the test. After that test, I told him I didn't know if he was going to be able to do this class."

"When was that, Charlie?" Megan asked.

"Three weeks ago. And then the following week was the infamous argument about randomness."

Alan shook his head, "But that's not the kind of thing that makes someone into a serial killer, is it?"

Megan said, "Depending on Jeff Ruddick's mindset, it just might. If he decided to come to Cal Sci just to study with Charlie, and Charlie took that away from him, he might turn hostile. I'd like to talk to his friends and family and see what I can learn about him."

A week later, Megan had gotten her wish. She had sat down with Mr and Mrs. Ruddick and had a long talk about Jeff. She had gone through his papers, and even got his high school records and college applications. She arrived at the Eppes household carrying a briefcase full of Jeff Ruddick's life.

Charlie reclined on the sofa, his feet resting on a pillow on Amita's lap, his computer on his lap, surrounded by books and papers. Amita's laptop rested on top of Charlie's legs. Don sat in an overstuffed chair, his feet on an ottoman, watching a hockey game on TV. Alan checked to see if anybody needed anything, and then returned to his seat. Megan settled into an easy chair and opened her briefcase.

As four pairs of eyes watched anxiously, she began. "Well, as I explained to Don, I had a chance to meet with Mr. And Mrs. Ruddick. Charlie, they want to meet with you to apologize for their son's behavior, and for their own negligence."

"Negligence?" Charlie asked.

"Their son had a history of obsessing over his teachers. And a history of violent behavior when his obsessions were thwarted. They knew of his obsession with you, Charlie, and, sadly, they enabled his behavior. They drove him to your lectures on the east coast, they helped him find information about you. And they let him apply to Cal Sci."

"Oh my God," Alan said, "Why did they do a thing like that?"

"They didn't think Jeff would be accepted into Cal Sci. They hoped then that he would drop his obsession and be a normal kid. They didn't realize that, with the help of a few friends, Jeff managed to tinker with his records."

"So once they realized he was in," Don said angrily, "they just dropped it? They knew they were putting Charlie in danger."

"They felt helpless. They hoped that a professor of Charlie's status would have no contact with freshmen, and that Jeff would be too busy with his school work to obsess over Charlie. They're weak, Don. They have let their son run their lives for eighteen years."

Don sighed. "I know. It's just that they didn't just screw up their own family, they messed with my family, too. That tends to tick me off. Are there any charges we can bring against them?"

"Donnie!" Alan said, "that is uncalled for. They've just lost their son, and I'm sure they know it was their fault. What more could you do to them? Listen, Son," he continued, more gently, "I know you think somebody should pay, but this kid, the one who did all these awful things, he paid with his life. Isn't that enough?"

Don glanced at Charlie and then looked back at his father. "It should be, but I'm not sure if it is."

Alan looked at Don over his reading glasses. "But sometimes you just have to take what you can get. And, remember, you both managed to walk away." He looked at Charlie's leg and grinned, "Well, more or less."