As is now obvious to everyone, I totally SUCK at updating WIPs in a timely manner. But yes, FINALLY, here is the third and final chapter.
Much, many and more thanks to Rinne and Starrylizard for betaing this - but, of course, the mistakes that it still contains remain very much my own.
The fic is set just prior to Supernatural's "Heart" and Numb3rs' "Democracy" episodes (yeah, I've finally decided on the timeline) and so, for direct spoilers, everything up to those is fair game. There also may be small indirect references to episodes from the rest of season 2 of Supernatural and season 3 of Numb3rs.
Disclaimers, etc as per chapter 1.
Thank you for your patience, everyone. Seriously.
They put him aboard a well wound whirlwind
Pulled out his teeth and told him to grin
He gave them a smile, pulled out a bottle of wine
And said "I never existed, you've been wasting your time"
"How ya doing, Mr Eppes?"
David Sinclair smiles as he approaches to escort Alan up to the office where his sons have sequestered themselves away for the past two days, but there's an element of relief in the greeting which makes the older man raise his eyebrows. Alan has always appreciated David's seemingly indomitable level headedness and good humour. The look of genuine relief in the young FBI agent's eyes confirms that Allen was right to come down here. His presence is obviously needed.
"Fine, David," he says automatically, but when David raises his own eyebrows, Alan tempers his response. "Maybe a little concerned." He offers a small smile of his own. "I mean, it's not really unusual for me to go for days without seeing any sign of Don, but I live with Charlie and even when he decides to do the hermit thing, obsessing over his work, I usually just have to go out and take a look in the garage."
David nods. "Yeah, I kinda see your point."
"And that's not even mentioning that two days ago Charlie was in the hospital for smoke inhalation. Some might say that he should be taking things a bit easy."
"Some might say," David agrees with a wistful sigh and Alan chuckles. It's not like he doesn't know the level of obsession that both his sons are capable of.
"So, is it because the problem itself is just far too engrossing for him to take it easy, or is it because he's taking it too personally?"
"Charlie's not the one taking it personally," David mutters under his breath, avoiding Alan's gaze, as he opens the door for him.
Alan sighs. That's more or less what he'd been expecting too.
As David leads him the rest of the way up to the office, there is a silence that is at least companionable, if not completely comfortable. Alan has been a visitor to Don's "war room" before. He knows that this case has involved several deaths and he knows that Charlie's life was apparently threatened. So he thinks that he can gauge the level of tension to expect, but he's taken aback at the intensity of the gazes that swing towards him as he enters the room.
Even though he knows that they had already been told he was arriving, everyone stops what they are doing to look at him and, since Charlie was apparently mid-explanation as he entered, that can definitely be called unusual. There is a second or two of silence before Don offers, "Hey, Dad. Welcome to the party," with some forced jocularity. Charlie, Megan and Colby say nothing, although Megan gives him a small nod of greeting.
Alan takes a quick look round the group and then acknowledges Don's greeting with a mumbled thanks that might not be exactly gracious, but reflects the contagious unease that he senses in the room. It's nearly nine pm on a Saturday and Don's team seem to be the only ones in the office at the moment, but somehow Alan feels a little crowded - which is ridiculous. He shakes off his hesitancy and strides over to join his sons who are both standing in front of a board covered in maps, crime scene photos and a couple of mug shots.
"So this is them?"
Don shrugs in acknowledgment. There's no need to actually voice an answer because the names "Dean Winchester" and "Sam Winchester" are very clearly written in felt tip underneath each mugshot. Alan has already heard the basic - sanitised - facts of the case from Don, two days ago while Charlie was in the hospital. Serial killers. Multiple murders across the country. Murders too gruesome to describe.
"God, they're kids!"
He feels slightly naïve, even as he says it and Don's response is weary and not a little irritated.
"Trust me, Dad. They're not kids"
But as Alan steps closer to study the defiantly lifted chin and the belligerence in the eyes of Dean Winchester, he can't help but remember another kid, fiercely declaring that he had no idea how the neighbour's window came to be broken and defying anyone to prove he had anything to do with it. A quick glance across to his eldest son shows him that same look of defiance again, echoes of the past in the present, but rather than confront it, Alan turns back to the other mugshot.
Sam, the younger brother if he remembers rightly, has a touch of sadness in his eyes and maybe the faintest hint of confusion, as if, at the time it was taken, he wasn't completely sure why he was there. It does make him look a little more youthful and vulnerable, but his jaw is still firmly set. Even if he doesn't know what's going on, there's going to be no surrender. Less antagonism perhaps, but equal determination and he can't be more than early twenties which makes him a kid in Alan's book.
"What are they then?" Alan turns around, addressing his question to the whole group and Megan's face slowly melts into a smile. His eyebrows go up, although he's not surprised to see that she has a theory. She always was an exceptionally bright young woman.
"Well, that really is the question, Mr Eppes."
"Oh, really?" The way Alan heard it two days ago, the judgement had already been handed down on these boys, or at least, the unofficial judgement from Don and his team. He's more than a little curious to learn what has transpired since then to bring such a forgone conclusion back into question now. "I thought you had a very comprehensive file on them." He says it challengingly and, without looking, can feel Don's gaze on him intensify.
"'Comprehensive' is the eye of the beholder," Charlie snorts and Alan turns to look at his youngest.
Alan asks, "What do you mean?" at the same time that Don says warningly, "Charlie..." and the family genius gives a very familiar small toss of his head as he determinedly focuses on his father, rather than his brother.
"Well, the file does contain a lot of data, but there are also a lot of inconsistencies in that data and there is a definite bias in the way those inconsistencies are being dealt with. It's as if the conclusion has already been decided and the data is being adapted to fit it, rather than using the data available to determine a logical conclusion."
"Oh, c'mon, Charlie," Don objects. "People have been working their asses off for months, putting together that file. You can't just wander in, take one look at it and make pronouncements like that. You gotta have proof."
"Proof?" There is a touch of incredulity in his voice, as Charlie turns to his brother. "You want proof that the people handling this case are just ditching the data that doesn't show what they want? Okay."
Charlie starts rifling through various folders that are spread over the desk in the centre of the room, talking as he goes.
"There are actually two ways to approach the analysis of this file, y'know? Firstly, you can use the file itself to analyse the actual events of the case and in that scenario, it makes sense to simply follow the chronological order in which the crimes were committed. You would have to assume that events occur sequentially, with each event building on the next, and so that would be a logical way to determine how the sequence of events unfolded. And it means that, if the Winchesters did commit all the crimes they are accused of, then there should be a logical progression of the events which then could be clearly demonstrated by some form of mathematical model but there isn't."
"He's right," Megan interrupts and when Alan looks at her, she looks down with a brief self-conscious chuckle before meeting his gaze. "I know we often just assume that goes without saying with Charlie, but it's not just the math that doesn't add up. The sequence of events doesn't show a logical progression from a psych profiling point of view either. If they were thrill killers, you'd expect a fairly consistent general pattern, with progressive escalation of the violence, but that's not what's seen. The 'murder sprees' occur irregularly with varying intervals in between, and more importantly, the intensity of the crimes fluctuates. There are batches of extremely gruesome crimes in one area - violent, bloody, torture of the victim before death and/or mutilation of the body after - and then when they move on, sometimes there is a series of comparatively less bloody crimes with simple clean kills or no deaths at all. There's no logical reason for a thrill killer to step down the violence of their attacks."
Alan casts a look at Don, who is doing his best to look inscrutable, before turning back to Charlie. "You said that there were two ways to look at it. So, what's the second?"
Charlie grins slightly. "To look at the way the file itself was put together. To analyse how each case was attributed to the Winchesters and why it was added to the file and that doesn't have to follow a straight chronological order. You remember that vector analysis I did to track the transmission of that influenza virus a few years back? Well, you can apply something similar here."
That's too much for Don to accept without challenge. "An FBI file is like a disease? C'mon Charlie, give me a break here!"
Charlie shrugs off the disdain. "It's a way of looking at it, yes. The spread of an opinion, like a conclusion of guilt, can be viewed like the spread of a disease. Only here, it's not really as if people are being infected by the contagion. It's more like, if an unsolved crime incident has a "point of contact" with the Winchesters, then it becomes infected and they are automatically assumed to be the perpetrators of that crime. And if you view the file in that way, then the St Louis murders are effectively "patient zero". That is the point at which Dean Winchester came to the attention of law enforcement at a federal level, but he was assumed to be dead at that time and so the 'disease' went into what might be considered the equivalent of an 'incubation period'. Other subsequent crimes and murders occurred and remained unsolved, like they were lying 'dormant', so when it was later discovered that Dean Winchester was actually still alive and the crimes could be attributed to him, then the file 'spread' to include them."
"Yeah, but I don't exactly see why that isn't logical, Charlie," Don interjects and Alan has to agree with him. "If it's discovered that he wasn't dead like he was supposed to be and he can be placed at the scene, it makes sense that he becomes a suspect where he wasn't before."
"Being in the area at the same time the crimes were committed isn't exactly incontrovertible proof of guilt to me. Where as more than 'same place, same time' is usually required to indicate guilt, the people putting together this file were already pre-primed to automatically attribute the crimes to the Winchesters, like the disease was lying dormant and only needed to be triggered. And anyway, the inclusion and exclusion of cases isn't consistent or logical. To give you an example, for a while there seems to have been a push to include what was known as 'The Bloody Mary deaths' in Toledo, Ohio. There were a couple of suspicious deaths, quite bizarre bleeding from the eyes apparently. The first man was thought to be a stroke, but then a young woman who was known to be a friend of the family also died in the same manner. Both of the deceased man's daughters gave positive IDs for Dean and Sam Winchester being present in the area after his death, although another witness that was questioned refused to confirm the details. Prints lifted from a vandalism and assault case at a Toledo antiques store were analysed in retrospect and came up with possible matches for both brothers' fingerprints. There were no further Bloody Mary deaths after the time of this break in. So, on the basis of the prints and witness IDs, the cases were initially included in the file, but then discarded when the second death directly overlapped with one of the St Louis killings."
"And this proves?" Don challenges Charlie, but it's Megan who answers.
"That the people putting the file together wanted Dean Winchester for the St Louis killings. The Toledo deaths, while gruesome, were never proven as murder, so they would be considered less of a 'prize' by someone trying to deliberately build up a serial killer profile. And since the incidents conflict with each other, they disregarded the one that didn't fit the picture they wanted."
"Exactly!" Charlie pounces, poking holes in the air with one upraised finger. "The evidence for the St Louis killings consists pretty much only of one witness statement which has since been retracted. And that same witness was the one who falsely identified the body as Dean Winchester, she apparently now says she was mistaken - and that would now seem obvious, I suppose, since he's turned up alive since then - but it really undermines the strength of the evidence. So, logically, the Toledo case should be weighed at least equally with the one from St Louis, but it wasn't." He waves his hands around in a gesture of frustration. "You can't just discard data because you don't like what it tells you."
"But don't you do that kinda thing all the time?" Colby asks, in all apparent innocence, but Charlie turns on him with a glare that would melt the polar ice caps.
"What?" he asks with the sort of quiet, measured pseudo-calm that could easily precede a homicide.
"Well," Colby fumbles slightly, but then shrugs a little. "You often come in on a case and say 'This fits the pattern, so this, this and this'. Then later, something else turns up and you say, 'No it's part of something else, so now it's that, that and that instead." He waves his hands a bit, as if to say "QED".
Charlie blinks slowly and Alan has to fight hard to hide his smile.
"No," Charlie draws the word out, as he shakes his head, apparently piecing together exactly what Colby is trying to say. "I mean, yes, I refine my data, but I don't just throw out data because I don't like what it implies. The idea is to find a pattern that best fits the data, not make the data fit your favoured pattern. All data points - all of the crime incidents – should be assessed under the same criteria. If two data points conflict, you can't just dump one because it interferes with how you'd prefer to view the case. You have to weigh each up without bias and see which evidence stands up better. If they are of equal weight then you can't just dismiss one arbitrarily. You must find another way to resolve the conflict."
Alan nods. "So what patterns are we talking about then, Charlie?"
Charlie takes a deep breath. This is obviously "The Big Sell" but it's also fairly obvious that Charlie is not really worried about selling it to his father. It actually seems more targeted towards the other member of his family, whose scepticism is beginning to seem a little forced to Alan's mind.
"Okay, so the pattern that the FBI has been trying to push so far is a "serial killer" psych profile and it just doesn't stand up to scrutiny any way you look at it. But if you map the Winchester brothers known movements over the past couple of years, then what they actually fit is a kind of hunting pattern. They've only sporadically left evidence for us to follow, but when they do, the pattern runs this way. There are a series of deaths, disappearances or just mysterious violent incidents. Then, at some point after the incidents have become public knowledge, the Winchesters or evidence that Winchesters have been there is found in the area. Not long after that, the incidents cease and the Winchesters disappear. And if you accept that they arrived around the time that actual evidence of their presence at the scene first appears, rather than dating it back to when the killings or whatever first started, then there isn't any of that overlap problem in the timing of cases. So, far be it from me to advocate jumping to conclusions without enough evidence, but tell me, Dad, in your unbiased opinion, what's your first thought about all that?"
Alan's eyebrows go up at Charlie's belligerence. It would seem that his theory has met with very strong resistance from his brother and Alan can't yet see why Don would be digging his heels in over this. But if he's going to find out what's going on in his eldest son's head, it's not going to be by directly asking. He still feels very out of the loop and he needs more information about the whole situation.
"Okay, Charlie, I get what you're saying." He glances towards Don, who has fixed an impassive stare on his younger brother. "But maybe there's more to it than that. Like why are you only looking at the past couple of years? Isn't there anything about them from before that?"
Again Megan pipes up and Alan begins to feel a bit like he's being tag-teamed. His peripheral vision catches Don putting a hand to his forehead and realises that, no, it's actually Don that's being tag-teamed - and by two of the people whose opinions he respects most. And yet he seems to be refusing to accept what either of them has to say. What the hell is going on?
"Not really," Megan is saying. "Dean has a juvenile record for a few incidents of vandalism, but nothing that screams 'future serial killer in the making'. And Sam seems to be completely squeaky clean until two years ago. In fact, he's a bit of a wunderkind. He got into Stanford University on full scholarship, supported himself through a Pre-Law course and ranked in the 99th percentile on his Law School Admission Test score. Had an interview for Law School at Stanford on the day his life went up in smoke - almost literally."
Alan's gaze swings back to the photo of the younger Winchester boy. The family genius. Interesting. He's vaguely aware of his own 'hmmm', as Megan elaborates.
"He had been sharing an apartment with his girlfriend, Jessica Moore. No apparent contact with his family for at least a couple of years, according to his friends at college. And he seems to have had a lot of friends at college. The boy was at least well-liked, if not one of the popular crowd. Then the girlfriend dies when their apartment burns down during the night. She had told friends the day before that Sam had gone off with his brother for a couple of days, but both the Winchesters were present on the night of the fire. Dean was the one that called 911, after apparently pulling Sam from the burning building. Their story was that Dean had dropped Sam home, but then gone back when he'd forgotten something, found the place on fire, dragged his brother out, but was too late to save the girl."
"And they mysteriously disappeared straight after that?"
"Not really. They stayed in town for around a week. Sam convincingly grief-stricken and trying to find out why the fire happened. His brother hanging around and, to all intents and purposes, being supportive. They left without incident after the funeral, saying that Sam needed to get away from the memories, and neither was suspected of anything. It was all just put down to a terrible tragedy that no one could have foreseen."
"Until the Winchester file was created," Charlie interjects. "Now it's considered suspected arson and guess who's prime suspect?"
Alan can see how the FBI might have built a case like that, but Charlie obviously has another working theory. "So, how do you see all this fitting into your pattern?"
"More or less, the same way I saw it when Sam himself told me that his girlfriend died in a fire." Alan's eyebrows go up at that, but he doesn't interrupt Charlie when he seems to be on a roll. "He's let his grief become an obsession. He couldn't save his girlfriend from whatever killed her and the guilt drives him to hunt for answers -" He drops his voice in a way that is obviously meant to convey significance. "- in all the wrong places".
"What do you -?" Alan begins to ask the invited question, before he remembers something else he was told the other day. "What about his brother? A couple of days ago, I thought that the theory was that the older brother was a psychokiller who dragged his younger brother around as an accomplice. When did that theory change?"
Megan seems to take this as a personal criticism. Possibly because as the psychologist on the team, she thinks that the responsibility falls to her. Her reply seems both defensive and apologetic.
"Well, when we started out, we only had the file information to go on. As Charlie said, that's been skewed in a certain direction. And we'd never actually seen either of the Winchesters in action, aside from a very small amount of news camera footage from the attempted bank robbery in Milwaukee. We hadn't even seen the actual footage of Dean Winchester's so-called confession in Baltimore, only read the transcript. I got to watch Dean's interview here and then review the tape several times. And okay, we went into the interview with the assumption that he was a psychopath, a thrill killer, because that was the basic profile that we'd already been given in the file. But he reacted with genuine emotion to the accusation that he didn't care about the lives that had been lost. One of the few times he reacted emotionally at all. That's not the reaction of a psychopath - which sort of pulls the foundations out from under our original profile. Dean clearly didn't think that he would be believed when he offered up his (admittedly bizarre) explanation for why he and Sam got involved with this case. He may very well be delusional and something of an anarchist, but he really doesn't seem to be a true sociopath. Instead, there was a certain righteous arrogance about him, like he believed that what he was doing was right, even if we didn't, and that was all that mattered to him - much like the Milton quote."
Alan isn't sure that he heard right. "The Milton quote?"
David reaches across and picks up a large, battered paperback from one of the desks and flips it open to show Alan. "It's Larry Fleinhart's copy of 'The Complete Prose Works of John Milton'. Sam Winchester lifted it from Charlie's office and they left it opened at this page, the beginning of something called 'An Apology For Smectymnuus' with Charlie's cell phone sitting on top, so we couldn't miss it."
Alan reads the yellow-highlighted passage aloud, "The best apology against false accusers is silence and sufferance, and honest deeds set against dishonest words," and he can't help but be impressed by the style and audacity. "So you think they might be trying to tell you something?"
It's such an obviously rhetorical question that no one gives him a direct answer, but Charlie seems to feel the need to explain the circumstances.
"When Sam took Larry's book from my office, along with my cell phone, he seemed to make the decision on the fly, although the majority of what he did had to be meticulously planned."
"Yes!" Megan jumps in again. "They have a deadly combination of complex pre-planning skills with flashes of spontaneous innovation. It's unbelievable."
"And there's no doubt in my mind that we are dealing with a genius level of intelligence here. The arson analysis that Sam left in my office is simply brilliant. Although he's clearly using non-mathematical techniques and math would obviously have made his analysis much more effective, the analysis in that file accurately predicted a sequence of fires, to the point where they were apparently able to identify the arsonist and intercept the fourth fire, at the Chiyoda restaurant, and prevent the fatality."
"Or maybe it's more 'psychic' than 'genius'," Colby interjects and this time there is definite mischief in his eyes. "After all, they both said that Sam saw the fires in those visions he has."
"Visions?" Alan's eyebrows go up. Okay, that is definitely news to him. "Sam Winchester has visions of the future?"
"No, he does not!" Charlie, quite unsurprisingly, adamantly denies this - which is undoubtedly the reason that Colby and the others are so obviously amused by it. "It's got nothing to do with any so-called 'psychic powers'. They're simply putting a pattern together."
Even Megan can't fully repress a slight grin as she explains. "During Dean's interview, he said that the reason that he and Sam came to LA was because Sam had some kind of psychic premonition of the first fire. And Sam told Charlie that he knew about the Chiyoda Restaurant fire because he saw it in a vision. Also, from what Charlie described, Sam might have had one of his 'psychic migraines' while he was in Charlie's office."
"No, no, no!" Charlie has actually started waving his hands in the air. He stops when everyone turns to look at him and moderates his tone. "Well, he possibly had a migraine, yes. But, actually, that might be the reason he thinks he has visions."
Alan is more than used to dealing with his younger son's scepticism in this area. "Okay, how?"
"Migraines can be associated with hallucinations, especially in the prodromal phase when the migraine is just starting."
Megan snorts a little at that. "Yes, but Charlie, those are usually just simple sensory hallucinations - light distortions, weird sounds, odd smells - that sort of thing."
"I know, I know." Charlie holds up his hands again, but this time in partial surrender. "But, in rare cases, more complex hallucinations have been reported and, in Sam's case, I think his are being influenced by his conscious mind to a degree. He's obsessive and all the information and analysis that he's already been mapping out in his mind influence the form that the migraine hallucination takes. So, it feels like a visual premonition, but really it's just a combination of the pieces of the puzzle falling into place at the same time a migraine hits."
He casts a hopeful gaze around the group, seemingly to see if anyone is willing to say yay or nay to this. But everyone else is exchanging glances with each other, probably because none of them really wants to be the one to suggest that Charlie himself is falling into the "trap" of trying to make the data fit his own preferred pattern.
Alan steps in, partly to defuse the awkward silence and partly because something else has just occurred to him.
"Wait a minute! This is completely different from the story I heard two days ago. You're now saying that these boys didn't cause any of these fires and, furthermore, they actually told you who did? What makes you believe them now?"
Charlie shrugs a little sheepishly. "Well, I talked to Millie and I've looked more into Bronwyn Sequard's recent history."
"Your student, Bronwyn?" Alan asks, incredulously. He only met her once, but she seemed like a perfectly ordinary and stable girl. And she was the one fatality from the fire at CalSci, could only be identified from dental records. Blaming it all on someone who died seems a little convenient to Alan. "And what's Millie got to do with all this? I've left a dozen messages on her phone today. I'm beginning to get the feeling that she's avoiding me."
Megan's sigh draws his attention and when he looks over to her, she shrugs slightly. "To be honest, Mr Eppes, I think she might be avoiding you because she's feeling a bit guilty. She might be thinking that this is all her fault."
"That's totally ridiculous! How could she be to blame for any of this?"
Megan holds up her hands to forestall his anger. "She's not to blame. Not really. I just think she's blaming herself. I talked to her, after the fire at CalSci, and she mentioned that it was the second fire she'd nearly been caught in this week. So, she tells me how she was helped, virtually escorted, out of the Chiyoda restaurant by a very tall and personable young man named Sam and how he got her talking about her work and the people that she worked with, while they waited for the Fire Brigade..." Megan starts waving her hand in circles, indicating that how that conversation progressed should be obvious. But even though it is obvious, Alan doesn't want to interrupt her train of thought yet. "So, she said she mentioned Charlie and how he worked with his brother at the FBI quite often. She thought it was just a friendly chat. The come down from the adrenalin rush from escaping the fire probably contributed too. And from the way that Charlie describes Sam, I'm sure he was a very sympathetic listener and quite adept at coaxing the information he wanted out of her."
Alan blinks. "So you think that's where he and his brother got the idea for all this?" He waves his had around the office, not really apropos of anything, but they know what he means anyway.
Charlie shrugs. "It would appear so. Apparently, he started out asking Millie about Bronwyn and by the end, they were talking about me and Don and the FBI. Two days later, Dean Winchester walks into a Federal building, knowing full well that he'll be arrested and his brother turns up at my office less than two hours later. The way they timed it -" Charlie shakes his head, a mixture of disbelief and admiration.
Megan nods vigorously. "They anticipated our movements and reactions perfectly. The co-ordination, the timing, all spot on. We took Dean into custody and interviewed him almost immediately, showing him the hardcopy of the Winchester file when we did so. Then we raced off to the rescue when we perceived Sam to be a threat to Charlie. Gave him time to get back here, where we're holding his brother. We practically jumped to their command."
"But why?" Alan lets his frustration show. It's all very well knowing how the Winchester brothers accomplished this elaborate misdirection, but he still can't see what the point of it all was, especially with the amount of risk involved. "Why go to all this trouble? Surely, these two would be better off avoiding the FBI all together, right?"
Megan exhales slowly and looks up at the ceiling for a moment, before speaking. The rest of the group goes conspicuously quiet, as if they are hanging off her words as much as Alan is. This must be the part of the explanation that really is neck-deep in speculation.
"Okay, if I put together all the information that we've gathered about Dean and Sam Winchester's movements in LA over the past week - that's what the Winchesters themselves said, other eyewitness reports and the contents of the file Sam left in Charlie's office - the sequence of events goes something like this. They arrived in LA about eight days ago. Dean said that they came specifically to investigate the fires with the implication that they intended to put a stop to them. After analysing the first three, they intercepted the fourth and identified the culprit. As they don't have the authority to arrest anyone, God only knows what they intended to do about it. But they did encounter Millie French and from her, they learned about Don and Charlie. Obviously, they must have done some more research before coming up with their plan, but it would seem that they then decided to not only use us to stop these arson murders, but also seized the opportunity to break into their own FBI files."
Alan blinks. Several times. "They what?"
It's almost a surprise to hear Don contribute to the conversation, which is unnerving in itself. His son isn't just a team leader in name only. Don leads his team. To realise how much he has stepped back in this discussion feels so very wrong.
"It seems that one of the Winchesters has considerable computer hacking skills." The familiar dry tone still doesn't settle his father's unease. "We're assuming it's Sam."
"Yeah, because older brothers would obviously be far too cool for that geek stuff," Charlie says equally dryly, but with his chin lifted and shadows in his eyes.
Don doesn't look at his brother, as he flatly states, "And because we actually lifted Sam's prints from the keyboard. Dean's were found on a coffeepot in a nearby break room. Some of our top techs looked into the files that were accessed and probably the most galling thing they found was what information the Winchesters apparently didn't bother to access. They actually didn't go near their own profiles on the database, which the experts seem to think indicates that they've hacked into the database before. What they accessed on the computer was mainly various files from 1983. Just about every unsolved arson case, particularly fatalities. Several other unexplained deaths in 1983 and also every reported sudden death in the past two years of people born in 1983."
"What's the significance of 1983?"
Don shrugs, but not in a way that says that he doesn't know. More in a way that says he doesn't want to explain, so Megan steps in again.
"Sam was born in 1983 and their mother, Mary Winchester died in a house fire that same year."
"An unsolved arson case?"
"It was attributed to faulty wiring, but sometimes I think that's arson investigation speak for 'we don't really know'."
"So, are you saying that they broke into the building to hack into the FBI computer? But why go to all that trouble and take all those risks, if they had already managed to hack in before anyway?"
David steps in, in his turn. "The techs say that what they accessed here would be almost impossible to get from an external hack. Something about the complexity of the data search and the amount of information they accessed. They then sent it out to various IP servers in several countries; the ones we've been able to identify so far are in Singapore, Vancouver, Melbourne, Dubai and Prague.
"But those were obviously just to cover their tracks." Charlie jumps in again, to clarify. "The final destination for the information will be somewhere in the US."
"They also took the hard copy of their investigation file and that contains some documents that couldn't be accessed by an external computer hack," David adds and then smiles when Alan looks around at the various photos and documents taped to the boards and screens, not to mention those strewn across various desks. "Yeah, these are extra copies that we had to make. Our records show Charlie's pass being used, presumably by Sam Winchester, to enter the building, but there's no actual surveillance footage of either of them entering or leaving this building. Even the footage of Dean being brought in with us, at the time of his arrest, is gone. One tech from the 7th floor, where they hacked into the computer system, remembers briefly talking to Dean outside the breakroom on that floor. He told her that he'd just transferred in from the office in Kansas City. Less than ten minutes after she says that she spoke with him, there is a record of a car being signed out using Colby's ID."
Alan turns to look at Colby Granger, aware that everyone else in the room has also turned their gaze in that direction. Colby frowns slightly and sits a little straighter in his chair. Alan doesn't mean his stare to be accusing or critical in any way. He's just caught by surprise because he knows that Colby is an exceptional hand-to-hand fighter, even for an FBI field agent. But it seems everyone in the team is somewhat defensive today.
"Hey, I was getting him some water that he asked for and someone comes into the room behind me, calls out to him. I turn around and it's his brother, Sam. I'd seen his mugshot, but you don't expect the guy to just show up in the office like that. And then before I know it, Dean puts me in a choke hold from behind. I mean, how the hell was I supposed to anticipate that? He was supposed to be cuffed to the table!"
Alan blinks. Colby throws a pointed glance at one of the items on the table and David picks up the evidence bag in question and hands it to Alan. It takes Alan a second or two to recognise the small twisted piece of metal that it contains, and then another few seconds to process and accept what they are implying.
"He picked the lock with a paperclip?"
There is a sigh from Don and Alan turn to see him rubbing the bridge of his nose and then dropping his gaze to the floor as he mutters, "Looks like it."
"How'd he get hold of a paperclip, anyway?"
No one answers. Alan turns and looks around the group. They are all pointedly not looking at him or each other.
Don lifts his gaze from the floor. "Charlie, show him."
Charlie shoots him an apologetic look, but Don turns away. "I need some more coffee."
Charlie's sorrowful gaze follows his brother out of the office, before he turns to look at his father. He directs Alan's attention to a screen to his left and brings up what appears to be a freeze frame from a video recording of an interrogation. The subject is Dean Winchester and he is leaning forward, hand poised to take what looks like a photograph from his unseen interrogator's grasp. Charlie presses another button to zoom in on the edge of the photograph that the prisoner is about to grasp and there is very definitely a paper clip attached there. Alan can't help but be a little impressed. "And no one noticed that he'd swiped it?"
Charlie shrugs helplessly and throws his father that "lost little boy" look that rarely fails to get him what he wants. And when Alan looks up, the rest of them are also looking at him expectantly, as if he can fix everything. When exactly did he become father to Don's whole team? But there's no point in railing against it, not when he wants the same thing they want, after all.
"You know what?" he ventures, feigning contemplation. "I think I need some coffee too." Which earns him a warm squeeze on the arm and a grateful smile from Megan.
It's not five minutes walk to the break room, but Alan stretches it out to ten. This conversation is going to be a minefield. Discussing these sorts of issues with Don always has been and even after decades of experience, it never really gets any easier.
When he arrives in the break room, Don is brusquely filling the coffee machine. Probably not an unusual sight to someone who knows him casually, but Alan can see the uncharacteristic fixation with the task, rather than the more going-through-the-motions way he would do it, if getting coffee were the only thing on his mind. And Alan knows that his highly observant elder son was aware of his presence the moment that he stepped through the doorway, probably even anticipated it before he arrived, but Don still feigns mild surprise when he turns to see his father standing in the room.
"Wanna cup, Dad? Had to start another pot. We've been hitting the caffeine pretty hard today."
"Looks like it's not the only thing that's been hit hard."
"Oh, yeah?" Don's expression turns wary and Alan knows that he's already stepped on landmine number one. He can't just lift his foot off without triggering the explosion anyway, so instead he carefully stands his ground.
"Is it possible that you might be taking this case a bit too personally, do you think?"
Don rolls his eyes and shakes his head, exasperation and denial in equal measure, and even if it wasn't totally convincing, it would have fended off most people - but not his father. Alan stares his son into a verbal response.
"Okay, I screwed up, Dad." Don turns away and starts pacing, the coffee apparently forgotten. "And maybe I'm taking it personally because I made mistakes and maybe because of them, there's a serial killer out there on the loose when he should be in custody."
"And maybe there isn't. Charlie and Megan don't seem to think so." Alan says it mildly, but it cuts to the heart of the issue and Don's step catches. He stares hard at his father before looking away.
"Yeah, looks that way, doesn't it?"
"But for some reason, you don't know whether or not you want to believe it, believe them."
Don's gaze swings back. Alan can virtually see him summoning up a focus of anger to work with and, knowing that it's a gamble, he brings out the big guns to pre-empt Don's next salvo. "I think you saw something of yourself in that kid, didn't you?"
Don stares in disbelief for half a second, and then snorts. "Dad, two days ago, I would have put a bullet in his brain as soon as look at him."
"I know," Alan mutters, and he does know. He's seen Don with that level of anger, that close to the edge, once before when one of his team was threatened. This time it was his brother. Alan has no doubt at all that Don would have shot first and asked questions later.
Don's jaw tightens, but the defiance bleeds out of his eyes, leaving only the pain behind and Alan has to fight down a sigh. Contrary to what his son might think, he doesn't blame him for that reaction. He worries for him. And it's hard to know what to say, in these situations. Hard to know what will actually penetrate through the defensive barriers without deepening the wounds or causing new ones.
Alan takes a few steps in an arbitrary direction as he considers his next words. It's more to show Don that he's pondering, than anything else, because Don needs to know that the words have been well considered, not just thrown out as part of a father's blind attempts to console.
"Donny, you know that you don't give your trust easily. People have to really earn it." Don opens his mouth immediately, but Alan lifts a hand to forestall the response for a few moments more. "I'm not saying that's a bad thing. It means that earning your trust is something that people value highly and they'll work hard to earn and keep it. Just look at your team. That's partially because you don't just give it on a whim."
Don swallows and studies his hands for a moment before looking back at his father.
"And your point is?"
"You don't trust easily and I'm sure this Dean Winchester kid never asked for your trust. But what I think is that there must have been a moment, at least, where you thought you knew what he was thinking. I'm going to take a bit of a longshot here, but I'm guessing that it had something to do with having a younger brother to look out for, to protect - and then he used that against you, by threatening Charlie."
Don turns away to check the coffee machine, but his shoulders slump slightly and Alan thinks he might actually have made a breakthrough. However, when Don speaks again, his words are not what his father expects.
"I used it against him first."
"What? How so?"
This time Don allows himself a sigh, as he turns back again. "I more or less offered him the chance to save his brother by taking all the blame himself."
"And did he?"
"No, but I'm pretty sure he was going to."
"How do you know?"
"Well, obviously, I don't!" And that outburst has all the hallmarks of Don lashing out because he feels as if he's being backed into a corner.
Alan doesn't exactly pull back because he knows that will get him nowhere, but he pitches his tone somewhere between coaxing and chiding. One word is all it takes.
Don tries to maintain his hard stare, but soon his gaze softens. He knows that his bluff has been called.
"Yeah, I know Charlie and Megan are making a lot of sense. They always do, right?"
"Well, nearly always," Alan allows and waits for Don to continue because this is only half the message.
"So, that kid." Don injects the word with derision, but Alan can see that the mockery is directed inwards, towards himself. "He would have handed us his own head on a plate, if he thought it would save his brother. Told us exactly what he thought we wanted to hear. And now it looks like the crimes - the atrocities - that he would have been taking the blame for and which would have earned him the death penalty several times over - it looks like the Winchesters might even have been the ones that put a stop to them."
This is the crisis point. Now that the admission is out there, Alan has to say something in response, but there's no easy way for an FBI agent's civilian father to suggest to him that he might need to turn his approach to the investigation completely on its head.
"So, losing prisoners never looks good for an agent, but maybe instead of dangerous felons, there are a couple of crazy but idealistic kids out there, trying in their own way to save lives and make the world a better place?"
Don's eyes harden again and Alan knows that he's made a wrong move before he finishes speaking, and yet Don waits for him to stop before giving full reign to his derision.
"Or perhaps what we've got out there are a couple of vigilantes with no respect at all for the law and who probably now think that there's nothing they can't get away with - and who could go off the rails at any time! Yeah, maybe they want to do the right thing and they're definitely cocky enough to think they'd know what's right no matter what anyone else wants to tell them. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, Dad. There's just so much crap out there. Not just crime. Not just danger. But true evil!"
"Donny." Alan tries the same tone again, but this time Don is having none of it.
"No, Dad! They say that if you fight evil head to head for long enough, you run the risk of starting to become just like what you're fighting. It's the way things are. The evil keeps pushing you and you have to keep pushing back. I don't know any other way - but at least I've got Bureau procedure and my team and now, God help me, even a shrink to stop me from crossing the line. Those kids out there have no back up. They answer to no one - no one at all. And just one mistake, just one bad call could be all it takes."
The silence is abrupt when Don finishes this tirade. It's a volatile silence. Don stares at his father, demanding a response, and Alan stares back at his son, fully aware that the wrong response could set the whole minefield off and end any chance he has of reaching Don over this issue. When he breaks the silence, his voice is quiet, but not at all tentative. He needs to convey this gently, but with conviction because Don needs to know that he himself believes it.
"And maybe one really good call by someone like you - that might be all that it takes too."
"What?" Don blinks and looks at his father like he's crazy, but he's really listening now, hoping against hope for an answer he can believe in.
"You're right that those boys have no respect for the law, but that's probably because they don't trust the law at all. And do the have any reason to trust in the law? It sounds like that for the past two years every agent of the law they've encountered has hunted them down like they're the scum of the earth."
"Actually, there's one cop in Baltimore..."
"What? A cop that doesn't think they're guilty? Why do I get the feeling that no one is listening to what this guy has to say?"
Don sighs. "It's what she's got to say, actually. She says the Winchesters saved her life. It seems to involve some police corruption scandal in the department and she ended up shooting her own partner. Self-defence, she says and IA is still investigating, but it looks like the partner was already under suspicion. So her story will probably stand up, but the whole thing is not making her very popular in her own department."
"And what do you think of her and her story?"
"Well, I don't know the details of the IA investigation, but being the whistleblower in any department takes guts. Most cops know that no one will thank you for it. But that doesn't mean she can't be wrong about the Winchesters - or maybe she's just finally gone over the edge herself."
Don looks like he's about to start pacing again and Alan once more resorts to the low coaxing tone. "Gut feeling, Donny?"
Don snorts. "My gut feeling had me and half my team running around like rats in a maze two days ago."
Alan just continues to stare at him and Don caves.
"It all fits in with what Charlie and Megan have been saying. In fact, Megan has been trying to get that Baltimore detective on the phone, but hasn't managed to get a hold of her yet."
"So Charlie's math, Megan's new psych profile and your gut feeling all..."
"All that doesn't just make the Winchesters' files just disappear, Dad. The Bureau has accumulated a lot of evidence against them and they aren't going to just do a complete about face on the case because of the theories and gut feelings of one team in LA and a civilian consultant!"
"But Don, someone's got to take a stand. This isn't just a wild hunch from a bunch of crackpot amateurs. These are well-reasoned theories from highly competent professionals, with considerable experience and reputations. Are you trying to tell me that no one would listen to you? To any of you? C'mon, Donny, I find that hard to believe."
Don finally throws up his hands in frustration.
"Dad! It's not like we haven't already tried!"
The silence is heavy, as Alan blinks and tries to overcome his astonishment enough to ask, "What?" But Don's previous words permeate the silence.
We already tried.
Alan now knows that he walked into this lacking a vital piece of information. Don's apparent resistance to Charlie and Megan's theories doesn't stem from any unwillingness to back them, to go into battle for them. He's already gone into battle and taken a beating. He's needed to reassess where he himself stands and the arguments he's been running are probably partial echoes of what others in the FBI hierarchy have already used against him. Alan feels like the entire geography of the dispute has been rearranged around him. This is a completely different battlefield; not to convince Don to consider a new perspective, but to help him keep hold of the one that he feels slipping away.
Before either of them find their voice again, Megan suddenly appears in the doorway, with a "Hey, guys!" that's chirpy enough to make both Don and Alan slowly turn to look at her with matching looks of perplexed inquiry. But she just smirks as she says, "You gotta come see this!" and turns back the way she came without waiting for a reply.
Whatever new development has occurred, she is clearly enjoying it too much to reveal all just yet and there's no question that they'll follow. In fact, by the time they get back, Don has strode about five paces ahead of Megan and Alan.
"Okay, what's up then?" Don's tone clearly declares that the man in charge is back.
Charlie and Colby are both working intently at separate computer terminals and David is engaged in a quiet, but vigorous, phone conversation. Charlie briefly glances up and hands his cell phone to his brother before turning his attention back to his computer screen. "Someone sent me a text message."
Don snorts. "Well, it obviously works better than leaving you a voice mail."
Alan steps up beside him, as Don lifts the phone to look at the display. The screen contains only two numbers, separated by a comma. Alan realises what they are at the same time Don says, "Longitude and latitude?"
Charlie grins. "The co-ordinates for San Huberto, California. Population approximately four thousand two hundred with seasonal fluctuations due to the tourist trade. About seventy miles south of San Francisco."
"And is there something happening in San Huberto?" Alan asks.
It's Colby who answers him. "Well, just over an hour ago, there was a fire in their local museum, destroying its most famous exhibit."
"What exhibit would that be?" Don uses his dry, sceptical tone, but can't hide the fact that he's intrigued.
"Part of the bow of the schooner Robert McKellar which was the only wreckage that has been recovered since it sunk off the coast of San Huberto in 1849. It had left San Francisco and the rumour was that gold from the early gold rush was part of its undeclared cargo. Apparently there's no real evidence to support that rumour, but it didn't stop numerous fortune hunters over the years trying to recover the wreck. More than half of them have died in the attempt even though the waters where the wreck is believed to be are usually considered not particularly treacherous. In fact, the wreck of the Robert McKellar is San Huberto's local ghost story. Stories of mysterious apparitions, even ghosts threatening vengeance on anyone trying to steal their gold..."
Don's eyebrows have been steadily climbing and he finally cuts his agent off. "And where did you get this from?"
Colby clears his throat self-consciously before he says. "Supernaturalcalifornia dot com."
David Sinclair is clearly a hair's breadth from sniggering, but he still backs up his partner. "The local sheriff mentioned those stories too, and the local fire department says that the fire was apparently very well contained, only took out the room where the Robert McKellar exhibit was. The security guard was knocked unconscious and left a safe distance outside the building. And I just tracked down the name of the owner of the phone that the text was sent to Charlie from. It belongs to one Bud Chiari who has registered it as his work phone at the San Huberto Museum."
"The unconscious security guard?"
"Oh, you've got to be kidding me! Who vandalises a museum, knocks out the guard and then steals his phone and texts their co-ordinates to a mathematician who's known to be a consultant with the FBI?" Don endures the silent stares for less than half a second. "Oh, c'mon. No way!"
"Why not?" Charlie is openly grinning now, but the grin is wiped off his face when Don hits back.
"I gotta better question for you, Charlie. Why? Why would they do something like that?" He's almost in his brother's face now.
"Maybe an even better important question is what are they doing?" Alan is amazed when they both turn to look at him. He almost never manages to get through to his sons when they are arguing with each other that intensely. He glances around to see that Megan, David and Colby are also looking at him. "What?"
Megan smiles at him. "Maybe Charlie's not the only member of Don's family who should be an official consultant to the Bureau. You're absolutely right. You'd have to know what they are doing before you can figure out why they're doing it." She picks up the volume of Milton prose and taps it against her chin.
"The best apology against false accusers is silence and sufferance, and honest deeds set against dishonest words." David ponders the highlighted passage aloud, then adds, "But arson isn't exactly an 'honest deed' - even if it was clearly done in way that made sure no one was hurt in the fire."
"Maybe owning up to it is the honest deed." Megan shrugs. "Maybe there's more to this arson than meets the eye. Maybe that's why they sent a message to Charlie, they want him - or perhaps want us to look into it." She stops for a moment, dawning realisation clear on her face. "That's amazing."
"What exactly about it is amazing?" All trace of belligerence is gone from Don's tone. He's just clarifying the facts of the case now.
"Well, to essentially flag their position to the FBI like that, it's a hell of a risk. Or maybe it's some sort of show of trust?"
"What do you mean?"
"They sent it to Charlie. They'd know he'd pass it on to us for sure. It's like they're saying they trust us to look into it further - that we'll 'do the right thing' with the information. And while I'm sure that if we put an APB out on them in San Huberto, they'll already be long gone, it's still a hell of a risk. For them to agree to take that kind of risk on our response is really an amazing gesture of trust, given these guys' background."
"Wait a minute. Why does it have to be that they both agreed to it? It only takes one person to send a text message."
Megan shakes her head emphatically. "Not with the way these guys trust each other."
"That stunt they pulled here a couple of days ago was too complex, too outrageous for them not to trust each other completely on every level. I'm pretty sure they got the idea from meeting Millie French at the Chiyoda Restaurant and if that's the case, they had only a day or two to plan it and they put everything on the line. To pull something like that off, they have to have total faith in each other's abilities and loyalty. Each has to know that the other one will come through in exactly the way he expects. Dean getting himself arrested. Sam getting Charlie to call. Sam getting back here in time. Both getting the access that they wanted - or it would have all been for nothing. To put that much on the line with everything so finely balanced, the trust has to be total. And sending that text message? There's no way either would open them both up to that kind of vulnerability without complete consent from the other. It would break the trust in a way these guys just aren't capable of."
There's no dispute when she finishes. In fact, there's a sense of agreement, almost like the rekindling of lost camaraderie, in the few seconds of silence that follow, before Charlie breaks the moment with the question, "So, are we going to had this over to Henricksen?"
Alan feels once again blindsided by the new twist in the conversation.
"Hand it over? Who's Henricksen?"
"A complete asshole," Colby Granger says definitively. David Sinclair raises his eyebrows at that, but he's grinning. As is Megan. Charlie gestures towards Colby with his hand to indicate his complete agreement with the assessment. Only Don offers his father any sort of clarification.
"Special Agent Victor Henricksen is the Bureau's agent officially in charge of the Winchester case." Don looks like he's willing to stop at that, but Alan raises his eyebrows a little further and Don releases an almost-sigh before continuing. "He turned up here this morning, demanded all the work we'd done be turned over to him and basically told us our further involvement was not required."
"After which, Don all but told him he was a complete moron," Megan adds.
Don gives his father a shrug that could pass for sheepish, but it's clear that he still stands by that assessment. "Nevertheless, he's still the agent in charge of the case."
Charlie laughs, undeterred and brightly cheerful. "But Don, we've got absolutely no proof that the text even came from the Winchesters. That's just our supposition. So, is there really sufficient reason for us to hand any of this information over?"
Megan raises her eyebrows. "He's got a point. And why would Henricksen believe anything we say anyway? Charlie proved that it was practically impossible for the Winchesters to have committed all but three of the murders that Henricksen wants to pin on them and you had to appeal to further up the chain of command to get him to even look at that evidence. I think Charlie's right - maybe we could run this one ourselves... "
Alan walks into the centre of the group and starts waving his hands around. "Wait! Wait just a minute! Are you telling me that since this morning all of you have been officially off this case and yet you are all still here working on it well into a Saturday night?"
They all look at each other silently and then look at him. This time, it's Charlie that shrugs sheepishly.
"I don't believe this!" Actually, that's a lie. Alan fully believes that all of them are so committed to this, that they won't be able to let it go. But there's no point in dragging it out here and now, and clearly someone has to get that through to them. "For God's sake, this case - which isn't even officially yours anymore - isn't going anywhere tonight." Don opens his mouth to interject, but Alan cuts him off. "And even if there is going to be another development, you'll probably get a text message - from the suspects themselves. No, you people need to sleep. And eat for that matter." He puts his hands on his hips and is quietly pleased to see Megan - and also now, David - both trying to hide a smirk behind their hands. "Dinner," Alan insists. "Now. I'm buying."
Colby sits up straighter. "Where?"
"Well, I know that steakhouse three blocks down from here is still open, but really I don't care as long as there's plenty of good food. And alcohol."
Colby is on his feet by now, and Don has also quietly reached for his jacket. He fishes in the pocket and tosses keys to his brother. "Charlie, you're driving."
Charlie fumbles, but only slightly, before he catches them. "Hey! What? Why?"
Don grins. "Wouldn't want too much alcohol destroying any of those valuable brain cells."
Charlie snorts. "Whatever. At least I have brain cells that I can spare. And actually, I don't mind. It's quite funny being the only one sober when you guys have had a few. You really don't know what you're saying and you never remember half the things you've let slip."
"Yeah, right," Don says dismissively. He's already halfway to the door, instinctively taking the lead and expecting the rest of them will follow - as they always do. "Tell yourself what you need to, Charlie. We all know which of us can handle our liquor and which of us can't."
"No, you only think you know!"
David and Colby both turn back for a moment to grin at Alan before following the bickering brothers through the door. Megan has already snagged his elbow and murmurs, "Honest deeds set against dishonest words," only loud enough for him to hear, as she escorts him along.
Alan smiles. "And truth springs from argument amongst friends."
To his chagrin, neither of his sons has ever been particularly interested in literature or philosophy. It's one thing that he and Margaret failed to give them. Don thinks that actions speak louder than words and Charlie believes that there is more truth in numbers. But one of the many reasons that Alan values Megan and Larry Fleinhart, both in his life and the lives of his sons, is they truly appreciate the beauty found in thought and word.
Sure enough, Megan throws him a megawatt grin. "Hey, I like that. Milton?"
Alan shakes his head. "Eighteenth century Scottish philosopher named David Hume." The faintest of sighs escapes him and Megan squeezes his arm slightly - an unasked for, but genuinely appreciated assurance that things will be okay. He's not even sure why he suddenly feels rather melancholy. Don and Charlie are off arguing in a way that, for once, their father can just sit back and enjoy watching his sons argue. They're about to sit down to a good, well-earned meal in the company of friends that they trust with their lives. If truth can't be found in that, then Alan doesn't know where it can be found. Then again, he's often thought that the point of the truth was to continually seek it, even if you don't always find it.
But anyway, what matters now is that, three blocks away, there's a steak dinner with his name on it.
Take a long line
Take a long line
Take a long, long, long, long line
Reel him in