First disclaimer: I own nothing.
Second disclaimer: I am not a doctor, federal agent, architect, engineer, or any interesting-type person of the sort. Any terminology or logic I may employ throughout the course of this story comes straight from my own twisted head and has not necessarily been fact checked for plausibility. No haters, please.
Third disclaimer: Any and all grammatical mistakes are all me.
He didn't know how he'd gotten here. Didn't know where "here" was, for that matter. He knew that it hurt. He hurt. That he knew.
Everything ached. His head, his arms, his chest, his head. He imagined that it was the pain that has roused him from the bliss of unconsciousness; at the same time, the pain seemed to be blocking his ability to recall…anything. Where the hell was he?
Charlie struggled to raise his head. It was so heavy, pounding and swimming in a way that made his growing nausea surge in a violent way. A moment before the bile came spewing from his cracked and swollen lips, he had a fleeting thought to cover his mouth.
His hands. His hands, he acknowledged suddenly, seemed to be a bit out of commission. They were bound together, and hanging above his head.
Hanging…yes, he was certainly hanging. Why was he hanging from his hands? Were his feet even touching the ground? A quick glance to the floor—easy enough to do, as he had yet to raise his head fully—confirmed that yes, he was on solid footing. Barely. The tips of his toes scraped against a cold concrete floor, and he vaguely wondered what had happened to his shoes.
The dilemma of his absent footwear was quickly abandoned though, a new question rising to his muddled awareness: why did he wave wires on his feet? Maybe not "on" so much as "attached," but there were wires, nonetheless. Secured to the small toe of each foot was a small clamp, a braided cluster of wires leading across the floor, and he forced his eyes up to trace their curious path.
About ten feet away they stopped, taking a sharp vertical turn. He raised his head, slowly, deliberately. Hs eyes swam. Follow the wires…up, up, up. They journey came to conclusion atop a small table, attached to what looked like a phone…a phone with a crank?
He forced his vision out, struggling to see the periphery. The wires, the crank, the table, the chairs, the men…
Three of them, two of who were facing away from him, talking lowly in voices he didn't recognize. The third…
The third was looking right at him.
It may have been something in his eyes, something in the way he turned suddenly to his comrades, the unnaturally cool sound of his voice. Whatever it was, it sparked something in Charlie with a vigor that literally took his breath away. He remembered now. He remembered it all.
"Get up. He's awake."
The Los Angeles FBI office was never calm, but the last few days had been as close to it as Don Eppes could ever remember. He and his team had spent the day catching up on various odds and ends, reviewing files, and putting a solid dent in two months worth of lingering paperwork. It was tedious, but he was grateful for a break in the action, and he knew his team felt the same way.
"You heading out?" he asked as David walked by his desk.
"Actually, the three of us were talking about heading out to get something to eat. Colby's been wanting to try that new Korean place on 10th. You interested?"
Don hesitated. It wasn't that he didn't like his team members—hell, he trusted them with his life on a pretty regular basis—but the supervisor in him always felt a little strange in the arena of socialization. He was the leader, their leader, and a certain amount of distance was expected.
"Hey, don't even try to get out of coming with us. You're going. I'll drag your ass there myself. And they'll help me," Colby yelled from across the pen, gesturing to Megan and David. Megan laughed and looked at Don as if to say, "He's right, we will."
Ah, to hell with it.
A night out with his team sounded good—actually, great—and with a smile he started gathering up his personal effects. He looked up as Colby approached.
"What's the Whiz Kid doing tonight? You should give him a call, invite him out. He hasn't been around in a while."
Don considered. "Yeah, you know, I haven't seen him myself since the weekend. There hasn't been much going on here for him to come in for. I think he called me on Tuesday, actually. Never got back to him. I meant to call to check up on him soon anyway." At Colby's inquisitive look, he added, "My Dad went up to visit his brother in Colusa. They go camping for two weeks every summer with a bunch of his lodge buddies."
Colby smiled. "Well, with an IQ of about three hundred and seventy, he can probably take care of himself for a few weeks without the sky falling down."
Don smiled wryly back. "Don't be so sure."
Don's brother was a genius in every sense of the word—he couldn't argue that. But when left to his own devices he sometimes had a habit of forgetting to eat, forgetting to sleep, forgetting about the world away from his laptop and chalkboards. He'd definitely gotten more in control of himself over the last few years. Don would acknowledge that. But when you have a brain that just won't stop, it helps to have people around to, well, stop it.
Don pulled his cell out to call Charlie's house, assuming that at this late hour he'd have left his office on the Cal Sci campus for the day. Seven rings and an answering machine later proved him wrong, and he left a brief message for his brother before trying his cell. Straight to voicemail. That was strange. Charlie made a point to keep himself reachable, as he had students and colleagues and various others constantly vying for his time and attention. He was about to call his office when a voice behind him interrupted.
"Agent Eppes? This was delivered for you about an hour ago." Don took the package from the young agent, an odd-shaped manila envelope, noting that it had no return address. "Do we know who sent it?" he asked. She shook her head. "No, it was just dropped at the desk. But we ran it through all the standards and it passed. I'm sure the camera got a shot though, if you need it," she offered.
"No, it's fine. Thank you," he said, and she offered a nod as she turned to exit. Don wasn't too concerned about where it came from. Anything delivered to the FBI offices, especially those with no return address, had to undergo a pretty rigorous series of tests. Their basic motto was "No traces, no ticking, no problem." He set his cell phone back on his desk and ripped the top off the envelope. He reached in, feeling a sheet of paper and another envelope, slightly smaller. He lifted the page, his brow furrowing as he read.
"What is it?" David asked, Megan and Colby in tow.
"I'm not sure," Don answered. "It's a quote."
"We can rest contentedly in our sins and in our stupidities, and anyone who has watched gluttons shoveling down the most exquisite foods as if they did not know what they were eating will admit that we can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world."
"What else is in there?" Colby asked, looking at the smaller envelope.
"It felt like a tape," Don said. He grabbed it and headed for the War Room.
"Does anyone else have a bad feeling about this?" Megan asked as she and the others followed. She didn't expect an answer, and received none. They walked in after Don and shut the door behind them.
Don walked briskly to the front of the room to the media center, an area so often occupied by his brother as he brought up graphs and charts and whatever else to demonstrate the complicated mathematical theories that had proved invaluable in solving countless cases for his team. Don pushed the tape into the VCR, turned the TV on and stepped back.
The video was slightly fuzzy at first, static lines seizing up and down for several seconds as the automatic tracking device came on to correct the picture. The room was dark, and the audio buzzed slightly as Don turned the volume several notches higher. A hard voice broke the silence.
"What is your name?"
There was a pause and Don turned to look at his team, their confused expressions mirroring his own."
Don's head snapped back around.
The video panned out, and Don felt his heart literally stop. What?!
There was his brother, his hands bound tightly above him, hanging from some kind of beam in the ceiling. Don could see blood on his wrists, dried, seeping down his arms. An ugly bruise extended from his cheekbone to his jaw line. He was shirtless, wearing loose black pants, no shoes. And why the hell were wires on his feet?
"What is your function with the FBI?"
Charlie didn't respond, and before Don could react his brother was doubled over—or as much as he could be hanging from the ceiling—his breath coming in choked, wheezing gasps. His assailant twisted the baseball bat in his hands, hostile and threatening.
"What the hell is this?!" Don yelled to nobody in particular, and there was no response. His team stood behind him, shell-shocked, Megan with her hand over her mouth, David and Colby wearing identical expressions of disbelief and horror.
"What is your function with the FBI?"
This time Charlie raised his head slightly. He said something softly, and Don strained to hear.
"Repeat yourself," the voice commanded. Apparently Don wasn't the only one who didn't catch it.
Charlie looked up fully. "I said I make the coffee."
Don's fists clenched beside him and he felt a very sudden and urgent need to sit down. He watched the blows fall on his brother, swiftly, brutally, sparing no part of his body. The only sounds were of Charlie's occasional gasps and the sick sound of wood meeting flesh. In Don's head it went on forever—on tape, about thirty seconds.
"I will not ask you again. What is your function with the FBI?"
Again, Charlie was silent. Don almost closed his eyes as he saw the bat rise up again, but was stopped by Charlie's voice. It was strained, painful, labored. "All right!" he said. "Sometimes…"
"Sometimes what?" the voice urged.
Charlie's head came up again, and Don was shocked at what he saw in his brother's face. He expected fear, pain, naïve bewilderment. What he saw was raw determination.
"Sometimes I bring the bagels too."
From behind him, he heard Megan's sharp intake of breath, a soft utterance from David, an expletive from Colby.
"Very well Professor. The hard way it is."
Don watched as Charlie's eyes narrowed, briefly, then widened. He saw his brother's arms tighten, showing muscle Don never even knew he had. He saw his body shake and spasm, his teeth clench. He heard the raw scream rip from his brother's throat, strangled and broken. He saw his eyes close, his head go limp, his body go slack.
Through the buzz in his ears, Don heard the voice again. It wasn't addressing Charlie anymore.
"Agent Don Eppes. If you wish to see your brother again, you will do exactly as I say. You will receive further communication soon." As if by afterthought, he added, "And if you wish to see him alive, you better pray that he starts cooperating."
With that, the screen went black.
Don stood silent, shaking, vomit rising in his throat. Charlie had been kidnapped, strung up, beaten, electrocuted for God's sake, and he had no idea why.
Colby's voice broke the silence, breaking Don from his distorted reverie, echoing the words in his head.
"What the hell is going on?"
All thoughts of dinner were abandoned, and eventually, as the hours passed, thoughts of breakfast eluded him as well. Hell, not only was food the furthest thing from Don's mind, but he doubted he could keep it down if he wanted to. The lethargic haze of the FBI office became a flurry of activity, the oasis of calm long-since passed. But this was different. There was urgency, desperation to Don's barked orders that were unfamiliar, panicked.
Don's finger tapped restlessly as they scrolled through the security tapes. To his left sat Evan Wahler, the young man on duty at the time of delivery. Don glanced at him, agitated, waiting for an ID.
Evan leaned in, his eyes searching. What had started as an ordinary night for him had turned to anything but as he found himself right in the middle of a kidnapped person's case—the kidnapped person being the brother of the bureau's top and most respected agent. Don Eppes was a legend to a rookie like him. And his brother Charlie was gaining quite a reputation as well. He was well liked and polite, and always had a greeting as he came through the office. Evan wasn't privy to the nature of the case, but tension and (dare he admit, fear) was palpable, smothering. He kept watching, all the while sincerely hoping that Charlie was okay.
"There he is," he said suddenly, his voice surprisingly composed. The activity in the room seemed to slow down and speed up at once, all attention rapt to the screen. Don leaned in. Suspect was a Caucasian male, approximately 6 feet tall, late 30's to early 40's, well-defined muscle tone, hair shaved in a military cut, large dragon tattoo on his right shoulder. Clothes were unassuming, black athletic pants with a white t-shirt. Hands empty, aside from the familiar manila package. He stopped at the desk, had a brief exchange with Evan, turned and exited. The entire scene lasted fewer than 20 seconds.
They ran the tape back and watched again. And again. After everyone had a solid handle on visual, Don turned to the verbal exchange. "What exactly did he say?"
"Very little Sir. He said he had a delivery for Agent Don Eppes, declined to leave a name, and left. There was no extraneous information," Even replied, wishing he had more to offer.
"Yeah, that's distinctive" Colby snorted, frustrated. "Did anyone see him leave? Was there a vehicle, was he on foot, do we know which direction he went? Anything?"
"No Sir. We still have several people to question—some had left for the day—but as of yet we haven't ascertained any new information."
"All right," Don broke in. "Thank you Agent Wahler. We'll bring you back up if we need anything else." They were obviously working with minimal information, and they had zero leads to follow. Tall, buff white guy in LA. Yeah, no sweat. He turned to Colby. "Anything new on David and Megan's end?"
Colby shook his head grimly. Megan and David had the unpleasant task of re-watching the videotape, looking for any clues regarding location, suspects or whatever. Colby certainly didn't envy them that. Once had been enough—more than enough—for him. "Not so far, but I haven't checked in for about thirty minutes, so something may have come up. I'll check it out." He paused for a moment, considering, debating, finally settling, and walked up to Don. "Hey," he said, giving a quick tap on his shoulder. "You know we'll find him. He's one of us." Don didn't respond—he didn't trust himself to speak—but he did give a quick nod to belay his appreciation for the gesture. Colby turned to leave, but the door opened before he reached it. Megan and David rushed in.
"We got something."
"How are you feeling Professor?"
Charlie wanted to scoff, but he couldn't dredge up the energy. He licked his lips, trying to form words. "Why did you ask me about the FBI? We both know that isn't what this is about."
A nod. "That's true. But your brother doesn't know that, does he."
Charlie tensed, if it was possible to tense anymore. What did Don have to do with this? One way to find out. "What do you want with my brother?"
"Your brother means nothing to me. But he means something to you. You may not want to cooperate with us now, but we'll see how you feel when we start cutting off big brother's finger right in front of you."
Oh shit. Oh shit oh shit oh shit. He couldn't let them hurt Don. He'd sing like a bird to keep him safe. But he couldn't let them know that. He willed his voice to remain steady, focused. "If you hurt my brother, I'll kill you. I don't care if I die doing it. But I still won't talk."
The man's eyes glared. The good professor here was proving to be far more formidable than he'd expected. But he was always up for a challenge.
"That's very admirable Professor. But I've got bad news for you." Charlie raised his head again. "Everyone talks."
Charlie's head dropped again. He really didn't like the sound of that.
His thoughts were interrupted. "Bring the camera. Let's go again."
"Let's have it," Don said, cutting to the chase. "What'd you find?"
Megan hurried to the front of the room, replacing the security footage with the tape again. Don diverted his gaze as she fast-forwarded a few seconds, then paused the tape, an image of Charlie suspended in time. "Look here," she said, and Don did.
David stepped forward, pointing. "We actually found two things. See here where his hands are tied? How the blood has dried? Using that and the condition of the skin around it, we have an estimation as to how long his hands have been tied. If we assume his hands were bound immediately, it gives us a time frame for the initial abduction. We're already questioning the neighbors at his house in Pasadena, along with campus security. So far, we have reports of a suspicious vehicle at the house around 10 pm Wednesday evening. And that puts us right in line with the physical condition of his hands. We have a pretty good description and a tentative plate, so we're running that now."
Don was quiet. Wednesday night? His brother had been taken two days ago, and he hadn't known it. Granted, they didn't see each other every day, but he could have made a damn phone call. He could have swung by the house, sent an email, anything. His escalating shame spiral came to a temporary halt, as a question entered his head.
"You said they had a tentative plate? How the hell do they remember the plate number from a car they saw two days ago?"
David nodded. "Apparently, the car they saw had some kind of vanity plate. It said something like "Hate to Live" or "Live to Hate", so we're running all the alphanumeric combinations of the two to se if we get a hit on a vehicle matching the description. Don nodded. "All right, what else?"
This time it was Megan that spoke. "See the beams that the rope is attached to? How they cross like that? That's a specific type of architecture that was used primarily in the business district back in the mid-to-late 70's. Most of the buildings that had that kind of design have been torn down, but the ones that remain are all mostly clustered together in the new warehouse district. We have a preliminary area of about 20 square blocks to focus on." Twenty square blocks was a lot, too much for a blind search, but the ID of a vehicle could be all they needed to really pinpoint a location. Don sighed. They had to find that car.
Don put his head in his hands. He couldn't concentrate. He kept seeing Charlie's face, creased in pain, gasping for breath. He didn't look up as the door opened. Didn't see the looks on his friends' faces as another agent entered, face taut, envelope in hand. Didn't move until he was addressed.
"Agent Eppes. You have another one."
Charlie couldn't take anymore. His body arched as the skin on his back broke, splitting for the ninth, tenth, hundredth time. He could feel the blood oozing, heard the whooshing of air as pain erupted again. "I'm not going to make it," he thought dazedly, his senses dulled to anything but the throbbing of his beaten body. "I can't do this."
As the next blow struck, he gasped, the only sound he'd allowed to escape throughout the ordeal. He wouldn't scream. He wouldn't allow them that satisfaction. He didn't know why it meant so much to him—he had never been concerned with such perceptions of weakness—but he had taken it as a kind of personal challenge. Something he was in charge of, something he could control. He wouldn't give that up. He couldn't.
Just when he thought he might have the great fortune of passing out, the lashes stopped. His captor walked forward slowly, deliberately. His eyes couldn't focus on the face in front of him. He was tired, so tired, exhausted. Physically, mentally, totally. He hadn't slept, hadn't eaten, couldn't remember the last time he'd been allowed to drink. His body couldn't keep this up.
In the seconds that passed, Charlie tried to construct a timeline for himself, tried to focus his thoughts on anything other than the dread of not knowing what would happen next. He had been at home, having just arrived from a very long day at Cal Sci. He'd been doing some work for the Math Department, a most loathed obligation, and had determined to finish it all in one shot, however long it took. That determination had kept him in his office until almost nine on Wednesday night, and he'd been looking forward to an evening of his own work. He'd set up his laptop, turned the radio on, heard a sound behind him.
He still didn't know how they'd gotten in. He'd gotten into the routine of locking the doors when his dad went out of town, a habit that he found both cumbersome and necessary. The door had been securely locked upon his arrival and he was sure—well, pretty sure, anyway—that he'd locked it again behind him. There hadn't been a car in the driveway when he'd gotten home, but there sure as hell was when they'd dragged him from the house, his wrists tied tightly behind him, his mouth covered by tape and rough hands. And the car certainly hand a trunk, dark and cramped and just large enough to shove his body into. And somewhere in between his struggling and their hasty exit, there had been a blow to his head, strong and brutal enough to knock him into unconsciousness. Just as well. He didn't know if he could take the confinement of his dark prison until they'd reached their destination.
He had come to, after who knew how long, and was being dumped very unceremoniously into a small room. The gag had been removed, but the same could not be said for his hands, now throbbing from the restriction in circulation. He looked up to find the three men gathered around him, and before he could ask the basic questions that emerged in his mind, he was being kicked. Vicious and relentless, to his abdomen, knees, back, and one to his head that left him stunned and immobile. They'd left then, and he'd remained there for what he thought was the better part of a day. He couldn't see anything, but he knew that he was being watched. On the few occasions that he began to drift off the door would fly open, an abrupt "Wake up!" followed by another strike to drive the point home. He'd begun to vaguely hope that one of these visits would introduce food or water, but that never came.
So in all likelihood, today was…Saturday? Maybe late Friday? He couldn't be sure. But he knew that Don must have realized he was missing. They'd had plans to meet for lunch on Thursday, an excursion that Charlie had awaited with great anticipation. It was a rarity for he and his brother to do anything together that didn't involve work or his father, and he'd been nothing short of delighted when Don himself had suggested it the previous Sunday. He'd come by to see his Dad off and had made the offer before departing himself. He hadn't been able to connect with Don since then—a message left on his voicemail hadn't yet been returned—but surely when he couldn't reach him Thursday he'd started to investigate. It was obvious to Charlie, based on his last "conversation" with his captor that his beatings were being filmed and, in all likelihood, being sent to Don. But the first had been made only last night, giving Don and his team a full day's head start to be looking for him.
Charlie wouldn't allow himself to think about what Don must be going through now. Were someone to send Charlie a video with Don hanging from the rafters, suffering and bleeding, Charlie was sure that he would pass out where he stood. But Don was stronger than he was, always had been, and Charlie would stay strong for Don. Whatever they did be damned, he would not put his brother through that. He would not let himself break.
"Are you ready to start talking to us?"
Damn. Charlie had been so caught up in his thoughts that he'd almost forgotten his current predicament. He knew they were filming him. And he knew where those videos were going. Time to be strong…
"I have nothing to say to you."
A curt "Very well" was followed by a louder "Is it ready?"
Is what ready?
The answer to his question came suddenly, viciously, in the form of a blast of water strong enough to knock him on his ass. As it was, being tied the way he was, his body jerked back, his arms straining painfully as the pressure did it's best to rip him in two. The water was everywhere, in his nose, mouth, lungs and he coughed, gagged, tried vainly to take in air. When it finally stopped, he coughed deeply and painfully for several long seconds. He shivered, his drenched skin meeting the chilled air,
"Anything to say now?"
His resolve was crumbling. Was that water dripping from his sopping hair, or was he crying? He found his voice.
As the blast of water hit him again, this time from behind, reacting painfully with the lashes on his back, he got his answer. Try as he might, he couldn't stop the tears.
The room was hushed, immersed in the appalling scene before them. Don watched his brother's body flail against the unrelenting barrage of water, and wondered how much more Charlie could take—how much more he could take. They had to find him. They had to find him now.
"Jesus," David whispered, breaking the silence.
Don spun around. "What the hell is the status on that car!?"
Megan, grateful for any reason to leave the room before her emotions got the best of her, headed for the exit. "I'm on it Don."
His hands gripped his head, twisting and pulling on his hair, until they fell roughly to his side. After another agonizing minute the water stopped, and his brother was granted a temporary reprieve. Again, the voice spoke; again, it was to Don.
"Agent Eppes. You will come to the following address, alone and unarmed. You will be watched upon your exit from FBI headquarters until your arrival. If at any time you are followed, your brother will be killed. And yes, I will record it." Don's gut twisted. When he caught this son of a bitch…
"You are to go to the 23 block of Haven Avenue. There is a building there called 'Downtown Video.' It is closed and boarded up. There is an entrance in a side alley. You will go inside, and you will wait. If you are not there at 7 pm this evening, your brother is dead." With that, nothing but static.
Don turned to look at David and Colby. David was the first to respond. "That block is just outside the warehouse district, right in our hot zone." Colby nodded. "Yeah, chances are good that Charlie is being held close by. They probably won't want to risk a lot of time between transport."
Don nodded. "All right, here's how we'll play this. Get someone from Recon up here with a tracker. I need something you guys can tap. I'll go to the video store, and you guys will set up on the north side of the district. You'll be close enough to stay in range without setting off any bells. Get a tac team with you and as soon as that signal is steady in one location for thirty minutes, move in."
The three of them made their way out of the war room, David heading for a line to obtain the tracking device. Colby went to his desk, his mind already working on securing the best team available. They had no room for error on this one.
Megan reappeared then, heading straight for Don. "They're still working on the plate, Don. They have a few hits, but the program is still running. It should take another hour or so to identify probable combinations, and then they'll work on matching it to a vehicle." She paused. "Was…did they say anything else? Any instructions?"
Don quickly filled her in on what she had missed, and they paused in tense consideration. She cleared her throat. "Don, should we call your father?"
Aw, crap, his father. Don shook his head. "No, don't do that just yet. He's out in the middle of the woods somewhere, and chances are we couldn't reach him anyway. Even if we could, I don't want to leave him with what we have now. We'll wait. Until we get Charlie back." Megan said nothing. She knew that Don and his father sometimes disagreed on Charlie's work with their office, but were it her call to make, she felt his father should be informed. But that could wait. No time to worry about family dynamics right now. "All right," she said. "But if you're going to go out there, you need to get some food in you. We all do. I don't think any of us have eaten since yesterday. I'll get someone to call in some lunch."
"Son of a bitch!" Don yelled, slamming his hands to his desk so hard and suddenly that a pen jumped up and rolled to the floor. Megan jumped too, as did David, Colby and half the office. "God damn it!" Don continued.
"What is it?" David asked, hurrying over with Colby in tow. "Don, what happened?"
"I was supposed to meet Charlie for lunch Thursday. It was my damn idea for God's sake and I forgot. I would have known he was missing two damn days ago!" Megan stepped forward and put a hand on his arm. "Don, even if you had done that, we'd be in the same place we are now. Charlie was taken Wednesday. You couldn't have stopped his abduction."
"No, but we got the first tape yesterday evening Megan. We might have found the car by then. We might have been able to stop them from…" Don's voice drifted off, despair evident, and Megan's heart went out to him. "Don," she said. When he didn't look up she spoke again, forcefully. "Don, stop. Don't do this to yourself. We'll find him. That's all that matters right now. We will find him." His eyes closed, then opened again. He wasn't convinced, but he pushed on.
"Then let's get moving. Let's fucking find him."
Charlie was miserable. He was freezing, hurting everywhere, couldn't breathe well. His arms were killing him, and he'd begun to fear that he'd suffer permanent ligament damage to his shoulders, strained with almost the full weight of his body for so long. He couldn't reach the ground to distribute any weight to his feet, and his arms had had enough. They burned, throbbed, along with everything else. He heard voices, not directed at him, and tuned in to listen.
"He should have received the second tape by now. Is everything ready for his transport?"
"Yes sir, ready and waiting. You think we should get the Professor ready for his arrival?"
A pause. 'Please,' thought Charlie. 'Don't…'
"Yes. And this time? Make it hurt."
It was nearly 5 pm, and Don was ready to go. Colby and David were briefing their team and working out the logistics of the rescue. LAPD was on standby, along with several ambulances and a handful of field medics. His tracker was up and running, having been imbedded into the rubber of the specialty FBI-issue sneakers he now sported. As much as he hated to do it, his firearm was securely locked away in his desk, his desire to carry it firmly outweighed by his desire to keep Charlie alive. His heart was pounding, the realization that for as much as his brother has suffered, it could well be continuing this very moment; and Don stood safely in his office, doing nothing, just waiting to move.
"All right, there's a cab waiting for you out front. Since they didn't leave specific directions on how exactly you were to get yourself to Haven, we figured a cab was the least volatile option. Jerry's your driver." Don nodded. Jerry Hoyt was a good agent. Megan continued, "After the drop, Jerry will head out to meet Colby and David, and then… we wait for go time."
Don was ready. He checked his watch. "Better to be a little early than a little late," he thought to himself. "Okay, everyone ready? Let's move."
There was no camera this time. For that, Charlie was grateful. Whatever strength of will that had allowed him to refrain for his brother's sake was long gone. His flesh sizzled, and an anguished cry escaped him. His screams and his sobs had mingled together in such a way that he couldn't even decipher the sounds anymore. He felt the iron rod pull off his shoulder blade, skin with it, and he struggled to recall a moment in his life that wasn't…excruciating. Anything to get him through.
"Haven't you had enough yet? You can stop this. It is within your power."
Charlie's breath choked in his throat, a tremor running down his aching back. Everything in him wanted to scream out, give them their information, do whatever he had to do to make this all just go away. But that was impossible. There was no way out. He had no options. His vision blurred.
"Is that…all…you've got?"
The only victory Charlie could claim was the flash of fury, frustration on his captor's face. The angry yell that escaped him. At least he managed to get under his skin.
His triumph was short-lived as the searing metal struck again, setting his skin, and his senses, ablaze.
"Good luck Agent."
Don's face remained neutral at Jerry's words of support, careful not to let on to any prying eyes that this relationship was anything beyond driver/traveler. He locked his eyes as he loosely tossed a twenty-dollar bill, exiting the cab.
The taxi pulled away from the curb, down the block, rounded the corner out of sight. Don took a moment to absorb his surroundings. The street was vacant, the buildings mostly abandoned and deteriorating. His destination was, as described, long-since closed and boarded. He cracked his neck once, and headed to the alley to find his entrance.
Just as was said, a rusty door with chipped red paint sat at the back of the building. A twist of the knob revealed that it was unlocked, and he pushed it in, the scrape of metal on metal breaking the unnatural silence of the discarded corner of the city. He stepped in, closing the door behind him.
It was dark, as expected. He glanced again at his watch, eyes squinting, adjusting to the reduction in light. 6:50. Pretty damn close. He looked around warily, trying to pick out anything of interest. Nothing.
A sudden sound behind him caught his attention, and he spun around, only to find himself looking down the wrong side of a barrel.
"Hello Agent. Find the place okay?"
Don stiffened. He had no interest in this crap. "Where's my brother?"
"Now, don't get ahead of yourself here. We'll take you to him. Got him all ready for your arrival too." Don felt his teeth grind. "Where the hell is Charlie!?"
"Take off your shirt, your shoes and your watch and you can see for yourself. Slowly."
'Shit,' Don thought, showing no emotion as he did as instructed. 'So much for the tracker.' There were no agents nearby, no way to follow his location without that tracking device. They hadn't wanted to take any chances, after seeing the violence these guys were so obviously capable of. But there was nothing to be done about that now. His sole concern was in getting to Charlie. After the specified items were removed, Don felt news hands securing his, a quick but thorough frisk, and a sharp pain in his head. Then, nothing.
Colby paced around the cruiser, glanced at his watch, kept pacing. This was taking too long. Jerry had dropped Don almost 45 minutes ago and there was no movement. None. Either Don was completely immobilized, or they had a big problem.
"David, we gotta send someone to check it out. Something isn't right," Colby called to his partner. "There should be activity by now."
David nodded. "I know. We'll send Jerry back to check things out. If someone sees him, he can play it off like Don stiffed him or something. Whatever. But I've got a bad feeling that they're not there anymore."
Colby had the same feeling. Shit! Who knew what these guys might do to Don, and Charlie…well, Charlie didn't have time to wait.
David made the call and Jerry headed out, back to the video store in his FBI cab. A long stretch ensued, everyone ready to jump at the faintest command. Five minutes after 8:00, David's comm. unit crackled to life.
"Agent Sinclair, this is Agent Hoyt. Location is deserted, with no sign of the suspects or Agent Eppes." Before he could continue, David interrupted, "What the hell happened to the tracker?"
"It's here Sir. His sneakers are here. The tracker is useless."
David looked at Colby. Son of a bitch.
The first thing Don noticed was that is was cold. The second thing was that his hands were still tied. And the third was ragged breathing coming from his left. He propped his slumped body up, trying to loosen his position enough to see. He felt cool metal behind him and guessed that his hands were secured around piping of some sort. He wasn't going anywhere. A few grunts and curses later, he'd turned enough to identify the source of the breathing.
There was his brother, still hanging, unconscious, and more battered than Don could even bear. Aside from the injuries he'd witnessed—the bruises and lashes, primarily—he now sported 3 ugly and painful burns, each one charred and oozing. One on his shoulder blade looked particularly grotesque. Smaller ones to his hip and abdomen were defined, but not as large. His right eye was swollen so completely that Don doubted it would even open. His breath was labored and shallow, an occasional cough wracking his entire body. His eyes were closed, but pinched in pain despite their apparent unawareness. God, Charlie.
"Charlie," he called, trying to keep the grief from his voice. "Charlie, can you hear me?"
He waited, and opened his mouth to call again when a groan escaped his brother's lips. It was low, painful. "Charlie?"
Charlie didn't want to be awake. His unconscious oblivion was the only refuge to the hell that his life had become. But there was something…
'Don,' he realized. Don was here. They had brought him…or had he come? Was he rescued? He slowly forced his eyes apart, dimly wishing that Don would step to the side of his good eye. They opened with effort, and he took a moment for the haze to clear. It was Don. Don was here. Chained to a sink, but here.
He parted his lips, coughed, tried to speak. "Don?" It came out in a whisper; it was all he could muster.
"Yeah, Charlie, it's me. I'm here. Jesus buddy, what the hell did they do to you?"
Charlie laughed a little inside. What didn't they do? H tried to smile, failed. "Not so bad,"
Don swelled a bit at that. His baby brother, beaten nearly to death, downplaying his condition for his sake. "Charlie, what's going on? Who the hell are these guys?"
"Don't know," Charlie said. That was true. They'd never identified themselves, never offered a name or anything. He had no idea who they were.
"Why were they asking you about the FBI? Do they know you're a consultant?" Charlie didn't respond right away, couldn't, as he sought out enough moisture in his mouth to speak. "Charlie," Don said painfully. 'Charlie, I'm so sorry this happened. It's my fault. You shouldn't be involved in this, whatever it is. A grudge against that Feds, that—"
Charlie cut him off. "Don't. Not the Feds." Don's brow furrowed. Then what—
"NSA," Charlie said. "Not the FBI. NSA."
Don was shocked. The NSA? He knew Charlie consulted for them on a limited basis, but he'd always assumed that the work he did there was on par with what he did for the FBI. Certainly nothing to get him strung from the damn ceiling. "Then why—why were they asking you about—"
Charlie interrupted again. "You. They wanted you."
"What do I have to do with anything? I'm not NSA."
Charlie paused, his emotions fighting his fatigue and winning. "Leverage." He stopped, coughed, spoke again. "They want to use you to make me talk."
Don opened his mouth, closed it. Oh. Oh.
Don could see his brother slipping away, and called to him. "Charlie! Charlie, look at me." He did, slowly. Don put on his best "comforting-and-controlled-big-brother" face. "You're getting out of here, you hear me? We're getting out of this."
Charlie attempted a smile. He knew Don meant it. Donnie would save them both.
"Damn it, damn it!"
David slammed his hands to the hood of the car, furious at their oversight. Charlie hadn't been wearing shoes; it was a reasonable assumption that they'd make Don remove his as well. They'd thought that when they did it would be at their ultimate destination, though, and not at the damn video store. It had been an hour since Jerry's report and hey had nothing. No leads, no witnesses, no lead agent.
He righted himself, sighed, headed over to Colby. As he did his phone buzzed in his pocket and he pulled it out with urgency. "Sinclair."
"David, it's Megan. We got the car."
"Colby!" David called, gesturing his partner over. He put his hand over the receiver. "They found the car." Colby's eyes lit up. If ever they needed a break, it was now. Megan's voice continued. "The car is a black Lincoln Continental, registered to Grant L. Hicks, ex-marine. He was in the service from '99 to '06 until he was dishonorably discharged. There's no explanation in his file—we're working on that now—but the plates are L-1-V-2-H-8."
"Live to hate," David supplied, his hope growing. "Do we have any idea where that car is now?"
He heard papers being pushed, rustling. Megan came back on the line. "Hicks' father was the GM of meat packing warehouse until about eight years ago. The building's on the corner of 7th and Wyatt. He died in 2003, and left everything to his son, including that property."
"Why'd he still have it after being closed for so long?" David wondered aloud. Megan answered, "A lot of those buildings are still privately owned. When they were trying to develop it as an industrial zone they were pretty much giving the property away. Most of the owners are waiting for the area to increase in value to either sell of redevelop their businesses. I'm willing to bet that Hicks' is in that building."
"That's…less than 10 blocks from here," Colby said, pushing the LA map back into the cruiser.
"All right Megan, great work," David said. "We'll keep you posted." He disconnected, and swiveled around. "All units! Prepare to move in!'
Don's further attempts at comforting his brother were swiftly interrupted when the door swung open, the banging jolting him enough to knock his head on the sink behind him. He glared at them; they stared coolly back.
A quick appraisal showed that the situation was not in their favor. One held the dreaded bat from tape one, another a small tool case filled with God knows what. He didn't care what happened to him. He had to protect Charlie.
"Let my brother go."
The name in charge smiled. "Let him go?" He took a moment of mock consideration. "No," he said slowly. "And I don't think you're in a position to negotiate." He turned to one of his men, nodded toward Charlie.
"Hey. Hey!" Don's yells were ignored as the three men gathered once again around his brother.
"We'll give you one more chance Professor. One more."
Charlie shuddered. He couldn't talk, but he couldn't bear to see Don hurt. He lifted his head.
His captor saw his eyes, knew that he had him. He was broken. He was—
A wad of spit hit him right in the face.
Don watched in dismay as the man lifted his arm, slowly, wiped it away. Charlie's eyes were narrowed, his breathing heavy. The look on his brother's face was unrecognizable. Hard, hateful. Unwavering.
He watched as the man held his hand out, took the bat, paused. Then suddenly, with a swift and mighty swing he brought it down on Charlie's knee. Don heard the crack from across the room. He felt a burning at the back of his throat and his own screaming echoed his brother's. He'd never been this angry, or this afraid.
"You had your chance Professor! We gave you every opportunity to prevent this. You have only yourself to blame!"
With that, Don saw them turn, walk toward him. 'Yeah,' he thought. 'Get over here, you sons of bitches.' Whatever they did to him, whatever pain he suffered, he could take it. But seeing his baby brother brutalized, over and over again—that he couldn't bear.
The bat crushed down on the pipe, catching his fingers in the crossfire. He winced, shook it off. He wouldn't yell, wouldn't scream. He had to stay strong for Charlie.
Colby and David crept up to the building, the gravel beneath their shoes not daring to make a sound as they approached. The Lincoln was parked on the south end of the lot, and distinct drag marks led them to their point of entry. From inside they heard the vague sounds of yelling, bouncing and echoing from within the cavernous warehouse. They locked eyes, signaled their team, and rushed inside.
Charlie couldn't bear it. He struggled to speak, a task exceedingly difficult as any wetness in his mouth had just been launched at his captor's face. He heard bones crunch—fingers, most likely—and Don's grunt of pain. "Wait," he gasped out. They apparently didn't hear him, as another blow landed to Don's midsection. "Wait!" he called, louder.
"What?" the man yelled back. "Sorry Professor, didn't catch that."
"Please," Charlie pleaded, wholly defeated. "Please stop."
As his henchman continued to beat Don, who'd curled himself the best he could within his confines, his captor walked over to face Charlie.
"And why would I do that?" he asked with a jeer.
"Because," Charlie started, beaten. "I'll tell you what you want to know."
Colby and David rushed down the corridor, twisting through the maze-like hallways, searching for their friends. When Megan had said the architecture of these buildings was unique, she meant it. The place was more a maximum-security prison than a warehouse. He and the team had been mired behind a series of steel doors and barriers, each one seeming to weigh the up end of a ton. What the hell kind of "business" was this? They had finally forced their way through what appeared to be the last one when they heard voices, stronger, coming from the room directly in front of them. How they hadn't been detected was beyond him, but he'd take any luck he could get.
"I'll tell you what you want to know."
Colby heard Charlie's soft, strangled words, the resignation in his voice, and that was the only signal he needed. He barreled his way inside, David roaring in behind him. "FBI! Everybody down!"
The chaos that ensued then was massive. The men beating Don stopped, dropped the bat, reached for the weapons tucked into their belts. David easily took down the first, another agent the second. The man in front of Charlie dodged, cowered behind the table at the corner of the room. He watched as Colby approached, wearing an expression that did not sit well at all, he knew he was done. But he wasn't going down alone. He reached up, grabbed the crank on the table, ignoring Colby's orders to put his hands up and began to turn. There was a crack, a hum, and he watched in satisfaction as Charlie's body jerked again. He barely even felt the impact of the bullet.
Colby ran to the table, hardly bothering to look. Guy was dead before he hit the floor. His attention quickly turned to the table, his hands grasping desperately at the device. Don screamed from the floor, "Turn that thing off! Jesus, Colby, turn it off!" He finally found a small lever at the base, flipped it, heard the machine shut down. The spasms wracking Charlie's body took a few seconds longer, but soon he too was still. Don was staggering, having been freed from his position at the sink, cradling his hands to his chest. David was close behind, supporting him, looking at Charlie in horror.
"Cut him down! Get him down from there!" Any pretense Don may have had about being the strong big brother was out the window, and he looked ready to fall apart as he got closer to Charlie, saw the damage up-close. David gently pushed him back. "We got him Don. Your hands…you're in no condition."
He acquiesced, stepped back slightly to allow Colby and David room. They set up on each side of him, another agent ready with a blade to cut the rope. "Be careful," Colby instructed to David. "Don't let his arms fall too quickly. For as long as he's been hanging, there's probably tissue damage." David nodded grimly, grasped Charlie's midsection with one hand and his elbow with the other. He was trying his best not to aggravate any of his injuries, which were extensive, a task that was proving impossible. At Colby's command, the rope was cut, slowly, to avoid any unnecessary jerking. At the slight movement, Charlie groaned. "We got you Charlie," Colby said quietly, soothing. "We got you."
There was a flurry of activity as agents began removing the two suspects, heads bowed and flush, knowing that they'd likely never again walk without the accompaniment of handcuffs. The agents that remained made their way out, ready to direct the medics and prepare for transport. Nobody noticed the slight movement behind the table, a blood-covered hand grasping at the wall.
The rope finally gave, and David and Colby both had to adjust their positions to keep Charlie's dead weight from collapsing in a heap to the ground. David swiftly swooped down to detach the wires from his toes, disgust on his face as they were discarded. They held him awkwardly as they waited for the stretcher, not wanting to do anything to cause more pain to their battered friend.
Don moved to go to his brother, turning to give a final hate-filled glance to his tormentor. Had he done so a moment sooner, perhaps he could have prevented the hand reaching its destination, prevented it from swinging open a small panel at the base of the wall, prevented it from pressing the button secured within. Perhaps then the entrance to their cell, their way to freedom, to fresh air, to the desperately needed hospital would not have been obliterated by a steel door slamming across the void, sealing itself in vice-like fashion in the path of the oncoming medics. Had he looked just one moment sooner, he might have stopped it all. Instead, his jaw dropped, the hand shuddered to stillness, and they were trapped.
They were trapped.
"Shit!" David yelled, his hold on Charlie faltering for just a moment as the shockwaves of the slamming door echoed through the small room. The other agent, Agent Jeff Houghton, swiftly moved in to support Charlie, allowing David to sprint to the door, heaving and pulling, praying it would give way through strength of his will alone. The agents on the other side doubled their attempts for several minutes after it became apparent that the effort was fruitless. A spark of insight propelled David down to the wall, past the table, pushing aside the still body of Hicks toward the button in the wall. His silent prayer—please, let it be this simple—went unanswered as the door remained stubbornly in place. Sighing, David pulled the comm. unit from his waistband, feeling some relief as it crackled to life. At least they still had some communication. It was short-lived as he spoke to his colleagues. Don listened from a few feet away, unable to absorb this sudden and unfortunate turn in their rescue efforts. He caught the words 'panic door,' team is on the way, a few hours, working on it. The transmission ended, and he snapped back to life.
"Why the hell wasn't he secured!"
Colby knew this one was on him. He'd said it himself, there was no room for error. And he'd made a horrible rookie mistake by not containing the suspect, by assuming that he was out of commission.
"Jesus, Don I—he took a bullet to the head. I'm…" His voice drifted off, his thoughts unfinished. There was no excuse. "We needed to get to Charlie," he said softly, almost to himself. "What do we do for Charlie now?" he wondered.
A small cough broke the tension, and four heads flew at once to his brother. The coughing became hacking, and Houghton and Colby struggled to keep him upright. "Charlie," Don said, rushing to his side once more. "Charlie, can you hear me?" A weak nod broke through the choking, though Don supposed it could have been a tremor. "Lay him down!" he ordered, and the agents rushed to oblige. As gently as they were able, they lay him down on the hard cement floor, a bit startled when he gasped. "Watch his back!" Don commanded, having briefly forgotten about the lashes that adorned it. After a minute of consideration, they tilted him to his right side, the best available option to avoid his cacophony of injuries. David removed his jacket, bunching it into a pillow for Charlie's head. "Yeah, now he's comfortable," he thought ruefully. He had little more time for contemplation as he heard the familiar beep of his radio, and he walked briskly back to the door, straining to hear.
Don kneeled down next to his brother, watching his eyes flutter as the pains of his consciousness began anew. "Charlie," he said, his voice low and whispered. "Stay with me Charlie." He watched his eyes open, slowly at first, mere slits of the vibrant chocolate brown showing through. Charlie locked his eyes with Don, opened his mouth, tried to speak. It took a moment, but he finally found his voice.
Don almost laughed. "Am I okay? Jesus Charlie…"
Charlie's eyes closed again as he spoke. "Your hands."
His hands? Oh yeah…Don looked down, gingerly began trying to move his fingers. They were bruised and swelling already, and hurt like hell, so he couldn't really determine the extent of the damage. But it wasn't the damage to his hands that he was concerned about. He felt someone squat down next to him—Colby—and felt a hand on his shoulder. He spoke to Charlie, but looked at Don. "We're just gonna check you out while we're waiting for the medics, all right Charlie?" Charlie nodded imperceptibly, his body entirely spent. Colby and Houghton set to work with the meager supplies they'd carried in. Colby stood and moved around to the other side, the two of them attempting to patch together the shambles of flesh that were Charlie's back. Colby winced with Charlie every time his touch elicited the inevitable sting and shock. For as bad as his back looked, Colby was more concerned about the injuries they couldn't see: dehydration, malnourishment, internal bleeding and bruising. Hell, even brain damage. Who knew what that kind of electric shock would do to him? And Charlie had suffered through it twice. "Well, twice that we know of," he thought to himself.
David walked back to the group huddled on the floor around Charlie. "They've got a team on their way to disable the door. They think they can manipulate the wiring to get it open, but they've got a metal crew coming too to torch it apart."
"Why not just do that anyway?" Houghton asked, his eyes still focused on taping over Charlie's lacerations. "That door is almost a foot thick," David responded. "It'd take them hours to get a hole big enough to lift him out of." Don's gaze shifted and he stood abruptly.
"Well, how the hell did the person that installed that door plan on getting out of here? There's got to be something inside to open it. I'm sure they didn't plan on closing themselves in and dying in here!" Internally, he winced at his choice of words. They probably didn't plan on closing Charlie in to die here either. "He's not going to die," he thought fervently. "He's getting out of here."
He and David immediately sprang into action, searching each wall and crevice with precision and patience, much more than they actually possessed. "Broken fingers be damned", Don thought as he ran his hands slowly down each surface. After half an hour, they met in the middle of the room, both angry and empty-handed. "God, it's gotta be here!" David said, exasperated. Don ran his hands through his hair, allowing himself a moment to breath. He turned, walking back to Charlie. He kneeled down next to Colby, who was applying some kind of cream to the burn on Charlie's shoulder. "How ya doing, buddy?"
Charlie's eyes were open, barely, and Don reached a hand out to feel his forehead. Burning up. Great. Let's tack an infection onto the list. "M'cold," came the response, Charlie moving his arms in obvious pain to try and wrap his body, seek out heat. Colby jumped to remove his FBI blazer, cursing himself for not doing so sooner, and laid it over his lower body. Don put a hand on Charlie's shoulder, stilling his movement. "Try not to move too much, okay? There might be some damage to your shoulders." Don waited a moment to speak. "Charlie," he started, then stopped. Charlie looked at him, the fatigue evident in his eyes. "What happened here? Why did this happen?" Charlie closed his eyes, actually smiled a little. "S'classified Don. Can't say."
Don was stunned, and a glance to Colby revealed that he wasn't the only one. He wanted to say more, but was stopped when Charlie's violent coughing began again, wracking his body, jerking him from the floor. "Hand me the water Colby!" Don ordered, twisting the cap and laying his hand gently at the back of Charlie's head. "Drink some of this, slowly." Charlie struggled to do so, losing as much water as he took in, but after a moment it seemed to have an effect and the coughing stopped. He breathed deeply, and Don didn't miss the wheezes that came with it. Shit. Charlie swallowed with effort. Don stared at him. He looked absolutely miserable; hurt, tired, haunted. Charlie caught Don's gaze, averted his eyes, and Don could see him finally starting to crack, trying to stay strong, losing the battle. A tear rolled down Charlie's face, and it took everything Don had to not do the same.
About three hours had passed since his semi-rescue, and Charlie wanted desperately to sleep. His once stabbing pains had subsided into a dull and pervasive ache, an all-over kind of throbbing that had quickly begun to assimilate into his memory. Had there ever been a time when he didn't hurt? He knew that there was some reason that they had yet to leave this hellish nightmare of a room, but he couldn't recall what it was. He didn't care. He could be as patient as necessary if only Don would let him sleep. But each time he began to nod off his brother would shake him and poke at him, insisting that he open his eyes. There'd been one particularly bothersome episode in which Charlie's mind had heard Don's voice, but obstinately refused to respond to its commands. It was only when he heard the panic, the desperation in his words, that he forced his good eye open and made a solid attempt at consciousness. But that was so long ago, and he was so tired.
"Just another ten minutes and we're in! Hang tight."
Don and his team breathed a collective sigh of tentative relief at these words. It had been almost four hours since the door had shut, and after a few failed attempts at opening it mechanically, they'd resorted to good old-fashioned manpower. They'd heard the work outside long before they'd begun to see results, but eventually the steel had sparked and cracked as the high-powered torches blasted through. Colby, David and Houghton jumped to stand-by—the last thing they needed was the full force of the door crashing into their relatively cramped quarters—while Don remained with Charlie.
Don was scared like hell for his brother, and his fear was growing exponentially with each passing minute. Colby was concerned that Charlie might have a concussion, based on the bruising around his temple, so he and Don had spent the greater part of the last few hours jolting him awake each time he drifted off. He could see how tired Charlie was, and he felt as though he was the instrument of yet another form of torture. Charlie's intervals of consciousness were growing shorter and shorter, and even when he was awake his responses had become almost non-existent. It was obvious to Don that he was operating on some sort of mental autopilot, and he highly doubted that Charlie would have much recollection of this time. At least he hoped not.
"We're almost out buddy, you hear me? We'll get you to a hospital and they'll fix you right up," Don promised, though he knew that Charlie's road to recovery would likely be a long and trying one. He hoped for a reply, was not surprised when none came. His face was flushed, his eyes glassy and unfocused. He needed help.
"Stand back!" Colby and David did as instructed, watched the door lean back, away from them, jumped a little as it fell with a solid and resounding thump on the ground. They took no more than a second to revel in their sudden and anticipated freedom before the chaos began anew. A swarm of medics rushed forth, most gathering around Charlie in a swirl of instruments and IV's. Two pushed Don gently back, advising him to step aside and let them work, and began checking his hands. Don allowed himself to be guided away, keeping his eyes trained on his brother's still body. He jumped forward to help as Charlie was lifted from the cold ground to the relative comforts of a stretcher, briefly fought with David as he stepped in to refrain him from doing so, then acquiesced. Less then five minutes after entering the room, the medics were gone, wheeling Charlie to a waiting ambulance. 'If only it had gone so smoothly earlier,' thought Don as he walked briskly behind, his hands secured with ice packs.
As Charlie was loaded into the bus, he made a move to follow inside, even getting his left foot into the carriage before he was pulled back. "Sir, we need to get you over here," a paramedic said, gesturing to a second ambulance. "Like hell," Don replied angrily. "I'm going with him." David and Colby, hearing his raised voice, stepped in. "Don," David said, "You need to get your hands set, and you probably have a few cracked ribs. Might need a few stitches above that eye," he continued, gesturing to his forehead. Don raised his hand, felt the cut and dried blood. He hadn't even realized, had barely taken a moment to assess his own injuries. He shook his head, adamant. "I'm not leaving him David. I don't want him to be alone!" He made another move to go in, stopped when Colby stepped in front of him. "I'll ride with him Don. He won't be alone. But you need to let them go." Don's shoulders sagged. He nodded. "Go with him Colby. I'll be right behind you."
Colby jumped into the back of the ambulance, and Don watched the doors slam shut, the siren come alight, his brother speeding away to the help he so desperately needed. He turned suddenly, sprinting to the second ambulance, climbed in. "I'm here. Let's go."
By the time Don pulled into the hospital, his ribs were taped and his laceration sealed with a butterfly bandage. Much to his chagrin, he was escorted to an exam cubicle rather than the ER to see his brother. He spent almost an hour getting X-rays for his hands and ribs, and another forty minutes as his fingers were set. Three broken on his left hand, one on his right. His ribs were bruised, but not cracked, and two stitches took care of his forehead. With a handful of prescriptions and an earful of instructions he bolted to the ER, desperate for word on Charlie.
He found his way to the waiting room where the blank and exhausted faces of his team members awaited him. Colby and Megan looked up as he approached, and David stood to greet him. "How're the hands?"
"Fine. How's Charlie?" No time for pleasantries.
"They haven't told us much, Don," Megan said, standing to assess her boss. "They took him for some X-rays, and the doctor should coming with an update." She wasn't all too eager to hear what he had to say. She'd been waiting in the ER when Charlie was brought in, and she'd almost had to look away at the sight of him. Colby came in right after and brought her up to speed on their time in the room. David hadn't been far behind, having followed Don's ride in, and they'd spent the last two hours waiting, hearts constricting at the rush and bustle of doctors flowing in and out of Charlie's exam room.
Don sat, then stood, sat again. He was restless, anxious. He needed to see Charlie. He needed to know that he was okay, that things would be normal again, that they'd sit and laugh over a beer and their father's famous lasagna…
"Ah, shit," he said, lowering his head. "I've gotta call my father." He sighed, reached for his phone. Megan bit her lip. "I called him Don." He looked up. "I called him right after you got in the cab." She waited, unsure of how he'd respond. He stared, then sat back in his chair. "Good," he said softly. "He needs to be here." She let out a breath, emboldened. "I didn't give him a lot of details Don. I—I didn't know what to expect. But he was leaving immediately. He should be here…" she looked at her watch, "probably within the next few hours." Don said nothing, allowed his eyes to close for a second. Charlie would need Alan, would want his father.
He wanted his father.
The door to the ER swung open purposefully. A doctor strode out, eyes on the cluster of agents. They all stood. "I'm Dr. King. Are you here for Charles Eppes?" he asked, knowing the answer. Don rushed forward. "He's my brother. How is he?" Dr. King gestured to the seating. "Why don't we sit." Something in Don's chest flared. This wasn't good. Dr. King caught must have caught the flash of panic in his eyes, and quickly continued, raising a calming hand. "It just might be more comfortable. We have quite an extensive list of injuries, as I'm sure you're aware." They quickly complied, the five of them sitting in the hard plastic chairs, all rested on the edges of their seats.
"Okay," Dr. King said, focusing on Don. "I'll start by saying that Charles—" He was cut off by Colby. "Charlie." Four sets of eyes looked at him. "Sorry, it's…you know, it's Charlie." Stop talking now, he thought to himself. Dr. King continued, "Charlie is going to be okay." He almost felt himself blown back by the air that rushed out of his audience, their expressions going immediately from tense fear to extreme relief. "That's not to say that his injuries aren't very serious, but at this point we have every reason to expect a recovery. So let's just go through them one at a time. He had twelve very severe lacerations on his back that have been sutured. Several of them had the beginnings of infection, but we were able to clear the necrotic tissue and clean them out. It took…well, it took a lot of stitches. He also has three cracked ribs, two on his right side and one on his left, along with extensive bruising. Unfortunately, the combination of the two injuries is going to create some serious mobility problems for some time, and there isn't too much we can do to remedy that. All I can recommend is serious rest. He's also suffered a mild concussion. That on it's own wouldn't have been too serious, but the subsequent exhaustion and dehydration exacerbated the condition. It's probable that he'll develop chronic headaches, most certainly in the short-term, possibly permanently. But we're not anticipating any additional neurological damage there. He had several third degree burns, all of which will require skin grafting and surgery to heal and reduce the degree of scarring. That's something that we'll be looking to do within the next 48 hours." He stopped to take a breath, then continued.
"Continuing along the surgical line, his left kneecap is fractured. Given his current condition, we feel that his body needs time to heal and rest, and have decided to do a minimally invasive plate fixation to correct the damage. Essentially, we'll make a series of incisions along his knee and insert screws to hold an external plate. At that point we'll keep his knee elevated and immobile until we're sure that malunion won't be an issue. There's an orthopedic specialist in with him now, and that will be done before he is moved into recovery. They're also going to assess his shoulders. I've been briefed on the nature of his injury, and our preliminary testing showed severe tendon strain, but no tearing. If that holds up, we'll give him a series of cortisone shots over the next few days to reduce the inflammation. Once it goes down, he'll need physical therapy on both the shoulders and the knee. His arms should be fully healed within two to three weeks. As for his knee, a temporary or permanent limp is not out of the question, but we're cautiously optimistic that it will be eliminated with the surgery and therapy.
"Moving on to the less obvious injuries, he is running a high fever and has a nasty sounding cough. His lungs are distressed, and are showing signs of pneumonia. We'll be running a strong course of antibiotics for the next 6 to 7 days. He is also of course suffering from extreme exhaustion, and his blood pressure came in much lower than we'd like, likely due to his lack of adequate food and water. However, as the stress on his body is reduced, I expect his turnaround in that area will be pretty quick." Dr. King stopped, breathless and relieved that the long list was finally over. He allowed them a moment to absorb.
Don was the first to speak, his initial joy at the words "He's going to be okay" overshadowed by the horrific list of injuries currently assaulting his brother. But he did have a question. "What about the electric shocks? I mean, did they tell you—" Dr. King cut him off, nodding. "Yes, I failed to mention that. While that certainly contributed to the trauma of his injuries, most specifically the exhaustion, we found no evidence of additional damage there. He'll be very closely monitored over the next week, but given the circumstances, he's really doing very well."
Don nodded, his anxiety abating just a bit. "When can we see him?"
Dr. King checked his watch. "I expect Ortho to finish working on his knee within the next hour or so, and we'll move him into recovery at that point. He'll be in ICU initially, so visitation will be restricted, but as he'll be in a secured room there is some flexibility there." Don glanced at his team, then back to Dr. King. "Why is he being placed in a secured room?" The doctor seemed puzzled. "We received a formal notification to ensure that Charlie was isolated. I'd assumed it came from your department." He shuffled though his charts and notes, pulling a fax from the bottom of the stack. "Here. The order came from a Mr. Robert Tompkins." Robert Tompkins. Robert Tompkins of the NSA. Don ran his hands through his hair. What the hell had his little brother gotten himself into?
Dr. King rose, ready to head back in to check on his patient. He extended a hand, which Don gratefully accepted, careful with his tender fingers. "Thank you," he said sincerely. The doctor smiled. "I'm glad Charlie is doing well, but I can't take too much credit. Your brother is a hell of a fighter." He gave a nod to the others, then disappeared back through the double doors.
"Fighter my ass," Colby said as they sat, his voice a mix of awe and sorrow. "He's goddamn indestructible."
After a few more agonizing hours, just as Don had reached a point where he was pretty sure he was going to start breaking windows out of frustration, the words he'd been awaiting finally came.
"Don Eppes? You can see Charlie now."
He was up in an instant, felt Megan squeeze his arm, heard David and Colby's words of support, became reacquainted with the now familiar tug of anxiety in his chest. He moved purposely through several corridors, was directed to stop at a room at the end of the ICU unit. He didn't need to be told…he'd known it was Charlie's room as soon as he'd turned the corner by the two uniformed guards keeping post outside. He pulled his badge, flashed it, dared them to slow him down. They didn't, and one reached in to push open the door, nodding solemnly as he passed.
His breath hitched, and his eyes welled painfully. He hadn't expected Charlie to look good, but he also hadn't expected him to look so…bad. Hell, he could barely see his brother under the mess of tubes, wires, gauze, bruises. His leg was elevated in a mechanical sling, and he could see the metal plating Dr. King had described. His torso was bare, with soft pillows under his inflamed looking shoulders, probably to relieve the pressure on both his arms and his back. God, his back. Don didn't even want to think about that right now. And the burns…Don shook his head, clearing the unwelcome memories from his mind. He moved forward, sat down beside Charlie, gripped his hand as tightly as he dared. He had to look forward. He was here. Charlie was here, he was alive, and that was all that mattered. That's all that would ever matter.
Charlie didn't know how he'd gotten here. Didn't know where "here" was, for that matter. He knew that it hurt. He hurt. That he knew.
He felt hazy, disoriented. And scared. He tried to open his eyes, couldn't. He concentrated, tried again. Slowly, his vision cleared a bit. He tried to speak. His throat was raw, painful. He cleared it.
"Charlie? You awake?"
The fear abated. Don was here. If Don was here, he was safe.
"Don't try to move, little one. Rest now." When had his dad come? Wasn't he camping?
He felt strong hands on his, heard whispered words in his ear, as the persistent pulls of sleep claimed him once more.
"Hey! Everyone shut up! They just pulled in!"
Megan's words were heeded immediately as six bodies jostled and vied for primary position. Megan and David took their places at the right side of the door, Colby and Amita stood in front, and Larry and Millie waited on the left. They heard three car doors close, muffled voices, slow movement on the porch. By the time the door finally swung open the energy was tangible, but the jubilant yells of "Surprise!" were left unuttered as Don and Alan walked in alone. Colby's brow furrowed. "Don? Where's—"
Six heads swung around as three broke into wide grins. "Don!" Megan yelled, dismayed. "You told him?"
Don put his hands up in defense. "I didn't tell him anything. I told you guys to park around the block, not around the corner. He saw your cars a mile away."
"Ah, hell, who cares. Welcome home Whiz kid!" Colby said happily, quickly converting his manly handshake into a hug. Don stepped into the room, smiled as the others lined up to get their greetings in, and assessed his brother. Aside from the crutches he was currently sporting, there was no obvious evidence of the trauma Charlie had suffered through just four weeks earlier. The lashes on his back were entirely healed, and what scars they'd left were easily hidden under his still-too-loose-for-Don's—liking tee shirt. His burns had been grafted, and he was meeting with some specialists from the UCLA plastics division next week to touch them up. The bruises had long since faded, and after the first few days in the hospital, Don had begun to see glimpses of his brother again. The pained and troubled eyes made way for the light and determination and—well, the Charlie—that Don was used to. He listened to his brother laugh with his friends, was overjoyed at the sound of it, and joined in. He hadn't caught the joke, but he laughed. It felt so good to laugh.
As the last rays of sun died away, so too did the diminutive crowd. As thrilled as he was to see his friends outside the walls of the hospital, Charlie soon found that he couldn't hide his weariness, and they graciously made their exits. He sat with his father and brother in the living room, reveling in the feeling of home. He felt his eyes getting heavy, heard Don chuckle as he hoisted him carefully from the couch. "Had enough buddy?" Charlie shook his head. "I'm awake." Don smiled, but didn't respond. They slowly made their way upstairs, where Alan had pulled back the sheets and fluffed the pillow. Charlie groaned as he lay down, then sighed, feeling his tired body melt into the familiar mattress. He felt his father's hand on his head, lingering a moment in his hair before pulling away. "Good night my boy," followed by a kiss to his forehead. He waited for Don's exit, was surprised when his brother instead settled into a chair, watching him. He turned to look. "Aren't you sick of watching me sleep yet?" Don smiled. "More than you can ever imagine, brother." Charlie smiled, closed his eyes, opened them to see Don's piercing gaze. "What?"
Don waited a moment, scrutinized his brother, leaned back in his chair. "You know you're gonna tell me."
His brother smiled again, laughed a little, pulled the covers over his head. His muffled voice came through.
"Can't Don. It's classified."
Author's note: Thanks for reading. Reviews would thrill me. Really.