Disclaimer: Get real. Would I be doing this if I owned them?
A/N: many many thanks to SerialGal and FraidyCat, who did an excellent beta for me when I was afraid that the words outran my good sense. They reined me in; any errors are mine for not listening to them.
Don walked in through the front door of the Craftsman, savoring the comfort of home, inhaling the smell of oregano and other spices that emanated from the kitchen. Technically, this wasn't home, but that didn't matter to either Don or his father busily working over the stove or even his brother out in the garage. The apartment was where Don left his clothes and took his morning shower. Here, in the house where he and his brother had grown up, was home.
Home was what he needed at the moment. Some place where he could push away the frustrations of the world, a place where he could relax with a beer in his hand and not have to worry about all the intricate ways that man had learned to kill his fellow man. Home was where he could divorce himself from real life and turn back into a person, just like everyone else. He paused at the doorway, simply enjoying all the old furniture that welcomed him, the piano in the corner trying to collect dust, the small picture frames on the wall chronicling two small boys' journeys into men.
There was a pause in the clatter of utensils. A voice called out from the kitchen. "Donnie, is that you?"
"Good. You're finally home," his father grunted, resuming his culinary efforts. Despite all the changes—Charlie's purchase of the old Craftsman as well as Don's several years in another part of the country—Alan Eppes remained the patriarch of the household. Charlie was reminded of that detail every time someone brought up the specter of renovation; Charlie automatically turned to his father for permission.
No, not permission, Don told himself, but advice. Advice, from a man who'd successfully kept this old homestead going for some thirty-odd years. Advice, from a man who had based his career on city planning, on knowing how and what to build where. Charlie was only being sensible, seeking wisdom from a man who could legitimately say, 'been there, done that, got the scars to prove it'.
Don flopped onto the sofa, wondering if he could get away with propping his feet up on the coffee table. What the hell. Worst case scenario, Dad'll tell me to get 'em off like he's done for the last thirty years.
The remote control was within easy reach; he snagged it and flipped the set onto something mindless, not even seeing what was playing. It was the noise he needed, something to distract him from his thoughts.
Those thoughts were not good ones.
His father, missing the appearance of his eldest son in the kitchen, strolled out to see where Don had perched. He cocked his head, and surveyed his son with an unreadable expression on his face.
Don guiltily removed his feet from the coffee table, trying not to seem like he was fourteen years old again and caught at whatever it was that he wasn't supposed to be doing. Dammit, he was a grown man! He clicked off the TV set. "Hey, Dad."
"Hey, yourself." Alan Eppes lowered his backside into the easy chair at an angle to the sofa where Don was repositioning himself. "Tough first day back?"
"You could say that."
"Lots of paperwork?"
His dad was good. Don had always thought that he'd picked up interrogation skills from his mother—who could read both her sons better than any interrogator that Don had ever studied under at Quantico—but apparently the Alan Eppes genes had put in their share to hone Don's talents. "Yeah," Don admitted reluctantly.
Alan gave him all of one hundred twenty seconds before prodding. "Well?"
Don tried to evade. "Case in San Francisco didn't go so well, Dad."
"Not all of them do. Can you talk about this one?"
Don sighed, and looked away. "There are times when this job sucks. This was one of 'em." He sighed again, summoning the energy to say something else. "Murder, Dad. Nothing less than that, and there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it."
"He got away with it. Assuming it was a 'he'."
"Yeah, it was a 'he.'" Once started, Don found it impossible to stop. "Couldn't charge him with anything. Called himself a 'life coach', and talked to a bunch of impressionable young kids. Not kids, really; they were all legally adults, but kids just the same. He talked 'em into killing themselves, and then he laughed about it. He laughed about it," Don repeated, seeing the scene in his mind's eye.
It was the eyes that got to him: alternately green, then blue, and moving through hazel on their way to light brown. The one constant in those eyes was the glitter that stayed, the gleam that either drove his followers to insanity or haunted his pursuers with their inability to stop him.
Wesley Anders was not a man that anyone would look at twice—unless they saw those eyes. He was shorter than Don himself, with mousy brown hair that was ruthlessly slicked back out of the way. A tightly wound package: belt pulled tight around the trim waist that had long ago sent fat packing, long pants that broke across the shoe just so. No tattoos, no moles, no distinguishing marks. Nothing so irresponsible would dare mar the perfect skin, not even a smattering of facial hair.
Almost perfect: there was a scar. This scar began at the corner of Anders' mouth and drew a jagged line up to his ear. Anders wore it like a badge of courage, refused to tell anyone where or how he'd received it.
The last victim, a kid of only twenty, was one who'd hung himself. The autopsy showed nothing: no drugs in his system, nothing that would suggest a murder. The kid had stepped onto a chair, pulled a rope around his neck, and jumped. Death had taken several hours, the medical examiner estimated. The neck hadn't snapped to cause instantaneous death, and the kid had slowly suffocated over the next three to four hours, knowing what was going on and unable to do anything about it. If there was a worse way to die, then Don wasn't aware of it.
They pulled Anders in, to question him. He'd been the last person to see the kid alive. Had the kid seemed depressed? No, Anders—a life coach—had spoken to him in uplifting terms.
Right. There was that laugh, as the San Francisco agents questioned him. Can't touch me, said the laugh. I only talked to him, said that smile. I only told him he was worthless, that the world would be better off without him, said that smirk. And Anders had walked, the law unable to touch him.
"He's got a pattern." Don stared at the blank television. "He moves into an area, targets bright college kids and young professionals. Sets himself up as a 'life coach' like that's some sort of professional license to mess with kids' heads. The San Francisco office pulled me in to consult." He laughed bitterly. "Fat lot of good I was. Three people died last week, and none of us could do anything about it. I couldn't stop him."
"You can't stop everyone, Donnie," Alan told him. "You try your best, and sometimes your best isn't enough."
"That was the fourth time, Dad." Don turned stricken eyes on his father. "San Francisco was the fourth place Anders set up shop, and persuaded kids to kill themselves. The fourth place that he got away with it! And now he's here, Dad! He's setting up a place to do it again, right here." Don realized he was on his feet, looking down at his father, and had no idea how he'd gotten there. "Dad, he walked into FBI headquarters, and asked to talk to me. Dad, he knew that I was there in San Francisco to try to stop him, and now he's here to rub my nose in it, and there's not a damn thing I can do about it!"
"He's got chutzpah," Alan agreed, refusing to rise to Don's level of agitation. "I can see why you're upset."
"Yeah." Don lapsed into a morose silence, flopping back onto the sofa, staring at the blank television.
Megan snapped off the recording of the short but definitely not sweet meeting between Don and Wesley Anders. The man had waltzed into the Los Angeles branch of FBI Headquarters, requesting to speak to Special Agent Don Eppes. Guards were all around, guns prominently displayed in holsters, eying the man like a hawk, looking for him to try something, knowing that something was up. Anders had walked through the metal detectors without so much as a beep, not even excess coinage in his pockets to set the detectors off, and waited for Don at the front desk.
Don hadn't given the man access to anything more than the front lobby. That was where they met. Again.
"Just wanted to let you know that I'm here, Special Agent Eppes," Anders had drawled. He handed over a small white business card that tastefully displayed his name, a location, and whatever credentials the man had purchased to put after his name. "I suspect that at some point in the near future you'll be wanting to investigate me, just as you did up North. I thought that I'd save you the trouble of finding me."
Anders left after that; there was nothing that Don could do or say to change anything that was going to happen. Don knew it, Anders knew it, and soon the rest of L.A. would, too.
"Definite ego problem," was Megan's take on it. Around her, David and Colby nodded their heads. Neither of them needed a profiler to tell them that. Megan went a step further. "Guys, he's daring us. He's challenging us to stop him, and he knows that we can't because he hasn't broken any laws. We can investigate all we like, but until we have evidence of something illegal we can't charge him."
David frowned. "And talking to kids, telling them to kill themselves, isn't illegal. Morally wrong, but not illegal."
"Piece of slime," Colby said. He considered the frozen screen shot, committing Anders' picture to memory. "What can we do about it?"
None of the team liked the dark and brooding look on their team leader's face. "Nothing," Don said, the tension tight in his voice. "Nothing official. Not yet. Not until he crosses the line."
"Nothing I can do about it," Don repeated.
Charlie walked in from the garage, slapping his pants to remove the dust. "Nothing you can do about what?"
"Keep the dirt outside, Charlie," his father admonished.
Charlie smirked. "My house, Dad. I can do whatever I want," he teased.
"That's the floor that I just washed," Alan pointed out. "Either take the dirt outside, or you'll do your own washing."
Charlie took on a deer-in-the-headlights look. "Uh…okay, Dad." He stepped back outside the transom to finish slapping off the dirt, stomping his feet to complete the task. "Okay now?"
"Now I'll let you back inside your own house," Alan agreed complacently. "Dinner in five minutes. Don was just talking about his case up in San Francisco."
"Sounds like a tough one," Charlie commiserated. "There was nothing you could do about what?"
Don shook his head. "Long story, Chuck. Leave it."
The last victim, the one who had hung himself, was only twenty. The kid was on the short side, slender, with tousled dark hair that fell into his eyes. The eyes had been big and brown and endearing. He wore a white tee with a heavier shirt tossed over, and jeans, and cross-trainers to walk around in.
He looked like Charlie.
Don deliberately put the mood away. There really had been a lot of catching up to do; three weeks consulting for San Francisco had left a pile of papers in his 'in' box that he'd spent most of the day shoving into either the 'out' box or the circular file for shredding. "Lasagna?" he asked hopefully.
"Nope," Alan said cheerfully. "I needed a change. This is something called Penne Pasta alla Vodka Rustica, or something like that. Think of it as lasagna without the layers," he added.
"And with vodka," Charlie put in.
"Which means no more beer until after dinner." Alan shook a mock finger at Don. "I dragged a Chianti out of the wine cellar which should go a lot better with this stuff."
"I put two and two together," Charlie said, relaxing on the sofa and putting his feet up on the coffee table. Alan glared at him. Charlie kicked off his shoes and tucked his feet up under him, still concentrating on his brother. "This Anders character just floated down from San Francisco. Everyone on campus is talking about him. He's been putting up signs, inviting students—and faculty—to attend his 'seminars'." Charlie gave the word quotations to show what he thought of Anders' plan. "What's the word from your angle, Don?"
"My angle?" Don snorted. He had to admit, he felt better now that he had a good hot meal inside of him and the remnants of the Chianti waiting for him in the wine glass in his hand. "My angle is: Keep away from him. Don't even start with him. Ignore him; maybe he'll go away."
"Not likely," Charlie told him. "About a quarter of my students are going to go to his first lecture, just to see what all the fuss is about. It's free; they can afford the cheap entertainment."
Blackness tried to creep back into Don's soul. "Any way you can tell 'em not to? Threaten 'em with an 'F' or something?"
"Somehow I don't see that happening," Charlie said wryly. "Besides, how bad could he be? The kids at CalSci tend to be brighter than average. They should see right through him."
"That's what all the other colleges said, Charlie." Don really didn't want to feel the despair all over again. He took a healthy swig on the Chianti. "That's what they said about the two college professors that killed themselves." He took another gulp, a smaller one this time but only because he was running out of wine.
"And there's nothing you can do about it, because he hasn't broken any laws," Charlie mused. He steepled his fingers. "All he does is talk, right?"
"Charlie." Don sat bolt up straight in alarm. "Charlie, you're not thinking of having anything to do with this guy? Stay away from him! You hear me?"
"Don, I talk to some of the brightest minds of this century," Charlie calmly pointed out, "and if I can talk intelligently to them, I can certainly hold my own against this character. Besides, people who tend to fall for this sort of nonsense are people without strong support systems, people who don't feel particularly connected to their families, right? I have you, and I have Dad. I have Amita, and Larry. If nothing else, it will be amusing to pick apart his arguments." He leaned forward. "Let's face it, Don. You really want to nail this guy, right?"
Don shook his head. "Charlie, you don't understand. This guy is dangerous. Promise me you'll ignore him. Please, Chuck," he half-pleaded, half-demanded. "Leave him to the law enforcement types. Promise me not to have anything to do with him," he repeated.
"You enforcement types haven't gotten very far, or have I misinterpreted the entire past five minutes of conversation?"
Inspiration hit. "Charlie, I need you to ignore him," Don said. He tried to sound like a confident team leader, entirely in control of the situation. "Charlie, I worked on the case up North, and the man came to try to taunt me at L.A. Headquarters just this afternoon. How would it look if my own brother showed up at one of his seminars? Hm?"
Charlie considered. "You've got a point," he conceded. "Okay, Don. You win. I suppose you want me to dissuade Amita and Larry from doing the same thing."
"Yeah." Don had a brief flash of Dr. Lawrence Fleinhardt tying Anders up in verbal knots—and reluctantly put the fantasy away. There was too great a chance of the discussion going the other way; Larry, in his search for the soul, would carefully consider Anders' words and possibly try to read in something that wasn't legitimately there. Amita, brilliant though she was, didn't have the personal flamboyance that would push rational logic through Anders' rhetoric. Anders was just as likely to twist Amita's words around and make things worse. Can't have that. Things are bad enough as they are. "Thanks, Charlie." He woefully considered his wine glass, and the cup of coffee that his father had thoughtfully supplied. The coffee was the right temperature for chugging, and Don obliged. It was a short drive home, but he still needed a clear head to avoid the idiots on the road.
"You could spend the night here, Don," Charlie offered.
Don shook his head. Tonight had served his purpose. Don felt renewed in spirit and determination, even if he couldn't go after Wesley Anders. There was a job to be done, and criminals to be caught who were doing just as much damage to the people of L.A. and possibly more. "Thanks, but it'll be an early morning tomorrow." He hoisted himself to his feet. "Thanks for dinner, Dad. Charlie, keep me posted about that Anders guy. Let me know what he's doing. We'll keep an eye on him, and hopefully he'll cross the line and we can put him away before anyone else gets hurt. 'Night, Dad."
The tap on the shoulder took Charlie completely by surprise. He jumped and whirled around, whipping the headphones off of his ears.
His visitor stepped back, holding up his hands in apology. "Sorry. Sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to startle you."
"My fault," Charlie returned. He gestured to the white board that he'd been writing on, the white expanse covered with esoteric Greek symbols interspersed with the occasional numerical expression. "I tend to get pretty wrapped up in my work." He extended his hand, dropping his headphones onto his desk with the other. "Charlie Eppes. How can I help you?"
"Wesley Anders," the man told him smoothly.
Charlie froze. This was the man that Don had been talking about last night, the one who was posting flyers up all over campus, inviting students and staff and everyone else to come listen to him speak. There were no requests for money—Charlie had seen that first thing—but he had no doubts that the demands would follow. It fit the pattern.
Up close, the man looked unremarkable. He was about Charlie's height and weight, same general build although this man clearly spend more time lifting weights. Charlie's own routine was running and hiking; this man wanted a more sculptured look. In fact, everything about him screamed control. Control over the tightly clipped hair, over the smooth-shaven jaw, the clothes fitting exactly just so.
And the eyes; Charlie could see what Don had been talking about last night. The eyes showed a hunger. Charlie was used to seeing that. He saw it in Larry's eyes when his friend and mentor talked about investigating the stars and he saw it in Amita's eyes as she manipulated numbers into the combinations that solved riddles that had plagued mankind for centuries. He saw it in the faces of his fellow professors, ambling along the campus with their feet on the ground and their minds in theoretical clouds.
This hunger was different. This hunger made Charlie feel uncomfortable, like a rat being observed in a maze. That maze, Charlie thought, had several sharp edges to it, to nudge the rat in certain directions just to see what he would do.
Charlie decided that he didn't like being a rat.
"How can I help you, Mr. Anders?" he asked, withdrawing his hand gratefully. He really didn't want to shake this man's hand.
Anders apparently felt the same way, but he put on a welcoming smile that never reached his eyes. He extended a flyer to Charlie. "I've come to invite you to my seminar, Dr. Eppes," he said. "I understand that the students here at CalSci think a great deal of you. It would mean a lot to me if you would attend."
Charlie automatically took the flyer, and then wished that he hadn't. What would Don want him to do in this situation? Because it wasn't just Charlie here. Don had made that clear last night. Charlie had a responsibility to Don to keep out of this, to prevent any untoward appearances of impropriety, to keep from dragging the weight of the FBI in on this. Yet turning the invitation down flat would insinuate that Charlie was afraid of Wesley Anders.
Charlie selected vagueness as the optimal response. "I'll consider it," he said, placing the flyer onto his desk in dismissal. He picked up his headphones. "Now, if you don't mind—?"
Anders took the hint. "Of course, Dr. Eppes. I'll see you tonight." He gave a stiff bow, turned, and exited Charlie's office.
"When pigs fly," Charlie muttered. He waited a good three minutes to ensure against a return visit, and picked up the phone. "Don? It's Charlie. You don't want to know who just paid me a visit…"
"Sit," Megan ordered. She pointed to his chair. The chair sat in the middle of Don's cubicle, and his team was surrounding him, blocking out the light from the windows that was trying to enter FBI Headquarters through those windows. It made for a slightly crowded office.
"Sit," she repeated. This time both David and Colby backed her up. Each of his fellow team members grabbed Don by the arm and forced him down into his chair.
Don glared up at the three of them. "Fine way to treat your boss," he grumbled.
"Perfect way, and you know it, Don." Then Megan got serious. "Don, we're not taking this lightly. Anders approached Charlie; he's throwing down the gauntlet. He's challenging you, and he's making it personal. Yesterday in the FBI lobby was just a teaser. Anders is saying that he's coming after you."
"He's going after Charlie."
"He's going after you, Don," Megan repeated, "and he's going to try to go through Charlie to do it."
Don tried to keep the words from digging a crater inside. He strove to keep up his reputation as a hard ass FBI agent, even in front of his team. "He's going to try," he grunted brusquely. "I told Charlie to keep away from him."
"Yeah, well, that's not gonna work, man," Colby said. "Not with Anders making house calls."
"We need a plan," David said.
"Yeah? Well, I'm all ears, 'cause nothing we did in San Francisco got us any further than where we are now. And may I remind you that there is no case? No crime has been committed. Nothing fits the legal definition of murder, no matter how much we want it to."
"I'm not kidding, Colby." It felt even worse to explain this to his team. "I went to the Director himself, right after Anders approached Charlie. No murder, no case, we're not working it. Only a bunch of suicides; tragic, but not anything for the FBI. We tried that, up North. There's plenty of other work to be done, he told me. When there's a murder, something that the coroner's office can point to, then we can go after Anders, or whoever is responsible," Don tossed in, the last phrase sticking in his craw.
His squad of three looked at each other. Not one liked what they had heard. Not one agent was willing to let the situation lie there and flop around on the ground having a temper tantrum.
"Wouldn't be the first time I did a little recreational work on the computer," Colby offered, "on my off-duty time."
"Charlie's a friend of mine," was David's line. "Gotta look out for your friends, especially when you think someone's after one of them. After you, I mean. With Charlie in-between."
Megan shrugged. "I have to admit to a professional interest," she said with a healthy dose of sarcasm. "I understand that Wesley Anders specializes in personality manipulation. I'd like to study his methods. Maybe I'll get a paper out of it, if I ever go into academia."
Don bit his lip. He could always count on his team, no matter what, and he felt a great deal of gratitude at this particular moment. "Guys, I have to be honest. I worked my hardest on this one, and so did the rest of the guys in San Francisco. We came up with nothing. I can't ask you to put in hours of personal time on a case that might not pan out—"
"This time," David interrupted, "you've got the premier team of L.A. working on the case, not some hacks from San Fran with only an L.A. consultant to ignore."
"They didn't ignore me, Sinclair, and you know it. And they're far from hacks."
David politely did ignore that comment. "I'm on my coffee break right now," he said, referring to the directive of 'no case'. "Let's start with what we do have. Anders comes into a new territory, looking for victims. How does he operate?"
This Don knew, and Don was also on an impromptu coffee break along with the rest of his team. "He sets up what he calls 'seminars' that are thinly disguised marketing ploys. His goal is to eventually make money. He persuades college kids, professors, young urban professionals, people like that to come and listen to a free session, and he makes his pitch. He enrolls them in a series of seminars—all for a substantial amount of dough which he pockets for his trouble—and then starts working their heads around until he's got them twisted around his pinky finger."
"In other words," Megan observed, "he's engaging in cult-like behavior, only without the cult verbiage."
"Right. He's setting up a new cult of Wesley Anders in every new town he comes across. Only instead of promising religious salvation, he's pushing social enlightenment. Feel-good rhetoric," Don added. "I sat in on one of his so-called 'lectures'. He talks about world peace through loving your neighbor, getting ahead by persuading everyone to do things your way. 'Let your light shine through' is his catch phrase, and by the end of the lecture you've got a bunch of people muttering it all the way home."
"He knows which buttons to push," Megan decided. "What next? If he was just a cult leader, we wouldn't be having this discussion. He gets kids—and adults—to kill themselves. How does he do it? And why?"
"Good question," Don admitted. "We never could figure it out. We autopsied the bodies every which way to Sunday, and nothing ever showed up. No drugs, no booze, nothing but healthy bodies." Healthy bodies that were dead, he bit back.
"Hypnosis?" David asked.
Megan shook her head. "Not very likely. Contrary to popular belief, hypnosis only works when your subject wants it to. You can't force someone to behave in a way that's contrary to what they believe in or want. For example, hypnosis will only help a smoker quit cigarettes if they really want to. If the smoker doesn't want to quit, he or she won't. Hypnotizing someone into committing suicide will only work if the subject is depressed or suicidal to begin with; possibly with an anxiety-impulsive disorder."
"As far as we could tell, all of Anders' victims were normal, psychologically healthy people with everything to live for," Don said. "They were college students having fun, looking forward to graduation and starting their lives. Many of them expected to go to graduate school, to law school and the like. The professors were all well-published and well-respected in their fields. Then Anders got hold of them, and within a week or so, they withdrew from their usual routines and killed themselves." That's what I'm afraid that he's going to do to Charlie.
They all heard what Don carefully didn't say aloud, and more than one mind thought briefly of PnP, the unsolvable equation that nearly destroyed his brother. The past victims were strong psychologically; could they honestly say the same of Charlie?
"I never got into the back rooms," Don went on unhappily. "I walked into one of Anders' lectures, and he made me on the spot. He knew that I was Federal, and he wasn't about to play ball. Only certain people advanced to his back rooms."
Megan had been drawing her eyebrows downward further and further, thinking about what Don was saying. Now she pounced. "Certain people? What kind of certain people, Don?"
Don frowned. "I don't know. Kids, maybe. The people who died."
"I want to profile this man," Megan announced. "There are a number of characteristics which don't add up, things like why he's targeting college students and professors, professionals with everything to live for. People like Anders usually aim for unhappy people, people who want to change their lives because they don't perceive their current lives as being worthwhile. Unless there's something else going on, the more intelligent population tends not to be impressed by these sorts of 'seminars'."
Colby heard what she was saying. "So why are the brainiacs getting sucked in?"
"More to the point, why is Anders going after them?" Megan asked rhetorically.
"In the meantime, we need a plan," David said, pulling them back to the case. "Ideas, anyone?"
They looked at each other.
"I do have one," David admitted, "but, Don, you're not going to like it."
"I already don't like it."
David knew that. "Anders has already approached and targeted Charlie."
"And we don't like that, either."
"We can't change what has happened, but we can use it," David suggested. "We know that he's going to invite Charlie to more of his 'seminars'. Charlie goes—"
"Hear me out, Don. Charlie attends one of these farces, and we de-brief him after every one. You said earlier that all of Anders' victims showed signs of withdrawal for a week before their deaths."
"A very short week. Don't forget that, David."
"I'm not, and neither is anyone else in this room. Anders knows who Charlie is and who his brother is, and he's going to continue to go after him. All I'm saying is that we watch Charlie and use what's going to happen to our advantage."
"No. I don't want Charlie involved."
"Or we could pretend that Charlie's not involved and let Anders go after him without us keeping an eye on things," Megan suggested, with the irritation plain. "It's your call, Don."
Don glared at her. He glared at each one of his team.
David spread his hands. "It's your call, Don."