A/N: Most of this story takes place five years in the future. Accordingly, it will probably end up being at odds with what happens this season, so consider it AU. It was generated by an idea that came out of another story I wrote – namely, what would happen if Charlie had to go into witness protection for an extended period of time, and more specifically, what would happen when he came back?
Disclaimer: I do not own Numb3rs or any of the characters, just the storyline. This disclaimer applies to each chapter in this story.
Most of this story is finished, and it will end up at around twenty chapters – I know, a short one, for me. I will be striving for a twice-a-week post.
Chapter 1 - The Tank
December 8, 2013
The communications tech knocked lightly on the metal door and started a bit as it swung open, almost immediately. The professor looked hungrily at the phone in the tech's hand and stepped back to allow him inside. "Hey, Joe," he said. His voice was level, but Joe could see suppressed anticipation and tension in his body. Dr. Eppes, like many of the residents here, lived for his twice-monthly phone call.
For those who actually lived in the main building that housed the think tank, Dr. Eppes' quarters were the equivalent of a dormitory room. Cinderblock walls painted a light cream color were broken only by two metal doors, one that gave way to the hallway, and one that led to a small bathroom. It was larger than most dorm rooms, and boasted a double bed, two desks, a small refrigerator, a microwave, and a television. There was carpet on the floor, and the stark décor had been softened with knick-knacks and a picture or two. Still, it reminded Joe of a prison cell, which was appropriate, since the people who resided here were in essence, prisoners. They were all exceptional intellectually, which was why they had been chosen to be housed at the think tank, and they were all hiding for their lives.
Some of them, the ones who were married and had families, actually lived outside of the main building on the grounds, in small bungalows. The single ones stayed on the basement level of the building itself; it was safer as it was actually a bunker, but it was less homelike. Several citizens were placed in WP, or witness protection each year, but the think tank was reserved for long term situations involving those with exceptional minds, or the very well known – people who would stand out by virtue of their intelligence or notoriety, and therefore could not be afforded an entirely safe existence out in the general population – they were too notable. Some of their residents came to them harboring secrets with national security implications, and many of the rest of them, even if they didn't have that kind of background, did after working there a year or two.
The 'brains,' as Joe secretly called them, worked for their keep by putting their formidable minds to bear on high security government projects. None of them complained about the work; in fact, most seemed to enjoy it – it was stimulating and kept them occupied. That didn't mean they wouldn't leave in an instant, if they got the chance. Most of them, anyway - some of them had become so accustomed to life there, had been there for so long, that Joe wondered if they would go when they were told it was safe. He could usually tell which ones wanted to get out, and which ones didn't. With Dr. Eppes, he wasn't quite sure.
The professor had been with them for four years and seven months; he'd come to them two years after Joe had started there, himself, in June of 2009. The professor had stayed in the infirmary for the first two weeks, recuperating from a gunshot wound before they'd assigned him a room. He'd looked lost; shell-shocked, and was so much younger than many of the rest of the academic group, looked so much more hip with his long dark curly hair that he stood out in the crowd. Joe knew quite a bit about him – he knew a lot about all of the residents there, because he handled their phone calls.
Every two weeks, give or take a day or two so that the day of the week was random, the residents were allowed a single phone call home. The lines were scrambled, and a different cell phone was used each time, routed through a unique series of secure nodes placed across the continental U.S., so that if the recipient's phone was being tapped the calls could not be traced back to their secret location. The residents were allowed to pick from a list of cleared numbers, and Joe had to remain with them during the call, to monitor it. He'd gotten to know a lot about all the residents that way, and today he knew that Dr. Eppes was probably going to call either his father or his brother.
"Who is it this time?" he asked pleasantly.
"It's my dad's turn," said Dr. Charles Eppes. He paced impatiently while Joe dialed the number. Joe set the phone on 'speaker,' and a ring tone floated out into the room, followed by another.
The professor had stopped his pacing in preparation for taking the phone, and Joe knew he would remain frozen in place until it was answered, and take the receiver from him with a sigh of relief as they heard the voice on the other end. Usually, the residents set up some kind of cadence or schedule with the people they called most, so the person knew they would be contacted and the day they would get the call. Most of the recipients were as eager to get the call as the resident was to call them, and they made arrangements to be near the phone that day, but still, sometimes it happened that the recipient of the call wasn't home. As the phone rang for a third time, Joe could see the disappointment in the professor's face. It was unusual; his father was nearly always home when it was his turn, although Joe had to admit as the years had worn on, and this year in particular, Alan Eppes had started to miss on the rare occasion. Dr. Eppes' brother was even more unpredictable; he was an FBI agent and was married, with a young daughter - he could not always control the circumstances. He had missed about twice a year the last three years, each time called away on a case except for once, when he was at the hospital for the birth of his daughter.
On rare occasions, Dr. Eppes would call a colleague of his, a man named Lawrence Fleinhardt, but that was usually only twice per year; Dr. Eppes was too loath to give up contact with his immediate family, and apparently Dr. Fleinhardt could be hard to track down. When Dr. Eppes had first arrived, he'd made every other call, one a month, to a woman, a fellow mathematician named Amita Ramanujan. It had become clear to Joe after just two calls that Professor Eppes and Dr. Ramanujan were romantically involved and from the sound of it, engaged, and the calls usually ended in tears on her part, and sometimes on his. After a year or so, the calls had started to become less emotional, more strained, as the reality set in that Dr. Eppes might very well spend a good part of his life there. After just slightly over two years, Amita had informed him that she was moving to the East Coast, to teach and do research at MIT.
Joe still remembered the quiet agony on the professor's face as he told her that she was doing the right thing; and that furthermore, she should move on with her life, and forget him – who knew how long he would be there? That day, they officially ended their engagement, and Dr. Eppes had spent the next three days in his room with the lights out, nursing a bottle of whiskey that Joe had gotten for him. When he finally emerged, he said nothing to anyone about what had happened, just went silently about his work. He'd changed after that day, however; he'd become quieter, and there was something else different; an air about him – a muted sense of defeat, of desperation, of despair. After that, the phone calls to his father and brother seemed to grow in importance for him, as if he were afraid that if he didn't maintain a strong connection with them, they would fade away, too, pulled away by their busy outside lives. Fade away, and forget.
So it was that Joe saw and understood the hint of panic in the professor's face as the fourth ring sounded, and he hit the button to end the call. The residents were not allowed to leave messages, although they were allowed a second attempt, but only one, to another person on their list. "Your brother?" asked Joe, as he glanced at the number, and the professor licked dry lips and nodded.
Joe punched in the number, and this time, the phone was answered on the second ring. Don Eppes' voice floated out from the speaker as Joe handed the phone to Dr. Eppes, and he could see the flicker of relief tinged with desperation in the professor's face as he took the phone. "Don."
"Oh – Charlie!" Don Eppes sounded surprised, and a little flustered. Joe could hear his young daughter crying in the background, his wife's voice, as she tried to soothe her. His wife's name was Robin, Joe knew; they'd gotten married about a year after Dr. Eppes had come to the think tank. Although Dr. Eppes understood that he had to listen to the conversations for security purposes, Joe turned away discreetly as Don continued. "I thought it was Dad's turn this time."
"I tried to call him – he wasn't home." Dr. Eppes voice was low, husky, and the knuckles of the hand gripping the phone were white.
"Aw, Charlie, I'm sorry – he's probably on his way here. It's Charlotte's first dance recital – her Christmas show. We've got to be there in half an hour, and it takes almost that long to get there." His voice dropped conspiratorially. "You ever try to put stage makeup on a three-year-old? I think Robin's about ready to lose her mind, here. Of course, I'll probably lose mine, by the end of this. You should see her though, she does look pretty cute." The voice stopped suddenly, as if Don Eppes realized what he'd just said. "We'll, uh, try to send a picture in your holiday package."
"That would be good," said Charlie quietly. "Give her a kiss and wish her luck for me."
"I'm not so sure she's the one who needs the luck," commented Don dryly. "Hey, Chuck, I'm really sorry we can't talk longer this week. Who you gonna call next time?"
"Dad," came the quiet response. Charlie looked at Joe.
"Fifteen days," said Joe. "It's a Thursday."
"Fifteen days, Thursday," repeated Charlie. "Tell Dad and Robin I said 'hi.'"
"Okay, yeah hon." That response was muted, and was obviously directed at Robin. Don's voice increased in volume again. "Okay, sorry, Charlie, yeah, I will. Take care, okay, Buddy? We'll talk to you around the holidays, sometime. Next call's Dad, fifteen days from today, I got it."
"Okay, bye." The phone clicked and went silent, and Joe fought back the urge to wince. Dr. Eppes just stared blankly at the receiver for a moment, and then looked at Joe. "I don't suppose there's any chance I could call Dr. Fleinhardt, is there?" The question was spoken without any real hope in his voice.
Joe shook his head, with a look of commiseration. "No, doctor, I'm sorry – you know the rules, only two attempts allowed at any one time. Better luck next time – at least you got to talk for a minute or two, huh?" He backed out of the room, as the professor nodded dispiritedly, and drifted with slumped shoulders toward his desk, his expression despondent, his eyes faraway. Joe had no doubt they were trained on a picture of another life, of another place, far from the concrete walls that surrounded them.
Don Eppes hung up the phone and for a moment, just stared at it. Any call from Charlie elicited a jumble of emotions – regret, sadness, and loss, to be sure, but also frustration and anger. At least a bit of that frustration was directed at Charlie – his brother would never be in this situation if he hadn't taken on that assignment for the DEA. Don had argued about it with him then, had told him he was getting involved in an assignment that would put him at odds with the most dangerous drug cartel in North America. Charlie, as usual when an assignment had taken his interest, hadn't listened, and this was the result.
Robin's voice broke him out of his reverie. "Don, grab the camera, okay?"
He turned to see her leading Charlotte toward the front door, just as his father opened it and stuck his head inside. Alan beamed upon seeing his granddaughter, and knelt with open arms. "There's my angel! Don't you look beautiful! Give me a hug."
Don's gaze drifted subconsciously toward the phone – he knew his father would feel terrible about missing Charlie's call – almost as bad as Don had felt hanging up on him. He sighed, pasted a smile on his face and snagged the camera, as he followed them out the door.
End Chapter 1