Disclaimer: I own no part of Numb3rs. This is just for fun
Rated T for violence and language
What a Wicked Game We Play
Charlie Eppes checked his cell phone for the time as he swiftly made his way towards the visitors parking garage of the Los Angeles Field Office of the FBI and the borrowed Range Rover. It was now past midnight, far later than he had intended on being out, and his father had called him at least twice in the last hour concerned, but by and large, glad that his youngest was doing something other than hiding in the house or the park and tapping away at a laptop for hours on end.
The older man was also overjoyed that his two sons were once again working together on a case, although Don, ever the over protective big brother, had initially refused to allow his younger brother's involvement. In fact Don seemed determined to keep Charlie as far away from the FBI as possible. Whereas Charlie, ever the persistent younger brother, had reminded him on numerous occasions that he was ready to come back. Don had assured him that as soon as he had a case that required the mathematician's skills, he would call. Well, it had been three weeks since they had returned from their vacation and still no call, even though Charlie knew of at least four cases in which he would have been an enormous help.
Finally in frustration, the younger Eppes brother decided to launch a pre-emptive strike and engage Don on his own turf. Under the guise of taking his brother to lunch, Charlie made a surprise visit to Headquarters. He had found the office a flurry of activity. When he walked in the door for the first time since his abduction, the entire bullpen had greeted him with handshakes and hugs. It touched him to realize he had been missed, not just as a consultant, but as a friend and as a member of the team.
"Dr. Eppes, it is great to see you, sir. Agent Eppes and the others are in the Assistant Director's office. They should be finished soon. Would you like some coffee?" A young second year agent, Eric Walton, asked as he shook Charlie's hand.
"Call me Charlie," the mathematician said reminding the young agent once again he did not have to be so formal. "No, I'm good." Charlie smiled remembering the sludge the agents euphemistically called 'coffee'. "How's Lisa? Isn't that baby about due?" He asked, wishing he had made a run through Starbucks before arriving at the office since it looked like he might get stuck for a while.
"In three weeks. As much as Lisa is looking forward to no longer being pregnant, I think I want it twice as much as she. I love my wife, but she's been on a hormonal roller coaster you wouldn't believe. To make matters worse, her mother is staying with us to help with the baby for a few weeks."
"You have my sympathy. Dealing with a pregnant woman is not something I have any experience with, much less a mother-in-law," Charlie said. "But my dad can be a pill when he's harping at me about something I forgot to do or he feels I should be doing and well, you work with Don every day. I think my older brother trumps your mother-in-law any day of the week."
Eric laughed, "You haven't met my mother-in -law. Anyway, there's no one in Agent Eppes' office if you'd like to wait in there, I'm sure he wouldn't mind."
"That would be great and tell your wife hello for me." Charlie said and headed for Don's office.
'And he makes fun of my mess!' Charlie thought as he settled in a chair in front of the cluttered desk. Files were piled everywhere along with half finished reports and the remains of a bagel from a hasty breakfast Don had consumed at his desk several hours before. Charlie pulled his laptop out of his backpack meaning to put the wait to good use. He tried to clear a space but cringed and cursed under his breath as a stack of case files began to slide. Charlie jumped to try and stop the avalanche, managing to save most of it, but the top three spilled their contents across the tile floor. Charlie knelt and began gathering the papers, hoping Don didn't notice, but knowing he would. It was as he shoved the documents into what he hoped were the correct folders, that he saw the photographs for the first time.
For a moment he felt like an electric shock had come through the floor, traveled up his spine and into his brain. In the last years of consulting for the Bureau, he had dealt with some pretty terrible things but these were by far the most lurid crime scene photos he had ever seen. These women had not just been murdered, they had been destroyed. Some were so ripped to pieces it was impossible to tell if they were young or old. A big part of him wanted to shove his computer in his backpack and run like hell. That part of him did not want to have to look into the face of evil again in this lifetime. He gathered the photographs into a stack, trying to avert his eyes from the carnage they portrayed, but his gaze fell on one in particular. It was of a woman about thirty years of age. Most of her features had been obliterated by this monster but you could still see her eyes, clouded by death and wide with horror, and her long pale blond hair dyed scarlet by her own blood.
He thought of Ashley and how her murderer had yet to face justice. Anger gripped his heart and wouldn't let go. He looked at the faces of all the victims. He thought about his broken vow to his lost love, to his murdered friends. He hadn't been able to get justice for them, not yet anyway. He had failed to give them peace, but if he couldn't fulfill that vow, perhaps he could find absolution in giving these women peace. Perhaps he could help find their murderer and perhaps he could prevent any more innocents from dying at his hands. The question was could he do this? Could he immerse himself in the mind of pure evil? He was beginning to recover from his own ordeal; he could almost sleep through the night and be alone in the house without jumping at every sound. Would doing what he needed to do to find the answers for this case put him over the edge? There was no way to know for sure until he tried. The only thing he was certain of was that if this killer was not stopped soon, someone else would die and that was unthinkable. With no small amount of trepidation in his heart, he spread the photographs out on the floor, along with the documents detailing the case and his mind clicked into high gear.
"It's a triad." he whispered. "Everything he does is in groups of three." The mathematician continued to mutter to himself. Finally he gathered all the crime scene photos and evidence together and hurried to the conference room. There he put every last one of them up in order of the date and place they were murdered, typed the information he needed into his laptop and watched as the key he was looking for appeared on the screen. He took a marker and taking a brief moment to put his thoughts in order, he began scribbling equation after equation on the dry erase board.
He stood back and gazed at his computations, the photographs and the evidence files. He could almost see the photographs and the equations moving into their correct positions. The din of the office faded as patterns began to appear. He had gone into that secret world only he understood and the real, more tangible world receded into the background. This was what no one really knew about the way his mind worked. Not even Don knew. This was what sometimes scared him. He didn't just see the patterns in a crime, he could almost see the evil it's self. He could practically taste the madness he was dealing with and he could see the next move, not just in the math but as if he was walking along side the killer himself, as if he was inside the monster's mind.
He took a map and began to track the murders across the country from the first one in New Canaan two years before to the last one the month before in San Diego. He followed the line from one crime to the next. He could see there were at least six bodies never discovered, but that would have to wait. He then drew a line north from the last murder and he knew where the bastard was hunting next, he knew when and he had an idea as to whom his next victim would be. Perhaps he didn't have a name, but he had the type of prey he would be stalking, narrowing down the field of possibilities by a lot.
"Charlie! What the hell are you doing? This is an active case! You can't just come in here and go through folders!" Don shouted when he saw what his brother had done. He grabbed Charlie by the elbow and dragged him none too gently from the room.
"Don I—" Charlie started to say.
"No, you are absolutely not working on this case!" Don shook his head.
"But I can help, if you would just look at my figures, I think I may have…" Charlie had tried to explain but Don cut him off.
"Buddy, I appreciate your need get back to work, but this case, Charlie, " Don looked at the board where Charlie had hung the grizzly photos of fifteen victims murdered nationwide over the past two years, "This case gets inside your head. I'm not sure you're ready for something like this."
Don found his need to shelter Charlie from this nightmare overwhelming. After the hell his brother had endured, he finally seemed to be getting his life back on track. Don could see a little of the old Charlie in his eyes. He was at last moving forward and the FBI agent didn't want something like a serial killer to hamper his recovery.
Charlie stood gazing down at the floor for a second, and then he looked at his brother, "Don, what is the 'right' case for me, a bank fraud perhaps or are you banishing me to cyber crimes? If that's how it is to be, then I guess I'm pretty useless to you. Is that it, Don, am I useless to you?"
"For god's sake no, that's not it! I just don't think you should have to deal with this one, buddy. It's been giving me nightmares for a week." Don laid his hand on Charlie's shoulder. "After all you've been through, I—"
"You can't shield me forever. Look, other units have asked me to work with them including the Violent Gangs Task Force and the BAU. Even the Federal Marshals have contacted me. If you don't want my help, they do." He smiled. "And you won't be allowed to play helicopter brother anymore." He added.
"Helicopter brother?" Don frowned.
"You've been hovering, Don. It's annoying." Charlie smiled. "So, big brother, I'm telling you, and I say this with love, please back off."
Don swallowed hard and nodded. Of course Charlie was right. As much as he would like to, he could not wrap his brother up in cotton padding and shield him from harm. And, as much as he hated to admit it, he knew he needed Charlie on this one. His amazing ability to see what no one else sees had proved invaluable in the past. It was a painful decision but as much as he needed to protect his kid brother, he needed to protect the citizens of L.A. even more.
"Fine, but little bro, if it gets to be too much, please—"
"I'll step down if I have to." Charlie nodded.
Don reluctantly relented and the two men rejoined the team. He sat in the back as usual and crossed his arms over his chest. "Okay, buddy, tell us what you have."
Charlie had taken a deep breath. This was not going to be an easy sale. His findings flew in the face of everything the Bureau believed to be true about this case. He turned and began his briefing as he had so many times before. The team had listened attentively as he explained his findings and why he felt he was right and the FBI experts were wrong. Even as he spoke he could see the doubt in their eyes. When he finished by circling a section on the map of Beverly Hills and told them the killer would strike in that general area on that very night, he could tell the team wasn't the only one who doubted him; his own brother was shaking his head slowly.
"Can you explain all of this again?" Don said, "Slower this time because, no offense Charlie, you are making no sense at all. Why are you sure the killer is going to strike tonight?"
"Because of the pattern," Charlie said and his voice became soft, almost distracted as he looked over the display he had created. "This madman is not just killing women; he is killing the Goddess. Look at the photographs. Every murder has occurred either during the waxing moon, the full moon, or the dark moon. Last month he killed a pregnant woman during the full moon representing The Mother." He paused and narrowed his eyes. "Tonight is the dark moon and he'll be hunting. He'll have to because his compulsion will not give him a choice. He HAS to complete the Triad so he can begin again next month probably around here." He circled an area surrounding Monterey.
He looked at each of them in turn. "If you don't stop him now, next month he will be hunting for a young girl—The Maid. That will be on the 16th." No one made eye contact. "Look at the photographs and you can see the pattern. I have matched the dates of the murders up with the lunar calendar for those dates and without fail, they match up. Can't any of you see it?" His eyes were practically begging for someone to understand what he was trying to show them.
The team all looked at one another or the floor and no one looked at Charlie.
"Buddy, can you wait in my office for a minute?" Don said gently.
Charlie only nodded and walked out of the room. He felt frustrated and a little angry. He could see it in their eyes, they no longer trusted him. This was just one more thing Hicks had stolen from him. These people who had placed their lives in his hands so many times before no longer believed in him. They had no faith in his skills. He was no longer a part of their team; he was just a consultant. He was aware his theory was far out, but he had given them far out theories before and they had listened and given him the benefit of the doubt, but things had changed. They probably thought he was a little off in the head and maybe he was, but in this case, he was also right.
"What do we do?" Granger asked after Charlie left.
Don leaned his head back against the wall, "Charlie has never let us down before." He said his eyes closed against the beginnings of a pounding headache.
"No, but he hasn't been himself for a long time, Don. You know that. Hell, you've been worried about his mental state for weeks." David interjected. "You even mentioned he needed therapy, perhaps even medication. Maybe he does, Don. Maybe your brother needs help."
Don nodded and took a deep breath. "Charlie has always come through for us. Even slightly nuts he has more brains than this entire office put together." He stood up. "I've always trusted him before. I'll trust him now." He said. "Get the equipment together and be ready to go after dinner. Looks like this could be a late night."
Charlie stood, arms wrapped around his chest and watched as the team left for stakeout. He had wanted to go with them, but Don had firmly put his foot down and would not be swayed. He could either wait in the office or go home, but he was NOT joining them in the field. Charlie chose the office and had spent five agonizing hours pacing, and chewing his nails to the quick. Myriad thoughts kept running through his brain, all beginning with 'what if'. What if he was wrong? What if he had sent the team on a wild goose chase? What if he had sent them into danger and one of his friends or Don was hurt or killed because they trusted him? He thought about the photographs Hicks had shoved under his nose showing just how flawed his math could be. He thought about his brother being stabbed because he had been distracted by his position at CalSci and he had made an error in his calculations. Don had nearly died because of him. Even their Dad blamed him for that one and still did.
And he began to doubt himself, maybe he wasn't the same anymore. Maybe he could no longer handle the violence he was exposed to at the Bureau. Maybe he was wrong about this case and if he was, someone else could die tonight in some other part of town and he would be to blame. His days with the FBI would be over for sure. He'd be lucky if he could get a job consulting for security at the mall. Charlie had been on the verge of a full-fledged panic attack when his cell rang, causing him to spill a cup of very bad coffee all over his shirt and knock most of the files off Don's desk.
"Don!" He had answered his heart beating a mile a minute.
"Charlie, you did it! You were right! We have the suspect in custody. We're coming in." Don sounded as ecstatic as Don was capable of sounding.
"Is everyone…" Charlie started to ask.
"Everyone is fine, buddy, thanks to you. And thanks to you Miss Alice will be pushing her shopping cart picking through the trash for her treasures for a while longer. Look, it's going to take hours to get this guy processed and booked so why don't you head home. I'll see you in the morning."
"Sure, thanks Don." Charlie had felt like a boulder had been lifted from his chest.
"And little brother, you did a great job. Welcome back." Don said and hung up.
"Yes!" Charlie had practically danced. Then his cell rang again. It was his dad reminding him of the hour and that he had a doctor's appointment the next morning. He smiled knowing full well his dad's real reason for calling. He told him the stakeout had gone well. The perp had been apprehended with no injuries on either side. He could literally feel his father relax on the other end of the line.
"Hurry home son," he had said. "And drive safe."
Five minutes later Charlie was dashing across the garage for his car. He could hear his own footsteps echoing in the nearly deserted structure and one level up a car engine started. He heard the squeal of tires as someone took the ramp a little too fast. He slowed his pace as he approached the Range Rover fumbling in his pocket for the keys. It was then he heard footsteps somewhere in the dark. He froze and listened, then shook his head, dismissing them. It was probably just someone else who had to work late. He turned to unlock the car and froze again as a soft chuckle reached his ears and the sound of someone softly whistling a tune. He was getting tense and fumbling with the keys. He dropped them, cursed, and then as he bent to pick them up, he saw the shadow of a man as he crept up on him from behind. He stood, spun around and let out a shout when he found himself face to face with Al, a homeless man who called the parking garage home unless security chased him out.
"Al, you scared the crap out of me!" Charlie said, panting.
"Sorry, Doc just wondered if you might have some spare change." Al was twitching and rubbing at his lips.
Charlie noticed that the perpetual rash, a side effect of huffing chemicals, which covered his nose and mouth, was even more red and raw than usual. His teeth were rotted from years of abusing crack and simple neglect. Charlie knew the man was probably about five years his junior but his harsh life had long ago stolen his youth and he looked like an old man. He always smelled of sour sweat, vomit, urine and Toluene, but tonight the stench was particularly strong. It took all his strength not to react. For one thing, he didn't want to hurt the man's feelings and for another, years of breathing in toxic fumes and smoking crack and angel dust had rendered him unpredictable and unstable. Al might just bum a few bucks off you, but if he got it in his head you threatened him in anyway, he could get violent and that was the last thing Charlie needed. He appeared frail but Al could be surprisingly strong and he carried a really big knife.
"Yeah, I think I do." Charlie dug in his pocket and pulled out a few dollar bills and placed them in the filthy outstretched hand. He took a good look at a man shunned by the world and frowned. Al never looked healthy, but tonight he looked very sick. "Look, isn't there someplace I can take you, how about a shelter or the Mission?"
"Those places don't let the likes of me in, but thanks for the offer." He shoved the money into his back pocket. "You're a good man, Doc." His head involuntarily jerked and he rubbed his mouth again. "You'd best get off the streets now, it's not safe out here for the likes of you, not safe at all. There's evil prowling tonight. You should watch yourself."
"I will. You watch yourself too, Al. I'll see you soon." Charlie said sadly, wondering if he would see the man alive again. "Look, I could drive you to the hospital. They could help you get clean and…"
"I've gotten clean before. I didn't care for it." Al looked around, and then he leaned over and whispered, "I saw Lucifer himself earlier. He's hunting for souls tonight. You run if you see him, Doc, you run real fast!" Al looked over Charlie's shoulder and shuddered, "Over there! I saw him again! You get out of here now before he gets you like he got the others."
Charlie turned and looked. For a moment he thought he saw a shape move in the dark, but decided it was only the shadow of a concrete pillar cast by a passing car's headlights. When he turned around, Al was gone.
The mathematician nervously got the car door open, slid into the Range Rover and quickly locked it. He sat for a moment, with his trembling hands on the steering wheel, kicking himself for being such an idiot. He had let a psychotic huffer, a man with Swiss cheese for a brain, freak him out. Al had seen Lucifer hunting souls in the night! Hell, his mind was so addled he probably saw Care Bears dancing the Maranga under the full moon! Charlie fastened his seat belt, started the car and headed for home.
When he arrived at the Craftsman, he ran inside, locking the front door and making sure the alarm was set. He smiled when he saw his father had left a note on the dining room table letting him know there was a plate for him in the refrigerator and reminding him AGAIN that his doctor's appointment was at ten AM. He knew his dad would remind him yet again in the morning. He wondered just when his father would stop 'fathering' his grown son and the answer came to him instantly 'Never'. This was who Alan Eppes was and he would never change. Charlie had accepted that long ago.
Charlie looked in the fridge and saw a plate of his father's lasagna. He was tempted, but decided he was mainly just tired and as delicious as his dad's food was, the heavy pasta dish would not sit well at two AM. He made a quick run through the house making sure all the doors were locked and lights shut off and then, feeling like he could sleep for a week, he headed upstairs to his room.
He didn't notice anything amiss at first. Everything seemed perfectly normal. Charlie went about his regular routine to get ready for bed. He switched on the lamp on the nightstand and tossed his jacket on the bed. He started to unbutton his shirt but felt his body go rigid as he began to realize something was very wrong. He caught the faintest whiff of the scent of roses in the air intermingled with the unmistakable aroma of strong tobacco. He felt his blood turn to ice water. He was not alone. With a shaking hand he reached in his pocket for his mobile to call Don and at the same time he took a step towards the door, but before he could hit the speed dial an arm went around his throat cutting off his air and his ability to cry out.
An all too familiar voice hissed in his ear as a hand reached down and took the phone from him, tossing it across the room. "You should have bashed my head in with that shovel while you had the chance, but you were weak, little fox, you were compassionate. That was a bad mistake, you foolish, foolish boy."
Charlie made a sound deep in his throat as dread filled his heart. The sharp point of cold, razor sharp steel was pressed to his back. He could feel the heat of the madman's breath in his ear and smell the stench of cigarettes.
"Shhhhh, not one sound," the blade was pressed harder against his flesh."Be absolutely quiet or I'll plunge this knife all the way through you, puncturing your diaphragm making it impossible for you to talk or take a breath then I'll shove it here…" Charlie felt the knife at the side of his throat. "I'll rip your throat out from the inside, do you understand me?"
Charlie gave a quick nod and Hicks released his grip a little so his prey could breathe. He shuddered as the blade was gently stroked over his face like a lover's tender touch and Hicks leaned in, his lips almost touching Charlie's ear. "Now, we are going to have a nice, polite chat, and if you behave, you will be very much alive when I leave, but if you piss me off…" The blade was again at his jugular. Hicks chuckled. "It would be a real shame to ruin this beautiful wood floor with something as nasty as warm, fresh blood. The stain would never come out. I was rather hoping to end your worthless life tonight, but for now that is not to be. Sadly, He has use for you and my orders are to leave you alive, unless of course you force my hand." He pushed the blade tight against the white flesh. "Come on, Charlie, please, force my hand." He growled.
Charlie stood motionless, trying not to move.
"We were there with you, you know, on your little vacation. Your idiot brother spotted Him once through his binoculars, but of course he had no idea what he was seeing. He probably thought he was watching, oh I don't know," He softly hissed, "Big Foot." Hicks chuckled again and rested his chin on Charlie's shoulder. "Now for the reason for this visit, He congratulates you on your victory in our last game, but reminds you that victory, like love or life it's self, is fleeting. He looks forward to our next challenge and wants you know the rules have changed." He placed his cheek against Charlie's. "This game is by invitation only and the consequences for cheating are— dire. One whisper about this to anyone and I will spill your precious father's guts on the kitchen floor and as a bonus, I will leave your brother's eyes in your refrigerator where they will stay nice and fresh along with Donovan's manhood. Their lives are in your hands so, not one word. Do you understand me?" The hated lips were almost pressed to Charlie's pale cheek.
The smaller man nodded once.
"Good. You are a smart boy." Hicks gave Charlie a quick hug. "Our time together tonight grows short. He has left a gift for you in the top drawer of your desk, a reward for your past victory. And Charlie, in case you think you can warn your brother or Donovan just remember, He has many followers in many places. We will know and the carnage that follows will be on your head. You cannot deceive us, you cannot hide from us. We are legion."
"Hicks," Charlie's voice was low, soft and absolutely without fear. "If I ever get the chance, compassion is not a mistake I'll make again."
Hicks chuckled. "So, our sniveling little fox is becoming a wolf! Excellent, this will make sparring with you far more—entertaining. Goodnight, sleep well." He tenderly kissed his opponent on the top of his head and was gone.
Charlie stood, eyes closed for a minute, feeling as if he was going to be sick. Slowly he opened his eyes and looked around. He was alone. Hicks had vanished like some phantasm in a late night movie.
"Dad!" He whispered and as quietly as he could, he ran from his room down the hall to his father's.
Very slowly he opened the door and glanced inside. The older man was sleeping peaceful and totally ignorant of how close he had been to the devil on this night. Charlie could hear the sound of his dad's snoring and the creak of the bed as he stirred. He stood over his father, his heart in his throat as he reached down and picked up a blood red rose tied in a black lace ribbon that lay over his dad's breast. He clutched the perfect blossom in his hand and backed out of the room. The message had been received. No matter what he did, if this monster wanted to hurt his family, he would.
Charlie hurried back to his own room and sat at his desk. In a silent rage he crushed the rose in his bare hand, the thorns pricking the soft flesh, drawing blood. He tossed the crushed flower in the wastebasket and cautiously opened the top desk drawer. For a moment he faltered then he picked up the small pale blue box tied with a silver ribbon. Carefully he opened it and gasped at what lay within. Slowly he removed Ashley's treasured cameo and the pocket watch his mother had given him years ago. He took out the enclosed note unfolded it and read the words written there.
My dearest opponent,
As your father sleeps unaware in his bed, I sit at your desk and think of you, my most worthy adversary. As a symbol of the high esteem in which I hold you, I return your treasures. I look forward to meeting you face to face in the near future. Until then, little fox, be well. Storm clouds are gathering and soon the inevitable tempest will come and we may all be washed away by its wrath. Enjoy our transitory time of peace, be ever vigilant and watch for the signs for I am always near.
My Deepest Regards,
Charlie crumpled the note now stained with his own blood. Somehow the stains seemed an omen of things to come. He sat staring at nothing. Azariah himself had been in his house, watched his father sleep, and sat in his room at his desk. He was tempted to call Don, to raise the alarm, but he knew that would be a grave error. As Hicks had so coldly informed him, this was a private game to be played by a chosen few. Those he loved would be safe unless he brought them into the game. And if he did that, not even heaven could protect them.
He stood up and went to his bedroom window. He looked out across the garden towards the koi pond. He heard the front door open and close and soon footsteps passed his door in the hall. Don had finished his paperwork and was staying the night, no doubt to check up on his kid brother in the morning. 'Once a helicopter brother, always a helicopter brother,' Charlie thought affectionately. Don was never going to change either. Earlier, his big brother had told him Robin and he had decided on a date for their wedding, May 20th. It would be a small, intimate affair, just family and close friends. They wanted to have it in the garden and of course, Charlie would be his brother's best man. He had been honored to be asked. But with this nocturnal visit from his old enemy, things had changed and he knew his brother would marry without him. Events were being set in motion and decisions taken out of his hands. He wondered just how long he had before the memory of this blessed life with these dear, sweet people was all he would have left of home.
The End of Part One of: The Azariah Trilogy