NUMB3RS: UNT1l 1 BUR5T
Setting: Between Season 2 Finale and Season 3 Premiere
Summary: Charlie used to rue the fact that he did his FBI casework within a bubble. But after getting too close to a particularly gruesome sex trafficking case, the bubble doesn't look so bad. Now, if only Don can talk him off the roof…
Warning: This fictional piece contains frank discussion and description of human trafficking. Real statistics and facts included, though any resemblance to actual cases is purely coincidental. Also: booze, abuse, and a number of uglies.
Who's in the bunker, who's in the bunker?
I've seen too much; I haven't seen enough
You haven't seen enough
I laugh until my head comes off.
Women and children first,
and children first,
He was suffocating.
Toxic exhaust from the fossil fuels of an estimated 2.5 million registered vehicles, accumulating for the past 80 years and light pollution from 3.82 million individuals, including their residences, workplaces, educational facilities, recreational facilities, and various associated structures all contributed to the heavy blanket of smog that draped over Orange County and settled above Pasadena.
Perched on the rooftop of the second story with his feet dangling above the first, Charlie stared into the murky black and took a low, shuddering breath. To his knowledge, his lungs were functioning properly. And yet, he still felt as though he couldn't get enough air.
If only the stars could pierce the insulating barrier and let in a breath of crisp, clean oxygen from beyond the haze. If only he could reach through the smog and touch the luminaries beyond. If only he could reach beyond the filth and reclaim that which was pure, and beautiful.
He let out a dignified snort and shook his curly head. Now he knew that he was drunk. The notion that a man could reach out and make physical contact with a blazing ball of hydrogen… let alone that the presence of stars in a night sky would result in more efficient respiration.
That irrational line of thought, combined with the mostly-empty bottle of Johnnie Walker nestled in the gutter, lent some credibility to the probability that he'd had a few too many.
Yet even as some part of his vaguely intrigued mind calculated the amount of ounces that he'd consumed in the last four point five hours as compared to the amount of time it would take his liver to metabolize the alcohol, he rationalized that if he were still able to do that math subconsciously and make decisions based upon the data, he wasn't drunk enough.
For the first time in his adult life – hell, for the first time in accessible memory, Charlie just wanted to stop thinking. About anything.
Anything that might lead his eidetic memory back to twenty-eight women, fourteen adolescents, and six children contained in eight cells that couldn't have been larger than his office's storage closet…
And that set him off again, calculating the square footage of his closet and imagining how the women had been packed in, forced to share that space daily for months, perhaps years, in between designated 'shifts,' being exploited between 10 and 40 times a day…
The scent of human misery came rolling back and his stomach turned again. He leaned back against the shingles and rode the wave of nausea as it threatened to wring out his insides once more. Folding his hands behind his head to ease the pressure on his lungs, Charlie closed his eyes and took a deep breath of the humid night air.
But there just wasn't enough oxygen.
Just like back in the cellar. He was suffocating.
He wasn't supposed to be there. After the sniper at Banitek Towers, the only crime scenes Don allowed him on were scenes where the bodies were already cooling, the bad guys miles away.
No one expected him to wander into the cellar.
There was too much bustle going on with all the agents on the main floor. His calculations led them directly to that run-down apartment building. He was certain that the data meant their missing agent would be there – and he was right.
Only, they found about 47 more women on top of that.
It was only a fluke that he had gotten lost in thought and stumbled through the false wall. But once he was in there...
Oh God, there were children in that pit… Vanakkam, saan ang Raquel? Stie cineva Raquel? No no no this can't be happening ¿C-Cuántas chicas? Yo te ayudare – a-attendrez, attendrez, la police va venir…
He could still hear the unforgiving rattle of chains as he attempted to break the doors open. Locked. Feet pounded against damp cement, past the scattered papers that had slipped from his fingers without a second thought. He tried every language he could muddle through to see if anyone knew where the agent was, but the only responses he got were dripping water and unseeing eyes.
And then he saw her, the face that matched the photo he'd had pinned to the board in his office for weeks.
Agent Desoto, Raquel, can you hear me? Infected lacerations, contusions matching the hand size of a large adult male probably thirties, forties. Wait, those prints don't - Those are multiple handprints… at least three pairs. From the discoloration they're only a few days old. How is she going to tell her husband?
Brown eyes snapped open and he tasted bile in the back of his throat. He leaned forwards, putting his head between his knees.
Breathe. Just breathe. Get a hold of yourself. My God, this one can't be more than ten…
A steady hand fell on his shoulder, pulling him back from the edge. "Easy, buddy. This isn't the greatest spot for brooding."
Light spilled through the open attic window, illuminating the concern on one side of his brother's face and casting the other side into shadow.
Charlie twisted his expression into a vague facsimile of a grin. "Meus carus frater! Have you come to keep me?"
Symbolism, symbolism. English had always been his worst subject, but the notion of the two-faced man could be traced back to Janus himself. Fascinated by the interplay of light and dark across the visage of his troubled older sibling, childlike, Charlie couldn't help but stretch out his left hand towards Don's face to see if it were real. His fingers encountered warm flesh, but his presence cast its own shadows and threw the man deeper into darkness.
Light from the hallway spilled into the alcove, and too-many sets of eyes peered back at him from within. Oh God, oh God, how could there be more?
Don returned the smile hesitantly, but the worry lines remained solid upon his forehead as he tugged Charlie's hand from his face. "Yeah, I'm here to keep you, alright. Keep you from falling off the roof. Charlie, what are you doing up here?"
Making a sweeping gesture at the night sky that put him only slightly off-balance (okay, perhaps slightly more than that), Charlie replied heartily, "Stargazing!"
He thought he was pretty hilarious.
Don did not appear to share that opinion.
The agent's smile faded somewhat, his grip increasing as he drew Charlie back from the edge of the roof. "Well, I don't think it's a good idea for you to be up here on your own. Especially not while, uh, plastered."
Charlie scoffed. "I'm not alone, bro. I brought a friend." He reached for the rest of the scotch, but was startled when it disappeared from his grasp and suddenly manifested in Don's.
"How did you get a hold of a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue? Charlie, you barely drink!"
A warm haze wafted towards him from the hall - the ferrous scent of blood, and beneath that, the smell of human filth and decay left to fester in the summer heat. His stomach wrenched suddenly and he had to leave – NOW – but Don, he had to get Don…
Showing off a brilliant smile that made women across three continents weak at the knees, Charlie shrugged. "Always was a fast learner."
Don set the bottle back in the gutter, turning his face away from the light. "Yeah, but 'Alcohol as a Coping Mechanism 101' is one class I'd rather you flunk."
Charlie rolled his eyes. "Hello, pot. I'm kettle. Have we met?"
"Very funny, Chuck. You know we've been looking for you for like an hour, right? There's a lot of people worried about you."
The silence was pregnant, which led to confusing questions about the paternity of the moment.
Bizarre metaphors and the English language aside, Charlie shook his head and watched as the lights in the garden below chased each other in dizzy circles. "S'not me they should be worried about."
Some part of his brain expected screaming. Fear. Anger. Defiance. But all he could see in the eyes of those broken girls was resignation. Despair.
Next to him, Don heaved a sigh (where did it go? Into the graveyard of exasperation and brotherly anxiety, he surmised) and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Charlie, I'm sorry that I put you in that situation. You should never have seen what you did…"
Shaking his head again, Charlie interrupted, "It's not just the seeing. It's the knowing. It's so tempting to detach the human element from statistics, but I now have an intimate comprehension of both. You see a couple of kids in a room, I see six girls between ten and fourteen with an average of 25 customers per night, and if each visit is limited to 30 minutes than that means that a child is being raped for a minimum of twelve hours a day, every day, for months on end."
His mind spun through the calculations faster than he could process the horror behind their meaning, though his imagination strove to keep the pace. His mouth was dry and his breath came in gasps as he sought the words to express his anguish. "They sold these children, Don; what I fail to comprehend is that there are people who are buying!"
"Yeah, man. I know. I get it, I really do. But thanks to you, we caught the monsters in charge. We got Desoto back, and the rest of those girls are going to get a second chance." Conviction burned in Don's voice; akin to the burning behind Charlie's eyes.
He laughed, a helpless, strangled sound that might have been a sob. "But they aren't the only ones, are they? Of 30 million modern-day slaves worldwide, at least 4 million of them are sold specifically for sex. I see the figures and I-I can't stop myself from breaking it down into race, creed, geographic and age distribution. This is an epidemic of cascading human depravity, and I understand it."
His voice broke for a moment before carrying on, moved by the bubbling current of emotion and outrage, "And now, for me the figures now have names and faces. Lakshmi and Bonita and Suree… I hate it, I hate that I can look at any one of those women and children, and know how much she has been violated this week."
He looked to Don with hands open and eyes wide. "Does that make sense why – when I know, when I know these things and can't stop myself knowing and calculating the details of the torture that destroyed them – does it make sense why I'd want to just… stop thinking?"
Charlie's face was streaked with a pain not his own as he ran a hand through permanently unruly curls, voice cracking as he whispered, "Just for a short while. Just for a moment. I can't…"
Men with guns rushed into the halls and the wail of sirens on the way. Hang on, sweetheart. Help is coming. We're going to get you out.
From somewhere in the black, garden lights swirled in Don's eyes, the same shade as their Mom's. "Yeah, that does make sense. You know what? You should take a couple days off. Go hiking. Forget about cases, forget about classes, just clear your head. Then come back to the city with a fresh approach to the whole, you know, saving the world thing. But we're gonna need you back, Charlie. Because every moment we spend ignoring these girls – and guys too, for that matter – their chances get smaller and smaller."
Don took a sip from the bottle and they were quiet for a time, listening to the symphony of crickets in the garden and the distant heartbeat of the city. "No one tells you about that coming into a job like this, but it's our duty to remember. We're the only ones standing between a force that exploits them and a public that has forgotten them. We stand for victims, we remember the victims, and we tell their stories so others will turn and join us in the fight."
Beside him, his brother inhaled slowly and turned his face into the light once more. "In the meantime, you need to tell that brain of yours to shut up and understand that you did a good thing today. Today was a win. Drink it in, learn from it, and figure out what went right so we can pull off a win next time, too. But mostly, tonight is for savoring. We got our agent back and rescued nearly fifty women. Freedom is a pretty good cause for celebration."
"And for the others… well, that's what tomorrow is for. Tomorrow we try again. You don't change a huge statistic all at once; you gotta start with individuals. Tomorrow we start new with the people in front of us. But you can't forget to savor the win." Don smiled again, a slighter grin, but this time the lines around his eyes crinkled gently with his big-brotherly expression that had the power to scare away every monster under the bed.
Scrubbing his face with his hands, Charlie took a long, shuddering breath (vital capacity of adult male lungs typically around 4800 mL O2; the sum of tidal volume, inspiratory reserve volume, and expiratory reserve volume – they might call it inspiration but he felt no more hopeful than before) and nodded. "Savor the win, huh? You're probably right."
"Well, it's gotta happen every so often."
"Yeah, about as often as Halley's Comet coming around."
"Shut up." Don nudged him good-naturedly.
Charlie chuckled dryly and flopped back against the roof. "Hiking sounds like a good idea. I haven't gone hiking since – well, since we went for the McHugh case."
His brother leaned back on his elbows, scoffing. "That doesn't count. Tracking a fugitive through the badlands? Man, you gotta go all in. What do you say we get out of here, get out of the valley and climb Mount Whitney like we used to talk about?"
The sparkle slowly returning to his gaze, Charlie replied, "Ah, but is the infamous Don Eppes capable of taking a day off?"
"Hey, I've had some leave building up. David and Megan can handle the office for a while. You need a partner if you wanna go tackle the mountain. I'm your man – on one condition, though."
"You get a damn haircut."
He laughed for real this time, long and loud. And this time, when he caught his breath afterwards, he was truly inspired.
Here I'm allowed
Everything all of the time…
Here I'm allowed
Everything all of the time…
All statistics come from Not For Sale, a 501(c) 3 non-profit based out of California with the mission of re-abolishing slavery, of creating a world where no one is for sale. For more information on sex trafficking, there's a fantastic documentary called 'Nefarious: Merchant of Souls.'
Lyrics: Radiohead's "Idioteque." For extra credit, search YouTube for Eddy Lin's "Theif DRIME" video to the same song and see the drama they wrote for it.
Forgive any messy translations. Some is from my experience. Some is from my good friend Google.
Hmong: Where is Raquel?
Czech: Does anyone know Raquel?
Spanish: How many girls? I will help.
French: Wait, wait. The police will come.
Latin: My dear brother.
Don't write the story. Live the story.