Title: Phantom Intelligence
Genre: Angst, Episode Related ("In Plain Sight")
Rating: A light PG-13, for swearing and possibly disturbing thematic references
Author's Notes: This is a companion piece to my earlier "In Plain Sight" epilogue, Statistical Ghosts.
Don spat into the sink again, reaching in the dark for the sound of running water. He rinsed his mouth out once, twice. Breathing deep, hands braced against the counter, he tried to will the sickness at the pit of his stomach to leave.
He hadn't had a nightmare like that in– Don caught himself trying to count the days or weeks or months, and swallowed hard. It didn’t matter. Even if he got a month’s worth of sound sleep between the dreams, he’d wind up paying this price eventually.
He reached again for the water and splashed cool wet across his face. By the time he'd fumbled a towel off the rack beside the sink and patted his face dry, he felt a little better, but cold sweat still prickled his spine. And his mouth still tasted like something had died in there.
He went straight through his living room to the tiny kitchenette, only pausing to flip on a table lamp. Its warm glow followed him. He reached for the nearest cupboard door, automatically checking the glimmering numbers on the digital clock, and paused. It was almost six. He sighed and let the cupboard swing closed. Too late for the single malt scotch he had in there. But the thought of trying to get back to sleep without a little help . . .
He might as well stay up.
Methodically, Don found the filters in another cupboard. The metal can of ground coffee nipped his fingers, icy from the fridge. Water ran smoothly into the pot, settling its weight into his hands.
He relaxed against the counter. The steady noise and hot, bitter scent of the percolating coffee were hypnotic, and he found his eyes drifting closed.
That was a mistake.
He knew enough, had heard and seen enough, that the events around the pictures filled themselves in: the threats, the blows, the unwelcome requests, the caresses. The girl's face wasn't just Libby's--the hair shifted from dark to blonde to streaked, the eyes changing color each time--but each time she was in pain, each time stupefied with fear. He couldn't see the man's face, just a tattoo on one arm, flashing red under the lights: the symbol for infinity. It took forever for him to finally break free of his own horror, to lunge forward and grab those hands, cuff them, stop them. . . .
Don grabbed a mug from the drainage board, poured too quickly, and slopped scalding liquid over the edge, over his hand, onto the counter.
The man turned and grinned, and it was Charlie.
He stood still for a moment, breathing hard. Then he set the pot down on the tiled counter top, and stuck his throbbing fingers under cold running water.
He wasn't Charlie . . . he just had Charlie's face. There's a difference.
That decided, Don shut off the water. Carefully, he wiped his damp hand on his T-shirt. The skin felt tight; it would hurt for a while, but at least the pain gave him an excuse to be cranky. Then he moved the coffeepot back to its proper place, wiped up the spilled liquid, and took his cup into the living room.
At the window, he opened the blinds. The hills were edged with faint pre-dawn grey. He checked the temperature by touching the pane; it was cold, not just cool. He pulled back, wrapped that hand around the warmth of the plain white mug and sipped. The rich, smoky taste drove the acid from the back of his throat and scorched away the smell of bile. He tried to focus on the pleasure of that taste, on the sense of a new day coming.
Moving hands. Infinity. That meant worse was coming.
He took another sip of coffee. They'd wrapped up the paperwork on that case; Lamberg had been arraigned the day before. Remanded without bail. As long as nothing went stupidly wrong, they wouldn't even have to think about it again until the trial. He pursed his lips, watching a car speed down the street outside.
The man turned and grinned, and . . .
A lot of things in the office had been let go over the past month. If no urgent new cases came in, he'd get Colby to clear out the backup of old files. David could make some follow-up calls, and Megan--
Damn. Even making plans wasn't much use.
All he could think was, What the hell kind of person dreams his brother's face onto a pedophile?
Don threw back a larger swallow of coffee, searing a path along his tongue. Bad dreams came with the job. He was used to that by now. But this wasn't the sort of thing his brain usually came up with on its own. If Charlie guest-starred in one of Don's nightmares, it was generally as a dead body.
No, this one was Charlie's fault.
The heat of the cup prickled his burned hand; Don moved it from his left to his right. Yeah, kid cases were ugly, but he'd had a murdered agent, a meth ring, and a guilt-ridden Megan to look after. Then here comes Charlie, barging in like a crusader, trying to tell Don how to do his own job. Too stubborn to even think of backing off, of just trusting Don to get the damn job done.
No wonder Don's brain had superimposed those images: he hadn't been able to think about that bastard without seeing Charlie's impassioned face.
The coffee suddenly tasted more bitter than he'd meant to make it. Don made a face, and headed for the kitchen to see if he had any half-and-half left.
That's when the phone rang. Not the sedate trill of his cell, but the raucous bell of his land line. Don double-checked the clock: it was barely 6:10. And if it was the office, they would have tried his cell phone first.
Don snatched up the receiver on the second ring. "Eppes."
"Oh, good, Don, I caught you."
Well. Speak of the devil. "Charlie? Is everything all right?"
"Um, yeah--why?" There was a pause. "I didn't wake you, did I?"
Little brothers were pretty good at sounding guilty without admitting to anything. "No. It's just earlier than I usually hear from you. What's up?" He wandered back to his hastily-abandoned cup of coffee. Good at sounding guilty . . . shut up, he told himself. It was just a damn dream.
"Is this a bad time?" Charlie actually sounded apologetic. Don hadn't heard much of that from him over the past week. "Because I know you have to get into work, and it's a long drive in traffic, and I only called now because I'm going to be in department meetings all day--and really, this could wait, if you need it to--"
Don felt himself relax; his brother's normal, uncertain babble was like a gust of fresh air. "Whoa, bro. As long as it won't take too long, this is fine. You just surprised me, that's all." He took a sip of coffee and waited.
“Okay." Charlie took a deep breath. "I was wondering if you could help me find someone."
"Find someone?" Here, at least, was familiar territory. "Who'd you mislay, a student? A delinquent better in the department pool?"
"An old friend, actually." Charlie's voice had dropped so low Don had to readjust the handset in order to hear it. "I know you're busy, and I'm not trying to take advantage of my connection to the FBI--"
Charlie's explanation slid into the background as pieces of another conversation surfaced in Don's memory. "It's not what he did, it's what he didn't do,” Alan said. “. . . he didn't save her."
Then a step further back. “This case . . . it’s reminding him of something he’s feeling guilty about.”
Charlie's feeling guilty? During this case? "Why? What, he do something I don't know about?" The momentary shock of suspicion and dread that had fueled those words was identical to what had woken him from the nightmare.
Don nearly choked on his coffee. Tell me that’s not what I was thinking when I said that. It wasn’t--was it? It had come and gone so quickly, the spike of emotion dispelled by Alan’s quiet explanation. Well, dreams aren’t choosy where they get their material.
Don shook his head, pushing that thought away, and focused on the last few words Charlie was saying.
". . . even just a suggestion of where I might look next, that would help a lot.” The voice paused. “Uh, Don? You there?”
“Yeah, Charlie. Sorry. Coffee hasn’t kicked in yet.” As white lies went, that was fairly mild--the coffee had kicked in, and it was caffeine as much as adrenaline that had Don’s heart pounding. Charlie didn’t need to know that, though. Didn’t need to know that Don might have ever had a thought that even came close to putting his brother in the same potential category as Lamberg. “So, what’s her name, this old friend you want help finding?”
“Jessica Cartman. She lived a couple of blocks over from us, on--” Charlie’s tone sharpened. Don imagined his eyes narrowing. “I didn’t say I was looking for a girl, did I?”
Busted. Don swigged the last of his coffee to cover a moment of quick thinking. Here, truth was definitely the best option. “Dad sort of told me. He didn’t give me any details, though.” Just said you were feeling guilty, which I wasn’t sure how to interpret. Honestly, I don’t know what made me say that; I don’t know what I thought you could have done. I mean, aside from go off half-cocked and compromise the case or something.
Charlie said sourly, "Maybe I need to have a talk with Dad."
"Jessica Cartman." Don scrubbed a hand through his hair, then closed his eyes, running through a gallery of mental images. The name did sound familiar. "Oh, wait. That dark-haired kid you used to ride bikes with? Whenever Mom could get you out of the house?"
"Yeah." Charlie sounded relieved. "I just--I want to know if she's all right. What happened to her between then, and, and now."
That you didn't hurt her by doing nothing, by not knowing what to do, Don finished for him, silently, and found that he believed his father’s assessment. Had believed it the moment it was spoken. The sudden, tight ache in his chest had nothing to do with dreams. Bad enough that anyone had to face those questions, had to face that kind of failure. That Charlie should be the one to labor under it was intolerable. Buddy, you're the real innocent here. "Anything that happened to her, Charlie, it wasn't your fault. You were just--"
"I know, Don." His brother's voice was unexpectedly steady. "I was just a kid. I know."
Don rubbed a hand across his face. "Look, I didn't even have a clue anything was up with Jessica, and I was older than you."
"You didn't ride bikes with her three times a week." The statement was flat and final.
No wonder Charlie had been so fierce about this case, about finding that other girl. He had no way to detach from something that turned so personal. Aw, Charlie, I am so sorry you had to see that.
Don had his share of old cases that never got closure, were never resolved. If he could help Charlie find an ending . . . "You know what? Let me look into it. Why don't you e-mail me, let me know where you've looked already, any information you have, and I'll get back to you."
Charlie let out a huge sigh. "Don, I--thanks. I, um--"
"No problem." Don looked over his shoulder; the minutes were ticking past, he could actually see the hills now, but there was time for one more thing. "Look, about Dad...."
"Hey, I can handle Dad." That was the voice of relief, so close to amusement.
"Don't be too hard on him. He was just trying to get me to ease up on you." The confession wasn't as hard as he'd thought it might be.
"Trying to get you to ease up on me?" Charlie sounded like he might be smirking. "As insightful as Dad can be, he may have had that reversed."
"Yeah, well . . ." Don fell back on the terminology they'd used in junior high. "So are we even?"
"Sure. As soon as you call me with that information." Charlie sounded so much more alive than when he'd first answered the phone. "I know you need to get going, so--thanks.” He rushed on before Don could say anything. “Actually, you want to meet me for lunch or something? My treat.”
Don felt one corner of his mouth twitch upward. “Where, the student center? I don’t think so, Charlie.” Could I handle seeing your face right now?
Yes. Don closed his eyes; he needed to see his brother, needed to see that open, bright face, needed to see what was real.
“Um, okay. . . .” Charlie cleared his throat. “How about that café down the street from the Federal Building?”
“Yeah?” Don let his smile widen. “Still your treat? You realize I probably won’t have anything about Jessica by then.”
“I’ll pay in proportion, all right? So if you want anything expensive, just plan on bringing some information.” That smug tone was reserved for solutions that somehow involved math.
“Skinflint. Have a good day, all right? I’ll see you at, what, one o’clock?"
"Yeah, I’ll see you there." Don slowly set the phone back into its cradle.
In the early morning cool, the empty mug had lost its warmth rapidly. He thought about filling it again, about sweetening the bitter taste with sugar and cream. But the light was growing, and he had to be on the freeway by 7 am, if he wanted any chance of getting to work on time. Don took the mug into the kitchen, rinsed it out, checked the coffeepot and left it on 'warm,’ then checked the fridge to see if he had any bagels left. It would have to be breakfast on the go.
As he turned to head back to the bathroom, to a hot shower and a few moments of quiet before his day really began, the dream image floated to the surface again. The man turned and grinned . . .
Don took a deep breath, and summoned Charlie's voice instead. "I just--I want to know if she's all right. What happened to her between then, and, and now." Those weary, stumbling words were the real thing. God's honest truth, in a world of countless possible lies.
Don sighed, straightened his shoulders, and headed for the hot water.
Comments and criticism welcome, as usual! Let me know what you think.