Numb3rs belongs to CBS, Cheryl Heuton, Nick Falacci, and possibly others. I am none of those people.
It was just three quick decisions, made with barely a thought.
"Hey, Charlie, you want a ride home?"
It really didn't even need to be a question except that Charlie was still hunched over the conference room table with Megan and David, so immersed in data that Don had to ask twice. He'd thought about leaving Charlie to his work, but Charlie had been at the office as long as Don had, and his hair was standing on end from the number of times he'd run his fingers through it.
A few minutes later, they were on the road. The second decision was only the difference of taking this exit instead of that one, stopping by the witness's house right then instead of waiting until the next day. Don had wanted to get Charlie in on the case anyway to look at the money angle; there was something in the cash flow that just didn't smell right and Don couldn't put his finger on it.
"It might be embezzlement, it might be money laundering." Don shrugged. "It might be nothing. I want to make sure the angle's covered, though. You mind if we drop by? It'd save me some time tomorrow."
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Charlie's curls bob as he nodded.
"Fine with me. Who are we going to see?"
"Jackson Previtt. He's the company's marketing manager. The closest thing we've got to an expert on their finances with the president dead and the head accountant missing."
"Ah. Is he a suspect?"
Don shrugged. "In the sense that everyone's a suspect, yeah. But do I have any reason to think he killed his boss? Not really."
And that decision, the choice to dismiss Jackson Previtt from his list of likely suspects before he knew for sure, that one would haunt Don for a long time to come. Not that it wasn't a logical conclusion. Previtt didn't fit Megan's profile, had no obvious motive, and his childhood friendship with Darrell Wobash the accountant wouldn't be discovered by David and Colby until after Don had no use for it anymore. Wobash was high on Don's "Persons of Interest" list, but without the knowledge of their previous connection, Previtt just hadn't seemed that important. Don had let down his guard, let Previtt lure Charlie away with promises of spreadsheets and sales statistics.
As Charlie peered at the computer screen, Previtt gestured for Don to sit on the couch.
"Of course I don't have all the records here," he said, rubbing his thin blond mustache. "Just a couple of projects with looming deadlines, you know how it is? But there should be enough there to get the information you were asking about. In fact, you're welcome to take the disks with you if you want."
His voice had a nervous edge to it that pinged Don's mental radar. Previtt might have just been a little unsettled by talking to an FBI agent, but the possibility that more was going on hovered at the back of Don's mind, waiting for further evidence to attach itself to.
The evidence came mere moments later, when a crash from the kitchen drained the color from Previtt's face. The knowledge that everything was wrong and he needed to get Charlie out of there hit Don in a split second, but still not fast enough for him to keep Charlie from frowning in curiosity and leaning back in his chair to look around the door frame into the kitchen. Charlie's eyes widened. Don started to his feet. He stopped abruptly, first because Previtt was pointing a gun at his forehead and more importantly because another man--Wobash--was coming through the kitchen doorway, also holding a gun and pointing it at Charlie.
And Charlie . . . Don's heart stopped beating for a moment, because Charlie wasn't freezing, wasn't cowering in fear like a sensible person would. Charlie looked to Don for help. Charlie saw the gun pointing at his big brother. Caught in the still moment between heartbeats, Don saw the instant calculations that danced behind Charlie's eyes, the statistics of agents shot in the line of duty and formulas multiplying force times trajectory plus stupid, insane bravery. Don's lips were still forming "No!" when Charlie lunged upward, crashing into Wobash. Not even the most selfless of brotherly love could trump the laws of physics. Wobash had a running start and at least forty pounds on Charlie, and when they went down, Wobash was on top. The gun skittered harmlessly across the floor.
"Don't move," Previtt snapped.
It was less his tone than his shaking hands that kept Don still. His muscles locked as training fought the instinct to barrel through Previtt and yank Wobash off his brother. Unless Previtt was distracted, Don couldn't subdue him faster than he could shoot. Previtt couldn't miss at this range, and the shot would be deadly. Don had his own type of math; any way he calculated, the sickening thud of Wobash's fist into the tender skin of Charlie's stomach was still a better answer than Don and Charlie both dead. He had no doubt that once the first bullet entered his brain, Charlie would almost immediately be the next victim. Previtt and Wobash couldn't afford to leave behind a witness to the murder of a federal agent.
Wobash hit Charlie again. Don could hear Charlie's grunt of pain, and felt a flash of pride when Charlie swung at Wobash even though the blow didn't shake Wobash for more than a second. Another blow to Charlie's abdomen made him cry out, a weak, breathless sound. Don clenched his teeth and forced the sound to the back of his mind, trying for a calm tone as he focused on Previtt.
"You don't want to do this. Do you have any idea what the penalty for killing a federal agent is? And my brother--" He had to stop for a second. Charlie was too stunned to fight back any more, couldn't even curl up to protect himself because Wobash was kneeling on his legs. Wobash hadn't let up, just kept hitting him over and over. Don was going to kill that man. "--my brother is a consultant with the FBI. That's like killing two agents. You won't ever see the light of day again, and I swear to God, Wobash, if you touch my brother again, I'll bury you so deep you'll be breathing dirt through whatever's left of your face when I get done with you. Let him go!"
So much for calm. At least it distracted Wobash for a minute. The accountant looked up, his heavy-featured face twisted in a mix of fear and the headiness of power. He wasn't a hardened criminal any more than Previtt. He wasn't used to causing physical pain, wasn't used to killing another human in cold blood. But Don could see in his eyes that he was beginning to love it.
"Jacky, shoot him," Wobash growled, and he slid one hand almost lovingly up to press its heel against Charlie's neck.
But Previtt wasn't Wobash. He hadn't tasted the power of holding another person's life in his hands and crushing it out. The thought of killing someone scared him, and Don took the moment that he hesitated for the gift that it was. One hand snatched the gun from Previtt while the other came around in a punch that snapped Previtt's head back and left him in a crumpled heap in the couch.
Don spared him just enough attention to see that he was out before lunging over his sprawled legs and across the room. Don's gun hand didn't shake at all. He leveled the weapon at Wobash. His focus narrowed to Wobash's face, to the bastard's eyes going wide and his hands going up. That was fine. Too much paperwork when he killed a suspect anyway. Without stopping, he slid the gun into its holster and took two more steps. His first punch knocked Wobash away from Charlie. The second sent Wobash stumbling against the wall; the third doubled him over. The fourth and fifth went to his stomach, too, and Don wasn't anywhere close to done. Not until Wobash had suffered for every second he'd spent hurting Charlie.
The gasped word couldn't cut through the red-tinged fury clouding Don's mind. He pulled back his fist to hit Wobash again.
Charlie's voice, and it had to be Charlie's hand on his arm, holding him back. That information punctured Don's anger and drained it, making room for more familiar emotions. Without letting go of the unresisting Wobash, Don turned to look at his brother. Charlie was clutching Don's arm with one hand while the other pressed protectively against his stomach. His eyes were wide and dark with shock, but his mouth was set in that tight, stubborn line that Don had learned to respect.
"You okay?" Don asked.
Charlie shrugged and grimaced faintly. "Yeah."
*No*, his eyes said, but he was holding it together for the moment. Don couldn't have asked for more, yet he could also see that Charlie's calm was a shaky one. With Wobash and Previtt unsecured, Don couldn't stop and give his brother the reassurance he needed. All he could give him was a distraction.
"All right," Don said, pulling out the handcuffs he kept on his belt. "I need you to call Megan, okay? She'll send some agents out to take these guys in. And there's an extra pair of handcuffs in my glove compartment. You feel up to getting them?"
There were hints of relief in Charlie's nod. As he limped toward the door, Don jerked Wobash around and cuffed him, ignoring the groaned protest from the accountant.
"You have the right to remain silent," Don informed him with satisfaction. "And I'd suggest you do it."
It wasn't long before agents arrived to collect Previtt and Wobash. Charlie had spent the time hunched in an armchair as far away from the two criminals as possible. He answered Don's attempts to draw him into conversation with short, distracted responses. Don was getting more and more concerned, but he didn't dare take his attention or his gun off the two handcuffed men on the couch. He'd underestimated them once; he didn't intend to do it again. But finally, they were led away, Wobash fussing about police brutality, and Don could focus on his brother.
Don crouched in front of Charlie, resting a hand on his knee.
"How you doing, buddy?"
"I'm fine." Charlie nodded uncertainly. "I'm fine. Can we get out of here?"
"Yeah, in a minute. How's your stomach?"
Glancing around the room to make sure they were alone, Don reached out to pull up Charlie's shirt. Charlie had always been shy about showing his body, too used to being the scrawny kid in a locker room full of high school athletes. It was a measure of how upset Charlie was that he didn't protest when Don examined his abdomen, resting a hand against the red, hot skin and pressing slightly.
"Ow," Charlie said, mildly enough that Don wasn't too worried.
"You're going to be sore for a few days, but I don't think anything's broken." Don frowned. His track record for good decisions today pretty much sucked. "Maybe we should stop by the hospital anyway. He hit you pretty hard. You might have cracked ribs or--"
Charlie was shaking his head.
"I'm fine. I just want to go home."
Don helped him stand, feeling more than a little helpless. He knew the expression he could see in Charlie's eyes too well; it was the same combination of fear and shock he'd seen there after their mother died, after nearly being shot in the FBI office, and too many other times related to Don's job. That look always made Don want to tell him everything would be okay, Don would make sure of it--but how could Don promise that when it was Don's mistake that had resulted in him being hurt?
Don looked down at his brother, realizing that he'd just been standing there, lost in thought.
"Yeah? Sorry, I was thinking."
"Don." Charlie reached up to squeeze his arm. "It's okay."
Don blinked, surprise cutting through his guilt.
Charlie grinned faintly. "I know that look. You're beating yourself up for what happened here. But it's okay. I'm okay, you're okay. It's okay."
Don raised an eyebrow. "So, what you're saying is, it's okay?"
Charlie took his hand off Don's arm long enough to punch him in the shoulder. Don couldn't help but notice that the hand returned quickly to its former position, a grip that he figured was as much for Charlie's sake as for Don's.
"Yeah. But you owe me a beer. And I'm never riding home with you again."
"So, what, you're going to walk?"
Resting his own hand on Charlie's back, Don ushered his brother out of the house, shaking his head in amusement as Charlie reeled off statistics about the safety of public transportation. He wasn't convinced that Charlie was one hundred percent okay *yet*, but he had no doubt that given a little bit of time, and maybe an evening in front of the game with a few beers and the company of his family to chase the shadows away, Charlie would be fine. And as long as that was so, Don would be okay, too.