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16 July 2010 @ 11:06 pm
Fic: Brother Mine Part 1  
Title: Brother Mine Part 1
Authors: t_vo0810 and melissima
Artist: mustangcandi
Characters: Don Eppes, Charlie Eppes, Gary Walker, Terry Lake, David Sinclair, Billy Cooper, Oswald Kittner, Marshall Penfield, OCs
Genre: Gen
Rating: PG
Warnings: none
Summary: It's the turn of the twentieth century, and Deputy US Marshal Don Eppes is tasked with investigating a series of disappearances in Pasadena. Residents are convinced the disappearances are the work of a local recluse who Don learns is his pale and sickly brother Charlie.
Art: Cover Art, Video



Don stepped off the steamcoach into the early morning sunshine, pulling his hat lower to shade his eyes. He checked the carriage one last time even though he knew he hadn’t forgotten anything. He had been feeling unsettled for days, dreading his return to Pasadena. This town was one of the handful his new posting made him responsible for, but Don didn't know where to put the unexpected emotions that bubbled up at the idea of going back to his hometown.

Don shook his head, annoyed at his own absurdity. This was just another job. Another post in a long list of assignments. It didn’t have to be anything different other than that. And technically, his post was in Los Angeles. As one of the Deputy U.S. Marshals of Southern California, his duties would take him all over the territory. Pasadena was one of a handful of towns that would require his services.

Scanning his surroundings from the steps of the coach station, Don was surprised by how much the town had grown since he was last here. Small groups of tourists and townspeople crowded the walkways, patronizing the small shops and businesses lining both sides of the street. The ongoing development of this town was impressive- new hotels, a new library, even an opera house. Don had even noticed some major new construction on the edge of town, what looked to be some new school of technology if the signs were any indication. Yeah, this definitely wasn’t the same little 4 horse town he spent his youth in. Don felt a small smile creep onto his face as he wondered if that little saloon he had misspent some of that youth in was still around.

"Deputy Marshal Eppes?"

Don turned around at the call of his name, schooling his features into a careful, blank expression. "Yes. Mayor Merrick, isn’t it?" he replied as he shook the hand offered him.

"That’s correct. Don’t worry about your bag. I’ll have it delivered to your hotel room. Follow me." Walter Merrick turned briskly, striding to what appeared the center of main street. "We are all very anxious for you to transport this prisoner out of Pasadena as soon as possible. Our town has been through enough of late. I think everyone will rest easier once you take that outlaw back to Los Angeles to stand trial. How long do you think it will take you before you're ready?"

"I'll need to meet with the sheriff first, review the investigation reports and prisoner's statements with him, and then meet with the witnesses to go over their statements and confirm their availability to give testimony at the trial. All in all, we should be heading back to Los Angeles by tomorrow afternoon or the following morning at the latest."

"Good. Here we are." Merrick gestured as he stopped in front of an older, well-kept building with the word 'TOWN JAIL' emblazoned above the door. "Sheriff Walker is away at the moment or I would stay to make introductions. He knows you're coming today though so he should be back momentarily. He is…" Merrick lowered his voice and waited until a couple of tourists walked out of hearing distance. "tying up some loose ends involving this matter. These kinds of sordid incidents can ruin a town's reputation, and ours is starting to attract the right kinds of businesses. I am trusting that you'll find everything you need inside in order to make this go away, the sooner the better. Ask for Miss Lake. She’s the sheriff's secretary. She’ll show you around and make introductions."

Merrick then stiffly nodded once and proceeded to march off back in the direction he came, cutting off any potential reply. Don was grateful for the abrupt departure. He had a sneaking suspicion working with this mayor was not going to be one of the perks of this new posting.

"He’s just a ray of sunshine, ain't he?"

Don smiled in spite of himself as he glanced over his shoulder. A man leaned against the entrance to the jail, his arms crossed over his chest. Don’s eyes snagged on the tip of a shiny silver star, peeking out from behind the man’s arms. He offered his hand in greeting. "Sheriff Walker, I presume? Deputy US Marshal Don Eppes."

The sheriff nodded and shook his hand. "I know who you are, Eppes. And not because I make it my business to know everyone who comes into my town." Walker assessed Don with a shrewd look and then nodded to himself and grinned. "An old geezer like me isn’t much of a welcome wagon. What do ya say we head inside see if the pretty little Miss Lake can rustle us up a proper drink?" Walker clapped a hand on Don’s shoulder and cocked his head toward the door in invitation.

"Sounds fine, Sheriff."

"And Eppes? Welcome back to Pasadena."

*

Charlie blinked awake, dream images slowly dissipating like morning fog. Staring at the ceiling, he knew it was day from the slivers of light seeping around the edges of his blackout curtains. The sunlight trickled across the ceiling in dusty waves, making Charlie feel as if he were underwater caught in swirl of gray. The absolute silence of the house pressed down on him, pinning him to his bed. He wanted nothing more than to go back to sleep, but the throbbing of his head told him it was useless. Listless, he studied the cobwebbed corner of the ceiling, his mind automatically tracking the curves and axis points of the web, seeking out the comfort of the familiar Fibonacci spiral. It wasn’t there. The edge of the web had come undone, its intricate design ruined by the slack support now fluttering in the draft. Once it had been both purposeful and beautiful. But now it was abandoned, forgotten. Only a remnant of time past.

He closed his eyes again and turned on his side, willing his mind to dip down into the sleek cool stream of equations he was working on last night. Philosophical musings about cobwebs and linear time were best left to Lawrence. Numbers were what he did best, where he belonged, where there was no room for maudlin dreams of syrup-drenched pancakes and bright sunshine streaking through kitchen windows. Mornings were always the worst for him, waking up from dreams of the family he once had, of the home that might have been. His numbers were his home now. He didn’t need anything else. He didn’t.

Bribing himself with the promise of strong coffee and chalk under his fingers, Charlie gathered his resolve and left the stuffy cocoon of quilts. The air inside Craftsman Manor was still but cool despite the summer heat outside. Charlie had left all the windows shuttered permanently where he could, locking out the bright California sun and any intrusive voyeurs who fancied a glimpse of the town freak. He never bothered to light the lamps or air out any of the unused rooms. It seemed pointless, since kept to his bedroom and workspaces. It disturbed him to be in any room where the walls had eyes, rows of old family photographs reflecting back joyful faces frozen in happier times.

His father had left over five years ago, preferring to mend the rift with his family back east than live with his stranger of a son. Don hadn’t been seen in these parts in over ten years, having only come home once to visit their mother when she first became ill. He had breezed in for a few days, in-between jobs, promising to return as soon as he had settled somewhere. But that promise was broken. Charlie wasn’t even sure where Don had been when their father had finally tracked him down to break the news of their mother’s death. Charlie didn’t remember much of what went on in those bleak days, weeks, months after his mother had succumbed to her illness- that time in his life was clouded over in a numbing haze of numbers.

One day he woke up, really woke up, and realized he was completely alone. He had chased away his father, had no idea how to find his brother, and the one person who loved him most, who understood him best, lay buried underneath the grasses and flowers growing wild on the hillside.

Charlie wound his way through the corridors of the manor, ambling to the back staircase leading into the kitchen. He paused for a moment on the landing, listening to the comforting whirs and clicks below. A loud hiss announced the end of the coffee percolation cycle and started Charlie down the steps again.

"Good morning, Charles."

"Morning, Lawrence. Coffee ready?" Charlie didn't wait for a response, instead shuffled straight to the carafe, pulled the chain and filled his mug accompanied by the sound of escaping steam.

"No offense, but I have noticed that you have not been operating at optimum efficiency of late. So I took the liberty of preparing your breakfast this morning with the goal of maximizing its nutritional content based on the availability of resources."

Charlie leaned against the kitchen counter, smiling softly into his coffee cup. Larry made for an invaluable companion, but his valet skills still left a lot to be desired. Steeling himself, Charlie glanced at the plate Larry offered him. His eyes widened in mild alarm, but he bit back his immediate response. While technically he couldn't hurt the valet's feelings, he knew that carefully chosen words were best to prevent Larry's future confusion and inefficient fretting.

"Thank you, Lawrence. I appreciate that. Um, what exactly did you prepare?" Charlie peered sideways at the monochromatic mixture of foods, trying to ascertain the individual ingredients. He took a step back almost immediately, taking a long inhale of his coffee to mask the fishy smell that pervaded the air.

"It's a fillet of cod, gently baked, added to scrambled egg whites, served on top of rice pudding. Rich in protein, fiber, and dairy. My research has indicated these components are the best for maintaining health of body and brain."

"Yes. That is technically true. But…why all white?"

"You had previously mentioned a need to nurture my aesthetics. I found white to be the most...." Lawrence paused for a moment, "harmonious of the colors available in the food spectrum. Is this unsatisfactory?"

"No, no, not exactly. It's just food is mainly planned and prepared according to the harmony of flavors, not color spectrum."

"I see. I will make note of it, Charles. Shall I prepare something else?"

"No. I appreciate the thought, but all I really want this morning is coffee. I'll eat later." Charlie turned back to the counter to top off his coffee mug and listened to Lawrence bustle about the kitchen, efficiently taking apart and cleaning the stove and boilers, the burners and grill plate and various preparation surfaces.

Every couple steps, Charlie heard an odd clinking sound that he didn't recognize.

"Larry, what is that sound? Is that your foot making that noise?"

"Yes. My gait has been affected by a minor misalignment of the ankle articulation mechanism. I attempted to make the necessary readjustment myself but the fine motor dexterity required seems beyond my capabilities."

"You should have said something to me earlier. Come, sit down. Let me see." Charlie sat on floor in front of Larry's chair and began to cuff his pants leg up past the ball bearing of his knee. Charlie trailed his fingers along the spoke of his lower leg and then pulled off Lawrence's shoe to more closely examine the ankle and foot mechanisms. Muttering to himself, he drew Larry's foot even closer to his eye as he flexed and straightened the ankle joint manually through the motions of walking.

"I think I see the problem." Charlie gently guided Larry's foot back down to the floor and groaned as he stood. "I should have collected my magnifying goggles and tools before I sat down."

"I can retrieve them, Charles." Larry announced, standing and turning toward the solarium. "I believe I saw them last night on your workbench."

"No, no, Larry. You sit. I have extras in the basement. And I think I may need a replacement part. One of the articulating nibs looks bent. I will be back shortly." Charlie headed directly for the basement door and scurried down the steps, already lost in thought in the encroaching darkness. He grunted in pain as he stubbed his toe on a box at the base of the stairs and felt around for the oil lamp hooked on the banister. Fishing around for a box of matches or his lighter, Charlie wished yet again the electric light station on the outskirts of Pasadena had been built closer to his home. While he would abhor living any closer to town, having electric lights installed through the manor would be incredibly convenient. One of the luxuries he missed from when he lived back east while attending university.

Charlie found his spare goggles and a partial set of his father's tools in a box near the stairs. Making his way further into the basement, Charlie inspected the earliest versions of factory automatons he'd created after university. Assembly line robots of all shapes and sizes lined the back wall and his father's old workbench. Once he had moved back home, Charlie had practically lived in the basement avoiding interaction with his parents, especially his father. While it had technically been his father's workspace, Charlie commandeered it, throwing himself into creating practical applications of his math. It was down here that Charlie first envisioned the true potential of his theories- Larry. Larry was the culmination and the pinnacle of all of Charlie's work, and the basement was like a graveyard of discarded prototypes in the line that birthed him.

When he found the bot he needed, Charlie set to work on scavenging the part from a digger bot that had never functioned as intended, but had walked quite well. Dismantling the prototype's foot and ankle, his mind filled with a new design for Larry's gait to reduce the stress on his ankle joints. With any luck, he would have Larry repaired in a couple of hours and could get to his chalkboards to start some preliminary engineering. A sense of excitement welled up inside him as the design began to coalesce in his mind, slowly burying his previous gloom - at least for a little while.

*

"Morning, Don. There’s a fresh pot of coffee on the stove, and the copies of the witness statements you requested."

Don smiled at Terry in greeting and hung his hat on a peg near the door. After only three months of working with Pasadena's sheriff station, Don found himself looking for opportunities to drop in and say hello. "Morning, Terry. And thank you. But you know you don’t work for me, right? Let me buy you a cup of coffee for your trouble, at least," he replied with a wink.

"You mean the coffee I made with my own two hands? Big spender. You keep turning on the charm, and I’m going to forget why we stopped courting all those years ago." Terry stood up and joined Don at the table next to the stove. Don handed her a cup of coffee with a laugh.

"I've every faith your good sense will prevail. As I recall, you were pretty good at resisting my charms, even then." Don smirked, waggling his eyebrows.

Terry chuckled and slapped him lightly on the arm. "And as I recall, you had one foot out of town and one eye wandering towards trouble all the while you were charming me. Didn’t make you all that hard to resist. You needed someone like me, good sense and all." Her face sobered after a moment and then she cast a glance at the front window, checking for the early arrival of the sheriff or his deputy. "And that good sense is ringing the alarm bell more and more every day. I’m concerned."

Don’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. "What’s wrong?" He laid a hand on her shoulder. "Is someone giving you trouble?"

"No, not me. Someone else. I really shouldn't mention it without Gary's permission, but I know he is just as concerned. And really, I'd want to be told if I were you."

"Terry, it's all right. We'll keep it between us for now. Talk to me."

"Don, you have to understand. As much as the mayor and city council are pushing for Pasadena to becoming the next resort town, for the townfolk it's still the same little mining town it was when we were kids. The community here is still mostly working class artisans, shopkeepers, and miners, but the businessmen and ranchers who make all the political decisions. And they've decided to keep this quiet for now. At first, I thought that was the right call but…. Well, it hasn't stopped the town from gossiping. Unfortunately, I've seen this sort of thing before. These rumors can get out of hand and lead to violence."

Don tilted his head in question. "Wait - you've lost me. What rumors? And what exactly is the problem? You still haven't said."

"Several months ago, before you were assigned here, one of the local boys never came home. It wasn't all that surprising, really. That boy in particular was a bit of a…" Terry half-grinned at Don, "well, what your father used to call a 'ramblin' man."

Don smiled and nodded, recalling his father using that label to describe his own youth from time to time.

"Ray Galuski's oldest boy, Jakub's one of those kids everybody knows because he is something of a trouble-maker, but it's nothing serious. Just pranks and drinking and gambling, that sort of thing, but he's one of the brightest in his class. Ray was pressuring him to finish school. But Jake, well, he must have had other ideas. He let it slip he was aiming for some new job that was going to bring in lots of money. He left without a word to his family, and sent no word since."

"Galuski… He's the foreman over at the mine, right?"

"Yes. The sheriff spoke to him and several of the other miners. You know how close-knit a community they are. He spoke to most of the miners' kids and interviewed Jake's friends from school. All evidence indicated that the boy had left early one morning for his new job and didn't bother to contact his family again. Not much was made of it."

Don studied his coffee for a moment. "You know I practically did the same myself at that age. Sheriff Walker is a fine lawman. If he felt…"

"Wait, hear me out. A few months later, a young Chinese girl went missing. She moved here to marry one of the local miners. Her husband was badly injured not long after their wedding, and she took on his job in the mines. At first, the men tested her every chance they got, and most of the women thought poorly of her for taking a man's job. It was ugly, but she stuck it out doing a decent day's work according to the foreman. Then one day, her husband said she asked him to help disguise her as a man, talking about some new job, a better job. Apparently, she thought it was her only chance of being hired. He helped cut her hair and dressed her in his clothes, but she never came home. To this day, he's convinced something happened to her."

"Sheriff Walker doesn't think so?" Don asked.

"Not at first, no. She was having a hard time of it, no other family to speak of, hadn't been married a year and had to work long days in the mine, only to come home and take care of her husband. She left her wedding ring behind, only took what she could carry with her.

"Sheriff, like the rest of the town, thought she decided to start over somewhere else, and figured traveling as a man was safer in the rough parts of the territory." Terry shook her head and finished her cup of coffee. "Don, I didn't know her well, but that doesn't track with the Alice I knew. She was devoted to her husband. Two other young kids telling the same story before they go missing? That alone makes me suspicious. But there was no evidence of a crime, so nothing much was done to follow up on the disappearances."

"So what's changed?"

"A third kid disappeared over a week ago. Ethan Bloom. He's Preacher Bloom's only child. He and Jake Galuski were schoolmates, different as they come but often hunting trouble together. Ethan was not one to run off, but he looked up to Jake, took after him enough to cause difficulty for his father. Gary interviewed anyone who might have got wind if they were up to something, but no one knew anything. Not one report of Ethan talking about running away or a new job. But one thing was mentioned over and over again: on the day before his disappearance, Ethan decided to ride out to Craftsman Manor, maybe on some kind of dare."

"My family's old place? What for? Who even lives there now? I never heard one way or another."

"Wait, what?" Terry's chagrin showed as she looked up to meet Don’s eyes. "I thought you knew. Your father sold it to Charlie. He still lives there."

"And you're only telling me this now? I assumed he moved off to some university somewhere after my mother….That's what he always said he wanted. I never thought he would have stayed. I can't believe I haven't seen him around since I've been back."

Terry hung her head in regret. "You wouldn't have, unless you went out to the manor. I thought you had been in touch, that you knew. Charlie hasn't stepped foot in this town for years. After your father left, he became a recluse. Rumor is he hasn't left the manor in years. I used to call on him every couple of months but he never answered the door. A lot of the kids sneak around his property, trying to get a glimpse, daring each other to knock on the door. They talk about him like a bogeyman of sorts- something they use to scare the little ones into minding. You know how the town is about anyone different, they don't understand."

"Terry, are you telling me that the last place this kid was seen was on his way to make trouble for Charlie? That Charlie might have been the last to see him?"

"Most people are of the opinion that Charlie isn't just the last person to see Ethan. They suspect him of causing Ethan's disappearance. I'm telling you that the townsfolk are convinced Charlie is responsible for hurting Ethan in some way, and they're getting impatient for the sheriff to 'do his job'."

"Has Sheriff Walker interviewed Charlie yet?"

"He's been out there twice in the week since Ethan's disappearance. The first time, he didn't even get an answer, but the second time Charlie spoke to him through the door. Charlie said he didn't know Ethan, had never seen him on the property. Gave the sheriff permission to search the grounds but refused to let him inside the house. Gary's waiting on a warrant to go back tomorrow, but Don, if Charlie doesn't start cooperating, I don't like what'll happen next. I don't think the town is going to stand for it much longer."

"Thanks for letting me know." Don muttered, turning away. His mind was clogged with so many competing thoughts that he wasn't even aware he'd snatched his hat off its peg and left the office until his eyes started watering from the bright sunlight. Donning his hat, he headed for the stable, intent on riding out to his childhood home and seeing his brother for the first time in almost ten years.

*

A high-pitched whistle pierced the quiet, immediately wrenching Charlie's attention away from the equations scrawled across his chalkboards and spurring him towards the outer hallway.

"Charles, it's Monday at approximately eight thirty in the morning."

Charlie slowed his stride and turned back toward Lawrence, who was standing amid the rows of plants pushed back against the glass walls of the solarium. "What?"

"I was telling you the day and time, Charles, so that you could infer the reason for the perimeter alert. It's Monday, 8:27 in the morning. This is the customary time for the weekly delivery of baked goods and staples from town."

"Oh." Charlie continued to look perplexed. "I hadn't realized. Monday, really?" His gaze returned to his chalkboards, but he still hadn't moved, momentarily paralyzed by indecision.

"If you like, I can go now to survey the servant's entrance to confirm it's the delivery boy. And then collect the goods off the porch."

"No, no. Thanks, but I'm sure you are correct. I wasn't expecting it, I hadn't realized….I thought maybe it was the sheriff again. Please, finish the maintenance for the plants and then use the security scope to ensure that the boy has left before you retrieve and store the supplies."

"Of course."

Charlie watched as Lawrence returned to clipping the roses, his movements careful and measured. He remembered watching his mother's hands when he was a child, so gentle and loving as she tended to each plant. The roses were her favorites. Charlie wasn't much of a gardener himself, but he couldn't bring himself to move out her beloved plants. Instead, he had pushed the tables and pots closer to the windows for added coverage against prying eyes and consequently, making more room for his workbenches and chalkboards in the center of the room. But at times, he still missed walking with her amongst rows of sprawling vines and tall slender fruit trees, watering each pot and inhaling the cacophony of fragrances.

His father had built the solarium for her, so that she could bring nature inside with her. Charlie had been a sickly child from a very young age and needed considerable care. He had been near inconsolable once he was old enough to toddle after Don but never allowed to follow him very far once they were outside. His mother often told his father how much it hurt her heart to deny Charlie what she herself loved, the beautiful wilderness that had captivated them enough to build their home in this particular valley. So his father planned and constructed an additional room to the back of their home, a large hexagon made of glass and wood, where sunlight streamed in from the ceiling and on all sides. A panoramic view of the mountainside was visible from every angle.

As a child, Charlie sat everyday and watched his mother tend to seedlings or cuttings and cultivate them into a flourishing indoor garden. He was 6 years old when she added a fountain pond as a gift to his father. Charlie spent hours watching his father's koi swim, discerning patterns and naming them using the ratios representing their own unique path of dives and swirls. They'd died many years ago, but Charlie couldn't bear the look of the empty pond. The mechanical koi now at home in the pond were some of his earliest creations. On bright days, he noticed the flashes of copper and silver all the way from his boards. And on bad days, Lawrence brought him over to sit and 'contemplate the pond', and they'd watch the dance of color and motion in companionable silence.

Today was not a bad day though. Still, he planned to eat lunch next to the pond anyway and watch all of his beloved clockwork animals at home in his solarium. He liked the challenge of trying to glimpse them nesting among the leafy plants or weaving in and out between the pots. It brought Charlie great comfort knowing that they surround him even when out of view. He never had to worry about losing his animals the way he had about his mother's cats or his father's koi. Charlie decided long ago that he'd lost too much already to continue to watch the living leave him one way or another.

Lawrence's voice interrupted Charlie's reverie. "Charles, I have finished the grooming for the plants. Is there anything else you require before I go?"

"No. That's fine. I'm going back to work now. Maybe when you are done with the supplies, you could bring my lunch to the pond?"

"That sounds most satisfactory, Charles. Any preferences for lunch?"

"No, whatever is fine." Charlie called after him before he had left the room. "Remember to check the servant's entrance scope before you retrieve the supplies."

"As you wish." Lawrence replied, walking back to Charlie. "Are you concerned about trespassers again? We haven't had any further incidents for the past month."

Charlie paused, uncertain of the root of his concern. "Not worried, exactly. We can never be too careful. It's imperative that no one ever sees you, Lawrence, or even suspects you exist. Whenever there is the possibility of visitors, it is paramount you remain hidden. You understand why, don't you?"

"Of course." Lawrence nodded and patted Charles' hand awkwardly. "I will endeavor to use the utmost caution at every opportunity." Then he turned and headed in the direction of the kitchen.

Charlie returned to his chalkboards and had recovered some of his earlier momentum when the perimeter alarm whistled again.

Charlie hurried into the hallway and adjusted the lever on the far left. One of the periscopes dropped down, and he pressed his eyes to it, slowly turning it to the left and then right. This periscope was positioned at the roof's highest peak and revealed a bird's eye view of the property surrounding the manor. Not seeing anyone, he stepped back and operated two more levers, releasing their scopes from the ceiling. He scanned the servant's entrance first, noticing that Lawrence had already retrieved all the supplies. He was about to switch to the second scope when the front walk whistle sounded. Moving again, Charlie dropped another scope and scanned the front porch, where he saw the delivery boy mounting the porch steps with something bundled in his arms. He adjusted the telescoping lens, watching as the lines and features of his mechanical cat came into focus.

That blasted cat. Charlie was never completely certain how that cat kept managing to escape outdoors nor why it insisted on doing so. He stood uncertainly in the hallway, waiting for the doorbell to chime and jerking slightly once it did. Taking a deep breath, he strode to the front vestibule and closed double doors behind him. Charlie stepped up to the front door and rested his hand on the knob, hesitating once again.

"Excuse me, Sir?" Charlie heard a young man's muffled voice calling out from behind the door. "I think I have your… cat? Sir?"

Deciding caution was always best, Charlie dropped the front entrance scope down to examine the boy. Activating the voice amplification system next to the scope, Charlie spoke into the intercom. "Step back from the door 2 paces, please."

The young boy startled but recovered quickly, stepping back twice and watching with awe as a periscope slid down further from the ceiling of the porch.

"Criminy, that's just aces," the boy whispered excitedly as Charlie angled the periscope to inspect the boy for weapons.

"Turn around, please. Slowly."

The young man did as ordered, and when Charlie was satisfied that he had no weapons and was alone, he reset the scope to its default position. Charlie cracked the door open and finally addressed the delivery boy in a stern voice. "Why do you have my property? What did you do to it?"

"No, Mister. You've got it all wrong. It was caught and I was trying to help free it, but part of your fence is broken, and it got stuck trying to crawl underneath. And like I said, I was trying to free it, and…" He trailed off at Charlie's cold stare and looked down at the cat, quietly sitting in his arms. "I never realized what it was until I got close enough today. I mean I would see its green eyes staring at me from the underbrush whenever I was making my deliveries, but I thought… It's beautiful. Did you make it?"

Charlie's expression wavered slightly. The boy seemed so genuine, it was hard not to respond in kind, but past experience had taught Charlie that it was never advantageous to let down his guard. Charlie held out his hands through the doorway, waiting expectantly.

The boy seemed reluctant to hand the cat over. "I didn't intend to hurt, I mean, damage it. It was really stuck. I had to pull pretty hard, and its leg got…." The boy held the cat up to reveal the damaged left hip joint.

Charlie snatched the cat out of his grasp and pulled it to his chest. He stepped back into the vestibule, placing the mechanical cat on the side table and turning up the oil lamp. Bending down to inspect the cat closely, he noticed reddish brown streaks across its back haunches. He turned it over to examine it for a leak in one of its oil lines, but the cat began to flail, trying to right itself. Giving up, he placed the cat back on the table and wiped his sticky hands on his pants. He looked from his hands back to the young boy, eyes widening with alarm. "Wait, is this… Is this blood?"

"Yeah. Sorry about that. It's mine, not the cat's. It's doesn't actually bleed right?" he asked in an awed voice.

Charlie grabbed the boy by the wrist, hauling him through the doorway under the lamp light. "You hurt yourself?! Where?" He pulled off a dirty bandana wrapped haphazardly around the boy's palm. The cut underneath was deep, immediately oozing with blood as soon as the pressure of the bandage was removed. Charlie gasped at the sight, his stomach churning and skin prickling.

"It's no big deal, practically a scratch. I've done worse to myself horsing around. I snagged it on a nail sticking out of the fence rail."

"A nail? No, no. That's not good. You could get any number of infections. Stay here, stay right here. I'll be back." Charlie held up his hands in a gesture to wait, picked up his cat, and scurried back through the doors to the hallway. Rushing to the solarium, Charlie set the cat on his workbench and then dug through copious drawers and boxes. The cat crouched in preparation to jump down from the bench.

"Libera, stay. Settle." Charlie commanded in a clear voice. The cat sat awkwardly on its haunches, its hip joint jutting out oddly. Then it lay on its side and purred.

Withdrawing a small metal box from the back of drawer, Charlie flipped the latch and check the contents for fresh bandages and antiseptic soap. He snapped it shut again and turned on his heel to hurry back to the entryway only to jump back in surprise. "Ah! I thought I told you to stay put! No one is allowed in here."

The delivery boy was standing in the doorway to the solarium, his eyes wide in wonder as he looked around the room. "Boy! Is this where you work? I've never seen anything like it." He meandered along the workbenches lining the walls on either side of the doorway, touching the different tools and components. Then wandering to the middle of the room, he inspected the chalkboards and smiled when he spotted a mechanical spider hanging daintily from some ivy that had encroached along a board's edge.

"Is that a spider? You made it too, right? What else have you made? I noticed the cat follows your orders. Does the spider? Are they programmed for only your voice or do they recognize speech commands from anyone? What type of algorithm did you use? I've read about decoding algorithms, but it seems like you would need something a lot more complex for a task as complicated as speech recognition. But I suppose a baseline algorithm extended into a prefix tree organization would be enough for single short commands if you were using a one pass search strategy."

The boy's excited babbling trailed off into the clear verbal command as he held one hand, palm up, to the spider and used his re-wrapped hand to poke it gently. "Come." It's long spindly legs moved gracefully until it balanced itself in the center of his hand. "Imagine that," he whispered to himself.

Surprisingly, Charlie found himself inexplicably charmed. The young man's exuberance was painfully familiar, so similar to Charlie's own when he was a young student at university. This boy couldn't be much older than Charlie was when he graduated at 16 years of age. And obviously he had the same thirst for knowledge and penchant for forgetting himself. "Listen to me." Charlie waited until the young man looked up again. "First, we're going to clean out your hand and bandage it. And then I will answer a couple of your questions, but after that, you need to go. I am sure you have other deliveries that need to be made."

Charlie took the spider out of the boy's hand, and seated him in a chair next to his workbench. Moving a water pitcher and bowl closer, he held the boy's hand over the bowl and unwrapped his hand again. Cleaning it thoroughly with soap and water, he patted it dry and examined it closely. The bleeding had slowed considerably, and the cut did not appear to need suturing. Thank goodness for small favors. Lawrence was much better at doctoring than Charlie was, but no matter how innocent the boy appeared, Charlie would never risk Lawrence's safety by introducing him to a stranger. And now that he was calmer, Charlie felt irritated at himself for having allowed the boy to get this far. No, it was best for the boy to leave now before anything else happened. Charlie finished applying an ointment and bandaged the hand neatly. Then he gestured for the boy to stand. "Follow me, please."

"No, wait. You said you would answer some of my questions. Please," the boy pleaded, looking up hopefully.

"On second thought, I think it's best if you leave now. I am sorry, but I have a lot of work to do. You can discuss any questions you have about speech recognition programming with your Doctors once you return to university. But I would appreciate if you did not speak about my work or my property to anyone else, do you understand?" Charlie glared at him in hopes of being intimidating, but his glower didn't appear to have much effect.

The boy smiled brightly. "I won't, you don't have to worry about that. Not that the people in town would be all that interested anyway. I am not even sure they would believe me. I mean, steambuggies and airships are one thing, but something as intricate and lifelike as your designs… Well, I don't think anybody has seen anything like that. I think people would assume I had made it up if they even bothered to listen." His smile faltered and fell. "And I won't be going to university, so you don't have to worry about me talking to any Doctors."

"You're not in school? Where did you learn applied mathematics then?" Charlie felt his resolve softening despite his best efforts.

"You know, books mostly. Pasadena has a great library for the most part. And they're expanding it along with the construction for the new technical school. It's going to be a while before it's up and running, though. I'm not sure it's really for me, anyway. You know, sitting inside, thinking all day. That's not really my thing. I like reading about how things work. And math, well, it explains almost everything."

Charlie grinned at that, nodding along. "Most people don't see that. They don't see how math is all around us all the time in everything."

"Exactly! Yeah." He smiled enthusiastically again. "My grandparents don't get that. They want me to help keep the bakery running, earn extra money making deliveries for the general store. They work hard, but bakery doesn't bring in much - just enough to keep itself going mostly. And I wanna help them, I do, but there's so much more out there. I would love a chance to travel and see what's out there. Like airships and skyscrapers and submarines. Really learn about them. So I could design something of my own like that one day. Something that was important and useful and everyone would know I made it. But there's not many people 'round here who relate to that, you know?"

"Yes, I do actually." Charlie nodded again. Silence lingered on as they watched each other. "I guess a question or two won't hurt, but then you really must leave."

"Great!" He gestured back to the cat lying placidly on the workbench and examined it. "So does it follow just basic single word commands? Did you use a Hidden Markov Model for a linear acoustic sequence for that? Or something more complex? Like a Bayes Decision Rule set? That's for a sequence more complex than basic word or lexicon recognition, right?"

"All right." Charlie chuckled, shaking his head. "So I see you understand the basics for statistical decision theory. And you are right about the Hidden Markov Models. But first, maybe you could assist me in repairing its hip joint?"

"Really? I would love to, um, Dr. Eppestein, right? That's what is says on the purchase orders."

"Charlie. You can call me, Charlie." He offered his hand belatedly.

"Charlie, I'm Kit. Oswald Kittner, actually, but everyone calls me Kit." Kit smiled, accepting his hand.

"Nice to meet a fellow logician, Kit. And this is Libera." Charlie gestured to the mechanical cat who produced a soft humming purr at hearing its name.

"It's great to meet you both," Kit replied happily.

Charlie couldn't help but think the same as he began to talk about advanced math theory and gather the tools that were sprawled across all his benches.

*

A pang of nostalgia washed over Don as he crested the final hill near his childhood home. The manor was just as he remembered it, though a little worse for wear even from this distance. He was less than 10 minutes away from riding through the front gate, and he still had no idea how he felt about seeing Charlie again or what exactly he intended to say. Mostly, it was questions that ran through his mind in circles. The last time Don had visited, Charlie had barely said 10 words to him the entire month. He had holed himself up in that basement. Their mother, of course, had made excuses for him, reminding him how important Charlie's work was and how she understood why he needed to work despite her poor health. But Don didn't and the pure selfishness of the whole situation still galled him to this day.

The front gate was in Don's view when he saw a tall, thin figure emerge from the front door. Don spurred his horse to a trot in order to cross the young man's path as he walked past the front gate on his way to a small homemade steambuggy.

"Who are you? What was your business here?" Don demanded as he dismounted his horse. Don watched the boy's eyes widen as they lingered on the silver badge on his chest.

The boy answered quickly. "I'm was just delivering some supplies that Dr. Eppestein ordered. His standard weekly delivery."

The delivery boy cleared his throat nervously. "In fact, I really need to finish my route now, Mister - um, Marshal, Sir." He fidgeted under Don's scrutiny, scratching his neck with one finger, and glancing longingly at his buggy.

"You didn't tell me your name." Don followed his glance and noted the boxes of goods tucked in the modest flatbed welded to the back of the seats. From the look of it, the steambuggy was a hodge-podge of parts and components scavenged from other machines, creatively rigged together to form a small two-seater transport unlike anything Don had ever seen. The whole monstrosity reminded him of something Charlie would have made as a kid.

"Oh. Right. Kit. Oswald Kittner, Sir."

"I see. And you work for the general store, making deliveries?" Don waited for Kit's nod before continuing. "That's how you know Dr. Eppestein?"

"I don't really know him. I only met him today. Never been in the house before today, Sir." Kit scuffed his foot and held out a hand, palm-forward. "I cut my hand. He was nice enough to bandage it. So, can I go now?" Kit gestured at the supplies and looked back imploringly at Don.

"Yeah. You can go." Don held the reigns to the horse in anticipation of the loud clamor of the buggy's engine turning over, scaring a startled whinny from the horse. Glancing back, he noticed Kit had donned driving goggles and an aviator cap, his similarity to a young Charlie striking a deep, resonant chord of nostalgia. Kit pulled a series of levers, released the valves, and sped off, a cloud of steam trailing in his wake.

Don shook his head and smiled, recalling how huge the goggles had been on Charlie's young face, magnifying all the childish wonder and enthusiasm in his eyes. As he walked closer to the house, his good humor suddenly faded. Chunks of the house trim were missing or hanging loosely, the paint was cracked and faded, the pathway and porch edge were choked with encroaching weeds and undergrowth. Charlie obviously had no interest in maintaining the family manor in its usual splendor.

Don lashed the reigns to the front walk's post before making his way on the porch. Don stood for a moment, brows furrowed, in front of the door. He knew he should ring the doorbell, of course, but somehow the thought of ringing the bell of the place he still considered his home felt awkward and off-putting. Rolling his shoulders back, he took off his hat and rang the bell.

Just when Don was tired of waiting and reached to ring again, he heard sounds of rustling from behind the door. And then, an odd clicking noise. Looking around, he spotted an strange lensed pipe, similar to a telescope's end, adjusting its angle. What the devil? That had to be one of Charlie's creations.

Don scowled up at the pipe and then, realizing Charlie was watching, schooled his expression to a more neutral state.

"Charlie, I know you're there. Open the door already." Don took a steadying breath and worked to keep the annoyance out of his voice. "Come on, so we can say hello properly. It's been a long time."

Don watched as the scope angled and rotated, obviously surveying the entire front of the house from its viewpoint. Weird. And kind of paranoid. Terry had warned him though. "I'm alone, Charlie. Open the door, please."

Don was relieved to hear the clicks of the locks disengaging and smiled as the door creaked open slowly. "Hey, Charlie." Don's grin fell immediately as he finally got his first look at his little brother in years. Charlie was altogether too thin and pale, like he had recently been ill. Or like he hadn't seen the sun in weeks. Months, really.

"Hi, Don," Charlie greeted softly, the edges of his lips turning up briefly. "I didn't even know you were here, you know, in the area. I wasn't expecting you. It's…quite a surprise." Charlie stood there in a guarded posture with an expression of wariness. He had seen that kind of look on weary lawmen and jaded outlaws. It looked all wrong on Charlie.

"So, you going to let me in or what, Chuck? I rode out all this way to see you after all." Don mustered half a smile, trying to provoke the little brother he remembered out from behind the aloof man in front of him.

Charlie rolled his eyes and huffed in annoyance as he stepped back out of the doorway. "Yeah, come in. And don't call me Chuck."

A relieved smile crept across Don's face. There he is. It's good some things haven't changed. He can still get a rise out of Charlie in 3.7 seconds, just like a big brother should.

Don stepped past Charlie into the vestibule, noting how quickly Charlie closed and locked the door behind him. Leading the way, Charlie showed Don to the parlor off the main hall. The room was dim, only lit by the sunlight coming through the cracks in the heavy curtains.

"Sorry," Charlie mumbled, walking over to the windows to tie back the curtains. The bright sun illuminated the shabby state of the room, a thin film of dust coating most of the furniture. "I never come in here. I guess you can tell I don't… I haven't entertained any guests in a long while. If I had known you were coming…" Charlie's voice cut off with a cough as he reacted to the clouds of dust kicked up from the curtains.

"Yeah. I wasn't planning on coming here until this morning. I found out you still live here. I guess I didn't expect you to stay in California after… I always thought you ended up at a university somewhere." Don explained.

"Mmm. I see." Charlie futilely brushed off the burgundy Rosewood settee, more stirring the dust than clearing it. Giving up, he dusted off his hands. "I like it here. I have no plans to move."

Silence lingered on. Don watched as Charlie stopped fidgeting, dropped his shoulders with a resigned sigh, and met his gaze.

"Do you want to sit? I can get you something to drink if you like. I know it's a long ride from town."

"No, thanks. I'm fine." Don placed his hat on the side table next to the his father's favorite chair, a Quartersawn Oak reclining chair. The leather cushion was cracked and stiff with disuse, but its faint smoky smell transported Don instantly back in time. It was so surreal to be home. He kept expecting to see his father, flipping through his paper and reading the more interesting bits of the news to his mother. He looked up to find Charlie watching him closely. "So, how are you?"

"Well. Thank you. And yourself? I see you've continued your work with the U.S. Marshal service. Still in Outlaw Apprehension?"

"No. Not really. I moved on from posse work a long time ago. I'm a Deputy U.S. Marshal for the Southern California territory. Pasadena is in my jurisdiction."

"You live here now?"

"No, my office is based in Los Angeles. I work with the sheriff here when there's call for it. Terry- you remember Terry, right?- she works for Sheriff Walker. She was the one who suggested I ride out and see you."

"Ah. Yes, I see." Charlie grew antsy once again, rubbing the back of his neck and avoiding Don's gaze again. "Well, thank you for the social call. It was kind of you. But as you can see, I'm fine. Everything's fine. I don't want to take up any more of your time. Let me walk you out." Charlie started toward the open parlor door.

"Charlie." Don reached out for him, surprised when Charlie sidestepped his hand and continued out of the room. "Charlie, wait. I'm not an idiot. Anyone with eyes can see you're not fine."

Charlie popped back into view from the hallway, waiting outside the door. "That isn't really any of your concern, is it? I stopped needing you as my keeper years ago. So, if you would follow me." Charlie began to turn away again when Don interrupted.

"Charlie, stop. I'm not going anywhere yet. Look, we both know this wasn't exactly a social call." Don waited again until Charlie had returned to the room, still hovering a few feet from the doorway. Charlie's shoulders were pulled tight, and he kept running his hand through his hair. Don sighed and started again, this time with a kinder tone of voice. "I know Sheriff Walker has already been here twice and that you refused to cooperate with his investigation. You can't refuse a lawman who is performing his sworn duties. You need to let him… "

Charlie stepped back, shaking his head adamantly and pointing a finger at Don accusingly. "No, I don't. I may not be a U.S. Marshal, but I have more than a cursory knowledge of the law. He didn't have a warrant. I was under no obligation to cooperate under my fourth amendment rights." Charlie began to pace in a tight circle, rambling more to himself now than speaking to Don. "It's clearly stated in the Bill of Rights. 'The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation… "

"Charlie… Charlie, do not start with me." Don raised his own voice to be heard over Charlie's prattle. "You know, for such a genius, you have no common sense. This problem isn't going to go away just because you want it to. This man has a job to do. Do you even realize how serious this is? You're a suspect - no, you're the prime suspect in an investigation of a missing boy."

"I told him I don't even know the young man. I've never met him. And I don't know anything about the circumstances of his disappearance." Charlie's speech accelerated as his gestures grew erratic.

Don walked over and placed a hand on his shoulder, squeezing lightly. "I know that, Charlie. I know. But this is the third person from Pasadena to go missing in less than four months. And this boy was last seen headed here. Procedures need to be followed. And I know this may be a foreign concept to you, but you are not exempt… "

Charlie wrenched his shoulder free from Don's grasp. "You need to go. I-I-I am not discussing this anymore. It is my house. My house. And, and, I don't have to, you can't make me, I don't need anyone to… " Panting, Charlie pushed past Don, lurching toward the door and wobbling unsteadily on his feet. He clutched at the frame of the door, his hands slipping off as he went stumbling to the floor.

"Charlie!" Don gasped and leapt forward, catching Charlie around his torso and guiding him gently to the floor. His heart thudding in his ears as he examined his brother's ashen face.

 
 
 
devon99 on July 20th, 2010 09:41 pm (UTC)
OH MY!! This is fabulous, I damn near squeed out loud at Larry and the white food!! But what's up with Charlie - Damn - I'm itching to read more but will have to come back when I have time:) Fab start both of you:)
t_vo0810t_vo0810 on July 21st, 2010 01:12 am (UTC)
:D:D:D:D:D Heee! The Larry food bit was one of my favorites too! It's completely awesome you enjoyed it. YAY! I made you itchy! My diabolical plan to have you come back for more is working! :)

Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment. I will neither confirm nor deny doing a silly dance in my chair at your feedback. :) thanks again!! We loved hearing from you. We hope you enjoy the rest. :D
fractalmoon: black and white fractal imagefractalmoon on November 23rd, 2012 06:03 am (UTC)
This is incredible! It appears destined to remain a WIP, but what an original concept. I found the video for it from the Numb3rs Big Bang on LJ, and was so impressed I had to come and read. Robot Larry and the mechanical pets are fascinating, as well.