In and Out of Context

by Nix
(crimsonquills AT gmail DOT com)


Author's Notes: Thanks to Moonbeam for her awesome beta reading. Thanks also to James Walkswithwind and Wolfling, as this is once again set in their "Horses of Different Colors" universe.


For once, the office was quiet, filled only with the muted clatter of keyboards and relaxed, easy conversation. Sunlight streamed in through unshaded windows, creating patches of warmth throughout the maze of cubes and conference rooms. It had been two days since Don's team had closed their last case and a new one had yet to crop up. The lull gave them and all the agents who regularly supported them a chance to take a breath, catch up on their paperwork, and go home early enough to actually have a life for awhile.

None of which explained why Don was currently leaning back in his chair, ignoring the stack of paperwork awaiting his attention, and staring at the telephone.

There was no reason for him not to make the call. There wasn't even anything urgent in the stack of paperwork. Still, Don hesitated to pick up the phone. Weeks had gone by since he'd given in to the inevitable and asked Charlie to check for links between the Stefanos/Davies double homicide and the Carlos Esteban murder. Don felt compelled to give Mac an update, knowing how invested in the two cases he'd become over the past months, but there was no update to give. Charlie had yet to look at the files Don had provided.

It was his case and the delay was completely out of his control, but Don couldn't help feeling that he was failing Mac. He'd brought Mac into this, gotten him involved up to his eyebrows, and now it grated on Don that he couldn't seem to hold up his end of the deal.

Glancing at his watch, Don grimaced. He was already half an hour late and he had no excuse, except for the irrational hope that if he waited five more minutes, Charlie would appear with some magical solution in hand. Don caught himself actually glancing towards the elevator and snorted derisively. Just get it over with, he berated himself. Picking up the phone, he dialed briskly.

"Taylor, NYPD CSU."

"Hey, it's me," Don said, suppressing a sigh.

"Don! For a while there I thought you weren't going to make it. Busy day?"

The empathy in Mac's voice only made Don feel worse. "No, actually, it's been completely dead," Don said bluntly. There was an eloquent pause. Don sighed aloud this time. "At the FBI, anyway. Charlie must be buried, because he hasn't even looked at the files I gave him."

"It's been more than a month." Mac's frown was audible in his voice. "Surely he has something preliminary--"

"Nothing," Don interrupted. He rubbed a hand over his face. "Hell, when I asked him about it I had to remind him which case I was talking about. I doubt he's even opened the box."

"It may not be my place to say this," Mac said slowly, "but that doesn't strike me as particularly professional behavior."

Don snorted. After well over two years working with the FBI regularly, Charlie still tied Bureau etiquette and chain of command in knots. But even aside from that... "This isn't a particularly professional situation," Don said aloud. "This isn't an active case with full Bureau backing and someone out there in need of our help. It's just Charlie doing a favor for his big brother."

"That doesn't change the fact that he told you he'd look at it, and he hasn't," Mac pointed out. "A month should be long enough for anyone to at least take a quick look and let you know what kind of timeline to expect."

"Yeah, well, Charlie's strength is in equations. Everything else is a little hit or miss," Don said ruefully. "A couple of years ago he found out about my fiancée in Albuquerque. I wasn't too interested in talking about it and he was curious, so he dug up a box of stuff I'd left at the house and went through it." Don paused, remembering how angry he'd been--momentarily, anyway--when Charlie handed him the opened box. "He had questions, so he went looking for answers. It didn't even occur to him that he was invading my privacy."

"I don't know that I've ever worked with anyone that inwardly focused," Mac commented. "My people are all pretty in your face."

"Doesn't that attitude come with its own problems?" Don asked, curiosity piqued. "I mean, I know your people are a lot more active in the investigations than our techs ever would be, but that doesn't change the fact that their training focuses more on the lab and the science and not so much on the field necessities."

"Mostly we do all right, but there have been times..." Mac trailed off for a moment. Don could sense a story there, but he kept quiet, letting Mac come at it from his own angle. "Danny was caught up in a shoot out once. He was working a scene and a suspect burst out of the closet and took off, so Danny went after him. They ended up in a crowded subway station, bullets flying, and when the dust cleared there was Danny, a dead undercover cop, and no suspect."

"Shit."

Mac snorted. "Deep shit," he agreed dryly. "I told Danny to stay calm, not to talk to anyone--especially not IAB--and then I put my team on processing the scene."

Don winced. From what Mac had told him, Danny was a little...well, high strung might be the best way to put it. Suspended, told to keep his mouth shut and do nothing while other people poked around him and a cop lay dead, a man like that would go crazy in no time. "I'm guessing that didn't go over too well," Don said.

"I don't think you're guessing," Mac responded wearily. "You've never even met Danny, but you already get what didn't even occur to me. He couldn't sit around and do nothing. He wanted to defend himself. So he volunteered a statement...less than an hour before I proved it wasn't his bullet that took out the cop."

"But you did clear him," Don argued.

"And if I'd been a little faster, kept a little tighter rein on him, there wouldn't have been an IAB investigation on his record at all," Mac shot back. "It doesn't matter that he was exonerated. He made a statement. That's a black mark all on its own." There was a long pause. "It's just history now," Mac continued, the heat gone out of his voice, "but it still says something about my ability to handle my people."

"Mac, it takes two to tango. I'm not saying that you couldn't have been more sensitive to what was going on inside his head, but you were also counting on him to trust you to take care of it. Instead of giving you that confidence he panicked, and that's on him."

"And the question becomes, why didn't he trust me?"

"He--"

"Don, I'm not looking for absolution," Mac cut him off. "All I'm saying is, yeah, sometimes having a bunch of aggressive people as lab techs with guns causes problems."

Don struggled for a moment with the urge to push the issue. He wanted to absolve Mac of responsibility. Regardless of whether or not Mac had handled Danny poorly, Don wanted to take the weight of it off his shoulders. We've all got to have our mistakes, Don reminded himself, or we wouldn't learn. Even if he still thought that Mac was taking too much of this particular mistake on his own shoulders.

"But sometimes that in your face attitude--or inward focus--is what makes the difference in a case," Don said at last, letting the topic close.

"Exactly." Mac paused. "Which doesn't mean we aren't allowed to complain about it now and then."

That startled a laugh out of Don. "I don't know," he leaned back in his chair, smiling a little, "my team's practically formed a Charlie fan club."

"Fortunately, you have other options when it comes to audiences."

Don's smile broadened. "So I do," he said with satisfaction. Then he caught sight of the Esteban file on his desk and sighed. "Unfortunately, that doesn't get us any further along with this case." Sitting up, Don leaned over his desk and flipped the folder open to the evidence inventory Mac had faxed to him. There were two copies, one untouched, the other with thick black lines drawn through the items they'd already gone over together.

Looking at the list, Don couldn't help but notice how little there was left for them to touch on. They wouldn't finish it this time, of course, nor would it be next time, but Don guessed that maybe half a dozen phone calls remained between now and the apparently inevitable conclusion that the timing of the two deaths and Stefanos's connection to Esteban were just coincidences after all.

"Don?" Mac sounded a little concerned.

Don realized his pause had stretched on for some time. "Sorry, just lost in thought for a moment."

"Problem?"

"I'm beginning to wonder if these cases are connected after all," Don said reluctantly.

"What makes you say that?" Mac asked, audibly surprised.

"We've been through so much of the evidence and there's nothing." Don blew a sharp breath out through his lips. "I can't help thinking that we should have found something by now, there should be some hint of what the connection is."

Mac snorted. "If you knew how often the important, case breaking evidence was the last thing I looked at, you wouldn't be so discouraged."

Don rubbed a hand over his eyes. "I'm not discouraged," he said. "At least, not in any way that would inspire me to give up before we finish. I think I just started to assume that this would be the break in the Esteban case, that it was inevitable that the connection would turn up, when in reality all I have is a pair of dates that are just as likely to be coincidental as significant."

"You've got more than that, or I never would have dragged these boxes out of storage," Mac said dryly.

You had to have had something to get to the Stefanos/Davies evidence. Don't let that evidence confuse the issue, Don reminded himself. "Let's forget about the boxes," he said aloud, closing his eyes as if it would help him block them out. "February 24th, 1996, Carlos Esteban receives a letter. When he opens it he inhales anthrax, collapses, and dies. Later that day his girlfriend shows up when he misses a date and finds him dead. She calls the police, who call the FBI, and an investigation is opened."

"Don't leave out too much of the evidence," Mac advised. There was a brief rustling sound. "The letter--the murder weapon--had no return address, but it was postmarked in New York and addressed to Esteban's prior address in New York. It had to be forwarded to L.A."

"Right. So, three days later--" Don suddenly cut himself off and swore.

"Don?"

"If the letter had to be forwarded, then Carlos Esteban died several days after he was supposed to," Don said tightly. "There goes the coincidence of dates."

"Only if you assume the killer didn't know Esteban had moved," Mac pointed out.

Don let out a breath. "Right. The move was only a month old. Esteban's new address wouldn't have been listed yet." He frowned. "Although it shouldn't have been too hard to get a hold of."

"Esteban worked for the INS," Mac said. "He might have been more careful with his address than most."

"Right. And I'm getting bogged down in the details again. So, Esteban dies. Three days later someone breaks into the apartment of a man whose immigration Esteban has just finished approving--Evander Stefanos--and kills him and his partner with a baseball bat." Don stopped and shook his head. "An anthrax letter to a baseball bat? Doesn't seem like your typical sort of escalation."

"Stefanos was within reach. Esteban wasn't," Mac suggested.

"So we've got four connections to New York," Don summarized. "The letter, postmarked from there. Esteban's former address. Stefanos's current address. And Esteban's involvement with Stefanos's immigration to New York."

"Four connections is more than coincidence."

Don smiled wryly. "I hope so," he said, "or I've wasted a lot of your time."

"No time spent investigating an unsolved case is wasted," Mac countered.

"Workaholic," Don teased.

"Says the man who's still investigating a nine year old murder."

"I didn't say it was a bad thing."

Mac laughed, a deep, rich sound. "No, you didn't," he allowed. "Which is a good, given that we still have a case to solve."

Don nodded. "We were working through the fingerprints, right?"

"Right," Mac confirmed. A pause. "All two hundred and twelve of them."

Groaning softly, Don rested his head in one hand. "Tell me again why there are so many?"

"It was a home invasion, Don," Mac said ruefully. "The perp--or perps, since there were two sets of prints unaccounted for--touched a lot of things in the apartment, and everything they touched had also been handled by the residents, their friends, and their cleaning service."

Don woke up his computer and pulled up the e-mail that Mac had sent him the last time they talked. It detailed the identities that had been assigned to the hundreds of prints. "It doesn't seem fair to have that many prints and still be unable to identify the perp," Don said, eyes going to the long series of catalog numbers that were simply labeled 'no match'.

"Fingerprints don't say much without someone to match them to," Mac said unapologetically.

"Yeah, I know." Don sighed. "I've got to tell you, I've developed a whole new respect for our forensic staff over the past couple of months."

"My work here is done," Mac said dryly.

Don chuckled. "Not quite. We've still got a hundred and fifty eight fingerprints," he paused and checked his copy of the inventory, "three footprints, fifteen fibers, a stack of blood evidence--"

"And a partridge in a pear tree," Mac interrupted, laughing a little. "I do have my own copy of the inventory."

"I just didn't want you getting ahead of yourself."

"Even if I did, I'd have to stop and wait for Charlie to get to that analysis."

"In which case, it's just as well he's taking his time," Don said, smiling to himself.

They picked up where they'd left off with the fingerprints, confirming the identification assigned to each one, reviewing the dossier that went with each identification, and updating each dossier with additional information gleaned from Don's contacts. They started with the large, clear prints and worked their way down to the smudges and partials.

Despite the confidence he'd developed in Mac's skill over the past months, Don found himself fighting a growing sense of uncertainty as they started in on the partial prints. Maybe it was a one in a million mistake, but having seen it happen... "Mac," Don said abruptly, interrupting Mac's narrative.

The criminalist paused. "Yeah?"

Don rubbed his fingers over his eyes as he spoke. "How sure of these partial print IDs are you?"

"As sure as I am of the complete print IDs," Mac said. "I re-ran the analysis with modern software and all the same results came back. Why?"

"Does your software take orientation into account?" Don asked, ignoring Mac's question for the moment.

Mac paused. "It identifies characteristic patterns, assigns a vector point to each one, and performs a statistical analysis of matching vector points. Sensitivity to orientation ought to be inherent in the process. Don, do you have reason to believe these print identifications are faulty?"

Don sighed deeply. "Not these ones, specifically," he said. "But...I once put an innocent man in prison because part of his thumb print matched part of the killer's right index finger print when it was rotated a little. I know it's a situation that's unlikely to crop up again, but it's made me a little more skeptical of the entire system than I used to be."

"Would it set your mind at ease if I double checked the partials manually?"

Don opened his mouth, fully prepared to argue his point, only to register what Mac had actually said. "Please," Don said instead, rubbing the tension out of his shoulders. "And thank you."

There was a pause and a faint rattling. Don pictured Mac retrieving a magnifying glass from his desk drawer and smiled. Figured he wouldn't even need to go to the lab for it. "Don't worry about it," Mac said, his voice a little more distant than it had been before. He probably had the phone pinched between his ear and his shoulder. "I've been there myself."

"Been where? Looking through glass at a man who shouldn't be there?" Don asked. He grimaced as the harshness of his own voice, but he couldn't quite bring himself to take it back.

"Yeah," Mac said unexpectedly. "The investigating officers aren't the only ones who carry the responsibility for the resolution of their cases. The assigned criminalist, the techs...we know when we process evidence and hand it over what it's going to be used for. We know what it means, what interpretation is going to be put on it. We testify in court just like the detectives do. And when we make a mistake, we're just as much at fault as the detectives are. Sometimes more so." Mac paused and Don waited, uncertain if he was debating whether or not to go on or just distracted by the fingerprint comparison.

"Quinn Sullivan actually called me from prison," Mac continued eventually. "I'd testified at his trial. He wanted another chance. He didn't call the detective on his case, he called me, because I was the one who told the court that there was a mixture of his DNA and the victim's on the murder weapon. I hadn't bothered to test a sample of the substrate as a control on the results because he told us it wasn't his hammer. His DNA shouldn't have been on it at all. But it was his hammer. I'd've detected his DNA regardless of whether or not he was the killer. That detail changed the whole complexion of the case."

"And he was innocent after all," Don said quietly.

"Yeah. He was. It may not have been my case as far as the lead detective was concerned, but it was my mistake."

"I think I ought to go have a chat with our fingerprint tech," Don said, a little ruefully. It hadn't even occurred to him that she might have felt as guilty over the mistake and its results as he did. "Although after all this time I might just be dredging up unwanted memories."

"She's probably already worked through it," Mac said. "Criminalists and techs don't generally expect much interaction with investigators."

All the more reason to pay more attention, Don resolved silently. If not on that case, then at least on the next one. "So how're the prints at hand looking?" He asked aloud.

"The matches all look valid so far," Mac reported. "Fortunately, all two hundred and twelve prints were made by only eight different people, so I can group repeat prints together and speed things up that way. I still have to check them all, but at least I know what I'm looking for in each stack."

They managed to finish the fingerprint analysis, but despite the extra care, nothing came of it. Maybe it would have been different if forensics had been able to recover prints from the anthrax letter that had killed Carlos Esteban nine years before, but they hadn't. After passing through so much of the postal system, the envelope itself was a lost cause and there hadn't been any usable prints on the letter within. Just smudges.

Don said goodbye and hung up the phone. He drew a line through the last of the fingerprints listed on the inventory with less regret than he'd expected, given his frustration at the absence of any break in the Esteban case.

Just half a dozen phone calls left and they'd be through all the evidence in the Stefanos/Davies case. Maybe less.

Don started to reach out to flip the file closed, only to pause when his phone rang. As he answered, he more than half expected it to be Mac, calling back with a sudden insight or question. "Eppes."

His dad's voice came over the line. "Don. It's me."

"Oh." Don winced at his greeting and amended it. "Hey, Dad. What's up?"

"I need to know if you're planning on appearing for dinner tonight. I'm at the supermarket."

"That depends," Don said, flipping the Esteban file closed and leaning back in his chair. "Are you contemplating steaks?"

"You know, it is possible for you to indulge your passion for rib-eye without relying on me," Alan said dryly.

Don grinned. "Except I can't exactly accommodate a grill in my apartment."

"You don't need a grill. Just a broiler pan," Alan shot back. "I swear, you think you'd have learned to cook properly by now."

"I can never seem to find the time to cook," Don said, shrugging.

"This is why you need someone to take care of you."

Don sighed. Here we go again. "I can take care of myself, Dad."

"I'm not saying you can't," Alan said, a little defensively. "I'm just saying that you'd do better if you had someone around to keep track of the things you tend to forget. Like eating."

"I am dating again, Dad."

"It's a step in the right direction," Alan allowed. "But...you know I worry. I'd rest easier if you had someone watching out for you."

"It's my job to watch out for people," Don said impatiently.

"And wouldn't that make it that much nicer to be able to relax and let someone else take care of things when you get home?"

Don rubbed a hand over his eyes. "Dad. That's not what I meant. Let me put it this way: it's in my nature to take care of others."

"Oh. Of course." Alan sighed audibly. Don had to shake his head. It wasn't so much that Alan forgot that Don's wasn't human. It was more like he forgot that the rules he was used to applying to other centaurs applied to Don, too. "Don't you ever wish you could take a break from it?"

Don blinked. "No," he said simply. Not that he didn't occasionally wish for a herd that was a little more...cooperative in allowing themselves to be taken care of, but he couldn't imagine giving up responsibility for his strange conglomeration of humans to anyone. Far from seeking out a "break," Don knew he'd fight anyone who tried to take any of his people away from him.

"So what, when you're dating, you're looking for one more person to take care of?" Alan asked.

"Not exactly," Don replied. "More like...back up."

"Back up," Alan muttered. "You work too much."

Don broke out laughing.

"What'd I say?"

"Nothing," Don said, still chuckling. "It's not important. You can count me in for dinner."

"Good. You can count on rib-eye," Alan said.

"Thanks, Dad," Don said warmly.

"Yeah, well, I do my best."

"I'll be home by seven," Don promised.

Alan snorted. "I'm going to hold you to that."

"Promise!" Don said, raising his hands, though Alan couldn't see them.

"Bye, Don."

"Bye, Dad."

Don hung up the phone and realized just as it landed in the cradle that he hadn't thought to ask if Charlie would be around, too. He still needed that case analysis. Well, Charlie will almost certainly be at dinner. I can talk to him then. Don picked up the folder, dropped it into a drawer, and pulled the stack of paperwork towards himself. He ought to be able to get through a good chunk of the backlog before dinner.

--End--