External Impressions

by Nix
(crimsonquills AT gmail DOT com)

Author's Notes: Thanks to moonbeansfanfic for beta reading (and surviving my freak out!). Thanks also to James Walkswithwind and Wolfling, as this is once again set in their "Horses of Different Colors" universe.

Don leaned back in his chair, grinned, and resettled the phone against his ear. "You've got to be kidding."

"I swear it," Mac said, the solemnity of his tone spoiled by a thread of amusement. "We must have trapped hundreds of rats from that place, looking for the bullet. The owner was not happy."

"I can't imagine why not. Free extermination service," Don chuckled. "So where'd you find it?"

"In the ceiling, still inside the rat." Mac's voice turned rueful. "We had to climb up on ladders with element detectors and look for the lead signature. The damn thing had choked and died when it couldn't swallow the bullet."

Don shook his head. "I swear, Mac, you work some of the weirdest cases I've ever heard of."

"Everyone has a few strange ones on the books," Mac protested.

"Not like yours. Although," Don paused, remembering, "we did track a UFO once."

"A UFO." Blatantly skeptical.

"Only in the literal sense," Don said. "It turned out to be an experimental stealth aircraft out for a test run. We had to track it back to its source to identify it, but the stealth technology was so good we were forced to rely on eyewitness reports, at least to begin with. An experimental plane flying literally between skyscrapers in the middle of the night? It was no wonder most of our sightings were from UFO watch organizations."

"The stealth aircraft story is, of course, only the cover for yet another government conspiracy against the truth," Mac said dryly.

"Of course," Don drawled. "I swear, The X-Files did the FBI no favors. We've got enough image problems already."

"I take it you're not a fan."

Don snorted. "Not even before I joined the FBI, and I don't really have time for TV anymore. I even have to tape my sports, but I still hear about it. 'I watch The X-Files, I know what's going on.' You'd think it was a documentary."

"I get 'I've seen NYPD Blue,'" Mac said sympathetically.

"Well, it just came out on DVD a couple years ago," Don said, grinning.

Mac snorted. "It's almost enough to make me watch the series, just to know what the hell they think is going on."

"Don't," Don advised. "Trust me, you'll only hurt yourself recoiling from the inaccuracies."

"You've seen it?"

"No," Don smiled. "But when was the last time you saw a crime drama that was actually well researched?"

"Such a thing exists?" Mac asked wryly.

Don's smile widened. "My point exactly. Law and Order is probably the best of a bad lot. I've caught a few episodes here and there."

"I think I'm safer with my books."

"Fiction or non-fiction?" Don picked up an elastic band and stretched it idly between his fingers.

"Mostly journals. Non-fiction," Mac clarified. "It takes a huge amount of reading to keep up with advances in forensic science, particularly if you aren't focusing on a specialty. But I sneak a little historical fiction in."

Don raised his eyebrows. "I'd've thought you'd go for the mysteries."

"The problem with mysteries is that they're either too easy to figure out, or so convoluted that they don't make any sense by the time you get to the end. The few times I tried, twice I figured out who the murderer was twenty pages into the book and the rest of the time I ended up making notes just to keep track of what was going on."

Don grinned at the mental image. "Yeah, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. I ever tell you about the time I brought Charlie in to interrogate a suspect using an equation?"

"No," Mac said, curiosity coloring his voice. "Was the suspect a mathematician?"

"That's the best part," Don said. "There were these three ordinary punks in a room together and Charlie with a white board and a marker and three columns of numbers. He's going on about risk assessment algorithms and you could just see these guys had no idea what he was talking about. But Charlie is dead serious about math and you could see them picking up on that even if they didn't know what the words coming out of his mouth meant.

"Finally he starts writing up these final numbers on the board and making these little noises over them, like, 'Oh...oh, look, you have a 7.9, but you have a 26.4.' Finally, one of the guys breaks down and asks what the hell all of it means. Charlie gives them this solemn look and informs them that the number quantifies how much they have to lose by going to prison."

"And they bought that?" Mac asked incredulously.

Don laughed. "That's the best part. It wasn't fudged at all. According to Charlie, he did exactly the same analysis that insurance companies do all the time. The guy who broke was the same guy who refused to say a word even when we told him in plain English that he had everything to gain by cooperating."

"Dress it up in a little math and suddenly he takes you seriously," Mac said. Don could almost see him shaking his head.

"Yeah. These guys are used to cops getting into their faces. The whiteboard and college professor routine really threw them off their stride." Don smiled to himself. "I complimented Charlie on his performance, but he just got offended. He really thought it was the math that made the difference."

Mac snorted. "It's a rare suspect who thinks that logically and dispassionately."

"And the ones who do are the most dangerous and the hardest to catch," Don agreed. "But it doesn't do any harm to let Charlie enjoy the moment. It was his success, even if it wasn't the math that did it, and I'll use anything that works."

"Hmmm. Our interrogations tend to be heavy on evidence and light on psychology. I suppose we play to our strengths."

Don blinked. "You conduct interrogations?"

"Sometimes," Mac said. "Although there's usually a detective observing."

"And the detectives don't mind?"

"Depends on the detective." Mac's tone was dry and a little rueful.

Suspicion woke in Don's mind. Time to play a hunch. "Which reminds me, did you ever get that personnel problem of yours taken care of?"

"You don't forget anything, do you?" Mac asked dryly.

"No more than you do," Don said cheerfully.

There was a pause and then a deep sigh. "Not exactly," Mac said. "I was hoping the problem wasn't actually a problem, but I asked Stella to keep an eye on it for a week or so, just to give me an outside perspective. Turns out it's something I'm going to have to deal with after all."

"Got a plan yet?" Don adjusted the phone on his ear and stretched his neck a little. "I might be a mere lead field agent now, but I was Special Agent in Charge in Albuquerque for a couple of years. I've got more than a little experience with handling personnel, if you want to bounce the problem off of someone."

There was a long, silent moment.

"Look, if it's confidentiality you're worried about--" Don began, but Mac cut in before he could finish.

"No, no, I'm not worried about that. I'm just trying to think of how to explain this."

"Start with who's involved," Don suggested.

"One of the detectives we work with. Actually, the detective we work with most often. Flack," Mac said. "And me."

"Which is why you asked Stella to give you an outside perspective."

"Yes. Although, in an odd way, that outside perspective is the problem. Detective Flack and I actually get along just fine. We work well together, the solve rate on our cases is high, and he doesn't take it out on the lab when new evidence changes the interpretation of old evidence. But he has an...inclination to follow my lead at times when you'd normally expect the detective to be controlling the case. It seems I've been taking advantage of that inclination more and more as time passes."

"And people are starting to notice," Don finished. Not the problem he'd expected, but then, he didn't know Flack. "But you're afraid if you back off now, it'll just make it more obvious how severe it got before."


"Have you talked to Detective Flack about it? It's his inclination."

"His inclination isn't going to change," Mac said, "and I don't want to make him self-conscious about it. If he starts second guessing our interaction, that would highlight the change as much as a sudden withdrawal on my part."

"You're going to have to talk to him about it no matter what you decide to do," Don pointed out. "Otherwise he'll start wondering what he's done to change how you act around him."

"Right," Mac said. He paused and let out a tired breath.

"You know there's only really one way this can go," Don said gently. "If he's following your lead--"

"--I need to stop giving him a lead to follow," Mac finished.

"But not all at once," Don advised. "Not if you don't want people to notice. I know you want this fixed ASAP, but a problem that takes a while to develop takes a while to solve, too."

"The law of conservation of trouble," Mac said wryly.

Don laughed. "So does that--" He broke off abruptly as Megan stepped into his field of view and raised her eyebrows. He held up a finger and straightened up in his chair. "Mac. Sorry, I'm gonna have to go." Don looked down at the Esteban file to mentally mark his place and felt a sudden rush of chagrin. "And we only got through one of Stefanos's client files." He'd gotten distracted, just talking, but it couldn't have been that long, he'd set aside more than an hour...

"In nearly two hours," Mac said, sounding equally surprised. "I'm sorry, Don, I didn't realize what time it was."

"Hey, it takes two," Don said ruefully. "We're almost finished with the files, anyway. Listen, I was trying to put this off, but I think I'd better have Charlie look at this damn thing. I'll give him the stuff I've got here and we can tie up the client files next time, which will leave us with the physical evidence to check. Same time, same place?"

"Except in case of case," Mac responded.

Don snorted. "That's terrible and you know it."

"Some puns just can't help themselves."

"Some people can't help themselves," Don shot back. "It's past six there. Go home."

"Just as soon as I sign off on this report," Mac said agreeably.

Which would take him at least an hour to read, Don knew. He shook his head. "Take care of yourself, Mac. We'll catch up next time."

"Yeah. Next time." There was a pause before the click of Mac hanging up came over the line.

Don set the receiver down on the cradle and stood, stretching his back and rubbing at his ear. He should have realized how long it had been just from how sore he was. He took a moment as he stretched to switch into a more professional mental gear and nodded at Megan. "Thanks for waiting."

"No problem," she said easily. "Was that New York?"

"Yeah. How'd you know?" Don had thought he'd been keeping the calls pretty much to himself. It was always a little embarrassing when fellow agents realized you were obsessing about a case that was years old. On the other hand, he had been calling from work. He had to; not only were the case files here, but the time difference between L.A. and New York meant that by the time he got home it was usually too late to call.

"If we haven't got a case and you're on the phone, it's usually to New York," Megan said, smiling slowly.

Don just shook his head. "It's not that bad. Once a week, sometimes twice. That's it."

"Hmm." Megan tilted her head and gave him a speculative look. "Maybe it's just the fact that you always seem to end those phone calls smiling that makes them more memorable. Something we should know about?"

Don laughed. "I'm working a cold case, Megan," he said. "The head of the NYPD crime lab is helping me with a lead, that's all."

"So these phone calls are strictly business, right?" Something in the way Megan arched her eyebrows said she knew they weren't. Or maybe it was only that she'd overheard Don's comment on their progress today--or lack of it.

"Okay, so maybe we get a little distracted sometimes," Don admitted. He lifted his chin to indicate the folder she was holding. "What've you got there?"

Megan held it out to him. "Final reports on that smuggling case we closed last week. They just need your signature. And we still have to get one of those summaries from Charlie. I don't care how basic he says it is, none of us can make the math sound reasonable and anecdotes about horses grazing in pastures just don't belong in official documents."

Don grinned. "I'm going over for dinner tonight," he said. "I'll remind him."

Reading his team's reports and signing off on them took Don well past five o'clock. Closing the folder, he rubbed at the sore muscles in the back of his neck and shook his head at himself. You're as bad as Mac, he told himself, but the thought just made him chuckle.

Don shrugged into his suit jacket and coat and headed for the elevators, dialing on his cell as he went. Pressing it to his ear, he watched the lights above the elevator blink on and off. "Hey Dad," Don said when he picked up. "I'm gonna be a little later than I thought. No, nothing's come up, I was just doing some paperwork and lost track of time."

It was just past sunset when Don arrived at his father's--his brother's--house. Turning the handle on the door and stepping inside, Don couldn't help but be glad Charlie had bought the place. Maybe it would have been good for him to get out on his own, but Don would have missed the warm sheen of the wood and the little pockets of shadow where the lights wouldn't reach and the kitchen that could fit the whole family if they wanted to crowd in there and harass whoever was cooking. Besides, he didn't think the three of them would spend nearly so much time together if they had to come from three different places.

"Dad?" Don called out. He took off his coat and suit jacket and hung them up, absently unbuttoning his sleeves and rolling them up as he wandered into the house.

"In the kitchen," his father called back. "With your brother, the poacher."

Don grinned and stepped into the kitchen to find his Dad stirring something in a pot and Charlie hovering with a fork. Somehow, Don didn't think he was helping to cook. Then the scent registered and Don's stomach tightened almost painfully. "Stew?" he asked, sidling over to lean over Charlie's shoulder and peer into the pot.

"Yes," Alan said sharply. "And you can wait to eat it just the same as your brother. Better yet, take the bread and butter and put them on the table."

Don traded a look with Charlie, but he grabbed the bread and Charlie got the butter and the two of them vacated the kitchen. "You actually get anything out of the pot?" Don asked, sliding into a chair after setting the bread down.

"No." Charlie's expression was mournful. "And I haven't eaten since breakfast."

The bread was obviously store-bought, but Alan must have had it in the oven briefly, because it was warm when Don sawed a slice off and handed it to his brother. "You know whose fault that is."

"Larry's," Charlie said promptly, buttering the slice.

Laughing, Don shook his head. "I'm not even going to ask. Hey, before I forget, I need you to do up one of those summaries for the smuggling case you helped out with last week."

Charlie nodded and swallowed a mouthful of bread quickly. "Sure. I think I've started it, actually. It have a due date? I have midterms coming up; I'm going to be busier than usual."

"Not technically," Don said, "but the rest of the case reports are done and signed off. The file will be closed as soon as we can add your part to it." Don paused, wondering if midterms meant it was a bad time to ask Charlie to look over the Esteban case and its potential connection to Evander Stefanos. But hell, when there weren't midterms there was research and papers and seminars and finals, and Don had already told Mac he'd ask. "If I send you a couple of case files, could you look at 'em, see if they're connected?" Don asked at last.

"Sure." Charlie cut himself a second slice of bread. "But if it's not urgent," he paused and Don shook his head, "then I can't promise how quick I'll be. Like I said--"

"Midterms," Don finished in concert with him. "Thanks."

"What kind of case is it, anyway?" Charlie asked.

"A cold one," Don said. Their dad called out from the kitchen just then, and the surge of relief Don felt as he stood and went to help bring the food in surprised him. You're going to have to tell him about the case if you want his help, he reminded himself.

But he didn't want to. He didn't want to tell Charlie about the murder he'd been trying to solve for ten years, and he didn't want Charlie to be able to help. It was his case to solve. His and Mac's, if the Stefanos connection panned out. Automatically, Don glanced at his watch. Almost seven o'clock. Ten in New York. Mac would be home by now, maybe even asleep, though Don doubted it.

He works too much, Don thought, smiling, and dug into dinner.