2010-12-24: Tracking



Guest Starring:

Karen, John, Tobias and Petunia (and A BEAR)

Date: December 24th, 2010


It's Christmas Eve Day. Laurie's hallucinations put him right in the woods with the killers; Maggie tackles a dilemma about getting information that could be key. A search party is organized.


Forrester Ranch

Echo, Wyoming

Trees, a heavy population: to anyone else, their cracked looming forms could be as judgmental as strangers, but here he is home. More than that; he is king. And as the king, he retains certain rights to the land. In his mind, it's easy to recall the powerful rush of adrenaline that comes with a chase, with driving another living thing forward — sideways — wherever, it doesn't matter. It's all his. The thought is reinvigorating, energizing — a drug. But one that he demands and supplies. Only it's never quite the same, remembering, as it is living, is it. Essence of control as he squeezes experienced fingers around the forever memorized, beloved curves of his weapon of choice. Always obedient, the shotgun melted into his grip like an extension. The click of a similar hammer nearby is his buddy — quiet, and head bowed, he checks his ammunition like an amateur every time.

"What have I told you," pops his head up like the eager creature he is, "always be conscious of what you've fired. The last time you wanna do is have the perfect moment and pull the trigger to an empty round." Reprimand burns in him, wriggling down his spine the way it wrinkles his nose sullenly.

"So why shouldn't I check it…"

"Because that takes your eyes off the prize, stupid!" The smack upside the head is not out of anger, or affection — purely instructional. The lesson'll stick. In the end, if he didn't trust the smaller man, he'd never bring him into the woods — his domain — not like this. But that doesn't mean the insubordinate muttering has to be tolerated. "What did you say?"

Beady, puppy eyes blink out of him; they're the kind of eyes that catch every bitch off-guard. "I didn't say anything," he informs.

The low, murmur hasn't stopped; it sure ain't coming from the thin lips of his secondary. Realization turns him about, boots catching up dirt as he glances over to the left of the positioned four-wheeler. Writhing on the ground, arms and legs twisted past natural contour in a professional hog-tie that fills one with pride, her matted hair about a once pretty, drained face, the woman emits fruitless protests against the tightness of her restraints, and that of the gag plastered over her mouth. Alice Forrester. Plodding in the earth, he circles in on her, listening to that pathetic moaning as her once listless eyes register him approaching and she makes some valiantly worthless attempts to hide her fear with hatred, maybe even bravery. Maybe she's even feeling brave. Hopeful. This one's been raised by a cop; maybe she even thinks big ol' daddy's gonna come for her, or she's gonna be the lucky one. It almost makes him want to laugh. Don't they know? He knows; when they're run down, fled, cornered, and their heart's breaking out of their chest to save their guts — primal fear is the last thing they'll have left.

And then they die.

"… Shut up," he demands of her whimpering. A knee jerks back—

Heavy, animalistic steady breathing, and the dedicated sound of a tongue's work. Slobber is beginning to build up. Delicately, the heavily licked hand is extracted from Petunia's administrations, sliding up to give her head a thankful ruffle. After a couple of pants, the yellow head drops, nuzzling wet nose against socks to once again drift off — duty done.

Gentle rustling of note paper, and a thumb runs up and down the length of the pad, tempting page-turning and papercuts. It's been rescued off a lap after the hand that dropped it left Petunia's loving care. Another hand, knuckles to temple, keeps propped a head biased to one side. The figure in the night by the chair has changed to in the chair — and isn't the same figure at all. Fresh off the first train of a railroad track full of side-effects, Laurie makes a picture of current peace, rested in the living room seat. Several other things have changed: long ago, the crackle of the fire has died, leaving spent wood, and the ashes to be raked. Its light is no longer required; streaming in from outside is the suggestion of approaching dawn, filtering not very well along the edges of ominously hanging clouds. Drifts of more innocent snow wanders down. Morning is lighter and brighter than night — but not all the more cheerful.

Not, except for the dazzling spectacle of a fired up Christmas tree. Festive decorations from an earlier time that feels more distant than it is, the lights make an array of extra spotlights and shadows in the still sleeping household. Asleep — but for below; though his head is propped, Laurie finds wakefulness every so often to reach over and stroke the head of the yellow lab lying at — and on — his feet. The gleeful rhythmic thumping of Petunia's tail hitting the floor keeps time like a grandfather clock.

There are no treats in pockets this time — or perhaps the lab has already gotten her fill before the light; the consultant's ribbed white sweater with the sleeves rolled up is also void of overlying jacket to hide such treasures. Nicer black slacks than the jeans torn by the same muzzle nuzzling against his toes now. Toes that are the single most eye-catching spot in the room, with socks contending only with the tree for holiday cheer and color. Ironic, then, that they're on a pale and tired body, skin sapped from the toil of the drug leaving that also presumably rose him from bed. Yet blue eyes are intense, sapping up the words upon the little page in front of him as if branding them right onto pupils… A knee jerks back — Laurie's head rebounds as if kicked. A second time, the notepad drops, and now those fingers push up to the comfort his sweater, kneading into his chest above his heart. He works the palm down against his body. Everything below it is knots, and a dull, persistent, ache to add to a sharp, persistent, scratching at his ribs, a throbbing, persistent, itch along his leg, and a gnawing, persistent weight of responsibility between his eyes; it's worn off, alright.

The house gradually comes to life around Laurie; everyone has their responsibilities. John is first, at the very beginning of the day. His passing nod to the man in his living room summarizes everything he wants to express without saying a single word: I see you're still alive. Good to see. No need to move; he's going out.

He comes and goes without turning on a light, pulling his coat and boots on at the door and leaving for the morning's chores. Things may have taken a turn for the worse for his family, but on the ranch, life goes on. Everything would fall apart otherwise.

Karen emerges almost immediately, after but not with her husband. It's questionable whether the woman got any sleep. She looks bedraggled, run-over. Minus her apron, even the illusion of warmth has drained out of her, but she has a smile and a good morning and "how are you" for Laurie (and Petunia). It fades when she sees the Christmas tree; she looks away and can't look at it again. The kitchen draws her in like a magnet and she fills the house with other artificial electric light. It's needed, as the windows let in no sunshine. The door swings on her query: "Tea or coffee?" It's one or the other, no argument. He'll be served. There's no doubt to be had that Karen will have breakfast started in five minutes, too. In this way, she copes.

* * *

And as for Maggie, the detective seems to be a sleeping beauty compared to the rest of them. She's very last to appear into the early morning, later than absolutely everyone else. However, there is no slow wandering down the stairs, no trace of sleep's lingering grasp, no sign of how exhausted she was the night before as she kept watch over Laurie until he stirred, no pause between getting up and working, no step taken toward any sort of normal morning routine; or is this her routine? There's no telling how long she's been awake already. She emerges from the top of the stairs fully formed like Athena, ready for battle.

Hair pulled back. A black button-up blouse, trim, sturdy jeans and wide brown leather belt with a heavy buckle display no trace of the holidays. A cordless house phone is at her ear. The suspects' newest rap sheets from the station yesterday are in her hand along with another notepad. She's gesturing with a pen as she walks down the stairs, as if whoever she's talking to on the phone can see her. " — ve an extra copy faxed here — perfect. When is your team going to search Evergreen and the woods — okay — no, I don't think we need to be there — hey, is it possible for you to send Officer Tobias along with them? Yes!" All this before she's made it to the kitchen to see if there's coffee, but that is her route, approached with tunnel vision. Its swinging door soon gives under her shoulder. "One last thing, can you run a check for me— "

The door creaks and swings into place, leaving a peacefully unmoved scene in the living room. The miniature tornadoes of each person's morning routine have come and gone, rustling leaves but not displacing them. Laurie's head hasn't moved much since giving Karen a nod of thanks; in front of his elbow on the armchair is a swiftly cooling full cup of tea. The small white stirrer sticking out from its clear waters shows signs of recent activity. Half a minute or so passes. Laurie leans in, hand dipping to pat his hand reassuringly on Petunia's head as he eases his feet out from under her influence. From seated to standing, there's a rush. Swaying when he's up as the floor rocks turbulently. Hand to his temple, pressure; it passes. Shaking his head out, the white-sweatered consultant strolls in the various wakes of others', through the entryway and then, hands on either door, into the entrance of the kitchen.

And nearly straight into Maggie, who has spun around into backtracking after her tunnel vision has a vital error — it's susceptible to Laurie. It's as if she realizes his presence a few seconds too late, and turning to go find him in the living room finds him right there instead. A collision is prevented, on Maggie's part, when she grabs the edge of the door — rather, hits it with a phone recently disconnected — and steps back. "You're up!" On this, the most obvious announcement of the morning so far, she seems momentarily overwhelmed, both a look of concern and a smile frozen on her face— then it passes, and she whisks again into the kitchen where Karen is at the stove. "Good morning, Karen," she tells the woman quietly.

To Laurie, over her shoulder, "How are you feeling?" Maggie asks, giving no pause before going on, "I've been trying to get updates from the station — they're sending a team out into the woods behind the wildlife centre. It's a lot of ground to cover…"

"Oh, good, you think so, too." Laurie strolls further into the kitchen once it is deemed safe to do so. Finding a counter edge to brace his hand and lean on, he lightly crosses left ankle or right. Chin raises on Maggie's address, but since she plows on, so does he; "Yeah," said knowingly of the teams, "I would've liked to get out to the previous sites, but if they can't spare the men, a little wildlife trek should be refreshing." He looks all for lifting a coffee mug and toasting a good morning to them with it — but for the obvious lack of mug. Petunia may or may not be lapping up heavily stirred tea at this very moment.

As Maggie sets the phone down on a rare sliver of free counter space and prepares to reply, Karen has paused her work at the stove — eggs — to hand over a mug of the same tea Laurie was served just earlier. "I remembered you didn't drink coffee," she says helpfully.

Maggie gives her a gracious smile overtop a rather guilty one; she doesn't bother to correct the well-meaning woman over the coffee habit she's developed over the intervening time since her last visit. "Thank you," she says, and turns to face Laurie, cup in hand. "Refreshing— and helpful, but it could take half the day," she points out factually, though it's tinged with regret. The trouble with living in the vast, sometimes hard to traverse outdoors. A glance shifts to Karen; she steps closer to Laurie to let her voice fall a little more privately. A nod back out the kitchen doors suggests a move. "Did you want to go up to Crescent Ridge where Alice was taken? It's not far. If the team finds something behind the center, they'll let us know; it seems…" Thought darkly furrows her eyebrows. "Like an awfully direct route to leave evidence of." Even with a clear focus on the case, she spares some concentration for Laurie, her gaze never quite casual on him, always with that bit of observant concern.

Canvassing whole city blocks is sometimes to similar effect, when every door has to be knocked on. On the nod, Laurie slips around, walking out as smoothly as he came in, now only using one hand to open one side of the doors. "Yes, yes, it could," is said with factual bemusement right back. Stepping out, his hand rises to his chest, smoothing out the sweater along his front. "Crescent Ridge would be nice— a kill site would be better— but I suppose our friend Smokey made that difficult in one part." But a portion of Maggie's commentary knocks a reminder onto his face; it alights with the resulting epiphany. Fishing for a pocket, he brings up the cell-phone from out of it, dipping the screen here and there to check for possible reception. Not entirely confident on the findings, some measure of his attention remains spent on slow, single finger, punching of keys, where he keeps the phone relaxed near his side opposite Maggie. "Ahh…" a glance at the screen is shared with Maggie, briefly, "Where are you headed then— with— our buddy Tobias? Maybe talk to people, the mother, or the haunts you mentioned; a word of caution."

Sparing a briefly curious glance for Laurie's cell phone, Maggie walks without purpose into the living room — her purpose only being to leave the kitchen, she now finds herself wandering around furniture without rhyme or reason. Pausing, she turns. "I know some bars Langston used to frequent, but they won't be open for hours. Curtis's mother… caution… is the word," she says slowly, her features hardening in memory, knowledge; she warms them with a sip of tea.

"The Curtis family keeps to themselves," she explains. "They all live outside of Cheyenne and they're known to be kind of recluses. In my experience, the Curtises don't cooperate with anyone but the Curtises. They're loyal." Her own statement prompts a thoughtful pause, for a few seconds slightly distracted; she moves on. "They're protective. I know Joan Curtis made up that alibi back then. It goes to reason that she's still protecting her son, and she's a shoot all trespassers, don't ask any questions later kind of woman, unless you're the police; then she'll just find another way to shoot you down."

A wincing, but not at all surprised, ooh shapes Laurie's mouth as this beautiful picture of Joan Curtis is painted. Most of the grimacing is actually when regarding her describer. "Us versus them allows you to deny the rest of society," postulates Laurie, finishing his secondary task and sliding it where it came from in order to watch Maggie fully. "And not see them as people." Walking a few more steps forward, he slows and then stops before the onset of any furniture; the detective is left to navigate that labyrinth. He loiters on the outside, hands in both pockets, heels bouncing slightly — looking in on her, and her thought process. The wince makes a comeback — weaker — and paired with the tug of his mouth askew, adding droll wit. "You've got your work cut out for you. That could take half the day."

Maggie's mouth pulls to the side as well and, with a blink, her eyebrows arch ever-so-slightly. Touche. Her movement picks up again, a restlessness to her strides even though they're slow. She moves past Petunia, who looks up at half attention, to the Christmas tree. There she pauses, a few fingertips touching the shiny decorations that stand in such contrast to her current thoughts — of which there are many; troubling every crease more and more. "If you have any ideas, I'm all ears," she notes, not at all sarcastically. "The last… thing I'd want is for her to warn Bradley, and have him…" Though she trails off, none of the appropriate fill-in-the-blanks are happy; none of the options would be kind to Alice. Maggie's hand falls from the tree's fanciful, old-fashioned red ribbons.

Laurie is not particularly triumphant for his turnaround; he mellows out coolly, rocking only once in a while, the toes of his festive socks rolling up and down. "… act accordingly?" He fills in, having glanced down and now eyeing her around a lowered face. His gaze returns to the floor for several more seconds, then he raises his chin, choosing again that critique of Maggie's path, in and out. "Well," he sets out, measured, "Think of what you just said about her." Think back is the implication, recognizing Maggie's dedication the first round. His lower lip slips forward, one eyebrow pulling ahead of the other. So. A hand slips from the pocket to gesture openly, then slap against his leg. "Make it about the Curtises."

After their venture toward the ribbons, Maggie's fingers curl about the pad and papers in her hand, holding them against her. It takes her a while to turn around, her head cast down into sober thought. Just when it seems like her thought process may remain fully in her head, she spins away from the Christmas tree, as slow as the measured words that follow. "They're loyal. Joan… wants to protect her son," she says, regarding Laurie, her unwavering stare made intense by thought. The words she says outloud aren't revelations to her, but they're viewed in a newer light. "Regardless of what he's done, she loves him; she'll want to keep him safe. Finding him… it actually is the best way to do protect him."

Her eyes fix on Laurie unwaveringly for a few moments longer, then she walks to the chair Petunia lays comfortably by, setting down all but her mug of tea on the arm. The black-and-white face of Bradley Curtis stares up at Maggie unrepentantly. She brings her mug up to her face as if to take a sip, but the full mug only lingers there; she bites the side of her thumb instead, as if suddenly bothered by a further thought.

Patiently, he awaits, and also with confidence; it's a matter of time that he passes with the same back and forth and, once while Maggie's head is down, with giving his chest another grim rub. A light, idle massage that drops before she looks over. His attentive regard back is not quite like the teacher he's playing, interested also to hear the words — rather than listening for just the right ones. His straight mouth and pointed eyes pass no judgment on either her deliberations, or the Joan Curtis being spoken of.

On round two of the patience, he resumes the subtle stretches, rolling up along the balls of his feet, and bouncing his knees slightly as he comes down. With a similar timeframe, and no words now, he cocks his head at her concentrated position. "You're halfway there," is the light encouragement, alluding to— "It goes in your mouth." Something else.

Maggie does a distracted double-take, her thumb paused between her teeth; she looks down. "Mmn, but— " She takes a drink of her tea before it's set down beside Laurie's matching, abandoned mug, and she turns to lean nearby it against the chair. Free, now, to gesture, a quick, sharp spread of her hands doesn't quite match her slower — but insistent, thoughtful — words that follow. "She's notoriously hard to … approach, let alone … talk to. Besides which, if she remembers me," a considering arch of her brows, " — which is questionable, but if she does — talking to her…"

Laurie's turn to muse, a melancholy edge to his considering head tilt, fussing quietly over details, and muttering, "Plus, it's you…" as the introduction to some puzzle. It's all dismissed through a hearty shake of the head; after which he blinks in fast repetition, though his face registers no daze. "Time to get creative, detective," he enthuses; not pities, not instructs.

Nothing escapes her considering gaze; that which is dismissed by Laurie is held onto by Maggie, honed in on, though despite the little challenge in the way she shifts against the chair and folds her arms, it's not wholly critical — a smile purses her lips for an instant. "Because I'm a cop— ?" Maggie prompts, just barely poised as a question. "What do you mean because it's me… I mean it is, police coming around asking questions isn't usually people's fondest memory," she concedes, "but— creative, huh. Well." That troubled look appears again; but at the same moment, so does the hint of a smile. "I'm still all ears."

His hand juts up into the air, then brushes aside; wax off; "If I'd meant because you were a cop, that's what I would've said." Laurie's wrists twists, offering the palm up, a platter to balance his logic. Fingers separate and wiggle carelessly in the air soon after, flicking it all away again. "Huh, well." Is repeated, teasing, after her articulation. As his arms raise, they don't travel as far as hers; he gets his hands around his hips, relaxing any of the attitude out of the pose. Running his teeth along his lip, he surrenders to thinking. Eyebrows all sentinel over blue eyes that particularly scan Maggie — her face. Again, the head tips; nope. His left hand parts from his side to circle the height around her face. "All your facial features tend large, I wouldn't say your ears especially so."

As she inclines her head down, the look Maggie gives Laurie shadowed under one raised eyebrow is chastising, but defused by amusement. That is, barely. Too focused on some kind of forward momentum to stay resting against the chair for long, she pushes off of it. Her cup is taken with her like a second thought. "Do you have any other ideas?" Then, amending, "About being creative?" Again, "With Joan Curtis?"

Quite unintentionally interrupting Maggie's attempts to rile up a plan, Karen swings out of the kitchen doors. "Get— breakfast!" It's faltering enthusiasm. "Before you— before you head out." She disappears again. Petunia leaps up suddenly to follow, perhaps with breakfast of her own on her mind.

"Nah, I rather liked that one," reassures Laurie, drifting gaze from the distracting kitchen doors as they close behind Karen. "It has a good scope…" But Maggie has not the power to hold him; he's cheating on her with a glance over his shoulder mere moments following the first. Snapping back to the detective a second time, his right hand is the one to take action, hand forming a pointing thumb that juts behind him to the adjoining room. "Karen seems to be on a good track, though."

"Are you saying I should make Joan Curtis breakfast?" Maggie interprets with a joking tone, but with a stark face. She whisks toward that indicated door, the gateway to breakfast, not about to say no even despite her hurry to get moving— and what is likely Karen's hurry to get them moving. Quick steps take her to the kitchen entrance, but not through it; practically against the doors, she turns before pushing past the threshold.

"I have to get to her," Maggie insists there. "I have to get to her without being the cop who's an enemy to her and without getting chased off her property. Before a truck matching the description the wildlife center employee you … met … last night turns out to be registered to Bradley Curtis because I can't be completely sure someone at the CPD won't head straight to his mother's house before I can convince them it's a good idea not to." A roll of her shoulders has her looking down into her tea. "I'm creative," she announces in a quieter voice. "But— I…" A finger traces designs on the side of the cup. "I just want to talk to her."

"It's the most important meal of the day— " Laurie elaborates, not with a joking tone, " — especially in Perkins at four in the morning." Like a force of nature, Maggie whips by him, causing him to spin along with as aftermath. But as she nears the doors, he sidles sideways, slipping into the living room instead of into breakfast, bearing a heading towards his left-over tea. His expression as he slows to respect her talking is short of exasperated; his lips pressed together not quite amusement. He hedges on a couple more seconds, until Maggie's voice quiet and his mouth opens softly. "How…" he poses — verbally; he's on the move again, treading onto carpet, his hand gesturing beside him, "about when I want to talk to you?"

Maggie manages to slow even while standing still: after a tap against the mug, her fingers wrap around it solidly. Her expression — lined, thinking into her tea — only intensifies and lifts to Laurie, settling there without movement. Blue eyes are, nevertheless, searching in their stillness, with a look that easily crosses the distance across the living room like it was nothing. Thinking— but it's searching with a side of perplexed that she formulates: "I'm not sure I follow…"

Fingers curl about the cup, claiming it to him as he turns in the same motion, putting him watching across that same distance. For a second, he's also still, hovering; maybe he's even perplexed — at hers. "Well— " Then his weight eases forward, falling onto the prepared foot and culminating in a regained pace the way he'd come from. All the way across the living room he comes, strolling leisurely and with little speed of purpose towards her at the door. After he comes up short, his left foot lingers up and then takes him a single step further then.

Off that step, he rocks ever so slightly into a less than personal space between them. "It's not something a cop would do," he delivers plainly — plain as a riddle, if riddles were matter-of-fact, "And neither time did you find the good sense to chase me off." Eyebrows dodge up. He leans out, making room for the tea cup to come between them. It's raised to his mouth and tipped back, a short sip, and pleased. His eyes are still up as punctuation, and given a beat — before he slips his right foot to the side and, pushing off it, breezes right past her into the kitchen.

Turned on her heel slightly to allow for Laurie's breeze past, Maggie is left alone, the door swinging a rhythm beside her in his wake — and the wake of her realization. Despite confusion a moment ago, there's none now, and no surprise forms for the suggestion made. She's quick to reach into a back pocket of her jeans, and to find her temporary badge tucked away there; pensive, conflict scoring her brows, she looks down at the star imbued with authority by words and the say-so of the sheriff. She turns it slightly in her hand and runs a thumb over the metal spokes of the star. It looks like a toy, but it means something.

Tucking it back out of sight into her pocket, she pushes into the kitchen.

"…I'm pretty sure," Maggie begins to cleverly point out, what starts as a matter-of-fact statement turning a little unintentionally softer on her entrance, "that last time was so you didn't have to talk, Miles…" Speaking of not having to talk— look, Karen's made pancakes.

They're right there, on Laurie's plate. What time Maggie was wasting on petty things like responsibility, he was using helping himself to a couple of fluffy breakfast items — to go. When she pushes in, he's right there at the door; they slip just almost into each other a second time. "Huh…" he's musing as he aligns near her, "… you're usually sharper than that…"

A look in her eye; a shrug. A better grip on the plate, and thanking nod to Karen over his shoulder, and he's slipping out as smoothly as he came in. That morning's fortune cookie of parting wisdom rings out: "Don't do anything I wouldn't do!"

* * *

The forest behind the Evergreen Wildlife Rehabilitation Center is an intimidating expanse of thick conifer trees and occasional alpine meadows half-buried in snow. With a dubious path at which to attack the search area, members of the CPD, Sheriff's Office, and their guests were split up into zones, radioing back and forth, all spending this grey Christmas Eve day exploring the woods for— what?

The search dogs among them are tireless, but directionless; not a single canine has tugged fervently ahead. The dogs, even the pink-leashed Petunia trailing in front of John, haven't been able to get a conclusive scent of Alice throughout the investigation; without her, without a single item of Langston's, they barely know what they're searching for in these woods either. At least it had stopped snowing.

The search party seemed to be the only sign of life. Until — suddenly — it wasn't.

Tire tracks.

Only an hour and a half by foot out, a search party strikes lucky. "We have a campsite over here!"

* * *

What strangled morning light fights through the clouds drifts through the windshield of John's old truck over in a span of land located forlornly in the opposite direction , just outside of Cheyenne. The vehicle is empty. A deputy badge sits on the dash.

TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT. The sign outside the Curtis residence cuts straight to the chase.

Once the risky task of braving the property in broad daylight is conquered, it doesn't seem so hard. A push of a window. A careful grip of the windowsill to climb inside. But although the owner of the leather-gloved hands who performs these tasks does so with the same careful tenacity she would approach any task, nothing about it is easy.

Inside, Joan Curtis stomps around, talking to herself half-drunk, grumbling, rattling glasses, a whirlwind of discontent all by her lonesome.

The ankle of Maggie's boot — worn zipped over her jeans to fend off the snow, almost to her knees — brushes against an uneven row of empty liquor bottles in the bedroom she steps into, threatening to send them crashing like dominoes. They stand resistant, but the glass clinks; Maggie freezes; Joan Curtis whirls into the doorway in surprise. As the woman preps to shout holy hell up and down the street, the wayward deputy detective is on the unsteady older, shorter woman like lightning; but gently — one of those leather-gloved hands is quick to move in and clamp over her mouth from behind, a finger against her own lips. Maggie squeezes in close against Joan's shoulder. "Shh— shh, shh," she whispers gently, "It's okay, you're okay— I'm sorry to sneak in like this, but I had to be careful." She lets go. "I'm here to help you. It's about your son."

* * *

John Forrester looks down at his daughter. Mouth bound with tape, she's dirty, on the ground in the dark like an animal. She looks asleep.

He can't quite let go of the photograph. None of the active cops around the discovered campsite ask him to; they respect the retired detective and father as he crouches in front of a small green tent set up safely against the worst of the wind and snow, staring down. Was this photograph of his daughter was taken alive or dead?

"We have some trash in here…" A detective from the force John retired from — and Maggie left — rummages around in the messy, unorganized tent. Hands protected in white gloves unfurl a crumpled piece of paper. Dots on a page. A nonsensical collection of marks in pencil, spread across wide, open spaces of paper like a constellation.

* * *

John's truck sits parked in the snow-cleared lot of the wildlife rehabilitation center beside the vehicle of Officer Tobias. Much to the skepticism of the grizzly bear caged up nearby, the place has been a hub of activity all morning. As searchers are emerging from the woods with news of their findings — questionable though they are — Maggie stands leaning against the truck, arms crossed, waiting in the cold. She blends in — the fleece pullover jacket she wears is nearly the same shade of pale blue as the truck's old coat of paint. It's her hardened expression that stands out, the ten yard stare that waits for certain figures to appear.

Several yards ahead of the detective marks the epicenter of the activity, a make-shift but primarily efficient booth of sheriff and deputies, acting as base camp for those who have been trekking into the wilderness boundaries. Mapped out, each of these, with thick, bold black squares on an all-encompassing representation of the area that wraps off the temporary table on two sides. The outfit once focused around this paper-cast aerial view, and the multicolored pins being stuck amongst grid-locked landmarks, most have fanned out now to intercept returning searchers. One badge-bearing individual paces the break in the trees that releases the majority of the bodies, checking off names on his volunteer clipboard with those of the dirtied name-tags on each helper's shoulder; it's much a formality for him; many — a majority — of the faces are known to each other. Those with badges of their own are even easier, and no pen-mark is made for them.

The remaining figure tucked nearest around the map is the out-of-towner; stranger in a wary land, Laurie neither blends in nor attempts to, amongst hearty countrymen in often checkered shirts and tough, durable jackets. Laurie looks more akin to one preparing to go caroling than wilderness hiking, but he grips the walkie-talkie in his right hand with unquestionable authority. "Olly olly oxen free," is transmitted through acres of combed woods as he traces a couple of idle steps across snow packed down by innumerable feet throughout the morning, "Team six, I've got a shortcut for you; you should be at the first marker in about half a minute, tell me when you're there."

His thumb paddles the device to another setting as he returns to the table, then slips over the button to send communication. His voice sets in with preparatory firmness, as if in the middle of an established argument. "Okay, let's try this another way, Smithery— " the effect is ruined some when he's distorted by sticking a marker in the corner of his mouth in order to uncap it. "Would you say that the tenth dot is at the ninth one's six— and at how many inches— ?" His left arm flips over, revealing it to be smattered with a seemingly senseless pattern of black speckles.

"Ninth one's— wait, say that again," the voice of Smith(ery) Tobias crackles over the walkie-talkie in Laurie's hand. He sounds good-natured and determined toward this fussy task, but it also sounds like it's quite a trial. "I'm going to be seeing spots for days. Hey you know what, can't I just take a picture with my cell phone and sen— oh hell, the reception's gone again. Was that the ninth is at the sixth one's tenth… no, no we already did that one— sure, the ninth one's six. Four— five inches? Let me get my ruler that I keep with me at all times again."

From the truck in the lot, the radio communications are just a studious buzz and occasional clear words. Tree-line to command center, Maggie's stare toward goes almost distant until her eyes come to light on the figure who stands out the most. She spends several moments longer watching the operation and watching Laurie work, but when she starts traveling toward them, it's at a brisk pace. Carried with her is a mood filled with almost reluctant anticipation — the variety of which awaits bad news.

On her way, every one of the organizers gets an assessment from Maggie — a critical evaluation of the atmosphere, hints of how the search has gone. Could be worse, the face of Sheriff Harvey seems to tell her; could have been better, says another familiar face from the CPD. There's no distinct mourning; it's a start.

Although she's making a beeline for Laurie, she finds a sudden barrier in her way in the form of the sheriff's right-hand man from the day prior. The deputy, who had been quietly industrious and helpful with the team all morning like his polite co-workers, has, it seems, another side while the sheriff stands at a distance on the phone. "Hey… Maggie," leering, his use of her first name seems poised as a jab. "Where've you been."

"I was checking something out. … Excuse me," she side-steps; he's decided to play the blocking game here on the very outskirts of the makeshift command center, and gets a sudden, surprised, but no less steady eye for it.

"Are you sure you weren't out in the woods on a date with this killer too? Old habits, they die hard."

An instant surge of anger and defensiveness colours Maggie, a warning quicker than usual to flare into her stare. "Collishaw," she cautions, her voice low in its control. Antagonism and emotion manage to warp it all the same. "Watch it. It wasn't like that. Step aside please."

"Since you said please." The deputy moves, spreading his arms apart, and Maggie seems free to step into the fray by the consultant, immediately caught between eyeing the deputy and trying to focus on something productive, such as— what's that on Laurie's arm?

It's a bunch of nonsense, so far as the nonsensical smattering implies, ranging in eight oddly arranged manmade freckles on the thick of the inside of his arm, right below the elbow. Words from earlier are smeared nearer to his wrist; all of the operation's paper must have been delegated to more important things. Laurie's face doesn't describe a less difficult pattern to his eyes — or maybe it's the balancing of walkie-talkie alongside marker in one hand — or perhaps the increasingly long task of finding a working language between him and Tobias across the static. "Oh, you have a ruler— why didn't you say so— is it right there, in your back pocket?" Out of his mouth, there's less sarcasm than the exact placement of those words together might suggest. Across vast woodsy territories, perhaps he and the officer are playing a children's game where tic-tac-toe got too boring. Past that thought, though, there's a level of seriousness: "Use your thumb— hold on."

Laurie uses his first, channeling him to his first conversation, pinging him on hold. The arm whips out of his way, stuffing his hand around his waist; the movement causes his sweater to partially loosen from its impromptu rolling, waning into a portion of the marked skin. He turns, too, unconsciously facing the woods, but sparing a glance alongside to the actual map. "Six'er?"

"Yeah, we're here at the first marker. We go left around the bank, was it?"

"Left, and hug to it at the break. You'll skip that whole trouble area where Aaron fell. If you keep at your respective paces, you should hit up with those slackers in the back— say, I don't suppose any of you have a ruler on you— ?" Laurie doesn't quite wait long enough, cutting by the curious answer to return him to Tobias' line. "All right… number ten…" Absorbed in his tasks by all appearances, the chattering consultant banks to his own right, turning suddenly — but secondarily — over his shoulder to get eyes on Maggie.

Eyes on Maggie find her standing still, despite what began as a quick step toward him as she prepared to interrupt. Her industrious hurry pauses to make way for Laurie's, and so she stands, paused, watching and listening to him organize, delegate, and chart out the strange little points until she's not paying attention to the continued belligerent glances of the deputy. A distantly commending — distantly, because of the weighty, harder edges that presently make up her face — look comes over her.

"Ten makes my life easier, he's straight up from nine about three inches," comes the reply of Tobias over the walkie.

"That doesn't look like a side effect of your drugs…" Maggie notes on stepping in and looking down at Laurie's work on his arm. "How's it going over here— I got something out of my trip this morning." Innocuous words, firm meaning. "It looks like you're going to get to be tourist after all. I got an address. Well— it's an area, off the Cheyenne-Deadwood Stage Route."

Glance becomes double-take when Laurie opts to return to his charts but reacts to being addressed on something that isn't buzzing. "That's more in this general area," he describes, blithe, but powered by the impending intersection of his multiple conversations. This is the swirling arc his left hand draws over his chest; meant to illustrate some zone of side-effects, it instead reminds him of the growing patterning — and his lack of extra appendages. "Mmmm," he murmurs in abstract listening, wrapped up in rejoining marker to cap. Backwards now, the cap sticks onto the butt end of the marker for more efficient safe-keeping than between one's teeth. "That's supposed to be a great TV show… Timothy Olyphant…" He gives the whole thing a swipe against his jacket, then the thick tool is tipped to offer — more like command — that end to Maggie to wield.

The second he's devoid of juggling items, his right hand — now just juggling one item — is partially used to scroll up the fallen sweater at his elbow. This arm juts out in front of his new freckle-making accomplice, eyes on her but attention into the walkie-talkie raised to his mouth. "Three inches." A confirmation; it's also a repetition for Maggie's sake, as he gives an instructional nod towards his own arm. "What are we looking at…" he puzzles openly into the receiver piece. "If they live by the land, they know every inch of it— including the sky, the favorite natural compass of outdoorsmen everywhere…"

When Laurie takes his eyes off Maggie to observe the trail of nine points on his skin, two new ones flare up; red, and invisible to everyone else, they jump from spot to spot with lightning-speed, attempting to attach themselves to a red line worming its way between dots, yearning for connections. Possibilities, probabilities, rise up and then die. "But that's not what I'm seeing…"

Agreeing pre-emptively to a task she is not prepared for, Maggie is holding the marker in her hand before she even realizes what's going on, and that realization remains just out of her grasp as she tries to follow Laurie's reasoning. A known multi-tasker herself, she's usually quick to grab onto different threads of thought, actions— here and now, stepping into the middle of whatever this is, she is less than quick.

She looks from the marker to the speckles and the blank canvas of Laurie's unspotted arm, moving the inky point closer but hesitating instead of marring the skin with another point. As it happens, the second he takes his eyes off Maggie, she looks up fast at him from the scattered constellation-like pattern on the mention of the sky. He's met with a funny little wide-eyed expression, as though he's lost his mind— or maybe like she's lost hers. "I, uh," her soft voice falters oddly for a moment, she pauses and, then, though that expression doesn't quite go away, it's tripped down as she attempts to renew her focus, the marker poised for action. What are they looking at? The question prompts the obvious: "What am I doing? Three inches. Three— inches from what…"

"Stars? You've got me," Tobias admits to being clueless over the airwaves; tramping around and other voices filter into the background static. "Oh, hey, Detective!" he says on recognizing her voice filtering to his side, too. "Good news, all we found are some cryptic clues. I guess that's not great news. Uh, yeah, Laurie, I can only pick out the Big Dipper and that's on a good day. Did you get nine?"//

"Ahh…" switching tracks from what he's thinking to what Maggie is provides Laurie with a second of downtime; a second after that, he slips his pinkie out from his walkie grip and stabs himself with it on one of the dots, "Nine…" he drags the finger upwards the approximate distance according to the others, then jabs again. "Ten. Here. That's ten…" Hearing Tobias' voice jumps the walkie to his mouth, leaving the detective to fend for herself. "The seven brightest of Ursa Major," is grinned into the speaker — the pleasantry of his voice stretching distances; he's telling enthusiastically, not lecturing. "also known, like our fluffy new friend— "

He spins, without warning to Maggie, and quite taking that arm with him, to address the bear cage across the lot. "— as the Great Bear, with a pointer to the north star that shows you… the way." Eyes on the moody creature, Laurie's intellectual amusement falters, deepening into intellect of another kind. But what idea is there, it's just out of his reach, and no amount of furrowed eyebrows and lost speaking bring the epiphany quite to his softly parted lips.

"Umm…" he ventures after the break, licking those lips and glancing for the arm he still expects to be laid out for Maggie — it is, just… moved. "By the way," to Tobias' ear, "Ralph and the rest of team six are going to be on you in twenty feet, so keep an eye out— " Tobias, "we're on eleven— " Maggie, "are we keeping this area to ourselves, due to source?"

The marker almost touches— the canvas jumps away and Laurie nearly gets ink-swiped— Maggie blinks at every turn, watching Laurie for his thoughtfulness. Studiously, she returns to her task. The tip of her tongue just between her teeth, she dots the mysterious number ten mark precisely. "We wiiill…"

"Okay, mister eleven is at a right angle to ten a good three inches to its left. Does that make it a left angle— I hate geometry. Twelve is right beside it. Half an inch max to the right."

Interrupted, Maggie, catching on, once more adopts her look of concentration and tips her head and leans slightly sideways to judge the spots, envisioning them precisely before dabbing the marker there to match her mind's eye. Tada. She gets momentarily distracted just looking at the marker in her hand. " … head … out, check and see what's there before we call anyone in. I don't want to throw resources at this if there's nothing there, though I think there is."

"Are you guys going somewhere without me!" Tobias protests — or, at least, pretends to. "I see how it is, send Tobias to trudge around in the woods and leave him there. Did I mention I have bad knees…"

A sudden "bark!" rings through the crisp air, drawing Maggie from her considering look at the walkie-talkie to spot a blaze of neon pink coming toward them. John and Petunia have returned with a few other early leavers, and now they approach. John's consistently grim countenance isn't an indicator of much, but the Labrador is a ball of eager nervous energy unlike the more professional search dogs, leaping at everyone's feet, wagging her tail and barking at the very present Ursa Major over there— why doesn't anyone care about the bear? There's a BEAR.

Never knowing how close he came to being in permanent black stripes, Laurie observes the detective's proceedings with a vague but non-antagonistic impatience. "That's why we switched to the army method," he asides into the radio for poor, math-light Tobias. "You know," relaxing his finger off the send trigger, he slaps the walkie-talkie against his chest in brief rest to address Maggie full on, "Some people might say that taking back-up is proper procedure…" Some people; not him. The walkie is swung around for talking purposes, Laurie's face wrapped in flat-toned seriousness for Tobias' complaints. "Don't take it personally," he advises, "Powers will use any excuse to get me alone."

As enthusiastically as the barker, Laurie looks for its source. He's held up by just one more task. Done up with the appropriate amount of dots, his left arm twists around, his hand coming up to wrap— the marker; Maggie's hand is avoided entirely, though their fingers lean close as he plucks it from her grip and then lets himself spin towards the oncoming animal, effectively pulling the marker away with the same. The sharp whistle is meant to focus attention, though he doesn't repeat it, only overturning a palm to accept Petunia's nose on the dog's own time. "Hey, lady…"

"… On second thought," Maggie states as she, too, turns to face the over-excited dog and its less lively temporary owner. "Cell phone reception can be shaky out there. It would be good if we have someone who can actually call for backup." She gestures her now empty hand for the walkie-talkie — of course it doesn't magically appear in her grasp; she rolls her eyes. "If you could ask Tobias," she says with a slightly raised voice and pointed look at the radio, addressing it more than Laurie, "if he can follow us out — we're going to veer off before the actual stage route marker on route sixteen — it's still a fair distance out, halfway to Newcastle."

Petunia gets a quick smile and a ruffle between the ears from the detective on her way to John — who hands the leash off idly to Laurie without much of a glance. He follows Maggie as she strolls aside with him. She looks back to Laurie with a nod and a patient call: "When you're done here!" Their chosen path leads them nearer the bear cage; the shaggy grizzly rears up to its giant height against the double fence and makes a grand noise of bored discontent, causing the dog to set into barking and Maggie, at least, to lean to the side in surprise and look up, awed at the impressive creature.

United once again; Laurie drops bouncily down to a crouch at Petunia's level, running a hand over her head and muttering nice meaningless things in her ears, the leash wrapped preemptively around his whole palm in a solid grip. From this position, he radios into the remaining outstanding teams, making sure each has a route back, and a contact to tell about it. There's also a deputy to set on map duty, informed of the consultant's intent to take a few things with him.

Somewhere between team six and the stragglers from eight, he wends to his feet, giving Petunia light lead in their stroll to follow Maggie. Eventually, the walkie-talkie will be honorably retired to a spot clipped onto his belt. But first, it's to old reliable, Tobias: "Guess what, Smee, you're being lead on a scavenger hunt, after all…"

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