"Alright," Matthew said, indicating with one hand to the sheet of paper on the table that all the officers had gathered around. "That's the sheet for this week." There was some murmuring from his cohort, as they all took notes of their days off and probably tried to work out who they could trade with to get their desired times. Except Charlie, of all people, who remained quiet, staring at the sheet with his eyebrows drawn together. Matthew followed his gaze to the sheet and didn't see anything that Charlie would find particularly distasteful. He hated to play favorites, but it was easy to tell that Charlie was his favorite subordinate.
Not that it was purposeful on his behalf, and he liked to think he gave Charlie just about as much trouble as he gave the rest of the officers. If anything, he probably had higher expectations for him if he was going to be running this station one day. That was still his end goal when he retired he wanted to know that this station he’d practically given his life too was going to go into the hands of someone with the good sense enough to run it properly. Build relationships with the community and not destroy everything he got his hands on like Bill Hobart.
"What? Does your timesheet cut into your dating hours?" He asked, hoping that the joke would be in good fun and Charlie would snap out of it and smile. He'd never had a problem with the timesheet before, just quietly accepted his shifts. Instead, Charlie's face got more pinched if such a thing was possible, and he shook his head no. He stared for another long, long moment. Matthew was certain he could see the beginnings of tears in his eyes when he turned away suddenly, heading toward a hallway, brushing past the other officers. He looked back at the timesheet, all looks normal as far as he could see.
"What's his problem?" Bill asked, looking marginally more concerned than one might expect Bill Hobart to be but not concerned enough that he might follow the sergeant and figure it out. To be honest, Matthew almost doesn't want to either. Whatever was happening with Charlie was Charlie's problem first. But Charlie was his subordinate, and, as much as he hated to admit to it, his friend and if he was upset about something, then he wanted to help, as well as he could. He was no Lucien Blake, that was for certain, but he believed he could offer Charlie a little understanding if nothing else.
So he stood and made his way to the edge of the re-designed space and paused just a moment to look back to the spot where Ned had died. Right in front of Charlie’s desk, which now he thought about it might be a little difficult for him seeing that he was the one who...Well. It didn’t matter. Charlie had never at any point showed that he was unhappy or uncomfortable with how the office was set out, and he didn’t want to embarrass him so he left it well enough alone. Just headed into the hallway and looked left and right trying to figure out what way Charlie had gone. He glanced at Harrison, who was working away at the front desk with a good view of the station.
“Did you see where Charlie went?” He asked, trying to keep his tone neutral.
“Yeah, down to the files.” Harrison replied, “Why?”
“Just wondering.” He said back, and turned, heading towards the downstairs file room. He dreaded having to navigate those stairs with a cane, perhaps he would just look in, make sure Charlie wasn’t belly up at the bottom then get back to work. Without Blake to lead the way some cases just felt like unclimbable mountains and he was still at base camp. Murder didn’t rest and Ballarat wasn’t the exception to the rule.
He made his way down the hall, past the interview room, past the storage cupboard where they kept the cleaning supplies to the door to the underground file room. He opened it and stepped onto the landing, looking to see if Charlie was there. He wasn’t visible from the doorway, so he took another step in, allowing the door to close behind him as he did so. Making his way down the stairs was slow, painful going and by the time he got to the bottom, he was more than ready for a sit-down.
“Davis? Are you down here?” He sang out, waiting to see if he got a reply. If he didn’t and he went down those stairs for no reason Harrison would be on desk duty for a month, he decided, making his way down a corridor lined with cabinets full of files when he heard a sound that could only be described as very quiet sobbing, like someone attempting to muffle it. He rounded a stack of files and found Charlie seated on some boxes looking very much like a beaten-down dog.
The boxes he was sitting on, Matthew recognized because he’d been the ones to bring them down here almost...Almost fifteen years ago now. The case of the Ballarat Stabber, one of the last cases he’d worked on with Doug Ashby, and one of the few times he argued back against the man. Perhaps against his best interests. But the Ballarat Stabbed killed four people before, mysteriously, stopping. He always believed that someday he would open that case up again, especially when he was the Superintendent. But he never had, and as it seemed he was in the beginning stages of retiring from being the Superintendent. Maybe he should bring the old files out, for a look? He shook the thoughts away and turned his attention to his detective, who looked very much like he’d just had his puppy stolen or his ice cream fell out of the cone and onto the ground.
“What’s the matter with you?” He asked, and then cringed at his inability to approach this situation with more empathy, or at least pretending like he had more empathy.
“N-Nothing. I’m fine.”
“Yeah? That’s why you made a big song and dance about running away from the schedule and why you’re hiding down here having a good cry?”
“I’m not crying,” Charlie said, wiping his face on the back of his hand. The friction pulls his eye sideways and exposes the soft red bit of his inner eye. He watches as Charlie’s hand passes by the faint pink line from where he got hit in the head by Norman Baker and for not the first time is glad that made the call not to go and see him after he finished his formal questioning. He might have snapped and let Bill Hobart loose down there. He stared down at Charlie, hoping to break him with just a stern expression. It sometimes worked, but Charlie could be almost as stubborn as Blake when he wanted to be. Usually, Matthew found the best approach for him was to just wait for Charlie to come to him, if he needed something from Matthew then surely he could just ask for it.
“Yeah? So you’re just suffering from seasonal allergies then?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I said yes.” Charlie sighed, sounding defeated.
“No, I wouldn’t.” Matthew deadpanned and then sat next to him on the second stack of boxes for the same case. There was a lot of evidence for the Ballarat Slasher, making it even more strange that in the time the case was open they never even had a suspect. Sometimes, Matthew sees the mother of the youngest victim at the shopping center, who he promised that the police would find and punish who took her baby away from her and he has to hide his face because he can’t bear to make eye contact. “So why don’t you save us both some time and tell me why you’re hiding in the file room.”
“You’ll probably just call me a drama queen, or an idiot,” Charlie said, but it’s clear his resolve is crumbling at the prospect of having someone help him shoulder whatever burden he’s carrying. Matthew doesn’t have a lot of patience for crying, especially not crying from men, but Charlie is different from him. Sensitive. It would probably only succeed in driving him away if he approached this like he would Bill and that would lead to some very awkward dinners at home. He certainly did not fancy explaining to Jean that he upset her favorite son.
“I’ll just think about it.” He assured Charlie, voice deadpan. Charlie looked away from him to a stack of files with writing so faded Matthew couldn’t even posit a guess at its contents. Doug Ashby never had the patience for the cold ones, and Matthew was always too busy with current murders and trying to wrangle the newly minted consultant, Mrs. Blake, to be too concerned about the cold ones. He rubbed his face again, this time he gives a small tug to his bottom eyelashes as though he has something stuck there or something is bothering him like allergies of spending too much time in a grassy field in the summer.
“I was just looking at the roster and I saw…” He sighed like he was working himself up to speak but couldn’t find the words.
“Spit it out, Davis.” He orders, hoping Charlie’s instinctual reaction being ordered and using his last name will push what promised to be an emotional and uncomfortable relationship forward.
“I’m rostered on alone for Tuesday night.” He blurted out spooked by Matthew’s tone. So it seemed all his years of training were not a waste after all then. But this just led the way to a fresh, equally frustrating line of questioning. Why was being rostered on alone a problem for Charlie? He’d been rostered on alone dozens of times before, surely even just recently. Anyway, Charlie was a senior officer, plenty qualified for such a place in the schedule.
“And why is that a problem?” He asked, a bit annoyed now. He didn’t want to talk about feelings with charlie. He didn’t want to talk about feelings with anyone. But here he was. And he did not want to have to play twenty questions to get to the bottom of whatever was upsetting Charlie.
“I’m...It’s...You’re going to think I’m crazy. I’m not crazy.”
“I never said anything about you being crazy. Tell me what’s bothering you so we can fix it and you can go back upstairs and fill in some breaking and entering reports.”
“It’s the first time I’ve been scheduled on alone since Ned...You know. Since Ned.”
Well, that wasn’t quite what Matthew was thinking, to say the least. Charlie put his hands up to his face and buried his face there for a moment. He waits, feeling like Charlie might have more to say.
“I don’t know what came over me.” He admitted, “I was just thinking it’s the first time, in a long time. Then I looked over at my desk and I could just...See him. Lying there. It was like he was looking right at me, Boss. Asking why I couldn’t tell a hoax call from a real call. I know...It sounds crazy. I’m not...Crazy.”
“Surely you would know, Charlie that even if you could tell it was a hoax call, you would need to attend. You can’t just...Not go out when you’re called out. You know that.”
“I know that!” Charlie exclaimed, “I would never not go out if someone called me out I wouldn’t. But what if I had, that one time, decided not to go out? What if I was there when Ned came, surely both of us wouldn’t have our back to the door at once? One of us would have seen Baker...Scared him off...Or maybe I dunno. Maybe throw something at him. And everything would be fine.”
“I know what-ifs are a waste of time. I know, I do. I just can’t help it sometimes.”
“That’s a normal reaction, God only knows I’ve had my fair share of what-if moments.” He said back, hoping the personal note would encourage Charlie to feel like his reaction was normal and nothing to be phased by.
“Did your what-if moments lead to people being killed in the one place where they should have been safest?” He asked, but it’s not sarcastic. He’s genuinely curious. Usually, Matthew would just rebuff a question about his personal history; it’s not important and it’s especially not important to Charlie but he gives him the truth.
“In a place, they were meant to be safe? No. But during the war, I’m sure my choices lead to the deaths of innocent men.”
“How could you possibly know...Or think that?” Charlie asks, his lips curved into a tight frown.
“That’s the nature of war.” He replied, vaguely. “The choices that you make lead to either your life or death. Sometimes, I think back and wonder...What if I moved left instead of right? What if I was a few seconds faster covering someone else’s wound? But I like to think there’s a reason why people end up where they are. Myself included.” He finished his little speech, having divulged more than enough personal information for the next year and a half. He didn’t enjoy combing through his war memories, he was proud of what he’d accomplished, proud of his service but that didn’t mean he wanted especially to re-live it. The men who re-lived it, Matthew knew a few and he couldn’t bear to end up like them. Lonely drunks, traveling bushmen...No. No, he liked how things were right now and he didn’t intend to change that.
Charlie sighed, and then kicked at the dust with the toe of one immaculately polished shoe, letting his words sink in presumably. The air is thick down here, probably from not having any circulation. The only light comes from an overhead bulb, which has only been changed twice as far as he can remember. Its light is yellow and dim, it makes Charlie, who is so pale, seem jaundiced. He leans back on his box, his back coming to rest on the shelves behind him.
“Ned was twenty-five,” Charlie said, haplessly. “He was going to ask his girlfriend to marry him.”
“And it’s a shame he’ll never get to do that.”
“He had so much to offer. I bet he would have been a good copper.”
“I think he would have as well.”
“I was thinking, before, that maybe it’d have been better if Baker got me,” Charlie says, and it knocks the wind out of Matthew as firmly as any punch could have before he even fully has time to digest the statement he grabbed his cane and all but lept to his feet.
“Don’t say that!” He exclaimed, horrified. “Don’t ever say that, what would Ned think? You think he’d want you sitting down here feeling sorry for yourself?” Charlie stared at him, for a moment, surprised, then angry. He stood up as well, his hands shaking with hardly controlled anger.
“What would Ned want me to do?” He asked, blinking furiously as a fresh layer of tears came across his eyes. “I’m sick to fucking death of people telling me what Ned would want me to do,” Charlie said, and then in a move so Un-Charlie that it briefly stuns Matthew and knocks any words out of his mouth. He kicked over the Ballarat Slasher casefiles, sending pictures flying and papers scattering along the floor. “Now Charlie -” He said, clearly mocking Lucien’s speech pattern, “Do you think Ned would want you to throw away your chance at becoming a detective? Do you think Ned would want you to do this? Would Ned want you to do that? Do you know what Ned would want? Ned would want to be alive!” He turned to face Matthew, face torn between agony and fury. Matthew had never considered Charlie a threat to him before, even if maybe he should have. For that moment, Charlie looked like he was going to strangle the first person he came across.
“I’m not what Ned would want, I can’t be that. I can just be Charlie. That’s it. That’s all.” With that anger seemingly released, he glanced mournfully at the stack of spilled pictures and slid down the wall, leaning against one of the middle support beams of the cabinets, legs spread out in front of him, forming a v, the dim light catching on the tips of his well-shined shoes. Matthew looked at him and cautiously sat back on top of the remaining stack of boxes, bringing his cane to rest between his knees.
“Do you feel better?” He asked, indicating to the box that now lay a few feet away, crumpled onto its side.
“No,” Charlie admitted, bringing his hands to his face and scrubbing his cheekbones with them. “I’ll pick them up.”
“Yes, you will.” He agreed but didn’t move or order him to do so. Charlie didn’t move either, just stared despondently at the mess he’d made. If Matthew was Lucien, perhaps he would have something profound to say that would ease Charlie’s mind, or maybe he’d just know the right thing to say from the beginning since it was quite clear that Matthew Lawson only knew how to say the wrong thing. It’s a while that they sit there, in silence, Charlie contemplating the mess that he made and Matthew contemplating Charlie. It’d been a long time since Charlie was a spy from Melbourne sent to make his life miserable, but sometimes he couldn’t help but wonder what fondness he possibly had for Ballarat.
Eventually, Charlie climbed to his feet and crawled over to the box to gather up displaced pictures and files. With careful speed, he collected each piece and set it into a pile. Pictures, files, and the odd evidence bag with blood-stained scraps of cloth still inside. Matthew thought about Doug Ashby, he’d never considered Ashby his friend the way he considers Charlie a friend...And hopes that he thinks the same in return. Ashby was always his enemy, the person who was standing in the way of his goals. He certainly didn’t miss him now he was gone, it was hard to figure out what he even thought of the man know he knew he’d committed murder and was planning to do another one. He was...Frustrated at the idea that the person he’d modeled himself on, the person who’d taught him most of what he knew and who he had, begrudgingly, come to respect could be a common criminal. He looked back to Charlie, who was tidying away his pieces one by one. He looks calm, but on the inside, he’s probably still going through the same thoughts he had when Matthew came down here. How was he going to solve this? Make Charlie feel better? Should he even try? No one has ever accused him of being warm and loving.
“I hate the beach.” He said, conversationally. Charlie, confused, looked up from his documents to Matthew, and as Matthew suspected there is a long, wet line down his right cheek.
“What?” Charlie asked, confused.
“I hate the beach. I hate sand.”
“Oh-Kay.” Voice clearly stating that he had no idea why he would ever say something like that.
“During the war -” Matthew cleared his throat, “During the war, I served in North Africa.”
“Oh,” Charlie replied, but his face didn’t betray any recognition of the campaign.
“Know much about Africa, Charlie?”
“It is. It’s also sandy, and gritty. Or, it was where I was stationed. I hear it’s lovely if you go to a city.”
“Did you ever go into a city?”
“I did not. I did get shot, there. In Africa.”
“Along the top of my shoulder. Got a good scar out of it.”
“Oh, I didn’t know.”
“I don’t go around telling every Tom, Dick, and Harry I meet at the bar.”
“I guess, but why tell me?”
“Because when I first go home, I couldn’t tolerate the beach. I went there, and it was like being at war again. I should have expected it, maybe, but I didn’t.” He looks at Charlie, who has abandoned his files in order to state at him with those huge blue eyes. “And it hurt, and I was miserable.”
“So you can’t go to the beach anymore?”
“Let me finish.” He instructed, pointing at him with one hand. “I can go to the beach now, but it’s taken a long time for me to be able to. Sometimes, I still think it’s too much but time and space let that wound heal.” Charlie watched him, as realization bloomed on his face.
“So, you think eventually I’ll be able to watch the station at night, alone.”
“Maybe, maybe not. But if you can’t do it right now than it’s not the end of the world. I have a solution to your problem.”
“I’ll stay on with you.”
“You don’t need to do that.” Charlie protested, “Really. I can...I’ll work it out. Trade with Bill.”
“Yeah? Think he wants to trade his good Monday shifts?”
“No, maybe -”
“Charlie, it’s fine. I’ll just stay with you.”
“You mean that?”
“I do.” He paused, “Now finish picking up my box you knocked over.”
“Your box? I thought these things had been down here since like. The twenties.”
“How old do you think I am? Don’t answer that.” Charlie looked back at the box he was sorting and held up one of the files so he could get a better look at it.
“That’s your handwriting.” He confirmed, “What is this case anyway?”
“One of Ballarat’s first ever serial killers.” Matthew replied, “four victims, two women, two men. No evidence. After eight months with no kills Ashby put it on the shelf.”
“Seems like an early call.” Charlie frowned, vindicating Matthew’s long-held beliefs.
“I thought so, too. Always thought I’d re-open it when I was superintendent.”
“Why haven’t you?”
“Never had the time, busy wrangling Blake and dealing with recent crimes.”
“It’s been a while since we had an interesting case,” Charlie said, with a tone Matthew knew to be him putting out feelers and angling for something.
“It has.” Matthew agreed, “When you’re finished putting my box back together bring it upstairs. Maybe it’ll give Jean something to do with her weeknights.” That made Charlie huff out a little humored chuckle. That was a good thing, he decided as the younger man re-stacked the boxes and then sat back on top of them. It was a fairly large stack of boxes compared to some of the ones down here and it leveled Charlie out at about the same height as him.
“Sorry I yelled at you,” Charlie said, voice quiet and a little ashamed.
“I probably shouldn’t have yelled at you.” Matthew admitted, “You just. You just had me worried, for a moment there. If you thought you were going to...You know...You’d tell me, wouldn’t you?” Charlie looked at him, one eyebrow perked up. “Or, you’d tell someone. Jean, or Rose?” Seemingly realizing he was serious Charlie looked down at his hands. He’s wearing a ring on his pointer finger that Matthew has never noticed before. Two thin lines of sliver braiding over each other. What it means or where he got it, Matthew has no idea.
“I’m not...I wouldn’t do that.” Charlie said, “I’m a Catholic.” He added, as is that would make his argument more convincing and to be fair - Matthew didn’t think Charlie would ever hurt himself in any way but...Well, he’d known a lot of men who’d gone crazy after the war. He didn’t want Charlie to wage his private one inside his head.
“I’ve known men far more Catholic than you decide one day that they were better off dead,” Matthew replied. “Promise me I’m not going to go into your bedroom one day and see something I can’t unsee.”
“I promise,” Charlie said, keeping his voice down. Then, of all things, Matthew felt a weight on his shoulder. He glanced over to see Charlie had tilted sideways so his cheek was resting there. Under usual circumstances, Matthew might have pushed off in the name of decency but no one was going to come down here any time soon, so he let him stay. “But you don’t need to worry about that.”
“Hmph.” Was all Matthew replied with, placing both hands atop his cane and leaning back against the filing cabinet. “Well, don’t laze about all day, we do have a police station to run.”
“Yeah.” Charlie agreed, but he didn’t make any effort to get up, and Matthew didn’t make any effort to push him off, either.