Chapter 8: Like a Light
And robber men await you then in each beguiling alley
To shake you and to pierce you and to remind you of
My dark life.
-Elvis Costello, "My Dark Life"
Less than half an hour later Prentiss and Hotch were on their way to McCall’s Arlington, VA apartment. Prentiss was feeling altogether nonplussed over the whole situation, and her impatience was beginning to reach critical mass. “Can I ask you a question?” she finally said, breaking the silence that had filled the large, black Bureau-issue SUV since they’d left Quantico.
“Go ahead,” Hotch allowed; his brow quirked a bit at her tone, both demanding and somehow respectful all at once.
“What the hell is going on here?” she shot back, her own finely-drawn brows drawing together over intense brown eyes. It was a simple question, and though she hoped for a simple answer, she knew she wasn’t going to get it.
He kept his gaze trained on the road, glad for the excuse to avoid her glare. “Isn’t that what we’re trying to find out?” he replied mildly.
She shook her head. “With all due respect, Agent Hotchner, I’m not a rookie. Don’t treat me like one. I know when I’m being cut out.” She paused; took a breath. “Everyone knows who Jason Gideon is. He’s famous for both his successes and his failures; I’ve even taken a few of his classes. However, I don’t think anyone knows who the hell Elliot Jackson is. When someone I respect as much as Agent Gideon mistrusts someone so thoroughly, it makes me nervous.
“On the other hand,” she continued, “Jackson was Taj’s friend – sometimes lover – and he trusted her. Also, she’s apparently done something to earn the respect of the rest of your team.” She eyed him. “I think maybe you see my conflict.”
Hotch mulled it over a moment. “You’ve not known her very long, but what does your gut tell you?”
Prentiss frowned; studied the landscape whizzing past the window. “I think Gideon is overreacting about something,” she finally admitted. “But it galls me that I don’t know what it is. And what’s the big deal about this school?”
Hotch drummed his fingers against the steering wheel, the only sign of the agitation her questions prompted. “Have you ever considered that maybe you’re better off not knowing?”
She blinked. “What, like, ‘ignorance is bliss?’ That’s not a philosophy to which I subscribe.”
His mouth twisted. “No,” he mused, “I don’t guess it would be.”
“My department called you. Is it generally your policy to exclude the locals from key points of an investigation?”
He sighed; shifted restlessly. “Just the opposite, in fact,” he conceded. “But, Detective Prentiss, this case is…sensitive.”
“Damn straight. It’s my partner on the slab.”
“I assure you none of us have forgotten that.”
“Then maybe be straight with me, ok? I don’t need your condescension.”
He struggled not to smile, afraid she’d take it wrong. “Yes, you’ve made that abundantly clear.” He drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. “If you want to know Jackson’s secrets, you’ll have to ask her. She may tell you, she may not, but that’s her decision to make. As for the rest of it – well, you know Detective McCall and Dr. Jackson are former CIA. Apparently the school is some sort of Agency recruitment program. I know only a little more than you do.”
She nodded slowly as she digested what he was telling her. “You seemed to be including me in your team earlier, back in the conference room.”
He glanced over at her quickly before returning his eyes to the road. He cleared his throat. “You’re a good cop, Prentiss. You’re smart, and you’re tough. That much is obvious even after such a short acquaintance.”
“But?” she asked when he hesitated.
“But,” he continued quietly, “you’re not a member of my team. I want you to feel comfortable here during the course of this investigation; I want you to trust us, and I need to know that we can trust you. When this case is over, though, I need my team to still be a team, and if that means protecting some secrets, then I’ll do it.”
“When the dust settles, I’ll be gone, but they’ll have to carry on together,” she summarized.
He nodded grimly. “Exactly. I don’t mean to belittle you or offend you in any way, because I do respect your skills and I appreciate your help with this case.”
“Well,” she replied, turning her fierce gaze away from him, “I guess you’ve just put me in my place.”
“Detective Prentiss, I—”
She shook her head quickly, hushing him. “It’s fine, Agent Hotchner. I understand.” She did understand, but that didn’t make it any easier to swallow. Despite everything, she was still just a local to him – to them. She understood, but she couldn’t help that small trickle of childish, irrational hurt.
Silence was their uneasy companion for the rest of the trip to Arlington, and Hotch felt like a genuine ass.
The conference room was a shambles of case files, crime scene photos, paper cups, and the various other accoutrements of a criminal investigation. Jackson had switched from gut-searing coffee to tea hours ago, and now she sipped her orange blossom jasmine concoction contemplatively as she studied the autopsy reports on the Silar Creek victims for perhaps the hundredth time. “I feel like there’s something I’m missing,” she complained. “It’s like it’s right here and I can’t quite see it.”
Reid glanced up at her from his own pile of reports and photos. “It looks like you guys were pretty thorough. I don’t see anything right off hand that you might have overlooked.”
She threw the file aside with a frustrated sigh and selected another from the pile. “Let’s switch gears. Victimology for the recent murders?” she suggested.
“Good idea,” he said, gaining his feet and moving to the crime board. “We have three victims who were currently or formerly Agency.” He wrote on the dry erase board as he spoke, and Jackson nodded in agreement even as she marveled over his childish, scrawling handwriting. Super genius or not, he’d apparently been absent the day they taught penmanship.
“Right,” she said, refocusing on the case and studying the report she was holding. “The first two, victims, however, seems to be the exception.”
Reid frowned, studying the crime scene photos with a critical eye. “Hey, Jack, what type of weapon was used in the first two murders?”
Her brows flicked together as she flipped a few pages; scanned for the information. “Umm, looks like a standard Saturday Night Special. A .22. Piece of shit.”
He nodded as though he’d known the answer before he’d asked it. “And the other four?”
She found the pages in question and blinked in surprise. “A .38, most likely a revolver.” She frowned. “A revolver? No shell casings. Was he getting smarter?”
“No…” Reid replied distractedly as he examined the pictures. His brow creased; jaw worked. She recognized the signs of his mighty brain in action, and she waited patiently for his thoughts. “Look at this,” he said, pointing to the photos of the first scene, the taco restaurant. “The victim is shot several times in the chest, and he’s sprawled out in front of the safe. It’s more like the UNSUB…was interrupted? Or thought he might be?”
She rose to stand beside him, and her glass-green eyes narrowed as she compared the scenes. “Similar set-up in scene two,” she remarked, “but with Horton and Dempsey and Taj and Nelson, it seems…”
“Different,” he completed when she trailed off.
“Yes,” she agreed. She reached behind her and grabbed the autopsy reports on Horton and Dempsey. She pointed at their pictures. “They were both shot in the chest, like the previous victims, but the ME concluded that the kill shot – the first shot – was this one to the back of the neck.”
“Why would our UNSUB shoot the last four victims in the back of the neck, then in the chest?”
It was a rhetorical question, but she answered it anyway. “They’re not the same person. The first UNSUB is killing them with the chest wounds, but there’s a second one. He’s a pro, but he’s trying to make it look sloppy.”
“Sloppy to switch weapons,” Reid remarked.
She shrugged. “If it truly is a second UNSUB, then he wouldn’t have had access to the first weapon. Forensics would’ve told us they were different even if they were the same caliber; switching to a revolver at least might make you think he was evolving, taking more forensic counter-measures.”
“Jack,” he said after a quiet, considerate moment, “if we’re right, then it’s more than likely these agents were the UNSUB’s target. He chose to mimic the MO of this other UNSUB—”
“Why would he do that?” she interrupted.
“Maybe because it was McCall’s case?”
“Maybe, but—” She stopped abruptly. Her face creased in a deep frown, and he flinched at the sudden sound of her finger slapping against one of the photos. “Tell me, boy genius,” she began slyly, “what’s different about these two pictures?” She pointed to the first in the series from the Kwik Stop, then at a later one from the same scene.
He glanced back and forth between the two, and she watched as understanding lit his pensive features. “The safe,” he exclaimed softly.
“The UNSUB didn’t open it,” she whispered.
“Why were Prentiss and McCall even called to this scene with the safe closed? It’s outside their jurisdiction, and that was a pretty crucial part of the first UNSUB’s MO.”
“We’ll have to ask Prentiss, but I bet you dinner it was Taj’s idea.”
“He knew they were Agency. He wanted to be on the case, so he got them invited in.”
“UNSUB number two got antsy because Taj was sticking his nose in – again – so he decided to stage another attempted robbery.”
“None of this makes sense, Jack,” he admitted ruefully.
“I think it does, Spencer; we just don’t have all the pieces yet. There’s a huge one we’re missing, and I think it all goes back to Silar Creek.”
He was inclined to agree with her, but he decided to keep his mouth shut just this once. Jack and Gideon’s obsession with the old case concerned him, and he didn’t want to encourage it any more than he had to. He had a feeling that, before all this was over, they would all regret having ever heard of Silar Creek, Maryland and its hushed-up Slayer.
Ok, I know what you might be thinking: are we heading to another riddling quagmire of a plot, a la Endgame? No, actually; I know how I'm tying all the threads together, and we're slowly working our way there.
In other news, chiroho was kind enough to correct my misconceptions about the fanfic awards voting. Voting will start sometime later this week, and one can visit http://community.livejournal.com/cmfanficawards to vote.