Chapter 10: Coming Clean in a Dirty World
And I feel like the last hair
On a head gone bald:
Not much point in bein' there.
Oh no, no point at all.
-David Gray, "Brick Walls"
“I don’t think I can break into this, sir,” Garcia admitted reluctantly as she stared at the screen of Taj McCall’s laptop, a dismayed little frown sitting uncomfortably on her normally cheerful face. The computer was demanding a password, and it warned her that she had five tries before the entire hard drive was erased. “He wouldn’t use such fancy protection if he didn’t have something important on here,” she said.
The furrows etched on Hotch’s brow deepened as he watched his tech analyst tap a few keys with hesitant flaming pink-tipped fingers. “It’s ok, Garcia,” he assured her. “We don’t want to risk that.”
“You know,” Prentiss began after a brooding silence, “we should ask Dr. Jackson.”
“You think he might’ve told Jack his password?”
“Knowing Taj, probably not,” Prentiss conceded. “But he told me to contact her if anything happened to him. He might have made his password something that she could guess.”
Hotch nodded his agreement and hit the button on Garcia’s phone that connected him to the conference room. When Reid answered, Hotch explained the situation to the young agent, and a few minutes later, both Reid and Jackson were squeezing into Garcia’s cubby.
“You found Taj’s laptop?” Jackson asked as she peered over Garcia’s shoulder. “Five tries and it’s wiped. Well that sucks.”
“My thoughts exactly,” Prentiss said with a small curve of her lips. “Think you might have an idea of what his password could be?”
She started to shake her head, but Hotch held up a hand. “Think hard, E.J. It might be something that would be significant to the two of you. An anniversary, maybe? Or your birthday?”
Her mouth opened; closed; lifted sardonically. “He could never remember my birthday, and we didn’t really have an anniversary per se. Taj was awful with dates.”
He made an impatient gesture. “Ok, then, something it could be. Work with me, E.J.”
“Alright, alright, I’m thinking. I guess try my birthday, just for giggles. No one would ever think of Taj using a date.”
Garcia typed in the appropriate digits (she was the one who always planned inter-office birthday events, and unlike Detective McCall, she was very good with dates), but it was quickly rejected. “Not it. Four tries left.”
The other agents let out simultaneous sighs of frustration. “How about just her name? It’s simple, but not something anyone would accidentally stumble upon,” Reid suggested.
“Why are we assuming the password has anything to do with me?”
Prentiss explained her theory again, and Jackson nodded in reluctant agreement. “Ok, that makes sense. But he would know…” She trailed off, and her small face creased in concentration.
“What?” Hotch prompted.
“He would know I would never guess my birthday or anything super obvious.” She chewed her lower lip a moment, then leaned across Garcia to tap a few keys. “No, no,” she muttered as the program again rejected the entry. “Think, Jackie Brown, think.”
Reid raised a brow in Hotch’s direction, and the lead agent shrugged, just as mystified as his younger colleague. Jackson drummed her fingers against the desk in a steady tattoo. She closed her eyes and thought of Taj – his smile; his frown; the way he rubbed his face when he was frustrated; his irreverent sense of humor.
“Nosy bastard,” she murmured with a grin before typing again. This time her entry was accepted, and Taj’s laptop was open to Garcia’s skilled snooping.
“What was it?” Hotch asked with a small, bemused smile.
Jackson shrugged; looked a bit sheepish. “One of my old Agency login passwords. He was always looking over my shoulder, and he would tease me about my password because he said it was too obvious; it seemed fitting.”
“Alright, my loves, let’s see what the Queen of All Knowledge can unearth for you!” Garcia exclaimed as she searched the computer. “Ooo, look at this; pictures!”
“If it’s porn, I’m leaving,” Prentiss declared.
“I don’t think so, peaches; they look like surveillance photos to me.”
“Let me see those,” Jackson said, leaning over Garcia’s shoulder again. Her brow creased as she studied the images on the screen. “That’s Talbot,” she said, pointing at the man most often pictured.
“Your former partner Talbot?” Hotch demanded.
Jackson nodded. “The same. Why would Taj be keeping tabs on Daniel?”
“Oh, my little Jackiepoo, that’s not all he was doing,” Garcia said as she ran a search on Talbot’s name. Hit after hit popped up, and the analyst opened the first file at hand – an email.
As Jackson read what Taj had written, the color drained from her face, and she felt suddenly and desperately ill. “I would’ve preferred porn,” she whispered.
“No, it’s not possible. I can’t believe it,” Jackson said again and again, like a mantra.
“He never told you of his suspicions?” Hotch asked, keeping his voice carefully neutral. They had left Garcia to her work and were once again gathered in the conference room. Hotch had had to practically drag E.J. from Garcia’s cubby; she was adamant that McCall had to be mistaken. She refused to accept the possibility that Daniel Talbot could be the killer she’d hunted for so long.
“Absolutely not,” she declared, shaking her head in quick, urgent denial.
“It makes sense, though,” Reid mused as he passed her a plastic cup of water. “You said you suspected an inside man—”
“That’s hardly what I meant!” she cried, cutting him off. “Daniel’s wife was the Slayer’s first victim. He asked me to join the investigation. Why the hell—”
“E.J.,” Hotch interrupted quietly, “did he check in with you about how the case was progressing?”
“Well, yes, of course, he—” Her mouth closed with an abrupt snap, and she suddenly became deeply engrossed in the shifting surface of the water she held.
“He couldn’t work the case himself because of the personal connection, but asking his partner to help would be both understandable, and it would allow him to keep up with what was happening,” Reid said, explaining what they all already knew.
She took a small sip, but then set the cup aside with a little shudder. “I just can’t believe it,” she repeated in a dull, raw voice.
“You said you called Talbot about the Silar Creek case files. Was he surprised to hear from you? How did he sound?” Hotch asked her.
She sat back; let out a sigh and stared at the ceiling as she struggled to remember. It had only been that morning, but it felt like a hundred years ago. “We chatted for a few minutes – how are you, I’m fine, how’s the Bureau – just small talk.”
“How long had it been since you last spoke to him?”
“I got back to Langley after we were pulled off of the Slayer case, and he was gone. Then, like I said, he called me to tell me Taj was retiring.”
“Gone?” Reid echoed, face scrunching. “Gone where?”
She shrugged. “Deep cover, I assumed, because no one would tell me. Apparently he’d requested reassignment.”
“Did you think it odd?”
She looked away; her jaw worked as she considered her answer.
“E.J., listen to me. I know Gideon is giving you a hard time about this case, and I know you’re struggling to trust each other. I need to know that Gideon’s suspicions are misplaced. I need to know that you trust us the way we’ve all trusted you these past months.” His voice was gentle, but there was a current of steel running through it. She knew that tone: when he used it, he meant business. It was time to quit giving him the run around and come clean. As clean as she could.
“Taj never told me he suspected Daniel was the Slayer, but I knew he was keeping something from me. He was acting…weird. At first I thought it was just the pressures of the case, but finally I realized there was something more going on.”
“What did you do?” Hotch asked in that same soft, hard tone.
“I…” She looked into his penetrating, moss-colored eyes, and her face was stricken. “I let it slide. I didn’t press him. The truth is I didn’t want to know what was making him so…dark. So not-Taj.”
Hotch sighed, and concern lined his face. “We’ve all done it, E.J.”
Her mouth quirked. “I bet you haven’t.”
He cleared his throat; grimaced. “That’s…that’s not really the point,” he said.
Prentiss hid a snicker with a cough, and Reid’s mouth twisted. Jackson just shook her head as she fought a smile. “Aaron Hotchner: a real American hero,” she commented sardonically.
“Alright, enough. How did Talbot react when you requested the files?”
She shook her head slowly; ran a hand back through her short hair. “He didn’t hesitate, Hotch. He said he was glad someone was reopening the case, because he hated that Andrea never got justice.”
“Exactly the sort of thing you’d expect a grieving widower to say,” Reid remarked.
“Well, yes,” Jackson said, “which is certainly not proof that he’s anything but a grieving widower.”
Reid blinked at her convoluted syntax, unsure whether to agree or disagree with her. In the end, he decided that a sage nod was the safest reply.
“Ok, so, where does all this leave us?” Prentiss asked.
“It depends,” Reid said. “Do we think the Slayer is the same person as the UNSUB who shot McCall, Dempsey, and Horton?” They had filled Prentiss and Hotch in on their earlier ballistics discoveries, and they all agreed that two UNSUBs seemed the most plausible theory.
“Alyssa fits the Slayer’s victimology, but Dempsey and Taj don’t. Why would Daniel want to kill Taj? Or Dempsey, his former student?” Jackson asked.
“I think I might have an idea,” Garcia said from the doorway before anyone else could answer. The look on her face froze Jackson’s heart, and she knew whatever Garcia had to say, she probably wasn’t going to like it.