Chapter 11: Instincts
Sometimes I wonder who you are;
Sometimes I wonder how you stand the dark.
-Angie Aparo, "Seed"
"That email we found was just the first of dozens. Our Detective McCall was quite the pen pal. Or…keyboard pal…whatever. Anyway," Garcia explained in a breathless rush as she opened Taj's laptop on the conference room table and began flipping through documents, "he had quite the correspondence with John Dempsey, and nearly all the emails – except the ones about baseball – were about Daniel Talbot."
Jackson drew in a little breath, but before she could speak, Hotch nodded for Garcia to continue. She darted a little glance between the two agents, but Hotch's stern gaze beat out Jackson's imploring one, and she dove back into her spiel. "It looks like Detective McCall suspected Talbot as the Slayer from way back, and so did Dempsey."
"Dempsey did? How does that work?" Jackson asked, delicate brow furrowing.
"Apparently at some point during the course of their working relationship, Talbot completely flipped out on Dempsey. He doesn't go into details, but it scared him enough to request assignment away from Silar Creek, and as far away from Daniel Talbot as he could get – that's why he drops off the grid so completely," she said. "McCall was calling in all his favors to find this guy, because he thought Dempsey had the piece of information he needed to prove Talbot's guilt."
"Did he?" Reid said.
Garcia shook her head, nearly dislodging the flower in her hair as her pigtails swung wildly. "Nope, apparently not. He just had his instincts and a deep, sudden fear of his old mentor."
"Good work, Garcia," Hotch told her. "Let us know if you find—"
"There's more, sir," she interrupted.
He raised a brow at her, and she smiled. "McCall asked Dempsey to keep tabs on Talbot for him. That's where all these pictures are from. They were working together to make the case against Talbot. One of the last emails in here is from Alyssa Horton telling McCall to back off."
"Why would Horton care?" Prentiss demanded.
Garcia shrugged. "I don't know. McCall didn't answer her, and a day later she and Dempsey were dead."
"Well Taj didn't kill them, if that's what you're thinking," his partner said with a deep frown.
"She's right; there's no way," Jackson agreed vehemently. "And it wouldn't make sense anyway: Taj and Dempsey were working together, so why would Taj kill him?"
Hotch cleared his throat, and the quiet sound sliced through the building tension like a knife. The two women sat back, and Jackson took a sip of water in lieu of more words. "I'm going to call Morgan and Gideon back here; I doubt they've gotten much from the interviews anyway. We'll brief them on what we've learned so far, and I'm going to ask J.J. to get us invited to Silar Creek." He watched them all through shrewd, expectant eyes, but they wisely kept quiet. "In the meantime, Garcia, keep digging. Prentiss, Reid, E.J., work the profile. I'm going to see if I can get the Agency to cough up anything about Daniel Talbot." He rose, straightened his cuffs, and strode from the conference room, Garcia hurrying in his wake.
Prentiss let out a long breath as the door closed behind them. "He's hardcore."
"You've got no idea," Reid told her with a small twist of his mouth. He began passing out copies of the emails and photographs Garcia had brought them.
"You guys get started," Jackson said, "and I'll be right back."
They watched her go with puzzled frowns. "Now what's that about?" Prentiss said.
"I don't know." He hesitated; rifled through the file in front of him without really seeing the contents. "You should know things aren't usually like this," he offered after a moment.
"How so?" she asked with a lifted brow.
"So scattered. Hotch;" Reid's lips quirked; "he runs a tight ship. It's just…there was a, a kidnapping?" He frowned, hating how he made it sound like a question; cleared his throat. "That is, Jack and I were kidnapped. Last week…?"
"Ohh," Prentiss said, eyes going a little wide. "I'm sorry to hear that." She wasn't really sure of the proper etiquette in a situation like this, but surely "I'm sorry" was a safe bet.
"It wasn't a big deal. I mean it, uh, it was. But we're fine. Now we're fine." He stuttered to an exasperated stop and sighed. Why was he telling her all of this, and why was he making such a mess of it? "I guess we're all getting our legs back still," he managed, burying his face in the file and hoping his neck wasn't turning as red as it felt.
She watched as the color crept up his long neck and around his ears. "Well," she said at last, "I'm glad you're fine now."
Hotch stared down at the phone on his desk with a frown. This case was getting deeper and darker than he had ever expected, and he had a sneaking suspicion that the CIA already knew Peter McCall's theory about the Silar Creek Slayer. Daniel Talbot had lived and worked in Silar Creek, a fact he'd kept from his partner. His wife was a teacher at the school, making him easily recognizable to students and locals. He'd kept tabs on the investigation through E.J.'s involvement. He knew enough to take the sort of forensic countermeasures the Slayer used.
Hotch was frustrated and annoyed. He understood now why this case had stuck with Gideon and E.J. over the years. Why McCall had cashed in all his old Agency chips to find Dempsey. Why E.J. hadn't pressed McCall about his theory. If they didn't put this son of a bitch down, Hotch thought it just might haunt him the rest of his career.
He was reaching for the phone when a knock interrupted him. He wasn't sure whether to be relieved or irritated – he didn't want to make the call, but he had to – and the mixed emotions came through in his voice as he called for the person to enter. He found himself unsurprised when Elliot Jackson poked her head around the door, and he dropped the receiver back into its cradle with a raised brow. "Can I help you?"
She blinked, momentarily taken aback by the shortness in his tone. "Am I interrupting?"
A smile flickered. "No, sorry. What do you need, E.J.?"
She took a hesitant step into his office and closed the door behind her. With a shaky smile, she found the same chair she'd sat in when he'd given her the dressing down earlier. "Hotch, I…this morning you told me to come to you if this case got too personal. You told me to tell you when I needed to back off." She paused; took a breath. "I think it has. I think I do."
He leaned back in the chair and crossed his arms over his chest; fixed her with a quintessentially Aaron Hotchner Look. He studied her with the knowing, penetrating gaze for a long time, long enough to make her fidget, before he sat forward again. "I think you're wrong." His voice was stern, straightforward, and unequivocal.
"Um. I'm sorry?" Her glass-green eyes widened a fraction in surprise; that wasn't the answer she'd been expecting.
He sighed; rubbed a hand over his face. "I know what I told you, E.J., but I think we both need to reconsider. This is your case, has been since the beginning, and if I let you walk away now you'll never forgive either of us."
She turned her head; fixed her stare on a point in the distance. "Gideon doesn't want me here, Hotch, and once he finds out about Talbot—"
"You let me deal with Jason. I'm going to send you home with—" He stopped; remembered Elle; revised the thought. "I'm going to get Morgan to take you home once he and Gideon get back here, and we'll all meet up Monday morning to head to Silar Creek. E.J.," he said in a suddenly quiet, intense voice, "we need you in Silar Creek. No one knows it like you do."
She drummed her fingers on the arm of the chair for a few moments, but at last she nodded. "People don't often surprise me," she said, turning to meet his gaze.
The flickering smile again. "Nor I, but you manage it sometimes. The fact that you asked me to pull you shows how much you've grown since you got here. Do you remember the basement, with Lloyd Henry?"
Jackson smoothed her palms over the thighs of her dark slacks. "I try not to," she admitted.
"I know. It was your first case, and Henry got to you."
"I should've known I couldn't hide it from you, though I tried."
He shrugged. "It's my job." A great many words hung in the silence between these stilted sentences: he had perhaps saved her life in that basement, or maybe she, his. Either way, the moment of near-panic she'd experienced, the instant where her tight, careful control had given way to pure terror, had been – she thought – her own secret weakness to remember. Or try to forget. But of course Hotch knew. Had always known. And had let her do with it what she would.
She wondered, briefly, how the same technique had gone so horribly wrong when applied to Reid. She watched him watch her wonder it, and his eyes flickered with some nameless emotion. Regret? Grief?
Before she could get a clear handle on it, he cleared his throat, breaking the moment; checked his watch. "Morgan and Gideon will be back soon. Go get some tea; work on some old paperwork; clear your mind of this case for a bit. You can come back Monday with fresh eyes."
For the second time that day she found herself thanking her boss for what came naturally to him: the ingrained, almost second-nature way he looked out for the people he cared about. A part of her wanted to know where that instinct in him came from, and another part of her just accepted it at face value, the way she accepted hardly anything else in her life. She knew that while there were few people or things in this world worth trusting, Aaron Hotchner was one. Shaking her head, she left him to his work and went to do as he suggested.