Chapter 13: Beguiling Alleys
Sunlight on a razor blade;
Three different souls and the lives they made.
-Better than Ezra, "Hollow"
"You really think Daniel Talbot's our man?" Morgan asked Monroe. They were in one of the Bureau-issue SUVs on the way to Monroe's cabin; it was about 15 minutes outside of town, the Sheriff had said, and they were almost there. Morgan's hands were tight on the wheel as he navigated the twisting, turning roads in the failing daylight.
The lawman was silent for so long that Morgan glanced over to make sure he was still awake. "It was a bad thing, this case," he said at last. "From the minute we got the call about Andrea, I knew nothin' in the Creek was gonna be the same again. There aren't many murders here; it's a pretty quiet place." His sigh was heavy, and it filled the air with melancholy. "I hate it for Jackson. She trusted Talbot and Taj, and she's not the type to trust easily."
Morgan gave a slow nod; he knew that much from personal experience. "Would Taj have had any reason other than orders for withholding this evidence from her?"
"He knew it would hurt her, but he also knew she's a professional. Taj was a joker, and sometimes a wiseass, but he was loyal. If the Agency told him to do something, he did it…even if he didn't like it. It's just up here on the left."
Morgan turned down a long gravel drive; the big SUV handled the rutted road with ease, but the constant jolts made Morgan's teeth hurt. "You get out here much? Road's a mess."
"Not as much as I'd like. Used to, but now…some of the fun's gone. I think that happens when you keep secrets. Pull up here." Monroe climbed out almost as soon as Morgan pulled to a stop, but the FBI man hesitated.
He took his time getting out of the SUV; checked his sidearm; stood at the door and slipped his jacket on before slamming the panel closed and following the older man. It was almost full dark, and night sounds filled the air. Morgan slapped at a mosquito in irritation.
"Safe's just inside," Monroe said over his shoulder. "Won't take but a sec. You can wait in the truck if you want."
"I'll wait on the porch," Morgan said. He could easily see into the cabin's interior, but he also had a view of the surrounding woods. Something was making him nervous, jumpy; it was like a physical sensation, a prickling itch between his shoulder blades. He shrugged restless shoulders and climbed the creaking steps to the wooden porch.
Monroe unlocked the door and stepped inside. He took two steps, toward the living room, and something – he wasn't sure what, some ingrained cop instinct – raised the hairs on the back of his neck. Not wasting any more time, he screamed without turning, "Morgan, RUN!"
He hesitated only a second as the seasoned lawman's desperate cry registered; the words took a moment to find any meaning. His body was moving before his mind fully understood, and he leapt from the porch like the athlete he'd always been. He ran, and he ran hard, but he'd barely made it twenty feet before the shockwave hit. There was a boom (though such a small word seemed laughably inadequate), and Morgan was flying again.
This time he came to rest with a bone-jarring bounce and a decisive thud. Blood leaked from his ears and his nose, and now the only sound that echoed in the silent forest was the mocking crackle of flames as the remains of Tom Monroe's cabin burned to the ground.
Jackson hung up the phone and rubbed the back of her neck with a long sigh. "Anything?" she asked Reid. They had been calling witnesses for what seemed like hours (though of course it hadn't been nearly that long), and she was already bored out of her wits. She understood why Hotch didn't want her in the field, but that didn't mean she had to like it.
He shook his head, disordered curls flying. "Coming up empty. When people leave this town, they mean it."
She offered a grim smile. "I meant it. But sometimes fate has other plans."
"You believe in that sort of thing? Fate? Predestination?"
She wondered if he were making fun of her, but a quick check of his earnest expression told her his curiosity was genuine. "I don't know. I'd like to say no, of course not, but a part of me…" She trailed off with a shrug. "I feel like my life for the last several years as all been leading me right back here. I left Silar Creek with unfinished business, and I won't be able to keep going until it's all settled."
"I think Gideon feels the same way."
"Yes. I hope we can both find the closure we need this time around."
Reid opened his mouth to reply, but his phone interrupted him. "It's J.J.," he said. He hit the button to answer. "J.J., it's Reid. You're on speaker."
"Spencer, it's Jennifer," she said.
Reid and Jackson exchanged looks, and Reid's scrunched, concerned face spoke volumes.
"Spencer, Detective Prentiss and I are at the school. Is Jack there with you?"
"I'm here, J.J.," she said.
"Great. Listen, I need you to come down here. There are some records we need you to take a look at, to get your take on some things. How soon can you be here?"
"Um." She blinked. "Ten minutes?"
"Ten minutes is perfect. We don't need you here, Spencer. Just send Jackson."
"Sure, J.J., no problem," Reid said.
J.J. hung up before anyone could say anything else, and the two agents stared at the phone with identical frowns of puzzlement and displeasure. "What the fuck was that?" Jackson demanded.
"She called me Spencer. She never calls me Spencer."
"And she called herself Jennifer." Jackson drummed her fingertips against the table. "This is bad, boy genius. Like rotten eggs bad. Like…like…Gigli bad."
He didn't get the reference, but he knew she was right. "So what do we do?"
"We aren't doing anything," she said with a lift of her brows. "You are going to call Hotch, and I am going to the school."
"You're not going alone."
"I won't be alone. You're calling Hotch, remember?" She reached out and grabbed his hand firmly in her own. "Listen to me, Spencer Reid. I don't want you anywhere near that school. You're still shaky, and you've just returned from one damn kidnapping; I'm not letting you walk into another. You're going to stay here, and Hotch and Gideon and however many Silar Creek deputies are going to follow me as backup. Understand?"
"You were kidnapped, too," he said, though there was little conviction in it.
She squeezed his fingers. "I know. But it's me he wants, and I have little doubt that he'd kill J.J. and Prentiss if we showed up together."
Reid was silent. Finally, "Do you think Prentiss is dead?"
Jackson closed her eyes; bent her head to rest it on their joined hands. "I really, really hope not," she whispered.
She raised her eyes to meet his. "'Once more unto the breach,' I guess."
He smiled weakly. "Not funny."
"But appropriate." She gave his hand one last squeeze before letting go. "Call Hotch," she said. "Tell him to hurry, and to be subtle."
Reid nodded, and he was lifting his phone to his ear as she hurried from the room.
"Strange no one's moved into the house after all this time," Gideon said as the agents let themselves in.
"There's not much crime in this town; a murder is big news, and enough to scare people off," Hotch said.
They moved from room to room like ghosts, the perfect silence marred only by soft footfalls and the susurrus hiss of pages turning as they flipped through crime scene photos. After several minutes, Gideon shook his head. "There's nothing left here," he said. "And there was precious little to begin with."
"Did you really intend to transfer Jackson back to the Agency without speaking to me first?" Hotch said, apropos of nothing, his voice deceptively mild, as he compared a photo of the Talbots' bedroom to the empty room they stood in.
Gideon shrugged; smiled a catlike half-grin. "I probably wouldn't have done it."
"But you threatened her with it."
"This team is important to her. What other leverage did I have? I knew she wasn't being straight with us about this case."
Hotch slid the photo back into the file and fixed his mentor with a long, measured look. "Jason, I know you've been away from this for a while, but you need to understand something. We're a team here, and if we have a problem with another team member, we deal with it openly and directly. We don't threaten. We don't look for leverage. Is that clear?"
Gideon had the grace to look…if not embarrassed, then at least discomfited. "I realize now that my suspicions were largely misplaced."
"That isn't the point."
He hesitated. Then, "No, I guess it isn't. I—" He broke off abruptly, and his expression turned sharp, like a hunter catching a scent.
"What?" Hotch said, following his gaze to the corner of the room.
"That flower is fresh."
Hotch opened his mouth; closed it again. "I'm sure friends, former students, townspeople, leave tokens in Andrea's memory."
"Outside. There was a small shrine outside. Who would come in, all the way into the bedroom, to leave a flower?"
The agents' eyes met. "He's in town," Gideon said. "Daniel Talbot is in Silar Creek right now, and he knows we are, too."
Hotch's possible reply was cut off as his phone rang. He didn't drop Gideon's suddenly grim gaze as he reached to answer it; foreboding churned in his gut like a bad burrito.
Eep! Hotch has heartburn! That can't be good.C&C is beautiful, dear readers, because I'll be in pain for a while longer and reviews make me smile. :)