Chapter 8: Screaming at the Stars
Maybe I should drop you at your door,
Or leave tonight and vanish up the shore;
Anywhere but here.
-Better Than Ezra, "At the Stars"
Night was falling fast over Anastasia State Park. Beneath the hammock forest shadows lurked in dark, liquid pools. The dunes muffled sound, but the coquina rock quarry echoed with night noises. The park had been cleared of visitors, and now only the team and local P.D. remained, combing the lightless corners and flat, empty expanses of stygian water.
"Did you talk to them at all after they left the station?" Gideon was asking a guilt-ridden Hotch.
"No; E.J. was going to check in after they hit the first dumpsite. I didn't hear from her, but I figured they were still investigating. They're good agents, Gideon; I trusted them." A sliver of moon was just beginning to rise, but it offered scant illumination, and Hotch scanned the murky park with hooded, brooding eyes.
"No one blames you, Hotch. Spencer needed a chance to apologize, and it was better for him to do that somewhere neutral. It was a good plan," Gideon assured the younger agent.
Hotch shook his head, refusing the comfort his former mentor was offering. "We know the UnSub abducts young couples from the park. I sent Reid and E.J. here knowing they were fighting, that they might not be as focused or as careful as they should be. I put them at risk, and now..."
"Hotch, man, you can beat yourself up over it later. Right now we have to concentrate on finding them. They're good agents, like you said, even if the kid has been a little off lately. They know the UnSub's game, and they can definitely outsmart him and stay alive. Now it's our job to take advantage of the time they're gonna buy us," Morgan told him.
Hotch opened his mouth to reply, but before he could form any words, his phone rang. "Garcia," he told them as he glanced at the caller ID. "Garcia, you're on speaker."
"Give us what you got, baby girl," Morgan said, the lightness of his words belied by the somber tone of his voice.
"I'm guessing you haven't found Reid or Jack," she said by way of greeting.
The three men shared a grim glance. "Not yet, sweetheart, but we haven't finished looking yet," Morgan said gently.
They heard her take a deep, gasping breath. "Ok. Ok. I'm just trying not to think about..." She trailed off, and they heard a little squeak.
"It's alright, baby, we know," Morgan comforted. "Just tell us what you've found."
"I checked missing persons like you asked," she said, voice sounding a little steadier. "I only got one hit, but I think it's a good one. Last spring Amanda George and Jamal Warren dropped off the radar mid-semester. Jamal resurfaces about two weeks later, but there's no sign anywhere of Amanda."
"Were they a couple?" Gideon asked.
"Honestly, sir, I have no way of knowing. There were no newspaper articles or anything else about it. They were both C to B students with few extracurricular activities. I can tell you they had Chemistry together the semester they disappeared."
"Hhmm," Hotch mused, "quite a bit different from his current victimology. Where is Jamal Warren now?"
"He's living just north of Jacksonville. He works for a construction company, and other than the employment record and driver's license, there's not much information about him."
"Alright, Garcia, thanks. Call us if you find anything else," Gideon told her.
"We'll talk to you soon, baby girl," Morgan promised before Hotch snapped the phone closed.
"Let's keep looking here for now," Hotch said. "Tomorrow we'll head north to talk to Jamal Warren. I want to know what he knows about our UnSub."
"What if it's just coincidence?" Morgan asked. "It was a year ago."
"Maybe he just prefers to hunt in the spring," Gideon suggested. "The weather's changing, people are coming back to the park. It's not too hot. It's a good time to people watch."
"I don't think it's coincidence," Hotch said. "He probably started just watching, enjoying the cracks he noticed in seemingly solid relationships. At some point he came up with the idea of observing them more closely, in an environment of his choosing. He started slowly, and gradually he escalated to Amanda and Jamal. He let Jamal live like he promised, but it was a let-down."
"Next time he decided to kill them both," Gideon concluded. "More satisfying, and fewer witnesses."
Morgan's jaw clenched. He looked away, brows furrowed. "What if he doesn't wait for them?" he managed in a tense, hard voice.
"He'll wait," Gideon said. "Not forever. But he'll wait."
"Agents!" It was Detective Rodriguez hurrying towards them, J.J. following at a near run. "We found something," he said.
"Take us," Gideon instructed simply, and the three men set off after them at a jogging clip. They topped a small dune to find a clearing with one of the wooden restroom shacks. The older agent frowned and hurried to follow Rodriguez and J.J. into the men's room.
"I think he must've gotten sloppy," the detective said, pointing out the hypodermic needle lying guilelessly in the middle of the bathroom floor.
"No," Gideon disagreed. "He wanted us to find this."
"Is that blood?" Hotch asked, kneeling to examine the small, rusty droplets scattered across the tile.
"Looks like it," Morgan confirmed. He ran a hand over his head a few times and tried to focus. "Ok, so Reid comes in here to use the restroom. He's washing his hands." Morgan stood in front of the sink, imitating his young colleague. "The UnSub comes up behind him and sticks him."
"Jack's waiting outside," Gideon continued. "The UnSub runs out, posing as a concerned Good Samaritan."
"E.J. follows him back in here," Hotch said, rising and moving to the door. "She sees Reid passed out on the floor, so she kneels down next to him." He knelt, facing the back wall just as Jackson had done a few hours earlier.
"The UnSub comes up behind her and knocks her out," Morgan said, swinging an imaginary club at his boss' head.
"The blood splatters as she falls," Hotch said, pointing. "Detective," he asked, standing again, "how far are we from the nearest parking area?"
"Half mile, give or take," he estimated. "There's no way he carried them that far in the middle of the day. Someone would have seen him."
Morgan was peering out the open restroom door, his face creased with thought. "Maybe not," he said contemplatively.
"What are you thinking?" Hotch asked as he moved to join him.
"Are ranger vehicles allowed back here?" he asked Rodriguez.
"Yeah, they can go anywhere besides on the dunes or in the nesting areas."
Morgan raised his brows at Hotch. "If he's a ranger or a volunteer, he'd have access to the SUVs they drive. He could've parked right here."
"Jack would've seen the car," Gideon said. "She would've been on the lookout for a ranger."
"Maybe he parked a bit further off, then went back and got it," Hotch suggested.
J.J., who had been tense-faced and silent up to this point, pulled a park map out of her back pocket and spread it open. "Easy enough to find out," she remarked. "Reid marked off all the places where vehicles can park, including official areas. I thought it might come in handy tonight."
Hotch's mouth lifted in an appreciative smile. "Good work, J.J." He pointed a blunt finger at an area marked in red for official parking only. "It's just up the trail," he said. "Reid and E.J. wouldn't have gotten that far yet, so they wouldn't have seen anyone parked there."
"Perfect spot for an ambush," Gideon remarked bleakly.
The night around them seemed impenetrably dark, and they all wondered when - or if - it would begin giving up its secrets.