Emily dreams of Declan, braiding his hair in tight lines against his scalp, a bright green bead dangling from the tip. She touches the callous that’s formed on her trigger finger to the coloured plastic.
Mo chuisle she says, and when the camera flash goes off her sight is aimed just there, where she kissed his temple and told him to go to his father.
Her phone wakes her, sharp short buzzes from the bedside table three children dead, San Maradino, CA. She uncurls her fingers from the gun under the pillow and goes to shower.
“George Cale, age five,” JJ lists above the low hum of the plane’s engines, “vanished from a park two blocks from her house and found four days later, strangled, in a sewer pipe. Laurie Ellen, seven, taken two weeks after that from her backyard, stabbed and dumped in an oil drum. David Corser, eight, from his youth soccer practice, suffocated and left in a duck blind and Corey Fields, also eight, died of blunt force trauma after his mother reported he never came home after school. Police found his remains in a ditch at a neighbourhood playground.” JJ clicks the remote again and the screen dims.
Emily flips through the file folders, and lingers on Laurie Ellen. Behind the crime scene photos of her body bent and mangled inside the barrel, there’s a school photo clipped to the autopsy report, pink ruffled dress and ribbons woven into her hair. Emily touches the edge of her fingernail against the little girl smile. Her hair is curly blonde, the same white-yellow as Declan’s. Emily shakes herself mentally away from the crooked line of Declan’s smile, the whistle from the gap in his front teeth.
“--different backgrounds, ethnicities, ages, even different causes of death,” Morgan is saying, “why is local PD so sure it’s a single offender?”
“Two things,” Garcia says from the screen of JJ’s laptop. Emily wonders vaguely, as she always does, why she has to turn her cellphone off before take off if a high definition webcam is okay during actual flight. “Long rectangular bruises, congruent with a belt or strap, found on the back and buttocks of each child and the fact they all attended the same elementary school--”
“It’s a small county,” Morgan says, and Emily tunes them out. She goes back to looking at Laurie Ellen. Her eyes are the same shape as Declan’s, the lift of her nose is similar.
“Qu’allait pondre dans l’glise,” Emily mutters. Hotch pauses in flipping through glossy photos. She clears her throat. “Any evidence of sexual abuse?”
“That’s my cue,” Garcia says, and the feather on her watch bounces as she severs the connection.
“None,” JJ says, pulling a water bottle out of a cabinet. Emily shoves half singing French lullabies to the back of her head and twitches away the feeling of Ian’s fingers slipping through her hair. She tips her head against the seatback.
Rossi is watching her, head tilted.
The first time Ian asks her out she says no, that hesitant, it’s not that I’m not attracted it’s just that I’m not sure tone that girls use when they really want to say yes. He looks at her for a long moment, and inclines his head. Emily wonders if she made a mistake.
“Very well, then,” he says, and Lauren Reynolds feels the burr of his voice up and down her spine.
Two weeks later Doyle pours her two fingers of whiskey and toasts to good business. When Lauren smiles she pulls her lower lip between her teeth and Doyle kisses her lightly, his thumb gentle on her jaw. Emily closes her eyes and feels her eyelashes flutter on her skin.
Sheriff Lewis leads them to a portable unit parked outside a pale yellow house with robin blue shutters and windchimes hanging from the awning.
“Dana Johnson,” he says as they barge in, squeezing into the oversized trailer, “five, vanished from the mini-van when her mother was taking in the groceries.” He hands them paper flyers, heavy from the ink of a picture of a brown eyed girl on a tricycle. Her smile has a gap in it where a baby tooth used to be.
“I’ll set up and link with Garcia,” JJ says, already tapping away at her blackberry, and does that thing where she manages to kick local technicians out of their own control center while making them think it was their own idea.
“Rossi and Prentiss, interview the Johnsons, Morgan and I will visit the previous crime scenes. The victims are varied, but they did all attend the same school. Reid, build a geographical profile based on the houses, areas of abduction and dump sites.” Reid nods, and Hotch slips his phone into a pocket, adjusting his jacket. Emily leans on the wall until she can feel the pressure of her holster against her hip. It’s oddly comforting, and as soon as Lewis sorts out the addresses she follows Rossi out the door, nodding at Morgan as he climbs into a black SUV.
Emily walks up a pretty stone path and into a living room, taking a cursory glance around the room, notes the framed portrait of the girl above the fireplace. Rossi engages the parents, huddled together on the couch, in quiet, reassuring condolences, and Emily ducks into the hallway. There are pictures lining the walls, but nothing of real interest. She moves back and goes through the kitchen into the living room again. Rossi inclines his head in the tiniest of nods and she dials her voice down into a calm, soft request.
“May we see Dana’s room?” she asks, and one of the detectives comes and sits with the family. Rossi follows her up the stairs and through a white door with Dana spelled in colourful foam letters. “Woah,” she says, “check out that desk.” It’s real wood, dark and carved, with a docking station for a laptop and a chair nicer than the one Emily has at headquarters.
“Parents seem normal enough,” Rossi says, flipping through the small collection of picture books stacked on the bedside table. “They worship their daughter, maybe too much.”
“Oh, did your parents not have you sit for an oil portrait as a toddler.” Emily teases, and Rossi grins at her. “Her report cards were on the fridge,” Emily says, “laminated.”
“These books are above the average reading level of her age,” Rossi notes, and Emily hums, opening the closet and flicking through the hangers.
“La petite poule grise,” Rossi says, and Emily pauses. “Something about child abductions remind you of French lullabies?”
“Rossi...” Emily says, and Rossi crosses the room to catch her by the wrist.
“It’s okay to need time,” he says softly, “it’s okay to need to process.” Emily disengages from him and picks at her nails through the latex. She stops when she notices that he’s noticing.
“Laurie Ellen,” he says, watching her carefully, “She and Declan share... similar features.”
“Let’s get back and see what the others have got,” she says, brushing him off. Rossi lets her.
Emily leans against the wall, popping the tab on a diet soda, and Morgan shuffles past her. He grins at her, and shifts against the wall until their arms are barely touching.
“Geographical profile is inconclusive,” Reid says, “but I looked at the previous files and noticed a connection: each child has taken the GATE program optional test in the past two months.”
“GATE?” Hotch asks.
“Gifted and Talented Education,” Rossi says, paging through his notes, “The Johnsons mentioned Dana getting into the program.” Morgan frowns.
“We should have known they were all in the same after-school education group,” he says.
“Not necessarily,” Reid says, “they all took the test, they didn’t all meet the requirements.”
“Call Garcia,” Hotch says, and Morgan presses a speed-dial on his phone.
“Baby girl,” he says in greeting, and Emily flips through her own notes. Morgan switches Garcia to speakerphone.
“Test proctors, teachers, GATE administrators, office staff,” Garcia says, and Emily can hear the clatter of her keyboard. “Nothing,” she reports, “but, never fear--Penelope is here, and she never ever disappoints.” She clicks something with relish and Emily’s tablet buzzes, a picture popping up neatly. “Robert Peterson. The custodian, but also, tasked with delivering the test sheets to the office, which he had to sign for.” An address appears under the picture of the man, scruffy beard, thinning hair, a scar through his right eyebrow.
“Let’s go,” Hotch says, “JJ you stay and release the picture to the press.”
Morgan tosses Emily her vest when she swings out of the car, and she straps it on quickly, efficiently, before undoing the snap on her holster and drawing her gun. The metal sings against the leather, and warms under her palms. Morgan grins sharp edges at her before he kicks down the door. She sweeps in with Rossi, moving easily, and Hotch and Morgan branch the other way, perfect tandem. Reid follows, white knuckled on his ridiculous revolver.
“Clear,” Emily says, and hears the echo from Hotch, Morgan, Rossi.
“Guys,” Reid calls, and they meet him in the bedroom. He’s looking in the closet. but Morgan catches the strap of a backpack on the floor and scoops it up, unzipping it.
“Corey Fields,” he reads. Emily sighs and looks past Reid’s shoulder.
“Lightbulb’s been removed,” she notes, and Morgan hunkers down.
“Scratchmarks on the door,” he says, brushes his fingers across the shallow grooves.
“Deadbolt on the outside,” Hotch says. Reid reaches out and takes a leather belt off a hook, the only item in the closet.
“It’s time to deliver the profile,” Hotch says. Emily stays behind as they file past. She fits her nail into the long scar in the wood of the door, the height of a small child. She wonders if Declan scratched at the door before she pulled her hood off and told him everything would be okay.
“Emily?” Reid asks behind her, and she starts. He sounds very young.
“Yeah,” she says, “let’s go.”
“Robert Peterson scored very highly on IQ tests,” Hotch tells the group of policeman and detectives, “yet he works a low wage custodial job. He most likely feels resentment, which has been building into rage his entire life. His juvenile records show a pattern of abuse at the hands of his father, who died six weeks ago. This is what acted as his stresser and caused him to abduct the first child.”
“With these children he is recreating his childhood,” Morgan says, “the beatings, the imprisonment. It’s likely he doesn’t mean to kill them, but his rage eventually cannot be contained.” Emily picks up after him.
“The reason the causes of death are so varied is that he loses his temper and uses whatever is at hand-- a knife, a heavy object, even his own hands. He then feels compelled to grab another child and continue the cycle.”
“He knows he can’t go home,” Rossi says, “he’s most likely looking for a place to dump Dana Johnson. He’s very stressed, but we will continue to operate under the assumption that she’s alive for now. You know your town. We need you to think of places where he can dump her. Look at what he’s already used and find places that are even more remote and provide even easier access. Time is of the utmost essence.”
“Sheriff Lewis,” Hotch says, “a word.” They leave the trailer and Emily squints into the sun, quickly setting.
“You worked as a patrolmen, correct?” Sheriff Lewis blinks.
“Thirty years as a beatcop,” he says, and Reid presses his fingernail into the webbing between his thumb and index finger.
“Thirty years as a beatcop in the area that Peterson has been dumping his victims,” Reid says.
“You know this area,” Morgan says, “where is the best place, the easiest place for him to stash a little girl.”
“She doesn’t have a lot of time,” Rossi says quietly, and Lewis bites his lip.
“There’s... an abandoned cargo pier,” he says slowly, “kids used to break the locks and hold parties in the containers. Not this time of year though, it’s too cold.”
“Cold and dark,” Emily says slowly. Hotch frowns a little harder.
“Let’s go,” he says, and JJ slots her gun into her holster.
Emily has a system. If she’s not driving she takes deep careful breaths and forces herself to focus, to ride the adrenaline into making her senses sharper and her focus immaculate, to steady her hands instead of making them shaky. In through her nose, out through her mouth, her hair up, her vest tight. JJ shakes a little next to her, and Emily thinks she hasn’t been doing this long enough to have a system yet. She leans sideways and presses her ribcage against JJ’s, breathes long and slow. JJ fits her breath against Emily’s and her hands still in her lap.
“Thanks,” she exhales, and Emily smiles at her. JJ grabs her hand, and Emily starts a little. “I’m glad you’re here,” JJ says, talking around instead of at, I’m glad you’re not dead, I’m glad you came back, I am glad you are you.
“Me too,” Emily says, and wraps her other hand around the hilt of her gun.
“Spread out,” Hotch says through the tightly curled wires and grey earpiece fitted above Emily’s ear, “stay in contact.” Emily and Reid split off from Morgan and JJ, protective in their own way, experienced with the not-so-much. Garcia filters through next.
“Containers C6 through C12,” she says, and then to Hotch and Rossi, “D4 through D9, Gridsearch pattern.”
Reid pulls the first door open and Emily sweeps her light across once, twice, three times. “Clear,” she says, and reaches for the next handle.
“Clear,” Reid says after a moment, and they move on.
He’s pulling another door open, the clears ringing in their ears from Morgan and Hotch, when there’s the scratch-ping of gravel on thin metal, and Emily swings, her lightbeam just catching the edge of a leg at full sprint.
“Check that one,” she shouts at Reid, hoping he knows which she means, and takes off, her light bobbing with her stride. She has the vague hope that the ground is mostly even and focuses on listening to the panting in front of her, the scritch scratch of his shoes on the dirt. A spray of gravel slaps her across the cheek as he shifts direction, and she digs her shoes in for a hard turn to the right. She trips a little over the transition from dirt to wooden planks--a pier she thinks, and the moon plays glittering light on the water.
There’s a noise like a car backfiring, and a bit of wood explodes into splinters in front of her. She ducks low and brings her gun up, crouching. She can see his shadow at the edge of the water, and she thinks they must have run out of dock to run on. His gun pops again, panic-fire, and Emily thinks of Declan’s smile on Laurie Ellen’s face. She double taps him neatly in the chest, but not before there’s one lastpop and something catches her hard in the sternum. She grunts, and steps back to find nothing behind her.
“I’ve got the girl,” Reid shouts in her ear, “she’s alive.”
“Mo chuisle,” Emily says clearly, roughly, and then her back hits cold dark water and steals the last bit of breath from her lungs.
Ian never swore in front of her. He opened doors for her and led her first through doors with a hand on her spine, never dipping low to cop a feel. Emily had wondered if all international terrorists preferred to eat snow peas raw and peeled apples in one long curling peel, handfed slices dipped in honey to her on the flat of a sharp edged knife, fingers slip shiny and sticky sweet.
“You are beautiful, Lauren,” he said, and kissed her like she was something to be treasured.
“Your pick, Lauren,” he said, offering her a table of nine millimeters, and kissed gun metal into her mouth like she was something to be respected.
Emily’s breath leaves her in a stream of bubbles. She can feel her pulse in the roof of her mouth.
Morgan she tries to say, but the dark water takes it from her. He won’t forgive her again.
A hand grabs at the front of her vest, slipping, and tightens, wrapping around the front of her shirt, and drags her into the air. Hotch slips, grunting, and her fingertips dip into the water.
“Emily,” Morgan says, skidding to a stop next to Rossi, and they haul her out and onto the deck.
“Erin go bragh,” she mumbles, and spits up seawater, coughing weakly. Hotch puts a hand to his earpiece and says something about an ambulance, but his voice seems very far away.
“You’re okay, Emily,” Morgan says steadily, but his hand on her chest is shaking as he peels her vest away.
“Confíteor Deo omnipoténti,” she gasps, because she’s dying, she’s dying and it’s cold and dark and wet.
“Emily,” Rossi says firmly, trying to anchor her, and they just don’t get it.
“Reid,” she says, her voice rough and breaking, “Reid, Reid, please.”
“What does she want?” Morgan is asking, and Emily hopes Reid is twitching in the way he does when his brain is running ten times faster than everyone elses, because she’d tried last time, she’d tried to say I love you, you are my friend, my partner, my family in a squeeze of Morgan’s hand, sweat slicking against the expanse of his palm.
JJ’s hand presses against Emily’s forehead, soft heat of her skin.
“The ambulance is here,” she says simply, and Emily lets herself drift away. If she is dying again, this way, surrounded by these people, makes the dark bright and her skin warm, like falling asleep in the sunshine.
In Paris Emily sat in cheap hotel rooms under different names and listened to Reid tell her miscellaneous facts about the history of European interior decorating. In tiny cafes Derek smiled his long slow smile with his hand hiding everything except the smallest flash of straight white teeth as he eyed French girls in their high heels and dangly earrings. Garcia pointed out clothes in store windows that Emily would look amazing in. Rossi turned his nose up at the wine she drank, read signs in rolling French and Hotch reminded her to clean her gun every night, to keep a knife in the small of her back and a twenty two strapped to her ankle.
Emily wakes to sharp bleach smell and unflattering lighting. She blinks.
“Bruised rib,” JJ says, “and shock. Caught you in the vest. How are the drugs?” Emily takes an experimental breath and smiles a little.
“Really good,” she says, and blinks some more. “Jayje,” she says quietly, her favourite way to say her name, “I--” she struggles. JJ takes her hand, carefully, and brushes her thumb across Emily’s wrist.
“We should have a girl’s night,” JJ says, “dinner. Alcohol.”
Emily laughs, and then winces. “Yes,” she says, and JJ holds her hand until the rest of team comes back.
“You’re killing me, girl,” Morgan says. Emily grins at him. She lets him help her into a seat on the jet, and doesn’t protest when he picks a seat where he can keep an eye on her. Reid shuffles across from her, cards trailing from one hand to the other.
“Show-off,” she says.
Rossi settles across from her when Reid falls asleep.
“Shall I sing you a French lullaby?” he asks, and she snorts.
“I’d rather you didn’t,” she says, and he smiles.
“I have a lovely singing voice,” he says, and she tamps down a laugh, wincing at the pain in her ribs.
“He has a real chance,” Rossi says, and Emily decides not to pretend she doesn’t now what he’s talking about.
“That’s all I wanted,” she says quietly, and Rossi nods.
“We know,” he says.
Hotch waits for her by the door.
“Dana Johnson has been released from the hospital into the care of her parents,” he says, “no lasting physical damage.”
“Good,” she says, and it is.
“A win,” Hotch says, steady.
“Yes,” Emily says, and it is.