5 AM Saturday, Midtown, NYC:
“What have we got?” Prentiss ducked under the crime tape that partially blocked the apartment door. It was still dark outside the windows, the emergency lights in the hallway dotting the smoke-stained walls with small pools of yellow light. Morgan lifted his chin to acknowledge her arrival, but it was Rossi who spoke.
“The vic’s name is Preston Sutler,” he said, nodding toward a half-charred chair sitting in the middle of the room. Shreds of burned rope still clung to the wood in some places, scuff marks on the floor indicating where the coroner and his assistants had been and gone. “He was a reporter for Newsday, worked current events.”
“So much for keeping any details under wraps.” Morgan headed for the small galley kitchen and shone his flashlight up at the ceiling, the beam picking up the dangling wires that had become familiar. “The papers will be all over this one.”
Prentiss turned where she stood, surveyed the room. The fire hadn’t spread far this time, thanks to the firewalls and the fire department’s quick arrival. They hadn’t been quick enough to save Sutler, but at least there was more evidence left behind to profile than before. “What’s his connection to the others?”
Hotch appeared out of the bedroom, one room less damaged by the fire, with a file folder in his hands. “He was the reporter originally assigned to cover the Creche investigation back when it was all unfolding,” he replied. “It looks like he kept a file with all his clippings and notes.” An officer handed him an evidence bag and he slid the folder inside. “There are folders thrown all over the place in there, and this was open on the desk.”
“Is that what the UnSub was looking for?” Prentiss took a few steps closer to get a look at the damp and smoke-stained folder in Hotch’s hands, the layers of paper inside curling around the edges as they began to dry.
“Maybe he only took the thing he needed,” Morgan suggested, rejoining the group. “Got the information he was looking for, and torched the place to cover his tracks.”
“Whatever it was, Sutler didn’t give it up easy,” the young medical examiner’s assistant approached them, eyes darting from one member of the team to another before finally settling on Hotch. “He was beaten; his jaw and nose were broken, and my guess is that it was right before his death. There may be other injuries, but those were the obvious ones. We’ll know more in a few hours.”
“He knew something,” Prentiss said. “He found something important, and he died for it.”
“Morgan, call Garcia,” Hotch instructed. “I want everything Sutler wrote about the Creche, printed, submitted, or otherwise.”
“On it,” Morgan nodded, pulling out his phone as he moved toward the window to get better reception. “Heyyy, sweet baby girl,” he purred into the phone, that ridiculous noise that Garcia never fell for, but always bent to. “I know it’s early. But we need you to-“ he paused, flashed a brilliant smile. “I always need you, mama. But right now we need you to run another search...”
7 AM Saturday, Newsday offices, New York:
There was nothing unusual about Preston Sutler's work desk, except for the lack of him at it. "He's a fixture around here-" The editor-in-chief cut herself off and shook her head, greying hair curling around a brass hair clip, and her jaw tight. She picked at the cuff of her blazer and began again. "Was a fixture. Some of the younger reporters like to joke that Preston was installed in the building along with the original wiring. It's difficult to imagine this place without him."
The papers on Sutler's desk here were all notes relating to recent stories; at least from what Prentiss could see. "Sutler had a file at home about an old story - the Creche case? Do you have any idea why he might have been working on it again?"
Flinn pursed her lips and nodded. "Preston made his name with that story. God; that would be what; eighteen years ago now?"
"Sixteen," Rossi supplied, perching on the edge of Sutler's desk. He glanced over it much as Emily had done, his gaze flickering across the papers, the little magnet desk toy, the photo frame with a picture of Sutler shaking hands with the second-to-last mayor.
"Sixteen," Flinn corrected herself. "It was the arson cases. Some of the victims had been sources for him back then. He had never really let that story go; the loose threads always bothered him."
Prentiss raised an eyebrow and Rossi looked equally interested. "What sorts of loose threads?"
Flinn paused for a moment. "A few things about the forged papers, I know that. And he had a fixation on an abduction – not that everyone believed that it actually happened. I don’t think he was ever able to bring enough information together to settle the issue to his satisfaction, not after the Creche administration shredded half their records."
“Who was abducted?” Rossi and Prentiss exchanged looks, but Rossi’s expression was as confused as Prentiss felt.
"No-one, officially." Flinn sorted through a small stack of notebooks on the corner of the desk. "During the year the agency was falling apart, one of the infants in foster care vanished from the official records. There are intake records, and about a month’s worth of notes, and then nothing.
“Preston was convinced that one of the case workers took the baby. She left town around the same time. It was more likely to be something as simple as adoption paperwork getting lost, of course. Lord knows with all the problems with that place, one more file getting tossed or shredded wouldn’t be surprising.”
Flinn flipped the pages of the last book, frowned, and replaced the stack. "I know he kept his notes on all that business, but I don't see them here. Maybe the book is at his apartment."
Prentiss scanned the room, picking out a handful of people who were either eavesdropping on the conversation, or trying to read lips. "How many of Sutler's co-workers knew about his interest in the Creche case?"
"It was no secret," Flinn shook her head, glasses chain bouncing lightly on her shoulder. "I'd say most everyone who'd been here longer than a year. He used to get teased about hunting for Amelia Earhart next."
"With your permission, Ms. Flinn," Prentiss said, fingertips resting on the desk. "We need to take some time to look through Mr. Sutler's desk, and have our technical analyst log in remotely to his computer." Not that they needed it, but this would be a whole lot faster if they didn’t have to start calling around for a warrant on a Saturday.
Flinn hesitated, eyes darting to the computer and a dark shadow sitting low on her brow.
“We can do it with your permission now, or we can get a warrant,” Rossi said, standing and letting the jovial edge slide away from his voice. “Easy way, or hard way, Ms. Flinn.”
She didn’t answer immediately, gave them both a measuring look, then shook her head. “Get a warrant for the computer. Take what you need from his desk. I'll be in my office if you need anything else."
"Ten bucks says she'll know what we dig up before we do," Rossi muttered under his breath after Flinn walked away, the sound of her clicking heels fading until it was buried under the noise of the newsroom.
Prentiss looked up, and three heads ducked down behind their cubicle walls again. "That's a sucker’s bet," she replied, and Rossi smirked. "I just hope there's something here to find."
9 AM Saturday, Midtown West, New York:
She moves so freely, so easily, as though care and caution have long since been forgotten. Through the gauzy curtain I can see her dancing to some song made silent by the panes of glass and security bars between us. Her prancings are obscene. A person who has been the cause of so much pain should be wracked by it, bent under the press of it, burning with the foreknowledge of the reckoning to come.
He was supposed to be here, but he is not. There are cream curtains in one bedroom, curtains that she drew against the night when I sat and watched in the darkness. Ground floor apartment meant for two, four windows, two bedrooms. Blue in the other, simple and plain. A boy’s room. It sits empty.
She may know I wait. Perhaps she moved him again, to keep him from me. The dancing and the singing, the unashamed display of the humanity she does not have, all of it could be a trick, a design to lure me into complacency.
I will not be fooled.
I knock and she opens. Lenore is surprised to see me. Surprised and alarmed, there is fear in her eyes when she begins to understand; that this is the first payment in a debt that has been gathering interest for a very long time.
Her hair gleams in my fist, yellow gold coiled around my skin. Her screams- her mouth beneath my palm is wet, her lips moving even as I press down, warm and vital and alive, damn her all to hell.
There is the scrape of teeth as she bites, but one blow ensures that she will not try such things again. No splinter of bone distracts me this time; the pulpy give of flesh under fist is enough. She collapses into my arm, the better to bring her out of here and to a place where we won’t be disturbed.
She has many things to tell me, and I am ready to take her confession.
10 AM Saturday, Midtown West, New York:
“I’ll only be a few minutes,” Teddy promised, turning his key in the lock and pushing open the outside door. “I just have to change and grab my uniform.”
Billy followed him inside the apartment building, the familiar sights and smells wrapping around him as the door closed behind him. The hall carpet was clean but frayed at the edges, the coat of white paint on the walls chosen as easy-to-clean rather than any nod to fashion. Teddy’s apartment was on the first floor, the cozy two-bedroom just big enough for him and his mom.
There were times when Billy seriously preferred the Altmans’ place to his own; he preferred the bright colours and piles of throw pillows and Mrs. Altman’s cheerful singing to the muted tones and constant rushing-around that was life with the Kaplans. Teddy must have inherited his gentle, easy-going nature from his mother, along with his blond hair.
Right now that gentleness had been replaced by confusion, as Teddy jimmied his key in the lock. Billy snapped out of his wandering thoughts before he actually crashed into Teddy. “What’s wrong?”
“Something’s wrong,” Teddy frowned, pulled the key out and tried the door. The handle turned easily, and the door creaked inward just a touch. “It’s not locked.”
“Maybe your mom’s home?” Billy hazarded a guess.
“She never leaves it unlocked.” Teddy opened the door and stepped inside, Billy following close behind. “Mom?”
Billy heard Teddy suck in air before he got inside far enough to see why.
“Aw, shit,” Teddy breathed out, his hands clenching into fists.
The apartment had been ransacked, cupboards and drawers opened and papers strewn in unceremonious piles on the floor. Billy could see into the kitchen from where they stood. Drawers were standing open in there as well. Mrs. Altman’s purse was sitting on the end table where she always left it, but this time open and with her wallet half hanging out. She had to be home, then-
“Mrs. Altman?” Billy called out, stepping past Teddy and moving further into the living room. “Are you home?”
There was no answer, and there wasn’t going to be one. The apartment felt empty.
“Her purse is here, Ted; why would she leave her purse here?” He closed his mouth on the words even as he said them, regretting it. She wouldn’t leave it, that was the thing – and if she wouldn’t leave it, and someone was here, then-
“Mom?” Teddy broke out of his shock and ran down the hall, shoving doors open. They slammed back, the sound echoing; one bedroom, then the other, the bathroom last. He stood at the end of the hall and shook his head, fear widening his eyes as he started back toward the living room, and Billy. “She’s not here.”
“Ted-“ There was a smear of red on the back of the couch, and now that Billy was looking at it, another down the arm, and drops on the floor, some smeared, some not, a half of a footprint. Oh, God. “I think that’s blood.”
Later, he might be a little bit proud at how he managed to keep his voice from shaking, to keep a semblance of emotional control. In the moment, all he could think about was Teddy; Teddy and Mrs. Altman and-
“We have to call the police, like, now.”
Ted already had his phone out and to his ear, and a second later Billy could hear the tinny voice of the 911 dispatcher answering the call. “My name is Teddy Altman,” Ted started, and his eyes never wavered from Billy’s, even as Billy sped down the hall to grab Teddy’s free hand. “I need help. My apartment’s been broken into, and I think something bad’s happened to my mom.”
11 AM Saturday, Midtown West, New York:
“Not that I don’t feel for the kid,” Morgan spoke quietly to Prentiss as they moved in tandem down the hallway, “but why did they ask us along on this? This has nothing to do with our investigation.” And there was still too much to wade through on the cases that actually were connected. A possible kidnapping or homicide was a horrible thing, but this was the NYPD’s catch to make, not theirs.
“Maybe not,” Prentiss shook her head and shrugged one shoulder dismissively. “But it’s a huge coincidence if it isn’t. Think about it. Billy Kaplan’s got a connection to one UnSub, and then another one kidnaps his best friend’s mother? Our choices are either two killers working in the area who coincidentally targeted the same group of people, or we have one UnSub who’s changed MOs.”
“If Reid was here he could tell you exactly which of those was most unlikely,” Morgan pointed out with a grin, one that he dropped as they turned the corner. The boys were in the hallway, looking shaken and talking to a uniformed officer, while a couple of other cops could be seen through the open door dusting for fingerprints.
The apartment had been turned over the same as the others; Morgan could see the pattern immediately. Paperwork disturbed, drawers opened, but valuables – purse and wallet on the end table, photographs missing from the wall but a video game system on the entertainment center still there.
“Blood on the floor, the wall by the door-“ Prentiss paced out the movement, following the trail. “She fought back, got hit, struggled- then he brought her outside through the front door.”
“That’s brazen, and at midday?” Morgan whistled low. “If this is our guy, he’s escalated fast.” He pivoted, scanning the room. The lock on the door was intact, the windows closed- “He blitzed her at the door; there’s no sign of a struggle there. He got inside and then attacked.”
“She might have known him,” Prentiss suggested. “That could explain why she opened the door.”
“One thing I don’t get,” Morgan frowned. “If this is our guy, what’s the connection to the rest of the victims? Sarah Altman is a real estate agent; her name isn’t on the list of adoptive and birth parents that Garcia sent us.”
Prentiss nodded, looked back towards the door. “And why take her, rather than burning the place down around her? Unless… middle of the day; maybe he was worried about being interrupted? Or someone noticing the fire too quickly?”
“Or he’s got another reason entirely.” Morgan crouched down to look at a pile of papers on the floor – bills, flyers, recent mail. “We need to talk to the kids. Maybe they can give us something more to go on.”
The police officers were kind enough when they asked their questions, but they were carefully keeping Teddy back far enough so that he couldn’t see what the others were doing in the apartment. It was probably better that he not watch them taking samples and photographs and things, but did it have to take so long? They should be out there following him, finding Mom, doing something other than waiting in the hall for … whatever.
The FBI showing up was unexpected, and Teddy felt Billy’s fingers tighten on his when the pair of agents headed inside. It was two of the three he had met last night, and the familiarity helped, a little. They walked back out a few minutes later, heading over toward Billy and Teddy. He straightened his shoulders, drawing himself up tall.
“Ted?” The dark-haired woman spoke first; they’d been introduced (sort of) the night before at the station.
“Yeah?” Billy’s fingers stayed laced tightly through his and he wasn’t going to give up that point of contact for anything. Not unless Billy pulled back first.
“Can you tell us what happened? Anything you can remember will help.”
Both agents were watching him, him and Billy, with an intensity that sort of crawled under his skin and stuck there. It wasn’t a bad kind of thing, not accusation, but definite interest, and curiosity, and it made him want to remember everything.
“I don’t know,” Teddy answered, and felt the weight of their imagined disappointment already settling down on him. He tried again. “I stayed at Billy’s – at the Kaplans’ house – last night, and we were just supposed to stop and get my stuff for the game.” The game. Shit. Not that any of that was important now…
He only half-heard his own voice as he explained, his mind buzzing with half-finished thoughts that he couldn’t let play out. He felt rather than saw Billy behind him, a constant solid line of warmth. That helped, gave him something else to focus on. Anything other than the constant underlying throb of mom, mom, mom.
“If we walk through the apartment,” one of the agents was asking – Morgan, that was his name – “would you be able to tell us what’s missing?”
Teddy took a breath, tried to find his calm. “Sure,” he nodded, when he could trust his voice not to jump with nerves. “I can do that.”
It wasn’t much, but what was gone was weird; even the FBI seemed to agree on that. The wallet that hung on the hook by the door where his mom kept copies of stuff like insurance cards and their birth certificates (in case of fire or flood, grab this; that was the house rule); that was gone.
So was a photo album that had mostly contained pictures of Teddy (some of his mom, but she was usually behind the camera, so). A couple of pictures off the wall.
If there was anything missing from the papers that had been scattered, Teddy couldn’t tell. But her laptop, the camera, his mom’s jewellery (except the wedding ring; she always wore that, even though his dad had died before he was born). All of that was still there.
The police packaged the laptop to take it and look for clues, took a photo of her off of his phone for the APB, and then Billy and Teddy had nothing more to do but sit and wait until Billy’s dad could come (do you have anyone to stay with? Yeah; he did) to pick them up.
A phone rang in the apartment and Agent Morgan answered, his voice drifting out through the open kitchen window to where Teddy and Billy were sitting on the front stoop. Billy’s hands were warm and steady on his arms, his fingers rubbing gentle circles over Teddy’s skin.
“Are you serious?” Morgan’s voice rose and fell and Teddy listened, leaned back to hear him better, nudged Billy and looked up pointedly. Billy stopped moving and listened. “When did he run?”
There was a pause, then, angrier, “How is it that social services can’t keep track of one kid? Thomas Shepherd is our only witness right now; we can’t lose him. Yeah. Prentiss and I are about done here.” A final pause. “It’s definitely connected, Hotch. Garcia’s running some searches now. We’ll be there in ten.”
Billy’s eyes were storm-filled and dark when Teddy looked down again, the warm brown shadowed into black. “Come on,” Billy murmured, glancing at the door to the building and their theoretical escort, the uniformed officer leaning on the railing and talking in his phone.
“Come on where?” Teddy asked, but it wasn’t like he was going to have a choice about it. Billy had that look that meant he had his mind made up, and that meant that Teddy’s two choices were to go along for the ride, or wait and watch while Billy did it – whatever it was – anyway.
“You heard him,” Billy leaned in, palms still pressed against Teddy’s forearms, elbows digging into his knees. “This has something to do with the case, and now they’ve lost Thomas. And if he knows something that can help find your mom, or if he’s in trouble too- we have to do something.”
“Do what?” Teddy shook his head and frowned, leaning in as well. He dropped his gaze to study Billy’s hands, his own fingers, the scuff marks on the knees of his cargos. “Eli’s right, Bill; we can’t get in the middle of an investigation. They’re looking for my mom, they’ll find her.”
Except that he heard the doubt in his own voice, the strain of it, how much he wanted to move, to do something, to fight for her himself instead of handing it over to the agents and the police and the rest.
Billy heard it too.
“Not if they don’t find Thomas,” Billy said, eyes alight now with fresh purpose. “That’s something we can do. Jonas said he can trace him through the cell number he found. We find him, bring him back, and then he can tell them whatever they need to know to find your mom.” Billy was good at that, at making absolutely insane things sound plausible, possible, even right. “Besides,” he finished, “it’s better than waiting around here doing nothing. We can help.”
“Fine,” Teddy nodded reluctantly. “Let’s go.” He stood, grabbed his bag.
Billy fumbled to his feet, pitched his voice loud so he could be heard through the window. "Hi, dad. Yeah, we're ready to go." One last check behind them and then they ran, ducked around the corner, and sprinted away. Billy was already on the phone. “Jonas, dude, get everyone, meet us at the diner. We need your help.”