2:00 pm, Saturday, Springfield, NJ:
It was amazing how quickly a lifetime could be reduced to ash. How twenty minutes – or had it been longer? Everything was blurry now, even just four months later. How twenty minutes of flame could take a structure down to its barest essence, lay bare the brick and steel bones beneath the shell for the world to see.
The old house had been taped off for ages, insurance not willing to pay up until it could be proven that Tommy hadn’t been to blame, the place uninhabitable until the money was there for repairs, and then- well.
More than just the house’s bones had been exposed, hadn’t they? Now Frank and Mary were fighting over every dollar, the house was still here, plastic sheets over the smoke-hollow roof a half-assed cover against the wind and the rain, and Tommy was ash.
He sank down on the stoop, leaned his shoulder tentatively against the column, stared up at the porch roof extending overhead, smoke-stained black and grey. At least the tree-house was untouched; how much of his stuff was still up there? How much had been carted away during the investigation, looking for cans of gasoline, traces of ... god knows what. Explosives? Hit lists? Secret diaries? They probably hadn’t thought much of his small stash of food, the video games, the handful of magazines he’d stolen from the box on the floor of Frank’s closet.
Whatever. Travelling light was better; alone was better. And actually alone was better than being alone and not knowing it. There’s less to be surprised about. There’s nothing left for anyone to take away.
A car pulled into the driveway. Some dumbass getting lost and needing space to make a turn?
The doors opened and people got out; kids his age. Tommy straightened, grabbed the straps of his backpack, tensed. They were all on his right; he could run to the left, get around the back of the house, hit the path that cut across the Masons’ yard.
“Thomas Shepherd?” A black kid, tall-ish, was frowning at him as he drew closer. More of them followed, two girls- woah, on the legs on the brunette. Little blonde, hugging close to a white guy with a buzz cut. And two more on the other side of the car, big blond jock and-
And – his brain skittered sideways, yeahsurerightoutofyourfuckingmind. A dark-haired guy, about his age and height. Similar haircut. Different colouring. “They’re like mirrors of each other,” he heard blonde-ponytail breathe out.
“Tommy,” he corrected. No-one called him Thomas except his parents, and that- yeah. “Who the hell are you?”
“Billy Kaplan. I’m-“ the guy paused, swallowed, took a deep breath. “I’m your brother.”
“Bullshit.” Tommy cracked the answer back, whip-fast and stinging. “I don’t have a brother. I’m a one-and-only, broke-the-mould kind of guy.”
Billy took a step forward, and Tommy resisted the urge to take a step back up the stairs. “Look at us, Tommy. We’re twins. Wanda Lehnsherr is our birth mother. You got adopted first. I ended up with a family in New York.” He was earnest, so fucking earnest, brown eyes wide and pleading. Tommy had never seen that expression in his own mirror. “Doesn’t any of this sound familiar?”
“You seriously buy that?” Tommy asked over Billy’s shoulder, looking over the rest of his Scooby gang. He looked back at Billy, then came further down the stairs. Having his feet on the ground gave him somewhere to run, if things got weird. “No-one separates twins,” he scoffed.
“These guys did.” He was a persistent little twerp, Tommy would give him that. “The agency was on the take – they got paid more for single adoptions than for multiples. Tommy, look at us! We’re identical.”
No. Nonono. Not another new and fucked up thing. “Not a chance in hell,” Tommy said, making a show of looking Billy up and down, and letting the smirk grow on his face. See? I’m not a nice guy. You don’t want to claim me. “For one thing, I’m much better looking.”
“This was a waste of time.” That pronouncement came from the kid who had gotten out of the car first.
Kid-with-buzzcut came closer. “The family reunion can wait, Bill; we’re on a deadline here.”
The leggy brunette had been looking behind him, her eyes roaming over the burned-out shell, the ragged caution tape, the trampled mud in place of flowerbeds. “Kate, by the way. That’s Cassie, Jonas, Eli. Teddy. You’ve met Billy. This was your house?”
“Yeah. Until some asshole with a Zippo took exception to the decor. Can’t say as I blame him, but there are easier ways to redecorate.” She gave him a look over the rims of her sunglasses, like she knew he was totally full of shit, and he grinned.
“Your biting wit must have made you a lot of friends on the inside,” Billy said, scowling.
Cassie glared at him. “Knock it off, Billy. He’s got no reason to trust us right now-”
And wasn’t that just precious? “I can fight my own battles, princess.”
“GUYS!” Teddy’s bellow was thundering, and the group fell silent. He was flushed red, breathing heavily, and he looked about thiiiiiis far from actually ripping someone’s arm out of its socket, wookie-style, if he didn’t get what he wanted.
Tommy weighed his options. He shut up.
Teddy took a couple of steps that put him right into the middle of the group, leaving Billy a couple of steps behind. He loomed over Tommy, his eyes ablaze. “Look. I’ve been patient with all this, but we need you right fucking now. The guy who burned down your house? He kidnapped my mom. And you’re only one on the planet who saw anything, or knows anything. So this is how it’s going to work. You’re going to call the FBI, like now, and tell them whatever it is that you saw that night that you didn’t tell the police.”
“What makes you think I saw anything?” Tommy asked. Red and orange and smoke flashed behind his eyes, the ropes of the ladder burning his hands as he slid down, the taste of bile and fear and smoke mingling in his nose and mouth.
“You had to.” And Teddy was pleading now, not threatening. “Because if you didn’t, my mom is as good as dead.”
Don’t give this to me, don’t put this on me, what makes you think I can fix anything- “Sharp reasoning, bro. And you figured a road trip to pick up a total stranger was the solution to your problems?”
Billy pushed his way into the space between them, eyes blazing. “No, we thought that a witness to a crime might actually be interested in helping to catch the guy responsible.”
“And how are you get involved in this? Are you his PR guy?” Tommy laid the sarcasm on thick, a last-ditch effort.
“His boyfriend.” Hunh; well, that was another way they weren’t identical.
Which was because they weren’t identical. They weren’t anything. Billy was just some guy who wanted something.
But Billy was braced for something now, the lines of his body drawn taut, fists balled up. Fight or flight, all too familiar. One way they were the same. Tommy didn’t react, not the way Billy was ready for, and slowly, Billy’s shoulders unknotted, just a little.
“That’s what you guys are here for?” Tommy cocked his head at Kate. At least she wasn’t looking at him like he was a criminal or a science experiment. “To make me turn myself in to the feds?”
“Not turn yourself in.” Kate shook her head. “Just tell them what you know. Tommy, come back with us.”
“Not a chance.”
“I told you he wouldn’t go along with this.” Eli was on the ‘criminal’ side of things, obviously enough, while Cassie just kept looking between him and Billy. He gave it five minutes before she tried to swab for DNA samples.
Kate glared at him. “Shut up, Eli. Tommy. Where were you planning on going before we got here?”
“Nowhere. Everywhere,” he gestured widely. “My life’s an open road, gorgeous. Just crammed full of possibility.”
He was so crammed full of shit.
She took off her sunglasses and looked at him, and the world canted sideways on its axis. “Seriously.” Her voice was dry, but then it softened to something more real. She had amazing eyes. “You can take off now, go wandering down your lonely open road, and see how far that gets you. Or you can sack up, and come with us, and help us save the day.
“Teddy needs you. Mrs. Altman needs you.”
And that – yeah. He’d be willing to do an awful lot to keep her looking at him like that, like he was important to something, like she could actually see him. Like he mattered.
“... fine. Whatever.” But his back was a little straighter, his smirk a little warmer, and when she side-eyed him right back, he might have felt something in his chest tighten. Not that he’d ever admit it.
“We better move, if we don’t want to get stuck in some shitty New Jersey holding cell for hours,” Jonas called out from beside the car, his laptop out and propped on the roof. “Cops, incoming.”
Kate smiled, not looking away. “Get in the car. Come be a hero.”
“If I’m the big damn hero here, I call shotgun.”
“Hell no, I am not squeezing in between the four lovebirds.”
“Tell you what, Eli. You drive, and Kate can sit on my lap.”
2:15 pm, Saturday, 19th Precinct, NYC:
“Doctor Reid?” An officer stuck his head around the door, and Reid looked up. “We’ve got a phone call, from some kid calling himself Thomas Shepherd. He wants to speak to the FBI. We’ve already had a couple of crank calls today – kids, screwing around – but this sounds legit.”
“Patch him through,” Reid was already on his feet, reaching for the phone that sat at one end of the desk. A button on it started to flash red.
JJ had her cell to her ear already, and she nodded at Reid with her hand over the receiver. “Garcia’s starting a trace. Go.”
It beeped as he reached for it, and he hit the speaker button. The line connected, static and background noise making it difficult to hear at first. There were voices – female and male – having a distant argument, traffic noise, breathing. “Thomas Shepherd?”
“Who wants to know?” The voice on the phone was young, packed full of bravado, taut with nerves.
“My name is Spencer Reid, I’m with the FBI,” Reid began, settling down into the chair closest to the phone. He picked up a pen and turned it over and again, the plastic barrel and metal clip smooth and sharp against the pads of his fingers. “I heard you wanted to speak with us.”
“None of this is about what I want,” Thomas replied, his tone bitter. “Spence.”
Derision, attempting to grasp on to a semblance of control, he wouldn’t speak at his own hearing, not even in his own defence. Classic issues with abandonment, despite adoption as an very young infant. Approach with kindness.
“But you’re calling in anyway,” Reid replied, tuning out JJ’s presence, Garcia’s monitoring, Burdick entering the room behind him. There was just this conversation, the boy at the other end, and the connection he needed to make. “Thank you for that. We tried to reach you at the group home, and they told us you’d run away. Are you somewhere safe?”
There was a pause, had he mis-stepped already? “Why do you care?” Thomas’ voice cut in. “I’ve been through this before, so cut the crap. You’ll ask me questions, then tell me I’m lying, then arrest me for something I didn’t do. It’s getting old.”
“We know you didn’t have anything to do with the fires, Thomas.” Reid kept his voice even, soothing. Pitching it slightly lower would convey authority and security, but that would be the wrong move here. Higher, then, higher and a little more colloquial, form a bond of equal understanding. Eminently feasible. “I’m talking to you now, no bullshit. And I know you’re not going to lie to me. Not when you took the trouble to call us.”
“Tommy. It’s Tommy. And I didn’t have a whole lot of choice about that,” Thomas laughed darkly. “Have you spent more than five consecutive minutes with these idiots before? They’re enough to drive a guy to hard drugs.”
“You’re with Billy and Teddy?” Reid asked, dimly aware of movement behind him, Burdick and JJ paying rapt attention, gestures and murmured conversations. “Who else is with you?”
“Buffy and the fucking Scooby gang, that’s who,” Thomas snorted. “They told me about Teddy’s mom. That I’m your only witness. And now you’re saying that you’ll believe me, but that’s such shit.” He paused, then continued, a little more steadily. “You know my birth-mother’s a head case, right? Full-steam ahead to crazytown. Maybe I didn’t see anything. Maybe I won’t be able to remember anything, even when I try. Maybe it was all in my head after all.” His voice twisted at the end, sign of emotional distress, an attempt at control.
Wide range of causes for base diagnosis of ‘psychosis’ makes studies difficult, but 25 percent of children with one parent diagnosed with bipolar disorder or severe depression will themselves develop some form of clinical depression. Twin studies show 76 percent correlation between depressive episodes in monozygotic examples.
Estimates of heritability of schizophrenia in cases with a first-degree relative with the disease estimated at 6.5 percent.
Reid’s voice was a little shaky when he began; he coughed, took a sip of his cold coffee to chase it back. “It sucks to be afraid of your own mind, doesn’t it? To know that there’s the chance that you’re going to lose the very thing that makes you – you. But what’s worse than that is the people who know. The way they treat you differently. Like you’re a time bomb waiting to go off, like you can’t be trusted or believed.”
“Is this something they teach you at the Academy? How to pretend that you know what other people are thinking?”
“No,” Reid paused. “Well, yes. In that we learn how to read what people aren’t saying, along with what they are. But I don’t need that with you. My mother is a paranoid schizophrenic. And some days I wonder; am I next?” He paused. He heard a shaky intake of breath from the other end, something ragged and harsh and real.
“I believe you, Tommy. I believe that you know what you saw that night. And that you can remember. I need you to remember.”
“So that you can figure out who to blame when it’s all over?”
“So that we can get the bad guy. Rescue the woman he’s kidnapped. Put some order back into the world.”
There was a long silence, long enough that JJ started making worried faces at him. Reid stayed calm., and watched the time slowly tick up on the clock. Tommy’s voice, when it came, was small and tired. “Just my luck, I get to save the day. What do you need me to do?”
“Are you somewhere quiet?”
“As quiet as it’s going to get.”
“Find somewhere to sit down.” Reid looked down and realized with only slight surprise that he’d disassembled his pen while he’d been talking, laid the pieces out in ascending order of size and mass. “Somewhere where you won’t be distracted. I’m going to walk you through a cognitive interview. It’s a technique that will help you remember.”
“Gimme a sec.” There were footsteps, the voices and traffic noises receded a little, then a huff of breath and a soft thump. “Do it, Dr. Freud.”
“I need you to close your eyes, Tommy. Close your eyes and count your breaths. You’re back in the tree-house on the night of the fire. You went up there after dinner?”
“Yeah. Frank was on my case again. I went up there to hang out and wait until he’d cooled off. I didn’t feel like going through the ‘ungrateful wretch vs. the devoted dad’ show again.”
“Don’t think about that,” Reid guided him away, tried to find the rhythm in his speech that would bring Tommy down into his own head. It was harder to do this remotely, when he couldn’t pick up any physical cues, but at least he could go by his voice. “Picture the space around you. Remember the feel of the floor underneath you, the smell of the air. Was it cold?”
The flow of this was easier now, Tommy’s replies softer, almost dreamlike, as he followed Reid’s lead down into the darkness. None of it was unexpected, none of it different from what Reid had pieced together from the reports, the transcript of his hearing, and the evidence still in storage.
Until the sounds of footsteps on the path below.
“A neighbour, maybe, someone walking a dog.”
“Do you hear a dog, Tommy?”
“No. No leash, no barking. But who else would be out so late?”
“What did you do?”
And then again, a few minutes later. “They’re awake, someone’s awake in the house. Frank probably knows I’m missing.”
“Is he looking for you?”
“It’s hard to tell – there’s a lot of banging. He doesn’t usually bang around this much. It’s weird.”
And, “there’s fire, oh god, the house is on fire, and it’s fast, I don’t know what could make fire travel so fast.”
“What are you doing?”
“Rolling over, I’m on my feet. They’re inside the house.”
“Who are, Tommy?”
“My mom and dad! I have to get them out.”
“What are you doing?”
“Jumping out the door, I grab the rope ladder but my feet miss the rung, I’m sliding down the ropes and fuck my hands are all jacked up – I think I peeled off some skin, and it hurts. But they’re outside and the house is on fire but they’re outside. They’re not exactly happy to see me.”
“Don’t think about that; think about what you saw. When you were leaving the tree-house, Tommy. I need you to think about that moment. What did you see?”
“My house. On fire.”
“What else. What else is around you? Anything you don’t recognize, anything that doesn’t belong.”
“There’s a van. It’s driving away. Who drives around in a work van in the middle of the night?”
“What colour is it?”
“Can’t tell. Light. Yellow? No-one paints a van yellow. It’s not white. Grey. It’s grey and the back windows aren’t windows.”
“Can you see the license plate? What state is it from?”
“Garden state. Local. I saw it, but only for a second, I can’t remember.”
“Try again. You’re in the treehouse. You’re in the door, looking at the van. You know it’s out of place, you know you’ve never seen it there before. Your mind knows it’s important. You looked at the plate. Look at the plate again, Tommy. What does it say?”
“G. GH47. That’s all. That’s all I can see because the living room window breaks and I’m sliding down the ladder and- fuck.” His voice changed and he was rattled, the bravado a tattered edge stretched thin over panic.
Reid sagged back in his chair, caught sight of Burdick’s back as the officer left the room with paper in his hand. There was breathing at the other end of the line; Tommy hadn’t disconnected. He had to bring him out, keep him stable, bring him home. “You did very well, Tommy, thank you. We’re going to run a trace on that van, and we’re going to find him. Where are you now?“
“We’re coming back,” came the noncommittal answer, but it was unnecessary. Garcia would have traced the call by now, there would be someone on the way to bring the kids home safe and out of Whitter’s reach.
“That’s good,” Reid breathed out, and he meant it. The picture of Thomas stared down at him from the evidence board, his stare accusatory. “I’m looking forward to meeting you in person.”
“You’re probably the only one who is.” And the phone disconnected abruptly.
Reid pitched forward and jammed his elbows into the surface of the conference table and rested his forehead in his hands for a minute. He breathed. He focussed. He got back to work.
2:25 pm, Saturday, New Jersey:
The long drive was killing Morgan slowly, and he resisted the urge to drum his fingers on the dashboard or flip through the radio stations. At least Hotch had the driving to take some of his concentration; all Derek had was the building anticipation. So when his phone rang, and Garcia’s name popped up, it was all he could do not to actually cheer out loud at the interruption.
“Hit me, Garcia,” Morgan opened without preamble. “I’m in the car with Hotch, and you’re on speaker.” He hit the button to make that true, and glanced at Hotch, his hands tight on the steering wheel.
“Hello, sir,” Garcia began, strain in her voice. “We’ve got a location on Whitter’s van. A tip places him in the parking lot of a Motel 6 in Newark. You’re the closest to it, and I’m sending the address to your phones now. New Jersey PD are en route and will meet you there.”
That surge was half relief and half pure adrenaline, and Morgan couldn’t help the grin that lit up his face. “I love you, sweet thing.”
“I accept payment in chocolate, wine and backrubs,” she replied as she hung up, a smile back in her voice.
Their phones beeped at the same time, and Morgan glanced down to read off the address and zoom in on the map. “Next exit, Hotch, and hang a right. We’re about five minutes away.”
2:30 pm, Saturday, Newark, New Jersey:
“Do we seriously look that much alike?” Tommy asked, and Teddy was finding it very difficult to pay attention to another round of the same. The car cornered, pulled on to the overpass, and Teddy tightened his arms around Billy’s waist. This was it; they’d found Tommy, he’d given his report, and now the restlessness was back. He was unmoored, an anxious coil winding tighter and tighter in his gut, and if they didn’t get back or hear something new soon, he was going to go insane.
“You really do,” Cassie was replying as Teddy tuned back in, a little. “It’s kind of uncanny.”
But Tommy had gone pale, and Tommy’s knuckles were clenching white and Tommy pointed out the window and said “There. Fuck, Kate, that’s him. That’s the van.”
And Teddy looked. They were looking down off the highway at a crap-tastic little motel, nestled in behind the main road. A long balcony ran along the second story, a parking lot in front with numbered spaces. A few of the spots had cars in them, and in the first spot (213, Teddy could see from his vantage point), a grey panel van.
“Kate,” Teddy urged; hell, he’d beg if he had to, but she was already checking her mirrors and changing lanes, picking up speed and peeling down the off-ramp like all the hounds of hell were on their tail.
He heard sirens in the distance, getting closer, and he hoped and prayed that they were actually coming this way.
He had his seatbelt off before the car stopped, the door open (despite Billy’s surprised yelp) as she slowed, was jumping out (sorry, Billy) and already running for the fire escape stairs leading to the balcony before Kate parked. Sirens were wailing behind them, and Billy was yelling his name.
That got him looking back, a single glance over his shoulder, to see a uniformed officer grabbing Billy by the arm to stop him from following any further.
“Kid, stop!” And he should, he knew he should, but the door was right there in front of him and he lock was broken, and he was in too deep now to reconsider.
He pushed the door open and charged inside.
“Mom!” Any motion inside the dingy motel room had ceased when he’d slammed his way in. Teddy’s mother was kneeling on the damp carpet, her hands bound behind her back with duct tape. Some guy Teddy had never seen before was standing over her, between Teddy and his mom, a lighter flicked open in his hand, and her skin was covered in red marks. The air was acrid, alcohol-tinged.
“Teddy, no! Get out of here, baby – go!”
She struggled against the tape, getting halfway from her knees to her feet, before the older guy struck her. His hand made contact with a brutal slap and she rocked backwards, sprawling.
“You’re here.” Her abductor turned, seemed to forget all about Teddy’s mom, held his hands out and up like he was going to close the distance between them, grab Teddy’s face. He had blond hair, Teddy noted distantly, blond hair and a jaw like Teddy’s, and he was staring at Teddy like he was something fucking good to eat. “I should have known you’d come for her; such a brave young man.” Something coiled in his voice, thick and slimy and off, and he was still holding the lighter in his fist. He flicked it closed with a sharp gesture.
He had crazy eyes.
Teddy recoiled, and the man took a step closer, still babbling. It was hard to make sense of what he was saying, all the words merging together into sounds like ‘Anelle’ and ‘so much like her’ and ‘Derek, my boy, my nephew, my blood-‘
“My name isn’t Derek,” Teddy spread his hands – keep calm, right? Show you’re not a threat, that he had the wrong people, maybe he’d let them walk out of here… “My name’s Ted. Ted Altman. I think you made a mistake, dude-”
Movement flickered in the corner of his eye, out the window.
“The mistake was hers,” Crazy Eyes replied, gesturing at Sarah. She was sprawled where she had fallen, wet stains on the knees of her jeans. “For taking you, for never telling you, for denying you your true family!”
No seriously, what the fuck?
She shook her head, blonde hair sticking to her face where it was wet from tears. “Teddy, honey, I’m so sorry…”
“And for that, she has to be punished. Surely you can understand that, my clever boy,” Crazy Eyes crooned, never missing a beat. “She will be punished for her crimes and then we can be a family. Like we were supposed to be.”
Teddy reeled. “You’re out of your mind!” She was hurt, he’d burned her, had pushed the lighter under her arms and face and there were streaks of tears and his mom cried sometimes, sure, but not like this.
“There was never a right time to tell you,” Sarah managed, and with that, Teddy felt the ground beneath him start to crumble. (Later, later, deal with it later, once we’re home and safe-)
One thing was sure – Crazy Eyes wanted him. More movement, sounds of feet outside, the door was only half-closed. “Take me, then,” he declared, swallowing against the lump in his throat. “I’m the one you want, right? Derek? I’ll go with you, wherever you want, if you just let my mom go.”
“Teddy, no!” Sarah cried, lunging up onto her knees and all but pitching forward on her face. “You can’t! He’ll hurt you again, that was why I took you, to protect you from him, from them! Don’t go with him, baby; don’t worry about me. I’ll be alright.”
She stared into his eyes, pleading, begging Teddy to understand, and Crazy Eyes flicked the lighter open, and-
The door opened again behind Teddy.
Crazy Eyes held the lighter up, the flame burning high.
It was Agent Hotchner from the police station, Agent Morgan close behind him, in black vests and guns out and holy hell, Teddy was both so happy to see them and so terrified that this had been too fucked up to fix, and he froze in place, caught between the balcony door and the bed, his mom and Crazy Ey- Kurt – on the other side.
“Stand down, Kurt,” Hotchner was saying again, moving in closer. Morgan never took his eyes off of Kurt, but he slid in front of Teddy, walling him off. “You found him, you did,” Hotchner intoned, nodding. “It’s over now.”
Kurt shook his head. “It can never be over, Agent; not until Lenore James has paid for her crimes, for killing Anelle-“
“Anelle died in a car accident, Kurt, you know that,” Morgan kept his gun up, never wavering. “Miss James had nothing to do with that.”
“She stole Anelle’s baby!” Kurt howled, hand trembling around the lighter.
“And now everyone knows it,” Hotchner soothed, making a tiny gesture at his thigh. Morgan moved over a step. “Everyone knows it, and we have the evidence that you gathered, and we can do this properly. Everyone will know, Kurt. They’ll know that you honoured Anelle’s memory. They’ll hear how you found her son.”
Kurt’s eyes were fixed on Teddy, and Teddy couldn’t look away. Blue, like his, wild and panicked, and then-
Calm. So very calm.
“I did, didn’t I?” Kurt replied, with a small smile. “And now we can all be together.”
He let go of the lighter.
Two shots exploded in the small room.
Flame erupted in a woosh and all the air was sucked out of the room and Teddy was hit by something – no, someone – a heavy shoulder and force behind it. The world went sideways and started to go black and the carpet was wet under his face and it smelled like burning and the fire was blue and everywhere around him. And somewhere in the distance he heard Billy screaming his name.