“It is my belief... founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys of London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” --Arthur Conan Doyle
“What’s the big hurry?” Morgan asked Prentiss, as she ushered him into the conference room. “I thought we didn’t have any major cases on the table.”
Prentiss just shrugged, making her way to her seat. “Don’t know much more than you, I’m afraid. Hotch just called and said he was coming down, and to get everyone in the conference room NOW. He didn’t say what it was about. It sounded like he was in the middle of talking with someone else.”
“Must be why he’s not here yet.” Morgan noted, looking around the room. Reid was leaning back and studying the ceiling with an air of profound interest. Rossi was just sitting quietly, his hands folded in his lap. “Is JJ still...”
“...here.” The blonde pushed her way past them. “Emily, why didn’t you tell me we had a meeting today? It’s all dead out there, I was starting to wonder if you’d already left on a case.”
“I... didn’t know you were here.” Morgan and Prentiss exchanged glances.
Reid looked up. “Hey JJ. Back already?”
“Yup.” JJ took a seat.
There was a short silence. Clearly troubled, Reid started to say something, than stopped frowned, and turned away. Morgan, Rossi, and Prentiss looked very carefully blank.
JJ coughed. “Where’s Hotch?”
“A number of tourists have gone missing in the deserts of Eddy County, New Mexico.” Hotch said, as he paced into the room, dropping files on the table. “No bodies have been found yet, but between coyotes and vultures, the local authorities don’t expect to find any.”
“How many?” Morgan asked, as he opened the file.
“The initial report was two.” Hotch answered. “Part of a local small-towns tour across America.” Reaching the head of the room, he turned and saw JJ. His brow knitted. “JJ, don’t you still have a week or more of vacation left?”
“Yes.” JJ nodded. “Hotch, It says here that both disappeared at the same time. Are they sure this is a serial killer? Two seems like a small number for us to get called in on.”
“...Yes.” Hotch agreed, turning back. “And when they began to investigate, authorities considered it an isolated incident. But when questioning the locals, they discovered something far more troubling.”
“Are...” Reid, far ahead of the others in his reading, stared at the paper in his hands. “Are these figures accurate?”
Hotch gave a grim nod. “Apparently it’s not unusual for tourists to vanish in that particular area. None of the locals expressed any surprise on hearing of the missing couple. Even the sheriff seemed unusually apathetic about the matter. One storeowner said, quote: ‘folks disappear in the desert.’”
“Still... one hundred-thirty-seven?” Reid pressed.
“That they’ve managed to confirm.” Hotch nodded. “There may be more, they’re still getting names from motels and gas stations.”
“That... hardly seems possible.” Morgan said, reading through his file in disbelief. “You could maybe pull that off in the early days, when people hardly knew what serial killers were, but these days people know what to look for. How could the unsub get away with so many?”
Hotch shrugged. “Apparently most of them were solitary travelers. This is the first time our unsub has targeted a member of a larger group, or at least the first time he’s left the rest of the group to report it.”
“Growing reckless.” Rossi frowned, looking up. “Shows increasing confidence, instability.”
“Perhaps he WANTS to be noticed,” theorized Prentiss.
“Odd impulse to get, at this stage.” Morgan objected. “The fact that the unsub’s been so careful about killing so many indicates this is more a deep-seated personal need.”
“Most serial killers motivations ARE deep-seated personal needs.”
“But this one isn’t egotistical. He wants it to satisfy something inside him, not to soothe some insecurity. Why the sudden need for attention?”
“Something recent must have happened to him,” nodded Reid. “Maybe he learned of a terminal disease and wants to leave something behind. Or something happened that made him feel suddenly insignificant.”
“Implying that previously, he felt significant. A man of influence who lost his position?”
“It would explain the townspeople’s behavior.”
“We’re still gathering information.” Hotch held up a hand to forestall further brainstorming. “Garcia’s working on compiling a general profile of the area and statistics regarding the townspeople. But right now it’s important we get out to Carlsbad as soon as possible. Wheels up in twenty.”
“Population of less 54,000.” Morgan raised his eyebrows.
“And almost half of that is in Carlsbad, which is nearly seventy miles from this place” pointed out Reid. “It’s a pretty large county. Says here it averages twelve people per square mile, and if you take the Carlsbad population out of that, it’s more like six and 2/3rd’s people per square mile.”
Morgan looked at him with a frown. “Why do I get the feeling you’re not rounding that?”
“And we’re going a good hour or so out from Carlsbad itself.” Emily chewed her lip. “REALLY out in the sticks.”
“What locals did authorities even talk to?” Morgan asked, turning to Hotch.
Hotch did not take his eyes from the screen as he answered. “There’s a diner/gas station that the tour group had stopped at. From there they spoke with a few ranchers who own territory nearby, and also some truckers who frequent that particular diner.”
“Nothing particularly suspicious about any of them.” Reid said, speed-reading through the profiles. “All of the truckers have alibis for many of the disappearances, several of the ranchers moved to the area sometime AFTER the first disappearances, and the other one never goes to that particular diner.”
“But somehow knows of the disappearances.” Prentiss pointed out. “Maybe he has a grudge against the owner and is killing off his customers.”
Frowning, JJ shook her head. “News travels fast in a small community like this. I’m interested in the diner owner and his wife... the disappearances only start AFTER they move to the area.”
“Interesting, but that’s more likely a data problem.” Rossi said, lifting his head for the first time from the file. “Recall that most of these names are taken FROM the diner receipts. We have no way of knowing if the disappearances started at all before then.”
“Even then, why would the owner save ALL the receipts?” JJ insisted. “Going back four years? That goes BEYOND tax purposes.”
“It’s definitely suspicious,” agreed Reid, nodding at her. “Something to ask about when we get there.”
“But what about...” Morgan started.
As the team started a second round of brainstorming, Hotch looked over at Rossi. As unobtrusively as possible, the team leader crooked a finger at him, and the senior agent leant forward.
“I need your opinion.” Hotch muttered. “How is she?”
Rossi did not bother to ask who. “She seems capable enough.” He shrugged. “So far her analysis of the case has been reasonably accurate. I’d say she seems fit for duty.”
“Working in the aftermath of a personal tragedy is a sign of avoidance, a reluctance to confront loss.” Hotch responded, his voice low. “Is coming back to work so soon... healthy for her?”
Rossi once again gave a subtle shrug. “You’ve known her longer than I have.”
“You’ve been profiling killers for longer than I have,” countered Hotch.
A sigh was Rossi’s answer. “It depends on any number of things, not least of which is how this case affects her. I would have rather had her stay off of work for a few days more, just to be on the safe side, but I think she should be fine regardless.”
“And you base this assessment on... what, exactly?” Hotch tilted his head.
Rossi gave a little smile. “She is surrounded by friends.”
“We’ve updated the list to one hundred seventy names.” The state trooper informed Hotch. Hotch and Rossi were in the lead car of a caravan of SUV’s, headed out into the desert. “It’s slow work... we’re basically going through every receipt and record in the area and trying to locate the credit card owners. We’ve been working with your agency and the Missing Persons’ Bureau on it, but it will take some time.”
“Good. Put every man you have on it, we need to get an idea of what we’re dealing with.” Hotch nodded, looking over the new names. “Anything the victims have in common?”
“Not that we’ve noticed. But then, that’s why you guys are here, right?” The trooper grinned ruefully at Hotch. “Most of them are loners, tourists on vacation. We’re interviewing what friends they had... so far it seems a lot of them were going through mid-life crises. Though that seems an odd thing for a killer to zero in on.”
“Not even something a killer would know about.” Hotch shook his head. “Probably just the nature of the data—I imagine most people who travel out this way are going through some sort of personal crisis. The tourist angle might be something—a concern for how tourists are destroying the region—an environmental obsession, or perhaps an associated nostalgia for the community.”
“Or just good sense,” Rossi put in. “Tourists are less well-known, have fewer immediate connections, and when they go missing folks just assume they moved on to the next town.”
The trooper coughed. “It’s also possible that’s just a data anomaly. We’ve only been looking at roadside diners and gas-stations so far, so tourists are the ones that come up on our radar. We’re now checking to see if there were any local disappearances during the timeframe.”
“Check earlier.” Hotch recommended. “No telling when this guy got started.”
“The tourist fixation does fit with the townspeople’s strange apathy,” pointed out Rossi. “They’d be more worried if one of their own disappeared, but so long as it’s an outsider...”
Hotch nodded. “What else do you have for us?” He asked, turning to the state trooper.
“We’ve been holding on to diner owner and his wife since this investigation began,” reported the man. “Can’t hang onto them for much longer without charging them, but we figured you’d want to take a crack at them, see what you can learn.”
“The owner’s a no-go, he knows practically nothing.” Morgan concluded, entering the observation room. “His wife handles all the customers, he just does the cooking and supply. He knew folks were disappearing, but he claims that as no one else in town seemed too worried, he figured it wasn’t anything dangerous.”
“So that leaves us with the wife.” Hotch stared through the two-way mirror. An overweight, frumpy-looking woman with greying brown hair sat on the side of a cold metal table. Her arms were crossed, and she looked very annoyed. “What do we have on her?”
“Baby-girl says she’s a local, lived in the town her whole life. Father died when she was young, she was raised by near relatives. Income records indicate she’s had to work hard at one job or another over the years.” Morgan reported. “Her husband’s a local too—childhood sweetheart, from the looks of things. The deed’s in his name, but it cost more to get that place started than he could have raised on his own.”
“They both put their heart into that place.” Hotch nodded. “That’s an angle we can use.”
“So far, the profile doesn’t scream serial killer.” Morgan shrugged.
“Official records only tell half the story.” Prentiss stepped closer to the glass. “Look at that jutting lower lip, the slight crook in her nose, the way she folds her arms defensively. This woman’s been through some hardship.”
Morgan frowned, considering. “Her husband seemed like a demure, quiet sort... Then again, repression can lead to violence in private.”
“I doubt it’s her husband.” Prentiss shook her head. “I can’t tell how old that broken nose is, but the postures are habit, not recent. Besides, this is a defiant woman, not a broken one. If her husband had beaten her, she would have left—or beaten him back.”
“Indicating a history of abuse, but nothing current.” Hotch nodded. “But our killer isn’t gender-specific.”
“Right. Which means this woman ISN’T our killer.” Prentiss turned around to look at the men. “Did you see her when they were bringing her in? She HATES men. Doesn’t trust them, doesn’t like them. Her husband might be the only man she doesn’t actively resent.”
“Maybe not even him.” Hotch frowned.
Prentiss rolled her eyes. “Please. You guys are such pigs, your mind goes ONE place.” Shaking her head, she continued. “No. This isn’t a sexual thing, it a power dynamic. She’s been oppressed by men her whole life, apart from her husband, who I imagine SHE dominates. Right now, she sees what’s going on as a male power play on her life’s dream.”
“So if she’s going to talk to anyone of us three, she’s going to talk to me.” Prentiss concluded.
The heavyset woman glanced up and frowned as the door opened. “I ain’t saying nothing to nobody until I see my lawyer.” She snarled.
“We called her. She’s on her way.” Prentiss sat down across from the lady and flipped open her file. “But you do realize that insisting on a lawyer makes you appear somewhat suspicious.”
The woman snorted. “Half those men out there have made their mind up about me already.” She answered. “Why bother about appearances?”
“Because men are all about appearances,” responded Prentiss, give a smug little grin back. “They don’t tend to look at facts. Like these receipts you have. All they can say is that it looks weird for you to save them all like that.”
“Oh, for the love of...” The woman threw up her hands. “That’s Earl’s little mania. Never throws anything away. But do they suspect HIM? Of course not.”
Prentiss smiled. “You’re right that they don’t think your husband has the guts to pull it off.”
“Guts? They would think that.” There was something a trifle protective about the woman’s snort. “More like the gall. Earl’s can be plenty gutsy when he has a mind to, just not about killing folks.”
“So who would?” Emily asked.
“No one.” The woman stuck out her chin. “We’re decent folks out here. Not like you city slickers.”
“You’re not so fond of urban centers, out here, are you?” smiled Emily.
“Damn straight.” The woman’s chin stuck out even more. “All you high-falutin’ folks, passing through this fine little town like it ain’t as much as a bump on the road. Beautiful place we got here, full of fine people, but do you care? No. More interested in bare rocks. All the same, city folks.”
Emily’s eyes quivered just slightly. “Like the disappearing visitors?”
“Those people,” grunted the woman. “Come into the diner and barely buy a drink, most of them. Shiftless, moving about like devil-may-care, not bothering with where they’re going or what they’re doing like they got all the time and money in the world.”
“You said they were interested in rocks?” Emily pressed.
“Only thing they WERE interested in. Come out of nowhere and head out into the desert like it was the only thing. Leave their cars in the lot, most of them. Others, they’d keep coming and going in and out... never bother with the town, just back and forth with the desert.” The woman spat viciously. “Weeks and weeks they’d be out there, but would they bother staying at any of our town’s fine hotels? No! Just the desert for them. Spend less and less time, even at the diner.”
Morgan threw Hotch a look. “Sounds like not all the disappearances were sudden.”
“Might explain the townspeople’s apathy.” Hotch rubbed his chin. “Didn’t think the tourists were dead, just off in some survivalist commune. The xenophobia might contribute to it too, if it’s typical across the town.”
“So then the question becomes: what was going out in the desert?” Morgan mused, turning back to the window.
“You say they all went out to the desert... any idea where?”
“Oh, heavens if I know,” snapped the woman. “Shiftless, those folks. Never even knew where they were going. Hippies, the lot of them, going on about this ‘dream’ they had. John would reel them in like fish... shameless hustler like he is.”
Emily leant forward just the smallest bit. “John? Who’s he?”
“John Travis. Little better than a bum, that man. But he knows how to lead city slickers on. Clean them out with promises to show them their dreams and such.” The woman waved her hand. “He was always hanging around the diner, looking to take the next shiftless preppy boy out for a ride.”
Hotch rapped on the door. “John Travis?”
“Coming!” rasped a voice from within the trailer. There was the rattling of a lock and then a thin, dirty face stuck out of the door. “Somethin’ I can do for ya?”
Hotch held up his wallet. “Special Agent Aaron Hotchner.” He gestured off to the side. “This is Special Agent Spencer Reid. We’re here to ask about a Nicholas and Jane Harper.”
Surprisingly, the man rolled his eyes. “Not this again.” He muttered. Opening the door, he gestured. “C’mon in, then. They want to come too?” He asked, pointing at the row of SUV’s in the road.
“No, that won’t be necessary.” Hotch turned and gave a sign. He saw Morgan, peering over the hood of the lead SUV, give a nod in answer. Morgan would tell the SWAT teams hidden behind the cars to stand down.
Morgan’d been all for crashing in the front door and taking down the man, but Hotch had vetoed that plan. The fact that some of the tourists had come back out after going for a ride with Travis suggested that he wasn’t the unsub they were after. Plus, a quick check by Garcia had revealed that Travis had already been checked out once by the Missing Person’s Bureau, and they had cleared him. So instead it was just Hotch and Reid, going in for a friendly chat.
It was crowded and stuffy in the trailer, and Hotch was fairly certain he caught the scent of marijuana. That could be useful leverage. A cat hissed at them as they entered and then leapt off an oddly-placed laptop computer perched on the stove.
“Have a seat,” said the man, going over to a beat-up dresser.
Hotch and Reid eyed the threadbare, grease-stained couch and looked at each other. “Thank you, but this shouldn’t take long.” Hotch said. “We understand you were the last person to see Nicholas and Jane Harper.”
“Yeah, I remember ‘em.” The man said, not turning as he opened a drawer on the dresser. “Offered to show them the sights of the desert.”
“They’re missing.” Reid said.
“Course they are. And you’re here to see if I’ve stowed their bodies under the porch, right? Harper, harper...” muttered the grungy man as he rummaged through the drawer. “Here we are.” He produced a slim brown wallet and a turquoise purse. “Harper.”
Hotch took it. “You expect me to believe you this couple just... gave you all their belongings?”
Shrugging, John Travis shambled over to the laptop and booted it up. “Believe what you want.” He answered. “But nine times out of ten, the second they get to that ranch, they practically toss me their stuff. Lessee, they were just last week, right?”
“This past Thursday,” Reid answered, staring into the drawer with fascination. “Hotch, this drawer is full of wallets.”
“And ain’t none of them with their credit cards maxed out or identities stolen.” Travis called, clicking away at his computer. “I know enough not to push a good thing. Here.” He opened a window and pushed his chair away, gesturing Hotch forward. “Take a look for yourself.”
Hotch studied the screen. The shot was of a truck interior. Travis and a young, dark-haired man in khaki shorts and a white t-shirt were visible in the front seat. Every so often the camera jostled and caught sight of a similarly-dressed brunette in the back seat.
Hotch glanced at the man. “You take videos of all your passengers?”
“After one of them earned me three weeks of questioning, yeah.” Travis snorted. “S’a little dash-mounted camera. Still in the truck, if you want to take a look.”
Hotch wondered. Serial killers were known for taking trophies—and videos. This man seemed like a perfectly textbook example.
Still there was the irrefutable evidence that the couple in the video was very much alive, and apparently under no threat of coercion. “200 dollars.” Travis was saying.
“Hm? Oh, yeah, yeah.” The man handed Travis his wallet. He seemed to be staring off at something in the distance. “Just uh.. uh...”
“My word, honey,” said the woman, leaning forward over the backseat eagerly, staring at the same thing. “Just... my word.”
In the video, Travis paused from thumbing through the wallet. “There ain’t no change in this wallet, man.”
“Oh, take... take my card.” The young man waved vaguely, struggling out of his seatbelt and opening the door. “Just... not more than you need.”
“There’s cash in my purse in the back,” added the woman, shoving the chair forward eagerly and scrambling out of the back.
“Right.” Travis called out after them. “Any messages you want me to pass on? Hey, kid!” Grumbling, the Travis in the video reached toward the camera. The view lurched suddenly and swiveled toward the windshield, showing the couple man running across the desert toward an extinct volcano.
“And that was the last you saw of him?” Hotch asked.
“Sure was. That’s the last I ever seen of any of them. They...”
“Hotch.” Reid’s voice was strangely sharp. “Hotch, you’re going to want to see this.”
The senior analyst looked over at the gangly agent with a frown. Reid was standing unnaturally stiffly, his face was pale, and his lips were drawn. In his hand was a smooth brown wallet. Hotch took it without a word and opened it up.
A very familiar driver’s license jumped out at him. Jason Gideon.
Hotch slowly lowered the wallet and looked at Travis, who was glancing from one to the other in mild puzzlement. “This man...” He said, his voice low and level. “Did you take him where you took the others?”
Travis took the wallet and glanced at it. “Oh yeah. Him. I remember him, real friendly guy.”
“Did you take him to where the others disappeared?” Hotch repeated, a hint of stress creeping into his voice.
“Yeah.” A few more clicks on the computer, and a new video came up. Gideon’s wrinkled, weary face came into focus. He was staring out the window in disinterest as the truck sped along down the road.
“Gideon.” Reid breathed.
“And you dropped him off at this place?” Hotch asked, staring at the screen. Gideon had started suddenly, he was staring off at something in the distance.
“And you never saw him again?”
Travis just snorted. “I told you. I never see any of them again. They go off to that mountain, and they don’t come back.”
Hotch stood back and lookedat Travis. “Show me.”
SUV’s came roaring over the hill, tearing through the thin wire fence and kicking up enormous clouds of dust as they sped toward the volcano and the tiny camper at its foot. With a crunch of sand and gravel they ground to a halt, surrounding the camper. Black-suited SWAT officers jumped out of the vehicles, followed closely by the BAU team.
In the middle of them all sat a portly old man in a hawaiian shirt, sitting on a lawn chair in front of the trailer.
He lowered his book and blinked at the guns pointed in his direction. “Hey there.” he nodded. “I’m Zandi and I...” He paused, and frowned at them. “...I have no idea why you’re here.”
“Life is really simple, but men insist on making it complicated.” --Confucius