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1

There was a diner on Old Derry Road. It was the diner that time had forgotten, much like time had forgotten Derry itself. Those who visited the sleepy town tucked away in a corner of Maine that no one thought about all said the same thing: leaving was like turning the clock forward. Time didn’t just restart the further one got from the tired old Victorian buildings with their faded weatherboard and peeling painted faces; it sped up as soon as one bumped along the last dirt road and turned back onto the interstate that ran so smoothly past Derry.

Once all the detritus of Derry had been shaken out of the absconding vehicle, the modern age raced to catch up. The surroundings weren’t as tired. The trees held more life the further one drove. People smiled more, though the citizens of Derry disagreed. Theirs was a friendly town, they’d say. A sensible town. A slice of pure, rural Americana. Life could be slow here because it wanted to be, and if you didn’t like it you could just keep on driving up to Portland or Bangor and everyone would be happier for it.

What no one realised was that if they wanted to be happier still, they should just keep driving and driving out of Maine and then even further yet until they tipped right off the edge of the earth and away from what lurked within.

But, of course, they didn’t know that.

The diner, which wasn’t actually within the city limits, had found that this strange, liminal quality of Derry had, much like mould, spread. Also like mould, it happened in spurts. Slowing in the hot, quiet in-between years when not much of interest occurred, and then speeding up in sudden bursts of stormy happenings. Wet weather drove it. Rain brought rivets of water that seeped into the thirsty ground, drawing what was buried deep below up onto the surface world where the humans crawled. Up came the worms and the rot and the mould and the savage, stygian hunger. By the early summer of 2009, the diner on Old Derry Road had long ago been devoured by the starving greed of Derry’s underground mouth.

To put it another way: It was here.

 

2

Like a link of black ants, the sleek SUVs pulled up outside that exhausted diner, wheels crunching on the loose asphalt. One bobbed into a pothole no one had cared enough for twenty years to repair, hardly interrupting the fierce silence of the inhabitants. The others, seeing the danger, avoided it. To the people of Old Derry surrounds who were gathered around the diner, it was as though something from out of this world had reached in with gunmetal government fingers to interrupt their sleepy days.

From somewhere below, It knew.

Inside the diner, a scene was set. Five men; three women. Three of those were law enforcement in brown uniforms. Four more were witnesses. There was the man in a suit three sizes too big who was hoping to slip away from the scene along with the oxys in his breast pocket. He’d been passing by when he heard the screams; in a kinder world, he’d have just kept on going. There was the woman who owned the diner: tremendously fat,, grease-stained, kind-faced, and never to forget what she’d seen today. In fact, three years from now, her disinterested heart would stall on the thin linoleum of these same floors as her brain misfired and, at the last, thought again of this very day. Huddled to the side were the two teenagers who smelled of alcohol and each other. Tommy Hiscott, splattered with blood and cuffed to the radiator where he’d been for some time now, was their friend, as was the body that probably still existed, somewhere. This was an incorrect assumption made by the law enforcement personnel who couldn’t be blamed for assuming so, seeing as Tommy had been found holding what surmounted to be the missing girl’s hand and, it had been presumed, must therefore know where the rest of her was.

A usual crowd in unusual times. Aside from the blood and the tears and the rabid gleam in Tommy’s eyes, it could have been any other Tuesday in any other forgotten diner, with the same cracked pleather booths, the same faux-fifties memorabilia, the same wall of photos containing faces lone gone on to better places than Derry, Maine.

In came the feds. The diner owner counted them as they came, her hand routinely curling around a pen she wasn’t holding. The cursory greeting she’d given for thirty years now – but wouldn’t for much longer – paused on her lips. Her heart hopped with ragged, anticipatory anxiety. Terrible or not, this was bringing more people than ever as the staties out front set up search parties from up the road to find the girl the hand in the cooler belonged to. This, the owner supposed, correctly, was something she’d be talking about for the rest of her life.

Officer Harold Gardener, on loan from Derry, thought at first that the newcomers didn’t look much like feds. The first one did, and perhaps the second, them being two men in suits with faces suited to pushing their weight around. The third that entered, eyes immediately finding the boy on the radiator, was fed material too, Gardener figured, giving the energy of being thick with no brains. And black, he also noted, himself uncaring but certain someone would kick up a stink. The rest? Women and a man on a cane who looked like he wouldn’t have been out of place getting his evening beer at the Falcon. Hardly DC’s best and brightest.

But Derry made do.

“Good luck,” was what Gardener said to the first man, the one with the hard jaw and cold eyes. “We’ve got nothing out of them. Reckon we’re looking for a body, but.”

“We don’t know nothing,” said one of the teenagers, a boy. Bleached-white hair straightened until it burned, his lip bitten through by a line of silver studs. He was bleeding, Gardener noticed. Nipped at those stupid studs on his lip until he’d bled. His name was Jerry Dalton. He was fifteen years and five months old, certain that he’d marry the girl sitting beside him and without any clue that he’d be one of those this hot summer swallowed. The team, when they dug further into his past, would find nothing untoward except a minor citation for underage drinking and a small fire he’d accidentally set playing with matches when he was seven. Dalton was a good boy, and he’d be a good boy until he died in much the same strange way Marcie Harris had before him. And he added a surly, “Marcie was behind us until she wasn’t, and none of us know shit about why.”

“Who’s in charge here?” asked Supervisory Special Agent Aaron “Hotch” Hotchner. “And why aren’t there dogs out looking for the missing girl?”

Hotch had seen what was missing in the rabble outside: motivation, for one. Most of them just seemed bored.

“Well, it’s the damnedest thing,” began Gardener.

 

3

Marcie Harris’s body lay at the bottom of a narrow ravine sunk deep with decayed leaves and a seeping, sallow stink. The body was seven miles from the diner where the terror had finally touched, but it would still be almost two weeks until someone found it. By that point, the rot had set in. When the body was found, the coroner assigned to her would say much the same as Gardener had: it was just the damnedest thing. Never seen much like it before. You see, Marcie was putrefying into a rotten mess in the middle of a forest in a damp crevice cushioned by leaves and dirt and broken roots. By the time they discovered her body, she should have fed the forest that sheltered her. Maggots and ants and beetles and hungrier jaws than the ones that had killed her would have arrived before any human hands unearthed what was left. But they hadn’t. Despite the decay, not a bug nor a fox nor even a voracious crow had dared to nibble at her.

Ain’t that the damnedest thing.

As unchewed upon as her body was, the coroner could easily see the damage that had been done to it. “I say they lock that boy up and throw away the key,” he’d tell the feds questioning him. “Not even the animals did what he did to her.”

Upon seeing her autopsy report, they’d agree. Marcie had died screaming; the wounds on her side, bruised like they’d gone in slow, had bled copiously. She’d been alive when whatever had been driven into her body had done so. When asked what caused those sucking wounds, the ones that curled right into her side and under her tit like they’d been reaching for her panicked, frantic heart, the coroner would simply shrug. Fifty-eight years and he’d never seen a thing like it. He had no answer for them. But in his darkest moments, he’d always envision that the tool used had been someone’s awful, grasping hand, despite knowing that no one could possibly have done that with their fingers alone, especially not a teenage boy, and even one as deranged as Tommy Hiscott. Besides, there was everything else about the body. Undeniably, her hand had been bitten clean from the wrist and Tommy had never had any blood in his mouth, but that detail was lost in the rush of everything to come.

 

4

“The dogs won’t search,” said Agent Derek Morgan to Agent Emily Prentiss, coming over to where she was reading through the list of names at the check-in station. The sun overhead was hot, a thin sheen of sweat lining his brow and a furrow of worry tracing hers. “Handler tried again just then and, nothing. They just cringed until he put them back in the car. You ever heard of something like that?”

“I’d cringe too if I had fur under this sun,” Prentiss commented. Her dark eyes hidden by darker shades scanned the parking lot, razor-sharp bangs hiding her cool expression; she was a knife honed sharp by the FBI with a mind as dangerous as the gun at her hip, and the one on her ankle. She had a shadowed anger buried deep that was quicker to burn than any of her colleagues, hidden hurts festering. If pushed to breaking, she’d snap gloriously; the man beside her was just as angry but with none of the fantastic control. Hotch headed their group with an ease that corralled them both; they’d have followed him to the ends of the earth and leapt off if he’d said so, but only if he’d justified the rationality of the decision. A dangerous combination, that loyalty combined with their intelligence – but it wasn’t the first time a similar combination had come to this place and gone away sorer for having done so.

“Something here stinks,” said Morgan. There was a foul scent in the air, one that made him feel like the dogs had the right idea. He sniffed and frowned, watching the forest surrounding.

Later, he’d think it was just the air of this place. A bad wind blows from Derry, and they were close enough to the town to really feel it.

“We got more people coming down from Castle Rock,” said the woman – barely a girl – manning the check-in station. Her tight shirt had dark circles ringing the neck and pits, as she chewed at something and jabbed her pen at a map. “Here. It’s where that lot came from, in there.” The pen was jabbed at the diner and the teenagers within. “Camp No-Hope up there, that shithole. Sorry, can I swear around you? You’re not like, language police, right?”

Prentiss ignored that. “Camp?” she asked. They hadn’t been told about a camp. They hadn’t been told anything. Just that there was a severed hand with no girl attached. When asked where the teens had come from, they’d gotten shrugs, stares, sweet-fuck-all. “What camp?”

“Here, at Dark Score,” said the girl, chewing gum popping and blowing a waft of mouthy mint over them. Pen tapped again on the map, at a lake set away from the small dot marked ‘Castle Rock’, further up from the dot listed as ‘Derry’, and fed into by a river that ran right by them both. “I recognise that girl’s hat. They’ve all got them, those uniforms. Camp Moribund. Hell of a place.”

“How come no one has called the camp supervisors to inform them the kids are all the way up here?” Morgan asked.

“There aren’t any,” was the answer. “No one cares about them. They’re all rotten.”

 

5

“Anything?” Agent Jennifer “JJ” Jareau asked her colleague, who was sitting beside the blank-eyed Tommy on the grimy floor, a cane across his lap and one leg held out in a stiff line.

“He needs medical attention,” was Dr Spencer Reid’s immediate response, something he’d been saying from the first moment he’d crouched in front of Tommy and gotten nothing but wide-eyed panic. “At the very least, he’s in shock.”

Though his degrees weren’t of the medical kind, Reid was capable of making this call. His sunken eyes and angled bone structure obscured an intellect that was as honed as Prentiss’s anger. He was twenty-eight. The youngest of the team by far. When he’d been six years old, they’d given him a Weschler and declared him a ‘genius’, a term he’d come to resent, before leaving him alone to grow up intelligent enough to see all the broken parts of humanity.

In the boy beside him, he saw his mother’s eyes at her worst moments.

JJ trusted him. “Tommy, if we get you help, will you speak to us?”

Tommy said nothing. Whatever words he’d once possessed, they were lost in the silver-bright sheen of his sanity shattering. What sat here wasn’t the boy who’d taken his friends on a joyride to breathe summer air away from the place they’d been locked in like sheep in a pen awaiting the bolt.

“I’ll get Hotch.” JJ stood, eyes scanning the room as she, once again, tried to chase away the memory of knowing this place – the feeling fading as she looked back at Reid. “Spence?”

When he looked at her, eyes a troubled shade of hazel, she said with her own blue – in the way of two people who’d worked together a long time, who knew what the other needed, who simply understood –

– Did he do it?

Reid shook his head: no.

That was that, though neither of them would ever stand in a court and argue for Tommy’s innocence. They’d never have a chance. But they didn’t know that yet; they were simply doing the job they expected to keep on doing until they couldn’t do it any longer.

This was true, for most of them

When JJ told Hotch Reid’s appraisal, he gave her a look that was as distracted as she felt. “I’ll handle it,” he said, moving away to do just that.

It left her with the last of their field team of six, David Rossi.

“You grew up around here, right?” Rossi asked, looking at her. “Ever heard anything like that?” He pointed at the nondescript blue cooler they’d shoved the hand into for lack of anything else to do with it until someone qualified came to tell them otherwise.

“I didn’t,” JJ said, before being struck by a feeling of wrong and a flush of remembering. “My grandparents live out here though, somewhere. Mom grew up near the river, Penobscot, but we never visited. Why?”

Rossi held up his cell phone. “I had Garcia send through anything of interest on the way over. This isn’t the first weird murder here, or rather, close to here. Derry’s lousy with the dead. Have we ever had a case there?”

“Not in my memory. Reid’s, maybe.” They both smiled at the mention of their friend. “How’s Hotch holding up?”

Rossi glanced at his friend’s back as the man argued with the state officer who’d declared jurisdiction on this case and was digging his heels in on that.

“As good as expected,” was all he replied.

 

6

Aaron Hotchner had never taken a Wechsler test: if he had, the results would have landed him far closer to Reid than anyone would have guessed. A man made of causes and duty to those causes, he was firm in the face of calamity and a determined protector of those around him. So far as he knew, he’d always been this way. Stern and unsmiling and loyal to a fault. Loyal to his job, which he allowed to consume any part of him that might have been softer, and loyal to his wife, although not loyal enough to stop her from sleeping with another man and then taking their son and leaving. Hotch didn’t blame her for this. A softer man might have since she’d married him knowing full well the kind of man he was, but he did miss his son. He missed her too, and not just because when there was a warm body in his bed it was easier to dull the intensity he cultivated at work. A man like him, he took it as a personal failing that he missed fucking her just as much as he missed kissing her, though it paled in comparison to what he’d done to them both in the ruining of their lives.

He was a hard man but his job was harder; five months prior, one of the men he’d hunted had instead hunted him. His ex-wife and child were in witness protection, hidden from the world that would kill them for loving him. Yet, here he was. Still living his life with the name he was born with and failing them every day he did so. The Reaper was a monster, the deadliest one – until now – Hotch had faced. Until now.

But the Reaper was just a man, much like every monster – until now – Hotch had faced.

“We’ll question him when he’s been seen to,” Hotch said to the man who was arguing that their only hope of finding Marcie alive was in furthering the neglect of the boy inside the diner. “I’ll escort him to the nearest hospital myself. He won’t be out of our custody the entire time.”

“I still think it’s foolish, but I guess you won’t be stopped.” The man shot him a disgusted look, one Hotch was well used to. He didn’t like stepping on toes, but he would if needed. “I’ll get you an escort to Derry.”

“Where’s the boy from?” Hotch pressed. “He must have a family, or at least someone we can contact for him, as well as the others.”

“Them? They’re from the camp just past Castle Rock. No point calling there, they won’t come for them.” The cop gave him another look, this one suggesting that he was stupider than the dirt he stood on and just as useful. Hotch let him look. This man was nothing. “They’re always losing kids.”

“Losing?”

“Runaways, the lot of them. I wouldn’t bother. Something in the water up there sends the kids nuts. Don’t think we’ve ever had a good one out of there. I can’t name one, anyway.”

Hotch stared at the man with no expression crossing his features.

“No,” said Hotch. “I don’t suppose you can. You’ve been a … help. Officer.”

Hotch could tell, though it wasn’t being said, that no one cared about what had happened to poor Marcie Harris. They were simply here for the spectacle. Disgusted, he moved inside to fetch his team and the teenagers no one cared about either.

 

7

Reid stared at the photographs on the wall. The team was gathering their belongings, Morgan and Prentiss clashing over whether two of them should stay to help with the search and which of those two it should be. Hotch was replacing the cuffs on Tommy with his own with thought to the sharp angle the boy’s arm had been held at for some time now. JJ was finishing the witness statements. It was any other crime scene he’d seen before, any other place in the world.

Except, apparently, it wasn’t.

Rossi noted his expression first, turning and seeing Reid leaned heavily on the cane that supported him, the bullet wound in his knee weakening the limb enough to require the implement. The cane aged him, but not as much as the look on his face right now; Reid’s skin was washed out, his eyes wide, his fingers clamped tight around the grip.

“Kid?” Rossi asked him, stepping closer. “Reid?”

Reid looked at him, then back to the wall, reaching with a hand that trembled to tear a photograph down. Hundreds of faces looked back at him, right back from when the diner had opened in 1963. Some of them smiling, some scowling, some just staring. The photograph he held shook so much the faces upon it were blurred, their features hidden

The others had fallen silent. Perhaps they guessed, somewhere deep inside them, as the stink of this place slunk into their noses and reminded them that they were somewhere known … perhaps they guessed what he’d found. An animal hunted always remembers the reek of the hunter, just in case they meet again.

Knock knock, Reid thought hysterically, looking at that photo with the strangest feeling like he was losing his fucking mind. Welcome home.

“What’ya doin’ with that?” the woman who owned the diner barked, seeing it. “Put that back. It ain’t yours to be tearing.” She had fond memories of the faces within, which is why it was displayed so prominently. A table-full of kids gone on to better places, she hoped, though she couldn’t recall the names attached to the faces. Just feelings. They were good kids, she was sure, those ones that had visited twenty-one and some years ago.

“Reid, we’re –” Hotch began, but Reid turned to him.

Hotch would never forget the look on his face, not ever.

The photo was held up. They all looked at it, none of them noticing what he had. Not at first.

Then Emily saw it: the girl furthest from the camera, the one with the fiercest scowl. That was her scowl, her eyes, her bangs with the wild hair above them that she hadn’t worn in twenty years. Morgan and JJ saw it next, simultaneously. Side-by-side right now as they were in the photo. Rossi just shrugged, confused. He wasn’t pictured. Hotch was, staring at his eighteen-year-old self who was, in turn, staring at Emily with a smile on his mouth that was as unfamiliar as this diner was, despite the photo saying otherwise. Reid was right there too, sitting on the end of the booth with his feet unable to touch the ground and smiling shyly at whoever was holding the camera. Another boy beside him, just as small as he was.

Reid counted thirteen children in the photo, crushed into the three booths pictured. He didn’t remember any of them besides the ones he was standing with now and Garcia, sitting beside Morgan with her eyes averted.

“Why is there a photo of me in a diner I’ve never been in, surrounded by people I didn’t meet until I was twenty-two?” he asked, a question no one there could answer.

With that one unanswerable question, the storm that they’d been living in the eye of for the last twenty-one summer years finally crashed down upon them.