Ten Minutes to Midnight
* * *
Prosperity makes friends, adversity tries them.
* * *
It starts with death, and it ends with death. It’s cold out – nearing zero degrees. The blizzards haven’t come yet, but when the high-pressure system meets the low-pressure system, there will be a whiteout, the likes of which haven’t been seen in decades. The news describes it as one of the worst winters to hit the United States since 1888. While the snow hasn’t quite reached 50 inches, you wouldn’t know that from looking outside. A blanket of white covers the world.
He’s in a house not far from one of the major interstates. He’s so tired, so hungry that he can’t even remember which interstate. Can’t remember who he is, where he was going. All he knows is that his body is failing; that he is going to die in this house, a captive of this strange man who seems to take pleasure in causing him pain.
The room is relatively Spartan. There is a hard bed, with a thinning blanket, a few rags, a bucket that was once empty, and a cask of water that is down to its final drops. For eleven days, he has been experiencing inanition; catabolysis, atrophy of the stomach, fatigue and apathy. After ten days of torture, the strange man had left him locked in this room, willing to let nature take its course. For two days, he has been lying on the bed, too weak to move, too weak to think. The thin blanket has been stained by stool, the result of the diseases that ravished his body due to vitamin deficiency.
It’s almost ten minutes to midnight; a doomsday clock of this particular man’s life. When it strikes midnight, he will be gone from this world forever; the imprint of his soul in this life was so insignificant that he will barely be remembered. All that is left of this man is wasting skeleton on a soiled mattress in a house in the middle of nowhere.
* * *
Not half a world away, it is still ten minutes to midnight. Ten minutes to midnight on New Year’s Eve, no less. The usually spotless condominium is uncharacteristically disorderly, though that is only in comparison to its original state. Empty bottles and used glasses are line up neatly next to the sink. Half a dozen bowls of snacks are out, each at varying levels of consumption. A soft rock number is pumped out by the stereo, its highs not far from being drowned out by the voices of those that are listening to it. This isn’t your average New Year’s Eve party.
But then, these aren’t average people.
They are the people that keep you safe at night. They are the people who slaughter evil, who keep the monsters at bay. They are the ones that have put their job above almost everything; above friends, above family. But they’ve made their own family.
They’re laughing, smiling. They find it nice, once in a while, to pull away from the horrors of the job, but they all know they could never leave it permanently. This is not just about their obligations to victims, to families, but about their obligations to themselves, to each other.
‘All I’m saying is that playing chess on New Year’s Eve is a bit…’ Morgan struggles for an appropriate word. He is clad in his usual jeans and tight t-shirt. Garcia is holding onto him as they sway gently to the music.
‘Lame?’ supplies JJ. She’s curled up next to Will, Henry asleep in the bassinette before them.
‘Exactly the word I was looking for,’ grins Morgan. He continues to watch his two colleagues, still engrossed in their game.
‘Chess is a commonly used tool to aid in the intellectual development of the adolescent mind,’ Reid says absent-mindedly. He’s almost entirely focused on the board in front of him. He knows that knowledge and verbal ability are essential for expertise. He knows that perception is more important than anticipation. He knows that his eidetic memory should give him a clear advantage, and yet he cannot figure out why Emily Prentiss keeps beating him. To add insult to injury, she is at least three times as inebriated as he is.
He brushes his knuckle against a knight. He knows he can take her rook, but it leaves his queen wide open.
‘I don’t think you needed any help with intellectual development, kiddo,’ laughs Rossi from the couch. He’s watching them with interest, though he appears to be attracted more by their body language than the game itself. He sees Emily loosen slightly as Reid makes his move. ‘You’re screwed,’ he concludes.
‘Wait, what?’ He looks at Rossi, and then back at the board, where Emily is moving her own piece forward.
‘Checkmate,’ she announces. There’s the slightest hint of a slur in her voice. Reid stares at the scene incredulously. It was bad enough that he had rarely beat Gideon. He would risk his reputation as the resident genius if he lost another game.
‘How do you do that?’ he asks, and she winks at him.
‘What’s that phrase?’ she prompts him. ‘A magician never reveals their secrets.’ It’s a topical analogy; not three days ago, he refused to reveal to her how her watch had somehow appeared in the break-room fridge. She had smiled at him insidiously as she strapped the expensive timepiece back onto her wrist, as though she already had a particular revenge in mind. He will remain vigilant; somehow, he thinks that beating him at chess isn’t the most creative retribution she can think of.
‘Nine minutes,’ Garcia informs them, as she removes Morgan’s hand from her waist to check his watch. She’s been counting down the minutes since half-past eleven.
‘Another game?’ Emily asks the question with a raised eyebrow. She already knows that he is going to decline. It doesn’t take a profiler, though having the skill helps. Over the years, the team has come to know each other’s character traits, their strengths, their weaknesses. An inevitable side effect of spending so much time together.
‘No thanks. I’ll keep my dignity.’ He gets up, goes to get another drink. The red wine curls delicately into his glass; at this point he’s still mostly sober, able to appreciate the taste of the wine rather than the buzz it gives him.
Emily packs away the chess board, rolling her eyes at Morgan’s amusement. The board is one her grandfather gave her, hand-carved bone pieces, packed away in a box of rosewood and silken velvet. She has lost count of how many games she has played on that set. On her return from setting the box beside the mantelpiece, she is intercepted by Morgan. Garcia has excused herself to the bathroom, and he is left without a dance partner.
‘You sure you want to dance with a nerd?’ she teases him. Her hair hangs loosely, with a kick that is unseen during the professional hours. It brushes lightly against her bare shoulders and the spaghetti-thin straps. The condo is heated, so jackets and coats are free from the constraints of limbs.
‘I am surrounded by nerds every day,’ he reasons. ‘Just one dance isn’t going to hurt.’ He moves with a fluidity that is untempered by the alcohol in his blood. Tonight, “smooth moves” has a literal meaning as well as figurative one.
Upon his return from the kitchen, Reid takes a seat beside JJ. With some pride, he notices that she’s wearing the butterfly necklace he bought her for Christmas. After he has garnered the proud parents’ permission, he leans forward to tickle Henry’s stomach. Though in the arms of the sandman, the infant gives a sound of contentment.
‘He’s almost a month old, now, right?’ Though he’s phrasing it as a question, he knows the exact date, the exact time that Henry LaMontagne was born. Even if he had been born without the ability to process such vast amounts of information, he would have remembered that day for the rest of his life.
‘Almost,’ smiles JJ.
‘Six minutes,’ Garcia calls out as she joins the throng. She gives Emily a look of mock jealousy before sitting down next to Hotch. The Unit Chief has been stoic all night, but even his long built up mask cannot hide the pleasure that he’s feeling. His lips twitch, and anyone watching his face would have – for just half a second – seen a smile.
His bounds do not quite extend to drinking, though. If a case were to come up, if they were to be called away urgently, he’s ready. Apart from him, Reid and JJ are probably the only ones capable of driving.
Their enjoyment continues for just under six minutes. The countdown is beginning on the muted television when JJ’s phone begins to ring.
Seven bodies tense.
‘Yes, I did get your email…’
‘Sherriff, there’s a very large pile of cases awaiting review…’
‘…and you’re only just discovering this now?’
The team has stopped paying attention to the countdown. They are oblivious to the muted cries from adjacent residences. All eyes are on JJ.
‘Of course. We’ll be there as soon as possible.’ She hangs up.
‘We’ve got a case.’ No-one is surprised by this fact, yet neither are they disappointed. All that remains is the key questions: Who, What and Where.
‘Keyser, West Virginia. Two bodies have been dumped there in the last two months; showed signs of starvation and torture. I’ve just been informed of a possible third victim who went missing eleven days ago.’
‘It’s not an ideal time for an investigation,’ remarked Hotch. He was staring out the window – not at the expanse of festivities, but at the falling snow. While it was soft now, it would be heavier by the morning. If they were to leave, they had to leave now.
‘It never is,’ was all JJ said. There was a sudden flurry of movement. The party was over. They moved the half-finished food and drinks into the kitchen, cleaned up what little mess was left over.
‘There’ll be massive flight delays in this weather,’ remarks Rossi. ‘Even with a private jet.’
‘It isn’t far,’ rationalizes Hotch. ‘We could drive there before the blizzards kick in.’ That suggestion sits best with everyone, but it means they must leave immediately; if they were to leave it any longer, then their drive would be delayed by drunken partygoers attempting to find a way home.
‘Can we run an investigation in the middle of a blizzard?’ Emily asks. She’s not perturbed by the weather, she’s just curious. She’s waiting for the go-ahead to grab her ready bag from upstairs.
‘We can run an investigation in any weather,’ Morgan says confidently. He’s already at the door, car keys in hand. He hands the keys to Reid as the young profiler joins him.
‘You’re the only one of us sober enough to drive.’ Hotch raises an eyebrow at that comment, and produces his own keys. Rossi notices that they are the keys to an FBI issue SUV; Hotch drove here straight from Quantico. If he had to place a bet, he would guess that the Unit Chief’s ready bag was already in the back seat.
‘Reid, Morgan, Prentiss. Get your stuff, take the SUV, and get on the road. JJ, take Will and Henry home and meet Rossi and I at the office. Garcia; you’re coming with us.’ The keys are swapped and the orders followed without hesitation.
‘Hey Morgan,’ Emily calls down from upstairs. ‘Could you put some coffee in the thermos?’ They both need to sober up, and they don’t have time to do it before they leave.
‘You’ll get there before us,’ Hotch starts, but he is interrupted by a short laugh from the kitchen.
‘Not with Reid at the wheel,’ Morgan grins, the thermos flask in his hand. ‘He drives like somebody’s grandma, weather notwithstanding.’
‘In winter, the number of accidents on the road increases exponentially,’ Reid announces. ‘Fortunately, the risk of collision can be decreased by implementing a number of safer driving techniques.’
‘And that is why Reid is driving,’ concludes Garcia.
Morgan smirks. ‘Ten bucks says we get there after Hotch.’
‘Oh, I never said you wouldn’t.’ Garcia barely had time to wink as she was pulled out the door by Rossi. They had no time to waste.
‘I’ll talk with you later, baby girl,’ Morgan called out after her. If she responded in any capacity, he did not hear it.
‘I’ll see you in Keyser,’ is JJ’s farewell, as she too departs.
Neither party knew that both statements would, in time, prove false.
* * *
‘I spy with my little eye, something beginning with “S.”’
‘Snow,’ comes the reply from two tired, hung-over profilers. Both had been fairly confident that their drinking was not excessive enough to result in a hangover, and both were sorely mistaken. Emily had all but threatened to kill Reid if he didn’t turn off the radio. Fearing for his life, he did so.
Ten minutes later, he pulls into a gas station, returning with several bottles of water, orange juice, Gatorade, a jar of pickles and Alka-Seltzer Morning Relief.
‘You really shouldn’t have drunk all that coffee,’ he explains, handing them the bag as he takes to the driver’s seat. ‘It actually serves to dehydrate you, which is really the last thing you want right now.’
Emily ignores the bottle of water in her hand, and instead stares at the jar of pickles. ‘You’re trying to screw with us, right?’
‘Not at all. The high mineral content of the pickle makes it effective in reducing hangover symptoms.’ Skeptical, Emily returns the jar of pickles to the bag. She’ll stick with water.
‘I hear a Bloody Mary does wonders,’ contributes Morgan. The incessant pounding of his head deters him from actually requesting a Bloody Mary, though.
‘The fructose in the tomato juice helps metabolize the alcohol faster. Though if you drink too many, you’ll just wind up drunk again.’ His words go unheard. They have not quite crossed the threshold of recovery.
It is almost three a.m, and, though it is dark out, the headlights give them enough light to see the expanse of snow that covers the ground beside the road. It’s still falling; heavy enough to impair vision slightly, but not heavy enough to prevent it from melting as soon as it hits the road. Soon, though, if the weather broadcasts are accurate, the wind will pick up and visibility will decrease. They hope they will be in Keyser by that time.
But then, hope is never a money-back guarantee.
* * *
Both Emily and Morgan are asleep when the blizzard does come. At this point, they are still three hours from Keyser.
Reid leans forward, as if doing so will grant him better visibility through the now heavily falling snow. A sudden snore from Morgan in the passengers’ seat causes him to jerk the steering wheel slightly.
‘Pull over,’ says Emily sharply from the back seat, causing him to jump again; he hadn’t known that she was awake.
‘Pull over. We can’t drive in this.’ It’s still dark outside, but the danger is unmistakable. The snow is propelled in every which direction. It hasn’t reached its peak yet, but that is no reason not to be cautious.
He nods. He knows she is right. He starts to edge the SUV to the right, but is interrupted by a soft crack, almost imperceptible over the sound of the rising winds. The SUV lurches, causing Morgan to jump awake.
‘What was that?’ he asks, his voice slurred with sleep.
It lurches again, this time more violently. Reid swears uncharacteristically, and tries to regain control of the steering wheel. The tires slip against the ice. Any “safe driving” techniques he was utilizing are lost. Caught by gravity, the SUV rolls down the moderate embankment, unopposed by the brake pedal, though it is pressed to the floor. Reid keeps all his concentration on keeping the vehicle upright, ignoring the not quite panicky voices of Emily and Morgan.
It finally slows to a stop before a large, snow covered tree. The bumper bar barely taps the trunk. Reid takes his hands off the wheel, denying responsibility for the incident. Fortunately, he isn’t being blamed.
‘There was a sound,’ Emily says. ‘Right before we crashed, I heard a sound.’
‘Do you think we hit something?’ Morgan asks, staring out the window. The white is only intermittently tempered by other flashes of color. The only way for them to know is to go outside and check; it’s not the most desirable option.
‘All for one,’ says Morgan grimly. Either they all go outside, or none of them do. Reid pales at this prospect; he’s only wearing a light cardigan, a fact which both his co-workers have already ridiculed him for.
Emily throws him her own coat. He catches it, startled. ‘What about you?’
She doesn’t answer directly, instead choosing to tell a short anecdote. ‘Have you ever been to Siberia, Reid?’
He shakes his head. She already knew what the answer would be.
‘January, 1987. Barnaul. I was outside in a t-shirt and jeans. It was forty degrees below zero. I can handle the cold.’
‘How long were you in hospital for after that?’ Morgan ventures, opening the car door.
‘Three days,’ she answers nonchalantly. ‘But it isn’t forty below here.’ She steps outside, hugging at her arms. She can tolerate the cold, but that doesn’t mean she wouldn’t prefer to be elsewhere.
‘That’s without wind chill, though.’ Reid puts the coat on; it reaches his knees, and he immediately turns from mild-mannered genius into something far more sinister.
The snow washes around them, catching on skin and bare clothes. They move to the front of the car, examining the damage.
‘Guys,’ says Morgan. They all noticed the problem at the same time; it isn’t the fact that the car is slightly crumpled against the tree. It’s the bullet hole that’s in the middle of the hood.
‘This SUV didn’t have a bullet hole to begin with, did it?’ asks Reid. The inherent danger of some of the cases they investigate, it is a possibility, however distant.
‘No.’ Emily reaches for her weapon cautiously. There is another cracking noise.
‘Was that…?’ Morgan trails off as he sees Reid collapse, clutching at his shoulder. Crimson red blood is already seeping through his fingers. Emily jumps to his aid, laying her gun within reach.
‘Go!’ she yells at Morgan. He draws his own weapon, eyes scanning the white landscape for their assailant. It’s difficult; he can barely see, thanks to the snowflakes that are assaulting his vision.
Emily takes off her jacket, pressing it into the wound. The cold bites into her like sharp daggers, but she fights to ignore it. ‘Stay with me, Reid,’ she mutters. Her words are lost to the wind.
She’s still pressing the jacket into the wound when she hears a sound. She picks up the gun beside her, hoping that she doesn’t accidentally shoot Morgan in the fray. ‘Morgan?’ she calls out. So focused, she is, on the approaching figure, that she doesn’t hear the footsteps behind her. Doesn’t even have time to react before she is knocked unconscious. She slumps forward over Reid’s still body.
The first thing Morgan sees as he returns the SUV is an unconscious Emily and a bleeding Reid. They are alone, as though someone attacked and simply left them for dead. Derek Morgan knows that that isn’t the case. He knows that before he feels the gun pressed up against his spine.
‘Do exactly as I say,’ the voice is low, and has a whistling quality that seems to match the wind. ‘And they won’t die.’ Morgan doesn’t move. He is knocked forward, and does not hear the final word of his aggressor.