Special thanks to my beta, Deejaymil, who rocks.
Were they truly intelligent? By themselves, that is? I don’t know and I don’t know how we can ever find out. … If they were not truly intelligent, I hope I never live to see us tangle with anything at all like them which is intelligent. I know who will lose. Me. You. The so-called human race.
The Puppet Masters (1951)
Part One: Incubation Period
Incubation Period: The period between exposure to a pathogenic organism and the development of the first symptoms.
Chapter Warning: Non-graphic discussion of a murdered infant.
July 22, 2007
Erin Strauss threw the last folder on Aaron Hotchner’s desk and leaned back in the chair. She took a sip of her nearly cold coffee, making a face as she looked up and said, “Well, that all looks pretty good. Your team has become remarkably efficient.” She leaned back in her chair, looking almost pleased and added, “So it looks like we were both right.”
Hotch suppressed the desire to sigh. It had been more than a year since the little tussle over his newest agents; first with Strauss pushing Prentiss on him and later he pushing DiNozzo on her. It turned out that both new agents had very quickly made it clear that they were assets to the team.
Emily Prentiss was a smart, strong, hard-working, and determined woman, who was adapting well to the relatively free-form methods they used at the BAU. If he was going to be honest, he had to admit that she was probably a better fit for the team as it was now than Elle would have been.
Thinking of Elle always hurt. He’d failed her so very badly, so busy trying to keep Gideon in one piece that he’d never noticed how much her near-fatal shooting had damaged her. She had insisted on returning to work as soon as she was physically able, and he couldn’t help but wonder how things would have been if she had taken the six months of leave her therapist had mentioned as “something to consider”.
But leaving the past aside, he’d been surprised and very pleased at how well Prentiss was doing and he said so now. Aside from her work as a profiler and investigator, there was a solidity about her that they all, at one time or another, had been able to lean on. He was perfectly willing to admit, to almost anyone else, that she was a real asset to the team.
He found it difficult to admit it to Strauss, not because she had been right, but because he felt like admitting she had been right gave her ammunition in their on-going battle.
He knew he and Strauss would always be at odds because she was very much a “company” woman and she had ambitions that aimed far higher in the hierarchy of the FBI. She wanted the BAU to succeed, but on terms that those above her would find acceptable, that would make her look good to them. In contrast, Hotch hated the political part of his job and wanted the BAU to succeed because the BAU saved lives and stopped serial offenders. He was pretty sure that those goals did matter to Strauss, but only in abstract. For her, other considerations came first. Still she had backed off some since she had successfully gotten him to accept Prentiss, and she was not above taking the praise for DiNozzo's success, so he was not surprised when she said, “And Agent DiNozzo seems to have fit in well.”
“He’s very good.” Hotch said. Tony had a knack for the intuitive leap. He listened to everything, paying particular attention to Reid, looked at the evidence, and then said things like, “We need to find out if John Smith’s mother has an alibi.” It could be annoying at times, especially when they had never had any suspicion of John Smith’s mother and anyway, it turned out that she was innocent, but checking her alibi had led them to the unsub and a successful conclusion of the case. When trouble struck he was fast and smart, his years as a cop and a field agent showing. He was even quick and efficient at getting his paperwork done, something Hotch could not say for everyone on his team. And one of his most useful attributes was the ease with which he got local law enforcement to welcome them with open arms rather than fighting their inclusion in the case.
“He has a bit of a crush on Rossi, I think,” she said, with amusement evident in her voice.
Hotch shook his head and allowed some of his own humor to emerge. “More like a bit of hero-worship. And there is definitely some teasing going on. I heard him tell Rossi that he always wanted to be just like him when he was a kid.”
Strauss snorted with laughter. “Oh, I bet Dave just loves that.”
Hotch nodded. “He started calling Tony his unacknowledged bastard son after he invited us all over for a cook-off of Italian cuisine, because it turns out Tony is a pretty good cook, too. We’ve all benefited from their rivalry.”
She stood. “Well, I have to say you were right about him. Though you have to admit that his reputation at NCIS was…” she made a “so so” gesture with one hand.
Hotch felt the tightness in his gut he always got when someone attacked one of his. “As I told you at the time, whatever the Director of NCIS had to say, I talked to his former superior at Major Case and he told me that Tony was the best young agent he ever worked with. And considering what Gibbs’ reputation is—”
Strauss held up her hands, “Oh, I know all about Gibbs.” She started for the door, and then turned and said softly, “I was just concerned that your instincts might have been a little out of whack after that mess in New York, Aaron. Nobody would have blamed you if they had been.” Then she turned and walked out, closing the door gently.
Hotch sat at his desk, staring at the closed door. That mess in New York, he thought and felt a shudder run down his body. He had a moment of memory, of near flashback intensity, of standing in the street, numb, unable to hear, not understanding what had happened. He shook himself. He’d had some mild PTSD symptoms after that, but he had worked through them. They were not even close to the worst he’d had.
He'd hardly noticed Tony at first. He had been there, usually right behind Kate, quiet, occasionally offering a comment, quick to make calls when his boss mentioned the need, but otherwise his major job had appeared to be making sure that Kate had tea, “the real thing,” as he had remarked, whenever she had stopped moving long enough for him to hand her a cup. She didn’t seem to notice.
When he had remarked to her that the task force of NYPD and FBI seemed to be working together better than such groups usually did and congratulating her for that, she had snorted and said, “Oh, that’s not me, that’s DiNozzo. He makes them all play nice. Don’t ask me how."
Hotch had really focused on him for the first time when he’d been about to mention that the Tarot card Death found on the body of the seventh victim did not mean what people unfamiliar with the cards thought it meant. Tony had beat him to it, saying, “Ah, but in the Tarot, Death doesn’t mean actual death. Well, not usually. It means an end, or a major change.” He looked around at the others . “And we can’t tell if it was upright or reversed. Reversed suggests that the big change that is coming is blocked. Usually by your refusal to accept that the time for change has come.” Hotch had looked sharply at him. There had been a change in the quality of his voice that had sounded odd. There was no sign of that when he continued. “I think whoever left this here doesn’t know what the card means. They took it at face value.”
One of the cops had muttered, “Well, at least we can cross all the fortune tellers in town off our list of suspects.”
Rossi mentioned that the DC sniper had left the exact same card and they continued the discussion, but Hotch paid more attention to Special Agent DiNozzo after that. That evening, while outlining what he wanted Garcia to be working on, he had mentioned, “If you find a spare minute, could you do me a favor and get me some information on Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo? Nothing deep. Just what is readily available. Don’t bother with it if you don’t--”
Garcia had squealed, “Holy Momma, he’s hot.”
“Sorry. I was just taking a quick look now because I have a minute like you said. Okay. Been in the Bureau about 10 months. Transferred from NCIS. He was the Senior Field Agent for their Major Case team stationed in DC, had been there about 5 and a half years. Took over the squad for a few months while his boss was on medical leave and apparently did well enough, but left shortly after his boss returned. Before NCIS he was a cop in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Peoria. Graduated from Ohio State with a degree in Physical Education and a minor in Psychology. He has a Master's degree in Criminal Psychology from Howard that he completed about a year ago. He got a couple of commendations for bravery while he was in the NCIS. Oh, and did I mention that he is really, really hot?”
Later, when he was leaving the room in the ER where Kate had died, he found DiNozzo sitting on a chair outside, elbows on his knees, hands over his face. Hotch sat down next to him and after a few minutes, DiNozzo looked up. He looked devastated. Hotch said, “I’m sorry.”
DiNozzo nodded. “Yeah, so am I. I’ve never lost a boss before. Came close once, but…” He paused, took a deep breath and murmured, “She was a pretty good boss.”
“Morgan told me what you did.”
DiNozzo flinched slightly.
“He says you told him ‘You have someone, I don’t. Let me do it.’ ” The “it” in question had been driving an ambulance full of explosives away from the hospital to the nearest empty field while Garcia struggled to keep the cell phone network down so that a terrorist couldn’t set off the bomb. “He also says he never mentioned her to you. How did you know?”
DiNozzo shook his head, wiped his face with his hands. “I didn’t really. It was just a feeling. He just seemed like a man that was settled in his heart.” He looked at Hotch. “Word is that you and Kate were friends back in the day.”
And it had all come crashing down on him then, and he had had to fight not to cry. Some part of him said he should be crying. For Kate and for Cooper and for all the civilians and those Secret Service agents and for all of it. But he didn’t. He sat there, breath coming in gasps, and DiNozzo sat with him, silent, but a presence that helped.
There was a quick knock on his door and Rossi stuck his head in. “Everything go okay with Strauss?” When Hotch nodded, he added, “JJ has something weird going on up in a little town in West Virginia. Looks like we’re going to the mountains.”
When they were all settled in the conference room, JJ said, “There have been a total of eight people who have disappeared from the town of Ashford in West Virginia in the past week, five men, two women and a baby. The population is only 3900, so people are kind of freaking out.” Pictures came up on the screen: An old man, several men in their twenties and thirties, two women in their twenties and a baby boy. JJ said, “The State Police Captain in the area called us in to help.”
Garcia changed the picture to that of the old man. “This is the first person to go missing. Milo Carson, aged 76, was due for a doctor’s appointment on the 13th. When he didn’t show up the doctor’s nurse called the house and got no answer. He says he stopped by the house on the way home to make sure everything was okay, even though Mr. Carson has a granddaughter...” The picture changed to a strong-looking woman of about 25 with her dark hair cut short. Her smile was shy. “...who lives in the house, because the granddaughter was a volunteer firefighter and had been called out the night before. He found the doors open and no one home. There was no sign of a struggle. There has been no sign of either Carson or his granddaughter since.”
A new picture showed two men in firefighter gear, standing near a small fire truck with big grins on their faces. “The next day it was reported that John Makepeace, the town fire chief, and William Thurgood, the owner of a gas station in town and a volunteer firefighter, were both missing.” The picture changed again, a formal photograph of a man in his early thirties and a woman about five years younger holding an infant wearing blue. “This is the town police chief Warren Anderson with his wife Michelle and their son Jeffrey. They went missing two days later on the 17th.”
One more face appeared on the screen. This was a younger man, attractive, with dark hair and high cheek bones. “And this is John Williams who was reported missing by his mother yesterday. He worked part time as a town police officer and was a cashier at a grocery store. He was also a volunteer firefighter.” She put the remote down and added, “The state police guy I talked to said internet access isn’t reliable in Ashford.”
Hotch nodded. “You better plan to come with us, then.” He saw her flash a grin at Morgan and had to force down a smile. It had been almost 18 months, but the couple still had an enthusiasm for their relationship that was just plain charming.
JJ passed out a stack of papers to each of them. “As of now, there are no police officers left in town. Four of their volunteer firemen are gone.”
DiNozzo said, “Everybody is either law enforcement or fire department or related to law enforcement or fire department.”
JJ said, “Exactly. The state police have moved into the town and are investigating. They have found no indication of where the missing people are or if they are still alive. They need us.”
Hotch stood. “They have us.”
The big Marine helicopter landed in a space that looked entirely too small for such an activity. Trees surrounded the clearing and a gravel road led away through more trees to a larger road. There was a state trooper vehicle and two SUVs sitting at the end of the little road with a small group of people around them. When they landed, Tony got out first and helped Garcia out. She was flushed, and her eyes sparkled. She had been hanging on to Morgan’s hand like she was hanging off of a cliff by it, but she had clearly been having a blast on her first helicopter ride. He couldn’t help but smile at her. Morgan was grinning at her too, but they both let go of each other as soon as she had her feet solidly on the ground and Tony could see them both returning to professional mode as everyone worked to get their equipment out of the copter. A man in a greenish-brown state trooper uniform beckoned them out from under the sweep of the blades. As soon as they were all clear, the noise of the engine ramped up, becoming almost deafening, and the ‘copter took off, moving away swiftly.
“Corporal Gil West,” the trooper said, holding out his hand to Hotch. He had reddish blond hair cut military short. “I’m in charge of the investigation in Ashford. I’ve got transportation over there.”
Hotch introduced the team and as they walked to the two SUVs, Prentiss asked, “How long will the trip to Ashford be?”
“Shouldn’t be much more than 30-40 minutes.” He saw the team glance at each other and smiled. “This is real back country here, folks, and there is nowhere closer that a copter that size can land. We use that space for med-evac trips all the time.”
Hotch said, “That’s fine,” and Morgan added, “Looks like lots of scenery to look at on the way.”
“Yeah,” West said. “That I can promise you.”
Rossi, Reid and Hotch joined West in the first SUV while DiNozzo, Prentiss, Morgan, and Garcia were with a young state trooper named Scott in the second. As they turned onto a four-lane road, Hotch asked, “Who will we be working with in Ashford? I mean other than you, of course.”
West turned almost immediately onto a small two lane road that looked as if it could use some resurfacing. “Good question. I guess the mayor is the one in charge. I mentioned both cops that live in town are gone. Thing is, that whole town is going bonkers. At least three families have packed up and moved in with relatives somewhere else. We had a devil of a time being sure that the ones we think are missing hadn’t done the same without mentioning it to anyone.”
Rossi said, “Is that still a possibility?”
West shook his head. “All but two of the missing have family still there in town and they claim no one has heard from them. The other two, the Carsons, were all the family each other had left. I guess it’s possible that they just went on their own without telling anyone, but I don’t think so. Milo Carson has lived in Ashford his whole life. Gina Carson, his granddaughter, has been living with him for about ten years, after her dad took off and her mom died in a car wreck. People say she loves it here. Nobody knows any reason why she would have left. They couldn’t have been scared away. They were the first two to go missing.”
Hotch nodded, looking out of the windows at the forest they were driving through. The road was winding up, at times steeply enough to strain the engine on the big SUV.
The town actually looked smaller than it was. It was located in a narrow little valley, mostly on the west side of a good-sized creek. There appeared to be a single main street with a number of businesses lined up along it, but several side streets wandered up into the forest that surrounded the town and he could see a number of buildings that looked like restaurants, bars, and a fairly large grocery store. A pair of large buildings seemed to loom over the main street on the side of the mountain above the center of town. Most of the stores on main street were clearly geared for tourists but many of them appeared to be closed. The town seemed too quiet, even for a small mountain town on a warm day in July. The one or two people they saw on the street stared at them and then hurried away.
The little caravan of SUVs with its escort of a state police car pulled into the parking lot behind a big concrete and metal building a block from the main street. The sign out front of the building had said, "Ashford Town Hall" above a smaller sign that said, "Ashford Police Department". Here on the back of the building, the sign over the single door on the back wall said, “Ashford Police Dept. No Admittance. Public Entrance at Front of Building.” There were three cars in the lot, one of which was a light blue older model Jeep with off road tires and a police light on the top. The other two were a mid-sized Mercedes sedan that had some miles on it and an old Camaro that had many, many miles on it. Two men stood near the Camaro as they pulled up. One was a medium-sized, well-built young man with a very short haircut, dressed in jeans and a blue buttoned-down collar and short sleeves. The other was a shorter, stocky man of about 45, wearing a grey suit, who was watching them pull into the lot with anxiety clear on his face. He moved forward as they began to get out of the vehicles, while the younger man crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the car, his face expressionless.
West said, “Well, we’ve got the FBI here now, Mr. Riley,” and he introduced the team. Before they could start a conversation, Riley looked over his shoulder and beckoned to the young man, who moved toward them, a slight scowl now on his features.
Riley said, “This is my son, Justin. He’s a Marine.” There was definite pride in his tone. “I asked him to come over because he knew Gina Carson pretty well in high school and, uh, he saw her a couple of times while he was on leave this time. They gave him some extra leave when he asked for it after she disappeared so he could help with the search, but he has to go back tomorrow, so you should talk to him now.”
The young man nodded his head at them as he was introduced, but he did not look happy about the situation. Riley patted his arm nervously and turned back to the agents.
“You have a place for us to work, Mayor?” Hotch asked.
The poor man, clearly completely out of his depth, stuttered, “Uh, y… yeah. We… I figured you could use the police office. It’s pretty small but there’s…” His voice dropped to nearly a whisper. “There’s no one there right now.”
Hotch shook his head, slowly. “We very much appreciate that, Mayor Riley, but that is a potential crime scene so we need to be somewhere else.”
The mayor looked helplessly around, his face pinched. “Agent Hotchner, I honestly don’t know where else to put you. This is a small town and everyone is pretty close knit and there are so many missing and I…”
West interrupted, his voice gentle, “Mr. Riley, I’ve spent time in this town. What about the dance hall at Terry’s?”
The mayor brightened visibly. “That would work. More room there than the police station any way. Terry doesn’t set up dances this time of year. And the inn is right next door.” He turned to Hotch and attempted a smile. “We get a lot of hunters in here in the fall and some cross-country skiers going between here and Wills Falls in the winter. The rest of the time that inn is mostly empty and both of our B&Bs are just homes because pretty much all the visitors are here to camp.”
“So there is a considerable influx of people here during the fall and winter?”
The mayor nodded. “We nearly double our population during hunting season. The inn fills up fast. Several people rent out rooms then and we have two formal bed and breakfast places. The skiing doesn’t bring in as many and it’s a lot more sporadic. Depends a lot on weather. But, yeah, the rest of the year is pretty quiet around here, just some campers coming in to get groceries and buy equipment and such.”
The “dance hall at Terry’s” was in one of the big buildings up on the hill above the main street. It was a large, rather dusty room clearly intended to be seen only at night. It had a lot of folding wooden chairs and tables lined up against the walls, which were decorated mostly with neon beer brand signs, though there were a few mountain and hunting themed pictures and a large map that looked like it might be the local area. At the far end there was a stage and some equipment on rolling carts, covered with tarps. There was a line of windows along the outside wall, but they had heavy shades on them, and not much light got in. The door they had entered came from outside, but there was a door directly across from that one with an unlit neon sign above it that said, “Terry’s.” The door was partly open and they could hear a jukebox playing a Country and Western song Hotch didn’t recognise. The mayor went quickly across and closed the door, turning to say, “I hope this will be all right, Agent Hotchner.”
DiNozzo glanced at Hotch, received the expected nod and moved over to the mayor, putting a hand on his shoulder. “This looks perfect. You should see some of the places other people have asked us to work in.” He was moving the mayor toward the door outside, telling him that the town was beautiful and that he was lucky to be living in such a great place. As they went out the door with the mayor’s son following them, he said, “So, can you tell me what has been happening here? You know,” he made air quotes, “ ‘in your own words.’ ” and gave him a grin so disarming that even from where he was watching, Hotch could see the little man beginning to relax.
He turned back to the room, seeing Prentiss and Morgan helping Garcia set up her equipment. Reid was examining the map hanging on the wall. He said, “Have we heard of any missing people from,” he squinted at the map “Crawford’s Crossing or Blue Valley?”
West shook his head. “Not that I’ve heard. I can call the town police there. Both places only have a single, part-time officer. They take on more part-times in hunting season.”
“I’m trying to remember. Have we ever had an unsub operating exclusively in such a small town?” Morgan said.
JJ had cleared the area around a blank space of wall and had begun putting up pictures and notes on apparent dates of disappearances. “I don’t think so. We’ve had killers in small towns but never just in one small town.”
Reid said, “In most cases, an unsub will not want too much attention brought to his immediate neighborhood, so ordinarily I would say that the one place he doesn’t live is in Ashford. But in this case…” His eyes went back to pouring over the map. “This map is somewhat deceptive. There are two towns within 8 to 10 miles of Ashford, but that is only as the crow flies. To drive between the three towns you have to cover…” He was using his fingers to measure. “It looks like 20 miles between Ashford and Blue Valley and at least 35 between Ashford and Crawford’s Crossing. The nearest town of any size is Carbonville and that is about 40 miles away, but at least 70 miles by road.” He pointed to the three little towns high up in the mountains. “These towns are remarkably isolated, considering that we are only about a hundred miles from DC.”
“What kind of effect would that relative isolation have on an unsub?” Hotch asked. He shook his head and added, “We really don’t have a good data set for this kind of unsub working in such a tiny town.”
“Most serial killers prefer to work either in a large urban or suburban area or over a much larger landscape,” Morgan agreed. “Here, everyone knows everyone and knows them pretty well. It’s awfully hard to hide the kinds of pathologies that lead to serial killings when you are so well known.” He glanced at West and the other trooper. “That’s why serial killers are often described as loners who kept to themselves. They don’t want to be part of a community because they are afraid that someone will notice something.”
“Not all of them,” Reid said. He had moved over and was helping JJ put up information on the missing people. His attention appeared to be more on that than what he was saying. “Both John Wayne Gacy and Dennis Rader were actively involved in social activities and were members of social clubs. Gacy volunteered frequently at hospitals to entertain the kids in his clown costume. And Rader—”
“Reid.” Hotch said softly. Reid’s eyes flashed to him, then to West, who was looking very uneasy, and he blushed a little, ducking his head, and went back to taping papers to the wall. Morgan went out the outside door, carrying the satellite downlink that Garcia used when there was no reliable internet access at a site. For a few minutes most were helping get Garcia’s equipment up and running while JJ and Reid completed spreading out the case on the wall.
Prentiss finished taping cables to the bottom of the table Garcia was using, out of the way of foot traffic, and looked up. “What if he’s a hunter or a skier? Remember what the mayor said? The town nearly doubles in size in the fall and winter.”
“But this is summer, Prentiss,” Morgan said.
“I know, but perhaps the triggering event took place here in the past and the unsub is a visitor, not a resident. He comes here now because he knows that there are very few people here, but the people that are here are the core of the town. Look at who he has taken. The only two cops in town. The fire chief and three of the volunteer firefighters. A permanent resident of long standing. He is striking at the heart of the town, as he sees it. Both formal and informal authority figures.”
“And the women and the baby?” Morgan asked.
Prentiss shrugged. “One of the women is a firefighter. Michelle Anderson and the baby may be collateral damage.”
Hotch nodded. “That makes some sense. He is using Ashford as his private hunting ground.” He stared at the pictures a while longer, then shook his head, looking uneasy.
“I’m not sure this is a serial killer,” Reid said. ”It’s happening too fast. It’s more like a spree killing, but there are no bodies recovered. Spree killers don’t usually bother to make more than a minimum effort to hide the bodies.” He turned and looked at West. “Corporal, do you think you could get me a map of the town?”
“Yeah, I guess. I’ll ask the mayor.”
Reid smiled at him. “Thank you.
West said hesitantly, “So you think they’re all dead?”
Hotch shook his head. “No. We’re considering possibilities and we don’t know enough yet to eliminate any of those possibilities. The unsub may be killing them. He may be holding them for some reason. It’s even possible they all just decided to leave, either separately or as a group. We don’t know. We’re here to find out.” He took a deep breath and raised his voice to include them all. “Okay, I want us in groups of two with a state police officer with each group to show us around and introduce us. We have a lot of people to talk to and several homes to check out. Garcia?” She looked up from her computer. “Make sure you and Reid stay together. We have someone willing to take on cops and firefighters in this town. I don’t want him adding federal agents to his list.”
Hotch and Rossi were just leaving the little two bedroom house that had been the home of the Carsons when West and Morgan pulled up in one of the state police cars. The look on Morgan’s face was not good.
“We found Jeffery Anderson,” he said.
Hotch looked at West and saw he looked distinctly green. He sighed. “At the house?”
Morgan nodded, glanced at West and said, “He was in his crib. Manual strangulation.”
West said, “Jesus God, I just don’t believe…” He took a deep breath. “I checked out the house myself when the mayor called to tell me they couldn’t find Anderson or his family. I was there and I…” He wiped his face, looking as if he was about to cry. “I was just checking to see if anyone was home. I looked in the nursery, but the crib had one of those bumper pads on it and he was so tiny and I didn’t see him.” He swallowed. “When I came back the next day to search I concentrated on the downstairs and their bedroom. I didn’t go back into the baby’s room. I didn’t see him. Jesus God, he was lying there the whole time and I didn’t see him.”
Morgan put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s alright, Corporal West. You had no idea what you were dealing with at the time and if you had found him it wouldn’t have made any difference.”
Rossi stepped forward and took the man’s arm. “Come on over here and sit down a minute. You’ve had a horrible experience.” He moved the man to one of the chairs on the front porch of the house.
Morgan waited until they were out of earshot and said, “One of the neighbors told us she heard the baby crying for a long time the night before they disappeared. She said she noticed because it was unusual. Michelle Anderson was described as a very attentive mother. She figured the baby had colic.”
“You think the killer was there in the house while the baby cried?”
Morgan shook his head, looking down at his shoes. “I think he had to be. But the thing is, Hotch, the only sign of a struggle is a blanket pulled off the bed the couple slept in, and that might have had nothing to do with what happened.”
Hotch said, “He got control of the husband first, then acquired the wife, probably using a threat to the baby to control them both.”
Morgan nodded. “And then he took them out, leaving the kid. The question is, if he was there to kill them, why didn’t he leave them in the house with the baby?”
Hotch sighed. “I have no idea.”
It was late and the team sitting around the table in the middle of the dance hall looked tired. The remains of their meal, which had been provided by the inn next door, was being cleared off by an older woman and a couple of young men who looked like they were still in high school. The meal had been eaten without discussing the case. There had been too many people popping in and out, asking if there was anything needed.
Once the door to Terry’s bar was closed again, Hotch looked around. “What do we have?”
DiNozzo slumped back in his chair, looking unhappy. “This is a weird town, Hotch.”
DiNozzo shook his head. “I’ve talked to…” He picked up his notebook and glanced through it quickly, “Fourteen people. About half of them are just scared out of their minds. The other half say they are scared, but I don’t get that vibe off them. I don’t get much of any vibe off them.”
Rossi said, “I know what you mean, Tony. I got the same feeling with some of them, but I think they are just in shock. If it was a bunch of murders it would be one thing, but right now they just have a bunch of missing neighbors. They don’t know what to think. Not knowing is scarier than knowing.” He stretched and said, “I’m going to go out for a bit of air.”
Hotch was finishing his coffee. He said, “Stay close, Rossi.”
The older man smiled at him with a touch of condescension. “I’ll be right outside.”
DiNozzo looked over at him and said, “Scream if you need help, old man.”
Rossi laughed. “Oh, I will, kiddo. I will.”
Reid had gotten up and moved over to the map of the town he had put together with the help of several of the townspeople, spread out on another table. The locations of the houses where missing people had lived were marked. Prentiss went over and looked at it. “What is the mark there, north of town.”
“That,” Reid said, “Is where the fire was.” Most of the others began to gather around the map.
Hotch said, “What fire?”
“The evening before Mr. Carlson had his doctor’s appointment, just before sundown, several people noticed a column of smoke. The fire department was called out. It was a small fire, and it only took a couple of hours to make sure it was down.”
There was a long moment of silence while the team turned and looked at the pictures on the wall. Hotch murmured, “West mentioned that there had been a call out that night. I don’t think he mentioned it was out in the woods.”
Reid had the look on his face that meant that somewhere in his mind pieces were starting to come together. “It was a small fire. Most people in town probably didn’t notice it. They are fairly common this time of year. Campers getting careless, lightning strikes.”
Prentiss looked back at the fire. “But they all came home after it was out, right?”
Hotch said, “No one knows about Gina Carlson. No one we could find saw her after the fire.”
DiNozzo said, “Makepeace was seen the next morning walking down the street. Terry said he looked tired but he didn’t hear her when she called out a greeting. Anderson went over to talk to him about the cause of the fire that afternoon and couldn’t find him. He wasn’t seen again.”
Morgan said, “Thurgood called in his clerk and asked him to take the gas station for the rest of the day. Said he wasn’t feeling well. His wife got home from work at 6:30 and he was gone. He wasn’t seen again as far as we know.”
Prentiss said, “Williams’ mother says she didn’t hear him come in the night of the fire, but he was in bed the next morning. She says he was real quiet, but when she asked him what was wrong he said everything was fine, and then started talking about the time he almost drove her car into the creek when he was 14. She says he was perfectly normal until a few days later, when the Andersons disappeared but after that she only saw him on his way to bed every night. She figured he was working with the state police. Then yesterday he wasn’t in bed when she went to wake him up.”
There was another moment of silence. DiNozzo stood up and yawned. “Well, that isn’t creepy at all.” He looked at Hotch. “We need to talk to everyone who interacted with any of them after the fire.”
Hotch nodded. “Yes. We’ll get organized for that over breakfast. It’s late and we all need sleep.”
It wasn’t until they had gotten their room keys from the desk clerk at the Ashford Inn next door that they remembered Rossi. DiNozzo went back to look for him while the clerk told the rest that he had not seen him. DiNozzo came back a few minutes later, looking very grim, already on the phone to the state police.
Over the next six hours they tore the town apart. David Rossi was nowhere to be found.