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“Seriously,” JJ said, index finger swiping a bit of spicy mayo from the corner of her mouth, “you should make a move.”

Garcia glared, fork spiking down to skewer an unsuspecting cucumber slice. “As if the borderline sexual harassment isn’t enough to indicate my interest?” she asked dryly.

JJ glared back, sandwich hanging forgotten halfway to her mouth. “He thinks it’s a game. He thinks it’s your thing. You know, the special friendship thing between the two of you. You banter.”

“We do banter.”

“Maybe you should stop bantering, then,” JJ challenged, sandwich again making it halfway before being abandoned. “Be direct. Leave no room for misinterpretation.”

“So sayeth the friend who doesn’t have to risk embarrassment or a broken heart,” Garcia mumbled, taking a savage bite out of her cucumber. “Besides, I’m not his type.”

“How do you know?”

“Look at him.” Garcia looked at JJ over the top of her glasses. “The man’s a god. He dates models, or other skinny bitches, or models.”

“Oh, come on,” JJ said, rolling her eyes. “Derek isn’t that shallow.”

“Men are all that shallow,” Garcia muttered, shaking her head. “Just who do you think is his type anyway?”

“Someone smart,” JJ asserted, “and funny and accomplished. Someone who can hold her own with him. Someone like you.”

“Or someone like you,” Garcia pointed out, setting her sights on a baby carrot. “Maybe you should ask him out.”

“Don’t passively-aggressively project your insecurities onto me,” JJ warned, finally remembering her sandwich long enough to take a bite.

Waving the now impaled carrot menacingly, Garcia narrowed her eyes. “Don’t pull out the profiler talk with me.”

“Fine,” JJ allowed. Then, almost challengingly, “Then how about this – what’s my type?”

“What?”

“My type,” JJ reiterated. “If you can correctly identify my type, then I’ll let stand as valid your assertion that Derek wouldn’t be interested in you. If you’re off the mark, then you have to accept that you might not be all-knowing when it comes to this.”

Garcia stared at her in disbelief. “You can’t be serious. What is this? My riddle from the Sphinx?”

“Get it wrong and die,” JJ said dryly.

Laying down her fork, Garcia stared hard at JJ, suddenly a little sorry she’d agreed to the agent’s casual offer of a shared lunch in her office. Her lips pursed, as if in concentration. Then, “No. Nope, can’t do it.”

“See.” JJ smiled. “You can’t know…”

“No, it’s just too awkward,” Garcia interrupted. “I mean, with you sitting here staring at me and all. Besides, how do I know you won’t lie?”

“Because I’ll promise not to.”

Garcia’s look was distrustful. “I remain unassured.”

“Then do someone else.”

Garcia rolled her eyes. “Doesn’t that defeat the entire purpose of this exercise? If the point is that we can’t correctly know another person’s likes and dislikes – if we can’t divine their chosen choice of dating partner based on their personality, preferences, and other known factors – then how is choosing someone who is not present at this moment and making a wild guess that can’t then be substantiated by fact going to provide us with any kind of answer?”

JJ sighed. “You’re no fun.”

“Logic is my drug of choice,” Garcia offered, shrugging apologetically.

“Then how about this. We pick three celebrities we each think would be on Derek’s list of people he would consider dating. If, when asked, he identifies someone on either of our lists, then we have a winner.”

Garcia looked at her guardedly. “That may be workable,” she allowed, “but I think we should do a test run. We can’t run the initial version of this latest harebrained idea in the long string of harebrained ideas you’ve had today on Derek. We’ve got to pilot it first.”

JJ thought about it for a moment, then nodded. “Fine. We’ll do Emily first.”

“Fine.”

JJ took another bite of her sandwich, chewing slowly, mind working over the possibilities. Emily would need someone with a sense of adventure, someone who was able to break free of the hold of a single place and feel at home anywhere. Emily needed someone with a hint of style and an easy, confident poise.

“Maybe this is going to be harder than I thought,” she admitted, jaw clenching at Garcia’s cockily arched brow.

“Ready to admit defeat then?”

“Never.”

“So, then, who’s first on your list?”

It felt, suddenly, like a competition. There was little JJ loved more than winning. “Anderson Cooper,” she said triumphantly.

Garcia stared at her, dumbstruck. “Anderson Cooper? I… really? Anderson Cooper?”

Now defensive, JJ nodded. “What’s wrong with Anderson Cooper?”

“I just… He’s…” Garcia struggled for words, finally holding her hands out, palms up, as if in surrender. “You know what, never mind. He’s your choice. I’ll make no further comments.”

“Who’s your first choice?”

The barest hint of a smile tugged briefly at the corner of Garcia’s mouth. “Emily Deschanel.”

For a brief moment, JJ thought that Garcia had said that Emily’s first choice of a celebrity date would be… well, herself. “Who?”

“Emily Deschanel.”

JJ’s utter befuddlement was so pronounced that it was almost comical.

Garcia, sensing that she might have hit upon a topic that could manage to divert JJ’s attention from her non-relationship with Derek, grinned. “I hear she’s quite the lady killer.”

JJ felt her confusion grow. “Who?”

“Emily.”

“Deschanel?”

“No,” Garcia explained patiently, “Prentiss.”

Laying her sandwich down carefully, JJ pushed back in her chair, staring at Garcia in disbelief. “Emily Prentiss.”

Garcia’s grin grew wicked. “Emily Prentiss.”

“And your source for this is?”

Garcia lowered her head, eyes darting left and right as if looking for eavesdroppers. “Okay, so maybe I exaggerated about the lady killer part,” she allowed, rushing to add, “but I have it on good authority that she can entice the fairer sex on the quick.”

JJ’s look was still highly dubious. “That didn’t even make sense.”

With a sigh, Garcia crossed her arms on the desk and leaned forward, eyes locked with JJ’s. “You remember that case in Idaho? In the woods?”

“The two brothers?”

“Uh-huh,” Garcia confirmed. “And, you remember how Emily decided to stick around for a little impromptu vacation afterward?”

“She likes the woods,” JJ said slowly, innocently. “Her grandfather had a cabin in France. She visited him often when she was a child.”

Garcia snorted, “And the sparks flying between her and the ranger?”

“The ranger?”

“The forest ranger,” Garcia intoned meaningfully.

Thinking back to the case, JJ concentrated all of her mental energy to pulling out details. “The ranger, as in Lizzie Evans, the forest ranger who liaised with us on that case?”

“Bingo.”

JJ frowned, then glared, then frowned again. “A, you weren’t even there. B, I saw no such sparks.”

“Derek said they had crazy chemistry,” Garcia said confidently, leaning back and crossing her arms over her chest. “According to him, there’s no doubt about it. After the case ended, Emily hung around to have a little thing with the forest ranger.”

JJ tried to process the information, but it was as if the facts had gotten stuck in cement. They were just there, sticking out in her brain like puzzle pieces that didn’t fit – something you didn’t necessarily want to discard but also something you weren’t quite sure how to use.

Confident that JJ was far too wrapped up in the possible veracity and probable implications of her newly discovered knowledge, Garcia returned to her salad in peace, sure that she was safe from the line of fire for quite some time.

XXXXXXXXXX

I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.
Father of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer (who cribbed it from someone else)

XXXXXXXXXX

“What have you got for us?”

Hotch’s face was stoic. He slid into his chair carefully, a steaming cup of coffee in his hand, and looked up at her expectantly. Waiting, she supposed, for her to explain the horror she’d chosen for them that day.

“Possible serial murderer,” she said, watching as the rest of the team filed in. Reid had already opened the case file, was already flipping through glossy crime scene photos and scanning police reports, his mind probably beginning to form an elementary silhouette of their unsub. Garcia was lurking in the background, pink feathered pen out and poised over a small notebook, and Derek Morgan was watching her intently, his dark eyes compelling, inviting her to say more. I’ll listen, he seemed to say, his posture open and inviting. And, looking at him, JJ wanted to talk.

“Location?”

This was from Emily. Her case file was sitting unopened before her, her face almost as unreadable as Hotch’s. In the weeks since Garcia’s revelation, JJ had taken to studying Emily. She watched surreptitiously, monitoring every stray glance, every reaction and potentially telling movement. And, try though she might, she’d yet to see anything that indicated that Emily was any different than what she’d always perceived before. Strong, reserved, and dedicated – having an affair with her job, if anything.

“Birmingham, Alabama,” JJ said, the words coming just a beat too late.

“Walk us through it,” Hotch prompted gently, his eyes now focused on her as well. She fought back a hint of nervousness, the same fluttering in her belly that came with each of these cases. Despite all of the time she’d spent in the BAU, this time – the time when she was the one in charge, when she was the keeper of information and the compass pointing out their next direction – always left her feeling a bit like an imposter. This, her moment in the spotlight, was the moment of her penultimate vulnerability.

“They’ve had three deaths in as many weeks, each victim killed in a different manner before the body is immolated.” As she spoke, she flashed a series of three autopsy photos onto the LCD screen behind her, each of a blackened, desiccated corpse.

Morgan interrupted. “They’re sure they’re dealing with the same unsub?”

JJ smoothed her voice into calm, confident assurance. “The detective in charge thought he noticed a pattern dating back to an older set of cases. Five years ago, they had a series of five murders committed in the same manner. Each victim was killed, causes differing with each case, and the body was burned. The main difference is the timing. Five years ago, each death was spaced a month apart. This time around, we’re looking at a week between each killing.”

Emily’s brow was wrinkled, her face a study in concentration. “You said they were killed in differing manners before being burned.”

“Right,” JJ confirmed. “I don’t have all of the details on the older cases yet, but this time around, the first victim was poisoned with – get this – king cobra venom. The second, as far as the coroner can determine given the badly burned state of the remains, was stabbed with a weapon consistent with a pitchfork or trident. The third was drowned.”

“When was the last murder?” Hotch’s words were curt, his mind racing ahead to the implications.

“Four days ago.”

“Giving us three days,” Reid noted, closing his folder with a snap. “The pattern here – all of the patterns here – are odd. Five killings with a month between five years ago and then nothing until now, when the unsub starts killing once a week? Serial murderers don’t generally stop killing. They’re either killed or die themselves, are imprisoned, or move on to other areas where they continue to kill using the same signature.”

Morgan’s eyes narrowed. “Why are we just getting this?”

“The second death tipped the local PD off that they might have a serial on their hands.” JJ offered a wry smile and a shrug. “Apparently, they wanted to keep the investigation in house. The officer who had worked the cases five years before wanted to bring us in as soon as they had the second murder, but the big brass initially said no. A contact at the local field office tells me that they’ve got a new chief who wants to make a big splash, and solving something like this is just the kind of career boost he’s looking for. After the third, with no progress in sight, they relented. The local brass is on board now, but our reception might still be a bit chilly.”

Emily frowned. “Are we going to be in a turf battle over jurisdiction?”

“I don’t think so,” JJ said cautiously. “I get the impression that they’re going with a new angle here. My local contact says all of the buzz now is about cross-departmental cooperation and partnering, with the chief more than happy to take all of the accolade he can if we find their guy before he kills again.”

“Garcia, run the MO through VICAP,” Hotch said decisively, already rising from his chair, “and everyone else grab your ready bag. We’re heading down south.”

Derek, unable to resist, let out a dry, monotone, “Yee-haw.”

******

Flying always made JJ introspective. She wasn’t sure why but thought it might be the surrealism of cutting through the air, thousands of feet above the ground. It was a literal separation from the earth, a suspension in a place where human life could not exist yet somehow did.

She hadn’t been able to shake the feeling of disquiet that had followed her conversation with Garcia. The secret revealed had been Emily’s, but JJ felt the burn of it as acutely as if it had been her own. There had been no censure in Garcia’s tone, just the smug satisfaction of a gossiper with a new piece of information, but the knowledge she’d imparted had changed JJ’s perception of Emily irrevocably.

It had been a long time since anyone had captured JJ’s interest as thoroughly as Emily Prentiss had managed to unwittingly do. From the beginning, JJ had felt a pull to her, drawn by her intensity, her resolve, her easily apparent intelligence and the underlying pull of darkness. As if her insides matched her outsides, Emily was somehow stark, with piercing dark eyes. Her glossy dark hair softened that somewhat, but Emily had a habit of pulling it back, of hiding it, the tightly scraped pony-tails highlighting the sharp cut of her cheeks and the stubborn jut of her chin. Even her brows were straight, not arched, as if they couldn’t allow her face the luxury of appearing anything other than stoically severe. She smiled rarely, though when she did, the expression always caught JJ off guard. Emily’s smile was like a promise, a hint at something more hidden away beneath her outer shell.

JJ had always been drawn to puzzles and mysteries. She’d been obsessed with solving them, with figuring out the nuances and hidden secrets. She liked being able to map out possibilities and alternatives in her mind, creating a web of potential futures that accounted for every contingency and anticipated every possible curve. In her professional life, she’d used the predilection to good advantage. In her personal life, she’d found herself constantly surprised. Despite the fact that she sometimes liked to pretend that it wasn’t so, she hadn’t always been that way. There had been a time when her mind didn’t calculate probabilities and potential impacts, when she let what she was feeling guide her instead of the other way around, but she’d been young then. She’d been foolish. She’d quickly learned better.

Murderers, the general public, the local police – as seemingly illogical as it was, they all followed a pattern. They reacted in mostly predictable ways. She crafted her words to guide their actions, to produce an intended result. She had learned how to do it early and from a master and had no compunction about putting those skills to use. But, as skilled as she was in doing that, she was almost equally as unskilled in meaningfully guiding and shaping her personal life. Her true wants and desires often took her by surprise. They left her speechless and lost and had to be hidden deeply away lest they damage the iron control she’d crafted so painstakingly. And so she had spent most of her life maneuvering through the superficial. She’d found the situations and people she could control and manipulate and she’d applied all of her skills in service of getting what she pretended she wanted. The things she really wanted she’d watched slip past her and hidden her feelings of remorse and regret behind a thick shield. She convinced herself that they were things she’d never really wanted to begin with, things that had enticed her simply because they seemed out of her reach.

Things that were out of her reach had always tempted her to the point of distraction.

Emily was both within and outside of her reach and she wanted her desperately. She wanted her in a way that confused her, that muddled her mind and made action impossible.

“We’re almost there,” Emily murmured, snapping JJ from her trance. She looked up at the brunette sitting across from her, smiled weakly, and focused her gaze on the scene visible through her window.

From high above, Birmingham appeared as a relatively tiny dot cross-hatched by two thick lines of black and surrounded on all sides by dense forests interspersed with smaller outlying settlements. On descent, it became a sprawling city oozing out in concentric circles, a lazy civilization carved out from amongst the trees.

“Fall comes late here,” Morgan noted. Where the trees were already bare and gray back home, Birmingham was still an explosion of fiery reds and glimmering golds, with a preponderance of green pine that seemed to throw the picture into confusion. It was as if summer and fall had gone to war, both refusing to give ground, their troops hopelessly intermixed.

“Birmingham proper wasn’t founded until after the Civil War,” Reid said, eyes skittering around the interior of the cabin as he searched out the general level of interest in the impromptu history lesson he felt compelled to give. “It was primarily an industrial town, one of the largest in the region – mainly iron and steel production originally.”

As if conjured by his words, Derek watched as the menacing remains of an old iron furnace appeared below them. Long dormant now, it was a spiky skeleton bordering a set of railroad tracks, a lingering reminder of the city’s history.

“It earned the name ‘the Magic City’ around the turn of the 20th century because of its amazing early growth,” Reid continued, eyes taking on a thoughtful look. “Now it’s more a city of biotechnology and medicine than it is of mining. The city’s largest employer is the University of Alabama at Birmingham, a top-tier research university. UAB Hospital has the only level 1 trauma center in the state.”

“Then I guess I’m in luck if I get shot,” Emily drawled, earning a smattering of chuckles.

“You know,” Reid continued, “in the 50s and 60s, some people called it Bombingham because of all the bombings related to the civil rights struggle.”

“Yeah, and we’ve all seen the footage of the fire hoses and the dogs,” Morgan scoffed, shaking his head.

Voice slightly distant, JJ murmured, “Places change. People change.”

Reid nodded. “Supposedly, you can see the 16th Street Baptist Church from an upper window in their Civil Rights Museum.”

Hotch interrupted, his tone dry. “We’re going to have to put off sight-seeing for the moment.” One brow arched in the barest of quirks, giving him the look of a mischievous boy. It made JJ almost want to smile in response.

Instead, she nodded in agreement. “The lead investigator is expecting us in 45 minutes. He’s called in personnel from the surrounding areas where some of the other crimes occurred.”

“Good,” Hotch said shortly. “We’ll take all the help we can get.”

The uniform that met them at the door ushered them straight into a conference room, stony-faced and silent the whole time. Inside, they found a pair of wary looking cops, one in uniform and one in civvies, each as hesitant of the BAU as they were each other.

“Agent Jareau?”

One man separated himself from the pack, eyes darting back and forth between Emily and JJ. He’d spoken with the agent over the phone, answering her gently prying questions with as much detail as possible, but had no idea which of the women had been on the other end.

“That’s me,” JJ said, her smile meant to put the man at ease. She held out her hand and he shook it firmly, the barest hint of relief on his features, as if the gesture of greeting had transferred all responsibility for what was happening from his shoulders to theirs. “Detective Clark, thank you for getting everyone together so quickly.”

Andy Clark was barely taller than JJ. He was trim, with the lean look of a runner, and his dark skin provided a stark contrast to his neat, short, dark silver hair. The taut lines of his face made him look just a shade shy of severe, but his brown eyes were warm and welcoming.

“I may have called in the cavalry for nothing,” he joked nervously, the slight tilt of his head indicating the room’s other occupants.

Hotch stepped forward, offering his own tight version of a comforting smile. “The pattern you recognized is quite striking.”

Reid, having decided that the formalities had been aptly observed, interjected himself. “I’d like to hear more about the victims, starting with the last three cases.”

Detective Clark looked slightly unsettled, but nodded. “The first victim, Nancy Warner, was discovered at Oak Mountain State Park, which is just south of the city. A forest ranger saw the smoke while doing his rounds after the park closed up. The body was badly burned by the time he located her, and the ME wasn’t sure he was going to be able to determine cause of death given the condition of the body. He couldn’t see any physical injuries that couldn’t be explained away by the effects of fire, but ran a tox scan on a tissue sample anyway. The results came back positive for snake venom – king cobra to be exact. We’ve been in touch with every pet store, every exotic animal dealer, and zoo in the area. None of them have lost a king cobra. None of them sell king cobras. None of them know how someone could have either been bit by a king cobra or have otherwise come into contact with king cobra venom.”

The team had taken up positions around the room during Clark’s description, each standing almost like a sentinel at evenly spaced intervals. Morgan had his back against the wall by a large white board currently outlining holiday party responsibilities, arms crossed over his chest. “Did the victim work with snakes?”

“She was a nurse,” Detective Clark replied, shrugging his shoulders in the universal gesture for ‘I know… it doesn’t make any sense.’ “She worked in the ICU at UAB hospital.”

“Didn’t another of the victims work at UAB hospital?” Emily asked, tilting her head to the side speculatively as she called into memory the facts they’d all memorized on the plane. But, asking questions was a good way of uncovering information that hadn’t made it into the reports, information that the report writers probably didn’t even know they knew.

“That’s right,” said one of the officers, this one wearing a brown and tan uniform. “The third victim, Raymond Harris. He was a chaplain there.”

“He was stabbed, probably by a three pronged instrument like a pitchfork. He lived on a farm out in the county. Raised horses out there,” Detective Clark offered, lips flattening out in a frown. “The killer set him on fire along with the stables, but let all of the horses out first. A neighbor called in the fire and the local FD got out there pretty quickly. As a result, the body wasn’t as badly burned. They tell me that’s the only way they know what happened to him.”

“Did you find the murder weapon?” Reid asked.

The officer shook his head. “The pitchfork left in the barn didn’t have any blood on it and a search of the grounds yielded nothing. Either the killer brought it with him or he took it with him from the scene. There was a note nailed to the door, but the paper had been pretty badly damaged by the fire. We’ve got someone at the university working on putting it back together. They tell me they should have something for us in the next day or so.”

Hotch frowned. “What about the second victim?”

“A student, Alison Barr,” said the remaining officer, this one female. She was wearing a fitted white button down and black slacks, long blonde hair pulled back in a pony-tail and gun at her hip.

Morgan’s voice was thoughtful. “At the university?”

“She was in the last semester of a master’s program in public health,” the officer confirmed. “Fluid in the lungs and a lack of soot in the airways indicated that she was dead by drowning before being placed in her car. The car was set on fire.” The officer paused, then added, “She lived in a loft downtown. It’s an area in transition. Not a lot of residential ownership down there. No one saw a thing until the car fire was fully involved.”

Emily’s eyes narrowed. “Did she also work at the hospital?”

The officer hesitated for a moment, then said, “Well, in a way. She was working as a graduate research assistant. Apparently, she recruited patients for a clinical trial of an experimental breast cancer treatment. So, she did her job in the hospital but she didn’t technically work there.”

“There’s a fair amount of panic going on here,” Detective Clark said tightly. “People at the university are getting jumpy. I mean, what do we have here? A disgruntled employee? An angry student? A medical resident who finally snapped? Some other kind of psycho?”

Hotch shook his head. “We’re dealing with someone who is organized. The unsub is able to kill without anyone seeing, as far as we know so far. The unsub uses a variety of methods to kill and burns the bodies after death, probably to destroy evidence. In all likelihood, the unsub is intelligent, though I wouldn’t be surprised if he or she is under- or unemployed. Before we can offer you anything more concrete than that, we need a better picture of the victims so we can paint a better picture of the offender.”

He paused, looking at each of the local officers, his gaze loaded with meaning and challenge. “We’re going to need to retrace your steps,” he continued, voice even. “I take it you were each involved in one of the investigations?”

The two officers nodded their confirmation.

“Good,” Hotch noted. “Morgan and JJ, you’re on the first vic. Reid and I will take the second one. Emily, you check out the third.”

XXXXXXXXXX

JJ tried to focus on her surroundings instead of the last time she’d seen Emily, head bowed toward that of the blonde officer’s, voices low and intense.

“This is pretty secluded,” Morgan noted, looking at the burned out circle in the midst of the forest. They were about 10 feet off of one of the hiking trails, a quarter-mile out from the trail head.

Detective Clark nodded. “Good thing we’ve got mostly pine in this area, or we could’ve been looking at a hell of a fire.”

Shaking her errant thoughts free, JJ noted, “It would have been hard to carry a body this far.”

“And not get noticed,” Morgan added. “Do you have a list of the park’s visitors for the day the body was found?”

Detective Clark shook his head, hands shoved deep in his pockets to guard against the chill in the air. He, like all Southerners, had an abstract understanding of cold but was still surprised by the visceral reality of it every winter. “No. They collect a $2 fee at the gate and give out a ticket, but they don’t record any information. Not as many folks come out here when it gets colder, but they still get a fair amount of traffic. Even during the week.”

JJ stepped further into the clearing, suddenly overwhelmed by the isolation of the scene. They’d driven close to half an hour to get to the state park. From what Detective Clark had said on the drive out, Oak Mountain State Park was the largest state park in Alabama, covering around 10,000 acres. The ground around them, once the sight of an intense fire, was already recovered with a blanket of vibrantly colored leaves. If the surrounding trees hadn’t been scorched half-way up their trunks from the fire, the site would have been unremarkable, nothing but small patch of wilderness in the midst of more.

“This murder occurred on a Wednesday.”

A vee of geese flew overhead, the long columns of their necks an elegant silhouette against a graying sky, their honks an unsuccessful, untuned choir.

“It gets dark early after the time change,” Detective Clark said, bouncing lightly on the balls of his feet, “and the park closes at sundown. They probably don’t have a lot of hikers out here late in the day.”

“Did any of the rangers notice anyone that stood out? Anything that seemed a little strange?”

“No. Just the usual.”

JJ turned to face Detective Clark, smirking slightly at his hunched posture. He looked as if he were in imminent danger of hypothermia. She barely felt the cold. “What about the vehicles? Anything that caught their attention?”

“Nope.” Detective Clark shoved his hands deeper into his pockets, wishing he’d worn a thicker coat. “It’s a state park. You’re going to see SUVs. You’re going to see RVs. You’re going to see jalopies. Even if it was a truck, it wouldn’t have been unusual for the bed to be covered.”

Derek’s voice was distant when he spoke. “So the unsub dumped the body around dusk when the trails were empty. No one saw anything. He could have been here all day, waiting for a time when it was clear.”

“Rangers do their rounds when the park closes, but it isn’t unusual for a car or two to be out here. They allow over-nights,” Detective Clark added.

JJ perked up slightly. “Do they keep a record of those?”

“They do,” Detective Clark said, “but there weren’t any recorded for that night.”

Derek took one last look at the clearing. “Let’s go talk to the family.”

******

“This is nice.”

Reid had his hands in his pockets, his gold and navy striped tie blowing in the slight breeze. Though the stable was now a burned husk of what it had been, it was easy to tell that, although it had been a relatively small structure, it had been a nice one. The chaplain had lived on ten acres of land, most of which was left to run wild as pasture. His house sat off to the side, a simple structure with a wrap around porch and a swing that creaked gently, giving off the impression of inhabitance even though they knew there was none.

Hotch turned to the sheriff’s deputy who had escorted them. “How did he afford this on a chaplain’s salary?”

“Neighbors said it had been his parents’ place.” Charlie Johnson, the deputy, was a massive mountain of well-defined muscle. As they’d first climbed into the car to drive out to the relatively isolated homestead, Reid had silently noted that Deputy Johnson’s biceps were so enormous that the very fabric of his short-sleeved tan uniform seemed to be on the verge of ripping apart, much as if the Hulk were mid-transition. “He’s got an older car, all paid for, and few very expenses. Upkeep of the horses would have run him a bit, but with only a few other bills, I’m sure it was more than manageable.”

Reid began his walk toward the stables then changed his mind, heading for the house. The stables would tell them little more than the forensics report had already done. “He lived alone?”

Deputy Johnson nodded. “He did. Never married.”

The inside of the house was as tidy as the outside had hinted. Most of the surfaces were clear, devoid of knick-knacks. An opened Bible sat on the kitchen table, an edition of TV Guide on the coffee table. The bedroom was sparsely furnished as well, with a simple pine bed and matching dresser. The closet was separated into thirds – the clothes he wore at the hospital, the clothes he wore when taking care of his horses, and the clothes he wore on his own time. All of his shoes were aligned neatly along the bottom, each pair in rank and file, and a single full length mirror looked back from the inside of the closet door. In the bathroom, a single toothbrush stood straight in its holder. Alongside it stood a tube of toothpaste, an empty glass, and a container of dental floss. A well used comb laid in front of the collection.

“Simple guy,” Reid noted.

“A bachelor,” Hotch said dryly. “I’ve seen a couple of family pictures but nothing else. What about close friends? Other family?”

Deputy Johnson straightened from his self-appointed post at the door, head nearly brushing the top of the door frame. “He was friendly with the neighbors but kept mostly to himself. Everyone at work described him as pleasant. He was a good listener, everybody said, always there with a kind word and a reminder of God’s blessings when they were down. I got the impression he loved his horses and the Lord and the rest didn’t really matter to him.”

“What about enemies?” Hotch laid down the thin study Bible he’d found on the table by the bed, noting the worn crease of its spine.

Deputy Johnson chuckled. “If he had them, I didn’t hear anything about it. No beef with anyone, far as I could tell.”

“A chaplain,” Reid mused, “living alone, relatively isolated, friendly but with no real friends. No enemies. But, he has a killer who is able to get close enough to stab him with a pitchfork, possibly one from his own stable.”

“Like I said,” Deputy Johnson offered, “everybody said he was a good listener. Maybe somebody wanted to talk.”

“Someone he’d met in the course of his job,” Hotch said slowly, turning the idea over in his mind. “A coworker? Someone he’d counseled? A patient? Someone’s family member?”

“But who would have his address?” Reid queried. “Coworkers, maybe, but that’s not the kind of information you give out to strangers.”

“A man of God helps those in need,” Hotch said reflectively. “It might not have been uncommon for him to extend his pastoral services beyond the confines of the hospital. Let’s ask around, see if he took any special interest in any of the people he saw.”

Reid looked around the room once more. “Aside from the horses, he lived an almost monastic existence. It’s feasible that he brought his work home with him, so to speak. But, it’s still got to be unnerving when someone appears on your doorstep.”

Hotch gave a ghost of a smile. “Maybe he believed in the innate goodness of his fellow man.”

Deputy Johnson’s impassive face didn’t move. “Looks like he was wrong.”

******

“Call me Connie.”

Emily smiled at Officer Connie Green, accepting the invitation with a shallow nod. “Emily Prentiss,” she offered in response.

The trip to the north side of downtown was quick. Unlike the always busy bustle of DC, downtown Birmingham was a sleeping, well-aged giant. People didn’t huddle on corners, waiting to catch the bus or to cross. Buildings were just as likely to be vacant as they were to be occupied.

They turned on an incongruously cobblestoned street, guarded at the corner by a red telephone box that would have been more at home in Birmingham’s British counterpart.

“I don’t even know if that works,” Officer Green said dismissively, “much less why it’s there.”

The car jostled to a stop a few blocks later and, as they exited it, Emily was assailed by a smell so complex that she was unable to decipher it.

“What is that?” she asked, eyes watering slightly.

Officer Green chuckled, canting her head to the left, indicating the faded brick façade of an old building. “Spice factory. I guess the people who live down here get used to it.”

Now that she knew, Emily could pick out the sharp tang of pepper and the earthy sweetness of cumin, among other things.

The victim’s loft was on the second floor, accessible by two short flights of stairs. Connie slid the blade of a pocket knife through the yellow crime scene tape still covering the door, pushing it open to allow Emily to enter ahead of her. Inside, the loft itself was relatively spacious, the far wall a bank of windows that opened to the outside. As befitting a student, it was decorated in college chic. The couch didn’t match the chair, and the coffee table matched neither the entertainment stand nor the desk. Books were strewn about various surfaces, some opened, and a computer sat along one wall. Beside the mouse was an empty coffee cup and a highlighter; the screensaver laid pipes until the maze became so complex that it began again. A legal pad, opened to the middle to reveal a dense block of notes, lay on the floor beside the desk chair. Just inside the door, a rug was scooted to the side, aligned at an odd angle, and to the left by the counter lay a broken plate.

“Blitz attack?” Emily suggested.

Officer Green nodded. “Most likely she opened the door for her attacker and he popped her one, stunning her. The crime scene guys got full palm prints, around the right size to be hers, on either side of her kitchen sink. It looks like she was drowned there.”

Emily crossed over gingerly, noting the disarray that hadn’t been visible before over the island counter. The dish rack had been knocked to the floor, as had a dispenser of dish soap and a sponge. “It takes a while to fill one of these up,” she noted as she looked down into the wide, single basin sink.

“Maybe he knocked her out with the first blow. The body’s too badly burned to tell if there was any blunt force trauma without getting the bones to a specialist, but it’s possible. Maybe she came to in time to figure out what was going to happen and put up a fight,” Officer Green postulated, walking over to stand alongside Emily. “Or maybe she came to in the middle of it, tried to break free.”

“What else did the crime scene unit find?”

“Too soon to have everything back,” Officer Green prefaced, “but there was a whole mess of prints. Probably she had friends over. Probably didn’t clean too much, kind of like me around midterms and finals. Our guy’s prints could be in there, but it’s going to take a little time to enter them all in AFIS. And, if she had managed to get in a good scratch or two, any of the killer’s DNA was lost in the fire. They’re still processing evidence, but my gut tells me we’re going to have to find this guy another way. His name isn’t popping up on a computer screen any time soon.”

Emily processed that silently, moving out of the kitchen and into the main living area. “Was she seeing anyone?”

The look in Officer Green’s eyes was bleak. “We got a dental ID, but her parents flew in to see the body yesterday morning.” She paused, shivering slightly as she remembered the keening sound of the mother’s cry of anguish. “As far as they know, she broke up with her boyfriend six months ago. It was an amicable split, or that’s what she told them. She hadn’t dated anyone since. We’re still trying to track down her friends. We spoke with her advisor yesterday. He’s the one who filled us in on her job. As far as he knew, she was well liked. She had a job as a chronic disease epidemiologist at the Nebraska State Department of Health lined up for after she graduated. She had a bright future ahead of her.”

Emily sometimes wondered if it was that, the loss of potential, that brought about more grief than the loss of life. “Where was the car?”

“Parked out front on the street. You can barely see it, but there’s a hint of smoke damage on the outside of this building about eight feet up. It was already quite a blaze when it got called in. To be honest, I’m surprised enough of her survived it for the ME to determine the cause of death.

Emily caught sight of a picture laying face-up beside the computer screen. In it, three girls grinned so widely that they could have served as an advertisement for a dentist’s office, arms linked around one another’s necks. “Which one is she?”

The girl Officer Green pointed out had dark auburn hair, scraped back away from her face in a messy ponytail, and vivid green eyes. “Just a kid,” Emily muttered sadly, putting the photo back where she’d found it.

******

The silence that had descended on the black Tahoe made Detective Clark nervous. He’d been with the police force most of his adult life, having gotten the job just two years out of high school. He had worked his way up from beat cop through the ranks to detective, and he knew he was good at his job. He had one of the highest clearance rates in the department.

That didn’t make being alone with the Feds any better.

“Some people call this part of town Gaywood,” he said, wincing. To his own ears, his voice was unnaturally loud.

JJ had been watching the scenery pass by, mind miles away in a mish-mash of thoughts that had started to confuse the professional with the personal. They’d driven down the main street bisecting UAB’s campus, University Boulevard, continuing through red lights at every block past red brick buildings endowed with the names of benefactors and influential faculty members. They’d passed a short section of businesses, two coffee shops side by side, the independent still holding on by the skin of its teeth in the face of a bloodthirsty corporate neighbor. A few blocks later, businesses had given way to what looked to be the projects. A mural had been painted along the front wall, a civic leader’s idea of white-washing now a muted, mottled splash of pastels. Not a half a block away, separated by only an overpass, stood a massive hospital, an impressive construction of dark red brick and glass.

“One of seven in a five mile radius,” Detective Clark had said as they’d driven by it. “This one is the baby factory.”

Once past the hospital, the roadside started getting leafier, trees sprouting up to overhang the road in places, giving the impression of suburbia. They’d passed a fancy new sign welcoming them to the Highlands and then, not 30 feet later, another welcoming them to Forest Park. It bordered a golf course, the edges of which were delimited by a tall chain link fence. A few of the more dedicated golfers were out in their full winter gear, teeing up despite the overcast skies. JJ briefly wondered how many windshields had been smashed by errant golf balls, then watched with some amusement as a mis-hit tee shot bounced lazily across the street in front of their car.

“Forest Park?” she questioned, bringing herself back into the future.

Detective Clark shook his head. “No, Crestwood. That’s where the victim lived.”

A short block of businesses – an art gallery, a consignment store, a bistro, a European-style grocery – gave way to more trees and a short span of apartments and condos. Past that, houses loomed just off the street, lawns that were still lush – though the grass was now more yellow than green – giving the appearance of distance.

“Why is that?” Morgan questioned, taking his eyes off of the road.

“It’s Birmingham’s gay neighborhood, I guess you could say,” Detective Clark offered. “I mean, not solid, but a higher than average percentage.”

“Is our vic gay?” JJ asked, fingers tightening into loose fists in her lap.

“She was,” Detective Clark confirmed, “but her partner checks out. She was away on business at the time of the murder. Apparently she travels a lot.”

Derek voiced the fear that had suddenly blossomed in JJ’s heart. “Are we dealing with hate crimes here? Were any of the other victims gay?”

“Not so far as we know.”

“They could have been closeted,” JJ speculated, feeling the sickening sensation spread. “We’re going to have to dig deeper into their lives. Morgan…”

“Already on it,” he said, flicking open his phone. A few seconds later, he followed with, “Hotch, our vic was gay. What do we know about the other two? Could be we’ve got a series of hate crimes.”

At the victim’s house, Nancy Warner’s partner met them at the door. Though JJ guessed she was no older than her mid-30s, she moved slowly and deliberately, as if each step, each movement, was a struggle. Her skin was wan, her eyes surrounded by thick rings of black. Her long, dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail, the dull sheen indicating that it hadn’t been washed recently.

“I thought you might want pictures,” she said as they settled onto seats in the living room. A large photo album was open on the coffee table, the exposed pages a vibrant splash of color that seemed almost disrespectful given the somber air. The pictures were of a beach trip, obviously, and the smiling, laughing woman grinning up at her taller partner was almost so different from the woman sitting on the couch as to be unrecognizable. “We took these in the Caymans last year. Nancy had always wanted to go scuba diving, so I bought her lessons and the trip for her 35th birthday. She said it was too much, but I wanted… I wanted…” She stuttered to a stop, looking up at the room’s other occupants imploringly, eyes liquid with tears.

“Elizabeth,” Detective Clark said gently, face soft and sad in his sympathy, “these people are here to help us catch her killer. They have a few questions for you.”

“Did Nancy have any enemies?” Derek asked, leaning forward so that his forearms were braced on his thighs, dark eyes promising understanding and absolution.

“No,” Elizabeth said quickly, fiercely. “Everybody loved Nancy. I mean, she might have had a few squabbles with people at work, ruffled feathers here and there, but that’s just the nature of her job. They were nothing serious. Never serious.”

“Did she mention anyone in particular?” JJ prodded, offering an encouraging smile. “Does anyone’s name stand out in your memory?”

Elizabeth seemed to take a second to think, her hands fluttering nervously in her lap. “She did have a few problems with Dr. Singh about a month ago. They had a miscommunication of some sort. She’d paged him with a question about a patient. He’d told her to hold off on doing anything, but she was worried, so she consulted with one of his residents who was in the ICU doing rounds. Dr. Singh got pretty mad about it, like he thought she was going behind his back because she didn’t have any confidence in him. He said that it made him look like a fool when she did it, but I never did see what the big deal was.”

She paused, then looked at them anxiously. “Not that I think Dr. Singh had anything to do with this. It was just a blow to his ego, that’s all.”

JJ let it pass without comment. “What about anyone else?”

“Like I said, nothing major.”

Derek’s awkward shift and slight grimace prefaced his next question. “What about the two of you? Had you received any threats?”

For a moment, Elizabeth’s face screwed into a mask of puzzlement. When his meaning hit, she chuckled humorlessly. “Because we’re gay?”

His answering, tight nod betrayed his discomfort with having to ask the question.

“No one cared,” she said simply, voice bleak. “No one cared.”

The words were followed by silence. Outside, clouds moved over the sun and inside, the room grew darker. “Did you notice anything missing when you returned? Had anything been taken?” JJ asked, attempting to break it.

“The only thing missing was Nancy,” Elizabeth said hoarsely, “and she was the only thing that mattered.”

XXXXXXXXXX

On the way back from their interview with Elizabeth Upton, Detective Clark made a small detour.

“It’s a local favorite. You can’t come to the Ham without eating at Al’s,” he said, catching Derek’s questioning look. The small building was painted white with blue trim, guarded by a blue and white striped awning, and its mascot resembled a live action version of Mr. Potato Head. The script below the ambulatory tuber read ‘Al’s Deli and Grill’, the fare apparently a mix of American and Mediterranean. “We’ll pick up dinner for the team.”

Detective Clark thought about telling them more, about filling them in on the history of this particular block on the backside of UAB’s campus. He thought about telling them that not half a block away, they’d find another Mediterranean-American deli, The Purple Onion, that had been there long before Al’s had arrived, and that many of the campus and some of the city’s denizens were split in their allegiance to the two. He thought about telling them that the building next door was home to the abortion clinic that Eric Robert Rudolph had bombed in early 1998, that the bombing had been the first fatal abortion clinic bombing in the country, that it had killed an off-duty policeman and had driven nails and shrapnel into the face and body of a nurse, severely maiming her. His daughter had been a freshman at the university when it happened and had called him in the early morning to tell him that she was fine before he even knew he had cause to worry.

In the end, he told them none of these things.

They left with a few sacks full of gyros and falafels and with a bag almost solely reserved for fries. Detective Clark picked up a couple of gallons of their spearmint tea, declaring it a must have, and paid for the lot of it over Derek’s protests.

“Southern hospitality,” he said with a small smile, accepting their food from a smiling, blue-turbaned cook. “Besides, if y’all don’t like it, I’ll just take all of this home.”

Nearly an hour later, the team members sat back, surrounded by the detritus of their meal. Small, square sheets of aluminum and wax paper had been torn from roll-ups and styrofoam cartons had been emptied of fries spiced with an addictive, smoky seasoning salt.

“I just gained five pounds,” JJ groaned, taking a sip of her tea.

Derek’s answering groan seemed to indicate that he felt the same way.

“Hey,” Garcia piped up, her voice as distinct over the phone as it would have been had she been in the room, “don’t torture a girl with tales of local delicacies and not bring any back.”

“Not delicacies, baby girl,” Derek joked. “More like heart-attacks on a pita.”

“Sounds just as good.”

Hotch crinkled his foil into a little ball and tossed it onto the pile with the rest, the slight quirk of his brow indicating that it was time to get down to business. “So what do we have?”

“Nancy Warner’s partner said she’d had a little bit of a run in with a physician about a month back,” Derek offered, linking his hands together behind his head. “She says that it wasn’t a big thing, nothing more than a bruised ego, but maybe we should check it out.”

“Garcia, can you track him down for us?”

“Got a name?”

JJ checked her notes. “Kris Singh.”

Keys clacked in the background, fingers flying with impressive speed. “I’ve got a Krishna Singh, internal medicine attending.”

Hotch nodded slightly. “That’s probably him.”

“According to the ‘find a physician’ site, he’s in clinic tomorrow morning.”

Derek’s smile was slightly feral. “Good. We’ll swing by, feel him out.”

“I think your people booked you into the Courtyard Marriott on 5th Avenue South,” Detective Clark said. “That’s practically right inside the hospital.”

“Then I guess we’ll walk,” JJ joked.

“Any leads on the MO?” Hotch asked, redirecting them back to the task at hand.

“According to VICAP, we’ve got a match on this case to your five unsolveds five years ago, but nothing else.”

“What about the snake venom?”

“Yeah, nothing there, either. There are some places online where you can supposedly buy those sorts of things, but I doubt the veracity,” Garcia said wryly. “Besides, it doesn’t look like any of these companies shipped anything to the Birmingham area. It could be that your guy got it from some sort of online trading or auction site or bought it from one of these online sites and had it shipped elsewhere, but I can’t find a trace of it. Unless you’ve got something promising on the ground down there, I’m all out of ideas with that one.”

“We’re looking into the possibility that this might be a string of hate crimes,” Reid noted, sliding into the flow of conversation. “One of the victims was gay. We don’t have any indications that was true for the other two, but Allison Barr had broken up with her boyfriend 6 months ago and Raymond Harris was a bachelor.”

“I’ll look into it, see what I can dig up.”

“Good. We’ll check in with you in the morning.” Hotch disconnected the phone then looked around the room. “Let’s get some sleep. We’ve got a long day ahead of us tomorrow.”

******

When JJ wandered down to the lobby, unable to sleep and unable to stay in her hotel room any longer, she found she wasn’t the only one with that affliction. Derek was already there, sitting on one of the small loveseats watching SportsCenter on the large, flat-screen LCD television mounted to the wall.

The carafes that had held coffee and hot water that morning still stood sentinel over a selection of hot tea bags, sweeteners, creamers, and napkins. Choosing an herbal cranberry apple mix, she seeped it in the somewhat tepid water left in the carafe, a few packets of sugar thrown in the mix to sweeten it.

“Couldn’t sleep?” she asked inanely.

Derek chuckled, then patted the seat next to him on the loveseat. The television’s volume had been muted and someone had turned on the closed captioning, and for a moment, she watched with amusement as the words tried to keep up with the fast talking sportscaster. Sometimes a string of unintelligible letters appeared; sometimes things that were clearly misspelled changed the entire meaning of the sentence.

“You think there’s someone there in the studio trying to keep up with everything they’re saying, kind of like a court reporter?” Derek asked as if reading her mind.

“If so,” JJ said, taking a sip of her lukewarm tea, “then they need to hire someone who can spell.”

She flinched as Coach Paterno became couch potato, then rolled her eyes as the text disappeared in a flurry of backspaces only to reappear with another incorrect spelling.

“True,” Derek concurred. Then, “So what’s got you up so late?”

JJ thought about telling the truth. She thought about telling Derek that she was plagued by the sadness in Elizabeth Upton’s eyes, that she couldn’t shake the feeling of isolation that had swept over her as they’d stood in the desolate clearing in the state park. She thought about telling him that, though she hadn’t yet decided if cremation was what she wanted or not, the thought of having her corpse set afire by her murderer made her somehow nauseous, that the further violation heaped upon the first, mortal violation made the crime somehow worse. She wanted to tell him that she was ashamed of and confused by the flash of jealousy she’d felt that afternoon, watching Emily walk out alongside Officer Green.

Instead, she said, “What’s the deal with you and Garcia?”

The widening of Derek’s eyes let her know she’d caught him off-guard. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, is it all teasing or is there something more to it? And if so, when are you going to make a real move?”

For a long moment, he was silent. Then he sighed, tone apologetic. “We’re friends, good friends, and if I led Garcia to think otherwise, then tell her I’m sorry. I thought we both understood that.”

It only took a second for JJ to realize that he thought she was there as some kind of proxy. “That’s not it,” she said quickly. “Garcia didn’t say anything to me that would indicate any differently. She didn’t ask me to act as some kind of go-between. This is just my curiosity talking.”

Derek accepted that with a barely visible nod, though JJ couldn’t help thinking that she’d done something that would only result in unnecessary awkwardness later.

“It’s not… It’s not her,” he continued, the openness in his tone reinforcing the earnestness in his eyes. “I’m not at a place in my life where I can offer anybody anything. I’m not relationship material. Maybe I never will be.”

“So it doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that you work together?” JJ asked hesitantly.

Derek shook his head. “This is about me, not the job.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes, Derek with his gaze half-fixed on the television and half on JJ, and JJ unnecessarily blowing on already cool tea. Now that she had Derek alone, she was dying to ask him if what Garcia had attributed to him was true even though she knew it was a bad idea.

“Do you really think that Prentiss stayed behind after our Idaho case to hook-up with the forest ranger?” she asked, voice carefully neutral. She’d mentally rehearsed nonchalance, had substituted Prentiss for Emily to depersonalize the question. She’d done all she could.

Derek’s chuckle was surprised. “Oh, I see.”

It wasn’t enough, JJ realized, heart plummeting. Her stricken look must have showed.

“You got something you want to share, JJ? Because it seems to me like there’s a secret in there wanting out.”

“No secret,” JJ said curtly, too curtly, her tone belying her words.

“Hey, that’s fine,” Derek reassured, holding his hands out, palms forward. “I’m not going to make any inferences from what you just asked.”

“God,” JJ groaned, suddenly wanting to hide her face in her hands.

“And to answer your question: Yes. I think Emily stayed behind to have a little thing with Ranger Overton. They had some mad chemistry going and we all need a little bit of normal every once in a while. But, I doubt it’s ongoing.”

Despite herself, JJ asked, “Why?”

“Because Overton won’t be able to look at her without remembering what she does. Emily is a reminder of horror, torture, and death. You think that makes for a lasting relationship?”

JJ wanted to protest the picture Derek had painted, but found she couldn’t.

“But someone who understood,” he said carefully, “someone who knew what it was like… that someone wouldn’t have the same problem.”

Giving up the façade of protest, her inability to manage the truly personal once again creating a situation she would much rather have avoided, JJ said, voice starkly insistent, “This goes no further.”

“Your call,” Derek agreed, the set of his jaw a promise.

The tea did nothing to help JJ sleep.

XXXXXXXXXX

Derek looked up at the sign above their heads with something akin to shock. “What kind of hospital has concourses?” he asked, amazed.

“One this overwhelmingly huge.” JJ scanned the sign, trying to work out the logic behind the markings and colors. “There. Internal Medicine. Concourse A.”

They finally found Dr. Singh after asking 10 different hospital staff his whereabouts.

“Dr. Krishna Singh?” Derek called out after the trim, harried looking doctor.

The man turned, looking at them in confusion. “Yes. May I help you?”

His lightly accented English held a trace of the influence of the Raj with a dash of something else.

“Agent Morgan,” Derek continued, flashing open his badge. “This is Agent Jareau. We have a few questions for you.”

Look of confusion growing, he took a step closer to them, voice lowering. “Am I in some sort of trouble?”

“Do you think you should be?” Derek countered.

“Agent Morgan,” Dr. Singh said, any good humor vanishing in an instant, “this is no joking matter. This is my place of business and you are FBI officers. Please tell me what this is about.”

“Did you know Nancy Warner?” JJ asked, catching the doctor’s attention.

He frowned. “Of course I did. It’s very tragic, what happened to her.”

“We hear that you had a slight altercation with her the month before her murder,” Derek said, tone non-threatening.

“An altercation?” Dr. Singh asked, brow furrowing in consternation. “Who said that? It was a misunderstanding. That’s all. Surely you can’t think I had anything to do with her death?”

“Do you have an alibi for the day she was killed?” JJ prompted.

Dr. Singh looked at her incredulously. “It was mid-week, wasn’t it? I imagine I was here at the hospital, as I am every day. I have no doubt I have patient billing records and chart notes to back that up.”

“How angry did it make you when Ms. Warner approached one of your residents about the case you’d blown off?” This time Derek’s voice was aggressive, menacing even.

“It was a breech of protocol,” Dr. Singh said, straightening his shoulders and tilting up his chin. “I had already spoken with Ms. Warner and advised her that no further action was necessary at that time and I believe you’ll find that my opinion was correct. There was no need to approach my resident with her concerns. In the grand scheme of things, it was a minor irritant but I felt the need to speak with her all the same.”

When JJ spoke, her tone was more soothing. “Where are you from originally, Dr. Singh?”

“Jaipur, in India,” he replied defensively, “but all of my paperwork is in order. I am a legal resident of this country.”

“Had you had verbal disagreements with Ms. Warner prior to this incident?” Derek had switched from aggressive to stern. With his arms crossed over his chest and the way he loomed over the much slighter Dr. Singh, JJ imagined that it must almost have looked like they were there to strong-arm him into paying off a debt.

Dr. Singh sighed, running a hand over his closely cropped hair. “Look, this is a hospital. The hours are long, the work is stressful. My time is always in demand. If someone wastes it, I am not afraid to let them know that. It will keep them from doing so in the future. So yes, it is possible that I had traded words with Ms. Warner before. It is probable, even. But engaging in small spats about work-related topics surely cannot make me a suspect in her murder. I had no motive to kill Ms. Warner. My ego is not so fragile that her decision to question my directive would drive me to homicide. I save lives, not take them. And, quite frankly, I’m far too busy at that to conceptualize and carry out such a task as that which you insinuate I might have done.”

A little surprised at the vehemence in his tone, JJ nodded understandingly. “Thank you for your time, Dr. Singh. We’ll be in touch if we have further questions. I take it we can find you here?”

The doctor slowly relaxed, his shoulders dropping infinitesimally and his jaw unclenching. It was rather like watching feathers unruffle, JJ noted.

“It is my second home. Almost my first. And now I’m late for clinic, so I trust you’ll excuse me.”

Derek and JJ watched him make his way down the hallway, white coat billowing behind him. “So,” he asked, looking down to catch JJ’s eyes, “what are you thinking?”

“I’m not feeling it,” JJ admitted. “He’s got a successful career. Would he risk losing it over a minor confrontation? I get the impression he has minor confrontations all the time. If he decided to kill the person on the receiving end of those every time, this place would probably be missing an entire floor.”

“He did get angry though,” Derek pointed out. “He’s got a temper.”

“True,” she allowed.

“It could be that he likes the extension of his power. Playing God, commanding life and death.”

JJ sighed. “If that’s the case, his position as a physician offers him ample opportunity.”

“And let’s be honest,” Derek murmured, abandoning his role as devil’s advocate, and JJ caught the barest hint of a sly grin on his face, “he’s not a big guy. Nancy Warner was what? Five nine? He’s going to incapacitate her and carry her into the woods without being noticed?”

“So we push him to the back burner.”

“For now. Let’s get back to the station.”

******

Hotch, Reid, and Prentiss had the old case files from the five-year old murders spread out on the table in front of them.

“What’s the pattern?” Hotch murmured, eyeing the files as if he could pry the secrets from them.

“We’ve got Beth Youniss, elementary school teacher,” Reid recited, holding up a sheet of paper. “Raul Mendez worked for a landscape architecture company. Paul Hart, optometrist. Sandy Curtis, speech therapist. Patty Harker, psychometrist.”

Emily leaned back, exhaling deeply. She could feel the tentative fingers of a headache already. “They lived in different neighborhoods. They worked for different companies. They didn’t know one another. They didn’t share a dentist or a dry cleaner. They didn’t drive the same kind of car. They were different ethnicities. They were from different social strata. They had no known enemies or posthumously discovered secrets.”

“We’ve got until tomorrow,” Hotch said starkly. “We don’t have time to reinvestigate each of these cases. We don’t have time to find the missing link.”

“Maybe we don’t have to.” Detective Clark stood in the doorway, face tight. “I’ve got something y’all need to see.”

Moments later, they were all gathered around a computer screen. The digital image displayed on it, the burned note from Raymond Harris’ murder scene, was black, the words scrawled on it white in relief.

“It took the forensics team a while to clean this up, but this is it,” Detective Clark said, words unusually fast in expectation. “What do you make of it?”

Emily frowned, eyes tracing over the bulging curves and decisive lines. “This is in Hindi. I can’t read it.”

Hotch looked up, surprised. “Hindi?”

Emily nodded tightly, still staring intently at the screen. “Loosely related to Arabic through a shared history of Sanskrit, but I’m not fluent. Certainly not fluent enough to read it. We need to get this to the people in languages.”

“E-mail it to Garcia, have her pass it along.”

Not ten minutes later, a small chime indicated an incoming e-mail just as Garcia’s number popped up on Emily’s phone.

“One translation coming up,” Garcia said as soon as Emily answered, “but it’s got me puzzled.”

Detective Clark opened the e-mail and the team drew in closer, each focusing on the short sentence that had been revealed.

“And Shiva blinked and the world was consumed by fire and everything was turned to ash,” Reid read slowly, brow immediately crinkling in consternation. “What is it? Something from a religious text?”

Emily frowned. “I’m not familiar with it.”

Hotch shook his head in agreement. “Garcia, see if you can find a link.”

“I’m on it.”

“We could maybe ask someone at Samford,” Detective Clark suggested, drawing a trio of confused looks. “It’s a local religiously affiliated college,” he elaborated. “Baptist, but they might have someone in the theology department who could help.”

Hotch’s smile was small. “Good idea. Can you help Agent Prentiss track someone down?”

The contact they found at Samford referred them to someone else, a professor at Birmingham Southern College. “She’s the closest thing we have to an expert in Hinduism in this area,” the Samford professor had said. “She’ll be of far more help than anyone here.”

And so Emily found herself in a car with Detective Clark, headed for a new part of town. This one was decidedly rougher than any other she’d seen. The houses were smaller and closer together and, to get there, they passed through a short section populated with adult bookstores and gas stations with bars on the windows. Aside from those ventures, there were few other commercial businesses, and the very asphalt on which they drove was cracked and uneven. To the left loomed the hulking shell of Legion Field stadium, a poor forgotten stepchild left out to pasture.

“This is it?” Emily asked, baffled. There, amongst the poverty of the surrounding neighborhood, was a spot of vibrant life. Thick grass and red brick buildings covered with creeping ivy were hidden behind the safety of twin gates. The streets were lined with old growth trees and sidewalks carried students whose ethnic make-up most certainly did not match that of the population just outside its brick fenced borders.

“A bit of an anomaly, isn’t it,” Det. Clark said, nodding at the elaborate insignia on the gate. “It’s a private school, one of the most expensive in the state. They call themselves Southern Ivy, like to think they’re the Ivy League school of the South. It probably costs more to go here for a year than you make as a rookie cop.”

They found Dr. Miriam Shaw ensconced in an office packed nearly to the brim with papers and books.

“Dr. Shaw?” Emily asked, reaching out her hand, “I’m Agent Prentiss of the FBI. This is Detective Clark of the Birmingham Police Department.”

Dr. Shaw’s answering handshake was firm and dry. She was slightly taller than Emily, with long dark hair and piercing blue eyes. If Emily had been forced to guess, she would have said that Dr. Shaw was in her mid-40s, though she could easily pass for a decade younger. Whether that had been a barrier or a facilitator in her career, Emily didn’t know.

“So, Bill referred you?” she asked, her words clipped and sharp, the accent definitely not local or even national. Emily placed it as British.

“He did,” Emily confirmed. “We need some help with a case we’re working, and he indicated that you might be the best source of knowledge around.”

“Then of course I’m glad to help in any way I can.”

Dr. Shaw motioned for them to step further into her office. She closed the door behind them, indicating a pair of chairs.

“We’re investigating a series of murders,” Emily continued. “The victims have each been killed using different methods before their bodies were burned. The first real clue we’ve gotten is a quote the killer tacked to the door at one of the crime scenes. It was badly burned and only recently restored. We were hoping you could help us locate its source.”

“I’ll do my best.” Dr. Shaw folded her hands together on top of her desk and sat forward slightly, anticipatorily, her intellectual curiosity aroused.

Emily took a deep breath, then recited from memory. “And Shiva blinked and the world was consumed by fire and everything was turned to ash.”

She watched as Dr. Shaw’s mouth formed the words silently, her eyes closed as she searched through the recesses of her mind in search of a match. “And Shiva blinked…” she murmured, shaking her head slightly. “It’s not from any major historical text,” she admitted, “but there’s something about that phrase. I’ve heard it before.”

Emily felt her blood quicken and she sat up straighter in her chair.

“This is going to sound crazy, I know, but I’m fairly certain I read that in a student essay.”

Slumping slightly, the revelation anticlimactic, Emily held back a sigh. “Do you happen to have a copy of the essay or remember the student’s name? Perhaps he or she will remember the source.”

“Oh no,” Dr. Shaw said, waving her hand back and forth airily. “The essay wasn’t for one of my classes. One of the English professors brought it to me. Myric Alton. He was teaching a creative writing class and one of his students turned in a short story. If I’m not mistaken, that was the first line. He wanted me to look it over, check the authenticity of the religious symbolism in it. He was quite impressed. I suppose he thought I would be as well and I’ll admit it was well written. But, there was something very dark about it that turned me off.”

Again, Emily’s heart quickened. “Can you take us to see Dr. Alton?”

“Wish I could,” Dr. Shaw said, smiling wryly, “but he’s been dead three years now. This was ten years ago or so.”

And again, the anticipation of incipient discovery died. “Do you remember the student’s name?”

Dr. Shaw shook her head. “I’m afraid not. He had taken one of my classes a semester or two before, though.”

“Can you tell us anything about him?”

“Quiet,” Dr. Shaw said thoughtfully. “Otherwise unremarkable.”

“Tall? Short? Hair color? Ethnicity?” Emily peppered her with questions, well aware that ten years was a long time, especially for a professor who saw hundreds of students a year.

“Tall. Caucasian. He had light hair of some type. I don’t really remember.”

“Caucasian?”

“Um-hmm,” Dr. Shaw confirmed. “Very interested in Hinduism. I remember that.”

Frowning, mind having screeched to an abrupt stop against a concrete wall, Emily asked, “Would you mind coming back to the station with us, Dr. Shaw? I think we’re going to need a crash course.”

XXXXXXXXXX

“A southeast Asian male?” Reid said, his tone indicating that even he wasn’t sure. “It’s a statistical improbability.”

“But not an impossibility,” Hotch noted, glancing up as JJ and Derek made their way into the room the BAU had commandeered. “Guys, we got the note back from the Harris crime scene.”

“And Shiva blinked and the world was consumed by fire and everything was turned to ash,” Derek read, idly scratching his forehead. “Shiva?”

“He’s, uh, a Hindu deity,” Reid offered, voice cracking slightly at Derek’s glare.

“I know that. I’m just a little puzzled as to the meaning.”

“You know,” JJ said slowly, “we just got finished talking to Dr. Singh. He’s originally from India.”

“Hinduism originated on the Indian subcontinent but is now practiced across the world,” Reid interjected. “You’ll find large Hindu populations in Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan…”

“We got it,” Derek said, cutting him off. “But we just talked to Dr. Singh from Jaipur, in India, who had a confrontation with Nancy Warner a month before her death.”

“Is he a serious suspect?”

Derek transferred his attention to Hotch, shaking his head. “I don’t know. I think this is a spurious connection. I didn’t get the feel that he was involved with her murder.”

Hotch was on the verge of following up on that when a sudden commotion at the door drew their attention, pulling them away from the contemplation of Dr. Singh’s likelihood of guilt or innocence.

“This is Dr. Shaw,” Emily said shortly, gesturing to the woman at her right. “She teaches religion at Birmingham Southern College. And, she’s heard our quote before.”

“Where?” Hotch asked, focusing all of his attention on the newcomer.

“In a student’s creative writing essay ten years ago,” Dr. Shaw replied almost apologetically.

“He was tall,” Emily said, repeating the professor’s earlier description. “Caucasian. He had light hair.”

“Caucasian?” Reid asked, clearly nonplussed.

“But very interested in Hinduism,” Dr. Shaw reiterated.

Derek took a step forward, broad shoulders tensed. “So how do we find him?”

Emily decided to handle the reply. “We get Garcia to look into the college’s registration records. He’s going to have taken a creative writing class with Dr. Myric Alton ten years ago, and a class with Dr. Shaw a semester or two before that. We’ll need to cross-reference the enrollment lists and find out which male students took both.”

“Call it in,” Hotch said with a nod of his head. Emily flicked open her phone, thumb hitting the speed dial digit that would link her with Garcia.

“What’s that?” Dr. Shaw’s question was hesitant, her eyes fixed on the white board where Hotch had carefully detailed all of the information about the first five victims.

Reid straightened immediately, eyes locking onto Dr. Shaw’s face. “Why?”

“It’s probably nothing,” Dr. Shaw prevaricated.

“I highly doubt it,” Hotch said dryly.

“It’s just that… well, the descriptions you have there...” She paused, began again, Emily’s voice low and intense in the background as she rattled off instructions to Garcia. “In many visual depictions of Shiva, he is shown as having five faces. Five is a very important number to Shiva actually.” Again she paused, reorganized her thoughts. “Each of Shiva’s faces are aspects of his… his personality, I suppose you could say for simplicity’s sake. The eastern face is the Tat-purusha, or the Supreme Man. It represents nature and connection with the earth. Rather like your landscape architect.”

Hotch straightened, intrigued. “Any others?”

“The western face is the Yama Deva, or the Left-Hand Deity. It is associated with fire, but also with sight.”

Derek leaned forward, frowning in concentration. “Paul Hart. Optometrist.”

The professor nodded, continuing. “Shiva’s southern face is the Aghora Bhairav, or the Frightful. It’s associated with the senses of hearing and speech.”

Reid’s voice took on a tinge of excitement. “Like Sandy Curtis, the speech therapist.”

Dr. Shaw swallowed sharply, feeling a sudden uncomfortable tightening in her belly. “Shiva’s northern face is the Sadyojat, or the Suddenly Born. It represents the mind.”

“Could be either Beth Youniss or Patty Harker,” Derek noted cautiously.

“Yes, but the upward looking face, the Ishana or the Ruler, is the embodiment of all forms of learning.”

“So that’s Beth Youniss, the teacher,” Hotch said, sliding the pieces into place, “and Patty Harker, the psychometrist, represents the mind.”

“Each of his faces, think of them as lenses,” Reid interjected, excitedly. “He killed what he saw through each of them.”

“And you say your victims were burned?” Dr. Shaw asked, though she already knew the answer.

Reid was the first to answer. “They were all killed in another manner first and then immolated.”

After a second, Dr. Shaw continued, her voice taking on the tone of a lecturer. “Your quote… it makes sense, you know. In the Mahabharata, you’ll find the story of Shiva’s third eye. It is said that his consort, Parvati, surprised him from behind and covered both of his eyes with her hands. As Shiva was the lord of the universe, the world was plunged into darkness and all beings cowered in fear. And then in this darkness, suddenly flame leapt from his forehead. This was his third eye, and it gave light to the world.” She paused meaningfully, giving the team members a moment to absorb what she was saying. “In visual representations, Shiva’s third eye appears as a slit running vertically down his forehead. It is known as the eye of fire or the eye of perception. For the most part, it looks inward. On those occasions when it looks outward, it burns everything that appears before it. A glance from it burned Kama, the lord of love, to ashes.”

“And Shiva blinked and the world was consumed by fire and everything was turned to ash,” JJ murmured, the words falling into place. “It’s why he burns the bodies after.”

A muscle in Derek’s jaw jumped, his shoulders tensing. “He’s in the dark.”

Hotch gave a short nod of agreement. “And turning his perception of that darkness outward.”

“Guys,” Emily broke in, voice urgent, “something, some event, precipitated this. You don’t kill five people and then stop, unless you kill five people in response to something. And, his kills five years ago were unconnected, but they still followed a pattern. This time, we’ve got a connection between the victims. They’re the epicenter. They’re the instigator of the event.”

“You’ve got a pattern here too.” Dr. Shaw interrupted smoothly, taking a step closer to the board. “The first victim was killed by venom from a king cobra.”

“That’s right,” Reid said, hedging closer to the professor, watching her with rapt attention.

“In images of Shiva, you see a coiled cobra looped around his neck. He is surrounded and encircled by death, but he is also beyond its power. And your second victim… he was stabbed with a three-pronged implement, correct?” Dr. Shaw’s voice was gaining confidence as the pieces aligned themselves for her.

Hotch nodded. “Correct.”

“You will also find the trident, or the trishula, in images of Shiva. It represents his three functions, that of the Creator, the Destroyer, and the Preserver. It is the instrument of punishment used on the evil-doer on all three planes, including the spiritual.”

Reid stepped even closer, clearly fascinated. “So our mystery three-pronged murder weapon is symbolic of the trident, used to murder or, maybe in the grander sense, punish the chaplain – a spiritual leader.”

“What about the third victim?” Morgan asked, needing the picture to be complete.

Miriam smiled softly, dropping the final puzzle piece into place. “It is said that Shiva’s matted hair holds back the holy river Ganga, or as we know it, the Ganges, so that it doesn’t flood the world.”

Seizing upon Emily’s epiphany, Hotch murmured, “Five years ago, something drove him to kill. There was a catalyst, but there was no overarching sense of reason guiding his actions. Now, he’s got a sense of reason.” He paused, eyes darkening. “We need to find out what the catalyst was.”

Around the room, heads nodded with the exception of Reid. His eyes were fixated on Dr. Shaw, his mind racing ahead to map out the possibilities. “It’s likely that he sees himself assuming Shiva’s role, or at least one of them, or as an avatar of Shiva.”

“An avatar?” JJ frowned.

“An avatar is an incarnation of a Hindu deity – kind of like the body of a higher being while that being is on earth,” Dr. Shaw explained. “They can be animal or human. For example, Rama and Krishna are avatars of Vishnu, but so is Mastya, or Vishnu’s fish form. But,” she paused again, brow furrowing, “the gods only descend from their higher realm of existence for special purposes.”

“And for our unsub, whatever precipitated this was undoubtedly very special. I think that we’re looking for someone who recently underwent a major life stressor – perhaps the loss of a job or a loved one, a threat to financial stability or a major rejection of some sort,” Reid said, eyes narrowing as his map expanded, made new connections. “In this case, it’s possible that he has assumed Shiva’s role, most likely that of his role as Destroyer, or that he’s acting as the Destroyer’s agent on this plane. He can’t deal with the ramifications of whatever has happened to him, so he’s ‘surrendered’ himself to a higher power. He probably feels like he’s ‘surrendered’ his agency to this higher power, too, but the truth is that he’s fully aware of and in control of his actions. To admit that to himself would rob his actions of meaning, so he persists in his belief of himself as a vessel of the actions of another. Think about his use of the trident, of the tool of punishment… He’s convinced himself that what he’s doing is serving a higher purpose or, if he truly believes himself to be a manifestation of Shiva, that it’s his responsibility to punish the guilty parties. It’s possible that he felt the same way about the first murders. Maybe he felt he was removing a blight from each view of Shiva’s world.”

“Hinduism is a religion of peace and harmony and oneness with the universe,” Dr. Shaw said suddenly, shaking her head in disgust as her moment of teaching gave way to a moment of realization as she listened to Reid’s postulations. “He’s perverted that.”

“Every religion has its dark side,” Derek muttered, eyes narrowing, “and tomorrow, unless we can find him, we’re going to see it again.”

XXXXXXXXXX

“Hey baby girl, got an update for us?”

As if the squat, triangular speakerphone was actually Garcia, everyone in the room stared at it in anticipation, including Dr. Shaw, who had stuck around at the request of Hotch.

“First up, the gay angle,” she said, and JJ imagined her friend on the other end of the line, flicking an outrageous and impractical looking pen back and forth. “I didn’t find anything to indicate that your other two victims were gay, closeted or otherwise. I’ve got no internet chat groups, no history of gay-specific website visits, no online purchases, no subscriptions to Blue Boy. Nothing.”

“We’ll nix the hate crime angle for now,” Hotch observed. “Anything else?”

“I’ve got a list of students for you, but it’s pretty long. Assuming that our professor’s memory might not be specific as to the date, I gave the creative writing class ten years plus a two year margin of error and matched with it Dr. Shaw’s religion classes with a three year margin of error.”

Derek leaned forward, eyes still fixed on the phone while Emily flashed an apologetic glance at Dr. Shaw. “How many?”

“Sixty-three.”

Hotch frowned. “We’re looking for a white male. Can you access student demographic information?”

They heard the frantic clicking of keys in the background, then, “If I include all of those who declined to list their race/ethnicity on their admission forms, then I can narrow it down to twenty-five.”

Emily sighed, the prospect of wading through twenty-five potential suspects in time to prevent a murder they felt sure was going to happen the next day almost overwhelming. “Eliminate the ones who no longer live in the state.”

Again, a crescendo of clicks before, “You’re down to thirteen.”

“Send us the list then cross-check it against people employed by UAB hospital at any point in the past ten years,” Hotch directed. “We’re going to start tracking them down on this end.”

“I’ll include last known address,” Garcia offered, “and get back to you as soon as I match the list with employment records.”

Detective Clark straightened in his chair. “You think it could be someone who works for the hospital?”

“The unsub knew all of the victims,” Reid explained. “Right now, assuming that he might have worked with them is the most logical place to start.”

“Let’s show the list to the victim’s families, their coworkers, friends,” Morgan added, hands resting in loose fists on the table. “See if any of these names ring a bell.”

“Okay guys,” Hotch said, eyes sweeping across the room, “we’ve got a lot of ground to cover and very little time in which to do it.”

“Nancy Warner and Raymond Harris both worked at the hospital.” JJ looked over at Morgan and gave him a crooked smile. “Are you ready to venture back into the belly of the beast?”

Garcia’s voice crackled out from the phone. “That list should be coming through now.”

“Excellent,” Hotch said shortly. “Emily, you and I will start with Allison Barr. Reid, stay here with Dr. Shaw and see what other connections you can find.”

The younger man nodded, mind already racing as he began to map through the possibilities.

XXXXXXXXXX

The work address listed for Allison Barr turned out to be on the edge of campus. The old building hadn’t originally been part of the UAB behemoth but had been swallowed whole as the campus crept out, subsuming the surrounding neighborhoods. An old-time apocathary still stood sentinel on the first floor. It was in keeping with an interior that clearly hadn’t been updated since the 1970s; wood paneling and linoleum floors had left their lasting impression. The elevators were small and Emily felt herself grow edgy as they rode up to the 3rd floor to the Recruitment and Retention Center where Allison had worked. She thought it sounded more like a prison camp than a hub for the recruitment of study participants for the university’s booming research industry.

“Can I help you?”

The receptionist had long, bright red fingernails, perfectly teased hair, and an easy, unassuming smile.

“SSA Hotchner. This is SSA Prentiss,” Hotch said, flipping open his badge. “We’d like to speak with Allison Barr’s supervisor.”

The receptionist’s smile immediately faltered. “Oh,” she said, bottom lip quivering briefly. “It was horrible, what happened to that girl. She was real nice, real smart.”

Emily nodded. “We’re trying to find the person who hurt her.”

“Well, her boss was Ida Dee, but I don’t know what she’s going to be able to tell you. She and Allison didn’t get along too well. I think she felt threatened, you know. Allison was just finishing up her degree and Ida Dee never made it all the way through college.”

Emily broke in with a soft smile. She had a feeling that they would walk out of there with all of the office scuttlebutt, no matter how irrelevant, if they weren’t careful. “We’d still like to speak with her.”

“Well, sure,” the receptionist agreed. “We’re not real formal around here. Her office’s just right down that hallway. 3021.”

It turned out that, much as predicted, Ida Dee didn’t have much to offer them.

“I don’t know any of them,” she said, handing back the list of suspect’s names. “But Allison was pretty much in charge of recruitment for that study. I oversee six of them. There’s no way I could remember everyone she came in contact with.”

“We think this person may be connected with the hospital,” Hotch prompted.

Ida Dee shrugged. “Allison built up her own network of contacts. You might want to stop by Surgical Oncology. That’s where she spent most of her time. We did some community outreach, but our main focus was on already diagnosed women.”

Emily frowned. “The study Allison was working for, what was its focus?”

“Some kind of investigational breast cancer treatment,” Ida Dee offered. “Three or four days a week, Allison would spend in the clinic. Based on the patient’s staging, diagnosis, and physician referral, she would approach women prior to their appointment, explain the purpose of the study, and try to recruit them for participation.”

“Where is the clinic.”

“Just down the road,” Ida Dee said, gesturing with her hand. “Maybe two blocks from here. You could walk to it.”

Hotch offered a tight smile. “Thank you for your time.”

The receptionist at the clinic wasn’t nearly as free with information as was the last one.

“I’m afraid Dr. Houghton is busy right now,” she said, tone clipped.

Emily leaned forward, offering a conciliatory smile. “We’re hoping to prevent another murder. I’m sure he could spare a few minutes.”

The woman stared at them blankly for a long moment before her face cracked. “Allison. Of course. She was… she…” She paused, taking in a long breath. “Dr. Houghton is in with a patient. I’ll try to catch him before his next consult. Please, have a seat.”

Emily smiled softly again. “Thank you.”

The waiting room was small but comfortable. A row of chairs lined one wall. A twin pair of loveseats occupied the other, sandwiching a small table loaded with magazines. A television in the corner ran on a continuous loop, the video a muted testimonial from cancer survivors, interspersed with advertisements for anti-nausea medication and immune system boosters that were almost off-putting in their grating, sunny cheerfulness. A couple had already claimed one loveseat; the woman’s bald head was covered by a crimson scarf that was tied artfully in the back, highlighting the prominent sharpness of her nose and cheekbones. Next to her sat her husband, his hand clasped loosely in hers, face pale and drawn, looking decidedly more ill than his wife. In one of the other chairs a young woman sat flicking idly through an old issue of Vogue, two purses resting on the seat beside her.

Emily and Hotch stood stiffly off to the side.

“Agents?”

Both snapped to attention at once.

“Right this way.”

Dr. Houghton was in his late 50s. His hair was steel gray and his eyes were a warm chocolate brown. As he shook their hands, his face creased into a welcoming smile.

“Dr. Houghton, thank you for making the time to see us,” Hotch began formally.

“Please,” the doctor said, his voice rich with a distinctly southern twang, “call me Hank. Twyla told me you wanted to talk to me about Allison. I’m not sure what I can do to help, but my time is yours.”

Hotch nodded his acceptance of the man’s hospitality. “You’re aware of the murders?”

“Nasty business,” Hank murmured, shaking his head. “Allison was a great gal. She was a bright one. Going places.”

“How long had she worked with you?” Emily asked.

“She’s been with us since the beginning,” Hank began slowly. “Our funding got started two years ago next month. We’d contracted out to the Recruitment and Retention Center to handle subject recruitment, so that’s when Allison came on board. She’s done a bang-up job. No complaints from me.”

“Doctor, we think Allison’s murder is linked with the murder of the two other hospital employees,” Emily said smoothly, redirecting the conversation. “We have a list of names we’d like you to take a look at. Please, let us know if any of them are familiar to you.”

“Well,” the doctor said, tone dropping into uneasiness, “you know I can’t really discuss any patient information with you. HIPPA’s got us all under the gun these days.”

“We’re not asking you to divulge patient information,” Hotch clarified. “We just need to know if you’ve seen any of these names before.”

Dr. Houghton took the list, idly rubbing his forehead as he studied it. “I don’t know as many of the folks over at the hospital as I used to,” he said slowly. “Molly and I have attending privileges but we only round on the patients under our care. People move in and out of that place quicker than you would think.”

“Molly?” Emily prompted.

“Molly Parker. She and I specialize in breast cancer treatment. Surgical oncology is larger than just the two of us, of course, but she and I are the ones you come to when it gets bad. We’re co-PIs on the protocol,” he added, then explained further, “that’s co-primary investigators. We’re the study leads.”

“Is Dr. Parker in today?”

“She’s at a conference in Baltimore presenting some of our preliminary findings,” Dr. Houghton said, frowning. “Flying in late tonight, I think. She should be back tomorrow morning. I know she’d be happy to talk to you. She might recognize one of these names, but I’m afraid I don’t.”

Emily accepted the list back with a frown. “You said you round in the hospital?”

“That’s right. We’re doing a phase three trial – that’s efficacy,” he explained and, though Emily and Hotch didn’t completely follow, they both nodded as if they did. Something about their blank stares must have registered, though, because Houghton smiled. “Investigational new treatments and drugs have to undergo a number of stages before they’re made available to the general public. Phase one is safety testing. Once you prove that something is safe for use in humans, you do a small trial of it, usually with healthy volunteers, to make sure it’s safe. If it is safe, you move on to phase two testing. That’s immune response, and I don’t want to bore you about that one too much so I’ll move on to where we’re at now. We’re doing a phase three trial – this is where we find out if we’re really saving lives or if what we’re doing is even any better than the conventional treatment. This new treatment, the one we’re testing, is for women with aggressive, high grade breast cancers. It’s a targeted virus, pretty new science. Anything’s got to be better than chemo, though. I mean, chemo… we’re talking major, heavy duty immune suppression there.” Dr. Houghton paused, frowning slightly. “Any time you attack something aggressively you’re just going to beat the immune system into bits. Patients’ counts get down and they get sick. Maybe it’s an infection they can’t shake. Maybe their body just can’t take it anymore. They’re in and out of the hospital all the time. I don’t know how much you know about chemo, but all we’re really doing with that is killing a person the same time as we’re trying to save them. Chemotherapy kills any dividing cell, cancerous or not. And if you think about it, it seems brutal but that’s really all we’ve got. But with this…”

He stopped abruptly, flushing lightly, suspicious that he’d said too much to an audience with little interest in the mechanics of it all.

Suspicion confirmed in the midst of the doctor’s monologue, Emily prodded further. “Would any of these patients be admitted into the ICU?”

Dr. Houghton nodded. “Oh yeah. It’s more tolerable than chemo, but these women are all in late stage disease with very involved metastasis. Even a 20% survival rate would be a sight better than what we normally see with disease this advanced. We’re in and out of there a lot.”

“Did you know Nancy Warner?” Hotch asked, unconsciously crossing his arms over his chest as if to ward off the clinical bleakness of the doctor’s words.

“That nurse who was killed?” Dr. Houghton clarified.

Emily nodded. “That’s right.”

Houghton shrugged apologetically. “Enough to say hello, but nothing more. I usually round early in the morning and late in the evening. In the morning, I know I’ve got a full day of clinic visits ahead of me. I don’t have time for socializing. In the evening, I just want to finish up and get home. I work 12 plus hours most days. Even if I could take the time to chat with folks, I’d want to do it somewhere other than the hospital.”

Hotch drew free a card and scribbled his cell phone number on the back. “If you remember anything else, Dr. Houghton, give us a call.”

Houghton took the card, tucking it into the pocket of his white coat. “Will do. Sorry I couldn’t help you folks out more.”

XXXXXXXXXX

“Raymond was a good man.”

It had taken JJ and Morgan a little while to track down Raymond Harris’ supervisor. He was located in hospital administration, far away from the little ecumenical chapel tucked into the first floor of one of the hospital’s many interconnected buildings.

“Mr. Martin, we’d like for you to look at this list and tell us if you recognize any of the names.”

After a second of inspection, Demond Martin slid the list back across his desk. “I’m sorry. Nothing rings a bell.”

JJ accepted it with a reassuring smile. “Can you tell us what a typical day would have been like for Mr. Harris?”

Demond sat back in his chair, gaze introspective. “Raymond is just one of the employees under my supervision, so I’m afraid I don’t know his exact schedule. He was always in early, I know that. I have to park all the way over in deck 4 so I pass by the chapel on the way to my office every morning and I can’t think of a time when he didn’t beat me in. I know that at sometime during the day he would visit the waiting rooms for the intensive wards. He was basically a one man show, unfortunately. We lost our other chaplain a few months back. He left to go to back into the community. You know how it is with bureaucracy. It took us month to even clear the job posting through human resources and it’s got to stay open for at least a month. You wouldn’t believe it to look at all the shiny new equipment, but money is always tight at a hospital. Replacing a chaplain isn’t exactly high on the list of priorities upstairs.”

Derek nodded understandingly, then asked, “Why did Mr. Harris visit the waiting rooms?”

Demond shrugged. “My guess would be that it’s because death is always a little closer for the families there. I reckon he thought they might be in greater need of his services.”

“Can you give us the name and contact information for the chaplain you mentioned?” JJ prodded. “The one who left.”

“If I’ve got it,” Demond said, already clicking away with his mouse. “He moved up to Nashville, though.”

Minutes later, JJ and Morgan were again navigating the hospital’s warren of hallways.

“There,” JJ said, pointing at a sign, relief clear in her voice. “ICU straight ahead.”

When they peeked through the doors of the ICU, they were met with a scowling, stern-faced nurse. “You’re going to have to wait for visiting hours.”

“Special Agent Derek Morgan,” Derek said by way of introduction. “This is Special Agent Jennifer Jareau. We’re investigating Nancy Warner’s murder.”

The other woman’s deep inhale hissed in through her nose, her back straightening as if she’d been dealt a blow to the sternum. “Nancy. Right. What can we do for you, agents?”

JJ and Morgan ducked into the ICU. It was relatively quiet, soft beeps sounding all around them with a lack of syncopation that JJ imagined could border on infuriating. Nurses were bustling behind the charge station, an army of caregivers in an array of scrubs, and for a moment, a sense of claustrophobia washed over her.

“We need you to take a look at this list of names,” Morgan said quietly, his manner obviously affected by their surroundings. “Let us know if any of them catch your eye.”

The nurse nodded, taking the list from his outstretched hand.

“We’re on rotation here,” she said, eyes scanning the names. “There are nursing shortages all over so we don’t get our pick of shifts anymore.”

JJ waited silently, not sure where the nurse was going with her statements.

“I don’t recognize any of these names,” the nurse said with a short shake her head. “I’ll pass it around, but why don’t you leave a copy? I can tack it up on the call board along with your number.”

Morgan shifted uneasily. “We think the person who murdered Nancy may be connected to the hospital in some way.”

The nurse’s head shot up, eyes locking with his. “You think this was one of us?” she asked, tone a mix of defensive and shocked.

“It’s a possibility we have to consider,” JJ said smoothly, moving to calm the situation.

Morgan nodded his agreement. “If the perpetrator is connected to the hospital and sees his name on a list tacked up next to an FBI business card, it could spook him.”

The nurse’s jaw tightened momentarily. Then, with a tight nod, she said, “Okay. We’ll pass it around up here and when the next shift comes on, I’ll give it to the charge nurse and explain what’s going on. She can show it to her people.”

“We’d appreciate it,” Morgan said gratefully. “Do you think you could have your people take a look at it now?”

She nodded. “Just wait here, agents. I’ll see if it rings any bells”

XXXXXXXXX

“We didn’t get anything either. Yeah, okay. We’re on it.”

Morgan snapped his phone closed, then looked at JJ with a rueful smile. “Hotch and Emily came up empty too. We’re going to start running down the nearest suspects and give them a face-to-face look.”

“We don’t have anything to narrow this list down?” JJ asked, already disheartened. It was growing late, the sun dipping down lazily, and her shoulders ached with tension.

“We’re going with proximity for right now. We’re going to have to sniff him out.”

JJ’s eyes fluttered closed as she sighed. “Alright. Who’s up first?”

******

It was almost midnight before they reconvened in the lobby of the hotel. As she’d done the other night, JJ steeped a lukewarm cup of tea, the act more out of routine than an actual desire for the tepid drink. Morgan grabbed a couple of bananas from the courtesy fruit bowl, one of which Reid stole.

“So, nothing,” Hotch said. Fingers loosely interlinked and laying on the table, he looked, for a brief moment, like the head of a corporation about to deliver intensely bad news to a table full of shareholders.

“Nothing,” Morgan conferred, peeling a second banana. “Nobody suspicious.”

Emily checked the list of suspects, one hand at the back of her neck to rub at the tension gathered there. “We’ve still got three names left.”

“Francis Walter lives in Mobile,” JJ noted wearily. “That’s a good four hours from here.”

Derek flipped open his cell. “I’ll have Garcia run his financials and see if he’s been in the area lately.”

Hotch nodded. “Neighbors said Mickey Shipley works the evening shift at his job. He should be getting home within the hour,” he said. “Reid, you’re with me. We’ll see if we can catch him. JJ, you and Emily take the third name on the list.”

Emily checked the sheet again. “Scott Dorn. The address listed is in Anniston.”

Hotch nodded. “An hour to the east.”

JJ glanced up at Emily. “Meet in the lobby at six o’clock?”

As exhausted as she was, the idea sounded like torture to Emily, but time was running short. There was no time to worry about creature comforts like sleep. “Six o’clock,” she confirmed, already stifling a yawn.

******

It was still dark when JJ met Emily in the lobby. They handed the keys to the valet and waited on the SUV to appear, both silent. It was chilly out, and JJ tucked her hands into the pockets of her black slacks even as Emily pulled the zipper of her jacket up to the top. A few cars passed by, two out of three with a white coat hanging in the back. Few people were on the street; most of the ones who were had on scrubs.

“Coffee?” JJ asked. “I think I saw a place on the corner a few streets over.”

Emily climbed behind the wheel when the SUV appeared. The streets were empty enough for her to park directly on the street in front of the Starbucks she’d noticed the day before, leaning back against the seat as JJ slid out of the car. She re-emerged with two steaming coffees a few minutes later, and they pulled back out onto a still mostly empty 20th Street. They took the Red Mountain Expressway to I-59, and merged onto I-20 heading to Atlanta just past the airport. By the time JJ’s coffee had cooled enough to drink, the scenery had changed. Instead of a roadway lined with strip malls and motels, the buildings had thinned out to be replaced by a solid wall of pine.

They’d been on the road for about half an hour when traffic in the other direction started to pick up. The rain had started about 10 minutes earlier, first as a fine mist and then, quickly building into a steady patter. It obscured the encroaching dawn, painting everything a dull, impenetrable gray and forced Emily to switch on the wipers and focus intently on the road.

JJ didn’t know why she asked. It wasn’t the time or the place. Maybe there was never a time or place, and maybe that was why.

“Did you have a fling with that ranger? Ranger Overton?”

Emily glanced over at her briefly, confusion writ clearly in her gaze.

“From the case in Idaho,” JJ continued, even as her instincts screamed at her to leave it alone. “You know, with the brothers.”

For a long moment, Emily was silent. “Why are you asking?”

JJ pressed back into her seat, eyes focused on the barely visible scenery outside of the passenger window. “It’s just something I heard.”

She could hear the agitation building in Emily’s voice. “Something you heard?”

Faced with Emily’s anger, JJ backed down. “It doesn’t matter. I was just curious.” When she glanced Emily’s way, the other woman’s hands were wrapped so tightly around the steering wheel that her knuckles had blanched white. “Emily, don’t worry about it.”

“I don’t like it when people speculate about me.”

JJ tried to backpedal. “No one’s speculating. It’s just… it was a silly conversation. It just came up.”

“Just came up?” Emily repeated, clearly not mollified. “Details about my personal life just came up in a silly conversation?”

Instead of letting the subject go or continuing to reassure Emily, JJ instead heard herself say, “So it’s true then?”

Emily’s expression turned stony, a confirmation made in silence.

“It’s okay,” JJ said. “I don’t care.”

The look Emily shot her was withering.

“I didn’t mean it like that.”

Emily’s jaw ticked, but she stayed silent.

“She was pretty,” JJ offered. “Nice.”

“Drop it, JJ,” Emily said, the words barely making it past gritted teeth.

Sounds filled the silence that fell between them – tires against the rain soaked asphalt, the beat of rain against the windshield, the rhythmic swipe of the windshield wipers. JJ bit her bottom lip to keep her runaway tongue behind her teeth and wondered again why she got herself into these kinds of situations. She wondered how a skill so valuable in public failed her in private.

Scott Dorn’s address led them to a compact house set back off the road in a residential part of the town. It was white with red shutters, with a porch covered on all sides by a thin wire mesh designed to keep out the insects. The driveway was gravel, and the tires crunched against it as they pulled down it. Behind them, the sun was starting to peek through the clouds. They’d outdriven the rain, but the morning was still chilly and damp.

It was early still. Probably too early for politeness’ sake, but they didn’t have the time to stand on the niceties.

JJ pulled open the wood and mesh screen door leading to the porch. It creaked on its hinges and slapped shut behind them, the noises loud in the still silence of the morning. Emily knocked on the front door and the sound echoed around them.

After a few minutes with no answer, Emily knocked again. She was on the verge of knocking for a third time when the door opened, revealing a petite older woman dressed and ready for the day in a pink sweater set and pearl gray slacks.

“May I help you?” she asked, smiling politely.

“I’m Special Agent Emily Prentiss with the FBI,” Emily said with a comforting smile. “This is Special Agent Jennifer Jareau. We’re looking for Scott Dorn. Does he live here?”

The woman’s face crinkled in a frown. “Scott? Why? Has something happened?”

JJ stepped forward smoothly. “We think he might have valuable information that might help us with a case we’re working. Is he here?”

The woman brought her hands together in front of her, clasping them together worriedly.

“He doesn’t live here anymore,” she said, taking a step back. “He has an apartment in town. Is there something I can do to help you?”

“Do you know him?” JJ asked.

The woman nodded cautiously. “I’m his mother, Anita Dorn.”

Emily smiled reassuringly. “You said he has an apartment in town? Do you have the address?”

The woman blinked, as if searching her memory. “I believe I have it in my address book. Would you like to come in? I’ve just made a fresh pot of coffee.”

Emily and JJ both gratefully accepted a cup as Scott’s mother went to find his address. The kitchen where she left them was wallpapered with vines of ivy. Blinds had been opened for the windows lining the slightly bowed breakfast nook, providing a view of a neatly trimmed backyard bordered by yet another stand of pine trees. It looked as though the room had been recently cleaned. The floor was spotless, as were the counters. Green tea towels hung from the stove and rested by the sink, clearly chosen for their color coordination with the wallpaper.

Anita Dorn returned a few minutes later with a large black book. She sat at the table with JJ and Emily, licked her finger, and started to page through the entries.

“How long has it been since Scott moved?” Emily asked, blowing cautiously on her coffee.

Distracted by her task, Anita answered, “Oh, he hasn’t lived here for a long time. He stayed with me for a few weeks after Anu died. He said he couldn’t face being back in that house all alone. It’s why I don’t know his new address. He’s only been in the new apartment for a few weeks.”

Emily hazarded a sip of the still steaming coffee. “Anu?”

“His wife,” Anita said, looking up and offering a sad smile. “She died just two months ago.”

“That’s very sad,” JJ said comfortingly, her expression guileless.

“I’m worried for him now,” Anita continued, still slowly flicking through the pages of her address book. Distracted, now, by the story. “He was with her every day. Things got very rough there at the end. I don’t know what he’s going to do now.”

Emily leaned forward slightly. “Was she sick?”

“To think,” Anita murmured. “Breast cancer at her age.”

JJ felt her pulse rate spike. “Had they been married long?”

“Oh, four years. She was a godsend, really. After the death of his father, Scott was… Well, he was having a tough time of it, and I was having such difficulty reaching him. They’d had a contentious relationship, you see. Scott was always trying so hard to please his father, but they were just so different. William, my husband, was with the Army. He worked at the Depot until he retired. He was career military and Scott was just so… Well, they were different.”

Coffee now forgotten, Emily laid her hands flat on the table. “How long ago did your husband die, Ms. Dorn.”

“I guess it’s been five years now,” she said absently, running her finger down one of the pages in the address book. “William wanted Scott to follow in his footsteps, but that was never going to happen. Scott wasn’t one for the Army. He was teaching yoga in town. It was a good job, but William always expected more from him. And after he died, I was afraid Scott was going to fall apart. He was missing work. He was nearly fired. But then he met Anu, and everything turned around for him. They were married within the year. Not here, unfortunately. They traveled back to India for the ceremony. I wasn’t able to make the trip, but the pictures were wonderful. Still, it was no replacement for a good old-fashioned church wedding.”

“India?” JJ prompted.

Anita nodded. “Anu’s family had moved here from… oh, where was it? Madras, I believe. I never can remember how to say it.”

Emily smiled reassuringly at Anita’s slightly embarrassed look. “Did they visit often?”

“Once a year. Anu still had a lot of family there, and Scott loved it, of course. He’d always been interested in foreign cultures and that sort of thing.”

“It sounds like they were very much in love.”

“Here it is, dear,” Anita said, sliding the address book on the table. “His apartment in town.”

“Is it close?” Emily asked as JJ checked the listing.

“Oh, I imagine it would take you at least an hour. Probably longer if you hit morning traffic.”

“Birmingham,” JJ said softly, flipping the address book around so that Emily could see. Then, “Have you spoken with Scott recently, Ms. Dorn?”

“He’s been so withdrawn since we lost Anu,” she said, shaking her head. “I wanted him to stay here with me for longer, but he said he needed to get back. He’s always been so shy. I was so happy for him when he found Anu. She was such a lovely little thing.”

Emily looked up from where she was copying Scott’s address into her notebook. “Do you happen to know what doctor she was seeing?”

Anita frowned. “I’m afraid I can’t remember her name. She was very good, though. She tried everything. She even tried something new. Something you can’t even get on the market yet, but it was too late. Anu was too far gone. They didn’t catch the cancer until quite late, and it was so aggressive.”

“Was it Dr. Parker?” Emily prompted.

Anita blinked, then nodded. “Oh, yes. That sounds right.”

Emily stood abruptly, startling JJ. “You’ve been very helpful, Ms. Dorn,” she said, smile tight. “If you happen to hear from Scott, could you let us know?”

As if remembering, finally, that the agents had shown up at her door looking for her son, Anita Dorn’s expression turned wary. “He isn’t in any trouble, is he?”

Emily kept her smile in place as best she could. “I hope not.”

******

As soon as they were back in the SUV, Emily dialed Hotch.

“It’s Dorn,” she said shortly. “The address was for his mother. He lives in an apartment in Birmingham, newly rented. His wife had breast cancer. She died two months ago. I’m pretty sure she was in Houghton’s and Parker’s drug trial, and the mother thinks Parker was her doctor. She could be in danger.”

“Dr. Houghton said she was in Baltimore for a conference.”

“And he also said she was flying back late last night. I think we need to get a security detail on her.”

“But what about Warner? None of the nurses recognized any of the names.”

Emily was silent for a moment. “She may not have taken his name when they got married.” Then, “Shit. I forgot to ask.”

“Priya,” JJ supplied. “I saw it in the address book.”

“Anu Priya,” Emily relayed. “Run it by them again, and take it to Houghton, but I think he’s our man. Here, JJ’s got his address in Birmingham.”

They were driving back into the rain. Emily was weaving through traffic, the road ahead an eerie landscape of gray fog and blurry red tail lights.

When she finished, JJ handed the phone back to Emily.

“The father died five years ago,” she said without preamble. “They had a difficult relationship. Scott never lived up to his father’s expectations.”

She could almost see Hotch’s eyes flashing. “It fits the timeline.” He was silent for a moment. “I’ll take the apartment. Morgan and Detective Clark will try to track down Dr. Parker. Reid will work with Garcia to see if he can track down Dorn’s whereabouts from five years ago.”

“Houghton said they did rounds in the morning. She may already be at the hospital”

“Good work,” Hotch said shortly, already distracted by the task at hand. “Give me a call when you get back in town.”

XXXXXXXXXX

They met up with Hotch at Dorn’s apartment.

“Dr. Parker’s not at the hospital. She didn’t come in for rounds this morning. She’s not at the clinic either. Morgan and Detective Clark are going to check her house.”

“The apartment?” Emily asked, nodding toward the opened door.

“It’s clean. There’s barely anything there. It’s just a mattress on the floor. No television. No chairs. No food in the refrigerator.”

“His mother said he had a house with his wife. Maybe he hasn’t sold it yet. Maybe he’s been living there.”

“Garcia’s been running the wife’s name. If she’s got the address we can....”

Hotch had pulled out his phone and was about to dial when two of the cops on scene with them broke out into a flat run down the stairs and toward the parking lot.

On instinct, the three agents followed them.

One of the cop’s radios crackled into life, tinny and loud. “I repeat, all units in the area respond to the location. We’ve got a 417A, possible 207.”

“Kidnapping,” Emily muttered, racing ahead to catch up with the officers. She put her hand on the car door of the cruiser, leaned in for a brief conference, then trotted back to where JJ and Hotch were waiting.

“He’s at Parker’s house. He’s got a knife.”

They pulled out behind the cruisers, tailing them through increasingly heavy rain and morning traffic, winding through neighborhoods until they came to the leafy, residential street where Dr. Parker lived. Once quiet, the street was choked with police cruisers and officers. Red and blue lights bounced off of the milling crowd. Behind a SWAT tactical van, men in black uniforms lined up, readying for an assault.

Hotch, JJ, and Emily pulled their bullet proof vests from the back of the SUV and strapped them on, marching through the crowd to the front. The rain was freezing. It instantly plastered JJ’s hair to her forehead and began to trickle down the back of her collar, sending a shiver down her spine. She had to blink to see, and only recognized Detective Clark by the sharpness of his outline.

“Morgan went around the back,” he said as they clustered around him. “From what we can see, Dorn has Parker in the living room, tied to a chair.” He paused, then added, “He’s naked.”

With the rain falling in thick sheets, it was impossible to see in the house from that distance.

“Emily, track down Morgan. JJ and I will deal with the local tact squad. I don’t want incursion into the house until we have a better sense of what’s happening.”

JJ watched as Emily skirted around the side of the building, gun out and at her side.

Hotch leaned in toward her, voice pitched low. “I don’t like this. Given what we’ve learned from his mother, I can only assume he’s extremely volatile. Potentially suicidal. He’s not interested in getting away with these murders. He’s interested in punishing people he felt contributed to the death of his wife. The nurse, the chaplain, the study coordinator – all of them provided advice or guidance, but Dr. Parker was her physician. Her word would have topped everyone’s. She was the person primarily responsible for his wife’s wellbeing.”

JJ’s mind raced. “We can try negotiation, but I have a feeling he’s not interested in anything we can offer him.”

The somber look in Hotch’s eyes conveyed his agreement. He opened his mouth to speak but was cut short by the ringing of his phone.

“Hotchner,” he said shortly, hunching over as if to protect the phone from the effects of the rain. “It’s Emily,” he mouthed at JJ, then turned his full attention to the call. It was almost a minute later before he looked up again, waving Detective Clark over to join them.

“Morgan was able to get into the house through an unlocked back door.” He paused, frowning. “He smelled gas. Dorn apparently opened up the burners on the stove, and they must have been emitting gas for some time now. He thinks the plan is to blow the place.”

“And Shiva blinked and the world was consumed by fire and everything was turned to ash,” JJ murmured.

Hotch nodded. “Emily and Morgan are going to try to surprise him.”

JJ’s heart jumped into her throat at the words.

“Detective Clark, get the SWAT team in position at the front,” Hotch continued. “We’ll wait on their signal. And, see if you can get him on the phone. Maybe we can get him to talk.”

******

Derek pushed the door open carefully and stepped gently onto the linoleum. His shoe emitted a soft squeak, and he froze, trying to discern any reaction to the noise. There was none. With a wave of his hand, he motioned Emily to follow him inside, then pointed at his feet. Wordlessly, they removed their shoes and socks. There was nothing to be done for the rain dripping off of their clothing.

Emily gestured to the door and then left, indicating her path of movement, and Derek nodded. Bringing up her gun, she slid into the hallway, watching as Derek did the same in the opposite direction. The smell of gas was nearly overwhelming now; already, she was feeling a little lightheaded. From near the front of the house, she could hear the sound of Dorn’s voice. It was low and intense, a hum of sound. She was too far away to discern words, but the growing anger in it prompted her to move quickly.

The shrill ring of a telephone nearly caused her to jump.

Her footsteps sounded loud to her own ears and she stepped carefully, hyperaware of each creak and groan of the floorboards beneath her. She left a wet trail behind her; now that she was in the house, the rain that had soaked through her clothing moved from cold to freezing.

The phone stopped ringing, unanswered.

She heard Morgan’s voice just a moment before she reached the doorway to the room where Dorn was holding Dr. Parker hostage.

“Freeze. FBI. Put your weapon on the ground and kick it to me. Hands above your head.”

Emily slid around the corner and into the room. Molly Parker was tied firmly to the chair, hands and ankles lashed and torso secured with a crosshatched pattern of rope. Her clothing was soaked. Emily surmised that Dorn must have caught her just as she was leaving the house, before she had a chance to open her umbrella. Before she had a chance to avoid the rain.

Dr. Parker’s eyes widened at the sight of her, and Emily could see her trying to speak through the gag Dorn had tied so tightly that it was cutting into the corners of her mouth. Dorn had his back to her; his skin was a mottled, ashy gray, covered in a fine powder of some type that had began to run in places where the rain must have washed it away. He had a long sword in one hand, but was holding it pointed to the floor. It curved toward the tip and was blunt on the end, but the blade glistened in the light, razor sharp.

“Put down your weapon,” Morgan repeated, voice authoritative and stern. He had his gun pointed at Dorn, finger on the trigger. His forearm muscles were bulging with the effort of restraining himself from firing a shot.

Behind her gag, Dr. Parker’s voice grew louder.

“This is for her,” Dorn said, his voice scratchy, satisfied.

It happened so quickly that Emily moved by instinct alone. Dorn tossed the sword to the side and turned, a look of malicious glee on his face. There was a moment when he was surprised to see Emily standing there, but the surprised morphed into a sneer as he held his hand up. Something silver glinted in the light. Emily was moving even as the word Dr. Parker was trying to say coalesced in her mind.

“Lighter.”

She hit Dorn with a shoulder to the midsection, sending him staggering back on his heels before he toppled over, taking her with him. She drove an elbow into his jaw and then lurched toward his hand, to the lighter he frantically trying to ignite.

The smell of gasoline filled her nose, stronger than before, and with a growing sense of horror she realized that whatever had caused the streaks in the gray film covering Dorn, it hadn’t been rain.

He was planning to set himself and Dr. Parker, and now her, on fire.

Morgan was there in an instant. He slammed his foot into Dorn’s hand and kept stomping until the lighter clattered away. At the loss, Dorn roared and bucked, throwing Emily off of him, and tried to scramble to his feet. His eyes were focused on the lighter, and Emily dove for it at the same moment as Morgan dove for Dorn.

The two men crashed against the wall. A picture fell to the ground, glass shattering everywhere, as Morgan landed a punch square against Dorn’s jaw that was forceful enough for the back of Dorn’s head to leave an impression in the sheetrock. He started to sag and Morgan used his momentary advantage to spin Dorn around, pressing him hard into the wall. With one hand, he pulled a pair of cuffs from the waistband of his pants and slapped one onto Dorn’s wrist.

“No,” Dorn cried mournfully, wriggling in Morgan’s hold. “One last sin to cleanse and we can be together again. I am the Destroyer. The Nataraja. The Divine. I purify evil. I punish the wicked. I smear her ashes on my body so that we can be one. I…”

“Enough,” Morgan growled, forcing Dorn against the wall again. “Enough.”

He was halfway through the litany of Dorn’s Miranda rights when Emily managed to get the gag untied.

Tears flowed freely down Molly Parker’s face. “Thank god,” she whispered, her voice strained from shouting. “Thank god.”

XXXXXXXXXX

Emily opened the door to her room to find JJ standing on the other side of it, smiling sheepishly.

It hadn’t stopped raining. If anything, it had started to rain harder, and as the day progressed into evening, Hotch had declared that they would spend the night in Birmingham and return back the following morning. There were loose ends to tie up – Reid was still back at police headquarters, shifting through old case notes. While Emily and Morgan had been taking down Dorn, Reid had been looking through the original case file, picking out a pattern.

Five years earlier, Scott Dorn had taught yoga. Each of the victims had been a member at one of the facilities where he held classes.

“Are you okay?” JJ asked, eyes tracing over Emily’s body as if looking for injuries.

Emily nodded silently.

“I wanted to apologize,” JJ said, leaning forward hesitantly. She was surprised when Emily followed her lead, stepping back far enough to allow her inside. “For this morning,” JJ added when Emily simply looked at her, still silent. “I was out of line.”

Emily’s eyes were flat, unreadable. “After the case, I stayed in Idaho for three days. Most of that time was spent with Lizzie… Ranger Overton.”

JJ stiffened in surprise at Emily’s admission. “Emily, you don’t…”

“I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t think my personal life was anyone’s business, but it appears that didn’t matter.” She paused, then rubbed her forehead tiredly. “Is this going to change things between us?”

“No. I… No.” With a short laugh, JJ sank down on Emily’s bed. She dropped her head into her hands and closed her eyes. “I’m usually better with words.”

“Is this why you’ve been watching me?” JJ’s head shot up, eyes wide, and Emily smiled a sharp, sly smile. “I noticed. Is it because you’re curious?”

JJ stumbled over her words, taken off-guard. “No. Well, yes, but not for the reason you think.”

Emily’s smile faded. She sighed, then sank down onto the bed beside JJ. “Then why don’t you tell me why. I don’t like having this between us. It’s making things…”

“Odd?” JJ offered. “Tense?”

“Uncomfortable.”

“The truth…” JJ stopped, frowned, considered with a light-headed dizziness the possibility that she was going to say what she was actually feeling. “The truth is that I was surprised and I was jealous. Surprised that I didn’t know, that you hadn’t told me. Jealous because… well, I just was.”

“Jealous?” Emily echoed, brows drawn together in confusion.

JJ felt the admission dance on the tip of her tongue. “Jealous,” she confirmed. “Emily, I…”

She was cut short by the press of Emily’s lips against her own. The kiss was soft and hesitant, over almost before it began.

When she pulled away she noticed that Emily’s eyes were wide and dark and she looked startled, as if she hadn’t been expecting the kiss either.

JJ couldn’t hold back her smile. “That must be why you’re the profiler,” she said softly. “You’ve figured out my motives. You know my secret.”

It took a full 10 seconds for the doubt in Emily’s eyes to fade. When it did, she smiled. This time it was hopeful. Open. Hesitant.

JJ felt the fear she’d been guarding release. This time, the light-headed dizziness felt more like anticipation.

She leaned in to kiss Emily again. This time, it was assured, confident, with purpose.

This time, she didn’t have to be afraid.

--

For my friend VV who, about cultural appropriation, said that it’s always the crazy goree. And thus a story was born.