They converged upon the Walmart within two minutes of each
other and Detective Loring. A manager met them at the door.
"We've got him in the back. A customer noticed him because he was crying so loudly. She looked around but didn't see anyone who seemed to be with him. So she brought him to the service desk, and we paged overhead for about thirty minutes. We checked everywhere in the store to make sure there wasn't someoneincapacitated, who couldn't answer….no one. So we called the police."
The woman was leading the way to the employee area as she spoke. When they entered the room with the child, all of the rest held back, allowing JJ to step forward to him. It hadn't been discussed, but each of them knew to leave the handling of the child to the only mother among them.
The child was sitting on a table, nibbling a cookie he'd been given by the employee seated next to him. He looked to be between a year and a half and two years of age. He was clean, and his hair had been combed. It was obvious he'd been crying. The clothing he wore didn't match the description of what any of the abducted children had been wearing when they were taken. But his face matched one of the photos. This was Daniel Carpenter.
They'd all seen the photos of each of the missing children, but only JJ and Reid had met the Carpenters. They shared a look of relief that acknowledged how rare it was to be able to give this kind of outcome to a pair of frightened parents.
JJ approached Daniel with the same voice she used to soothe Henry when he was upset.
"Hi, little man. Hi, Daniel. It's okay, honey. Everything's gonna be okay." She kept it low, almost whispered, and the toddler quieted to hear her. When she lifted him, he didn't protest.
Hotch and Loring were already conferring with the store manager. The store had only been open for three hours when the child was found, and there would be video available from both the store and the parking area. It was very likely they'd be able to get an image of the unsub, as well as the car she was driving.
Rossi tried to work the behavior. "So she takes three boys within a two week period, and then, essentially, gives one back. And it's not the first one, right? Daniel Carpenter was the second abduction?"
"He was. So it doesn't seem like she's using them for some purpose and then releasing them, or we would have had the first abductee, Michael Bruback, as the first return." Reid was pursuing the logic.
"It doesn't look like she's hurt him," observed Alex. But they all knew he'd have to be examined fully to be sure.
"Not everything leaves a mark." Morgan was the voice of experience in that regard.
"Hotch, I'd like to go with him to the hospital, if that's all right." By now the little one was clinging tightly to JJ.
"Go ahead. Reid, meet them there. I want to know if the parents perceive anything different about him, other than the clothing." Hotch rarely admitted to his use of intuition in his casework, but he did use it, and it was running strong here. There was something about the change in clothing that was important. He was sure of it.
The interviews with the staffs of the day cares had been put off when the agents followed the Walmart lead. Now Hotch sent Blake and Morgan to interview the staff members at both sites. He and Rossi would stay behind and study the videos.
Reid had JJ call the Carpenters as she rode the ambulance with young Daniel. He hoped that breaking the good news would bring some brightness back to her. She'd looked defeated this morning.
Until she'd held Daniel. She was the only one of us who could have gotten to him like that. When she picked him up, she had all the confidence in the world. Like the old JJ. She's a natural as a mom. Maybe that's the way to help her get her fight back. Focus on Henry.
The Carpenters were already at the hospital, awaiting their arrival. JJ happily transferred Daniel into the arms of his overjoyed parents. She left it to Reid to begin the conversation.
"Mr. and Mrs. Carpenter, we're so happy you've got Daniel back. But there are still some children missing. We need to ask you to help us try to bring them home as well."
"Anything, Dr. Reid. Please tell us how we can help." Mr. Carpenter was only too willing to assist.
"First, please tell us if you recognize the clothes he's wearing."
Daniel's mother answered this one. "No, these are definitely not his clothes. Do they belong to the other children who are missing?"
"We're not sure." JJ took a deep breath and then got to the most difficult part. "Mr. and Mrs. Carpenter, Daniel will need to be examined fully. They're getting an exam room ready for that now. But we need to ask you if you perceive anything…..different….about him."
The FBI agents knew that children who'd been traumatized through threats or emotional abuse, as well as those molested, sometimes had subtle behavioral cues that were frequently only obvious to those who knew them best. They needed the information, but preferred not to instill the image of abuse into the Carpenter's minds….not if it could be helped.
Mr. Carpenter was shaking his head. "I don't know how we could tell. Not now. Look at him, he can't let go of his mother. He's terrified."
JJ understood. For children of Daniel's age, mere separation from their parents was enough of a trauma to cause them to be clingy and irritable. The Carpenters might well be unable to tell about a significant behavior change for another day, or even several. For now, they would have to go with the results of his examination.
Said exam was conducted by Dr. Beth Hanover. When she was finished, she met with both the parents and the FBI agents.
"There's no sign of any trauma. No bruising, no marks on his skin at all. It looks like he was well cared for while he was gone." Then, turning specifically to look at the parents, she added, "Of course, if he'd been mistreated emotionally, it wouldn't leave any physical signs. Nor, I'm afraid, would many forms of molestation. We simply can't say for sure."
JJ and Reid already understood this, but it was news to the Carpenters. Mrs. Carpenter gasped and held her chest, while her husband tightened his grip on her. He spoke for them.
"Are you telling us that you think…."
Reid did his best to reassure the couple. "No, Mr. Carpenter. No. We have no reason to think that it may have happened. Dr. Hanover is simply telling us that the results of the physical examination can't possibly tell us everything. But we have no specific information that would lead us to believe that Daniel was molested."
JJ patted Mrs. Carpenter on the shoulder. "We'll leave you with Daniel now. We'll let you know when we find out anything more. And," handing over her card, " please call me if you notice or remember anything…anything at all."
Reid glanced at JJ as they drove back to the precinct. "It's hard on you, isn't it? When it's a kid? And especially when they look so much like Henry."
"They always seem to look like Henry. Sometimes I think there's more of a market for blonde-haired, blue-eyed kids."
"There is. I remember we had a case when you were gone…..when Strauss forced you out….." Neither of them enjoyed talking about that time, still, all this while later.
"Well, it turned out it was a man forcing women to have babies so he could give his barren wife a child. But before we knew that, we thought it was a baby-selling operation. And it turned out that kids that look like Henry bring a much higher price than other kids."
"Great. Good to know. Now I have something else to worry about."
Reid colored. Had he made a social miscue…again? But JJ caught the look on his face and laughed. "I'm only kidding, Spence. It doesn't matter….I already worry about him, all the time. Part of the mothering gene, I guess."
"You're a great mom, JJ. I mean that. Henry's a great kid. And he's happy."
Now she was reflective. "And I need to try to keep him that way." She was quiet for a while, looking out the window, pondering her situation. "I don't think there's any chance he won't be affected if Will and I break up. I mean, he loves us both. But he wouldn't have us both, at least not together. I just hope I'm not turning my happy boy into an unhappy one."
Reid didn't like hearing this. It sounded like she was talking herself out of the decision he thought she'd already made.
"JJ, how happy could he be in household where there's no freedom…only fear? Please don't back down now. You know I'm the last one to get into anyone else's business, but this is different. I care about you. And I care about Henry. And I've watched you hurting for far too long. Please don't say you're changing your mind about talking to Hotch."
She shook her head. "I'm not. I guess I'm just thinking out loud. It's so complicated to undo a relationship once it's formed. I guess I'm just thinking about what will happen when I unravel my ties to Will. I mean, I can't totally do it. We'll have Henry. And, because of Henry, Will and I will always be in each other's lives."
She was right, and Reid didn't like it. He thought the best possible thing for both of them would be for Will to be gone from their lives. But he wouldn't be. So they would have to be careful about how the separation took place. Acrimony wouldn't help anything.
He reached for her hand, and squeezed it. "He's not the only one you'll have in your life. You and Henry, both. You'll always have me."
They still had two children missing, but the task force was breathing a sigh of relief. It didn't appear that their unsub was planning to harm the children…at least, not intentionally. The DNA testing on Marcia Lounsbury would take another two days to complete, but there was far less focus on her now, anyway. Both she and her husband had been under surveillance since yesterday, and wouldn't have had any opportunity to bring Daniel Carpenter to Walmart. It seemed they were an interesting sidelight to the case, rather than a fruitful lead.
The video footage proved to be less helpful than they'd hoped, mostly due to sun glare on the feed from the parking lot. The in-store footage showed only a woman in a long coat, and wearing a hat. They could make out blonde hair, but little else.
Very late in the day came another break. A frustrating one. After the task force reconvened at the precinct, Detective Loring received a much delayed notice that the local child welfare agency had retrieved a child from a local grocery store three days ago. The child had been found in much the same situation as Daniel Carpenter had…..in a cart, crying, apparently abandoned.
"And some bozo in child welfare treated it like a 'safe haven' case!"
Loring was furious. Safe Haven laws were designed to allow parents to give over unwanted newborns without fear of reperussions. But they were to give them to hospitals, or fire or police officials. And they were to be, in fact, newborns. Leaving a toddler abandoned in a grocery store was just that, abandonment. The police should have been notified immediately.
"God damn it! We've lost at least two days to this!"
Morgan wanted to be practical. "Do we know that it's one of our missing kids?"
In response, Loring showed them a photo. The 'safe haven' child was clearly the first toddler abducted, Michael Bruback. Now they had only Joseph Knapp missing. But now they had to wonder if he was still missing, or if there had been another failure of communication.
Reid called for everyone's attention.
"Look at this." Since he and JJ had returned from the hospital, he'd been working on his geographic profile.
"These are the three spots where the boys were taken from. They triangulate, giving us a zone of operation. And now we have the locations where two of the children were given back."
JJ observed, "There's no overlap at all."
"Exactly! So we have one of two dynamics working here. Either the children were taken from a geographic comfort zone, meaning that our unsub lives somewhere in here, " Reid was tracing the triangle created by the two day cares and the gas station.
"Or this is the area used to distance the unsub from her home. And the drop-offs would be closer to home. So that would mean she would live somewhere in this area." He could be less precise with the latter, since there were only two points so far.
Alex was still thinking about how Michael Bruback was found.
"Detective, was there something about the child that made them think he'd been given up like a newborn? Something that made it seem different from a child abandonment?". There had to be more to this story.
Loring was brought up short. Maybe she had a point. Because there was something.
"Apparently there was a note. It said, "Please take care of him."
Reid was on it. "Was there a note with Daniel Carpenter?"
"None that was recovered." Loring's voice was pensive. Maybe this was something….
"So, maybe our unsub was startled by something at the Walmart. Something that kept her from leaving her note."
"Or she didn't think it would be necessary." Reid's voice was getting that excited pitch.
"What are you thinking, Reid?" Hotch knew when his resident genius was on to something significant.
"What if she felt comfortable leaving Daniel at the Walmart because she knew he'd be taken care of. That she didn't need to leave a note."
"Like she has a connection with someone there." Alex was with him.
Hotch was on it. "Morgan, Blake, Rossi, go back there. Interview everyone on the staff. Show them the video. If the manager didn't recognize the woman, maybe one of the other employees will. Reid, work the geographic profile. JJ, you and I will work the unsub profile."
He was done with the maps, and went to join JJ and Hotch. They'd worked up a profile to disseminate to the task force.
"We've already profiled it's a woman. She's likely single, and childless." Hotch filled Reid in.
"And she's got to have a house. It's unlikely she could have kept kids this young for so many days without them crying and attracting attention. There's no way she could have done that in an apartment."
"Guys, I don't know if she's childless." Reid was concerned about this part of the profile. "What about the clothes?"
It clicked with Hotch now. He'd known the clothes had to mean something. "Reid's right. The clothes on Daniel Carpenter didn't belong to any of the children taken. She had them already. So she's got a child."
"Or she had a child. Maybe she's replacing him." JJ was thinking aloud.
Reid wasn't so sure. "If she's replacing her child, why does she keep giving them back?"
They were waiting for the others to report in, and had taken the profile as far as they could without new information.
Recognizing the opportunity, and having tuned in to the concern in Reid's voice this morning, Hotch took advantage.
"JJ, did you need to speak with me about something?"
She froze. Although she intended to go through with it, JJ was still caught unaware in the moment.
Reid flashed her a look. He was invested in this happening, but it wasn't technically his business.
"I can step out…." He started toward the door.
"No! No, Spence, you don't need to go." In fact, she needed him more than he knew.
JJ turned to her unit chief.
"I need some advice..." She had to pause before finishing the sentence. "...on ending my marriage." She couldn't make eye contact with either one of them.
Hotch looked surprised, but internally, he realized he shouldn't have been. She'd not been herself for a long time.
"I need to leave him, Hotch."
Reid nodded, looking meaningfully at their unit chief. "She needs to leave him, Hotch. Right away."
He got the message. JJ had either already been hurt, or was in serious danger of being so. They couldn't afford for her to spend a single additional day in a household that contained Will LaMontagne. But accomplishing that could be very difficult.
JJ finished. "I need to know how to do it. I need your legal advice."
Regrettably, Hotch was schooled in the art of divorce. He knew this would not be easy.
"JJ, you know I'm not practicing any longer….but I can connect you to a good divorce attorney."
"Thanks. But I need to know. Can I ask him to leave? Can I force him to leave? Or will I have to go? And what about Henry?"
Hotch took in and expelled a deep breath. The information he had wouldn't be encouraging.
"You can ask him to leave, JJ. Or you can leave yourself. But, unless your safety is in question, you can't force it."
He couldn't help but notice the long look exchanged by the other two. "Is your safety in question?"
She had to be honest. Will had never overtly threatened her, and she'd only perceived a threat the other night. She told Hotch about it, then stole a glance at Reid. He didn't look happy.
"I can ask him to leave, but I'm not sure he would. He doesn't have anyone else in DC. Where would he go?"
Reid spoke up, surprising even himself. "He can stay with me, if it will get him out of the house."
JJ gave him a small, surprised smile at that. "Thanks, Spence, but somehow I don't think that would go over all that well."
Hotch intervened. "Ask him to leave. If he doesn't, be very cautious in determining your safety. Don't stay there if you don't think you and Henry will be safe. You're always welcome to stay with me."
"Or me," reminded Reid.
JJ looked from one to the other. "Thanks, you two. You are both so good to me. Hotch, I'll call the divorce attorney as soon as we get home. And I'll talk to Will."
Reid noticed that the last words seemed to drain all the energy out of her. So did Hotch. It prompted him to make an offer.
"JJ, would you like me to be with you when you talk to him?"
If Reid hadn't recognized the impropriety of it, he would have kissed his unit chief. Instead, after a relieved JJ accepted the offer, Reid mouthed a silent "Thank you."