Chapter 39

The moon was a mere sliver, creating a night that was so very, very dark. The air was chilly, and he shivered, sitting alone on the bench. Then he turned to the person next to him. He couldn't really see her at all, but he knew she was there. He could sense her presence. Her essence.

"Hi." Something about talking to her felt so good. So familiar, and yet not. Like something he hadn't done in a very long time.

"Hi." She reached out long fingers and placed them over his.

He didn't recognize the touch. But it thrilled him.

"Can you stay?"

"I have to go. But I'll visit you again."

"Stay." He couldn't actually hear his voice, but he knew he was pleading.

She said only two words. "The book."

He didn't understand. He understood even less when the scene shifted, and it was day. Bright, blinding daylight. He was sitting at a chessboard, moving figures, alone. Playing against himself. The sunlight was blinding, blinding….

Reid woke slowly, the sun falling on his face through the slit in the curtains. Full sun. His gaze flashed to the digital clock at his bedside. Ten-thirteen. AM! His eyes flew wide and he leapt from the bed, fumbling for his phone. No messages. No missed calls. No one had been trying to reach him, to find out why he'd not shown up to the morning meeting. He punched Hotch's number and, once the connection was made, didn't even wait for his superior to speak.

"Hotch? Hotch, I'm so sorry, I don't know what happened. I completely slept through. I'm so, so sorry."

Had he been able to see, he would have been surprised at the smile on the unit chief's face. Reid was mortified, but his boss was pleased. He'd had Morgan check on the genius to verify that he was just sleeping, and then allowed the younger man to stay in his much needed rest.

"It's all right, Reid. Just get here as soon as you can." He couldn't resist adding. "We have coffee."

Ten minutes later, Reid literally ran through the door of the sheriff's office, unshaven, hair wet from the shower. JJ looked sweetly innocent as she handed him a mug of liquid stimulant.

Reid laid down his messenger bag and took the cup from her. "You're dangerous."

She smiled knowingly and patted his chest as she moved past him to take a seat at the table. "You slept, didn't you?"

Hotch was the only other team member there. In response to Reid's unasked question, he provided, "They're at the scene. Francesca O'Toole's car was found this morning. Wooded area off the highway. We wanted to see the site before it was processed."

Reid moved directly to his map to plot the location as JJ read out the coordinates. Christina Romano's vehicle had yet to be found, a year after her abduction. He was only able to mark the two.

"This is almost twenty miles from where Angelina DeSimone's van was found. And since we don't know exactly where any of the women were when they were taken, it may not help us that much." He stood back from the map and squinted at it until something clicked.

"You know, the child care center where Angie DeSimone's body was found is at least five miles from the nearest major highway. No matter where he took her, he would have had to travel local roads to get to the dump spot."

"Making it difficult to go completely without being noticed…" Hotch was following Reid's train of thought.

"Why would anybody notice him? Couldn't he just have put her in the trunk of his car?" JJ didn't understand what they were getting at.

Reid had consumed enough coffee to be more alert by now. "Because she'd only been dead less than a day. Rigor mortis would have made it hard for him to place her in the trunk. It's much more likely he had his own van or truck."

Hotch had his phone out. He knew this would require luck….but it had worked in police investigations in the past. It was worth a shot.

"Garcia, look for any traffic violations, parking violations, anything related to motor vehicles, within 24 hours of the victims being found. Look in the vicinity of the dump sites. And in the areas where the two vehicles were found. Look at everything, but focus on vans, trucks, and SUVs."

He shrugged at Reid as he gave the order. He knew they were reaching.

"Worked for Son of Sam," the genius remarked.

Garcia could already be heard furiously typing. "Got it, my liege. Back in a snap."

Next, Hotch filled Reid in on the rest of the morning recon. "Blake spoke with both MEs again this morning. They're both certain that the women suffocated from pressure to the chest area. And they're adamant that the amount of pressure required is unlikely to have been accomplished by a human. Not in the upright position. They think it was somehow mechanical."

He could see Reid's eyes moving, reflecting the cognitive activity already in motion, as he continued.

"We've called ahead to the local university. The two of you will meet with the heads of their departments of engineering and physics. We need something solid to go on. Some sense of what kind of machine could have done this."

"With them upright, there's probably not much. Maybe something the unsub configured?" Reid was energized by the assignment, JJ simply resigned. A whole morning of physics and engineering ecstasy. This might be worse than ComicCon.

Hotch was about to brighten her prospective day. "The university is only a few miles from the mall where both of the murder victims shopped. It looks like Francesca O'Toole had been to the maternity and children's shops there as well. Stop by on your way back, find out what you can."

It was Reid's turn to cringe. Malls were his nemesis. He turned to JJ as he refilled his mug before leaving. "Remember, we stick together. I'll have your back if you'll have mine."

"Seriously, JJ, I know you meant well, but I'm trying to prove to Hotch that I should be back with the team. I can't be sleeping through work like that."

She was driving this time, looked over at him in the passenger seat. "It was Hotch who stopped me from calling you. He could see you hadn't been sleeping, and he was glad you were finally able to."

She could see he still wasn't happy, and guessed the reason. "Spence, it's not that he thinks we can get along without you. It's just the opposite. We all know we need you on the team. We want you back at your best. If that takes sleeping in for just one day, so be it."

He realized he'd sounded ungrateful. "Sorry, JJ, I didn't mean to be difficult about it. I just….well, anyway, thank you. I haven't slept like that in…..forever."

"Well, obviously you needed it. So I'm glad. Now, I need you to wake all the way up, because I am most definitely not carrying on a conversation about physics and engineering. With anyone."

Now that she'd reminded him of their task, he was enthused. "I'm looking forward to it, actually. Really. This might almost be as much fun as…."

"Ugh. ComicCon. I know."

Drs. Helstrom and Chiang were waiting for them together, in Chiang's office. After introductions, they sat together at a small conference table, and Reid began the inquiry. There was still the question of whether the sternum was fractured in the act of killing or the act of resuscitating. He began by pursuing the latter.

"Dr. Chiang, from the perspective of a physicist, how much pressure would it take to suffocate someone without breaking any bones?" Reid was sure he knew the answer to this already.

"It would depend on the surface area of the compression. If more of the torso is compressed, it will require much less compression to prevent the person from taking a breath."

Dr. Helstrom, the engineer, added, "It would be easier to compress without breaking bones if a large surface area was involved. With a small surface area, the compression pressure would have to be greater, making it more likely that a break would occur."

In spite of her determination to leave the discussion to Reid, JJ was curious. "Are we talking the breastbone….the sternum? Or ribs?"

"Or vertebrae," added Reid.

"Any of them," advised Dr. Helstrom, "depending on where the pressure was applied."

"So, it would be difficult for a person to accomplish this by crushing his opponent, correct? Because he would be compressing only a small surface area, and would need more compression force?" Reid knew this was what the MEs had concluded. Now he wanted the physical scientists' impression.

"Correct, Dr. Reid." Dr. Chiang spoke up. "However, a lower level of force exerted over a longer period of time could have the same effect. I believe it would be less likely to result in a bony fracture, but it would accomplish the suffocation."

Reid nodded his understanding. This might well have been a person to person event. But he wanted to explore all avenues of possibility.

"Dr. Helstrom, is there any device you can think of that might accomplish this mechanically?"

"I've been thinking about that since Agent Hotchner called earlier. Most compression machines are designed to crush from above, using gravity as part of their force. There's very little that would accomplish a lateral compression as you've described has been found on the bodies. And even less that would accomplish a circumferential compression. But I suppose anyone can make a python."

JJ's eyes widened as she caught Reid's gaze. They both turned back to Helstrom.

"A python?" inquired JJ.

"Yes. A python. Or a boa constrictor. They both kill by encircling their prey and suffocating them, slowly, a breath at a time. I suppose someone could construct a device that did the same with rubber tubing and air compression."

Reid was anxious to go now. "Thank you. Thank you, Dr. Helstrom. And Dr. Chiang. You've both been very helpful."

"A python! Spence, you don't really think he unleashed a python on them." Hoping he really didn't.

"Think about it, JJ. It fits. It could suffocate a person and then crush her sternum."

She couldn't suppress a shiver. "Couldn't it just have been that he created the tubing thing? With the air compression? Why does it have to be a snake?"

He was driving now, and looked over at her with a surprised grin on his face. This was something he hadn't known about her. It always tickled him when he learned something new.

"Woods….and snakes?"

"And cemeteries. And don't give me a hard time about it, "Mister I'm-Afraid-of–the-Dark". I just don't like them, all right?"

It felt good to banter with her. Felt almost like his old life, his life 'before'. He kept it up.

"That's "Doctor I'm-Afraid-of-the-Dark" to you, Miss."

She laughed and punched his arm. It felt easy, and free, and both of them relished it. It seemed like it had been a lifetime ago since they'd been able to joke with each other. It had.

The mall was huge. Then again, to Reid, any mall looked huge. He favored small, neighborhood stores, even for his grocery shopping. Anything bigger, and he was immediately overstimulated. Before, when he'd had the migraines, this kind of experience had been a trigger. He remembered that as he meekly followed JJ into the entrance, and suddenly realized that the headaches had not returned, even with the loss of Maeve. They said it was the stress and decompression cycle that did it to me. Maybe I haven't decompressed yet.

Without even looking at a map of the mall, JJ instinctively turned left. Reid hurried to follow her, asking, "How do you know where you're going? Have you been here before?"

"Mall psychology."

"Mall psychology?"

"The maternity shops and kids' stores are always near the rest rooms. And they're always in the middle of the mall."

"Oh." Catching on to the theme, he posited, "Mightn't they also be near the food court?"

"Nope, that's for teens. Arcades, media stores, you know."

"Where would the book stores be? Do you think they have any in this mall?" He was going to volunteer to make inquiry there while she handled the rest.

"Bookstores are disappearing, Spence. Everything's done on line now. Even the books are virtual."

She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye as she proclaimed the blasphemy, and had to suppress a smile when the color left his face.

They'd arrived at the maternity clothing and supplies shop. Reid's eye was immediately drawn to a corner of the store that seemed to contain electric gadgets. He headed over to satisfy his curiosity, and then quickly turned back around, a deep blush creeping up his face, when he realized what the 'gadgets' were for.

JJ couldn't suppress her laugh this time. "Never seen a breast pump before?"

"No. They're strange, aren't they?" He was clearly embarrassed.

"They're lifesavers. Trust me."

As close as they were, as much as they'd shared, this felt like too intimate a conversation to be having with JJ. Reid looked around for something to use to change the subject, then blushed even more deeply when his eyes settled on the section devoted to nursing bras.

"Can't I just wait for you outside?"

"Hey, I just went to the geek soiree with you, the least you can do is stay and ask a few questions."

The sales clerk finished with her customer and came over to greet them. "Welcome, how can I help you? Are you shopping for yourselves or someone else today?" Her gaze wandered to JJ's abdomen as she spoke.

"Actually," began JJ, "we're from the FBI." Reid flashed his badge. JJ went on to explain about the missing and murdered women, and their common purchases from the shop.

"Oh, my God, yes, I remember the second one. I'd been working here for about a year when it happened. I thought her picture looked familiar! Oh, my God, I knew her!"

The words didn't sound as promising as they would have liked. It appeared the clerk didn't actually know all that much about Christina Romano. Reid pushed for more.

"Is there anyone who might have been working here longer than you? Someone who might remember the first victim as well?"

The young woman thought about that and then snapped her fingers. "Tammy! She's next door now, at the kids' shop. It's the same owner, and she moved Tammy over there to manage. She's been here for about five years, I think."

They thanked her and headed out of the store, Reid breathing a sigh of relief as he did so. The children's shop was, indeed, right next to the maternity store. Their luck held, as Tammy was on shift and available to speak with them.

JJ took the lead on explaining their mission. Tammy gasped when JJ mentioned the missing Francesca O'Toole.

"Oh, my God, I didn't know! I'm just back from vacation, and I haven't caught up on the news. Francesca's missing?"

"It sounds like you know her pretty well," observed Reid.

"I do. Did. Do. Oh, my God, please don't let her be dead!"

JJ put a calming hand on Tammy's arm. "How do you know her so well?"

"We go to the same gym. I used to see her every morning, until she got too far along. Then I would see her here. She'd started back to the gym months ago. Oh, my God!"

Reid put on his quiet voice. "Tammy, we need to know if there's anything…..or anyone…that links the three women. We know they were all young mothers…..great mothers…..but we haven't been able to tell if they knew each other in any way, or if they had someone or something in common."

The quiet voice served to calm the young store manager. She thought for a long time, but ended up shaking her head. "I can't remember the others as well as I do Francesca. And I can't remember if any of them would have met the others. Did you check at the gym?"

JJ responded. "Our technical analyst checked on that, and any other obvious connections. There was nothing. It would have to be less obvious, something that wouldn't show up on line or on, for example, a credit card."

Tammy's eyes widened. JJ had shaken loose a memory.

"There was something. Or, someone. There was a guy who stopped by the store…both stores, actually….to leave his cards. He did birthday parties for kids. I wouldn't have remembered it, but he started talking with one woman, and they got into it. He wanted some kind of deposit, and she didn't have any cash with her, but he wouldn't take her credit card. I'm pretty sure a lot of women took the cards. It sounded like a fun party for little kids-balloons, clowns, even a little portable petting zoo."

The two FBI profilers looked at each other. "Do you know anything about the petting zoo, Tammy?" Reid's brain was leaping several steps ahead.

"His card mentions rabbits and ferrets, stuff like that."

"Not snakes?" JJ wanted to clarify.

Reid was already beyond that. "Things that can be fed to snakes."

JJ's brows went up. She turned back to Tammy. "Do you have any more of those cards?"

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