They'd phoned the information ahead to Hotch, as they
returned to the sheriff's office to meet up with the full team. When they
arrived, Reid ran through their discussion with the scientists, while JJ gave
them the information they'd learned at the mall.
"A python?" Rossi's face belied his disgust at the idea.
"Seriously, Pretty Boy?" Morgan was watching the faces of his two colleagues, as though waiting for them to reveal the punchline.
Blake's reaction surprised them all. "I saw someone who'd been crushed by a python once. I was visiting my husband at his medical camp in Cambodia and a group of people actually ran in with the man on a makeshift pallet. They'd chopped off the head of the snake, but it was still wrapped around him. Even with the python dead, it took all our strength to unwrap it."
All eyes were on the newest team member, and the five others found a new respect for Alex. JJ still couldn't suppress a shiver every time the giant snake was mentioned. Morgan noticed and started to tease her.
"Hey, Blondie, what's wrong? Have a thing about snakes?"
She was about to respond when she was preempted.
"Everybody's got something, Morgan. Like, I don't know…..say...elevators….maybe?" Reid caught JJ's eye with a look that said, "I've got your back." She couldn't help but smile, both at the chivalry, and at Reid's rag at Morgan.
Hotch had let the non-productive exchange go on longer than usual, pleased to see that his team members were, for the most part, back on track. The two youngest still had a long way to go to recover from their respective traumas, but there were signs of recovery all around. Now, he had to call them back to order.
"All right, people. We still have a case to solve, and a missing woman to find."
The reminder of Francesca O'Toole's status was immediately sobering, and the group got back to work.
"Reid, what have we got?" Hotch was looking for a summary statement.
"We have a possible mechanism of death….several, actually…..and a possible link between the three women." He turned his attention to JJ. "Anything yet?"
"Still waiting for the husbands to call me back. I think it's pickup time for school." She'd made an inquiry as to whether the women had used, or even considered using, the male party organizer.
Reid continued. "We have two of the vehicles, each recovered in a remote area, 19.6 miles apart. Angie DeSimone's van was found seven miles from where her body was dumped. Francesca O'Toole's car was found in a remote area thirteen miles from her home, but we don't have another reference point for it yet." All of them realizing that gaining another reference point would mean having lost the victim.
Rossi continued for him. "We have a pretty clear connection with the fact that they were mothers…..and notably good mothers, at that. And, unfortunately, we have a deadline. Mother's Day is three days away."
Garcia buzzed in. She'd been given several new tasks in the past half hour.
"Okay, boys and girls, I have news. Good news, and bad news. Which do you want first?"
"Hey, Baby Girl, any kind of news helps. What have you got?"
"What I haven't got is any good news about traffic violations involving the kinds of vehicles we're interested in. So we'll have to hope that the name you gave me pans out, because it's the only name we've got." There had been only a name and a contact phone number on the business card given to JJ.
Hotch was impatient. "Go ahead, Garcia. What about him?"
They could hear her taking a deep breath before she launched into it. "'Dennis Lavalette lives at 4224 Anaconda in Sacramento. He's been in business as 'D-Party's D-Thing' for the past nine years. Before that, he worked as an assistant to an assistant feeder at the Sacramento Zoo."
"Let me guess, the reptile exhibit?" Rossi's voice dripped with sarcasm.
"The very thing. He was dismissed pretty quickly though, only lasted there about six months."
"Do we know why he was fired, Garcia?" JJ was curious.
"It looks like…."they could hear her keyboarding in the background….."he missed too many days. Absenteeism."
"Any hints as to why, Baby Girl?"
"Maybe….if I can just….there, got it. The employment records were protected."
The six in the room looked at each other and smiled. Nothing was protected from Penelope Garcia.
"There's a notation, scanned in. I can barely read the handwriting, but I think it says "un….undocumented family illness"."
"Does it say who was ill, Pen?" JJ knew they all thought it would be his mother, but she wanted confirmation.
They could hear the rapid strike of her fingers against the keys.
"It doesn't say who, but…let me try something...Bingo! His mother, Mary Lavalette, died eight years ago, four months after he was terminated."
"Garcia, can you find medical records on her? Or a death certificate?" If Dennis was their unsub, Rossi wondered if his mother might have been his first victim.
"She…..died at home….of….cancer."
There was silence for a moment, as they all thought about what that might mean.
"So, he didn't kill her." JJ finally voiced it for the group.
"So, maybe he didn't hate her, but was triggered by her loss?" Alex knew there was a big hole in that theory, even as she spoke.
Morgan voiced it. "Then why the delay? Why wasn't he triggered until two years ago?"
"No weapon? Maybe he didn't have access to the python….or the machine….until then." Rossi was being practical.
Hotch had another idea. "Maybe…" He was thinking aloud….."Garcia, can you look for any other women who went missing within a month of Mother's Day, or who were found within a day of Mother's Day? Open up the area."
"How wide, Sir?"
"Go nationwide, Garcia. We need to be sure. Maybe he didn't wait six years."
While she was looking, the others continued their discussion.
"Say it's him, how do we approach him?" Morgan was in planning mode. "We need to assume he's still got Francesca O'Toole."
Hotch turned to Reid, who was standing at the map. "What does the location look like?"
"4224 Anaconda is on the outskirts of Sacramento. It doesn't look like there's much besides residential properties in the area."
JJ had pulled it up on her tablet. "Here's an aerial view. It looks pretty wooded, might give him enough cover…"
"And enough insulation. It looks like there could be a lot of noise coming from this place, and the nearest neighbor could easily not have heard a thing," added Morgan.
"We need a distraction. We need to pull him away from the property." Reid was thinking aloud again.
Rossi agreed with him. And he thought he knew a way. "What if we sent him to meet another customer? Someone who wanted to give a birthday party for her young child?"
Without planning, all of them turned to look at JJ, who did her best to appear nonplussed.
"Me? I guess I could. If it would help bring Francesca O'Toole back to her family."
Reid kept his eyes on her as the team began to plan how she would approach Lavalette. The others seemed to have forgotten her fear of snakes, but he hadn't. "I don't think JJ should meet him alone."
She flashed her best friend a look that was inscrutable. It seemed to say, 'I can take care of myself' at the same time that it said 'thank you'.
Hotch heard the concern in Reid's voice. He may not have shared it, but he knew enough to pay attention to it.
"Reid may be right." He saw that JJ was about to declare her capability, and he raised his hand to put her off. "I think he may use these initial visits to select his prey. I doubt he takes them right away. If he did, we'd have seen the consultations in the schedules of the victims on the days they disappeared."
He watched as the others took that in, and began to nod their heads. Then he continued.
"But there's no need for us to take any chances. Reid, you'll be with JJ. You can meet him as a couple."
The two young profilers glanced at each other. Reid could see the continued protest in JJ's eyes competing with her relief at not having to face the potential unsub…..and his snakes….alone.
"I have to bring my husband to the airport. Could we meet at the coffee shop on highway 16?"
Reid watched JJ's expression as she listened to Dennis Lavalette's response on the phone. She nodded to indicate he'd agreed.
"Great. We'll meet you at 4 then, after your party. Thanks for being so accommodating."
She turned to Hotch. "He's just getting ready to wrap up a party, so it sounds like he's already out of the house. We should be able to keep him busy for another hour or so. Will that be enough time?"
"It will have to be. Morgan, ask the sheriff to round up any available hands. We need to head out there now." Hotch turned to his two youngest. "You'd better get going as well. Be careful."
"My middle name," muttered Reid.
"Can I fix it myself?" Reid had long ago learned that the baristas didn't actually believe him when he told them how much sugar he wanted in his coffee. He'd become accustomed to getting it black and making his own alterations. The barista relented.
Reid started to slide in the side of the booth across from JJ, then remembered that they should both be positioned to watch their potential unsub.
"Scoot over." He sat next to JJ and turned to look at her. "Was that Richard on the phone before?"
She nodded. "He's been in contact with Will's lawyer. They talked about my mom's plan to be available for me. Both of them think the court wouldn't consider giving Will full custody as long as I've got a decent plan in place. So the other attorney is going to see if he can get will to agree to joint custody."
Reid's eyes tracked back and forth across her face, looking for a sign. But she wasn't giving it away. He was going to have to ask.
"How do you feel about that? Joint custody?"
She heaved a sigh. "I think I have to be okay about it. I do worry about how Will is sometimes, but I really don't have any reason to try to keep him from his son. And Henry does love him."
Reid studied her a moment longer, looking for any attempt at masking her consternation. He found nothing. "Well, if you're okay with it, then I'm all for it too."
She smiled at him and put her hand on his forearm. "I know you worry about us, Spence. I almost count on it. But I think this will be okay. And I don't see that there is any other way."
He laid his other hand over hers. "Just so you know that, if you ever think differently….."
"I can come to you. I do know. Thank you." She leaned over and kissed his cheek just as they were approached by a middle aged man.
"Mr. and Mrs. Morgan?"
JJ recovered first and put out her hand. "You must be Mr. Lavalette."
"Dennis Lavalette. Pleased to meet you." He shook JJ's hand, and then Reid's. "You wanted to talk about a party?"
At 4224 Anaconda, the search party spread itself out over the one acre property. There was a home, a detached garage, and several outbuildings, all scattered across a wooded area. Morgan, Rossi and a contingent from the sheriff's office made short work of the main house. Nothing. Just the expected décor of an aging bachelor. No sign of the victim, no evidence that any of the petting zoo animals had been in the house either.
Hotch and Blake took the garage, including a small apartment above it. There were signs of fairly recent habitation, but it was otherwise empty. They rejoined their colleagues and several officers from the sheriff's office to begin a search of the outbuildings.
As they approached the first of several small cabins, Morgan remarked to Hotch, "You know, there's nothing says he's kept them here. He could be the right guy, but he's got them somewhere else."
Hotch knew his colleague was right. "Let's worry about that when and if we have to. We've got three more buildings to check on this property first."
Alex overheard them talking. "If we're going to find any snakes…and especially a python…..it will be somewhere where he was able to provide enough heat for it. Almost definitely it will have to have a power supply."
That limited the options immediately. The lines in from the road were above ground. Unless their potential unsub had run underground wires himself, there was only one cabin that would qualify to host a python. Hotch pulled his team in that direction.
"So, what kind of party did you have in mind?"
"Well, our son loves animals, so we were particularly interested in the petting zoo, right, Henry?"
Reid took JJ's cue. "Emily's right. But, tell me again, what kinds of animals do you bring? We don't want anything too exotic."
"I just bring a small assortment of animals that kids can actually hold. Mostly rabbits, ferrets, hamsters. I do have a small goat that I can bring If he'd like that."
Reid decided to try something. "He loves all animals. But, for some reason, he really loves reptiles. We bring him to the zoo, and we can't keep him out of the reptile house. Give him a snake, and he's in heaven." He squinted at Dennis Lavalette. "You don't happen to have any snakes, do you?"
JJ had her hand on Reid's arm throughout the conversation. At the mention of the snakes, she squeezed with an iron grip. Lavalette noticed.
"Snakes make you nervous, ma'am?"
JJ didn't have to do any acting for this one. "I love little Alex with all my heart, but I don't know that I can have a snake at my house."
Reid put his arm around JJ and addressed Lavalette. "She's the best mom in the world, the absolute best?" Then he turned to look at JJ. "You wouldn't have to be near it. You'd do it for Alex, wouldn't you?"
She reluctantly agreed, as planned. "You're right. I shouldn't let my own fears get in the way of making him happy." Turning back to Lavalette, she said, "All right. But just a small snake, okay?"
Reid squeezed her and smiled at Lavalette. "See, I told you. Best mom in the world!" He tried to read the expression that crossed Lavalette's face at hearing those words, but couldn't.
Lavalette started to rise from his seat. "As a matter of fact, I have a bunch of the animals in my van right now. Would you like to step out and take a look?"
The sheriff's squad made short work of the two cabins without an external power source, finding nothing. At the same time, the BAU team surrounded the one electric-powered cabin. Morgan led the way, kicking in the door.
They burst through, one following quickly upon the other. Inside, the cabin was lined with cages of various sizes and shapes, all of them empty. Notably, there was what looked like a fish tank, also empty of both water and fish.
"I think that's where he keeps the snake." Rossi reached the logical conclusion.
"Hotch! Over here!" Morgan had found something. They all moved in his direction, and could see that he'd found a hatchway. He unlatched it and raised the hatch. Shining his flashlight into the darkness below, he called out.
"Is anyone down there?"