Chapter 41

Lavalette's minivan was white, with a magnetic business sign attached to each side. He brought JJ and Reid around to the back and opened the door.

"Just came from a party for a little boy who sounds a lot like your little guy. Kid was wild about snakes."

He pulled the door open, and they could see several small cages inside, with two of each kind of animal. Two rabbits, two ferrets, two hamsters. But the aquarium seemed to hold far more than two snakes.

"Would you like to hold anything?" He'd directed the comment to JJ. She wasn't really interested in playing with the animals, but knew they needed to buy more time for the search effort.

"Sure. How about one of the rabbits?"

Lavalette opened the cage and then handed them each a rabbit. Reid realized that neither of them had a free hand now, and became uneasy. He made a mental plan about how quickly he could drop the rabbit and reach for the gun that was stuck into the rear of his belt.

JJ was equally aware, but made a show of being enchanted by the animals. She spent time petting, and soothing, and then exchanged rabbits with Reid and did the same with the other animals as well.

Both profilers had noticed Lavalette's reaction to JJ's designation as a great mother. It put her in the same category as the women who'd been taken, including those who'd been killed. They felt certain Lavalette would do anything to keep her engaged. JJ took advantage of it by slowly working her way through each of the mammals, holding, petting, asking questions, exchanging with Reid and doing the same all over again. Lavalette looked like he was beginning to feel impatient, but his ultimate plan required him to react patiently, and he did so.

When they'd exhausted all of the other animals, and only the snakes were left, Reid caught JJ's eye. You don't have to do this.

He watched her take a deep breath in and expel it. Her return gaze answered him. Yes, I do.

He loved her. When she'd been inaccessible, he'd loved her. When they'd fallen into deep friendship, he'd loved her. When his heart had been broken, she'd loved him, and he'd loved her. And now, when she was determined to overcome a deep-seated fear for the sake of someone they didn't even know, he loved her.

She turned to Lavalette. "I guess there's no time like the present. I may as well give it a try, right?"

Lavalette smiled at her, a smile that raised their profilers' hackles. "Are you sure you want to hold a snake?"

When she slowly nodded, he unlocked the lid on the aquarium and slid it open.

A muffled sound met Morgan's shout. He moved cautiously down the stairs, followed closely by Hotch, Blake and Rossi. The beams of their flashlights were quickly swallowed up by the darkness of the windowless cavern. Morgan couldn't help but wonder if he was hearing the sound of slithering.

They formed a circle, back to back, and moved out in an expanding ring to look into every section of the room. Suddenly, they heard a panicked "What the…. God!" from Rossi, and each of them turned their beams in the same direction. He was standing ten feet from what looked like at least ten feet of coiled snake. His brain did the mental calculation, and he leaped backwards.

Morgan recovered first, and seeing that the snake was remaining coiled, turned his flashlight back to the nether reaches of the basement. He kept it trained near the floor, just in case Rossi hadn't found the only snake present.

Swinging his torch quickly in an arc from left to right, he almost missed it. He swung back again, more slowly this time. There, a board, up against one of the upright supports, facing away from him. He ran the light upward along the board and saw a small piece of white fabric just visible at the edge.

"Hotch, I think I found something." The unit chief left Blake and Rossi to watch the snake…..from what they now all hoped was a healthy distance….and joined Morgan. Their lights showed no sign of any type of animal life in a radius around the upright support as they moved very slowly in its direction. Finally, Morgan was able to see around the board. Frightened eyes met his.

"Got her! It's all right, ma'am. We're from the FBI. Everything's all right." As he spoke, he removed the duct tape from her mouth. Hotch was already working on the tape that attached the rest of her body to the board, and the board to the pole.

"The snake! There's a snake!"

Morgan tried to soothe her as he worked to free her. "We know, ma'am. We're watching it. It doesn't seem to be moving right now."

"It will! He warned me! It senses motion! When it needs to be fed, it moves very quickly. He hasn't fed it in three weeks…..and…and….he said if I moved, it would find me!"

The profilers worked more furiously at the tape, but there was a lot of it, and it was sturdy. Hotch was even having trouble working his knife through it.

"Guys?" There was an edge to Rossi's voice. "It's moving a little."

"Can't you just shoot it?" Morgan's frustration was coming through.

"Where? The head is buried under one of the coils!"

Francesca O'Toole was becoming frantic. "Hurry! Can't you hurry?"

"Please try to relax, ma'am. We'll be able to loosen these faster if your muscles aren't so tensed." Hotch knew he was requesting the impossible.

Standing next to him, Alex touched Rossi's arm to get his attention. She indicated she wanted to help Hotch and Morgan, but wouldn't leave him if he wanted her there. Resignedly, Rossi motioned her to go. As much as he didn't like the idea of guarding the snake alone, he knew their chances of getting out of the basement quickly were better if she helped their colleagues.

"It's cooler here in the basement. That would probably slow it down a little." Alex offered the encouragement before she moved away.

"Probably?" said Rossi, as he watched her go and then quickly returned his eyes to the reptile.

Alex moved over to where the other two men were frantically trying to free the captive woman. She knew her contribution would come, not from tearing at the tape, but from connecting with their victim.

"Francesca, " she soothed, using the familiar name to gain the confidence of the woman, "your husband and your children are waiting for you. They're fine, they just want to get you home. What stands between that and this basement is loosening these bonds. Now, work with me. Close your eyes. That's right, close your eyes. Picture yourself with them. Holding your children again, embracing your husband. Get there. Do whatever it takes. Relax your fingers, relax your toes." Alex's voice was quiet, soft, almost hypnotic. She continued.

"Okay? Good. Now relax your arms, start with your forearms. Do your best to take a deep breath…" Knowing that the tape constricting her torso might make that difficult. "Good. Now relax your shoulders….."

The men were making progress, now that they could reach their hands into the space between her limbs and the tape. Within a minute, they had her torso loose.

"How are we doing over there?" Rossi couldn't afford to take his eyes from the snake long enough to turn around and look. "My friend here makes a little move every twenty seconds or so."

"Getting there, Rossi. Should only be another minute or two." Hotch tried to sound more sure of it than he actually was.

Alex resumed talking Francesca O'Toole down. It became easier, once the woman saw the success the process had produced with freeing her upper body. She wanted nothing more than to be with her children again. A mother could do anything to make that happen. It was what Alex had counted on.

Finally, the last of the tape was loosed, and Francesca literally fell away from the board.

"Can you walk?" asked Alex.

"I can't feel my feet. The tape was so tight…"

Morgan lifted her into his arms and ran for the stairs, following Hotch's flashlight. Alex ran behind them, calling to Rossi.

"David! It's time…she's free!"

He didn't need to be told twice. With the commotion toward the stairs, the snake had become more active and was now actively uncoiling. Rossi bounded up the stairs after the others. He slammed the door behind him and then found some towels to stuff into the spaces above and below.

Hotch was already calling for the EMTs to see to Francesca O'Toole. When he'd done so, he walked over to his old friend and slapped him on the back. "First drink's on me."

The lid was off the aquarium. Lavalette pulled out a small snake and dangled it in front of JJ. Reid stepped between them and took the snake into his own hands.

"Here, Emily, why don't I hold it and you can just pet it."

JJ's back was to Lavalette. He couldn't see her mouth "Thank you" to Reid. She reached out tentatively and lifted her fingers to the snake. Reid watched the trembling digits as they lowered and touched the snakeskin. He saw a shiver run through her body.

"Just take your time. He can't reach you, I've got him. Just feel his skin." JJ recognized Reid's use of his soft victim/unsub voice, and realized how effective it was. She felt calmer just listening to him. She stroked the snake's skin and recoiled a bit when it moved in response to the contact.

Lavalette watched the scene. He was sure he'd found his next victim. But Mother's Day was already accounted for, this year. She would have to be groomed for next year. He decided to challenge her, and lifted a second snake from the aquarium. The removal of the first two had aroused the other six snakes. Now that they weren't made sleepy in the air conditioning, they were all moving about.

"Here, you can hold one too." He swung the snake in JJ's direction. She startled back, and Reid threw Lavalette an angry look.

"She's getting used to it, man. Why did you do that?" As he was speaking, he could hear his phone vibrating. He grabbed it from his pocket and quickly read…

'Victim safe. It's him.'

Reid flashed a look and a subtle nod to JJ, who was still recoiled from the snake Lavalette was holding. Reid dropped his snake back into the aquarium and moved toward Lavalette, who rounded back until he was standing next to the aquarium again.

Reid reached behind him to pull out his gun, while JJ pulled out her badge and announced it to him, glad to have the upper hand again.

"FBI! Dennis Lavalette, you are under arrest!"

Lavalette quickly put his hand back into the aquarium. They were in the confined space of the minivan, which was parked in a busy public parking lot, making it impossible for Reid to shoot. Lavalette's hand came back up, this time with a handful of snakes. He threw them at JJ, who screamed in spite of herself. Two of the snakes landed on her, one on a shoulder and another on the top of her head. Reid's attention was momentarily with his colleague, and Lavalette took advantage of the distraction to leap past the FBI agent and into the parking lot.

JJ was virtually paralyzed by the snakes until Reid stepped over and plucked them from her. Both of them leapt from the van and ran after Lavalette, who was headed for the highway. JJ was a runner, and very fast. She outpaced Reid and nearly caught up with Lavalette as he leapt the guardrail. She followed after him, and called for him to stop. He looked back to gauge her distance. When he turned around again, still running full out, he was in the path of large semi. JJ cringed as she saw him hit. His body flew at least fifty feet, where it landed in the road and was struck by two more pieces of unsuspecting oncoming traffic.

Reid caught up to JJ and saw what had happened. She stood at the side of the road, trying to catch her breath.

"You okay?"

She nodded, huffing. Reid took his phone out again, and called it in.

The plane ride home was unusual. None of them slept, each too afraid of the nightmare they were sure would ensue.

Morgan broke the silence. "How did he even get started with that?"

Reid had some idea. He'd speed-read some of a journal they'd found in Lavalette's computer. "He had a love/hate relationship with his mother. She'd be overprotective one minute, and disapproving the next. He felt like he could never be what she wanted him to be. He could never earn her love, and she made him think that he never showed her enough love. So he would create ways to show affection. Gifts, flowers, physical signs. He wrote that, when he was a boy, he couldn't hug her hard enough. Not hard enough for him, and not hard enough for her. And then he learned about pythons. He ignored that they constricted enough to kill, and focused on the idea that they could give the ultimate 'hug'."

Shivers ran up and down several spines as they listened. Garcia was listening in by computer, and shivered in her tech room.

"But it wasn't clear from his writing if he targeted the victims because he wanted to give them the ultimate hug as a gift, or whether he was punishing them with it. I don't know that we'll ever know."

JJ spoke up. "I'm so glad her little boy has Francesca back. He broke my heart when he fell asleep on me that day."

That reminded Garcia of something. "Oh, Jayje, that reminds me. Your mom wants you to call her. Something about a school social?"

Reid noticed as JJ rolled her eyes. "Okay, thanks, Pen. I'll do it when we land."

The others busied themselves with files, or reading, or music. Reid had his books at the ready, but was curious. "They have socials in preschool?"

JJ closed her eyes and shook her head. "Twice a year they have socials for the parents. So they can get to know one another, set up carpools, feel comfortable setting up playdates. Things like that."

"So why the reaction?"

For reasons she didn't entirely understand, she was uncomfortable telling him, but she did so anyway.

"I guess the word is out. About me, I mean. And Will. The fact that we're not together anymore. A couple of the single dads have been hovering, and one of them seems to be thinking of this as an opportunity for a date."

For reasons he didn't entirely understand, Reid's stomach plummeted. He simply hadn't considered this at all. That, with the end of her marriage to Will, JJ would be dating again. That there would be other men in her life. He had to swallow before he could respond.

"And you don't want it?". Knowing what he hoped he'd hear.

"I'm not ready, Spence. I don't know that I ever will be-once bitten, you know? Maybe, some day. But I'm not ready to do all that work of getting to know someone new and going through the whole dating thing again….not now."

He felt relieved. And then felt guilty for it. He was well acquainted with loneliness, and he shouldn't want it for JJ. Still...

"Don't go, then."

She shook her head again. "I have to. I can't be the only parent who doesn't show up."

"What about Will?"

She thought he'd meant to suggest that Will accompany her. But Will was away for the week, so he wasn't an option. But that did give her an idea...

"Will's gone for the week." She hesitated, not sure if she should say it. Then decided she had nothing to lose.

"Spence, I know it's a lot to ask, but…do you think you could go with me?

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