The jet shook and rattled as it battled through the storm clouds, while the BAU attempted to prepare for their case in South Dakota. Aaron Hotchner returned from the front of the plane, holding tightly to whatever he could find as the plane shuddered again.
"We've hit an unexpected storm," he said, addressing the rest of the BAU. "The captain says we've to expect some more turbulence." As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Hotch was thrown sideways, only just managing to stay upright by grabbing the back of Rossi's chair. The cabin rattled, the lights flickered, but after a few seconds, everything steadied. Hotch sat down, belting himself in firmly and picking up the case file.
"Okay," he sighed, "Andrew Ford has abducted and killed at least eleven children in the last year, alternating his kills between South Dakota and Nebraska, and he's been gradually escalating. The bodies have never been found but his M.O. is always the same; he breaks into the family home at night, takes the child and leaves a number written on the wall. At the first crime scene it was the number one, at the second crime scene, the number two, and so on up to eleven which was found at yesterday's crime scene." The plane gave a violent jolt and Prentiss gripped tighter to the edge of the leather chair.
"If the bodies haven't been found, how do we know the kids are dead?" she asked.
"Because at each crime scene he leaves a polaroid of his previous victim, clearly dead," said Hotch. "Not to mention the fact he's already been in prison for the murder of his father." Prentiss saw her feeling of disgust and horror reflected on her colleagues' faces as they looked down at the picture of Ford paperclipped to the front of their files, with his wide face, cropped blonde hair and lifeless blue eyes.
"Leaving the numbers and the photographs makes it seem like he's proud of how many kids he's killed; he's keeping count while also making sure we know it's the same guy," said Morgan, his voice level despite his own fingers gripping the armrest as the plane shuddered again and Prentiss's stomach lurched as the jet dipped in altitude.
"But there's every chance the numbers are just a ploy to distract us from the real death toll," Reid said, the only one of them who seemed completely calm in the turbulent weather.
"I know," Hotch said, gravely.
"Guys." JJ's voice was sombre as she looked around from the long sofa at the back of the plane, her phone held to her ear. "Another kid just went missing from South Dakota, a little girl."
"Two in the same state? They're sure it's our Unsub?" asked Hotch.
"The number twelve was written on the wall, and he left a polaroid of the last victim, Deacon Yates, on the nightstand." she said.
"He's escalating much faster than we anticipated," said Rossi."Or completely devolving."
"How long 'til we land?" asked Prentiss, looking up from her file anxiously.
"An hour, but then it's another hour to get to the police department," said Hotch. Prentiss met his eye and they exchanged the same unsettled look.
"What?" asked JJ.
"He's escalating too fast," Prentiss said, flicking through the papers in front of her. "Unless the local P.D. magically catches him…" She trailed off.
"What?" JJ asked again. This time it was Hotch who answered her, his dark eyes troubled.
"She'll be dead before we land."
When they made it to the Police Department, their fears were confirmed. The eight-year-old girl, Maisie Graham, was dead. The team walked past the girl's family, who were grouped together in the dim bullpen, holding each other, beside themselves with grief. Prentiss watched the group sorrowfully as she walked past, unable to imagine the kind of pain they were going though. Hotch was walking by her side, but he couldn't even look at the broken family; he kept his gaze fixed straight ahead, but Prentiss saw the colour drain slightly from his face as he seemed to be trying not to picture something similar happening to his own son.
They all gathered in the lead detective's office, a small, grey-walled room, and quick filled each other in on the details they knew.
"This is the first time we've got a real lead," said Detective Fuller, a grey haired, slightly haggard looking man, as he sat down at his scuffed desk and turned his laptop to face them. "As you know, Ford usually leaves the polaroid at the next crime scene so we know he's killed the child, but this time he sent it directly to us from a cell phone we tracked to an abandoned building outside of town."
"Nah, that's way too easy," Morgan said, immediately. "After a year of evading the cops and leaving spotless crime scenes, he wouldn't make such a stupid mistake that would lead us straight to him."
"Unless he wants to be caught," suggested Prentiss. "Sending the picture here would suggest that he's not intending to take another child, otherwise he would have left the picture at his next abduction site instead."
"One thing's for sure," said Hotch, "he won't want to be arrested. Withholding the locations of the bodies and preventing these families from having closure is how he gets off. I think it's more likely he's luring us in so that he can end it all. While I agree with Morgan that he's probably not there at all, we should be cautious; it may be a trap." The detective watched their exchange with concern, before calling in the rest of the department to brief them.
"Ford knows we're onto him now," Hotch said once the police officers had assembled. "We think he may be devolving which makes him twice as dangerous. He will almost definitely be armed, and he is tall and physically very fit, so be careful. If we find him, he will most likely try to force law enforcement to kill him rather than allow himself to be arrested. For the sake of these twelve families, we need to bring him in alive. It's the only chance we have to give them any peace. Let's go."
The sharp rain stung Prentiss's face as she stepped out of the SUV and into the storm. She looked up, barely able to open her eyes against the gale, but she could make out the shell of an apartment block with scaffolding propping up its windowless walls. Each floor had a large balcony reaching out from its west side, and from what she could see through the holes in the edifice, there was a maze of walls inside, separating the unfinished rooms and providing plenty of places for an Unsub to lurk.
The BAU and the officers split into teams to cover the building as quickly as possible, ensuring there was no escape for Andrew Ford. Prentiss and Hotch took the top floor of the building, running as quietly as they could up the concrete stairs, guns raised.
The wind howled through the empty window frames of the top floor, making sheets of plastic inflate and deflate, like great lungs attached to the walls. Hotch glanced at her and indicated over her shoulder to the corridor on the left. She nodded in understanding, slipped around the corner and walked cautiously down the hallway. On reaching the room at the end, she whipped around the door to find it clear. But as she stepped further in, she saw a large piece of plastic hanging by the window, a tall shadow just visible behind it. She readjusted her grip on the gun, crept forward, feeling her mouth turn dry, her hands cold. She reached out for the sheet and pulled it back swiftly, finding nothing but a folded tarp and stepladder leaning against the wall. She exhaled, unaware she had been holding her breath, and she felt her hands tingling as the circulation returned to her extremities and the adrenaline level in her blood dipped again.
She turned from the room to look for Hotch, keeping her gun raised until she reached the opposite end of the floor and found him standing in the middle of an unfinished living room. There was a large glass door leading out onto one of the sizable balconies, but the panes had long since shattered, and they now lay strewn across the floor in little crystals that shivered and glittered in the howling wind.
"It's clear," Hotch said, shaking his head. "Why would he lure us here for no reason?" Prentiss was about to voice her own frustration when she looked over Hotch's shoulder, her eye caught by another of the plastic sheets hanging from the wall, another tall shape standing behind it, but this time the tall shape moved.
There was no time to warn Hotch before Ford had leapt from his hiding spot and grabbed Hotch around the neck, pressing a gun to his temple.
"Put the gun down," he hissed into Hotch's ear. He did as he was told, and Ford kicked it across the floor, far out of reach of either agent. Prentiss kept her gun raised steadily, but Ford was shielding his own substantial body behind Hotch and she couldn't get a clear shot.
"It's over, Ford," Prentiss said. "You'll never get out of here alive if you don't cooperate. Put the gun down and maybe we can see about striking a deal."
"A deal?" he repeated, with a dry laugh. "Let me guess, I give you the locations of my victims and you make sure my lifetime in prison is just a little less dismal."
"You'd be surprised at what we can do for you," she said, fighting to keep her tone detached as she saw the colour drain from Hotch's face, Ford's arm gripping ever tighter around his throat.
"That's very tempting, agent, but I'm afraid I'll have to decline. I've had such a great time with those little kiddies this year. Might as well go out on a high," he said, and Prentiss could just make out a smirk on the two inches of his broad face that she could see behind Hotch's head. His eyes never left her, as if daring her to make a move so he would have an excuse to put a bullet into Hotch's brain. He began to drag Hotch backwards by the neck towards the balcony, and Hotch struggled against the much stronger man, his heels leaving long tracks in the glass-littered floor as he was pulled towards the railing.
"Prentiss, take the shot," Hotch choked as Ford pulled him closer to the edge of the balcony. The wind picked up, screaming through the holes in the walls as she stepped forward onto the balcony, her hair whipping across her face. Ford and Hotch were too close; she couldn't hit one without hitting the other.
Hotch was pulling in vain against the Unsub's arm, fighting for breath, losing consciousness. Ford hit the railing, taking his eyes off Prentiss for the first time to look behind him at the six-storey drop.
"This'll bring me up to an even forty. A fitting end, don't you think, Agent Prentiss?" he said as he leaned back over the rail.