Appropriate disclaimer applies.
"Children aren't wicked," Rigsby protested, not a surprising stance from the man who genuinely liked people, even though his very job required him to sort out the less pleasant ones.
"Sure they are. Haven't you seen 'The Bad Seed'?" Cho's flat countertenor had two settings; unimpressed, and really unimpressed. His face had a similar range.
"The Bad Seed was a movie," Rigsby returned. Now a campy classic, the black and white film had been so shocking when first written – an angelic eight-year-old lies charmingly, murders several, and gets away with it – that the ending was changed to include the little girl's sudden accidental death, supporting the code that the time that "crime doesn't pay."
Still, the title character's wide-eyed innocence and old-fashioned manners, coupled with occasional flashes of the budding monster within, was just as unsettling today as it was in the fifties. More importantly, debate about whether a child could truly be "born bad" still raged.
"Good fiction almost always has a basis in fact," that would be Van Pelt, their perennial peacemaker, trying to reconcile both viewpoints.
"What about Star Wars?" Jane couldn't help stirring the pot a little.
"I have an aunt that looks like Jabba the Hutt," Cho deadpanned. "I talked to her for a few minutes, she's a cold fish. Thought I'd let her wait for a while, see if she gets freaked out in there by herself."
Jane thought for a moment the other man was still talking about his aunt, but realized he was referring to the suspect in their interrogation room: Jeannie Washington, accused of murdering a baby, setting fire to a neighbor's home, and either accidentally or intentionally cooking said neighbor alive inside. She had withstood questioning from several other law enforcement officers before being handed off to the CBI, so far appearing unshaken by either her crimes or their repercussions, and Cho, whose interrogation tactics were nothing like subtle but notoriously effective, didn't often describe someone as tough to crack.
Jeannie was seven years old.
"Can he leave a child in there by herself?" Van Pelt again, slightly concerned for the girl but also wanting to know her boundaries should she need them in future.
Lisbon, sitting on Rigsby's desk and half-listening to the argument while she went over the casefile, considered for a moment before erring on the side of caution.
"Better not to, Cho, go ahead. Jane, I want him on lead," she warned, not for the usual reasons. There was always some slight danger that Jane would hypnotize someone, plus his tendency to release their suspects without warning, but this time she was concerned for other reasons. Sociopaths did exist, though they didn't often see them so young – more debate there, whether sociopathy didn't manifest until later in life, or whether they just didn't get caught until they were older – and they exploited every detail and weaknesses they found in others to their own advantage. If that little girl was a bad seed, and she sensed even the tiniest bit of grief or paternal warmth in Jane, there was no telling what she might do to or with him.
"Come on. Don't talk this time. Really," Cho ordered him, though there was slim chance he'd be obeyed.
In the interrogation room, their chief suspect sat in a folding chair in the center of the table. The room was meant to feel quite cramped with two or more men hunched over that narrow table, but little Jeannie Washington had all the space she could need. She had her hands folded neatly in front of her, feet dangling several inches above the floor, and looked up with interest when the door opened.
To the eyes of the men, the child was neatly and fashionably dressed, in clean, appropriate clothing neither too old nor too young for a girl of seven or eight. Her hair was brown and shoulder length, still with that soft wispy quality from before puberty sets in and turns it to something requiring endless lines of beauty products to maintain. Her shoes had laces, so she was intelligent and adept enough to tie them regularly – what age did children learn that? Cho couldn't quite recall – and she had neither earrings in her ears nor polish on her fingernails. In all, a normal, well-adjusted little girl to any eyes, not obviously disruptive, unnaturally mature, or even suspiciously wholesome.
"May I have a soda?" She asked as both men seated themselves at the table with her.
"No." Cho was not a man much given to explaining himself.
"You can have some water when we finish."
"Is that allowed?" The question was pointed but the tone sounded more like "I'm going to tell on you" than "I'm going to trap you in a legal technicality."
"It's allowed. I'm a police officer, and I'm going to ask you some questions now. You're going to answer them, everything else is going to wait."
The girl stared at the agent evenly. She wasn't afraid of him, though Cho's stone-faced matter-of-factness and brutal frankness had been known to reduce grown men to pleading blobs. A shame they couldn't let Rigsby in; he was their go-to man for the questioning of women of all ages. They liked his open face, his polite deference and his aw-shucks demeanor, because Rigsby was above all a nice guy, and that very fact meant that they couldn't let him question the little girl if she was truly as manipulative as was claimed. She'd have him at the first request for soda pop.
Jane watched her, fascinated, and Cho clicked open his pen.
"My name is Agent Cho. This is Mister Jane. I'm required by law to tell you that we're recording this conversation. Please state your name and spell it." He didn't lean over the table like he did when questioning adults, but so far the man's style differed little from the norm.
"My name is Jeannie Washington. You spell Washington W-A-S-H-I-N-G-T-O-N. Like the state."
Jane couldn't resist a small smile. Cho couldn't tell if she was making fun of him or not. "Is Jeannie the name on your birth certificate?"
"My real name is Jeanine, but my parents call me Jeannie."
"Thank-you Jeannie. Do you know why you're here?"
This time a sigh, a slight roll of the eyes – cute now, but she'd be a handful when she hit twelve or so, and that attitude hit full force. "That baby got killed and Miz McMahon's house got burned down."
What an interesting way of saying it. The passive voice, not 'somebody killed the baby' or even 'the baby died' but 'that baby got killed,' an admission that she knew it was a deliberate act, and refusal to assign blame for it to an unknown 'someone.' Such unconscious tells were Jane's bread and butter.
"She died in her house when it burned down. Do you understand these are very serious things?"
"My father said they're in a better place now."
Cho leveled a black gaze on her. "That may be so, but do you understand it is a very serious thing when someone is killed?"
A pause, then a childish shrug. "Yes, in church they said you go to Hell for it."
An innocent answer, but she hadn't so much as blinked at saying the word Hell, the way most young children did. Religious confidence, or comfortable demon?
"Here on Earth you go to jail for the rest of your life. That would be a long time if you're only seven."
"They don't send little kids to jail."
Cho gave that up, and switched topics. "Tell us about when Michael King got killed. Several people said they saw you with him that afternoon."
"My mom babysits him because his mom has to work. He and my baby brother are the same age, they play together."
Michael King hadn't really been an infant; according to the report he was slightly over a year old, able to walk but not long distances, so when he'd been found, after a day and night of searching, on the opposite side of the neighborhood from his home, appallingly beaten, slightly mutilated, tearstains still visible between the blood smears on his face, it was plain he had not wandered there on his own.
Jeannie was, by all reports, the last person seen with him, playing in her front yard with the victim and her own little brother. According to her mother, she had called them in for a snack and sent them downstairs to play. She had seen all three go down the stairs to the basement playroom, but when Michael's mother arrived to pick him up, only Jeannie and her brother Christopher were there.
In a basement room, only ground-level windows too high for children to reach and no door except the one the mother could see from her spot in the kitchen, no one could figure out where the boy might have gone or how he could have done it. Christopher was too young to talk coherently and Jeannie had said only that "he left." Both mothers were a wreck and the choices seemed to be that a seven year old had done serious harm to a toddler or a mother was slightly less attentive than she claimed, leaving the child an opportunity to climb up the stairs and out the door she had allegedly been watching. Once outside, he had obviously fallen prey to some violent, horrible person eager to do violence to an unattended baby.
Blame fell on Jeannie's mother, but it was still an accident, a tragedy, and would have faded away had two days later, the Washington's next-door neighbor not been burnt to crisp in her bed, in a fire that entirely consumed the building, burned half of the house on its other side, and damaged the adjoining wall of Jeannie's own house. Again Jeannie had been seen, according to another neighbor, "sneaking around," and some bright bulb on the local police force decided evidence was evidence, even if the only suspect they pointed to wasn't even out of the first grade.
And so here they sat, law enforcement agent, mentalist, and little girl, whose only crime so far seemed to be having an unclear notion of the seriousness of violent death – and what first grader did have a clear grasp of the concept of death?
"Alright, tell me about that afternoon when people saw you with Michael," Cho prompted.
"Me and him and Christopher were playing in the yard."
"What were you playing?"
"We were drawing on the driveway with chalk. They don't draw very good pictures but Mom says they're too little to play games like I play with my friends."
"Then what happened?"
"We went inside and had peanut butter crackers. Then we went downstairs to play cause Mom had to make dinner." Or watch a soap? Jane thought cynically.
"How long were the three of you down there?"
"We're still learning time," Jeannie informed him, a little saucily.
"I mean was it just the three of you down there the whole time or did anyone else come down?"
She appeared to think, tapping one smallish hand on the table. Underneath, the legs still dangled. "The doorbell rang but nobody came downstairs."
"Did anyone come in the house?"
A shrug. "I could hear Mom talking to somebody, I don't know if they came inside.
"So what happened to Michael?"
"He left, I told everybody," her tone was aggrieved, one of offended righteousness. Why don't you believe me?
"Michael had very short legs and he couldn't walk very fast, why would he go all the way up those stairs and out of your house, when he knew his mother would be there soon to pick him up?"
"Maybe he missed her and got tired of waiting. I still miss my mother sometimes when I'm at school." With that, a pleasant smile and an expression that said what else you got?
Cho stared at the child and she stared back.
"Are you going to catch the person who hurt Michael, Mr Cho?"
"You can call me Agent Cho. Yes, we're going to catch them."
That grammatical trick again, the definite knowledge that someone specific had hurt the little boy, not a vague whoever.
Jane had remained completely and unusually silent throughout the interview. He had his reasons, perhaps sensing Lisbon's previous concern about him getting too close to a girl so close to his own dead child's age, but moreso than that, he was fascinated by this child. She had far more layers than he had expected, and he had been studying her intently and intensely. He knew about sociopaths, certainly, but was so far neutral on the idea that a child as young as this could manifest such a disorder, and so coldly cause such damage. On the surface she presented as a very normal, pleasant little girl, and maybe it was merely his long habit of finding flaws in every façade that made him think he saw other things swimming below her smile, but now as he watched her he could no longer say for certain if she was very good or very evil.
Academically, if nothing else, a riveting study.
"Alright Jeannie, wait here for a few minutes." Cho stood to go, Jane a beat behind him. Suddenly Jeannie turned and looked him straight in the face. Her eyes were blue-green, perhaps on their way to a brighter green, and they cut Jane a little deeper than he expected.
"When do I get to go home, Mr Jane?"
"We'll let you know when you can call your mom," Cho answered for his friend.
The girl turned her attention to Cho, a little light leaving her face, clearly less enamored of the shorter man.
"Can I have my water now?"
AN: A long first chapter, I know, but I wrote it all at once and it's hard to break into sections. The psychology in this and subsequent chapters is accurate, although for impact described in perhaps more poetic and less scientific terms. Please review!