Title: Among Us
Fandom: Criminal Minds
Characters/Pairing: Prentiss, Reid, Morgan, Garcia – gen
Summary: The SUV breaks down three miles from a small town with a big secret. Nothing is as it seems.
Author's Note: Betaed by Windy City Dreamer, who I'm pretty sure I owe my first born child by now.
They were driving down Nevada State Route 375, on their way to Warm Springs. With some amusement in his voice, Spencer Reid mentioned that the road had been officially designated as the Extraterrestrial Highway, almost thirteen years earlier, due to travelers reporting "alien" activity. This, though, he continued, was almost certainly due to the highway's proximity to Area 51, a place that not even Spencer Reid really knew anything about. He knew the conspiracy theories, of course, which he recounted with unfettered enthusiasm.
Emily laughed at Morgan's horrified expression. They were three hours out of Vegas, and Reid had been talking for a good portion of that time. Though the young profiler had grown up in Nevada, he had rarely been out of the Entertainment Capital of the World. He was like a kid going to the zoo.
She figured that Garcia, too, would have been pretty excited at the thought, had the technical analyst not been fast asleep, with her head resting against the window. It wasn't often that Garcia accompanied them, but some evidence had come up that required her unique expertise – at first she'd been thrilled at the opportunity to become Supreme Master of the Jet, but the last two weeks had finally caught up, and she'd zonked out completely not long after they'd gotten in the SUV. This was their third case in a row, with barely more than a chance to shower and do ready-bag laundry.
Reid, it seemed, still found the time to learn some of the most obscure facts about alien abduction that Emily had ever heard. She had to admit, though, some of it was pretty interesting stuff. Interesting enough that she didn't mind engaging in an expository conversation, though it wasn't so much a conversation as it was Reid talking and Emily listening.
'…some scientists use the Drake equation in order to determine the viability of extra-terrestrial life elsewhere in the galaxy.'
It was dark – a little after 9 p.m. The dry daytime heat had long since been replaced by the nighttime chill. In the driver's seat, Morgan's was still slightly sullen. He had been like that since they'd left the Vegas city limits. Reid's endless exposition hadn't helped much. After all, what were alien abductions when compared to warm glow of neon lights and the endless amusement that the city was famous for?
Emily still remembered the last time she was in Vegas. Still remembered the pounding of her head, the feeling of nausea. What she couldn't remember was the night that had led up to that point, a fact which she blamed entirely on Morgan. This time – if they did manage to fit in a "this time" after the case – she would make a point of not accepting his offer of a night on the town. She'd get wasted in her own time, sitting at the bar of whatever hotel they happened to occupy. That, of course, was all contingent on the case affording them a night off afterwards.
They could only hope.
That said, it didn't look like it was going to be as bad as the last Vegas case. Well – the last Nevada case. All the cases were terrible, when it came down to it, but there was just something so much more heartbreaking about dead kids that made them want to go to the nearest alcohol provider and wash the memories away.
Emily leaned forward to check the GPS; she didn't mind listening to Reid's endless facts, but she tended to get fidgety on long drives, and without anything to do, she was getting restless. The absence of light didn't allow for reading and by the time they actually made it to Warm Springs, it would be too late to get started anyway. They had half a dozen dead women on their hands. Sexual sadist, probably. A time sensitive case, yes, but there wasn't much they could do in the middle of the night that they hadn't done on the jet ride.
Morgan gave her a look – the kind of look that silently asked why she was touching the GPS while he was driving. He got a little possessive over the SUVs sometimes – she was surprised he'd even consented to letting the GPS be turned on. After last time, though, when they'd ended up a good thirty miles from where they needed to be, Hotch had insisted on it.
'You see those lights up ahead?' Morgan asked, interrupting Emily's thought process.
'Gas station?' she wondered aloud.
'Flying through the air at low velocity?'
'What?' She furrowed her brow, letting her gaze wander until they caught the moving white glow in the distance. 'Oh. Those lights. Huh. Weird.'
Reid leaned forward between the passenger's seat and the driver's seat. 'You know what it could be?'
'I'm pretty sure it's just a light show or something,' shrugged Morgan, 'Kids mucking about with flashlights.' Emily knew that he'd already set Reid off.
'It could be a UFO,' he said excitedly, ignoring the roll of Morgan's eyes. 'How cool would that be? Being abducted by aliens so close to Area 51.'
'Yeah, I'm pretty sure that would actually be terrifying,' Emily pointed out. 'Being probed by slimy green things…'
'Actually, since the 1980s, most alleged victims have described their attackers as grey,' he started, and was no doubt about to continue before Emily interjected.
'Yeah, Reid, I've seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I'm just saying that alien abduction is right above roadside motel torture on my list.' And right below "Zombie Apocalypse," but she didn't actually say that. The enthusiasm with which Reid and Garcia would respond would likely have Morgan burying all of them in shallow graves at the edge of the highway.
There was a yawn from the other back seat, and Emily noticed Garcia sitting up out of the corner of her eye. ''s going on?' the tech yawned, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes.
'Reid thinks that the lights up ahead are a UFO,' Emily said matter-of-factly, words laced with her own level of skepticism; she found the topic interesting, if not entirely believable.
'Oooh,' Garcia said excitedly, any tiredness she might have been experiencing suddenly falling away. 'Do you think we're about to be abducted?'
Emily laughed at the look on Morgan's face – it was bad enough that Reid was taking this so seriously. The combination of Reid and Garcia was no match for them.
'Maybe we should have flown over in the morning, instead of repacking our bags,' Morgan said gloomily.
'Because if it was daytime, then you'd be going over the case files instead of talking about aliens,' Emily told him.
As if fate was intent on screwing them over, the SUV engine gave a loud wrenching noise.
'What was that?' Reid asked, his voice still a little high.
'Aliens,' said Garcia jovially.
'Yeah right,' Morgan said. 'Probably nothing.' He pulled to a stop on the edge of the road anyway; if there was something wrong with the engine, then they really needed to know.
Emily pulled her jacket tight as she stepped outside. Flashlight in his hand, Morgan popped the hood. 'I can't see anything wrong with it,' he said eventually, after having checked each component in turn. He gave the three of them a questioning look.
'My knowledge is mostly theoretical,' Reid supplied.
'The only machine I can dig has a keyboard,' Garcia chimed in.
'You do realize I know nothing about cars, right?' Emily asked, to which Morgan shrugged. 'Rossi's our go-to guy for engines,' she added, in lieu of nothing else. It wasn't as though it made a difference.
'Maybe it wasn't the engine?' Garcia suggested. 'Maybe we're just getting desert madness. Goes with seeing the strange lights.'
'I think we should keep moving,' Morgan told them decidedly. 'I can't see a problem, and we aren't going to solve anything by standing around in the cold all night.'
Emily raised an eyebrow at his authoritativeness, but dutifully got back in the car. Reid and Garcia followed, the technical analyst giving Morgan a playful nudge. 'Maybe aliens stole the engine and replaced it with a changeling.' It was a statement that packed a little more punch the moment Morgan turned the key in the ignition and was greeting with nothing more than a persistent whir.
'Oh dear,' whispered Garcia. 'Does this usually happen when you drive along isolated highways at night?'
'Well we don't really do it that often,' Emily frowned. This was getting a little weird – Garcia had a point. Broken-down SUV combined with a highway in the nighttime – not a good combination.
'I'll check the engine again,' said Morgan.
Emily pulled out her phone.
'I'll call Rossi,' she said. 'They shouldn't be too far ahead of us.' She frowned at the phone – no reception. That was definitely weird.
'There's not much coverage out here,' Reid provided. 'Try the satellite phone – I think it's in with the first-aid kit.'
She sighed, unbuckling her seatbelt and stepping back out into the night air. Morgan was busy checking the engine again – the frown on his face a sign that things were not going well.
She rolled her eyes as she heard Reid explaining how satellite phones worked – something she was pretty sure Garcia already knew about. She had some experience with the things herself, a side effect of having lived in so many countries growing up. Not all of them had the most effective landlines.
'I can't get through,' she said, after several tries. She stared at the phone, as if waiting for something to happen.
'Let me try.' Reid and Garcia were both at her side in seconds, neither of them having any more luck, despite their technical experience.
'Still can't find anything wrong with the engine,' Morgan called out.
'Satellite phone's busted too,' Garcia told him, as they congregated at the front of the SUV; it was colder, but it was better suited to conferencing than the seat configuration. There were a few moments of silence before Reid spoke up:
'Did you know that in the past three decades, there have been over five-hundred murders on major highways, most of which are unsolved?'
'I think that's probably a good cue to get back in the car,' said Garcia, giving Reid an annoyed glance. Emily rolled her eyes – Reid may have found solace in his genius, but there were some things that were better left unsaid.
'How far is it to the nearest town?' Morgan asked.
'The only town along this stretch of highway is Rachel – the closest settlement to the Nellis Air Force Range and Area 51. If we are where I think we are, then it's about twenty miles from here.'
Emily remembered her quick look at the GPS, not ten minutes before. 'I think there's a gas station a little closer. Five miles, maybe.'
Morgan looked around. It was pitch black, the only light coming from the SUV.
'Probably shouldn't walk at night.'
Garcia nodded. 'And thanks to Boy Wonder's little spiel, I don't think we should be taking lifts from strangers, either, even if all three of you are armed.'
'So what?' asked Emily, frowning slightly. 'Wait here until morning? Is that any safer than walking down a highway in the middle of the night?'
'It's a defensible position,' Morgan said decidedly. 'We can take turns keeping watch.'
Emily wasn't entirely convinced, but she did trust Morgan's judgment; he was the most tactically minded out of the four of them.
Morgan took first watch – she expected nothing less of him – while the rest of them attempted to get some rest. There were a few blankets in the back for emergencies, but that didn't change the fact that it wasn't going to be the most comfortable of sleeps. Of course, sleeping in strange places was part of the job.
She adjusted her position in the front passenger's seat while Reid and Garcia lowered the back seats in order to maximize sleeping space. Morgan was still sitting in the driver's seat, flashlight in his hand, and, though she knew he wasn't going to admit it, his holster was unsnapped.
It was just before dawn when Morgan woke, his entire body sore from the surface on which he'd slept. He was lying in the back of the SUV, while a tightly cocooned Garcia used his chest as a pillow. There'd been a game of musical beds with each sentry change, Reid now sitting in the driver's seat, looking much more alert than Morgan felt. He wouldn't be surprised if the younger profiler kept a portable coffee maker in his go-bag.
'Anything?' he asked, stretching his limbs, trying as hard as possible not to dislodge Garcia from her resting place.
'We didn't get probed by little green men in the night, if that's what you're asking,' Reid replied, with a little less mirth than he might have done the previous day. It hadn't been a comfortable night for any of them.
'Green men?' Garcia asked, her head shooting up. 'You saw aliens, and you didn't tell me?'
Morgan gave a slight chuckle. 'Morning, baby girl. Reid's just having some fun – nothing happened.'
'No,' conceded Reid, 'But you do snore like a freight train, Morgan – you should probably look into that.'
'And Emily sleep-talks,' Garcia added, nodding towards the still-sleeping profiler in the passenger's seat. 'Which reminds me – why didn't I get woken up for sentry duty?'
Morgan gave her a slightly guilty look. 'You told me you don't like guns,' he said. 'I thought that if something happened…'
She shook her head slowly. 'Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?'
Morgan's mind went briefly blank – he knew a bit of Latin from when he'd done his J.D., but the meaning of that particular phrase was eluding him. He really needed coffee.
'"Who watches the watchmen?"' Reid provided, in that knowing tone of voice.
'I'm stuck with a bunch of nerds, aren't I?' grinned Morgan, stretching properly now that Garcia had awoken. He sat up, pushing aside the go-bags at his feet in order to reach the door mechanism. It was a little hazy outside, but the imagery of the sun sitting just below the horizon was impressive. There was a little more to deserts than just the sand.
'Oh, baby, you know you love it,' Garcia told him in reply, giving a playful nudge.
Scanning the plains that seemed to surround them, something caught his eye. Something that, if they were where Reid said they were, absolutely shouldn't have been there.
'Hey Reid…you said Rachel was the only town along this stretch of highway?' He didn't move his eyes, only hearing as a door clicked open, and then shut at the front of the SUV.
'Yeah, why do you-' Reid came up at his side, stopping the moment he saw what Morgan was staring at.
'Oh jenkies,' whispered Garcia. 'What is that?'
'It looks like a small town,' said Reid, frowning at the group of buildings in the near distance. 'But…that can't be right – it's not on the map.'
'How long has it been since you looked at the map?' Morgan queried. He had absolute faith in Reid's memory, but a misplaced town was something that needed to be examined twice, at the very least.
'Yesterday, before we left.' The frown hadn't left his face, as though this town was a piece of the profile that didn't quite fit into place.
'I think maybe we should check the GPS again,' Garcia said, with some disbelief in her voice. 'Just to be safe.'
Morgan nodded, retreating to the passenger's seat. There, he opened the door and nudged Emily awake. As she opened her eyes with a lengthy groan, he reached past her to the GPS unit.
'What're you doing?' she mumbled, her words half caught in a yawn. She slipped off the seat, one hand rubbing the back of her neck.
The screen of the GPS was blank. He tried the on switch, but to no avail. 'This was working alright last night?' he asked her, to which she gave him a look of confusion.
'Well it's not working now.' He tossed the now useless piece of technology on the seat that Emily had just vacated.
'Why's it important?' she asked, yawning again.
'Take a look,' he told her, gesturing towards the object of their curiosity. 'According to Reid, we should be miles from civilization.'
'I don't think it's a mass shared hallucination, or anything' she responded, frowning. 'I'm pretty sure I know a drug trip when I see one.'
He raised an eyebrow at that, but said nothing.
'College,' she shrugged, at his unasked question, adding, somewhat quieter, 'and high school.'
'So what do we do?' asked Garcia, once Morgan and Emily had both rejoined the group. 'We have no way of contacting Hotch – they'll definitely be wondering where we are.'
'They'll start looking, though,' Emily pointed out. 'I mean, we were right behind them until Reid needed to stop for a bathroom break.' Though her words weren't spoken with malicious intent, Reid still gave a slight blush.
'I'm just saying there are only so many places they'll be looking,' she amended.
'If we check out the town, they might have a phone we could use,' Morgan suggested.
'The town that doesn't exist?' Garcia's voice was a little bit anxious, and Morgan responded by putting a hand on her shoulder.
'Just because it isn't on any maps doesn't mean it doesn't exist,' he said, still skeptical at the thought that anything other than poor cartography could be responsible for their present situation.
'I think we should check it out.' Emily wiped her brow, blinking back the sweat beads that were starting to form. 'We don't know how long it's going to take for the others to get here, and it's not going to get any cooler. Besides,' she added, at the rumbling of her stomach. 'I'm starving.'
On that matter, at least, there was little disagreement; it wasn't long before Morgan found himself coordinating the repacking of the backpack that had contained the first aid kit and other emergency supplies. They couldn't afford to take all their stuff with them; even though the town didn't look much more than two or three miles away the desert heat was already beating down, dehydrating them a little more every second.
Garcia's laptop went in the bag – for both communicative and security purposes – along with a few other things, including two full bottles of water. The tech had tried accessing the web by some process Morgan didn't even try to understand – all he knew was that they couldn't get online, either. But, as Garcia had said, "Hopefully someone in Strangetown has an addiction to internet porn."
Reid's messenger bag remained eternally glued to his shoulder, the young profiler obliging to carry certain things that didn't quite fit in the backpack. From the implementation of their plan, it was less than half an hour before they managed to actually set off towards the phantom town.
Though they'd estimated the town to be no more than three miles away, it seemed to take so much longer in the desert heat. Were it not for the small cluster of buildings growing closer and closer, it would almost have seemed as though the walk was endless; nothing but that particular stretch of desert-surrounded highway for all eternity. Like some kind of twisted purgatory.
Morgan stopped when they were less than two hundred yards away; if there was something dangerous about the place, then he wanted to know before they marched straight in there. There was no cover, and if anyone happened to be looking in their direction they would be seen, but there were few alternatives.
The town seemed to be made up of no more than a dozen buildings, the dirt road from the highway, and a couple of junctions off of it being routes of transportation. From the angle they were standing at, he could just make out the sign at the entrance to the town, reading "Welcome to Walton."
'Walton…' an almost out of breath Reid said, the frown evident in his voice.
'Heard of it?'
'It wasn't on the map,' Reid shrugged. 'But it was a pretty old map.'
'I didn't see it on the GPS,' Emily provided, adding, 'But then, I wasn't really looking that hard.'
'What do we think?' Morgan asked Emily, who stood at his right, one hand on her hip.
'Well it doesn't look like a town full of Tralfamadorians,' she said drily, causing him to grin.
'Actually that depends on whether you're referring to the Tralfamadorians of The Sirens of Titan or Slaughterhouse Five,' Reid commented. 'Though both Vonnegut creations, they're actually markedly different in each appearance they make.'
Emily rolled her eyes. 'I meant that the town doesn't particularly look like a hub of alien activity – trailers, a couple of houses, a motel, maybe. No suspicious looking satellite dishes, or hovering UFOs. I say we go in – with caution.'
Morgan nodded. He turned to Reid and Garcia, asking, 'What do you think?'
'I don't see any other option,' Reid pointed out. 'We can't just stand around out here.'
Morgan nodded again – he was still slightly skeptical, but Reid was right. They couldn't simply stand around in the desert waiting for the rest of the team to show up. In any case, Morgan kept his hand at his holster as they walked towards the small town.
The town seemed deserted as they drew closer, but then, there can't have been more than a hundred people living there. What they actually did with their time was anybody's guess.
'You folks look a little lost there,' a voice came from the building nearest to them. Emily noticed out of the corner of her eye that Morgan's hand edged a little closer to his holster. Emily had to admit, though – the statement wasn't a lie: they were dressed to work, not to walk through deserts.
'Our car broke down,' she provided, a hand gesturing off-handedly in the direction of their SUV. 'Is there a phone that we could use?' She adjusted her gaze until her eyes caught the source of the voice – a middle-aged woman standing on a porch not twenty feet from them, a cigarette between her fingers. She chuckled.
'Phones don't work too well here.' The statement was short, and yet Emily found her curiosity piqued almost immediately. 'There's one in the diner, here,' the woman on the porch said, 'But the line hasn't been working too well lately. Doubt you'll be able to get a call through.'
They shared an exasperated look. 'What about a mechanic?' Morgan asked. 'Is there anyone that could take a look at our SUV?'
The woman gave a sympathetic smile. 'Only person around here who can fix a car is Joe, and he's outta town right now. He'll be back in a couple of days – he and Maxine are out stocking up. Nothing here but the general store.'
She seemed friendly, and Emily had no doubt that if they asked – and Reid probably would, later – she would rattle off the history of the town, as well as the dossier of every single resident that ever lived there. In a way, that was good news for them.
'If we can't contact the rest of the team…' Morgan said softly. 'Who knows how long it'll be before they find us – for all they know, we really did get abducted by aliens.' He gave a slight snort, just in case any of them were under the impression that he actually harbored such beliefs.
'We should get the rest of our gear,' Garcia nodded. 'I have a few things that would definitely object to being left in a hot SUV all day.'
Emily looked back in the direction of the car. In any other conditions, it would have been a breeze, but she didn't want to walk back to the SUV in this kind of heat if they didn't have to.
'Breakfast first,' the woman on the porch ordered, stepping down as she stubbed the butt of her cigarette on the railing. 'You look like you haven't eaten in days.'
Morgan started to protest, but he was interrupted. 'I'll talk to Bill about taking you back to your car – but food first. On the house.'
Emily raised an eyebrow at the gesture of generosity, but did not argue. After all, she was pretty damn hungry, and she knew that the rest of them probably were as well.
As they stepped inside the smallish diner, Reid pulled a towel from his messenger bag, wiping the sweat from his brow. Garcia grinned.
'"There's a frood who really knows where his towel is,"' she quipped, eliciting a short laugh from Emily, a half smile from Reid, and a look of complete and utter confusion from Morgan.
'I don't even want to know,' he said, checking out the diner with some suspicion before they were directed to a booth near the back by the cigarette-smoking woman. The diner looked barely frequented, but by no means derelict. There was only one other customer there – a young man in his thirties who seemed more engaged in their activities than in his breakfast.
'What can I get you then?' the woman asked – Mary-Ann, her nametag said. 'We've got pancakes, bacon, half a dozen different kinds of eggs – not dinosaur though, we're out of those.'
There was half a second's silence before the joke sunk in, and Emily found herself giving a grin. They put their orders through, and watched as Mary-Ann bustled behind a saloon-style door to what was apparently the kitchen.
'I have to ask,' started Garcia, a look of curiosity on her face. 'No phones, no internet, hot during the day, freezing at night. I can't see the appeal of living here.'
'The peace and quiet?' Emily suggested. 'Even as a town near one of the biggest supposed extra-terrestrial hotspots, it doesn't seem that much of a tourist destination. Makes me wonder why they've even got a motel.'
'That, my friend, must be for poor lost souls like us,' Garcia replied. Emily didn't seem to disagree; they were all lost souls, in a way.
'You guys mind?' Emily asked, gesturing towards the jukebox. There were no objections from them, nor the other patron of the diner, who seemed to eye Emily with a little more than a passing glance. Morgan raised an eyebrow as the opening riffs of Hendrix started, and Reid and Garcia suddenly began talking about robots.
'You're with the government?' the other man in the diner suddenly asked, which elicited Morgan's curiosity even more than robots did.
'FBI,' Emily provided, a little too quickly. 'Our car broke down.'
He stood, knocking a glass of orange juice into his plate of scrambled eggs. 'Oh, crap,' he muttered, righting the glass and grabbing a napkin from the table to clean the spill on his pants. 'I, uh…Eric Reber,' he introduced himself, holding out a hand. 'I'm an investigative journalist.'
They made a round of introductions, Morgan doing so with some hesitation.
'What are you doing in Walton?' Reid asked, in that tone of voice he always used when questioning witnesses. He was genuinely curious.
'Aliens,' he said excitedly, with a slight twinkle in his eye, laughing at the subsequent expression from Morgan. 'I'm kidding. I came to Walton because it's a small town with very little to distract me from writing the article that I was supposed to turn in two days ago.'
Morgan raised an eyebrow. 'Missing deadlines? That seems a little counterproductive.'
'I stumbled onto something much, much more interesting,' he said.
At that moment, Mary-Ann came to their table with two plates, which she set in front of Morgan and Garcia. She gave Eric a look, as though telling him not to scare away the customers.
'Tell them,' he urged her.
'Oh no,' Mary-Ann shook her head. 'This is your paranoia, Eric, not mine.' She tipped them a wink, before going to retrieve the remaining plates.
'I've been in town for four days,' he told them. 'In that time, three residents have disappeared. No trace. In any other town, you might think "sure, no biggie." This place has eighty-three residents, and it's in the middle of the desert. No cars are missing, all possessions left behind. Almost as though they'd been…spirited away.'
'So it could still be aliens,' Garcia pointed out, stabbing a piece of bacon on the end of her fork. Mary-Ann returned with Reid and Emily's breakfast, making no show of hanging around to listen to their conversation.
'Well…' Eric shrugged. 'Theoretically, yes – but people disappearing for no reason. My first thought isn't aliens, it's serial killer.'
'Disappearances with no signs of a struggle, no suspicions from any other residents…Would have to be an organized killer.' Reid put down his silverware, mind suddenly lost to the possibility of a serial killer in the midst of the small town.
'Either someone charismatic, or isolated enough that no-one notices their strange behaviour,' Emily continued. 'In a town this small, it seems probable that most people should have some kind of contact with the other residents.'
'FBI?' Eric asked again, with the slightest amount of incredulity.
'We're a part of the Behavioral Analysis Unit,' Reid elaborated. 'We hunt serial killers.'
The journalist gave a nervous laugh. 'Well I guess it's a good thing you showed up then.'
Morgan shared a look with Emily. 'We're in Nevada for a case,' he said, a little pointedly. 'In Warm Springs. The rest of our team should be coming back to pick us up sometime today.'
'The least we can do is look into it while we're here,' Emily argued, to which Morgan raised an eyebrow. She rolled her eyes at him.
'At best, we have a few coincidences, at worst, a serial killer,' she told him. 'If we don't do anything…'
Morgan sighed. 'Fine,' he conceded – it was his permission that they needed. Technically speaking, he had seniority out of the four of them. 'You said you'd talk to "Bill" about taking us back to our car?' he asked Mary-Ann.
She nodded. 'I'll go round him up – he'll only be able to fit two of you in his truck.'
'That's fine,' Morgan said. 'Reid, Prentiss, you two go with Bill to bring our gear back here. Garcia and I will set up home base and take a look at what intel Eric has.'
'There are a couple of vacancies at the motel,' Eric told them. 'They don't really get so many tourists around here.'
'So why bother with a motel?' Emily asked, to which he gave a shrug.
'It's been around for as long as the town has,' Mary-Ann provided. 'People thought that the location might bring in the tourists, but we barely break even. Make just enough to keep the place running.'
Morgan seemed a little apprehensive at the thought of staying the night, and Emily couldn't blame him – by booking into the motel, it almost seemed as though they were acknowledging that it might be necessary for them to stay for more than the rest of the day, if indeed, the team did arrive to pick them up.
'You don't have to stay the night,' the diner owner told him, as if interpreting his looks. 'Even if you just want a place to keep your things, it can't hurt.'
'It's like The X-Files,' Garcia said excitedly, 'Small town, mysterious occurrences, motels.'
'So who's Mulder and who's Scully?' asked Eric, with the slightest amount of amusement.
'He's Mulder. He's Scully,' said Emily, indicating Reid first, and then Morgan. He raised another eyebrow.
'Why do I have to be the chick?'
'Not the chick,' corrected Garcia. 'The skeptic.'
'Well forgive me for looking for the more rational explanation,' he said defensively.
'There's a fine line between rational explanation and outright denial,' Emily replied with a grin.
Morgan shook his head, his expression matching hers, in spite of the ribbing. 'Alright.' He finished off the last of his breakfast with a few quick bites. 'Let's move.'
Reid waited outside the diner while Emily used the bathroom. Morgan and Garcia were still inside – in spite of Mary-Ann's offer, the other man still insisted on paying. It was understandable – there was an entire subsection on the ethics of graft in the Bureau handbook.
'We'll go book into the motel,' Morgan announced, as he and Garcia stepped outside. They were followed by Eric, and after a few seconds, Emily. The journalist seemed a little more apprehensive, now that they were no longer inside – the hot desert air brought beads of sweat, which he wiped off with his sleeve.
'I'm not used to the heat,' he said, a little nervously. 'I grew up in Seattle.'
Reid gave the man what was supposed to be a sympathetic smile, but said nothing. He understood strangers a little more easily when he had something in common with them, and the only thing so far he could see in common with this man was a general sense of nervousness. Fortunately, his co-workers more than compensated for his somewhat lacking social skills.
'Sacrifice anything for a story, right?' asked Garcia. 'Whether it be civilization, or simply the ability to step outside without melting like the wicked witch.'
'Something like that,' Eric smiled. 'Though the motel does have air-conditioning, even if it doesn't like to work all the time.' He gestured towards the low-set building on the other side of town – the other side of town being no more than a few hundred feet. 'I'll introduce you to Darcy – he runs the bar as well as the motel.' He gave a quick glance towards the door, making sure that Mary-Ann wasn't within hearing range – the woman was still locking up inside. 'If you ask me, the bar is probably what generates the most profit in this place.'
'Not much else to do,' observed Morgan.
A clattering from behind told them that Mary-Ann was closing the door, a "back in ten minutes" sign hanging from a nail.
'There're some people that come and have breakfast at the diner, but most of them won't be around until ten a.m. The rest'll just have to wait.'
'We really appreciate this,' Emily said, her eyes still caught on the retreating forms of Morgan, Garcia and Eric.
'It's no trouble,' Mary-Ann assured them. The older woman took the lead, walking in the direction of what appeared to be the residential area of the small town. Emily kept pace at first, before dropping back to match Reid's slower walk.
'What do you think?' she asked him, her voice a little softer than usual. Her behavior reminded him a little of how she acted in Cyrus's compound. She was on edge, even if she wasn't going to come right out and admit it.
'No-one seems to present as a serial killer yet,' he replied, in a voice that was just as soft. 'But then, we've only met two people.'
'So it's not entirely out of the question.' She wrinkled her brow. 'I don't know – it seems strange. A town this small, you think that three people disappearing would be a big thing.'
'Depends on the people who are missing. If they're looking to escape Walton, then they might have formulated some kind of relocation plan.'
'But then to leave without taking any of their stuff?'
'That's just from Eric's perspective,' he pointed out, noting the slight flush she gave at the mention of the journalist's name. 'He can't have known what was missing from their residences.'
She nodded silently, and they both stopped as Mary-Ann came to a halt outside a small house. 'Bill's a little strange,' she warned them, as she knocked on the door, 'But he has a good heart.'
The man that answered the door was in his late fifties, with hair that looked as though it had never seen a brush, and a wild, straggling beard. He looked at them with an expression that could have been curiosity, but it was difficult to tell.
Mary-Ann introduced them and explained the situation. After a few moments silence, Bill said in a gruff voice, 'You want me to take them back to their car?' He nodded, and then shuffled past them to the tarpaulin covered lump that was shaped like a pickup truck. It looked fairly old, but it seemed to be in working condition.
Reid shared a hesitant glance with Emily. They needed to get back to the SUV, but he wasn't entirely confident at the idea of getting into a truck with a complete stranger. Still – Mary-Ann had vouched for the man, and he didn't seem dangerous, but being a part of the BAU was accompanied by a healthy dose of vigilance.
Emily gave a slight shrug, and followed Bill to the truck. That settled that.
The cabin of the truck was comprised of one long seat, and Reid found himself squashed between Emily and the door of the vehicle. He kept his eyes glued to the buildings outside as the pickup coughed to life, and they slowly but surely puttered along the dirt roads.
Things looked a little different from this perspective; no longer under the haze of dehydration, he could take a proper look at the town; if Eric's theory was correct, then it might come in handy later. A geographical profile would be next to useless in an area so small, but it would be important to their overall profile.
Whatever was going on in Walton, though, he wasn't sure that he liked it.
'System's down,' Darcy, the motel owner told Morgan apologetically as he set his credit card down on the counter. 'Happens a lot here.'
'How much are rooms again?' Morgan asked, checking how much cash he had with him.
'You're wanting two doubles, right? For that, hundred a night for each room.'
Morgan frowned. After the cost of breakfast, he had less than a hundred. Even with what Garcia had, it still wasn't enough.
'Emily always has cash,' Garcia reminded him. 'Something about not wanting to use her debit card in foreign countries.'
'No rush on the payment,' Darcy said, grinning. 'Not your fault the system's down.' He handed them four room keys – two had a red tag with the number 3 inscribed on it, two with a green tag bearing the number 4.
'Are these adjoining?' Morgan asked, holding up the key.
'Sure are,' Darcy replied. 'Figured you might have wanted that.' He gestured towards the wall, where the key with a 2 on it still hung.
'We should go set up what we can then,' Morgan announced, giving both Darcy and Eric a smile of thanks. Eric walked with them as far as their rooms, his own being two doors down. Morgan noticed the Yamaha motorbike parked out the front of it, and shelved the information for future reference.
'I'm going to go over my notes,' he told them, 'Bring you what I have. If you need anything…' There was something in his tone of voice that suggested he wanted to be involved in whatever investigation they ran, beyond the handing over of files. It was fairly unorthodox to involve civilians to such an extent, but then, it wasn't exactly the most orthodox of situations. If there was really something going on in Walton, they needed all the help they could get.
'Reid and I'll take 3, and you and Prentiss can take 4.' He held out one of the green-tagged keys to Garcia, who hesitated slightly.
'Four's an unlucky number,' she protested.
'Oh, so you want me and Reid to sleep in the unlucky room?' he said, grinning. She looked unashamed at the accusation.
'Well unless you don't think you can handle it…'
'Fine.' He handed her the red key instead, which she took with some satisfaction. 'Of course, this means we'll be running the case from your room,' he told her. 'Wouldn't want an unlucky case, now would we?'
'Be still my aching heart.' Garcia fanned her face dramatically. 'Derek Morgan in my motel room?' She slipped the key inside the lock and pushed the door open.
'G-rated shenanigans only, mama,' he grinned, following her inside the motel room. He took her laptop out of the backpack and passed it over to her, before sitting the bag against the wall. 'You want to try looking for wireless hotspots again?' he asked. 'Can't hurt.'
As was the nature of the job, he'd been in countless motel rooms – endless variations of wallpaper, carpet and bedspreads. While decent looking, this particular motel room looked as though it hadn't been remodeled since the early seventies – olive walls, and a horrifyingly floral comforter. He imagined that his and Reid's room would be much the same.
'Absolutely nothing,' Garcia announced, after a minute. 'This is weird – it's the 21st century. Who doesn't have internet?'
'A lot of people,' Morgan said, somewhat amused at the tech's indignation. 'People come here to get away – I think the internet is the very opposite of that.'
She nodded. 'A little too quiet for my tastes though, I have to admit. I like my ghost towns with a kicking night life.'
'You think alien abduction is kicking enough?' he asked, with some skepticism. 'Maybe we should invite a few werewolves over – make it a real party.'
'Oh, you're so cute when you're cynical.'
They both turned at the sound of a knock on the door. Morgan opened it to see Eric, juggling a pair of overstuffed notebooks. 'Hi,' he said awkwardly, indicating the books. 'Notes.' Morgan stepped back to let the other man inside, his eyes locking onto the thickness of the notebooks – either Eric was particularly over-vigilant, or they had something pretty bad on their hands.
'Alright,' he said. 'Let's get started.'
An awkward silence fell over the vehicle as they drove. More accurately, the man named Bill drove, while Emily and Reid sat squashed together in silence, their bodies almost sharing the same space. It was hot, and sweaty, and uncomfortable, but Emily was still somewhat mistrustful of the driver, especially after he had ignored any attempts at conversation.
The moment they set off, she'd asked him how he'd come to live in Walton, and his answer had been a grunt. Not even an affectionate grunt, but that kind of grunt that told her he didn't want to be driving them around any more than they had wanted to abandon Morgan and Garcia. A necessary evil.
Still. She'd learned a long time ago not to pass judgment so quickly – Mary-Ann had told them herself that Bill was strange. That he had a good heart. Of course, every single person in the town could well have been playing them, trying to draw them in, and it wasn't really a thought she wanted to consider.
The SUV sat on the side of the road, undisturbed from when they had left earlier that morning. Emily pulled the keys from her pocket, and unlocked the doors. Bill stayed in the truck while she and Reid slipped out, and she felt somewhat relieved to be outside, even if the desert heat was a little stifling.
There was nothing missing from their gear – not that she had actually expected there to be. Four go-bags, both her and Morgan's messenger bags, Garcia's purse, as well as a few other odds and ends they added to the mix. "Just in case." She wasn't entirely sure what horrors could befall them in the small town, but if anything terrible did happen, they wanted to be prepared.
They all but stripped the vehicle down to its chassis – if any thieves happened to come by, then all they'd find was a map of Nevada circa 1983 that they'd found under one of the floor mats. Garcia had been thoroughly amused at the near antiquated piece of paper. She'd made a joke about the SUV reaching 88 miles per hour – a joke that Reid explained (in great detail) to Morgan, who evidently hadn't seen Back to the Future since its release in theaters.
The whole process took no more than ten minutes, including the time spent securing it beneath the tarp at the back of the truck, and the time spent leaving a note for the rest of the team underneath the windshield wipers. Emily grinned at the knots Reid was tying – the kind of knots only boy scouts, sailors and escapologists seemed to know how to tie. She was willing to bet that presdigitation wasn't the only kind of magic he could perform.
'It's useful,' he shrugged at her questioning look. 'Especially when you get kidnapped once every two months.'
'Yeah?' she asked, thinking of her own experiences with being tied up. Experiences which, thankfully, were very few. Excluding, of course, consensual restraint, but that wasn't something she was about to go around discussing with Reid.
'If they resort to kidnapping, then most unsubs will use rope to restrain their victim's hands. Cuffs aren't too hard to pick, though, as long as your hands are in front of you.'
'You think they'd teach this kind of thing in the academy,' she said, almost wistfully, as they got back into the passenger's side of the truck. Bill hadn't moved at all, which was kind of creepy, but she tried very hard to not let her body betray her discomfort. If he was a psychopathic serial killer, though, they were both armed, and failing that, Morgan and Garcia knew where they were.
Unless the entire town is full of psychopathic serial killers, she thinks, remembering an old episode of The X-Files (in that case it had been vampires, but the sentiment was the same). Pathologically speaking, though, the chances of an entire town suffering from the same mental delusions that led to murder was highly unlikely. She didn't even need Reid to tell her that.
'Well, most FBI agents tend to avoid being kidnapped,' he shrugged. 'I suppose they wouldn't have as much need. Still…'
'Scientia est potestas, right?'
'Francis Bacon,' grunted Bill, much to Emily's surprise. '"There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion."'
Emily shook her head. Her expectations kept getting thrown right out the window. It was shaping up to be one hell of a day.
Eric had "organized" his notes into several piles, the nature of which Morgan had not yet discovered yet. He was somewhat used to the briefing room, and JJ's PowerPoint slides, and Reid's methodical handwriting on the whiteboard. This was…this was different.
He flipped open the first notebook, profiler senses picking up on the small but neat writing, and the sketches in the page margins. They seemed unrelated – trees, cities, inhuman faces – nothing to do with the chronicles of supposedly missing persons that graced its pages. Given time, he could probably learn a lot about Eric Reber from those pages.
It seemed strange that an investigative journalist would be using paper, rather than a laptop in this day and age. Unsurprising that guy had an article that was two days past deadline; if you asked Morgan, he was a little strange. The notebooks just added to that.
'Elaine Pearson, 37.' Eric pointed to one pile. There was no picture, but rather a series of detailed notes. Morgan picked up the top sheet, scanning over it quickly. Neighbor, Harry Whitmore: "Didn't see anything suspicious, some strange noises early in the morning."
'No bright, inexplicable lights?' asked Garcia, looking over his shoulder. Morgan shook his head, and continued to read. Asked around town; Pearson not well known by Walton standards, but Darcy says that she moved after death of husband. No children, as far as anyone is aware. There was more, some of it seemingly inconsequential – he didn't think that the meal Pearson ordered at the diner three days previously had much of a bearing on her disappearance.
Though, Morgan had seen stranger things. Not "aliens" strange, but strange nonetheless. When you were in that line of work, it was par for the course.
'Michelle Gardner, 29,' He pointed to a second pile. No known reason for relocation. Quiet, kept to herself. According to Kitty, she was looking to leave town. 'And Alex De Biers, 32.' Morgan read the first few lines of notes, and it was much the same fare as the other two. Relatively young women, no major ties to the community. Drifters.
Their disappearances were pretty coincidental, but there was nothing serial about it.
They were just moving on.
Maybe they'd left a few things behind, but that wasn't uncommon with this kind of profile.
Before he could explain that to Eric, though, there was a knock on the door. It could only be Prentiss and Reid. Realistically, it could have been any citizen of the small town, but Prentiss and Reid were the ones who Morgan expected.
He was not disappointed.
Reid had a go-bag slung over each shoulder, as well as Garcia's purse hanging off his wrist. Knocking on the door had clearly sent him off balance, so Morgan took pity on the younger agent and relieved him of his burdens. 'I'll take this, you take a look at the notes and see if you can find some kind of a pattern.' He dropped Garcia's go-bag and purse by the door, and Emily passed over what he presumed to be her own bag.
'You're next door?' she asked, using her now free hand to wipe the line of sweat from her brow.
'What do you think?' she asked him, the moment the door swung shut.
He gave her a look. 'I think Reber's got a crush.'
She rolled her eyes at that. 'You know what I mean.'
'I don't know. The victims are all of the same type – relatively new to town, drifters, kept to themselves. But that kind of psychopathology doesn't necessarily mean that there's a serial killer at work here.'
'You think that all three victims left town without a word, all within two days of each other? It's a hell of a coincidence.'
He shrugged. 'A lot of coincidence in small towns.' He opened the door to Room 4 – the unlucky room – and took a few moments to note that the décor was almost exactly the same as the other one. The wallpaper was a few shades lighter, but the sheet coverings were just as horrific. Apparently there wasn't even a Bed, Bath and Beyond within a hundred miles.
'Not that kind of coincidence, and you know it,' Prentiss told him, with a look. The look she always seemed to give him whenever he suggested that a case might not actually be a case.
'I'm just saying it's possible that we'll be chasing our tails here.'
'It's always a possibility that we're chasing our tails, Derek,' Prentiss sighed. She was using his first name. That was serious. 'You really think they all just decided to wander off into the desert? Look at it this way. What else are we going to do while we wait for the rest of the team to show up?'
She definitely had a point there. The only thing remotely interesting in the town seemed to be the bar, and it was barely 11am. What the hell did people do all day? Read? Watch TV? Play Scrabble? Derek Morgan had been a city boy his entire life. He found a small town like this incredibly disconcerting.
'One day,' Emily assured him. 'We'll go over what's there, and we'll see what we can find. If there's nothing there, then we move on. If there is, then we do something about it.'
He sat on the edge of the bed, staring at the stains in the carpet.
'Something weird is going on,' he said eventually. 'I don't know what it is, but I know I don't like it.'
'Sounds like every single case we've ever worked,' Emily commented, and Morgan couldn't disagree. The situation might have been different, but the action was the same; work the profile. If that meant hanging around, talking to the locals while they waited for the rest of the team, then so be it.
'Alright.' Morgan stood, stretching. The night spent sleeping in the SUV had tensed his body up pretty well. 'Let's get started.'
Spencer Reid was a genius, but he was not, despite what most people thought, some kind of robot. There were limits – boundaries – to his intelligence. A lot of things he didn't know. Still, the 20,000 words per minute reading was good for something, and when he found gaps in his knowledge that needed to be filled, for one purpose or another, he headed to the library, or, failing that, the internet.
Unfortunately, the small town of Walton, Nevada, didn't have either of those. The internet, he could understand, but it was strange to think that there wasn't even a library. All he had was what was in his head, and what was on the pages in front of him. Even then, the files were potentially incomplete – Eric Reber was an unreliable narrator. He would have missed things a profiler wouldn't.
'Garcia, you don't happen to have every single database in the country loaded onto that thing, do you?' asked Morgan, gesturing to the laptop.
'Sorry, hunk o' spunk. I need an internet connection or a direct line if I want to do any database searches, so unless there's a magical cable around here that somehow links up to Area 51, you're out of luck.'
This was profiling at its very foundations. No fancy technology, no beat cops to do the leg work, just a set of victims who may or may not have vanished into thin air. Pure psychology.
Harder than it looks, even for a genius.
It doesn't take long to realize that Reber's notes are even more chaotic than he'd originally thought. There's information about their potential victims, mixed in with information about the article he must have been writing – something to do with the prevalence of high speed crashes on Nevada roads. Sometimes, though, it segued into nigh incomprehensibility, repeated words and phrases that not even Reid's mind could make sense of.
They had to consider the possibility that maybe, Reber wasn't quite all there.
In part due to his mother's condition, Spencer Reid had a lot of experience with the mentally ill. More often than not, it seemed to be the case that their unsubs, too, had some form of disorder – the DSM didn't distinguish innocent from unsub. It just showed the facts. The facts as had been determined by clinical psychologists.
Reid didn't have the appropriate post-graduate studies to be considered a Psychologist, but he knew enough to realize that not every condition presented itself with identifiable symptoms.
It would be easier, he told himself. It would be easier, if they had all the information.
Just because Eric Reber might have been a little out of touch with reality, didn't mean he was wrong. Reid had learned that lesson early in life.
It was kind of awkward, just sitting there reading, while everyone else stared at him, but it was an awkwardness that Reid was used to.
'I can't see anything specific that might link them,' he said finally, which was far from a conclusive answer, being that the data was incomplete.
'That doesn't mean there isn't something,' Emily told Eric quickly, before he could argue. 'We could always question the other residents.' Those words, she directed towards Morgan, who didn't look entirely convinced.
'We need to be invited in,' he said.
'We don't have to look as FBI agents,' Emily persisted. 'Just concerned citizens.'
Morgan's eyebrow rose. It was a fine line, and if Strauss needed something to bring the hammer down, then this was the kind of thing it would be. Really, though, they'd never dropped a case because of what the higher ups thought.
The victims took priority, even if it meant running around in the dark.
'Maybe it is aliens,' Emily suggested, after they shut the door to the final house. Reid and Eric both gave her a look. She shrugged. The residents of the town had been uniformly uncooperative, which didn't particularly surprise her. After all, they probably didn't move to Walton to have federal agents – off duty federal agents – knocking at their door. She doubted that Morgan and Garcia were having any better luck.
There were some people that had seen something though, and their stories hadn't changed since Eric had spoken to them the first time around. Strange noises – which didn't really tell them much. Strange could have meant someone accidentally running into a parked car.
Even though they'd learned nothing, it had taken almost the entire day to do so. It was past five, and the sun was setting on the horizon. Every few minutes, Emily checked her phone to make sure that Hotch or Rossi or JJ hadn't called. They were probably worried. Hell, she was worried.
This was way too messed up to be normal.
The strange, non-existent town with its quirky residents, she was willing to accept. The broken car, sat phone and GPS she was not. The long day in the dry Nevada heat had only cemented her frustration.
She shook her head. 'No, not aliens. Maybe it's just some guy from Area 51 with advanced technology trying to mess with our minds.' She was being facetious, of course, but Spencer Reid didn't always seem to comprehend that kind of humor. Thankfully, this time he did.
'You don't believe in aliens, and yet a secret government agent from Area 51 is a plausibly alternative?' Reid asked, his tone one of amusement.
'I'm not disputing the possible existence of aliens, somewhere out there in the universe. All I'm saying is that it's highly unlikely that they came all this way just to fuck with us.' After all, surely there was a much more convenient set of guinea pigs in some other galaxy.
She shook her head. 'Let's go back to the motel.'
Morgan and Garcia, it seemed, had been no more fruitful in their quest for answers.
'What now?' Garcia asked, and it was a question that nobody had an answer for, until Eric said:
'Well, the bar opens at five.' As if to avoid confusion, he added. 'They might be a little more forthcoming in a more social setting.'
'Did you try that already?' Reid asked, curious.
Eric blushed. 'Me and bars…they don't mix too well.' There was a strange sadness to his expression, as though something horrific had happened. Emily was intrigued, but at the same time, it wasn't exactly an issue she wanted to press.
'I'm uh…I'm gonna go to the bathroom,' he stammered, excusing himself, and leaving the motel room.
They all stared at the open door.
'I don't think he's coming back,' Garcia said, almost unnecessarily.
'Something's going on with him,' Morgan said. 'I don't know if he knows something beyond what he's told us, but I think we need to find out.' He gave Emily a look.
She knew that look.
She hated that look.
It was the look that they always seemed to be giving her.
Hey, Emily, time to flirt with a psychopath.
Only this time it was different. She did like Eric and he didn't seem like the kind of person that would murder three people and then act so blasé about it, but then, they never did.
It was more than that. This time – though she wasn't really sure why – this time, she wanted him to be innocent. Or uninvolved. She shook her head. When had it progressed from "he's hiding something" to "he's murdered three people, and left their bodies to rot out in the desert"?
In the end, all she said was, 'You owe me.'
It had been a long day, so they showered and dressed, and Emily realized that she had actually packed her "flirting with serial killers" outfit, which depressed her far more than it should have. It wasn't a particularly outrageous outfit, but it show far more thigh and cleavage than did any of her work clothes.
She gave Morgan a look as he stared her down.
'What?' he shrugged. 'You look good.'
She would have turned to Garcia for some kind of back-up, but as it turned out, Morgan wasn't the only one staring. 'If he doesn't drop his pants immediately, then there's obviously something wrong with him.'
'Well, we don't want him to drop his pants,' Emily said, frowning. 'We want him to open up a little.'
'I'm sure you can work that too, cupcake,' Garcia told her with a wink. Almost immediately, Emily felt as though she was trapped in someone else's skin. She always seemed to be the one picked for the "use your sexuality to get information" gig, even though she was undeniably terrible at it. There was a difference between being able to pretend to be something you weren't around friends and various foreign dignitaries, and doing it around potential serial killers.
By her count, this was at least number five.
'Well,' Emily said, with an exaggerated sigh. 'You know where I'll be.' She grabbed the purse that had been stashed away in the bottom of her go bag, and tried not to make herself believe she was walking to her own funeral.
It was ridiculous. She hadn't considered Eric to be much of a threat, but the moment Reid and Morgan brought it up, she couldn't get the idea out of her mind. As though they'd told her not to think of the word "rabbit" and then suddenly rabbits were all she could think about.
The mind was a funny thing.
Maybe somewhere, deep down, she'd known that things were about to go haywire.
She bid Garcia and Morgan a farewell as they made their way over to the bar. Reid would be keeping an eye on things from a distance, but really, it felt as though she was, for all intents and purposes, alone. If something went down and Reid was too far away to notice, all she had was the Glock 17 in her purse, and thirty-nine years of life experience to back her up. It seemed pathetic that this was the closest she'd come to a potential relationship in almost five years.
Emily knocked on the door to Room One of the Motel that didn't even seem to have a name.
Eric answered almost immediately, his short dark hair mussed, and his eyes wild. He seemed surprised – but not exactly disappointed – to see her.
'Hi,' he said, evidently unable to think of a more appropriate greeting.
'Hi,' Emily said, because that was the only greeting she could think of, too. It almost felt like the last date that she'd been on, which had ended, predictably, with a bottle of scotch at three a.m.
Eric stepped back to let her inside, and for a few brief moments, Emily let herself scan over the room. It was messy – disorganized, the profiler brain corrected – with clothes strewn across the floor, and papers covering the second bed.
'Sorry,' he said, following her gaze. 'I guess I wasn't really expecting you to, uh…' His face flushed a deep crimson. He shook his head. 'I'm sorry. I'm not very good at this.'
'Neither am I,' Emily admitted.
'Where are your friends?' he asked, eager to change the subject.
'They went to the bar,' she told him. 'I thought you might want some company.' It wasn't a complete lie. She didn't need to be a profiler to know that Eric Reber was a very lonely person. She could sympathize, in a way. Being the daughter of an Ambassador wasn't very conducive to long-lasting friendships. She'd almost say the same about being a profiler, but the team were all friends in a way. More than that, they were family.
Every single profiler instinct that Emily had was telling her that Eric Reber didn't have any family left at all. Was that why he was here, in the middle of nowhere, with a motorbike, and story that he didn't really seem all that interested in writing?
What had he lost?
Who had he lost?
She stared across at the second bed – the papers that he hadn't brought over to the motel room. There were no words on them, just faces. One face, to be specific. Female, relatively young. There was no color to the pictures, but the hair had been shaded, so it might have been red or brown or black.
Her neck hair prickled, ever so slightly, and she knew he was watching her. Her words were so soft, that at first she wasn't even sure that she'd spoken. 'Who is she?'
'My wife.' His reply was so broken, so filled with sorrow, that she didn't press the issue. There was an art to questioning, and getting the suspect to burst into tears wasn't what they were looking for. She wasn't really sure what they were looking for. Answers, maybe, but to what end?
Emily sat down on the end of the bed, saying nothing, but at the same time, saying everything.
Outside, the sun set.
Neither of them moved to turn on the lights.
If Reid was watching, he wouldn't be able to see a thing.
'What happened?' Emily asked eventually. In the dark, she couldn't see his face, couldn't be sure of what his reaction to the question would be.
'I…I lost her,' he said, after a long silence. Emily bit her lip. Death of a spouse was never an easy thing to deal with. She'd never experienced it first hand, but they had worked enough cases to see it far too much.
Eric flipped the bedside light on.
'Me too,' he said. Emily frowned, not quite sure what he meant. Then, she felt her throat start to constrict, as though there was something pressed up against her neck, squeezing every last drop of air out. She tried to claw the offending object out of the way, but there was nothing there.
Was he doing this?
In the soft light, Eric's expression might have been mistaken for one of evil. She might have had more time to process that, had he not been using the freaking Force to choke her out. She tried to call out – she didn't know how far away Reid was, but it didn't seem to matter. The invisible force against her throat was enough to prevent any sound from escaping.
She struggled against it, grey spots forming at the edge of her vision, and for a moment, the angle of the light shifted, and he didn't look evil. He looked desperate.
A hand brushed down her cheek. His skin was soft. The world blacked away, but she could still hear his fading epitaph of, 'I'm sorry,' before she heard nothing at all.
Morgan sat at the bar, watching as Darcy poured out their drinks. If they were going to get any solid information, then this was the place they were going to get it. Still, he felt uncomfortable leaving Prentiss to talk to Reber on her own, even if Reid was keeping an eye on things. She was a capable agent, but if anything went down, she'd have no foolproof way of contacting Reid. Going to check on her, though, meant leaving Garcia alone, which irked him just as much. He didn't trust the town as far as he could throw it.
It was still early, but the bar was already crowded. There wasn't much fare in terms of meals – Morgan assumed that if people wanted to eat out, they went to the diner. He did, however, order some nachos to split between them.
'Do you know anything about what's going on?' Morgan asked, and Darcy gave him a look. 'I know I asked earlier, but I figure you might have heard something since then.'
'What do you mean, "what's going on"?' Darcy said, clearly confused.
This was not right.
They'd questioned the whole freaking town – including Darcy. They all knew that something was going on.
'The disappearances?' Morgan prompted. 'The ones that Eric Reber was investigating?'
The name seemed to strike a chord with Darcy. 'Oh, Eric? That journalist guy? He rolled into town a few days ago, seemed really interested in Elaine. Apparently her husband died, right before she moved here, though, so it never would have worked out.'
Morgan already knew that, and he felt like Darcy should have known that he knew that. It was like someone had given him a memory wipe, but that was about as logical as saying that their victims had been abducted by aliens.
Garcia gave him the "oh crap" look that he knew was mirrored on his own face. With a rushed, 'Sorry,' to Darcy, they were out of the bar within seconds.
In the distance, there was a gunshot.
Reid strained his eyes in the darkness.
The sun had gone down, and there were no lights coming from the motel, which worried him. Maybe Reber had already killed her. Maybe he'd slit her throat as soon as she'd entered the room, and now he was washing the deep crimson from his skin, scrubbing with a nail brush, just trying to get the blood off.
Reid pushed the thought from his mind. There was no way Emily would have gone down without a fight, and Reid would have definitely heard a fight. The only ambient noise came from the bar, on the other side of town. Admittedly, the size of the town meant that the distance wasn't exceedingly large, but he was still so sure that he would have heard something.
A light came on.
Taking a chance, he edged himself closer to the motel. It was unlikely that Reber was looking out the window, and even then, there wasn't much light around for Reid to be seen.
He was ten feet away when the door opened.
His heart seized in his chest – not because he was afraid, but because Reber had walked out with Emily in his arms.
She was dead.
That was his first thought, at least. Her body was limp, like a piece of spaghetti that someone had tossed into boiling water. It was the most relaxed that he'd ever seen her. He untensed slightly when he saw the rise and fall of her chest, but it wasn't over yet.
He drew his weapon, lifting it towards Reber. His hands didn't shake.
'Reber,' he called out. 'Freeze.'
Reber jumped at the sound of Reid's voice, jolting Emily's body.
'Let her go, Eric.' His voice was steady. He had done this so many times before, but never like this. He had done it with a bullet in his leg, but somehow that seemed easier than talking down a possible serial killer who had one of his colleagues – one of his friends – at their mercy.
'I can't.' Reber shook his head, and Reid wasn't entirely surprised to hear the fear in his voice. Slightly delusional, with suggestions of a psychotic break. Something had triggered this. 'I can't,' he repeated. 'They say…they say I can only get her back if I bring someone else. I need to get her back!'
Reid considered the words for a millisecond. There were two unknowns in the equation, a "she" and a "they." The "she" was probably the trigger, but the "they"was the delusion.
'What happened, Eric?' he asked, slowly. He couldn't press too hard, or else Reber would snap. 'What did they do to her?'
He choked out a sob, and Reid let his gun line up against the man's chest. Just in case. 'I remember the bright lights, and then…then she was gone. They took her from me.'
Reid's mind worked at lightning speed. Bright lights, a small town in Nevada. Them. Reber thought that she – the trigger, whoever she was – had been abducted by aliens. And he wanted to trade.
Reid took a step forward, closer to Reber and Emily. 'Eric…I can help you.'
'You know them?' Reber asked, his voice cracking. 'Like…some kind of X-Files thing?'
Reid's mind flashed back to Ted Byar, and the train he'd held hostage in Texas. It felt like so long ago. If Reber had "aliens" trying to convince him that he could get his wife back, then it was possible he was a paranoid schizophrenic.
'You're sick, Eric,' Reid said. His voice was soft, rather than accusatory. 'I think you know it. Deep down, you know that this isn't going to bring her back.'
'I have to try,' Eric replied. There were tears running down his face, and then he whispered. 'I'm sorry,' and Reid felt himself being flung backwards, his finger squeezing the trigger at the shock of it.
Reid's head hit the ground hard, and he was pretty sure he blacked out for a couple of seconds.
What just happened?
That was Morgan's voice. Had he been tossed around by some invisible force, too?
Reid tried to sit up, and was rewarded with a spinning head. Maybe he was having delusions.
He saw the dark shapes running towards him.
Morgan knelt down beside him, concern etched on his face. 'Reid, what happened? Are you okay? Where's Emily?'
The was a long silence, and Reid couldn't quite find the cognitive capacity to answer the question. That was serious.
'I…Reber, he's the unsub. He took her. I tried to stop him, but…' He couldn't quite describe what had happened. It was like he'd been caught up in a some kind of wave, only they were in the middle of the desert. 'I think…' He paused. There was no way Morgan was going to take this well. 'I think he has some kind of super-power.'
'We know,' Morgan said, with a grimace, which really wasn't the answer Reid had been expecting. 'We spoke to people in the bar. None of them remember a damn thing about what happened over the past few days.'
'Memory loss,' Reid nodded, wincing at the pain that shot across his skull. He put a hand to his head, and his fingers came away bleeding. That didn't matter right now. 'He's delusional – he thinks that aliens were responsible for the death of a major female presence in his life, and he thinks that he can trade her back.'
Morgan stared at him. 'Aliens? Seriously?'
Reid looked at him curiously. 'He has psychic powers, and you're still getting all worked up about the existence of aliens?'
'Um, guys?' Garcia interjected. 'Shouldn't we be…?'
Reid accepted the hand from Morgan, ignoring the pain. 'I didn't see which way he went…' He trailed off, staring into the distance. Their SUV was out there somewhere. So were Hotch, JJ and Rossi.
'If he took the other women out into the desert,' he suggested. 'Maybe that's why nobody found any bodies.'
'Maybe he just left them here, and wiped their memories,' Garcia suggested. Reid shook his head.
'No, that would be harder to wipe from their memories. I think he's having enough trouble already. We can assume that he's the reason the SUV broke down…and everything that's happened since then. It's like he's struggling to hold everything together.'
'Are we seriously trying to profile a guy's telepathic kung fu?' Morgan asked, exasperated.
'I think we should go out into the desert,' Reid insisted. Morgan held his gaze for a good few seconds.
'Alright,' he said finally. He knelt down, unclipping his back-up weapon from its ankle holster. 'Garcia…'
The technical analyst's face turned white. 'I don't do guns, Derek. You know that.' He put a hand on her shoulder.
'I know, baby girl. Trust me, I know. This guy is very, very dangerous, and if we can't take him down…'
Garcia nodded, gripping the butt of the gun tightly. 'I…Please, Derek. Just…don't die on me.'
Morgan smiled – a forced smile – but didn't say anything. Then, he nodded towards Reid, and they both started off into the darkness.
For a long while, they didn't see anything.
Reid wasn't sure how Reber could have gotten so far ahead of them, whilst still carrying Emily. Maybe it was a side effect of the psychic powers. Maybe he'd been unconscious longer than he'd thought.
Then, suddenly, the scene seemed to blossom in front of him. Reber was standing there, staring up at a glowing ethereal ball. Strange lights in the sky? If he had disabled all of their communications equipment, then it stood to reason that he might have some electromagnetic abilities. To a sane person, that would be burden enough. To a person that had limited control of their own mind…? It was a recipe for disaster.
Emily seemed to be lying on the ground – still unconscious, as far as Reid could tell. She didn't stir as he and Morgan drew closer, and Reber was distracted with the ball of light, which he appeared to engaged in conversation with. If they did nothing, then the cycle would continue. For one reason or another, his mind would find Emily unsuitable to replace the avatar etched so firmly in Eric Reber's mind. No person could ever live up to it, but he would keep trying, anyway.
Morgan gave him a nod, and gestured towards the right. He wanted to flank Reber, and, if Reid was understanding him correctly, he wanted Reid to do the talking. It was a reasonable request; profiling aside, he was fairly sure that Morgan didn't know much about telekinesis or manipulation of the elements, or whatever it was that Reber was doing. More than that, there was an unspoken understanding that Reid was the one who could talk him down. If he could be talked down at all.
The plan went to pieces almost immediately.
She felt like a boa constrictor had tried to crush her to death, and her mind was still swimming, but apart from that, everything seemed to be in the right place.
Except of course, herself.
All things considered, the middle of the desert wasn't the most confusing place she'd woken up in her life. Being a teenage rebel that lived all over the world would do that to you. The night chill bit into her skin, and for a brief moment, she wondered if she was dead. No, not dead.
She must have been dreaming.
Her dreams were never this realistic, of course, but there was no other explanation for what she saw. Reid and Morgan were standing maybe ten feet apart, guns out and pointed at Eric. The only reason she could actually see them was because of the shining ball of light.
Maybe this is what they mean when they say "step into the light."
She sat up, only then feeling the ache that radiated across her body. Reid was trying to talk down Reber, and it didn't seem to be working. She must have been hallucinating though, because something happened – something impossible. Reid and Morgan's weapons flew out of their hands, landing somewhere off to the side and suddenly, both men were suspended in the air. Marionettes with invisible strings.
Aren't we all?
'Please,' Eric said, pleadingly. 'Please, just leave me alone. Let me get her back.' Neither Morgan nor Reid answered, and for a moment, Emily wondered if they were already dead.
She looked to the side and saw Morgan's gun, just lying there. Eric hadn't even noticed that she'd regained consciousness. With shaking hands, she picked up the gun. She didn't want to shoot him, but she knew that if she didn't, they were all going to end up dead.
His chest was a wide, open target. Squeeze the trigger once, twice, and you're done.
She closed her eyes, and felt the recoil of the pistol as she fired the gun. It fell from her fingers.
The world was a messy, grey blur.
'Emily?' Morgan's voice. She stared at him for a good few seconds. His clothes were dirty, and there were a few bloody scratches on his skin, but otherwise he seemed unharmed.
'Is he dead?' she managed, unsure of what she wanted the answer to be.
'He's still breathing,' Reid called out, his hands pressed into Eric's chest. Emily didn't know how to feel about that.
'What…' Emily started, her words caught in a coughing fit. Bile rose in her throat, and she turned quickly, vomiting just inches from Morgan's feet.
'Hey.' He put a hand on her shoulder. 'Are you okay?'
Emily shook her head, but said, 'I'll live.'
Emily frowned. Was that Garcia?
Morgan turned, standing. 'Over here!' he called out.
Emily heard the footsteps before she saw Garcia. It was dark now, the only light coming from the moon and the stars.
'I think you're probably going to want to see this,' Garcia said, in a deadly somber tone that Emily rarely heard from the bubbly technical analyst.
She got up on her own, refusing the hand that Morgan held out for her. Maybe that was a mistake, she conceded, as she fell back down, or at least would have if Morgan hadn't caught her.
'Thanks,' she muttered. The word seemed inadequate. 'What happened?'
They started walking back towards the town, Reid staying behind to administer medical attention. Emily was hyperaware of the fact that Morgan kept turning back, just to check that things hadn't gone haywire once more.
'He wanted to trade you for his dead wife who he thought had been abducted by aliens,' Morgan explained. There was a beat of silence. 'We think.'
'Seriously?' She shook her head. 'I think it's vacation time.'
Morgan stopped, frowning. 'I thought the town was this way.'
'That's what I wanted to show you,' Garcia said. 'It's gone.'
Emily blinked. Surely she'd misheard Garcia. 'What?'
'The town. It's gone. It just…It disappeared. Does this happen every time you guys go out on cases?'
Morgan looked around. 'No. No, this is a new one.'
'Maybe the town was part of his psychic projection,' Garcia suggested.
Morgan shook his head. 'This is way too fucked up.'
'Phone!' Garcia said suddenly. Emily stared at her. 'Now that he's stopped projecting, the phones might work.'
Emily felt for her pockets, before realizing that she didn't have any. She was still wearing the dress from earlier. She felt the cold against her skin, and the bruises forming on her neck. Morgan, thankfully, had his.
He bit back a laugh. 'Twelve missed calls.'
'Wouldn't you have heard them ringing?' Emily asked, immediately realizing how stupid a question it was. 'Never mind. I don't want to know.'
He set the phone to speaker before making a call to Hotch. It was picked up a split second into the first ring.
There was silence on the line.
'Hotch?' Morgan ventured.
'Where the hell are you?' was the reply, and Emily almost laughed. Somehow, after everything that had happened, it still amused her to hear Hotch swearing.
'Route 375,' Morgan answered, adding a hesitant, 'I think,' because really, after everything that had happened, they could have been on the freaking moon.
'What happened? We've been down that road four times, looking for you.'
'I…' He stopped. Emily didn't blame him. It wasn't exactly the kind of thing you could explain on the phone. 'Maybe it would be easier if you just came here. Bring an ambulance.'
'We'll be there soon,' Hotch promised.
"Soon" turned out to be less than twenty minutes, which was impressive, considering there was no way they could have known exactly where things had gone wrong.
In any case, Emily felt her heart leap with joy when she saw the headlights of the SUVs shining in the distance.
It was time to go home.
'Are you sure you didn't hit your head?' Hotch asked, the moment Morgan finished telling the story. He gave Garcia a look. She shrugged, apologetic.
'I don't know what to tell you, Hotch. Ask Reid and Prentiss – they'll tell you the same thing.'
After they got out of hospital.
Rossi had accompanied the other two agents in the ambulance, which left JJ, Hotch, Morgan and Garcia in the SUV. Morgan was trying to explain just what had happened out there, while Garcia pulled up the records for one Eric Reber.
'Got it!' she announced, interrupting the moment of tension that was building between Morgan and Hotch. 'Eric Reber, 33. His wife died in a car accident two months ago. He was driving, and he was over the limit. Night time on a highway in the middle of a desert. Sound familiar?'
'What about "Walton?"' Morgan asked. 'What about all those people – did they come out of his memories, too?'
'It'll take a while to track all that down,' Garcia told him. He nodded.
Their case in Warm Springs, as it turned out, had been passed over to another team. It was a fact that seemed almost arbitrary, after what they'd been through, after what they'd discovered. Still, Morgan couldn't quite reconcile what had happened, and part of him still wondered if it was all some kind of joke.
The realization that it wasn't was a sobering thought.
All Derek Morgan knew for sure was that he'd never look at a case the same way again.
Two Months Later
It was a nice facility. The trees were both green and abundant, and Emily half expected the sign on the gate to say "Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters" but it didn't. It said "The Walton Institute."
The connection wasn't lost on either of them.
Doctor William Walton was in charge of the Institute. "We don't like to say 'warden,'" he'd told her on the phone. "Labeling Theory does a lot more harm than good for most people."
Emily was still a little apprehensive, though, which was unsurprising. Reid cocked his head at her. 'You okay?'
'Yeah,' she shrugged. She let a hand brush against her neck. The bruises had faded, but the nightmares were still there.
'You don't have to do this, you know,' he told her.
'Yes I do.'
He didn't question it any further.
They'd somehow managed to get clearance for this trip, though it had taken just about all of Garcia's hacking prowess. Neither she nor Morgan seemed interested in accompanying them, though, which didn't surprise her. Just like it didn't surprise her that Reid was interested.
'Kind of freaky, though,' she blurted out. The words were insensitive, even to her ears. She kicked herself. 'I mean…This guy was powerful enough to mess with our minds, so that we didn't even know they were being messed with, and there's enough of them that they have a freaking school, and we didn't even know about it. Guess it makes you wonder what else we don't know about.'
'A lot,' Reid answered. He rang the bell on the gate. 'As a species, we've barely scratched the surface of the wonders of the universe.'
'Agents Prentiss and Reid, FBI,' he spoke into the microphone. 'We're here to see a patient.' There was a beep, and the smaller gate swung open.
They were greeted in the reception area by Doctor Walton, a man with graying hair that looked ridiculously familiar.
'Doctor Walton.' Reid held out a hand, which the other Doctor shook enthusiastically.
'Please,' he said, 'Call me Bill.'
Emily gave Reid a look. He shrugged.
'We have Mr. Reber on Anti-Psychotics, which appear to have greatly reduced his symptoms. I don't know how much you know about Paranoid Schizophrenia, but…in a lifetime, perhaps 40% of patients will recover fully. 30% will live with the disease for the rest of their lives, and around 30% will have an intermittent course of relapse and recovery. Considering the strength of his abilities, there's really no way of knowing whether he will ever recover.'
Emily nodded. Walton led them upstairs, to what she assumed was the living quarters. A brass name plaque on one of the doors read "E. Reber." Walton knocked twice.
'Eric…there are some people here to see you.'
The door opened, and Emily tried her hardest not to flinch. The man standing before her seemed a little less bedraggled, and a little more in control of himself. He caught her gaze for a few seconds before breaking away in what seemed to be embarrassment.
He looked towards Walton, almost pleadingly. Apparently there had been some kind of conversation between them prior to Reid and Emily's arrival. He stepped backwards to let them inside.
The room was small, and simply furnished. A neatly made twin bed took up one wall, with a matching bookshelf, desk and dresser on the other. Sunlight streamed in through the open window.
Emily looked over at the desk, half expecting to see that face, drawn over and over again. There was a stack of paper in one corner of the desk, all of the pages blank.
'I'm sorry I tried to kill you,' Eric said. His words seemed to be directed towards both of them, but he was looking at Emily. She suppressed the urge to avert her gaze. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't hate him. His mind had been broken. Maybe it still was.
Maybe that's why she was here with Reid, instead of Morgan or Garcia. They were understanding, but they didn't understand.
In the end, they didn't stay long.
Her Prius was parked down the street, outside of a large, two story house. She slid into the driver's seat and stared at the wheel.
'Do you think…' She stopped, frowning. The right words were so hard to find. 'Do you think he brought us there on purpose? I mean…not to kill, but maybe as some kind of…cry for help.'
Reid didn't answer immediately. After all, it was a question of the heart as much it was a question of the mind.
'I don't know,' he said eventually. He looked down at the clock on the dashboard. 'It's almost two.'
'I know,' Emily nodded, half glad at the change of subject. She started the car, heading off in the direction of the restaurant where they had planned to meet Morgan and Garcia for lunch.
With any luck, they'd make it there unscathed.