A/N: Thanks for your patience while we finished "Solitary 5 Point 0." Usual disclaimers apply, not mine, only the situations and OCs spring from my own imagination. As always, thanks to Esperanta, without whom all of this would be a lot harder to read. On to complete "Pixels in the Night" now!
Watching the Watchers
Epilogue, Part Three: Thursday
The Word from Justice
Her immediate superior, an ambitious, canny career bureaucrat named Pikeman, called her in to Quantico on Thursday, a full three days after her life had gone mad. Her vehicle was now available for release and pickup, he informed her, and he hoped that they could meet while she was there, 'at your convenience—say, at eleven-fifteen.'
Which didn't sound like her convenience at all, but did sound just like Charlie Pikeman, who was known (in hushed whispers, when that vindictive individual was safely out of earshot) as "the Chucky-Doll." Office gossip was that he compensated for his failure to participate in the arrest of even a single UNSUB by taking down agents deemed lacking in the critical suck-up factor. His floor, they said, was carpeted in the scalps of better men whom Chucky-Doll had submerged in a sea of petty directives and then held down until their ambition or their pride died, one or the other.
Erin Strauss was smart, savvy, and had sufficient suck-up to keep Charlie Pikeman confident that she posed no threat to him. She dressed in her professional best and had her daughter Krystal drive her to Quantico. There she signed a mind-numbing array of forms in order to get her car back. Once that was accomplished and she was assured of a way to get home, she kissed her daughter goodbye and took the elevator to Pikeman's level of the building.
"Ah, Strauss," he said, not rising from his desk as she entered his office. "Is everything A-OK with your car?"
"It is," she replied.
"Won't you have a seat?" Charlie Pikeman urged. "This thing that happened to you, it was just dreadful."
"It was. It still is."
"Well, help is on the way," the Chucky-Doll assured her, and produced yet another stack of official forms. "As you can see, this will absolve you, Erin Strauss, of any proven complicity in the efforts to falsify evidence against—"
"Let's get something straight," Erin hissed, leaning forward with an intensity that indicated she was fresh out of suck-up. "There's no 'proven' because there's no 'complicity,' because the only evidence that was falsified was against our own agents. Did you get that part, Agent Pikeman? The part where evidence indicates unmistakably that the agents of the BAU were the victims here, and not the perpetrators?"
"Yes, of course," he said, his urbanity slipping just the tiniest bit. "At this time there seems to be no credible evidence tying you personally to this mess."
"Well let's just hope so, shall we?" she blurted. "Since Justice has more than enough evidence that this was a set-up from beginning to end."
Pikeman whitened, and anger flared in his eyes. "At this point in the investigation, evidence does seem to indicate—"
"No 'at this point,' no 'seems to indicate,'" Erin said, leaning forward and matching Pikeman's anger, flash for flash. "It is an incontrovertible fact. The sun rises in the east. Two and two are four. E equals MC squared. And the agents and chief of the BAU were framed. I will not tolerate any slippery language regarding this, Pikeman." She slammed a hand down on the surface of his desk. "Not a single wiggle-word. If that sheaf of papers includes words like alleged and at this time and inconclusive, then you can just send them back out and get them retyped, because I will not sign them. Are we clear?"
Pikeman wisely backed off a little. "I'm sure we can work something out," he said smoothly. "Take a few minutes," he urged. "Look it over, note whatever emendations you think best."
She did so. Most of it was meaningless boilerplate, but two pages were literally blue with ink from her ballpoint before she was fully satisfied with them. Pikeman accepted the pages back and sent them out for some word-processing drone to re-key to her satisfaction.
Erin was beginning to think that she'd somehow managed to win this one, when abruptly the senior bureaucrat gave her a toothy smile.
"If it suits your schedule," he said, "I'll have your BAU folks called in for a meeting tomorrow afternoon. You can chair the meeting, issue apologies as needed, and get their signatures on the release forms."
Instantly, Strauss was on her feet. "'Issue apologies as needed'?" she said, her voice as cold as her eyes. "I haven't even received my own apology. There's no way in hell that I'm going to sit there and sing the company line on this one, Pikeman. If anyone in the world other than you had reviewed the charges when they first crossed your desk, this whole situation would have been unnecessary. Really," she added, her voice taking on a dangerous edge. "It was that clear, it was that obvious. It was that sloppily documented.
"But no, supporting your troops just doesn't come naturally to you," she continued. "You're far better at calling them out. The old 'praise in public and punish in private' thing, it means nothing to you. It's all about stomping on your underlings. Well, let me tell you what you're going to do, Chucky-Doll."
Pikeman stared at her in something that might have been horror.
"You—and I hope you have the balls to do it yourself and not delegate it to some other poor fool—you will go out into the big wide world with your forms, and you will visit each of those agents. Call it your own door-to-door 'Apology Tour.' You'll suck it up and walk them through the forms. They deserve nothing less."
"Agent Strauss, this is insubordination."
If she had any caution left, she threw it to the winds. "Then so be it."
~ o ~
The summons from Division Chief Pikeman had come shortly before noon on a lazy day when Hotch was just starting to get into the advantages of this whole suspended-with-pay thing, being in his third consecutive day of suspension that didn't involve car chases, shootouts, or being jailed.
He'd known it was too good to last, though, so he suited up and caught a ride from Jamie, his lawyer. Jamie was unwilling to let his client face any of his accusers without representation, but after he'd hovered around long enough to confirm that Aaron had possession of his car again, he reluctantly left Hotch on his own.
Frankly, Hotchner preferred to face the Chief by himself. He could think of only two reasons he might be ordered into Charles Pikeman's presence: Pikeman was going to apologize, or Pikeman was going to shout at him. Since Chucky-Doll wasn't the apologizing type, shouting was probably on the menu, and Aaron preferred to get yelled at in private.
"Ah, Agent Hotchner," the bureaucrat said when he knocked on Pikeman's door.
"Chief," Hotchner said without enthusiasm.
"Won't you have a seat?" Pikeman urged. "We haven't had a meaningful chat in a long time, have we, Hotchner?"
Because there was just conceivably an apology in the offing, Hotch said nothing about never having had a meaningful conversation with the Chucky-Doll. "It's been a while," he said in a neutral tone.
"I've been following your career with interest," Pikeman confided. "You're amassing quite a reputation." When Hotchner didn't immediately leap in to thank him, Pikeman lost a bit of his rhythm, but none of his determination. "And I thought you should know that there are—shall we say, openings, for a man of your caliber who knows what's what."
Excuse me? The only opening in the gap between Pikeman's pay grade and his own was at the moment occupied by Erin ("Bride of Chucky") Strauss. Hotch decided that, again, the best response was to say nothing.
"I have here some release forms for your team," the Chucky-Doll continued with an urbane chuckle. "Nothing dramatic, just simple acknowledgments, clearing the decks, so to speak, so everyone can get back on the same page and the same team." He offered a we're-all-in-this-together smile of camaraderie that didn't fool Hotchner for so much as an instant.
"'Back on the same page'?" Aaron echoed gently. "'Back on the same team'?"
"Yes, of course," Director Pikeman said with a big brave smile that had nada in the way of sincerity behind it—and yet, curiously, a certain hint of—desperation?
Aaron accepted the stack of releases and reviewed them rapidly and with a growing sense of dismay. Who the hell had vetted these monstrosities? Surely nobody with any legal skill. The Team—and Hotchner himself—would not only be absolving the Bureau of any responsibility for what had happened, but also all but tendering an apology to Pikeman and the Bureau for all the ensuing confusion.
"I'll arrange a meeting for your people tomorrow," the Chucky-Doll said, perhaps a little too eagerly. "You can present the releases to—"
"No," Hotchner said, barely containing his outrage. There was no end to the crap that he was prepared to take to protect his Team, but there was no way in hell he would stand by and let them take responsibility for Pikeman's incompetence. "No meeting."
And that was when he put two and two together.
He's already presented this to Erin, he realized. He presented it to her, and she refused to chair this meeting.
He recalled with a private smile the chain-smoking slattern in halter-top, curlers, and stretch pants who'd baffled the team sent to Garcia's place.
The Bride of Chucky has grown a spine and claws, he realized, and he was no longer able to keep the grin off his face.
"This is absolutely unacceptable," he told Pikeman. "My people deserve better than this. They owe nobody—nobody—an apology, let alone you. I'm not addressing them in any meeting. If I have to, I'll call them and tell them to disregard your invitation. If you had any cojones at all, you'd be apologizing to them. Has Legal seen this crap, or did you draw it up yourself?"
Pikeman said nothing, but his expression gave him away.
"Whatever Chief Strauss said," Hotchner said, as he rose to his feet and tossed the sheaf of releases back on Pikeman's desk, "I'm saying the same thing, sir. Have a nice day."
"Agent Hotchner!" Pikeman called as Hotch left.
He turned and glared. "Sir?"
Pikeman glowered right back at him. "She was disrespectful, insubordinate, and thoroughly unprofessional."
Hotchner nodded curtly. "That's good to hear."
~ o ~
His phone buzzed while he was in the produce section of the supermarket, examining a pair of eggplants with a critical eye. He eyed the Caller ID on the faceplate—it was his attorney—and said, "Yeah, Donnie, what's up?"
"You might want to get home," Donnie said. "Just a little heads-up that some powers from Justice are planning to drop by your place shortly."
Rossi checked the time and said, "OK, I can be home in forty minutes, more or less."
"Can you make it faster?"
"Donnie, you intrigue me," Rossi said with a grin. "What can be so important that I should rush home from planning my dinner?"
"Look, Dave, all I'm saying is that weird things are happening, OK? And you might want to be ahead of the curve on this, OK?"
Rossi regretfully rejected another eggplant: too ripe. "Fine," he said with a sigh. "I'll be home by three-fifteen."
~ o ~
Marvin the lawyer was back at her door, short and pudgy and endlessly cheerful.
"I've gone through all the lists," she assured him. "They've returned everything."
"That's great," he told her. "I'm here because I got a heads-up from the DoJ that the Bureau is sending a rep over here, and I should ensure that your rights are protected."
"Technically," she said, "I'm the only person on the Team who isn't supervisory, and I can get an Association rep over here."
"Just following orders, Ms. Garcia," he said, with an apologetic shrug.
She wanted to ask, But whose orders? She decided that could wait. She opened the door wide. "Come on in then," she said. "I'll make some coffee."
But no sooner did she have him seated than her buzzer sounded again. With a sigh, she returned to the door and opened it wide.
An enormous man in an ill-fitting blue suit almost filled her doorway. "Justice," he growled, and flashed his creds. The smaller man, far better dressed, displayed Bureau creds so fast she barely managed to read the name. There was something familiar about his toothy and insincere smile.
Charles Pikeman? Division Chief Pikeman was at the door to her apartment?
"On behalf of everyone at the Department of Justice, and the Bureau in particular," Pikeman said in a hurried monotone, "I'd like to apologize for the situation that, ah, effectuated on Monday of this week—"
'Situation that effectuated'? That isn't even really English….
Pikeman thrust a ballpoint pen and some forms on a clipboard at her, evidently under the charming misapprehension that she'd sign them without reading them. Even if the huge man hadn't wrinkled his brow and frowned at her, even if Marvin hadn't already popped out of his chair, if he hadn't already been hovering at her side, visibly itching to get his hands on those documents, she would never have been that stupid.
With the sweetest smile she could summon, she handed the papers to the lawyer. He took them with a sweet smile of his own.
Nobody offered Pikeman a seat or a cup of coffee. Nobody offered the big guy one either, but he didn't seem interested in anything much other than watching Pikeman like an overgrown hawk. He just loomed over the Division Chief and occasionally let a grim smile flash across his forbidding features.
~ o ~
Two dark, official-looking sedans pulled up in front of his house, each with only a driver, no passenger. Dave wondered why they hadn't come together until Charles Pikeman climbed out of one—and Victor Wozniak climbed out of the other.
No. Those two didn't strike him as likely to be best buddies.
The Chucky-Doll bustled officiously up the walkway with Wozniak lumbering behind him, a dangerously amused look on his face.
Rossi retrieved a carton from his cupboards, tore open a plastic bag, and grabbed a handful of the bag's contents. Then he flung his door open and beamed at the self-important little jerk ascending the front steps. "Welcome!" he caroled. "You're a few days early, but those are great costumes!" He thrust a double fistful of miniature candy bars at them. "Where are your treat bags?"
Pikeman said nothing.
Wozniak smiled thinly. "Nah, I'm just accompanying him. Somebody evidently thought that having a responsible adult along would ensure that everything went smoothly."
Dave beamed. "Come on in, boys."
~ o ~
Her Caller ID indicated that it was Dave Rossi on the phone. "Hey, hi," she said. "What's up?"
"You'll never guess who was here a while ago with a whole clipboard of releases and the most inept, the saddest excuse for an apology you're likely ever to hear," the senior profiler said, and she could hear the amusement in his voice.
"Oh, tell me it was Pikeman," Emily breathed into her mobile.
"The same. And somebody sicced Wozniak on him to make sure he plays by the rules."
"Wozniak? But—isn't he with DoJ? And isn't he an interrogator?"
"He has one of those—flexible job descriptions," said Rossi. "He goes wherever he's needed."
"That's—hang on, someone's at my door now," Emily said.
She rang off with Dave and buzzed her visitors upstairs.
"Well, look at you!" she said to her visitors as they stalked down the hall. "Just the cutest little munchkins I've seen so far!"
"Not amusing," Pikeman replied in sour tones. He held out a clipboard. "Some forms for you to review and sign."
"And?" she prompted.
He looked puzzled. "And?" he repeated uncertainly.
"You didn't say 'Trick or Treat!'"
Pikeman's lips tightened. "This has ceased to be funny," he snapped. "It wasn't even amusing the first time."
Prentiss glanced at Wozniak, who shrugged and said, "I think it's hilarious, myself."
~ o ~
Once he and Norma had reviewed the language of the releases, including the one that would enable him to pick up his car from Quantico, he scrawled his name in five separate places and handed the clipboard back to the Chucky-Doll.
Unlike Prentiss, unlike Rossi, Morgan had felt no urge to torment the bringer of the apology, such as it was—but he did have some questions.
"What I want to know," he said, keeping his tone civil, "is who drew up the release?"
"It was—" Pikeman began cautiously, his tone uncharacteristically hesitant, "—a bit of a group effort. Basic legal boilerplate, then I, ah, felt it might be useful to incorporate some—modest suggestions tendered by other members of the department. This was, after all, quite an—unusual situation."
"Not quite that unusual," Morgan said. "Ethics and Internal Affairs, Office of Professional Responsibility, they've dealt with alleged rogue behaviors for years. Even frame-ups aren't unheard of. Nothing there that takes a committee to create."
He'd already spoken to Norma about it, and she'd conferred with Garcia's, Rossi's, Hotch's, and Strauss's attorneys and he already knew that the release was forty percent boilerplate, ten percent Pikeman, forty percent Aaron Hotchner, and a fluffy ten percent whipped cream courtesy of Erin Strauss.
OK, he just preferred to torment the guy in a different way.
~ o ~
Considering that the party had been thrown together almost literally at the last minute did nothing to detract from its sheer awesomeness. Julian had opened up his apartment at the Watergate Complex for the venue. Some little bitty guy in a chauffeur's uniform (who wore more handguns than Morgan) had commandeered the kitchen and spun from oven to range top to microwave like a possessed chimp, banging metal on metal and filling the place with amazing aromas.
It had started out Team only, but of course they'd had to include Erin and JJ, which meant that Will and Kevin had to be invited. Emily had brought Ernesto, who'd brought the night's chef. Morgan wanted to ring his lawyer—apparently, they'd begun dating—so gradually a bunch of other lawyers had been included, and even a gigantic interrogator from the DoJ. Garcia had also invited one of the Bureau guys who'd searched her apartment, who had brought his boyfriend—who had brought his karaoke setup. Then Julian had invited the dudes from two floors down who played in—really—a State-Department-backed alt-punk band.
They'd been celebrating for the better part of two hours now. Two couples—Derek Morgan and his lawyer, Norma, and JJ and Will—were slow dancing, dreamy-eyed, to some Sicilian ballad that Dave Rossi and Ernesto Cavallieri were crooning. It sounded romantic, but Reid had picked up a little bit of the language from hanging around Julian, and he was pretty sure that an incontinent goat featured prominently in it. He looked around to confirm this notion with Emily Prentiss, but she and Julian were out on the terrace with a couple lawyers and everyone was laughing.
Hotch, Garcia, and the enormous interrogator hovered over the makeshift buffet, apparently trying to guess what was in some of the fare the chauffeur had laid out. Reid himself was feeling the effects of more alcohol than he usually allowed himself.
"Hey." Reid looked up, and it was Erin Strauss, neither in business wear nor in her Brandy Mae getup. She was wearing something festive and slinky and glittery and she looked pretty damned pleased with herself. She dropped down onto the arm of the chair where he sat.
"It's been—a week," she said. Her voice reflected her own blood alcohol level.
"It sure has."
"Do you have your hand on my butt?"
He looked. "Yeah," he said slowly. "Guess I do. Should I move it?"
She settled in closer against him, or maybe she was just sliding sideways. It was hard to tell. "Oh—eventually." She stared off at nothing for a minute, then said, "I think we did pretty well."
"We did," he said. "We made a pretty good team."