12:01 a.m. PST, Sunday
The box was opening.
She'd lost track of the time she'd been in the box. Lost track of the times he'd bathed her, only to dress her and style her hair… and rape her. Again and again. There wasn't much left of her inside her head, only a little voice that kept her alive. Kept her breathing in and out.
When she saw his face, the smile… the gun… some part of her was relieved.
Oh thank God, she thought. It's finally over.
And then… pain.
10:20 p.m. PST, Wednesday (Halo Night)
"I lost sight of her! Damnit! I lost sight of her. Oh shit, this is not going to be good," Howard said over the headset (he was playing in his bedroom instead of the apartment this time), his voice carefully pitched low enough not to disturb his mother or Bernadette.
"I'm trying to get a visual on her," Leonard said. "Nobody panic until there's something –"
"It's been quiet too long," Raj fretted. "Too long!" He took a sip of the beer he was nursing in order to make talking to Penny
Boom. The explosion seemed to come from nowhere, catching them all off guard. Blue uniforms went flying in every direction.
"Hold it together! Hold it together!" Leonard shouted.
"I could do a better job of that if someone wasn't yelling in my ear," Howard muttered, trying desperately to get control of his character.
"Muwahaha!" Sheldon's voice came over the headset. "Eat that, weaklings!"
"Focus, Sheldon!" Penny snapped at him. "No use gloating until the fat lady sings."
Sheldon's mouth quirked up in amusement, but he nodded.
"Why do we let them play on the same team again?" Leonard asked, out of the side of his mouth.
Raj gestured wordlessly to the exchange happening just down the couch from the.
"Hit the –"
"I see it, Sheldon. You focus on doing your part!"
"Penny! Behind you!"
"I'll take care of this guy, you get the –"
Leonard sighed, and Raj lifted an eyebrow, as if to say: "That's why."
"I don't want to brag," Penny said, stretching tensing muscles out as she got off the couch, "but we slaughtered you."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Raj said under his breath, his necessary half-a-beer making him more sullen than usual. "Rub it in."
"Penny's not gloating. She's merely making an assertion of truth," Sheldon said, rising to his feet. "In Texas, we'd say you got took out back."
Penny grinned. "We kicked your ass."
"I'm going to bed," Raj announced, laying prone on the couch.
"Get your feet out of my spot!" Sheldon practically screeched, his eyebrows migrating up his forehead nearly to his hairline.
Obliging due to a lack of energy, Raj dropped his feet to the floor and promptly fell asleep.
"I'm going to scoot," Penny said, deftly stepping around the debris from the evening's festivities. "I've got an audition in the morning and then a shift in the afternoon."
"An audition?" Leonard asked, following her as she started out the door. "What for?"
"I don't know that much about it. It's just a bit part. My agent has an in, though, so hopefully something comes out of it." Penny didn't look excited, the way she often had when Leonard and Sheldon had first met her and she had an opportunity to advance her acting career.
"Good luck," Leonard said, raising his hand.
"Thanks, guys! I had fun. See you later!" She said over her shoulder as she walked out the door.
Sheldon didn't even say good-bye. That was something he would think about quite often in the days to come.
7:02 a.m. EST, Saturday
Spencer Reid had more than a nodding familiarity with his phone ringing at odd hours of the day and night. He had no problem, now, coaxing his mind from sleep to awareness in the space of moments. That didn't mean, however, that he wasn't still sometimes surprised.
He'd just fallen asleep, really. He'd been pushing himself hard to finish his psychology thesis the night before, knowing that he had the weekend off and would be able to make up for his lack of sleep during the daytime hours. Left to his own devices, Spencer preferred to do the bulk of his thinking at night, when there wasn't as much stimulus for his brain to latch on to, when he could run on the fuel of coffee and be comforted by the lull of the television in the background, and the sound of his keys clacking in the night. There was something … reassuring, about this routine. Academia had remained in his life since his adolescence and he still appreciated its rigors and routines, and the structure it had afforded his life when he had been looking for anything he could count on.
His cell phone rang. Incessantly, he knew, because he heard it and decided to ignore it, pursuing sleep with a dogged determination, but the ringing cut through that and his sense of responsibility won out.
"Dr. Spencer Reid," he said, not checking the display. Only the Bureau or one of his teammates would call him at this hour.
"Spencer, I'm not sure you remember me," said a deep voice with a trace of a Texas accent.
"Oh good. I was afraid I'd have to indulge in a tiresome social ritual."
Spencer's lips quirked in amusement. It was good to know that some things never changed. "Eidetic memory."
"Yes, of course. Apologies. Recent events have left me… frazzled."
"Something I can help you with, Sheldon?"
"Yes. It has come to my attention that you're considered something of an expert in the field of criminal psychology."
Reid tried very hard not to laugh. "That's true."
"As you know, it is difficult for me to admit when I… may be out of my… that is…" Sheldon drew in a shaky breath. "Penny is missing."
Reid reached for his glasses and sat up. "What's going on, Sheldon?"
9:30 a.m. EST, Saturday
He'd been sitting in Garcia's office for the last half-hour, his fingers flying over keys. Although he couldn't claim to be as good with computers as the tech analyst, he was able to use a search engine.
"Reid?" Garcia popped her head in the door. "You know I love you, sugar, but breaking and entering is a felony. I'm going to need you to put your hands in the air and back away from the computer slowly."
"Over the past year and a half, girls have been disappearing from Pasadena, California at regular intervals. The girls go missing on a Sunday – two weeks later authorities find the body in a public place. State and city parks, outside of buildings…"
"No witnesses. Our unsub is organized and intelligent."
"Here's the thing, Reid. I wasn't aware we'd been called to help with a case in Pasadena," Garcia said, "and I'm usually the first one to know these days."
"We haven't been, at least not officially. I put in a call earlier this morning. I'm waiting to hear back."
"Reid." Garcia's brow knitted in concern. "What's going on?"
"I got a call from old friend," Spencer said, pushing back from the computer and rubbing his eyes. "A friend of his has gone missing."
"She fits the victimology. I know it's our weekend off… I'm planning to fly out myself. I'll use vacation time if I have to…"
"What's going on?" Hotch asked from the door way. He'd foregone his usual straight-from GQ suit and had donned jeans and a sweater to fight against the Virginia cold. "Reid, what are you doing here? And what's this I'm hearing about a consult on the case in Pasadena?"
Reid sighed. "Hotch, it's our weekend off. What are you doing here?"
"Jack's at a sleepover. I have paperwork." Hotch shrugged.
"Hey, Baby Girl, you know I love your sexy ass, but what's up with calling me so early on a Saturday when you know I was… Oh. Hey Reid, Hotch. What's going on?"
"Reid's thinking of flying out to California to consult on a case on his own time," Garcia said, putting her hands on her hips.
"Reid? What's going on?"
Reid fought the urge to pound his head into the desk.
"Well, hey hey hey, the gang's all here," JJ's voice carried over the chatting going on. Reid looked up and saw her and Prentiss in the door way.
"Okay, I love you all, but my office is way too small for this. Get out, my darlings. Out!" Garcia pushed them out the door.
Two hours later, they were on a plane.
11:52 a.m. EST, Saturday
Somewhere over the continental United States
"So, what's the deal with your friend Sheldon, Reid?" Prentiss asked, plopping herself in the seat next to him. "I've never heard you talk about him before."
"You wouldn't have," Reid said. "I don't usually… That is to say, we haven't talked in a while. He's a few years older than me… a theoretical physicist at Cal Tech."
"So you guys did your undergrad work together?"
"No. He was a professor… and a friend, obviously."
Prentiss raised her eyebrows. "He's a few years older than you and he was your professor?"
"Yes. He has an extremely high IQ and an eidetic memory."
"So what you do even talk about, man?" Morgan asked, a smile quirking his lips.
"Sheldon had some… uh. Unique challenges." Reid swallowed. "I want to be fair: part of the reason I was planning on coming out here by myself is that I'm not sure…"
"Spit it out," Morgan said.
"Sheldon's an obsessive-compulsive, socially awkward genius. He has a particular need to do things in threes – possibly stemming from his religious background. He prefers that nothing in his world changes or shifts, and assigns the people in his life roles and provides them with contracts, more so that he'll understand his obligations to them than the other way around."
"Is he delusional?"
"No. At least, not when I knew him. But I've not spoken to him for years. Actually spoken, that is. We exchange professional correspondence on a regular basis… the last time I heard from him before now, we discussed my pursuit of a psych degree, and some of my papers that have been published… and a recent professional setback he had encountered."
"Is it possible that he's our unsub, and he's reaching out for you to stop him?"
Reid shrugged. "He's a narcissist, but he's never expressed sexual interest in… anyone, as far as I know."
"Which doesn't fit the profile we can work up," Hotch said, his voice carrying over the plane and reining everyone in.
JJ studied the pictures in front of her. "There are no stab wounds, but there are bruises and signs the women were restrained for long periods of time."
"All of the women are excessively made up," Prentiss said, crossing her legs. "Blue eye-shadow, bright red lipstick…"
"All blondes, all in their mid-to-late twenties. And all malnourished. The coroner says the last girl, April Travers, only had a couple of more days to live, anyway."
"All actresses," said Garcia's voice over Morgan's phone. "Penelope Opheim has appeared in a few local and one national commercials, and April Travers just made her debut in a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in a local theater to some nice reviews."
"So… our unsub is targeting blonde actresses in California." Morgan shook his head. "With that kind of pool of victims…"
No more needed to be said.
12:15 p.m. PST, Saturday
Somewhere in Pasadena, California
Penny woke up pissed.
Well, a little scared. But mostly pissed. The last time someone had gotten the jump on her, she'd been in elementary school and that little bitch Tiffany Heines had dropped on her from the monkey bars. Back then, Penny had held her own, and Tiffany had paid dearly for her mistake. Penelope Opheim did not get jumped.
Except for when she was distracted… because this acting gig wasn't really working out, and it was difficult to pay the bills, and waitressing was starting to hurt her more than just physically. Her back hurt, her feet hurt, and her smile was starting to dull. She was happy for Bernadette, really, but her friend's happiness with Howard was only highlighting how alone she felt, and plugging the holes in her psyche with meaningless sex was starting to wear on her.
She'd been contemplating Nebraska, the way she sometimes did. She knew it was a romantic notion, but she'd found herself longing for an endless sky and a field of corn. She'd been longing for home.
The blow to the back of the head had surprised her, but it hadn't knocked her unconscious. She'd turned to fight, and that's when she had seen the knife. It had given her pause – it hadn't stopped her, but it had given her pause, and that was all the time the jackass had needed.
…And now she had a bitch of a headache and… she lifted her hands above her. Wall. To the side. Wall. Underneath of her, floor. To the other side… wall.
She had a bitch of a headache and some psycho had put her in a fucking box.