The headache forming just behind his eyes couldn't be rubbed away no matter how hard he tried. Shaw didn't look much better than he felt—she absolutely looked like someone had run over her puppy. Sweets looked just as dejected as if there had been an epidemic of puppies being crushed under the wheels of Washington vehicles.
God, thought Booth, she looked feral enough to be the one behind the wheel of that rust bucket of hers taking out puppies as if they were mere scoring opportunities.
Caroline looked like she might run over him if he didn't come up with something soon.
"I'm sorry, sir," Shaw started and he waved off the apology.
"I get it," he said and only cast a warning look at Sweets before he started in on another round of explanations or suggestions. "Our blonde. . . ."
"A long shot if I ever saw one," Caroline groused. "And you've put the whole pot on her."
"Our blonde witness, Jennifer Reade, is unavailable," he finished.
"Miss Montenegro is still checking," Shaw offered, but they both knew that Caroline's assessment was right. If they were lucky, Reade and McIntyre were halfway across the country and avoiding art fairs. If they weren't, the person or persons responsible for Mull's death had notched two more deaths.
"The teens we talked to at the youth center. . . ," Sweets started, but Caroline was in no mood for a recap.
"Are fine upstanding citizens who would never harm a fly," Caroline interrupted, "although most of them have records longer than that suit over there."
He had little more than 9 hours before he would don that suit and watch Bones and her squinterns accept an award that honored their work as well as that of Mr. Vincent Nigel-Murray. Failing to find Darius Mulls' killer seemed somehow to dishonor his memory as un-rational as that sounded.
"You need something," Caroline just wouldn't be denied. "The bad boys in blue have expensive lawyers, which makes them guilty in my book."
He had people looking for Reade and McIntyre, people sitting on Reade's home on the off-chance that she might go there. McIntyre had been trickier, but he managed to track down a sister in Illinois.
But the bottom-line was simple: the trail was colder than the look Caroline was giving him.
"We just talk to the cops."
Sweets looked hopeful. "A grand jury is expected to hand down indictments on the cops." He shrugged. "They can't expect to go scot-free on the charges. At that point they'll admit to killing Darius Mull for some kind of plea bargain."
"You aren't supposed to know about that grand jury," Caroline grumbled.
His gut told him the cops had done it—they were the only ones who had a reason to kill Mull. But his head—the one in which Bones' voice sometimes nudged him out of his way of thinking—told him something different.
"What if we've been thinking it was the cops because someone wanted us to think it was them."
Sweets gave him a squinty look. Shaw just looked confused. And Caroline?
"Who would have thought you ever won gambling?"
He ignored the jibe. "Mull knows what's going on in the neighborhood. The teens in the area tell him things. He's been one of them so he knows what's what. Big Daddy uses him, trusts him. Gang leaders have a hands-off policy with him. Cops. . . the cops. . . ."
"The cops leave him alone because he also reports just enough to them to make them happy."
Shaw had brightened. But the picture hadn't.
"And where does that leave us?" Caroline's eyes bored into him.
"What if someone wanted us to think it was the cops?"
He was gambling. Sweets' look wouldn't give Minnesota Fats confidence.
"Gangs don't torture people for hours," Shaw was saying.
"They like it quick and messy," Caroline said. "Lots of noise to prove who's got the bigger gun."
But it made sense. Or did it?
The headache, full-blown now, refused to let go. But he knew where he could go for some relief.
"I got to go see someone about a murder," he stated as he grabbed his coat from the back of his chair and left Shaw, Sweets and Caroline in his office.
"So you think the gang leaders orchestrated this."
Aldo leaned across the bar, his dark features unreadable. "You think they killed Mull to get at the cops?"
Having Father Aldo say it just didn't sell it like he was hoping. Without evidence, Bones wasn't going to buy it, never mind Caroline. And just having someone else say what he was thinking wasn't really selling him either.
He rubbed at his eyes.
"Even you don't believe the gang leaders are smart enough to pull this off." Aldo's eyebrows came together and Booth knew it was never a good sign. "They kill a guy that is siphoning off some of their weaker recruits? I don't understand how he's a problem."
Booth stared down at the coffee sitting on the bar. The dings and scratches of hundreds of bar drinks couldn't be disguised by layers of varnish. Only a good sanding would make it right.
"Big Daddy." Something deep inside him clicked and he knew. He knew this was it. "Big Daddy did this."
"First it was the cops, then this Big Daddy." Aldo brought his own cup of coffee to his lips. "Is this how you solve all your crimes? Find a conspiracy theory you like and hold on for dear life?"
"No, no." Booth waved his hand over the bar, then set down the lighter than he'd been holding. "He wants back into the world he's known for years. Wants to leave a legacy behind, but he also wants the gang leaders to know he's one of them still."
"Papers said the man was dying. That fire only accelerated his death." Aldo shook his head. "It would be kind of crazy for him to do all this. Why kill Mull at all?"
"Mull's Big Daddy's eyes in the neighborhood. He sees everything that's going on—the cops, the gangs, the. . . ."
Aldo was giving him the look that he knew he needed to respect. "Yeah. The innocent bystanders." But Mull wasn't innocent in this. "Mull looked the other way on what the cops were doing. Shaking down the gangs. Businesses. Drug dealing. Tearing down what Big Daddy was trying to do."
"This Big Daddy was trying to atone for his sins."
"He was trying to leave behind a legacy," Booth argued. "Something Bones said. . . ."
These days his nickname for Bones got little notice, but Aldo's eyebrows had reached new heights.
"Temperance Brennan," Booth supplied. "The woman I live with. The woman I love."
That required further explanation and he sketched out their relationship and punctuated it with Christine.
Aldo's eyes held a glint of, what? Approval? Surprise?
"So, Temperance is the rational one," his confessor suggest. "Maybe you should float this in front of her and see if she thinks it has merit."
Booth picked up his lighter and tapped it against the bar. "It fits. I just have to figure out what it was that Mull did to Big Daddy. Hating the cops is easy."
One eyebrow quirked downward. "I would think that is obvious," Aldo said. "Didn't they take away his playground?"
Years ago when he had the choice to gamble on a game of pool or on a woman, he had chosen the woman. Nine years later he was taking on another gamble and he was betting on the payoff.
"So you think Mull pissed off Big Daddy?" Agent Maci Stefani set down the files on the conference table and began emptying the box. "That he would have the patience for some kind of payback?"
The cops' lawbreaking had been found out and Darius Mull's murder was squarely on them. Or so it seemed. But something that Bones had said that morning, something off-hand and something he'd attributed to her discomfort in working with Stefani had stuck with him. His head, still throbbing, was somehow making a connection he couldn't quite get others to embrace.
"Bones said something. . . ," he paused, looking squarely at Stefani, uncertain that going forward would help the situation between the women. "Let's just say she said something that makes me want to look deeper into Mull's background and into Big Daddy."
Stefani had a smile—half-smile, half-knowing look—that told him she understood the comment was best left unsaid.
"So we look into their backgrounds," Stefani said. "Find what connects them."
She navigated a pile of files around the cartons of Chinese food and for several minutes the only sounds were of papers being flipped over and food being consumed. He stabbed a piece of Kung Pao chicken that had evaded his chopsticks and was about to wrap his mouth around it when Stefani made a sound that seemed almost unearthly.
"What?" he asked as the chicken dropped back into his carton.
Stefani hesitated, then looked up from the file. "Big Daddy was sued while he was in prison. Wrongful death. Here."
The file slid across the table and he started to read the newspaper account. Mrs. Lavinia Smith had sued the gang leader in the death of her two grandchildren who had been killed inadvertently in a shooting tied to him.
"He ordered the hit, his guys missed and she sued him for everything he had. Worked for a lawyer who pressed her to pursue the case." He was about to slide the file back to her when something caught his eye. "It doesn't say who was supposed to be targeted."
"It's a miracle she would do that against someone like Big Daddy," Stefani pointed out, "pretty brave to go up against someone in the neighborhood, especially a gang leader."
"Yeah." Very brave. And very dumb. The case ended when the grandmother died in a car wreck and none of her relatives had the heart—or the guts—to keep the lawsuit alive.
That interruption was met by more silent research and Booth wondered if the picture forming would always be built more on impressions than hard facts. Stefani continued to pore through her pile, but said little.
The records grew as cold as the Chinese food.
Tossing the last of the files back into the box, he watched as Stefani read through a transcript. She looked up.
"You know she wouldn't like it," she said as she flipped the cover over and set her file on top of a pile.
"Your Bones," she said. She pursed her lips. "Your Dr. Brennan?5" She stood and stretched. "She'd say we were speculating and speculation doesn't belong in an investigation."
It's why he hadn't asked her to help him comb through the records.
"So?" Stefani tilted her head and seemed to be assessing him.
"So," he said, then considered the hours of work and the lack of progress. Oh, he knew more about Mull. Got a better picture of gang life under Big Daddy. He'd even gotten himself bootleg copies of the interviews from the cops he had suspected of killing Mull. But nothing but speculation.
"So?" He looked at Stefani and considered the next move. "So we make a bit of noise."
Even a female cop in full dress uniform would catch the eyes of these guys, he thought as they made their way down the alley. A different kind of attention, but he hadn't wanted a show of force, only a means of injecting a little doubt into the gang leader's mind.
Stefani had been game. Jeans and blouse, her gun tucked into her waistband in the back. He'd donned one of his vintage T's and jeans, and because the day was too warm for a jacket, opted to wear his holster in the open.
They weren't here to fool anyone.
But a fast getaway if needed? Stefani had on a blazing neon-green pair of shoes that looked like they came straight out of one of those infernal commercials.
"Hey, mamacita," one of the toughs greeted Stefani, his eyes drawing down her form with an implied lewd invitation that was practically palpable.
Stefani didn't flinch. She leveled her gaze at the young man and walked past him without a word.
But his progress wasn't as smooth. Like some bad rendition of "West Side Story," three guys just a head shorter than him made the shadows come to life and stood in front of him.
"Just came to talk," Booth said. "Just need to talk to your boss."
"We got no boss," one of the toughs answered as he took a step forward. He said something in Spanish that got a laugh out of the one on the left, the one with the lazy eye that seemed to be looking toward the edges of the alleyway.
"Jorge Aguiano. El Tigre."
The odds were certainly not on their side as the alley suddenly became very crowded with other Puños. Spanish went back and forth freely as if they weren't there and he caught fragments of words.
But he had the gist.
He stood and waited because in the crush of bodies there was little else he could do. Stefani said nothing, just let the men leer at her, offer up suggestions for what she could do for them in a mixture of Spanish and English that left nothing to the imagination. But the young men were disciplined enough to avoid contact, only offer up coarse suggestions to put her off her game, to make him react.
As difficult as it was, he remained sniper still. Force would come in his words, not in his actions. He counted 8, no, 9, young men, in various states of dress. They all wore the black and white caps of the White Sox, the bills angled to the right. A few had abandoned T's to the summer heat, the sweat gleaming off hard muscles polished by repetitions in a backyard gym or prison yard.
A flurry of Spanish behind him announced El Tigre's arrival.
"Su en mi casa, ahora," Jorge rattled off. "My casa. My house. You are a very stupid man."
But Stefani turned toward the gang leader, and in a flurry of Spanish, she set their trap.
They'd commandeered the conference room and had spread out printouts of the Jeffersonian's victim boards and were trying to narrow down the suspect pool when Stefani tossed a single file folder into the mix.
He should feel frustrated having gone over the same ground that other agents before him had covered, but something about doing that with an attractive woman who was witty and charming had decidedly positive aspects. Plus, she'd given him the benefit of the doubt and had helped him play a game of telephone with the gangs.
"The reason why I wanted to re-start this investigation," she countered. "He's the stranger who came to the party and spiked the punch."
"I think he did this."
It was the pattern that made investigators believe they were going to catch the truck stop killer. He picked up the woman at a truck stop then deposited her body about 100 miles from the stop. Over 7 states he'd roamed, killed and left law enforcement baffled.
The FBI and local police logged in thousands of man hours, hundreds of interviews and no one suspect had jumped out. Certainly people had their theories, their "best bets", but no real hard evidence that one man had committed the murders.
"Until now," Stefani said.
"That's one compelling case," Booth said.
She'd been explaining her case for more than an hour and it all made sense to him. Keeley had serviced several of the truck stops along the murder route with ice.
"A refrigerated truck is ideal for transporting the women. It screws time of death, gives him someplace to hold them until he can properly dispose of them. And his logs don't have to vary much from the route."
She spread out a long roll of paper that showed a map of the area. Next to each truck stop along the murder route, someone, probably Angela, had placed a number and drawn a line to the body dumpsite. Keeley's regular route was highlighted in orange and it seemed to overlap the murderer's route.
Booth sat back in his chair and looked closely at the woman across from him. She was smart—not Bones smart—but smart enough. She wanted to please him, not in the same way that Shaw did, but in a way that made him feel comfortable, a colleague rather than an underling too eager to please. And, as an added bonus, Stefani was easy on the eyes.
"Brennan's narrowing down the murder weapon, we know he took a souvenir from these women. I'm telling you, Booth, he's the one."
Stefani had the eyes of the fanatic—dark and wide-eyed, shiny with an excitement that went well beyond the puzzle. It was the thrill of the scent—he'd seen it before.
"How'd you narrow it down to him?"
She gave him a look that told him what she thought of that question.
"Really?" She leaned back in her chair and shook her head. "We spend the afternoon spreading seeds for your investigation on the hope that something would grow and you want to know how I got to Kelley?"
The smile was disarming. It was easy to smile back because they had gambled that afternoon. They had done something that was dangerous and clever.
And she had bought into his plan out of a sense of trust.
He waved off his question.
"His route takes him over part of the murder trail, but his logs are practically anal. He accounts for all of his time too perfectly." Stefani leaned in, her perfume pleasantly spicy. "But he knows something. He has to."
Something in his own gut turned over. He leaned in, too, the tug of excitement too great to fight.
Her hand went to his knee and she smiled. "You see it, too, don't you?"
Her hand on his knee completed a loop of some sort, made the electricity jump within him and he knew he needed to back away.
That voice was a different spark of electricity and he looked up to see Angela standing at the doorway to the conference room, the look on her face a stark contrast to the bright summery dress she wore.
Author's note: Should we get a hit out on Punxsutawney Phil? (Or it is a little too much to go after a groundhog?)