A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Early morning light filtered dimly through the blinds in Riley Palmer's hotel room. Everything was silent and still, undisturbed. The alarm sounded loudly, echoing from the walls of the sparsely furnished room, but was immediately cut off. Silence ruled once more, but only for a moment.
Riley sat up slowly, running her fingers through her dark brown hair. Her feet touched the floor, but she didn't stand. Instead she took a deep breath and braced her hands on the edge of the bed. She didn't want to get up, but at the same time she was ready.
It had been a long night of tossing and turning for her. First day jitters were always the worst. All night she wondered about the people she would be working on this case with. That along with the worry of being late the first day made her wake up every few hours in fear of her alarm failing. So she had laid there and stared at the clock for a half hour, her stomach turning too much for her to get up.
Her azure eyes drifted from the thick beige carpet to the desk beside the door. A locked briefcase sat alone on its surface. The contents of the briefcase were why she was even in Quantico. She had been sent as a case specialist to help the BAU with their investigation. Her first field assignment and she was assigned to a serial killer. Go figure.
A low sigh escaped her slightly parted lips as she rose to get dressed. Now was as good a time as ever to get up and get going. It would be a terrible first impression if she was late the first day. With one last look at the briefcase, she disappeared into the bathroom.
Forty-five minutes later she was walking into the BAU office, her stomach still rolling as she exited the elevator. The office was pretty much empty except for a few early risers catching up on the previous day's paperwork. Only one of them looked up when she entered and gave her a welcoming smile. "Down the hall to the left." The man smiled and Riley thanked him quietly.
The platform seemed much longer once she was on it, or maybe it was just panic. Her fist tightened around the suitcase handle but she tried to walk with confidence. If she could keep it up, maybe she could hide the butterflies in her stomach. But these were profilers and she was sure to have a tell. That made her grin bitterly. Something about the "mind reading" quality of profilers made her sick. Not that she didn't like them, she didn't know them. It was just too easy for them to tell what you were thinking and that was scary on an almost unexplainable level.
As she neared the end of the platform, she noticed the door wasn't completely closed. Through the cracked door, she could see a man sitting alone at a large round table. He had papers all around and a notebook in his hand. He didn't look too much older than her, but his eyes seemed very intense and focused. His hair on the other hand was the opposite. It was a little long and tousled like a young boy. He wore black pants and a white button up shirt with the sleeves rolled up around his elbows and a dull blue button up vest with darker blue chevron and matching tie. Riley thought she even caught a glimpse of black Converse shoes under the table. She caught herself grinning at the sight of him but it quickly faded when she realized she couldn't stand out here forever. She had to step in and face him. The first team mate she would meet.
As she stepped into the room the man looked up at her, his dark eyes searched her over. He was a profiler then. Riley felt exposed. Fingers tightened around the handle of the briefcase and she swallowed hard. Maybe he could tell how uncomfortable his penetrating gaze was making her because he looked her in the eye and smiled. He was waiting for her to speak.
"I'm Riley Palmer. I'm here to help with the cross country killings…." Her introduction was awkward. "I didn't mean to interrupt you." The papers on the table caught her eye, anything to break from his gaze. Had she already made a fool of herself?
"Agent Palmer?" His brow furrowed in questioning, his head tilting slightly to the side.
"Yes?" Riley answered, not sure where he was going with this.
"You introduced yourself as Riley Palmer, not Agent Palmer. Why didn't you introduce yourself by your title?"
Riley hesitated, "Well, this is my first field assignment so…." She stumbled on the words. Honestly, she didn't have a reason for not including her title. He was making her uncomfortable with his gaze and questioning.
The man nodded, his lips pursed in understanding. "You're not used to the title so you don't use it. I thought maybe you didn't feel like you deserved the title. Most people hide their titles because they either feel they will be perceived as a braggart, or just the opposite, boring. Then there are some who avoid it because they feel they don't deserve it." The man shrugged, as Riley took an instinctive step back.
The confused look crossed him again but before he could speak another word Rossi walked in. Riley quickly stepped out of the way, turning to face him in the process.
Rossi looked from the seemingly flustered Riley, to the calm but confused Reid. The older man smirked a little before turning his attention to Riley. She was about six inches shorter than him, and rather average. She had a pretty face, but not super model material. Her bright blue eyes were fixed on him, but she broke her gaze to look at Reid once more before looking back to Rossi. Medium length brown hair swung in loose natural curls when she turned her head. It was obvious that she was nervous and possibly even intimidated by the younger agent.
With a charming grin, Rossi held out a hand to Riley, guiding her to sit down a few places from Reid, who continued to watch her. "Agent Palmer I presume? Welcome to the BAU. I'm Unit Senior Agent David Rossi. This is Doctor Spencer Reid. He's harmless." With a joking tone he raised an eyebrow to Reid. "Go ahead and set up the file. The other agents should be here soon."
Riley sighed, her heart still racing. She refused to look up at Reid even though she could feel his eyes on her. One by one she pulled files out of her briefcase and lined them up in neat piles evenly spaced, according to date.
Reid watched her with his brow furrowed as she lined up the documents in even rows. Obsessive compulsive? He wasn't sure. Dedicated was a better word. He noticed the writing on the front of the files. Each was noted by file number, date, victims, and location. This time, Reid smiled. "I think we should start over." She looked up as he spoke, his hand extended. It wasn't something he normally did, shaking a strangers hand, but for some reason it felt right. At first she looked at it as if she didn't know what to do, but she finally accepted it. "I'm Doctor Reid."
"Riley. Or Palmer….whichever you prefer." She almost tripped over her words at the touch of his hand. It was much warmer and firmer than she had expected. "I'm sorry. Meeting new people makes me nervous."
"It's okay. Most people are nervous when meeting others for the first time. Sometimes an underlying social anxiety disorder can cause a person to freeze in when talking to strangers because they fear being embarrassed or scrutinized if they happen to make a mistake." Reid grinned and shrugged it off as Garcia entered with two big cups of coffee. She set one down next to Riley's papers with the friendliest smile, her bright green earrings dangling freely around her bright and happy face.
"I'm Penelope Garcia. Resident technical goddess." She extended a hand as Reid had done and Riley took it with little hesitation. "I didn't know what kinda coffee you drink but Rossi said try something sweet so I have a mocha frappe whipped cream thingie with extra chocolate." She waved her hand over it quickly, almost dismissively. Riley liked her immediately. It was hard not to with Garcia's outlandish hairstyle and bright colored clothes. Her smile also had a way of making you feel like you had known her forever. Riley liked that. It was a nice kind of comfort that she didn't have with anyone in her home department.
"Riley Palmer, I mean….Agent Palmer. Or Riley…." Riley answered going thru the alternatives in her mind and feeling Reid's eyes watching her. She pushed thru the thoughts to thank Garcia for the drink and silently wondered how Rossi would know she liked sweets. He had only met her once. Unless he was basing on the stereotype of women loving chocolate.
Either way Riley was grateful for the coffee. Garcia spoke to Reid but Riley was organizing her case files again and wasn't paying them much attention.
Rossi returned shortly after, with Hotchner and J.J. in tow. After a brief introduction they all sat at the table. Morgan strode in shortly after but no one seemed to notice his tardiness. Except for Reid, but he didn't say anything. Riley was greeted by each and though Hotchner made her a little rigid with his intensely stern look, none seemed as intimidating as Reid had been when he first spoke to her. Maybe she was already growing used to being surrounded by profilers. It was still a little unnerving.
"Agent Callahan had some personal business to attend to and won't be joining us for this case but I'm sure she extends a welcome to you Agent Palmer." Rossi spoke as he seated himself across the table from her. "Go ahead Palmer. Let's get this party started." He casually pointed to the files on the table.
With a deep breath Riley stood, her fingers brushing over the files before her. This was it. The past few months she had been compiling these files and she was finally about to catch the sick bastard committing these crimes.
"I guess I should start at the beginning." Her slender fingers opened a folder and placed it in the center of the table. "Sam and Cathy Cooper were taken from a gas station near their home. No one noticed they were gone until the next week. They were supposed to be going on vacation but never returned. Their children attempted to file a missing persons report a few days after Sam and Cathy left home but since they were scheduled to be away, the police shrugged it off. The bodies were found in Florida where the next victims were kidnapped. Their car was never recovered. The third person, Corinth White was taken from the next town over from the Coopers, but she was an older woman with no living immediate family. It took longer for a missing persons report to be posted for her. She didn't seem to have any ties to the Coopers. Tammy Smith was the fourth body found at the dump site in Florida. She was a stripper, taken as she was leaving work from a gentleman's club off the interstate in Iowa. The other victims were the same. A married or dating couple with a random other woman. The first one close to where the couples are abducted and the ones after that are vagrants. Junkies, strippers, prostitutes. People society doesn't notice missing. The new kidnappings take place very close in area to where the previous victims' bodies were dumped."
"How many bodies have been recovered so far?" Rossi asked as the others passed around the files. He grabbed one for himself and began flipping through the pages.
"Fifteen. A few of the dump sites had two or three of the extra women but we're not really sure why. I have a theory but….nothing confirmed." Riley shook her head.
"Make that nineteen. We got a call from Yosemite Montana. They found three bodies early this morning. I got the call while I was in my office, wheels up in thirty. I took the liberty of sending an agent to collect your things Agent Palmer. Don't worry, I sent a woman." Hotch stated, noting the way Riley's face went pale for just a moment before she nodded and continued. Was she worried about someone going through her things or the thought of being on a plane? He was sure he would figure it out soon so he let it go.
"Nineteen then." She nodded, and focused again but Rossi hadn't missed the look.
"These people don't seem to have anything in common." Reid started as he pinned the pictures to the bulletin board. "They vary in age, race, and obviously gender. How were they even able to make a connection?"
"Well, I was given the case six months ago when the first victims were taken. I watch the news online from different areas around the country and I heard of another unsolved murder a month later in California. I knew from the news coverage that the people taken were from Florida. At first it didn't hit me, but then I came across the file from the first victims and it sort of clicked. The causes of death all matched. So I contacted the PD from the city the bodies were recovered from and they sent me copies of their case files so I could see if there was a connection. For the past few months I compiled these folders but my superiors weren't too sure of it being a serial killer. For a while they just shrugged it off but when the last couple went missing from Indianapolis two weeks ago they decided to take a look for themselves. They couldn't figure it out so…here I am. I know that this team has to be asked into the case from the individual PD, but since it has crossed state line several times, this is considered a federal case so I assure you, we do have authority in any state where bodies are recovered."
"This says the men were shot executioner style, but the women were pretty mutilated. Cuts, bruise, broken bones…. What kind of message is he trying to send here?" J.J. asked, looking expectantly between Riley and Reid. They seemed to be ruling the roost at that moment.
"Actually, the random women were shot too but through the temple and not the forehead. The women from the couples were the only ones that were mutilated. All of them were beaten, possibly for a long period of time. But their cause of death was bleeding out. That was what alerted me that these murders were linked. The wrists were cut in the same way. Only a few were sexually assaulted but there were no traces of fluids or fibers on the women." Riley stated, pointing to a picture of a bloodied woman with huge black bruises on her body.
"So is he taking them for sexual purposes? It's very inconsistent." Hotchner flipped through the files, his brow drawn in concentration.
"If it was for sexual urges, all of them would have been assaulted. There also doesn't seem to be any preferences except that they are couples. That will make it hard to narrow down suspects. Not to mention these abductions take place all over the United States. No two abductions happen in the same place. The unsub has to be someone who's able to travel cross country with the bodies and not be noticed." Reid stood and turned his back to them, file in hand and began writing main points on the dry erase board.
"I think the unsub could be a truck driver." Riley said, looking at Reid's back. "That would explain how he travels so much and even gives ample space for the bodies to be stored. The bodies are found about a month after their abductions, with a new couple taken every month. But it's never on a consistent day. The coroners said that the bodies had been frozen so it may be a refrigerated semi."
"But what about the victims' vehicles?" Morgan asked. "If most of the victims are taken from public places, they must have cars. This guy would need an accomplice to dispose of the vehicles or the cops would be alerted a hell of a lot faster of missing persons. Most businesses call a wrecker for cars left in a parking lot too long."
"About 3.4 million truck drivers employed in the United States, give or take since turnover rate for truck drivers is relatively high. The percentage of team drivers fluctuates just as much but most truck driving teams are husband and wife." Reid stated, turning back to face the group as he fiddled with the dry erase marker. Riley avoided his gaze.
"So can we agree on two unsubs?" Rossi asked, tapping his finger on the table as he thought. His eyes remained glued to the points Reid was writing, piecing the puzzle together as they went, or at least trying to get some insight into the murders.
"It would make the most sense. Seems a little improbable to transport vehicles or abduct two people at once without an accomplice. Two unsubs sounds reasonable." Riley shrugged. It all seemed to make sense. Except a few little things, like where are these people being taken, and why? There didn't seem to be much motive at this point. Maybe if she could get to a crime scene personally things might start falling into place. The problem would be, getting there.
"The plane's ready. Let's go." Rossi checked his watch and rapped his knuckles on the table to signal the end of the meeting. The team shuffled their papers together quickly as they rose to leave. Garcia and Morgan quipped at each other, laughing but Riley was too nervous to listen to them. All she could think about was flying. It was a fear, she knew it. A fear she would have to come to grips with eventually. She just didn't think that day would be today.