Nights were hard. It was not so much the dark or that he had any associations with the late hour. If anything, his evenings had been welcoming. They were the times when he could return home and escape from the insanity of the people he hunted.
The hard part about nighttime was his inability to turn off. His mind raced through the shadows, chasing imaginary movements and tracking the sounds of the tenants pacing the apartment above his. The monsters they put away reared their ugly heads, breaking free of their bonds to haunt his memories, and sometimes—just sometimes—it just would not stop.
He wondered if this was what Reid felt. He had the challenge of a genius mind. Aaron Hotchner? He was not a genius. No matter what people said, or how bluntly he declared himself good at what he did, the truth was that he had worked very hard to become so. This was not innate talent. This was years of schooling and sleepless nights memorizing facts and training his mind to understand the nuances of the law. This was throwing up before heading over to take the BAR exam because he was certain he would forget everything just when he needed it most and becoming the disappointment his father told him he would be.
Night afforded him opportunity to be alone with his thoughts. Hotch did not like this place. He would rather work or be with Jack. Both places were safer than being alone in his own head.
Some nights, when he returned from a bad case and it was too late to pick up Jack from Jessica’s, he went to visit Haley. It might be odd, to indulge in such visitations to his ex-wife’s grave, but he chose not to think too hard about it. Sometimes it was just nice to be able to be free with his thoughts without worrying about Jack or having to endure Rossi’s well-meaning advice.
And no one needed to know he was sitting on a cemetery bench at eleven o’clock at night, staring blindly at the headstone marking Haley’s grave. It was the backside of the stone, but this late at night he would not be able to read the engraving either way. How often had he seen Haley’s back anyway? Walking away? More often than coming toward him. Somehow this seemed fitting.
He did not speak to her. Hotch never had been comfortable speaking to a slab of granite. There was nothing to be ashamed of, he knew. Many people held conversations with dead loved ones. He simply never saw the point in having one-sided conversations. It was not as though he felt better for them. Just as well that he keep silent.
Also, had he spoken aloud, he might have missed the low muttering and odd chafing sounds from across the field.
Instantly irritated, Hotch tilted his head, finally sounding out the source as coming from somewhere behind him and to his right. The smart thing to do would be to call the police, but aggravation overrode that bit of common sense. No one could ever say he was completely levelheaded when it came to his personal life. Haley—alive and dead—was as personal to him as it ever got.
The source of the muttering and scraping came with a flashlight that lent a small amount of illumination to one of the older gravesites. The muttering came infrequently, and primarily consisted of cursing. The scraping was from a shovel which was being handily wielded by a solid-looking man. It was hard to tell in the darkness, but he was a white male and had short hair. His height was difficult to judge, since he was in a hole that came to his shoulders, but Hotch thought he was likely over six feet tall.
A six-foot-something white man was digging up an old grave in the cemetery where Haley was buried.
The realization set Hotch’s blood to boiling.
“Exhumation without a permit is a felony,” he announced.
The man looked up, and Hotch instantly put him in his early thirties, though the wide-eyed stare attempted to make him look younger. Something about him was familiar, but Hotch did not trust any judgments made in this lighting.
“What the hell!” the man snarled. “Who the hell are you?”
“Just a visitor.”
Making himself less of a threat seemed wise. The guy had made an aborted move toward his side, drawing attention to an incongruous shadow at his hip. This man was armed, potentially very dangerous. Hotch was alone. He was armed, but only a fool would instigate a confrontation involving firearms when no one knew where he was. This wasn’t Foyet. If he lost a firefight, he could very well be left to bleed out where he fell, assuming the shot did not kill him instantly.
“My wife is buried just over there,” he added. Interesting that he never could get the hang of calling Haley his ex. It was harder still when she was dead.
He was surprised to see the man grimace. The criminal—because digging up a grave in the middle of the night made him nothing less—actually looked repentant.
“Aw, man, I’m sorry,” the man said gruffly.
“Don’t be sorry,” Hotch said, nonplussed at the show of sympathy. “Stop what you’re doing and leave. I don’t know who this is you think you’re going to dig up, but I know what I’d do if it was someone I cared about. I doubt this person’s family will feel any more charitable.”
“I get what you’re saying,” the man said. His voice was low and gruff, but it sounded forced. He was aiming for intimidation now. “I really do. But people are dying, and this is the way we keep it from happening again.”
The man was deluded then.
“If that’s the case, then you should get a court order to have the body exhumed,” Hotch suggested. “Aside from being grossly disrespectful, this is illegal. You could do prison time.”
“A risk I’ll have to take.”
Hotch watched incredulously as the man continued to dig. His body moved fluidly, the regularity of each movement suggesting that this was far from his first time digging such a hole. Whoever this nut job was, he was experienced.
The delusional man was not alone. That voice was deep and dangerous and came with a gun that eased into Hotch’s line of vision.
“Sammy,” the guy in the hole greeted. “Took you long enough.”
“You were the one who ran out of lighter fluid,” the gun-wielder retorted. “Who is this guy?”
“Just some dude visiting his dead wife,” the grave-digger did not stop his task, though he was a bit breathless now. “Snuck up on me, and now he’s flapping his mouth about this being illegal.”
Hotch’s mind was starting to leapfrog around. He did not like where his thoughts were taking him. His stomach dropped to the point of near nausea when he turned to see the man holding the gun. The guy was huge. Hotch was not a small man by any stretch of the imagination, but this guy was easily taller and broader and, judging by the confident grasp on his weapon, extremely well trained.
Two men. Grave desecration. One named Samuel—Sam or Sammy, apparently—and the other…
“You are kidding me,” he muttered.
“Afraid not,” Sam, like the man in the hole, sounded sincerely apologetic. “I know you probably mean well, buddy, but we can’t have you calling the cops now. This won’t take too long, and you can go back to visiting your wife.”
Hotch was not confident in the likelihood of these guys just letting him go. Yes, it was dark, but he could easily identify them now. Even considering the possibility that he could not recognize a couple of the FBI’s most wanted (officially removed due to declaration of death, but records indicated they had slipped around that little obstacle before), they were an unusual enough looking pair that they had to know leaving a witness would only be detrimental to their cause.
“My son,” Hotch murmured. “After this, I’m going to visit my son.”
Occasionally, even psychopaths could have some sympathy if he could get them to humanize him. It should not be too hard, given one had already expressed sympathy over his wife’s death.
“Look,” he said urgently. “I’ve had a bad day. My son is at his aunt’s, and I have to pick him up in the morning. Aside from your grossly inappropriate midnight behavior, I really have no quarrel with you.”
“Dude!” the man in the hole—the one that Hotch was nearly positive identified as Dean Winchester—panted. “We are not going to kill you!”
“Just take a seat,” Sam suggested. “We’re not killers. We’re not even robbers. We’re just here to do a job and go. You’ll be able to see your son again.”
Not killers was the claim. Hotch slowly sat, the chill of the headstone-turned-personal-bench instantly penetrating the thin layer of his trousers. He was not dressed for this, had not planned on being out here more than fifteen or twenty minutes, and he crossed his arms to conserve heat.
“How is this saving anyone?” he asked finally.
“It’s probably best that you don’t ask that,” Sam declined to answer.
Of course. Hotch had read the files, back when the lead investigator had asked for a consult. He had studied the case and shoveled it back to Henriksen, stating that organized schizophrenic murderers did not exist. It was clearly a case of multiple killers—two was not enough. From what Hotch could see, the Winchesters were bumping heads with a multitude of killers, creating turf wars of a sort. The timeline was sloppy, and while the brothers were obviously insane, probably coldblooded killers, they could not possibly have done everything Henriksen tried to pin on them.
He considered the supplies arranged near the headstone of the grave Dean was destroying. Beside a dark duffel was a canister of lighter fluid and a large bag of rock salt—the kind that was sometimes used to melt ice from sidewalks. A sawed-off shotgun sat almost innocuously on the ground, close to the bag. In the shadows, Hotch had not seen it until he lowered himself to his seated position. Had he noticed it earlier, he would have made a tactical retreat and called the police.
“What’s your son’s name?”
Hotch looked sharply at Sam, instantly furious at the audacity of the man. He barely registered the startled look in the young man’s eyes, and it took every ounce of self-control he possessed to focus on the repentant wince and kicked-dog look and not instantly sneer. It was little wonder that Sam got away with so much. Despite his size, he had a vulnerable look about him that could easily get people to trust him.
“Sorry,” he even sounded sincere. “You just… we’re not bad guys, you know.”
“Yes. You’re misunderstood,” he agreed. It was easy enough to sound genuine. The brothers obviously had lived a rough life, and understanding had likely been in short supply. Not that Hotch truly understood. He simply did not need to share his personal life with a couple of killers. “And you’re trying to put me at ease. It might have worked if you hadn’t been the one to pull a gun on me.”
“Dude, is that stick up your ass because you’re in mourning, or are you always like this?” Dean grunted.
“I’m always like this,” Hotch replied bluntly.
Dean stopped digging long enough to straighten and look over at him. He grinned broadly and looked up at Sam, who did not appear to know how to react.
“I like him,” Dean announced. More seriously, he added, “I’m ready to break through. You got the supplies?”
“Let’s hope it goes smoothly,” Sam nodded. “I can’t cover him and cover your ass at the same time.”
“Don’t mind me,” Hotch offered.
“Sarcastic son-of-a-bitch, isn’t he?” As before, Dean sounded amused—almost fond. It was unsettling. “All right. Here goes nothing.”
Hotch winced at the sound of metal slamming against wood. Dean’s arms came up, shovel in hand, and heaved down again. This time, there was the grating sound of wood cracking. This gravesite had to be old, he realized. Most bodies now were sealed in more than a simple casket. There were vaults buried first, into which the caskets were then lowered and sealed. Modern day grave robbing was an extremely difficult task.
“Who is buried here?” he asked.
“Man named Reginald Burnsky,” Sam said. He was not withholding information, and the swiftness of his explanation suggested he had done a great deal of research before coming to this particular tomb. “Died in nineteen seventy-four. Before he died, he went on a killing spree, murdering nine boys before the police caught him and put him in prison. Papers say he hung himself, but we think one of the prison inmates did it.”
“He was a child molester.” Hotch recalled the name. The guy was a serial killer, but he had never reached any notoriety thanks to the Watergate scandal sweeping the nation. Sadly, little boys disappearing and turning up in the river barely rated to anyone outside the community. And Sam was right. Burnsky had been beaten and sodomized and ultimately stabbed to death in his own prison cell. It was before Hotch’s time, but he had his own suspicions about the culprits. “Men like that don’t last long in prison.”
Sam looked at him curiously, but nodded rather than call him on what was likely a bit of unexpected knowledge. Hotch was going to have to watch himself. Revealing too much at this point would not endear him to a couple of psychopaths.
Then, he forgot to care. Because there was something next to Sam that had not been there the moment before.
Hotch did not believe in ghosts. At least, he did not believe in the ones from stories—specters and poltergeists and all the vomiting of the exorcism (no, that was demonic possession, wasn’t it?)—but that thing was not normal, and no way could any human flicker like that.
It was pale and had stringy hair and stained prison garb and bruised skin. Was it skin? Could the dead be bruised?
Shock was barely a good description for what he felt right now. Hysteria was building.
Sam swore, and then some unseen force picked him up and flung him to the side. Dean was snarling oaths and reaching for the shotgun. Hotch reacted on years of training, but he felt highly inadequate aiming his sidearm at this thing. If he could see through it, how the hell would a bullet be able to affect it?
It did not matter because he was too slow. He did not see what struck him. He just felt heavy pressure collide with his chest and slam him to the ground. Exhaling sharply, he struggled to regain his breath even as he stared incredulously into the wrathful eyes of the thing which had once been Reginald Burnsky.
The sharp report of a shotgun coincided with a cloudy burst of white, and Burnsky was gone. Unwilling to remain vulnerable on his back, Hotch rolled and shoved himself to the relative shelter of the headstone he had been using as a bench until very recently. The shotgun went off again, amidst a great deal of cursing, and then there was the low burst of gas displacing. Vivid orange flickered from the hole in the ground. The body was burning.
Aside from the crackle of flames and brittle bones snapping beneath the assault of fuel-charged heat, the night all but echoed in its silence. It took a moment for Hotch to realize the booming sound was his heartbeat, and that wheezing was his throat as his body struggled to breathe past the panic.
Sam made the mistake of approaching him then.
“Man, are you—” The young man froze, hands slowly moving away from his own body in automatic display of harmlessness. No doubt he was shocked into that state by the FBI issued firearm pointed at his head. “Shit.”
The gun trembled shamefully, but no one else was around to see it. Hotch managed to suppress a shudder and found some center of balance by bracing against the slab at his left.
“It’s over,” Sam said.
It was the kind of thing Hotch said to unsubs who had no choices aside from surrender or death. The irony of that was actually funny. If Hotch were the type of man to give in to hysteria, he would laugh.
Instead, he slowly lowered his gun.
“Dude, you had that this whole time?”
It was the older brother. Hotch closed his eyes and pressed his temple to the polished granite, grounding himself in the solid sensation of smooth and hard and cold and willing this whole nightmare to be simply that. Naturally, that did not work. It was always painful to have his entire world’s view turned on end and smashed brutally into his face. After a while, he gave up trying to reconnect known events and reminded himself that he was crouching in a graveyard at midnight with a couple of wanted felons.
“Yes,” he said finally.
“Why didn’t you fight back?”
Hotch cracked an eye to glare at the man.
“Because I stood a better chance of getting out alive if I didn’t antagonize you, Dean,” he growled.
Both men went still, but it was the stillness of predators who realized they had been spotted by their prey rather than the other way around. Hotch’s grip tightened on his weapon, but he did not raise it again. Dean had not actually ever threatened him, and despite the gun, Sam had been unfailingly polite. That could have been part of the psychopathy, but Hotch doubted it. The one thing he did know? If he ever saw the Winchester case file again, he was going to kick it away violently rather than torture his mind with trying to understand things he could never possibly accept.
“You knew who Dean was, and you still approached him?” Sam asked curiously.
“I didn’t know who he was until you arrived,” Hotch murmured. “Then it seemed prudent not to announce myself as law enforcement to two of the FBI’s most wanted.”
“So you really were out here visiting a grave, and you thought you’d run off a vandal?”
“As I said. It’s been a bad day.”
Sam sighed and stood. Hotch watched him warily, but the man merely held out a conciliatory hand.
With nothing else better to do, Hotch grabbed the man’s wrist, felt the solid grip close over his own, and staggered to his feet. Sam clapped a bolstering hand against his arm, to which Hotch merely offered his irritated glare. The younger Winchester brother backed off quickly. Against his better judgment, Hotch holstered his weapon.
“It’s a lot to take in,” Sam offered.
That was an understatement of unreasonable proportions. Hotch tugged at his tie and released the top button of his shirt. The difficulty breathing was less physical and more psychological, but knowing that did not make the process easier.
“Finish your job here,” he said softly. “Refill that grave, and get the hell out of my city."
Dean snorted. Sam muttered his brother’s name, a low warning, but Dean had been the one to profile as the more impulsive one of the pair.
“Some gratitude! Dude, we just saved your life!”
Hotch shot him a dark look.
“Yes, you did,” he agreed coldly. “But saving one man from death does not exonerate you from your other transgressions. As there are obviously other… circumstances surrounding your case, I will not pursue this beyond what I have just requested.”
“That, and there’s no way you could take both of us,” Dean said, part belligerence, more amusement.
“There is that,” Hotch admitted.
Both brothers had military-level combat training. That, topped with the fact that Sam was far bigger, and Dean, while of a similar height, probably still had a good fifteen pounds of muscle over him, ensured that Hotch would not stand much of a chance if the pair decided to gang up on him. His greatest assets were his mind and his marksmanship. Without a gun he would fail in seconds against men of their caliber. He had been, at best, average in his hand-to-hand training back during his academy days, and he knew he relied too much on his size. All the more reason to keep Morgan on his team.
The questions surprised him—that it came from Sam did not. Hotch looked at the younger brother, searching his face, and was surprised to come up with only sincerity. That was genuine. No way was the kid that good an actor.
“Grave filled. You two, out of town by tomorrow,” he said, which was answer enough.
“Get laid!” Dean called after him.
“Put some flowers on it too,” he shot back.
“The guy was a pedophile!” Dean objected.
“Then put them on the grave I just sat on,” Hotch snarled. He yanked out his phone and spun, not pausing in his march away even when he heard Dean’s yelping protest.
“We can’t get all that done before the cops show!”
“Not everything is about you, Dean,” Hotch said. He got the phone to his ear in time to hear Rossi’s groggy greeting. Ignoring the cursing behind him, he said with no small amount of desperation, “Dave, I need your scotch and your guest room. I’ll even let you tell the team I’m too hung over to deal with them tomorrow.”
“Did I just hear someone tell you you’ve got a stick up your ass?” Dave asked blankly.
Hotch did not doubt that had been Dean’s parting comment.
Compared to the rest of it, the observation was fairly typical. Provided enough alcohol, Hotch could live with that much.