Keywords: MulderTorture, Angst
Spoilers: to Je Souhaite, IMTP VS 8 and 9
Disclaimer: I’ll put them away when I’m done, Ma. Honest!
Archive: Exclusive to IMTP for 2 weeks, then just let me know so I can brag!
Summary: A serial killer vows vengeance from beyond the grave, entangling Mulder in a fight for his life – against an enemy he cannot see.
Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman
11:45 PM Central
Darryl Wayne Hargrave looked up at the four men gathered outside his cell. He looked down a moment at the book in his hands, then closed it with finality and laid it aside. He nodded at the men diffidently, shrugged to his feet. The cell block reverberated with a tense energy, a crackle of electricity underlying the hushed anticipation. The men paid it no mind; they were accustomed to it. Just another day on Death Row. Just another execution.
Well, not *just* another execution. But, at the moment, the only one who knew that was Darryl Wayne Hargrave.
Eleven years on the Row had taken its toll on Hargrave – prison had left its mark in the pallor of his hawk-faced mien and the weight loss in the weeks leading up to his execution gave Hargrave a more than passing resemblance to the skeleton he’d soon become. Yet there was a maniacal gleam in his eye and an energy emanated from him that made even the hardened prison guards flinch. They did not waver in their duty, however, and led their prisoner to his fate with alacrity. One of the men happened to glance at the book laying on the cot and felt an unaccountable shiver run down his spine.
“Transcending Death” – well he hoped that if anyone could transcend death it wouldn’t be that son-of-a-bitch Darryl Wayne Hargrave. The death chamber was a rectangular room, smelling of fresh paint and detergent. One-way windows lined two walls, representing the rooms from which the chosen witnesses would view the execution. The room was dominated by the table upon which the prisoner would meet his fate. Resembling a travesty of a cross, the inmate was secured in place by no less than six sturdy straps, his arms outstretched. Pristinely sanitary–more fit to be a clinic for saving lives than claiming them. Hargrave did not appreciate the irony, however. He knew only that he was about to die and someone was going to pay for that.
The state-sanctioned taking of life is a process that is documented and executed in excruciating detail: Paramedics attach a heart monitor to the inmate’s chest and insert two IVs into his arm. First, the sedative sodium pentathol sends the condemned into a deep sleep. Chromium bromide paralyzes the muscles, including the lungs. Finally, a dose of potassium chloride stops the heart.
Darryl Wayne Hargrave knew exactly what was about to befall him.
The guards quickly and efficiently strapped him onto the table. The warden stepped forward and read the death warrant: “Pursuant to a verdict of guilt and a sentence of death returned against you by the Circuit Court of Washington County on June 27, 1990, you are hereby condemned to die by lethal injection at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. May God have mercy on your soul.”
The men beat a hasty retreat from the room, leaving their prisoner to face whatever God he professed. At 12:01 a.m. the warden nodded. As the sedative meandered through the IV, Hargrave smiled ferally. “Ready or not, here I come. I told you, Mulder, I always finish what I start.”
Hegel Place, Alexandria
1:01 AM Eastern
“I always finish what I start.”
The words followed him as he threw himself out of sleep, barely keeping the scream from leaving his lips. Shit. He hadn’t had *that* particular dream for years. Odd that it had resurfaced after all this time. Oh yeah. Tonight was the last night of Darryl Wayne Hargrave’s life.
Mulder sat on his couch, bathed in the flickering light of the muted TV. Sighing, he ran his hand nervously through his hair. The prosecuting attorney on the case, who had, in the eleven years since, managed to slither his way up the political ladder, had issued an invitation to witness the execution. An invitation Mulder had been happy to decline.
Under no circumstances did he ever want to see Darryl Wayne Hargrave again. Alive or dead.
Time had mostly effaced the scars, and other horrors had taken the place of the memories. Mostly. Mulder ran his hands over his face, as if he could physically banish the memory of that time. He could still almost feel Hargrave’s glee as he struggled against his bonds, feel the sharp edge of the knife as it sliced his skin….
Damnit, enough! Hargrave was dead – or soon to be anyway. Mulder shivered. Despite the furnace he could hear clanging away, the November chill had seeped into the room.
Served him right for falling asleep while watching horror flicks, he mused as he eyed the mute, flickering images on the TV. No wonder monsters prowled in his head. Reason enough to have nightmares. He clicked off the remote, but the images steadfastly refused to vanish into electronic oblivion. Frowning, he aimed the device again, swearing softly when the appliance did not obediently shut itself off. Breathing the heavy sigh of the put-upon, he hauled himself off the couch to turn it off the old-fashioned way. As his hand reached for the button, the TV screen exploded outwards, showering Mulder with daggers of glass. He stumbled backwards, hands shielding his face, only to stumble and crash into the coffee table behind him. His back flared with pain.
Mulder carefully brushed the shards of the shattered screen away from his eyes, oblivious to the blood that welled from his many lacerations. He sat on the floor of his apartment, dumbfounded, staring at his television as if it were a friend that had unexpectedly betrayed him. The clock on the VCR was flashing 1:01.
There was no hope, of course, that Scully wouldn’t notice the various bandages and stitches that adorned his face and arms when he reported for work the next morning.
“Mulder, what happened?” she asked predictably, admirably walking the line between her concerned friend voice and her exasperated “what-the-hell-have-you-done-now-Mulder” partner voice.
“My TV blew up,” he muttered.
“My TV blew up,” he answered more loudly. “Don’t laugh,” he warned his suspiciously snickering partner.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” she responded (a little too smugly, he thought). “I’m sure it was no laughing matter. You could have been seriously hurt. How did it happen?”
“Don’t know. I was just going to turn it off – then kerplooey.”
“Kerplooey?” That eyebrow was raised just so, just the way he liked it.
“Yes, Scully. Kerplooey. Ka-blam. As in blown to smithereens. Etcetera, etcetera.”
“Maybe you should take the day off,” Scully suggested. “Those cuts have got to hurt.”
Mulder shrugged. “They’re not too bad. And I’ll hurt just as much at home as here. Besides, I’ve got no TV to watch.”
“And we know how lost you are without ESPN.” Scully’s eyes twinkled.
“Guess I’ll need an alternate form of entertainment,” he leered. “Any ideas, Agent Scully?”
Scully laughed. “I’d say, G-man, that if you’re a good boy, I might let you watch TV at my place tonight.”
“Agent Scully, I’m always a good boy.”
Scully leaned forward, her lips to Mulder’s ear. “That’s too bad,” she whispered huskily. “I rather like naughty boys.”
They broke into laughter, and Mulder knew that he was grinning inanely from ear to ear. Of all the basements in all the world, she had walked into his. And stayed, against all the odds, the abductions, the brushes with death, the cost to her health and family…. And to think that at one time he had resented her presence. Now he couldn’t conceive of working the X-Files without her. Of being without her. He was one lucky son-of-a-bitch.
Their levity was interrupted by a loud crash as Mulder’s coffee mug chose that moment to fly off the desk and shatter itself against the tiled floor. They stared at it in stupefied silence for a moment, then Scully, ever practical, grabbed a handful of paper towels and began mopping up the mess. Mulder bent down to help her.
“Let me do it, Mulder. You don’t want to get coffee on your bandages, or give yourself another cut.”
His ever efficient partner had the mess cleaned up in no time. Mulder pursed his lips. “How the hell did that happen? Neither of us was near it.”
“You must have put it down too close to the edge of the desk, that’s all.”
“I know I didn’t, Scully. It wasn’t anywhere near the edge.”
“It’s just a mug, Mulder,” Scully said, exasperated. “It’s not an X-File, not a conspiracy.” She threw the remnants of his mug into the trash.
Mulder watched her forlornly. “Now I need a new mug too,” he sighed. “At this rate I’ll be out of material possessions by the end of the day.”
Scully took pity on him. “I’ve got an extra here you can use,” she offered. “But,” she wagged her finger, “you have to promise not to break it.” She shivered. “When the hell did it get so cold in here?”
- Edgar Hoover Building, Parking Garage
The day had ended, finally, amid the tedious monotony of paperwork, the bane of any agent’s existence. Five o’clock had mercifully released them from their servitude to Uncle Sam and the American public – released them to the possibilities of the evening.
The agents strolled through the parking garage, en route to their respective cars. Scully eyed her partner – Mulder had become paler during the day and lines of pain had begun to etch themselves into his face.
“Maybe you should go home, Mulder,” she suggested. “You look beat.” Her hand reached out to grasp his; the most daring display of affection she could venture in so public a place – a place where evidence of “inappropriate” behaviour could be used against them.
“Rescinding your offer, Scully?” Squeezing her hand briefly, then reluctantly disengaging.
“Of course not, Mulder.” She rolled her eyes. “But you obviously need to get some rest. You need to give your body time to heal.”
“I’ll be fine, Scully. I’ll take some Tylenol when we get to your place. Or are you just trying to get out of buying the food this time?” Actually, Mulder *was* tired; he’d spent most of the night in the ER waiting to get stitched up. And his back was killing him where he’d hit the table. But he didn’t want to go back to his lonely apartment. His now television-less apartment.
“Forget it, Mulder. It’s my turn to pick the movie. The food is your department. And no pizza!” She called over her shoulder as she continued toward her car.
Mulder shook his head as he watched her walk away. He was continually amazed by his partner – amazed that she could feel the things for “Spooky” Mulder that she did. He held no illusions about himself – he’d always known he was a self-centred, arrogant bastard – and once the “Spooky” comments had started at the Academy, he’d even cultivated the reputation. As he’d once confessed to Scully: “Sometimes the need to play with their heads outweighs the millstone of humiliation.” Lately though, he found that he’d mellowed somewhat. He made more of an effort to play nice, for Scully’s sake. He’d finally got it through his thick head that his colleagues’ contempt of him rubbed off onto Scully. And he couldn’t bear anyone thinking that she wasn’t the most competent agent in the Bureau.
“I always finish what I start.”
Mulder started abruptly out of his reverie, stuttering to a halt. He eyed the parking garage warily, certain he’d heard the hoarse tones of Hargrave’s voice. He shook his head. His imagination was getting the better of him. He glanced about one final time, paranoia too ingrained to ignore, pulling his coat tighter about him. Damn but if it didn’t seem colder than usual in here, even if it was November.
A slight movement at the corner of his eye captured his attention. Mulder swung around, his breath catching. Hargrave stood staring at him, grinning like the madman he had been. Mulder began to run forward, only to stutter to a halt. The killer was no longer there. Mulder looked around carefully, but could see nothing out of the ordinary. Shit, his nightmare had definitely spooked him. He was seeing and hearing things now.
Absorbed as he was in his ruminations, he didn’t notice the sudden movement of the blue Taurus as it quietly slipped into gear. Suddenly it was rocketing toward him, gaining momentum impossibly faster than could be explained by inertia alone. Instinct, and the slight blur of movement at the corner of his eye, alerted Mulder. The agent sprinted out of the way, diving and rolling just as the car crashed into the one parked opposite it, sending mechanical screams of shattering glass and tortured metal throughout the garage. Mulder clambered to his feet and stared at the driverless vehicle in perplexed fascination.
Scully had just been closing the door to her own car when the noise of the crash reverberated throughout the parking garage. The echoes made it difficult to pinpoint the sound’s location, but Scully headed toward the area where she had left her partner, knowing, somehow, that he would be in the thick of things.
She found him there, staring at a blue Ford that seemed to have slipped its parking brake and rolled into the car across from it.
“Are you okay, Mulder?” She noted the smears of dirt on his pants and surmised he’d had to dodge the runaway car. She frowned. Surely the car wouldn’t have been going fast enough to force Mulder to hit the ground and roll? The distance was too short for the car to have gained any speed – unless someone had been behind the wheel. She glanced at her partner – he seemed nonplussed by the incident, but not concerned or agitated as if there had been a genuine attempt on his life.
He looked up from his contemplation of the car. “Yeah, I’m fine, Scully.” He looked down at his pants in dismay. “Although I am wondering why inanimate objects seem to have it in for me lately,” he said wryly.
Scully circled the car, cataloguing the damage. It seemed excessive for a car that had rolled such a short distance. “What happened, Mulder?”
Mulder shrugged. “It came rolling at me like a bat out of hell.”
“Rolling? There was no driver?”
“Not unless a ghost was driving.”
Scully pulled on the door handle, but the door was locked. The passenger side was the same. She peered in the window, straining to see if anything had been jammed over the accelerator.
Mulder walked up beside her. “The car wasn’t running, Scully.”
“Then how could it be going so fast?”
“Don’t ask me. I was too busy not getting crushed.” He didn’t mention what he’d thought he’d heard or seen. After all, Hargrave was just on his mind lately. He had nothing to do with this. The man was dead, for Christ’s sake.
Finally, Scully sighed as she dropped her keys on the hall table. By the time they’d called Security to deal with the mess in the parking lot she had been virtually faint with hunger. Unwilling to leave Mulder to his own devices, she had insisted they travel together to get the food and the movie. Besides, given her partner’s run of luck lately, some other mishap would surely have befallen him. She’d much rather he was somewhere she could keep an eye on him.
It wasn’t that her partner was clumsy, or careless, or self-destructive, particularly – it was simply Mulder’s own peculiar Murphy’s Law: if it was anywhere within the realm of possibility to get hurt during an activity, Mulder would. So she got a little more practical use out of her medical license than she had foreseen when she had chosen forensic pathology as her specialty, and learned to keep a fully stocked medical kit handy at all times. It made life with Mulder a little easier.
Scully turned, relieving Mulder of the bags of Chinese food and heading to the kitchen while he shrugged out of his coat. His jacket and tie followed suit, and he tossed his shoes to the side of the door.
Sprawling on Scully’s couch, he fumbled with the remote, breathing a sigh of relief when the TV obediently turned itself on without incident. Channel surfing absently, his mind was not on the rapidly changing images, but on the strange events that had plagued him over the past twenty-four hours.
Despite his assurances to Scully, the incident in the garage had unnerved him. He couldn’t get past the impression that the car had been aimed at him like an arrow. Which might have been the case, had the car a driver. It should have rolled gently, if at all, not racing as if a rocket had been attached to the undercarriage.
It was almost as if the car had been a warning….
He shook his head. He could dismiss the spectre of Hargrave as his imagination, or even accept it as a genuine apparition. The dead often appeared to those they had connections with in life, and he and Hargrave had definitely been connected. Unfortunately. He shivered, suddenly wondering why Scully hadn’t yet turned her heating on. His mind lingered on other killers he’d “connected” with: Props, Mostow, Roche, Dugas…. He wondered, not for the first time, if Victor Dugas had been right: was he somehow like these men? Was that why he was the one who could always find them, think like them, when others couldn’t?
The clatter from the kitchen roused him from his morbid reverie. He smiled softly, thrusting the notion away. If he were at all like those men, Scully would have seen through him in a New York minute. She was here, ergo, Dugas was wrong. Mulder was nothing like him. Or Hargrave.
It suddenly occurred to Mulder that he didn’t *know* that Hargrave was dead. It was possible, if unlikely, that the execution had been stayed. He made a mental note to find out in the morning. Or maybe not. He focused his attention on the news, wincing as the reporter recounted Hargrave’s reign of terror. Bill Patterson’s name was mentioned as the profiler who had rescued a fellow agent. Fortunately, Mulder’s name didn’t come up. He glanced quickly toward the kitchen, hoping Scully hadn’t heard the report. He changed stations when it became clear that Hargrave had met his fate on schedule. He sighed in relief. Maybe now he could get over this, this *thing*, and get back to his regularly scheduled life. Such as it was.
In the kitchen, Scully began dishing out the food. After a moment’s debate, she reached for a bottle of wine. Mulder, especially, could use some relaxation after the events of the last day. The poor man was having quite a run of bad luck. Not to mention that the parking lot incident had shaken her as well. She frowned, remembering how closely he had escaped serious injury.
Well, she smiled to herself, she’d just have to keep a close eye on him tonight then. For his own protection, of course. She shivered as a cold draft brushed over her. She’d really have to get the landlord to check the heating.
Her breath caught as a feather-light touch moved up her arm, breath tickling her ear. She smiled in contentment; she hadn’t heard Mulder sneak up behind her. Which turned to surprised outrage as her ass was sharply pinched.
“Mulder!” She spun around, only to gape in dismay. There was no one behind her. The kitchen was empty but for herself.
Scully was just processing this, and the fact the draft seemed to have disappeared, when Mulder appeared in the doorway. “You called?”
She stared at him blankly. It couldn’t have happened. No way could he move that quickly. But the slight burn on her butt argued against her imagination as the culprit. “Um, yeah. Dinner’s on the table,” she muttered, distracted.
“Okay.” Looking at her strangely.
She shook her head to clear it, banishing the episode from her mind. “You weren’t just in here, were you?” she asked hesitantly, half expecting him to smirk and ‘fess up.
“No, I was checking the scores,” he answered. “Why, something happen?”
“No,” she replied firmly. “I must have imagined it.”
“I told you, nothing. I’m sorry I mentioned it.”
“I’m not,” Mulder answered with a grin. “C’mon, Scully, I’m dyin’ here,” he wheedled. “You just can’t say something like that and leave me hanging.”
Damn. His eyes were doing that puppy dog thing she could never resist and his lips were pouting just so….
Life was a hell of a lot easier before she decided she loved the big dope.
“Well, if you *must* know, I thought you were standing behind me. I could feel you touch my arm, breathe on my neck.” She felt her face colour unaccountably.
“Well,” Mulder leaned forward. “There must be more, Scully. Otherwise you wouldn’t have turned such a lovely shade of beet red,” he leered.
“Eat your dinner, Mulder. It’s getting cold,” she replied primly. He just wasn’t going to let her get out of this with her dignity intact, was he?
“Uh, uh. You’re not getting off that easily, Scully.” He pushed his chair back, and moved to stand behind her. He leaned over her, his lips to her ear. His touch was a whisper on her arm, his breath a caress on her neck. “Is this how it was, Scully? Was it like this? Did you feel my breath on you here? What happened next, Scully? What did you imagine I did?”
His voice was soft and mellow and there was just no winning with him. She sighed.
“I thought you goosed me. That’s all. That’s why I yelled.”
“Ooh, Scully. Do you often imagine that I goose you?” Mulder whispered huskily. “Let me make your fantasy a reality.”
“You even think about it, Mulder, and I swear you’ll be auditioning for the Vienna Boy’s Choir.”
“Ouch,” Mulder laughed, stealing a quick kiss before reclaiming his seat. But the look in his eyes made her spine tingle. They dug into their meal with hearty appetites. Mulder reached for the container of cashew chicken, only to watch in stunned amazement as it shot out of his grip into his lap.
“What the…?” Scully had seen it, but didn’t believe it. Containers of Chinese food simply did not become ambulatory and slide themselves across tables. She met Mulder’s incredulous gaze. His face lit up in a delighted grin. “They’re heeeere.”
Scully shot him a disgusted look, then wet some paper towels and handed them to her partner. Damned if that draft wasn’t back. She picked up the offending container, examining it closely. It occurred to her that they might have been the butt of some practical joke – it was certainly a more likely explanation than the idea the cardboard had suddenly achieved sentience. Or whatever theory was currently spinning around in the sometimes squeaky wheels of her partner’s brain.
“Well?” Mulder wiped the rest of the mess off his lap.
Scully shook her head. “There’s no wires, magnets…nothing out of the ordinary that I can see.” Her eyes flashed dangerously. “This better not be some practical joke of yours,” she warned.
“Hey, Scully, *I’m* the injured party here. I’d hardly dump my dinner in my own lap.” He waggled his eyebrows. “I have a theory – wanna hear it?”
She leaned against the kitchen counter, arms crossed. “I bet this will be entertaining. Lay it on me, G-man.”
“Ghost.” He waited expectantly.
Yep. There it was. The eyebrow.
“Gee, I didn’t see that coming,” Scully replied with a smile. “It’s a little predictable, Mulder. I was hoping for something a little less…”
“A little less mundane.”
“Ghosts are mundane?” Mulder asked, incredulous.
Scully shrugged. “For us they are.”
Mulder conceded the point.
“So you think a ghost is haunting you,” Scully continued, her voice skeptical. “On the basis of one container of cashew chicken falling into your lap.”
“Scully, it didn’t fall,” Mulder corrected, exasperated. “Don’t deny what you saw. You even checked the box for wires, remember?”
“Sorry, Mulder,” she apologized, then continued. “You’re basing your theory on one container of cashew chicken falling into your lap in an unexplained manner. Better?”
“Marginally,” he sulked. “Actually, Scully, there’s more than one incident. My TV, the coffee mug, the car, your experience earlier and now this….”
“Mulder, those incidents can be explained rationally.” She paused. “Well, maybe not this one,” she conceded. Although she could probably come up with a viable scenario eventually. He’d looked so hurt when he’d thought she was denying what she’d seen; she’d humour him for now.
“That’s a lot of coincidences, Scully. And there was a drop in temperature at the time of each incident. I noticed it at my apartment, the office, the parking garage and here, just now. Cold spots are well documented phenomena of hauntings.”
“It’s *November* Mulder. Temperature fluctuations are common at this time of year.”
Mulder’s lips pursed and she cut him off with a sigh before he could make his rejoinder. “So you’re being haunted. Okay, Mulder. By who?”
Who indeed? Mulder paled, recalling the figure he’d thought he’d seen in the parking garage. Hargrave would have reason enough to haunt him, he knew.
“Mulder?” He started at Scully’s voice. “You okay?”
“I’m fine, Scully. Just getting used to the idea of a ghost following me around, that’s all.”
“Don’t get too attached to the idea, Mulder. I still think you’re letting some coincidences, and an admittedly weird incident, get the better of your imagination. There’s no such things as ghosts.”
“Just remember that when I’m haunting *you*, Scully. It’s all in your head….”
Fear had banished any exhaustion he felt as he struggled against the ropes binding him to the steel table. His heart was pounding so loudly in his chest that he was certain Hargrave could hear it.
Technicolour images of Hargrave’s victims flashed across his eyes and he renewed his struggles, heedless of the blood seeping from his wrists and ankles. There would be plenty more if he didn’t get out of this.
Stupid, stupid! Stupid to let himself get so run down, to let himself be so unaware of his surroundings. But Patterson just wouldn’t let up, so Mulder had done profile after profile, delving into the minds of psychotic killers, until he couldn’t keep his eyes open anymore. Damn, if he’d just stayed and done the profile, rather than retreating to the motel for some much needed shuteye, the team would at least have some means of finding him. But the profile was complete only in his head; Mulder was doubtful his notes could be deciphered in time to save him.
Footfalls echoed throughout the warehouse and Hargrave was just suddenly – there – running a finger along Mulder’s stubbled jaw. The agent couldn’t stop himself from flinching at the contact. It was small consolation that Hargrave hadn’t raped any of his victims.
Cold gray eyes regarded him menacingly and Mulder saw the glint of a blade being held over his body. It swayed slightly, as if looking for the most vulnerable place to strike. He understood then that he was going to die, and spend a long time doing it.
The blade descended.
Hargrave watched the agent struggle in his sleep, moaning piteously. He clenched the hunting knife in one hand, grinning ferally. This was working out even better than he had hoped. Soon, soon it would be time for his revenge. When Mulder finally screamed and erupted out of sleep, there was no sign of the menacing figure.
End Act I
Several Days Later
Scully hesitated before opening the door to the basement office, unwilling to face another day of uncertainty. Ever since the incident in the parking lot, her partner had been coming to work haggard and distracted. Every day, it seemed, he sported some new injury. Although minor in and of themselves, she was concerned they might signify a larger problem. Even in the office, it seemed he was always knocking things over, tripping over the furniture…. It was disconcerting in the extreme to see Mulder so suddenly graceless. Too many reasons for his clumsiness nattered for attention in her brain, none of them bearing thinking about. She hoped it was simply distraction.
Of course, Mulder just blamed the ghost. Taking a deep breath, she opened the door, mentally preparing herself for what she might find.
Mulder was slumped at his desk, a bright new bandage peeking from beneath his cuff. The physician in her automatically catalogued the pale, pinched face, the dark circles beneath bloodshot eyes bespeaking too many sleepless nights. Her eyes noted the slight tremor in his hands, the nervous energy.
She frowned. She had seen Mulder ill, she had seen him hurt, distracted, angry, drugged, panicked…. This was not a Mulder she knew. Obviously, the novelty of being haunted had worn off. “Hey, Scully, look at this.” Mulder forced himself to straighten and become more animated once he became aware of her regard. Her partner was making a brave effort to pretend that everything was normal. A skill they had both perfected to a fine art: pretend hard enough and eventually you can convince yourself the world hasn’t kicked you in the ass.
Mulder waved a brochure beneath her nose. “Built in DVD player, surround sound, eight speakers….”
It took her a moment to translate Mulder-speak. She shook her head. “Mulder, your apartment isn’t big enough for a big screen TV.”
Mulder sighed dramatically. “Unfortunately, neither is my bank account.”
Scully had to smile. Her partner looked, for all the world, like a little boy who had just been told Santa Claus didn’t exist. He eyed the brochure wistfully. “Still….”
Personally, Scully was all for the extravagant purchase if it meant that Mulder would actually start sleeping again. After so many years of having the television lull him into slumber, it appeared Mulder was now impervious to Morpheus’ charms without its reassuring presence. Her partner had rebuffed most of her efforts to get him to eat and on the occasions she had been able to put food in front of him, he’d barely picked at it. Whatever was wrong, he steadfastly refused to speak of it.
The ratcheting sound of a drawer in the filing cabinet sliding open then slamming shut roused her out of her reverie. Scully opened her mouth to question Mulder on his sudden wrath, then abruptly shut it. Mulder was sitting at his desk as more drawers began opening and shutting of their own accord. Her jaw dropped in amazement, affronted by their blatant disregard for the laws of physics. Mulder spared the cabinets a disinterested glance, then ignored the disturbance; he’d become inured to the bizarre events that now seemed to be becoming daily occurrences in his life. Being haunted wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
Actually, he thought he had a pretty good idea whose ghost was behind it all, and the thought sent cold rivers of dread down his spine. Still, aside from the TV and the car incidents, the “ghost’s” antics hadn’t really amounted to more than annoyances. It was the dreams that were making his life hell. Unfortunately, Mulder’s finely honed shit-detector told him it was going to hit the fan soon. And he’d be right in the line of fire.
The filing cabinets ended their play with a final thump, leaving behind a stillness as unsettling as the event itself had been. Mulder wondered idly what it signified when his life had become so bizarre that self-mobilizing filing cabinets failed to catch his attention.
Scully crossed to the cabinets slowly, eyeing them warily. With some trepidation, she put her hand on the handle and slid a drawer open. She carefully inserted her hand behind the drawer, feeling for wires or some mechanism that would explain what she had just witnessed. Damnit, objects simply did not decide to move of their own volition! But no wires, no mechanisms revealed themselves to her probing. She moved from drawer to drawer, aware of Mulder’s scrutiny. Finally, she reached behind the cabinet, only to have her search prove once again fruitless.
Scully sighed. Maybe she’d have to revisit Mulder’s ghostly theory. *She* certainly didn’t have a rational explanation for some of the bizarre things that seemed to be happening around him. Like the container of Chinese food that had upended itself in her partner’s lap, she’d been unable to find any wires, magnets, or other mechanisms that would indicate Mulder was the butt of some elaborate practical joke.
Truth be told, she was amazed how placidly Mulder was taking this. She would have expected him to be fully into the investigation of this X-File – one that had literally fallen into his lap. Even if it turned out to be a hoax, he would want to confront the perpetrator. She could picture Mulder puttering excitedly with cameras and other esoteric paraphernalia cluttering his apartment while Chuck Burke made incomprehensible adjustments to the equipment, chattering about auras, energy fields and apportation all the while. She smiled suddenly – maybe that was what Mulder needed to get him out of his funk – an active investigation of this phenomenon. She would happily admit this was an X-File, and ready-made to boot. While she didn’t believe in ghostly interference, she *was* curious about the *real* explanation.
She was about to suggest this to Mulder when the jangle of the phone preempted her. Her partner picked up the receiver, seemingly unaffected by the filing cabinets’ antics. She suddenly wondered if similar incidents at his apartment were responsible for his lack of sleep.
Mulder spoke quietly into the phone, a frown furrowing his face as he replaced the receiver. “Skinner has a case for us.”
“Got to admit, this one is nasty,” the florid detective puffed as he deftly maneuvered his pot-bellied form around the milling crowd of police and forensics technicians. Detective Charles Raynor of the D.C.P.D. was scant months from early retirement and really didn’t want to spend what was left of his career chasing some phantom serial killer. So when the evidence had come back with a frankly impossible suspect, he took a chance and called the “Spooky Squad.”
Sure, Raynor had heard the stories about Mulder and his partner. The District, Alexandria, and Georgetown police departments together probably had enough calls relating to these two to fill a filing cabinet or two. Not to mention the scuttlebutt one heard in what was, despite inter-departmental rivalries, actually a fairly tight-knit community of law enforcement. The kind called Mulder a brilliant eccentric, the contemptuous (the majority as far as Raynor could tell), a brilliant crackpot. Frankly, Raynor didn’t care if Spooky Mulder *was* a member of the lunatic fringe. He just wanted this case solved – fast.
Of course, Raynor didn’t believe for a minute that a ghost was perpetrating these crimes. They were obviously the work of a copycat, but Raynor figured Mulder could profile the s.o.b. anyway. Word was, he’d been good at it before he started chasing aliens and shit. And Raynor had discovered Mulder had some experience with the monster the perp was emulating.
Up close and personal experience, by all accounts. Looking now at the fibbie’s pale face, Raynor was reevaluating his decision. The agent looked like a stiff breeze would knock him over. The suit was too expensively cut to be designed to hang so loosely. The darkness of the material only highlighted the agent’s pallor, drawing attention to the dark-circled, haunted, hazel eyes. This case was bound to push a lot of buttons and if the guy was this rattled already…. Raynor shook his head. You did the job or you got out. And if Mulder hadn’t gotten out by now, then he could do the job.
The agents followed Raynor in tense silence, half expecting another ghostly manifestation. For now though, their “ghost” seemed to be minding his manners. A few minutes later, Mulder knew why. Raynor guided the agents to the forlorn body of a child, abandoned like so much refuse after the killer had had his fun. Scully closed her eyes quickly, opening them to spare an evaluating glance at her partner. He’d gotten even paler, if that were possible. For a moment he seemed to sway as naked torment clouded his eyes. Then the shutters closed down and he drew himself upright, once again hidden behind the armor of his inscrutable G-man persona.
God, she hated to see him do that, even as she knew she had automatically done the same. Donned the mask that would hide the hurt from the world. Aside from the horror of small, bright lives cut unnaturally short, these types of cases just hit too close to home for both of them. Samantha, Emily, Lucy Householder, Amber Lynn LaPierre, the evil that had been John Lee Roche – the mental toll of these cases ripped them to shreds every time.
Scully knelt by the small, poor thing – her touch gentle and respectful – as if he could care anymore. Unfortunately, it was all the dignity this child would likely see now. She swallowed heavily as she took in the dark hair and horrified hazel eyes, sparing a quick glance at her partner. Mulder had retreated to the periphery, putting as much distance as possible between himself and the blood-soaked body. Scully sighed again, turning her attention to the atrocity in front of her.
She didn’t need an autopsy to guess at the cause of death. Deep cuts criss-crossed the pale skin, and Scully could only shudder at the unimaginable depravity of a person who could do this to a child. The boy’s death had been slow and painful.
“This is the third one in as many nights. The first was a girl, the second a boy. All street kids. Same MO, same message on the wall-” he gestured to the messily printed words “I always finish what I start.” Mulder heard a roaring in his ears and felt himself sway. Suddenly Raynor’s voice came back into focus. “- victim’s blood. He cut them until they bled to death.”
“You told A.D. Skinner that some of the evidence was strange. What did you mean?” Scully prompted. Heinous as the case was, it didn’t seem to be an X-File. And if it wasn’t an X-File, then maybe, just maybe, she could get Mulder to leave it alone.
“Well,” Raynor began uneasily, “we pulled a print from the last crime scene….”
“And discovered your prime suspect is pushing up daisies,” Mulder finished with an air of fatalism, finally joining them by the remains.
The detective blinked at the agent, surprise etching his face. “Yeah. How’d you know?”
“I know his work. Darryl Wayne Hargrave,” he continued for Scully’s benefit.
“I profiled him when I worked in the ISU. He was executed in Mississippi five days ago.” About the time inanimate objects started taking a dislike to you, a voice whispered in his mind. Mulder needed no further incentive to believe. The sudden resurgence of the dreams was proof enough. He’d come to believe that Hargrave was the entity stalking him.
Mulder had no difficulty believing in ghosts. His encounters with Howard Graves, and Maurice and Lydia would have erased any doubts he’d harboured long ago. Not that they’d convinced Scully. For someone whose religion preached of one’s immortal soul, she had a hard time believing that soul could tangibly exist.
He was just dismayed at being the one haunted. Darryl Wayne Hargrave’s spirit might have returned to wreak his vengeance on Mulder, but he obviously couldn’t resist the lure of his old vocation. Somehow, Hargrave had found a way to come back from beyond the grave. God, it sounded like a hokey B movie. The agent had no doubt that Hargrave wanted to finish what he’d begun years ago – but it seemed he wanted to play with Mulder first. Like Roche, like Modell. The killings were just Hargrave’s sick way of upping the ante – the bastard had always gotten his kicks from the suffering of his victims.
Not that he could tell this D.C. detective that his killer *really* was a ghost. That’d go over well. He’d just have to find some way of dealing with Hargrave himself. Just how did you kill a ghost anyway?
Scully had hurried her partner home as soon as practical – Mulder had begun looking downright green as the investigation dragged on. She’d do the autopsy later. Right now, she was busy listening to Mulder’s dry heaves. The crime scene had affected him out of all proportion; gruesome as it was, they’d seen worse. Scully suspected that far more had happened eleven years ago than Mulder had let on. Mulder emerged from the bathroom, looking only marginally more composed. He ran a trembling hand through his hair, eyes studiously ignoring hers. There was no chance Scully was going to leave this be – she would demand an explanation. He simply didn’t know if he could force himself to relive the experience. He’d never spoken of it, not even to the shrink they’d tried to send him to when it was all over. He sighed in resignation, letting himself collapse onto the couch, shoulders slumped in surrender.
Scully regarded him expectantly. “What’s going on, Mulder? I’ve never seen you like this.”
“Something I ate?” Mulder attempted a weak grin that fell flat about two feet from his face.
“I might buy that if you’d actually eaten anything,” Scully answered sharply. Her voice softened. “It has to do with Hargrave, doesn’t it?”
Mulder’s gaze was fixed on the wall, his eyes years away. “You ever wonder what evil is, Scully?” he asked unexpectedly. “With all the criminals I’ve profiled, I could always trace the source of their psychoses. I could at least see how they could come to be, why they did the things they did. But Hargrave….” His voice trailed off, then gained strength again. “Hargrave had no trauma in his past, no abuse, nothing to explain his motivation. He made a conscious decision to kill. He liked it. He liked the terror he evoked. I looked into his eyes and I saw nothing but evil.” Mulder’s voice had fallen to a whisper. Scully could see his body shudder in remembrance.
She understood. She’d seen the same in Donnie Pfaster’s eyes.
Mulder himself had recently had his own personal brush with evil. He’d not only seen it – he’d tasted it, breathed it – nearly been consumed by it. He had looked into the abyss and it had nearly claimed him. Mulder had profiled Darryl Wayne Hargrave early in his career, when he had still been Bill Patterson’s golden boy. After months of brutal cases that had left him exhausted and raw, Patterson had sent him to Mississippi to profile another kid killer. Another baby butcher. Hargrave had lingered over his victims’ deaths, inflicting days of torture – carving hundreds of shallow cuts with his hunting knife, gradually making them deeper and deeper until his victims, finally and mercifully, bled to death. Mulder had spent days without sleep, without food, trying to get a handle on a killer who seemed to defy any conventional analysis. He had been beyond exhaustion.
Intent on catching a few hours sleep before writing his profile and turning it in for the morning briefing, he’d taken a cab back to his motel. Where Hargrave had been waiting for him. Too tired to be alert, he’d been easy prey for Hargrave, who had somehow recognized the new face from Washington as a threat. Ironically, it had been Patterson who had flown out and saved Mulder’s ass, shaping his agent’s notes into a coherent profile. Still, it had taken the cavalry three days to find him. Three of the longest days of his life.
Mulder finished his monotone recitation, glossing over his actual captivity and torture. No way was he going there – reliving it in his nightmares was bad enough. You could still see the scars if you knew where to look. Mulder wondered if the important ones had healed at all.
There were times during his long, nightmare-ridden convalescence when he had cursed Patterson for finding him.
He was aware of Scully’s shocked silence. He’d kept his gaze locked on the wall, unwilling to face the horror and pity he knew would cloud her eyes. His mind, however, was years away, consumed with images of the things he hadn’t told her – the grating sound of Hargrave’s laughter, how his breath had hitched with excitement with each new cut, the acrid smell of semen as the killer stroked himself to orgasm. The slow leak of blood from each wound, the fire of pain from wrists mutilated in Mulder’s struggles against his bonds, his whimpers of pain when his throat had become too abused to scream.
The certainty he was going to die. Then finally, the praying, the begging for death, for release. Hargrave’s elated laughter at Mulder’s hoarse pleading.
Those memories had broken – no, crashed – through the barriers he’d placed around them. It was all he had been able to do not to run from the crime scene – run from the realization the nightmare was beginning all over again. Worse this time, because he didn’t have to imagine what those poor children had gone through – he knew. Lord, he knew. He’d seen that poor, discarded lump of flesh and knew exactly what that boy’s last hours had been like – knew there had come a time when the body had surpassed its limits, when it had become impossible to feel more pain simply because the nerves were already overloaded. Knew there had come a time to beg for death. Knew these things, and had come so close to losing it all. Fortunately, Scully had divined the distress he didn’t dare show and got them out of there, covering his ass yet again. Sometimes he hated his photographic memory.
Scully could only shudder in sympathy as her partner recounted his tale of horror. She could see his eyes drift away in tortured remembrance, his body tremble in anguish. He spared her the details of his experience, unwilling, perhaps, to relive them himself, or burden her with his pain. It didn’t matter. She could only too easily superimpose Mulder’s features over those of the morning’s victim. What he must have endured…. God, no wonder the crime scene had affected him so strongly. Hargrave’s execution had undoubtedly resurrected those terrible memories from whatever depths in which they’d been hidden. No wonder Mulder hadn’t been sleeping, eating.
And, she realized suddenly, with a knot in her stomach, it explained more, much more. Mulder had never really dealt with his experience, had he? It ate away at him still, fueled by his recent ordeals. Hargrave’s execution had been equivalent to removing a tourniquet from a gangrenous limb. Now the infection was spreading. It explained why Mulder was suddenly sporting so many injuries: in his distress, he was acting out, subconsciously hurting himself. A silent plea for help. But help was one thing that Mulder would never admit he needed – so he convinced himself that a ghost was responsible to protect himself from the truth. Scully wanted to weep at the delusions her friend had created in order to keep himself functioning. Delusional. Oh God. Not Mulder. It chilled her to the core. If Mulder’s problems had become so serious that he was injuring himself, knowingly or not….
He needed help. Hargrave had simply been the last straw. Months of arduous cases had finally sent Mulder hurtling to a breaking point anyone else would have passed long ago. Her partner needed help and Scully knew he would deny it. As long as he could blame everything on a ghost, he could deny he wasn’t well. Deny that he needed professional help.
And how was she to convince him that *was* what he needed, when he was certain to consider it a betrayal on her part?
Her breath held a long moment as the realization hit her. She was a doctor, she had an oath to uphold. How had she missed the signs? How long had she been oblivious to her partner’s suffering? In retrospect, she should have seen this coming. After all, how could someone go through so much in so short a time and *not* be affected? Even Mulder was not indestructible, she had to admit. She had to help him, but he would fight her all the way.
But she couldn’t let him go on like this. She couldn’t. What about the car, whispered a voice in her head, the voice that didn’t want to believe her partner was in trouble. He didn’t do *that* to himself.
That had simply been a coincidence, she told the voice. No more, no less. A bizarre accident. And she could believe Mulder had broken his own TV, perhaps all unknowing, his mind lost in a nightmare, creating an explanation he could live with.
It all pointed to her partner being in a lot of trouble, and she was terrified the severity of the injuries would increase as his mental state deteriorated.
He sure as hell didn’t need to be profiling a serial killer now. Especially not this one.
But how to broach this to him? How to get him to realize he was ill? How to get him to seek help without turning against her? She was unwilling, yet, to report her suspicions. They were, still, just suspicions. She had no real proof he was a danger to himself. Except for the impossibility of his claims. There was precedent. Pincus. Folie à deux. And reporting him would be tantamount to slamming the door on him. Too many people would seize on the opportunity to lock Mulder away. She wanted to avoid that, if she could.
She closed her eyes, willing the tears away. Mulder couldn’t see. She had to be the strong one here, the rational one. But images flitted across her retinas: Mulder in restraints after attacking Skinner, joking to hide his fear; Mulder writhing in pain in a sterile, padded room, driven to near madness by his exposure to an allegedly alien artifact…. He had been fortunate both times. She prayed he would be as fortunate again.
Mulder finally let his gaze wander over to his silent partner, taking in the twin looks of consternation and horrified realization on her face. He gave his head a slight shake, crossing to the window. He leaned his forehead against the cool pane. He needed help, but not the kind she was obviously contemplating. Hargrave had to be stopped; there had to be a way. Chuck Burke was the closest thing he knew to a ghostbuster, this would be right up his alley. At least he wouldn’t assume Mulder needed to be committed.
He wanted to be angry with her, wanted to feel betrayed that she thought him so unstable. But he had neither the time nor the energy for her concerns. Hargrave was escalating and Scully’s “help” would get him killed. The murders were Hargrave’s way of announcing his intent. The killer knew each murder would only heighten Mulder’s anguish, making his final surrender all the sweeter. If he was to stop Hargrave from killing again, prevent himself from becoming a discarded piece of meat like Hargrave’s previous victims, he had no time to lose to Scully’s good intentions.
He could hear the rustle of fabric as Scully crossed the room, felt the comforting warmth of her hand on his arm. He waited for her pronouncement on his mental state, but she surprised him.
“You should get some sleep, Mulder.”
“What, you’re not going to tell me I’m suffering from PTSD?” He’d meant it to sound light-hearted, but it sounded only tired and bitter to his ears.
“I think,” she answered carefully, “that you already know the answer to that.” She sighed heavily. “I can see that this case is bothering you, Mulder. You don’t have to pursue it. Skinner will understand.” She hesitated, moving her hand along his arm. “It’s not wrong to need help once in a while.”
He turned from the window, finally meeting her gaze. This time it was Scully who looked away. “That’s what you think, isn’t it? Ole Spooky has finally snapped and needs to be locked up?” The anger had finally sparked and he gratefully fanned the flames.
God, this wasn’t how she wanted to do this. “Mulder, you know I don’t think that. But ordinary cases don’t have you vomiting and looking like the dead, either. With everything that’s happened lately….” She trailed off, not quite knowing how to state her concern. “These injuries you’ve been getting…. I just don’t want to see you hurt, is all.”
He stared at her, incredulous. “Shit, you think *I’ve* been doing this, don’t you? You think *I’m* hurting myself. Despite what you’ve seen? I suppose I’ve suddenly become telekinetic and started playing with the filing cabinets too.”
“So someone has picked an incredibly bad time to play a joke on you,” she responded heatedly. “Mulder, you’ve been having problems ever since Hargrave’s execution, haven’t you?” Her voice softened, and Mulder bled to hear the pity in it, the assumptions she was about to make.
She moved until she was standing next to him. He backed up a few steps, unwilling to have her betrayal so close. Scully took another step forward, then relented, allowing him his space.
He was a skittish as a puppy that had just been kicked. And she had done this. Was doing this.
“Mulder…you obviously still have issues about what happened to you. Things you haven’t dealt with. You need to talk to someone about it. Please.” The words of denial died on his lips, because suddenly he wasn’t so certain her assumptions weren’t true. The part of him that still remembered he was a psychologist knew it was all so damn rational. When his ordeal had ended, he had spent so much time convincing everyone he was all right that he’d fooled himself into believing it. He’d simply gone on as if the nightmares and scars didn’t exist. And in time, he’d convinced himself they never had.
His gaze fell to his wrists, to the barely visible remnants of the scars there. It had been real; Hargrave was real then and now, wasn’t he? Because if he wasn’t, then that meant Scully was right. He hadn’t seen Hargrave in the parking garage, felt his presence stalking him everywhere. He was delusional. But Scully was wrong, he knew that too. It wasn’t Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; he wasn’t subconsciously reliving his torture, hurting himself in his delusions. There was evidence: the cold spots, the TV, the car, the filing cabinets and the myriad of other manifestations that had suddenly erupted in his life. Scully refused to see that so many coincidences simply could not *be* coincidence; she had used her logic to manufacture a more reasonable explanation. Reasonable. Right. Sure it was reasonable to assume Spooky had finally flipped – wasn’t the whole Bureau just waiting for the day?
“I’m not leaving the case.”
“I’m fine.” He stared out the window again, unable to face her with the lie. Two simple words, so rife with unspoken meanings for the two of them. Unassailable. “Like you said, I just need to get some sleep.”
She left quietly, and he heard the door snick softly shut behind her. As if a door was shutting on his life. She’d go to Skinner, wouldn’t she? Tell him that Mulder was a danger to himself. Get him taken off the case. Remanded for psychiatric evaluation. They’d done it before. And Hargrave would have him.
“Damn you, Hargrave,” he muttered into the glass. “Just get this over with.”
In his mind he could hear a ghostly laugh.
Mulder’s apartment had taken on the character of a mad scientist’s wet dream. All it needed, he reflected, was a Jacob’s ladder sending electricity frizzing up and down its wires in pointless abandon. Chuck Burke, however, was too genial-looking for the role of a mad scientist. Too genial to pass as Spock either, he thought, as he considered how closely his apartment now resembled a Star Trek set. The original series, of course. Mulder was nothing if not a purist.
The small living room was crammed with cameras and odd-looking electronic equipment, most of which utterly surpassed Mulder’s ken. Cables meandered across the floor and it would take only one misstep to send thousands of dollars of sensitive equipment crashing. He had tried to pace around the obstacle course, earning irate glances from his friend. Mulder finally gave up the effort in favor of inspecting each piece of equipment Burke had installed. His earlier fatigue had succumbed to a burst of adrenaline. The prospect of finally being rid of Hargrave’s harassment lent a spurt of energy to his tired body. At least Scully would stop thinking he’d lost his mind.
Scully. Her visit still left a bad taste in his mouth. He had been consumed with the desire to prove her wrong – to show her incontrovertible evidence that Hargrave had returned from beyond the grave. But there was that nagging seed of doubt she’d planted, too, that it was all in his head. God knew he was the poster boy for repressed memories; could he really have fooled himself that badly? He needed to know; hence his call to the one person he thought might be able to help him make sense of it all.
Burke barely refrained from rolling his eyes in exasperation. At least a hovering Mulder was better than a pacing Mulder. Sort of. “Thanks for calling me, Mulder,” he enthused as he puttered, making tiny adjustments to each esoteric piece of equipment. “This is a great opportunity.”
Mulder couldn’t help but smile at his friend’s enthusiasm. “‘Who’re you gonna call?’ You’re the only ghostbuster I know.” He gestured to the room at large. “So what, exactly, *is* all this supposed to do?”
“Well,” Burke rubbed his hands together, clearly in his element. “All living things are surrounded by energy fields, which some people are able to perceive as auras. The same is true of what we call ghosts. Spectral energy exists on a different wavelength than our own. So, if we can isolate that frequency, we should be able to generate an interference wave, thereby disrupting the spectral wavelength and banishing the entity.”
“No proton packs or particle throwers?”
“Too bad. Damn, they were cool.”
“This should be a lot cleaner. No possibility of being slimed. Well, theoretically.”
“Theoretically?” Mulder’s voice rose sharply.
“Well,” Burke had the grace to look embarrassed. “It hasn’t exactly been tested yet.” He added proudly, “The equipment is my own invention. I’ve been looking for a bona fide entity to test it on.”
“Great,” Mulder muttered, running a hand thorough his hair. Now the prospects of getting rid of Hargrave seemed less certain.
Burke continued, unfazed by his friend’s apparent lack of faith. “We’ve got video and still cameras, as well as audio. We’ll be recording in both visible and infrared spectra. If anything happens, we’ll catch it.”
Mulder didn’t care much about catching anything at this point, he just wanted to send the s.o.b. back to Hell where he belonged.
Burke made one final adjustment, then stepped back to admire his handiwork. “Now we wait.”
Fortunately for Mulder’s frayed nerves, but unfortunately for Burke’s expensive equipment, they didn’t have to wait long. A noticeable chill began to permeate the apartment, the first harbinger of Hargrave’s presence. Mulder felt his heart speed up and a cold knot form in his stomach that had nothing to do with the chill. He was suddenly certain that this wasn’t going to be nearly as easy as Burke thought. The scientist checked the thermal sensors. Apparently a thermometer was just too mundane. “Cool. Temperature’s down five degrees and still dropping,” he reported gleefully.
Immediately he began tapping away at his keyboard. Mulder heard cameras and machines whir into life as Burke issued his commands. “Whoa. Look at this!” He gestured Mulder over to the monitor. “This is from the infrared camera – see it?”
Mulder did indeed see it. A vaguely humanoid-shaped dark blue blob standing out against the reds and oranges of the apartment.
“There he is,” crowed Burke. “Yes!” He pumped his arm triumphantly. “Mulder old man, you’ve got yourself one primo haunting here. All we need is some poltergeist activity.”
Mulder cringed, hoping Hargrave wasn’t getting any ideas. “Shouldn’t you be trying to jam that frequency?” Mulder frowned, with an uneasy glance at the blue form on the monitor. Shit, this better work.
Burke went back to his keyboard, fingers flying as he input more commands. “I’m trying to isolate the frequency now.”
Too late, Mulder thought, as his friend’s expensive camera toppled onto its side. Burke cringed as the lens shattered.
“I think you’d better hurry,” Mulder suggested, casting a wary eye about the room. The cold was growing in intensity. Both men jumped as another piece of equipment tumbled to the floor.
“Chuck,” Mulder repeated, warningly. He could swear he felt Hargrave breathing down his neck.
Burke returned to his console, typing furiously, his eyes flitting about uneasily. Suddenly this was so much more than an academic exercise. Despite Mulder’s assurances that his life was in danger, Burke hadn’t quite believed it. Not that the agent was lying to him or anything, of course not, it was just that vengeance from beyond the grave of the sort Mulder described was generally the province of the entertainment industry. Although, Mulder had told him of one case, hadn’t he, of a murderous ghost? Some guy protecting his secretary…?
Burke’s computer beeped for his attention, rousing him from his reverie. The frequencies on his screen merged, then canceled each other out. He whooped with glee.
“Take that you misogynistic, ectoplasmic reject from hell!”
There was another crash, and Burke was unashamedly relieved Mulder’s computer was the sacrifice this time, and not another piece of his equipment. Ruined equipment, especially equipment ruined by a ghost, was a bitch to explain to the Dean.
The two men waited with baited breath as silence fell over the apartment. When moments passed with no further ghostly activity, they ventured small smiles, which broke into elated grins.
“It worked,” Burke said wonderingly. “It really worked.”
“Thanks, Chuck,” Mulder said, clapping the smaller man on the back, his appreciation heartfelt. “I really appreciate this. I’m sorry about your equipment.”
Burke shrugged philosophically. “Hazards of the job. Besides, think of the paper this will make!” He happily began righting his equipment, taking stock of the damage, too focused on his paper to be concerned what the Dean might say.
Mulder shook his head bemusedly, amazed at his friend’s ability to see this as an adventure. He was just relieved it was over. He figured he’d be giving X-Files regarding ghosts a wide berth for a while.
Suddenly, the temperature plummeted – Mulder could see his breath condense into a puff of mist in the suddenly arctic air. Time seemed to stand still as the air crackled with energy, as if drawing in on itself. It reminded Mulder of the unnaturally still air before a summer thunderstorm. Then it was abruptly let loose, as if the gate holding it back had suddenly opened.
Gale force wind circled the tiny room, causing Mulder to stagger against the wall. Burke dived for shelter beneath Mulder’s desk as the gale smashed its way through Mulder’s apartment, sending Burke’s equipment crashing to the floor, into walls. A camera launched itself at Mulder’s head; he ducked as it hit the wall, showering him with debris. He could swear he could hear Hargrave roaring with rage over the noise of destruction.
The tornado ended as abruptly as it had begun. Mulder guessed that Hargrave’s rage had used up whatever reserves of energy he had and he needed time to recharge. At least he hoped so.
“I think he’s pissed,” Burke said mournfully, staring at the remains of his cherished equipment. The Dean was going to have a fit. He added seriously, “I’ve seldom heard of a spirit this strong or this destructive. Be careful, Mulder.”
Mulder nodded. “Now how the hell do I get rid of him?”
Burke sighed. “It may be time to use more traditional methods. I know a medium who’s very good. Maybe she can help.”
A medium. He could just envision what Scully would say to *that*.
end Act II
Home of Clara Holdridge
“Come in, come in,” Mulder and Scully were ushered out of the frigid downpour into the foyer of a fairly standard suburban home. Any preconceptions Scully had about musty Victorian mansions and wild-looking clairvoyants with thick European accents went out the window. Clara Holdridge, Chuck Burke’s friend, was about as far from the stereotype as it was possible to get. She was a tiny black woman in her 60s, slighter even than Scully, with greying hair and a face crinkled by laugh lines. Her dark eyes, however, were still sharp and piercing. She sucked in a breath as Mulder stepped over the threshold. “Charles was right. You do have a dark presence following you,” she said worriedly. Her eyes took on a distant gaze. “Very dark,” she repeated distractedly. “Very powerful. So full of hate….”
Scully suppressed an urge to roll her eyes. The trappings might be innocuous, but the spiel was obviously old hat. Why the hell had she let Mulder talk her into this? Feeding his delusion. No, the voice in her head corrected. You just want him to prove you wrong, this once. Because you don’t want to face the alternative.
And was the idea of a ghost so improbable, really? Hadn’t she stood in Yankee Stadium, fighting with a woman possessed by evil incarnate? Suddenly her assumptions seemed less certain.
Clara’s voice interrupted her reverie. “Come, come,” she clucked, taking their wet coats and beckoning them into the dining room. “We have our work cut out for us today.”
“I can’t believe you talked me into this,” Scully muttered, sotto voce, as they followed their hostess. “Mulder, this is so…hokey.”
“I told you what happened last night,” Mulder hissed, angry at his partner’s continued resistance. “Or do you think Chuck and I smashed all his equipment?”
“A gust of wind could have come in through the window, Mulder,” Scully replied wearily.
“Through a closed window, Scully? Pray tell, what’s the scientific explanation for that?”
She had none of course, and they both knew it. Dismayed, Scully wondered why it was so much easier to believe her partner was losing it than to believe in his contention he was being stalked by a ghost. The events of a certain Christmas Eve aside. Didn’t the events he’d related of last night prove something? Or had he managed to pull his friend into his delusion with him?
Folie à deux, redux. Of course Chuck would see what he wanted to see, what Mulder wanted him to see. “We have a case to solve, or had you forgotten that?”
The look he gave her should have dropped her frozen to the ground. “I’m not likely to forget that, Scully. Believe it or not, by stopping Hargrave we *are* working on the case.”
The two agents halted their bickering as they entered the dining room. Three other people were already waiting.
“I find contact is easier to establish with a larger group,” Clara explained, as she gestured the agents to take their seats. “Everyone here is experienced – we’ve had many séances together.”
She took her own seat and addressed the group, introducing first Mulder and Scully, then the other attendees. “Because of the strength of the dark entity pursuing Fox, I want everyone to envision a white bubble of protection around himself. Imagine it surrounding you with a brilliant glow – it is the light that keeps the darkness at bay, the truth that defeats the Father of Lies.” Her voice took on a lilting, soothing tone. She addressed herself to Scully next, giving her a knowing smile. “I can see your scepticism Dana, but I’ve never found belief a prerequisite for a manifestation – especially when it comes to the darker entities among us. They love to have our attention, to cause mischief. I do, however, urge you to take this seriously – for your own safety. Better to look foolish, isn’t it, than to leave oneself vulnerable to attack?” she finished mildly.
Scully felt her face burning at the gentle admonishment. She could see the others had closed their eyes, the better to visualize their protection. She gave an internal shrug. Sure. Fine. Whatever. She wouldn’t look anymore foolish than any of *them*. Even Mulder had closed his eyes in concentration. It occurred to her then, with a pang in her heart that actually hurt, that Missy would have felt quite at home here. Scully sighed, closing her eyes. It couldn’t hurt, she supposed. And when nothing happened, she’d confront Mulder. No more denial – for either of them.
Scully tried to envision her bubble of light, really she did. Unfortunately, the image of her partner in restraints kept intruding. She opened her eyes, admitting defeat. She resolved to stay alert – this entire setup was a phony as a three dollar bill and it was up to her, as always, to maintain perspective. Mulder depended on her for that.
Contrary to expectations, Clara didn’t dim the lights, or light candles, or ask them to hold hands. “You can if you want,” she’d said and Scully was not entirely unsurprised when Mulder reached out for her. She took his hand gladly, needing the contact herself. A tacit apology for the harsh words they’d spoken earlier.
Finally, Clara deemed she had the proper atmosphere. “Darryl Wayne Hargrave, I feel you near. I know you can hear me. You also know your presence here is unseemly. There is forgiveness for you, if you but seek it. In the name of the light, and the One Who Created All Things, I abjure you to leave. Find your path, Darryl Wayne Hargrave; it lies before you, in the light, not in the shadows here in this realm.”
More theatrical than Harold Piller had been, but Scully hadn’t been overly impressed with Harold’s alleged psychic abilities either. She could hear the ticking of a clock in the deafening silence. How long were they going to have to listen to this, she wondered, until someone admitted nothing was going to happen? But of course something would happen – that was what these things were all about. Something would happen because it was manufactured to happen. Have to keep the marks coming back, after all.
Most people wanted nothing more than to speak to Great Uncle Joe – only Mulder would want to exorcise a serial killer. She tried not to squirm in her chair, the wooden seat suddenly extremely uncomfortable. There must be a window open somewhere, she thought, as a cold breeze tickled her neck. Beside her, she could feel Mulder stiffen in alarm. “He’s here,” Clara suddenly spoke. Scully’s eyes narrowed, another explanation for the wind springing to mind. An old con gone hi-tech. She pitied Mulder suddenly, that he felt the need to engage in this charade. He was intelligent enough, certainly, to see past the smoke and mirrors. He just didn’t want to. Allowing Madame Clara, or whatever she called herself when she wasn’t trying to impress the FBI with her legitimacy, to take advantage, to turn him into a victim, a mark. She wanted suddenly to cry, that it had come to this. That these people, despite their apparent sincerity, were here for the sole purpose of pulling the wool over Mulder’s eyes. It was all a cloak. Good actors, of course; they had to be.
What had begun as a cool breath of air had, somehow, without her registering it, become a frigid breeze. “Your tricks don’t impress me, spirit,” Holdridge snapped. “You have no place here. In the name of the Sacred, in the name of the Holy, I cast you out! The one you seek is within our protection – you cannot harm him. No one here fears you – we are proof against your evil. Embrace the light, spirit, while you can.”
The only response was a strengthening of the wind and another drop in temperature. Everyone jumped as a vase plummeted to the floor. Very good actors, Scully commented silently.
“Remember your bubble of protection,” Clara reminded them, her voice rattled.
Nice touch, thought Scully cynically. How could anyone be taken by this? The least they could do was add some ghostly moans, rattling chains, maybe a ghostly light? But the lights were all blazing and there was nothing remotely ghostly about this. It was rather sad, really. She hoped Mulder wasn’t being taken in by this – it was strictly amateur hour. Maybe the lack of pizzazz was meant to make it seem more realistic.
What happened next almost made Scully doubt it had all been staged.
There was a huge crash, and the windows flew open, letting the cold rain lash in. Someone got up to close them, only to stagger back when the glass suddenly shattered. Scully rose from her seat to help; she was still a doctor, fraud or not.
Then the lights, rather predictably, went out.
Scully staggered to a stop, unable to see her way in the unfamiliar surroundings. She heard someone hiss with pain and someone else navigating the room with considerably more ability than she had.
“Everyone stay still, I have some candles here somewhere,” Clara called. A moment later a small flame leapt to life, followed by others as Clara lit a series of tall tapers. The unnatural cold reluctantly dissipated, leaving only the damp November air coming through the shattered windows. She heard Clara’s sharp intake of breath and turned to follow her gaze. In the dim light she could just make out the words written on the wall in dripping blood, “I always finish what I start.” Standing in front of the wall, clutching his bleeding arm, was Mulder.
Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman
Morning had finally come – after another restless night punctuated by the echoes of his screams and Hargrave’s gleeful laughter – without a summons from Skinner, or the men in white jackets waiting for him at the basement door. He’d assumed that meant Scully hadn’t told Skinner of her suspicions. She had arrived at the office a short while later, bearing coffee and danishes – a mute apology. But she still wouldn’t meet his eyes. She’d taken him to the ER the night before with scarcely a word; her silence telling him more eloquently than words ever could that she believed him deranged. That in the midst of what she considered a hokey fraud, he had sliced open his own arm and written on the walls in his own blood. Not consciously, of course. At least, he didn’t think she considered him that far gone. He could have told her he recognized the handwriting, that it wasn’t his. She had only to pull the case file to see that – the writing matched that of the crime scenes. But what was the use? If she hadn’t believed he had done it to himself, she would have been accusing the others.
Better he bear the brunt of her accusations than the people who had only been trying to help him. Scully might have believed that last night had been a set up, but he knew better. He had felt Hargrave’s presence, heard his derision. He remembered the sad look on Clara Holdridge’s face as they had left; her mute apology for her failure to help. He was beginning to fear that Hargrave would win after all. The drive from the airport had been similarly silent and tense. Scully, white-knuckled, driving with her concentration fixed fiercely on the road before her. She had been adamant in her refusal to let Mulder drive, and for once he did not challenge her. In truth, he simply did not have the energy.
He knew Scully was secretly hoping he would doze off in the car, as he had failed to do on the plane, but he dared not. He couldn’t take the risk of Scully hearing him scream in his sleep – he couldn’t give her any more ammunition to use against him. The regulations regarding agents in psychological distress were very clear. Ignoring them could lead to dismissal. Although, to her credit, she was doing a fine job of ignoring them so far. Of course, if they’d reported him every time he seemed to be in psychological distress, he’d have spent his entire stint in Violent Crimes in a straitjacket. He’d avoided it because they’d all bought into the “Spooky” mystique: Spooky Mulder was a moody insomniac who caught killers on psychic vibes and worthless clues. He was able to catch psychopaths because he was only one step away from being one himself. There had been times when Mulder had been clinging to the edge of the abyss by the tips of his fingers. Patterson had been willing to ignore all sorts of sins as long as his precious solve rate held. And Scully, in the guise of helping Mulder, would unknowingly condemn him.
His hand crept to his chest, fingering the bandage beneath his shirt. When he’d screamed himself awake from yet another nightmare of Hargrave cutting him, he’d found himself covered in blood. He’d stared at the mirror mutely, glaring at the long, shallow cut that now adorned his chest. A partner to the one gracing his arm. Tracing the path of the scar left by the first cut Hargrave had made on his body eleven years ago. He had even been affected enough by Scully’s assertions that he had looked for a knife with which he might have injured himself, if he was as far gone as Scully seemed to believe. There was none, as he had known there would be. He’d simply bandaged it and gone on with his morning.
It was itching like hell now, though. He had to consciously keep his hand away – it would fit too nicely into Scully’s appraisal of his mental health if she knew of it. No way would she believe he hadn’t done it to himself.
Mulder and Scully accompanied the guard to the cell where Darryl Wayne Hargrave had spent the last five of his eleven years on Death Row. “Not much to see,” the guard commented. “All his stuff’s already been boxed up.”
“Is it still here?” Mulder asked, stepping into the small cell.
“I guess so,” the guard answered. “Wasn’t anyone to ship it to.”
“Did you know Hargrave?” Scully queried.
“Sure. I’ve been on the Row for a couple of years now.”
“Did Hargrave have any friends, anyone he might have confided in?”
“Hargrave? Nah. Even the inmates thought he was creepy. He just had this way of starin’ at ya, ya know? Like he was just waitin’ to rip your heart out.”
“I know the feeling,” Mulder muttered, prowling the small space. He shook his head, exasperated. All Hargrave’s personality had been expunged from the cell in anticipation of its next occupant.
“He was a weird one all right,” the guard continued. “Spooky. Always reading about the paranormal, life after death, reaching out from beyond the grave, that kind of shit.” The guard shrugged. “Guess anyone who’s gonna die wants to think there’s something else waiting.”
Abandoning his inspection of the cell as futile, Mulder stepped toward the door, only to be suddenly flung against the far wall by an invisible force.
He could feel a hand of bitter cold close about his throat.
Scully jumped to her partner’s aid, only to stop short as the cell door clanged shut in front of her. She watched, horrorstruck, as her partner was tossed against the wall like a rag doll, as if an invisible hand had flung him across the room. “Open the door, open the door!” she yelled at the flustered guard, even as he called for the guard down the hall to override the electronics.
She could see Mulder fight for breath, see his waning struggles against his invisible attacker. Even as the guards struggled with the recalcitrant cell door, she could only futilely watch her partner’s struggles without comprehension. This, this was not delusion. This was…something else. Something that wasn’t rational, wasn’t logical. Could Mulder have been right? *Was* he being stalked by Hargrave’s ghost? She thought of Howard Graves, and of his efforts to protect Lauren Kyte, even from beyond death; the force that had taken possession of her partner’s body not long ago and sent it on a hunt to kill her. Could Hargrave’s vengeance be so strong as to defy mortality?
The cell door sprung open as mysteriously as it had closed, at the same time the mysterious force released her partner. Mulder slumped to the floor, gasping for breath. Scully wasted no time reaching his side, wincing at the livid bruises on his neck. Bruises in the undeniable shape of fingers.
Mulder lay panting on the floor beside her, still struggling for breath. The eerie chill that had filled the cell was now gone, but Mulder knew he had won only a brief respite. Hargrave was escalating, growing stronger. Soon, his need for revenge would overwhelm him and Mulder would be dead.
He met Scully’s horrified eyes. “Still think it’s all in my head?” he wheezed.
Mulder propped himself on his elbow, watching the woman slumbering at his side. Scully-watching was his favourite pasttime, particularly when she slept. Years of pain seemed to fall away, and her face softened, losing the harshness it had acquired over the years. So long she had stood beside him – sharing his quest, supporting him, protecting him, defending him…. His free hand gently twined itself in her hair, lightly brushing her cheek.
She’d been adamant that he not be alone, now that she was convinced of what he had known all along. He’d seen the guilt and the shame in her eyes as she knelt beside him in that cell – the conviction she could have prevented this if only she had believed. Believed in him.
They would have to talk about it; they knew that. She had tried to stammer an apology on the plane ride home, and he had told her not to worry about it. Still, he had been hurt and angered by her assumptions, regardless how reasonable they had seemed. Part of him was angry with her still. Despite the strides they had made, the habits of nine years of talking in generalities, of talking around the important issues, were still hard to break.
A gentle smile graced his face. Despite the recent tensions, they were still here. Still together. And Scully was fierce in her determination to protect him from this menace, when he didn’t even know how to protect himself. Not from this. His smile faded. A sense of futility had begun to weigh down his heart – the dread that this time there would be no cheating death – no miraculous rescue, no Scully on her white charger with guns blazing. It was the way life always kicked him in the ass – whenever he tried to grasp some happiness – touch the brass ring – it always slipped through his fingers.
A cool draft blew warningly across the bed, bringing with it the cloying stench of evil. Mulder froze. No. No and no and no. His life might be already forfeit – but he was *not* going to lose Scully to Hargrave’s mad vengeance.
Mulder swung himself out of the bed carefully, casting one last glance at Scully’s sleeping form. Giving into temptation, he gently brushed his lips against hers, too aware that this could be goodbye. His body was vibrating with nervous energy, a violin string pulled too taut. He knew, somehow, that it would end tonight, however it finally played out. Hargrave would wait no longer. Tomorrow would come and he would be alive or not, but Scully would be safe and that was all that had mattered to him for a long time now.
“You want me, Hargrave. Come and get me.” The icy breeze seemed to accept his challenge.
Mulder wasn’t certain what he expected when he returned to his apartment. Perhaps another angry whirlwind gyring through the place. What there was, was pervasive cold; cold that triggered unpleasant memories of lying abandoned on Arctic ice floes. He shivered, his breath condensing in the air. “C’mon, Hargrave,” he taunted. “You can do better than this.”
He rubbed his hands together, breathed on them to warm them. This was ridiculous. Hargrave was going to freeze him to death? The weight on his heart seemed to grow heavier, bringing with it an unutterable weariness. Mulder yawned; suddenly it seemed all he could do to keep his eyes open. His manic energy abruptly fled, and he half fell onto the couch, no longer able to sustain his frenetic pacing. Another yawn, and his eyes were falling shut, despite the warning bells that were shrilling in his head. A futile struggle to raise faltering eyelids, then he fell into Morpheus’ arms.
He struggled, but the nightmare wouldn’t relinquish him from its grip. The ropes cut into his body, holding him motionless. The knife stung as it sliced into him again, and the too familiar tang of blood assaulted his nostrils. His life trickled slowly over the warehouse floor in dark rivulets and he was faced with the certainty that no one was going to find him this time….
It wasn’t real. It was just a dream. Just a dream. Like Scully said, Hargrave’s execution had simply churned up memories he had never really dealt with. He could actually *hear* Scully’s voice in his mind, ordering him to wake up and leave the nightmare behind.
Easier said than done.
He couldn’t force his body to move; it was like a ton of cement was weighing him down. He opted for the next best thing, opening his eyes. Even that was a Herculean task; someone had glued his lids shut when he wasn’t looking….
Ah. Finally triumphant, Mulder blinked owlishly in the dim light – to find the copper tang of spilled blood had not dissipated. He struggled to rise, but, as in his dream, his limbs refused to obey his commands. He heard a low chuckle – comprehension was slow. He blinked to see Darryl Wayne Hargrave standing above him, grinning wickedly. Mulder blinked again, but the apparition was still there, surprisingly solid. As was the bloody knife in his hand.
“I’ve been waiting a long time for this,” Hargrave laughed. He leaned over the supine agent, his breath caressing Mulder’s ear: “I told you, didn’t I? I always finish what I start.” The knife flashed again and Mulder found himself spiraling into darkness, vaguely amazed that his end – which he had always envisioned would come as the result of his quest – was to come at the hands of a ghostly serial killer. He thought he heard the ringing of a phone, but it came from a great distance and he couldn’t convince his limbs to move to answer it. Then everything went black.
Scully let the phone ring one more time before conceding defeat. Damn the man! No more ditching – he’d promised! When would he get it through his thick skull that he didn’t have to protect her? She could take care of herself, damnit! Better than he took care of himself.
She had brought her partner directly to her apartment once their flight had landed, despite Mulder’s vociferous protests. They had left Mississippi after confirming that no one had desecrated Hargrave’s resting place, leaving the puzzle of the fingerprints unsolved. But not really. Scully just had to look at Mulder’s bruised neck to see the truth. She was ashamed.
Ashamed that she had doubted him, that she had thought him mentally unstable. Again. When would she learn? She had doubted him before – with Bill Patterson, Linda Bowman, Greg Pincus…with nearly tragic results. She had overridden Mulder’s objections by the simple expedient of ignoring them. She was not going to let him face this alone – she needed to do something to atone, to prove her newfound belief. She had doubted him; would have had him committed. His reluctance to endure her presence was understandable. Even now, doubt was beginning to tinge her knowledge of what she had witnessed. It was just so unbelievable. No wonder he couldn’t forgive her. Although she knew, deep down, that was untrue. Mulder was simply trying, in his endearing but utterly frustrating way, to protect her.
Although it was patently obvious just who required protection. She bit her lip, unable to shake the vision of her partner thrown against the prison walls, struggling for breath, the livid bruises of strangulation around his neck…. Scully dressed hastily, grabbed the car keys, exasperation warring with concern. Sometimes she was tempted to shoot the man again.
He didn’t answer her knocks, so she let herself in with her key, hoping against hope she’d find him merely catching some well-deserved sleep on his couch. No such luck. The stench of blood assaulted her at once and she reached back to unholster her weapon. Realizing only after she’d drawn it that it was unlikely to be effective against whatever she’d find.
Nevertheless, she didn’t holster her gun.
Oh God, let him be all right. Please,please,please. “Mulder,” she called out quietly. She passed silently through the foyer, glancing quickly at the kitchen and bathroom. Tensing, she headed into the living room.
The amount of blood staining the battered leather, and the motionless form on it, sent her heart into shuddering paroxysms. She quickly knelt by her partner, pressed trembling fingers to his neck. Almost collapsed with relief when she felt the faint throbbing of his pulse. Cell phone in hand, she desperately tried to keep her voice steady as she called for assistance.
Leaving his side briefly, she quickly checked the remainder of the apartment. Whoever – whatever – had done this to her partner was long gone. No way had he done this to himself. Holstering her weapon, she loaded her arms with towels, and set about trying to prevent Mulder from bleeding to death. She felt that ‘click’ deep in her psyche, the one that switched her from friend and lover to doctor. Her hands steadied as her training kicked in, as she worked to see Mulder as simply another patient. If she hadn’t, if she had allowed herself to see the man beneath her ministrations, she would most certainly have screamed in despair – and that would not help Mulder one iota.
end Act III
Georgetown University Medical Center
Skinner strode purposefully down the hospital corridor, so intent on his goal that he did not notice the personnel he scattered in his wake. He spotted his quarry finally, and pulled up short. Scully was slumped dejectedly on the drab couch, her head held in her hands. Those who had followed his intent progress through the hallways saw his demeanour abruptly soften. He approached the woman tentatively, as if afraid of disturbing her grief.
Skinner hesitated, then eased himself down beside his agent. “Agent Scully,” he said softly, fearing the worst.
Scully’s head popped up at his gentle inquiry, startled. She calmed when she saw who sat beside her. Skinner could see by her red-rimmed eyes she had been crying. He felt a knot of horror clench his gut. Of all the times Mulder had been hospitalized, of all the times he had faced death, Skinner had never, ever, seen Scully cry.
“Is he, is…” He choked on the words, wanting and not wanting to know.
Scully looked at him, uncomprehending. “He’s still in surgery,” she answered dejectedly, her gaze returning to her hands. “He’s lost a lot of blood.”
Scully refused to meet his gaze. “Darryl Wayne Hargrave happened,” she muttered.
Skinner was confused. Hargrave was dead. Despite fingerprints that shouldn’t have existed, that was incontrovertible fact. Fingerprints that had allowed him to call the case an X-File, when the real reason he’d assigned Mulder to the case was for his profiling expertise and his familiarity with the m.o. Knowing Mulder would have fought against the case otherwise, he’d patted Himself on the back for outwitting the agent. Now he felt his cheeks burn with shame over the deception. He’d known what Hargrave had done to Mulder; he should have realized the case would have uneasy resonances for his agent.
Should have known how precarious Mulder’s equilibrium was. He was paid to know those things, damnit.
Hesitantly at first, then with growing steam, Scully related the events of the last week. To Skinner’s dismay, she put the blame for Mulder’s condition squarely on her shoulders. “I shouldn’t have doubted him,” she said, her lip quivering.
“Scully,” he admonished, “what you were thinking was reasonable. *I* was the one who knew about Mulder’s experience with Hargrave. *I* should have never put Mulder on the case.”
It was telling, he thought, that she did not disagree with him about his culpability, only her own. “I should have known better,” she insisted. “He was right about Modell, about Linda Bowman….”
“And nearly got taken in by them both,” Skinner reminded her. “Maybe we’re both to blame,” he conceded. “But that isn’t going to help Mulder. How is he?”
“No one’s told me anything yet,” Scully admitted. “They’ve got a lot of sewing up to do.” A lot, she repeated to herself silently. It suddenly hit him: Scully had just told him a ghost was responsible for the murders of three children and Mulder’s brush with death. A ghost with a vengeful agenda. He’d seen too many bizarre reports cross his desk to dismiss Scully’s contention outright. But he, too, remembered the Pincus case, and had to wonder if either of his agents were operating at full capacity, especially after the stress of recent events. Could there be an explanation for the events Scully had witnessed; could their copycat have made Mulder his target as Hargrave had? Scully was right: such things were far easier to believe than a killer returned from the dead. Just how the hell was he supposed to protect his agent from a ghost?
Mulder blinked, staring up at the starlit canopy. He sat up, noticing without surprise that he seemed to be suspended in space, stars all around him. He’d been here before, he remembered, on the bridge between life and death, while Albert Hosteen had performed the Blessing Way ceremony, petitioning the spirits on his behalf. Then he’d been aware of beings surrounding him; he’d spoken to his father, to Deep Throat. Now, however, it seemed that he was alone. A throat clearing behind him disabused him of that notion.
“Albert!” Mulder broke into a smile at seeing the Navajo elder. The shaman had died while Mulder was battling the voices the alien artifact had awakened in his head. Yet somehow, he had managed to send his spirit to comfort Scully, to pray with her.
The smile soon turned into a frown. “Am I dead?”
Albert answered serenely, “Not yet.”
“Then why am I here?”
“This is a place of your choosing,” Albert answered. “I prefer someplace a little more…earthbound.”
Mulder stared about him in awe. The endless starry vista had been replaced by a wooded canopy. A small fire glowed cheerily, and Mulder could hear a brook babbling in the distance. Albert sat by the fire, gesturing him to do the same. The shaman stirred the coals, while Mulder basked in the silence. It was peaceful here. It occurred to him that peace was something he’d seldom known in his life. And if he *was* dead, well, this was a nicer afterlife than any he had envisioned.
“You are not dead,” Albert repeated. “Not yet, anyway.”
“Then what’s going on?” Mulder asked, without any real urgency. He frowned, remembering. “I saw Hargrave. He killed me, I thought.” His gaze swept over his unmarked torso.
“He almost did,” Albert conceded. “And he still might. You cannot fight the evil in your world, you must defeat him in his.”
“How?” Mulder asked, but Albert and his surroundings were becoming dim and he suddenly found himself – – in a disturbingly familiar warehouse; tied down with Hargrave over him with the ever-present knife. It was his nightmares given life; he could believe he had gone back in time, forced by cruel fate to relive the most horrifying moments of his life. He heard Hargrave cackle with glee as the blade lanced his flesh, just as it had eleven years ago.
The pain helped him focus. “You’re not real,” he ground out. “You’re dead. None of this is real.”
“Wrong, *Fox*,” Hargrave answered cheerfully. “This *is* real. You belong to me now. You always did. *I* make the rules here.” The knife bit into him again. “Doesn’t this feel real?”
It did, Mulder had to admit as he stifled a scream. Just as real as it had felt eleven years ago. But this time there was no one to save his ass – he didn’t think this was a place Scully would be able to find. I’m sorry, Scully, he apologized silently.
“The kids were fun,” Hargrave went on dreamily, lost in the enticing aroma of thick red blood. “But this…this is better.” He leered at Mulder. “It was easy to break them, to taste their fear. It’s sweet, did you know that? Sweet and hot, like sex….” He laughed, a mad cackling that made Mulder’s gorge rise. “But this is more challenging, more satisfying.”
Hargrave’s hands dropped to his groin, stroking himself through his jeans, his eyes closed. “You…you’re different. Your fear tastes different. More mature. Full bodied.” His eyes opened, grinning madly. “Like a fine, red wine, Fox.” The killer tossed his head back. “I’ve been dreaming about having you again for the past eleven years.” He sighed. “Intoxicating.”
He looked down at the agent. “What, nothing to say, Fox? You weren’t nearly so quiet last time we met.”
“Would it make any difference?” Mulder struggled to keep his voice steady, struggled not to let his captor know how terrified he was of what was to come. He recalled how he’d tried to reason with Hargrave eleven years ago, using all of his profiling skills to stay alive until he could be found – deliberately and consciously prolonging his suffering in hopes of rescue. Until he finally hadn’t cared anymore.
Mulder tried not to shudder as the knife caressed his chest – just teasing this time – a thin line of blood revealing the knife’s path.
“No, it wouldn’t,” the killer admitted, surveying his handiwork. The blade was honed to razor-sharpness – Mulder barely felt it penetrate his skin. It was the fire the blade left behind in its wake that made his nerve endings scream. And yet, he knew with certain dread that it was going to get worse.
The knife descended again, deeper, and Mulder bit his lip to keep from crying out. He could taste his blood now. Hargrave grinned. “You won’t be quiet long, Fox,” he promised maliciously. “Oh no. You’ll be screaming for me in no time. Then we’ll have some fun.”
The blade flashed and the world tilted again….
….and he was standing free, blood dripping from his wounds. Hargrave’s voice echoing around him.
“I’ve thought of something even more fun. Let’s have a Fox hunt! Guess who’s the Fox?” Hargrave laughed uproariously.
“Real original,” Mulder muttered, wondering for the nth time why the hell his parents had stuck him with that name. And why every serial killer on the planet thought going on a Fox hunt was hilariously funny.
It didn’t look like running was going to be an option here – not if he was where he suspected. His physical body, he surmised, was probably in a hospital somewhere, or perhaps still bleeding itself out on his couch. It looked like the only way he was going to be able to get back was to take Hargrave out – however he was supposed to do that. Albert had indicated it was possible to defeat Hargrave – but how? Was it possible to “kill” Hargrave here and banish him to wherever he was supposed to have gone?
Escape, even if it were possible, wouldn’t be enough, would it? Hargrave would just find him again, kill more innocents. No. It had to be done here. He had to kill Hargrave. Whatever the outcome – it ended here. Spurred into motion, Mulder silently slipped into the shadows, searching for anything he might use as a weapon.
A broken length of two-by-four met his needs nicely. He crept through the dim warehouse on silent feet, doing his best, by sheer force of will, to ignore the persistent fire in his wounds and the slow leak of his blood.
Damn, he hated this. Hargrave could be anywhere. He pondered a moment. Hargrave seemed to be able to manipulate this environment at will, perhaps Mulder could do the same? “There’s no place like home,” he muttered, picturing Scully’s face, resisting the urge to tap his heels together three times. Nada. What he wouldn’t give for a pair of ruby slippers right now.
A noise from up ahead sent his heart racing. He gripped his makeshift bat tightly. He took a step forward. And nearly dropped his weapon.
Blood oozed from hundreds of wounds, and Mulder could barely recognize the boy from the warehouse – was it only two days ago? – standing in front of him, strips of flesh hanging from his face, mouth bared in a sickly smile.
He shuffled toward Mulder, arms outstretched. Mulder backed away from the apparition. He swung around in a panic, intent on beating a hasty retreat, the memory of New Year’s Eve zombies surging to the forefront of his mind. He whirled….
….straight into Hargrave’s waiting arms.
“That was just too easy,” the killer grinned.
Scully sat by Mulder’s bedside, her fingers interlaced around his, mindful of the many tubes and leads that kept her partner alive. Her fault. HER FAULT. If only she had listened to him, if only she had believed, he wouldn’t be here now. She should have insisted on staying with him, paying no heed to the fact she had no idea how to deal with a ghost.
He was slipping away from her, and there was nothing to negate her culpability. She snuffled, barely noticing the tears falling down her cheeks. It had been bad enough, all those times, thinking she was going to lose him. But the feelings between them had been unspoken then.
Now…now…. She wondered how her mother had borne it, losing Ahab after so many years. She couldn’t possibly conceive of losing Mulder; not when they had already weathered more crises than most people would in a dozen lifetimes. After prehistoric wood mites, carnivorous fungi, mothmen, not to mention allegedly alien viruses…Mulder just could not be felled by a mundane serial killer. Even if that killer was a ghost. He just couldn’t.
She stroked his hair back from his forehead again, although, like her partner, it hadn’t moved from her last ministrations. “Come back to me, Mulder. I need you,” her voice hitched, husky with repressed emotion. “I love you.”
The blow took Mulder by surprise; he grunted in pain and fell to the dirty floor. The boy had vanished, dissolving into thin vapor like the smoke from Cancerman’s Morley. The agent managed to retain his grip on the two-by-four and swung it at his attacker. Unfortunately, his position robbed him of leverage, and Hargrave evaded the blow with a laugh.
“I really thought you’d be more of a challenge,” he taunted. His knife flashed, and Mulder howled at the pain erupting in his arm. The wood dropped to the cement floor, leaving Mulder defenseless. He knelt at Hargrave’s feet, his body sapped of strength, clutching his bleeding arm. As he looked up at his adversary, at the bloody knife clutched in Hargrave’s hand, he understood that he had finally lost. There would be no miraculous rescue as there had been eleven years ago. He was spent; there was nothing left. He closed his eyes briefly, a silent prayer to a God he wasn’t certain he believed in, to let Scully know he had tried. That he had fought against this fate. He opened his eyes then, determined to see death coming for him when it did. So many times he had teased death, danced around it, cheated it…it seemed, finally, death was about to receive its due. His head raised defiantly, he struggled to his feet to meet his fate. There was still pride, when all was said and done. And though he knew from bitter experience he would beg and plead before his ordeal was over, he would cling to pride, and the memory of *her*, as long as he could.
The kick threw him off balance and he landed hard. The breath whooshed out of him and he tried to scamper out of the way while regaining his breath.
Another kick caught him in the side and he heard the sickening crack of ribs. His side erupted in a cacophony of pain and he bit his lip to keep from screaming. He was still struggling to regain his feet when the next blow caught him on the side of the head. He was flung on his back, arms spread wide as if accepting crucifixion. Through dazed eyes he could see the steel glint of the knife, and he knew his end was at hand. A core of stubbornness refused to succumb, however, and he vainly tried to force his body to respond to his commands.
He was spent: blood loss, fatigue, shock and shattered ribs overrode his mind’s urgent commands. Glazed eyes looked up at Hargrave poised above him, his face contorted into an inhuman leer. He turned away then, unwilling, at the last, to witness his death. He felt the pain from a long way off, recognizing his mind had already begun to protect him from his body’s trauma, from the inevitable conclusion. He could be grateful for that. His thoughts, of course, turned to Scully, in those final moments. He hoped she would not blame herself, that she would be able to get on with her life. He thought then, of course she would, she was stronger than he, after all.
Thoughts of her sent warm thrills through his body, an effective counteragent to the cold of bloodloss.
It took a moment for him to realize what he was seeing: a warm glow of light just beyond his right arm. He had the presence of mind to wonder if this was the tunnel of light reported by near-death experiences, but then it dawned on him that the light was warm red, not white. It exuded a familiar warmth…
Fascinated by the light, he found he could stretch his arm enough to reach it. It burned brightly, but with comforting warmth, cupped in the palm of his hand, the same shade as Scully’s hair, he mused, idly wondering if blood loss was affecting his perceptions. Amazingly, the light reminded him of his partner, as if he held her essence in his hand.
Fascinated he might have been by his discovery, but not too fascinated to notice how Hargrave drew away from the glow. Mulder held the light in his hand, regarding it thoughtfully. At length, Hargrave gave him a malicious grin, and the knife began to sweep down.
Where he found the strength, Mulder couldn’t say. But as Hargrave leaned forward to deliver the killing blow, Mulder swept his arm, cradling the ball of light, into the killer’s face. Hargrave screamed piteously, clawing at his skin. Warm, inviting red turned abruptly to flaming crimson, Mulder’s midnight nightmares of fire given horrific life. The light bit into Hargrave, gradually devouring him; his skin glowing incandescently, obscenely lit like the victim of a nuclear holocaust. Behind him, Mulder could just make out a dark shadow, hungry for flesh. As Hargrave’s screams rang in Mulder’s consciousness, he barely had the cognizance to reflect that Hargrave’s deeds had caught up to him at last, that the dark shadow would exact the restitution that the killer had avoided.
Mulder’s surroundings began to grow dim, and the agent couldn’t say whether he would wake or not. “I love you, Scully,” he was able to mutter before the darkness consumed him utterly, hoping somehow she’d heard his words.
Light, when it burned his retinas, was an assault of red – which eventually resolved itself into a veil of titian tresses and brilliant blue eyes.
Scully’s words said “Welcome back,” but her eyes communicated much more. He smiled tiredly in acknowledgement before gravity claimed his eyelids. All was now right in Fox Mulder’s world.
Around a campfire – somewhere Albert Hosteen nodded to himself, tossing another log on his little campfire. He lifted his eyes to the silent figures circling him, just out of the light cast by the fire.
He nodded to them gravely. “Soon,” he told them. “Soon the FBI man will meet his destiny.”