By Martin Ross
Rating: R for language, graphic language
Spoilers: Travelers, The Unnatural, Desperatus (S17), and the series Medium
Summary: Science and spiritualism clash in the suburban Southwest as Mulder, Scully, and the father of the X-Files investigate a Halloween night haunting and a phantom with an insatiable hunger.
Disclaimer: As always, Mulder and Scully owe their existence to Chris Carter. The fictional version of Alison Dubois and Lee Scanlon are the inspiration of Glenn Gordon Caron.
“Dude who lived here, he was some kinda mad scientist, like Doc Ock or The Lizard,” the Amazing Spiderman began. His pre-adolescent voice was tinged with the reverence that had been encoded into tale spinners from the time of the shamans through Poe, Shelley, Lovecraft, Bradbury, King, Abrams.
No campfires or roaring hearths here — the Villa Palms HOA had banned fire pits, bonfires, or even use of rocket-style fireworks since ’92, and the snowbirds had flocked here to get away from hearths and snowplows and black ice. The squeals and peals of childish laughter invaded the somber Halloween night.
But Spiderman had all that was required of a crackling good ghost story: a tapestry of vague accounts and half-truths, and a susceptible victim.
“You’re fulla shit,” the Mighty Thor sneered. Maybe not the perfect victim, but as good as one might expect in this age of CGI zombies and teen vampires and Al Qaeda.
Spiderman breathed loudly through his nose holes — his folks had popped for the cheap dollar store knockoff. “My Dad told me. Dude worked for some big drug company in Phoenix but got his ass canned for some secret experiment or something. This was his grandpa’s place, and he moved in after the old guy cracked. Then the scientist guy had like this freak accident, and HE died. Then the strange shit started happening. People started seeing weird lights, hearing creepy noises. And then the ghost showed up.”
Thor frowned, or at least appeared to under his Marvel-licensed mask. “So this was the scientist guy, or the old dude, the grandpa?”
“Jeez, I dunno,” Spiderman squeaked. Then he rallied. “Prolly the old guy. Prolly killed the scientist guy out of revenge or some shit.”
“You suck at this, Dude,” Thor informed his web-slinging friend. “My Uncle Ramon told me the same crap and I almost pissed myself. You suck. Plus, we been here for 20 minutes, and I want some blood sugar, dude.”
The Amazing Spiderman, AKA mild-mannered fifth-grader Troy Brackman, ripped his mask away and wiped the accumulated sweat from his brow. “What-ever, Dude. Prolly all BS, anyway.”
Thor, a failing math scholar known to the mortals as Eric Valdez, popped to his feet, grabbing the 100 percent recyclable Fine Foods tote bag his mom had supplied for the evening’s swag. Troy sighed, disgusted by his unimaginative, candy-grubbing colleague, and trudged down the bougainvillea-lined sidewalk after him.
Then, out of some atavistic impulse, he turned slowly back to 127, stared into the black window embedded in the mauve stucco.
“What were you doing, Dude?” Eric demanded as his friend emerged stiff-legged from the darkness, mask back in place.
“You’re right, it’s BS,” Troy mumbled. “C’mon. Let’s score some munchies. Move.”
“What’s your damage?” Eric mumbled back, catching only the merest hint of urine-soaked lycra-polyester as his friend brushed past.
The shadow flitted among the pines of the incongruously named Village Palms, staying well beyond the visual orbit of the clustered children and fussing parents.
It seldom strayed beyond 127 between feedings. Something within screamed the dangers of venturing forth like this, but another voice, primeval, demanding, voracious, was louder.
It had to be fed.
The battered hunter pushed through his pain up the grassy slope, his long white coat flapping at his sides. Dark glasses obscured his eyes, though she knew, somehow, that they were filled with fear and determination.
As The Hunter limped onto the flat, wide mesa, he spotted his prey. It was a shadow, at first, hovering and darting at its fresh kill. The bulky carcass on the smooth, lined stone flopped in a chilling rigor; a white cross lie nearby, spattered with its owner’s blood.
The Hunter drew his weapon – a thin, tubular spear that shone even in the gray twilight of the mesa. The creature perceived the presence of danger and lit on the hard ground. It’s slitted eyes were soulless but sentient. It’s ebony proboscis twitched, the Hunter thought, in a sort of predatory amusement. It was garbed in ceremonial raiments, and a feather fluttered on the windless plain.
It regarded The Hunter with what may have been pity or fury, both, or neither.
“It is my nature,” the creature cried.
Alison Dubois jumped, the legal text flopping to the living room rug, adrenalin coursing familiarly through her veins. Her disoriented eyes instinctively sought Joe. Then she remembered. Alison gathered her class notes with a sigh, stacked them neatly on the coffee table, fumbled for her Diet Pepsi.
Alison grinned sheepishly up at Bridgette. “How long was I out?”
Her daughter smiled crookedly. “Not long, but you’ve been studying so hard and I could tell you were, uh, busy. I didn’t want to wake you. Was it a bad one?”
“On a scale of one to 10?” Alison teased. Her features darkened momentarily as she placed a palm on the cushion beside her.
Bridgette plopped onto the opposite cushion. “OK, spill. Then let’s get dinner on the road.”
While Arthur Dales had taken his FBI “retirement” earlier than most, The Job had profoundly influenced — some might say shattered — both his world view and belief system.
Christmas thus meant little beyond unruly consumerist mobs and Jimmy Stewart (Arthur enjoyed It’s a Wonderful Life as an entertaining if somewhat mawkish treatise on multiversal existence). Easter meant fewer Sunday crowds at Denny’s — a mixed blessing for the nomadic Dales, who regarded the chain as a cultural touchstone wherever he set down temporary roots. Thanksgiving offered a rare opportunity for overindulgence and secular communion — if he happened at that point to be in D.C. and Fox and Dana were free in or New Mexico with his brother, the other Arthur Dales, who was always free.
But Halloween? That was altogether another story — a story that demanded to be shared with a stiff Scotch rather than smores and cocoa. Dales had peeped behind too many curtains, ventured into too many locked and shuttered rooms, gazed into too many tortured and alien souls. Arthur Dales was not a superstitious man, but the very notion of merchandising monstrosity, selling the supernatural at everyday discount prices, seemed, well, foolhardy at best and severely delusional at the very least. Like texting and driving without headlights.
Further, it was only 6:30, and Dales already had encountered five Romneys and an equal number of Obamas — a sight all the more chilling to the politically jaded ex-fed. Jaded, reclusive, agnostic, perhaps, but Arthur Dales was no partisan misanthropist: He’d distributed an equal number of Snickers to each Republican, Democrat, superhero, faux-Kardashian, and phantasm that darkened his door.
Rudolf Llargas’ door, that is. The ex-agent and the cultural anthropologist had consulted over a possible case of Albanian vampirism back in ’51; the two had revived their acquaintance at a San Diego Barnes and Noble, where Llargas was hawking his latest book on shamanism among modern tribal clusters. Llargas had settled just outside Phoenix in affluent Gilbert (the 2008 recession and a lucrative gig consulting with the Syfy network had been kind to Rudy), and the 93-year-old scientist was seeking a reliable house sitter while he trolled for Inuit spirits in British Canada. Dales was ready to ditch his drafty trailer for a few months, and the prospect of poring over Llargas’ dense library was merely the icing atop a full fridge and Dish Network.
“And who might you be?” the redheaded octogenarian beamed as he proffered a handful of chocolate, caramel, and peanuts toward the diminutive politico on his arched stoop.
“Mmph,” Romneystiltskin shrugged as he adjusted his rubber mask. “Dunno. I asked Mom to let me be Ironman, but Daddy said this was more, more original. Whatever that means. I don’t even know who I am.”
“A not uncommon human condition,” Dales mused. The boy stood mutely, and the ex-agent apologetically dumped a half-dozen Snickers into his waiting bag. What we selfishly and unthinkingly inflict on our young, Dales reflected as the dejected Halloweener slouched down his walk.
The shrieks broke Dales contemplation, and his FBI reflexes immediately kicked in. Grabbing an aboriginal talking stick from a stand by the front door, he rushed toward the source of the terrified shouts, near the communal trash and recycling bins. A knot of children were clustered on the lawn of the currently vacant 158, some sobbing, others attempting to calm or console them, a few gathered in a tight circle around what appeared to be a Viking.
“What on Earth happened here?” Dales breathed, reaching for his cell phone even as he nudged the trick-or-treaters away from the victim. Or body, he amended with a familiar chill.
“It was him, it,” a teen voice stammered. The boy wore a red-and-blue bodysuit criss-crossed with webs. “It attacked them, the kids. We tried to stop him, it, whatever, and it grabbed Eric.”
Dales checked the fallen Eric’s pulse. Weak but there. He punched 9-1-1 into the phone as adults approached from several directions.
“Yes, we have an assault victim here at the Village Palms in Gilbert,” Dales told the dispatcher. “Near the corner of Saguaro and Sands. There may be some traumatized kids here, too. I will.” The old man pocketed the phone. “You said it?”
Spiderman blinked as he realized Dales was addressing him. “Yeah, yeah. Is he gonna be OK?”
“I certainly hope so. Who attacked your friend? Who attacked the children?”
The boy, Troy, glanced about, suddenly self-conscious. He kneeled next to Dales and leaned in.
“The ghost,” Troy whispered. “The one in 127.”
“It must’ve been those punks,” a harsh voice rasped as Dales processed Troy’s statement. It was Hank, the authoritarian president of the HOA — just what the situation needed. Hank viewed Dales with suspicion. He had investigated evicting him under Rudy’s lease agreement but could find no statute forbidding free houseguests. Hank also was no fan of cultural diversity, and Dales cut him off.
“I think it’s a bit early to reach any conclusions,” the ex-agent cautioned. “The police should be here any minute.”
“Who’d mug a bunch of kids?” Hank bellowed.
“Mug?” Dales frowned.
“Yeah, Artie. Look around.”
Dales scanned the lawn. Disney princesses peered dismally into empty bags; empty plastic pumpkins and ripped paper sacks littered the landscape.
“Stealing candy from children,” Hank rumbled. “Now I seen it all.”
Dales fumbled the phone from his pants and dialed a pre-programmed number.
The sheriff’s detective was a former Phoenix cop named Scanlon — a burly, tieless bull in a cheap blazer who strangely enough zeroed in on Dales.
“You know none of the kids claim to have seen their attacker, right?” Scanlon said as Dales handed him a cup of black coffee. Scanlon remained standing amid Rudy’s cluttered talismen, totems, and texts. “You were the first on the scene last night. You didn’t see anybody, I take it, or you would’ve told the officers.”
“I arrived unfortunately too late,” Dales lamented from the kitchenette, squirting honey into his green tea.
“Your neighbor, Hank Brewer, he says you’re a very outspoken individual.”
Dales smirked. “Oh, I doubt seriously those were his words.”
Scanlon grinned. “He said you were a know-it-all, an overeducated blowhard.”
“Well,” Dales shrugged, settling into his armchair.
“Yeah, that was my take on Mr. Brewer, too. Here’s the thing, Mr. Dales. Folks get along pretty well out here, but there are the occasional cultural and economic frictions. Your Mr. Brewer is fairly shall we say riled about this situation, and I don’t want to see another Trayvon Martin scenario develop if he mobilizes the neighborhood watch. The sooner I can clear this case, the better for everyone.
“Now, what strikes me as curious is that for an opinionated man such as yourself, you’ve been a little shy on opinions about last night’s attack. I did a little research on you, and I could use your perspective, Agent Dales. What’re you holding back?”
Dales sighed, sipped his tea. “Heard any good local ghost stories lately?”
Scanlon settled on the arm of Rudy’s leather couch. That was all. Dales, for once surprised, set his cup on a Smithsonian coaster, and told the tale of the late Peter Crews, the strange disappearance of his father, Frederic Crews, and the unusual occurrences associated with Unit 127.
“And you think there may be something to this?” Scanlon grunted simply as Dales concluded with the events of Oct. 31, 2012.
“Detective, I have no idea. Last night’s mishap may have been no more than an opportunistic crime or a despicable act of violence. But at the risk of sounding like a feeble old fool, I’ve seen too many inexplicable things in this life to discount any avenue of investigation, no matter how improbable.” Dales took a breath. “In fact, last night, I contacted a dear old friend at the Bureau who specializes in just these sorts of things.”
Lee Scanlon smiled. “Agent Mulder called me this morning — he and his partner are supposed to get into Sky Harbor at 1:30. We worked a case a few years back — like you put it, one of those sorts of things. See, I have a dear friend, too — one who likes a good ghost story. I’ll look into this 127 thing, even though there’s a wrinkle there, too. You watch much reality TV, Mr. Dales?”
“I’ve never found much reality on TV,” Dales apologized. “I do enjoy 30 Rock.”
“Well, Unit 127’s about to be a star. Ever heard of Phantom Flip? It’s on FanTC, the sci-fi network. They find a haunted house or hotel, do some rehab, roust whatever evil spirits are there or figure out how to market ’em, and help the owner unload the place. Yeah, I know. But Pete Crews’ sister, realtor from LA, sold the producers on looking at Unit 127. Your buddy Brewer hates the idea, but the HOA board outvoted him, probably to piss him off.”
Dales was warmed by the notion.
“Yeah, yeah,” Seth Moritz nodded eagerly, peering about the darkened interior of Unit 127. His girth cast odd shadows in the light of a trio of studio floods set up by the Phantom Flip crew — his eyes glowed red on the monitors behind the camera. “I am definitely picking up something here.”
The paranormal investigator, who normally scouted the locations before the color consultants, carpenters, and exorcists were brought in, paused before the mission-style entertainment center and indicated the room’s sole decorative touch — a small, primitive-looking figure dressed in leathers and feathers.
“The kokopelli is an important spiritual totem for many Southwest Indian tribes,” he explained for the at-home audience. “They represent the natural and supernatural spirits that pervade Native American culture. I’m getting a really strong sensation here…”
“Yeah, I’m getting that too,” a dry voice interrupted. “But your cameras are blocking the way to the toilet.”
“Alright, CUT!!” the show’s director hollered. The nose-ringed troll turned on the suited couple behind him — no doubt a couple of lost Mormon bible-thumpers. “This is a hot set, asshole. Can’t you read?”
“I’m a Harvard grad and an FBI agent, so I can both spell and explain Schrodinger’s Cat in the original Pig Latin,” Fox Mulder boasted, stepping over a tangle of coaxial cables. His petite redhead companion rolled her eyes and flashed Bureau ID.
“Special Agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder,” she purred. “We’re investigating an attack that occurred in this neighborhood last night, and we have reason to believe this unit might be involved.”
“Kachina,” Mulder blurted.
“Gesundheit?” Moritz smirked. “You got a problem, Chief? Non-believer, right?”
“If only,” Scully sighed.
“A kokopelli is a fertility deity and a trickster god, which explains half the baby mamas at WalMart. What you’re holding there is a kachina, a spirit being venerated by the Hopi and other Southwest Pueblo cultures. There are more than 400 different ones, each personifying a different animal, plant, entity, location, or idea, and each conveying its own power over nature or the cosmos. A kokopelli is one type of kachina. From the feathers and beak, what you got there is some kind of bird spirit. Let’s test my hypothesis — hold it over your head.”
“What do you want from us?” the director hissed.
“Veracity, respect for ancient cultures and folkways, and I know I could go for a Dr. Pepper,” Mulder replied. “In the absence of that, I really just need to know if any of your crew was over here last night? A trick-or-treater saw something moving inside the house, right before the attack.”
“It wasn’t the boy who wound up in the hospital, was it?” Moritz inquired, his snark now replaced by what appeared to be genuine concern. “Is the kid OK?”
“Eric Valdez. He’s stable,” Scully reported. They’d dropped in on the still-shaken, battered, but coherent Valdez straight from the airport.
“He sustained some very unusual injuries,” Mulder added, drawing a glare from his partner. “Extensive ecchymosis — severe subcutaneous bruising — over most of his upper body. It looks like something–”
“Someone,” Scully amended.
“– applied intense, vigorous pressure to the boy.”
“Shiatsu with intent,” a cameraman chortled.
“Shut the fuck up,” Moritz snapped. “What are you saying here, Agent?”
“Just because you don’t know a kachina from a hole in a butte doesn’t mean you haven’t had some experience with paranormal phenomena,” Mulder said. “I read your first couple of books — not entirely lame. You ever heard of anything like this?”
Moritz eyed the agent for a moment, seemingly waiting for Ashton Kutcher to jump from behind a couch. “Well, it sounds like some kind of poltergeist event. We had a case in Rhode Island, a teacher who reported being bitten, pinched, and struck from behind by some invisible force. Turned out about three months after the shoot that he’d been molesting students for more than 20 years, one a junior high kid who’d killed himself. That might explain last night.”
“Explain what?” the director demanded, now more intrigued than peeved.
“Ghosts normally are associated with a place, often the place where they died,” Mulder related. “Poltergeists are troubled spirits associated with a specific person. If this house is haunted, it would be unusual for the ghost to have attacked those kids nearly a half-block away. On the other hand, why would a poltergeist have attacked a small child or even one of the two teenagers who tried to intervene? Where’s the karma, dude?
“Of course, children are often present or the target in poltergeist attacks — William Roll at the University of West Georgia suggested poltergeist phenomena might actually be a result of unconscious psychokinesis by the kids themselves. I’ll check to see if any of the victims had any kind of neurological symptoms or epilepsy.” Mulder paused, pondered. “You ever heard of a poltergeist with a sweet tooth, Moritz?”
“The stolen candy? The cop, Scanlon, told me before telling me to get lost. Poltergeists manipulate objects, damage them. But steal them? That’s a new one.”
“You know,” the director drawled, “this whole Halloween poltergeist thing is a lot cooler than this haunted condo shit. Agent, how would you like to do a guest shot?”
Mulder perked. “Absolutely and unequivocally not,” Scully stated. “We need to look around. Would you and your crew mind taking five or whatever it is you do?”
The director started to cite his rights under the Constitution and the FCC, but Moritz cut him off. “Fish tacos and mescal on me, everybody,” the ghosthunter offered, clapping an arm over the director’s narrow shoulders. “Mulder, if I can help, you know where to find me.”
“Who you gonna call?” Mulder called after his new buddy.
Scully flipped on the overhead fixture and surveyed the bungalow. A spartan home for father-and-son bachelors, furnished on a corporate researcher’s salary and with a corporate researcher’s flair. Modern American IKEA, a flatscreen of a somewhat obscure but outstanding make, a lack of any real personal presence beyond the lonely kachina.
The bedroom beyond made the living/dining room seem like Snoop’s crib by comparison: A double bed was crammed against the outside wall along with an IKEA bedside stand and a Walmart lamp. The rest of the space was open, empty, rugless. Mulder made a mental note.
The kitchen fridge was empty, powered down presumably by the sister. The cupboards were equally bare, except for a space next to the oven, where a few dozen bottles of Aquafina were lined up with mathematical precision. Mulder hefted a bottle.
“Seal’s broken on all these bottles, but they’re all full,” he observed. “This place has been empty for seven months, and no dust on any of these bottles.” Mulder examined the beverage, then kneeled before the open pantry. “Or refilled.”
“Mulder,” Scully warned as her partner unscrewed the cap and put the bottle to his lips. “Why don’t we let the lab analyze those, rather than relying on your fine palate?”
“Oh, yeah,” he nodded.
Superstition Parkway Hampton Inn
“Ready?” Mulder called.
“If you mean dinner, give me a few,” Scully said. “If you mean that pre-meal coitus you suggested on the way here, absolutely not.”
Mulder sighed, glanced into the bathroom. “Yoicks. No hurry.”
Scully offered an unpleasant suggestion as to how Mulder might occupy his wait. “You still think Crews’ death might’ve been suicide?”
Her partner fell back onto the bedspread, then hastily kicked off his shoes. “A guardrail on Highway 101 might’ve seemed his best option. Crews had been canned by Biodigm just a few months before, and he had an elderly, mentally incapacitated father to care for. I’m sure that couldn’t have been easy, given his economics and the family dynamic.”
“You going to give me some of that Grade A profiling you’re supposed to be so good at?”
Mulder returned Scully’s earlier recommendation. “Frederic Crews was something of the Audubon of the latter 20th Century — major environmentalist in the ‘60s, before Al Gore was cool. Catalogued every bird and mammal in the Southwest. Not a Greenpeace radical or anything, but he used to pop up from time to time on PBS or the evening news, warning about the impending death of the planet, Man’s reckless fascination with technology. It seemed curious his son would be working for Biodigm – Big Technology.”
“Sons rebel against their fathers,” Scully noted. “Or so I’ve heard. Maybe Crews was new-generation green, wanted to save the planet through Science.”
“Peter Crews worked for Biodigm’s consumer products division – sports drinks and retail nutraceuticals. Or did. He crashed his Honda a few months after losing his job, and his dad disappeared by the time the cops could come looking for him. Ironic considering Frederic’s health seemed to be on the upswing – neighbors said he’d taken to biking around the subdivision, even doing a few laps in the community pool.”
Scully emerged from the bathroom in T-shirt and jeans. “So we’ve got a highway fatality or vehicular suicide, a mentally impaired old man who probably just wandered off to die in the desert, the theft of what, maybe 50 pounds of Reese’s Pieces and Twizzlers. I could be wrong, but does this really rise to the occasion of a federal investigation?”
Mulder sat up. “I couldn’t just tell Arthur no.”
“Try again, Mulder.” Scully plucked her purse from the hotel desk. “It was the children. After what happened last year in Detroit, that little girl Kisha…”
Mulder grinned, shook his head, and set off in search of his loafers. “All this amateur psychoanalysis is making me hungry. Let’s roll.”
“Yeah,” Scully muttered. “Let’s roll.”
Moritz had begged off mas margaritas with Riis and the crew – he’d frankly begun to tire of the whole hip, cynical, soul-calloused bunch. Besides, he had something more important to pursue tonight than ratings, a fan base, or some suntanned Arizona tail.
The FBI guy had gotten him thinking, and over the lunch break, he’d surfed the Crewses, father and son. Peter’s accident wasn’t hard to locate in the Phoenix Sun archives, and the scientist’s bio was still up on a long-forgotten page for a long-forgotten conference on a best-forgotten topic. Then, out of injured vestigial pride, Moritz had hit a few dozen Native American and Southwest art gallery sites. On one of the Hopi sites, he’d struck gold.
The ghost hunter scanned the darkened neighborhood as he slipped the spare key into the door of Unit 27, though he had unconditional permission to enter the premises. He felt furtive and fearful and more excited than he had since abandoning research and authorship for the fleeting glories of cable TV. If his hypothesis were true, this would blow the hinges off Agent Mulder’s mind.
Moritz bypassed the light switch and trained his mag beam about the spare Crews living room. It landed on a bizarre figure with slitted eyes, a long needlelike proboscis, a feathered headdress, and a leather breechcloth. He moved rapidly across the tiled floor and stared down at the kachina, heart banging in his chest.
Then he caught it. It sounded at first like an appliance or the AC kicking on, but the whirring persisted.
And drew closer. And generated a breeze as a shadow blurred past Moritz’ left ear.
The mag light clattered on the floor, revealing a rapidly moving shadow play on the wall behind the couch. Moritz rasped in nervous relief – a moth, a bird or bat flying past the window. He glanced up at the closed blinds. And back at the spotlight above the leather sofa. The shadow theater had stopped, along with the whirring.
And then, it had him. The room blurred and whirled and jolted before his eyes as he felt bones and ligaments, tendons, and organs tortured and torn.
“Yooooooooouuuuuuuu,” it hissed, as though through an industrial fan. “Whooooareyouwhadoyouwannnnnnnfrommmmeeeee—”
It ended abruptly as Moritz dropped to the tiles, head cracking and lolling unnaturally on the bag of glass that was now his neck. The whirring resumed and retreated; a door slammed.
And in his lucid dying moments, Moritz dragged his broken body toward the only light in the room – a reflection of the patio window on a television screen…
“Perp broke his neck and several bones besides, probably some internal damage, too,” Scanlon whistled as the assistant ME zipped Moritz into a body bag. Scully eyed Mulder, who looked on guiltily. “Wouldn’t beat yourself, Agent. Guy’s curiosity just got the best of him.”
“I underestimated him,” Mulder admitted. “He knew there was something here –- the real thing.”
“Probably a real squatter,” Scanlon grunted as he rose to his feet. “It happens a lot out here. The snowbirds blow in and out from the Midwest, Canada, wherever, leave these places unattended for months. Sometimes, a yard guy, some dude they picked up at the Loews to put in some new counters makes himself a spare key for a rainy day. Could be your friend and his crew disrupted somebody’s illicit domestic bliss.”
“With this kind of violence?” Scully said. “You saw the bruising, the condition of his clothes.”
Scanlon shrugged. “I know, I know — the homicidal drifter’s kind of a cliché. But outside the movies, how many poltergeists you ever encountered that would do a job like this on a guy?” The cop grinned crookedly. “Jesus, this is becoming like old home week.”
“I’m beginning to think this wasn’t a supernatural encounter at all,” Mulder said, surprising Scully. “There’s something human but not quite human about all this. I don’t suppose Moritz managed to pick up any trace?”
“When they process him,” Scanlon promised. “He did try to fight back, unsuccessfully I might add. Billings? Hand me the doll.”
A rotund tech tossed a large evidence bag across the room. Scanlon snagged it, displayed its contents to Mulder. The agent studied the kachina that had occupied Peter Crews’ entertainment center.
“Moritz grabbed it during the struggle, tried to beat his attacker,” Scanlon suggested. For the sake of the milling forensic crew, he did not mention Alison Dubois’ identification via smartphone of the kachina as the predatory demon/spirit of her recent dreams and Moritz as the kachina’s meat.
For years, Dubois had worked for Manny at the DA’s office as an unofficial, and then official, psychic consultant. She’d helped Lee clear dozens of homicides and missing person cases, and the unassuming housewife had gradually broken through his tough, agnostic shell. Alison had retired from law enforcement following the death of her husband, Joe, to study law with some support and financial aid from her former boss.
Then she’d called out of the blue following the 10 o’clock news account of Moritz’ death. Moritz had been a minor celeb, and she immediately recognized his file portrait. The meaning Hunter and the Kachina remained a mystery – if only Alison dreamed along more linear lines…
“Nope,” Mulder grunted, waking Lee from his meditations. “The figure’s intact – no damage or blood. I think Moritz grabbed the kachina after the fight, after the killer fled. This isn’t a weapon, Scanlon. I think it’s a clue. And you’re wrong about beating myself up. It’s my fault he died.”
“That’s ludicrous, Fox,” Arthur Dales protested, placing a plate of Oreos before the agents. Scully snatched a cookie while continuing to scan the huge volume on the patio table.
“I taunted Moritz about his cultural knowledge, not realizing he actually cared about what he did,” Mulder murmured. “He must have researched kachinas to make sure he was accurate, and probably to see if there might be any supernatural connection between it and the ‘haunting.’ I could have told him kachinas were gifts, educational gifts, not supernatural talismans or spiritual icons. But he managed to ID Crews’ figure, and it has something to do with this case. Moritz wanted to leave me a clue – a dying clue – that would point to his killer. I guess I taught him.”
“Less recrimination,” Scully admonished sharply through a mouthful of crumbs, “and more reading. Mr. Dales’ landlord must have a dozen books just on kachinas.”
Chastened, Mulder dug in, poring over plates filled with exotic, outrageous, and occasionally fearsome figures. As he toiled, an insectile buzzing dopplered nearby, and Mulder swatted the air. The buzzing intensified, and he ducked.
“Relax, Fox,” Dales chuckled. “It’s one of our more common urban neighbors, at least at this time of year.” His ginger-haired head jerked toward a long cylinder handing above the patio rail. The transparent tube was a quarter filled with what resembled cherry Kool-Aid and glued to a broad, red plastic base. The base flared into four appendages, and above one a tiny bird hovered. It appeared to be a sausage-like creature with a long, needle-like beak, but then Mulder made out a pair of wings vibrating in a gray blur against the sun.
“They’re a beloved part of the ecosystem here – almost everyone has a feeder,” Dales informed him. “Which reminds me – sugar water’s getting low.” The aged agent creaked to his feet. “Can I get you two something more to wet your beaks?”
Mulder did not respond. Instead, he flipped back through his book, glanced back at the syrup-sipping bird, and then tapped excitedly at a color plate that dominated the center spread of Rudy’s text. Dales’ knee popped as he leaned over Mulder’s shoulder.
“I will be good and thoroughly damned,” stated the father of the X-Files.
“Hummingbirds,” Craig Van Alston echoed, a tight, sardonic grin on his thin lips. His gray eyes didn’t join in the joke, and Mulder grinned back. The young CEO’s mock amusement faded.
“Two for flinching,” Mulder murmured. “I take it from your attempt to lighten the mood that hummingbirds are a sensitive issue around Biodigm. But I find them wicked awesome, so we’ll indulge me for a few minutes.
“Hummingbirds are among the smallest of our feathered bros -– the bee hummingbird is only five centimeters from beak to tail feathers. They can hover in mid-air by rapidly flapping their wings 12–80 times per second, and their the only bird that can fly backwards. Thanks to their high metabolism, they can fly at speeds up to 35 mph. To conserve energy while they sleep or when food’s scarce, they can go into a hibernation-like state where their metabolic rate is one-fifteenth of their normal rate.
“Birds generally have the lowest genome size of any vertebrate — about half as much genetic yumminess as us. Larger genomes mean larger cells, and that means lousy gas exchange and more sluggish metabolism. Birds need mega-super metabolism to fly, and hummingbirds? Fuhgeddaboutit. How am I doing so far?”
“I’m beginning to regain my sense of mental superiority,” Van Alston purred. “But you’ve got the general gist of it.”
Mulder fist-pumped. Scully sighed. Mulder shrugged. “And smaller genomes mean easier gene-mapping. And once you have the map, you unlock the secrets of gene expression — how to turn on one trait and turn off another. Genetic engineers have looked at fish species for potential cold tolerance in crops. My guess is, you guys wanted to unlock the secrets of mega-super metabolism. My paranoid brain immediately went to genetically enhanced super soldiers, but I guess miracle weight loss is probably more plausible and profitable.”
“You no doubt tracked down our federal permit request,” Van Alston breathed.
“Hummingbirds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which forbids their capture or possession. EPA and Fish and Wildlife turned Biodigm down flat. So you put one of your offshore research teams on the job. Greenpeace caught wind of it, so Project Hummer (Scully winced) became part of the Internet record. Was that why you shut it down?”
Van Alston glared briefly at Mulder, then collapsed back into his chair. “It was a stupid idea all along. The Dominican team recommended termination one month in. We moved on.”
“But Crews didn’t,” Mulder ventured. “Did he? Your permit app was five years ago. The Greenpeace protest was four. Crews kept working on the project from home, right? What happened? Materials start disappearing from your labs?”
Van Alston nodded. “Small stuff. Plus, Crews started slacking, lost his focus on primary projects. I knew his father was ill, and I offered him paid leave to address the problem. He became agitated, said everything was fine.”
“He needed your resources. There was something else, though, right?”
Van Alston glanced out his window, toward the mountains. “I went to his house out in Gilbert, to talk to him personally. He obviously wanted to be rid of me quickly, but as his supervisor, he felt obliged to offer me some coffee. And while Crews was in the kitchen, I heard it coming from behind the closed bedroom door. At first, I thought it was electronic, but you live out here long enough, you recognize it instantly. The idiot had a hummingbird — scratch that, it had to be a dozen or more hummingbirds. In his house.
“Can you imagine the fallout? One of our primary researchers experimenting with protected wildlife after being expressly prohibited by the Feds? Jesus, the greens would crucify us in the media. EPA would fine us into oblivion. Crews could’ve brought us all down. I played dumb, then fired his ass a week later, pleading poor performance. Which, fortunately, was all too true.”
“At which point, Crews became a free agent,” Mulder supplied. “But that is isn’t the full story, is it, Mr. Van Alston? Crews took a little something on his way out the door, didn’t he? And you didn’t see fit to report it to the CDC or Homeland Security.”
“My God,” Scully gasped. “Of course. Crews didn’t have the at-home lab resources or funding necessary for gene transfer. He’d have had to use old-school technology. Recombinant DNA. Biological vectors.” She turned to Mulder. “Crews needed a carrier that could easily encode new genes and transfer them into a foreign organism.” Scully swiveled, horrified, back to Van Alston. “You let him just walk out of here with a virus?”
“It slipped through before we could cancel Crews’ clearances,” Van Alston sputtered. “We suspect he’d taken it weeks before, as an insurance policy. Besides, it was a proprietary, benign virus — we’d disabled its ability to replicate within an outside organism. There was never any public health threat.”
“Knew there had to be an explanation,” Mulder smiled. “Once Crews had his little accident a few months later, you saw no need to sully his memory. Or to expose Biodigm’s big giant security breach and subsequent violation of, oh, say, about a million jillion federal statutes.”
Van Alston began to speak, then gulped like a fish seeking oxygenated water.
“Well-stated,” Mulder nodded. “I’d have probably never caught on if Crews hadn’t had a spark of sentiment under all that scientific detachment.” He turned to Scully. “That hummingbird kachina in Crews’ apartment? It wasn’t about faith or cultural enrichment or home décor. It was about hope.”
“What are we dealing with here?” Scully demanded as Mulder unlocked the rental. “Do we need to get the CDC in on this?”
“Naw,” Mulder drawled as he scanned the scrub surrounding the suburban business park. “The experiment died with Peter Crews, but it was a success. The virus did its job.” He climbed inside the sedan; Scully jerked open the passenger door.
“And what job was that?”
Mulder held up a finger as he thumb-dialed on his iPhone screen. “Yeah, Lee? You get anything back on those bottles from the Crews kitchen? Uh, huh, what I thought. What? No, later. Hows about you and the guys go trick-or- treating with us tonight? Kevlar’s optional but probably advised. No, don’t know yet — gotta make a few calls. I will. Think you can make it? Great, great.”
“Wanna let me into the loop, Mulder?” Scully murmured as he ended the call.
Mulder started the engine. “I need a Yellow Pages and some green tea. Know anybody in town who can help us?”
Uncle Jeff’s Storage
“All I’m sayin’ is, the owner decides to sue or call the ACLU or somethin’, I’m puttin’ it on you,” the day manager growled, jamming his master key into the padlock of Locker 555. Mulder suspected this was not Uncle Jeff.
“We’ll fully indemnify you against liability,” Scully pledged, nudging her sunglasses over her head. Mulder grunted as he lifted the bay door, gripping his sidearm tightly. He entered cautiously, then yanked a small-gauge chain dangling from the locker’s low ceiling.
“Christ,” the manager gasped. “Crews was buildin’ his own goddamn landfill.”
The locker was filed with bottles and cans of every description – depleted energy drinks, dead soldier sodas of every brand and flavor, juice boxes and jugs, and, Mulder observed with a note of nausea, a few dozen empties bearing the image of the newer, more politically correct Aunt Jemima. He nodded triumphantly.
“I’ll bet we check the local minimarts and groceries, we find out shoplifting’s at an all-time high,” Mulder told Scully. “After Scanlon told me about the 10 or 20 gallons of special sugar water in the Crewses’ pantry, I figured this was what we’d find.”
Beyond the sea of detritus, he could make out 12-packs, 24-packs, shrink-wrapped cases. And beyond that, a bench filled with Pyrex, ampules, and related paraphernalia.
“This isn’t a dumpster,” the manager squeaked, tugging a cellphone from his jeans. “I gotta call Jeff.”
“Put it away,” Scully ordered. “What is this, Mulder?”
“Survival,” her partner marveled.
“See that?” Mulder suddenly exclaimed, tapping the monitor.
Scully and the manager leaned in together. They’d grown bleary examining the last week’s security videos amid the subtle scents of pizza and cannabis residue, but now both felt the exhilaration of the hunt.
“Madre mio,” the manager whispered.
“My God,” Scully echoed.
Mulder grinned. “I thought it was a technical glitch at first – the camera covers the corridor but not this bay itself. Then I saw the shadows shift as the locker door opened.”
Scully squinted in an attempt to bring some sense to the shape now frozen before the storage bay. “Mulder, please tell me that’s not a ghost.”
“Better,” Mulder breathed.
Uncle Jeff’s Storage
“Ready for story time?” Mulder inquired. The battery-operated lantern cast his face in a macabre glow, and Arthur Dales felt a childlike spark of exhilaration.
“Always,” Dales grinned. Scully silently sipped her thermos cup of green tea as they nestled among the moving blankets that had been installed in the vacant locker.
“It’s a story of a son’s love for his father — a father who was like a god to him. A god of science.”
It was a story familiar to both Scully and Dales, and even if Mulder did not consciously see its relevance, the agent and the old man exchanged a fleeting glance.
“Frederic Crews devoted his life to observing and documenting nature’s wonders. Peter grew up wanting to know what made them tick. As Frederic’s health deteriorated, as his systems began to falter and his bones grew brittle, Peter’s quest became personal.
“Then the hummingbird project fell into his lap, like a gift. Biodigm wanted a hot new consumer line, but Peter soon saw a way to jump start his father’s life. If he could boost Frederic’s metabolism, he might slow the oxidation of age, speed his father’s regeneration and revitalization.
“Peter probably hoped to steer the company toward his theoretical therapy, but then, Biodigm and EPA pulled the plug. He watched as his miracle — his dad’s miracle — got shipped out of the country. Peter couldn’t follow his dream — he had an ailing father to see to. Then, to his horror, Biodigm pulled the plug again, this time on the whole project.
“So he did what he had to — Peter rebooted his research. He had an ample supply of genetic stock flitting around his backdoor, and Frederic was probably delighted to see his son take an interest in Nature beyond the cellular level.”
Mulder was silent for a moment.
“Then, the project became an obsession. Frederic was fading fast, and Peter’s actual work started slipping. Hank may have started snooping around, Frederic might’ve started asking questions. Maybe Peter just didn’t want to risk playing with exotic viruses around the neighbor folk. He rented the storage unit next door to continue his work in privacy.
“Who knows how Peter managed to give his dad the gene treatments. Probably convinced him they were conventional meds. But they started working — Frederic began feeling peppier, stronger as the new DNA blended into his chromosomal wiring. He started biking, hiking, rediscovering the world his old body had been forced to leave behind.”
“Do you think so?” Dales prodded gently.
Mulder shook his head. “It’s what I’d like to believe. Frederic Crews was well into a state of full-blown dementia by the time Biodigm fired Peter. Frederic’s doctor confirmed it, and the day Van Alston visited Crews, he heard him on the patio, muttering of all things about hummingbird migratory and mating habits.
“Rather than reenergizing or revitalizing his father, I think Peter’s therapy eventually pushed him into a fresh new hellish existence of mindless energy, mental and emotional chaos, a never-ending hunger that couldn’t be satisfied. Like a hummingbird flitting perpetually from feeder to flower to feeder, doomed to burning out without a constant infusion of sugar and carbohydrates.”
“Then Crews dies, and he’s left to survive on his own,” Scully murmured. “What a nightmare.”
“Peter had stockpiled enough sugar water and soda for a few weeks, but the money was running low and I think Frederic sensed something was wrong.”
“Peter had realized what he’d done, what he’d done to his father,” Dales said hollowly. “What he’d created.”
“Lee got back to me on the contents of those bottles in Crews’ kitchen. Water laced with high fructose corn syrup and enough insecticide to kill every palmetto bug on the block. Peter was determined to correct his mistake, to end his father’s misery.
“But he hadn’t counted on the unintended side effects of his home-style genetic engineering. Frederic not only metabolized the equivalent of a few pounds of sugar each day — his system rapidly metabolized and eliminated the poisons he drank by the gallon. But I suspect he knew what his son had tried to do. Peter would have been smarter merely to cut off Frederic’s sugar supply — the old man would have quickly crashed and simply shut down.
“That may actually have been what Peter Crews had in mind when he drove to his death. He was headed toward the mountains, maybe the desert. Or maybe that guardrail was the plan all along.”
Scully inhaled sharply. “Frederic was in the car. Peter was going to kill him.”
“Or leave him to die in the wilderness. Peter loved his father, but he was a coward. He couldn’t bear to let Nature take its own course or allow his father to simply…end. He’d created a monster, but he couldn’t simply destroy it. And that was his fatal, final mistake.
“Frederic had become a mindless, probably soulless machine, focused solely on survival. My guess is he commandeered his son’s car and steered it into that guardrail. Peter died quickly, but Frederic’s superpowered metabolism buffered the shock, helped him shake off any immediate pain. He left Peter on the highway and just went home.”
“Forty miles?” Scully demanded. Then it dawned. “The heightened metabolism wasn’t all Crews transferred to his father. Frederic’s homing instinct led him back to Village Palms.”
“Where he’s been ‘nesting’ ever since,” Dales shuddered. “Venturing out at night to get his fix.”
“Haunting the neighborhood, until Moritz and his people invaded the nest,” Mulder smiled grimly. “Halloween was simply too tempting for Frederic — truckloads of sugar, no minimart or supermarket cameras, like taking, well, you know where I’m going. Eric Valdez got in the way of Frederic’s food supply and almost died for it.”
“And poor Moritz failed to realize just whose nest he was invading,” Dales shook his head.
Silence fell over the trio, broken only as Mulder’s radio crackled.
“We got movement,” Lee Scanlon reported briskly. Knowing how easily Frederic Crews could evade video detection, Scanlon had salted the storage facility with a battery of motion sensors. The old man was onsite.
Mulder peered at the video feed on his laptop. Crews’ locker was the next one over, and the deserted bays flickered under the agent’s watch.
“The eagle has landed,” he finally signaled, entranced by the ghostly figure that entered the frame and gelled quickly before Locker 555. Frederic Crews was a wraith, a virtual skeleton draped in dollar store rags no doubt lifted on one of his nocturnal hunts. The corrugated metal locker door slid up and then down as Crews blurred and disappeared. Mulder and Scully snapped up their automatic weapons.
“He’s in,” Mulder growled into his mike as he wrenched the bay door open. A dozen tactical officers emerged from a dozen lockers along the graveled aisle, taking aim simultaneously at the gate to Locker 555. Scanlon nodded as Mulder dropped to his knees and snapped a fresh padlock in place. The agent stood and waved vigorously toward the shadows to the east.
A diesel engine coughed into life, and a pair of high-beams illuminated the armed cadre. Scanlon, Scully, and Mulder backed away as the pallet-laden forklift trundled into view. The gate to 555 jerked repeatedly, and the metal vibrated as the creature inside realized his plight.
The forklift lurched to a halt before 554, reversed and turned in an arc. It moved forward, and the stacked pallets slammed into place, effectively sealing 555.
“What do we do now?” Dales had materialized at Mulder’s elbow.
“See that vent on the roof?” Scanlon shouted over the dying forklift engine. “We pump enough gas in there to put our canary to sleep for the next two days.”
“Presuming that works,” Scully stated flatly. She paused. “What IS that?”
The muffled whir became a high-frequency buzz, punctuated by the impact of flesh and bone on galvanized steel, cinder blocks, and concrete. Frederick Crews began to shriek and warble — except it wasn’t warbling. Mulder could make out lengthy torrents of obscenity and insanity.
“I hear the caged bird sing,” Arthur Dales paraphrased Maya Angelou. “God help us all.”
Dos Saguaro Cafe
Two days later
Scully reappeared at the table. When the call came in from University of Phoenix Hospital, she’d quietly slipped away so as not to break the mood of their pre-flight lunch. As the last of the platters was being cleared and the chip basket was reduced to wicker and tortilla dust, Arthur Dales concluded his tale of General Douglas MacArthur and a Filipino curse. Mulder was rapt, and Alison Dubois nearly did a spit-take at the punchline.
The trio fell silent as their solemn fourth reached the table.
“Frederic Crews was declared at 1:07 p.m. today after suffering a third major cardiac episode,” Scully announced. Alison glanced into her tea; Dales nodded thoughtfully. “The M.E. won’t complete the post-mortem until at least tonight, but the head attending suggests Crews had experienced extensive internal damages and organ shutdown as a result of his heightened metabolism and advanced age. Skinner, of course, has ordered all blood and tissue samples sealed and shipped to Quantico.”
Mulder had listened mutely, a curious half-smile on his face. “Just two days in ‘captivity.’ Crews Senior – the old Crews Senior — might have appreciated the irony.”
“A shame Crews Junior wouldn’t have,” Dales lamented, leaning back into the shade provided by one of the two towering cacti that framed the restaurant patio. “Would I appear in the slightest insensitive if I felt a tinge disappointed in being deprived of my ghost story?”
“Moritz would understand.” Mulder hefted his horchata. “To our intrepid ghost hunter and his sacrifice in the name of discovery.”
Dales clinked glasses heartily, then raised his for a followup toast. “To the tellers of uncanny tales, the keepers of unknown histories, those who love a ripping good story and those who weave – and sometimes embroider – them.” The old man winked.
Alison, who’d fallen silent, now beamed and lifted her tea. “Hear, hear.”
Alison made her departure with hugs and best wishes and a vague excuse about Marie and the optometrist. Seeing Mulder and Scully again had revived memories of the traumatic events involving the young man Adam, but it also had resurrected good memories — of her conversations on the mind and soul with Mulder, of the ties she’d woven over the years working with Lee and District Attorney Devalos and the other good people who sought only justice and/or the truth, even when they were divergent roads. She could feel Joe’s approving presence and the assurance of an eventual reunion of their souls.
The day’s heat felt good on Alison’s palms as she took the wheel, and she paused before slipping the key into the SUV’s ignition.
“He’s out of pain now,” Alison told the middle-aged man in her passenger’s seat.
“The pain I inflicted on him,” Peter Crews observed calmly. “And on that boy and Moritz. I know. And he knows he wasn’t to blame, that he couldn’t control the impulses I coded into him.”
“You shouldn’t be too rough on yourself, either,” Alison advised despite the consequences of Crews’ misguided actions. “It’s impossible sometimes to let go, to just accept and move on alone. Believe me, I know.”
Crews smiled. “I know. Now.”
Alison nodded, turned the key, and glanced to find the scientist gone. She crimped the wheel.
“If you only knew, Mr. Dales,” Alison sighed with a secretive grin. “If you only knew.”