By Martin Ross
Category: Casefile, holiday
Summary: Mulder and Scully confront a high-profile murder and an ancient and possibly deadly Thanksgiving legend.
Disclaimer: Thanks for the X-Files – the gift of Chris Carter, and Ellery Queen, the greatest American mystery author and my other fictional muse.
Residence of Sen. Gerald Upham
Nov. 20, 2012
“Mulder,” the senator nodded, his wattled neck wiggling. “Jew, right?”
“Oy,” Mulder said.
“Dad,” Kevin Upham gasped. “C’mon, let’s get you a martini.” The young congressman touched his father’s costly sleeve, and Sen. Gerald Upham nodded eagerly with a bob of his silvery mane and a suspiciously cordial glance back at Mulder. Muttering something about Barney Franks and Jon Stewart, Upham followed his son down a cavernous paneled corridor where, no doubt, high-end gin and vermouth were waiting. Congressman Upham turned back with a mimed apology as they vanished around a corner.
“I feel like we’re in an episode of Mad Men,” Mulder confided in Scully. “I don’t know whether it’s the money or the cocktails or the blatant anti-Semitism.”
Scully sighed, glancing at the no-doubt original Grant Wood keeping them company in the Upham mansion’s foyer. “Another Thanksgiving, another dollar. First, rampaging turkeys and teenaged ghosts, then a serial-killing were-cat, then teleported antiquities. Mom didn’t even invite us this year.
“Technically, it was a familiar. Kind of the reverse of a were-cat, when you think about it. If there is such a thing as an ailuranthrope…”
“At least it’s a simple death threat,” Scully sighed. “And it is a simple death threat, Mulder. No psychokinetic stalkers or flukemen or chupacabras. Just good old-fashioned red-blooded imminent violence. You understand me, Mulder?”
“I just met the guy, Scully,” Mulder murmured. “I’m just surprised he wasn’t the one with the death threats.”
Kevin Upham reemerged from the hall. “I’m terribly, terribly sorry about that just now. The older he gets, the less his filter seems to function.”
“Yeah,” Mulder smiled. “I heard his comments on immigration on Piers Morgan last week. Fortunately, I think his comments on teen pregnancy 10 minutes later made everybody forget all about it.”
“I know, I know. I just hope he didn’t offend you, Agent Mulder.” Congressman Upham paled. “Not that being Jewish is offensive. Oh, Jesus.”
“That neither,” Mulder assured him. “I’m 100 percent card-carrying agnostic atheist.”
Upham paused. “Holy shit. Don’t let him hear that.”
“It started about a week ago, after I whipped the vote on the American Tax Security and Fairness Act,” Kevin Upham began once they were ensconced in plush sunroom chairs that likely pre-dated JFK. The lawmaker had traded his trademarked power suit for an outdoorsy ensemble that made L.L. Bean look like K-Mart closeout. “There was this provision that pretty much overhauled the tax-exempt treatment of organized churches – real breaking point for both the libs and the Tea Party types. I had to broker a deal if we were going to get anything out of the House this session, but I wound up looking like a fascist to the media and a traitor to the party check writers. That’s Washington these days – Red vs. Blue, all or nothing.
“At any rate, the e-mails started rolling in, then the calls. Pretty routine stuff – I’m a rabid holy roller, I’m a godless turncoat, I’m a political hack, I’m an extremist zealot. But then I started getting reports from my district people – some guy asking around town about my family, the kids, the house; cars cruising the place late at night. Probably nothing, but Dad talked to Senator Matheson, and, well, here you are. I’m more than a little embarrassed.”
“No need, Congressman,” Scully assured him. “Of course, we’ll want your staff to ship us all the threatening e-mails and the call logs for the last week. With Thanksgiving in two days, it may be kind of tough to canvass your neighbors, but we’ve set up at the Hollis downtown.”
“Absolutely not,” the congressman decreed. “We have more than enough room in the carriage house, and, of course, you’ll be our guests for Thanksgiving dinner.”
“I thought you’d be having a mob in for your dad’s hunt,” Mulder smiled. Kevin may have winced.
Senator Gerald Upham had been associated with Wrightsville’s annual wild turkey hunt for 40 years, stalking Meleagris gallopavo with the same 10-gauge and wing bone yelper his father had bestowed on him when he’d graduated Harvard. The prize birds were served up at the feast of thanks, for a collection of the town’s key business leaders, Upham’s Rotary and country club pals, and an assortment of state legislators, regional artists or authors invited by Mrs. Upham, and Judge Delbert Conklin – Upham’s oldest friend. When Gerald graduated from the statehouse to Capitol Hill, he began to welcome media royalty into the mix – a practice that led to more than one feature on the network or cable newsmagazines but that ended abruptly five years before when a young MSNBC correspondent added his own editorial narrative and guest commentary from PETA to footage of the conservative senator displaying his latest bloodied trophy for a group of local kids.
Rather than giving in to the times, Upham trenched in, declaring a virtual feud with the New Media and the animal activists, contributing his distinctive mix of patriotic, political, moral, and cultural observations to the festivities. Kevin, who’d always declined his father’s not-so-affable urgings to load up and come out, shrugged a lot for the camera and huddled in the sunroom with a good book or district correspondence until the sound bytes were over. And the senator’s perpetually laid-back press aide, Jay Reynard, received an annual invite at Kevin’s insistence in order to minimize the fallout.
“Always room for two more,” Congressman Upham smiled haggardly. “I know Mom would love to have someone different to talk to, and I appreciate your giving up your family plans for what I’m sure is a wild goose chase.”
Upham grinned as he glanced past the agents toward the tall thirtysomething man standing in the open doorway. Jay Reynard was dressed one retail notch below Upham in nonetheless hip outdoor gear, a ski case slung over one shoulder and a Gucci computer bag over the other. Upham embraced the former New York Ledger reporter clumsily and relieved him of the ski bag.
“I don’t know when you think there’s going to be time to hit the slopes, even if you could find any snow this side of the Arctic Circle,” Upham scolded the aide. “C’mon, we’ll get you settled in and round you up a drink. Oh, my manners. Jay Reynard, Agents Mulder and Scully – they’re here about that matter I told you about.”
Reynard tossed off a quick smile, as if ordering a Taco Supreme or blowing off a local print interview. “You guys take good care of my man here. Someday, he could be your boss’s boss’s boss.”
“Damn, now I have to kick in my ‘A’ game,” Mulder beamed back. Reynard laughed uncertainly, Upham more heartily.
Reynard kicked back into professional gear. “Look, Kev, we gotta talk about that tax bill, maybe get you on FOX or something. You know you had a 500 game with Wiczek last primary. You don’t wanna run afoul of the speaker – Dunne’s already backchecking after that reaming Boehner gave his caucus last week.”
“Thanks for the insight, Jay, but it’ll blow over,” the congressman chuckled, leading his father’s aide out of the room. “I’ll get Elaine to show you to the carriage house, agents,” Upham called over his shoulder. “Supper’s at 7.”
Mulder glanced at Scully. Scully shrugged.
“Looks like we got time to squeeze one out,” Mulder suggested. “Kinda hot, a senator and a congressman a few rooms away. Give me something to be thankful for.”
“You’d better focus on good health,” Scully recommended.
“Dad’s kind of a bluenose dick, but the kid’s OK,” Dean Toyfell said, clipping a stray appendage from the mathematically precise hedge lining the patio. “Kevin summered with my dad ‘fore he went off to college, worked his ass off, never put on airs. His mom’s good people, too.”
“You know of anyone around here who doesn’t care so much for the congressman?” Scully asked the burly landscaper.
Toyfell wiped his shaved scalp. “Just juvenile stuff. Every once in a while, a window gets busted, something gets swiped from around the property. Just some of the Low Village kids letting off some steam against the 1 percent, you know? Not that I approve or nothing, but unemployment’s been up around here last few years, and folks are pissed. I’m lucky the Wrights and the Uphams and the Pettigrews use me year-round. By the way, no need to tell Kevin I called his dad a dick.”
“I’m guessing that’s no news bulletin for him,” Mulder drawled, glancing at a lone lawn gnome guarding the walk to the two-story carriage house. “Forget the locals. You saw somebody staking out the place last Thursday?”
“I don’t know about staking out, but there was this old beater passed back and forth in front of the place while I was winterizing the grass. Too far away to catch a look at the driver or the plates, but when I started toward him, he burned rubber.”
“Only time you’ve seen him?” Mulder inquired.
“Ay-yup.” Toyfell snapped a projection from the topiary. “Maybe casing the place, probably didn’t know Kevin or the old man even lived here. We get a lot of assholes come in from the city, wanna look at the leaves or the leprechauns.”
Mulder perked. “Leprechauns?”
“And here we go,” Scully moaned softly.
Toyfell grinned crookedly. “Well, not leprechauns, of course. But some of the outta-town yuppie hikers or local meth heads sometimes get turned around in the woods and say they see little people. Local legend, some kinda Indian thing. Had a piece in the Record a few years back, I think the Chamber was tryin’ to drum up the tourist trade. All we need, you ask me. No offense.”
“Hey,” Mulder shrugged empathetically, sounding, in fact, very much like a tourist.
“To the success of the hunt,” Senator Gerald Upham proclaimed, raising his third glass of scotch as the hired help began doling bowls of thick chowder. Scully jabbed Mulder, and he hoisted his ice water.
“Hear, hear,” Judge Delbert Conklin beamed. “And to this glorious holiday table Nora’s set for us tonight.”
Nora Upham smiled serenely from her place beside the senator. She was a handsome woman even at 80, but, as Mulder had determined from their earlier interview, an intelligent and grounded one devoted to her increasingly doddering spouse.
“And now, as is the tradition in the Upham household, we ask our newest guests to help us bless this sustenance,” the senator continued, sloshing his drink toward Mulder and Scully. His smile flickered as he recognized Mulder. “Oh, of course. Agent Scully, if you’d like to do us the honors.”
“If my partner wouldn’t mind, it would be my great honor,” Mulder humbly interrupted as Scully exsanguinated from the inside. “If everyone would assume a position of prayer? As we gather to enjoy this bounteous goodness, I’m reminded of an invocation by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat (Sen. Upham blinked; Rep. Upham snorted discreetly):
“Source of all being, we thank You
for the meal on this table before us:
for the earth from which this food emerged
and Your blessing which sustains that earth
for the hands which planted and weeded and watered
and tended animals with loving care
for the drivers who ferried ingredients to our stores
and the workers who stocked the shelves
for those who prepared these dishes
dicing and chopping and roasting
and for the loved ones whose memory we cherish
when we recreate or adapt the foods they once made
may we receive this meal as a gift
and offer the gratitude of our hearts in return
and may the abundance which we enjoy
spur us to care for those who need
Thank You for this food
and for our togetherness on this precious day.
“In this mishegas world of ours, the company of family and friends is a warm and reassuring womb of comfort. Please bless this food and our good friends. Zie ga zink – good health. Amen.”
The senator inhaled. “Ah, amen.”
“Amen indeed,” Judge Conklin nodded somberly, again raising his Chardonnay. “A beautiful blessing, Agent. To our new friends.”
“L’chaim,” Mulder concurred as he dodged Scully’s sharp toe.
“With the vast font of forensic knowledge available on prime-time network and cable TV, you’d think the average crank would at least go to the trouble of generating a little corroborative evidence,” Mulder tsk’ed as he plopped onto the antique featherbed. “Damn, no wonder the pilgrims got so much done. They never wanted to go to sleep.”
From her perch on the bureau, Scully arched a brow. “Of course, Mulder, ‘burned rubber’ is a common metaphor. The fact that we didn’t find any tire tracks or trace isn’t exactly a slamdunk. However, based on Toyfell’s lengthy history of scathing correspondence with local, state, and federal officials, his nephew’s recent prosecution under Rep. Upham’s new drug penalties bill, and the impact of the current jobless trend on most of Toyfell’s extended bloodline, I’d tend to agree he’s an avenue worth pursuing.”
“God, they don’t even try anymore,” Mulder lamented. “What happened to the Yankee work ethic that made Lizzie Borden an East Coast legend? At any rate, I don’t think Toyfell’s any real threat, so why don’t we just put the full-court federally sanctioned fear in him and share what we’ve got with Upham the Junior. Upham the Senior’d probably have him shipped to Guantanamo or pillared in the town square, which, incidentally, is round. But the congressman seems to be an OK guy.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Scully nodded, getting to her feet and heading for the bedroom door.
“Hey, where you going?”
His partner stopped. “Your eternal tumescence aside, I’m retiring to my room, which I believe is the proper procedural protocol when under the roof of two, count ‘em two highly influential federal legislators.”
“Uh, huh,” Mulder murmured. He’d climbed off the vintage mattress, and was staring out the bedroom window.
“I was wondering why an upper-crust, old money crew like the Uphams would have such a tacky accoutrement on their property,” Mulder mulled. “Right in front of my eyes…”
“Mulder, what in hell are you babbling about?”
He turned, the old and ominous gleam in his eyes. “The lawn gnome, Scully. It’s gone.” Mulder paused. “If there ever was one…”
Scully sighed, flicked off the lights, and shed her pajamas. “OK. Guess I’ll take one for the cause of Rational Thought.”
The Fifty-Fifth Annual Wrightsville Thanksgiving Hunt commenced promptly at 5 a.m., with the ritual breakfast of sugar-cured ham, farm-fresh eggs, and johnnycakes. The assembled gentlemen — plus a popular FOX News hostess who’d been conferred honorary manhood — then took to the woods.
The Fifty-Fifth Annual Wrightsville Thanksgiving Hunt ended promptly at 8:21 a.m., at the behest of Wrightsville Police Chief Anselm Newby.
“What luck, a couple of fibbies dropped right into our laps, right along with the county and the staties,” the white-haired chief grunted. “It’s a Thanksgiving miracle.”
“God bless us every one, except this one,” Mulder murmured, crouching next to the sprawled remains of the late Senator Gerald Upham. He peered at the bluff 30 feet above and traced the senator’s likely trajectory to the hard-packed, rocky forest floor.
“Used to come up here start of every hunt, all by his lonesome” Judge Conklin said mournfully, cradling his shotgun as the assembled law enforcement community stared respectfully on. “Said it was his favorite scouting point, but I think he just liked to be alone for a few minutes, marvel at Nature’s creation. Gerald might seem a bit, ah, distracted these days, but he loves these woods. After he didn’t show up for about an hour, I decided to check it out. Gerald’s had a history of cardiac trouble.”
“So everybody on the hunt knew about this little ritual?” Mulder asked, turning the senator’s head slightly with a gloved hand. “Anybody could’ve pushed him.”
“If he was pushed,” Scully admonished, descending cautiously from the slope. A pair of troopers took her arms and secured her on terra firma. “No sign of footprints, other than the senator’s, and it doesn’t appear there was any scuffle. From the evidence, it would appear Sen. Upham went straight over. Superficially, we have every indication of an accident or a natural death followed by a fall. Or, well…”
“Gerald was one of my dearest old friends,” the judge rumbled. “So let me just put that one to rest. Gerald always felt suicide was a manifestation of weakness, and, bless his poor soul, he was entirely too self-possessed to take his own life. And besides, how might you explain that.”
Conklin’s bony finger targeted a patch of dirt a foot from Upham’s extended arm. In his dying seconds, the senator’s bloodied finger had traced three erratically spaced letters on the forest floor.
“If it was his first impulse on landing, then I have to say he had amazing physical restraint,” Mulder suggested. Scully closed her eyes.
“Any other gallows humor you want to get out of your system before we proceed?” Newby asked calmly. “So what’s that supposed to mean, G-men?”
“It would appear to be a dying clue,” Mulder said, rising to his feet and dusting leaf crumbs from his jeans. “The obvious hypothesis would be the senator knew his killer and wanted to identify him or her for us. But initials seem a little formal and convoluted. Anybody know anyone nicknamed Puke or any members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan? What’s the Pin Unlock Key for the senator’s cell phone? Anyone in the hunting party who hails from Punksutawney, Pennsylvania? Know it’s a reach, but those regional spellings screw me up, too.”
“So if it isn’t a name, what would it mean?” Scully puzzled, staring at the bloody inscription.
Mulder scanned the swarm of cops and techs, the knot of hunters and reporters gathering on the opposite rise. “Let’s get back to the house, Scully. I want to check something.”
“The pukwudgie was a major part of Wampanoag folklore – long before the European colonists butted in,” Mulder began as Scully closed the carriage house door. “They were about 2 to 3 feet tall and humanoid, but with exaggerated noses, fingers, and ears. Most accounts described them as having smooth gray skin.”
“And here we go,” Scully murmured.
Mulder scowled. “The pukwudgie were linked to Maushop, a giant demigod believed by the Wampanoag to have created most of Cape Cod. Maushop was the Diddy of his day — the people loved him, and the pukwudgies – which up ‘til then had lived in harmony with their Wampanoag brethren — were jealous. Story goes the pukwudgies initially tried to compensate by helping the Wampanoag, but their efforts always backfired. And that’s when the trouble began.
“The pukwudgie turned to tormenting the Wampanoag with little pranks, and the tribe asked Maushop to help. The big fella gathered the little bastards up, shook them ‘til they were confused, and scattered them around New England.”
“And the Wampanoag lived happily ever after – at least until the colonists inoculated them with smallpox and began a continent-wide cultural genocide.”
“Wow,” Mulder marveled. “You could put the brakes on a baby shower. Ever thought of moonlighting for Hallmark? Besides, it wasn’t smallpox. The predominant theory was leptospirosis, a zoonotic bacteria spread largely through animal urine. Makes the most sense, given the indigenous wildlife and the tribe’s heavy dependence on hunting and fishing. Coincidentally, leptospirosis killed off a large chunk of the Wampanoag population roughly during the time of the Plimouth colonization. Supposedly what allowed the Europeans to gain a foothold in New England. You were right about the genocide, if that offers you any comfort.”
Scully sighed. “So where do your ancient astronauts come in?”
“What, the pukwudgie? No, Scully; I think Maushop was the only otherworldly visitor in this little tale. Guy shows up in an interstellar space hooptie looking like Mailman Malone and sporting a virtual Skymall of technology, you don’t get out of the village that much, how’s it going to look to you? Maushop may have been impressed to find a relatively advanced sentient species; he, it, she may even have taught the Wampanoag a few things about agriculture, infrastructure, feng shui. No wonder the poor pukwudgie were pissed – they didn’t have a chance with their little lemurlike brains. Maushop was one of the original Eastern liberals – he couldn’t simply eradicate the pesky little douchebags. He simply drugged them, loaded them up, and flew them off to the Hamptons – much like a modern redneck might dump a litter of puppies on a county road.
“But either the puppies wandered back, or Maushop’s head count was a little off. Because, the story goes, the pukwudgie came back. And this time, it was personal. They burned villages, kidnapped children, and lured the Wampanoag to their death in the woods. Maushop tried to go John Rambo on their little asses, and got a poisoned arrow for his trouble. Then the pukwudgies’ suppressed magical powers began to emerge – the ability to start fires at will, to appear and disappear spontaneously, to transform into a walking porcupine, to lure their victims into committing suicide. According to the lore, they could possess and control Tei-Pai-Wankas – the souls of the Wampanoag they’d killed. To this day, there are regular sightings of pukwudgie-like creatures in the region. There’ve been multiple encounters in the Freetown-Fall River State Forest in Massachusetts. Along with several unexplained suicides and fatal falls.”
“All right, then,” Scully announced, slapping the arms of her chair. “Let’s put out a BOLO. Be on the lookout for a Mini-Cooper full of trolls. Hope there are no Shriners parades in the area.”
“Not finished yet,” Mulder sang. “So you may be asking yourself, who were these enterprising if intemperate little folk. Well, let’s look at the facts. A small race, humanoid, mentally inferior to the Wampanoag but pathetically eager to please. They’re taken far from their native environment, but they have the homing instinct of a lost Labrador.
“They capture and kill a technologically advanced being, and suddenly, they’re unstoppable, magical badasses. At the same time, by historical accounts, leptospirosis starts to wipe out the Wampanoag. Fever, chills, meningitis, unbearable pain, and, presumably, delirium. Which, combined with the murder of Maushop and the return of the pukwudgie, must have seemed like divine retribution. Maushop’s alien technology must’ve seemed like magic even to the pukwudgie, and the weakened, half-insane Wampanoag were easily talked or, more likely, terrified into ending their misery. As a last ditch, the surviving members of the tribe reached out to form an alliance with the Plymouth colonists, despite the fact that the earlier European visitors had tried to sell them into slavery. Squanto, the Native American who taught the colonists to cultivate corn, was a former slave who’d returned to America to find his Patuxet people dying, probably of the same leptospirosis epidemic.
“Whatever primitive instincts the pukwudgie possessed told them they should probably not screw around with the new arrivals. They kept it on the lowdown, stayed out of sight. Good call, as it turned out.”
Scully consulted her iPhone. “They’re going to start missing us – or at least me – in a few minutes. Why don’t we cut to the chase here? What are they? Or who?”
Mulder smiled. “Parallel evolution.”
“Parallel…” Scully frowned, and sank back into the senator’s wing chair. “You can’t be serious.”
“Why not? Nearly every culture has its troll, its leprechaun, its menehune. A new species is discovered nearly every day, mainly because they dwell in the depths, in the extreme arctic reaches or the bowels of volcanic heat. What if the pukwudgies have been hiding at the fringe of human existence, living on our scraps, protected from predatory species and disease by the ecosystem we’ve created? Neanderthal man, Homo habilis, Australopithecus – if the lower primates include everything from tiny tarsiers to the Great Apes, then why should we be alone on the human branch of the zoological tree? Why should there be only one common human ancestor?”
“And they escaped detection all these centuries?”
“Best of both worlds, Scully. The sentience and societal sense of Homo sapiens with the animal cunning of a lesser-evolved species.”
Scully rose. “At least you’ve migrated from the Syfy Network to NatGeo. Say I give this any credence. Why Senator Upham?”
“Who knows? He was armed, he liked trophies. Maybe he wanted his own real lawn gnome to go with the elk’s head in his den.”
“Congratulations, Mulder,” Scully grunted, heading for the hallway door. “You’ve managed to offend a race that hasn’t even been identified yet.”
“At the time of the senator’s death, all of the hunters were accounted for,” Scully recounted for the ring of deputies and the entire four-man Wrightsville P.D. force. Mulder sat stolidly in the corner, arms crossed, eyes occasionally rolling. “Judge Conklin had instructed everyone to give the senator some alone time on the bluff, and so each of the three groups was at least a tenth of a mile away. Conklin, Mayor Jorking, and Faith Yancy — the cable commentator — were hidden in a blind, waiting for turkeys. Congressman Upham, Jay Reynard, and two of the congressmen’s local acquaintances — Troy Van Horn and Gary Bradford — were sharing a thermos of, um, coffee in a clearing a half-tick from the first group. The third cluster — State Sen. Rodney Shinn, Zack Upham, the senator’s great-nephew, and Deputy Secretary of State Vernon Williams were in a second blind at the far end of the woods, furthest from the bluff. Beyond a few minutes when various party members, ah, performed personal duties in private, no one was out of each other’s sight.”
If there were any resentment of the female fed who’d commandeered the investigation, it was overshadowed by the auspicious list of personalities on the suspect list. The deputy secretary had conducted a polite stare down with Mulder, the state rep had offered his full cooperation through his newly arrived Boston attorney, and Upham had murmured answers in a stunned monotone. Yancy had offered her assistance in the matter, recommending a roster of animal rights and environmental groups and liberal activists who might be behind the senator’s demise.
“As you all now know,” Scully continued, “the coroner found possible contrecoup bruising on the back of the senator’s skull. Now that may be typical of a head trauma resulting from his fall, but Upham’s broken arms and fingers suggest he tried to buffer his impact, and there was little facial injury or bruising. It’s thus possible the killer struck Upham’s forehead against the ground to ensure he was dead, though, as my partner has postulated, why wouldn’t the killer have obliterated the message Upham left in clear sight at the point of impact?
“Which message, by the way, corresponds to only two local residents — one a resident of the Wrightsville Convalescence Center and the other a three-year-old child — and to none of Kevin Upham’s recent correspondents we’ve been able to track through IP or phone records. The one local suspect in Congressman Upham’s death threat case — Toyfell — was at his girlfriend’s home with her children and several neighborhood witnesses.”
“So you about got this thing wrapped, right?” a portly deputy drawled. A smattering of laughter erupted, then died as the men caught the expression on Scully’s face.
“The lack of trace, transfer, any other typical forensic evidence at the scene, the absence of any typical weapon, the senator’s own failure to resist his attacker — I recognize these are all challenges. However, I’m sure you’re all aware of the high media profile that’s developed around this case and the pressure we’re all under to resolve it as soon as possible. Now, any theories? I don’t care how–”
Scully faltered, glanced at Mulder. He shook his head and looked away.
“I don’t care how outlandish they may seem…”
“Yeah,” Mulder grumbled, scuffing toward their rental. “The PETA terrorists hiding in the woods theory is much more plausible.”
“Than proto-hominid Keebler elves ganging up on a harmless old man, then finishing him off?”
Mulder pointed his key fob at the Kia and fired several shots. The sedan bleated in protest. “Well, it would explain why the killer left Upham’s dying message intact. I doubt the pukwudgie even know English.”
Scully paused at the passenger door. “So now, you’re insulting their intelligence, too?”
Mulder scowled, and kicked at a large, flat stone. He cringed at the sound of glass shattering and the sight of Chief Newby’s pebbled windshield. Cops began to stream out of Wrightsville’s police station, and Mulder turned in terror toward his partner.
But Scully wasn’t looking at him. Or the shattering windshield. Or the approaching cops, led by a livid Newby. She seemed to be staring toward the Mahogany State Forest on the horizon…
Nora Upham had announced late that afternoon that Thanksgiving dinner would be served as scheduled the following afternoon, citing the dozen Wrightsvilleans dependent on the day’s wages, her husband’s love of the holiday, and the need for sanity and sustenance in the face of growing media insanity. Mulder insisted on staying behind, and Scully, with a reluctant call to her mother, insisted on staying behind on the grounds of damage control.
“My husband was an opinionated and often controversial man,” the slender woman admitted as a bronzed, locally farm-raised goose awaited dissection before her. “However, he loved God, family, country, and everything embodied in the spirit of Thanksgiving. Gerald constantly reminded Kevin and myself, his staff, his constituents, of the many blessings that have been bestowed on all of us. It’s in Gerald’s name that I would ask you to enjoy this fine meal and each other and, if you can, remember my husband’s indomitable spirit, humor, and underlying acts of charity and kindness. Now, if you’d bow your heads, Kevin will lead us in a brief prayer…”
Mulder bowed his head and pondered Scully’s behavior over the past 24 hours. She had been quiet, smiled passively at his humor, and hadn’t offered a stinging word about Mulder’s vehicular assault outside the police department.
Mulder was vaguely fearful, and relieved to be at least temporarily in the safe company of the Upham’s guests. Faith Yancy, his tablemate to the left, had shared her speculation about the Occupiers’ move to the rural theater, to soften the hicks for social revolution; the judge to his right shared a half-dozen tales of past Wrightsville homicides. Across the linen expanse, Jay Reynard mixed sports and political metaphors for the visiting state senator and Gary Bradford, an aspiring town councilman. Kevin Upham traded polite small talk with his guests under his mother’s concerned eye.
“Amen,” Mulder muttered a half-beat after his fellow diners.
“Heads up,” a familiar voice called from the doorway. The table fell silent, and Kevin Upham’s jaw dropped open as an object vaguely resembling a crystal ashtray sailed across the tablecloth, blurring between the crescent rolls and the mashed potatoes and thudding to a stop against the silver turkey platter.
A heavy chair banged to the floor near Mulder, who was attempting to identify the unidentified object. Finally, it dawned as a trickle of water rolled down the curved edge of the projectile. The agent turned.
“How’d I do?” Scully smiled, weapon in hand, addressing the horrified guest longer seated at the table.
“What the f–?” Kevin Upham pinched off the end of his sentence with a quick glance at his patrician mother. Nora Upham peered frostily at the woman in the dining room doorway, who was holding a long, L-shaped implement nearly as tall as herself. Then the senator’s widow turned to the figure near the other end of the long table – her guest stared at Scully open-mouthed, features frozen with fear.
“You, um, you scared the shit out of us,” the man croaked, reaching down to pick up his chair.
“So why didn’t you jump when I nearly took off your nose, Reynard?” Scully inquired, propping the hockey stick against the buffet. “You didn’t react until you saw what I fired across your bow.”
Jay Reynard glanced at the disk of ice now melting between the sweet potatoes and the brussel sprouts. “I’m going to call your director, Agent. Mrs. Upham, I’m sorry about this. And to think, I was worried about that one.” The aide nodded toward Mulder, who’d taken advantage of his partner’s distraction to shovel a wad of chestnut dressing.
“Hey,” Mulder swallowed. “That hurts.”
“Agent Scully,” Nora said calmly. “What you are up to?”
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” the redhead murmured. “But I believe this is the weapon that killed your husband.”
“That’s not mine,” Reynard growled. Then, he squinted at the stick and cursed. Mulder grinned. Reynard caught it, and pivoted on Scully. “Where’d you get that? I’m gonna guess no judge in his right mind would have issued a warrant for this bullshit.”
“No warrant necessary,” Scully purred. “This indeed is not your hockey stick. The same make, and I added a few touches personal touches to make it match the one on your condo wall. People in the public eye really should watch what they post on Facebook, Mr. Reynard.”
“How–?” Reynard dropped into his chair.
“The great thing about being a member of the federal law enforcement community is the spirit of cooperation between agencies. Like Homeland Security. It’s one of the warmest Novembers in the past 10 years, and yet you bring your ski gear. I asked myself why. Because you needed to transport something that would fit in a ski case. Then I remembered your jock talk the day we met. You referred to Kevin’s race with his challenger as a ‘500 game.’ You mentioned a congressman ‘backchecking’ when the House speaker publicly dressed his caucus down.
“I had several brothers, Mr. Reynard.” Mulder winced at Scully’s unconscious use of the past tense. “In the fall, it was football jargon around the dinner table. Summer, baseball. In the winter, all my older brother could talk about was the state hockey championship and the NHL. I looked you up, Mr. Reynard – you helped take Hudson University to the finals your junior year. In fact, you parlayed a hockey scholarship into a masters in poli-sci.
“Once I had a working theory, I was able to pull a few strings and access the TSA X-rays for the day you flew into Logan. And there it was – your ski case, but no skis. Just a hockey stick.”
Judge Conklin coughed. “You want a warrant, Agent Scully, I’ll get my clerk on the horn.”
“Thanks, Your Honor,” Scully nodded. “The TSA people would’ve had no reason to question it, and the Uphams and their guests would assume you simply didn’t pay attention to the local weather forecast. Can you offer me a good reason why you’d bring a hockey stick to a Thanksgiving dinner.”
“Puck,” Kevin gasped.
“Pardon you,” Mulder offered. Scully rolled her eyes.
“You’re the equivalent of a world-class marksman, Mr. Reynard,” she resumed. “The press accounts of your championship at Hudson suggested you could shoot a puck into a wastebasket from the length of the court. You knew that bluff was one of the senator’s favorite scouting spots, but you needed a physical alibi for the senator’s murder. Senator Upham was an old man, frail, with weak reflexes. All it took was one good shot from the clearing, aimed between his shoulder blades, and over he’d go. The brilliant touch was using the ice puck, which, I assumed, you kept in that huge thermos you were toting around the forest.” Scully glanced toward the spreading wetness at the center of the table where her homemade “puck” had been. “You didn’t count on Senator Upham having just enough strength to leave us a dying clue.”
“Gerald was an educated man,” Conklin rumbled. “P-U-K?”
Scully was silent for a moment. “How many homicides have the Wrightsville police handled over the last several years? In short, how much crime scene experience do they have?”
Conklin rubbed his face with a leathery hand. “I’ll ask Chief Newby to check his boys’ footwear for Gerald’s blood type. Then we’ll have a little chat about forensic technique.”
“I want a lawyer,” Reynard barked.
“The troopers outside will see you get your call,” Scully sighed.
“But why, Jay?” Kevin demanded weakly. “Dad was always great to you – loved you like a, uh, like a son.”
“If you’ll replay Gerald’s last few speeches, Dear, I think you’ll understand,” Nora said, eyes locked on Reynard. “He wouldn’t have had a chance if Gerald had kept talking to the media, right, Jay? If you wanted to keep his seat in the family, you had to shut him up.”
“Lawyer,” Reynard repeated, banging his shin on the table as he fled into the arms of the waiting MSP.
“Well,” Mulder announced, wiping his mouth, “guess we cleared that up.”
“And all without trolls, aliens, or chupacabra,” Scully smiled sweetly.
“I’ll brief Skinner,” her partner muttered.
“Of course,” Judge Conklin mused, folding his hands over his stomach, “all that about the TSA and X-rays and hockey sticks was all so much organic fertilizer.”
“Of course,” Scully said.
“You can have the aisle if you’d like,” Scully offered, squeezing Mulder’s arm.
“Shut up,” he whispered, pummeling his overnight bag into the overhead.
He watched the last of the cars back reverently out of the Upham driveway. The people, the lights, the clamor – it made his brain buzz, his fingers curl in suppressed fear and rage.
But he knew that whatever had happened, it was over now. He could relax. They. They would be left alone. For now. When the cold came, the forest would be theirs.
There were more of them now – louder, more forceful with each other and with nature. They took away the trees and made open, ugly places where they congregated. Too many. Too close. They would have to leave some day, or the others would find them. This time, it would mean their end.
His heart leapt, and he turned abruptly.
It was a young one, tall, a vacant look of stupid violence on his face. A red shirt with the characters “R-E-D-S-O-X” stitched onto its chest, baggy pants slung over bony hips. He didn’t understand their words – they didn’t matter. But he could smell, feel the threat.
“Shit,” the giant breathed, grinning malevolently. “You’re one of them. I’m gonna be on CNN, man. Or Youtube. Come here, you little shitbag. You better not have rabies, man. C’mon, dammit, Dude.”
He spoke, low and guttural and somehow soothingly. The youth craned to hear, and his freakishly small features went slack as he slumped against the trunk of an ancient oak.
The boy finally turned, stumbling robotically back through the trees. Toward the rocky edge of the forest, where the hard ground waited below.
The terror vanished, but he knew it was time to leave.
Too many. Too close.