Friday

friday

Friday

By Martin Ross

Category: Casefile

Rating: R for language, violence

Summary: One Friday night. Three cases. Three faces of evil.

Disclaimer: Chris Carter with a twist of Tarantino, shaken and stirred with loving

intent and without commercial gain.

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Capitol Chophouse

Washington, D.C.

6 p.m.

Friday, October 13

It had been an impetuous departure from a life dedicated to solid routine, a lark at

the conclusion of a particularly challenging week.

Another Centaur victim had popped up after a three-month lull, this time in South-

east, potentially cranking up the heat in an already volatile neighborhood. The House

Speaker had launched a searing front-page salvo at the Bureau for searching a

Mississippi congressman’s office (and uncovering $100,000 in a mini-fridge, wrapped

like a pound of ground round). And the mountain of end-of-the-month paperwork

had seemed especially insurmountable.

So as the last incident report blurred before his throbbing eyes, Walter Skinner

glanced at his desk calendar and experienced a major epiphany.

“Friday, huh?” the thirtysomething blonde at Skinner’s elbow chirped.

“Friday,” the assistant director smiled, feeling as if he’d mastered the secret hand-

shake.

“Date running a little late?” the waitress inquired, looking toward the crowded

hostess stand. Then she spotted the attaché case at Skinner’s feet, and smiled

sympathetically. “Ah. Well. You ready to order, or would you like a cocktail first?”

“New York Strip,” Skinner sighed. “Medium. Caesar salad. Baked, butter and sour

cream. Just coffee. Black. Thanks.”

Gregariousness was not Skinner’s strong suit, but this evening, he felt even more

isolated than usual. With Mulder on temporary disability leave, the office was

unusually quiet. Scully had flown out Thursday on a possible serial case in Oklahoma,

but the last few weeks, she might as well have been a continent away. The two of

them had been through a staggering ordeal, had done dark and dangerous things to

come out alive, and had emerged with some severe psychological bruising. Mulder

was handling the trauma with cheerful denial – he reportedly was planning to spend

his birthday doing his laundry — Scully with profound reticence.

“S’you, isn’t it?”

Skinner looked up from the file. On the other side of the rope was a cadaverous man

in a navy parka and a pair of gray suit pants that most likely had lost their mate

some time in the mid-‘70s. His hair was stiffly combed and peppered with gray, and

even in the bright Friday night streetlights of Congress Avenue, his eyes were

sunken into shadow.

Skinner smiled tightly and returned to his papers. The assistant director wasn’t hard-

hearted — it was established D.C. custom. Nobody went too hungry — the tourists

were pretty easy touches the first eight times or so.

“Walt?”

This time, the man’s voice was crisp and fairly coherent, and Skinner felt the cold

whisper of the past in his brain – a chilled murmur that had traveled a half-world and

nearly 35 years. When he’d first come home, he’d tried to shout it down, drown it or

smother it. The Job eventually provided the shelter Skinner had needed, and today,

the murmur was little more than white noise hissing in the far reaches of his

subconscious.

Now, the murmur was insistent, mocking. Skinner studied the ruined man.

“God. Ted Harrell.”

A row of yellowed teeth emerged. “No wonder you’re such a big shot at the Bureau.”

There was no bitterness, no defensiveness in the former Marine’s comment – he

seemed pleased, almost proud. “It’s real nice, you remembering me.”

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Skinner felt a flash of guilt. “Who could forget?”

Ted nodded thoughtfully. “That’s for fucking sure. Hey, sorry, Walt.”

Skinner waved it off. Ted nodded. He scanned the Friday night revelers and

romantics on the other side of the rope. “Hey, I oughtta let you eat in peace. Just

saw you sitting there and thought I’d say hey—”

“Excuse me.” Skinner and Harrell looked up at the terse greeting. The man was in

shirtsleeves and tie, possessed a bureaucratic demeanor with which Skinner was all

too familiar. “I guess our little talk last week didn’t take, did it?”

Harrell looked at the sidewalk. “I just spotted my old buddy here. No trouble – I’ve

said my piece–.”

“Good,” the restaurant manager said curtly. “Now you can run along. Sir, I’m truly

sorry about this.”

Skinner felt every eye on the patio on them – he spotted the blonde waitress by the

register, disdain lining her face. He reexamined the thrice-decorated Vietnam vet

roped off from the crowd, and reached into his jacket and placed his Bureau ID on

the white linen.

“Actually,” the assistant director informed the manager, “we used to work together.

Ted, why don’t you join me? I don’t like eating alone. Could we have another menu,

please?”

The moment was frozen in crystal, the manager and Ted staring uncertainly at each

other.

“Sir,” the manager lowered his tone. “You don’t understand…”

“Here, honey.” A stout woman in an expensive suit at the next table extended her

menu toward Harrell. “I already know what I want. You can have mine.”

The manager, stunned, blinked at the woman, who stared unblinkingly and

expectantly back. The gray-bearded African-American across the table smiled

proudly at his dinner companion and raised a brow at the man in the tie.

“I’ll have someone get your drink order,” the manager said smoothly through his

teeth. The mood of the crowd seemed to shift instantly, and he clearly was

outgunned in the nation’s second or third most PC city. Harrell began to crouch, and

the manager beat him to the rope, waving him in. “Enjoy your dinner…gentlemen.”

Harrell eyed the crowd warily, and turned to the couple at the next table. “Ah, hey,

thanks.”

The man rose with a solemn smile and extended a leathery hand. Skinner didn’t

know the man, but he recognized something in his eyes from across half a world and

35 years.

Harrell grasped the hand, and the man squeezed his palm in a firm shake. “Semper

fi, brother,” the elegantly dressed man murmured.

Underwood, Oklahoma

Scully felt the young cop’s gaze for perhaps the twelfth time that day. It wasn’t the

wary glare of local law enforcement, waiting to pounce on that first imagined slight.

It wasn’t the frank, hungry, anatomically encompassing appraisal Scully had stoically

endured from a hundred macho cops.

It was worse. It was hero worship. As she lifted a forkful of cole slaw, Scully almost

wished she was being mentally disrobed by some testosterone-addled, mouth

breathing deputy.

“You’re gonna just love the ribs,” Officer Lindsay Uhler assured her as she tucked

into her own slaw. Uniform and sidearm aside, the lanky blonde cop looked no older

than 18. It was her earnest, eager-to-please, initially refreshing attitude of

hospitality that had induced Scully to order the no-doubt cholesterol-laden specialty

of The Outdoorsman.

“So, you been with the FBI for a long time?” Officer Uhler inquired “casually.”

“Shixteen years,” Scully murmured, gnawing on a nugget of cabbage core.

“Wow. That’s just incredible.” Uhler glanced shyly at her spoon. “You know, I’ve

thought about applying. For the Bureau, you know. Or the state police.”

“Mmm,” Scully nodded approvingly.

“Took some crim courses at the community college, but Dad took sick before I could

start my bachelor’s. Gotta have a degree to get in the Bureau, huh?”

“Mm.” The cabbage shrapnel had lodged between two molars.

“And you’re a doctor, too,” Uhler breathed.

“Pathologisht,” Scully corrected, struggling not to suck.

“Wow. That is just incredible.”

Supper at The Outdoorsman had sounded like a good idea after a long and

frustrating afternoon at the Wykotah County Memorial Hospital morgue. The

refrigerated facility had been designated as the overflow meat locker for the annual

Wykotah Days, and Scully had completed her triple post-mortem amid the constant

comings and goings of cheerfully obtrusive Kiwanians and the aroma of frying onions

and cotton candy seeping through the casement windows. The second victim had

nearly a half-pound of marbling around her heart, and when Uhler suggested fried

Indian bread and buffalo sausage on Main, Scully had opted for the quaint café two

doors down from the cop shop.

Now, she was roused by the clatter of heavy china on formica. “One order of ribs,” a

rotund, white-haired woman announced. “And one double bacon cheeseburger, right,

sweetie?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Lindsay murmured, almost lustfully, as Scully stared at the

gargantuan porcine thorax laid out before her.

The waitress lingered, planting a meaty palm next to Scully’s Diet Coke (which

tasted suspiciously of corn fructose despite their waitress’s assurances. “You find out

anything about Cal or Lenore yet?”

“Shtabbing,” Uhler supplied around a mouthful of cow and smoked hog. Scully’s jaw

dropped, whether at the officer’s indiscretion or her voracious attack on her burger,

she wasn’t sure. The waitress tsked, then trundled off toward a tableful of rowdy

teens.

Scully frowned. “Wait a minute. There’ve been three victims. Cal Morehouse, Lenore

Timms, and Boyd Friedenbaur.”

“Mm hmm?”

“And Friedenbaur was the mayor. That one was on the wire services.”

Uhler nodded quizzically.

“So why did your friend only ask about the first two victims?”

The patrolman swallowed loudly. “Boyd was a crappy tipper. Grace is real serious

about gratuities. You wanna pass me that ketchup, please, Agent? Thanks.”

Presidential Wash-a-Teria

Washington, D.C.

Mulder dug reluctantly into his jeans. In the months subsequent to his relative

domestication, the $2 wash had become a $3 wash. Otherwise, it was old home

week – Friday night, PS (pre-Scully).

In his life partner’s absence on some rural wild goose chase, Frohike and the gang

had invited him for an evening of empty calories and Star Wars (pre-Jar Jar Binks),

but Mulder was still a bit wobbly for socialization after the events of the summer.

Besides, he’d always sort of relished his evenings at the laundromat: The rhythmic

rumbling of the machines soothed him, and Mulder the Profiler enjoyed cataloguing

the nocturnal procession of loners, losers, hotties, and hopefuls.

Mulder plugged his quarters into the shiny new coin receptacle – the only ac-

coutrement added to the establishment since Y2K – set the controls for regular

press, and sprinkled a pre-measured box of detergent over his rapidly drowning

shirts. As the maelstrom of water and suds commenced, Mulder dropped onto a

nearby bench and pulled the newly arrived International Journal of Cryptozoology

from his back pocket.

He was deep into a treatise on the theoretical physiognomy of the tatzelwurm when

the whites went off. Sighing, Mulder hauled two weeks worth of soggy dress shirts

across the grimy linoleum and stuffed them into the former $1.25 jumbo dryer.

Muttering, he surfaced eight more quarters, set his shirts in motion, and checked the

next porthole for Victoria’s Secret. Cohabitating but not dead, Mulder reminded

himself.

A tangle of Joe Boxers swirled by, and Mulder straightened. Then he spotted it.

“Shit,” he murmured.

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Capitol Chophouse

Skinner met Ted Harrell during a stint with CAP more than three decades and three

major conflicts ago. If Harrell had attended any company reunions prior to his

economic and personal downturn, Skinner wouldn’t have known. Like many

Vietnamese vets, the agent wasn’t given to public reminiscence — even in quiet

rooms with folding chairs and bad coffee.

The Combined Action Program wasn’t common knowledge among the dinner crowd

watching Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley back home – while the Army had

wholeheartedly supported John Wayne’s clean-shaven sonnet to the Green Berets,

the Marines preferred to keep their counterpart operation in a cooler, darker place.

Most CAP units consisted of a Marine rifle squad with a U.S. Navy Medical Corpsman,

and a Vietnamese Popular Forces platoon (the rough equivalent of the National

Guard, but with fairly shitty advanced training and shittier equipment). Each unit

generally was attached to a village, but while the Berets were based in the sparcely

populated central highlands, the CAPs worked the populous coastal lowlands. The

CAPs also employed somewhat more unconventional techniques in its efforts to

quash local insurgents. While the Combined Action Program was known stateside as

“a Peace Corps with rifles” – digging wells, mending fences, doctoring the local

children — those in country viewed it as a kamikaze detail. Eleven Marines and a

Corpsman in a village of a few thousand was poor math, no matter how it was

calculated.

Pvt.Walter Skinner was assigned to Harrell’s unit soon after arriving in country. In a

place where the manual and indeed most military decorum had been jettisoned amid

the blood and the booze and the cannabis, Ted Harrell somehow took his duties as a

Marine and a gentleman seriously while developing a solid, if quiet, camaraderie with

the rest of the unit and even many of the villagers, who were warily grateful toward

their heavily armed benefactors.

But despite that growing rapport, a steady barrage of intelligence warning of a

forthcoming communist bloodbath worked on the villagers’ nerves and loyalties.

When hell finally broke lose one night, the PFs panicked, giving away the unit’s

ambush site. The element of surprise blown, Skinner and Harrell were ordered to

send up an illumination round. Five hours later, the terrorist squad had retreated;

three PFs, two Marines, and seven communists were dead; and two more Americans

had been gravely wounded. The corpsman kept Skinner alive until the private could

be choppered to a medical unit about 120 miles north.

With the exception of the roughly two minutes when the Navy medic temporarily lost

his patient. Over the next three decades, Skinner had discussed the “events” of

those two minutes with very few people. He had told Mulder while Scully lay near

death in a hospital bed. And he had told Ted Harrell, the other surviving casualty of

the assault on Duc Pong, as the two of them recuperated at the D.C. VA Medical

Center.

Skinner never knew precisely why he’d confided in Harrell – he hadn’t even shared

his revelation with the VA-assigned shrink – but whether the former rifleman

believed him or simply chalked the whole thing up to brain biochemistry or spiritual

rationalization, Skinner also had never known. Harrell was discharged the next day,

and hadn’t seen him since.

Until tonight.

“Hey, thanks again, Walt,” Harrell sighed, draining his fifth cup of black coffee and

leaning back in his seat. It was Friday in D.C. — the street side tables were full of

bodies and laughter, and the traffic beyond was sluggish and raucous. Skinner’s

petite blonde waitress had been replaced by a slim and courteously somber waiter,

no doubt at the manager’s orders. The manager himself was nowhere to be seen,

and when the bill had been delivered almost as the plates left their table, Skinner

had requested more coffee and pointedly ignored it.

“You know, I’m trying to remember the last time I had a steak,” Harrell continued.

“No, shit, I remember. My girl took me out to some joint in Georgetown, wanted to

mend fences, I guess. Didn’t go so hot – we just sat there with nothing to say, she

paid the tab, and I never heard from her again. Can’t say I blame her, really. Steak

was probably great, but, hell, I couldn’t even taste it, I was so scared.”

Skinner nodded. Where he’d pulled it together, locked it all safely away after his

recovery and discharge, built a career with the Bureau, Harrell’s life had spiraled.

Ted had severed ties with family and friends back home, drifted from part-time job

to part-time job until he succumbed to alcohol and apathy, wound up in another

hospital, then another, discovered AA, and anchored onto a modest but sustaining

job with a D.C. custodial crew.

But the intense bond between the two men – indeed, between the thousands of men

who’d fought in the jungles and villages – was one that too often strangled other

relationships. Truth be told, Skinner knew it probably was at the heart of his own

failed marriage.

“So where you living?” Skinner asked, shifting gears not so much for himself as for

his former rifleman.

Harrell laughed. “Cheap little hole this side of Southeast. Congress ever gets its shit

together and raises the minimum wage, maybe I’ll look to relocate. Was off tonight,

thought I’d take a little walk. Friday night, gotta live large, as the homies say, right?”

Skinner smiled with a slight flush of guilt at his upscale surroundings. “Decided to

enjoy the evening, myself. My car’s back at the Bureau garage, or I’d offer you—”

“Jesus, Walt, you done enough tonight. I really liked shooting the shit, and the meal

was topnotch.” Harrell pushed his chair back, gingerly, so as not to attract attention.

“Think I’ll just call it a night, you know?”

“Sure.” Skinner knew better than to push. A cheap room, a nowhere job, and a

trickle of pride were all Harrell had left. “I need to finish a few things back at the

office.”

“May I take your bill now?” The dark, rail-thin waiter had materialized, seemingly

from nowhere. As Skinner reached for his wallet, the server gravely placed a bulky

plastic bag on the tablecloth before Harrell. “You don’t want to forget this, sir. I

heard you say how much you enjoyed the rolls earlier, so I included a few extra.”

Harrell and Skinner had cleaned their plates, down to the last scraps of beef and

traces of creamed spinach. Skinner’s eyes darted toward the maitre’d station, where

the night manager was surreptitiously awaiting their departure, then up at the

waiter, whose face was neutrally challenging.

Skinner nodded silently and retrieved his Visa.

Underwood, Oklahoma

“So what do you make of it?” Scully ventured as she and Off. Uhler stepped onto

Main and the neon-lit Friday night chaos of Wykotah Days. While initially she’d found

the young cop’s bottomless enthusiasm somewhat unnerving, somewhere around the

middle of the meringue-topped dessert course, Scully had begun to feel, well,

mentor-ish. It was tough enough to break through the brass ceiling of the Bureau,

and she could imagine what it was like in a rural department like Uhler’s.

Uhler unconsciously mussed the hair of a redheaded boy as he brushed past them

armed with a pair of mustard-streaked corndogs. “Coyote.”

Scully dodged a balloon-sculpting Kiwanian garbed in western wear and greasepaint.

“Excuse me?”

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“Well, you know. Coyote goes after the weakest sheep, the oldest cow. Cal lost his

leg in a chipper some years back – not the smartest way to clear a jam, you ask me.

Made it worse by trying to, well, you might say self-medicate. Gangrene spread to

the other leg by the time they got him to Wykotah Memorial. Got him in his armchair

– loved ‘Wheel,’ had a real thing for Vanna, musta fell asleep.

Uhler beamed as she waved at a pair of seniors playing a bank of Bingo cards in the

center of Main. “Then there was dear old Lenore. Poor old thing. Worked at the water

company for, oh, gosh, at least 40 years. Eyes started goin’, and they retired her off

two years ago. The work was all she’d ever had, and when they cashed her out, she

went nuts with the gardening.”

Scully nodded. Timms’ small lot at the edge of town harbored enough vegetative

matter to capture the collective carbon dioxide of a small city. Her postage stamp

Craftsman home was a botanical marvel, and the coroner’d practically had to

machete his way to the frail body by the kitchen sink.

“And Mayor Friedenbaur?” Scully prompted professorially.

“Well, shoot, you cut him open, you saw all that insulation he was toting around. I

mean, I will confess I got a healthy appetite – Mom says it’s genetic – but Boyd,

now, he’s closed down more than one Legion fish fry.”

“There did appear to be massive cardiac trauma. He may well have died before the

killer struck.”

“What I mean. He was an easy target – all of ‘em were. Like lame sheep.”

Scully squinted into the glare of the Tilt-a-Wheel as they approached the carnival. A

group of young men whooped as they spotted Uhler. She shook her head and patted

her holster, sending her friends into fits of hilarity.

“Of course, there’s another possibility,” Scully said. “As you may know, Jack

Kevorkian started out helping terminal patients commit suicide, then moved onto

depressive and even merely obese subjects.”

“You think this guy’s a, what do you call it? A mercy killer?”

“Too early to guess. Officer – er, Lindsay, do you know what the sinoatrial node is?”

“It’s off Cape Cod, right?” Scully started to speak, and the cop held up a hand. “I’m

yankin’ your chain, Agent. Got something to do with the heart, that it?”

“The sinoatrial node is pacemaker tissue, a sort of neural cluster – the power plant of

the heart, so to speak.” Scully raised her voice as they approached the bandstand,

where a quartet of young cowboys were whooping and jamming. “Our killer managed

to stab each victim precisely in the sinoatrial node. He or she effectively short-

circuited all three of them.”

Uhler halted. “Holy crap.”

“To say the least. Pinpointing such a small target deep inside the chest cavity

requires extreme precision and a surgical knowledge of anatomy. And given Mayor

Friedenbaur’s not inconsiderable girth, I’d say the killer put a lot of strength behind

each thrust. The upshot is, death would have been practically instantaneous. None of

the three would have suffered. It at least supports a theory of euthanasia.

“And it gets stranger. The weapon left an odd serrated signature – symmetrical…”

“All the teeth were even,” Uhler translated, as if to pre-empt Scully’s imminent

elaboration.

“Ah, yes. Which suggests this was a professionally-made tool. But I found what

appeared to be fragments of cellulosic tissue in the wounds. Woody tissue. And it

appears to be relatively fresh material, as if the killer had cut a new piece of wood as

a handle or hilt. The killings occurred days apart, but fresh tissue was found in each

wound track. So if that’s the case, either the murderer used three separate weapons

or at least a new handle in each killing. Either one might indicate some sort of

ritualistic aspect.”

“Wow,” Uhler breathed. “That’s just incredible.”

Scully blushed. “Well, I’ve seen a number of ritualistic–”

“Oh, shit.” Uhler grinned sheepishly. “Sorry, Agent. Just saw somebody I’d just as

soon steer clear of. Oh, shit. Sorry. She saw me.”

Scully spotted her – a thin, ginger-haired, leathery woman in thick sandals who

pushed through the reveling crowd, clearly on a mission.

“Lindsay,” the woman greeted sternly, planting herself in their path. “You made any

progress on those poachers?”

“Maddy, this is, uh, Dana Scully. She’s visiting from, uh, out east. This is Maddy

Ryland.”

Maddy nodded curtly. “I saw two more specimens – Shirley Tisdale’s got ‘em right in

her front window, bold as brass.”

“Maddy,” Uhler sighed. “Thought I told you. Conservation warden says those plants

aren’t threatened or endangered or anything else, so there isn’t anything I could do

even if I had jurisdiction. Fact, he had no idea what they were.”

“What are–?” Scully began to inquire, and the young cop shot her a look.

“That’s precisely why the poaching has to stop,” Maddy shrilled, drawing amused

looks from a quartet of passing locals. “I’m waiting to hear back from the university.”

“Don’t know what to tell you,” Uhler shrugged. “You let me know if you hear

anything from the EPA, OK? And say hey to your sister.”

“Fascists,” the woman muttered, turning abruptly. “Later, Lindsay.”

Scully stared as Maddy vanished between the Lions Club tenderloin booth and the

ring toss. “I don’t even want to ask.”

“Oh, Maddy’s harmless enough – just gets riled up a lot. She almost shut down the

town barbecue last summer – she’s a vegan – and every Christmas, she tries to get

the town board to change the Living Nativity to a ‘multicultural diversity pavilion.’

So, you were saying the murders might be like a ritual thing?” Officer Uhler’s face,

washed in Tilt-a-Whirl green, frowned. “But you said the killer knows about that,

what, sino-arterial thingie?”

“The sino-atrial node.”

“Right. That’s kinda sophisticated for somebody who’s going around harpooning folks

with a wood spear, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Scully nodded, pleased with what she was coming to see as her protégé. “It

seems contradictory. Of course, it could be some sort of smokescreen – our killer is

attempting to mask his or her medical expertise and perhaps even his or her true

motivation behind a ritualistic front. It makes sense if the murderer is someone with

a high degree of medical expertise, especially in a small town like this.”

Lindsay grinned. “Wow.”

“That might be a starting point. How many physicians do you have around here?”

“Well, something serious happens, most folks go to Boulder, ‘bout an hour away. We

got a family practice guy, Jack Ninness – runs the mobile unit from the regional

health center, gets around to all the towns in a three-county area. Then there’s

Brianne Reynolds – she’s a nurse practitioner who does home health care around

here. She and her husband, Ron, they also run the video store down the block

there.”

Scully considered. “How well do you know the Reynolds woman? Serial

euthanasianists frequently are nurses.”

“Well, my mom was in high school with her, said she was a real caring person.

Wasn’t surprised she went into nursing. I don’t know, though – one time, I saw

Brianne give CPR to Mr. Hervey after he’d got grazed by a car, ‘bout two months

ago. He was 86, and on oxygen. She worked on him for nearly 15 minutes, ‘til he

came around. That sure doesn’t sound like a eutha-, euthan–, you know.”

“Maybe the episode was an epiphany – a moment of realization – for her. Saving the

life of a man who very likely will be dead in a matter of months. Oh, I’m sorry, that

must have sounded extremely insensitive…”

“Oh, no,” Lindsay assured her. “Down at the mini-mart, they got a pool on when Mr.

Hervey’s gonna slip on the banana peel.”

“Well.” Scully was attempting to recapture her next thought when Officer Uhler’s

radio crackled.

“Lindsay?”

“Yup,” the cop snapped, keying the mike.

“How close are you and that FBI gal to Trey Resnick’s place?”

“Bout a block. Oh, shit.”

“Got it in one, Linz. Chief wants you over there, pronto.”

**

“I was only gone an hour or so,” Shari Ketner sniffed, staring at the blanketed corpse

on the sofa and hugging her ample breasts until one threatened to escape from its

ribbed magenta halter top. The chief, a portly middle-aged man, paid scrupulous

attention to her account, eyes locked on her forehead. “Trey loved funnel cakes, so

when I heard they had ‘em down to the festival, he got all excited. They put cherries

on ‘em, you know? Trey loved cherries. But he was tired, poor baby – he works the

fryer down at the Mickey D’s by the exit ramp and, ‘sides, he’d already got the three

drunk and disorderlies, so I told him to watch his NCIS – he loved his NCIS – and I’d

go fetch him a couple. Then I ran into Ginny Hollowell – you know, Lindsay, the little

slut did half our football team, ‘cludin’ my Billy? – and we just lost track of the time.

By the time I got back, the funnel cakes were ice cold and, well…”

Ketner fell silent, allowing the analogy to float on the dust of her “living room.”

The garage apartment Trey Resnick shared with his paramour was littered with an

eclectic collection of beer, wine, and liquor bottles and pizza boxes. Shari

contribution comprised a scattering of discarded lingerie and a more nuanced

scattering of flowers and foliage – over the kitchen sink, in the bathroom, next to the

couch where Trey’s remains now lay. The cumulative impact was FTD meets

Victoria’s Secret meets Liquor SuprStore, as designed by the Blue Collar Comedy

Team.

“And the door was locked,” the chief drawled.

“Oh, yeah. I keep forgettin’, and I nearly yanked my arm off. TV was on – I didn’t

touch it, or the bottle.”

The Mad Dog had been bagged and removed, the 51-inch rent-to-own set

deactivated after Scully and the locals determined Mark Harmon would yield no

crucial clues.

“Shari,” the chief rumbled, “why don’t you go stay with your folks next couple days,

OK?”

The girl shivered. “No shit. I go now?”

The chief nodded.

“You give me a call, you want to talk,” Lindsay called after the fleeing girl.

The chief turned to Scully. “Door locked from the inside. Less old Trey shishkabobbed

himself with a bottle opener or you’re Jessica Fletcher, I’m gonna assume somebody

had a key or a set of picks. Lindsay, see if that lock’s been tampered. The Smelzers

– the homeowners – have a key, of course, but they’ve been gone the last week to

the Badlands. Other possibility is Shari there had her full of him, but Shari ‘pears to

have a high threshold for full, and I question that depth of her commitment to the

deceased.”

“Agent Scully has a theory,” Lindsay piped forth.

The chief nodded, adjusting his focus to Scully’s hairline. “Does she?”

Scully opened her mouth. “She thinks its Jack Ninness or Brianne down to the video

store,” Lindsay volunteered. “They’d know where to find the sino-avian thingie, and

Agent Scully thinks the ritualistic spear thing is a smokescreen for the real motive,

which is probably they’re on a euthanizing spree.”

Scully thought it had sounded perfectly insightful when she’d spun it. Now, even

accounting for Lindsay’s over-exuberant, somewhat simplistic rendition, it sounded

like one of Mulder’s Tales of the Uncanny and Improbable.

“That right?” the chief murmured.

“Well,” Scully began.

“O-kay.” He puffed out his cheeks. “I’ll leave you and Office Uhler to follow up on

that, and I’ll just check a few little ideas of my own.”

The chief trundled out. Lindsay grinned at Scully, who remained dumbfounded.

“I really think he liked your theory,” Office Uhler breathed.

Washington, D.C.

Skinner had no idea why he didn’t simply get back to his paperwork or even go home

to his own bed, why he didn’t just let the unusual and, if he had to admit it, pleasant

evening just fade into the night with the unfortunate Ted Harrell. Maybe it was the

couple’s act of kindness, the waiter’s gesture of generosity. Maybe it was survivor

guilt, the sociological flu of the post-9/11.

Or maybe it was that Latin phrase the guy back at the chophouse had uttered to

Ted, like a fraternal code. Semper fidelis. Always faithful. Skinner had lost most of

his faith bleeding in the jungle at the edge of a Vietnamese village. Perhaps he

wanted to test whatever scrap of it that remained.

Ted was about a block ahead when it happened. Skinner had stayed back out of

respect for Harrell’s pride — he was sure his ex-CAP buddy wouldn’t want him to see

where he’d settled out. But when the old man stepped out of the darkened doorway

of a closed market. Skinner stepped up his pace.

He didn’t look like a mugger — most likely a homeless man unaware he was

panhandling a man only about one meal ahead of him. But the stranger seemed

familiar in a dusty, jarring way, like memories that pop abruptly to the surface when

least expected.

And he was talking quick and low. In Vietnamese.

“The time has come,” Skinner made out as he flattened himself against a brick wall a

storefront away. Harrell’s eyes were wide, and he was cowering against the shop

window.

“Go away,” Ted rasped. “I don’t have anything — it’s all gone. There’s nothing. That’s

enough, isn’t it?”

“Không, tôi không ngh? nh? v?y,” the old man murmured. No, I don’t think so. He

stepped closer to Harrell, who staggered to one knee.

“Hey!” Skinner shouted. Despite the stranger’s size and advanced age, the director

instinctively drew his sidearm.

The old man turned and regarded Skinner. Skinner stopped. The look in the man’s

eyes was expectant, challenging. And the wizened face was even more maddeningly

familiar.

“Chao anh,” the old man smiled, “Skinner.”

The agent’s weapon dropped to his side as his heart raced at the chilling greeting.

The old man looked back to Harrell, kneeling against the shop wall, and turned.

“Stop!” Skinner called in Vietnamese as he returned to his senses. The man

disappeared around the corner. By the time Skinner reached the intersection, the

menacing old man was nowhere in sight.

Harrell was now sitting against the shop wall, face white even in the faint wash of

the streetlight 10 yards away.

“You OK?” Skinner asked, standing over him. His old platoon-mate glanced up and

nodded shakily. “What was that about, Ted?”

The vet’s lips moved under his shaggy mustache.

“Ted.”

His voice was ragged. “Ma quy.”

Skinner’s eyes narrowed. “So you know him.”

“No, no,” Harrell shook his head. “He is ma quy. A demon.”

Underwood, Oklahoma

Brianne Reynolds inspected the plastic case proffered by the unnaturally calm

teenager. ” ‘Million-Dollar Babies.’ Where’d you get this, Lucas?”

Lucas’ acne’ed expression was inscrutable. “Right over there, in the— ” He glanced

sideways at the racks of videos. “In the drama part. You know, it’s that Clint

Eastwood thing with the chick fighter. One of my teachers said it was real good. You

know.”

His voice cracked on the last phrase, and the health/video provider nodded. “I

thought it was ‘Million Dollar Baby,’ singular.”

The boy swallowed, and looked behind him for support. Seeing the cop and her

diminutive, kinda butch-but-hot-looking little friend, he swallowed again and turned

back to Reynolds with a green smile.

“Tell you what, Lucas,” Reynolds smiled back. “Let’s just check, make sure there

aren’t any scratches on the disk.”

Lucas turned a paler shade of gray, then broke. “You know what? I think I left my

money in my other jeans. I’ll come back later. You want me to put it back?”

“I know where it goes,” Reynolds said calmly. “Thanks, though, Lucas.”

The teen nearly collided with Lindsay, and the door swung open and slammed,

allowing a nanosecond of the street festivities into the shop.

Reynolds smirked at her visitors. “Folks are out partying in the streets, and he and

his buds break out the porn. Do for you, Lindsay?”

“Brianne, Agent Scully and I are looking into Mrs. Timms’ murder. Heard you used to

take care of her.”

The nurse frowned. “Wow, about a year ago, after she broke her ulna. Worst couple

of weeks of my life.”

“Ms. Timms was difficult?” Scully asked, leaning on the counter.

Reynolds shook her head as she pulled a stack of DVDs from the shelf behind her,

under the eye of a maniacally grinning Tom Cruise. “Allergies. Was like a rainforest

in that house of hers’. Folks thought I had pinkeye for about a month afterward. No,

Lenore was a joy – very cooperative, a little forgetful.”

“Alzheimer’s?” Scully’s brow arched. “I had an aunt with Alzheimer’s. Horrible. Some

might say death would be preferable.”

Reynolds turned with a faintly distasteful expression. “She was a little forgetful. She

was 85 – a very lively 85.”

Scully whistled exaggeratedly. “One foot on the banana peel,”

“Excuse me?” Reynolds sputtered. “Lenore Timms was a lovely and vital lady,

probably as healthy as you, Agent.” She exhaled, then extended a DVD toward

Officer Uhler. “Lindsay, your Jackie Chan came in.”

“Ooo, excellent,” Lindsay cooed.

**

“Well, she didn’t seem like a Kevorkian,” Scully admitted, licking a stray dribble of

cinnamon pecan ice cream from the cone Lindsay had foisted on her.

“I don’t see it,” Officer Uhler agreed distractedly, balancing her triple dip. “You still

want to check on Jack Ninness? Heard he’s working the Jaycees ring toss.”

Encourage initiative, Scully had learned at a recent Bureau team-building workshop.

“Lead on.”

Dr. Ninness was a trim thirtysomething with thinning red hair. As the agent and the

cop approached, the physician was shoving a plastic bottle toward a large woman.

“I’m fine, really,” the woman protested.

“Do you know how many people have handled these rings?” Ninness persisted,

waggling the Purel dispenser. “Jaycees have been running this booth for 20 years.

At, say, 200 customers a night, three nights a year, that’s 12,000 of your fellow

townfolk and tourists who’ve shared bacterial pathogens with you. C’mon, take a

squirt.”

The woman backed away. “I said NO!”

“Scoliosis, too,” the doctor sighed as he watched his contaminated customer retreat.

“Officer, you and your friend want to try your luck? Free blood pressure check with

10 tosses.”

“No thank–” Scully began.

“Hell, yes,” Officer Uhler breathed, grabbing the compromised rings. “Doc, you know

about these murders in town, right?”

Ninness nodded. “Who’s doing the post-mortem on the Resnick boy?”

Scully blinked. “How did you know about that?”

“Chief’s son worked the last shift, said it was the same guy responsible for the mayor

and those others. Biggest stir in the tri-county area since last May’s meteor shower.

You must be the FBI agent.”

“Yes,” she replied weakly as Lindsay took aim. The red plastic ring hula’ed solidly

around the neck of a wood block wearing a digital watch.

“I assume you’ll find damage to the sino-atrial node,” Ninness suggested.

That was supposed to be sealed information, but Scully had learned Underwood

valued open communications above all us.

“Yeah, buddy,” Lindsay whooped as a second ring snagged a plastic frog.

“That’d seem to indicate someone with not only a detailed knowledge of human

anatomy – which I assume is why you’re talking to me — but also an almost

supernatural sense of aim,” the doctor continued. “That’s an awfully small target,

buried under skin, bone, and connective tissue.”

The word “supernatural” sent a sense of frisson through Scully. “You don’t honestly

believe that, do you?”

“I said, ‘almost supernatural.’ But it is strange, isn’t it. You’re quite a shot, too,

Officer Uhler. You’ve got four more rings.”

This was careening wildly out of control. Scully decided on a blunt approach. “Since

we’re being so candid, Doctor, can I ask your feelings on euthanasia?”

“Saves public health care dollars, but it wreaks havoc on physician billables. Wow,

good shot, Officer.” Ninness deposited Lindsay’s winnings and the Purel on the

scabbed counter before her.

Officer Uhler scrubbed and rolled up her sleeve. “OK, Doc, bring on the cuff.”

Presidential Wash-a-Teria

“Bigfoot.”

“Alive. The militias drove him into British Columbia.”

“Nessie.”

“Dead. Everything since 1970 has been the Chamber of Commerce.”

“El Chupacabra.”

“Please,” Roy snorted, scoring another hit from the Thai coffee he’d scored from The

King of Siam next door. The same family owned the Presidential Wash-a-Teria, but

seemed to be perpetually absent from its premises.

“No,” Mulder protested, raising his right hand in a Scout’s pledge. “I met him once.

Them. They’re probably in Southern Mexico, unless the lettuce crop came in and the

Minutemen got sloppy.”

“Uh huh,” Mulder’s cryptozoological soulmate grinned lopsidedly.

Roy hadn’t known who belonged to the Joe Boxers and tees now spinning in the

washer beside his. The hulking young man resembled Penn Gillette gone to seed, if

that were possible. He’d spotted Mulder’s reading matter, and the two had struck up

a lively round of “Alive/Dead/Bullshit?”

“So what do you do, Fox?” Roy said. “Cool name, by the way.”

Mulder glanced at his own wash – a white cotton maelstrom ready for the rinse, then

turned to his new friend. “I’m a profiler with the FBI.”

Roy averted a Thai spit-take as he scanned Mulder’s Cartman T-shirt and safari

shorts. “Yeah, right, dude.”

“Hey, I almost caught Buffalo Bill,” Mulder sputtered. Actually, Agent Starling had

pegged him immediately as a flake on the make and nodded tolerantly and looking

for the Quantico cafeteria exit as he offered a profile that turned out to be astonishly

on the mark. Mulder had never questioned the young agent’s ethics – he was almost

positive she hadn’t heard a word he was saying after he’d suggested they catch a

Tobe Hooper film festival.

“’Spose you bagged Hannibal the Cannibal, too,” Roy murmured, going along with

the non-existent game.

“He’s probably back in Rio.”

“You’re good. Bet your lady loves rapping about coelacanths and John Wayne Gacy.”

“She tolerates it,” Mulder sighed. “What do you do?”

Roy shrugged. “Waiting for my Lotto ticket to hit, man. Just mainly horsing around.

Used to work at some posh joint in Virginia, but I didn’t like the way they operated.”

He slam-dunked his empty cup into the trash. “Shit. Let me get this shit in the dryer,

and I’ll be back.”

As faux-Penn transferred his sopping khakis, Mulder eyed the door. As he turned to

his returning friend, it banged open and a lanky, buxom brunette entered, wrestling

a pair of plastic baskets. Her jersey running shorts advertised Georgetown University

in rolling text.

clip_image010

“You need some help?” Mulder and Roy volunteered simultaneously. Arching an

eyebrow, she moved briskly past to the far bank of machines. Roy settled in next to

the agent, and they watched as their new associate unloaded.

“I see Paris, I see France…” Mulder sang under his breath.

“I see pajamas with footies, about 10 sizes too small,” Roy said glumly.

“Shit,” they sighed in unison as Mulder’s cell phone sounded.

Underwood, Oklahoma

“I feel like Eddie Albert, Mulder,” Scully murmured into her cell phone as she gazed

at her newly delivered white wine. It was fizzing, which seemed unusual.

“A pop culture reference,” Mulder gasped. “I have taught you well, my undersized

grasshopper. What’s up in Hooterville, Scully?”

“Four homicides, one fresh. Four medically improbable murders, one in a locked

apartment. Crazed environmentalists, germophobic doctors, a police force with some

real confidentiality issues.” She lifted her glass to her nose. The bouquet was strong,

too strong. “On the brighter side, I’ve struck up quite a rapport with the young

policewoman they assigned to me. She seems eager to learn.”

“Youch. They gave you a rookie on a serial murder case? Wow, FBI clout in action.”

“There’s a festival going on,” Scully protested, turning from a pair of young tank-

topped men who were toasting her with their Coors. “The chief is short-handed.”

“Yeah, that’s it. Any suspects?”

“That’s why I interrupted you while you were getting your spin on. I need to tap your

profiling expertise. You free to talk?”

“Just me and Roy and a ton of wet permanent press, right, Roy?”

“Yo, Scully!” a disembodied voice called out. Scully sighed.

“All right. Four victims – three men, two women. The only common factor seems to

be that all four victims were impaired at the time of their death – by age, by physical

disability, by weight, by alcohol.”

“Like a lion culling the weak gazelles from the herd. Maybe a Darwinian motivation –

survival of the fittest. Or a thrill killer who knows his or her limitations. Maybe a

beginner, testing the waters before moving on to more challenging prey.”

“The latest victim was drunk but otherwise young and able-bodied.”

Mulder was silent for a second. “You said the murders were medically impossible.”

“Improbable. The killer somehow stabbed each victim precisely in the sino-atrial

node.”

“Literally turning off their light switch. It would have killed them instantly. The bodies

were unmolested?”

“No sign of mutilation or post-mortem abuse.”

“That doesn’t sound like a thrill killer. Efficient, instant, dispassionate. More like

some kind of bizarre series of mob executions or revenge killings. Sounds almost like

an X-File. Maybe the killer can ‘read’ cardiac electrical activity, sense where the sino-

atrial node is. Any other anomalies in the case?”

Scully sipped her “wine,” wincing. “They had a meteor shower last spring. Should I

look for little gray tourists?”

“Rowr. So why don’t Roy and I toss it around for a while, fluff out some Hanes, and

get back to you?”

“Happy birthday, Mulder. Hopefully, I can deliver your gift tomorrow night.”

“’Night, Oli-vah.”

“Hey there, Red.” Scully looked up to see a mullet with a grinning man attached. He

nodded toward the phone in her hand. “Asshole stand you up?”

The agent looked up blandly. “Asshole’s tae kwan do class ran late.”

The yellow grin didn’t fade. “Hey, I know a little a’ that shit. Broke some asshole’s

collarbone one time.” His skinny chest puffed under his stained wife beater.

“That’s sweet. Look, I just came in here to enjoy a nice glass of wine with my friend,

OK?” Scully demonstrated with a casual sip, her face puckering in response to the

wine’s delicate kerosene finish.

“Well, hey, my buddy Rick over there’s between chicks…”

“Last one’s still up at the state women’s correctional facility, isn’t she, Randy?”

Randy winced, then turned slowly to Lindsay Uhler. The cop had metamorphasized

into a sort of Viking cowgirl in painted jeans, a torso-molding tee, and lizard boots.

“Well, hey there, Linz,” Scully’s erstwhile suitor stammered. “Just keepin’ the

assholes away from your friend here.”

Lindsay beamed prettily. “Well, I appreciate that, Randy. You give your mom my

best, now, hear?”

“Er, yeah, you bet.” He turned to Scully with a weak grimace. “Ma’am.”

“Randy.”

Lindsay dropped into the chair opposite Scully. “Jeez, I hope that was all right. I just

figured maybe you didn’t want Randy hitting on you. I hope that wasn’t out of line.”

Scully laughed. “Ah, no. If you hadn’t come along, I’d have bought him a glass of

this. If that didn’t kill him, my .38’s in the purse.”

Lindsay nodded sympathetically. “Larry doesn’t serve up too much wine. Here,

lemme get you a Stagecoach.” She craned around. “Hey, Larry – rustle Agent Scully

up a Stagecoach. And a Virgin Long Island Iced Tea.” Officer Uhler settled back in

her chair, crossing her boots. “Saw you were on the phone when I came in. Your

partner?”

“He’s the profiler. I thought maybe he could shed a little light on the case.”

“Why didn’t he come out here with you?” Lindsay inquired.

Scully paused. “Mulder’s on a sort of leave of absence. He had a run-in with some,

uh, rough characters recently, and he needs a little time to, I don’t know, recharge, I

guess.”

“You two are pretty close, aren’t you?” Lindsay asked softly as the bartender placed

two tall red beverages before them. “You really care about him, don’t you?” She

studied Scully’s face. “Oh, shit. Sorry. I got a tendency to pry.”

Scully struggled for a smile. “It’s all right. It’s a good trait in an investigator. I guess

it must seem inappropriate–.”

“Oh, no,” Lindsay hastened. “I mean, when I was a dispatcher, I had a little thing

with Darrell, you know, that deputy was checking out your butt back at the station?

That was probably where our relationship went wrong, when I think about it. So, you

guys getting married any time soon?”

“Ah,” Scully responded, reaching for her drink. “Whoo. That is…potent. Look, is there

any word on Shari Ketner’s alibi?”

“Ran down Ginny Hollowell – you know, the slut that did half the football team? She

says Shari was with her, and Ginny’s boyfriend backs them up. So you think maybe

Trey had something going on the side, and gave Girlfriend Two a key, and maybe

Girlfriend Two found out about Ginny, and stabbed Trey. Except everybody knows

about Ginny, unless Girlfriend Two’s been ready to blow for a while. Well, and why

would Girlfriend Two kill the mayor and Lenore and Mr. Morehouse?”

Scully took another sip. Suddenly, she was growing immune to Lindsay. “Plus,

Resnick would hardly seem to be a candidate for euthanasia, unless the killer has

broadened his or her scope to a Darwinian level.”

Officer Uhler smiled tolerantly as she pulled at her ice tea.

“So, what did they have in common?” Scully pondered. “It’s hard to picture the

mayor – or certainly Timms — and Resnick traveling in the same circles.”

“It’s a small town, but yeah, can’t say I ever remember Boyd hanging out with the

gang at Mickey D’s,” Lindsay acknowledged.

Scully leaned back and was instantly engulfed in fleshy leaves and petals. She freed

herself and studied the plant ensconced in the corner of the bar. “What is this thing.

I’ve never seen anything like it. Is it local?”

Lindsay shrugged. “You remember Maddy? The lady was going to call the federal

government on all of us? That’s that plant she’s all worked up over. Nobody in town

knows what it is – just popped up this summer. My guess is, somebody was moving

cross-country and their plant dropped out the window and took root. There’s a whole

field of ‘em on the west side of town, nowhere else. Well, not nowhere else – Lenore

had a bunch of ‘em, and you saw the one at Trey’s place.”

Scully bolted upright before Lindsay could complete her sentence. The effort dizzied

her, but she forged on. “Do you remember if the mayor or Morehouse had any of

these plants?”

“Hold on.” Officer Uhler burrowed in the Wykotah Library tote bag that substituted

for her purse. She emerged with a stack of photos, and spread the crime scene shots

on the graffiti-ed table. “Oh my God – you’re right. See, right by Mr. Morehouse’s

recliner. And in the pot by the mayor’s hot tub, where he got stabbed. Holy crap.”

“Holy crap,” Scully concurred.

Washington, D.C.

“It started happening after I dried out, got my shit back together.” Ted laughed as

he surveyed his thread-bare apartment. A mismatched Goodwill living room set and

a 13-inch TV collected dust beneath a network of water stains and cracks. “Well, as

much as I could get it together.

“The first time, I saw him out the window, down on the street. My first thought was,

jeez, old guy, you don’t wanna be roaming around Southeast this time of night. Then

I realized who it was – Quan. You remember Quan, right?”

Skinner sat up, unkinking a spring in the once-maroon couch. “The old man. The

Shaman.”

Quan hadn’t been a spiritual healer in the Native American sense, but he had been

something of the village doctor, applying herbal remedies and odd ministrations with

a more than a respectable recovery rate. The old man had seemed amused by the

corpsman’s comparatively cutting edge medical technology, and the corpsman came

to marvel at the old man’s skill and rapport with his patients.

Quan was among the civilian casualties in the Cong attack that had set Ted Harrell

on the path to self-destruction and offered Skinner a glimpse into the unknown.

“What did he want?” Skinner asked. Ten years ago, he’d have immediately written

Ted off as a psych case.

Harrell leaned back in his puke-green armchair, calloused hands clasped on his

thighs. “Well, at first, he just kinda hung around – I’d see him on the street, at work,

at the VA, when I’d get my free check, you know. I knew it couldn’t be him – shit,

Walt, even if he had survived, he’d of had to have been about 90 back in ’72. But the

way he looked at me – he knew me, had to. But every time I’d try to catch him, ask

what the hell he wanted, he’d just like disappear into the crowd, around a corner like

tonight. Then one night, I wake up – I sleep there, on the couch — and shit, he’s

sitting right here, in this chair.” Ted wrung his hands, grinning anxiously. “I just

about crapped myself. Then I knew, he just wasn’t real. I asked him who he was,

and he told me ‘Ma quy.’ Then he was gone. But he kept showing up – sometimes

he’d asked me if I’d ever thought about the villagers, about my time there, in

country. Tonight, he told me what he wanted. Everything I had.”

Harrell barked and thumped his temple with a knuckle. “Fucking crazy, right, Walt?

Except you saw him, right?”

“I saw him,” Skinner reassured the ex-Marine. He considered Ted’s lined, worried

expression. “Ted, I never told you about when I nearly died there in the jungle. Hell,

when I died.”

Then it all came out. How he’d felt the bullets spiral inside him, ripping into muscles

and tissues, then nothing. How the next thing he’d seen was his own lifeless,

bleeding body twisted in the dirt below, the North Vietnamese soldiers stripping him

of his uniform and personal belongings, of the corpsman franticly trying to summon

life back into the shell of meat and bone that had been Walter Skinner. And

succeeding…

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“Jesus,” Ted breathed as Skinner fell back, drained, silent.

“I never looked beyond that experience, never tried to find any meaning or hope in

it,” the director finally murmured. Skinner looked up. “But I’ve come to realize there

are things in this universe we can’t account for through science or logic. So, no, Ted,

I don’t think you’re ‘fucking crazy.’ I’m going to call a man I know – he has a grasp

for the kind of things you’ve been experiencing.”

Ted nodded eagerly, as if Skinner were holding out a lifeline. “Hey, you want

something to drink? You suddenly don’t look so hot.”

“Just water.”

“You betcha. I’m gonna fix some coffee, just the same. Just sit back, Walt, relax.”

The recounting of his afterlife experience had both exhausted and somehow

exhilarated Skinner. Over the last 10 years, he’d crossed the line with increasing

frequency – hell, he’d crossed the lines off the map. That he could justify each step

further into the murky no man’s land made little difference – Skinner’s life had been

one of order and reason. Vietnam had been nightmarishly simple: Life-and-death

dependence on a small group of men, yes-or-no survival decisions, a black-and-

white mission to stay alive – to keep breathing.

Skinner had always wondered if after the stark simplicity of war, guys like Ted were

simply unable to return to the complexity of an existence where breathing was only

the beginning. Understanding that breathing might only be one step in a far more

mysterious plan – perhaps that had helped Skinner survive.

Ted’s home was a Kafkaesque study in minimalism: A chair, a couch, a tin TV tray

that doubled as an end table, a half-dozen channels, and Mr. Coffee for company in

the absence of Jack Daniels. The TV tray held a half-tray of generic Oreos and a

cheap wood frame no doubt purchased with the couch and armchair. Skinner tilted

the frame toward him. A photo of a young blonde in a high-school mortarboard and

gown and a taller, older woman, beaming and hugging the girl to her. Ted’s wife and

daughter Stacy. A gift from the ex, during a moment of sentimentality? A harsh

reminder to Ted of what he’d abandoned, what he’d missed?

Skinner’s fingers froze. The girl was familiar, and not because she shared Ted’s eyes

and jawline. Then he remembered where he’d seen her.

He rose, abruptly. “Ted?”

Harrell appeared in the kitchen doorway, a jar of instant crystals in his hand.

“Gonna take a rain check on the water,” Skinner announced, heading for the door.

“Hang in, OK – I’ll call my, ah, my friend.”

Presidential Wash-a-Teria

“Ed Gein.”

“Visionary. Boy loved his mother.”

“Aileen Wuornos.”

“Missionary.”

“Son of Sam.”

“Hedonistic.”

They’d run through Fake/Natural, Guilty/Not Guilty, and Good Cruise/Crazy Cruise,

and had arrived at Serial Killer Typology.

“Really?” Roy queried. “Not Visionary? You don’t think the dog made him do it?”

Mulder tipped his plastic chair back against the folding table. “Berkowitz later

claimed Rich Girl — you know, the Hall and Oates tune? – motivated him, even

though the first four shootings occurred before the song was even released. I think

Harvey the German shepherd was a convenient scapedog – Berkowitz just got a

blast out of blasting those couples. C’mon.”

“The Centaur.”

Mulder smiled. “That’s an interesting one. He or she’s kind of tough to get a handle

on. Eleven victims, both sexes, eight WASPs, one Asian-American, two African-

Americans. No attempt at robbery. I think we can dismiss Gain as the motivation

right off the bat. Could be Hedonistic, but I don’t think so. The murders were quick –

no torture, no sexual element, just a quick slash to the jugular. That narrows it down

to Visionary or Missionary.

“Now, the odds are against Visionary. In most cases, the voice in the killer’s head

belongs to a good defense attorney. Gein and Herbert Mullin – the guy who thought

he could stop earthquakes with a baseball bat — were exceptions. And Mullin

experimented with hallucinogens. I’m going to go with Missionary.”

“So what’s the mission?” Roy asked. “You said it – he’s an equal-opportunity killer.

No regard to race, creed, or sex, dude. What’s the mission?”

“Well, up until a day ago, I had a guess. Income-wise, the first 10 victims were in

the high five figures to the low sixes. Mostly professional people, college-educated,

most either fashionably liberal or prosperously conservative. Which eliminated a

political motive. But the victims were all relatively affluent. Maybe class hatred was

the motive? Some minimum wage earner sick of taking crap from yuppies? A

socialistic statement about the decadent upperclass.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Roy nodded eagerly as an obese woman filled the doorway, a pair of

toddlers in tow.

The first 10 victims were scattered throughout D.C., Virginia, and Maryland and a

variety of professions and social milieus. They’d checked for any common delivery

services, dry cleaners, favorite restaurants – any potential source of disgruntlement

– and come up empty. That didn’t eliminate the possibility that the killer was

randomly selecting targets for his or her social vendetta, but the Centaur appeared

to know their routines, appeared to have identified them for a specific reason.

“But then there was Anton Lee Anderson,” Mulder added, aloud.

“Yeah,” Roy acknowledged, nodding soberly.

Anton Lee Anderson was a former runner with the Simple City Crew’s Avenue faction

in Southeast in the early ‘90s. After a series of juvie busts, Anderson ran afoul of one

of the Circle faction’s chief lieutenants and took a drive-by bullet in the femur. His

family sought sanctuary for him with Project Outreach, a youth counseling and

training center in the ‘hood, and Anton wound up at city college, working toward an

associates’ in computer programming. Old gang associations short-circuited those

plans, and Anderson had been working night crew with a downtown custodial service

for the previous 10 years.

Until he didn’t report nearly a week ago. Despite his youthful transgressions,

Anderson had a spotless work attendance record, and his absence sparked

immediate concerns. The worst was confirmed when the former banger’s body was

discovered in a thicket about 30 miles north of Georgetown. The slashed throat, the

rural setting were unsettlingly familiar to the Maryland State Police and the FBI.

“He mighta been a good Centaur, your theory’s correct,” Roy suggested. “Cleaning

up after executives every night, then going home to Southeast. Living in a shithole of

gangs and drugs. And you know he would’ve loved fucking around with the cops.”

“Except he wasn’t the Centaur – he was the victim, and a problematic victim.

Suddenly, the Centaur’s Missionary motive seems to fly out the window. And the first

victim from inside the city proper. The others were pretty much scattered outside

metro D.C., which suggests the Centaur might be based inside metro D.C. and is

trying to throw us. If that’s true, then the implication’s disturbing. The Centaur’s

hunting on his home turf, which, with the fact that the killings have been coming

more frequently, indicates he’s stepping things up, losing control.”

“Maybe he was, you know, a witness, an innocent bystander,” Roy conjectured.

“I doubt it – why the execution-style murder, like the others? No, I think somehow,

Anderson was part of the pattern. If the Centaur’s based in town, maybe he went

hunting for his other victims. But what if Anton Lee stumbled into the Centaur’s

orbit. What if he fit the Centaur’s mission, but he was merely a victim of

convenience?”

Roy leaned back, eyes searching the yellowed acoustical tile for answers. A shrill

warble and an insistent buzz simultaneously broke the silence, and both men

jumped.

“Mine,” Mulder breathed, going for his cell phone.

“Dryer,” Roy announced.

“Mulder,” the agent grunted as his friend began to empty the dryer beside the

mysterious unclaimed load.

**

“The ethnic Vietnamese claim Lac Long Quan as the father of the Vietnamese

people,” Mulder began. “Lac Long Quan means King Dragon of the Land of Lac, and

he was the son of King Duong, the first king of the country then called Xich Quy, or

Red Devil.

“Lac Long Quan’s wife, Au Co, a fairy princess, gave birth to a sac containing 100

eggs from which 100 males were born. One day, Lac Long Quan told Au Co: ‘I am

descended from dragons, you from fairies. We are as incompatible as water is with

fire. So we cannot continue in harmony.’ So they parted. The man went to the coast

with 50 of their children, while his wife went to the mountains with the other half.

The eldest son, who followed his mother, later installed himself as Vietnam’s first

monarch, King Hung.”

“Agent Mulder, that’s fascinating,” Skinner replied as a horn sounded in the

background. Someone — a cabbie, Mulder presumed — cursed in some Middle

Eastern language. “But I’d prefer a little less theory and a little more applied

knowledge. What do you know about Southeast Asian demons?”

“I’m just setting up a context. The Vietnamese people are steeped in myth and folk

legend, and like any over-colonized culture, they became insular, protective of their

secrets. As the French, the Communists, the Americans came through, they held

tight to their culture as a shield, and, they hoped, their ultimate salvation. Excuse

me. Hey, Roy, you need some help there? OK, lemme know. Sorry.”

Skinner took no offense to Mulder’s characterization of the U.S. forces. Skinner had

believed in what he’d done, tried to do, for his villagers and those like them, but

even he shared some serious reservations about the U.S. mission in Vietnam. “So

you think what Ted’s been experiencing is real? I mean unreal?”

“Is this old man Quan a supernatural manifestation? I think probably so. Is he an

avenging demon, seeking reparations for his people from a man who from what

you’ve said was a benefactor rather than an invader. No, I don’t think so.”

Mulder heard brakes squeal on the other end. “What do you mean, Agent?” the

director asked.

“Look, you said your buddy at the VA pulled up Harrell’s file for you. What’d it say?”

“That after his return, Ted couldn’t hold a job, experienced some severe substance

abuse problems. The VA psychologist called him passive-aggressive — he had low

self-esteem, masking resentment for the military, the VA, friends who avoided him

once he came back, his wife.”

“He erases both himself and others,” Mulder considered. “Thing is, it doesn’t make a

whole lot of sense. Why does this ma quy, this demon, suddenly appear to Harrell,

nearly 35 years after the fact? Long time for revenge to get cold. I have a thought,

but let me mull on it a while.”

“Fine — I’m going to talk to the daughter, anyway.” Skinner paused. “Agent Mulder?”

“Yeah?”

“How are you doing? Everything going all right? Maybe you’ve thought a little more

about the Bureau counseling…”

“Hey, no more speaking in tongues, and the hearing’s 100 percent. I’m even doing

my own delicates, and I couldn’t even do that before.”

“Good night, Agent Mulder. Thanks.”

Underwood, Okla.

Madeleine Ryland’s ranch home was located on the fringe of town, beyond the last

convenient mart and drive-through. On the roof of the home showed – the rest was

obscured by a jungle of prairie plants, flowers, and particularly noxious-looking

weeds. They parked in a scrubby clearing, and Scully could see lights on in the

ramshackle detached garage. The house itself was silent and dark.

The windows in the garage bay door had been painted black. Despite her lingering

buzz, Scully felt an instinctive tension, and she drew her sidearm. She glanced at

Lindsay, whose weapon was already out.

“Smell that?” Officer Uhler whispered. Scully’s nostril’s flared, and she flashed on a

raid on a militia compound roughly a year before. “Been a lot of anhydrous ammonia

thefts in the area last few months.”

“That door’s probably deadbolted,” Scully suggested. “You think you can take it down

at the hinges?”

Lindsay grinned. “Unlike Randy, I paid attention during tae kwon do class.” She lifted

a lizardskin boot and kicked it sharply between the rusty hinges of the garage door.

The panel splintered as the bolt tore from the other side of the frame. Lindsay

knocked it aside, and Scully followed, weapon extended.

Ryland had reached the shotgun on the workbench groaning with household

cleaners, empty cold medicine bottles, and glass jugs filled, Scully was certain, with

liquid nitrogen fertilizer.

“Drop it, Maddy, or I drop you!” Lindsay bellowed. Scully almost jumped, and Ryland

tossed the gun to the cracked concrete floor.

“You scared the living shit out of me,” Maddy whimpered apologetically. “You just

scared me is all.”

Lindsay pulled out her cuffs. “Meth, Maddy? That shit will kill you.”

“Oh, God, I don’t use. I mean, it’s all chemicals. Every cent I make goes to Friends

of the Earth and Greenpeace.”

“Well, that’s real generous and all, but I’m going to have to take you in, anyway. We

also want to talk to you about the mayor and Lenore and the rest.”

“Poachers,” Maddy muttered. “They shoulda respected nature. It wouldn’t have

happened if they’d just respected nature.”

Scully glanced sharply at Lindsay, who shook her head slowly and nudged the

environmentalist toward what had been the door.

clip_image014

Capitol Chophouse

The manager’s eyes grew wary as Skinner stepped into the restaurant’s foyer. He

looked behind the director, then relaxed and stepped forward.

“Yes, sir, what can we do for you?” the harried manager smiled with forced

congeniality. His jaw dropped as Skinner flashed his ID.

“The gentleman I was with tonight–”

The manager sighed. “Yeah, I’m sorry about that. I don’t know what he told you, but

it wasn’t what it looked like. We give a ton of leftover crap to the local missions

every week.”

“That’s commendable,” Skinner responded. “He’s been bothering one of your

employees, hasn’t he?”

The manager hesitated, unsure where this was leading, and to whom. “Yeah, yeah.

He’s Stacy’s dad. You know, the girl that brought your drink. That’s why she asked

Ryan to take your table — Ted, I think his name is, has been coming around a lot,

too much. Last week, I told him he didn’t stop showing up, I’d have to can his girl. I

wouldn’t, of course — she’s one of my best with these congressional assholes and

tourists.”

“What’s he want?”

“No money, if that’s what you mean. Naw, my guess is absolution. I’m Catholic, so I

can get it like going through a drive-up window. Little harder for Stacy’s dad — he

dumped her when she was like two or three, her and her mom. And Stacy had, what

do you call it, a congenital heart problem. Bad ticker. That made it worse, even if

Vietnam had fucked the guy up.” The manager stopped abruptly, seeing something

in Skinner’s eyes, his demeanor. “Sorry — that’s how you knew him, right?”

Skinner smiled reassurance.

“Well, look, I feel for the guy if he wants to make things right with his kid. But he’s

got to stop bugging her on the job and otherwise. Him and his little friend.”

“Little friend.” Something buzzed in Skinner’s brain.

“Yeah, the old guy. The Asian. I don’t mean anything racist or anything, but he’s real

spooky.”

**

Stacy Harrell backed against the break room table as if she were cornered. Her eyes

darted toward the corridor between the dining room and the bar. “So what, now he

sends the FBI?”

“I’m here as an old friend. That means I want to protect Ted, even from himself, if

necessary. I understand he’s been bothering you.”

She laughed. “Yeah, it’s a bit of a bother. Whining about blood ties, family,

repentance. He said it was time for me to let go. Me. After he ditched me and mom

when I was just a baby. Look, I know about all this post-traumatic stress shit, but I

was a baby, a baby with a bad heart. He’s asking too much. Too much. And he’s

going to get me fired. You try to get that through his head.”

“Hey, Stace.” Skinner turned to see the tall young Samaritan who’d slipped Ted the

high-priced Care package. “Well, hey. You leave something?”

“No, everything’s fine,” Skinner said.

The boy knocked on the doorjamb. “Great. Stace, tell Gary I still feel like shit. Dinner

crowd’s thinning out anyway.”

“Sure,” Stacy nodded. “Take care, Ryan.”

“I will,” he said seriously, and Skinner caught a relationship vibe.

“What about the other man?” Skinner asked, and Stacy blinked. “The old man, the

Vietnamese man. Your manager, Gary, I assume, said some old man’s been

bothering you, as well? Is he a friend of your dad’s?”

She stared at him for a second, and her face drained of blood. Then she composed

herself. “Gary’s mixed up. That’s just some homeless guy from the neighborhood.”

Stacy Harrell smiled nervously. “Coincidence’s a bitch, huh?”

Presidential Wash-a-Teria

“That’s it for me, dude,” Roy proclaimed, hefting his Hefty bag. “Hope you get your

guy. You wanna let me know, I’m here every Friday night. Party central. Hey, you

got a blog?”

“Naw,” Mulder shook his head, pulling his own wet slacks from the washer.

“You need a blog, man. Seriously. Later.”

“Later.”

The door jingled loudly back into place, and Mulder was left with Hot Mama and 15

pounds of soggy cotton and polyester. He lugged his wardrobe to one of the dryers

Roy had vacated, plugged in a fistful of quarters, and cranked the knob. Plastic

buttons clicked against the metal drum as Mulder checked out the selection in the

long-neglected vending machine. Half the chip coils were empty, and the packs that

remained had been bleached by the sub. Mulder’d seen human remains that looked

juicier than the Slims Jims.

He selected two and launched into an essay on giant African rodents.

“Hey.”

Mulder looked up, forcing a chunk of meat stick down his esophagus as Hot Mama

leaned on the folding table. “Ah, hey.”

“Look, I didn’t mean to eavesdrop,” she continued. “But you gotta admit, it was

some pretty weird shit.”

She was probably late twenty-something, wearing a bargain name brand of jeans, a

worn tee Mulder recognized as Army issue. He’d guessed single mom at first – no

men’s clothes, the infant wear. But then he spotted both the stylish office wear,

slightly larger than the monogrammed coffeehouse polos and aprons.

“What’s your major?”

Hot Mama smile was tight and dry. “Very good. Commercial art.”

“When’d you get home?”

“Geez, who are you, the Stupendous Yappi? Oh, the shirt. Pulled a tour in Baghdad

right after the shit began – Sam shipped me back in one piece about five months

ago. So now I’m living with my sister and her kid and schlepping coffee near the

Smithsonian so I can afford canvas and horsehair brushes. I actually got some stuff

into a gallery on Pennsylvania — heart of darkness-type shit. Small talk over? Cause

I’m serious. Look, how do you know all this serial killer shit?”

Mulder hooked an arm over the back of his chair. “Chicks dig the behavioral

sciences, am I right?”

“Yeah, I’m about to wet myself. Actually, it makes you sound a little spooky — you

might think about dropping it from your bar banter. Look, I’m serious. What are you,

a cop?”

Mulder flashed his ID. “Why you want to know?”

Mama planted her firm rump on the folding table. Mulder silently cleared his throat.

“Because,” she said. “Cause I think I saw your Centaur victim the night he got killed.

Here.”

Underwood, Oklahoma

Scully flipped her phone shut and settled back into the booth. The bar crowd was

building as Lemon Shake-Ups gave way to Wild Turkey. “Told Mulder I’d grab the

first flight out of Oklahoma City tomorrow morning. I’m sure your prosecutor will be

able to connect Ryland to the murders. You handled yourself pretty well back there,

Officer.”

“Shoot,” Lindsay murmured. “Dad was Air Force for 20 years. Taught me how to

shoot a gun when I was seven.”

“I was a Navy brat,” Scully said.

“Wow, that is just…”

“Incredible?” Scully lifted her Stagecoach.

“He must be real proud of you.”

“Dad passed on years ago.” Eyes thoughtful, Scully took a deep pull on her drink.

“As for being proud, well, that’s a jury that’ll never come in.”

“Oh, he just must’ve been,” Lindsay persisted. “Just look at you. An FBI agent and

everything. Protecting your country, putting the bad guys away, you and your

partner.”

Scully chuckled. “Sometimes lately, Officer Lindsay, er, Officer Uhler, uh, Lindsay,

sometimes lately I don’t know if I know who we’re protecting. And the bad guys just

seem to keep coming. Coming and coming and coming and… Crap, what were we

talking about?”

“I’m not real sure. You just might want to go a little easy on that Stagecoach, Agent,

OK?”

Scully grinned and toasted the cop. “That’s OK. You’re my desi-, desinated driver.”

Lindsay nodded. “Know what? I think maybe I oughtta drive you over to my house,

let you grab a little shut-eye. Been a pretty stressful night for both of us, and I still

got a little paperwork to clear up at the office.”

“Oh, shit. It’s the shank of the, you know. Hey, let’s find Rick ‘n Randy – I wanna

show ‘em my gun. Maybe they’ll show us theirs’.”

“Yup,” Lindsay confirmed. “I think maybe a little shut-eye’d be just what Dr. Ninness

ordered.”

Washington, D.C.

Something was wrong. Skinner knew it as soon as his knuckles hit the door. Chaos

set up a vibration – Skinner had learned to sense it. The air in the hallway

reverberated with dust and residual nicotine and violence.

He knocked twice more. No response. Skinner knew better than to break or slip the

lock, but if he was right, and he hoped he wasn’t, it wouldn’t be necessary.

Skinner was right. The door swung open as he grasped the knob, and Ted appeared.

The ex-Marine was sprawled across the couch, on his back, his eyes wide and

unseeing. His chest was a bloody mess. A quick scan of the food-stained carpet

yielded the weapon – a generic kitchen knife, probably from a dollar store. The

handle was still smooth, new.

Ted’s wallet was on the floor, stripped of what at most could have been a few bucks.

The vibe here was theatrical, and cheaply so. Premeditated murder by an amateur –

bought the murder weapon for the occasion, set up a clumsily fake robbery.

Skinner stepped into the hall and broke out his cell phone. He punched a pre-

programmed number, fed the dispatcher the pertinent data, and sat down on the

stairs to wait for the DCPD.

Ted had been a trusting man – despite the inherent dangers of D.C., he’d probably

welcomed his killer into his home. At least his demons had been put to rest – the

guilt, the self-loathing, the alienation. Skinner was gratified he’d been able to give

Ted one last good Friday night, happy Ted had been able to see the humane side of

the world he’d long forsaken. The old Marine and his wife at the chophouse, the

kindness of the young waiter.

Skinner’s eyes narrowed, and he crossed back to Ted’s door. Despite his training, he

pushed it open and moved past the body on the couch to the kitchen.

The Presidential Wash-a-Teria

“Anton, right? Yeah, I had to go shopping with my sister last Friday, so I got here

maybe 11 or so. He was doing a couple of loads, doing some business on his cell

phone, jammin’ with Jay-zee on the I-Pod. He was wearing his uniform, I guess –

polo shirt, Anton stitched over the pocket. Guy was a janitor, right?”

“Mm. We found powdered detergent in his shoes. No washer in his apartment

building, so we figured he went to the laundromat right off shift at the Monument

Insurance Building. This is the closest laundry, ergo…”

“Ergo,” Mama mused. “And it just happens to be your laundromat, too. Happy

coincidence.”

Mulder shrugged. “For shizzle. So Anton’s got his washing on, and…”

“He sees something he likes. He starts pouring on the charm, offering to help me

fluff and fold – and, no, that’s not code language. He wasn’t too bad, despite the

aging gangsta act, kinda sweet in a burnt-out way, but I’d heard him yelling about

having to watch the kid, I assume with his old lady. So I kissed him off nicely and

put everything on a short cycle.”

“Anybody else hanging around?”

“Just me and Anton. A night to remember.”

“Mm. You know any regulars here named Jim?”

She shook her head. “Why?”

Mulder held up a finger and retrieved his laundry bag. He pulled out a soggy sports

shirt. The name Jim was embroidered on the left breast.

“What? You steal the guy’s laundry?”

“After Anton Lee’s murder, I started re-evaluating everything. The first victim in a

series of serial killings usually offers the murderer’s motive, but the anomalous

murder – the one that doesn’t fit – is the one that usually solves the case. All we’d

had up to this point was a group of seemingly unrelated victims and some equine

trace evidence.”

“Equine? Like horses?”

“Why we call him – or her – The Centaur. The mythological half-man, half-horse. We

found some equine hairs at a few of the early scenes – the killer got more careful as

the murders continued. Well, as I looked at Anton Lee’s routine over the week prior

to his death for any nexus between himself and the killer, I came across something a

little unusual. Anton tended to keep pretty much to work and his neighborhood, but

the Wednesday before he died, he took his five-year-old son, Tyrees, to the

Smithsonian’s National Zoo. See, the zoo’s had its troubles in recent years – several

animal deaths linked to negligence and mismanagement — so as a public relations

gesture, it’s been giving special memberships to underprivileged local kids and their

parents. Admissions free, but membership lets the kids go places and do things the

general public can’t.

“Anton’s been on a redemption kick, his ex says, and he’d been trying to step up as

a dad. It was a longshot, but it was something. Several of the victims had kids, and

a statistically high number were divorced. Zoo’s a great place for divorced dads –

lots of distractions, the excitement wears the rugrats down pretty quickly, and it’s a

lot more fun than listening to a hundred brats screaming around Chuck E. Cheese.

As it turned out, several of the Centaur’s victims had zoo memberships, and some of

the others had visited the National shortly before they were killed.

“Then it occurred to me to re-test the hairs we found at those first murder scenes. I

came up cherries. You ever heard of Przewalski’s horse?”

“Not if it hasn’t come up at the OTB.”

“Przewalski’s horse once roamed the steppes of Mongolia and Northern China,”

Mulder elaborated. “Now, it’s extinct in the wild. But there are nine mares and seven

stallions at the National Zoo. And here’s a fun zoo fact: Przewalski’s horses have 66

chromosomes, two more than domestic horses.”

“Wow,” Mama murmured, not without a trace of interest. “Lemme guess.”

Mulder smiled self-deprecatingly. “Hey, you have any idea how many stables, polo

clubs, and breeding farms there are in Maryland and Virginia? We checked every

one. But once the zoo connection popped up, we ran a more sensitive DNA screen.

Sixty-six chromosomes.”

“That shirt. It’s from the zoo, isn’t it?”

Mulder turned the garment around with a flourish. Four red-brown streaks striped

the shirt’s tail. “Official staff uniform. That’s why the Centaur couldn’t simply dispose

of the shirt. He didn’t want to have to answer any questions from his bosses that

potentially could come back to us.”

Hot Mama crossed her arms. “Should you really be telling me all this shit?”

“Aa, I’m off duty,” Mulder dismissed. “Besides, I think we’re close to a break in the

case.”

“Mm. So I guess the question is, why are you telling me all this shit? I assume you

didn’t think it would get me all hot, as intriguing as it is.”

“Why do you think?”

Mama raised an eyebrow. She turned, retrieved her laundry bag, and reached inside.

Mulder blinked as the weapon came up. It was heavy, black, military-issue.

“It was me checking your ass when you came in, wasn’t it?” Mulder asked. “I like a

girl with some junk in the trunk, so sue me.”

Mama smirked. “Nooo, I think you’re telling me to watch my own ass, right? Maybe

do my laundry at the joint down the street?” She lowered the gun. “Just wanted you

to know my ass is in good hands. If I can handle insurgents in Iraq, I think I can

manage one homicidal zoo geek.”

Mulder shrugged.

“Sara, by the way,” she supplied as she bagged her pistol. Sara hefted her bag over

her bare shoulder. “You’re kind of geeky, too, and more than a little creepy. But

you’re also kind of sexy, in a young William Hurt kind of way. You got somebody?”

The agent sighed. “Yup. And she’s armed, too.”

Sara nodded. “Oh well. Lemme know if you need to debrief me.”

She was out the door before Mulder could muster his comeback. A large hanging fern

blocked his view as Sara retreated into the night.

Mulder nonetheless continued to stare. Finally, he fumbled for his phone.

Underwood, Oklahoma

Lindsay Uhler settled in contentedly as the Folger’s started burbling in the station

pot. Agent Scully was safely tucked in on her couch, the chief had grunted

congratulations – or indigestion – as he headed home for the evening, and she’d

helped snag both the local meth dealer and a killer – and a world-class pain-in-the-

keister, at that.

Her reverie ended abruptly as her purse began warbling. Agent Scully’s cell phone –

she’d taken it with her so her new gal friend could grab a few in peace. Lindsay

wondered if all feds had so much trouble handling their liquor.

Lindsay opened the phone and bit her inner lip as she pondered the cryptically

labeled, glowing buttons. Finally, she pressed the green one and press the phone to

her cheek.

“Hello?”

“Scully?”

“You Agent Mulder?”

“Uh, yeah…”

“Wow.”

“Ah, is Agent Scully around?”

“Oh. I’m sorry. Uh, no – she’s indisposed.”

“Indi–? Never mind. Who’s this?”

“Officer Lindsay Uhler, sir. Underwood Police Department. It’s nice to meet you –

well, talk to you anyway. Agent Scully’s said a lot of really great things about you,

well, I mean…”

“Officer?” Mulder sounded amused.

“Oh. I’m sorry. I’m just babbling. Can I help you, Agent?”

“Yeah. I was thinking about your case – your murders?”

“Yeah, Ginny’s clammed up, says she wants a public defender – well, the public

defender, really. So she isn’t saying anything. But I think we got her pretty good.”

“Great, great. Only thing is…”

“Agent Mulder?”

“Well, I was thinking about what your suspect said when you two arrested her – that

the murders resulted from the victims tampering with nature?”

“Yep. That pretty much tied it up, you know?”

“Yeaahh. Of course, that could be open to interpretation. I mean, it’s reasonable to

assume that Ms. Ryland was saying she killed those people because they tampered

with nature. But what if that wasn’t what she meant?”

“Agent Mulder, I’m afraid I’m not keeping up with you…”

“Let me put it another way. Did Ms. Ryland have a key to your last victim’s

apartment?”

“Well, we’re not done with her place yet, but so far, no.”

“OK. Well, just suppose for a second Ms. Ryland didn’t kill those people. Why would

she just ‘clam up’ and let you charge her with serial murder? Maybe to protect the

real killer?”

“The real killer? Agent Mulder—”

“Look, you had a meteor shower in your area last spring, right? I was thinking about

your killer’s profile – a passive predator, opportunistic, picks victims unable to react

or fight back – and it struck a chord. Have you ever heard any theories about how

the bays of North Carolina were formed? Officer Uhler?”

“I’m sorry. North Carolina?”

“One theory is that a meteor hit Earth 30,000 to 100,000 years ago, breaking into

pieces that skipped across the surface, creating depressions that eventually became

those bays.”

“Okaaay…”

“Well, it’s one of several competing theories, but some scientists believe it’s backed

up by the region’s anomalous flora.”

“Uh, Agent Mulder. You’re getting a little too deep for me. Maybe I could have Agent

Scully call you when she gets up.”

Mulder chuckled. “Just tell her what I told you and ask her to take a good look at all

the crime scene photos. Look, my guy’s coming back – I gotta run. I’m sure I’m way

off the mark, and even if I’m right, the killer’s not going anywhere. Ciao.”

“Bye, now,” Lindsay sang, brain still buzzing. After puzzling out how to deactivate

Scully’s phone, she poured a cup of sinisterly opaque coffee from a scaled Mr. Coffee

carafe and settled in behind the chief’s desk. Lindsay tapped in the chief’s password

– “HOTGUNZ – and Pam Anderson disappeared from his PC screen (none of the town

board had ever been on this side of his desk).

Lindsay took a tentative sip of her acrid elixir and began to Google.

**

“Hey, sleepyhead,” Mulder grinned, sipping his coffee and dropping the Post’s A

Section onto the table. “I’m starving.”

Scully padded into the kitchen. “You’re always starving. Hold your horses.” She

gathered her robe, opened the oven, and extracted a large roasting pan. “Mom

called last night.”

“Who?”

“Mom.”

“She’s dead. Duh.” Mulder murmured. Scully heard the newspaper rustle as she

carried the pan into the dining room.

“No, Mom. My mom.”

Mulder looked up. “Who? Wow, hey, those look great.”

“I hope you like them,” Scully sighed, setting the pan on the table. The top file slid,

and Mulder rescued it. He eyed the stack of Bureau-stamped folders hungrily. “You

going to grab something on the way to the office?”

“Ah,” Scully gasped, her eyes flying open, her mouth cotton padding. The light was

blinding. A shadow moved before her.

“Don’t move, Agent Scully.” Lindsay Uhler’s voice was tense, cold. As Scully’s eyes

adjusted, they widened. The agent’s lips moved silently as she stared up at the odd

weapon the policewoman was wielding above her.

“Lindsay,” Scully rasped.

“It wasn’t Ginny,” Lindsay murmured. “Your partner figured it all out. Please – don’t

try to get up. Just don’t breathe. And close your eyes.”

Her own weapon was in her purse, her purse god knows where. Scully considered

what her next move might be, and then she heard it. A whispered rustling behind

her. A new shadow crossed her face.

Scully’s eye darted up. A scream worked up from her diaphragm, lodging in her

throat. The tentacle – no, tendril – undulated above her, like a cobra. Two fleshy

“petals” parted, and the tendril reared back.

Suddenly, a wet, bitter spray hit Scully, and her eyes clamped shut. “Die, you

polinatin’ son-of-a-bitch!” Lindsay yelled over a series of inhuman, agonized shrieks.

A volley of shots rang out, and Scully tensed against the cushions.

Then, the world ended. Or it seemed to. Then Scully felt a hand on her arm. “It’s all

right, honey,” Lindsay whispered. “I mean Agent Scully. C’mon, we got to wash you

off.”

Scully opened her eyes. Officer Uhler stood, her “weapon” hanging at her side. Her

fingers were tight around an industrial spray nozzle. Scully traced the hose from her

hand to the canister at Lindsay’s feet, then glanced sharply at the floor beside the

couch, where a mass of shredded vegetation twitched. Lying among the compost

was a long, woody tendril that terminated in a leathery, razor-sharp appendage.

Scully looked again at the canister, made out the word “herbicide.”

“Never was much good at biology, so I didn’t take any chances.” Lindsay grinned

lopsidedly, toeing the herbicide label. “Broad spectrum.”

Washington, D.C.

“Hey, long time no see,” Ryan Morehaus yawned as he opened the apartment door.

The waiter was in a rumpled tee and sweat bottoms.

“You feeling better?” Skinner inquired.

“Ah, yeah, a little. Thought I’d hit it in a few. Can I do something for you?”

Skinner displayed his ID.

“Whoa, man,” Ryan breathed. “What do the feds want with me. Or Stacy, for that

matter?”

“You knew her father?”

“The bum? Hey, sorry, I guess he’s your buddy, right?”

“I understand he may have been harassing your friend. He and another man.”

Ryan stared at Skinner for a second. “Yeah. The guy thought he could just drop into

Stacy’s life, make everything right after, what, 30 years?”

“You and Stacy are good friends? She’s an attractive woman.”

Ryan was silent. Skinner moved past him into the apartment. “Once I realized you

had a thing for her, I began to wonder why you’d be so generous with a man who’d

been making your girlfriend’s life miserable. That special doggie bag you gave him? I

was with him all the way back to his place, saw him put it away. Oh, did I tell you

Ted was murdered tonight?”

Ryan’s eyes went wide. “Jesus.”

Skinner smiled grimly. “You must have freaked out when you found out an FBI agent

was at the restaurant, had had dinner with Stacy’s father. You had to get that bag

back – that’s why you cut out so quickly. Stacy has a bad heart condition. Does she

take digitalis, something like that? The food in that doggie bag was laced with it,

wasn’t it? When Ted was found dead of heart failure in that grimy dump of his, no

one would have gone to too much trouble to investigate.”

Ryan laughed incredulously. “You’re fucking crazy.”

“Yeah. By the way, Ryan, you lost something.” Skinner’s clenched fingers opened,

and he tossed a small, rectangular object at the waiter.

Ryan’s forehead creased as he caught the object and stared down at it. His eyes

popped as he read the name on the badge. His name. He glanced quickly at his

crumpled uniform on the couch, then slumped against the back of its accompanying

chair.

“She asked you to do it, didn’t she?” Skinner asked gently. “Stacy gave you that bag

for her dad, probably didn’t even tell you she’d spiked it. Then she had second

thoughts. She asked you to retrieve it. What, did you and Ted get into it?” Then the

director frowned. “Or had Ted already eaten those rolls? It seemed like a lot of

violence for you.”

“It was a stupid idea,” Ryan said suddenly. “Stacy’s been going crazy with this shit,

and I just wanted to help her. Then I realized the heart medicine could be traced to

her if somebody actually cared. But it…it was too late by the time I got there. So I

thought I could, you know, cover it up, make it looked like a stabbing.”

“They would have figured out he’d been stabbed after he was dead,” Skinner

murmured. “She played you, Ryan.”

The boy’s head came up fast. His eyes were red and wet and defiant. “No. It was my

idea. Just mine. I stole her medicine. She didn’t know. The guy was a monster — he

sent that thing, whatever it was, to get even for her not forgiving him.” Ryan shook

his head. “I just can’t believe I could fuck up…” He looked down at the badge in his

hand, then at Skinner, and moved to the dining room table. Skinner’s hand moved

toward the shoulder holster under his jacket.

Ryan untangled his white uniform shirt from the pile on the table. A black plastic

badge hung from the left breast. The badge blank was standard issue; Skinner had

only needed a label gun. “You fucker,” Ryan whispered, not looking up.

“Ryan,” Skinner cautioned.

But Ryan sank into a chair, burying his face in his fingers. Skinner got out of the

room as quickly as possible as the D.C. cops in the hallway came to claim the

sobbing boy.

The Presidential Wash-a-Teria

From his inky post across and down the street, James L. Wiest watched Mulder toss

his duffel bag over his shoulder and step from the hot white light of the laundromat

into the dim orange wash of the streetlights. He started to leave the boutique

doorway, then ducked back as Mulder stopped and turned into the King of Siam.

“Fuck,” Wiest muttered, rushing obliquely across the deserted street. He slipped into

the Wash-a-Teria, praying his new friend hadn’t forgotten anything.

The shirts were a damp, wrinkled mess, but he could put an iron to them later.

Besides, he was growing weary of the daily shit at the zoo. Maybe it was time to

pick up stakes, head out west, and resume his work in a less populous setting, where

his abilities would be appreciated.

Wiest froze. It was gone. His heart pounded. They were onto him. How? It had been

stupid to keep it, but it would have raised too many questions at the zoo if he’d

requisitioned another one. Wiest had no idea if the detergent would have

contaminated Anderson’s blood, his DNA.

DNA. Wiest tossed the shirts aside and dumped the nearby wastebasket onto the

filthy linoleum. Gone as well.

Wiest stumbled against the folding table. Then he rushed for the door.

**

“Yo, Roy,” Mulder smiled, toasting with his foam cup. He shoved the opposite chair

out with his sneaker. “Java jive got to you again?”

James Leroy Wiest’s eyes were dark and intent, his nostrils flaring. The King of Siam

was empty save a counter girl scanning People and two cooks embroiled in a heated

exchange in Thai.

“Give it up,” Wiest whispered hoarsely. “The shirt and the cup.”

“Let me buy you another Thai coffee, Roy,” Mulder invited. “We’ll talk.”

Wiest’s palm came down hard on the formica, rattling the chili and soy sauces. The

hostess/waitress looked up from Brad and Angelina, shrugged, and returned to her

magazine. “I’m not fucking around, man. You really an FBI agent, or just some Gacy

groupie? ‘Cause you don’t want to screw around with me.”

Mulder pulled his wallet from his jeans and flipped it opened. Wiest gaped at the

Bureau ID and collapsed into the proffered chair. “Oh, shit. This was a fucking setup,

wasn’t it? Your buddies waiting in the back to jump my ass?”

“No setup, Roy. I’m not even on the job right now. Had some laundry to do, and I

thought I might as well do a little research while I was at it. Once I’d narrowed the

search down to the National Zoo, you stood out. A veterinary assistant with the

Przewalski’s horse exhibit who, as it turned out, was a former horse breeder at a

stable in Virginia. And a juvenile abuse victim who was shuffled to three different

foster families before finding yourself in the company of beasts. That’s when it hit

me. The motive. Your motive.”

Wiest was now silent, his chest rising and falling.

“The victims. You studied them when they brought their kids to the zoo. Inattentive,

permissive, overindulgent, emotionally abusive, verbally bullying. You evaluated

them, like prospective thoroughbreds. And decided to thin the herd of those you

deemed unfit to be parents.

“But it didn’t stop there, did it, Roy? Victims eight and 10 were single, childless.

What were they, poor breeding stock? Typical Missionary – the boundaries of your

‘mission’ were expanding. Then came Victim 11. What was his story?”

Wiest stared at Mulder, then looked down at the placemat before him. “It was

Friday; I was doing a couple of loads. He was on his cell phone a couple of washers

away, talking to his girlfriend, wife, I have no idea. It was clear she needed him to

watch their child, but it was just a nuisance to him. He started cussing, yelling how

he didn’t even know for sure it was his kid. He had to hang with his ‘boys.’ Jesus. I

just, I don’t know…”

“Roy,” Mulder murmured, leaning forward. “Who’s next? Me? You see me as Dad of

the Year?”

The killer blinked. “You? No offense, man, but look at you. Friday night, you’re off

the clock, and where are you? Some cheesy-ass laundromat, yakking it up with a

serial killer – excuse me, an alleged serial killer. You’re obsessed with Bigfoot and

Ted Bundy and the Loch Ness Monster. Jesus, Fox, at least I’m honest about myself.

Your girlfriend – the one on the phone – she doesn’t have a chance. You’ll never

follow through. You, with a wife and kids? Why bother killing you?”

Mulder’s fingers tightened around his cup. They loosened, and he smiled uncertainly.

“How about because I could put you away for the next 700 years?”

Roy nodded sadly. “Yeah.” His hand came out of his jacket pocket with a serrated

hunting knife. “Sorry, man.”

clip_image016

“You going to do it right here? Then what, Roy? The waitress, the guys in the back?

Some night owl customer looking for some pad thai? That part of the Mission?”

“That’s why we’re leaving,” Roy said steadily. “You’re not going to let me kill a bunch

of civilians. Let’s go.”

The killer gasped as Mulder’s cell broke the tension. “That’s them, Roy. I had a

feeling you’d show up. It’s Friday night, Roy. Let’s all make it to Saturday morning,

OK?”

Roy’s eyes popped as the phone bleated persistently. Mulder reached for his jeans,

and the veterinarian lunged across the table. The agent’s left hand snagged the chili

sauce, and he shot a stream of the fiery condiment into Roy’s face. The knife flashed

as Wiest howled, and Mulder felt a searing metallic pain as it bit into his forearm.

The half-blinded killer lashed out again, and Mulder caught his wrist. The table and

its occupants crashed to the tiles, spreading a puddle of mingled chili and soy sauce,

cold coffee, and blood.

“Hey, you guys cut that shit out!” Mulder heard an outraged feminine voice shrill. He

shoved a hand into Roy’s face as the blade quivered an inch above his left eye. The

knife descended a centimeter at a time, and Mulder braced his right foot. His bent

leg pistoned up, and Roy cried out. Mulder yanked the hunting knife free and planted

his knee on Roy’s chest and the blade under the stunned killer’s chin.

“What kind of freaking cow shit is this?” The tiny hostess demanded above them, a

.38 in her delicate hands. The men goggled up at her.

“Min,” Roy croaked as he flopped under the agent’s weight. “This psycho’s trying to

kill me. He says I stole his girlfriend.”

“That’s bloody likely,” Mulder panted.

“Get the knife, Min,” Roy begged. “He’s gonna cut my throat. He’s fucking crazy.”

Min pulled back the hammer. “Agent Mulder not crazy. Good customer – come every

Saturday night, do his washing, eat lots of ginger beef and shumai. Take care of

giant mutant rat in kitchen without telling health inspector. You just buy coffee –

every Friday, nothing but coffee all the time. Sucky tipper, too. You shut up, do what

Agent Mulder tell you.”

“Call 911, Min,” Mulder ordered. He winced as he fished a pair of cuffs from his now-

bloodied windbreaker and rolled Roy onto his belly. His cell phone erupted again,

agitating a pool of coconut-laced coffee. Mulder clicked the cuffs into place and

recovered his phone.

“Mulder? I just tried to call you. You done with the laundry?”

“Yeah. Officer Uhler give you my message?”

“Yup. You were right, as usual, Mulder. We got our man – our plant, that is.”

“Hey, great. Say, Scully, I’m kind of in the middle of something. Gimme a half-hour

or so, tell me all about it.”

“Muld–?” Scully’s voice piped as her partner ended the call.

Mulder shook his head as he looked down at the serial killer. “Stole MY girlfriend, eh?

What do you think I am, some loser who hangs out in a cheesy-ass laundromat on a

Friday night?”

Underwood, Oklahoma

Scully slid into the booth across from Officer Uhler, who was halfway through a plate

of fried eggs, bacon, and biscuits and gravy. The Outdoorsman was half-full of bone-

weary Kiwanians, public employees, and carnies – the moonlit town beyond the café

was littered with half-deconstructed kiosks, corndog sticks, and balled popcorn bags.

Another Wykotah Days had passed into history.

“EPA and Fish and Wildlife are sending in crews to eradicate the rest of those plants,”

the agent reported. “I can only hope no tourists took any souvenirs out of the area.

That was quick thinking, Lindsay. Thank you seems woefully inadequate…”

“Aw,” Lindsay grinned, a scrap of egg leaking from the corner of her lip. “Your

partner worked it out. He told me all that stuff about North Carolina and meteors and

anonymous flora. And he said we ought to look at all the crime scene photos. So I

just googled up ‘North Carolina’ and ‘meteors’ and ‘plants’ together, and I found out

some folks think those insect-eating venus flytraps and sundews and the like that

grow there came from the same meteors that made those lakes in North Carolina.

Sort of like volunteer corn that gets into soybeans through deer crap, except this

came from outer space. I figure those dinky meat-eating plants were like the great-

great-great-great-grandfolks of that thing almost shishkabobbed you. Your partner

was right – there was a plant next to where we found each of the victims.”

“It preyed on old, infirmed, incapacitated victims,” Scully explained. “A single strike

to the sino-atrial node to kill its prey. Just as deep-sea predators developed

camouflage and other devices to trap their food, those plants must have developed a

heightened sense of its prey’s life functions and how to shut them down. In their

home environment, they must be able to consume and digest their prey at their

leisure. That’s why none of your victims showed signs of molestation or mutilation.

Ms. Ryland was willing to let us believe she was responsible for the murders because

she knew that if those plants were determined to present a public threat, we’d

probably eradicate them. She may be a drug dealer, but she’s also a diehard

environmentalist.”

“Wow.” Lindsay bit into a fatty strip of bacon. “After I put it all together, I

remembered I had one of those things right next to the couch where you, uh,

bunked in. I ran down to Buck’s Tru-Valu Hardware and grabbed the most powerful

herbicide they had, then high-tailed it to my place.”

“Wow,” Scully smiled. She opened the purse beside her. “Lindsay, there’s something

I want you to have. My partner, Mulder, gave this to me years ago.” Scully located a

metal trinket, which she placed next to Officer Uhler’s plate. “It’s an Apollo 11

keychain. Mulder reminded me that there are extraordinary men and women and

extraordinary moments when history leaps forward on the backs of these individuals,

and that there’s no substitute for hard work and perseverance. And teamwork. No

one gets there alone. That’s what this keychain represents. You had my back

tonight, Lindsay – you exhibited hard work and perseverance and, perhaps most

importantly, imagination. I can’t think of anyone who deserves to have this more.”

Officer Uhler set her fork down and stared at the keychain. Finally, she reached out,

stroking the fob’s engraved surface. She glanced up with a shy smile.

“You know, Agent Scully, I told you my daddy was in the Air Force?” the cop said

quietly. “He flew with a few of the guys you were talking about that went off into

space. He might even have met some of the guys who went up on this mission right

here. Guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m real honored you’d want to pass this on to

me.”

Lindsay pushed the keychain back across the table with an apologetic smile. “But I

got like five of these things already.”

“Ah,” Scully nodded.

The Capitol Chophouse

The vibe at the restaurant was unmistakable. The night owl diners on the patio

rubbernecked at the ambulance and squad cars, washed in red and blue light. Gary

was in the foyer, face white and stricken.

“One of the chefs found her in the john,” the manager informed Skinner dully. “She

was just sitting there on the toilet, eyes wide open. She looked like she’d seen the

fucking devil himself. Jesus, what’ll I tell her dad now?”

Skinner said nothing. After a beat, Gary glanced up warily.

“What?” Skinner asked quietly.

“Beth, the girl who found her, she said she saw some old guy hanging around in the

hall right before she found Stacy. An old Asian guy. Shit, you don’t think…?”

“I don’t know,” Skinner said simply. In his dying moments, had passive-aggressive

Ted projected his combined guilt and retribution on the daughter who’d refused to

forgive him, in the form of the old villager he felt he’d been unable to protect?

Skinner left the manager in contemplation. He wanted to be anywhere else — maybe

his office, maybe the Wall, to revisit the ghosts of men and women who’d never

returned to the world.

As the sole-surviving conspirator, Ryan Morehaus would go down for Ted’s murder.

Stacy Harrell would go down as a natural death, possibly as a victim of karma. This

wasn’t his jurisdiction.

None of it.

The Presidential Wash-a-Teria

Midnight

“Jesus, Mulder.”

Mulder looked up as the paramedic checked the dressing on his arm. “Geez, he hit a

major artery, didn’t he? And God’s an anal-retentive bureaucrat with really, really

nifty Italian wingtips.”

Special Agent Brad Vollmer inspected the laundromat disdainfully, searching for a

sanitary place to lean. He settled for standing stiffly in his crisp tux. “I thought you

were on disability leave. That man killed nearly a dozen people. What did you think

you were doing?”

“Catching him?”

“I was at a reception at the British Embassy. With a junior State Department analyst.

A very hot junior State Department analyst.”

“You should’ve said something. We coulda hung out.”

Vollmer sighed and turned to the EMT. “He going to be all right?”

“Just a flesh wound, Mr. Bond,” the paramedic smirked, packing his equipment. “You

just keep it clean and protected, my man, OK?”

“Always do,” Mulder responded, bumping knuckles with the tech. The paramedic

hoisted his kit and disappeared into the night. Vollmer sighed.

“We’ve been chasing this guy for the past year-and-a-half, god-knows-how-many

man-hours, and you snag him while you’re doing your fine delicates, on sick leave at

that,” Vollmer grinned sourly. “The gods really must be on your side.”

“You have no idea,” Mulder grunted, wobbling to his feet. “I’ll come in tomorrow,

clean up the paperwork.” He saluted the dapper agent.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Vollmer demanded.

“Hey,” Mulder grinned, “it’s Friday night.”

*end

14×01

1

Friday by Martin Ross

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