(A reference is made in this story to the VS12 episode, Remnant.)
AUTHOR: Windsinger (AKA Sue Esty)
RATING: Nothing for anyone over 1013 to really worry about.
CATEGORY: Casefile, Mulder Angst. Written for Virtual Season 14 – initial posting 3/2/2007
DISCLAIMER: Thank you Chris. Nope, not getting paid for this; never has, never will. Now where’s that second movie? No copyright infringe-ment intended.
ARCHIVE: Two weeks exclu-sive for VS14 and then any-where.
SUMMARY: The near drowning of a woman by an elephant take our intrepid agents to Florida to investigate a series of possible hate crimes.
The black nalgene raft spun and twisted as it dived through the surging white water. The pale rock cliffs of the canyon towered above, their edges softened by a riot of vegetation that sprouted from every crack and crevice. A black bird with a startlingly red curved beak sailed out over the white water nearly brushing the heads of the occupants of the raft. Not that any of the eight had time to notice however. Their attention was riveted on the foaming water as they strained to find the deep, deceptively calm holes in the surface that would herald when the raft was about to take a stomach clenching dip.
The raft swept around a corner in a wave of white spray and eyes left the surface. A sheet of water cascaded from the edge of the cliff thirty feet above. The children shrieked as if by the very volume and pitch of their cries they could witch the raft under the falls. In contrast, most of the adults cowered, tightly clenching belongings as if this secular prayer could prevent the raft from that very thing. Too many years of umbrellas and running from rain drops lay on their shoulders to willingly open themselves to getting soaking wet with all one’s clothes on no matter how hot the day. The adult’s silent incantations must have been louder than the begging of their offspring for only small, outstretched hands broke the film of that silvery sheet as the raft spun past.
Almost immediately the cliff to their left fell away. The raft spun for a moment in relative calm though all knew that the river was only gathering itself for another drop and another series of rapids. On the bank an elephant stood, its trunk swinging as if to ward them away from the several hundred pound youngster at her side. An eddy spun the raft nearer. The mother elephant’s trunk raised and seemed to swell and swell. A jet of water ejected from the appendage directly into the boat. Screams of surprise and delight exploded. Just when the animal’s proboscis could not possibly have held any more, the spray expanded so that the water gushed forth with the force of a flood, a virtual firehouse of water. A small woman, a matron of three, could not even gasp, could barely breathe as the deluge seemed to center on her alone.
The screams of surprise and even joy transformed to those of an entirely different sort.
Georgetown, Washington D.C.
The backyards on the narrow Georgetown street were tiny but secluded. Mature, well placed trees and bushes supported the illusion that each yard could have been lifted from the wilderness if their owners only believed strongly enough.
In one particular back yard, that might actually come true one day if believing in the vastly improbable could actually bring about such a miracle.
Dana Scully was doing her best. Just a minute before she had tilted her head back and closed her eyes all the better to feel the mild spring sun on her face and hear the songs of the first hearty South-returning birds. As was true of most city dwellers she had developed selective hearing and the dull white noise of the Friday afternoon traffic on Wisconsin Ave six blocks away rumbled so far under her radar that the hiss might have been no more than the rush of a swiftly flowing river.
But then she became aware of another sound, the scuff of a step on flagstone.
Still as stone, she opened one eye. The head of the lounge chair was situated so that she saw only the back half of the little yard – and upside down at that. Nothing to be seen. Another scuff and a slight rustle. Why so soft, so stealthily?
In one fluid motion she came upright, had reached for the revolver on the patio table and brought it around to the source of the sound.
A tall, dark figure ducked, swearing.
“Jeeezus! Scully. Did you go over your ration of caffeine today?”
“And what were you doing sneaking up on me like that?”
His lean form unwound itself from behind a defensively inadequate patio chair. “I thought you were asleep. I didn’t want to wake you. You almost blew my head off.”
Coolly, she replaced the firearm onto the table next to its cleaning supplies. “It wasn’t loaded, but I am sorry.”
Fox Mulder, her partner in more ways than one, pulled the chair he had taken refuge behind over to sit beside her. “There’s enough jitters going around for both of us. It’s been a rough few months.”
“Rough few years.”
“That too.” His handsome face brightened, the playfulness of the smile on those lips and in those eyes bringing out more boyish appeal than any man of forty-something had the right to possess. “I’ve got a surprise for you.”
She had learned not to allow herself to be swept away by his charm, at least not unless she was in the mood and then it was oh so easy. At the moment she was up for going either way. “Is this a good surprise?” she asked suspiciously.
“What other kind is there?”
Her narrowed eyes indicated that in her experience most of the surprises from him could not, in the reality of normal people, be considered, ‘good’.
“Well, this one is.” With a flourish he pulled two airline tickets out of the breast pocket of his suit coat.
Her face lit in anticipation. “Where?” she asked, eagerly snatching at the tickets that just as quickly moved out of range.
Not Maui but it would do.
“When? Or Christmas next year?”
His face fell. “Ah, tonight, actually.”
Unbelieving, she looked around the garden. The air was mild. Though only early March the yard was protected from the winter winds and got full sun so the leaves had actually begun to sprout. There was even a bit of color, From where she sat she could see the bed of crocuses her mother had planted, a few valiant daffodils, tiny yellow tips of a emerging forsythia, and the early pink buds of cherry blossoms. March had its ups and downs in D.C. but at the moment, it was a perfect time to be here especially after the horrible February the city had just barely survived. In Florida they would already be sweltering in summer-like heat and humidity which Washingtonians would have to face all too soon.
“Tonight…,” she repeated weakly.
“Yes. Nine o’clock so we’ll need to hurry and pack.” Out of habit he had pulled his own weapon from its holster and was using her supplies to give the deadly instrument a quick oiling.
“For what kind of case?” she asked momentarily mesmerized as his nimble fingers effortlessly moved through this activity he had performed so many times. Was he distracting her on purpose? “Give me a hint.”
“Popular tourist spot,” he said as he reached for the tool to clear the barrel. “Too many accidents though no fatalities yet. The last was close though. A woman nearly drowned. Messages have been left scrawled on walls after each one. They think it’s a hate-crime related, hence, the FBI.” A final wipe with the soft cloth and he was done at least enough for daily maintenance.
“But why us? That’s not what we usually do.”
His eyes dropped. Oh, no, not the look. She couldn’t stay mad at him in his old kicked puppy mode. “I pulled some strings, called in some favors. I’ve done a lot of extra profiling for the Behavioral Sciences boys lately.”
‘Which they repay by sending us to melt in Florida when we finally get some good weather in D.C.? Where were they three weeks ago when we were chopping four inches of rock hard frozen slush out of our parking spots?”
Somehow, he could tell Scully was a might miffed. “I messed up again?”
Sighing, she patted his shoulder then bent and gave him a sweet kiss right on the lips. “You try. That’s always better than not trying.” She looked at her watch. “Okay, but I have so little that’s clean right now that we’ll have to leave right away to give me time to pick up a couple of new outfits – and you’ll have to wait while I try them on.”
“Ouch,” he groaned. Then sensing that he was forgiven, he allowed mischief to creep back into his eyes. “What if we agree to place the price of three new outfits on Madame VISA once we get there? Would that give us time… Because you know that we don’t… while we’re working.”
Those eyes. Her insides quivered. All it took was one look from those eyes and she was ready. Gathering weapon and cleaning supplies in one arm, she took his hand and pulled him to his feet.
Mulder saw this as a good sign. “I can be quick,” he offered.
She began tugging him towards the house. “Let’s not be too quick.”
Wishing the hat would just do its job, Mulder seated the baseball cap more firmly on his head. His eyes still stung from the sweat that dripped down his face. Central Florida would have to be suffering under an early hot spell. Scully glanced at him from under her own black cap and humidity lank hair. The white ‘FBI’ stitched onto both of their hats must shine like beacons.
“Not exactly subtle,” she murmured removing her own to stare at the lettering.
“They don’t mean anything necessarily. They were selling them to tourists on the street in front of the Bureau. Two for five dollars.”
“And how much were the ones for the CIA?”
“Two for ten,” he answered almost apologetically.
She replaced the cap. “I don’t know whether I should feel happy about that or not. Happy that you didn’t pay any more for these or distressed that merchandise for our friends ‘across the river’ can garner a better price than ours.“ She began to cross her arms in a sulk but it was too hot and put her hands on her hips instead and looked down again into the ‘canyon’.
They were standing on an observation platform on the top of a salmon-colored ‘bluff’. Immediately under the metal platform the land dropped abruptly away. Thirty feet below white water raced around a bend in a swift-flowing, narrow ‘river’. Three black rafts each carrying eight people facing each other in groups of two chased each other down this man-made watercourse like huge, black corks. As they watched, an ‘elephant’ standing in a ‘field’ only a little above the level of the churning water raised its trunk to spray each passing raft with the equivalent of no more than three gallons of water. There was some giggling from the passengers but not much more than that. The big falls were behind them and the next set a hundred yards further on. In comparison this light spraying by the animatronic pachyderm was nothing.
As the echoes of “Ahs” and giggling from a newest boatload of patrons reached them, Mulder mused. “Clearly they don’t know about the woman who almost drowned here four days ago.”
A Wild Gardens’ employee had briefed the agents on the ‘accident’ as he had driven them in the nimble, electric cart through the underground service corridors of the Clearwater-based theme park. Scully thought of that now as she followed Mulder’s gaze and also looked down on the peaceful scene below. “That PR man who drove us here tried to tell me that the woman was not seriously injured.”
“She wasn’t breathing when they got to her. I’d say that was serious.” Mulder indicated another ‘blind’ obscured by bushes down near the ‘elephant’s watering hold. “They patrol this attraction pretty carefully because they do get patrons who try to leave their rafts. A park employee was there and responded promptly. All employees are required to know CPR.”
Scully nodded. “I’m glad to hear it or things would have been far different. We’re still left with what caused the ‘attack’. It must have been a mechanical failure, a power surge or kink in the line for the volume of water to increase like that.”
“You would think so, but they weren’t able to find a cause. What’s surprising is that they were also able to keep it out of the national news. Not that they don’t take the incident seriously. Their maintenance people immediately replaced all the critical control parts and sent them to the Bureau for failure analysis.”
Under her breath Scully muttered, “Just so long as I don’t have to autopsy another damn elephant.”
Mulder didn’t smile at the memory but unconsciously rubbed the souvenir scar under his hairline the result of that earlier case.
“What you haven’t told me yet is why they think these ‘accidents’ are related. Accidents will happen, especially in a place like this. All these people, the roller coasters and other attractions all have a level of risk, not to mention the hazards of handling wild animals.” The theme park’s brochure went on and on about their huge collection of exotics animals, but one only needed to pull in a lungful of air to know they were nearby.
“That’s what puts the ‘wild’ in Wild Gardens,” Mulder mused as he pulled a series of six photographs from the case folder he carried. “This is what ties them all together and why the FBI’s here.”
Scully turned the pictures so that the glare from the hazy one hundred plus heat index day was less. After a few moments, brow creased, she turned the pictures over. “It looks like graffiti.” She looked closely at the broad brownish strokes decorating a variety of surfaces – concrete, white stucco, an expanse of reddish terracotta. “It seems to be the same language but I can’t make it out.”
“No one can,” Mulder assured her, “and they’ve been studied by the best we have. One has been found the morning before every incident’. That hardly sounds like a series of unrelated accidents to me.”
“Warnings?” she asked.
“Or threats? Or ultimatums.”
“Are there any originals left?” she asked handing the pictures back.
“Unfortunately not. They were all in public places around the park so the maintenance staff quickly removed them. At least they took photos first.”
At that he took her hand. It was as sweaty as his own. “Come one. Let’s take a walk and visit the scenes of some of the crimes.”
With help from their driver, they were on the tourist side of the park in less than three minutes. Gone were the huge trash bins, barren ground, and stark white cement block buildings. On the staged side of the ‘world’ all was exotic architecture, souvenir and snack shops, and lush landscaping boarding paths crowded with families in shorts and t-shirts and pushing strollers. Scully consulted the colorful park map their previous driver had given them. “According to this, that was the Congo River Rapids,” she announced.
“Talk about your shrinking world,” her companion remarked.
“And this is the Uganda area.” The highly idealized theme ran to picturesque villages that attempted to look as if it had been transported from half a century before as long as one ignored the log flume attraction that soared above the palms and twisted scrub oaks. “The layout is complicated,” she said extending the map to Mulder. “Do you want to take a look or do you know where you’re going?”
He shrugged it off and strode forward in long-legged strides. “Scully, you know about me and maps. I’m fine. Besides the great explorers didn’t need no stinking maps!”
Within five minutes they were completely lost. They had passed into a land with an architecture that tended to run to grass huts and with far more mature vegetation than the area around the ‘Congo River’ which had to be a newer part of the park despite the au naturale look of the buildings.
They paused only to gaze down into a huge, landscaped ‘canyon’, the home of two magnificent white tigers that were cooling off in the sparkling swimming pool clarity of their ‘river’.
Mulder stared. “The books say that cats hate water.”
Scully took his arm and leaned into her own great cat. “Obviously those two haven’t read the books.”
Leaving what was clearly the focal attraction of the area, he pointed over his shoulder to where ski resort gondolas swung gracefully high overhead. “West should be that way,” he said without much conviction.
Scully tapped him on the shoulder. It was still morning and the hazy sun was at his back. “Why don’t you tell me where you want to go? Maybe I can help you find it,” which in Scully speech meant that, of course, she could find it, no problem.
Once they had found the path that cut around the Nairobi Research Station and Scully had had a chance to ooh and ah over all the babies of nearly extinct species in their incubators, they crossed under an arch of vines and over a small bridge. They had finally found ‘Timbuktu’. They didn’t have to go far to find one particular salmon-colored faux-mud, sun-baked wall. Its smooth surface must have made a fine writing surface but the mysterious alphabet had been cleaned and/or newly painted.
“And what accident did this message portend,” Scully asked as she compared one of the photos to the now blank wall.
Without consulting his notes Mulder replied, “A forty-year-old carpenter – patron, not park personnel – slipped on a patch of ice and broke his ankle.”
Scully felt a bead of sweat trickle down her back. “Is there an ice rink nearby? Either that or a pretty impressive cold spell.”
“No on a path about thirty yards from here at high noon about two week ago.” Patiently, Scully waited for the punch line. “A park employee parked one of those concession carts they sell ice cream from directly over a low spot in a path where a six-year-old from Grand Rapids had poured out the ice from her soda. The drainage plug from the ice cream cart had fallen out. The cart, full of dry ice, moved on, voila, icy spot. Hapless tourist comes jogging along ten seconds later and, voila times two, instant law suit.”
“And that’s an example of what’s been going on? That’s just bad luck,” Scully argued. “Or a coincidence.”
Mulder nodded curtly. “If that had been the only incident. There were more. The weld on the step of an aluminum ladder gave way and a worker fell. Sprained his wrist. A child allergic to nuts had a violent allergic reaction but the parents didn’t buy anything that was found through testing to have nuts of any kind in it. One of the big horses they have here stepped on his groom’s foot. Broke three bones. One of the pigmy hawks from their Bird of Africa show attacked the colorful hat of a patron, thought it looked like lunch. The carrousel braked suddenly, separating two children from their mounts. One day, ten unrelated persons came down with food poisoning but no common denominator could be found.”
Scully shuttered. “With your luck, maybe you’d better not eat here.”
“Or climb, or watch a show, ride the Merry-Go-Round or even walk. That’s what the park owners are worried about.”
“And graffiti was found associated with all of these incidents?”
“Nearly every time somewhere in the vicinity.”
“None of this is life-threatening. They are all nuisance events.”
“Until this last one,” he reminded her, “which is why we are here. Specifically why I’m here. They want a profile. What is this person after and how far will he go if he doesn’t get it?”
“But you have your own agenda,” she reasoned. “How are these things orchestrated?”
A half-dozen laughing teenagers clumped by in their inch high flip-flops eating snow cones and funnel cakes. The scent of a charcoal grill and smoking meats waved past. Mulder patted his stomach.
“Maybe we can brain-storm while we eat. I hear there’s really good smoked brisket nearby.”
“After the food poisoning incident!”
“Ten out of a million or so. I think we’re safe but maybe first…”
They had been walking, the scene changing around them to something nearly tropical. Somewhere close the car of a roller coaster roared by. They had passed more than one during their time in the park. The one before them and on which Mulder’s attention was transfixed, was more impressive than most. Huge and tall, sleek girders carved out spirals and loops in the air. The primary ‘hill’ was high, high above them, a literal mountain. So far away was it that it seemed almost too fragile to stand there all alone especially when the passenger ‘car’ came into view. The car was not a long series of two or four-person units but an ungainly shovel-shape, a shovel filled with people strapped in six rows, eight across. As the agents watched, it finished its laborious crawl to the top of the mountain, — and stopped. The front two rows of screaming bodies were pointed straight down the nearly vertical slope. Beside her Mulder watched, fascinated and horrified. After an agonizing wait the shovel inched forward. Not until its balance shifted at the pinnacle did it drop, transforming within seconds into a locomotive-size meteor streaking through space. It swooped down, passed through the faux ruins of a faux fortress, thundered less than twenty feet above their heads, dipped for a moment like a huge water dragon through a pond sending up a gigantic plume of spray and then was gone to loop and twirl impossibly elsewhere.
“Before eating…?” she asked suspiciously, seeing the dread and delight on his face. “You want to ride that thing? You? I took you to your first theme park remember and you got sick on the merry-go-round.”
“We had known each other how long? Less than a year? It was because I went on after I ate. Actually,” had admitted sheepishly, “I’ve been working up to larger and larger coasters.”
He shrugged. “Why do I run, swim, look into the face of everything that terrifies me – so I’ll be ready for the next thing that’s bigger and stronger and faster and more terrifying still.”
In his own way he was serious, of that she had no doubt. He pushed himself, kept himself in shape, not for vanity but for survival. And if the lengths he went to were a little quirky… quirky was one reason she loved him.
She stared upwards as another shovel car came to the brink of the steel mountain and hung. “Ah, would you think me a sissy if I don’t go?”
After seating Scully at an outside table of the Kenya Smokehouse where the coaster’s shovel cars trumpeted across the pond every three minutes, Mulder headed for the loading area for the Great Kazan. Soon he was enveloped in the make-believe hype of danger and adventure. The adrenaline surge kept him moving restlessly on his toes. Was this really the reason he did this? Had he become addicted to the ‘‘high’’ and had their cases been too cerebral of late as this one threatened to be? Time passed. It was a popular ride. Five then six times, the video from the ubiquitous television screens in the waiting area looped through the melodramatic storyline. Some allusion to an African resurrection myth. He entered the final loading area just as the announcer was sonorously ticking off the safety warnings one more time. His eyes sought the special line for those who wanted to sit in the front of the car. For this sort of ride, it was surprisingly short.
The safety harness was as expected for suspended coasters and Mulder was as expectedly freaking out. He had been tied up, handcuffed, locked in tiny rooms too many times to have his freedom restricted even for such a harmless activity. The dreaded shoulder harness came down over his head and across his chest. The seat molded suggestively into his posterior and alarmingly tight up against his family jewels. A padded bar came down across his stomach.
The panic he had to fight down was real. When an attendant, someone tall and thin in khaki shorts, checked that his harness was secure, Mulder barely noticed. He was eternally relieved when the car began to move.
As he had expected, the first few thrilling but half-hearted climbs, dips, swoops and swirls took the worst of the terror of the harness away. He had other things on his mind. Now it was time for the car to climb the mountain. It was preferable not to think of the nearly seven hundred-foot drop on the other side. Better to think about how good the breeze felt on his sweaty skin, of how good the view was from up here as long one didn’t think about how very, very tiny the figures and even the buildings below looked. The <click>, <click> of the safety chain and catch which now pulled the huge shovel car higher but kept it from falling backwards was the only sound as the climb continued. There wasn’t much of the track left to climb. The approach became so steep that it became impossible to turn around to see below except for the parts of the city that were far beyond the park.
At least he was safe; his weight secure against the back of the seat, his bottom firmly in the fiberglass bucket.
They were almost at the top. Most birds did not even fly up this high. Adrenaline pumped. The bump, bump of his heart was threatening to overwhelm the click, click of the chain and catch. Inevitably, the car leveled off. Almost immediately it began to dip in the opposite direction.
Mulder’s center of gravity shifted. In a dizzying blur of blue sky, white cloud and spotted green and brown earth his perspective swung one hundred and eighty degrees.
And it was a long, LONG way down. As expected, the huge car hung in heart pounding stillness, balanced between the ancient energy of gravity before sucking at them all to plunge downward and the incredible mass of the remaining sections of the car holding them back. Being in the front row – how intelligent had THAT been – Mulder was completely exposed. Except for the shoulder harness and the padded bar across his stomach, there was nothing between him and a distressing and messy death among the strollers and snow cones. Between them the ride restraints were now supporting his entire weight. He could be wildly flailing the thin air with unrestricted arms and legs as some of his screaming fellow first-rowers were doing. Mulder choose, however, to maintain a white-knuckled grip on the shoulder harness.
The world spun despite his tightly shut eyes. This was part of the ride; he and Scully had seen it. After a suitable time for terror to build the car would creep forward until gravity overcame mass and then all would come hurtling down…
Time hung in the balance – literally. From below – where he wished he was now – he and Scully had watched the car hang for perhaps five second, no more than ten. Certainly more time had passed than that. Of course, this was one of those Twilight Zone moments when time just ‘streeeetched’ out. He felt a stillness begin to flow slowly into him. He had known those moments – a perp with a weapon, you with a weapon, some innocent bystander in between. Time to move, drop, spin bring your arm up, fire off the shot, save the day. All the time in the world. Sometimes…. Sometimes it went the other way. No time at all. Einstein had been right. Time was relative.
Mulder became aware that peace had not only crept within him, it was around him. The other riders, most of whom had been screaming from the sheer, barbaric joy of the experience, had begun to quiet as each realized what he had begun to. The car wasn’t moving and wasn’t going to.
The quiet that descended over the forty-eight people was surreal. Only the wind could be heard, no mechanical sounds at all.
Finally the bull moose voice of a man maybe two rows back rang out, “Hey! We’re stuck up here!”
In seconds at least twenty voices repeated the call in a kind of ragged unison at first that soon became a riot of shouts. His fellow front-riders did not call out, however, Mulder noted. Theirs was a separate but shared terror that any exertion could upset what now seemed to be an all too delicate web of restraint. The harness and lap bar were all that was keeping them from flying out and down like broken, fallen angels.
“Quiet!” voices began to bark and hiss around him. There was a crackling from a speaker on a tiny platform to his right. That’s right, there would need to be plans for such emergencies. He hoped that the squawking indicated that help was coming but it would be a long climb. An interminable wait.
“Hey, Mister?” asked a tiny, small voice to his right. “Hey, mister…”
Words, language. What a concept where all had been little more than raw emotion for what seemed so long. He also discovered another reason why the front riders were so quiet. Hard to shout when you’ve been holding your breath for nearly two minutes. His came out in the rush and a temporary spike in his panic as the loss of air loosened the harness.
Intent on his own macho agenda, Mulder hadn’t paid much attention to his fellow passengers. Now, by daring to move no more than his eyes, he was able to look cautiously over and down on the top of her dark-haired head. The soft voice belonged to an equally small girl.
“Are you scared, Mister?”
How could she tell? By the bloodless grip he had on the padded part of the harness that crossed his chest? It bore so much of his weight that he literally felt his heart thumping madly against it.
“Y-You’re not?” he asked, furious at the tremor in his voice.
“Well, yes, but you’re suppose to be.”
Her voice was so far down and the range of his vision so limited that he could barely see the curve of her cheek. No tears he noted.
“Don’t they have a minimum height restriction on this ride?” he murmured in a voice steadier though tight from too little air. “What’s your name?” he asked then, struggling for a normal tone.
“Rita,” came the small, fearless voice.
“Where are your parents?” He tried to swivel his eyes to take in more passengers without moving his head but was not successful.
“Oh, I’ve ridden this lots of times.” Then her brave voice dropped a little. “But it’s never done this before. Do you think it’s broke?”
“Y-Yes,” he had to agree, “I think it’s broke.”
“When do you think they’re going to fix it?”
Before these harnesses stress out and everyone in the first two rows plunge to messy deaths, he prayed, but said, “They’ll fix it soon, I’m sure. You’re very calm.”
“Calm is easy,” she snorted. “Fear is hard.”
Mulder was still trying to work out the logic of that odd phrase when the thin, far sound of a gasping voice from somewhere below the car reached him over the whistle of the wind. Murmurs of strained relief from the other passengers rose like a wave behind them.
“See they’re coming,” he assured her gripping his shoulder harness even harder. Scully would give him hell if he should fall out at the last moment. Footsteps pounded in a staggered rhythm on the metal rungs of the emergency stairway that ran beside much of the track. A voice gasped out assurances. It would have been a long, long climb from the bottom.
There followed much fussing about metal that should have released but hadn’t. Another man arrived who must have been older and in considerably poorer shape. The two murmured together but any words were lost in the rising complaints from angry passengers now that help was supposedly near. It was disappointing to see in those who had valiantly suppressed their panic for so long.
Footsteps trotted to the front of the car even descending a few feet over the crest. Their owner could now look up into the strained faces of Mulder and the girl and their fellow passengers in the first row as they hung from their harnesses.
The face was unfamiliar but Mulder found that he recognized the bony, hairy knees below the shorts. It was the ride attendant who had checked his harness before this whole nightmare began. Good thing that he had. If the harness had failed, this nightmare would have been shorter but with a considerably worse outcome.
In an amazingly calm voice, the gangling teenager with acne scars on the sharp planes of his face announced, “We found a problem. A frozen gear. We can release it.” There were moans of dismay. “I know you want nothing more than to be off but, believe me, taking the ride till the end will be faster, not to mention safer, especially for you front riders, than if you were to try to crawl out and walk down. If it were possible, I’d take that empty seat and ride down myself.” It was a LONG way down which, thankfully, the young man did not emphasize further. “There was no time for any other thought then as the young man with ‘Randy’ on his ID pin, said, “Ready?” and the car dropped.
Mulder had been though horrible experiences in this life but the next two minutes ranked up there in the top ten. It would have been a gut wrenching experience at the best of times. With blood pooled in his legs and torso and circulation restricted, Mulder seriously considered death as an option. There was nothing quite like being turned inside out, upside down, whipped and beaten in a blender. At least he’d be ready for the space program if it ever came to that.
The car finally coasted at about 80 miles per hour into the departure area, breaking with a violent jerk.
The loading area they had left forty-five minutes before was empty but the departure zone was a buzz of activity. There must have been two park employees assigned to assist each passenger and assistance they needed just to walk. Mulder’s two young things gushed about him offering a shoulder to lean on, a free night’s lodging in the park’s premium resort to recover, and a free yearly pass. But Mulder ignored all. As he staggered forward, his spinning eyes sought only the crowd of seventy or so friends and relatives who were anxiously gathered outside a roped barricade. There was Scully. She stood on the edge of the crowd, white-faced, clutching a much-mistreated carryout bag of what must have been the much discussed beef brisket. Rushing forward, she clasped him around the waist, affectively relieving him of his official damage control representatives, and led him and his rubbery legs to the nearest exit.
In the first free patch of grass he collapsed onto his knees and retched out everything he had eaten in approximately the last week.
Mulder stayed seated on the grass for some time, though a good dozen feet from where he had messed the well-manicured lawn. Scully wiped his sweaty face with a damp cool towel that had appeared miraculously from somewhere.
“Another accident?” she asked after ‘Are you sure you are all right’ to which he had not answered.
Mulder merely groaned and let his elbows rest on raised knees, limp hand dangling. The area cleared slowly. Two passengers were escorted away in wheelchairs though neither was seriously hurt.
The spin of the world had become a mild rotation when Randy, the long-legged teenager, emerged. He stopped by several of the riders many of which had lingered to get their ‘land’ legs. “You okay?” he asked Mulder crouching down. “You didn’t look so good up there.”
Mulder raised his head without enthusiasm. “Neither did you.” Then Scully saw a little spark of color rise in his gray face. “Thank you for coming so quickly. Respond to many emergencies around here, do you?”
The wary hesitation in Randy’s expression instantly cleared the last of the cobwebs from Mulder’s brain. “You have, haven’t you?”
When the teenager remained silent but gave every indication of getting ready to bolt, Scully smoothly pulled out her wallet and flashed her ID. Her movements had been rapid but not threatening. “Special Agent Dana Scully, FBI. We’re investigating the series of incidents which have occurred in the park. Your management wants to label them hate crimes. My partner,” she inclined her head towards Mulder who swayed only slightly as he got to his feet, “doesn’t think so. I’m waiting for more evidence one way or the other. You do know about the incidents?”
Seeing who they were, Randy had relaxed. Not what one would expect of a guilty man.
“We’ve all been briefed.”
“And the content of that briefing was….?” Scully asked.
“Brief. That there had been a lot of accidents. To keep our eyes open.”
“That would explain your rapid response. So other than today, how many of these accidents have you witnessed yourself?” Mulder asked.
Randy’s mouth opened mutely for a moment before he stammered, “N-None, while they were actually happening. Afterwards? A few.”
“Counting today, that’s a few plus one. It would be helpful if you could be a little more specific.”
Clearly caught and he knew it, the young man launched into his tale as if he had been rehearsing it in his sleep. By his red eyes, perhaps he had been. “There was grease fire a couple of months ago at the smokehouse while I was taking a dinner break. Just flared up, no reason. They put it out pretty quick but that kind of woke me up. I started payin’ attention to the rumors”
“What rumors specifically?” Mulder asked.
“That the park was cursed.” The fact that the boy shivered rather than display the omnipresent teenage shrug spoke louder than his soft voice of how seriously he took the situation. “After that I started noticing things. A worker fell when the leg of a ladder gave way. A dancer in one of the shows got a bad eye infection from makeup she had used a hundred times. A hyena got out one night while they were cleaning his enclosure. They found him out on the Savannah – you know, where the antelope and giraffes and African cattle hang out? He was well fed so he didn’t cause any trouble but it spooked a lot of people because the keeper swore that he chained the gate behind him and our safety record is really good about stuff like that — until recently.”
“Spooked…” Scully repeated with a tiny smile.
Mulder pointedly ignored his partner. “What about the graffiti? Have you seen it?”
The tension in the boy went up several notches. “A few times. I don’t go looking for it though I know cast members who do.”
“But you don’t,” Scully asked. “Why not?”
The boy stared at the ground. “Makes me feel funny. Guess because a couple of times, right after I see it, things happen.”
After that, they asked the boy to show them some of the places where he had seen the ‘scribbling’ as he called it. He was reluctant. He said it was his lunch break. Another flash of Scully’s badge, however, and the offer of Mulder’s beef brisket, which her partner couldn’t look at much less eat, convinced the boy though his feet dragged.
Nothing remained of the scribblings in any of the places where Randy led them during the next hour. In addition to paint on walls, he had seen signs in rapidly drying water on cement, scratches in the mud in heavy traffic areas that could not have lasted five minutes, suggestive marks in spilled ice cream that would have been rapidly cleaned away.
Mulder crouched at the last site while the boy, feeling more comfortable with them, started in on the beef as only teenage boys can. Even with his senses – normal and paranormal — stretched to their fullest, Mulder felt very little. He exchanged glances with an apprehensive Scully and shook his head. This was not going to be one of ‘those’ cases, at least not for him. But there was something.
Rising, he turned to the boy. “Randy… What is your last name?”
The boy swallowed noticeably. “Lyons,” he admitted sheepishly, ”Randy Lyons. Sounds like a character in a children’s book.”
It did, but Mulder knew better than to agree. “And how long have you worked at Wild Gardens?”
“Three years. Since I was sixteen. Started out in food service, but I hung around for years before that.”
“Well, Mr. Lyons, the management wants to get to the bottom on this and has given us freedom to commandeer whatever assistance we need. So how would you like to be our tour guide for the next couple of days?”
“Do I have a choice?” came the faint-hearted reply.
Mulder had refused the offering of the resort room as compensation for his ‘ordeal’. Their connecting rooms at the Best Western were better than usual and according to Mulder had a better location as it was situated just across the street from the park’s own nursery that adjoined the park itself. Besides, he told her, the hotel advertised that the park’s birds often roosted in the trees surrounding the hotel’s pool and outdoor café. As promised, as they sat sipping tropical drinks – virgin variety – a pink bird with a long curved beak strutted with brazen indifference by their table on long spindally legs.
“You don’t see those in D.C.,” Mulder remarked spearing a stuffed mushroom.
Scully actually looked relaxed despite the fact that she was still reading the various printouts they had collected throughout the day. “You’re forgiven,” she said without looking up.
“For dragging me here.”
“It’s nice to see that I can occasionally do something right.”
“Well, your timing could be better but the case has merit.”
“So you agree that there’s more than coincidence to all this?”
Scully shrugged. “There’s something though don’t ask me what.” She gazed absently over the palms towards a stunning sunset. “Mr. Lyons seemed oddly reluctant to leave his nine-to-five herding of the tourists for our company.”
“I noticed that,” he said.
Mulder bit a mushroom in half. “I’ve noticed that, too.”
Drinks and mushrooms were gone and the last of the sunset had passed into a deep purple rose before Scully straightened from her reading again. “Interesting,” she said, gesturing with a stack of forms so that the table’s candlelight flickered. “Mr. Lyons is mentioned in these accident reports more than any other employee.”
“As a suspect or a witness?”
“As a first responder. His personnel record is glowing. He has more experience at the park than he led us to believe. As he said, he ‘hung’ around for years before he was eligible to be hired. He had an annual pass. He followed his big brother around, who was employed here, and who eventually recommended him for a job.”
“Big brother literally?”
“Sort of. Ernest Sawyer was a Big Brother in the Big Brother program. Randy’s emergency contacts list only a mother. No father or siblings.”
“Ah, that kind of Big Brother,” Mulder said. “And why do I think that there’s more.”
“Ernest Sawyer disappeared two weeks after Randy Lyons started working at Wild Gardens.”
Mulder’s eyebrows lifted then sunk back. “I don’t see this kid as a murderer if that is what you’re inferring.”
“Don’t worry about that. He has an alibi. He was out of town. But you were right to ask; you know that you can’t always tell.” She eyed him over the report she held. “At least normal people can’t. Still nothing?”
“Nada. As I indicated earlier, my Spidey sense isn’t tingling. Just ol’ Spooky.”
Scully smiled. She had first fallen in love with ‘Spooky’ Mulder while passing a root beer during a stakeout. It had just taken her too many years to realize it.
“Coming to bed?” she asked but her implied invitation failed to penetrate. Spooky was indeed on the ascendant.
“Later.” He waved absently. “I’m going to take a walk. I want to listen to the wild life a little longer.”
He had a point, she thought, and much as she wondered if she shouldn’t stay with him, she needed her sleep even if he didn’t. It had been a long day. Still, she hesitated even as she headed towards the lobby door. Somewhere near a strange night bird trumpeted, a troop of howler monkeys chattered, exotic cattle lowed, and hyenas sang after antelope forever beyond their reach.
It was a strong, gamey scent that woke Mulder even more that the cold, rock hard surface he lay on. Something snored very low but softly and very nearby and no way was that Scully. The Dolby-deep rumble went with the warm, wet, rancid breath that touched his face.
Suspicious of unexpected surprises, Mulder tentatively opened his eyes and ever so slowly raised his head.
It was dark but an even darker dark was right in front of him. A large mound rose and fell ever so slightly with the low snoring. It was also the source of the gamey scent. The edges of the silhouette were fringed as if Mulder needed more of a hint. Lion. The wet nose of a very big, very male lion was less than ten inches from his face.
Mulder lay very… very still. Think first, panic later. This was an especially good idea if lions, like other predators, could smell fear. How had he gotten here? This was no idle question because remembering that was probably going to show him the fastest way out.
He had been drawn by the wild night sounds. His FBI ID had gotten him though the sleepy guard at the gate. Once inside, the groundskeepers pruning by lighted helmets, the trash collectors trucking away their tons of napkins and plastic cups, the cleaning and maintenance crews paid him no mind. A city that never sleeps, just a different city than during the day. He might as well have been invisible.
Wide-awake, he was equally unnoticed as he slipped into the shadows. Restful. A barely legible sign pointed to a walking path. Something about a safari. The trees clustered closely to the path here. Occasionally, the path diverted into a cave-like entrance where only a few emergency lights glowed like gold stars. In one exhibit, fish darted behind glass as tiny phosphorescent steaks of crimson and blue only to spiral away to evade the mountainous bulk of a submerged hippo as it glided past. Further down the path within the darkness of another grotto, cat eyes glowed behind another glass wall. It was then that Mulder lost clear track of time.
He had felt suddenly tired, unbearably tired. As if in a dream, he spied a figure flitting among the shadows. A lithe body; long, straight black hair swinging, moving away from him. Not Samantha, as from his old nightmares, but another girl whose name and face came immediately to mind. Rita, the one from the seat beside him on the coaster. What was she doing here?
Though not entirely certain that he had seen her, he sprang forward to follow. He remembered a slope, trees, scrub, and bamboo hitting his face. He could hear her soft, rapid footsteps ahead but not as far ahead as before. “Rita, wait –“ he called just as he vaulted a low wall.
There had been nothing beneath his feet but darkness.
And this is where he had ended up. Could have been worse; he could have landed ON the lion.
But that was then and now was now and the great cat was shifting. It yawned, revealing a cavern protected by four-inch long incisors. Paws as big as dinner plates flexed, claws like a matched set of Swiss army knives scratching the concrete pad before the glass wall.
He didn’t dare turn his head but a movement on the other side of the glass wall, the side he should have been on, caught his attention.
The girl Rita crouched there, barely an outline in the darkness behind the glass but her face was down near Mulder’s. She raised a finger to her lips and then inclining her head began to move along the wall outside.
She clearly wanted him to follow. Covering barely a foot a minute, he began to back away from the sleeping cat, belly to the ground like a lizard. Only when he was ten feet away did he begin to rise to his feet. Half way up his skin began to itch. He froze and then at glacial speed turned his head. Two huge, golden eyes studied him lazily from within their mane of dark fur. Still half in crouch, his own eyes on those golden eyes, heart thundering, Mulder backed away a little faster. His hip hit a wall and a few feet further on found a doorway. The door, heavy metal, might as well have been a lead for all that it budged when his sweating palms pushed down on the cool, lever handle.
Fifteen feet away the lion finally blinked. Stretching incredibly sleek muscles, it began to rise. Still stretching it yawned. A huge tongue flickered over gleaming ivory teeth. Two many pounding heartbeats later, the door vibrated, oh so slightly with a metal on metal sigh behind Mulder’s back. When he pushed down on the handle this time it moved silently on well-oiled hinges. Mulder was out the door, and had thrown his weight behind it to shut it and slid home the bolt before the yawning jaws had even closed.
Limbs trembling, he slid to the ground, his back against the door. Only then did he look for the girl who must have thrown the heavy bolt. Nothing. Somehow he suspected that. Twenty minutes of a stumbling run later he pulled his cold, sweat-slick body beneath the hottest water the hotel shower could be convinced to provide. When he slipped under the sheets next to Scully at least his skin was warm though his muscles still quivered and not from the hasty trip back. Scully. Home. Questions and revelations could wait.
“Have a nice run?” she murmured sleepily.
Greedily, he wrapped his arms around her, his one rock in the universe. “I’ll tell you in the morning.”
It never occurred to her to doubt his story. They had been involved in far stranger things. While he left at dawn to meet the trace evidence team he had called to look over the area around the lion’s enclosure, Scully pursued her own research. As previously arranged, the three came together at the empty bird show arena at noon.
As Mulder told his story of the night before, he learned one thing – Randy Lyons would last about half a day if he ever seriously decided to take up a life of crime. The thin face flushed scarlet.
“Now let’s hear your version,” he asked.
“Uh, my version?” the boy stammered.
“Clearly none of this is news to you.”
In less than two minutes the young man was telling all. “I just went for a walk. I like to walk around the park at night. Some of the night watchmen slip me a little for making a round or two for them. Hey, most have families and work two or three jobs. They need the sleep. You won’t tell, will you?”
“No, we won’t ‘tell’,” Scully assured him, “but were you doing your friends a favor last night?”
“Uh, no, not last night. I just went for a walk.”
“What led you to take a walk last night?” Mulder asked in as conversational a tone as possible. “More specifically, how did you come to choose your route?”
Lyon’s mouth opened but then he hesitated at the unexpected question. After a long pause he stammered, “I don’t know… I just get these feelings sometimes. Like an itch. Like I gotta move. When I’m at work, sometimes it’s all I can do to stay at my post until my break. During the day, the feeling doesn’t usually last too long. At night I sometimes don’t get back for hours.”
Mulder felt a chill. “Did your stroll last night take you by the Safari Walk?”
Lyon looked scared. “I often do. It’s quiet. Interesting. The animals are usually active.”
“Did you see me?” Mulder snapped. “Follow me?”
The young man shrank away. “See, yes. Follow, no,” he swore his voice gathering speed. “Someone was in with the lion, crouching, backing away, and he wasn’t one of the keepers.” Long fingers clasped and unclasped nervously. “I saw whoever it was try the door but it wouldn’t open so I slid back the bolt then hid in the bushes to make sure whoever it was got out ok.”
“You didn’t know it was me?” Mulder asked.
“It was dark. Not till you stumbled out and slammed the door.”
“Why didn’t you say anything? “
The thin young man cringed. “You were already looking into things and asking questions, I didn’t know how you came to be in there. Certainly not by choice. How would it have looked? You must know that I’ve been around too many times when things happen or just after they happen. Honestly, I didn’t cause any of it. I’m just sort of there like last night. I don’t know why.” The rush of words trailed off.
Scully raised an eyebrow in her partner’s direction. “’Eau de paranormal’?” She asked knowing what he was thinking. His eyes were on the sweating teenager, however, whose acne blemishes were absolutely glowing in the dim cavern of the bird show arena.
“You aren’t by any chance a shapeshifter, are you?” he asked the boy.
Lyons stared. “A what?”
Mulder absently waved a hand. “Never mind. What about the little girl? Where did she go? I thought she was the one who pulled the bolt. You must have seen her.”
The boy shook his head, bewildered by the seemingly random question. “A girl? Around the lion’s viewing window? I didn’t see any little girl.”
Mulder’s voice tightened. “About ten years old? She was sitting next to me on the coaster and was outside the glass last night. I thought maybe she was the child of a park employee.”
“Coaster?” Randy shook his head. “There was that big man on your left, I remember him because he was so red in the face. There was no one on your right. The seat was empty. I thought that odd because front seats are almost never empty.”
Mulder stared. “You must be remembering some other emergency with a stuck coaster.”
“Oh, no. I thought having an empty seat was a good thing. One less to freak out. Besides, children that young aren’t usually tall enough for that ride.”
Mulder was fair-skinned and the light under the arena’s tarp was subdued, but Scully could still tell when all the color left her partner’s face. After forcing him to sit with his head between his knees she threw two twenties in Randy’s direction and sent him for a sweat shirt, hot coffee and food with some protein in it.
“No… no… no… no…” Mulder was moaning under his breath as she sat down and wrapped her arms around him. He was shivering. “Now I’m seeing ghosts… and hearing them and talking to them.” He raised his eyes to her. Those bloodshot orbs cut right through her the way they always did. ”I’m so sorry, Scully.”
“How is this your fault?” she asked gently knowing how much all Mulder had ever wanted since the horror of losing his sister when they were both so young was something approaching a normal life.
“I know how much you worry when I weird out on you.”
Tenderly, she stroked his sweat-matted hair. “We should have suspected this sort of thing might happen,” she told him sympathetically after what Albert told you. Do you remember?”
Two years before when this whole thing with the artifacts and the visions were just beginning, the Navajo wind talker, Albert Hosteen’s ghost had come to him or so Mulder had told her. Scully was eager and willing to believe that the whole episode had really happened if only for the comfort Mulder found in the memory. Still bowed over his knees he rocked and murmured, “That the dead talk to me because I listen.”
She leaned her cheek against his cool one. “Not that much different than the living who will talk to you for the same reason. I’ve watch these poor, suffering people open up to you for twelve years.” She kissed the top of his bent head. “Because you have an open mind… and an open heart.”
He raised his face to hers. She wished she could take the shadows from his eyes. He didn’t like being reminded that in the last few years he come far too close to being what he used to chase. “So you believe me?” he asked incredulously.
“You didn’t say that you saw this girl’s ghost. Randy’s evidence makes that the most logical conclusion, and I can’t believe I just said that.”
They were laughing, actually laughing at the black humor of it all, when Randy returned with a Save the Condor sweatshirt, two hot dogs, and a Styrofoam cup of black coffee.
“And people really can see ghosts?” the fascinated boy asked after Mulder had donned the sweatshirt. The boy’s eyes were wide and completely fearless. As Mulder was forcing down the first hot dog in an attempt to settle his stomach, Scully filled the boy in on what they investigated as part of the X-Files. “And you saw a ghost here? Do you see them all the time like that kid in the Sixth Sense?”
Mulder nearly choked on his current bite. “No. Not like the Sixth Sense. The documented instances of spirit sightings are very rare and in no way do I see them all the time. In fact this is only the second time and I’m not so sure that the first time wasn’t wish fulfillment. Besides, Rita may only be a projection, a memory, an imprint of an event that happened before, not an actual ghost.” He was not going into the actual conversation he’d had with this ‘projection’ and the fact that most people who see ghosts can’t hear them. The fact that he could made him hope profoundly that most of them didn’t have much to say.
“Regardless of what she is, the three of us need to find out why she’s here. I can’t believe that her presence and all that’s been happening is just a coincidence.”
Scully didn’t object — this was Mulder’s area of expertise after all. Neither did she protest as she would have in past years. Instead she slipped a warm and supportive hand in his.
“How can I help?” Randy asked. “I don’t see ghosts.”
“No, but you can let the spirit move you,” Mulder suggested in all sincerity.
Randy’s confusion was palpable.
“Maybe not see them, but you feel something.” Mulder paused seeking the right words. “You told me. You sense where you should go during your wanderings. You see the scribblings. You’ve often been on the spot to lend assistance when there’s an accident. That’s a gift not that much different than seeing ghosts.”
Randy sat in shock while Mulder seemed to have bounced back. Before they could talk again a few tourists sat near them. Several couples had come in under the shade to find seats for the next bird show. A man in ‘jungle’ wear and pith helmet had come out on stage to provide a little pre-show entertainment and help draw a crowd. He carried a bright red and blue macaw. When he raised his arm, it launched itself to sail gloriously above their heads.
“Let’s find a quieter place,” Mulder said rising. “With my luck it will decide to dive bomb my head.”
“I need to talk to you both anyway,” Scully said, her expression oddly expectant. “With all these new developments, I haven’t had time to fill the two of you in on the results of MY efforts this morning.”
Scully started out in the lead but then Randy’s long legs passed her. At the sight of his distracted expression the partners traded meaningful glances and eagerly followed.
They skirted the desert-themed Timbuktu area. The sun-drenched orange clay walls sparkled all the more before a backdrop of blue-black clouds gathering on the horizon. “Afternoon thunderstorm,” Scully noted.
They passed the food and souvenir shops near the main gates, as colorful as a Moroccan market. A large auditorium detailed with white carvings and intricate patterns of blue Islamic tiles rose majestically into view. Huge, brightly colored banners advertised a show of Africa tales, larger than life puppets, music and dancing.
“There were several accidents associated with the theater,” Scully remarked nearly running now to keep up with the boy.
“And the alligator pool,” Mulder added as they passed by the fenced pond. “So does that mean we’re getting closer? We haven’t even had time to consider if this thing has an epicenter.”
Beside the pool was yet another entrance to the Safari Walk with its jewel-like fish and sleepy lions. Daylight gave it a peaceful look but Mulder shivered again anyway.
Before his paced slowed the teenager led them to a theme area they had seen only on the park map. This was ancient Egypt. Faux statues of pharaohs paraded down the single, nearly empty street. At the end of the row rising behind pylons worthy of Ramses II, snaked the cerulean blue struts of a twisting iron coaster.
Mulder’s shivers turned to sweat despite the fact that the temperature had dropped as the storm darkening sky not only veiled the sun, but swallowed it. “We seem to have come a pretty long way just to find a quiet place to chat,” Mulder quipped as he came up alongside the boy.
Randy Lyon twitched as if waking from a daydream. “Well i-it is quiet,” he stuttered as if needing to defend even to himself why he had led them here. “There’s not much to do except for the coaster and even that doesn’t draw what it should. It’s really a good suspended coaster.”
“Let’s skip the coaster this time,” Mulder suggested with a slight shudder. “Think about why we came here. What were you feeling? What were you thinking on your way here just now? Did you actually make a decision or did it seem to be made for you?”
Long fingers combed roughly through hair already spiky with sweat. “I don’t know. I don’t know if I know anything anymore,” came the uncertain reply in a voice close to tears.
Scully took pity on the boy and found them seats around a table near the sweeping entrance to the coaster where the more faint of heart could wait for the braver members of their parties. There must be brave groups up today because no one waited except for a footsore woman who watched over a toddler who played in a canvas-shaded sandpit graced by a pair of haughty stone camels.
As though still in a trace, Randy muttered softly, “I do come here a lot, but I always thought it was because it seemed a little lonely. I know that that sounds stupid.”
“Not at all,” Mulder said in his most soothing voice.
“It’s the least visited part of the park. They keep talking about what they can do to change it to help draw in the crowds but nothing ever seems to work.”
Mulder’s lips pursed for a moment in thought. “I really hadn’t meant ‘why here?’ as in this particular place. I didn’t think that there was a particular focus. I was just thinking that something might be leading you – like a leaf in the wind.” As if sensing something himself, like an itching on his skin, Mulder looked over his shoulder first in one direction, then the other. “Now I’m not so sure.”
Randy was completely out of his trance now. “But it is like that, like you said. Like a leaf blown by the wind. And at the end there is often a problem of some kind, an accident. Funny though, I’m drawn here more than anywhere else though there is hardly ever anything going on when I get here.”
Scully leaned forward. “Let me fill you in on what I learned which I haven’t even had time to tell Mulder about yet.” She gave her partner a significant look before turning back to the boy. “You were raised by a single mother, is that right? Irene Lyon?”
“Yes,” admitted the boy looking down at the ground beneath his feet. “She died earlier this year. Cancer. But what does that have to do –”
“I’m sorry for your loss but have patience. Who did she tell you your father was?”
The young man flushed even deeper if that were possible. “A married man. They were in love, she said, but he died before he could get a divorce.” His expression and tone, however, clearly indicated that he hadn’t believed that story for some years. “It’s okay. We did well enough. I had this cool Big Brother from one of those city programs, ya know?”
Scully nodded, “Yes, Ernest Sawyer.”
“Who… disappeared,” Mulder whispered, remembering. A ghost girl and a missing man. The coincidences were piling up.
Scully pulled out an enlarged photocopy of a much smaller picture. “This is a photo of Ernest when he first started working at Wild Gardens. He was about the same age as you are right now, Randy.” It was grainy picture and the subject’s hair was longer and the skin clearer, but other than that, it could have been Randy Lyon. The young man didn’t seem surprised, only very much saddened to be reminded of his missing mentor. “Did anyone ever remark on the resemblance between you two?” Scully asked.
Randy nodded slowly. “Yeah. Just one of those things and maybe that’s why Ernie chose me out of all the other boys to be a Big Brother to. I didn’t ask. I was just happy he did.”
Scully turned her attention to her partner with a look that could only mean, ‘You’re going to love this.’ To the nervous young man before her, she said, “I went digging today, Randy, and I found some things that might disturb you. Do you want me to go on?”
The young man nodded though his hands were balled into fists.
“Your mother couldn’t tell you who your father was because you don’t have a father in the conventional sense. Irene Lyon was single though she badly wanted a child. Unfortunately, she was also infertile. She, therefore, purchased an embryo, an egg already fertilized, and had it implanted.”
Now Randy seemed more confused than anything. “I don’t understand.”
“A couple in Ohio had problems conceiving in the conventional way and went the in vitro fertilization route. A couple of rounds of fertility drugs then they harvested her eggs and fertilized them in a petri dish with her husband’s sperm. There were more than she needed for one pregnancy unless she wanted a really big family all at once, so they froze the extra embryos. According to my research, over a period of eight years this couple gradually sold the extras off.”
Randy’s pale eyes could not have been open wider.
“I had to call in a lot of favors but I eventually confirmed that you and Ernest were both the result of that one round of fertilization.” Randy wasn’t even breathing now. “Therefore we know that you were at least full brothers. Often they allow the eggs to undergo a few divisions before freezing,” Scully went on in the same even but compassionate tone. “It aids in their viability. Therefore, it’s not outside the realm of possibility, especially considering the high degree of resemblance between the two of you, that one or more eggs split entirely.”
Mulder’s eyebrows were arched to his hairline. “Twins, identical twins,” he breathed, “but born five years apart.”
Scully nodded. “Possible, and yet impossible to prove without a DNA sample from Ernest.”
Mulder turned to Randy who was taking in air again but in strangled little sips. “Identical twins, At least possible. Do you know what that means? It begins to explain how you and Ernie found each other, how you were drawn to each other –“
“But he’s dead.”
“No one else seems sure of that but you.”
Randy’s head drooped. “I just know. I knew then. I know now. And he wouldn’t have just gone without saying good- bye.”
Mulder’s undivided attention could sometimes be unnerving and the boy squirmed. “You say that you feel that Ernest is dead, but you’re still here. I would think the Park would hold too many sad memories for you. Have you even considered moving on?”
The young man clutched long fingers into fists between his knees. “Tried to. The Mouse would have taken me, Disney, to you. But I couldn’t stay away. Lasted a week.”
“And you feel as if you are ‘maneuvered’ around this place. Randy,” Mulder said intently, “could Ernest be not quite ‘gone’? Do you know what I mean? In your midnight rambles about the quiet park is it possible that you can still ‘feel’ him?”
Scully’s lips opened in warning but she didn’t speak. Mulder had said enough already.
Before Randy Lyons could answer an explosion – BURST – directly over their heads. All three jumped to their feet, the air crackling about them. The storm had rolled in over the park and they had been so involved in their conversation that none of them had noticed. Now lightning flashed about them in a world gone suddenly dark without it. Thunder cracked and CRACKED again to roll off in BOOOMING echoes. And then the hail came, tiny bouncing pellets, followed closely by the rain that within seconds became a deluge. It came down so strongly that sheets of water ran off the table umbrella under which they huddled. It was as if they stood within a dimly lit cylinder of flowing silver. A fine mist even found its way through the thick canvas fabric.
There was no continuing their conversation over the deafening roar of the storm. Scully gesticulated to the much taller Randy. She seemed concerned about the people that might still be on the coaster.
“Don’t worry!” he screamed above the incredible drumming of the rain. “First sign of lightning, they shut ‘em down!” His last two words were much clearer as the cloudburst backed off from a nearly-impossible-to-shout-over level to just very difficult. At the same time, breaks developed in the sheets of water cascading around them. Then another sound broke through, a series of uneven screams. A figure broke out from a small knot of people clustered around the covered entrance to the Egyptian coaster’s loading area. It was a girl of about twelve, skinny to the point of emaciation especially since her scanty T-shirt and shorts were so wet that a bikini would have been more concealing. Her sodden brown hair looked as if it had been painted on. She screamed as she splashed barefoot through ankle deep puddles. Their plaza seemed to be a collecting point for a significant area.
They finally were able to make out the words that she was hysterically screaming, “Grandmere! Grandmere! Help!” in what was clearly a French accent.
All three, the agents as well as Randy, good park employee as he was, ran out into the still considerable rain to go to the girl’s assistance. It was Mulder’s right foot that twisted on a step hidden by the rising lake of runoff.
He had barely had time to catch his balance after the shot of intense pain before he found Scully at his side.
Speech being still difficult over the rumbling thunder and pouring rain, he waved her away. She gestured to a kind of small, enclosed porch underneath one of the buildings. By the time Mulder had limped under its shelter — a far better refuge than the table umbrella had been — she had returned if only long enough to shout, “The girl’s grandmother can’t catch her breath. Randy and I will stay with her until the EMT’s can get here. It may be a while with the storm.”
“I’m fine,” he assured her but she was already disappearing into the rain and the kind of steamy fog created when rain suddenly pounds sun-baked sidewalks. He was thinking how beautiful his Scully was, even soaking wet, when light and sound exploded together and skies opened up once more. Instinctively, Mulder stumbled back farther under the porch. The downpour was steady now, more regular than the white noise of heavy ocean surf. It wrapped around him like sudden dark as the lowering sky brought on the gloom of twilight when it should have been midday.
He had been standing less than a minute engrossed by the deluge when Mulder felt the familiar ice trickle down his spine. There was something, something so strong that it touched him despite sensation and sound and sight overwhelmed by the sudden cold of the violent storm and the preternatural dark.
“Yer ankle, okay?”
He wasn’t the least surprised to find the slender Hispanic girl beside him. She was perfectly dry and in the gloom seemed almost to glow.
“Yes, hardly hurts at all,” he answered, which was the truth. “Did you do that? And the storm, too?”
She laughed. It was as if the crystal sound came from the bottom of a well. “Who do you think I am? I had to wait for that.” Her expression turned smugly proud, ”But aye, CAN push here and there.”
“I’ll bet you can. So all those ‘accidents’ they were yours? And the writing on the walls.”
“Not the writing, but the rest, yeah. I didn’t hurt anyone.”
“You almost did the last time.”
She gave sulky frown. “Didn’t exactly mean that, but he wouldn’t hear. He wouldn’t pay attention. That’s why I had to start in the first place.”
“Who didn’t pay attention?”
“That big boy you’ve been talking to.”
“Randy?” Mulder asked, not surprised. “And what should he have been paying attention to?”
“Which you don’t do.”
“His brother does.”
Mulder felt the warmth in his chest of a theory proven. “Is Ernest dead?”
“Ernie? Oh, yeah. He’s with me.”
“Lot’s of ghosts here?” Mulder asked peering into the twilight dark beyond of pelting rain. He was immediately sorry he’d asked because as if in answer he could see them. Little dim flames.
“Parks like this have lots of child ghosts. It’s like heaven, that’s why they come.” He supposed that it would be. “You should see Disneyland. You can hardly move but you’ll trip over one.”
Mulder’s stomach went queasy. On a couple of levels here was a thought he would have been happy to do without. “So you’ve been around for a while. You can actually move around from park to park?”
She shrugged. “Oh, yes. Besides Disney’s not that far. I like it here best because I like the animals. Besides, Ernie can’t move. He was too old when he died, you see.”
“Where is Ernie?” Mulder asked with some hesitation.
He looked around. There were just the faux plaster walls of the porch. “Here?”
“There.” She was gesturing with her head. There was an old announcement on the wall behind him, now faded, advertising some sort of attraction and beside him what he had taken in the gloom to be a cement pillar like the rest of the structure were hastily installed plywood panel painted to blend in. Their colors mellowed with dust, they were clearly blocking an old entrance. Like the words behind him, this ‘wall’ had been in place some time.
Horrible despair filled in. Ghosts of his own Samantha and the years of not knowing. Not a soul knew about this. He ripped at the panels, barely hearing the sound of the destruction over the still-beating rain. Besides, it wasn’t hard. The blockage was intended only as a temporary construction.
After the incident with the lion, he had slipped a pocket flash into his pocket; he pulled it out now and dove into the black hole.
Without the flash there would have been no light at all. The walls were concrete or stucco but painted to look like stone. The tunnel twisted and turned and sloped downward, ever downward. Images began to show up on the walls. Men and women in straight black wigs, males in short kilts and women wrapped in nearly transparent gauze. Scenes of eating and fishing and harvesting grain. Beast-headed gods. Of course, reproductions of ancient Egyptian tomb reliefs. More turns. Sconces lined the walls but the fake torches in them were dark. Finally the tunnel opened into a much larger and very damp space. Below him on the floor of a dank, open space the size of modest-sized auditorium, the pin-point beam of his flash found a large carved box. Passing the light back and forth he finally identified the object as a sarcophagus. Of course, faux tomb; faux burial chamber.
“It was a simulator ride,” the girl said not so much from beside him as inside his head. “See those rooms going off to the sides? That’s where they went in to fill in the seats row by row. The projection equipment was removed even before my time.”
That was where she led him, to one of those rooms where the silent chairs still sat silently bolted to platforms that would buck and tilt and sway in time to the graphics on the huge projection screens. Now they just sat staring at nothing, eerie reminders of what once transported patrons on falcon back across mountains, on Nile barges struggling through a storm, into the magnificent halls of the divine Pharaoh, flying down a rocky slope towards an enemy army as a charioteer.
Wrapped as a mummy and locked in a tomb? Mulder mused.
She led him behind where the projection screen must have stood. They had been doing some work here at one time, digging and demolishing. Intent on trying to make out the pictures on the walls with his little light, Mulder didn’t see the edge of the pit.
The floor simply fell away. Great slabs of poured concrete were just gone, sucked into the black. A step back, the weak ankle turned. He fell and kept falling. Too far. Way too far to survive if he landed on ragged edges of the broken floor.
He fell into water, inky, silent water like being swallowed by a slumbering whale.
He came up sputtering who knew where in water that was only chest high. Of course his flash was gone. Black it was. Cavern black. Rita’s voice drifted across the water like the thin piping of a bird calling to him to swim to her. On the far side of the pool, which was not very far, his hands and feet found a waist high shelf of crumbling dirt and mud that overlay one of the fallen slabs on concrete. He didn’t hurry, but searched slowly, reaching out further and further. He was only a few feet from the water when his questing hands found what he had more or less expected the find. The bodies, or perhaps more rightly the skeletons, for they were mostly bone. Some brittle tendons still held them together, that and a little tattered cloth. The long shinbones of Ernest Sawyer, Randy’s five-year senior ‘twin’ and the much smaller bird-like bones of a child, where intertwined as they lay at the end, wrapped together for warmth or perhaps just for comfort.
Mulder shivered and not only because it was indeed surprisingly cold down here.
“What happened?” he asked, unconcerned that there should rightly have been no one to ask much less respond.
And there was silence for a time, and then a voice began, Rita’s small, matter-of-fact voice.
“I was a throw-away child.” The statement was ever so slightly bitter. “I was fostered at first but Mom died in prison so orphaned after that. I lived in a group home.” The thin words seemed to take on more weight. “They mix the kids around now and again between the homes. You lose the bullies you know but you lose what friends you were able to make, too. The switch was to happen at the park that time. I didn’t like my situation much and didn’t expect the new place to be much better. But I loved the park so I was happy to go.” Her voice lightened. “It’s like being in a fairytale in the park. I didn’t want to leave. I especially didn’t want to leave when I saw who was in my new group. I knew her from before; she was a mean one. So when they weren’t looking I ran away.”
“How did you get all the way down into here?” he asked. As softly as he spoke, his voice was too loud among the dripping echoes.
“Hid. There were no boards up at the entrance then, just some yellow tape, I remember that, but I didn’t know what it was there for and it was easy to just duck under. It wasn’t entirely dark then. There were a few lights up near the top but also lots of shadows. I had talked to the big boy running the coaster before when we waited in line. That was Ernie. Later, he told me that he had just gone on break when he saw me sneak away from the group that by that time was made up of all the kids from all the houses. He saw me run in there. He didn’t want me to get into trouble so he didn’t tell anyone, just came in after me.” Her voice went even thinner and sadder and seemed to echo from wall to ceiling to lake. “It was my fault. I heard him coming after me and I ran and I ran. I ran in here looking for someplace to hide. I started falling, he tried to catch me.” There was a long pause. “There was more water then but still we couldn’t climb out. We tried, we shouted but no one came. No one knew we were here. We waited and we waited. I was very hungry but Ernie kept me warm.”
During the story Mulder had found an almost dry place a few feet away from the sad grouping and now tried to make himself comfortable. Bodies this old didn’t frighten him but he was wet and cold and sitting in black as black as pitch. “So you go above,” he said into nothing his voice echoing with that of dripping water. “You trip up people and try to get people’s attention because you’re good at it and Ernie isn’t. All Ernie can do is squiggle on walls.”
“No, all Ernie can do it make his friend squiggle on walls.”
Mulder’s eyebrows lifted. “Randy’s been doing that?”
“He doesn’t remember. He doesn’t know how hard Ernest has been trying to get him to find us.”
“Randy sensed something. The message just wasn’t clear.”
“Ernie only wants his friend to know and his family to know what happened to us. Then I think he will go away,” said the child ghost almost wistfully.
“Will you be lonely then?”
“A little but I have other friends now. Everywhere. You saw them.”
The little gray veils of mist in the rain. Yes, he had seen them. They had reminded him of Samantha and her friends playing in the meadow that last and final time. Finally safe from harm.
“Besides, maybe you’ll be my friend, when you die.” Her voice seemed to fade away till it was just a tiny, tiny whisper. “Because you’re never going to get out of here either, are you? Maybe I didn’t do such a good thing.”
She didn’t speak again. Maybe she went topside to make more mischief.
After a time, Mulder realized that the dark about him was not quite so absolute unless it was just his starved optic nerves playing tricks. Here and there he thought he could make out the faintest bioluminescent glow. Algae and fungi will do that, some rocks – and decaying bodies. He could almost see the two now, the little girl in the young man’s arms. In time he made out more. A little ways up on a slab of concrete rakishly tilted towards the lip of the pit were scratches. From fingers worn to the bone from the young man’s fruitless attempts, over and over, to climb out and save them both?
Then for just out of the corner of his eye, just for a moment, he thought he could make out an outline as if the finest web of an Egyptian veil covered the long limbs of a tall young man who sat forlornly by the pool. Long arms rested on raised knees. The image’s face radiated an expression of infinite sadness. The young man looked a lot like Randy Lyon.
They sat and it seemed, regarded each other for a long time.
Perhaps half an hour later, not so very long, Mulder seemed to sense the smallest of vibrations though the cold, hard slab of stone under his butt. In reaction his head came up. When he looked back Ernest had gone on his way.
Because of course it was Scully. In less than a minute he heard her beautifully irritated voice and Randy’s tremulous one shouting his name. She had come for him as he knew she would. He had never had the slightest doubt. The beams of the two powerful floodlights, crossing distantly over the vault of the ceiling above the sink hole, provided just enough light to force the glow of the bones back into the black from which they are emerged just for him.
It was early evening before they brought the bodies up. Mulder was actually the last to come out having elected to keep vigil until equipment that could handle the fragile skeletons correctly could be brought in. In the pale warmth of the setting sun he finally shrugged off the blanket, Scully had thrown down to him.
Randy Lyon stood against the wall of the porch, his face nearly unrecognizable in his grief. He had been able to identify Ernest’s remains, from what scraps of clothing remained and a ring.
“He didn’t need to put himself through that,” Scully reported. “Ernest Sawyer’s name tag was still pinned to what was left of his shirt.”
“But he did,” Mulder disagreed knowing a thing or two about closure himself. “What was going on down there? Where did the hole come from?”
“Sinkhole. They’re all over Florida. That’s why the ride was closed down. It is only opened now for a quarterly risk assessment. The girl slipped in during one of those. Ernest must have seen her cross the yellow warning tape and went in after her. The unfortunate part is that he clearly didn’t let anyone know where he was going. They were locked in when the engineers packed up and went home.
“What were you able to find out about our runaway?” Mulder asked tilting his head to the sun as he stretched weary neck muscles.
Scully consulted a small pocket notebook. “Rita is her name, as she said. Rita Hernandez. Orphaned at seven. A young aid named Amanda Cosetti has been taken into custody.”
Mulder whistled. “You work fast. It’s been what, four hours?”
Scully shrugged. “You had the girl’s first name and we knew the exact date when Ernest Sawyer worked his last shift. The Park also keeps good records of its charity work. They routinely sponsor daytrips for group homes. Within two minutes after I pulled out my badge at Theresa’s House and started asking questions this young woman was practically sobbing in my arms. She was that anxious to confess. Two years ago she had been only sixteen and this was her first job. She misplaced one of her charges the very first week. She was terrified. The transfer process was so lax and the paperwork so routinely sloppy that it was just too easy to make her mistake go away. She made it look to the group Rita should have gone with that she had elected to return to Theresa’s. The staff at Theresa’s thought she had transferred. So no one knew.”
“Except for your Amanda.” Mulder sighed. Such a waste. “What will she be charged with?”
“Reckless endangerment. Maybe manslaughter. Nothing more. The charges are the least of her problem. She’s a mess. She needs therapy. It’s a horrible outcome for her, worse than even her worst fears, but at least she can start getting the help she needs.”
At that moment Randy stumbled by, vaguely following in the path of the coroner’s van but with no serious desire to catch up to it.
Mulder reached out and touched his arm as he passed. “Can we help?”
Tears still ran down the scarred face. “I just feel empty. Like I said, I knew something was really wrong, but always felt Ernie was still with me somehow. Not now. Now there’s just this big hole.”
“He was with you,” Mulder assured the young man. “You were his lifeline, literally. His link to the living world through your bond of blood though neither of you were aware of that connection. As I remember, you were out of town the week he went missing.”
“I was training at our sister park in Virginia. I suddenly felt horrible. Couldn’t breathe, couldn’t get warm. I collapsed. They took me to the hospital. I was there for days but no one could figure out what was wrong.” Randy pounded fist into palm in his anguish. “Why didn’t I know!”
“How could you? How could anyone? If the two of you – twins, probably identical twins – had shared a life together, a womb, a home, and not been separated by distance and years, then you may have been able to interpret what you were feeling.”
“In the end it was all for nothing. Useless.”
“No,” Mulder said gently, “Not useless at all. The writing on the walls? You did that, Rita told me. Ernest working through you, trying to communicate. He just wasn’t very good at it. Rita stepped in to help then. It was a bit of a rough touch at times, but she was only trying to help the only one who had ever tried to help her.”
“But the writing didn’t mean anything. And you found him, I didn’t.”
“But the writing brought us here,” Scully said gently. “A trail of accidents alone wouldn’t have.”
“So if I helped so much why am I so empty?” the young man sulked.
“He’s gone,” Mulder said.
Randy’s eyes were pleading. “Where?”
“To the place where souls go who are at peace,” Scully replied aware of the approval in her partner’s eyes. “You did that.” she told them both.
Randy wandered away, head bowed, looking as lost and forlorn as a person can. They watched with concern. About a hundred feet away just as he ducked under the yellow caution tape keeping the paying patrons away from the site, a family rushed into the area, father, mother and three children ranging in age from roughly ten to fifteen. Their faces were grim. Seeing Randy, they stopped abruptly, their expressions opening in a kind of shock.
“Who…?” Mulder asked though he thought he could guess just by the silhouette of the oldest child, a boy, who had reached out to take Randy by the hand and then to clasp him in a frantic hug.
Scully’s small smile was wistful. “When I was doing my investigating this morning – was it only this morning? –,” I contacted Ernest’s family. Ernest was their eldest. After they saw how well he turned out they purchased the rest of the fertilized eggs from the in vitro procedure that produced Randy and Ernest. They wanted Ernest to have siblings. There were no more identical twins that we know of, but Randy has another full brother and two full sisters now in addition to who knows how many children the original couple had.”
Surrounded by his new family, grief mingling with a shy happiness all around, Randy looked back over his shoulder at the agents and gave them a watery smile. Scully took Mulder’s hand. “And they are good people. They nurtured a son who was not only a Big Brother to his own brother and sisters but to Randy and to other fatherless boys as well.”
“And who gave his life trying to save a lonely little girl.”
“You do good work, Mulder.”
“We do good work,” he corrected and kissed her.
She cringed dramatically at the stagnant pool smell that clung to his damp clothes. “After you shower and change – how about we take in a coaster?”
“Maybe after some food and a little – “ he smiled wickedly “— aperitif?”
She led him off as eager to get to the ‘aperitif’ as he was. She, therefore, didn’t notice when he looked up once more at the blue coaster, it’s evening lights just coming on.
“What’s up?” she asked well aware of her pun. Because he had told her about what he had thought may have been little gray ghosts in the storm, she asked more soberly, “Wondering how many little soul lights you’ll be able see from up there?”
“Actually, no. I was calculating the airtime in that big drop. As far as seeing Rita and her friends, I think I can safely say that that particular door is closed to me and I hope will remain closed.”
“But you saw them and you helped,” she said. Then she asked with some hesitation, “In general, did they seem to be having a good time?”
“And that’s a good thing?” she asked taking his hand.
“That’s a very good thing.”
Author’s note: As with many of my stories, I base my setting on a real place. Wild Gardens is based, very closely at times, on Busch Gardens in Tampa. It does have an African theme with lots of animals, a Congo River ride, a new coaster that that strange shovel type car, wonderful beef brisket, and an Egyptian area with a blue coaster and, yes, a boarded up attraction that was once a simulator ride. Also, I love theme parks. Years ago I co-wrote a short story about Mulder’s first trip to a theme park which took place in my family’s favorite park, Busch Gardens in Williamsburg.