Mack’d

mack'd

Mack’d: A Law & Order: Criminal Intent/X-Files Mystery

AUTHOR: Martin Ross
CATEGORY: Crossover/ casefile
RATING: R for language, gruesome images.
DISCLAIMER: The story you are about to read is fictional, and the characters were
created with criminal intent by Chris Carter and Dick Wolf.
SUMMARY: Broadway’s hit of the season becomes the “hit” of the season for the
NYPD’s Major Case Squad and the agents of the X-Files. Has the Curse of Macbeth
struck in the heart of the Big Apple?

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“In New York City’s war on crime, the worst criminal offenders are pursued by the detectives of the Major Case Squad. These are their stories…”

Home of Clifton and Yvonne DeBow

Crown Point, N.Y.

Sunday, December 31

“Once upon a time, two brave knights named Macbeth and Banquo were out on a mission for the king. It was a dark, stormy night, and Macbeth and Banquo stopped to talk to three witches who were making a potion in a big pot. ‘Double, double, toil and trouble,’ they sang as they stirred the magic potion.”

The children cackled at Lisette’s Margaret Hamilton-style interpretation of the Weird Sisters. The Great Bard would roll over in whatever old British boneyard they’d planted him in if he could hear her mangle the tale of Macbeth. She should’ve picked Dr. Suess or one of the other old classics piled beside the guest room beds, but Lisette was home seldom enough, and she wanted to share something more personal with her nieces.

“The witches could see the future, and they told Macbeth he would be very famous and powerful (the title Thane of Cawdor would mean little to Eliza or Shera), and said Banquo’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren would be kings. Well, soon, the witch’s prediction about Macbeth came true, and everybody in the kingdom knew who he was. But what the witches had said about his friend Banquo bothered him, because he wanted to be king. And Mrs. Macbeth wanted him to be king, too…”

A soft purr interrupted Lisette’s narrative. She looked down; her angelic nieces had already slipped away.

That’s OK, babies, Lisette smiled. Has the same effect on everyone else in the family.

“You’d’ve made a wonderful mother, Lisey,” Yvonne whispered as her daughter eased the door shut.

“Subtle, Mama,” Lisette smirked, heading for the stairs and the New Years celebration downstairs.

“Oh, c’mon, baby, don’t be so touchy. Your father and I told you how proud we are about the show. He’s already gone on-line to see about tickets.” Yvonne stopped at the landing. “I just hope—”

Lisette turned. “Now what?”

“Well, last night, I saw a show about that man, that Big Noisy man’s going to be in the play.”

“Elliott. And they call him Big Noyz. What about him?”

“He sounds like bad news. Guns and drugs and that whole gang thing.”

Lisey shook her head and leaned on the banister. “Mama, that man scarcely even acknowledges the rest of us – he’s too impressed with his own media coverage. Even if he did, he ain’t exactly my type, which you ought to know.”

“Don’t have a stroke, now,” Yvonne sighed. “Let’s just forget I said anything. Your father and I just worry about you in that city.”

“Mama, I know what I’m doing.”

At least I think I do, Lisey mused as she headed toward the joyful noise below.

The Shiban Theater

Manhattan, New York

Wednesday, April 15

“On today’s Entertainment Spotlight, we visit a rap legend who hopes to bring the Noyz and the funk back to Broadway this season,” Jacqui Moussard sang as the cable news anchor seated beside her waited with a flash-frozen smile to get out of camera range. “One of the biggest surprises on the Great White Way this season is Mack’d, a musical saga of gangsta life and death starring Elliott Forester, better known to international audiences as rapper Big Noyz. Last night, in Times Square, we caught up with the hip-hop king, who hopes to add a Tony to his shelf-full of awards.”

Darrell Ives leaned forward on his dressing room couch as his co-star – co-star! – materialized on a red carpet outside the city’s hottest new clubs, in a matching, gold-braided tux and his trademark fez with the hand-stitched Mets logo. Youthful screams and a dozen flashes erupted as Forester gave the camera the one-handed “peace-love” gesture with a gloved hand.

“Critics be saying Noyz ain’t ready for Broadway,” Forester sneered as the scene shifted to the floor of whatever club he’d graced the night before. “Well, Broadway best be ready for the Noyz. Forget Beauty and the Beast – I’m both in one fine package. Les Miz gonna be in for some misery. Rent, y’all’s lease is up.”

Moussard, who was spilling out of the top of her strapless black gown, laughed delightedly. “You’ve conquered the world of rap and become one of Hollywood’s newest box office draws. Why the stage? Why Broadway?”

“All my life, people been saying I’m nothing, jus’ some gangsta street punk. Well, all y’all old school, Julliard-trained, Evian-suckin’ haters, you been served. There’s a new king in town, an’ his name is Big Noyz.”

“Jesus,” Darrell spat. This fool was going to scare away the patrons, the out-of-towners. Stanford would probably love it — he’d told the Times Magazine Forester was “a blast of cool urban permafrost.” What did that make Darrell, the rest of them who’d put the aging playwright back on Broadway?

Moussard reappeared in the newsroom, her breasts tucked back into a silk blouse and blazer. “Mack’d is created and produced by Stanford Grant, the controversial black playwright acclaimed for his powerful visions of African-American life in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Noyz joined the production last month after a successful off-Broadway run. The rapper, who captured headlines two years ago following his arrest on gun charges–”

Darrell fired his remote and the screen went black. He leaned back and sipped his Evian (the actor realized with a curse). He’d also graduated cum laude from Julliard, the son of Hudson University’s first black studies department head and a mother who’d been on first-name terms with Maya Angelou. The man who’d replaced Darrell as the hip-hop Macbeth (Stanford had adapted and scored Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, as if that brain-dead cable entertainment bunny could grasp the distinction) might just as well have been calling his predecessor out on the street.

The young thespian heard laughter in the hall. “Lisette?”

The laughter stopped, and a heart-shaped, heart-stopping face appeared in his doorway. “Hey,” Lisette deBow murmured. “What’s up?”

“Watching our diva on ZNN. You know when he plans to grace us with his presence?”

“He had some kind of interview for VH1 or something. Stanford said to just hang loose, we could work on some of the second act blocking.”

Darrell studied the show’s streetwise Lady Macbeth. Her tone had been artificially casual, diffident, with an undertone of defensiveness. “What’re you up to tonight? Heard about a new Thai place down in the Village.”

“Darrell…”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. Nothing involved, Lis — just dinner. What do you say? Be a nice change.”

The actress glanced uneasily down the corridor. “I got a family thing tonight. Sister’s in town. Maybe some other time.”

And that was when Darrell knew.

West Avon, Connecticut

Wednesday, April 15

Connie finally located his father in the basement, poring as usual through his clips, the effusive local reviews of his performances. The local rags had never been anything but effusive: The community theater bought several dozen column inches of ad space a year, and the would-be thespians who trod upon its boards – mostly area merchants, community leaders, and their idle spouses – were good for a few hundred more each.

But for 40-plus years, Errol had bought wholesale into his own press, and as his body and mind began to lapse and the parts became more infrequent and miniscule, the retired jeweler spent more time here in his paneled cellar rec room, dirtying his fingers with old newsprint and clearing his mind of unpleasant reality.

Errol glanced up at his burly son, and grinned. “Conrad, do you remember

Oliver? That was your first performance – our first performance together.”

Connie took a breath. His father and his late mother – who’d been equally enamored of hayseed theatrics – had dragged him to auditions and dress rehearsals instead of Little League games, and by adolescence, he rejected the stage with a vengeance (fortunately, Errol was as influential with local law enforcement as he was with the press). When Errol had decided to leave the family business to his now-diligent and rather stodgy son 15 years previous, Connie had felt a shadow fall away from his life.

Until the craziness. Or at least Connie’s discovery of it.

“Pop,” Conrad now interrupted. “You’ve been at it again, haven’t you? You even left the soldering equipment plugged in. You’re gonna burn us to the ground some day.”

Errol set his scrapbook aside, eyes refusing to meet his son’s stern eyes. “I have no idea—”

“We talked about this. After that Baldwin thing, you promised to knock it off. Someday, this is going to boomerang on all of us. Somebody’ll sue, the cops’ll be around, and there’ll go the shop. You want that?”

The old man struggled out of his recliner. “There’s nothing illegal about what I’m doing. It’s—”

“Yeah, I know, Pop. The family legacy. Great-grandpa, grandpa, you. Well, the crazy train stops here. This is 2007. How many this time? Tell me they haven’t gone out.”

“I still own the shop,” Errol quavered. “On paper.”

For the first time, Connie grinned, but utterly without filial warmth. “Not if I have to get power of attorney. You think if I tell a court what kind of loony horseshit you’ve been up to down here, I couldn’t get you shipped off to Shady Acres somewhere?”

Errol’s eyes filled with fear, and his square jaw quivered. Then he snatched up his scrapbook and dived back into the yellowed clips, dismissively.

Connie stood for a moment, contemplating another threat. Then, wearily, he started back up the stairs. Errol already was smiling again, secretive, immersed in his memories.

The Shiban Theater

Manhattan, New York

Wednesday, April 15

“I don’t know,” Simon Yates rumbled, adjusting his designer glasses and tapping the latest set of proofs. “‘Elliott Forester’…Who knows Elliott Forester is Big Noyz? Shit, I didn’t even know who Big Noyz was ‘til my kid busted my stones for some SNL tickets to see him strut around and grab himself on stage. ”

Stanford Grant waited patiently. Yates was one of the production’s major backers, and the most hands-on. He was a real estate whiz, a few significant notches down the ladder from Trump but with cultural pretensions and an ego that made The Donald seem like St. Francis of Assisi. Simon Yates constantly dropped names — African-American literati and laureates and playwrights with whom he’d shared brief chats at fundraisers and with whom Stanford had shared years of cultural struggle and social evolution.

But Stanford’s socialistic fervor had faded over the decades as his Pulitzer gathered dust and the capital of poseurs like Yates become increasingly crucial to realizing his vision. He nodded and smiled sagely when they’d show up unannounced, offering an occasional anecdote or literary reflection for his patrons to lap thirstily up.

“Now, Cindra and I used to catch Ailey’s company from time to time. There was an artist…”

“Muthahfuck—?”

Stanford’s bifocals dropped into his lap as his eyes were drawn to the stage and the source of the outraged cry. He’d called a brief break after the reading had started to go stale, and the actors and crew had reformed into murmuring cliques and couples. Now, the Shiban auditorium had gone silent save a few echoing scuffles and angry upraised voices, and the assembled players were a single knot upstage left.

“Excuse me, Simon,” Stanford rumbled, shoving out of his seat and sprinting up the proscenium stairs. The throng parted for the legendary playwright/director, who stopped dead as he stared at the two men on the stage floor.

Eliott Forester, in the hockey jersey and doo-rag from Act 2, had Darrell Ives pinned to the floor with one muscular forearm. Ives’s fists flailed at the rapper, and the veins stood out on his broad forehead.

“What is this shit?” Stanford roared, and the entire company backed away as one. Except for Forester.

“Listen,” “Big Noyz” growled, almost inaudibly. “Ain’t no ballet class here, biatch. You best back up off my tip.”

“Elliott!” Grant shouted. Elliott looked up blandly, his arm still in place across Ives’ trachea.

“’Sup, Chief?”

“Let him up,” Grant ordered. “I mean right now, son.”

Elliott’s eyes turned to obsidian. Then he smiled and released the young actor and climbed to his feet with a grin. “Sho, Pops. Need to blow this fag stand anyway.” Grant’s Mac B. launched into a James Mason dialect. “However, you might talk to this mizark about some simple civility, what, old bean? Later.”

Elliott strolled casually from the stage and up the aisle. As the auditorium door echoed shut, Grant turned to Darrell, who was massaging his Adam’s apple.

“All I said—”

“No,” Grant boomed, his voice subarctic. “I do not want to know.”

“Hey,” Darrell protested. “This wasn’t my—”

The playwright glanced at Yates, who was craning to understand the encounter he’d witnessed from the bleachers. “Why don’t you just step outside, take a walk around the block?” he suggested calmly. “When you come back, son, take a look at the marquee. See whose name that is up above the title.”

Grant stalked off, and Darrell staggered to his feet. He caught Lisette’s eye, and she disappeared into the shadows.

Residence of Elliot Forester

Manhattan, New York

Wednesday, April 15

Ian Pryce sighed in exasperation at the gaping loft door. He was used to dealing with prima donnas – he’d handled hotel-trashing rockers in the ‘70s, Prozac-munching grungers in the ‘80s, and hair-triggered divas for most of the ‘90s. Hip-hop was no different. But the transplanted New Yorker was getting older (“The Royal Mutha,” Forester had homophobically dubbed him after watching a Biography segment on Prince Charles), and at times, Forester challenged even his managerial skill.

Pryce had agreed at Forester’s agitated summons to drop the script off at his “crib.” Same old rubbish – lots of guns and by-the-numbers martial arts. When he heard about Stanford Grant’s hip-hop comeback attempt, Pryce had steered Simon Yates and the others toward “Big Noyz” in an effort to broaden the rapper’s portfolio, open some new doors, but old habits, as they say.

“Elliott?” Pryce inquired. He could hear a baseball game on Forester’s 60-inch plasma – the Mitts, or whatever their names were. He waited for a response and then, fuming, nudged the heavy steel-reinforced door further open. The odor hit him first – acrid, smoky, and organic. Pryce tensed. Forester did some coke – who didn’t, right? – as well as that nauseating “syrup” he mixed up, but he hadn’t started freebasing, had he? After what happened to Rich Pryor? Jesus, this wasn’t what meth smelled like, was it?

Formulating a stern lecture on the evils of drugs – at least, low-rent, flammable drugs – the manager squared his shoulders and marched into the loft.

“Oh, my–” Pryce gagged, his stomach seizing. He fired a stream of cherry Riesling duck and fennel onto the hardwood floor and fell to his knees, unable to tear his eyes from the grisly tableau before him.

As Pryce tried to work up a serviceable scream, Forester’s corpse seemed to be grinning over his plight…

**

“I heard this was the hottest show on Broadway,” Det. Alexandra Eames breathed as she took in the corpse. “Looks like the critics really hit the mark for once.”

A momentary twitch of the lip was the only indication of Robert Goren’s appreciation for his diminutive partner’s dark quip. He moved swiftly past the uniforms and techs who now crowded Elliot Forester’s loft and kneeled before the late actor. Even crouching, the hulking detective was able to stare directly into Forester’s eyes – at least, the charred holes where they had been. He frowned, then surveyed the victim’s unburnt left hand, dangling over the side of the thick leather recliner and sporting a huge gold ring encrusted with a diamond monogram.

“‘BN,’ ” Eames observed.

“Big Noyz,” Goren supplied. “Forester was a rapper, East Coast. Won a couple Grammies, made the cover of Time five years ago. For a while, he was up there with Snoop, Diddy, Flava Flav…”

Eames smirked, again astonished by the breadth of Goren’s eclectic and esoteric knowledge. “You’re into rap?”

He looked up, a boyish smile momentarily brightening his intense features. “I’m fascinated by hip-hop language – the economy, the punch. The outgrowth of a subculture plagued by poverty and violence – volumes of expression and emotion condensed into a single word or phrase, in-your-face onomatopoeia.” Goren’s hands were now flailing and chopping at the air. “And constant evolution. Forester was a casualty of an industry in perpetual flux – while a new generation of gangstas was coming on, he was still kickin’ it old school.”

“Well, he’s not kicking any more,” Eames reflected soberly. She glanced around Forester’s loft, decadently furnished and stocked with a pair of pool tables, a Jacuzzi, three pinball machines, and a bank of retro arcade games. “Doesn’t look like he was on hard times.”

“He had his own reality show on VH-1, and he’s been in a couple of films. Street Noyz got some pretty good box office last year, and he landed a role in a new hip-hop version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Mack’d.”

“That oughtta pack in the visiting Illinoisans,” his partner mused.

“Look at the chair,” Goren murmured, cocking his head as his attention returned to the crime scene. “Hardly any damage. The charring is confined almost exclusively to the body.” He leaned back, gazed into the corpse’s face. “I’ve seen something like this before – well, at least photos of it.”

“What?”

Goren turned. “Ever heard of spontaneous human combustion?”

“Sure,” Eames nodded, non-commitally. “I’ve read several accounts, waiting at the supermarket checkout. Along with alien abductions and Brad and Angelina’s latest adoption.”

Goren didn’t hear her jibe – he now was displaying a small, dark brown object between his gloved thumb and forefinger. Eames’ nose wrinkled.

“It was under his chair. Looks like a chocolate-covered almond. Dark chocolate.” He turned to a tech dusting the doorknob. “You wanna bag this? Looks like a partial.” Goren grunted as he climbed to his feet, then bent over the end table next to the corpse. He waved the tech back. “Looks like a drink ring, but it’s too, uh, too viscous. Tacky – hasn’t fully dried. Test it, too.”

He turned back to Eames. “You like dark or light chocolate?”

“White.”

“Most people like one or another,” Goren explained, scanning the room. He stepped around a tech analyzing a ball of fuzz on the hardwood floor and reached into a bowl on a fully stocked mahogany bar. “M&Ms.” He popped a blue candy into his mouth. “Pure milk chocolate.”

Eames shrugged at the crouching tech as her partner disappeared into the kitchen beyond. She found Goren leaning into a vault-sized, brushed steel fridge. He emerged hefting a parcel wrapped in butcher paper. “Burger wrappers, takeout ‘que in the garbage; cabinets are full of sugar and empty calories. Bag of Snickers, bag of Kit Kats – more milk chocolate.” He extended the package toward Eames. “This was the only ‘fresh’ food in the refrigerator. Salmon.”

“So he died of what? Poor nutrition? Mercury poisoning?”

Goren’s lip again twitched in appreciation. He crossed back though the main room and into Forester’s bedroom.

Eames blinked at the threshold. “Who was he expecting? The entire Laker Girls squad?”

“I saw it on Cribs a few years back,” Goren murmured, stepping around the huge canopied bed. He entered a walk-in closet the size of a Fortune 50 corporate conference room, glancing at a staggering array of streetwear, a rack of European suits no doubt reserved for premieres and awards shows, a tall jewelry armoire loaded with Forester’s bling, and a collection of footwear worthy of the late Imelda Marcos. “See that area over there?” Goren indicated. “Most of the racks are packed tight, but you can see the clothes are spaced out evenly on this one.”

“Somebody moved out, and recently,” Eames observed. “And tried to cover it up. A woman would probably have had all her clothes in one section. There’d either be one single gap, or Forester would’ve spread out his other stuff, filled it in.”

“If she’d moved out under ordinary circumstances, why would she try to conceal that she’d even been here?” Goren asked. “Presumably, nobody would even come in here except Forester.”

“Except us,” Eames concluded, grimly. Her head jerked toward the main room. “You think Forester’s squeeze did that? I’ve heard of a woman scorned, but this…” She paused, crossing her arms and leaning against the closet doorjamb. “Were you serious about that spontaneous combustion thing?”

Goren stared at Forester’s wardrobe as if it suddenly would provide illumination. “I don’t know. That’s why I think I’ll call in a second opinion.”

Major Case Squad

New York Police Department

Thursday, April 16

Capt. Danny Ross had taken over the squad only a few months before, after Jim Deakins put in his papers under circumstances that weren’t widely discussed in the department. But after a three-year stint with the Joint Task Force on International Money Laundering, Ross was able to read “feds” on this pair the minute they’d stepped into the squadroom. He sighed and moved to intercept.

“Captain Ross, Major Case. Help you folks?” he smiled tightly.

The man, a fortysomething male in a standard-issue black suit, returned the greeting with a warm, if wary, grin. “Special Agent Fox Mulder, FBI.” He nodded toward his much shorter female partner, who was not grinning. “This is Special Agent Dana Scully.”

“Ah,” Ross commented, imparting volumes with a single syllable. Mulder’s smile faltered.

“Uh, is Bobby Goren around?”

“Ah,” Ross repeated, still smiling but with an entirely different tone.

**

“There are some unusual dimensions to this case,” Goren explained.

“So I heard,” Ross said neutrally. Eames stood beside the captain’s file cabinet, silent but supportive.

“The fire that killed Forester caused nearly no damage to the crime scene,” the detective continued. “His left hand also was undamaged. That’s consistent with cases of what’s called spontaneous human combustion.”

Ross looked to the two FBI agents for some sign of the bureaucratic incredulity that normally greeted Goren’s arcane theories. There was none. “Hold up. You mean like when somebody just bursts into flame for no reason?”

“Not necessarily for no reason,” Agent Mulder protested, drawing a strange look from Ross. “Maybe just reasons we haven’t come to fully comprehend. But SHC has been extensively documented by reputable scientists. Medieval literature’s full of references to spontaneous combustion. One of the more prominent modern-day victims was George I. Mott, about 20 years ago. Mott was a fireman who burned to death in his home outside Crown Point, New York. His body was consumed along with the mattress he was lying on, except for a leg, an implausibly shrunken skull, and a piece of rib cage.”

“I remember the case,” Goren nodded. Ross sighed. “The fire investigators suggested his death may have been caused by an electrical arc that shot out of an outlet, or a gas leak.”

“And he wasn’t wearing his medically prescribed oxygen mask,” Mulder added. “Mott was 58 – many reported SHC victims are elderly. Was the ceiling in the victim’s apartment burnt?” Goren nodded. “SHC victims usually are burned more severely than others, and the high, localized heat often burns objects well above the victim. The age bothers me a little – you say Noyz was 32?” Ross’ brow rose at the fed’s use of Forester’s rap moniker. “But if he was a celebrity, heavy drinking is probably a factor, right?”

“Oh, yeah,” said Eames, who’d inspected Forester’s lavishly stocked bar and wine cooler.

Ross turned to Scully, who’d remained mute. “What about you, Agent? You buy this spontaneous combustion theory?”

“Well,” she drawled, somewhat reluctantly, “the very definition of an accident is the convergence of freak circumstances. Here, we’d need two basic circumstances: Something that precipitated the fire that killed the victim, and an accelerant – a combustible substance that caused the fire to spread. Supporters of SHC suggest a link with what’s called the ‘wick effect” – the combustion and melting of body fat, the way people used to use animal tallow to light or heat their homes. Without arguing what may have precipitated the fire, I’d suggest the human body’s like an insulated furnace – an environment full of potential fuel but not enough oxygen to allow fire to spread beyond the body cavity.”

“There goes today’s prime rib,” Ross grimaced. “OK, it’s a legitimate avenue. But the arson investigator’s office is already on the case, right? No offense, but why do we need the FBI?”

“Fox — Agent Mulder – is an old acquaintance of mine, from some time I spent at Oxford,” Goren said. “He has some specialized areas of expertise that could help our investigation. He’s an expert in folklore and the occult, and the play Macbeth – the basis for Mack’d – is steeped in theatrical lore.”

“Wonderful.”

“Even to this day, classically trained actors consider it bad luck to mention Macbeth by name while inside a theatre, they usually refer to it as The Scottish Play or sometimes, ‘The Scottish King,’” Mulder explained. “Because it was such a familiar work, productions that failed to draw a crowd frequently were replaced with Macbeth. Thus, to say the name of the play inside a theatre was believed to doom the production to failure, or even precipitate injuries or worse to cast members.”

“In 1882, on the closing night of a production, an actor named J. H. Barnes was engaged in a scene with another actor when Barnes accidentally thrust his sword directly into his partner’s chest. In 1926, actress Sybil Thorndike was almost strangled by an actor, and during the first modern-dress production at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1928, a large set fell, injuring some of the cast seriously, and a fire broke out in the theater.”

“In the early ‘30s, grande dame Lillian Boylis died on the day of final dress rehearsal portraying Lady MacBeth,” Goren continued. “Her portrait was hung in the theatre, and when another production of the play was having its opening, the portrait fell from the wall. In 1934, actor Malcolm Keen turned mute onstage, and his replacement, Alistair Sim, had to be hospitalized with a high fever. In 1936, Orson Welles’ so-called ‘voodoo MacBeth’ production, the cast included African drummers and a genuine witch doctor who were displeased after critic Percy Hammond slammed the show. Supposedly, the shaman placed a curse on Hammond, who died within a couple of weeks.”

Mulder nodded enthusiastically. “Don’t forget Olivier. In 1937, Laurence Olivier was rehearsing the play at London’s Old Vic when a falling stage weight missed him by inches. If that wasn’t enough, the director and the actress playing Lady Macduff were involved in a car accident on the way to the theatre, and the theater manager died of a heart attack during dress rehearsal.”

“Hey, and remember Alec Baldwin?”

“And now for ‘Best Actress in a Musical,’ ” Capt. Ross intervened. “This little Broadway moment have any significance to the case at hand? Shakespeare’s been on the Top 40 for what, nearly 400 years or so? That’s about, oh, a good 350 years on ‘Hello, Dolly’? Stands to reason there’d be a few more pratfalls in the wings over the years. I know I’ve about fallen out of my seat a few times myself ‘enjoying’ the Bard. This ‘curse’ is probably just the odds playing out.”

“But it’s a powerful, enduring piece of theater lore,” Goren said. “It could be a colorful media cover for a seemingly supernatural death. The Post had a sidebar on the Macbeth curse just this morning. The killer’s got a built-in smokescreen.”

“If there was a killer,” Mulder suggested. “Throughout the Middle Ages into the 1800s, its been suggested that spontaneous human combustion was a punishment for sinful or evil acts. From what I’ve seen on E! and MTV, Big Noyz knew how to part-ay reasonably hearty.”

Ross exchanged looks with Eames, who looked to Scully. Scully shrugged.

“Just spitballing,” Mulder smiled.

Ross reached for the knob. “Exit, stage left.”

**

Dr. Elizabeth Rodgers regarded the charred corpse on the steel table with one last dispassionate shake of the head, wiping her palms on her morgue scrubs. “Lenny Briscoe took me to a production of Macbeth one time, back when he was at the Two-Seven. Trying to impress me, I guess, and he did, ‘til he started snoring during the second act.”

“What did the lungs look like?” Scully gently prodded her fellow pathologist. She’d resisted Mulder’s suggestion to mix-and-match partners: Scully had run afoul of Goren about a year ago on a case with personal implications, and she’d picked up on his suspicion she’d been holding back. Which she had been. But Scully was determined not to allow this brutishly brilliant cop control the entire case.

The middle-aged M.E. looked to Goren, who nodded toward Scully with a bemused smile. “Soot and scorching in the throat, lungs, and stomach – what’s left of them, that is. He was alive, God save him. Really freaky – the esophageal and digestive tract appear to be the point of origin. Was he with the circus?” the lean redhead mused.

“Not in the conventional sense,” Goren said. “You think he was forced to swallow the accelerant?”

Rodgers leaned against the counter, shrugged. “Tissue and organ damage was so extensive – most of the evidence probably went up in flames. But I don’t see any sign of restraint – no ligature marks, cuts, or defensive wounds. If he were drugged or drunk, maybe…”

Goren glanced at the now-covered remains of Elliott Forester. “Alcoholism’s a pretty common factor in SHC cases, isn’t it?”

The pathologist arched an eyebrow, and Scully felt a spark of triumph. “Spontaneous human combustion? I don’t know.” Scully’s spark extinguished. “I talked to one of the guys investigated the Mott case a few years ago – you know, the Crown Point fireman went up in his bed? I guess there are some similarities, like Forester’s hand — except it was a leg in Mott’s case. Mott was a smoker and a drinker, I remember tight. Guess I’ve seen stranger things. You might want to be careful broadcasting that theory, though, Bobby, especially with the feds involved.”

“Oh, I’ve heard pretty much everything,” Scully breathed. “You have the victim’s personal effects?”

Rodgers nodded and retrieved an evidence bag from a table near the body. Goren examined its contents. “A little pocket money, cell phone – we’ll want to check the call log – and Forester’s keys.” The cop frowned. “What’s this?”

Scully peered at the small object in the corner of the suspended bag. An eagle’s head floated above an armored helmet, which topped a shield. A black, scalloped ‘X” or diagonal cross was emblazoned on the shield. “It looks like a family crest or something.”

“What’s the legend say?” Goren squinted. “‘Regardez mon droit.’ It’s, ah, French. Respect my right.”

“Heraldry and rappers?” Scully pondered.

“It’s a strongly hierarchical subculture – grandiose, almost regal titles; heavy use of symbolic devices; an emphasis on respect and a sort of internal honor. You can order your family genealogy and coat of arms from any number of websites. Strange…”

“A little.”

“No, I mean, it’s hand-crafted. Metal setting, ceramic inlays. Cheap-looking materials, but some obvious skill went into making it.” Goren turned the evidence bag. “And look — you see any pin, any eyelet for a necklace or bracelet? What’s its function? A lucky charm?”

Rodgers nodded toward Forester’s ravaged remains. “Then he should get a refund.”

Apartment of Stanford Grant

Central Park West, New York

Thursday, April 16

“Wow, an Edmund Dulac.”

Stanford Grant turned, greeting Mulder’s boyish enthusiasm with a sudden smile. He regarded the poster that had attracted the agent – a chilling depiction of a redheaded warrior watching stoically as three witches watched over their roiling cauldron.

“Reproduction, of course. Bought it in London years ago. It’s from a 1911production at His Majesty’s Theater. It’s my favorite – the most expressive rendering I’ve ever seen.” Grant set Mulder and Eames’ steaming mugs on a long African teak table flanked by three leather club chairs. “You a fan of Shakespeare or of Victorian graphic arts?”

Mulder settled into his chair, glancing out the penthouse window at Central Park. “Just all things mordant and macabre. I did see the Scottish play once when I was at Oxford. I think maybe Ian McKellen was the lead.”

“Oxford? Edmund Dulac?” The producer lowered himself into the thick leather. “I hope this doesn’t offend, but you surprise me.”

Mulder grinned, sipping his Kenya AA. “Well, I’ve always had a fascination with MacBeth. At least, the folklore surrounding it. By the way, love the new title. ‘I love the ladies and they love me back. Now who’s the Mack?’” He turned to Eames. “Ice T.”

The detective smiled tolerantly. The ride over had been enough of a trip.

“My, you are eclectic,” Grant chuckled. “It was a fortunate accident of linguistics. As you noted, in hip-hop argot, a ‘mack’ is a ladies man. It also refers to an uzi, and to get your mack on, well, Agent Mulder, I’m going to guess you can surmise that one. Sex and violence and power – the gangsta life encapsulated. And if that wasn’t enough, to put your mack on means to dance, to get your groove on. Perfect for Broadway’s next hit musical, eh?”

“Plus, it’s a nifty way to get around the Macbeth curse,” Mulder suggested.

“The curse?” Grant stroked his gray brush mustache with amusement. “Surely you don’t subscribe to that old superstition, do you, Agent?”

“The play does contain very strong occult themes, and its history is riddled with controversy,” Mulder suggested before Eames could divert the conversation to matters less ethereal. “Every major playwright or author strikes a few nerves. I’m sure you flared a few tempers writing about American race relations, poverty, Vietnam in the ‘70s. In Shakespeare’s day, the Catholic Church was still pretty worked up over Jacobean witchcraft. In the late 16th Century, Scotland’s King James accused a group of Scottish witches of trying to kill him by raising storms at sea and casting spells with wax images. He even wrote a tract called Daemonologie to wake the public up about the evils of witchcraft. The play already was loaded with controversy: Shakespeare’s inspiration for Macbeth was the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, when Catholic conspirators tried to blow up King James and his entire Parliament.”

“So what, the Catholic church put a whammy on Old Bill?” the producer chuckled. “Or maybe just a pissed-off witch or two? I’m guessing you’ve read the speculation Shakespeare used real incantations in the text of the play, and that that didn’t sit too well with some of the more serious black arts practitioners of the day.” Grant’s smile disappeared. “Actually, Macbeth’s been my life’s blessing — I’d likely have never seen my 18th birthday if some liberal actor hadn’t decided to bring Shakespeare to Chicago’s inner city schools. Where I caught the bug, so to speak. I owe The Bard a debt I can never repay. That aside, as much as I’m enjoying dissecting the Scottish Play with you, I have to assume you’re seeking a more earthly culprit for that poor man’s murder.”

“We do understand there were some tensions among your cast,” Eames ventured.

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Grant laughed. “That’s like saying there’s an air of competition at a Knicks game. Tension – interpersonal antipathy, thespian rivalry, even sexual tension — makes for good theater. Sometimes, you throw a grenade into the mix, and you get something truly phenomenal.”

“Forester was the grenade?”

“Poor turn of phrase, sorry. But, yes, I suppose he was. When we brought the show to Broadway, the feeling was that a recognized member of the hip-hop community would bring a raw veracity to the lead.” Grant spotted something on Mulder’s face. “And, yes, we realized his, ah, notoriety couldn’t hurt sales – could maybe even bring a new audience to Broadway. Look at the box office popularity of Queen Latifah, Sean Combs’ success in the 2004 revival of Raisin in the Sun. Of course, Elliot’s professional and personal style sometimes clashed with the rest of the cast. He was somewhat more autonomous than formally trained actors.”

“I heard he got fairly autonomous on Darrell Ives’ ass the day he was killed,” Mulder suggested.

Grant was silent for a moment. “Well, I know it was difficult for Darryl when the decision was made to cast Elliot in the lead. I mean, Darryl was the primary force behind taking the production to Broadway. Plus, Elliot wasn’t accustomed to the team dynamic of the theater. He had the moves down – lot of choreography in his concert routines – and he could do the lines. But he wasn’t used to taking direction and working with classically trained performers. There was a fairly deep cultural rift, absolutely. But nothing that would lead to what…happened to Elliot. If anything,…”

“What, Mr. Grant?” Eames coaxed.

The playwright sighed. “Well, I just can’t see anyone in our production being capable of this kind of violence. If anything, and I hate to contemplate this, but if anything, I wonder if Elliot’s world didn’t catch up to him. Drugs, his old gang ties. I don’t know. ‘Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.’”

“‘Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in,’” Mulder responded in a bad Pacino.

“Or as they used to say in my old ‘hood, ‘What goes around comes around,’” Grant murmured.

Tri-B Studios

Brooklyn. New York

Thursday, April 16

“Bobby G!” The lanky young man leapt from his seat at the mixing board and pulled Goren into a bear hug.

“Sorry about your cousin,” the cop murmured, returning the embrace. Tyrese Forester pulled back with a somber expression, acknowledging his sympathies with a curt nod.

“You gonna get the man did this?” Tyrese turned to Scully. “Man here saved my skinny ass, sholda than show. My brother and me was with a crew outta the Bronx – shit, I was, what, 13? — and Bobby started gettin’ all up in my face.”

“I was working Narcotics then,” Goren smiled, as if they were swapping family reminiscences.

“Yeah, this Frankenstein-lookin’ cracker come around, on our turf, pumpin’ all this mad shit to my boys how he’s gonna shut us down, put us up north? Well, he finds out the feds, they gonna crash our shit, and rousts me right on the street ‘side my mama’s house. I was ready to bust a cap in his cracker ass, but one of our boys been bangin’ this bitch ran with one of the southside crews, and they beat the Dee-Eee-Ay boys by a couple hours. Execution style, straight up – El hadn’t drove Mama to my aunt’s funeral that day, been me haulin’ his coffin. Didn’t have much of a crew after that, and Bobby here gets me on cleanin’ up the studio. They taught me how to work the board, got me a union card, and now I don’t have to worry ‘bout getting’ my ass capped.”

“You think that’s what happened to your cousin?” Scully inquired.

“Naw, El been outta that shit for years, ever since he went platinum,” Tyrese responded. He was a player – gettin’ crunk, flamboastin’ like Snoop. Truth, he loved the gangsta life but never had the heart for the rough shit. Party, that was El.”

Goren glanced into the booth, where a burly man was arguing animatedly with an older man who’d adopted a patient ref pose, hands on hips. “Tyrese, I listened to some of your cousin’s tracks last night. He was fond of screwing mixes, wasn’t he?”

“Yeah, I guess,” the younger Forester answered softly, with a slightly defensive tone. “You askin’ was he sippin’?”

“Was he?” the detective prodded, eyes locked on Tyrese’s. The young man sighed and nodded. “Screwing means to play a record slow – makes the bass come out better, and it’s easier to mix with ballads. It’s especially popular with people who ‘sip syrup’ – blend promethazine or other codeine-based cough suppressants with Sprite, 7-Up, other drinks, to get a psychedelic feel when they listen to ‘screw mixes.’ There was a fairly new ring on the table next to the chair where Elliott…died. The lab reported it was promethazine mixed with codeine. But we couldn’t find any syrup anywhere in the apartment.”

“So El wasn’t no Mutha Teresa. What’s that got to do with this shit?”

“It may have to do with how he died. I think maybe the killer took the bottle away. Tyrese, he have anything going on? I mean, a woman?”

“Like I said, El was a player. Girl was a bobblehead, you know?” Forester offered an illustrative gesture, ducking his head repeatedly. Then he glanced at Scully. “Sorry. She was like Baskin-Robbins – always after the flava of the month, and El was Deluxe Rocky Road. But it got El sprung, idea of getting’ his mack on with some debutante Meryl Streep wannabe. He was a player, and he was gonna hit that long as he could.”

“Ah, the romance of the theater,” Scully rhapsodized.

Langston Hughes High School

Harlem, New York

Thursday, April 16

“Of this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen, who, as ’tis thought, by self and violent hands took off her life; this, and what needful else that calls upon us, by the grace of Grace. We will perform in measure, time and place: So, thanks to all at once and to each one, whom we invite to see us crown’d at Scone.”

Darrell Ives bowed with a flourish, and the quintet of students that comprised Langston Hughes’ Drama Club burst into a brief smattering of applause. As he jumped from the cafetorium “stage” with a stiff smile, the club’s faculty sponsor offered an effusive expression of gratitude as the club’s members nodded perfunctorily. He offered the usual platitudes about hard work and focus and persistence, and bid a hasty adieu.

Halfway across the scuffed linoleum, Ives slowed. In the doorway were the cops who’d come around asking about Forester that morning, the quiet redhead and the devious giant. The giant beamed welcomingly, and Ives’ guard went up.

“Nice,” Goren observed as the actor approached, warily eyeing the pair. “I mean, giving back to the community that way.”

Ives smiled tightly, trying to figure out whether this was a dig at his Long Island upbringing. “Stanford says it’s my responsibility as an artist – to bring my art to the people, to the streets.” He glanced back at a couple of snickering teens. “Personally, I’m not so sure I stimulated any young minds today – can’t imagine Jacobean theater’s really relevant to them — but it’s important to Stanford.”

“Good to see you don’t bear any ill will toward him,” Goren interjected. “Grant, that is. I mean, him replacing you with Forester and all…”

“Forester had marketing value,” Ives sighed, as if he’d memorized the line. “Stanford made a savvy marketing move. Besides, I don’t expect Forester would’ve been around forever. Lot of the reason guys like him get into the gangs is they’re ADD – attention deficit. He’d have had his fun and moved on to the next CD or action thriller.”

“And then you’d be back in the lead,” Scully suggested. “Congratulations, by the way.”

“Isn’t the way I wanted it. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”

Goren turned toward the front entrance to the aging school, glancing past the stoic security guard. “Oh, your cab isn’t here yet. We could give you a ride back to the theater, you want.”

“Uh, no. Thanks. It should be here any second,” Ives said longingly.

“Sure it makes things easier for you, though,” Goren contemplated.

“What?”

“Forester being gone. I mean, we heard about the little scuffle between you and Forester on stage the other day.” Goren smiled sympathetically. “Must’ve been pretty humiliating.”

“He only humiliated himself,” Ives snapped without much conviction. “It was stupid, juvenile.”

“Like a schoolyard fight. Probably a woman involved, right?” Goren grinned and looked to Scully, who arched an eyebrow. She was beginning to get used to his antics.

“There it is,” Ives announced, pushing past Goren. “You got any more questions, I gave you my lawyer’s card yesterday. Good luck.”

The actor practically flew down the front steps of the school, past the concrete schoolyard, and into a cab driven by a white-bearded Sikh. Goren and Scully watched the taxi lurch from the curb.

“I don’t know,” the agent murmured. “Burning Forester alive for a part? Or a woman?”

Goren nodded absently. “You saw how uncomfortable he was in there with those kids. He couldn’t wait to escape. But Grant said it was ‘important.’ He worships him, like a son worships a father. A prodigal son.”

“Ives killed Forester because of some kind of Freudian displacement complex?” Scully challenged. “Methinks you doth read too much Shakespeare.”

“The whole killing had a melodramatic, almost staged aspect,” Goren countered. “And if Ives felt Forester were somehow desecrating Grant’s play, he might’ve been subconsciously inclined to imbue the murder with the trappings of the Macbeth curse.”

Scully shook her head. “I bet you and Mulder were a blast at the frat house.”

West Avon, Connecticut

Thursday, April 16

Errol’s cup rattled on its saucer with the impact of Connie’s moist, meaty palm. His son’s face was florid, distraught, dangerous.

“You did it, didn’t you?” Conrad had always approached Errol’s obsession – his family’s obsession – with cold rationality. It was impossible, imponderable. But at the same time, he pondered the possibility, dug into dusty and digital archives, exhaustively researched it. It peeked from beneath the mental door behind which Conrad had securely confined it. It was unbelievable but somehow undeniable.

“Listen to yourself,” Errol sneered, daubing his spilled coffee with his napkin. He was an absurd figure of antiquated gentility. A cloth napkin for breakfast? And who used a saucer any more? “The man’s death is unfortunate. But even if I accept responsibility for what happened, do you honestly believe the police are intelligent enough – open enough – to grasp the significance of my ‘gift’?”

“Jesus, Pop,” Connie whined. “The guy was famous, and the way he was killed. If they can even trace it back to us, there’ll be questions. And if they look back, Jesus.”

“It’s done.” Errol folded his Times to the daily crossword, and not for the first time, Conrad considered choking the life from the old man, throttling the smug delusion from him. His knotted fingers straightened as realization hit home.

“You didn’t send just the one, did you?” he asked, voice tinged with dread.

“I followed the traditional custom,” his father mumbled, scratching at the boxes on the pages.

Conrad dropped into a chair, jaw slack, mind racing, as Errol drifted away…

Residence of Todd Frankel

Brooklyn, New York

Friday, April 17

“Old Dungeons and Dragons partner?” Eames asked, eyeing the array of swords, shields, crests, and medieval figurines lining Todd Frankel’s cramped and cluttered Brooklyn apartment.

Mulder grinned at Eames’ jibe. She had Scully’s sardonic wit, but with a streetwise cynicism she likely had inherited from her cop father and honed during her tour in NYPD Vice. “Todd’s helped me out on a couple of cases — genealogy, Druidic lore, stuff like that. Besides programming games, he’s written four or five books on the Middle Ages and the Carolingian Renaissance. Besides, I was into Tetris and Galaga — Dungeons and Dragons was for geeks. How’s it coming, Todd?”

“Hold your ass, Mulder,” the balding gnomish young man growled in a thick Big Apple patois, rapping keys with one mustard-stained finger while grabbing another bite of Big Mac and washing it down with a supersized Coke. A speck of ground beef fell from Todd Crichton’s lips as they curled into a triumphant smile. “Fuckin’ A — I thought so. C’mere.”

Mulder leaned over Todd’s shoulder, Eames less so.

“Thought I recognized the family legend, that engrailed saltire — the cross thing there — looks like piranhas been workin’ on it. Middleton crest. Whatcha call a habitation name — geographical, like middle town, you know? It’s some pretty ancient Anglo Saxon shit — there’s a lotta Middletons, like Chins in a Chinese phonebook, you know? You know the joke, right?”

Eames uttered an impatient response.

“There’s a couple famous Middletons. Lilly Munster — Yvonne deCarlo, cacked a few months back? — her real name was Middleton. Then there was Tommy Middleton — Thomas Middleton. Wrote plays back in the 17th Century, kinda Shakespeare light.”

“Todd,” Mulder drawled. “Were Shakespeare and Middleton contemporaries?”

“They were homies, kinda — if you consider Shakespeare Tupac and Middleton Kool Moe Dee. Both of ‘em could write both comedy and tragedy, which was kinda unusual back in the day. But you only hear about one of Middleton’s plays today — The Changeling? They did it as a movie a couple of times, I think. Otherwise, nobody much ever hears of him no more. Oh, and Middleton was kinda a Jacobean script doctor, too. Even gave Shakespeare some help one time.”

“What play?” Mulder asked anxiously.

“Macbeth. Most of the Weird Sisters shit — you know, ‘double, double, toil, and trouble’ — was from Middleton’s The Witch. Wasn’t even part of Shakespeare’s original story, but old Will gets all the credit.” Todd retrieved his dripping burger. “I was Middleton, I’d be royally pissed.”

**

“And the purpose of this little academic exercise was….?” Eames inquired.

“To address the anomaly,” Mulder said, eyeing the prodigious double cheese slice the counterboy’d deposited before him. It was early, and Angie’s Little Pizza Heaven was empty save the pair.

Eames gathered her slice and Diet Pepsi and followed him to a corner table near the Simpsons video game. “Glad we cleared that one up.”

Mulder grinned crookedly. “Anomalies clog the investigative process. You have to clear out the puzzle pieces that don’t fit, the odder odds and ends, the divergences from everyday routine and personal psychology. Then, you can see the bigger picture – the true pattern of the crime. Besides,” the agent added, tearing into his slice, “anomalies are bitchin’ cool.”

Eames studied the anomaly across the table. He made Bobby look like the picture of stodgy conventionalism, and with her partner, the weaving, meandering ride inevitably wound up somewhere worthwhile. “I’ll admit, I am curious what Bog Noyz and medieval heraldry have in common.”

“The crest wasn’t a piece of jewelry – it had no hardware. And it wasn’t Forester’s crest. Instead, it belongs to a family with whom Shakespeare was associated. You’ve heard of sampling, right?”

“’It’s a hard knock life…’” Eames sang off-key.

“You go, Sister, though I’m not sure whether what Jay-Z was doing wasn’t more of a remix than sampling,” Mulder laughed. “But you’ve got the idea. You insert a familiar lyric or musical passage into a song as an homage or for ironic effect or just because you’ve hit the creative wall. It wasn’t so entirely different in the bad old days of Wild Bill Shakespeare. There’s already enough speculation about which works Shakespeare actually wrote and what might actually have been penned by Marley or Francis Bacon or some schmuck we’ve never even heard of. Add to that all the copying and ‘borrowing’ and blatant plagiarism that went on during the period. What if Thomas Middleton didn’t voluntarily add the Weird Sisters to Macbeth, or even if he did, if his descendants somehow came to believe Middleton had been cheated out of his fame by the John Grisham of the Jacobean Era.”

Eames’ face was lined with concern. Bobby’s friend was a lunatic. Worse yet, a lunatic with a badge and a gun.

Mulder was oblivious to the detective’s expression. “And what if Middleton’s fiction was based on an actual knowledge of witchcraft? What if his characters were developed from real-life models? What if that crest you found on Forester wasn’t a charm, but something quite the opposite?”

“What the hell?” Eames’ sudden exclamation startled Mulder as well as the boy behind the counter. “What in the hell are you talking about? Curses? Jesus. I know you’re a friend of Bobby’s, but this is just, just insane.”

Mulder leaned forward, his brow knit in grave sincerity. “But what if it isn’t? What if it isn’t?” He burst into laughter, and leaned back. “Look, Det. Eames, I know it sounds unorthodox, but how would you explain Elliott Forester coming into possession of such an unusual object?”

“Ebay? He finds out it’s associated with Shakespeare, with Macbeth, and he figures it’ll bring him luck. The guy loved his bling.”

“OK,” Mulder acknowledged. “That’s a legitimate avenue of investigation, and we should follow it. I’d like to follow an additional avenue.”

“And that avenue starts where?”

“Alec Baldwin.” The indignation drained from Eames’ face, to be replaced with mute astonishment. “C’mon, Detective – you drive. I already adjusted the seat for Scully.”

The Shiban Theater

Manhattan, New York

Friday, April 17

“Don’t know what we’re going to do now,” Lisette deBow sighed, hooking a slender arm over the back of her chair as her reflection in the makeup mirror did the same. In the corner of her makeup table was a photo of a much younger and more carefree Lisey, beaming under the muscular arm of a gray-haired black man in T-shirt and suspenders. “Stanford says the producers aren’t pulling the plug yet, but most of the press, the programs, the advertising — well, Elliott was pretty much the big draw.”

“What’s the old saying?” Goren asked from his perch on the dressing room couch. “‘The show must go on?’”

The young actress grimaced. “Can’t go on without the money.”

“Yeah, but you’ve still got Darrell Ives. I mean, he’s done some stage, a little TV. I think I saw him on HBO a week ago.”

“Yeah,” deBow nodded unenthusiastically. “It was an adaptation of one of Stanford’s early plays — Brother Act. Darrell’s kind of Stanford’s protégé.”

Goren’s brow wrinkled in feigned confusion. “He was Mac B. — Macbeth — in the original production off-Broadway, wasn’t he? Now, he’s what, Banquo, basically, right? That bother him?”

“Darrell’s a trooper,” deBow stated flatly. “He understood.”

“In fact,” Goren continued, building momentum, “one of the crew said you used to date Darrell, right? I mean, during the original production?”

DeBow blinked stonily. “Things happen all the time backstage — all the adrenalin and tension. It just didn’t work out. Probably our artistic egos.”

“Zocor?”

DeBow, rattled by Goren’s line of questioning, glanced quizzically at Scully, who was now behind her, holding a pill bottle taken from her makeup table. “What?”

“I’m sorry,” the agent smiled apologetically, shaking the bottle like a castanet. “I recognized the color and shape. My cousin has a cholesterol problem, and they just switched her from Lipitor to Zocor. Working for you?”

The actress appeared relieved by the sidetrack. “Genetic thing, high LDL. Both my sisters and my mom. Yeah, a little soreness in the joints from time to time. But my count was down some last checkup.”

“Janet says diet’s important, too,” Scully added. “She’s eating a lot of salmon, tuna — the dark-fleshed fish.”

“Omega-3s. Yeah, me, too — I’ve learned to love sushi.”

“Almonds, too — supposed to help lower the bad cholesterol.” DeBow swiveled back to Goren, who was reaching into his jacket pocket. “And dark chocolate — it’s like an antioxidant.” He held up a bag full of chocolate-covered nuts. “You want some?”

Lisette deBow studied the bag warily.

“C’mon, have one. It’s the same brand you like to snack on. You dropped one at Forester’s, and left some salmon in the fridge. Big Noyz didn’t appear to be very health-conscious — salty carbs and milk chocolate and caramel.”

“It wouldn’t have been the first stage romance ever,” Scully murmured sympathetically. “Why the big secret?”

“Big Noyz didn’t live up to your artistic standards?” Goren prodded. “Afraid of what the gang at Elaine’s might say?”

“It wasn’t me,” deBow finally whispered. She looked up, pain in her eyes. “It was him. In retrospect, I guess I was just a resident bootie call for him. He said it was bad for his image for us to be out together. His image.”

“That why you packed so abruptly, on the spur of the moment?”

DeBow’s defiant demeanor suddenly deteriorated into one of despair. “OK. OK. But you have to believe me. I found him like — like…” The actress looked as though she might vomit. “I didn’t kill him. I couldn’t, especially not like–”

“I know,” Goren nodded, touching her forearm sympathetically. “The freight elevator has a security cam. You came up on it to avoid being seen, right? Then the video got you rushing out with two armfuls of clothes. Less than 10 minutes. You couldn’t have done it. So who did? Your old boyfriend? Darrell?”

DeBow’s eyes widened. “He couldn’t have done…that.”

Doubt lingered in her reply.

**

“Stanford?”

Stanford Grant looked up from his script revisions, expression neutral. Darrell had perceived a certain detachment from the playwright since the decision had been made to put Forester on top of the marquee. Now, his mentor sat back, templing his fingers.

“Glad you came by. We want you back.”

Darrell was speechless. He assumed the show would close, or they’d go shopping for another name.

“What about the marquee value?” he finally asked, drily. Stanford sighed.

“Look, Darrell. I know you feel you got a raw deal. But this is your opportunity, and I would seize it. As distasteful as it may be, we’ve gotten a lot of media exposure. You know the show; you’ve mastered the part. We have complete confidence in your ability to carry the production. If you want it, of course.”

“Of course,” Darrell croaked, too quickly. “When we reopening?”

“Two weeks. Think you can get back up on your lines?”

“Yeah. Absolutely.” Darrell fell silent.

“What?”

“It’s just…Those cops were by earlier – they talked to the crew and Lisette. They know about me getting into it with Forester the day he was murdered and, uh, about Lisette and I. I’m pretty sure I’m a prime suspect.”

Stanford studied his protégé. “They can’t believe you’d be capable of that kind of savagery.”

“I’m probably, I don’t know, convenient for them.”

The producer nodded gravely. “Good thing you and I were doing lines the night Elliott died.”

Darrell stared at him, then looked away. Stanford returned abruptly to the script on his desk.

“Good to have you back,” the playwright said simply. It hit Darrell, then — the old man suspected him. He hovered for another few seconds, searching for an appropriate line. Then, like any good actor, he took his cue and made his exit.

New York University Department of Physics

Manhattan, New York

Friday, April 17

“Is that it?” Theodor Koscyk asked boyishly, his gnarled fingers twitching toward the evidence bag dangling from Mulder’s hand. “Gimme.”

Eames stared on frowning as the agent passed the Middleton crest to the septuagenarian physicist. Mulder had dragged her around three boroughs, consulting geekish shop owners, a Hasidic jeweler, and the public library on what had seemed to be some kind of bizarre goose chase.

“It is karmic that Chuck Burks told me of your query,” the old man said. “I’ve been close to a breakthrough in validating kirlian photography over the past 15 years.” Koscyk turned to Eames. “You are familiar with kirlian photography?”

“Ah…”

“In 1939, Semyon Kirlian discovered that if an object on a photographic plate is subjected to a high-voltage electric field, an image is created on the plate. The image resembles a coronal discharge, a halo. The image is said to be a physical manifestation of the spiritual aura or ‘life force’ which allegedly surrounds each living thing.” Koscyk led the investigators through his lab to a device similar to a microwave. He placed the bagged trinket inside, closed a transparent door, and punched shakily at a keypad mounted on the side.

“I maintain the aura is no more than a form of quasi-electromagnetic energy that has yet to be quantified,” Koscyk continued. “This energy can be conveyed by living organisms to inorganic objects or even locales. Just as they are attuned to sounds outside the human auditory range, so can animals sense this energy. Why else are canines repelled or enraged by certain people or places? Of course, I don’t commonly share my theories with the academic community at large. Provincial thinkers, most of them.”

Eames clucked sympathetically, willing an escape from the madman’s lair. Mulder appeared fascinated.

The faux-microwave began to hum, and lights began to flare and flicker under the glass beneath the Middleton crest.

“Do you believe in curses, Doctor?” Mulder asked. Eames stared at him.

“Again, energy,” Koscyk snapped. “It’s all energy. You’re very fetching for a policeman, by the way.”

Eames and Mulder both perked. To Mulder’s relief and Eames’ consternation, the scientist was favoring her with a broad yellow grin.

“Ah, here it is,” Koscyk sighed happily. “Observe.”

Eames peered inside the box despite herself. The trinket inside the plastic bag “glowed” – black, if that were possible.

“Energy,” her admirer murmured at her elbow. “Very strong energy.”

**

“I’ve got dinner plans tonight,” Eames said as they hit the street outside the NYU lab. “Are we planning any more excursions down the rabbithole?”

Mulder merely grinned.

Residence of Lisette deBow

Greenwich Village, New York

Friday, April 17

“Shit,” Lisette muttered. The actress glanced anxiously at Simon Yates, to see how he’d reacted to the curse. The producer been staring into her cleavage as she climbed into his Mercedes coupe, and he looked quickly away.

Lisette wasn’t surprised, and indeed was slightly pleased. She’d felt Yates appraising her ever since the show moved to the Shiban, and if he wanted to put on the pretense of discussing career opportunities, well, then, he’d have to produce an opportunity or two, wouldn’t he? Lisette had long ago lost her taste for takeout rice and pizza.

“What’s wrong?” Simon asked, an impatient smile on his face. He planned to take her to a place here in the Village — a place where he would never take his wife — and then, hopefully, come back to her apartment. He was on a timeline.

“My bag,” Lisette said apologetically. “Just a minute, I swear.”

“I’ve got dinner–” he began, but it was too late — his Lady M. already was ascending the stoop.

**

Lisette knew something was wrong the second she nudged the door open. She’d left the light on over the kitchenette sink, and a shadow flitted into the hall.

Lisette gasped, then disobeyed the New Yorker’s No. 1 Edict, stepping toward the shadow rather than running like hell. “What are you doing here? You come out.”

The air in the apartment was still, and then she heard it. Low, labored, frightened breathing.

Lisette eschewed New Yorker’s Edict 2. “I’m calling the cops, you son of a bitch.”

And, as if completing a spell, she flushed Edict No. 3 and flipped the light switch.

“The hell,” she muttered, looking into the terrified eyes of her intruder. Lisette spotted her purse on the coffee table and started toward it. The room exploded, and she was thrown back against the living room wall.

“Ohfuckohfuckohfuck,” her intruder sobbed, staring at her crumpled body, the blood spreading onto her rug. Lisette looked up imploringly, blood on her lips, and the intruder bolted toward the firescape window that had provided entry moments before.

As the cold overtook her, Lisette deBow listened curiously to the metallic, retreating steps….

Major Case Squad

Saturday, April 18

“My money’s on Ives,” Eames said, setting her coffee on the interview table. “It’s like Shakespeare wrote the script: Forester bumped him from the lead, then knocked Nikes with his leading lady. The killing has revenge all over it.”

“And, unfortunately, very little evidence I can take to Carver,” Capt. Ross noted. He turned to Goren. “What do you think, Detective?”

The burly detective frowned, looking up from his open laptop. “There was a photo in Lisette deBow’s dressing room –Lisette I assume with her dad. He was wearing suspenders and a T-shirt. Odd combo, right?”

“Unless you’re a fireman,” Eames supplied. Goren began to nod vigorously.

“Exactly. Did you know Lisette grew up in Crown Point, N.Y.?”

“Crown Point,” Ross considered. “Why’s that familiar?”

Eames breathed. “George Mott, the alleged spontaneous combustion case. DeBow’s father worked with Mott?”

“Mott turned in his papers before Harold deBow joined the company. But every firefighter over 30 knows the Mott case, chapter and verse.”

“You think she faked the spontaneous combustion element?” the captain inquired. “Fireman’s kid, she could’ve picked up a few tricks. Could’ve known about the cameras on the freight elevator, too.”

Goren held up a hand and pointed to his laptop screen. Eames stepped around the table and spotted a beaming Darrell Ives.

“Village Voice,” Goren explained. “They did a piece on Ives a few months back, before Forester replaced him in the show. Ives apparently has aspirations of writing as well as acting. He’s been trying to round up backers for his own play, Ignition.”

Ross perked.

“Ives’ says it’s ‘an absurdist satire about a young, middle-class African-American man caught between his affluent upbringing and modern cultural pressures, who eventually exploded amid social friction and endemic racism.’”

“Write about what you know,” Eames said, dryly. “Or at least what your ex-squeeze knows. Carver ought to like this.”

“How would he like a two-for-one?” Mulder asked from the doorway. Eames’ jaw tightened; Goren looked up with interest. “I finally got hold of Alec Baldwin’s people, and one of them remembers getting one of those Middleton crests in the mail back in 1998. They threw it away — thought it was some kind of promotional junk mail — but it stuck in his assistant’s mind because it was so unusual.”

“Hold up,” Ross protested, perplexed.

“In 1998, in an off-Broadway production, Baldwin accidentally sliced open the hand of his Macduff with a sword,” Goren related. “Some attributed it to the Macbeth curse.”

“That’s not all,” Mulder reported. “I googled up every professional, community, and Shakespeare production of Macbeth I could find and canvassed a couple of dozen Macbeths and Lady Macbeths all over the country. At least eight of them remembered receiving crests. I think our Shakespearean avenger is using the web as a curse mailing list.”

Capt. Ross stared at the agent. “You gotta be kidding.”

“And I have reason to believe this is some kind of multi-generational tradition. I found an estate catalogues for Ian Galsborough, an actor who died during a production in 1946, and the Middleton crest turned up in one of the odd lots of jewelry. I bet if we dug deeper, we’d find out the Middletons have been sending these ‘gifts’ for decades, maybe even centuries.”

“Call the History Channel,” Ross smirked. “How’s this help us?”

“I checked around the jewelry district to see if anybody could identify the work on the crest you found in deBow’s apartment. A wholesaler remembered a Connecticut jeweler who tried to pitch a line of heraldic jewelry to him back in the early ‘90s. Errol’s Fine Jewelry. Current owner is Errol’s son, Conrad. Conrad Middleton.”

Ross looked to Goren, who nodded. The detective was emotionally erratic, but his intuitive instincts were unerring.

“OK,” the captain sighed. “Time for a little jewelry shopping. Just check in with the locals and proceed with caution – I’m still not sold on this whole curse mishegoss.”

“Uh, I want to float a theory past Rodgers,” Goren said. “I’d like Agent Scully to sit in, too, in a forensic capacity.”

“Look’s like I’m your man,” Mulder chimed.

Neither Ross nor Eames appeared euphoric about the prospect.

**

“It’s possible,” Rodgers murmured skeptically. “I suppose that’s why they call it an accident, though this one would be more freakish than most. And you were right – wasn’t much undamaged tissue to sample, but we did find traces of promethazine and codeine.”

“Alcohol would enhance the sedative effects of the promethazine,” contributed Scully, who’d been briefed on the ride to the lab. “Promethazine’s well-absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract, but the syrup carrier could have temporarily bound the alcohol to the esophageal lining.”

“The wick,” Goren said, grimly. “Or you might say, the fuse. The alcohol was the accelerant.”

Rodgers’ eyes narrowed. “Awful iffy as a murder method. Lot of factors have to come together.”

“Did you find anything on the body?”

Rodger nodded the cop and the agent to a laptop on her lab table. She punched up a graphic photo Goren and Scully recognized as charred skin. “I can’t be sure – again, too much damage – but it looks like it could be a taser mark. About the right distance between prongs. So you think your killer used a stun gun to light the wick?”

“I think it was an accident. I think the murderer was trying to subdue Forester, maybe take him somewhere else to kill him. Maybe stage a gang killing. The ‘spontaneous’ combustion was a lucky accident. It provided a red herring while covering the killer’s tracks.”

“But the hand,” Scully protested, despite herself.

“Forester was a big Mets fan,” Goren explained. “It was his signature – he hung with the players, wore a fez with the Mets logo and wore a game-used batting glove, gift from Carlos Delgado about a year ago. Forester was probably wearing it when he was killed – it insulated his hand from the fire.”

“The murderer pulls off the glove, and you’ve got all the classic earmarks of SHC,” Scully considered.

“So who lit the fuse?” Rodgers posed.

Errol’s Fine Jewelry

West Avon, Connecticut

Saturday, April 18

“Wow,” Mulder laughed helplessly. “All this crap looks pretty much the same to me. Sorry.”

Conrad Middleton smiled perfunctorily. This schlub probably couldn’t tell a bezel facet from a girdle plane unless it was on a Superbowl ring. They’d been at this for 20 minutes.

But the girlfriend, despite her size, looked like a world-class ball-buster, and he’d close on Joe Sixpack before they left for dinner at Sizzler’s. She already seemed pissed at him. No power like the vice-like iron grip of a good woman.

“No problem, sir,” Connie assured him. “That’s what I’m here for. I’ve got something here I think you might like.”

Mulder reached into his windbreaker. “That’s funny. So have I.”

He placed a small Ziploc bag on the display case. The middle-aged jeweler examined it, then looked quickly up at the agent, eyes wide. Then, Conrad recovered. “What is this?”

Eames, who’d been pretending to study sapphires a few yards behind Mulder, perked. They were supposed to be sizing Middleton up. Was Mulder playing free agent?

“Don’t you recognize it?” Mulder continued, beaming amicably. “I mean, your name is Middleton, right? This is your family crest.”

“Ah,” Connie nodded robotically, heading toward the front of the store. “Sorry, not into all that genealogy stuff. You want it set as a ring? We do some very fine custom work, right here on site.”

“So we see,” Mulder murmured, trailing Middleton. “This is yours’, isn’t it?”

“Honey,” Eames began warily.

“You’ve been misinformed,” Connie said coolly, reaching the cash register. “But I can show you a couple of settings that would look great with it.”

Mulder nodded toward the security camera mounted above the front door. “You know Lisette deBow’s building had a setup like that?”

Connie had scanned the building for cameras for making entry. “Bullshit—” His lips clamped shut. Eames stood mute, attempting to comprehend the situation. The jeweler’s eyes darted toward the detective, then to Mulder, and he dived for a drawer under the register. Connie’s trembling arm came up with a .38, and he backed toward the door.

“Put it down!!” Eames bellowed. Connie broke for the door, pursued by Mulder, as she fumbled her weapon from her purse. This was supposed to be a purely exploratory call, and she’d dressed tourist, sans shoulder harness.

Middleton’s shop was in the center of West Avon’s three-block business district, and the jeweler dodged a scattering of screaming, cringing mid-afternoon pedestrians. He started across Main and Welton, skidding to a stop as a pickup nearly sideswiped him. Mulder caught up to him, panting, and grabbed his forearm. Connie leveled his .38 between the agent’s eyes.

“We saw you’d been robbed twice last year,” Mulder said calmly. “You’re an amateur – I was hoping you wouldn’t get rid of the gun. But you’re also an important local businessman, and your old Kiwanis buddy Judge Peary wouldn’t give us a search warrant. Now we don’t need one.”

“Back off!!” Connie yelled. “Just, just, just lemme go, or I swear I’ll blow your fuckin’ head off.”

Suddenly, the merchant heard a click and felt cold metal against his temple.

“Drop it,” Eames growled quietly from his blind spot. “I mean now.”

The revolver clattered to the concrete. Eames muscled the paunchy man to his knees. “Got something in a bracelet you might like, Connie,” she muttered, closing the cuffs on his wrists.

“Thanks,” Mulder murmured. The cop’s eyes snapped up, and he reeled back at what he saw in them.

Residence of Errol Middleton

West Avon, Connecticut

Saturday, April 18

After Conrad Middleton’s performance on Main, Judge Peary was far less reluctant to issue a search warrant for his father’s home. Mulder and Eames were astonished to find the elder Middleton somewhat befuddled by their arrival with two West Avon officers but otherwise garrulously amiable.

“That’s me, third from left,” Errol informed Eames, tapping a framed black-and-white shot of obvious ‘60s vintage. “The Man Who Came to Dinner. My first role. Say, you’ll want to see this…”

As the former jeweler searched for one of the many scrapbooks littered about the rec room, Mulder scanned the crowded bookshelves flanking the old man’s TV. The agent could see the senility in Errol’s unfocused and oblivious demeanor – it was likely what Mulder was seeking would be in plain site.

He found it between an autographed script of Camelot and a buyer’s guide to antique broaches. The thick album was stuffed with clippings dating from the 1920s to the present – newspaper advances, calendars, and reviews and a more recent section of Internet printouts, all featuring productions of the Scottish Play. A Times story on Elliott Forester was glued neatly on the last full page.

Smiling, Mulder tucked the book under his arm. Then he spotted it – a triangular carving in the poured concrete floor, projecting from under the room-length braided rug. He nudged a toe under the edge of the rug and rolled it back to reveal a five-pointed shape similar to a Star of David.

“Mr. Middleton,” Mulder called. Errol looked up from the memories he was sharing with Eames. “You a religious man?”

The actor frowned disapprovingly. “That’s a little personal, don’t you think?”

“I’m asking because of the pentagram, sir. Are you by any chance Wiccan?”

Errol’s jaw tightened, and then he shrugged. “Well, I don’t advertise it. It’s a tight-knit community, and not everybody respects – what do you call it these days? — religious diversity.”

“People don’t understand the Old Religion – the unfamiliar frightens them,” Mulder said. “Like the Wiccan Rede says, ‘An it harm none, do what thou wilt.’ You got a Book of Shadows? I’ve always wanted to see one.”

The old man smiled warmly. “Well, you seem to be a fairly enlightened young man. Let’s go upstairs.”

Major Case Squad

Saturday, April 18

“The boy’s a cretin,” Errol sighed, spreading his hands and subtly checking himself in the interview room’s two-way mirror. The senior Middleton’s attorney was on his left flank, ready to pounce. His son sat on his other side, sullen and childlike despite his bulk.

Goren suppressed a grin – Errol’s every gesture was theatrical, in a cheesy dinner theater sense. When Mulder and Eames called on him, he’d failed to comprehend that he was under arrest along with his offspring. Though for what, precisely, no one was sure. Conrad clearly acted alone in murdering deBow. The Wiccan literature in Errol’s study, the pentagram carved into the basement floor under the old man’s Persian rug appeared to confirm Mulder’s arcane theory, but if it wasn’t laughed out of court, Errol’s lawyer would play the religious freedom card.

“You’re a patron of the arts,” Goren invited. “He doesn’t understand, does he?”

“Thank you,” Errol said precisely, smiling broadly. “He rejected every effort by his mother and I to enrich his cultural experience. He viewed the business I’d crafted over 50 years as some kind of cold cash enterprise. No sense of artistry.”

“He didn’t understand the injustice, the insult. Why it was important to remind the world of Thomas Middleton, his contributions.”

Errol’s eyes shone with madness. “Our birthright was stolen by that…that overrated hack. All I was doing, trying to do, was get back a little of our own.”

Connie snorted. Errol’s eyes narrowed.

“Regardez mon droit ,” the actor/jeweler recited venomously. “Respect my right. It was about respect. The Middleton name. You could never understand that.”

“Everybody’s gonna know the Middleton name now, you crazy old bastard,” Connie mumbled. Ross arched his brows at Goren, and the detective exited.

Eames didn’t look up from her paperwork as he approached her desk. “Hey, you OK?” Goren prodded.

Finally, she sighed, spotting Mulder on the other side of squadroom consulting with Scully. “I’m done with him, Bobby. I’m not doing this. Your friend’s little cowboy play could’ve gotten civilians hurt. If he’d gotten himself killed, IAB would’ve flayed me alive.”

Goren shrugged. “He was right, you know.”

“I’m done with him,” Eames repeated.

O’Faolan’s Pub

Midtown, Manhattan

Saturday, April 18

“Just how well does Det. Goren know Mulder, anyway?”

It was a gambit at rousing Eames from her smoldering funk. Scully had gotten an earful about Mulder’s “stunt” in Connecticut, as Capt. Ross had described it to Skinner. The assistant director had been concerned – her partner’s behavior had become more sporadically erratic over the past few months – but he trusted her to monitor the ongoing situation. Scully had left that job to Goren tonight, begging off dinner with the eccentric detectives to take Eames out for a much-needed and hopefully soul-cleaning drink.

Eames glanced grudgingly up from her second mojito. “Bobby didn’t say much – he never does – except he was at Oxford on a two-month fellowship back in the ‘80s and he and Mulder shared more than a few pints over serial killers and psychopathology. They make a good pair, I guess – the Brothers Grim.”

“He’s an acquired taste,” Scully smiled unconsciously. “I’m guessing you might say the same for Det. Goren…”

Eames sparked momentarily. “Hey, Bobby’s a great cop and a great partner.”

Scully caught the jab. She could hardly fault the detective’s indignation at Mulder – his maverick improvisations had caught her off guard a few times. And Scully could empathize with Eames, the daughter of a venerated NYPD veteran, frequently working in the shadow of an eccentric genius. Goren’s quirky brilliance didn’t seem to bother her, but she had no idea what drove Mulder, what demons lurked at his doorstep.

“I’m sorry about what happened today,” Scully sighed, sipping her Chablis. “That wasn’t typical for Mulder. It’s just, lately, he’s been dealing with a lot of issues, questioning himself, I think. What happened today may have been some kind of overcompensation.”

“That what you call it?” Eames muttered, draining her drink. “I didn’t have time to psychoanalyze him when that crazy jeweler almost blew his brains all over Main Street.”

So much for girls’ night out, Scully thought.

Lupo’s

Brooklyn, New York

Saturday, April 18

Goren obviously was a regular – the maitre de, the server, the roaming manager all were solicitous and deferential; the detective ordered in perfectly pitched Italian without glancing at the menu. And he was obviously a solo diner – the staff reacted to Mulder first with surprise, then with suspicion, then with the polite deference due any friend of “Mr. Goren’s.”

“I sense your partner’s displeasure with my investigative technique,” Mulder began, once everyone had scurried off to do Mr. Goren’s bidding. “I guess I can’t blame her – it was kind of spur of the moment.”

Goren shrugged, sipping his wine. “She’s a cop’s kid, respects procedure, teamwork. Hell, it took her months to get used to me. Look, Fox, your partner told me you’d been through a lot recently. It gets to all of us.” His expression darkened. “I almost walked out a few months ago – I told you Mom’s got lymphoma. I had to move her into a facility in the city, and the disease on top of, well, you know… It gets to you, especially when we do what we do every day. You know?”

Mulder sat back with a resigned smile. “Message received, Bobby. Scully’s been shrink-rapping me for months. I’m OK, really. Fine. Subtle change of subject: We sure Conrad Middleton’s alibied for Forester?”

“Phone records verify the conversation he claimed to have had with that wholesaler out of Florida. No way he could have made it into Manhattan and back in time. He had no motive, anyway. DeBow was an accident, so to speak – Middleton was trying to cover his dad’s tracks. The sins of the father.”

Mulder chuckled as the waiter deposited the linguine ala vongole before him. “Was I wrong, or did the old man seem annoyed at him?”

Goren picked up his fork. “Errol Middleton’s been escaping his mundane life onstage for as long as he can remember, soaking up the adulation of his ‘public.’ He probably resented Connie taking center stage today – a boy who’d rejected the theater, who placed no value on his family’s legacy.”

“Guess everyone sees themselves as the star of their own little drama,” Mulder mused as he speared a mussel and began twirling it in pasta. The fork stopped.

“What?” Goren inquired.

“I think,” the agent drawled, “that we may need to recast the lead.”

Park Southwest Plaza Hotel

Manhattan, New York

Saturday, April 18

As Mulder emerged from the bathroom in his boxers, he was surprised to see Scully fully dressed, perched on the edge of the queen bed.

“That’s just going to make it tougher for me, Scully,” he warned.

“No banter, Mulder, please,” his partner said quietly. “This is already going to be difficult enough.”

Mulder fell silent, a coldness forming in his stomach. “Sure.”

Scully sighed sympathetically, sensing his anxiety. “What happened today, Mulder, frightens me. I’ve become used to your maverick independence, to your impulsive, quixotic little quests for the truth. But lately… I know what you’ve been through, what it’s done to you. But this – it can’t go on, Mulder.

“Do you know how hard it was to trust Krycek, to put your life in his hands? But I knew I couldn’t do it alone, that I had to place my faith in others, in forces beyond my control. You said it yourself: No one gets there alone. I can’t, and neither can you, despite your delusions of immortality.”

Mulder stared mutely at his partner, breathing slowly, his throat twitching. “I know that,” he croaked, almost imperceptibly. “You know, don’t you? That I need you?”

“Do you?” Scully regretted it instantly. She reached for his dangling fingers, squeezed them in hers’. Scully smiled. “This is not an ultimatum, Mulder. I hope – scratch that – I pray it’s a wake-up call.”

Office of Assistant District Attorney Ronald Carver

Manhattan, New York

Monday, April 20

“This is like something from a Shakespearean tragedy,” Assistant District Attorney Ron Carver murmured behind templed fingers, his dark, intelligent eyes troubled.

Carver was one of District Attorney Arthur Branch’s top prosecutors, with a conviction rate second only to the mercurial, Melvillean Sam McCoy. He’d worked with Goren for years, and had learned to trust the intense investigator’s instincts – at least to the point where Goren’s sense of ethics and justice diverged from the interests of the State. ADA Carver was acutely aware Goren and Eames were responsible in large part for his high convict rate, and equally cognizant that Goren’s maverick style – not racial preference or personal allegiance — was a prime reason Sam McCoy likely would succeed Branch.

“We’ve broken the alibi,” Eames pointed out. “He’s open game. He was attacked on the street a few years ago. Stun guns may be illegal in the city, but I’ll bet he was connected enough to get one. Somebody at the theater might know.”

“And we have motive,” Goren added.

“Motive?” Carver mused. “Detective, I’m trying to imagine how a jury will critique this melodramatic tale of yours.”

“That’s why we need a dress rehearsal,” Goren stressed, seizing onto the metaphor.

Carver looked to Mulder and Scully, who’d been silent during Goren’s discourse. “And you two buy into this?”

“It was his idea,” Eames said.

“Ah. I’m feeling better and better about this.” The ADA sighed. “However, Detective, your track record has earned you some benefit of the doubt.”

Goren started to rise.

“Some,” Carver added.

The Shiban Theater

Manhattan, New York

Monday, April 20

“I first met Lisette at a casting call for James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner at the Classical Theatre of Harlem, back in 1998,” Darrell Ives began somberly, holding a glass of Chablis in tribute. “She’d come to the city a year earlier, just like a lot of you made the pilgrimage here to discover your artistic essence, discover yourselves. Lisette failed to land the role of Sister Margaret, and I went home without the part of Luke, but as we waited to audition, scripts in hand, we talked – Lord, we talked, about acting, about the African-American theater, about everything. She had a boundless enthusiasm about her craft, and I knew I’d be seeing her again. Little did I know that someday, Lisette and I would share the stage under the direction of the great Stanford Grant.”

Grant nodded thoughtfully, glancing at Lisette deBow’s portrait on an easel in the center of the Shiban’s stage.

“As they say, the show shall go on, and some other talented young woman will fill the role Lisette assayed as her own. But we’ll all remember that Lisette was Lady M., that she helped bring us here, that whatever immortality this production may enjoy is in no small part due to Lisette’s boundless enthusiasm and artistic essence.” Ives raised his glass toward the walkway. “Lisey, if you’ll allow me the curtain line, bravissima, baby!”

Mack’d’s surviving cast and crew lightly applauded the actor’s eulogy, then adjourned to the catered spread Grant had ordered for the memorial. Darrell turned to catch Grant’s appraising eye, then spotted the huge man and the small woman at the lip of the stage.

Goren stepped forward. “That was a nice tribute, Mr. Ives. I’m sure Ms. deBow would’ve appreciated it.”

“Thanks,” Darrell responded, uncertainly. “And I appreciate your catching Lisette’s killer. What senseless stupidity.”

“All murder’s senseless,” Goren smiled. “Satisfying, profitable? Maybe. But in the end, senseless.”

The actor’s jaw tightened. “Look, why don’t you just cut the bullshit, Detective. You seem to think I killed Forester. For what – to take back the lead?”

“Interesting turn of phrase, ‘take back,’ ” Eames said. “How would you like to come downtown for a screening?”

“What’s going on here?”

Stanford Grant had materialized at Darrell’s elbow, arms crossed.

“Mr. Ives has the lead in a little documentary footage we’ve uncovered,” Goren informed the producer.

“Is he under arrest?” the playwright demanded paternally.

“Well, for right now, we’d just like a few answers.”

Grant turned to his Macbeth. “You got an attorney?”

Darrell blinked. “Ah, Dad’s lawyer, I guess.”

“You call him,” Grant directed. He raised a brow at Goren. “Mind if I tag along?”

“Yeah, sure,” Goren smiled. “Tag away.”

Major Case Squad

Monday, April 20

“Mr. Grant. Sorry to keep you waiting.”

The producer glanced up at Goren, tossing the folded Ledger onto the scarred bench beside him with a sigh. “The production’s at a standstill – I’ve lost my male and female leads, and you’ve rousted my new star. I have little else to do.”

The detective tilted his head to examine the front page of the Arts section. Elliot Forester scowled at him from the page. The deck headline – “Whack’d” – was in 72-point type. Goren grinned at Grant. “What do they say? No such thing as bad publicity? I mean, Mack’d’s probably’ll be the top ticket on Broadway once you get going again.”

Stanford Grant regarded him disdainfully. “What do you need from me?”

“Just a few questions.” Goren jerked his head toward the interview room. “C’mon in.”

Darrell Ives looked up wearily as the producer and the cop entered. Grant nodded to the young actor, then surveyed Eames, Mulder, and Scully with a frown. “They treating you all right?” he asked the actor. “You people can’t possibly believe Darrell is capable of such violence. He’s an artist, not some….” His voice trailed.

“Street thug?” Eames inquired. “Like Forester?”

Grant blinked. His jaw tightened. “I’d expect nothing less from you people. You have no concept of the primal artistry of rap.”

“Actually, there’s a fan in the room,” the policewoman smirked, rolling her eyes toward Goren. Scully glanced impatiently at her watch.

Her partner smiled sheepishly. “She’s been giving me crap all week. Det. Eames doesn’t appreciate the form.”

“Please,” Eames breathed.

“No, really,” Goren persisted. “Mr. Grant knows what I mean, right, sir? Shakespeare and Forester, they had a lot in common — Shakespeare took his view of human frailty and folly to the street, busted his own rhymes in iambic pentameter.”

“Bullshit,” Ives spat. “That man treated everything we did like a contemptible joke — swaggering around the stage half-stoned, firing off homophobic cracks at the male cast and trying to get his ‘game on’ with every actress and female crew member in sight. Forester had no more relation to Shakespeare than some punk gangsta scratching a record has to Stokowski. Visceral poetry, please. He was a freak show.”

Goren nodded. “But an extremely lucrative freak show, though, right? I mean, while you’ve been shlogging away off-Broadway and in experimental theater, scratching to pay your rent and cab fare, Forester’s been on the Billboard charts, scooping up Grammies and the ladies, livin’ large in his Manhattan crib.” The detective tapped Ives’ wrist; the actor yanked his arm away in alarm. “That Timex — it set you back, what, maybe $50-$60? You should’ve seen the Rolly — the Rolodex — Forester was wearing when he got torched. It ate at you, didn’t it? All the acting classes, busting your hump, kickin’ it old school up there on stage? Forester was fresh, raw — he was the future, you a thespian dinosaur. Even your mentor here, Mr. Grant, he realized it. Why else would he kick you to the curb for Forester?”

“That’s not–” Grant started, mocha eyes flitting anxiously, guiltily toward Ives. The former stand-in studied the grain of the interview table. “Darrell, you are an artist of immense, inestimable talent. But you know the business today — the play’s no longer the thing. You need brand recognition to sell a show. It wasn’t me — it was the others…”

“The money people,” Eames clarified. “He did stand up for you, Ives. They pressured him to get Forester, add some sizzle to the marquee. Talent didn’t matter — they wanted to pull in the MTV crowd, Generation X-Box.”

“Spoken like a true WASP princess,” Goren sneered. “My partner thinks the theater died with Rodgers and Hammerstein. She likes that Jurassic Park stuff — Les Miz and singing cats. Don’t apologize for your vision, Mr. Grant. Forester was a brilliant choice — a virtual 21st Century Macbeth.”

Grant’s brow arched. “What?”

“Forester was raised in an urban fiefdom where violence and authority defined power and success. An imposing man who did whatever he had to do to rule his domain. Like Macbeth, ambition was his fatal flaw.” Goren turned to Ives. “But the roles were reversed, weren’t they?”

“All right,” Ives’ attorney announced, tossing his papers into his open case. “I’m bringing the curtain down on this little melodrama before it even starts.”

“This production, it was Forester’s shot at another 15 minutes, a lark, another world to conquer before moving on to the next,” Goren persisted. “To you, it was more, wasn’t it? This was your world, and Forester was merely a pretender to the throne. Your throne.”

“He was a fool,” Ives snapped.

“A fool worshiped as a prince. A jester who put the moves to a princess. Your princess.”

Ives’ eyes blazed, but he remained silent. Goren planted a palm on the table, his face inches from the actor’s.

“Forester wasn’t playing the role of Macbeth, was he? He was Banquo, the true heir. You’d been supplanted on the throne and cuckolded by this ‘fool.’ But the worst part –” the detective laughed bitterly “— was the realization that Forester was the rightful heir. That you were the pretender, the old school fossil.”

The lawyer stood abruptly, turning to ADA Carver. “Ron, I’m astonished you’d stand for these histrionics. At best, your man’s case is circumstantial.”

“Maybe not so circumstantial, Counselor,” Eames interjected. “Night Forester was killed, one of the crew members remembered asking your client for some cab fare, but he said he was strapped. We took a chance and ran his debit and credit cards through every ATM system within a mile of the Shiban. Ives withdrew $100 at a kiosk at 6:35 p.m., nine blocks from the theater and right in the middle of his ‘reading’ with Mr. Grant here. And just about dead center between the Shiban and Forester’s crib. We’ve got video — real cinema verite stuff.”

Ives closed his eyes. Grant looked straight ahead.

“That’s why I asked you to come down, Mr. Grant,” Goren grinned. “How about it? You really want to perjure yourself for Ives? I mean, under the circumstances?”

Grant looked to Ives, seemingly torn between loyalty and the legal consequences. The actor sighed and nodded to his mentor.

“I knew how it would look, with Lisette and everything,” Ives said. “And especially after Forester and I got into it on stage. I knew I’d be top of your list. I asked him to back me up. Sorry, Stanford – I shouldn’t have put you on the spot that way.”

“I’ll make sure the Tony awards committee hears about this performance,” Goren chuckled, turning to Grant. “It’s a shame you weren’t casting Othello – Darrell would have made an ideal Iago. He manipulated you into providing him an alibi. You were his dupe, his cat’s paw. Don’t feel bad, Mr. Grant – he’s a professional actor. Dissembling’s his stock and trade. You can go now.”

Grant twitched, as if awakened from a trance.

“You’re free to go,” Goren repeated, already shuffling folders. “Unless, of course, ADA Carver wants to press charges.”

“I don’t see that that’s necessary,” Carver said softly, avoiding eye contact with the playwright/producer.

“Good, good,” Goren breathed. He glanced up, his heavy brows arching at the immobile man. “What? We don’t need you any more, Mr. Grant. If you want, I can have a uniform drive you back to the theater, your apartment, wherever.”

“That, that won’t be necessary,” Grant mumbled, rising. He stood stiffly, turning uncertainly toward the door.

“How’s that make you feel, Ives?” Goren prodded as Grant crossed the threshold. “Betraying an old man who’s invested so much in your career?”

Grant stopped.

“You know,” the hulking detective continued, “I read Grant’s memoir. He turned to writing after washing out of drama school. You know that? You were the vicarious realization of all his dreams, his heir, in effect. What happened? It come home to you that you’d been disinherited? That Forester was Grant’s true heir, just as Banquo was King Duncan’s?”

All heads turned at the harsh laughter from the corridor.

“Yes?” Goren inquired.

Grant stepped back into the interview room, his lips curled in contempt. “You see yourself as quite the intellect, don’t you? You hit a few shows each season, brag to your cop buddies how you read the Arts Section instead of the sports, and you parrot the rhapsodic ramblings of every critic and self-proclaimed pop culture analyst. I don’t need your condescending defense, Detective. And your clumsy attempts at psychoanalysis are laughable. This…this boy…wouldn’t have had the ambition, much less the stomach, for what you’re talking about.”

Ives’ head snapped up. “You’ve never seen what people are capable of when their world’s crashing in on them,” Goren protested. “Factor in the artistic ego, and–”

“I’ve been in the theater for 50 years,” Grant boomed. “You lecture me on the artistic ego? You know what I’ve had to do to survive, to gain my rightful place, to give whining young prima donnas like this one a shot at their own narcissistic fantasies?”

“All to realize one day that you and your vision had become obsolete. That people wanted a fresh vision…”

“You mean Forester? Macho posturing and mindless verse? His vision extended no further than getting his next hit of coke or piece of ass.”

“Poe had his laudanum, Faulkner his whisky,” the cop disclaimed, glancing with faux anxiety at his colleagues. “And Jimi Hendrix? Surely, you, as an artist, understand that. Even at your age.”

Fire filled the playwright’s eyes. “You dare compare Faulkner and Hendrix to that, that street corner gangster?”

“Eye of the beholder, I guess,” Goren fired back.

Grant staggered back, a foam of spittle on his lower lip. “Eye of the–? When he wasn’t ‘busting a rhyme’ or doing interviews on E, Forester could barely get his lines out. He was so coked up most of the time, we practically had to nail him to his marks.”

“But it was his name on the marquee,” Goren concluded, crossing his arms with smug satisfaction. “Wasn’t it?”

“They had no sense of the theater – its power, its relevance.” Grant’s breathing was now ragged; scarlet infused his expresso features. “They told me no Noyz, no cash. This was my vision, my life’s vision realized. This was Shakespeare. I mean, my God, you should’ve seen the man. So wasted he couldn’t comprehend half of what I was telling him, even what was about to happen to him. He barely tried to defend himself.”

Ives’ attorney gasped. Carver’s eyes dropped to the table.

“Forester?” Goren asked, his tone changing. The Grand Inquisitor disappeared; the father-confessor materialized.

“Big Noyz,” Grant jeered, tears spilling down his cheeks. “He was like a catatonic mental patient.” The dramatist laughed and sobbed. “His breath was sweet, reeked of cough syrup. Like a sick child.”

That was it. The promathezine hadn’t been released to the media.

“My God, Stanford,” Ives whispered.

Goren pressed quietly. “You were going to stun Forester with the tazer, take him somewhere, maybe make his death look like a gang execution. But instead, the tazer spark ignited the alcohol and cough syrup. Then you remembered Ives’ play, the story Lisette told him about George Mott and spontaneous combustion. It was an implausible smokescreen, but it was all you had to work with. Take his batting glove and promathezine away, and, voila, a textbook case of SHC.”

“Staging,” the playwright chuckled, his eyes red and wild. “Always my strength.”

“Stanford,” Carver interrupted solemnly and uncharacteristically. “You need to wait for your attorney.”

Grant nodded, but it was clear he hadn’t heard a word. He began to mumble incoherently. Mulder perked, and stepped around the table.

“Mr. Grant?” the agent prompted, anxiously. “What did you say, Mr. Grant?”

The old man stared up, and Mulder inhaled sharply. Grant whispered harshly, his eyes inflamed. Then, the flame was extinguished, and the playwright blinked at the agent.

“Please,” he requested wearily. “I’d like my lawyer.”

**

“Incredible,” Carver murmured as a pair of uniforms escorted Grant across the squadroom, toward Processing. “A Pulitzer prize, two Tonys, a Grammy. His works have been studied in classrooms and performed around the world. I sat on several boards with Stanford. He was a brilliant, creative man…”

“Apparently, a few demons got in with the muses,” Eames suggested.

Carver nodded absently, then smiled sadly as he plucked the folded Ledger from the bench and stared at Forester’s grim visage. Then he looked pointedly up at Goren as he tucked the paper under his arm. “Nice touch, Detective,” the ADA added coolly.

“Grant was a powerful voice of his generation, his culture,” Goren said as he watched Carver trail Grant. “It’s like the death of a legend.”

“Maybe he can still help Grant,” Mulder suggested quietly.

“Help him?” Scully inquired. “Mulder, how?”

Goren’s face darkened. “Fox? What did he say to you?”

Mulder looked straight into the detective’s eyes. “I honestly have no idea. But I’m not so sure Grant was in full possession of his faculties when he killed Forester. Can I use your computer, Bobby?”

“What?” Eames demanded, but Goren held up a meaty palm. “Don’t, Bobby. You couldn’t make out what he said, but you’re ready to plead him out on diminished capacity?”

“I don’t speak Scottish,” Mulder told her simply. “Bobby?”

Goren waved him toward his desk.

“Perfect,” Eames grunted, fuming. “He burns a man alive, and his lawyer’ll bring in a couple dozen shrinks to get him off. And your buddy there? What’s he going to testify? That Grant was possessed by the ghost of Macbeth?”

“Grant’s identification with the character was nearly complete,” Goren considered. “The play, it was his salvation – it became his life’s obsession. The idea of Forester co-opting the role must have seemed like sacrilege. And then the ‘star’ became bigger than the vision Grant had been shaping his entire adult life. It must have been unbearable.” He watched the elevator doors draw closed on Grant and his escorts. “‘Life is but a walking shadow. A poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.’”

“In other words,” Eames summarized dourly, “that’s showbiz.”

*end

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