Bangungot

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Bangungot

Author: Martin Ross

Category: Crossover, Casefile

Rating: PG-13

Summary: Someone – or something – may be targeting New York’s Filipino-American population. Major Case Detectives Nichols and Stevens join Agent Fox Mulder in a bizarre case ripped from the headlines…

Spoilers: Conduit, Young At Heart, Grotesque, Mack’d (VS13); Criminal Intent eps Anti-Thesis, A Person of Interest, Great Barrier, Grow, Slither, Frame, Loyalty Pts. 1 and 2

Disclaimer: Props and respect to Chris Carter and Dick Wolf, storytellers supreme. And to Det. Zach Nichols and the rest of the Major Case Squad.

Original web date:07/05/2010

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Bangungot

“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 Ramon Gracia

Queens, New York

Monday, April 17

“In the post-World War II era, amid explosive change on the Asian continent, thousands of men and women flocked to U.S. shores in search of the American dream, bringing with them their skills and enthusiasm. They were Filipino nurses, fluent in English, well-versed in American-style medicine, and highly valued by a country that was opening doors of opportunity within a changing health care industry.”

Ramon Gracia barked harshly as he sipped his thick, black coffee. He remembered his own arrival in the city — the subtle glares, the not-so-subtle comments from the forgetful sons and granddaughters of European pilgrims. He waited for the strings to well up as the Nordic cable anchor flirted compassionately with the camera.

“Even today, this talented corps of migrant health care professionals is offered hefty bonuses to make the journey to America. They have become a mainstay of New York hospitals and long-term care facilities.”

Ramon chortled at the politically correct label. Nursing homes, warehouses for the unwanted, Death’s waiting room. Not that Ramon cared particularly one way or another — he owned his own business, and business was thriving despite the downturn in the economy. He’d die in his own bed — his sons would see to that if they hoped to take over the reins someday.

“But now, in the post-9/11 era (The hell that have to do with it?,.. mused Ramon, who like many Western hemisphere “Hispanic” voters tended to vote in the red), a group of earnest and enterprising young women are fighting the very system that demands their expertise and skill. The Queens 13 — a baker’s dozen of Filipino nurses who dared quit their jobs at a Queens convalescent care facility amid reportedly unconscionable working conditions — face visa revocation, deportation, and, possibly, criminal prosecution. Federal Appeals Court Judge Albert Callasner is scheduled this morning to hear additional testimony in the controversial case, which has rallied both Filipino-American civil rights groups and proponents of more stringent immigration-border security reforms.

Ramon glanced into the kitchen as a burly New Yawker appeared on screen in a Carhartt jacket and hard hat. Wonder which side he’s on? he mused.

“Look, my grandma’s in one a’ those places, and if one of her nurses suddenly walked out on the job they came here to do — the job they probably took away from some hometown kid — I’d raise the roof. It’s about time we took this country back.”

Ramon shook his head disgustedly, although he himself felt they ought to damned well built Bush’s Great Wall down in Texas. He’d never admit that publicly — not if he ever hoped for that council run. Ramon Gracia was the champion of the downtrodden, the huddled masses or whatever.

Ramon’s cup froze halfway to his lips as the xenophobic construction worker surrendered the screen to a striking young woman in a nurse’s scrubs standing on the federal courthouse steps in Manhattan. She was flanked by a solemn man in an Italian suit with “lawyer” written all over it.

“Because we come here looking for better opportunity doesn’t mean we are slaves,” the familiar young woman told the camera. “We work hard, we take care of sick people, old people without complaining. But the treatment we received at the Queens Garden Health Care Center was inhuman, cruel. We are confident the court will see the truth.”

“Was that them again?”

Ramon hastily silenced the set on the kitchen counter as Graciella entered with two plates of garlic fried rice and longaniza — the traditional Philippine breakfast sausage his business imported by the ton. “Ah, same old thing.”

“A pretty girl, eh?” Graciella noted. Ramon glanced up warily; her smile was sweet, genuine, unsuspecting.

“Hmm,” he grunted, sorting through the Times and casually ignoring the vibrating cell phone on his belt. Ramon hacked off a hunk of sausage and forked it into his jowls. He spit the half-masticated meat onto his plate. “Shit! What was that?”

Graciella smiled weakly. “Turkey sausage. I found it at that little market in Flushing — it’s a lot healthier, and it’s supposed to taste just like it than the regular…”

“Well, it doesn’t,” Ramon grunted, shoving his plate away. “Bring me some real food.”

“I threw it out,” Graciella murmured, practically cringing. “After what happened to Ernesto and James.”

“James was a doper and Ernesto was an old fool who crawled around under cars,” her husband spat. He struggled from his chair. “I can’t eat this crap, and I don’t have time to stop somewhere. I’ll pick up an Egg McMuffin at McDonald’s — with cheese,” he added spitefully.

As the front door slammed, Graciella gathered his plate and half-empty coffee cup, a tight smile forming on her lips. Old fool, eh?

Starbucks

Lower East Village, Manhattan

Monday, April 17

They met at the counter, the stunningly beautiful Asian girl and the middle-aged but nonetheless striking blonde. The older woman had warned Karen they must keep their public contact to a minimum, ideally during morning and afternoon rush hours. If something went wrong, they must not be connected. For all its pretensions toward warmth and comfort, Starbucks was one of the most impersonal, anonymous spots in the city.

“How do you feel?” the blonde asked, looking straight ahead.

“A little nervous,” Karen admitted.

“Of course. You can feel it within your grasp. Steel yourself, my dear, and it’s all yours.”

The petite blonde collected her Vente chai and turned toward the door. Karen sipped her own Grande latte for the next five minutes, waiting for the right moment to pocket the small parcel the older woman had delivered.

**

Despite the early hour, the street already was growing hot – the passing businessmen were shedding jackets and loosening ties, the working women showing legs and shoulders and a lot of money in between.

She was accustomed to the heat, craved it after several bone-chilling New York winters. The sun caressed her face as she stared intently at the coffee shop acCallas the street. Her cheeks grew hotter as the puta stepped, blinking, onto the street. Her fingers curled as the young woman strutted toward Fourth.

It was the closest she’d come to the cheap slut, and she grudgingly recognized what attracted him to the expensively dressed woman. And began to wonder if all she had had to offer him was her own helplessness and need.

He would pay, she decided.

Office of Ramon Gracia

Gracia Fine Philippine Foods

Queens, New York

Tuesday, April 18

“We got another one.”

Ramon peered up at Estrella, his thick index finger keeping place in the invoices. He smiled, amused at the chunky woman’s consternation and pleased that another of the Great Unwashed had spoken. The controversy over the Queens 13 meant publicity for him, for his business, for his political aspirations. Bernie Thompson was to announce his retirement from the council next month, and Gracia’s impassioned defense of his Filipina “sisters” reportedly had put him on the short list for the vacated seat.

“You shouldn’t let it upset you,” Ramon paused. “What’s this one call me?”

“Rice-eating coconut. You’re helping turn this country into the Third World.”

“Very creative. File it with the rest. You know where.” He set the invoices aside and glanced surreptitiously at the wall clock some beverage vendor had left behind 20 years ago. “I’m off.”

Estrella Calambacal frowned. “Where should I say you’re going?”

Ramon stopped halfway to his feet, his expression changing. “Who would you tell? You work for me. If anybody asks, you tell them I’m out on business. My business.”

Estrella nodded silently, returning instantly to her customary denial, and disappeared.

Astoria Motor Haven

Queens, New York

Tuesday, April 18

“Jesus,” Darrell Friedlander breathed, tromping up the metal stairs, clinging to the rail. “You been a maid here how many years, and you never heard screaming? In case you’re suffering under any delusions, this ain’t exactly the Park West.”

“This was different,” Glenda snapped. She’d been working at the two-star motel long enough not to take any shit from Dickless Darrell. “It was like he was being tortured, like the devil hisself was after him.”

“Devil wouldn’t stay in this hellhole,” Darrell mumbled, passing filthy door after filthy door, the cheap Astroturf “carpet” wrinkling under his large boots. “Room 23, you say? I don’t hear shit.”

“Maybe he’s hurt,” Glenda shrugged. “Maybe they killed him>”

“Aw, Jesus,” Darrell laughed, riffling through his keys. “Now the mob is using the place to whack people? Great, we can use the business.” He banged on the door. “Hey! You! You OK in there?”

Nothing. Darrell looked at Glenda, who arched an eyebrow. He fumbled the key into the lock and shoved the door open.

“Christ!” the manager squeaked as he stared at the man stretched on the bed in his open shirt and boxers. “Who the hell is that? That ain’t the guy I checked in.”

“Don’t see no blood,” Glenda whispered, scanning the dead man’s vacant, staring eyes and open, contorted mouth. “They musta scared him to death, poor old guy.”

Darrell switched on the bedside lamp. “Wait a minute. That IS the guy. But his hair… What the hell happened to his hair? It was black.”

“Scared him to death,” Glenda repeated, eyes fixed on Ramon Gracia’s thick, now-snow white thatch…

Walt’s Wet Whistle

Mount Holly, N.J.

“Can you turn that up?” the out-of-towner called. Though the young Yuppie was the only other guy in the joint – not an unusual scenario for Walt’s over the last two decades – but Walt merely leaned into the busted Pabst tap (which now dispensed Bud Lite) and attempted to drown the request with his pipe wrench.

“Hey, sir?”

“Get bent,” Walt grumbled, torturing the wrench. The guy had come in an hour ago, ordered a Coke, and buried his nose in his laptop. Government type, and Walt was still smarting from an IRS audit and his latest tussle with the state excise cops.

The whining stopped, and the tubby bar owner grinned darkly as he tugged at the wrench. Could’ve at least ordered some wings or a burger.

Walt jumped and the tool clattered off the tap as the sound of a small jet engine ripped through the paneled tavern. The saloonkeeper fell back on his prodigious ass, banging his burred skull against a dusty bottle of peppermint schnapps he’d stocked for a now-long-dead county board member. Heart pounding, he pulled himself up with a strangled animal sound in time to see the ZNN Headline logo cross-fade to angry blonde face and the remote he hid from the broads resting on the bar.

“Another corrupt New York activist, another no-tell motel,” Faith Yancy shrilled. “Same old story, except this case has a surprise twist…”

“Fucking—“ Walt reached for the ancient .38 under the cash register. As he whipped the weapon around, his customer’s own gun came up.

“Shh,” the Yuppie admonished, leveling the revolver. “Gimme a minute here, OK?”

Walt sputtered.

“Thanks,” the customer murmured, turning back to the screen in the corner of the bar.

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“Ramon Gracia, champion of the Queens 13 and long-time friend of illegal aliens everywhere, was found in flagrante delicto yesterday at a Queens fleabag. However, his partner in passion was nowhere in sight, and Gracia died of what could only be described as extreme fright.”

A grainy NYPD photo of a white-haired, middle-aged corpse — obviously pirated by one of the cable cougar’s network of moles and spies — popped onto the screen.

Walt’s gun dropped to the worn plank floor. “Shit, looks like what happened to–”

“Nick Obusan, yeah,” the young guy nodded. “Shh.”

“Gracia has made headlines by capitalizing on the case of a baker’s dozen Filipino nurses charged with—“

“Crap,” the Yuppie sighed, snatching the remote from the bar and silencing the set. He grinned sheepishly at Walt and pulled a Blackberry from his pocket. His smile turned upside down. “Forgot to charge up. Use your phone?”

The man’s sheer nonchalant balls suddenly emboldened Walter Lutes. “Ain’t no damned Denny’s, friend. Pay phone at the Shell down the street.”

The customer nodded and searched his pants. “I think I got a phone card somewhere… Yeah, here we go.”

He slapped the card on the bar. Walt contemplated a witty bon mot, then glanced down. “FBI?”

“Another Coke, too. Please?”

New York Police Department

Major Case Squad

Manhattan

Thursday, April 20

The visitor had badged his way through Major Case’s post-9/11 firewalls while Capt. Callas was engaged in heated debate over departmental protocol with one of the mayor’s pet deputy chiefs. As Callas fled her office for the blessed chaos of the squadroom, she spotted the obvious fed and drew up short.

“You must be Agent Mulder,” she greeted with a tight smile. “I was told you’d be calling on us. To what do we owe the pleasure?”

The new captain lacked Danny Ross’ inky sardonic humor, but the irony came through nonetheless. Ross had perished abruptly and violently in the service of the Bureau a few months back, and both Bobby Goren and his ubiquitous partner/keeper Eames had turned in their NYPD tin in the aftermath. Despite the ionized air of tension that had followed him through the squadroom, Special Agent Fox Mulder nodded with a broad grin. “Ramon Gracia.”

Callas was silent for a moment. Homicide had gratefully kicked the Gracia investigation to Major Case — Gracia was something of a Sharpton for New York’s Filipino-American community, and the “Queens 13” case had generated nearly daily headlines for him.

Actually, Rodgers was performing a post on the body right now to determine if there even was a case. Gracia wouldn’t have been the first middle-aged businessman in this city to succumb to a bad ticker, even if there were some admittedly bizarre circumstances in play.

Callas assumed those circumstances had somehow drawn Agent Mulder up from D.C. The new captain had done her homework. He was a friend of Bobby Goren’s — figured — and, indeed, had played an important role in clearing up that hip-hop murder a few years back. Not without some fallout, however, and the captain’s radar was armed.

“Ramon Gracia,” Callas finally echoed. “We haven’t even established Gracia’s death as a homicide yet. What’s the FBI’s interest here?”

“Gracia’s been a high-profile figure in a national controversy involving Immigration and the DOJ,” Mulder supplied smoothly, as if he’d rehearsed. “With feelings running so hot over immigration, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that he could have made some enemies with his activist stance.”

“The realm of possibility,” Callas murmured with a patient smile. “I understand that’s your specialty. Agent, what’s your real interest in this case?”

Now, Mulder paused. “OK,” he sighed. “I have reason to believe Mr. Gracia’s death could be connected with a series of other, uh, fatalities in the area.”

“Fatalities?”

“Serial homicides. I believe.”

Callas’ smile disappeared. “I assume these other ‘homicides’ must be as sketchy as this one.”

Mulder gathered himself. “You ever hear of bangungot?”

“Why, no. Do I want to?”

“Sudden unexpected death syndrome. SUDS. It’s relatively widespread among a number of Southeast Asian populations, including the Hmong, Thais, and Filipinos. But the SUDS death rate among Filipino-Americans has been statistically high over the last few years, but exclusively within a three-state region.”

Callas’ brow wrinkled. “Agent, are you suggesting an epidemic here, terrorism? Do we need to bring in the CDC?”

“No, Captain. I’m suggesting murder. I tried e-mailing Bobby — former Detective Goren — about my theories last night, but he’s seemingly dropped off the map. I wanted to clear things with you first, maybe talk to the principle on the case.”

Oddly, Callas’ smile widened, and something resembling grim amusement played at her dark eyes. “Ah. Well, let’s see if we can’t accommodate you, Agent.” The captain spotted a lanky man draining a steaming paper cup and pulling a leather jacket from his chairback, and gestured toward him. “Detective, a minute please.”

The man glanced up, eyes bright, curious, an impish smile quirking at the corners of his wide mouth.

Callas turned to Mulder as the tall cop approached. “Morning, Detective. Meet Special Agent Fox Mulder. He’ll be working with you on the Gracia case.”

Det. Zach Nichols grinned with a trace of something sinister, and extended long fingers toward Mulder. “Hey, Fox, huh? Glad to meet you. How about we hit a funeral to break the ice?”

**

“Bangungot?” Nichols mused as he pulled out of the One Police Plaza parking garage, thumping the horn at an emboldened cabbie. “I eat at a Filipino joint in Queens two or three times a month, and I’ve never seen that one on the menu.”

Mulder grinned as he watched the standard parade of Manhattanites navigating past the standard gawking out-of-towners and hawking homeless. He’d struck up an immediate friendship with Bobby Goren during the cop’s brief fellowship at Oxford — they were two of a kind, fascinated by minutiae and the esoteric, “disturbed geniuses” who clashed with authority like oppositely charged particles, largely because they used metaphors like oppositely charged particles.

“Literally, it’s Tagalog for ‘bad dream,’” Mulder began.

“I’m merely yanking your chain, Agent,” Nichols murmured. “Bangungot. Sudden unexpected death syndrome. Most common in Thailand, Japan, the Philippines, occasionally among Southeast Asian immigrants. Normally young men who die in their sleep of irregular heart rhythm and ventricular fibrillation, usually without any history of cardiac problems.”

“Well, close enough,” Mulder chuckled weakly.

Nichols yanked the wheel, missing a Sabrett dog cart by inches. The vendor didn’t miss a beat as he continued to spoon kraut over a yuppie’s frank. “Gracia didn’t pass on peacefully in his bed like my sainted grandma. Actually, she wasn’t so sainted. He looked like the entire Israeli Army had raided the place. His hair — what was left of it — was Bob Barker white, with a tinge of Betty White. And Gracia was no spring chicken…”

“That’s what makes this death curious. Night terrors are a common symptom of SUDS. Survivors have reported being fully aware they’re dreaming during an episode, but they can’t move or wake up. Sound about right?”

“Had a dream like that, one time,” Nichols grunted with a slight smile as he steered onto Bleecker. “It was about a divorced dispatcher I’d met in Midtown. Only had movement in one area, and I didn’t really care about waking up. My dad was into Freudian theory at the time, and his interpretation was far more complex than mine. You serious about all this? You think we’re having, what, an outbreak of SUDS in the greater New York area?”

“I follow stuff like this, part hobby, part the job. I’ve clipped at least five articles and obits over the past two years about younger Filipino-Americans or recent immigrants who were listed as unexpected heart attack victims. When I read about Mr. Gracia’s death, it rang a bell. Except for the age aspect. Plus the fact that he’d been here for nearly 40 years — bangungot usually occurs in recent immigrants, seems to fade off as they assimilate. That’s why some researchers want to link it to diet and alcohol — gout’s not uncommon in Filipino men.”

“Wow, sounds like half the guys at my Uncle Morris’ funeral,” Nichols smirked as he spotted the throng on the street before the James F. Paculdar Funeral Home. A trio of older Filipino men smoked and reminisced a few doors down, respectfully flaunting the smoking ban — Gracia’d been at home at City Hall and in Albany as well as in the neighborhood meeting halls, and any foot officers knew better than to write up any of his mourners or cronies.

With difficulty, Nichols was able to find a loading spot a block down, between an organic herb shop and an antiquarian book dealer. “Rodgers — the M.E. — she’s supposed to have a report on Gracia today.”

“I met her on a case with Bobby,” Mulder nodded. “She seems very thorough and…open.”

“Oh, yeah,” Nichols grinned as he navigated through the mob of arriving and departing mourners. “This was the spontaneously combusting rapper, right? Eames’ blood pressure went into the red whenever she talked about it.”

“I guess I was a little impulsive back then,” Mulder murmured.

“We oughtta get along fine, then,” Nichols said as they reached the ornate double doors. The foyer inside sported rich wainscoting and carpeting beneath a tastefully lavish chandelier. Paculdar was the final staging place for much of the Filipino community across the five boroughs and into Long Beach and Westchester.

A beautiful, grave brunette moved out of a corner of the lobby. To Mulder, she looked like a model than a cop.

“Heavy traffic?” the woman inquired with a fleeting glance at Mulder.

Nichols shrugged. “Det. Serena Stevens, meet Special Agent Fox Mulder. He’ll be along for the ride the next few days.”

Stevens inspected Mulder again, and then a tumbler fell into place. “Wonderful,” she sighed. “Let’s do this — I signed us in.”

“Hey, wow,” Nichols breathed as she disappeared into the packed main parlor. “I think you two are going to be fab friends.”

James F. Paculdar Funeral Home,

Bleecker Street, Manhattan

Thursday, April 20

Ramon Gracia was impeccably made up for his final appearance, though instead of a suit, he wore a long, intricately embroidered blouse. Ribbons bearing the names of the businessman’s immediate family members were pinned to the rich lining of the high-end casket; a crucifix was affixed between two candles above the deceased.

“The barong tagalog,” Mulder quietly informed Nichols and Stevens as they passed the coffin. “A traditional Filipino burial shirt. The widow’s wearing black — according to custom, she’s supposed to for the next year — but its definitely designer, maybe a Tadashi.” The agent smiled sheepishly as Steven’s brow rose.

“We’ll ask where she bought it,” she said, pulling away. “You into power shopping, Mulder?”

“My partner,” he explained weakly as the cop headed for a table laden with split salted fish, sliced jamon, wafer-thin galletas, and other more recognizable U.S. fare. “What I’m trying to determine is how closely the Gracia’s adhere to tradition. If Gracia clung more closely to his native culture, he might have been more psychologically susceptible to night terrors or sudden death.”

“It’s hard to tell,” Nichols frowned. “He was a high-profile figure — mass every Sunday, grand marshal at every Philippine street festival and parade. Gracia may have been very culturally observant, or a lot of it might have been window dressing for the community.”

“Det. Nichols.” A tall, young olive-skinned man peeled away from a group of other young, sharply dressed Filipinos sporting black plastic pins. Smiling, Felipe Gracia nonetheless glanced anxiously toward his mother crossing the room.

“Mr. Gracia,” Nichols nodded. “Again, sorry for your loss. You remember my partner, Det. Stevens? And this is Agent Mulder with the FBI.”

The smile dropped from Gracia’s face as he led the detectives from the buffet. “What? I’m still not convinced Dad’s death was anything but natural causes. Why FBI?”

Nichols began to speak, but Mulder beat him to the punch. “There’ve been a series of deaths in a tri-state region — Filipino men who died in a way suspiciously similar to your father’s.”

Gracia stared at the agent for a moment. “Let’s, uh, go downstairs — they’ve got a lounge, and we can talk without disturb–, without being disturbed.”

A few heads turned as Ramon Gracia’s son escorted his guests into the bowels of the funeral home. Nichols recognized a particularly camera-happy councilman and a local Filipino newswoman. As they reached the lounge, Gracia stopped short. A petite beauty in black looked up from the couch sharply, her eyes red-rimmed and filled with fury.

“Malaya? You OK?”

The woman glared at her brother, then, eyeing the strangers behind him, pushed up from the cushions. “I’m fine,” she muttered, brushing past him.

“My sister, Malaya,” Gracia sighed. “This whole thing’s been very difficult for her.”

“Whole thing?” Stevens inquired.

“It’s, well, I guess you’d say it’s a cultural thing. Sometimes, it’s not so easy to accommodate tradition. Anyway, I am familiar with those recent deaths — the whole community is. My Uncle Eduardo died six months ago, my Cousin James a year ago. Both were declared accidental deaths. You have any good reason to think otherwise?”

“You’re familiar with bangungot?” Mulder asked. Stevens looked curiously at Nichols, who grinned back.

“I’d prefer to call it SUDS,” Gracia said coolly. “My mother still subscribes to those old folk tales about night demons and death dreams — with all these recent deaths, she’s practically smothered my brothers and I. Strange it was Dad it caught up with — SUDS generally gets young guys, you know?”

“Do now,” Nichols murmured with a nod to Mulder. “It’s probably all just a coincidence, Mr. Gracia, but your dad was an important man, so we’re crossing all the Ts.”

“I’m glad you are, of course,” Gracia said hastily. “But I can’t imagine who’d want to kill Dad.”

“Hey, like I said, your dad was a well-known guy,” Nichols shrugged. “This thing with the nurses — he’d gotten a lot of TV face time lately. And with all the emotions about immigration, well…”

Gracia settled into an armchair, elbows on his knees. “Dad was passionate about his people, about making sure they got a square deal. He wasn’t like Sharpton, trying to parlay his concern into political hay, though he got asked to run for Albany plenty of times. This was his Rosa Parks on the bus, Detective. Those nurses, those women, were treated almost like indentured servants, scared to death they’d lose their status and get shipped back to the islands. Then they get told they could go to jail because they weren’t going to put up with the bullshit any more.

“Yeah, we got our share of threatening calls, hassles. Guy with the state licensing commission started making noise about the business, said maybe we needed to be more concerned about our employees than those ‘foreigners.’”

“You got the guy’s name?”

“Got his card in my coat, upstairs. I’ll get it for you on your way out. Other than that, we got some hate mail from white supremacist types, a few rollers, union reps screaming about their jobs getting ‘stolen’ by foreign labor. Ironic, considering all those women wanted was out of that hellhole.”

“If your mom still has them, I’m gonna want those letters, any threatening e-mails,” Nichols said. “What about personal enemies? Any, uh, cultural things.”

Gracia smiled darkly. “Blood feuds, that kind of thing? Post-9/11 Muslim-Christian shit? Hey, is that why the FBI’s involved?”

“No,” Mulder responded pointedly. “From a statistical standpoint, we’re seeing a virtual epidemic of SUDS thousands of miles from the Pacific Rim, within a highly localized area. And your father’s an anomaly. That raises the question of whether this is a natural epidemic, or, at the least, if Mr. Gracia’s death is part of that epidemic. If either possibility is true, then someone’s been targeting Filipinos for death, including three of your family members or using the other deaths as a smokescreen for your father’s murder.”

Gracia snorted. “Murder? What, somebody killed my dad with some mysterious untraceable poison.” He rose. “I think you’re barking up the wrong tree, Agent. Detectives, you mind if I get back upstairs? I want to see if my mother and my sister are OK before they start in with each other again.”

“Sure, thanks,” Nichols said, cutting off Mulder’s next query. He waited until the young man’s footsteps faded. “Hey, Mulder, I think I’m supposed to be bad cop.”

“Weird cop,” Stevens mumbled. “You don’t seriously think Gracia’s death was part of a serial? The preliminary report said heart failure. How do you think the killer managed that?”

Mulder stepped into the corridor. “Don’t ask me.”

New York Police Department Medical Examiner’s Office

Manhattan, New York

Thursday, April 20

“Sure, I’ve seen a couple of SUDS cases,” Dr. Elizabeth Rodgers told Mulder. Nichols rolled his eyes at the deadpan Stevens. “Kid in Soho a year, no, year-and-a-half ago. We thought he had a bleach job at first — hair had turned bone-white. Heart was healthy — no sign of pre-existing damage, and the tox screen came up clean, at least for anything that would’ve killed him.”

Mulder studied the liver Rodgers had removed from the blue-gray corpse beside it, under Nichols’s disgusted gaze. “How about Gracia’s tox screen?”

Rodgers paused, glancing at Nichols and Stevens. Nichols’s eyes narrowed. “Oh, hell, it’ll come out soon enough. There were traces of a psychoactive substance, salvinorin A.”

Mulder straightened. “Salvia?”

“Yeah,” Rodgers nodded, interested. “It’s generally derived from Salvia divinorum, a relative of sage and mint.”

“Sage of the Seers,” Mulder expanded. “That’s what it’s called. The Mazatec shamans used it as an entheogen.”

“Plant-based hallucinogens used to heighten the senses during a variety of sacraments,” Stevens supplied impatiently. “The literal meaning of the word is ‘that which causes God to be within an individual’–”

“That’s Wiki awesome,” Nichols interrupted. “Rodgers, how would Gracia have got this salvinorin whatever?”

“You can get it on-line,” Stevens supplied. “You can buy Salvia leaves and extract legally from dozens of sites. It’s still legal in the U.S., though there’s been some call to ban sales since a Delaware kid committed suicide in 2006, supposedly under the influence.”

Nichols grinned at his partner, whose storehouse of esoterica was more limited than but no less astonishing than Goren’s or his own. “Doesn’t sound like the drug of choice for the former president of the Filipino-American Chamber of Commerce. They got any salvia ceremonies in The Philippines, Mulder?”

“Mainly Meso-American,” the agent responded seriously. “Solenostenom has a similar shamanic effect — it originated in The Philippines. You can buy it at gardening shops or on the web. That’s probably what I’d pick if I wanted a back-up smokescreen.”

“Whoa,” Stevens protested. “This is quite a leap you’re taking. This is the great melting pot — anybody could have turned Gracia on to salvia, and since it’s not illegal, it would be safer to have lying around his office than half a key or a drawerful of pot…”

“C’mon,” Mulder protested back. “It doesn’t fit our guy’s profile.”

“It makes a lot more sense than some serial whacko trying to take out every Filipino on the East Coast.”

“Hey, hey,” Nichols intervened. “I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we just see if our guy actually had any of this whacky weed lying around the office?”

Gracia Fine Philippine Foods

Queens, New York

Friday, April 21

“This is ridiculous,” Estrella Calambacal fumed as the trio combed her late employer’s neat but cozy office. “Mr. Gracia never used drugs. He hardly ever even took a drink.”

Nichols stepped back from the open door of Ramon Gracia’s open mini-fridge, stocked with apple juice and San Miguel Pale Pilsen. “Your boss really knew how to entertain the customers, then.”

The tiny, gray-haired secretary blinked at the liquor larder, then re-gathered herself. “I didn’t go spying around Mr. Gracia’s office. I had no idea that was there.” Having acquitted herself virtuously if not credibly, Calambacal fled the room.

“Too bad,” Nichols said, shutting the fridge. “She was really growing on me. What’ve you got, Stevens?”

His partner shrugged from the floral display at Gracia’s window. “He wasn’t growing it — just a couple of bansai. And the desk was clean.”

“Well, maybe a little too clean,” Mulder said. The cops turned to find Mulder flipping through Gracia’s planner. “There are a lot of gaps in Gracia’s daily schedule — especially between three and five. Usually at least an hour-and-a-half of blank space.

“More than enough time to relieve the rigors of the day,” Nichols murmured. “Ma’am? Oh, ma’am?” he called.

Calambacal sighed heavily from the next room, and her iron locks reappeared.

“Can you take a look at Mr. Gracia’s planner and try to recall where he might have been during these blank spots?”

The assistant frowned. “I wasn’t his keeper.”

“Sure you were,” Nichols grinned in a lupine way. “I don’t care if your boss liked a little mid-day nip. If he was getting a little amour on the side, well, what happens in Queens, right? But we’re investigating a homicide, and we need to know who she is.”

“You think she killed Mr. Gracia?” Calambacal breathed before realizing her slip.

“It’s possible,” Stevens suggested in a more conciliatory tone. “Or at least she might help us find who did.”

The assistant suddenly slumped onto the arm of Gracia’s leather guest couch. “It was one of those nurses. You know, the ones on the news.”

“The Queens 13?” Stevens prompted. “I know Mr. Gracia was helping with their defense.”

“It started that way,” Calambacal said defensively. “He was always panlahat, you know, taking care of his people. He was furious about how those women were treated. Then he started hanging out with one of them, even gave her a job–”

“We’re not with Immigration,” Stevens assured her. “He offered her a job, an act of kindness.”

Calambacal sighed. “I’d like to think so. But I’m afraid there was a lot more to it than that. They’d disappear sometimes in the afternoons, Mr. Gracia and Amihan — he told me he was taking her along to meet clients, learn the business.”

“The blank spots on the calendar.”

“Maybe, I don’t know. I’d thought he was over it — one day, a month ago or so, she just didn’t come in, and I heard him shouting in tagalong to someone on the phone last week, yelling about his wife, his family. It might have been her, I don’t know.”

“Mrs. Calambacal, could you get us a number for Amihan, please?” Stevens requested. The secretary nodded once and disappeared.

“Woman scorned,” Nichols said.

“It seems kind of thin,” Mulder said. “Afternoon quickies with a guy probably twice her age who, no ageism intended, may have been no more than a meal ticket to citizenship.” The agent paused. “Detective, could you open that refrigerator for me?”

Nichols looked to Stevens, who shrugged. He flipped open the compartment full of beer and apple juice as Calambal re-entered with a Post-it.

“Amihan Dalisay,” she grunted, handing off the slip. “I’m going to lunch.”

“Mrs. Calambaca,” Mulder asked abruptly. “Did Mr. Gracia drink a lot of apple juice?”

“God, I don’t know. I guess not — he always guzzled Coke or Dr. Pepper. Maybe he was on a health kick.”

Mulder nodded absently, and she left.

“In the Tagalog mythology, Amihan was one of the first beings to inhabit the universe,” the agent mused. “The name Amihan means a cool northeast wind.”

“Let’s see which way she blew,” Nichols suggested.

United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York

Brooklyn, New York

Friday, April 21

“All right, OK,” Amihan Dalisay huffed. “So I saw Mr. Gracia a little bit. You gonna ship me back now?”

The young nurse was slim, petite, but curvy, with glossy waist-length hair. They’d found out from her attorney’s office that she was at the federal building for one of the Queens 13’s seemingly endless series of appearances.

“That’s not going to happen,” asserted her lawyer, who’d begun dressing a lot snappier since he’d started doing the CNN Headline circuit. “This some kind of ICE ploy to pressure my clients? Cause it won’t play.”

“You can cool the Pacino act, counselor — this isn’t Larry King,” Nichols chortled. “I don’t care if she’s playing doctor — pardon me, RN — with half the Manhattan Businessmen’s Association. I just want to know how hard she took the breakup.”

“How’d you know about that?” Dalisay snapped. “Oh, yeah, that nosy old bruha.”

“Witch, eh?” Stevens mused. “That must’ve been a tough break. There went your path to the whole picket fence thing.”

“Hey,” Amihan spat. “We had some fun, a good time, ‘til that pokpok showed up.”

Stevens started to speak, but Nichols held up a palm. “That one, I got without Rosetta Stone. So who was this pokpok?”

Amihan sneered and looked at the attorney. He nodded in a very non-Pacinolike manner. “She was a dayo — a foreigner. Thai, I think, but American. A puta.”

Nichols’s eyes popped at her lapse from tagalog to her island’s Spanish roots. “A hooker? What makes you say that? You wouldn’t have been tailing his tail?”

“OK, so when he dumped me, I followed him. He went to that fancy place — the Omni Hudson — and met her in the lobby. She’s a high-class puta — little slut black dress, stiletto heels. But she was playin’ Ramon, lookin’ at her watch everytime he looked the other way. Like she had places to be. Then he turn around and she’s got her hands almost in his pants. You know?”

“Not recently,” Nichols sighed. “Look, I’m gonna put you with a department artist. Try to work up a sketch of this puta.”

“I don’t know,” the lawyer drawled.

“Any cooperation might be in your client’s interest,” Mulder said.

“Might get you on Faith Yancy, Al,” Nichols suggested.

The attorney studied the cop. “Bring on the artist.”

“Hoo-wah,” Nichols murmured.

Taste of Manila

Queens, New York

Friday, April 21

“I seen it a couple times, back home,” Greg Torongoy informed his guests. “The old folks used to say it was the batibat, the bangungot – fat old bitch demon would climb into your bed and sit on your face ‘til you couldn’t breathe no more. Couple bottles of San Miguel, sounds like a night on the town.” The old restaurateur cackled. “C’mon now, eat.”

Greg Torongoy himself brought the hamonado, goat stew, and rice to their table, dropping into the fourth chair between Nichols and Stevens and snapping his fingers for more water.

“Enjoy — honey-roasted pork. It’s my specialty — my treat. You guys are gonna find out what happened to Ramon, right?”

Nichols eyed his dish with clinical delight. “Thanks, Mr. Torongoy,” Stevens smiled mournfully, “but we can’t accept gifts or meals from a witness in a case. Internal Affairs is always sniffing around. We’ll pay.” Nichols shrugged.

The Queens restaurateur nodded empathetically at her departmental scapegoating. Then he blinked. “Witness? Witness to what?”

“We understand you played cards with Mr. Gracia a couple of times a week,” Mulder eased in.

“Pusoy Dos — Big Two, poker,” Torongoy drawled, glancing at the growing lunch crowd.

“Yeah, yeah, we hear Ramon liked his pusoy,” Nichols murmured, digging into his sweet, savory pork.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Just that you were one of his best buddies, his poker pal. You’d know if he was involved in any other games.”

Torongoy sputtered. “Hey, Ramon was a family man, a pillar of this community.”

“I know he took a particular interest in the Queens 13 — one of them, anyway.”

Torongoy looked from Nichols to the impassive Stevens, then to the smiling FBI agent. After a second of weighing his options, he sighed and called to the bartender in Spanish.

“OK, but do me a favor,” Torongoy sighed. “Don’t tell Graciella, Ramon’s wife. She’s a good woman — it’d kill her.”

“We’ll try to be discreet, as long as it doesn’t turn out it killed him,” Nichols said as the bartender deposited a blood-red drink before his boss. “I heard he dumped the nurse a month or so ago for a Thai tootsie.”

“Tootsie,” Torongoy mused. “I wondered if she was a working girl. I ran into them at some bar in Midtown, and she was like too friendly, but too distracted. Like she had business. Ramon eventually fessed up, that he was doing her, but he said she was the daughter of a client. Didn’t want to admit he was paying for it, even though with that hot little babae on the hook, I don’t know why he’d buy.”

“You get this girl’s name?” Mulder asked.

“Uh, I think it was Ella. Listen, you tell Graciella, you don’t tell her I told you.”

“Bring me another plate of this,” Nichols said through a mouthful of honeyed pork, “and I’ll forget I even talked to you.”

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Major Case Squad

Manhattan, New York

Friday, April 21

Forensic Accountant Jay McNair straightened his glasses as he took center stage. “I accessed financial and credit data for the Brothers Gracia and the others Agent Mulder identified. Nada, zip. Ramon Gracia’s business was doing well — like everybody else, energy and freight costs cut into his last-quarter earnings, but he has a kick-ass cost-containment system for his operational scale, and his personal portfolio is diversified, minimal downside risk.

“Family-held corporation — majority share goes to the spouse, equal portions of the remaining interest to the four offspring. Ought to provide a healthy revenue stream, but hardly worth killing for. Same for the personal estate, which all goes to the wife. The three sons and the daughter are all on pretty solid footing — little debt, no recent suspicious financial activity that might flag gambling debts, drugs, that kind of thing. As for the other six vics…”

“Decedents,” Capt. Callas amended dryly. The civilian employees loved cop talk. “For all we know, these men died natural deaths.”

His rhythm disrupted, McNair nodded absently and rebooted. “Sorry. The brother, Eduardo, wasn’t connected with the business. Scuttlebutt is they had a falling out early on, and Eduardo bought a garage in Queens 23 years ago. The books looked clean, and he showed a respectable if non-spectacular profit on a consistent basis. Personal finances clean as well. He was widowed, and the business and assets went to his two sons — securities broker and an assistant editor with HarperCollins who liquidated. They check out clean.

“The cousin, James Tapang, worked the kitchen in a Filipino joint on the East Side. Flashy lifestyle — no savings to speak off, but $16,000 or so in credit debt, on three different cards. The guy from Soho, Robert Iradier, an artist, go figure, lived hand to loft owner and left practically nothing behind to anybody. Similar stories on Nick Obusan, the decedent from Jersey — UPS warehouse worker with savings in the low four figures, Randy Dumagat — the night custodian from the Bronx, and Ignacio Rivera — the Connecticut busboy.

“With the exception of the Gracia brothers, I couldn’t find any financial link between the vi–, the decedents. None of them even banked at the same place.”

“Thanks,” Callas grunted, and McNair slipped out, his investigative acumen once again barely acknowledged. “So, follow the money seems to lead us down a dead alley. How about Gracia’s phone records?”

“Nothing out of line on the home or work lines,” Nichols reported. “Our naughty nurse showed up on his cell phone log regularly ‘til a few weeks ago — some people just can’t let go. But then, about the time Gracia kicked her, another number started coming up regularly — incoming and outgoing.”

“So we’re assuming it’s the new ‘girlfriend’?” Callas murmured. “We got a name yet?”

“It was a throwaway,” Stevens reported. “We’re trying to get a line on where she might have bought it. Of course, neither Amidan nor the other women were programmed in.”

“So we’re assuming it’s the new girlfriend,” Callas repeated with a new emphasis. “If it is, the throwaway’s a red flag. You think she might’ve been working Gracia? He was a food importer, right? Any possibility a little China white may have been coming in with the jasmine rice and shrimp chips?”

Stevens shook her head. “I checked with Narco, and Agent Mulder asked around the DEA. Gracia Fine Philippine Foods is a mom-and-pop — no mob or drug ties. I think it’s the girl.”

“All right, then,” Callas nodded. “Circulate that sketch through Vice and Bunco, and look for any connections with the brother or the cousin. But, Detectives? And this goes for you, too, Agent Mulder. I’d like it if I didn’t read anything in tomorrow’s Ledger about your little serial theories. I’m getting a feeling about Gracia, but you haven’t sold me these other deaths have any connection. Am I clear? Agent?”

“Roger,” Mulder chimed, drawing a look from the captain and an eye roll from Nichols. Callas locked eyes with Stevens and exited.

“I’m not sure you’ve sold me, either,” Stevens said. “The first five victims fit the age profile for SUDS, though I’ll admit it does seem like a high incidence over a two-year period. But Eduardo and Ramon Gracia don’t fit the usual pattern.”

Mulder turned from the NYPD Intranet browser. “So what if the New Jersey, Connecticut, Soho, and Bronx cases were legitimate SUDS deaths — a statistical anomaly that offered somebody an ideal smokescreen? What if Tapang, Eduardo Gracia, and Ramon Gracia were the real victims? The intended victims?”

“Who’d have it out for the Gracias?” Nichols demanded. “Ramon made some enemies with the Queens 13, but the other two? You saying there’s some kind of blood feud going on? Otherwise, I can’t see who’d benefit.”

The agent smiled. “I can tell you who doesn’t.”

Starbucks

Times Square, Manhattan, New York

Friday, April 21

Malaya Gracia looked about the packed coffee shop though it was unlikely they’d run into anyone she knew. Her mounting paranoia was absurd — no one could possibly guess why they were here, and her sleek black mourning outfit drew no special notice in Manhattan, the land of self-styled bohemians, Goths, and power suits. Plus, she had been engaged to the man seated across from her for nearly two years.

“You sure about this?” Louis Imperial asked. He was a handsome young man, casually garbed in stylishly rugged attire. At 28, he was the head of his own market consulting and graphic production firm on Bleecker, an example to his family of the American Dream they had sought with only moderate success.

“Positive,” the young Filipina responded emphatically, her dark eyes flashing. “I’m tired of waiting. We should leave town tonight.”

“I have to meet with the Summers and Felton people tomorrow — it’s a potential $1 million account. But I can get a flight out tomorrow night.” Immediately, he regretted the commitment.

“Yes,” Malaya smiled, relieved. “This is too much, too much to ask. Dad’s gone now, and there’s no reason for it.”

“Hey, shhh.” Her voice had risen. Louis understood her impatience — they’d been waiting since the death of her cousin James — but he questioned this move so quickly after her father’s passing. He’d seen the detectives at Ramon’s wake.

More importantly, Malaya did not realize what business he had yet to finish here. He’d been weak, and now everything was in the balance. His abrupt departure could set off a chain reaction that eventually would explode in his face.

“You love me, don’t you?”

It had been a long time — years of frustrated, agonizing waiting — and recently, Louis had had his doubts, obviously. Malaya’s initially rigid adherence to her parents’ wishes had become tiresome — Louis’ blue-collar family had assimilated fully into U.S. culture three generations ago, and were as culturally observant as Catholics who darken the cathedral door only at Christmas and Easter. And, as they had waited, he’d strayed, and it had come back to bite him in the ass.

But somehow, as he stared into Malaya’s exquisite, almond-shaped expresso eyes, as she solicited his reaffirmation, he knew it must be.

“Of course. We leave tomorrow.”

**

She’d stayed on the street, near a pita cart where neither of the two could see her. She’d followed Imperial here (follow that cab, she’d been tempted to tell the Muslim behind the wheel), and her heart had pounded all the way into the heart of Times Square. This was it; she could feel it in her heart. They’d been talking a long time — Louis seemed restless, guilty; the bitch was agitated, animated. Her heart sailed.

Then sank immediately as the sun broke through Gracia’s scowl. The bitch should be outraged, devastated. The bitch reached across the table, and he clasped her hands. The blood pounded in her veins, and the Middle Easterner manning the cart looked up, startled, as a choked snarl escaped her lips. She glared, and he returned to turning his kabobs.

It was all wrong. How could he tolerate this? How could he allow himself to be played this way?

How could he not see what was right? What was meant to be?

Imperial Image

TriBeCa, New York

Friday, April 21

Sucking down the rest of his Vente Kona, Louis Imperial paused as he spotted the trio in his waiting niche. They were too old to be the hip young entrepreneurs or marketing execs who frequented his firm (with the exception of the tomboy redhead), too pedestrian in their dress to be account execs for any of the big agencies that farmed business his way.

The Imperial Image CEO looked to the temp, who shrugged. The tallest of the three, a cop-looking guy with a hopelessly unhip Irish tartan tie, stood and came his way, trailed by the redhead and the smaller, dark-haired guy.

“Louis Imperial?” the tall guy asked, extending a paw. “Det. Zach Nichols, Major Case Squad. My partner, Det. Stevens. And this is Agent Mulder, FBI.”

Imperial almost staggered back. “Good God, what happened?”

Nichols smiled. “Sorry — looks like a SWAT raid, I know. We’re the detectives looking into Ramon Gracia’s death.”

The marketing whiz frowned. “Did I miss something? Ray died of a heart attack, didn’t he? In his sleep?”

“You ever heard of bangungot?” the one called Mulder asked.

Nichols sighed. “We have reason to believe there may be suspicious circumstances surrounding your fiance’s father’s death, and maybe the deaths of Mr. Gracia’s brother and cousin.”

Louis feigned ignorance out of some absurd instinct. “A cousin died, too? When did this happen?”

“What’s important,” Stevens interrupted gently, “is that these deaths may have something to do with Ms. Gracia.”

“Malaya?” His heartbeat quickened. “What are you suggesting? That she had anything to do–”

“Absolutely not,” Stevens hastened. She paused before expounding Mulder’s theory. “How long have you two been dating?”

“Five years,” Louis responded, with a sideway glance Nichols, Stevens, and Mulder the behavioral scientist all caught.

“Wow,” Stevens beamed. “That’s devotion. I saw the ring at the wake — beautiful. You two set a date yet?”

“We’ve talked about it,” the businessman murmured, evasively. Another sideways glance. A glance at the ceiling usually meant a search for the lie, a downwards look shame or embarrassment over the deception. Sideways: He was dancing around the truth.

“But nothing’s been pinned down yet, has it, Mr. Imperial?” They’d decided Stevens, the empathic romanticist, should take this one. “Respect for the dead, mourning properly, those are very important in the Philippine culture, aren’t they?”

Louis laughed shortly. “You know, I’m not really that old school — my family’s mostly in Chicago.”

“But Ramon Gracia wasn’t so old school. At least, not in public. It’s Philippine tradition for a woman to postpone a wedding for a year after the death of a close relative. That’s right, isn’t it? And your fiance’s family’s had three deaths over a two-year period.”

Louis inhaled, then held it for a moment before his shoulders relaxed. “That’s right. Ray was insistent — he had his image to maintain, and Malaya’s mother was very old school. Malaya hasn’t wanted to offend her parents.”

Stevens nodded thoughtfully. “That must be very frustrating for both of you, in this day and age.”

“We, ah, we love each other. We can wait.”

“I think that’s what may be going on here, Mr. Imperial,” Mulder chimed in. “We think maybe the deaths of Ernesto and Ramon Gracia and your fiance’s cousin may be designed to forestall your wedding. This waiting has to have put a strain on things, hasn’t it?”

Louis began to protest, then sighed. “Well, shit, of course. I’ve told her this is America, that we have to live our lives, too. Sure, I’m — we’re frustrated.”

“How frustrated?” Nichols asked bluntly.

Louis blinked. Then his face darkened. “What’s that mean?”

Nichols smiled crookedly. “I think you know what I mean. Mulder tells me Malaya’s also supposed to stay, you know, pure, before her wedding. Jesus, I’d probably be climbing the walls after three weeks, much less two years.”

“Well, maybe you just lack self-discipline,” Louis retorted coldly. “Malaya knows I love her.”

His eyes darted sideways.

Nichols turned somber. “Look, Louis. If your ‘self-discipline’ has slipped, you need to come clean. It’s beginning to look like somebody doesn’t want Malaya Gracia to get married. Or you. And they’re willing to kill to keep it from happening. Do you have any idea who’d want to do that?”

Louis’ eyes scanned the room, for aid, for escape. “No, honestly. That’s, that’s a ridiculous theory. I’m sorry I can’t help you. I have a meeting, please.”

Nichols thrust a card at the young entrepreneur. “If anything does come to you, here’s my number.”

Louis snatched the card and retreated to a room beyond the reception desk.

“He’s right, you know,” Nichols sighed as he turned for the door. “I probably lack self-discipline.”

**

Nichols nearly piled into a lane-switching taxi as Mulder gasped from the backseat.

“Jesus, Agent, you almost killed us,” Stevens snapped.

“You need to put somebody on Malaya Gracia, ASAP,” Mulder advised urgently.

“Why?” Nichols breathed, glaring as the cabbie flipped him off. “Gracia’s dead. If he was involved with the killer, why didn’t she just kill Malaya? Why all this complicated melodrama about tradition, killing the girl’s family?”

“She’d be too obvious a suspect — the motive for killing Malaya would be apparent. Somehow, she found out about the rash of area SUDS cases and devised this whole smokescreen. She started with a relative distanced enough not to draw attention to Malaya and Imperial — James Tapang. My guess is the cousin was too distant. So then, she moved on to the uncle. It worked, and she had time to work on Imperial. Not quite enough time, apparently, because she bought another year by killing Ramon Gracia.”

“Just who do you think this jilted lover is, Mulder?” Stevens asked gently.

“Somebody who could get close to the Gracia brothers and their cousin, close enough to slip Uncle Ernesto a fatal dose at bedtime, to get into Tapang’s confidence, to know Ramon’s routine. Tapang’s a young guy with poor prospects. Ernesto was a widower. Ramon clearly had a wandering eye. My guess? Ramon’s exotic ‘hooker’ was intimately familiar with his brother and his cousin, as well.

“I think our suspect has been close to the Philippine culture for a long time — she knew about their funeral and wedding traditions. But she’s not an insider, or she’d have known Tapang wasn’t a close enough relative. She’s somebody within Louis Imperial’s circle — a client, a co-worker, an old girlfriend. And she’s smart — and resourceful.”

“Resourceful?” Nichols muttered.

“The murder method — simulating bangungot. I think she used a cocktail of salvia extract and some sort of cardiac stimulant. Salvia divinorum users usually experience feelings of calmness and peace, but some experience dysphoria — discomfort and anxiety. If Gracia was having a cardiac episode, his hallucinations might have taken a particularly nightmarish form. At worst, the salvia would have rendered him and the other victims helpless to call 911 until it was too late.”

“Wait, wait,” Nichols sputtered. “Rodgers didn’t find any sign of any drug that would have caused Gracia’s ticker to, well, stop ticking. What are you saying? Our unhappy hooker used some kind of untraceable poison unknown to mankind?”

Mulder grinned. “Well, that would be pretty resourceful, wouldn’t it? Actually, Ramon Gracia’s refrigerator gave me an idea. Gracia started drinking all that apple juice after he broke up with Ms. Dalisay, right? After he started seeing our suspect. Why? It triggered a memory, so I asked your Dr. Rodgers to dig up the autopsy findings for Ernesto Gracia and James Tapang. Tapang’s post-mortem stomach contents included pizza, Doritos, and Boones Farm apple wine. Ernesto’s stomach contained pork, rice, noodles, and apple juice — maybe the same brand Gracia started guzzling at his ‘girlfriend’s request. In a society known for its supersized fries and groaning waistlines, that’s a lot of fruity goodness. You two ever heard of sodium morphate?”

“Sodium what?” Nichols grunted.

“That’s an urban legend, conspiracy theory,” Stevens countered. “There’s no proof sodium morphate even exists.”

“I’ve know a trio of geeks who’d beg to differ,” Mulder said. “They’ve uncovered several CIA memoranda referencing it, and they tell me the Mob’s been using it to neutralize witnesses since the early ‘60s. It’s likely it derives from morphine, and it reportedly smells and tastes like apples. In lesser quantities, it can induce a simulated heart attack.

“Supposedly, Senator Estes Kefauver ate a piece of apple pie and suffered an attack on the Senate floor just as he was planning to denounce Mafia operations. The CIA reportedly planned to poison Castro with sodium morphate, and Lyndon Johnson scarfed a slice of apple pie in front of his Secret Service agent just before he died.”

“Apple pie?” Nichols squeaked, glancing into the rearview mirror. “No offense, Mulder, but it’s beginning to sound a little like Oliver Stone put LSD in your corn flakes. Det. Eames told me about your theories in the Forester case, about the Macbeth curse and possession. I’m still not convinced Ramon Gracia didn’t just have one too many plates of hamanado.”

“We need a more precise tox screen,” Mulder persisted. “And we need to get some protection for Malaya Gracia. The killer’s been escalating — the murders are closer together and closer to Malaya. At some point, she may not be content with holding off the wedding date. I got a funny vibe from Imperial, like something may be up.”

Nichols jammed the brake a little too hard as they halted by Madison Square Garden. “Why don’t we bring this little magical mystery tour back to Planet Earth for the time being? I need a strong cup of coffee and maybe a piece of pie. If it makes you feel more comfortable, Mulder, you can have cake.”

Coquilles

Greenwich Village

Friday, April 21

Stevens convinced her now-silent car mates to grab a cup and a galette at Coquilles on Bleecker — the former employer of the late James Tapang. Nichols chose instead to take his caffeine in the alley beyond the kitchen, without Mulder.

“Shit, man,” Julio Diamonte spat as he puffed away in violation of Manhattan statute. Nichols savored his own cigarette, supplied by the initially wary dishwasher. “I always thought it was strange Jimmy just cacked like that. Night terror — boolshit.”

“Hey, don’t spread that around,” Nichols warned, at once bringing Julio into his circle. “We don’t want to spook anybody. You wanna look at a picture? A woman?”

“Shit man,” Julio grinned, showing a glint of gold in the fading early evening light. “I always wanna look at pictures of women.” He took the scan of the sketch Amihan Dalisay had helped craft. “Hope she’s hotter than this, though. Though I dig the Asian ladies, you know?”

“Yeah,” Nichols nodded. “She familiar?”

“Yeah, bro, that’s, uh, Ella. Jimmy was doin’ her for a while, though I don’ see what a fine Chiquita like that be doin’ with Jimmy. She was a classy-ass bitch, all right.”

Nichols rubbed his hands despite the warmth of the evening. “You know what she did?”

“Think Jimmy said she was a’ actress. Off-Broadway, some shit. They met at some bar down the street bout a month before he cacked. It was kinda funny.”

“What?”

“Well, we was just off shift, you know? Bout 11:30 or so, and Jimmy, he still smells like he took a swim in the harbor — all that seafood shit he gets on hisself. Anyone, we was like dead, so we hadn’ changed or nothin’. But Ella, man, she come up and just like almost hump Jimmy’s leg like a pitbull in heat. She don’t even look at me — like I’m a barstool or some shit. Shit, no offense to the dead or whatever, but I’m about 10 times more hotter than Jimmy was.”

Nichols scuffed his loafer through the alley gravel. “Ah, who knows what women want, eh?”

Julio grew silent, then laughed as he extinguished his own cigarette. “What you sayin’ about that bitch true, sound like maybe its good she don’t want me. Entiendo?”

MotorBoys Auto Repair

Queens, New York

Friday, April 21

“Thought Ernie’d won the New York State Lottery when he brought her around the first time,” Earl Harris chuckled as he slammed the hood of the Volvo he’d been tuning. The mechanic wiped grease from his huge, calloused brown hands and tossed the soiled shop towels into a barrel. “Damn shame — practically killed him when Rosa passed on, then just when he finds that sweet little thing, well, you know.”

“How’d they meet?” Stevens prodded.

“Brought her car in with a punctured tire,” the mechanic said. “Hey, Lewis, Gorman car’s ready!” he shouted to the desk at the front of the shop as Nichols, Stevens, and Mulder exchanged significant looks.

“Mr. Harris,” Nichols asked slowly. “You remember anything about the car?”

Harris frowned as he led his guests to a disreputable Bunn coffeemaker. He looked up; Stevens and Nichols shook their heads, and Mulder nodded. The mechanic poured 30-weight sludge into a pair of Styrofoam cups, handed one to the agent.

“See,” he finally rumbled. “That’s the thing I’m thinkin’ about now that you folks show up askin’ about Ella. Ernie’d let me have the day off that day for my girl’s college graduation, but he told me she brought in a rental — said her regular car was in for some engine work. Looked to Ernie like vandalism, like somebody’d punctured the tire with a nail. An’ when he reminded her the rental company insurance’d cover the repair, she said, no thanks, she didn’t want to go through the hassle. He threw in the labor — Ernie had a big heart, an’ she was a cute little thing. Next thing you know, she gives him a call to go get some coffee, an’ before you know it, they were a couple. Kinda odd couple, but takes all kinds, right?”

“Ain’t that the truth?” Nichols murmured.

Major Case Squad

Manhattan, New York

Friday, April 21

“So she’d targeted both of them,” Capt. Callas concluded, sipping his own bad cop coffee. “A dead-end dishwasher and an old widower, neither one a candidate for the Fortune 500. Likely she plied her charms with Ramon Gracia, as well.”

“I checked the rental agencies for the week prior to Harris’ daughter’s graduation,” Mulder supplied. “We didn’t have a make or even a color for the car, but we tracked down the invoice for ‘Ella’s’ tires, and I’m guessing we have a hit. Avis rented a Camry to a Lolita Chang a day before she met Ernesto Gracia.”

Callas smiled grimly. “Great, a sense of humor. So what’s the motive here? Revenge? Hate crime? If this is some kind of Thai-Filipino thing, I don’t want Homeland Security crawling all over this place. Nichols? A thought?”

Nichols had been perched on his desk, deep in meditation. “I just can’t shake that there’s something familiar about this set-up. The Thai connection, the untraceable poison… It rings a bell.”

As if on cue, Stevens’s phone vibrated. After a few quiet responses, she ended the call and looked up, face ashen.

“Nichols,” she said, gravely.

Jackson Heights

Queens, New York

Friday, April 21

“Damn!” Nichols shouted abruptly, kicking a discarded lettuce crate. He forced himself to look again at Malaya Gracia, sprawled in the gravel next to the dumpster, a single small-bore bullethole in her temple.

“Detective,” Mulder called, reaching with concern for the cop. Stevens grabbed the agent’s forearm and shook her head. Nichols looked at the pair, as if anticipating indictment, then stalked off.

“Nichols know the vic?” the primary, a Special Victim’s detective named Munch, who’d greeted the senior Major Case cop by name. Munch looked more like a malnourished comedian or wiseguy than a law enforcement officer. He peered through tinted lenses at Mulder. “Actually, don’t I know you?”

“She was a possible witness in the Gracia case,” Stevens hastened before Mulder could reveal Nichols’s possible misjudgment.

“Case?” Munch perked. “Thought the old guy just had a little too much afternoon delight.”

“We think maybe Ramon Gracia is part of a series of killings of Filipino men within his family,” Mulder said. “We think their deaths were induced, made to look like sudden unexpected death syndrome.”

“Wow, bangungot?” Munch responded, prompting a look from Stevens. “I visited Manila back in the ‘70s, with the ex. Hey, you thought of sodium morphate? You know, the shit they killed LBJ and Hoffa with?”

“They didn’t kill Hoffa,” Mulder said cryptically. “But, yes. That’s my theory.”

“Maybe this is some kind of CIA thing,” Det. Munch suggested as he moved out of a tech’s camera frame. “Maybe these guys were part of some kind of operation back in the islands, and this is a cleanup job.”

“Guys,” Stevens interjected firmly. “It’s possible the motive for these killings involved Ms. Gracia. What’s SVU’s interest?”

“We’ve had some Asian girls assaulted in Queens over the last few weeks, one shot in the head in an alley,” Munch explained. “This fits the M.O.”

“It might if the killer read the papers,” Mulder said.

“Or,” Stevens countered, “if Gracia happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and this has nothing to do with her father’s death.”

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Munch re-inspected Mulder. “Gee, man, you just look so familiar. You ever been in Baltimore? I used to work Homicide there.”

Mulder blinked, as if he’d recalled something. “I don’t recall.”

Munch snapped his fingers. “Yeah, it was some freaky government thing, all hush-hush. There were these three geeky dudes in a warehouse, and…” The detective trailed off suddenly with an amused grin. “Ah, must’ve been somebody else. Right, Agent Mulder, you say?”

“Yeah,” Mulder murmured, uncertainly. “Uh, excuse me — I want to brief my director on this new development.” The agent walked away, glancing backwards a few times as he unholstered his cell phone. He reholstered it as a distraught young man in a tee and sweatpants shoved a patrolman aside and rushed for the body.

“Malaya!” Louis Imperial screamed as he spotted her corpse. Munch and Mulder grabbed the marketer and pulled him back. Imperial dropped to his knees, kneading his hair with his fingers and keening like a wounded animal. Stevens dropped to her knees before him.

“Why was she here, Louis?” the cop prompted gently, squeezing his arm.

“She, we were, were…” Imperial swallowed, tears plopping into the alleyway dirt.

“Take a breath, Louis,” Stevens urged. “You were what?”

“You were going to elope, weren’t you?” Mulder interjected. “She was tired of waiting, wasn’t she? The killer’d kept you two apart long enough, and you couldn’t wait any longer. Somehow, she found out.”

“Mulder,” Stevens warned quietly. Imperial looked up, eyes shining in the police floods.

“What do you mean, kept us apart?” he gasped. “No, what does that mean? Somebody killed her to, to… Oh, God, ohgodohgod…”

“Mr. Imperial,” Mulder pushed. “You know something, don’t you?”

“Not now, Mulder,” Stevens said firmly.

“The temp,” the agent said. “Your regular secretary, is she Thai?”

Imperial’s head snapped up, eyes filled with horror. “Oh, Jesus. She wouldn’t have… She said…” The bereaved fiancé began to wail, his body shaking, and Stevens sprang to her feet.

She shoved Mulder against the backdoor of a dress shop with surprising strength. “I said, not now! He’s in shock!”

“They’ve been having an affair,” Mulder persisted, excitedly. “It’s how she knows the culture, how she knew the victims. The secretary’s ‘Ella.’”

“Later,” Stevens snapped, fixing him with an icy stare. “OK?”

The spell broke, and Mulder glanced guiltily at Louis Imperial, rocking disconsolately in the filth of the alley. “Yeah,” he swallowed.

Pete’s

Manhattan, New York

Friday, April 21

“Top me off, Pete, will ya?” Nichols called. The bartender raised a brow, setting aside his lemon and knife. “I’m walking, OK? Gimme a break.”

“I’ll see he gets home.” Nichols’s piano stool swiveled as Mulder settled in at the bar nearby.

“Just what I needed,” the cop moaned. “What do you want, Agent? I screwed up, OK? I should’ve listened to you.”

“Why?” Mulder smiled mournfully. “It was a wild-ass theory, this whole Filipino marriage thing, SUDS, sodium morphate. I had a feeling, was all. Just my day to have the right one.”

“I’d almost rather you rubbed my face in it,” Nichols groaned. He waved to Pete. “What’s your poison, you should pardon the expression?”

“I’m the designated driver, remember? Coke with a slice of lemon, please. Look, Detective — I’ve been on the carpet so often I’ve got rug burns on my knees.”

“Not the greatest analogy ever,” Nichols grunted, eyeing his fresh drink, then nudging it aside. “You don’t have to hold my hand, Mulder. “Stevens send you around to give me this little pep talk?”

Mulder laughed. “I think she’s beginning to like me as much as Det. Eames. No, I just thought maybe you could use a good reboot. I need you back in the game — homicide isn’t my forte. Besides, you told me something about this case seemed familiar. What was it?”

“Geez, Mulder, you should’ve caught me two beers ago,” Nichols laughed. “I don’t know. It’s like when you have the puzzle pieces in front of you, and you can make out some sky and part of Yankee Stadium, but you don’t have enough, I don’t know, context.”

“All right,” Mulder nodded. He grabbed a cocktail napkin, located a pen, and tore the napkin into pieces. He shoved the fragments in front of Nichols. “Write down the pieces of the puzzle. You said there was a Thai connection.”

“Yeah,” Nichols mumbled, accepting Mulder’s pen. After a beat, he wrote “Thai” on the scrap. Then he frowned and jotted a second note. “For some reason, the perp’s name, Ella, it seems connected to the Thai thing.”

“OK. What else?”

“How sure are you about this sodium morphate crap?”

“It’s a theory.”

“Well, it reminds me of something, a case a while back. I don’t think I was even involved, maybe something I read, saw in a casefile.”

“The case had a Thai connection?”

Nichols shook his head. “No, no. The cases were connected, though.”

Mulder nodded, encouragingly. “We showed Louis Imperial ‘Ella’s’ sketch, and it turns out to be his assistant, Karen Clemmons, 23, lives in Greenwich Village. Thai-American, despite the name. They’d been having an on again-off again affair ever since Ernesto Gracia’s death. I believe she engineered his murder along with Ramon Gracia’s. The first postponement weakened Imperial enough to cheat, but he was still committed to marrying Malaya. Ramon’s death was to buy her time.”

Nichols scowled. “Wait a minute. This is a 23-year-old secretary, and you’re trying to tell me she has access to classified poisons and worked this whole plot out in her head? Three murders, just to snag her man? Geez, sounds like that Texas cheerleader case a while back.”

“I don’t think you’re too far off,” Mulder said. “It’s like Sarit has a mentor, somebody pushing her to pursue Imperial, somebody who could come up with this convoluted scheme and convince her to kill to erase her competition for Imperial. Someone like…”

“Her mother?”

“Actually, her mother’s in the clear,” Mulder murmured grimly. “Sukhon Sarit Clemmons and her husband Gary were murdered 2 1/2 years ago in a fairly gruesome manner. The Shoreham police decided it was a home invasion — the stock drug-crazed kids — and closed the case with no arrests. Karen was away at the University of Virginia at the time.”

“Jesus,” Nichols whispered. “Sukhon. First-generation?”

“Gary was a businessman who traveled to Asia a lot. They married in the late ‘80s — Sukhon brought her infant daughter with her. Imperial told me Sukhon never discussed her past with Karen, was almost defensive about it.”

Nichols frowned. “You think it was a racket? Working girl blackmails the rich Americano into a trip to the promised land?”

Mulder shrugged. “I called the Thai officials, asked for anything they had on Sukhon. Probably won’t hear ‘til tomorrow.”

“So you’re saying, what? That somebody killed Clemmons’ parents and then talked her into committing four cold-blooded murders?”

“If Karen killed those men, and the person who murdered her parents is behind it, then they must have a powerful pull on her. I think it’s possible Karen’s ‘mentor’ decided to supplant her mother, to become her mother.”

“Mother-and-daughter psychos,” Nichols whistled. “And I thought Joan and Melissa Rivers were twisted.” The cop’s grin vanished. “There it is again — déjà vu. But not my déjà vu. Goren’s.”

“Bobby’s?” Mulder asked.

“When I first got assigned to Major Case, Eames told me about a case — a health inspector murdered in the projects. But that turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg.” Nichols rose from his stool, threw some bills on the scarred wood. “C’mon, I wanna check a few files back at the squad.”

Midtown Amsterdam Hotel

Manhattan, New York

Friday, April 21

“No one saw me,” Karen pledged. “There’ve been some attacks in the area — Asian girls. The cops probably think it’s the same guy. That’s what Lou said.”

The older woman raised a brow. “Louis? When did you speak with Louis?”

Karen was silent. Had she screwed up? “Mother” already seemed agitated about her removing that sanctimonious little bitch. “He, he called right before you got back. He was crying — the cops had just finished with him. Lou said this crazy serial killer must’ve mistaken her for a hooker. I particularly enjoy that.”

Mother shook her head, grinning nonetheless. “It was a very foolhardy move, my dear. But perhaps it will pay off. You’re the first shoulder he’ll lean on. But, Karen, my sweet?”

“Yes?”

“You mustn’t rush this. He’ll come around now, but we mustn’t raise suspicion. Do you understand?”

Karen sighed. “I guess.” A smile graced her pretty Asian features. “Thanks. I mean that.” She rushed forward and pulled the older woman into an embrace. Mother’s eyes welled, and she kissed the girl’s hair.

They both jumped at the knock. “Hello? It’s the housekeeper,” a youthful voice called timidly.

“Yes?” Mother responded, more harshly than she’d intended.

“I’ve got some towels, some extra towels.”

Mother rolled her eyes at Karen. “Leave them by the door.”

A brief silence ensued. “I’m really not supposed to. If somebody walks off with–”

“Oh, all right.” Mother released Karen and moved to the door, undoing the chain and turning the knob. She was propelled backward as the door swung open and a gun was thrust into her face.

“On the ground, both of you!” Det. Megan Stevens shouted. Karen Clemmons considered her options, then dropped to the carpet. Stevens moved to the girl as Nichols cuffed the older woman, covered by Mulder.

“Smart girl, using the throwaway cell phones with your ‘boyfriends,’” Nichols told Karen. “But we knew you’d take a call from Louis.” The cop looked down at the blonde in his grasp. “Nicole Wallace, you’re under arrest for conspiracy to commit murder. You have the right–“

Nicole Wallace, AKA Elizabeth Hitchens, smiled angelically as Nichols pulled her to her feet. “Damn,” she interrupted his recitation, coolly.

“What?” Nichols demanded.

“I was hoping it would be Bobby,” the blonde purred with a charming British lilt that momentarily chilled the detective’s blood.

“Little taken aback myself,” Nichols empathized, “considering you’re supposed to be dead.”

Major Case Squad

Manhattan, New York

Saturday, April 22

“Nicole Wallace,” Capt. Callas savored. “A legend in the annals of Major Case. Australian national. At least 19 kills to her name – pardon me, alleged kills – and she’s managed somehow to escape the needle every time. If Goren had talked that way, he’d probably have called her the one that got away.

“According to her file, Wallace likely was molested by her father. She first came to the attention of the international law enforcement community when she and a self-styled bon vivant named Bernard Fremont robbed and murdered eight men in Thailand. Fremont’s ‘other’ girlfriend ratted them out, and Wallace rolled on Fremont for a dime sentence in the women’s facility at Yard Lao. Not exactly a nurturing environment for a budding psychopath, though she did learn the Thai language for free.

“Thailand,” Nichols murmured as a piece fell into place.

“When she got out, she returned down under and began practicing the world’s oldest profession. Wallace gave birth to a daughter, who reportedly was swept out to sea when she was three. By sheer coincidence, a three-year-old skeleton turned up near the beach where she disappeared. Goren theorized that Wallace had come to view the girl as a sexual rival.”

“Jesus,” Stevens breathed.

Callas nodded darkly. “I won’t say it gets better. Wallace comes to the U.S. in 2002 under the alias Elizabeth Hitchens, somehow lands a job as a lit professor at Hudson. She gets involved in two murders on campus – all supposedly to get her lover an academic appointment – but all we could get her on was an Australian embezzlement charge, and she disappeared before we could serve the warrant.

“Skip forward. Wallace somehow lays her hands on some anthrax and uses it to frame a former government scientist. Goren presses the guy, who hangs himself in his shower, and Goren gets savaged in the press. Wallace shows up to gloat – with her new husband, Gavin Haynes.”

“The Gavin Haynes,” Nichols informed Stevens and Mulder. “Goren trips her up, but Haynes buys a good lawyer, and again, she wriggles off the hook. Then dumps her. When next we meet her, she’s heading up a diamond theft ring, along with – get this – a young Japanese-American girl named Ella Miyazaki. Who was also her lover.”

“Surrogate daughter,” Mulder profiled. “Except Wallace has a somewhat corrupted view of family.”

“Nicely understated, Agent,” Callas responded. “Miyazaki rolls on Wallace, agrees to wear a wire. Wallace crushes Ella the First’s trachea after trying unsuccessfully to kill Haynes. Again, she disappears into the ether. Eventually, Goren finds her setting up housekeeping with the brother of a homicide victim. The boyfriend’s daughter has some health issues, and Goren begins to think Wallace is feeding her estrogen to induce cancer. Turns out she thought her boyfriend was dosing the girl to grab a few million in trust money, and Wallace was trying to save her. Before we could get anything on her for the brother, she skipped with the girl. But she must’ve had a change of heart, because she dropped the daughter with an aunt in Arizona and called Goren to tell him he’d ‘stolen’ her last chance. The aunt was no help — she thought Wallace was a hero — and the next indication she’s still on the map is when her old cohort, Bernard Fremont, gets a hot hypodermic on a courthouse staircase. Goren was certain it was her.

“What I can’t figure out is her stake in this. There’s no real pot of gold here, especially now that Wallace or her protégé’s killed the golden goose. The bullet in the Malaya Gracia shooting wasn’t even the same caliber as the slugs in the previous street kills. Except, of course, we haven’t found the weapon either in Wallace’s hotel room or Clemmons’ apartment.”

“Wallace would have tossed the gun immediately, or had Clemmons dispose of it,” Mulder noted. “Nicole Wallace has the cunning of an organized serial: Meticulous planning, superhuman patience, attention to eliminating physical evidence and connections. At the same time, her motives and emotions are highly disorganized, almost childish. And I think that’s the key to this thing.

“I’m guessing the turning point was when she murdered her own daughter. The horror of the act struck home, at least on some subconscious level, and she had to escape, wipe the slate clean, create a new life. So she comes to New York as Elizabeth Hitchens, establishes academic creds, and finds a solid, human relationship. But then her sociopathic nature emerges, and it all falls apart — at Bobby’s hands. Worse yet, Bobby exposes her history of crime and degradation. She cultivates a relationship with Gavin Haynes — an even more conventional relationship with the added appeal of upper-class credibility and a chance at normal parenthood — but she has to bring Bobby down before she can move forward. Once again, she plots a brilliant frame-up, somehow gets her hands on a vial of anthrax, and makes Bobby look like a bumbler. But she can’t resist the temptation of letting Bobby know she’s responsible for her downfall. And that proves her downfall.

“Wallace loses Haynes and her shot at motherhood and normalcy, again at the hands of Bobby Goren. I think that unhinged her, destroyed whatever boundaries she might have maintained. She ‘adopts’ the first Ella as both her daughter and her lover. The lines between sex and familial love have become distorted as Wallace emotionally regresses. Then her daughter-slash-lover betrays her. That betrayal crushes her, and she strikes out at Fremont, who she sees as responsible along with her father for corrupting her — in a crowded, public setting.

“Then Wallace the Girl Who Wants to be Good goes through another metamorphosis, into the role of Mother-Protector. Somehow, she found out that girl was in danger, and she commits yet another murder, but this time to ‘save’ her latest ‘daughter.’ All she wants is to be the good mother, but once again, there’s Bobby to remind her that she’s beyond redemption, beyond a human existence. Every time Wallace struggles to create a new future for herself, she simultaneously tries to erase her past, whether it’s Bernard Fremont or Bobby Goren. I think this time, she decided to do both at once.”

Callas arched an eyebrow. “You want to explain that, Agent Mulder, or would you like to milk the suspense for another few minutes?”

“I threw around what little weight I have with the Philippine government,” the agent related. “After wheedling and begging and mumbling about Homeland Security, I found out who else was on the cell block when Nicole Wallace was doing her dime at Yard Lao.”

“Sukhon Sarit Clemmons,” Callas murmured.

Nichols grinned. “So who’s up for a road trip to Shoreham? Stevens, you bring the chips, and Mulder can entertain us with Bigfoot stories.”

“You’ll have to entertain yourself,” Mulder said. “It isn’t every day a female serial killer falls into your lap. Besides, I want to try to shoot down the 400-pound gorilla in the room — the one we seem to be avoiding.”

“What?” Stevens queried.

“Bobby’s mentor, Declan Gage, was involved in a demented scheme to ‘free’ him of his past. As part of his plan, he recruited Nicole Wallace to help frame Bobby for his brother’s murder. Except Frank Goren wasn’t murdered. Gage had lured Wallace in to eliminate Bobby’s chief nemesis — he mailed Bobby her heart. Which your M.E. positively identified as Wallace’s. I’m kind of weak on my criminal law. Does double jeopardy apply here?”

“Whatever the case, we have a live one right now,” Callas advised. “Nichols, Stevens — and this goes for you too, Agent — I just want to remind you that Nicole Wallace has gone four rounds in the box with Goren, and she’s still breathing free oxygen. She probably already knows Nichols’ favorite movie and Stevens’ shoe size.”

“What?” Nichols demanded, feigning offense. “You think the B Team’s not up to it?”

Callas smiled dryly. “You’re the A Team now, Detectives. What I’m saying is, polish up on your A-Game. And wear your shin guards.”

Home of Jeanne Ratner

Shoreham, New York

Saturday, April 22

“I never trusted her, and not for the reason you’re probably thinking,” Jeanne Ratner confided with a touch of defensiveness. Gary Clemmons’s bereaved sister poured three cups, then replaced the carafe in her high-tech coffeemaker.

“And what would that reason be?” Nichols inquired as the plump brunette placed his coffee carefully before him. Ratner settled in across the kitchen table, glanced quickly between her visitors, and clasped her hands on the oak as if she were preparing to impart state secrets.

“Gary was a heavy equipment salesman — construction equipment mostly. He usually went to Bangkok once a year to court new customers. Anyway. Gary always was, what would you call it today? A player. Never gave me details, but I heard him bragging to Jeff one night about Thai women, you know, what they could, uh, do.”

“I understand,” Nichols smiled.

“Yes. Anyway. It didn’t take long to figure out how he entertained himself on the road. Which worried me to death — AIDS was just getting going back then, and I was deathly afraid he’d catch it from some hooker in Thailand or Hong Kong. You want my opinion, he was the one got caught. You can imagine how surprised we were when he came home with a new wife — and little Karen. Gary said Sukhon was a business contact, somebody he’d met on a previous trip, and she was trying to raise the girl by herself. He didn’t fool me — when he introduced her to us, I could see she was sizing things up. I even tried to get Gary to make her take a paternity test, but he refused. He was in love. Over the years, it was Karen I felt the most sorry for.”

Stevens leaned forward, warming her hands with her cup. “Why was that?”

“Well, I had no doubt Sukhon blackmailed Gary into marrying her — probably threatened to tell his bosses he’d been charging sex on the company card. You could see the growing tension between them as the years went by, even though they publicly put on a good front for Karen. She was over here all the time, and by high school, she was practically raising herself. But she worked hard in school: Karen was constantly trying to achieve, I think to get Gary and Sukhon’s attention.”

Nichols and Stevens exchanged a look. “You remember anything unusual around the time your brother and his wife were murdered?” Nichols asked.

Ratner sighed. “The police insisted they were killed by a burglar, an addict, or something, but I always wondered if Sukhon’s past had come back to haunt her. They did entertain an old friend of hers one time — someone she’d apparently known in Thailand. A white woman, middle-aged but very pretty — I remember wondering where she and Sukhon ever hooked up.”

Nichols suppressed a smile at her unwitting pun. “Did you get a name?”

“Liz,” Ratner drawled. “Sorry — I was just over there to drop something off, and I never got a last name. But I can’t imagine she could have had anything to do with killing Gary. She was so polite, so civilized. Of course, anybody with that kind of accent seems classy, you know?”

“Accent?”

“Oh, didn’t I say? I think she was British.”

The Onshore Pub

Shoreham, New York

Saturday, April 22

“Yeah, Sue and Gary came around most every Saturday night for a few beers and the specialty du jour,” Len Graham nodded, hauling a keg of Sam Adams behind the bar. “That’s what we called her, Sue — Sukhon was a mouthful for most of the guys, and I always kinda figured it would make her feel more like one of the locals. She was friendly enough, but she never was too chatty, at least when Gary wasn’t around.”

Nichols leaned against the bar. “How often was that? When Gary wasn’t around?”

The restaurateur eyed Nichols, then laughed. “That didn’t sound real great, did it? You own a bar long enough, and everything you say starts sounding dirty. Naw, Sue never stepped out on Gary, least that I ever heard. There are a couple of Thai families in town, and every once in a while, she’d come in with one of the wives for a sandwich or a glass of wine or a beer.”

“She ever come in anyone else?” Stevens asked. “An attractive woman, white, probably blonde, British or Australian? This would have been around the time she died.”

Graham grinned. “Shit, yeah. She stood out like a sore thumb, sitting there with shy little Sue. Every male eye in the joint — and my lesbian cook’s — was locked on her when they came in, and she had my afternoon guy stammering. Turned it on and off — one minute working Greg into a frenzy, the next yammering away at Sue.”

“What about?”

“Don’t ask me,” Graham shrugged. “Greg said the hot blonde seemed pissed off. And every time he got close, they’d switch to the mother tongue.”

“Mother tongue?”

“Sue’s mother tongue. I mean, I guess it was Thai. All Greek to me. I just figured they were catching up on old times.”

“Or something like that,” Nichols suggested.

Major Case Squad

Manhattan, New York

Saturday, April 22

“Well,” Nicole smiled sweetly. “You must be the infamous Fox Mulder of the Bureau. The Fox on the prowl, eh? Am I your prey du jour, Fox?”

“Close enough,” Mulder said, returning her smile as he slipped into the chair across from the seductive serial killer. “Long as we’re being familiar, mind if I call you Nicole?”

“Oh, please. Though I am curious — aren’t you a little out of your territory here? I thought you were all about hobgoblins and fairies and the like.”

Mulder’s grin widened. “Something like that. I’m also a behavioral scientist, as I’m sure you know.”

“Damn,” Nicole purred, looking over Mulder’s shoulder into the two-way mirror. She’d declined counsel — so far. “There goes my omniscient mystique. Yes, I have read of your early exploits. You were quite the fair-haired boy with the Bureau at one time, weren’t you? What happened, Fox? Was it that agent being shot as you polished your sidearm? Because we can all have a bad day, can’t we, now? Or was it simply when you started chasing wraiths and ghoulies? I imagine that raised a few brows at the Bureau.”

“Let’s just say I’m not part of the Director’s ‘Five.’”

“Ah, there’s that Fox Mulder humor. It’s so nice that you can view things with such fine spirits. Your career hasn’t precisely rocketed off, has it? And then, of course, there was poor Samantha.”

Mulder had steeled himself — if Wallace was seeking an Achilles heel, it would be his sister’s disappearance and his obsession with uncovering the truth of her fate. He leaned back, waiting patiently.

“Lonely little boy; brilliant father — now, those must have been some boots to fill; your sister spirited off in the night by, what, little green men? You and your darling sister were alone at home that night, weren’t you? You probably don’t have much memory of what actually transpired that night, do you? Blocked it out, eh?”

Despite his preparation for Wallace’s emotional games, Mulder felt a rush of fury behind his eyes. She actually hadn’t been the first one to suggest Mulder had had some sinister role in Samantha’s disappearance. She’s playing you, and doing a good job of it, he reminded himself.

Nicole’s eyes softened with mock sympathy. “Ah, but I’ve touched a raw nerve, haven’t I, Fox? Let’s not talk of such sordid matters. Obviously, you’ve suffered more than your share of personal and professional traumas. It’s astonishing you haven’t cracked under the pressure, like poor Agent Patterson. Oh. I’d forgotten about your little scrape with the courts. Are you still in therapy? Say, maybe some time on the couch will help clear the cobwebs about what really happened to young Samantha. I mean, if you truly wish to remember.”

“Let’s talk about you for a while.” Mulder had intended a casual transition to regain the upper hand. Instead, it sounded terse, evasive, desperate.

Nicole bit her upper lip and stared at Mulder for a moment. “Nope. I think I’d prefer to talk to Bobby, if you don’t mind, Fox. That’s a dear.”

Mulder smiled, managing to make it to the door without stumbling. Callas was on the other side of the mirror, with a sympathetic expression that made things even worse.

“She’s good,” the agent admitted, weakly.

Shoreham Police Department

Shoreham, New York

Saturday, April 22

“Textbook meth massacre,” the Shoreham chief insisted, the back of his oak office chair nearly touching the veneer paneling behind him. Above his head, the portly small-town cop pumped Ed Koch’s hand in grainy black and white. Nichols couldn’t make out the scrawled platitude in the lower right corner of the cheaply framed photo.

“Caught ‘em in their sleep,” the chief continued. “Could’ve turned around, maybe cleaned out the place before they ever woke up. But he went to town on Gary and Sue with an aluminum bat. Meth head — hadda be.”

“Kinda awkward weapon, though, for some hopped-up druggie,” Nichols suggested. “No gun, no knife? He’s hauling his club around the house like Derek Jeter warming up?”

The chief’s smile froze as his eyes frosted over. “Don’t know — I’m a Mets guy myself.”

“And you never found this guy? Meth head, I’d think the house woulda been lousy with prints, trace.”

The cop stood. “Look, I got a lot to deal with today — I don’t need you metro assholes slumming around here, calling us a bunch of hicks.”

“Was there an autopsy?” Stevens asked. “The violence of the murders could’ve been to mask some other murder method. Our suspect would have wanted this to seem like a random felony homicide. Was an autopsy done on either victim?”

The chief formulated an answer, knowing he’d screwed up. “Look, this guy broke almost every bone in their bodies. Cause of death was obvious. You don’t believe the evidence, then you toddle back to the city for a warrant and a couple shovels.”

“Sure,” Nichols grinned. “If that’s what you want. But this case we’re investigating, it’s got CNN written all over it. You want a piece of that? Those detectives out in Boulder, the ones on the Ramsey case, what do you think they’re up to these days? Horrible, what a swarm of media leeches can do to a good cop who makes one mistake. Maybe we can do a quick exhumation and correct this little error under the radar. What do you say, Chief?”

The chief dropped back into his chair, chewing the inside of his cheek. “Coroner’s usually at the course afternoons,” he finally mumbled, “but I think I got his cell somewhere here…”

“You don’t mind,” Nichols said, “we’ll take this one to go.”

New York County District Attorney’s Office

Manhattan, New York

Saturday, April 22

“Let me see if I’ve got this straight,” District Attorney Jack McCoy drawled, the lines of his Lincolnesque face deepening into amused crevices. “We’re going to ask a jury to buy that these two women murdered six people, including the girls’ parents, so what, true love could take its course? That two of these murders were dressed up to look like a home invasion, and three others like Filipino voodoo killings? That the suspects used some untraceable CIA poison? Not to mention your M.E. confirmed that your perp has been dead for more than a year. What else do you want, Captain — wine from water?”

Callas knew going in this was going to be a crap shoot — McCoy was a rebel, had been known to bet on some pretty dark horses, bend the rules in the name of the improbable. But after Arthur Branch left the DA’s office to pursue some fairly lofty political aspirations, McCoy had entered the belly of the Beast, and he might now not be so willing to jab it with a stick.

“Nicole Wallace has at least 20 murders on her card,” Callas nonetheless persisted.

“Alleged murders,” McCoy corrected, leaning back, interlocking his fingers behind his head. “Even worse — it looks like a vendetta. She’s repeatedly made fools out of your squad, especially Bob Goren, who’s not exactly jury-friendly. And your boy Nichols? I’m not sure what a jury would make of him.”

“I’m aware you and Nichols have had your differences,” Callas responded, realizing immediately it was a mistake. McCoy’s eyes fired.

“My relationship with Zach Nichols has no bearing here,” the DA snapped. He sighed. “Look, I’d love as much as you to put this psychopath away for the next few centuries, Captain. But I’m not going to do it with this convoluted fairy tale you’ve brought me. We’re going to need a straight-out, black-and-white confession, or plead out the one to get the other. My recommendation would be the girl. There — you’ve had the benefit of counsel. For what that’s worth.”

New York Police Department Medical Examiner’s Office

Manhattan, New York

Tuesday, April 25

“The local coroner — is he the town butcher or something?” Rodgers asked, tossing the Clemmons report on the steel table between her and the detectives. “The lack of any defensive wounds alone should have raised a red flag.”

Mulder frowned. “They were dead before they were stabbed.”

“Or close to it. They’d both suffered severe cardiac trauma prior to death, though I haven’t yet been able to pin down the possible cause.”

“Sodium morphate,” the agent concluded. “That’s the link with the Gracias and Tapang.”

“Great,” Nichols grunted. “The poison that leaves no trace. That wraps up another one.”

“Scully’s looking into where Wallace might’ve come up with the sodium morphate. We know some, ah, experts in this sort of thing. We know she was able to lay her hands on anthrax — she must have some pretty deep global connections.”

“I don’t see Clemmons laying her hands on sodium morphate,” Stevens considered. “So did Wallace supply Clemmons with the poison, or was this Wallace on her own? I mean, you suggested she was trying to replace Sukhon Clemmons as Karen’s ‘mother.’ If Karen doesn’t know Wallace is implicated in her parents’ murders…”

“Then we oughtta be the ones to break the news,” Nichols said grimly.

“Speaking of which,” Rodgers sighed. “After you arrested Wallace, I went back to the samples we took from that heart Declan Gage sent Goren. DNA came up a match. Again. So then I went back in, a little deeper, and I found slight differences. I’m not trying to excuse myself, but it’s not too surprising we were fooled. The genetic alleles are nearly identical when–”

“You have twins,” Nichols whispered. “Sure, sure. Nicole’s always had an almost supernatural ability to slip out of our grasp, to seemingly be more than one place at once. She probably wasn’t her father’s only victim. What a bond that must’ve created. And what a threat, in Nicole’s diseased mind. She finally must have fed her to Gage, to get rid of her last rival for her late father’s affection, the mirror image that reminded her of her sociopathic nature. Plus, it would’ve been an ideal way to lead Bobby off her trail. Gage probably had no idea.”

“Unless the one we got’s the sister,” Stevens suggested.

Nichols unsheathed his cell phone with a grin. “I gotta call Fox — he’s gonna love this.”

Major Case Squad

Manhattan, New York

Tuesday, April 25

Karen Clemmons’ eyes widened, then roamed the room as Nichols advanced his theory. The eyes then narrowed.

“She wouldn’t have done that,” the young woman finally murmured

The cop leaned back in his chair. “That all you’ve got to say? She helped you poison three men, maybe pushed you into killing Malaya Gracia, and you don’t think she could’ve slaughtered your folks?”

“There’s nothing in that entire sentence that has any basis in proven fact,” Clemmon’s attorney admonished. Nichols gave her a disgusted look, then shoved a sheaf of photos across the interview table.

He tapped the top shot, of a heartbreakingly small skeleton on an autopsy table. “You see that, Karen. That’s Nicole’s ‘first’ daughter. Three years old. When she became a threat, your surrogate mommy murdered her and threw her in the ocean.”

Karen sneered. “She told me how you tried to frame her when you couldn’t get anything else on her. And my parents were killed by an addict or burglar. Not that…”

Nichols regarded her curiously. “Not that what, Karen? Not that they didn’t deserved to be cold-bloodedly murdered in their own home? What poison has she filled your head with? Don’t you think they deserved better?”

“What about what I deserved?” Karen erupted. The attorney placed a hand on her arm.

“What you deserve?”

“Karen,” the lawyer cautioned pointedly.

Stevens picked up on Nichols’s cue. “Louis told us all about your relationship. How he ended things to recommit to Malaya. Wow, that must’ve been devastating.”

Karen stared at the table for a second. “Well, yeah, of course, though I’m not sure ‘recommit’s the right term. Cultural guilt, maybe — it wasn’t precisely a pre-arranged marriage, but his parents were always kinda fundamentalist, you know? Marry your own kind? He loved me — I know it — but the pressure was just too much for him to bear.”

“So the only way you’d ever wind up with Louis was if Malaya were out of the picture?”

“You make me sound like that woman in that Michael Douglas movie.” No outright denial, Mulder reflected from behind the two-way glass. “If I’d had time, it would’ve been me.” She caught her slip, and fell into a silent sulk.

“You mean, if Louis and Malaya hadn’t decided to skip town together?” Nichols prodded. “That when you kicked Plan B into action? Not quite as subtle as a nightmare cocktail, but just as effective. Don’t feel bad – Nicole’s been killing probably since you were born.”

“Then why isn’t she in prison?” Karen challenged.

“Give us time,” Nichols murmured. “In the meantime, hold tight.”

“She’s not going to give Wallace up that easily,” Stevens concluded as they joined Mulder in the dim adjacent room. “She hardly seemed phased that Wallace murdered her parents.”

“That’s it,” Mulder murmured. “That’s the bond. Their common bond.”

“What?”

“That’s what spurred Wallace to kill her parents, to take their place, to ‘adopt’ Clemmons. And why Karen’s so loyal to her. Nicole gave her what she ‘deserved.’”

“Imperial?” Nichols asked.

Mulder shook his head. “Revenge.”

**

“Karen?” Stevens asked gently as she took her seat at the interview table. “Your aunt said you had a difficult time at home, growing up.”

“It was all right.” Karen’s eyes were guarded.

“You hadn’t been back to see your parents for years before they were killed. All that hard work, studying? It wasn’t to get their attention, was it?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The girl’s face was stone, but moisture was welling in her eyes.

Stevens reached across the table and placed her hand over Karen’s. Karen stared down, seemingly in horror.

“You wanted your freedom,” the cop whispered. “From them. From him.”

The orphaned woman began to shake, trying to yank her hand away.

“When did he start abusing you, Karen?”

“No…”

“Karen, when did it start? Did your mother know?”

“Stop it.”

“Did she even try to help you? Stand up to him?”

“NO!!” Karen screamed, knocking her chair over. “He treated her like his slave, and she just let him! And she let him, let him…” She was beginning to hyperventilate. “I was glad when I heard they’d been put down, OK?”

“When Nicole put them down?”

Karen looked down at Stevens, her red eyes suddenly alert. She picked up her chair and sat back down, primly, beside her attorney.

“Bullshit,” she said calmly with a disturbingly Wallace-like smile. “The police said it was an intruder. A meth head.”

**

“Hey there,” Nichols grinned as he entered the room, tossing his notes on the table.

Nicole Wallace peered up from below with a mad Mona Lisa smile. “Hey.”

The detective, in shirtsleeves, inspected the “alleged” serial killer as he loosened his tie. “They taking good care of you?”

“Adequate,” Nicole murmured. “How sweet of you to ask. Where is that pretty little partner of yours, Michael?”

Nichols’s grin grew. “Ah, I sent her off to check out a witness or something. Just the two of us.”

“How delightful,” Nicole purred, eyes sparkling. “You know, I was looking forward to catching up with old times with Bobby. I was sorry to hear what happened to him. His demons finally must have feasted on his soul.”

“Very colorful — Hieronymus Bosch meets Dante.”

“Ooh, a smart one,” Nicole murmured. “Well, I imagine it must be challenging to fill Bobby’s size 13s. Although I’m sure that with your lineage, you must have been buried in dusty old volumes. And possibly a few demons, as well? I mean, growing up with two shrinks? A father like W. P. Nichols. He lives just a stone’s throw from here, doesn’t he?”

Nichols leaned back and smiled. “Stevens, my partner, thinks you singlehandedly murdered that couple out in Shoreham and put some kind of voodoo spell on Ramon Gracia and his family. All so you could help some girl find the love of her life.”

Nicole laughed lightly. “Like some sort of homicidal Cupid.”

“I was thinking Aphrodite,” Nichols chuckled. Nicole’s brow rose, and she nodded approvingly. The detective riffled through a folder. “See, the problem is, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence piling up. Like you and Karen Clemmons. What’s the deal there, anyway? I read about Ella. You occasionally like something a little more exotic?”

Something cold flashed across Nicole’s dark eyes and then disappeared just as quickly. “Now you are being the naughty one. I had known Karen’s mother during my youthful travels, and when she died tragically, I wanted to see if there were anything I could do for the poor girl. We’ve wound up being quite good friends.”

“Real Housewives of the Thai Correctional Ministry,” Nichols nodded. “Karen with you the night Malaya Gracia got shot?”

“As a matter of fact, yes.”

“At your hotel?”

Nicole paused as the dark thing again crossed her face. “Karen was upset about her employer. They had had a rather ill-advised relationship, and when he cast her aside, she began to fear for her job. Horrible thing, harassment, isn’t it, Zachary? That pressure from someone more powerful, more influential, more intelligent? Of course, I needn’t tell you, eh, Zach? Your father, I mean.”

Nichols smiled broadly. “I’m having a moment of nostalgia right now. But let’s talk about your dad. I understand he was no walk in the park, either.”

Nicole leaned in toward the cop, eyes half-closed, dreamy. But her body had tensed. “Bobby and I already had this conversation, only with much more nuance and technique. You and Bobby were probably quite the fast chums, comparing psychoses and neuroses and casefiles. It must have been quite painful when the great Bobby Goren left his pale protégé to hold down the fort. Isn’t that the Yank aphorism?”

The detective’s expression had darkened, though the smile remained pasted in place. “Something like that.”

Nicole’s eyes grew wider as she gently touched his hand with a soft, warm finger. “Oh, my. And then to have your dear friend Danny gunned down like some addict in an alley.”

Nichols’ hand twitched back, as if it had a life of its own. The smile flickered.

“I understand the man who murdered him is scott-free, living richly in his own land. Diplomatic immunity. The laws of your country are strange, sometimes unjust, hmm, Zachary? This man puts down your friend, your partner, like some cur in the street, and even his best friend isn’t able to bring him to justice. It must haunt you–”

Nichols’ chair upended as he leapt up. “You… You won’t be as lucky, Nicole.” He started to say something else, then took a breath, gathered his papers, and strode silently out the door.

A knot of detectives at the end of the corridor looked up warily as the door slammed into its frame. Stevens and Mulder were leaning on the opposite wall.

“How’d it go?”

Nichols’s face relaxed into a boyish grin. “Like a charm.”

Stevens crossed her arms with a frown. “You OK?”

“Please. You should’ve been at the last Passover seder I spent with my folks. I should’ve sent Dad in there.”

“So what’s next?” Mulder asked.

“I need a couple of favors,” Nichols said. “Number one, I want to see if Sukhon Clemmons reached out to any friends or family. You may need your phone card for this one.”

“OK. What else?”

Nichols looked back at the closed interrogation room door. “Nicole the Nymphette knows too much about our playbook. Men are tools, playthings, or pawns to her — Mulder and I aren’t going to get anywhere. Stevens is single, attractive — no offense, partner. That merely makes her competition — Nicole’ll have her guard up. If we’re going to bring our A-game, we need to bring in a ringer.”

**

“Where’s the other one?” Karen Clemmons asked warily.

The lawyer scanned Nichols. “You supposed to be the bad cop?”

Nichols waved her off. “I borrowed Stevens’ good cop badge for the afternoon. I just want to have a little heart-to-heart with your client.”

“What about?” the attorney demanded.

The cop fixed her with a lupine grin. “Maybe about how she oughtta consider the wisdom of sharing counsel with a career psychopath. That wouldn’t comprise — what do you call it, Counselor? — a conflict of interest?”

“You want her to roll on Wallace?”

“I’d like you to give us a few minutes of peace and quiet, Counselor,” Nichols sighed. The attorney settled back, frostily. “Karen, Stevens told me you’ve been through a lot, especially with your dad.”

Karen inhaled slowly. “That’s ancient history.”

“Is it, Karen? Cause I want to tell you about my mom. The only guys we had around our house after Pop split were Jack Daniels and Johnny Walker. I was in grade school, she used to send me down to the corner liquor to bring ‘em home. She’d beat me with one hand while she held a Rosary with the other, then get all sloppy tearful about the bruises after she’d sober up. Started taking out my frustrations on the court at Our Lady of Mercy, least until Father Joe decided I needed some laying on of hands. Tried to tell my mom what had happened, and she walloped me as she screamed scripture in my face. I can still smell the cheap scotch.”

Karen studied the cop. “No bullshit?” she asked, almost inaudibly.

“No bullshit,” said Nichols, praying that, wherever his predecessor Mike Logan had landed, he’d forgive him for stealing his childhood drama. “I hated her, and the next time I go into a church, it better be in a pine box.”

“What’s the purpose–?” the attorney began. A look from Nichols silenced her.

“I always thought she was crazy because she was drunk, but now I realize my mom was a drunk because she was crazy. When I failed, she beat me black and blue. When I did good in school or won a tournament, I could count on her showing up three sheets to the wind to embarrass me.”

“I’m sorry,” Karen murmured. “I really am.”

“I know,” Nichols said. “I know what your dad did to you, and how it must’ve seemed like your mother just sat back and let him. But she’s crazy, Karen — Nicole’s crazy. And she’s brought it into your life now.”

Karen looked at the ceiling as tears formed in her eyes. “She loves me. She understands what that bastard did. She tried to help me get past it.”

“By murdering your family? By making you a killer?”

“Karen–” the lawyer cautioned.

“You,” Nichols growled. “Shut up. Your lawyer here, she’s trying to protect Nicole, not you. And Nicole? What do you think will happen if she thinks you’re a threat, if she thinks you’ve betrayed her?”

“She wouldn’t do that,” Karen sobbed.

“You think she’s your protector, your avenger? I want you to see something.” Nichols slid a faxed sheet across the table. “We got in touch with your mother’s family back in Thailand. You never knew your Aunt Jantira, your mother’s sister, did you? Well, it turns out your mom kept in touch from time to time, whenever she could get to the public library or use a friend’s laptop. I had this translated.”

Karen began to shake as she picked up the e-mail.

“Dearest Sister,” it began in Thai. “The time’s come — we have to get away from him. It was a mistake, and I’ve learned he has done terrible things to Karen. I haven’t been able to put away much money — he controls my life. But I have enough to get to New York, and if you can forgive me and send me enough money, we can come home. If you cannot do this for me, please help save your niece. If I can’t escape him, I will kill him, and then Karen will be raised by strangers who will do God knows what to her. Please. Sukhon.”

“Oh, God,” Karen whispered.

“Nicole didn’t kill your mother to protect you or punish her for letting you be abused,” Nichols said gently, retrieving the e-mail. “She wanted you — she wanted the daughter she’d been cheated out of time after time. The daughter she’d killed and thrown into the ocean years ago. And she betrayed her surrogate sister — your mother — just like she betrayed her biological sister. To get you.”

“I can’t believe this…”

“Karen, was it your idea or Nicole’s to call you Ella when you approached those men?” The lawyer started to speak. “Never mind — I think I know. You know where that name came from? Let me show you.”

Nichols passed the photo — of an attractive young Japanese girl — to the sobbing girl. “That’s Ella — Ella the First. Nicole seduced her away from her parents and then killed her with her bare hands when Ella tried to trap her into a confession. Is this your dream mother, Karen?”

Karen looked into Nichols’s eyes pleadingly, then at her attorney.

“He’s playing you, Karen,” the lawyer said.

“Am I?” Nichols asked Karen.

“Karen…”

“Get out of here,” Karen told the attorney, staring at Nichols. “Now.”

**

“Zachary,” Nicole gasped, feighning dismay. “You brought reinforcements. Did I frighten you that much?”

“Your protection, not mine,” the cop growled as Stevens took her seat. “Where’s your lawyer? Or did she quit when she found out she’d only get paid for one killer?”

The murderess beamed. “I don’t particularly care for lawyers — they tend to interfere with the fun. However, she did mention that you’d somehow convinced Ella to employ separate counsel. Divide and conquer, Zach? Really. What did you do, ply your superficial charms? Or did you bring out the rubber hose?”

Teeth showing, Nichols tossed the e-mail at Nicole. Without touching the sheet, she scanned it quickly, then looked up with an incredulous shake of the head.

“Really, Zach. Who wrote this? This sweet little child here? Or some departmental multilinguist? I can understand that poor frightened girl falling for this, but please…”

Nichols grinned. “It was enough to plant some doubt. It won’t be too long now ‘til it hits home just what she’s done — what you made her do. Then I think a deal will look pretty sweet to her.”

“You imagine me to be quite the Svengali, don’t you?” Nicole tsked.

“Did Sukhon Clemmons know what Ella’s father did to her?” Stevens interjected calmly. “She was a foreigner in a small town, dependent on an abusive husband, probably scared to approach the authorities. Did she really turn a blind eye to Ella’s abuse, or was she too scared to know what to do?”

Nicole’s eyes turned to Stevens, black and blazing. “They always know. The only fear is the idea of surviving alone. In the end, a child’s life doesn’t seem that huge a tradeoff.”

“Are you talking about Ella’s mother?” Stevens asked. “Or yours? Did she look the other way as he used you, or did it just keep him away from her? That’s why you killed your own daughter, wasn’t it?”

Before Nicole could reply, the door to the interview room opened. Nicole stared mutely at Stevens as Capt. Callas leaned in. “Detectives, a moment, please?”

“What?” Nichols demanded. “We’re kinda in the middle of–”

“Actually, you’re done.” An attractive redhead pushed past the captain, trailed by Mulder, who shrugged at Nichols and Stevens. “The Bureau has some questions for Ms. Wallace. About some interstate activity in which she’s been involved and the acquisition of a biological agent we’ve traced back to her.”

Nichols whipped around to Callas. “What is this? We collar her, and the fibbie here breezes in and takes over?”

“Nichols,” Callas snapped. “I assured the agent here we were more than willing to cooperate.”

“There’s no ‘cooperation’ involved here,” the redhead said coolly. “National security supersedes this lunatic plot Agent Mulder has dreamed up. This is a Bureau investigation now –a legitimate Bureau investigation.”

“It’s about the anthrax, isn’t it?” Nichols laughed harshly. “She made you people look like a pack of cub scouts, too, didn’t she? This is payback, right?”

“Captain,” the redhead prompted, consulting her buzzing cell phone, snapping it shut irritably, and tossing it onto the table.

“Agent, we do have a series of murders here,” Mulder pleaded.

“I talked to AD Skinner,” his colleague informed him. “You can go home now. I’m sure you have a lot more ‘intriguing’ cases waiting.”

“C’mon, Captain,” Nichols roared.

“Nichols.” Callas’ voice was subarctic, and his eyes glistened with frost.

“Nichols,” Stevens implored. Her partner threw his chair back, nearly colliding with the redheaded agent as he stormed from the room. Stevens looked at Nicole before following him out with a reluctant Mulder. Callas pulled the door shut.

“All right,” the redhead sighed. “Ms. Wallace, what was your relationship with Dr. Daniel Croydon?”

“That poor delusional man Bobby drove to despair?” Nicole smiled sadly. “I never met him. Of course, I don’t expect you to believe me.”

“How about Connie Matson? She was a nurse with the Air Force Anthrax Immunization Program. We have it on good authority she was involved in a relationship with another woman who disappeared shortly before Croydon was erroneously accused of stealing several grams of anthrax.”

“That excite you, Agent? You seem like a very ‘aggressive’ woman.”

The agent flashed her ring finger. “I’ve got all the excitement I need, Wallace. But thanks.” Her cell phone began to vibrate, skittering across the interview table. She pointedly ignored it, and it eventually stilled.

“Connie Matson,” the redhead repeated.

Nicole raised an eyebrow. “So hard to remember. I’ve had so many women. And men. I so admire someone who can be content in a monogamous relationship. Imagine, one man for the rest of your life.”

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“Let’s focus,” the agent commanded, a bit more loudly than she’d intended. “I’m not some New York civil servant just waiting to put in his papers. You’ve upgraded from murder suspect to a federal person of interest. You want to fuck with me, we can take this to the next level.”

“Guantanamo?” Nicole’s eyes glittered. “Abu Gharib? You Americans, your precious land of the free.”

“Listen, Wallace…” the phone began to jitter again, and the redhead finally snatched it, glaring at the screen before angrily punching a button. “What? I thought we’d talked about this. What? Hell, I don’t know.” She glanced fleetingly at Wallace. “Not. Now. You hear me? Just tell her I’m on a business trip. Sorry, tell her life’s a bitch sometimes.”

The agent ended the call abruptly, deactivating the phone and stuffing it into her bag. “Let’s talk about where you’ve been the last two years.”

“It must be rough,” Nicole murmured. “Trying to balance a career, a marriage, and children. How many soccer matches and school plays have you missed while chasing miscreants, Agent?”

The redhead folded her hands before her with a pleasant smile. “Yes, please, Ms. Wallace. I’d love some child-rearing advice from a babykiller.”

Nicole’s smile vanished. “That was an accident.”

“Of course. What was it with Ms.–” the agent consulted a folder before her — “Ms. Miyazaki? You slip and crush her windpipe, accidentally? I’m freaking Mother of the Year compared with you, Wallace.”

“Why? Because you tuck the little angels in with a perfunctory cell phone call every night or work a little extra overtime so you can afford a good day care to ship them off to?”

“You psychotic bitch,” the young redhead said through her teeth. “You wouldn’t know the first thing about what I’ve sacrificed for my kids.”

“Sacrifice?” Nicole laughed harshly. “You have no idea what true sacrifice is. What it means to risk everything for your child?”

“Your child’s dead,” the agent stated flatly.

“No,” Nicole shouted, gripping the table. “Ella — Karen. You ask her what I’ve sacrificed!”

“What? Her freedom? She killed four people for you.”

“For me? You stupid, blind–”

“What the hell sacrifice have you ever made for anybody?”

Wallace came to her feet. “I saved her! He took it from her, and I gave it back!”

“What?”

“He wasn’t interested in Sukhon any more. She was an old whore. Ell-, Karen, was young, pretty. Mother told me — I mean, Sukhon told me…”

Nicole blinked, looked sharply at the redhead as if she’d eavesdropped on a long-lost secret. The agent merely stared, expectantly, as the interview room door opened.

“That what it was, Nicole?” Nichols asked, pushing the door shut behind him. “Evening the score with your dad? Penance for your little girl? It never really did have anything to do with Karen, did it?”

“It was all for her,” Nicole whispered. “Everything.”

Nichols sat down across from her. “Is that true? Cause let me lay it out for you. The DA doesn’t think we got a case against either of you for the Gracia brothers and the cousin. As for the Clemmonses, well, that went down as a robbery gone bad, and we can’t find any evidence to the contrary except a couple of half-ass IDs from Clemmons’ sister and a bartender. That brings it down to Malaya Gracia. Karen did that one alone, didn’t she? Without your brains behind her, I’m willing to bet we’ll come up with a witness, some ATM video, something to nail her, sooner or later.

“So, the question is, what’s it going to be, Nicole? I think we can get Karen a deal, but she isn’t going to give you up. She thinks what you did was for her. You willing to show her how a mother sacrifices? The ultimate sacrifice? What’s it going to be?”

**

“I’ve got a hinky feeling,” Special Agent Dana Scully muttered. “You better not throw away the key quite yet.”

“Same old Scully,” Mulder sighed as he watched two uniforms escort Nicole Wallace toward the elevators.

“We appreciate the assist, Agent Scully,” Callas said. “Although I suspect you enjoyed pushing me around back there a bit too much. I just hope her confession sticks.”

“I think it will,” Mulder offered. “This is her vindication, her last stand. Maternal martyrdom.”

Zach Nichols laughed, bitterly.

“What?” Mulder asked.

The cop stared reflectively after the serial killer. “Mother of the Year. Better call Mom, let her know she’s out of the running.”

Renzler-Tate Sleep Study Institute

Arlington, Va.

May 6

“It’s inconceivable,” Max Renzler breathed, his clammy fingers running in endless loops through his gray curls. “We just had the equipment checked out last week. I’ll have Nancy, the office manager, get the paperwork. This is, this is…”

“Yeah, inconceivable, got it,” Det. Jerry Sangster grunted, staring for the umpteenth time at the poor bastard in the bed. Creeped him out, the vic all wired up, black eyes wide and dead and full of frozen terror, hair as bone-white as his feeble old Aunt Fay. Wished the ME’s people would show, get the guy the hell out of here.

“Look, Doc,” the cop smiled uneasily. “Case like this, the M.E.’s gotta do a post-mortem, make sure nothing funny happened. But my guess is you’re gonna come out OK. Guy was Asian, right? Philippines, maybe?”

Renzler glanced nervously at the file. He’d only met the subject post-mortem – he had three clinics, for God’s sake. “Ronald Timba. Thirty-three – referred for possible sleep apnea, I dunno – one of the nurses is Filipino, I could ask her if the name’s familiar. Why the hell’s that matter?”

“I read about this thing, sudden unexpected death something, some kinda nightmare death thing happens to Filipino guys. Case in New York last month, that importer guy, they found him like this in some motel. Faith Yancy did a whole show on it. My guess, your patient Freddie Krueger-ed out in the middle of his study.”

Renzler was annoyed by the metaphor, but he was beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel. “I appreciate it, Detective. You’ll be in touch?”

“Betcha, handle it myself,” Sangster nodded. “ME’s people oughtta be here in a while. Later.” The cop saluted and disappeared into the sunlight of the parking lot.

“OK,” Renzler swallowed as he looked to his ashen-faced manager behind. “I think it’s going to be all right – I gave him the EKGs, the EEGs, the EMGs, everything, but I didn’t mention the video. C’mon.”

The monitoring room was behind a quartet of one-way mirrors, softly-lit and subdued save a bank of four computers video-linked into the four sleep stations. Sindy, the Filipino nurse (third-generation Virginian, not one of those New York troublemakers on the news, Renzler had reflected), was staring into one of the PC screens, the pale blue light casting her anxious features in an eerie aura.

Renzler moved behind Sindy’s shoulder, peering at the .mpeg footage for the fifth time.

Ordinarily, Renzler-Tate’s productions would put a Stage Four insomniac into a coma. Six or seven hours of rustling sheets, twitching legs, mumbled incoherence. Netflix had never expressed interest.

This one was different. “Here it comes,” Sindy whispered. “Jesus,” Renzler exhaled.

She was huge, wrinkled, old beyond geriatric terms. The door to the station was within camera range; she appeared to emerge from an unseen corner of the room. The woman – if you could call her that – was substantial but somehow insubstantial, incandescent somehow.

“Could we be, I don’t know, intercepting a signal from somebody else’s TV or PC?” Renzler whispered hopefully. Sindy was rapt, scarcely breathing.

She flickered in and out of reality as she approached the bed. Even from an overhead angle, Renzler could see a broad, curious grin spread across the hag-ridden, eternal face. He unconsciously backed up, eyes nonetheless transfixed on the screen. She reached Timba’s bedside; the subject continued to slumber, even with a half-dozen electrodes affixed to his face and body. The woman stared down, that horrible grin spreading as she inspected the sleeping man. Then, as nimble as a child crawling into her parents’ bed to stave off further nightmares, she climbed atop Timba, seemingly without disturbing any wires or adding any weight to the mattress. As she settled into place, Timba’s arms began first to twitch and then to flay. His fingers curled into the sheets, and Renzler jumped as he started to gurgle.

“Turn it off,” Renzler gasped. Sindy stared at the screen; the doctor reached in and turned off the monitor with a trembling finger.

“Batibat,” Sindy breathed.

“What?” Renzler demanded, swiping the sweat from his broad forehead.

“Bangungot,” the nurse whispered.

“Thanks for explaining,” Renzler muttered.

*end

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