El Hablar Con los Muertos
Author: Martin Ross
Summary: During the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration, Mulder and Scully tackle murder, ghostly divination, quantum mechanics, and, potentially, the end of the world.
Disclaimer: The X-Files is Chris Carter’s. We seek only to pay respectful tribute.
Original web date:07/03/2009
El Hablar Con Los Muertos
Playa Del Carmen, Mexico
Mulder stared Death in the eye, returning the specter’s distended grin.
“Gracias, no,” Mulder murmured, pulling his Bureau ID. “Gringos federales.”
The eyes behind Death’s deep ocular orbits narrowed for a moment as he glanced from the smiling turista to the pequeña pero caliente redhead at his side, though his macabre smile did not fade. Then, suddenly, the eyes crinkled, and a hearty laugh erupted from beneath the clenched teeth. He slipped the fat, expertly rolled Cubanos – still illegal in the States, freely available in Quintana Roo – into his cloak.
“Usted es un hombre divertido,” the vendor cackled, waving as he disappeared into the crowd with his cache of Communist cigars.
“Was that necessary?” Scully sighed. “How long do you think before word gets out the feds are in town?”
“Relax, Scully – get into the Día de los Muertos spirit,” Mulder dismissed, happily scanning the colorful clay and sugar skulls and sombreroed skeletons that had supplanted the usual T-shirts, silver, vanilla, and mescal on sale along the resort town’s major boulevard.
U.S./Canadian/French/British/Japanese tourists gawped at the gleeful Army of the Dead walking among them, as a knot of diminutive locals in the ancient garb of their Mayan ancestors tramped solemnly along the brick pavers like aboriginal spirits freed from the underworld with the living, partying dead.
“Yes,” Scully ruminated. “There is the matter of your bringing me here under suspicious circumstances. ‘Air fares are cheaper off-season. No trick-or-treaters.’ Why didn’t you just say you wanted a little something special this Halloween? I might actually have been willing to wedge into that French maid get-up you so ill-advisedly purchased last year. Would’ve been cheaper, that’s for sure.”
“It’s not Halloween. It’s the Day of the Dead. And there were no ‘suspicious circumstances’ – you said you wanted a Skinnerless week of sun, surf, and Bahama Mamas.”
“Yes, sun and surf, not the Third Circle of Hell,” Scully muttered, dodging a non-dead pitchman hawking bullfight tickets and a fat German woman being reeled in by a slickly-groomed jeweler. “I don’t want to sound like an ugly American, but frankly, this whole display strikes me as not merely a little ghoulish.”
“Actually, Día De Los Muertos is a time of celebration, of merriment, of laughing into the countenance of Death and proclaiming, ‘Dude, lose the sickle and the ‘tude and let’s par-tay.’ Meso-American tradition meets Catholic ritual, with a healthy dose of mescal thrown in. Speaking of which…”
Scully shook her head silently as she watched a group of American teens pour over a selection of death-themed clay bongs. “I’ll assume you’re not talking about Confession, and I’ll attest that you don’t qualify for virgin sacrifice, though a few insights into female gratification might help your technique. Just being helpful. How about that cantina over there?”
“Now, you’re getting jiggy,” Mulder sighed, beelining for the streetside bar. “We should have time – Karl isn’t expecting us until 6. Whoa!”
Mulder stumbled as a lean, feral black alley cat trotted across his Skechers and vanished into a nearby “pizzeria.”
“Wow,” Scully said. “They really thought of everything, didn’t they?”
Residence of Karl and Marlaine Phipps
“¡Hola, Fox!” Karl greeted, pulling first Mulder, then Scully into an embrace.
Mulder inspected his host’s rumpled lab coat and antiquated trousers. “Enrico Fermi?”
“Bingo!” the Nobel Prize-winning physicist sang. “And how did you guess?”
“The pants are Italian-cut, and, of course, the badge on your lapel says ‘Enrico.'”
Karl chuckled. “Marlaine always finds my costume choices a bit, oh, esoteric.”
“Nonsense,” Mulder said. “The Oppenheimer masks were selling like hot tortillas at the Megalomart down the way.”
The stocky scientist shook his head, tugging the badge from his white coat. “Retail colonialism again rears its ugly head. Oh, well, I promised no social proselytizing tonight. Marlaine wanted me to flag you into the kitchen as soon as you arrived. She’s preparing a genuine Hanal Pixen – Día de los Muertos – feast. Thought it would be fun for the kids. Well, for Matthew, anyway.”
Phipps was silent for a moment. Mulder had told Scully about Kate Phipps’ autism, about the scientist’s efforts to come fully to grips with his daughter’s potentially permanent isolation.
“Uncle Fox!” A miniaturized Spider-Man materialized at his elbow. “I saw El Chupacabra yesterday at the market.”
Mulder grinned. “Stunted smartass. And I told you no ‘Uncle Fox’ – sounds like a freaking Disney character.”
Matt Phipps pulled his mask away, displaying a shock of red hair and freckles. “Catch any EBEs lately, Geekazoid?”
“Go play in the street with Doc Ock, Spiderdweeb,” Mulder muttered facetiously. Matt rolled his eyes and responded to the call of a group of children, largely Mexican, most likely kids of the research scientists partnering on Karl’s latest project. “He’s really shooting up, Karl.”
“Yeah,” Karl smiled, his pensive mood dissipated. “He’s developing quite a mouth, as well.”
“A wit is a horrible thing to lose,” Mulder nodded.
“At least, half of one,” Scully murmured.
“Ah,” Karl beamed. “An adversary worthy of the FBI’s Most Unwanted. Come along, Dr. Scully – I formulate a mean papaya margarita.”
Mulder felt strangely conspicuous standing amidst the few dozen imposters scattered across the caramel tiles of the Phipps’ Cozumel condo. El Diablo himself was hanging sloppily over a portly Zorro, discussing the immigration issue. A blonde Vampirella theorized about black matter to a throng of costumed colleagues for once oblivious to quantum mechanics.
Mulder’d been informed this was to be a Halloween-style observance of the Day of the Dead, but he’d learned it was better to pack light for the Cancun airport, and a jet-lagged Scully was in no mood to haggle over a Death mask with one of the community’s aggressive vendors. At least he’d left the black suit at home.
The Phipps’ kitchen was bright and airy, looking out on a lush garden anchored with a pair of coconut palms. Marilyn Monroe, fresh and pretty in her infamous white sundress, stood at a marble-slabbed island amid a mountain of masa harina, shredded meat, and corn husks.
The ’50s icon scooped a glob of meal and shortening, flattened it on a spread husk, and placed the strips of meat in the center. She rolled the husks around the mixture, tucked both ends under, and began to assemble another parcel.
“Miss Morris, I’m perfectly capable of fixing my own breakfast,” Mulder drawled. “As a matter of fact, I had a peanut butter sandwich and two whiskey sours.”
Marlaine looked up, then grinned at Mulder. “I recognize the line from ‘Seven Year Itch,’ but I had remembered Tom Ewell speaking it, not Francis the Talking Mule.”
“Cold,” Mulder pouted. “Ancient Mayan recipe?”
“Pibikutz,” the archaeologist replied with a Brooklyn accident that made the word sound Yiddish rather than Meso-American. “Turkey tamales. Traditionally, they’re cooked in a pit for eight hours, then ‘resurrected’ to symbolize the Mayan burial of the dead prior to their transition into the afterlife. We are breaking with tradition this evening, unless you want to eat somewhere around 2 a.m.”
“That’s what I say. Doesn’t make me any too popular with the cultural anthropologists at the university.”
“How is academic life down here?” Mulder asked, joining in the tamale-rolling.
“Ah, pretty much the same. Really smart people are really smart people the world over. First-class, petty pains in the ass.”
“How about Karl?”
Marlaine stopped, then shoved her long, calloused very un-Norma Jeanlike fingers back into the masa harina. “You mean about Kate, right? What did he say?”
“Nothing,” Mulder said, completing another tamale. “That’s why I asked.”
“Ah, shit, Mulder,” she sighed, slapping corn meal into a husk. “He just can’t accept her condition. Here’s the world’s top expert on particle theory, won a million bucks at Stockholm, speaks seven languages, and he’s always shopping around for a ‘cure,’ like some housewife shopping for cookware on QVC. Right now, it’s this Ouija shit.”
Mulder frowned for a moment, then winced. “Facilitated communication.”
Marlaine nodded approvingly. “I always thought you were in the wrong field.”
Mulder shrugged. “Scully thinks so, too.”
“Yes, I’ve heard of it,” Scully began, carefully. “Some Australian teacher first developed the theory in the late ’70s, right? Used it to ‘bring out’ a child with cerebral palsy. You use a keyboard or other device to help mentally disabled or autistic patients surface their ‘undisclosed literacy,’ to ‘speak’ what they’re physically unable to say. Am I close?”
“Reasonably,” Karl murmured, sipping his margarita. “Except, in this case, we use the Ouija board. In FC, a facilitator physically guides the subject’s movements, potentially resulting in false, fraudulent, or subconscious communications. The Ouija is less subject to facilitator manipulation.”
Scully looked skeptically down at ten-year-old Kate, huddled on the Mayan-designed bedspread over an 18-by-12 board. The alphabet was printed on the board in quaint, arcing figures, with the numbers 1 through 0 displayed below, and the words “Good Bye” and “Parker Brothers” inscribed below that. In the upper corners were a smiling full moon next to the word “Yes” and a scowling crescent moon beside the word “No.” The word “Ouija” was positioned between the two.
A rounded, triangular pointer with a circular window sat dead-center on the board, and Kate Phipps sat straight-backed and as still as an angelic doll before the Ouija board.
Despite understanding the condition behind Kate’s deceptive catatonia and the purported role of the “supernatural” game, Scully felt some unbidden chill along her spine.
“Unfortunately,” Karl continued, “we’ve discovered she won’t engage with the board unless she’s alone. We put a monitor in here a few nights – Kate ‘communicated’ with the board for hours on end. C’mon – let’s leave her to it.”
Scully reflected on a response as they descended the tiled stairs back to the party. “I understand FC is somewhat controversial, especially the use of the Ouija board.”
“Well, a few of my colleagues are skeptical,” the physicist admitted. “This is a country steeped in religion and mysticism, if indeed you can separate the two. The reactions among our friends have ranged from atheistic horror that I’d bring this ‘voodoo’ into our home to concern I’ve gone over the rails to seemingly genuine terror of what portal I might open into the netherworld. It’s merely a therapy that seems to have some legitimate provenance.”
“Legitimate?” Scully turned to a rail-thin, goateed man in a leather jacket and Fedora, who held a bullwhip and a tall, blue drink. “Indiana Jones” shook his head disgustedly. “The more suggestible the ‘player,’ the more dangerous this Ouija nonsense is. Non-autistic players become increasingly reliant on the board, craving more and more ‘revelations.’ Soon the messages become the player’s sole interest. Normal activities and relationships become mundane – the player feels alive and alert only when working with the Ouija board. Kate is already withdrawn enough. Can you imagine the damage if this were to become her single-minded obsession?”
Karl smiled coolly at the incongruous adventurer. “This is somewhat outside your area of expertise, isn’t it, Manny? Dr. Scully, Manuel de Lugo. He’s an engineer at the Institute. A technician.”
De Lugo sighed sadly. “No need to lash out at me, Karl. I’m only trying to spare Marlaine the heartbreak and your child more anguish. Your daughter is profoundly autistic – focus on her adjustment to the world and abandon all this pseudopsychological basura.”
Karl’s eyes flashed, then he breathed deeply. “Manny, why don’t you have another drink and enjoy the evening? I have to help Marlaine in the kitchen.”
De Lugo watched the scientist retreat and turned to Scully. “I only try to help. It’s just a shame to see such a brilliant man in such pain and denial. Followes was irresponsible to give Karl that ‘game.'”
“Followes?” Scully pursued, reluctantly.
“One of the IT guys at the Institute. A real bicho raro.”
“I do speak the language, de Lugo.” The voice behind Scully was quiet, wounded but amused. Mulder, she silently cursed as the non-descript man confronted the engineer. “I wear the geek badge proudly. Maybe you’re the one in denial.” David Followes extended his hand toward Scully; she took the clammy right palm briefly.
Followes’ plaid sports shirt was tucked untidily into the waistband of his khakis, and his wire-rimmed glasses dipped slightly to the left. “I read about some of the latest Harvard research and figured it couldn’t hurt for Karl to give it a try. Found an old set on eBay cheap. Did I hear Karl say, ‘Dr. Scully?’ What’s your field?”
“I’m a forensic pathologist with the FBI,” Scully supplied, waiting for the inevitably disappointed response. Instead, Followes drew closer, intrigued. Great, she thought: El Bicho Raro metamorphizes into El Lecho Supremo.
“FBI? Wow. You working security with the Institute? ‘Cause I notice you’re not wearing a costume.”
“Jesus, Followes,” de Lugo breathed. “You sure are one keen scientific observer. Real smooth with the ladies, too.”
“I’m on vacation,” Scully stammered. “My partner – boyfr–, ah, my traveling companion is an old friend of the Phipps’s.”
“This fellow bothering you, Kitten?” Mulder asked, squinting suspiciously at Followes. “Cause if he is, I believe I’ll go hit the bar again. If they both are, I’ll be out at the clubs.”
“I’m not–” Followes sputtered as de Lugo snorted in amusement.
“Mulder. Fox Mulder. Relax, pardner. She does this every time she gets a few drinks in her. Right, Kitten?”
“I ought to circulate a little,” Followes mumbled, beating a retreat. De Lugo saluted Mulder with a forefinger to the temple, and made for the now-free floating Vampirella.
“Maybe, just once, we could get through an evening without you scaring the straights,” Scully said through her teeth.
“Maybe we could,” Mulder said in his best Jack Nicholson. “But just not tonight, OK. There’re too many marks in the house – too much temptation. Looked like Felix there was about to bust a move. I was afraid he might bring out the old slide rule, you know what I mean?”
“You smell like turkey,” Scully growled.
Mulder had switched from atole – a fruit-flavored corn meal beverage – to cerveza between the pibikutz and pan de muertos (Bread of the Dead) and the candied pumpkin and skull cookies, and he and Karl leaned back on the sofa in a pleasant stupor. Marlaine had taken the kids into the town for the festivities, and the “hard” scientists had settled back into loose conversational knots. Mulder noted Followes’ apparent absence with a slight sense of guilt.
“So what’s up at the Institute?” he asked Karl.
“Classified,” Karl sighed, loosening the belt on his Italian-style trousers.
“Quarks or leptons?”
The physicist awoke quickly from his stupor. “How in the world–?”
“The subconscious mind,” Mulder smiled lazily. “Marlaine says you’ve been obsessive about your latest project. Quark and lepton particles are fermions,” the agent said, nodding toward Karl’s costume.
Karl chuckled. “Chuck Burk always said no one could keep a secret from you for very long. Quarks. More specifically, quark energy. DOE and Defense are cooperating with the Mexican government to see if it’s theoretically possible to capture quark energy. If we could generate enough quark mass at the subatomic level, well, I’d better stop there. But we’ve run up against a kind of brick wall – my team and I have been working here nearly ’til dawn every night for the past month, trying to make the numbers fly.”
Mulder nodded slowly. “Matt been making a good adjustment?”
“He loves it here – he’s found a heretofore unknown talent for soccer. We may have to ship him back FedEx when the project’s over.”
Karl turned, bemused. “Your partner told you about our conversation? Or is it Marlaine? I know she’s not too wild about the latest therapy. You have something to offer here? No, I’d really respect your opinion.”
Mulder settled back. “I dunno, Karl. It seems like you’ve been chasing a ‘cure’ for years.” He looked to his friend; Karl’s face was stone. “OK, OK. I know that when the game became popular in the early 20th Century, the church and several mental health professionals were concerned about its impact. The poet James Merrill, who’d consulted the Ouija board to write his verses, warned people against using it shortly before he died. In 1924, Harry Houdini wrote that five people from Carrito, California were driven insane by using a board. That same year, Dr. Carl Wickland, who founded the National Psychological Institute, argued compulsive Ouija use caused ‘wild insanity’ in some patients.
“On the other hand, Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, claimed he got the idea for his 12-step program through the Ouija. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony often consults the board, and they really don’t suck.”
Karl stared blankly at Mulder.
“I guess my point, Karl, is that anything with this much silly bullshit attached to it is probably no more harmful than a Magical Eightball or Mystery Date,” Mulder concluded. “It probably also is no more helpful.”
The physicist nodded, closing his eyes for a second. “Thank you, Fox. I’m happy you could come tonight – you always offer a fresh perspecti–”
Karl’s reflections were interrupted by anguished wailing. A child’s cry, prolonged and pained.
“Katie!” Karl exploded off the couch, Mulder close behind. Across the room, Scully abandoned Superman and an unknown Mexican wrestler. The trio took the stairs rapidly, and Karl threw Kate’s door open.
The girl was rocking on her bed – a behavior Scully recognized as, stereotypically, common in autistic patients – and keening loudly. The Ouija board was askew on the bedspread.
“Baby,” Karl cried out, grabbing for his daughter. She continued to wail and rock as he embraced her, a strong fall breeze rustling the physicist’s unruly hair.
“Karl,” Mulder drawled. “Do you normally leave that window open?”
The scientist looked up distractedly. “Ah, no. Of course not. We keep it locked. Too dangerous for her.”
Mulder looked to Scully on the other side of the bed, then rushed to the tall window, shoving the curtains aside.
“Shit,” he moaned. Scully joined him, inhaling sharply as she peered at the sidewalk below.
A body was sprawled on the concrete, a pool of blood spreading from its crushed skull. The corpse – David Followes – was ringed by a trio of ghoulishly costumed festival-goers. Death in triplicate, Mulder thought.
He turned back from the windowsill, surveying the crime scene. Something appeared to be missing, but Mulder couldn’t immediately place it. The room was relatively undisturbed, spartan except for a few decorative touches added more for Kate’s parents than the autistic girl.
Mulder noticed the bedspread had been disturbed a foot or two behind Kate – someone had been sitting behind her. The board was undamaged…
“The planchette,” Mulder gasped.
“What?” Scully demanded.
“The planchette – the pointer,” he sputtered. “It’s missing.”
Kate’s cries become louder, her rocking more agitated and erratic.
“She wants it,” Mulder said. “She wants to tell us something.”
“Nonsense,” Manny de Lugo snapped from the doorway. “That’s impossible.”
“Scully,” Mulder barked. “Quick, get a piece of cardboard, something. And scissors.”
Scully disappeared, to return minutes later with a FedEx envelope. Mulder grabbed the scissors and fashioned an outsized guitar pick with a hole near the apex. He pulled Karl away from Kate, straightened the Ouija board, and placed the homemade planchette in the center of the board.
The rocking subsided and Kate grew silent. After a few seconds, she noticed the board. Her small pink fingers found the makeshift pointer, and her lips moved incoherently.
And the planchette began to move. After a few centimeters, it halted.
Kate’s hands again guided the planchette to a destination at the other end of the board.
The pointer moved smoothly back to the other side.
And finished its journey a few inches later.
“Oh, mi dios,” de Lugo whispered, crossing himself as Kate released the planchette and returned to her silent world.
Scully craned at the board. “2012. What’s that mean?”
Mulder looked into de Fugo’s wide eyes. “Around these parts, maybe just the end of the world.”
Mulder was washing the last of the candied pumpkin down with warm atole as a tall, blocky, goateed man in fresh khakis and a black guayabera shirt appeared in the kitchen doorway. He was also wearing an expression of aggrieved patience. Off-duty, probably yanked away from his own Día de Los Muertos festivities or, as likely, televised soccer with his cop buddies.
“Hey,” the agent nodded. “How they hanging?”
“¿Usted está con el FBI?” the detective grunted.
“No, gracias,” the cop murmured with a tinge of regret. “¿Qué negocio es este de la suya?”
“None of my business. Karl and Marlaine are old friends. We’re just tourists.”
“¿La pequeña pelirroja es su esposa?” The little redhead. Mulder hoped the bilingual Scully was out of range, or the evening might end with some real carnage.
Mulder nearly choked on a chunk of pumpkin and sugar.
“Ah, she’s, uh, an FBI agent, too. My, ah, my partner. No esposa. Amiga.”
A smirk played at the detective’s thick mustache. “Entiendo,” he chortled with mingled camaraderie and smugness. He jerked his closely cropped head toward the ceiling. “¿Qué te parece?
Mulder shrugged. “¿Accidente?”
The smirk kinked at the edges, then disappeared. “Sí, eso es probablemente lo que sucedió,” the detective said quietly. “Usted y su ‘amiga’ tienen una agradable momento, ¿OK?”
“Mm, yeah, we sure will,” Mulder nodded weakly.
The cop saluted solemnly at Scully silently as she edged past. She paused as masculine laughter erupted from the front room a second later. “What did HE want?”
“He said we just HAD to snorkel with the sea turtles while we were in town.”
“Among the major accomplishments of the ancient Mayans was development of a calendar that’s proven more accurate than even the Gregorian calendar,” Mulder explained after the Quintana Roo policia processed the Followes death scene and extensively grilled Karl, Marlaine, and their guests.
The detective in charge remained particularly curious about Mulder and Scully’s presence, and probed Karl about the purpose and work of the Institute.
Finally, he muttered something about Americans and their inability to handle their liquor, and gravely muttered something to a colleague about the “bicho raro” and the “retrasados chica.”
Mulder suspected the official ruling would not reflect too well on the late David Followes and his personal preferences, and that the locals wouldn’t bust their cojones trying to pin the man’s death on the Phipps or their guests.
“Some predict the completion of the thirteenth B’ak’run cycle in the Long Count of the Mayan calendar will signal a major change in world order,” Mulder continued. “Others suggest that at the end of that cycle – according to best estimates, on Dec. 21, 2012 – the end will come. That date coincides with a major planetary alignment.”
The guests had quickly departed, their expressions as ashen as those of the macabre partiers roaming the streets. Mulder had asked de Fugo to remain as a cultural consultant.
“The sun will rise in the middle of the Milky Way Galaxy, causing an alignment between the earth, sun, and the galactic center,” the engineer elaborated, his face deeply lined. “But this is ancient superstition, Agent, with no earthly scientific basis. This alignment will be merely a visual phenomenon from the earth’s perspective. There will be no gravitational force or radiation or any other physical manifestation associated with the event – other than the tilt of the earth, nothing will be any different than any other solstice. No disrespect to my very learned ancestors, but their science, well…”
“But it wasn’t just the Mayans, Doctor,” Mulder protested. “Sumerian texts suggested there are 12 planets in our solar system, and that the anomalous orbit of one of the unknown planets – Nibiru – will return to the solar system in 2012. They believed that reentry would cause disruptions.”
“This is horseshit!” The physicist, the engineer, and the agents glanced up at the source of the obscenity. Marlaine had tossed the blonde wig onto the coffee table, but in her rush to calm Kate, she hadn’t changed out of Marilyn’s sundress.
“Sorry, Fox,” she amended immediately, her attractively weathered features softening. “But what are you trying to suggest here? That my little girl is channeling the Mayan spirits? That Kate’s some kind of autistic Nostradamus, predicting the end days?”
“Autistic children often are savants,” Mulder noted. “They may show amazing powers of memorization, an ability to perform complex mathematical equations. Maybe it’s their isolation from distractions, their intense internal focus, I don’t know. But what if Kate is somehow attuned to spiritual – or, if Karl prefers, extrasensory – vibrations? What if the Ouija board simply has served as a device to fine-tune her sensitivities?”
“Please,” de Fugo breathed, having returned to his normal, hyper-rational plane of existence.
“Actually, there is some validity to what Mulder’s suggesting,” Scully drawled, diving once again into the dark waters of partner loyalty. “Early childhood savant syndrome is usually associated with other developmental issues – the major share occur in children with autism, though male savants normally outnumber females by a 6-to-1 ratio.
“Most autistic savants possess ‘splinter skills’ including musical, reading, or mechanical capability.” Scully paused. “Those skills can include advanced calendar calculations, such as the ability to pinpoint the day of the week when a specific date will fall many years in the past or future. So, while Mulder’s theory may raise some serious logical questions, it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility Kate’s message could refer to a calendar date.”
“Serious logical questions?” Mulder squeaked.
“What’s perplexing to me,” Scully obfuscated, “is how Followes took that dive out the window. Marlaine, you said it’s normally kept locked for Kate’s safety, right?”
Marlaine settled onto the arm of the leather sofa, draping an arm over her husband’s shoulder. “We installed a special bolt high up to allow a six-inch opening.”
Scully nodded. “There’s nothing Kate could have used in the room to reach that bolt. So that leaves Followes, Mulder.”
“You aren’t suggesting an attempted kidnapping, are you?” del Fugo sneered. “David and I may not have been the best of friends, but he was no deviate, as that policeman implied. I’m sure of it.”
“Beyond that, the window is more than 15 feet off the ground,” Scully said. “I can’t imagine he’d attempt to carry a child out of the house that way.”
Karl inhaled. “Wait, now. If Kate or Dave didn’t open that window, could it be that someone else did, perhaps with the same motive of abducting or harming Kate. This is a classified project with potential weapons applications…”
“Karl!” de Fugo snapped.
The physicist waved him off. “I trust Fox and Agent Scully implicitly. What if Dave came upon this intruder and was merely trying to protect Kate? The intruder might have pushed him out the window.”
“But then how did the intruder get out of the room?” Mulder objected. “We came running the second we heard Kate screaming, and the same problem applies to leaving by the window – how’d he get to the ground without a ladder or rope? Besides, I still feel there was something kind of, oh, off-kilter about Followes. Something phony.”
“You knew him for all of three minutes, until you scared him off,” Scully noted.
“He just seemed, I don’t know, off. Had you known him long, Karl?”
“I’d seen him at a couple of conferences, but Dave only came on the project a few months ago. He was a bit detached – in fact, he’d turned down tonight’s party invitation, only showed up at the last minute. And even then, he wouldn’t come in costume.” Karl pulled off his glasses and wiped them slowly on his shirt tail.
Mulder sat back, frowning. Then he looked at the scientist and sat up. “Karl, was Followes in on those all-night brainstorming sessions you told me about?”
“No, he was strictly computer and data support. Stage 3 clearance. Manny and I are Stage 4.”
“Who was there?”
“Well, Manny, as I said. Paulo Juarez, Barry Chen, Inez Bracamontes. That was the team.”
Marlaine wrinkled her nose. “Not my field. A real snorer. Plus I didn’t want to raise any concerns about project confidentiality. So I’d take Matt out to eat or to the market.”
Mulder’s eyes lit. “Just Matt? Not Kate?”
“The crowds sometimes agitated her. Karl would watch her.”
Karl smiled. “She’d sit in the corner and do puzzles while we talked of quantum physics and quarks. Why, Fox?”
“I think Scully and I will let you guys get some sleep now,” Mulder smiled, rising abruptly. “Great little shindig, Karl. Can’t wait to see what you’ve got planned for 2012.”
“You really do think he was murdered, don’t you?” Scully asked as she sipped at her Anejo tequila margarita and lazily brushed a red lock from her temple. Beyond the Playa De Los Delfines’ patio, a large U.S. family was celebrating an oceanfront wedding deep into the night, capering and waltzing to a mix of mariachi and Toby Keith. The white figures moved about almost surreally above the surf, as if in some ritual not far removed from the danse macabre being celebrated throughout the Riviera Maya and into the workers’ neighborhoods and villages.
“I can’t see Marlaine or Karl being negligent enough to leave that window open with Kate alone.” Mulder tugged at his dark, malty Negro Medelo – a lager born of Mexico’s mid-19th Century influx of German immigrants. During his four-year reign over the Mexican people, Austrian Emperor Maximilian never traveled without his German brewmasters, much to the eventual delight of drunk, parentally-subsidized frat boys. In fact, several appeared to be celebrating Maximilian and his heritage on the dock next to the hotel, boogeying to borrowed music with blonde, bronzed chicas. “And I don’t buy Detective Smartass’ theory that Followes was a closet perv – if he was into that, I’m sure he could have found options beyond trolling his friends and colleagues’ kids. If anything, I think this may have been related to the project.”
“We don’t even know what the project is, except some vague yada-yada about quark energy,” Scully murmured, closing her eyes to the warm evening breeze and the lullaby of brass on the beach.
Mulder harrumphed. “With Defense fronting part of the bill, my guess is we’re not talking about lepton-powered convection ovens or greening the nation’s highways. If we’re talking about advanced weapons technology, somebody might have offered Followes mucho dinero for the inside skinny. You know, Karl’s den’s two doors down from Kate’s room.”
“Yeah, it was locked, too. Your paranoid curiosity’s contagious. Karl told me he doesn’t keep any project data onsite, as I’m sure Followes would’ve known.”
“Your paranoid curiosity is so muy caliente,” Mulder purred.
“And your command of Spanish is muy comico,” Scully smiled, eyes still shut. They popped open as a shadow crossed her face, and Mulder turned to find their waiter waiting impassively.
“Señor, you have a telefónica … ah, phone call. In the lobby.”
Mulder looked to Scully. “Probably Skinner,” she murmured. “The locals probably didn’t buy that we’re just here to commune with the dolphins and guzzle Bahama Mamas. Go, but get back quickly. The tequila and the music and the moon has me in an ill-advisedly hormonal mood.”
Mulder’s chair squeaked on the terra cotta tile. “Phone, dude. Pronto,” he ordered.
Scully had been wrong. It was the U.S. Consulate, genially reminding Mulder of his precarious jurisdictional authority, jovially espousing the importance of U.S.-Mexican cooperation and, with appropriate gravitas, enumerating in great detail the potential consequences of disrupting crucial scientific research, breaching national security, and ruffling the plumage of a Mexican government that already wasn’t returning President Bush’s calls.
Mulder acknowledged all with a reciprocal air of genially jovial gravitas, and assured the Consulate he would confine his south-of-the-border activities to jet-skiing and prowling ancient temples.
The Consulate applauded his intentions and informed him of a nearby café that served an “otherworldly grill-roasted whole snapper adobado. Mulder promised to sample the heavenly entrée and keep his nose out of the Followes case. He was told that would be simply splendid and was left with a dead phone.
“David Followes?” Nigel Prestwick breathed 37 minutes later. “Well, I scarcely know what to say, Fox. How tragic, of course. Even if he was a bit of a, well, I suppose you could say an asshole of sorts.”
Mulder snorted involuntarily at the description tumbling from the Nobel runner-up’s Oxford-trained lips, shifting the cell phone to his other ear as Scully breathed calmly on the nearby hotel bed.
Prestwick had headed a team including Followes that in 1998 had radically rewritten every theory about spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics. Mulder was still waiting for the movie version, but he knew Prestwick kept his rather large, fleshy ear to the ground.
“I suppose that was unkind,” Nigel retreated. “Followes had a brilliant analytical mind for a data miner – astonishing inductive instincts. But he also was everything I frankly despise in my colleagues – ruthlessly rooting for the truth with no sense for its significance or beauty, totally indifferent to the human condition. ‘Randomly chaotic masses of carbon molecules,’ he called us. Why, I remember one particularly hectic deadline, when one of the lab techs received a call that his mother had passed. When Followes found out the poor lad had taken the first flight back home, he was livid. Saw to it the boy was terminated the following day.”
Didn’t sound like the kind of guy that would go game-hunting on eBay for an autistic child. “Must’ve been a killer with the ladies,” Mulder mused, recalling Followes’ awkward flirtation toward Scully.
Nigel was silent.
“Well, of course, Followes showed us little of what passed for his social life while at the lab, but from a few murmured confidences here and there, I’d say the ‘ladies’ weren’t the man’s primary focus. In fact, there was some talk that there may have been some personal intrigue behind the bereaved technician’s termination. Hell hath no fury, you know.”
Now, Mulder was silent. “Thanks, Nigel,” he finally mumbled. “Say hey to the leptons.”
“Not at all. And do express my condolences to Karl and Marlie, if that’s the right term. Be well, now.”
Mulder tossed the phone onto an end table and pondered the conversation as he peered out the patio windows at the silent black Caribbean.
“Mulder?” He jumped as Scully’s groggy voice penetrated the darkness. “You OK?”
Mulder crossed to the bed. “Yeah, yeah. I’m sorry – did I wake you up?”
Scully grunted. “You practically beg me for, well, what you usually beg me for, then ask me to ‘wait a sec’ while you make ‘one little call.’ If this is your new style of foreplay, then I’d suggest you work on your technique. What’s up? Strike that, Mulder. What did you find out?”
“Later,” Mulder murmured, scrabbling across the mattress. He found the object of his search, soft and warm. “How’s this for foreplay?”
He groaned as his cell phone began to vibrate and flamenco across the end table.
“Oh baby, oh baby,” Scully said.
Mulder gratefully accepted a cup of thick, cinnamon-infused Mexican coffee from Marlaine as he settled onto the couch. “I had a buddy at the Bureau run a check on eBay purchases over the past year, specifically a 1993 Parker Brothers Ouija Board, slightly bumped. Only board sold recently was an 1891 Charles Kennard. And there weren’t any charges or PayPal transactions at all on David Followes account. In fact, no activity on the account over the past 21 months.”
Kate Phipps sat quietly, rapidly assembling the jigsaw puzzle Marlaine had supplied to replace the now-underequipped Ouija board, serenely oblivious to the tall young stranger, the short redhead, her parents, and the one her father called “Manny.”
“Bottom line is, I think you had a security leak at the Institute. At least until last night.”
De Fugo and Karl exchanged glances. “You don’t mean Followes?” the Mexican scientist asked.
After making a flurry of calls in Spanish, Mulder had assembled the group. “I’m guessing the real David Followes is dead and disappeared somewhere. The man you knew replaced him on your project with the express purpose of gathering intelligence. Whether for a foreign government or a high-tech company looking for an energy or weapons breakthrough, I don’t know.”
De Fugo scowled. “Espera – wait a minute. How in the world did you come to this conclusion?”
“Look at Karl. His glasses. What do you see?”
The scientist looked at Mulder as if he were quite insane, then shrugged and studied Phipps’ face. “I don’t know. They’re silver, wire-rimmed, functional but hardly stylish. The nose pieces are stretched out and, I guess, they’re sitting rather, what’s the word, lopsided on Karl’s face.”
“Yup,” Mulder said happily. “What’s your dominant hand, Karl?”
“I’m right-handed,” Karl said slowly.
“So was Followes. Karl, take off your glasses and wipe them on your shirt like you did downstairs.”
Peering strangely at Mulder, he complied, rubbing first the left lens and then the right.”
“Stop,” Mulder ordered. “Now, look down. When you wiped your left lens, you reached over, rubbing from above. When you cleaned your right lens, your thumb was pressed against the earpiece, probably bending it slightly downward.”
“Another case cleared,” Scully murmured.
Mulder glared. “I noticed Followes was right-handed. But his glasses dipped on the left side from the pressure of repeated geek wipings. When Followes – the real one – was murdered, his carefully selected double appropriated his glasses. It was one of those superficial details that would reinforce his new identity with Followes’ casual acquaintances. The original Followes was an asocial sort – not too many people would remember he was right-handed.
“Followes soon realized security at the Institute was tighter than his employers had assumed – all data was deeply encoded, and the system was unbreakable. There was no weak link on the team to tap, and to do so would draw unnecessary attention. He didn’t risk bugging this condo. Then you told him about Kate, about her autism. Somewhere, he learned about her presence at the team’s brainstorming sessions, and realized he had a Chesterton’s postman.”
“Chesterton’s what?” Marlaine mumbled.
“G.K. Chesterton,” de Fugo supplied. “Early 20th Century mystery author and Catholic apologist. In one of his Father Brown detective stories, the culprit turns out to be a village postman who was able to avoid detection because no one takes notice of the mailman or the waiter or the cleaning woman. Or a little girl. Am I following you, Agent Mulder?”
“Bingo. Kate was privy to some of the most sensitive, potentially most scientifically groundbreaking information in the world, on a nightly basis. Who knows what she may have absorbed and processed? Mulder leaned back, tucking his hands behind his head.
“Oh, please. Fox,” Marlaine said. “How’d David hope to communicate with Kate, much less extract classified information from her? Even after 10 years, Karl and I still have trouble breaking through sometimes.”
Mulder nodded. “‘Followes did his research – there’ve been dozens of studies of and stories about autism and facilitated communication, and he decided the Ouija board might offer a way to tap Kate’s subconscious thoughts and maybe a few scraps of overheard, embedded information about the project.”
“What, was this so-called spy telepathic?” de Fugo growled. “How would he hope to retrieve this information?”
“My guess is, the faux Followes made a major modification to the Ouija set he gave Karl, after building his hopes it would help draw Kate out,” Mulder explained. “That’s why the planchette, the pointer, disappeared – he had to remove the evidence of his spying once he found out Scully and I were in the house. I think Followes thought Karl had called us in.”
“Why was the planchette so damned important?” de Fugo demanded.
“You’re an engineer. When you boil it down, what is the planchette? In practical, fundamental terms, what function does it serve? What kind of device is it?”
“I don’t know. I suppose a navigational device, of sorts.”
Mulder grinned. “Exactly. You heard of the Jupiter 32?”
“Navman released it back in early 2007,” de Fugo recalled automatically. “It’s one of the smallest commercially available GPS receivers. Weighs two grams. High signal sensitivity, supplies very accurate location-specific data…” The engineer’s eyes popped. “You aren’t trying to suggest–”
“That Fake Followes planted a J32 receiver in the planchette. I’d have to look up the specs, but I assume the J32 can track minute movements, such as the distance between the 26 letters, 10 numbers, and affirmative and negative responses on the Ouija board. Followes set up a GPS signal detector, probably here on the island somewhere, to intercept Kate’s Ouija ‘communications.'”
Karl shook his head vigorously. “Your theory, it’s so absurdly imaginative. And if Followes stole the planchette, then where did it go between the window and the pavement?”
Mulder moved to the window beside the bed and peered into the darkness. “Hopefully, we’ll know in a few minutes.” He leaned out. “¿Somos listos comenzar?”
A voice rose from below. “¡Sí!”
“Start what?” Marlaine asked.
“Detective Alazar’s GPS signal detector,” Mulder said. “My guess is the impact of Followes’ fall sent the planchette flying. If it’s in the bushes or down a sewer grate, the good detective should be able to locate it shortly.”
The group waited in silence as Kate continued to assemble a snarling Jaguar on her bedspread.
“¡Lo he encontrado!” The detective’s triumphant voice echoed through the streets, hailed by the distance sound of mariachi. Mulder sprinted down the stairs to meet the policeman.
As the agent threw open the front door, Alazar beamed and extended the missing pointer. Mulder high-fived his Mexican colleague and turned toward his partner and the scientists.
With a grimace, he pressed the planchette against his knee. It cracked in two, and a small metal square dropped onto the terra cotta. Mulder retrieved the Jupiter 32.
“But what about Kate’s last message? 2012?” de Fugo sputtered.
Mulder shrugged. “Much as I hate to admit it, it’s probably not the end of the world.”
20 Avenida Norte
Rilke subtly readjusted the Glock in his waistband as he located the whitewashed stucco apartment building that had served as Borges’ safe house/operations base. That was the beauty of these tropical assignments: Voluminous shirts and baggy cargo shorts could hide a multitude of sins. Literally.
Rilke was 35, but with his youthful appearance and deep five o’clock shadow, he could have been anything from a spoiled college kid slumming the Third World to some Greenpeace whack spreading the gospel of Man’s intrusion on the planet.
A pair of men in flamenco dress, skull masks stuffed in their pockets, stumbled past, laughing and punching each other with macho camaraderie.
Rilke had landed in the middle of some weird sort of Mexican Halloween celebration, and despite his professional detachment, he felt like the hero of some old film noir or spy flick, surrounded on all sides by death and decadence.
If he’d worked for the mob, Rilke might have been called a “cleaner.” One of the Fortune 500 would have classified him as a “troubleshooter.” But Rilke’s duties were far more extensive – and often, lethal – than either.
Borges had been stupid contacting the kid – his plan, while bizarre, had been flawlessly conceived and executed, but its success had depended on maintaining distance. What had driven the idiot to make contact? Then, worse, Borges had managed to get killed in a particularly freakish and embarrassing manner. Bush league.
Rilke pushed the front door open, tensing slightly as he heard the sounds of laughter and obviously erotic murmuring from above. No matter – it was party time, and a couple of partiers had found a more private place to celebrate. He wouldn’t be noticed – just another gringo come for tequila, weed, cheap and anonymous company.
He ascended the tiled stairs and, on Borges’ floor, spotted the two skeletons. The taller one, presumably male, was pressing a smaller cadaver against the cracked hallway wall as she moaned in Spanish.
Rilke smiled despite himself as he skirted past the pair. Vicarious necrophilia?
No. 12 was at the end of the hall. Rilke patted his pants, as if looking for his key. The amorous twosome failed to notice as he slipped the slim tool from his pocket and jimmied the lock.
The microscopic apartment was clean and Spartan, designed for one purpose only. An open laptop occupied a folding table; Rilke noted the steno pad next to the computer.
Borges had not altered the screensaver – the Microsoft logo flitted about the monitor.
Rilke tapped the touchpad, and an array of letters and numerals appeared. He flipped open the steno pad. Borges had transcribed what must have been two weeks of “communications” between the Phipps girl and her Ouija board.
Rilke scanned the pages, then stopped abruptly. This was astounding, incredible. His employers would be ecstatic.
Then Rilke spotted the last line, and a hand grabbed at his stomach.
YOU DIE TONIGHT
Rilke might have laughed if it wasn’t so unnerving. It was the only thing that would have drawn Borges out – this prediction of his imminent death. He’d sought out the kid to find out what she knew, what the Ouija knew. Jesus, superstitious idiot. But how’d they get on to him.
The laptop chimed, and he started. A large virtual planchette moved across the screen, arriving wobblingly at the letter “H.” Rilke leaned in, holding his breath, and stared at the screen.
“O…L…A.” Hola – hello.
Usted – you are. Rilke struggled with deciphering the string of text, then gasped as the ghastly countenance of Death appeared on the monitor. He suddenly felt a cold metallic finger against his temple, and his heart leapt.
“Let me help you with that,” the skeleton, Mulder, murmured, as his petite, costumed partner advanced, Detective Alazar in tow. The agent pressed slightly on the gun barrel. “You’re under arrest.”
Alazar pulled cuffs from his belt, repeating the notification Karl Phipps had communicated via the GPS-driven Ouija board and Mulder had translated. Rilke was professionally mute as he was escorted from the room.
Mulder had checked every realtor in Playa del Carmen, Cancun, and Cozumel until he had pinpointed a foreign rental with the digits 2-0-1-2. Cozumel was a small island, so it was unlikely he was looking for a four-digit street address. Fortunately, 20 Avenida Norte, Apartment 12 was only a few blocks from the Phipps condo.
“Mulder,” Scully ventured for the first time since he’d advanced his theory, “do you really believe Kate knew where ‘Followes’ was located?”
Her partner shrugged, admiring the mini-geographical information overlay the man Borges had designed to track Kate’s communications. “Who knows what form savant syndrome might take? Who knows what ‘splinter skills’ might emerge when brainwaves are blocked and diverted? Maybe Kate became able to detect GPS signals, and traced them back to ‘Followes.'”
As Mulder hypothesized, Scully leafed through Borges’ notes. “Mulder.”
“That may not be the only skills set Kate Phipps has developed.” Scully’s face was slightly ashen. “Tell your friend Karl his daughter may have come up with the solution to his little problem.”
Plaza Porto Real
Playa del Carmen
“Gracias,” Mulder murmured, pocketing his cell phone as the Mayan-featured young waiter poured a fresh cup of coffee. The waiter smiled and retreated as Scully passed the breakfast buffet. “You done basking in the afterglow?”
Scully smirked as she settled in, glancing at the Atlantic beyond the pool deck and cabana bar. “I think the afterglow ended roughly when you got that cramp in your left buttock and started dancing around the room and cursing. No, actually, I was arranging a tour of the ruins at Tulum for this afternoon.”
“Baby, you’re the greatest. Kind of takes away some of the sting.”
Scully signaled the waiter, who grinned and approached. “Now what?”
“Homeland Security confiscated ‘Followes” notebook and Rilke. Karl couldn’t go into details, but apparently, Kate may have discovered a few new applications for her dad’s fermion technology – literally earthshaking applications. Kids, huh? By now, those notes are probably on a shelf somewhere between the Lost Ark of the Covenant and the recipe for the Colonel’s secret blend of spices.”
Scully leaned back, agog. “But, Mulder, all that information is still in Kate’s head, just waiting to be unlocked. What if–?”
Mulder sipped his café. “Karl has several good friends in the media, and given the scrutiny the administration’s received over the past few years, I don’t think anybody’s about to spirit an autistic child off to Guantanamo. But Karl has been released from the Institute team as a potential security risk. He and Marlaine are taking the kids on an expedition to Peru, to look at Incan ruins.” He grinned. “Without the Ouija board, of course.”
“Of course.” Scully hesitated, watching a mockingbird peck at a discarded tortilla on the patio beyond. “And ‘Followes” death, Mulder? Who opened that window? If Kate’s mental skills are as advanced as you say, and she perceived a threat to her family. Not that I’m suggesting…”
Mulder shrugged. “The fact that you’d even broach the subject of telekinesis without sneering self-righteously makes me tingle in a very, very, very private place. But, mi amor, there are some cans maybe we shouldn’t open, especially if nobody gives a rojo raton’s ass. As the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes once said, ‘There is no final solution. There is no last word.'”
Scully stood. “As Mexican actress and Mulder fantasy contortionist Salma Hayek once said, ‘I keep waiting to meet a man who has more balls than I do.’ But I suppose your heart – and a few other choice organs – are in the right place. However, if I’m going to listen to you drone on about Mayan funereal rituals all afternoon, I’m going to need some more huevos con chorizo. You want some papaya juice, Mi Zorro Loco?”