Location

Location

Location

By Martin Ross

Rated R for language, violence, and sexual references

Category: Casefile

Summary: A postwar secret has reemerged with deadly force in a quiet neighborhood, and Mulder and Scully — with the help of an old friend and Albert Einstein — must solve a murder and revise their view of the Universe.

Disclaimer: The X-Files is forever the domain of Chris Carter and Fox; the pleasure of helping keep the files open is mine.

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1. The Final Misadventure of Lucas Beltran

Classified Location, Eastern Seaboard

2:17 p.m.

The hose slapped to the pavement, shattering momentarily the white noise generated by the thousands of cicadas and crickets that dominated Huxley Drive after the yuppies’ utes and SUVs and the professors’ more consciously sensible VWs and Priuses fled for the campus and city center.

Luke uttered a single, guttural adolescent curse as he willed his breathing and blood pressure back out the yellow. Callie’s “toys” no longer pushed the boy’s heart rate into the red, but he knew he would never become totally inured to the sight of these things the cat literally dragged in. He couldn’t be allowed to — their sheer diversity delivered a fresh jolt of adrenaline each time.

And this was merely one more entry in a catalogue of monstrosities. Mr. Francks had, during one evening of bro-bonding, while Mrs. Francks and the girls were away at the mall, exhibited the cryogenically preserved collection that had displaced the ribeyes and ribs in his basement freezer. Luke had feigned fascination and hoped fervently (like many of his classmates, he closeted his faith like a dreaded[l1] secret) that he would never again be invited to the hellish museum in the corner of the Sox-themed rec room.

Luke shook his head absurdly at the plump feline, who serenely hovered over her prize, tail switching languidly, sandpaper tongue working methodically at her white-mittened paw. “Dude,’ he breathed, bending to collect the hose; she looked up with what he imagined to be contempt but was more likely complete [l2]and utter apathy. Luke failed to understand why intelligent beings would choose to spend their time and affection on such snarky little shitbags, in particular a little douche like Callie that seemed to have come right out of that Stephen King movie — the one with Herman Munster and the kid from the second Terminator. Luke had never read the verse of T.S. Eliot, but as a contemporary American teen, his radar could spot kept secrets a mile away.

Unlike the average contemporary American teen, Luke was cursed with a soft heart and an immaculately wired brain. He’d seen the emotional and physical effects Callie’s toys had had on Jennifer Francks and her formerly sunny disposition — over the summer, Mrs. Francks had gone rapidly from Stacy’s Mom (the one in the prehistoric video who “had it goin’ on’) to merely cougar-ish, while Bryan Francks seemed to be getting, well, crazier. Dude always had been kind of a jerkwad — always had the volume up a little too much, always tried to be the jock, one of the gang, whatever gang. Luke admitted Callie’s toys had him scared shitless, and he knew despite his years that that was the appropriate response for anybody outside the cast of the Jersey Shores.

Fuck you, Bry, Luke thought abruptly. Bryan would be mad if he knew, but Jennifer and the kids didn’t need this shit. It had been a miracle neither of the girls had come home from the park or their buds’ to find their beloved kitty’s latest prize.

Luke inhaled deeply and, swallowing back on his gag reflex, slipped on the thick landscaping gloves. The gauntleted hand stopped midway to the concrete stoop. They never seemed to survive Callie’s manhandling, but they were always alive — gasping for a few final breaths if they had a mouth or gills or whatever passed for them, throbbing if that was all their anatomy would manage, radiating a slight bodily heat if that was all their miserable existence amounted to. This one, unfortunately, had a mouth, and, worse, several protuberances that followed Luke’s massive presence with seeming curiosity. Eyes, Luke realized, dry-mouthed.

Bryan said none of them had ever shown any “aggressive tendencies” — no tentacles had ever whipped out to seize a wrist; no hidden rows of razor-like teeth had ever sheared off a finger or clamped onto a tantalizing nose; no clamping onto faces or egg-laying in the chest cavity. Over the summer, Luke had, to his friends’ mystification, sworn off the classic works of Ridley Scott, John Carpenter, and Eli Roth.

The gloved hand advanced. The eye/nodules focused as one on Luke’s menacing fingers, but the flesh — smooth, clean flesh of a color no Sherwin-Williams swatch could ever accurately capture — did not tense, and the curious “eyes” held no fear.

Luke was about to snatch the toy from the stoop and fling it into a gaping Hefty when the dark blur moved into his peripheral vision, hissing with unrestrained hate. Callie’s claws dug a deep trench into Luke’s forearm, and the cat’s teeth clamped into the leather glove.

“Mother–” he yelped, waving his arm and its furry, furious new hand puppet. Luke felt a slight brush of tiny fangs through the quarter-inch of unfinished cowhide — Callie wasn’t going to give her toy up easily. He didn’t want to hurt her — scratch that, he didn’t want to traumatize Britney and Chloe — but he could feel something primitive and unrelenting in her grip. Luke hoisted his arm clear of his body; Callie clawed ineffectually at the air as her bite intensified.

And Luke brought his other arm around. And dropped the glove and its attached cat into the open Hefty bag. He tugged the plastic straps tightly shut and held the bag away as Callie’s talons tore through. Fortunately, it was one of those ribbed bags, the reinforced kind. Luke strode purposefully to the sunroom door, slid the screen open, deposited the trapped feline, and slammed the glass patio slider shut.

Murderous yowls followed Luke back to the front stoop. Adrenalized and fearless after his battle with the enraged tabby, he plucked a fresh Hefty from the ground and, with his remaining glove, plucked Callie’s former toy from the stoop. It didn’t make a sound, but the bag rustled as it acclimated to its new environment. By the time Luke reached the workbench at the rear of the Francks’ three-bay garage, the bag was still. Trembling slightly, the teen nonetheless located a shovel next to a bag of Kentucky bluegrass seed, returned to the bench, and beat the lump inside the Hefty beyond any possibility of survival.

Luke leaned back against the bench, controlling his respiration, reflecting ironically on the $50 per week he accepted for yard work [l3]and odd jobs — work Bryan was happy to palm off, charity Mrs. Francks was happy to offer the boy for his forthcoming college journey. The thought of his kind, frazzled neighbor reminded him the job wasn’t done. Luke couldn’t just throw the thing in the garbage — trash day wasn’t “til Friday, and some inquisitive or hungry lab might decide on a to-go order, thus scaring the shit out of some other kindly suburbanite and drawing attention to, well, whatever was going on here. He could drive it out to the sticks and throw it in a ditch or a cornfield, but, frankly, he couldn’t bear the thought of carpooling with some creature from the Twilight Zone.

When the neighborhood Nazis decided no more metal trash cans, Bryan had relegated his to storing wood scraps from his abortive furniture-making phase and his disastrous fix-it attempts. A pile of scraps lay at the bottom for kindling; Luke crumpled a few newspapers from the recycling bin, grabbed a can of lighter fluid, and prepared for a barbecue.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi scowled up from the corrugated steel can as Luke ignited a Walgreen’s circular with a Bic grill lighter and dropped the flaming wad atop her image. Pelosi shriveled into herself as fire licked at the paper, and, with a disgusted shake, Luke dropped the toy into the barrel. It sunk to the bottom, away from the fire, and Luke squirted butane onto its carcass. The fire would do its ravenous work, Luke would dispose of the ashes and hose out the can, and he’d finish the lawn before Bryan’s Escalade or Mrs. Franck’s Nissan rounded the block. Burning was a strict no-no here in Stepford (Luke’s girl had made him watch the Nicole Kidman remake, not that he’d ever heard of Katherine Ross), but if anybody complained, he was a dumbass kid, and Bryan would want to be too cool to bitch him out.

He was restoring the lighter fluid to its spot of honor near the tongs and mesquite chips when he felt, rather than saw, the shadow entering the garage. As Luke turned, he heard a hollow metallic scraping instantly recognizable from years of Little League and varsity softball. The boy scrabbled toward the shovel, but the first swing caught him mid-spine, shattering the string of bones encasing his nervous system. The second connected with Luke’s skull as he collapsed.

The bat fell with a single bell-like chime to the concrete, and somewhere in the part of his brain that was still successfully broadcasting, he heard heavy — male — footsteps moving briskly away. Luke’s brain perceived the acrid smell of burning newsprint and lumber — his scrambled synapses craved a flame-broiled Whopper — and the distant chirruping of cicadas and crickets. As his assailant stepped into the brilliant August sun, his faltering memory signaled recognition, while his cognitive sense registered surprise and utter confusion.

Luke’s adolescent sense of immortality and lust for survival kicked immediately in. If he could just put some distance between he and Cal Ripken, dig out the Droid, get 5-0 and the paramedics on the road… His fingers scrabbled at the gritty poured floor, but the road between Central Nervous and his legs was closed, Luke now openly prayed, temporarily.

Then he spotted it, five inches from his outstretched right hand — a sphere, battered and smudged but unspeakably sacred at this moment. Luke looked to the far corner, where the garage adjoined the Francks’ laundry room, then back to the stitched leather ball he’d fungo-ed to Bryan a few times as a gesture of camaraderie. Luke’s trembling fingers closed around the sphere; the teen tensed his still-operating torso, drew back, and conjuring his bud Todd signaling a high, hard one behind the plate, let fly.

The effort sapped Luke’s remaining reserves, and he slumped back against the cold cement. A smile nonetheless twitched unbidden at his dry lips as the garage door — the gates of salvation — drew down rapidly on its track. As it closed with a gratifying thump, the automatic staging light above glowed dimly. Luke estimated he had five minutes, tops.

The Droid was wedged tightly into his grass-stained jeans, and sweat and blood formed a rivulet under his skull as he grunted it free. Luke indulged in a single breath and brought the phone to his face. He was greeted by the disconcerting sight of his own reflection against the dead black screen. Luke frantically tried to power up. Nothing. Then, the boy recalled his mother’s last words the night before, as she left him in the family room to watch Family Guy — Skinemax, actually. Don’t forget to recharge, hon. You always do, and you never know when you might need to call.

Luke’s weak, disconnected giggle bounced off the peg-board walls. Was this the scenario you’d envisioned, Mom?

Three minutes, hon, Luke’s mind prodded in his mother’s voice, for maximum effect. As a few more towers flickered out, a single strong signal burst through the noise.

Logging off, Dude. Battery low. Motherboard fried.

Luke’s mind skipped instantly from acceptance into anger. Motherfucker wasn’t going to off me and walk away. Fuck that shit.

Great, Sherlock. You go, Boy. Oh, just one thing, though…

Shut the fuck up, Luke’s right hemisphere screamed. His head pounded — no, he realized, that was a fist pounding. Against the reinforced steel garage door. Fucked up, much, Gaylord?, Luke’s brain taunted. Try the keypad — only a few million combinations, might get lucky.

Focus. Had to leave a message — a while you were gone for the living. With what? Britney’s sidewalk chalks were on the top of the shelves — a punishment for an imaginative and mocking driveway rendering of the neighbor boy. Spray enamel for the deck chairs. Nope — in the mower shed.

Two minutes, dear. And aren’t you forgetting the major problem here, Lucas?

Luke had to admit he had no comeback for that one. It was a puzzle, a conundrum wrapped in a mystery, his left hemisphere mused in a dead-on Chris Walken.

Mystery. Wish he had Jessica Fletcher here, a little advice for the newly dying. See if the old broad could pull a dying clue out of her knitting bag. Mustering the mental acuity that had gotten him through his SATS, Luke’s memory accessed 17 years of criminous fiction and media — Hardy Boys, Encyclopedia Brown, CSI, Monk, the Ellery Queen his eighth grade English teacher had offered in lieu of Twain and Hawthorne.

A dying clue. Work with what you got, with what you know, Coach Turner rumbled. What do you know about your opponent, son? C’mon, got to be something in that head besides fart jokes and cheerleaders. What do you know, guddammit?

And then he saw it — the box on the bottom shelf, right at eye level. The neat block lettering — POOL. Wasn’t perfect — be lucky if any of the local brainstems could work it out. Work with what you got.

And the lights went out, leaving only the dim campfire glow and crackle of burning pulp and monster flesh. ”Fuck,’ Luke croaked, or thought he did. He inhaled, reached out, and contacted cardboard. Pulling himself up with a girlish cry, he reached the rim and tipped the box. Luke ignored the clownish poing of an escaping beach ball, and fumbled for the familiar object, thinking about the hours he’d spent with Mom watching those shitty-assed reality shows she loved so much.

The pounding at the gates had stopped — Babe Ruthless was no doubt searching for another point of entry. So sad, Sammy Sosa. Fuck you, Fukadome…

Got it. Small, flat, hardened by chlorine and heavy use. Luke worked his summer project out from under a tangled snorkel and mask. Laughing inanely, sobbing disconsolately, he hugged the precious object to his sweat-coated chest.

And all life, reality, existence exploded in one bright, consuming flash.

2. From the Casefile of Fox Mulder

“Welcome to the Homeland and Garden Channel,” Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Fox Mulder greeted as his compact partner wove through cops and firefighters, bearing two garish mini-mart coffee cups. “This is not a vente half-caff Kenya AA with soy milk and no foam.”

Special Agent Dana Scully stiffly extended a steaming cup. “This, my pampered yuppie colleague, is a medium Suck-and-Slurp Wake-Up Special. The creamer appeared to contain no animal-derived products. Foam was not an option, so the stars are on your side.”

Mulder stared disdainfully at the beverage, sighed, and accepted. “So how come when I asked you for a Suck-and-Slurp Wake-up Special this morning…?”

“What have we got?” Scully demanded.

Mulder glanced into the half-charred shell of the garage, where a bio-suited DHS crew was bagging a jeaned, blood-blotched corpse. “The decedent is one Lucas Beltran, 17, 237 Huxley Drive. This is 215 Huxley Drive, home to Bryan and Jennifer Franck. Upper middle-class neighborhood, pretty deserted at this time of day — house might’ve gone up if a sick neighbor hadn’t heard an explosion. And the garage hadn’t contained it. Fire chief — the beefy crewcut over there — says the fire sucked all the oxygen out of the closed space and extinguished itself by the time the guys got in with the jaws of life.” The agent took a tentative sip, wincing. “No wonder the housewives here are so desperate.”

“What do you think?” Scully murmured. “Garage blast, Homeland Security in space suits. Disgruntled teen supremacist? Homegrown Jihadist?”

Mulder squinted at the tree-lined street. “I’m not getting that. Varsity jock, high GPA, even volunteered at the local homeless shelter. He was doing yardwork around the block to save for college next fall. I think the closest this kid ever got to radical ideology was on the school debate team.”

“It is a campus town,” Scully pointed out. “Naïve local boy suddenly exposed to a new universe of thought and expression. Adolescent angst and anger directed against institutional authority…”

“You’re sooo hot when you get all professorial and boring and stuff,” Mulder gushed. “Come on — let’s get all up in Institutional Authority’s grill.”

The head of the regional DHS office, a paunchy Don Draper type named Rossner, was stationed near the mouth of the Francks’ extra-wide drive, gathering intelligence from a black-suited colleague.

“Yeah, Walt Skinner’s guys,” Rossner nodded as Mulder flashed his ID. “Glad to have you aboard — Walt says you’re adept at the crazy stuff, and you’ve got a phobia about the media, which is what we need here.”

Mulder scanned Huxley Drive, bathed in golden afternoon sun. Fashionably casual residents lined the nearby police tape, as other, consciously unfashionable academics struggled mightily to appear oblivious to the unfolding sideshow. “Only thing crazy I see here is some crazy-awesome curb appeal.”

“That, Agent, is precisely what’s so crazy,” Rossner responded. “Squeaky clean kid, squeaky clean neighborhood, aside from a few limousine socialist professor types. Dumbass kid tries to burn some trash in a closed garage, right? Only three things set off any alarms.

“One, the homeowner, Franck, is a research associate with a federally affiliated university lab on campus, medium clearance, and peripheral [l4]involvement in a few sensitive projects. That’s what gets our spit-shined feet in the door. Two, the kid, Beltran, he was murdered. Busted spine, head trauma — we even got the murder weapon bagged, aluminum baseball bat belongs to Franck. Who’s alibied, of course. When the local fire crew gained access, they found the kid.

“Third, something seemed hinky to the fire chief after they got what was left of the fire under control. He’s seen a lot of these bonehead garage-and-grill blowouts, and he said there was something wrong with this one. That’s when he called us in.”

Scully glanced at the chief, who was supervising some equipment removal. “You trust his instincts, or you think this might just be a case of post-9/11 overreaction?”

Rossner smiled, slightly. “You see that ink on his forearm?”

Admiral Scully’s daughter smiled back. “Special Services.”

“Decorated, too, but not flashy about it. Yeah, I guess I trust his gut. But I have no idea yet what it’s telling us. We need a fresh set of eyes.”

“And a somewhat psychotic perspective,” Mulder mused.

“Take the compliment, Agent. I think my guys and CDC have cleared the scene. No apparent bio-agents. You want to take a look?”

Mulder shrugged. “Just another day in paradise.”

**

“Trash fire, grease fire, arson, they all got their own signature,” the chief grunted, moving stealthily for his girth around the ring of ashes and charred cement. “This one reads chemical fire — more specific, a gas explosion. A very contained, very abrupt explosion, kinda like a propane tank.” The ex-Forces man gestured toward a Kingsford bag in the corner. “’Cept this guy’s no Hank Hill — charcoal all the way. See that lighter fluid on the shelf there? The kid — “scuse me, whoever lit that can — used it as an accelerant. Could smell it a mile away.”

“Wanted to get rid of something, burn it beyond recognition,” Mulder deduced. He stepped gingerly over to the charred, torn metal trash can despite the chief’s slight growl of distress. “Nothing but ash. Lab should be able to ID what Beltran was burning. Anything out of the ordinary in here, Chief?”

“No hazmat-type chemicals, no bomb-making materials, least that I can see,” the stocky official rumbled.

“Everything’ll get bagged and tagged,” Rossner assured. “But no, nothing obvious. No C4, no common accelerants, no detonators or timers.”

Mulder scanned the spotless bay beyond the fire zone. Rakes and trimmers hung in mathematically precise angles to the floor; tools were actually outlined, and barbecue tools gleamed. Four exceptions to the Francks’ obvious rules of order stood out, most conspicuously an upended cardboard packing box from which a now-half-melted snorkel and mask, two pairs of pink goggles, and a pink swim fin overflowed.

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“Dr. Scully, a pen, please,’ Mulder ordered pleasantly. Scully sighed and withdrew a Bic from her bag. Her partner eased it into the thumb of a leather work glove that had been laying on the work bench and held the mitt close to his nose. “Yup. Lighter fluid. But where’s the other glove?”

The chief coughed. “Nothing strange there. Lotta household jobs are one-handed operations. Other’s probably somewhere in here, or out back in the shed.”

“But it’s new,’ Mulder protested. “It’s clean, fairly spotless except for the charcoal fluid. See the fresh hole where the gloves were pulled apart? And who could miss that new glove smell? Yum.”

The chief glanced at Rossner. Rossner pointedly glanced nowhere. Mulder beamed, now comfortable in the discomfort of others, and moved on to the still-creased, barely used trash bag on the floor near the work bench. He opened the bag carefully and backed off, wincing.

“Guts,” the agent announced. He passed the bag to Scully. “Guts, right?”

Scully stared warily at Mulder, then took a whiff. “These are organic remains — likely bodily fluids. Though I can’t identify what type of fluids they might be based on color or odor.”

“If it’s a Merlot, I swear I’m out of here,” Mulder said. “The bag was fresh, used for a single purpose — to contain and kill an animal.”

“Or maybe the killer shoved the bag over the kid’s head, execution-style,” the fire chief ventured. He looked at Scully. “No good, huh?”

“The one thing I can say with certainty is that this is neither human blood nor brain matter. I’ve seen enough of both.”

“And,” Mulder continued. “And I’d guess this dead animal is what Beltran was burning — he knew it was unsafe to burn the plastic bag. He was willing to risk the bag being discovered, guts and all. Which means young Lucas wasn’t going around eradicating the neighborhood cat or squirrel population. Whatever he’d caught, he didn’t want anyone else to see. DNA, Watson, er, Scully.”

Before Scully could respond verbally or physically, Mulder moved on, scouring the unburnt portion of the garage.

“Wait up,’ Rossner said. “You haven’t given me any evidence that confirms the vic was the one who started that fire. The killer could’ve been destroying evidence — maybe something Beltran had discovered. The fact that the garage door was closed would bear that out. ME says the boy was killed here, and that his spine had been shattered. The garage door opener switch is way over there, what, probably 20 feet away. The only person who could have let down the door was the killer.”

“Where would you say the bat came from? The murder weapon?”

“Over there, I guess,” the fire chief muttered, gesturing toward a corner bracket over which a glove and cap were draped.

“One bat, one mitt, one cap,” Mulder enumerated, scouring the unburnt area of the garage. “What’s missing? Here.” He reached behind a shop vac near the door into the house and produced a tangerine-sized sphere. The agent grinned as he turned the ball to reveal a squarish dent in the leather. “You said Beltran was a jock and an honor roll kid. For whatever reason, the killer left the scene, and Lucas was smart enough to realize his best shot at survival was to isolate himself.” Mulder pivoted and whipped the ball at the corner. The pitch hit home, and the garage door began to close. Rossner sighed and raised the door.

“This tells us something else,’ Mulder added, holding a palm aloft to Scully. She crossed her arms, and his arm dropped. “Lucas knew his killer didn’t know the garage combination. Which eliminates the Francks, their daughters, and likely any extended family.”

“Leaving, what, only some six billion other suspects,’ Scully said, brightly. “I’ll take China and India.”

Mulder turned to Rossner. “And it was an opportunistic killing — murderer grabbed the nearest weapon. Maybe a drop-in, a friend or classmate, fight over a girl? Maybe a disgruntled girlfriend, big one with a wicked-awesome swing. Or somebody who discovered Lucas discovering whatever he discovered. Now, we have to find that second glove.”

“Cassie, goddamn it!!’ the male voice was shrill, furious.

“Bryan Franck, the owner,’ the chief supplied. “Wife’s name is Jenny.”

“Ah ha,’ Mulder breathed, heading for the door. “C’mon, Scully, er, Watson — the game’s afoot.”

Bryan Francks was on his knees in the laundry room, collecting small scraps of white plastic and, ironically, placing them into another white plastic bag.

“This is just what we needed right now,’ the small, neatly-kept man sighed. “We told Luke not to let her in the house when we were gone.” He caught the chief’s eye, and dropped back onto his ass, head in his hands. “Jesus, sorry. This is just so fucked up — I had to give Jenny a couple of Xanax, and the girls, they don’t even know yet.”

“Cassie’s the family cat, right?” Mulder asked.

“Yeah,’ Francks responded warily. “What? Who the hell are you?”

“Somebody let the cat out of the bag, mainly the cat,’ Mulder explained to Rossner. “Oh, yeah, and this.” He stooped and retrieved the second work glove, displaying the small fang-size perforations in the leather.”

“Hey, I asked you a question,” Francks said, more plaintive than belligerent.

“Sorry.” Mulder pulled his ID. “Sir, could you please lead us to your cat?”

Francks sputtered. “Cassie? Why?”

“All will be revealed in time. Sorry. Lemme see the cat. Humor me.”

The man of the house rose uncertainly and led his guests into a spacious living room anchored by a 54-inch, wall-mounted flat screen. Sitting beneath it was a large cat cleaning herself fastidiously. Cassie looked up, annoyed.

“Well, hey there,’ Mulder cooed, approaching. “Who’s the good kitty? Look at the big baby.”

“Mulder,’ Scully interrupted. “It’s a cat.”

“Yeah. C’mere, cat.” Cassie hissed, arching slightly. “Same to you, bit–, um, c’mere, girl. Mr. Francks, I’m going to need your assistance.”

“Cass, babe, huggies,’ Bryan called, embarrassed. The feline’s tail switched languidly, and she jumped into Francks’ arms.

“Thanks. Rossner, get the lab guys in here and have ’em take swabs from Kitty’s claws. Oh, and her mouth. OK, Mr. Francks?”

“Yeah, sure,” the man nodded vigorously.

“Great,” Mulder smiled, his stare lingering on Francks. “Sir, we’re also going to need a list of everyone who has or might have the combination to your garage keypad. For elimination purposes. Same with you and your family’s fingerprints. Tell the girls it’s a game, Rossner. And I need a large plastic tumbler.”

Bryan continued nodding and bustled to the kitchen, Cassie under his arm. “Got it,’ the homeowner shouted.

“OK. Now, fill it with iced tea. Or coke if there’s no tea.” Mulder turned to his nonplussed partner and Rossner. “I order a complete DNA series on the man’s pussy, and this is his reaction? And yes, Scully, I know I could have said cat.”

“No,’ Scully sighed. “I don’t think you could have. What’s this mean, Mulder?”

“Absolutely no idea. But I do want that pussy swabbed.”

“Stop that,’ Scully said through her teeth.

**

The blast, white hot and brief, had scorched the left and central anterior quadrants of Lucas Beltran’s corpse — mercifully, Dr. Scully had determined, COD had been caused by a cerebral hemorrhage possibly moments prior to the explosion. His back, the right side of his slightly turned face, and right arm — at least from shoulder to elbow — were untouched by flame. His right hand was laminated to his chest.

“Effectively laminated,’ Scully told Rossner, who had, surprisingly, scrubbed up for the autopsy. “Or perhaps vulcanized might be the proper term. The victim’s torso and forearm are coated in a charred but tacky substance that appears to be rubber or plastic. The material is particularly dense between his arm and his chest — if I had to guess, I’d say he was holding something.”

Rossner pulled down the mask he’d donned to suppress the odor of burnt flesh. “Something he was protecting? Even after he’d locked the killer out of the garage?”

Scully glanced over the ravaged corpse on the steel hospital table, tapped into years of medical and forensic training, and considered all alternatives.

“Dunno,’ the pathologist/investigator admitted.

**

This time, Mulder found the answer, before knowing the question.

“I turn it over and over in my mind,’ Krista Beltran said listlessly as the agent carefully and respectfully sorted through her dead son’s bedroom. A few JV and varsity trophies, as well as a National Honor Society plaque — Luke had been a well-rounded, seemingly solid middle-American teen. The iPad on his desk yielded nothing sordid or even pruriently adolescent — Luke’s browsing history yielded a lot of sports news sites and blogs, some colleges he’d been scouting, a few boyishly appropriate babe sites, but nothing beyond Maxim level.

The anomaly was a cluster of sites on invertebrate species, giving way to a list of crypto-zoology [l5]sites Mulder frequently consulted between more prurient stops. This had been in July; Luke had began surfing bios of prominent zoological researchers in early August before digging intensively into everything he could find on a Marshall Finfrock. Mulder noted the urls for later review.

“He was very popular, and very well-liked — there’s a big difference between the two when it comes to teens,’ the single mother continued, staring at an autographed Cal Ripken poster over Luke’s bed. “Everybody liked him — his classmates, his teachers, our neighbors. He shoveled out the older neighbors’ drives in the winter and volunteer-coached a special ed softball team at the junior high.”

“If it’s any consolation, Mrs. Beltran, we’re theorizing your son may have been the victim of an opportunistic killing — that he may have witnessed or discovered evidence of a crime and was murdered because of it,’ Mulder offered gently.

“Why would that be any consolation whatsoever?” Mrs. Beltran laughed harshly. She looked up, stricken and astonished. “Agent, I’m sorry, forgive me. I know you were trying to be kind just now.”

Mulder nodded. “You’re right, though — I guess it’s no consolation. But let me ask you — did Luke mention anybody at school, a friend, who might have been in trouble or into anything risky or illegal?”

The lanky blonde considered. “Luke had a wide variety of friends and acquaintances, and I like to think we had a trusting relationship, but he hadn’t told me anything like that. You think maybe drugs were involved?”

The agent hesitated. “If anything, I think it may be more complicated than that. Was your son at all political?”

Mrs. Beltran smiled wistfully, then it was gone. “Nothing beyond a few Bill Clinton and Sarah Palin jokes at the dinner table.”

“Was he into science — biology in particular?”

“He liked writing, English OK, but he found science and math “a major buzzkill,’ Why? Do you think that fire was some kind of experiment gone wrong?”

“Do you know the name Finfrock? Marshall Finfrock?”

Krista Beltran frowned, then shrugged. “I think that’s the name of the man who used to own the house down the street — the large Tudor-style place for sale? That could have been the owner’s father — I work in personnel at the university, and I think I’ve seen that name. This whole street used to be populated by professors, scientists, researchers — supposedly, Einstein used to stay with one of the profs from time to time. And Sheldon Paramov, the science fiction author, wrote that story Clooney did as a movie a few years back? He lived two doors down.”

Mulder looked up. Shel Paramov had been one of the more prominent postwar astrophysicists — a contender to put America in space — before he abruptly eschewed the academic life for a series of pioneering stories and novels and, eventually, at the height of his literary popularity, a solitary and messy suicide. The Clooney movie had reawakened the non-geek public to Paramov’s works — Spielberg and Cameron reportedly were talking about collaborating on The Incubator, a 1951 classic that already had spawned a network miniseries in the early “90s, a five-part graphic novel, and an attempted sequel by a now-obscure cyberpunk writer.

Mulder moved on to the low bookcase next to Luke’s bed. No sci-fi, much less any Paramov. No science fact, either. Several sports bios, a few recent-vintage yearbooks, a stack of SIs concealing, to Mulder’s nostalgic amusement, a couple of dog-eared Maxims. With Mulder, it had been a layer of Omnis’[l6] sandwiching the current month’s Playboy.

Mulder stopped as he began to climb to his feet. The row of sports bios were flush with the far larger yearbooks. On a hunch based on teen psychology, Mulder pulled the smaller volumes away to uncover Luke’s illicit reading material.

“Oh,’ he murmured, eyes widening.

“What? Oh, lord, what?”

“No, no.” Mulder displayed the aged paperbacks — Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, Rex Stout.

Krista’s eyes filled. “He loved mysteries, especially those old whodunits. Luke got started reading them to my mother in the nursing home. Probably didn’t want his pals to see them. Boys.” A trembling hand went to her eyes.

“Mrs. Beltran?” Mulder whispered.

“Yeah. Hey, do you need anything else? I have to, you know…’

“Sure, I’ll let myself out when I’m done.”

Mrs. Beltran nodded and disappeared. Mulder dropped onto the bed and began to read…

**

“Do I what?” Bryan Francks sputtered, inadvertently squirting a double dose of Turtle Wax onto the hood of his fire-engine Infiniti. He hurriedly scrambled for a towel as Mulder leaned, amused, on the car’s fender.

“Do you drive to work alone?”

“I need an alibi now?” the researcher squeaked. “I left for work at 7 yesterday and got home at, well, after the cops called about Luke. This is ludicrous — why would I kill that poor kid and set fire to my own garage?”

“Theoretically, you might do that to destroy any evidence you left at the murder scene,” Mulder mused. The sputtering began again, and the agent made a pacifying gesture. “You questioned the logic of the premise, and I was merely addressing a set of theoretical circumstances. But we don’t have any reason to believe those were the circumstances, and, besides, you know the combination to the garage door, which would appear to eliminate you from consideration. I just want to know if any of your coworkers ride to work with you.”

“No,” Bryan faltered, now thoroughly perplexed.

“How many swimming pools in the neighborhood?”

“Er, umm, ah, two. No, three. Hot tub count?”

“No, it does not. You know if any of your neighbors use a pool service?”

“What the f–?” Mulder lifted an eyebrow, and Bryan backpedaled. “Uh, yeah, I guess so. I’ve seen a van on the block a few times, some moronic name on the side. Oh, yeah, Chlorine Nation.”

“That is indeed moronic,” Mulder concurred.

**

He located the Chlorine Nation van about a half-block down. Mulder rounded the house beyond the van, finding neither a swimming pool nor even a technically qualified hot tub. The homes on either side were similarly pool-less. The three residences across the street shared an appalling lack of pool facilities.

Mulder camped.

Some 20 minutes later, a heavily muscled young man emerged from the rear of the original house wearing a T-shirt he had either stolen from, been gifted by, or attained through employment with Chlorine Nation. The man’s stupid grin, furtive glances across the neighboring yards, and self-satisfied strut — combined with a lack of pool tools or supplies — told Mulder all he needed to know.

“You,” he called menacingly as he stepped in front of the van. The man froze and, for a second, Mulder feared he would bolt. Instead, he beamed warily.

“Dude, you the husband?” the pool man inquired from the safety of the grass. “Cause I was just cleaning her filter.”

“I hope she enjoyed it.”

“OK, dude, just chill. It’s not an affair or nothing — I’m doin’ half the women on this block.”

“Dude, TMI,” Mulder groaned. He pulled his ID.

“Shit.”

“Yup. What’s your name?”

“Randall, sir. Randall York.”

Mulder crossed the lawn. “Well, Randall, I’m going to ask what, or who, you were doing yesterday afternoon.”

“I was servicing the Freelings. I mean, the Freelings’ pool. Shit, old Mrs. Freeling’s like 75 or something. I’m no freak. Shit. Is this about that kid got killed down the street?”

“You know him?”

“Little. I mean, we worked at the Dairy Queen together before I got this gig. But I don’t know him, like, well enough to kill him.”

“You got an invoice, a call sheet, anything that will verify you were servicing the Freelings?”

Randall blinked. “It was a follow-up call. Not official or anything. I just like to make sure my customers are satisfied after the work is done.”

“I bet. OK, where’s this Freeling place? Randall?”

“Yeah. OK. See, it’s like this. What I said earlier about Mrs. Freeling? She’s like a really well-preserved 75, you understand?”

Mulder stared at the pool man, then jerked his head toward the van. “Open it up, Randall.”

The young man sighed loudly and walked slowly to his vehicle. He glanced back at Mulder with a weak smile, Mulder smiled back, and Randall yanked the rear doors open.

The FBI agent peered about the interior, recognizing many of the tools, paraphernalia, and lotions that, to the best of his Internet-honed knowledge, were not used in the aquatic recreation industry.

“Just how many ‘filters’ are you ‘cleaning’ around the neighborhood, Randall?” Mulder smirked.

**

“So, to recap,” Rossner deadpanned. “You spent the day reading old mystery novels, interrogating Bryan Francks — oh, yeah, he called; asked if you were mentally stable, and nabbed a notorious male hooker and fraudulent poolboy.”

“Well, sure, you put it like that…,” Mulder drawled. Scully, still in scrubs, shook her head.

The Homeland Security agent nodded. “Well, given Walt Skinner’s endorsement of your investigative abilities, I assume all this is part of some unorthodox overall strategy.”

“Luke Beltran was a fan of whodunits — locked rooms, hidden motives, family secrets, that kind of thing. His favorite was Ellery Queen — great mysteries, especially the ones in the ‘40s, but mostly out-of-print today. But here’s the thing — one of Queen’s specialties was the dying clue, where the victim tries to identify his killer usually through some symbolic clue or obscure reference.”

“So you think Beltran was trying to tell us something,” Scully frowned.

“Yup,” Mulder said. He leafed through a folder on Rossner’s temporary desk and tossed several photos to his partner. Scully peered at the crime scene shots. “Luke knows he’s dying; he’s locked his killer outside, but he wants whoever finds him to know who killed him. He looks around the garage for something, a clue. Then he sees it. You can see the blood spatter where Luke crawled to the shelf, maybe six feet away. And does something totally incomprehensible. He pulls a box off the garage shelf — a box full of swimming gear.”

Mulder reached over and tapped the top photo. Amid the fire damage and forensic markers, a cardboard box lay on its side, brightly-colored contents spilling onto the concrete floor. On one side, in neat red block letters, was a single word.

“‘Pool,’” Scully murmured. “That’s why you harassed the poolboy — ah, gigolo? But why the questions about Bryan riding with…? Oh. Carpooling.”

“One of Bryan’s coworkers wouldn’t have known the garage combination. And if we’re looking for someone who might’ve wanted to hide some sensitive secret or evidence, one of the scientists at the university might be a good candidate. Still might be, though Bryan, like most great men or world-class douchebags, rides alone.

“I checked Luke’s recreational and nocturnal activities — he didn’t play pool, didn’t hang out in pool halls. According to his buds, he wasn’t into gambling — no World Series pool at school, no illegal sports book at the local Mickey D’s. Luke was neither dating a secretary from one of the local office pools nor were he or his mother covered under a health insurance pool.”

“And I squandered the whole day pouring[l7] through forensics evidence and taking tissue samples,” Scully muttered.

Mulder smiled politely. “Well, I’m sure you must’ve found something interesting in all that time.”

His partner favored him with a homicidal glare, and Rossner looked away. “As a matter of fact, I did find some deep, parallel scratches on Beltran’s arm, under the burn injuries. Ragged, no obvious tooling marks from a blade or other weapon. As the killer seemed inclined toward bludgeoning, I doubt they were defensive wounds.”

Mulder’s brow arched, Scullylike. “I think they were defensive wounds, Scully. But not from a human attacker. You saw those bite marks on the landscaping glove Luke put in that trash bag with the cat. He already had the glove on when she tried to maul him — Cassie was protecting her catch, trying to keep him away from what she’d found. My guess is we’ll find some additional evidence on the Franck’s front porch or back patio. That’s where Sulu used to leave her prizes.”

“Sulu?” Rossner inquired.

“The family Siamese — I got the naming rights, and it was 1967. Ironically, he did exhibit some sexually ambiguous behavior toward the neighborhood toms. Sorry. Sulu left us dead sparrows, chipmunks, squirrels, whatever he could find in the woods behind the house, always on the welcome mat. Typical feline behavior — according to zoologists, they’re displaying their hunting prowess. It’s a gesture of affection. In fact, trainers say not to let them see you take the carcass away — they’ll bring more.

“But Cassie didn’t behave true to form. The objective is to drop the gift and leave. Cassie became savagely violent with Luke when he started to throw away whatever she’d brought him.”

“Ace Mulder; Pet Profiler,” Scully mused. ‘First of all, Mulder, the tissue inside that empty garbage bag is the only evidence so far that Luke was disposing of a carcass. And maybe the altercation between Beltran and the cat occurred while Beltran was disposing of the remains — Cassie may have tried to take the carcass from him in the garage. And even if your scenario is true, what relevance does it have to the murder?”

Mulder shrugged. “It’s anomalous behavior — another thing that doesn’t fit.”

Scully’s Blackberry warbled, and she strayed to a corner of the office.

“I have to be honest,’ Rossner said. “As unusual the circumstances are here — and I still would like to know what caused that explosion — this is shaping up more and more as something outside DHS’ purview. Yours too.”

“I dunno,” Mulder murmured. “I mean, I don’t think this was any act of terrorism. But if the theory I’m formulating is correct, I want to stay on this a while longer.”

Scully slipped her cell back into her bag, her brow wrinkled in concern, her lips pursed anxiously.

“That was the lab with the DNA results on that tissue from the trash bag and the scrapings from the cat’s teeth. They were a match. To each other.” The agent looked at Mulder. “But not to anything else.”

Rossner frowned. “What do you mean, to anything else””

“The chromosomal structure, the genetic sequences, hell, most of the amino acids in those samples — they don’t match anything in the lab’s or Quantico’s animal or plant databases, or, I suspect, any living organism on Earth.”

The room was silent save the buzz of activity in the squadroom beyond.

“All right,” Mulder finally erupted, pumping a fist. “Game on!”

**

“Oh, shit,” Bryan Francks groaned as he pulled the door open. He turned and shouted. “It’s him again. Stay in the kitchen.”

“Some folks just don’t like the drop-in,” Mulder sighed. “Bry, wonder if Agents Rossner and Scully and I might come in for a moment? Talk about your cat?”

“Jesus with the cat again?” Bryan yelped.

“You’ve had Cassie how long now? A few years?”

“This is what my tax dollars go for?” Bryan demanded of Rossner.

“Bryan,” Mulder leaned in. “Why don’t you tell us what the cat’s been dragging in? Yesterday can’t have been the first time she’s dropped one of her little gifts on the doorstep.”

The researcher’s jaw dropped, and he stepped back. “What was he do–?” he mumbled, a flash of anger in his eyes. The Bryan eyed the three feds and stepped forward. “What the hell gifts are you talking about?”

“You’re pissed off, aren’t you? That Luke destroyed the body. The latest one. You wanted to preserve it, but I’m guessing Luke didn’t want your wife or daughters to see it, or maybe it was just too frightening to deal with. How many have there been, Bryan? Where are they?”

Bryan slightly receding jaw tightened. “Uh uh. Enough. I have rights — you guys don’t harass us any more without a warrant.”

Rossner placed a hand on Mulder’s arm. “Mr. Francks, you know who I work for, right? You ever heard of a man called Yusef Khalid?”

“No,” Bryan stammered.

“My point exactly.” Rossner locked Bryan’s eyes for several seconds, the cicadas and crickets cheering him on.

Francks blinked, and he stumbled aside. “Er, come on in.”

**

The rec room was an exhibit out of the Smithsonian — Middle-American Testosterone; Competitive Sports and the Postmodern Man-cave. Red Sox paraphernalia lined the walls and filled every spare niche. Baseball-themed beer mirrors bounced light and images behind the basement bar. A set of three antique seats from Fenway — or very good reproductions — were bolted to the floor between two leather theater chairs, before the largest HD screen Mulder had ever coveted.

“I want them back, intact,” a newly subdued Bryan Francks nonetheless whined as he led them to an upright freezer in an unfinished side. “My pet brought them to my house, which makes them my property.”

“How long has this been going on?” Mulder inquired.

Bryan regarded him, evaluating his constitutional rights. “Since May, I guess. I don’t know where she gets them — there’s a park about two blocks away, with a pond and some heavy thickets, but I couldn’t find anything.”

“Your wife and daughters know about this?” Scully asked.

“Ah, Jenny’s been on my ass constantly to get rid of ‘em. I told her, you get rid of that furball-yacking beast — that shut her up. Britney actually found the first one — screamed her head off, had to get her a night light.”

“And yet you’ve accessorized your rec room with them,” Rossner murmured drily. “Let’s see what scared your little girl so much.”

“Don’t have to be snarky,” Bryan muttered, fumbling with his keyring. “I put a lock on it, see? For the girls.”

The Master Lock discharged, and Francks tugged the door open.

“Dear God,” Scully said.

“Cool,” Mulder breathed.

“What the fu–?” Rossner whispered.

Two dozen large Ziploc bags filled the center rack of the freezer, sandwiched between a selection of steaks and chops and a shelf of Ben and Jerry’s and Klondike bars. Through the clear, slightly frost-rimed plastic, the agents caught glimpses of biology at its most hellishly imaginative: Leathery, iridescent, armored hides; flagella, tentacles, bristles, stalks; orifices that suggested mouths and, in one case, a single eye that consumed half the ovoid mass of Cassie’s latest find.

“Bitchin’,” Mulder cooed.

**

“So what the hell do we have here?” Rossner demanded as he completed the last of a half-dozen hushed, staccato calls.

Mulder watched the last in a series of bio-suited feds remove the last of the titanium cryogenic canisters with the last of Bryan’s nightmarish collection. “Superficial examination would suggest a staggeringly wide range of lifeforms that exist nowhere on this planet that Man has ever [l8]explored. And wicked awesome ones, too, I might add.”

“Allow me to clarify. Do you have any theories or even just wild-ass guesses as to the origin of these things? You think they came from somewhere Man’s never explored.”

“Extremophiles,” Mulder suggested. “Organisms that live under conditions no ordinary organism could withstand. You ever seen video of a flashlight fish, an angler fish, a giant isopod, any of the species from the greatest depths of the ocean? They’ve developed adaptive mechanisms that help them cope with a nearly complete lack of light or photosynthesis, and to most untrained eyes, they look totally alien. Like totally. Scientists have found microbes in a liquid asphalt lake, in the Atacama Desert, under hundreds of feet of Antarctic ice. Some organisms can even survive high doses of radiation.

“But I don’t think that’s what these are. Too big, too diverse, too colorful. And even deep sea species share morphology and other characteristics with more familiar species. Same goes for mutations — chemical- or radiation-related changes like these would have taken eons, millennia, and evidence would have been detected by now in a densely populated area like this. Unless these mutations occurred in a remote, isolated ecosystem with its own flora and fauna.”

“We are near a major university,” Scully noted. “Could one of the zoologists from the school have brought these specimens back from that isolated ecosystem?”

“And kept it secret? Look at Bryan — willing to creep his wife and kids out just to score some academic glory. Shit — he’d have aced Lindsay Lohan out of two weeks of media limelight. Nah.”

“Well, then,” Rossner inhaled. “Let me ask you this. Do you think these organisms could be manmade? Bioengineered? At the risk of sounding paranoid, as some kind of bioagent?”

Mulder shrugged. “We’ll have to autopsy the little suckers, see if they’re equipped with bio-lasers or able to eat 100 times their body mass in Al Qaida insurgents.”

“Or Marines,” Rossner amended pointedly. Then he grinned mournfully. “Shit, guess I do sound paranoid. Dr. Scully, bon appétit.”

**

“Yeek!”

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Dana Scully glanced anxiously around the special lab Rossner and Co. had co-opted from the university. Scully had lifted trace from a deceased lycanthrope; sliced tissues from a gray, goggle-eyed extraterrestrial in a makeshift morgue; scrutinized dozens of deadly viruses and bacteria, both exotic and manufactured. But when the thawed creature — affectionately dubbed No. 7 — began to thump, the scientist reverted to adolescence.

Thumped was the only term that seemed to apply. The roughly lilac, pentagonal organism had begun to quiver under the lab lights. An appendage similar to a fleshy spatula jutted from a previously unseen orifice and swatted rhythmically at the steel tray. The creature’s drumbeat accelerated as Scully’s respiratory rate leveled — she leaned in cautiously, and the drumming abruptly stopped. The appendage dropped to the table, and Scully gawped as the lilac flesh went ashen gray and deflated.

Cryogenics of the primitive sort practiced by Bryan Francks normally wreaked havoc on the cellular structure of any organism, but this, this whatever, had survived the basement freezer only to die of…what? Determining COD here was like trying to pop the hood of a NASA shuttle using a VW manual — the bodily systems here had little relation to any annelid, frog, hog, or human Scully had ever dissected. No obvious external trauma, no internal hemorrhaging — at least, to Scully’s eye. None of the 17 specimens she’d examined so far had betrayed the cause of their demise.

Not that Scully hadn’t made some progress. She and Pradesh — the DHA biologist who’d been flown in that morning — had been able to start constructing a pecking order, a food chain, based on anatomical complexity, functional adaptation of bodily organs and structures, and bits of species found in the “stomachs’ of other species.

“You screamed, Agent?” Pradesh called in a pleasant Indo-Iowan accent. He placed Scully’s Diet Pepsi on the tool tray beside her.

“We had one, then we lost it,” she sighed, nodding toward the late drummer. “If I had to guess, I think maybe it died of asphyxiation — it had a sudden burst of some kind of metabolic activity, then just arrested. In fact, given the lack of injury in any of these specimens, I wonder if they just, well, failed. Like beaching a trout or salting a slug.”

“The ecosystem killed them?” Pradesh frowned. “I don’t have a better answer, but if you’re saying they couldn’t survive in our environment, then what the hell environment did they come from? The fact that this one could withstand Joe Yuppie’s Freeze-King backs up your partner’s idea that these things may be extremophilic. The metabolic acceleration you talked about could be some kind of post-hibernation jumpstart, I guess. Maybe the species has adapted to outer space travel. Would have to be heat-resistant, too, if it got past the Earth’s atmosphere.’

“So, what, they piggybacked on a meteorite shower?”

“I don’t know,” he drawled. “This diversity of species, it seems kind of unlikely. Unless — and I’m no astronomer — some kind of planetary explosion, collision, whatever, scattered these things into space and somehow they make it across a galaxy or two and they land on what may be the only other inhabited planet in the universe.”

Scully remained silent. Pradesh misinterpreted it as skeptical dismissal, and grinned. “Like I said, I’m no astronomer. Once the DNA results come back, we’ll know more. Oh, I may have one answer for you, by the way. About the fire that burned your garage victim. A few of the creatures had these bizarre internal bladders, I guess you’d call them — I think maybe they use them for buoyancy, flotation. I’ve found structures similar to those in marine invertebrates and fish in several specimens, so I think maybe these marine, too. Anyway, the bladders were full of hydrogen. Your guy — or the killer — was burning one of these things, and my guess is it went off like a mini-bomb.”

Scully nodded as Pradesh eagerly returned to his tissue samples. The insight cast no more light on the untimely death of Luke Beltran, but it cleared some of the underbrush, providing a potentially clearer picture of the murder.

Whatever that wound up being. Could it be the murder and Beltran’s discovery were purely coincidental — a teen feud over a girl erupting just as the victim was eliminating evidence of an organism never before seen by man? By now, Mulder had reasoned — and Scully concurred — that Beltran’s destructive act was one of kindness. Working around the Franck’s house all summer, the boy likely had run across a number of Cassie’s “toys.” Or perhaps the braggadocio Francks had been unable to resist the opportunity to share his collection with Beltran.

While interviewing the shaken Mrs. Franck, Scully had spotted one of Britney’s crayon-and-construction paper pieces on the dining room table. The girl’s mother was clearly frazzled, fearful; the girl’s artwork, depicting a creature Maurice Sendak couldn’t have conjured in his most fevered dreams, needed no explanation. Beltran had wanted to spare the children yet another nightmare of their father’s oblivious making. And someone — someone who seemingly had no knowledge of Franck’s Circus of Icebox Monstrosities — had hoped to ensure Beltran would never share his find with anyone.

Scully cleared her mind of murder and went off to retrieve the affectionately nicknamed, beaked-and-tentacled No. 34.

3. The Odd Tale of Master Jerome

Jerome had, like the FBI agent across the interview table, graduated cum laude from Oxford. The young biochemist had no knowledge of this, and, truth be told, would never have suspected this impertinent, boorish copper of any more than a community college education. The kind they advertised during the morning hours, between the talk shows and judge shows and info-adverts, for lazy unemployed layabouts struck by a sudden impulse toward self-betterment.

Jerome knew better — he was well-aware the FBI required university-trained lads, and this Mulder fellow appeared to have something of an ill-groomed native wit about him. Jerome nonetheless indulged his fantasy of the Neanderthal policeman as a divertissement, an amusement to distract him from — and gain some emotional leverage over — this ignominious situation. They’d summarily called him away from his lab without a word, with no indication why he had been singled out in some investigation that seemingly involved the death of a local teenager. He and his colleagues had been thoroughly vetted by the U.S. authorities, given the sensitive nature of much of their research. But, please, Kindred in molecular biology had been caught twice perusing porn of a particularly distasteful nature on the college’s dime, and that Muslim lab associate, well, ‘nuff said. Why me?, he demanded, silently outraged.

“Dr. Poole?” Agent Mulder prompted. Jerome emerged from his woolgathering. “I was reading your circum vitae just before you got here, and I couldn’t help notice you’d published several papers on genetic engineering and environmental mutation.”

Despite himself, the young scientist had developed a robust academic ego in his five years out of Oxford, and he now straightened his somewhat round shoulders. “I’ve had a few pieces in the journals.”

“Cool,” Mulder smiled. “I just got a shout-out on the Cryptozookeeper Blog last week.”

Surprisingly, Jerome’s nostrils did not flare nor sniff disdainfully. No tightening of his narrow shoulders; no veins or daggers popping from his horse-like countenance.

“Fox Mulder?” The scientist piped. “You’re Mulder? You really believe Nessie is an invertebrate? I mean, of course, the thesis is far from original, but your analysis was, well, particularly insightful.”

“You into cryptids?” Mulder now grinned, irony giving way to boyish camaraderie.

“Didn’t boast much about it in government school — always good for a thumping, you know,” Jerome chuckled, shoulders relaxing. “What do you make of those lupine sightings in Senegal — some sort of species variant or just bosh?”

An hour later, over Pepsis and chipotle barbecue chips, the conversation came around to Jerome’s other major interest — the local history, particularly that of the university and its colorful past.

“You, know, just down the block from where that poor lad was killed, is the home where Sheldon Paramov lived. You know, the famed sci-fi writer? Another guilty pleasure of youth. Imaginative stuff, smashing really — all the more so given the factual grounding of many of his stories.”

“Paramov used to teach, right? At the university?” Mulder popped another chip. “Quit in the ‘50s to write full-time.”

“Rumor was he ran afoul of the whole McCarthy business — Red Scare, what, him being a second-generation Russian. But a few of the older chaps on campus, grad students mainly when Paramov was still on faculty, they say he became reclusive, morose, let his grooming and, well, hygiene go before handing in his papers in ’55. One fellow even suggests he may have had some involvement in the disappearance of one of the associate professors a few years before, possibly left out of guilt.”

Mulder perked, chipotle and barbecue powder floating to the interview table. “Disappearance? They ever find a body?”

“Never,” Jerome leaned in, with morbid relish. “Lad left his girl at the campus canteen supposedly to go back to the lab, but never showed up at the Science Building or, for that matter, anywhere ever again. News accounts said he was a straight-arrow — dad was a Presbyterian pastor, the lad sponsored several campus clothing drives for the poor. Coppers combed the area for months, but no hide nor hair surfaced. Mystery to this day. That and the business about Marshall Finfrock were part of why I was drawn to the university.”

Mulder avoided choking on his Pepsi. “The business about Marshall Finfrock.”

“Finfrock was great chums with Paramov, despite Paramov being an astrophysicist and Finfrock a biologist. Sometimes, the hard scientists and the life scientists don’t gel so easily, so to speak. But I digress. Professor Finfrock committed suicide one night, several months after Paramov left the university. Well, I should say it’s believed he committed suicide. The circumstances were rather odd, one might say.”

“How so?” Mulder was reverting to the impulse to throttle the foppish biochemist.

“Well, the professor had, to put it indelicately, blown his brains out. The local police had no doubt he’d shot himself, and there was even a suicide note, undisputedly[l9] in his own hand. ‘God forgive me,’ it stated, simply. Well, given the mysterious disappearance of the associate professor and Paramov’s odd funk and departure, there apparently was some sordid speculation that Finfrock and Paramov were engaged in a sexual scandal of sorts, possibly luring younger faculty for some rough sport, if you’ll pardon me.”

“Yeah, sure,” Mulder mumbled, absently.

“But that wasn’t the odd bit, you know. When the coppers found Finfrock, he’d been, well, gnawed.”

“Gnawed?” Mulder squeaked.

“As best the authorities could reason. Of course, forensics was a highly imprecise science at the time, but the coroner’s report concluded the professor’s foot had been removed by an animal of unknown origin. They suspected a canine of some size and ferocity, although Finfrock owned no such creature and, reportedly, the house was locked at the time. Of course, that last bit may be the stuff of urban legends — ripping good mystery, you know?”

“Quite,” Mulder nodded, tripping momentarily back to his Oxford days. “So, what was Finfrock seeking forgiveness for? Buggering grad assistants? Plagiarizing research data?”

“Loads of speculation there,” Poole said. He frowned. “Actually, an astonishing bonanza of speculation, considering the relative obscurity of the man and the case.”

Mulder leaned back, brow furrowing at Poole’s observation. “You have any idea what he was working on when he died? Finfrock?”

“Well, that’s rather the shame, from an academic standpoint. Have you heard of Stanley L. Miller and Harold C. Urey?”

“University of Chicago?” Mulder perked, tapping his encyclopedic knowledge of all things arcane. “The Miller-Urey experiment?”

“Quite.”

The agent unconsciously licked his lips. “Dr. Poole?”

“Oh, Jerome, please.”

“Jerome, you want to share a pint? Maybe lunch, my treat? Isn’t there a pub just off-campus, supposed to be good?”

“Actually…,” Jerome smiled.

**

“And you, honey?” the waitress grinned, turning to Scully.

“I think the small salad,” the agent murmured with a tight, cordial smile. “And a diet coke, please?”

“Cool,” the server chirped, pivoting and heading back for the bar. Jerome and Mulder followed her journey intently.

“Hooters,” Scully stated.

“Quite delightful fare, better than one might expect for the establishment’s obvious marketing appeal,” Jerome informed her, beatifically.

She nodded, and glanced across the table. Her partner’s eyes were darting from one orange-clad backside to another, as if he were playing the fifth level of some M-rated Pong. “Mulder, I’m over here, and up about two feet.”

“Miller and Urey wanted to simulate hypothetical conditions present on early Earth, to see what kind of environment would be needed to generate life. This was in 1953. The Frankenstein Bros. sealed water, methane, ammonia, and hydrogen — major components of Earth’s primordial atmosphere — inside a sterile array of glass tubes and flasks. One flask was half-full of water and another contained a pair of electrodes. The water was heated to add vapor to the chemical cocktail, and the resulting gases were circulated through the habitrail. The flask with the heated water represented water on the Earth’s surface and the recycled water vapor water evaporated from lakes and seas, before transferring into the atmosphere and forming rain.”

“Can I freshen you up?”

Mulder looked up, belatedly into the eyes, of Erin, the Amazonian server, bearing a flask of liquid water. “Yeah. That would be really great. Please.”

“You, sweetie?” Erin asked Jerome as she leaned over Mulder’s tumbler.

“Mm. Hm,” Jerome swallowed, smiling inanely.

“Love that necklace,” Erin beamed at Scully as her arm brushed Jerome’s shoulder and he twitched.

“Thanks,” Scully sighed. Erin topped her glass, and departed. Mulder and Jerome eagerly sipped their water.

“If I change into my running bra,” Scully finally suggested, “do you think you could tell me more about this groundbreaking experiment?”

“Sparks were fired between the electrodes through the water vapors to simulate lightning storms, and then the vapors were cooled so the water could condense and trickle back into the first water flask in a continuous cycle. At the end of one week of continuous operation, Miller and Urey observed that as much as 10 to 15 percent of the carbon within the system was now in the form of organic compounds. Two percent of the carbon had formed amino acids, including 13 of the 22 used to make proteins in living cells. Glycine was the major component they found.”

Scully’s jaded expression disappeared. “Glycine. We found traces of glycine in every specimen from Francks’ refrigerator, along with several exotic amino chains we couldn’t ID. It would seem to suggest these animals — if they are animals, in our sense — are of extraterrestrial origins.”

“Whoa, sweetie,” Mulder interrupted. “Let my esteemed colleague pick up the story.”

“Sure. Fine. Whatever.”

Jerome glanced anxiously between the twinkling Mulder and the sullen Scully, then took a breath. “So, Dr. Finfrock became fascinated — obsessed, some say — by the Miller-Urey experiment. He replicated the study, with nearly identical results, then ramped up the conditions of the experiment in an attempt to assemble the resulting amino acids into an actual lifeform. A microbial organism, of sorts. This was the ‘50s, mind you. But Miller-Urey appeared to possess Finfrock.

“The local press got hold of his work, and, if I understand, raised something of a row. These were conservative, rather turbulent times, and the editor questioned Finfrock’s ‘playing God’ with the building blocks of life. The local clergy got into the act, and the university temporarily bowed to pressure and curtailed the good doctor’s funding.

“And that’s when it goes a bit sideways. A few months after the big flap, Finfrock emerges with a new infusion of funding, a cadre of new lab assistants, and cutting-edge equipment.”

Scully glanced at Mulder, who nodded. The pair knew all too well from whence that type of capital and clout arose. Jerome was oblivious to the shift in atmosphere.

“The work continued in relative obscurity for the next several months, reportedly with no significant new results. The story goes that Finfrock became increasingly eccentric during this period. And that, I expect, is why his funding as abruptly dried up. The lab was dismantled, his crew disbursed throughout the departments, and Finfrock consigned to more mundane crop research.”

“Here we go,” Erin chirped, a huge platter balanced on her palm. Scully jumped. The trio sat in polite silence as sandwiches, onion loaves, and salads were distributed.

“He found something,” Scully concluded once the statuesque Hooter Girl had vanished.

“Something Uncle Sam wasn’t expecting,” Mulder nodded.

“I’m at a bit of a loss,” Jerome sputtered. “Finfrock’s work was a complete bollix. He toiled in ignominious obscurity until the night he spattered his brains across his paneled den. Quite sorry, Agent Scully.”

“I’ve heard and seen worse, Dr. Poole,” she said drily. She turned to Mulder. “You’re thinking Finfrock took his work underground.”

“Thus the mystery surrounding his suicide and ‘gnawing,”” Mulder said. “His federal funding dried up, but he was too driven to let it go. The experiment wouldn’t have been too costly to replicate in a home lab. The only major obstacle is that the whole thing is totally, absolutely, inarguably impossible.”

“The kind of genetic knowledge, much less the necessary molecular manipulation technologies wouldn’t even be conceivable for the next 20 years,” she agreed. “There’s no way he could have engineered an organism with the sophistication to ‘gnaw’ his foot off.”

“Excuse me?” Jerome stammered, Erin now a galaxy away. “Are you suggesting Marshall Finfrock was engaged in biotech experimentation? In, what, 1955? That’s bloody science fiction.”

A broad grin spread across Mulder’s face. “Very good, Jerome. Very good. When did Paramov come into the picture? With Finfrock, I mean?”

“I’m sure I don’t know,” Jerome murmured. “I could try to find out. Might I ask, though, why this is relevant? If what you’re saying is true, this is historic, monumental…”

Scully looked to Mulder with alarm. The grin dropped from his face, and he narrowed his eyes.

“Jerome,” the agent said gravely. “You ever heard of Yusef Khalid?”

The Brit frowned. “I knew a Khalid back at Cornell. Molecular biologist. Bit of a wanker, if I recall. Why do you ask?”

“Must be in the delivery,” Mulder sighed.

**

“Subtle,” Mulder observed.

“Well,” Agent Rossner shrugged as he watched a pair of techs in biohazard suits draw samples from the park pond. “I’d hoped for a more nuanced approach, but my AD insisted we do a total sweep of the park, total evacuation. It’s the only local ecosystem capable of harboring a biological event like this. We told the press and the city we were concerned about a listeria outbreak. As you said, subtle.”

“So what have you found so far?” Scully asked, eyeing a pair of cyclists gawking from the nearby tennis courts.

“Well, the squirrel population seems rather unnerved by the intrusion. The indigenous pigeons apparently have no respect for our mission, and from the condom count in the thicket back there, I’d say park security’s kinda slack. Anything relevant to our investigation? Naw. So let me ask again: Where in hell did these things come from?”

Mulder hesitated. “I’m thinking we’re talking about some homegrown monstrosities.” He described the Miller-Urey experiment and Finfrock’s followup research. “You got the clearance to dig back into the tombs? CIA, maybe something blacker than that?”

“Holy shit,” Rossner groaned. “Sounds like some kind of goofy TV show. But I’ll see what I can find out. You think this Paramov was involved?”

“He joined the faculty right after Finfrock got his new funding. No classes, pure research. And no official connection to Finfrock’s work. But the two became BFFs. Finfrock pulled a Hemingway, and Paramov became a whack job sci-fi writer. I think whatever they got into was too much for their minds, their consciences, to bear.”

“But it’s nearly 60 years later,” Rossner protested. “Whatever they discovered has stayed hidden for a pretty long time. You saying Finfrock made these things, and they’re just now getting out of the house?”

Scully and Rossner listened to the sparrows singing as Mulder stood silently, staring off toward the nearby suburban homes.

“Know a good realtor around here?” he finally inquired.

**

“Bought the place right before the economy went south — this and a half-dozen other properties,” Gary Huggins lamented, turning the key and shoving the huge oak door open. The agents stepped into the foyer, surveying the quietly elegant — if hollow and dust-covered — digs of the late Marshall[l10] Finfrock. Intricate woodwork lined the ceilings and doorways; French doors led into a sunlit den to the right. “So, can you tell me why the FBI’s interested. Unless you guys…?”

“She doesn’t like built-ins,” Mulder informed the CEO and sole employee of Locations Unlimited. Huggins’ eyebrow rose. “Just yankin’ you, Dude. Can’t discuss the case — Homeland Security’s involved.”

“You know, there’s been at least six owners since Finfrock blew his– committed suicide. I’ve been working here myself for 2 1/2 years, and I’ve never found a single secret panel or hidden stairway.” Huggins chortled at his own joke, met Mulder’s indulgent smile and Scully’s dead-eyed stare. “Anyway, don’t know what you’re looking for, but have at it. Gimme a call when you’re ready to lock up.”

As it turned out, the agents had at it for two hours. As the affable Gary had warned, the two floors, dormer attic, and semi-refinished basement yielded nothing. As Mulder secured the heavily whitewashed basement door, he paused, then ran his hand along the right edge.

“Flash me, Baby,” he directed. Scully complied, sighing, training her mag-lite. “That look like wood putty under there? Like somebody sealed over some nail or screw holes?”

“I guess. Maybe there were kids in the house — parents didn’t want them to take a header down the stairs.”

“Except there are about four different patched-over areas, and it looks like they were all patched at the same time. No sign of lock hardware, either. Whoever fortified the basement seemingly didn’t want to keep people from getting downstairs — I think they wanted to keep someone — or something — from getting out. We need to get contacts on the past owners, nail down when this door was doctored.”

“Mulder, you really think Finfrock had a genetics lab downstairs? That he created something he had to bolt the door to keep in?”

“Always the glass half-full,” Mulder moaned. “If he went underground with his research, his house would’ve been the obvious place. Maybe that missing assistant prof signed up for more than he counted on — maybe he wound up the entrée du jour for one of Dr. Finfrock’s Phantasmagorical Critters.”

“Yeah, that’s the logical explanation. Good luck finding the evidence — it’s only been about 55 years.”

“OK, so you’re not crazy about the place. Let’s keep looking.”

Scully spanked dust from her sleeves. “Where?”

“I’ve located another campus-convenient family-pleaser just down the block. Original owner was a kindly Russian old sci-fi writer. I hear the curb appeal is to die for[l11].”

**

Irina Paramov could have been anywhere from 60 to 120 — she was nearly cadaverish, hair flour-white and pulled tightly into a bun under a straw sombrero, but when she glanced up from the rosebushes lining her front walk, Mulder was momentarily taken aback by the clear, sparkling eyes of a woman half her age.

Paramov climbed agilely to her feet, hand clippers dangling casually from long, withered fingers, a smile transforming her lined face. “And you would be the FBI people. Don’t look so astonished — the yuppies may stick to their knitting, or their Blackberries, I guess, but word still travels quickly through the older folk in the neighborhood. Nothing much else to do here in Stepford during the days.” The smile receded, the blue eyes grew darker. “You’re here about that boy who was murdered the other day. A tragedy, though I suppose that’s true of any young death. Well, c’mon; let’s get out of the sun — I’ve had six cancers burned off this summer alone.”

The interior of the former Sheldon Paramov home was cool and economically furnished, with none of the frills or knick-knacks the agents had expected to see. Irina Paramov brought out Pepsis for herself and her guests, and they settled into a trio of leather chairs in the living room.

“We are investigating Luke Beltran’s death, but the case has taken us in some unusual directions,” Scully began cautiously. “Your father lived in this house for several years, correct?”

“Before he met Mother. He refused to let it go — it sat vacant for decades before I inherited it. Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan, Oppenheimer — they all sat in this room, chatting with Father about red dwarfs and cold fusion and the nature of time. This was before he threw in with that madman down the street.”

“Marshall Finfrock?” Mulder inquired.

Paramov’s eyes burned. “He drew him into something — something monstrous. To his dying day, Father refused to discuss what haunted him, what he’d done to drive him from a life of science into a world of fantasy. Sometimes I believe Finfrock took the easy way out. But all this was a half-century ago. How in the world does this relate to that child’s death?”

“We think Luke Beltran somehow happened onto something — something to do with your father and Dr. Finfrock’s research — and may have been killed to cover it up. I guess I’m wondering if you’d kept any records, journals, notes from that time.”

Irina Paramov studied Mulder, glanced out the front bay window. With a long, resigned sigh, she pushed up from the chair. “The Sheldon Paramov Memorial Library is downstairs. You’re welcome to it.”

Paramov’s papers occupied a half-dozen packing boxes along the south wall of an unfinished basement. The boxes were stacked with mathematical precision; the contents were a snarl of history, intellect, imagination, achievement, and loss. A discarded novel draft included a grocery list bookmark; junked watches shared space with a chipped Hugo Award. The astrophysicist/author had searched so desperately for significance, for meaning that all things eventually had lost much of any meaning.

“Wow,” Scully heard Mulder exclaim as she struggled to decipher a coffee-stained napkin filled with mathematical equations. She glanced up to see him displaying a slim volume with a colorful, homicidal dustjacket.

“The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler, first edition,” he reported reverently. “Greatest private eye saga ever written. Looks like it’s hardly been cracked.” Mulder paused. “Hey, Finfrock killed himself in ’54, right? That’s when this was published.” He opened the cover and displayed an aged paper sticker behind the dustjacket flap. “‘Ex libris Marshall Finfrock.’ Finfrock must have left this to Paramov. They were best buds, but from what I can see, the book’s the only thing of Finfrock’s he kept. Looks like only about 10 pages — 14 — have been turned. Why? What’s the special significance?”

Scully had seemed oblivious to Mulder’s ponderings, instead staring at the dust cover. Now she turned the book in her partner’s hands. A single and singular rust-brown spatter marred the otherwise pristine wrapper. “There’s your answer. This was probably the last thing Finfrock read before he committed suicide.”

Mulder plopped down onto a box. “So Finfrock buys and cracks open a brand-new novel, settles in to enjoy some hardboiled prose, then blows his cerebral cortex into oblivion. Something amiss here, Watson?”

“One of your testicles, if you refer to me as Watson again. So either Finfrock’s suicide was impulsive, or…”

“He was murdered. I’m going with the first. I think something got out of the basement that night, and Finfrock either couldn’t live with himself or felt a lead lozenge to the skull was preferable to being Homo sapiens tartare for a hungry hell-critter.”

“Give me the Chandler,” Scully said through her teeth. “Now.”

As she grabbed at the book, a small slip of white pasteboard capered to the cement floor. Mulder retrieved it and, as he read the card’s antiquated 8-point typeface, grew silent.

“Mulder?”

He looked up with a strange smile. “Well, if this wasn’t an X-file before, it is now.” Mulder flipped the card for Scully’s inspection.

“FBI,” Scully mumbled, eyes narrowing. “Wait. No.”

“Yes. I’ll be interested to find out why Marshall Finfrock’s snail-dial list included Special Agent Arthur Dales.”

**

The X-files were unofficially born in 1946, when a series of human mutilations led to a lethal standoff between Montana police and a wolflike creature who left behind a very human corpse. Six years later, in the course of investigating a spate of West Virginia cattle killings, a young agent named Dales discovered his infamous director — a ruthless authoritarian named Hoover — had been sitting on a file cabinet-full of strange phenomena and uncanny crimes. Dales delved into the unsolveds, but Hoover and Co. soon grew anxious about what he might uncover, and, after a career-destroying case involving unspeakable human-alien hybrid research, the agent retired to obscurity, continued research into the unknown, and meandering travel.

Mulder managed to trace the octogenarian founder of the X-files to a Mesa, Arizona, park home complex where, as expected, Dales had decorated his modular mini-cottage in Modern American Hoarder. The former agent’s red locks had turned to a near-pink, and liver spots and freckles mingled across his lank face, but Dales beamed with youthful delight as he ushered his successor to a battered olive couch.

“Agent Mulder,” he sighed happily, placing a Flintstones tumbler of grape Koolaid before his guest. As he lowered himself into a mud-colored recliner, Dales’ robe gapped to reveal a black tee with the legend ‘I visited Roswell and I can’t remember how I got this lousy T-shirt.’ “You know, I was thinking about you the other day. It seems some Congolese villagers had encountered some sort of tree creature, a huge hominid…”

“Turned out to be some hiker from Sacramento — got separated from his safari group under the influence of some bad psychoactive he’d picked up in Addis Abadi.”

“Ah. How unfortunate.”

“You know,” Mulder drawled, sipping his sweet concoction, “this doesn’t exactly seem like your kind of scene. I don’t picture you playing shuffleboard between early bird specials.”

Dales blinked. “On the contrary — it’s far easier to lose one’s self in a community of codgers like this than in some enclave of eccentricity where everyone seeks fascinating company and stimulating conversation. Plus, the pool’s just the right temp and there are some stone foxes at the Saturday mixers. But enough about me — what brings Fox Mulder to my little corner of Paradise?”

“Marshall Finfrock,” Mulder stated without further ceremony.

Arthur Dales slumped momentarily back in his chair, then bobbed forward. “I dared to hope the whole affair might just fade away, but somehow, I knew it wouldn’t stay dead.”

“Arthur, what wouldn’t stay dead?” Mulder croaked.

Dales leaned in, although he and Mulder were the only two in the cluttered park home. “What’s happened?”

“A boy’s murder, a mini-zoo straight out of H.P. Lovecraft, and what appears to be some kind of scientific conspiracy that drove one man to suicide and another into seclusion.”

“Yes. Yes. Well, I suppose it’s well past time I unburdened myself.” Dales closed his eyes, then slapped his knees. “But how about some chorizo and eggs first?”

**

Pradesh peered for the twentieth time at the scans, expresso eyes moving between the dual datasets. He remembered to breathe, and a long, troubled sigh filled the empty university lab.

The fallen Hindu muttered a long-forgotten prayer, then located his iPhone.

“I’m downtown, looking over the police reports on Marshall Finfrock’s suicide,” Scully reported. “What’s up?”

“I’ve found a…an anomaly I can’t fully explain. With two of the specimens.”

Scully remained silent, and the biologist continued. “Nos. 15 and 32 had appeared to share some morphological and anatomical similarities, and their DNA is virtually identical, so I conducted some tests to determine their possible relationship. However, No. 15 is a far more primitive creature, with cilia designed to capture and process microbial organisms into its digestive system. Its motility is limited — I assume it’s a scavenger — and it has no apparent defensive mechanisms. A cumbersome, large creature that lived among other primordial, benign scavengers.

“No. 32, on the other hand, was more compact, with appendages adapted for rapid, 360-degree movement and bioelectric nerve nodules in place of the cilia to subdue food species and, presumably, defend itself. Further, it possesses a sheathed, well, appendage is the best term I can use. It’s chitinous and razor-sharp and attached to a system of tendons that form what I assume t co be a spring mechanism. A predatory tool, and a deadly one at that. This creature belongs to a far more hostile, competitive ecosystem. In short, a more evolved ecosystem. Also explains why it’s the only specimen that appears to have put up a struggle with the cat.”

He listened to Scully’s measured breathing for a moment. “Are you telling me No. 15 and No. 32 are part of the same evolutionary chain, existing simultaneously?”

“I’m telling you that, based on biological and environmental factors, these organisms would seem to be from two separate times. Possibly — and I recognize how ridiculous this might sound — two separate eras millions of years apart. I know it sounds crazy.”

“My threshold for crazy is a moving target,” Scully murmured.

4. The Secret Files of Arthur Dales

The first time I laid eyes on Albert Einstein, he was devouring a plate of ginger snaps, absently brushing crumbs from the thick brush under his light-bulb honker and slurping at a china cup of black java. Einstein was making appreciative sounds as he munched his cookies, and, altogether, it wasn’t the most impressive first impression the world’s supposedly greatest mind could have made on me.

But who was I to judge what befits a genius? I’d blasted a Chevy-sized hole in my foot on my last case, allowing my partner to meet a gruesome end and handing the killer over to Bill Mulder, a scientist who’d apparently let Edward Sklur lam straight into the Great Unknown.

Hoover had my keister for supper with a side of French fries, [l12]and my future career with the FBI could be measured with an egg timer. But I had nowhere else to go, so I sucked it up and got busy on the series of scut jobs the esteemed Director dreamed up for my new life in Limbo.

One was vetting some Russkie named Paramov for some hush-hush project at the university. Paramov was a glorified stargazer who talked about men going to the moon — itself no ringing endorsement for the man’s sanity — but the boys at the Pentagon seemed to think he was John Wayne and Gary Cooper wearing a Superman cape, so here I was, about to meet the world’s smartest guy. If he could get his nose out of the cookie jar for two seconds.

Einstein spotted me and stood up, brushing gingersnap shrapnel from his baggy suit. He had a goofy grin on his face — they’d warned me he was a stitch, and they hadn’t put it that nicely.

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“And you must be the G-man,” he said, rubbing his winkled paws together like a kid meeting the Green Hornet. “It is a great pleasure to meet you — like some character straight out of a Ronald Reagan movie.”

Wasn’t a fan of the guy myself, but I was beginning to take a shine to this little egghead who looked like Groucho Marx meets Dr. Frankenstein. “No, sir — it’s my great pleasure. I read about you in Life.”

“They did a nice job,” Einstein nodded. “Although my theories on time and space seemed to tax the poor boy who interviewed me.”

“It is kinda rough going,” I admitted, grinning.

“You’ve read my ramblings?” Einstein asked, gesturing toward a chair and dropping back into his. “And what conclusions did you come to?”

“That I’m more cut out for the FBI than Los Alamos.”

Einstein cackled. “Do not be so sure. I sense you keep many more cards in your vest pocket than you’d like to have anyone know. How can I help you today, Agent. I assume this has nothing to do with the motion of molecules?”

“Nah. It has to do with Sheldon Paramov. I understand you two worked together during the war.”

“Ah, Sheldon,” the forest under Einstein’s schnoz twitched, but his old man’s eyes dropped. “We shared an appreciation of the universe’ humor and alarm over the madness that overtook my homeland and the land of his parents’ birth. I cannot, of course, reveal the precise nature of our work, but had I known its consequences, I might instead have become a watchmaker.”

“You can’t go back in time, I guess,” I shrugged. “But you don’t buy that, do you?”

“I’ve come to realize the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion. Sheldon shares my realization. However, whereas my thirst for the secrets of the universe is insatiable, Sheldon is too impatient to allow those secrets to reveal themselves. He does not see that only two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity. And I am not altogether sure about the universe. But this is not what you wish to know. He is a tireless scientist with an endless wellspring of curiosity. He will not sleep until he can answer the essential questions asked him.”

I nodded, then hesitated. Einstein had been a U.S. citizen since 1940, but no doubt the German native’s thick accent and bearing had sparked more than a few suspicious stares and hateful mumblings from those who’d witnessed Der Fuhrer’s campaign of death and terror. His rants against the evils of capitalism still got ink on the editorial pages, and some Mississippi congressman had called him a “foreign-born agitator.” But somehow, Einstein had managed to dodge Senator McCarthy’s gunsights.

“Would you say Sheldon is, well, a patriot?”

Einstein smiled wisely. “Politics are for the moment; equations for eternity. At this moment, as flawed as its views of race and cultural still may be, America offers the greatest opportunity for free scientific thought and exploration. I embrace the fundamental humanity of my adopted country; Sheldon loves his country like a virgin bride. He is fiercely loyal to America’s ideals and, as I said, relentless in his pursuit of the answers. Even if he does not always question the questioners.” Einstein shrugged. “But, I suppose, everything is relative.”

The scientist laughed. Einstein would pass from our neck of the universe in less than three years, but I wouldn’t get his punchline for several more.

**

I don’t know what I’d expected, but Sheldon Paramov was something of a surprise. The astrophysicist was clean-shaven — Adolf the Hyena and Uncle Joe Stalin had given the mustache a bad name — and had a pleasant Midwest voice with a mere twinge of Chicago. But he was as serious as Macarthur reviewing the troops, and I could tell he felt like washing after handling my undereducated paw.

At his invitation — and with some reluctance on my part — we met for lunch in the university grill. In hindsight, it was a smart choice for a private chat: students streamed obliviously around us, blathering about their heavy study loads and the newest music; professors staked out corner tables to bury themselves in scholarly tomes or share ideologies and egos and ham sandwiches.

“Dr. Einstein sends his regards,” I said as we deposited our plates. I wasn’t supposed to discuss the clearance process with him, but Einstein was a chum and, well, I wanted to size up how Paramov viewed the German genius.

For the first and only time in our brief relationship, Paramov smiled with a grim, secretive sharpness I’d only seen before at the National Aquarium. That was on a blind date, and the trout almondine the trip had inspired was the only pleasant memory of the day.

“I’d have liked to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation,” Paramov chuckled. “Albert’s a wonderful fellow, one of the greatest minds the world’s ever seen, but he’s become a bit soft-hearted in his old age.”

It was obvious Paramov felt Einstein had gone soft about a foot-and-a-half higher, and it told me something about our boy. Einstein knew there were limits, that we were all Mickey Mouse itching to get our mitts on the sorcerer’s toys. I’d seen pictures of the mushroom clouds over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and the image of Edward Sklur writhing in the grip of some alien nightmare was burned forever onto the back of my brain pan. Paramov’s skull was too full of numbers and theories and questions to hold such images or entertain any maudlin remorse about scorched earth or mere lives.

Unfortunately, that was probably his highest recommendation for the boys in Defense.

“We’re in a race for survival, Agent Dales, I guess is what I’m saying,” Paramov added, sipping his black coffee. “My folks left Moscow when they saw what Lenin and his thugs were up to. If I believed in God, I’d say Stalin was the personification of Satan himself, just like Hitler ten years ago. We — America is the agent of world survival, and the scientist holds all the tools of Man’s salvation.”

Mr. Humble, this guy. But loyal? His orange Jell-O was starting to turn red-white-and-blue.

“You know the guys you’d be working with here on campus?”

“Met Dr. Finfrock at a seminar in Boston a couple years back. Biologist, of course — doesn’t know beans about physics. But he’s smart for a soft scientist, and open-minded. I’m looking forward to seeing what we can cook up.”

The metaphor sent a slight chill up my backbone, but I nodded in satisfaction.

“OK, now if we could go over just a couple of personal details…”

“Dr. Paramov?”

I looked up. A lanky, pallid man in a cheap Sears suit hovered behind my shoulder. His specs were greasy with finger-oil, and Brylcreem kept his curly brown hair at bay.

“Dr. Finfrock,” Paramov smiled, bowing slightly without rising.

“I heard you were coming to campus,” Marshall Finfrock stammered. “I’m absolutely delighted, delighted. I look forward to working with you.”

The astrophysicist cocked his head toward me with a dry, sharklike smile. “Well, that’s up to Agent Dales here. He wants to make sure I’m not going to feed state secrets back to the Kremlin.”

“Oh, Agent,” Finfrock stuttered, eyes wide, oblivious to his colleague’s irony, “I can assure you Dr. Paramov has nothing but our country’s best interests at heart.”

“I’m sure he does,” I reassured the absent-minded professor. “You know Uncle Sam — we just like to get our ducks in a row.”

“Why don’t you join us, Marshall?” Paramov murmured. Finfrock beamed at Paramov’s use of the familiar, like a puppy who’d performed a perfect somersault. He yanked a chair out and juggled his club sandwich and milk onto the table. “That is OK, isn’t it, Agent Dales?”

I was getting a better picture of Dr. Paramov, and not one I’d want to hang over the fireplace. I slid a Bureau card across the table, and then, on a whim, pulled out an extra for Finfrock. He stared at it like it was a Dick Tracy decoder ring. “Actually, I think I have what I need. I’ll give you a call, Doc, if there’s anything else I need, but I don’t see any problems here.”

Paramov hadn’t cared for the ‘Doc’ bit, but he was clearly relieved by my departure. I took my hat, bid the two scientists a fond farewell, and never saw Paramov again.

**

“Agent Dales? Arthur Dales?”

It was about seven months later, and Finfrock’s voice barely registered. It wasn’t just my memory; something had sapped the boyish energy from the biologist’s tone.

I’d been late at my desk, poring over reports of strange lights sighted off the Nantucket coast. Hoover wouldn’t have liked my rummaging in the X drawer, but to hell with the tubby Genghis Khan, anyway. A buddy in Manhattan had offered me a private badge with one of the nation’s topflight detective agencies, and I planned to hand in my Bureau papers at the end of the month. Preferably, on the end of a flaming arrow.

“Dr. Finfrock, right?” I managed, knowing right then I’d regret the impulse to hand out my number so freely.

“I’m dreadfully sorry,” Finfrock rasped, fear crackling over the line. “But you were the only one I could think of. Bill Mulder said…”

“Mulder?”

“Yes, when I realized how out-of-control things had gotten, I called him. He said you could be trusted.”

Thank you, Dr. Mulder. “Doc, are you OK?”

“For now. But I think it may have gotten out. It should have taken a lot longer…”

“Doc, what is ‘it’?”

Finfrock hyperventilated into the mouthpiece for a few seconds, then swallowed. “I did it. God help me, I did it. And I don’t know how to close it.”

This wasn’t working. “Doc, give me your address. It’s about an hour’s drive, but just hang tight.”

“If I can,” Finfrock said weakly. He fed me the address and hung up.

Cursing Bill Mulder, I dug for my keys.

**

It was a comfortably aging development — nice brick bungalows and colonial homes for nice people and the university folk. Young maples sprouted along the quiet street, and I could see Lucy and Desi bickering and flickering through a half-dozen curtained windows.

Finfrock’s house was lit up like New Years at the GE plant, and my breath puffed in cumulus rolls as I sprinted up the flagstone walk. The front door was unlocked; I pulled my piece and nudged my way in.

Dead silence. Or at least I thought so at first. Then I caught it — a Thanksgiving-meets-Halloween sound that yanked at my neck hairs. But this wasn’t Uncle Dave gnawing at a drumstick — the chewing/slurping/grunting sounds were from out of a particularly nasty reefer dream. I saw shadows shifting on the walls inside a set of French doors, and approached silently, willing my thumping heart to clam up.

The first thing I saw as I reached the nattily trimmed doorway was Finfrock himself — grayer, lanker, and paler except for the black-and-scarlet hole in his temple. He was slumped in a leather wing chair behind his desk, right arm sprawled over the blood-speckled blotter, raw and bleeding fingers tight around a Woodsman pistol. The hole and the gun and the smell of cordite told the story — Finfrock had decided a conversation with Old Uncle Arthur wouldn’t make the goblins go away.

I slumped against the doorjamb, and that’s when Marshall Finfrock twitched and slid forward. I’d seen rigor do a lot of tricks, but this was a new one. Then, as the shock began to wear off, I heard the gnawing again. It was coming from behind the desk.

Trigger finger poised, I steeled myself and crept on my toes around the perimeter of the study. When I reached the far end of the room, I gasped and nearly dropped my piece.

I knew now what had been eating Marshall Finfrock — or at least what was dining on him now. It was the size of a fox terrier, but if it was listed on the AKC Register, it was under Hellhounds. Finfrock’s leg was buried to the shin inside a leathery grey suitcase of a body, flecks of blood and bone dripping from a lipless, puckered opening. The leather pulsed and rippled as the thing feasted, and it braced itself against the planked floor with what I counted to be three clawed “legs.”

“Jesus and Mary,” I whispered. Or prayed. I can’t recall.

It stopped chewing, and my blood turned to refrigerator fluid. The creature pulled suckingly away from Finfrock’s mangled foot, and the mouth-hole smacked noisily and disappeared into a series of folds. The legs straightened, and it rose to full height, balanced on its tripod. The folds at the top of the ovoid body rippled and opened, and a trio of round, cueball-sized globes emerged. The “eyes” turned from inky black to silver as a trio of red pupils popped into view. I could see three Arthur Dales reflected in the huge orbs, and all of them looked like they were ready to soil their drawers.

Now, some things are universal — an epiphany I hadn’t fully grasped until that moment. Doesn’t matter if it’s some thug in an alley, a Mob enforcer cornered on a rooftop, or a commie spy who realizes red just lost the match. Or a giant medicine ball with three legs and billiard ball eyes. The second I saw those tripod legs tense and those silver eyes focus on the agent du jour, instinct kicked in. I unloaded five lead housewarming gifts into its tough gray hide, and it fell straight to the floor.

I approached carefully, unfamiliar as I was with alien organ placement. It lay still, on its back (?), the trio of eyes now white and pupil-less. I was considering my next move when the middle eye flashed silver and red and a mouth-fold unfurled to reveal a meat-grinder of razor-ridges.

I jumped to my feet, gun rattling at the end of my stiff right arm.

And it began to talk. Not Brooklynese, or Russian, or bad Mandarin. It was distant but distinct; sounds repeated and fluctuated. It wasn’t squealing or mewling or grunting its final animalistic death throes. It was talking. To me.

I unloaded the last bullet in my chamber, straight into that silver peephole into Hell.

**

“Fortunately,” Arthur Dales concluded, “It was a tough-skinned piece of work, and there weren’t any exit wounds or blood, at least from the beast.”

Dales speared a forkful of Mexican sausage and scrambled eggs, chewed the wad thoughtfully, and swallowed. “I hauled it to the basement, where, as I hoped, Finfrock had a nice big coal furnace. In the process of cremating the beast, I noticed Dr. Finfrock had been doing a little decorating. There was a brand-spanking-new cinder block wall in the basement — the mortar was still tacky in places. I found out later he’d bought one of those homemade bomb shelter kits that were so popular back in the day. I figured he must have intended to seal that thing in the cellar.”

“Or something else,” Mulder suggested. “Like a laboratory.”

“Whatever it was, I wasn’t about to grab a sledge hammer and find out. I was already on Hoover’s list, and I suspected that whatever Finfrock sealed behind that wall would make that thing I shot seem like the family collie.”

“I think he created that thing. You saw the note he left?”

Dales paused. “The suicide note?”

“Yeah,” Mulder confirmed curiously. “Can you tell me precisely what it said?”

“God help me?”

“That the exact phrasing?”

Dales frowned, then exhaled. “Of course. God-comma-forgive-me.”

“God, forgive me. Finfrock wasn’t asking for our forgiveness — he was asking God himself to forgive him.”

“For playing God.” The old agent fell back in his chair. “Oh, my. That might explain it.”

Mulder blinked as Dales rose and began to gather the dishes. “What, Arthur?” he asked the retreating senior.

“The other note.”

**

Scully was waiting at the carousels.

“Miss me, Babe?” Mulder purred as she ducked his embrace.

“Oh, baby, baby. Get your bags and haul ass. I’ll bring up the car.”

Ten minutes later, Mulder tossed her the yellowed envelope as he grumblingly shoved the driver’s seat back. The front was simply labeled ‘Dales.’ The contents, scrawled on a slip of stationary, were equally concise.

“‘Escape Hatch,’” Scully muttered. “That’s it. What did he mean?”

“Finfrock must have suspected he’d let something out of the basement, and he had limited time to write both his suicide note and leave a clue for Arthur. I suspect Escape Hatch was what he and Sheldon Paramov had been into, where they got their funding, and what was responsible for the disappearance of an associate professor.”

Scully scowled. “But Mulder, why? Why would the government create these pointless monstrosities? And how? And what the hell are we doing here?”

Mulder pulled in under the Blockbuster sign and scanned the rest of the strip plaza. “Movie and pizza night, Little Mamacita. Keep the screen-talking to a minimum, and we’ll see what transpires.”

Scully foraged in her purse for her rental card. “I think we both know the ending to this one.”

**

The sky was an unnaturally saturated azure, and the “ocean” frothed at the matte-black beach. Clooney stared about for signs of life, spotted none save the dark, surreal shapes drifting and jetting about in the shallows.

“Well, Kurt, looks like we ain’t in Kansas any more,” Goldblum said, nervously fingering the revolver he’d insisted on bringing across. The line was the director’s, not Paramov’s.

Clooney ignored the dry jibe, turning to Cate Blanchett, who stood transfixed, staring into the dual suns overhead. “Anna? Anna? You OK?”

Blanchett’s stare moved to her “ex-husband” (her character had been grafted onto Paramov’s original novel to secure the women 18-40 demographic and introduce the element of sexual tension the producer deemed crucial to box office draw).

hahhahahaha

[l13] “I was just wondering,” she murmured, calm and slightly contemptuous. “How much of this is your work? If that isn’t blasphemy?”

Clooney turned away, stung. Before he could respond to her indictment, Goldblum broke cheerfully in.

“Once life was established, a cycle of gas exchange began, much like the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen we screwed up back home,” the rangy, gnomish astrophysicist explained. The director was a key patron of both the Natural Resources Defense Fund and Greenpeace. “My guess is the polar bears don’t arrive for a few billion more years. At least we don’t need to worry about Sarah Palin showing up.”

“Who’s Sarah Palin?” The trio turned, frightened, to face the source of the rusty inquiry. The figure was incongruous, garbed in the archaic bell bottoms and Keep on Truckin’ tee of a seventies rebel but bearing a shaggy head of white hair and a beard that nearly covered the “Keep On” portion of the grimy yellow shirt.

“My God,” Goldblum whispered.

“Hey,” Harrison Ford smiled grimly, nodding toward Clooney. “Let’s give credit where credit is due.”

“So this is the kid who got sucked into the black hole?” a naked Scully interjected from the bathroom doorway, toweling her hair dry. Mulder paused the DVD. “Damon is a good head shorter — did he have a growth spurt at 50? And if we’re to assume he’s been alone on this planet for, what, 40 years, wouldn’t his larynx and vocal cords have atrophied? Not to mention what he’s subsisted on for all this time. Certainly, organisms living in a hydrogen medium would be unfit to eat…”

Mulder sighed. “We’re both going to be in an oxygenless medium if you keep sucking it out of the room. My notes on the laptop — find the name of the associate prof who disappeared after Paramov and Finfrock started working together.”

Scully frowned, but crossed to the hotel workdesk, launched Word and combed Mulder’s ramblings on the case. “Here. Frederic Wyckstrom.”

Mulder gestured toward Harrison Ford’s shaggy countenance, frozen in RGB. “Wyc Fredericks, the hippie grad student who was researching space-time anomalies with Wingert — Clooney — and Haalberg — Goldblum — before he disappeared in a lab supply closet 35 years ago. I think Wyc is pretty clearly Wyckstrom. Haalberg is Paramov, and Wingert is Finfrock, though only a very few aged academics might figure it out. While Paramov’s novel disguised Finfrock’s and his own identities, he didn’t bother to come up with a foolproof alias for Wyckstrom. Maybe out of guilt for Wyckstrom’s disappearance; a[l14] homage to a colleague who took one for the home team?”

“Or a hapless lab assistant who crossed the wrong wire or swallowed an overdose of radiation? C’mon, Mulder, writers tap their experiences, their friends, their families for source material. Are you trying to tell me Paramov and Finfrock created a black hole? In 1954?”

“It wasn’t a black hole, which you would have known if your attention span wasn’t so short. It was a wormhole.”

“Oh. Well. You may be a little more in the ballpark — the mathematician Hermann Weyl devised the wormhole theory in 1921, though the term wormhole wasn’t coined until 1957. So you’re trying to tell me Paramov and Finfrock created a wormhole?”

Mulder dropped the remote on the bedspread. “What happened to that spirited, inquisitive little coed who wowed the University of Maryland campus with her theories on Einstein’s Twin Paradox? At least you stayed a redhead.”

Scully pulled her thighs together. “Finfrock and Paramov managed to keep something that earthshaking a secret on a major college campus?”

“I don’t think it was on campus,” Mulder said. “I think it was — or is — behind a cinderblock wall in a basement less than a block from the Francks.”

“Ah, a brick wall. That should contain an intergalactic rift.”

“Finfrock finished plastering that wall after calling Arthur Dales in a panic. He was sealing something in — why not the doorway to another world? And why don’t you put something on? It’s really distracting when I’m trying to discuss quantum mechanics.”

“One can only hope,” Scully said, jumping up and crossing back into the bathroom. “But if this other world, and its exotic inhabitants, have been sealed behind a brick wall for 56 years, how did Callie the cat catch her ‘toys’?”

Mulder smiled in a Holmesian manner which, unfortunately, Scully couldn’t see. “Arthur disposed of Finfrock’s three-legged houseguest in the large coal furnace in the basement. The neighborhood was built in the ’20s, before gas heating became the trend, and coal was still being delivered daily when Finfrock lived there. You didn’t bring coal in the kitchen door or leave it on the porch with the milk.”

Scully reappeared, panties in hand. “A coal shute. I guess it’s possible — after the heating was switched to gas or electric, they might have forgotten to seal the shute, or left it there for character. And a cat likely could slip inside, if it was open or unlocked, for warmth, mice, whatever.”

“Except she found whatever, and a blue assload of it. Which reminds me: What did you find out from the former owners?”

Scully unconsciously crumpled the lingerie. “At least three suggested the house was haunted — no apparent rodent or insect damage, but they heard unusual noises, sometimes animal noises, apparently from inside the house.”

Mulder nodded cheerfully as his Droid buzzed on the bedside table. “What say we get us a couple of sledgehammers and make an evening of it?”

“If there’s some kind of electromagnetic or subatomic disruption in that basement, I’m not going in with a jackhammer and the missing Hardy Brother.” The phone vibrated again. “We need to get Rossner in on this.” Scully reached for the Droid as it continued to twitch. “It’s Mrs. Beltran.”

“Let it go to voicemail,” Mulder dismissed. “Look, Rossner’s an okay guy, but he is Homeland Security.”

“Mulder,” Scully breathed. “Don’t you think you should talk to her?”

“I think she’d understand we’re onto something just a little bigger here. Let it roll. And I guess you’re right: We’ll need Rossner’s clearance to take down that wall. What do you think? Should we tell him–”

The sharp slap of the bathroom door interrupted Mulder’s strategy session. He shrugged and retrieved the laptop.

**

It was the first day of sixth grade: Fox muttered pre-adolescent obscenities as the firm female hand shook him. Mom was no doubt frying sausages and eggs downstairs, and Samantha was already briefing her dolls on the exciting, unknown day ahead. Fox didn’t share her excitement: He learned as much in his own tramps through the woods and through the wilds of the public library, without the taunts and threats that met him each new September.

“Mulder, I said up.” He blinked. Scully hovered over him, face composed but cool. For some reason, she was wearing a black dress and jacket.

“Wha’ time?”

“Three-fifteen. We have about an hour — get in the shower and get dressed.”

Mulder sat up groggily, spotted the suit draped over a nearby armchair.

“Where are we going?”

“Get moving,” Scully said quietly. “Just get moving.”

**

Mulder’d sensed it was not the time to insist on driving, and Scully offered no clue to their destination as she drove soberly toward the edge of town. The rental slowed before a large, ornate iron gateway, and Scully signaled a right into the sprawling expanse of grass, marble, and limestone.

Easily a hundred uncharacteristically silent teens were on hand for Lucas Beltran’s interment, and Krista Beltran greeted each one personally as they filed into or around the graveside tent, grabbing an uncertain hand or pulling a sobbing youth into a consolatory embrace. Kids, neighbors, teachers poured out of the queue of vehicles forming along the path winding down to Luke Beltran’s final resting place.

“Is this big enough?” Mulder heard Scully murmur. The agent took in the scene of collective loss, grief, sharing, and looked helplessly down at his partner. Warm fingers captured his.

**

“Agents.”

Rossner quickly closed the distance between Mulder and Scully and himself, waiting until they were well away from the gravesite to speak.

“You might have told me what you were up to,” the DHS agent sighed as he glanced through the stones at Krista and her last few youthful mourners. “We got onto the posts about five minutes after you put them out, and your director and my boss are looking for scalps. What did you hope to do here?”

“Mulder, what did you do?” Scully groaned.

“Your partner hit every major conspiracy blog, discussion forum, and Facebook page asking for information on something called Escape Hatch,” Rossner smirked grimly.

“I told you you take too long in the john,” Mulder scolded Scully.

“You know I have resources, Mulder,” the Homeland Security man said. “Why didn’t you just ask me?”

“So what is Escape Hatch?” Mulder asked, slipping his hands into his jacket pockets.

“Glad you asked.”

“Look, Rossner — I’m sorry. But this thing is huge — somebody probably murdered Luke Beltran because he was asking questions about those things the Francks found, about Marshall Finfrock and his work. Getting it out on the web might give us a little protection while we find out what Escape Hatch is. And, hey, who knows better about dark ops and weird science than the paranoid cybermasses?”

“Paranoid is right. So far, the consensus appears to be that Escape Hatch was a plot to sneak Hitler out of postwar Germany, a tunnel constructed between Roswell and Los Alamos, a relocation program for the not-quite-dead JFK, and a secret airline for terrorists and war criminals.”

“You’re saying there’s no such thing?”

Rossner paused, stared at a stone cherub at Scully’s elbow. “No. I’m just saying the people who might know aren’t saying. Who knows, though — maybe you’ll shake something loose. Just next time, let me in on the play, though, OK?”

The DHS agent was smart enough not to wait for an answer.

“Thought he’d never leave,” Mulder said, pulling his hands out of his pockets. And his Droid. “Thing’s been vibrating for the last five minutes.” He swiped the screen and peered at the display. “Delaware, no ID.” Mulder started to redial, then paused.

“It can wait,” he declared, pocketing the phone.

**

“Thought I heard something in here,” Mulder said as he peeked around the bedroom doorway. “Sorry, but I didn’t want to bother you at the cemetery. No, don’t get under her.”

Krista Beltran was in a battered recliner next to the bed; a small flatscreen on the dresser displayed a couple of flashy but somehow sad women menacing each other in a public restaurant.

“Real Housewives, the Jersey version,” Mrs. Beltran informed Mulder. “This must look really awful after I just buried Luke and with a houseful of guests.”

“Please,” the agent assured her. “Actually, I figured you might need some time to yourself, and this is what you used to watch with Luke, right?”

Beltran grinned even as she tried to tuck a tear back into the corner of her eye. “Real Housewives Orange County/Jersey/Atlanta/New York/D.C., Top Chef, Flip This House, all the classic Bravo Network trash. Luke used to joke that after watching all that eye-clawing and bitching and drama, he felt better about our lives. But I truly believe he wanted to know what made people tick, what made them treat each other so horribly. He was an exceptional boy, talked about wanting to go into counseling even though he was in line for a half-dozen sports scholarships. I’m sorry; did you want to talk about the case?”

Mulder smiled and perched on the bench at the foot of the bed. “I just wanted your permission to go back into Luke’s web history. I want to see just how far he got into some things that may have happened in the neighborhood about 50 years ago.”

Beltran perked. “That house down the block? The old Finfrock place? You know, since I saw you and your partner last, I’ve had several neighbors tell me Luke had been asking all kinds of questions about the house and the professor. A few weeks ago, he was running late after softball, and when I called him, he was at old Ms. Paramov’s down the block. Probably gathering more intelligence on Finfrock.”

Mulder considered silently.

“You do whatever you need to to find out what happened to Luke.” Krista’s vehemence roused him from his new ponderings. Mulder nodded, rose, then sat down.

“Mind if I watch for a while?” he asked.

Beltran blinked, grinned, and handed him a Tupperware tub of chips. They sat and crunched through two segments of catty intrigue, laughing and gasping. It was during a network promo that it came to Mulder; he stiffened and stared at the commercial.

“Agent?”

Mulder turned to Krista, who appeared concerned.

“That Danielle,” Mulder laughed, adrenalin surging through his chest. “She’s such a bitch.”

“Yeah,” Krista mused, eyes filling anew. “Yeah, she sure is.”

**

“Quit looking at me,” Mulder growled as the hotel marquee came into sight. “I told you I was sorry I left you for so long.”

“Your profiling skills must be getting rusty,” Scully murmured, smiling serenely. “I was about to suggest we block out a few hours for relationship-building. I suddenly feel like exploring your masculine side, and I imagine you do to after two hours of Real Housewives.”

“Gawd, you think I can just turn it on and off, don’t you?” Mulder asked melodramatically.

“Yes. I do.”

“Nothing wrong with your profiling skills,” he grinned, goosing the gas.

Mulder was cursing the obstinate key card as his Droid activated. He wrenched it from his pocket and glared at the display. He glanced anxiously at Scully.

“Delaware?” she asked. “Take it.”

“Mulder, FBI.”

“Agent Mulder.” The voice was educated but slightly crusted from disuse. “Understand you’re investigating a murder, that boy lived by the university.”

“Yeah. You got something for me?” Mulder’d learned to recognize fame-seekers, conspiracy buffs, and paranoiacs a mile off, but somehow this didn’t seem like that.

His intuition was confirmed as a rusty chuckle filtered over the line. “Yeah. I guess I do. See, that’s my old stomping grounds down there, and I’m maybe the world’s last surviving expert on Project Escape Hatch.”

It took Mulder a moment. “You’re not…”

“No names, please. I read about you. Spooky Mulder. You think you can lose your fed buddies for a few hours, maybe have a cup of bad coffee and a slice of the best damned sugar cream pie on the Eastern Seaboard?”

Mulder had never heard of sugar cream pie and, at that moment, would have consumed a steaming wedge of elephant dung. “Where?”

“Marilyn’s Stop Inn, outside Parksley on the peninsula. GPS it. I got stuff to do, so make it 11 tomorrow morning. Come alone, or all you’ll get out of the drive is a full stomach and a sugar rush. And this is a disposable, so don’t waste your time with a trace.”

“Mulder,” Scully prodded as her partner stared at the dead phone. “What was that? You look like you’ve seen–”

“Don’t say it, Scully,” he laughed, uncertainly. “Looks like I have a breakfast date with the late Fred Wyckstrom.”

Scully’s eyes widened. “Then I’d say,” she drawled, “we better get a new keycard up here, quickly.”

5. The Disturbing Account of Frederick Wyckstrom

Ill-rested but nonetheless clear-headed, Mulder crimped the wheel, crunching into the crushed limestone before the long plate-glass window of the Stop Inn. Even at 10:50 in the morning, the diner’s neon was glowing — a huge red arrow pointed directly at Mulder’s bumper. He ignored the possible omen and locked up.

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The diner was relatively idle, suspended between the morning mob of seniors, farmers, fishermen, and lower-echelon pitchmen and the lunch crowd about to escape from the strip plazas and office parks surrounding the Inn. It wasn’t hard to pinpoint Wyckstrom, even with a tightly trimmed white beard and a Wilmington Blue Rocks cap. The only other patrons present were an obese pair of obvious tourists and a couple of sullen phone company linemen grunting about ex-wives and the “fucking Democrats.”

The booth was well away from the counter. “Another cup and two pies, Norah,” the man in the cap called. A tall blonde in jeans and an apron saluted from behind the cash register as Mulder slid in across from Wyckstrom. The former academic was fit for 77, and the effects of a life lived outdoors obscured his actual age.

“Randy Smalls,” Wyckstrom stated. “Don’t forget it, and don’t slip. Ah, yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.”

Norah placed two generous slices of what resembled a pallid custard pie before the men, and poured a cup of inky liquid in Mulder’s upturned china cup.

“How’re the granny smiths comin’ in?” the waitress inquired with a slight smile.

“I think you’ll be pleased,” “Randy” grinned. It was the only time Mulder would see him smile that day. “I’ll hold back a few bushels, you make me a cobbler.”

“Deal,” Norah snapped, pivoting back toward the counter. Mulder sliced into the creamy pie, sighing unconsciously as he tasted velvety sweetness fragrant with vanilla.

“State dessert of Indiana,” Wyckstrom reported. “Norah’s a Hoosier, came out here to study at Georgetown, wound up feeding the masses. I was going to discover new worlds, save the human race. Now I raise heirloom apples for the yuppie tourists.”

“I thought you’d been sucked into a wormhole.”

“That’s what I wanted Marsh and Paramov to think. I left my jacket, wallet and all, and my glasses in the lab one night when they went for dinner, left my apartment, car, my whole life behind, came here and got a job as a farmhand. Never heard a peep since. Figured Paramov would never dare tell, nor the folks he and Marsh were working with.”

“The government?”

Wyckstrom sipped his bad coffee, chased it with a glob of lard-based crust and sugar. “You know Marsh was obsessed with taking Miller and Urey’s work further, creating life from chemicals and electricity. Well, after the university put the kibosh on that, Paramov was approached by a group of scientists the Department of Defense had pulled together. It was just a few years after we’d seen what havoc we could wreak splitting the atom, and the Cold War had everybody here shaking in their boots. It was only a matter of time, they told Paramov – or at least, he told Marsh. The Russians or the Chinese would get their hands on The Bomb. And there was something else, what they called a threat to the planet – they wouldn’t discuss it.”

Mulder silently savored his pie.

“This group – top scientists from America, England, France, from every discipline – were to formulate a set of contingencies for human survival in the event of this supposedly inevitable catastrophe. They came to one irrefutable conclusion: Mankind – at least a cross-section of the human race – had to be ready to slip out the back door at the first sign of apocalypse.”

“The escape hatch.”

Wyckstrom nodded. “But we had to have somewhere to go. Paramov was recruited to study the feasibility of colonization. The space race was born out of that lunatic desperation.”

“But where did they hope to colonize? Even then, they had to realize the environment of any planet in our solar system was too hostile to sustain life outside some kind of biosphere. And any compatible planet outside our system would be beyond our rea–.”

Wyckstrom arched an eyebrow as Mulder paled. “Yup. You got it. We found a tunnel already dug. You think Marshall Finfrock was after a Nobel Prize and a Popular Science cover tinkering around with electrodes and amino acids? He was obsessed with creating life because he’d found the perfect laboratory.”

“A wormhole?” Mulder whispered.

“Didn’t call it that back then. Marsh was working in the basement one weekend and, the way he told it, he walked straight from his cellar into another world. Another planet, in a different galaxy. Lifeless, hot, he couldn’t breathe for more than a few minutes there. Somehow, he fumbled his way back out, but after the shock and the questions, he realized what he had. An incubator – a controlled environment in which Miler and Urey’s vague dream could be made a reality. Then the academic’s inevitable ego kicked in – he contacted Paramov, who was considered the top expert in astronomic phenomena.”

“Terraforming,” Mulder gasped.

“Nothing quite that grandiose – no Search for Spock stuff. But they figured if an imminently Earthlike planet could be seeded with amino acids, under the right conditions, they could develop a sustainable system for human existence. Basically, they wanted to start farming Finfrock’s world, developing food species adapted to that specific environment. Remember, this was the 1950s — they were thinking corn and fish, or the extraterrestrial equivalents. Course, I jumped at the chance to work with Sheldon Paramov. Thought we were 20th Century pioneers, forging a trail into outer space. What a load.

“But we went to it. The equipment to deliver a payload of electrically charged ‘soup’ through the chute — that’s what we called it — came in a Mayflower moving van disguised as a piano and a refrigerator. Couldn’t have people coming and going in a residential neighborhood, so it was just me and Marsh and Paramov working day and night in that basement. We weren’t allowed to go across — we were deemed too important to the project. So they assigned these guys — don’t know if they were soldiers or intelligence operatives or what — to test things over there. Ordinary protective gear and respirators were all that was needed over there.

“Things went great for the first few months — Marsh discovered the amino acids he’d seeded were developing some pretty complex chains, and it seemed like only a matter of time until we’d see the first chromosomal development. Then, we assumed, we’d see the first unicellular organisms emerge, and things would kick off from there.”

“That could’ve taken millions or even billions of years,” Mulder protested.

“If only,” Wyckstrom lamented sourly, waving for a refill.

**

“Thing is,” he continued as Norah retreated, “we didn’t know shit about the nature of space or the universe or especially things like wormholes. We — they went back and forth through that hole like they were going out to the field to walk beans. Of course, there were no beans to walk at that point. Or so we thought.

“The trouble started about four months into the project, when one of the guys came back practically ready to wet his jumpsuit. First thing he’d noticed when he got over there was that the surface had seemed to cool; on a hunch, he tested the air and found it breathable, at least for short periods. The other thing was, the surface of the planet — at least where we went across — was partially covered by this huge hydrogen cloud. We tested it and found gas had settled into massive craters — almost like an ocean. Part of the regular testing regimen was to check for signs of organic development within the cloud/ocean; Marsh thought the hydrogen would bond with the soup and create further amino chains.

“Well, apparently, he was onto something, because our guy almost stroked out when he reached into the cloud and felt something brush his arm. That’s when he realized there was a whole Seaworld of crap swimming around in there — scary shit out of one of the old pulp horror magazines. Marsh and Paramov were elated: Somehow, they’d managed to replicate and accelerate what had happened on Earth eons ago — the emergence of life in the primordial oceans. Maybe it was because I was relatively green or not as driven or Marsh or ambitious as Paramov, but I didn’t feel like celebrating. I felt like things were about to take a sharp turn south.

“And, of course, they did. The electromagnetic field surrounding the wormhole made any kind of radio contact with the ‘farmhands’ impossible, so we just waited for them to come back with samples and observations. But one night, one of the hands just simply didn’t come back. We thought maybe curiosity’d got the better of him and he’d decided to go exploring. After four hours, we sent a second man, and after five hours, we sent three more to locate the first two. One came back, but he didn’t have any useful insights about what happened to the others. He had a hole the size of a baseball in his gut, and one of his eyes had been, well, the best I can describe it is sucked out. The poor asshole was in profound shock and just babbled bullshit none of us could understand. He died about five minutes after he came back across.

“Marsh was baffled by the whole thing, but that prick Paramov was elated. Far as he was concerned, this was his crowning achievement — a fully evolved predatory organism he’d helped create from a beaker of chemicals. He didn’t care that the whole thing was utterly impossible. All I knew was that I wanted out, and I told him so. And that’s when he told me, very matter-of-factly, that he was very sorry, but given who was writing our paychecks, nobody was going to ‘get out.’ So I went to cry on the only sane shoulder I could find. We’d already been ‘consoling’ each other for months, anyway.”

“Irina Paramov,” Mulder breathed.

“Very good. Sheldon was a cold son-of-a-bitch, and she was a beautiful, funny woman. He was too absorbed in his work to notice anything fishy going on. So I told her everything — it was Irina who came up with my escape plan.

“I went back to Paramov, apologized for my emotional lapse, and threw myself into the work. A team of heavily armed men were sent back into the hole; this time they came back empty-handed. All they found were a few of the little oddfish — that’s what we’d collectively named the swimmers. No sign of any sabretooth aliens or extraterrestrial grizzlies. That’s when it should’ve hit me, but I was too addled with fear. I just kept up my act, bombarding Paramov with questions and talking about how one of us needed to do some firsthand reconnoitering. He warned me against it, but not too strenuously, if you catch my drift. The rest you know. Irina loaned me some cash and helped me get some phony documentation — she’d worked to get Soviet refugees into America, so it was a snap for her. Want another slice?”

“Yeah,” Mulder mumbled. “Uh, no. Did you two stay in touch?”

“She didn’t think it was a good idea, even though I tried to call her a few times. After I heard Sheldon had died, back in ’97, we reestablished contact — a few letters, a few cards. But I think the enormity of what we’d been involved in was too much, and we drifted apart again.”

Mulder dabbed the last few crumbs of his pie with his index finger. “Who else knows about this?”

“Just Irina, far as I know. And, of course, the folks who were underwriting the whole project. After I disappeared, they felt things were getting too hot, and they pulled the plug. Or so Irina told me.”

“They should’ve plugged the hole while they were at it,” Mulder said. “Marshall Finfrock tried himself, but something got out.”

Wyckham swallowed, hard, his mineral eyes popping. “The dumb bastards didn’t stop to consider the hole went both ways, or that sooner or later, something would get out of the pool.”

“Relax — the boogeyman’s long-gone. But the question remains: How did all this happen so fast? How did a puddle of chemicals grow into a three-legged, three-eyed people-eater almost overnight. Never mind the collection of biological misfits that have been spewing out of Finfrock’s hole over the last six months.”

“Need a visual aid. Norah, hey, the check please. You’re paying, Mulder.”

The agent trailed the orchardist around to the side of the restaurant, perplexed. Wyckham located a heavy black hose used, presumably, to blast grease and chowder from grates and kitchen gear.

“You stay back there for a second, OK?” Wyckham grunted. “A wormhole, as we theorize it, is a sort of shortcut in space. Picture this hose as the hole and this concrete pad here as our alien cornfield. The diner’s Marsh’s basement.”

The former physicist cranked the wall-mounted faucet, and water began to shoot from the nozzle in Wyckham’s palm. “It took me years, but I finally worked out that Marsh’s basement was a fixed point — the hole was anchored on his end.” Wyckham released the hose, and it thumped and danced on the concrete pad, spraying a radius two inches short of Mulder’s shoes. “The other end of the hole isn’t anchored — it flips and fluctuates between points.”

Mulder stared silently as Wyckham corralled the capering hose and shut off the water. “But not geographical points.”

Wyckham nodded grimly. “It explains why we found oddfish one day and man-eating monsters another. Why the climate and the air seemed to shift from one visit to the next. Marsh’s wormhole doesn’t just detour through space; it cuts back and forth through time. What us dumbasses didn’t get was that we were watching the evolution of Marsh’s manmade ecosystem, over millions, maybe billions, of years. All over six months.”

“’God, forgive me,’” Mulder muttered.

“All of us, friend,” Wyckham murmured, misunderstanding Mulder’s reference. “That’s why I called you when that poor kid got his brains battered in. They’ve been out there all this time, watching for any sign the box had reopened, and it’s well past time for you and me to try and clear up this mess.”

“Me?” Mulder asked, frowning.

“Why I called you. I knew you had the smarts and the open mind to accept what I’m telling you and that you weren’t afraid to man up when you’re told to shut up. After all, you are his son.”

It was like a minor shock to the brain. Mulder inhaled sharply as he recalled Dales’ evening trip to the Finfrock house. It made sense; he’d had his finger in so many dark and dank secrets.

“My dad was part of the group,” Mulder said, tonelessly.

“One of the head guys,” Wyckham said. “Sorry, know it’s a shock.”

At that moment, the numbed Mulder felt an adrenalized shock as a car or pickup backfired on the adjacent road. He turned to see a black blur squeal down the highway and out of sight, and spun back as he realized what had happened.

Wyckham was staring back at Mulder, his hand to his heart. As the agent processed the situation, blood burbled and burst from between the orchardist’s calloused fingers. He fell to his knees, and Mulder dropped beside him, scrabbling for his Droid and program-punching 9-1-1.

“Wouldn’t bother,” Wyckham said, as calmly as if asked whether the Red Deliciouses were in season. “Only thing is, you’re going to have to do this without me. You’re gonna need a big stopper, though, hear?”

Wyckham chuckled and slumped to the concrete, and Mulder went futilely to work…

**

Scully found him in the back booth of the diner, nursing a cup of bad coffee. She slid in on his side.

“No witnesses, no evidence,” Mulder reported before Scully could inquire about his emotional state. “Straight drive-by shooting, according to the state guys. There’s been some uptick in gang activity around the area, and they think Wyckham was just some poor yokel got caught in the crossfire.”

“And you didn’t try too hard to disabuse them,” Scully suggested, pressing his fingers under the table.

“For now. It seemed the smartest course.”

“Especially if they’ve begun killing to keep this thing under wraps.”

Mulder gently nudged Scully out of the booth and threw a five on the formica. “I don’t think there is a ‘they’ any more. I think they broke camp and moved on to some other hellish pasture. You can fill me in on what you found out on the ride home.”

As they stepped outside the Stop Inn, a beefy trooper stepped in their path.

“Captain,” Mulder smiled.

“You heading out now? OK. Just make sure you’re accessible — you feds have a habit of dropping into a black hole when we need you.”

The captain was far too dumbfounded to be offended as Mulder began to laugh, uncontrollably.

**

Chuck Burks arrived at the hotel like a love-starved kid at summer camp, laden with a half dozen aluminum cases bearing the University of Maryland imprint and a single gym bag of personal belongings.

“This isn’t exactly my field of expertise,” the owlish imaging specialist admitted, hugging Scully, “but I couldn’t pass up the chance to explore a new universe. Haven’t done that since Calcutta, back in ’78.”

“Same universe, different planet, Chuck,” Mulder amended.

“Well, then, that’s it for me. Locating this wormhole shouldn’t be a problem — ought to be a strong local electromagnetic signature.”

“I’d also like you to go over the whole place, infrared, ultraviolet, for any trace. I want to know if there’ve been any out-of-state houseguests lately.”

“Aliens, cool,” Burks goggled.

Scully assumed the role of buzzkill. “Chuck, you have to know this could be very dangerous. Two people have already been killed, and we think there may be some kind of predatory species on the other side of the hole.”

“Wicked awesome,” Burks breathed.

6. The Astonishing Revelations of Mr. Mulder

“Sorry again for the inconvenience,” Mulder said as he peered about the living room. Sun streamed in the front bay window, and the agent could hear amplified play-by-play from the softball field a few blocks away.

“No problem,” his host offered cheerfully. “When you live alone, there’s really no good or bad time. By the way, you any closer to finding out who killed the Beltran boy?”

“Maybe,” Mulder smiled smugly. “The killer made a stupid mistake yesterday. The guy I told you about — the witness in Delaware? I don’t think it was a drive-by, and I don’t think Mr. Smalls was the intended victim. On the way over here, I got to thinking: There were a couple of banks and a convenience store within a block of the diner where we were shot at. I’m willing to bet both have parking lot cams, what with the gang activity in the area. We have the time Smalls was shot. Through the miracle of modern imaging technology, we may be able to get a plate or even a shot of the shooter. Don’t tell Agent Rossner, though — I don’t want the prick grabbing the credit for Homeland Security.”

“No problem. That’s fantastic.” The tone was overplayed, tinged with manic enthusiasm, confirming Mulder’s theory.

“You know, this place is beautiful — you’ve done a really great job restoring it.”

“Well, I’ve had plenty of time to put in on it.”

“It must have been difficult,” Mulder empathized. “Even though I understand you hired a contractor to work on some of your other properties.”

Gary Huggins smiled uncertainly. “Well, that was before the recession kicked the market’s ass.”

“I dunno, Gary — the last project you contracted out was only three months ago. Even though, yeah, as you said, the market did take an ass-kicking. Before the floor fell out, this was an up-and-coming neighborhood. That reclamation project three blocks over — there were supposed to be bistros, new boutiques, even a luxury convention center. I heard things are scheduled to kick back in next year — some federal stimulus came through. Bet you can unload this place for twice what you paid.”

“Three times.” Huggins’ voice was tinged with frustration.

“But this is the only one of your properties in the neighborhood that isn’t posted, and the prime pick of the bunch. Looks like the work’s all done; what’s the delay, Gary?” Mulder asked, grinning. “Got a leak in the cellar? Looks like you patched that, though — I noticed you bricked over the old coal shute on the side of the house. Fairly fresh patch job. What, animals getting in? Or were things getting out?”

“You’re losing me, Agent,” Gary laughed. His eyes weren’t in on the joke.

“Luke Beltran must have been over here peppering you with questions about Marshall Finfrock, the house. He was starting to put two and two together — the creatures the Francks’ cat kept dropping on their doorstep, the disturbed scientist down the block who’d blown his brains out in guilt over some ungodly offense. You panicked when you saw the cat dragging another one of Finfrock’s interplanetary circus attractions out through the coal chute, tried to catch Callie, and then chased her over to the Francks. You must’ve freaked when you saw Luke disposing of the thing like it was a dead sparrow.

“Luke recognized the man who’d killed him, but like most teens, he’d forgotten your name. He was paralyzed, but he was a smart kid. Luke was determined to ID his attacker the only way he could. Luke read a lot of mysteries, and, improvising, he dragged himself over to the storage rack where the kids’ swimming gear was kept. He pulled the box over and grabbed the item he’d hoped would connect you to the murder. Luke didn’t know a fire would break out any second, destroying his dying clue, but I finally realized what he was trying to tell us.

“There were a couple of kids’ scuba masks, two of those foam noodles the kids used as floats, some goggles, and three pink swim fins. Three. Unless Long John Silver’s on your Iron Man team, that third fin’s not of much use. The fourth fin was what Luke grabbed. See, he spent hours watching trash reality on Bravo with his mom — Real Housewives, Top Chef, and that show with the obsessive/compulsive real estate guy. Geez, what’s it called?”

“Flip This House,” Gary croaked.

“Yeah, right. And that’s how Gary identified you. The guy who was buying up all the houses in town to turn them for a profit. The flipper.”

Gary reached for the wall, breathing hard.

“People will avoid buying a house where a murder or a flashy suicide’s occurred,” Mulder continued gently. “If Finfrock’s wormhole was discovered, you’d never sell the place. Worse, the government would probably confiscate the whole lot, maybe the whole block. You bludgeoned that innocent kid to death, followed me to Delaware, killed Randy Smalls for what? To protect your equity in this house? Jesus, Gary.”

“God, I was about to lose it all — the fucking downturn was about to wipe me out, and this had to happen,” Huggins whispered, near tears. Then he straightened. “Was that horseshit about the cameras around the diner?”

“Nah — I’m pretty sure we can put you there.”

Gary sighed. “Well then, I guess I should–” His face hardened, and a Dockers-clad leg whipped out, catching Mulder in the balls. The agent crumpled, unable to buffer the next kick to the head…

**

“Jesus,” Scully gasped as the series of sharp kicks crackled through the van’s interior.

“We have to move in,” Rossner declared into his headset. “We’ve got what we need.”

Scully spun as the DHS agent rose. “Huggins could be armed. We have to do this right. Please.”

Rossner looked down at his FBI counterpart, then nodded curtly. “Stand down for the moment, everybody.”

“Shit, oh, shit.” The voice seeping through Mulder’s wire was distraught, desperate. Scully and Rossner heard Huggins pace rapidly, cursing and moaning. Then the line went silent, and Scully began to wonder if they had played it right. She tensed for the shot.

Instead, they heard Huggins grunting, followed by a loud thump. A second thud followed, then a third and a fourth. Each thump sounded more distant.

“What is that?” Rossner strained.

Scully leapt to her feet, whipping her sidearm free. “He’s taking Mulder to the basement.”

**

Huggins fell back against the new gas furnace he’d invested in the house before the subprime shit storm had begun. His usually immaculate slacks were covered in dirt and cobwebs; sweat rings darkened his gold Polo shirt.

But even amid the fear and renewed guilt, the realtor felt no small measure of relief. Until he heard the reconditioned oak front door crash in and a platoon of footfalls stampeded down the basement steps.

“On the fucking ground, Huggins!” Rossner bellowed. A half-dozen men in Kevlar quickly surrounded him, and Huggins fell to his stomach. His arms were wrenched behind him and his wrists secured with plastic tie-cuffs.

“Mulder?” he heard the woman, the hot FBI agent, call. “Mulder!” More urgently. Huggins grinned, then grunted as he was rolled on his back and cold metal was thrust into the hollow of his throat.

“My partner, Huggins,” Scully panted, eyes full of an intensity that erased Huggin’s lunatic satisfaction. She dug the gunbarrel deeper; no one moved to restrain her. “What did you do to him, you bastard? What did you do?!?”

Huggins croaked two words.

“What?” Scully demanded.

“My lawyer,” he spat. “I want my fucking lawyer.”

Scully went silent. The leader glanced anxiously at Rossner, but Scully holstered her weapon and rose to her feet. Then she spotted it. Huggins apparently had taken out Finfrock’s cinder block wall to create more family-friendly space, but after he discovered the added feature in the crawl space, he’d replaced it with dry wall. Now, filthy Reebok prints indicated where he’d kicked a hole — a man-sized hole, in the new wall.

“He’s in there!!” Scully screamed.

**

When Mulder came to, head throbbing, tasting blood, he was on a beach, a black sand beach that resembled no Sandals resort or Cape retreat he’d ever seen. As he sat up, the sun glared in his eyes.

The suns, his brain corrected. His consciousness caught up, and he leapt to his feet. And took a deep breath. And coughed.

In any other situation, Mulder might have found amusement in the ill effect absolutely pure, fresh, non-contaminated air had on his lungs. No methane, no burning or shortness of breath. He kneeled at the edge of the sand, dipping a hand cautiously into the swirling white froth. It came back wet, though the liquid that dripped from Mulder’s fingers wasn’t quite water as he knew it.

He yanked his hand away, preventatively. Finfrock would have felt vindicated — he’d successfully terraformed the rabbit hole. Mulder peered into the horizon, where he could see a crisp blue ridge of rustling vegetation.

The vague, carnival mirror familiarity of the landscape filled him with fear. Dales had described what Finfrock’s “soup” had evolved into, and Mulder recalled the squadron of soldiers who’d vanished into the wormhole. Panic spiked as he looked up into the aqua sky of a few million, billion years ahead.

Thanks, Dad, Mulder thought. The bitter reflection was somehow calming, and he laughed tinnily, the sound somehow seeping into the air.

Where was the portal, the gateway?, a now-rational Mulder demanded. He’d been out when Huggins had somehow shoved him through, and he had no idea where the exit was. He began to walk the beach in grids, hoping he could slip effortlessly back into the Finfrock basement. As he marched across the sand, Mulder kept one eye on the tide, wary of what might arise from the depths.

And that’s when it emerged on his landward side. He first heard a low, whistling drone, then, as he whipped around to identify the source, Mulder felt a sharp, heavy blow to the sternum. As he was knocked to the sand, the agent perceived an ochre blur at least twice his mass. He tried to struggle to his feet, but his arm was pinned to the ground.

Mulder glanced to the side to see a trio of “fingers” circle his wrist. A second trio grabbed his other wrist. Mulder cried out as a third “hand” emerged to cup his chin.

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A smooth mound of creamy leather hovered above him, and as his vision cleared, he saw a mouth emerge from the finely pored hide. He tensed, anticipated the first razor-slash of fangs or claws. What emerged from the slitlike orifice was far more disturbing.

Low, shlussing, gutturally punctuated tones, in patterns, inflected. It was talking.

To him? I don’t see anybody else here, Mulder challenged in a Robert deNiro voice. He was mute with fear, and his body jumped as a jolt shot into his right arm. More sounds flowed with increased urgency from the mouth-hole, and Mulder felt another shock, this time in his left arm.

And then, the skin above the mouth began to reshape and unfold, and a trio of eyes emerged. Mulder yelped, and was rewarded with simultaneous charges up both arms and into his brain.

The eyes were smaller than what Dales had described, more almond-shaped than round, yellow with solid black irises. The irises scanned Mulder’s face, traced his body. Mulder felt his sphincter loosen, tensed his groin in an absurd attempt to maintain his dignity. Besides, urinating on a potentially carnivorous, easily offended alien that shot electricity seemed a questionable move.

As if gauging Mulder’s submissiveness, the eyes receded back into the skin folds. Fingers left his chin, and he yelped in surprise and pain. The ochre mound moved closer, blocking the suns.

Then a shot rang out, over a few million years and possibly a few trillion miles. Mulder momentarily entertained the notion Harrison Ford had galloped over the non-existent dunes to his rescue.

Whoever or whatever had fired the shot, it was effective. The creature above Mulder screamed in the universal language of sheer horror. His wrists were released as the beast reared back, searching the beach for intruders.

Mulder took in the whole of his host. Three spindled legs balanced three more finely developed arms — it was standing erect, like the Ridley Scott version of the claymation ‘Bominable Snowman, the eyes reemerging and moving slowly around the circumference of its head. It was easily as tall as a papa Kodiak bear, if the bear played on steroids for the NBA.

Mulder was about to scramble when of one of the roaming eyes suddenly exploded in a wet, pulpy pop. The huge creature staggered on its lower tripod and landed on its “back,” sending up a brief puff of black sand.

The beast’s height had saved Mulder — another bullet whizzed through the air a few feet above the agent’s scalp, then another. The gunfire ceased as Mulder identified its source. He prayed Scully would grant him credit for some intelligence before letting loose again, and sprinted for the hole.

Mulder accelerated rather than hesitated as he spotted, in the corner of his eyes, a blur of shapes growing larger with alarming speed. He closed his eyes as he closed in on his target…

**

…and nearly collided with Scully. Her weapon clattered to the concrete floor, and Rossner’s tactical posse circled the perimeter of the invisible gateway.

Mulder whoofed as Scully tackled him in a grateful embrace. Conscious of the official presence, she quickly released him and he winced. Alarmed, Scully worked his damp, filthy shirt open, goggling at the deep blue-yellow bruise over the center of his chest.

“God, what was in there?” she demanded.

“I’d’ve brought you back a trophy head, but I had a feeling the carcass cleanup crew was on its way,” Mulder groaned. “Nice shooting, Nikita. Thanks for not blowing my brains out.”

“Maternal instinct,” Scully suggested, leading him toward the stairs. Halfway up, he stopped dead.

“We have to make another stop,” Mulder announced in a voice that brought Scully up short.

“Mulder, you were almost killed in there,” she reminded him.

He grinned painfully. “I don’t think it intended to kill me.”

**

“Oh, fuck,” Bryan Francks moaned as he yanked open the front door. “You again. When can I have my specimens back?”

“They’re at a petting zoo in Guantanamo,” Mulder reported as he nudged past the disgruntled scientist.

“OK, that’s it,” Francks growled, fishing for his cell phone. “I’m getting my attorney in on this.”

“Where’s Callie, B-Ry?” Mulder called, stalking from room to room.

“What?”

“Bryan, don’t force me to make an off-color pun here. I want your cat.”

The man of the house dropped onto the arm of a Barcalounger, dumbfounded. “What the hell do want with my cat?”

As if on cue, the large tabby strolled casually into the room, regarding its visitors with utter contempt and settling onto a couch pillow. Scully began cooing at the animal, and its motor started. Scully settled in on the sofa, and Callie soon curled into her lap.

“My behavioral profiling skills normally don’t extend to the feline species, but something’s been gnawing at me since I first laid eyes on Callie’s hunting trophies,” Mulder began. “First, Callie brought you living trophies. There were no signs of physical trauma on any of them, except for the apparently advanced specimen Scully calls No. 32. The whole purpose of presentation is to gift fresh kill, to impress the resident humans with predatory prowess. Why bring these things, still intact and breathing, to your doorstep? And why fight potentially to the death with Luke over that last creature?

“Second, Agent Scully and Dr. Pradesh have documented that these were basically marine organisms, even if they lived in a sea of mostly hydrogen. That’s why none of them survived Callie’s careful care — they ‘drowned.’ And there’s the fact that Gary Huggins — who by the way murdered Luke Beltran — sealed the only access Callie had to the source of your mini-monsters days before Luke found the last one on your stoop.”

“Bryan, the girls and I are going to the mall,” Jennifer sang from the doorway, a terse expression undermining her cheer. Mulder beamed at Chloe and Britney as they gleefully rushed out the front door for an afternoon of shopping. The door tugged shut with compensatory gentleness.

“Can we cut to the chase, Agent?” Bryan snapped. “I want to call my lawyer.”

Mulder turned his dazzling smile on the researcher. “Don’t mess with me, Bry. I was just this close to some hot monster-on-human action, and I’m feeling a bit fragile. And that’s my point. Scully, what would be the ultimate biological adaptation?”

Scully blinked at Mulder’s revelation, absently stroking the now-blissful Callie. “I don’t know. Total self-reliance, I suppose. Producing its own food, asexual reproduction at the multicellular level?”

“You are smarter than a fifth grader,” Mulder nodded. “But how about this? The ability of an ecosystem to replenish itself even after a catastrophic event. We don’t know what Finfrock’s planet’s been through — sorry, will go through. I think that while your collection represented nearly three dozen separate species, they’re all from the same basic lineage. Think Madonna.”

“They screw anything that walks?” Bryan ventured.

“Or swims or, for all I know, flies. The virus is a more apt example — it can inject its own genetic material into a foreign species to persist in the environment. I think the species of that planet have — will evolve into one big Tennessee hootenanny of unrestrained interspecies sex. And I think Callie wandered into the hootenanny.”

Scully glanced down, her fingers frozen in the cat’s fur. Callie purred insistently, and the agent continued stroking her.

“Callie wandered into the former Finfrock cellar through the coal chute and stumbled into the wormhole. I think she met up with a primeval ancestor of my new BFF-with-Benefits, and voila. Cats and dogs possess amazing homing skills, and she somehow found her way back out. Callie visited the intergalactic catbox at least once more — witness the fate of the late No. 32 — but I think the critters in your deep freeze weren’t dragged over from another galaxy. They developed here, inside Callie. It’s why Callie brought them to your house live — she could sense they were dying, and she wanted you to save them. It was maternal instinct. They weren’t toys or trophies — they were her ‘children.’”

Bryan’s incredulous gaze moved from Mulder to his children’s beloved pet, who now began to tongue-wash her paws.

“It’s why she fought Luke over that last specimen. He wasn’t bonded family, and it was clear he meant to dispose of her ‘baby’ right there. And it’s why we need to get Callie to the lab. Given the spacing of her alien deliveries, it’s possible Finfrock’s spawn have also — will develop the ability to deliver offspring in time-released form. It makes sense in what may be their hostile, volatile environment — proliferation of the race, races, over an extended period, to assure at least some survive. There may be some more blessed little events in your future unless we get Callie thoroughly checked out.

“So what do you say, Bry? Can we take the kitty peacefully, or would you rather we leave you to start planning your new family?”

Francks’ defiant demeanor had vanished.

“Take the damned cat,” he muttered.

**

“What will you tell Chuck?” Scully asked as she redistributed the restless feline in her lap.

Mulder turned on Poplar, toward the police station where a veterinarian from the CDC was waiting. “Rossner and his guys have locked that basement down tighter than Bungalow 8 when Lady Gaga’s in town. I’ll just have to owe him the next three spectral phantasms or faerie photos I come across. Or I’ll buy him a steak tonight. After we make a stop, of course.”

“It probably won’t be a lot of consolation to her, you know,” Scully murmured. “At least, by the time you give her the authorized version.”

Mulder nodded. “Yeah, the authorized version.”

His partner studied him for a moment, then gave up. “And how do Rossner and the gang intend to deal with our little problem on Huxley Drive? They can’t expect to keep what might develop out there out there. Jesus, we don’t even know where out there is.”

“I wouldn’t worry your pretty little obsessive-compulsive head about it. They plan on closing the off-ramp forever. Rossner wouldn’t give me details, but he said some British physicists and the Fermi Lab in Chicago came up with a working wormhole eradication technology.”

“My God,” Scully breathed. “How can they be sure they won’t blow us to Alpha Centauri.”

Mulder drove silently for a moment. “He said they already know it works.”

As Scully allowed the implications of that reassurance to hang silently in the air, Callie drifted to sleep, growling drowsily at some creation of her dreams or memory…

Inverness, Scotland, UK

2:47 p.m.

As usual, Cullen arrived to take his post a half-hour early, a violation of Ministry protocol but one he dismissed with a juicy belch and the head of the facility — an Oxford dandy with no knack for dealing with the working classes — surrendered with dyspeptic good cheer.

Though no great fan himself of his “uppers,” Syme had goaded the young sassanack to hold his ground. Cullen smelled like haggis left in the sun for a fortnight, and his breath summoned unpleasant visions of things dredged from the depths of the nearby loch. Syme was a devout Presbyterian, and Cullen’s daily arrival meant a fresh litany of coarse sexual and scatological jokes and patently pornographic tales of Cullen’s doubtlessly fictional conquests. Syme’s morning pudding burbled in his gut every time he heard the heavy footfalls echoing toward the security center.

Cullen, of course, considered Syme his sworn mate, and looked forward to sharing the newest about some bit of duff he’d hit at the local. First, however, he’d take a daily danner by the vault, as he called it. The steel-reinforced door had two cameras, a keypad AND a retinal scanner, and an array of laser motion detectors in case some dobber heid stumbled too close. Cullen, of course, had been the first dobber heid to set off the klaxons and bring the soldier boys attached to The Cellar running. He’d only been interesting in straining to hear some sign of the vault’s contents.

Which, of course, was no major surprise. Cullen and Syme had seen the girders and beams and tell-tale sheets of thick missile-proof glass shipped in, and were aware of the water circulation/purification equipment that had come in on the sly — or so that well-dressed dobber upstairs thought.

Everybody knew what they’d hauled in there 13 years ago under armed escort, after evacuating the nearby villages with the threat of a hazardous chemical spill. Folks assumed the lack of any fresh, verifiable sightings was due to old age or Man’s tampering with the local “ecosystem.”

Someday, he’d catch a glimpse of the prize catch of all time, Cullen pledged. He glanced at his watch. Best get to it, make sure nothing came in through the hatch at the bottom of the loch — the one the science boys had assured him was sealed tighter’n his ex-wife’s shereen. Course, they were so positive of that, he and Syme wouldn’t have to sit all day watching video of underwater rocks and the occasional trout.

Cullen tapped his holster twice — his customary salute to the sole tenant of The Vault.

“Night, Nessie, y’auld bitch,” he muttered, affectionately.

That was great Martin , Your best yet.

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