By Martin Ross
Rating: PG-13 for delicately suggested FBI sex and science-based drug use
Synopsis: Tuesday night in Peterson County means mini-mart pizza, disoriented cows, fugitive geneticists, exit ramp McNuggets, furtive farmers, laconic lawmen, and a love that cannot be spoken.
Disclaimer: The X-Files belong to Chris Carter. Period.
Peterson County, Illinois
It was the moment that chills the blood of every federal law enforcement officer old enough to remember Waco or Ruby Ridge. When months of training at Quantico, years of experience in the field, a lifetime of tightly honed instincts vanish in a frosty puff of fear. When the bulletproof shield of authority shuts down.
And the barrel comes up. Just a notch.
Scully’s sidearm was out before the old man could kick a shell into the chamber. Mulder raised an index finger and pocketed his Bureau ID, a slight smile forming on his lips as his heart pounded against his ribs.
“Sir, we’re not from the neighborhood,” the agent murmured. “We’re a couple of dumbasses from D.C. who trusted our GPS a little too much. I don’t know your sociopolitical beliefs and I probably don’t want to. We’re just trying to find a meth lab blew up a few days ago around here, maybe violate somebody else’s sovereign rights.”
The old man’s expression didn’t shift, but after a tick, his muscular shoulder relaxed, and the shotgun dropped back to standard trespasser elevation. Then the farmer barked, once, and carefully lowered his weapon. Scully held her two-handed stance.
“You took 1100 North ‘steada south, din’tcha?” the old man rasped quietly. There was an intelligence, a vigor in his voice Mulder hadn’t expected. “You’re looking for the Kendrick place on 1100 South, right off 300 East. Reset your little magic box, and it oughtta take you right to the door. You have a good day, now, or whatever it is you folks say.”
The screen door creaked and slapped shut in unison with the heavy front door. Mulder nodded and turned back to the dusty rental as Scully gaped, gun still leveled at the porch.
“You’ve scared him enough for one day,” her partner called. “You wanna drive for awhile?”
The Kendrick place was, as advertised, right off County 1100 South and 300 East. The deputy at the bottom of the drive, anticipating the agent’s geographical and probably general ignorance, provided unnecessarily detailed directions to the remote machine shed a quarter-mile away where Jason Kendrick had squandered half his father’s meager inheritance on lab equipment, anhydrous ammonia, and EPA-quality respirators.
“You know, he’da raised a crop this year, the mo-ron would probably’d gotten away with it,” Sheriff Latraub lamented as Mulder surveyed what was left of the outbuilding and, presumably, Jason Kendrick. A trio in DEA-emblazoned biohazard suits tromped through the two-year-old corn residue toward the scorched building. “Coulda been a brilliant scheme. Bought himself a few hundred bags of no-name corn, nobody at the co-op’d thought anything about the anhydrous or the protective gear. What comes of straying outside your skill set. Used to be we just had to watch out for the homeboys down from Cook County trying to shop product to the numbnuts at the high school. Jason was FFA president before he went off to the U of I, God’s sake.”
“I blame AMC,” Mulder mused.
“Breaking Bad, you know, the guy from Malcolm in the Middle?”
The portly lawman spat into the berm. “Don’t have Dish.” A subtle smirk kinked his mustache. “Took you awhile to get here. GPS on the fritz?”
“Stopped for a chat with one of your local militia guys,” Scully murmured before Mulder could stop her. “Not exactly a down-home welcome.”
The sheriff came off his cruiser. “What, he draw down on you? A couple of feds. Who we talking about?”
“We took 1100 South, instead of North,” Mulder grinned dismissively. “Just a suspicious old guy, probably hadn’t had visitors in a decade.”
“No difference,” Latraub grunted. “I can’t have some dumb old redneck playing chicken with law enforcement. You get a name?”
“Harwood,” Scully replied. Mulder sighed. “It was on the mailbox.”
“Hold up a sec. You mean Ray Harwood? Old guy, real fit? That don’t sound like Ray. He’s a little quiet, maybe too quiet, like they say, but he’s not the violent type. Never had any trouble with him. Just what did he say?”
“Nothing, particularly,” Scully admitted. “He met us with a shotgun almost as soon as we were out of the car, and when we identified ourselves, it didn’t seem to, ah, weaken his resolve.”
The sheriff frowned, looked off at the smoldering meth lab. “I’m thinking maybe we pay Ray a call, see what’s crawled up inside ‘im.”
“I really think my partner’s…” Mulder began before catching Scully’s baleful glare.
“Look, you like fried chicken? ‘Cause Ray’s right on the way to the best in the county. We’ll do a little recon and then grab some lunch, OK? It ain’t coq au vin, but otherwise, you got Hardee’s at the exit or minimart pizza.”
Scully’s brow rose. “Coq au vin?”
“Sorry,” Latraub grinned, yanking his driver’s door open. “I blame Food Network.” He caught the surprised look on Mulder’s face. “Town bowling alley shut down five years ago, and softball’s about eight months off. Playing the rube’s about the only entertainment I get these days.”
“Why’d you have to make such a federal case back there?” Mulder muttered as he dodged a rut in the gravel road. The sheriff’s cruiser spit cinders and pebbles against their grill.
Scully turned, her expression unreadable behind her shades. “Perhaps because it is a federal case when some citizen draws down on my partner and I in the middle of nowhere. I might ask why you’re not a little more concerned?”
“I don’t know,” her partner murmured, watching a pasture of cows watch him. “I can’t describe it, but it didn’t feel like hostility coming off Harwood. Not even fear. He just, you know, he just seemed to want to be left alone.”
“Well, it appears he picked a fairly dismal way to accomplish it.”
The old man was on the porch, in an aluminum lawn chair that had probably seen a few July 4ths during the Kennedy era. The shotgun was nowhere in sight.
“Figured you’d be back,” he rasped, low and calm, keeping his place as Latraub and the agents approached.
“Well, you figured right,” the sheriff said, cheerfully. “What were you thinking, Ray?”
Harwood shrugged. “The wrong thing, obviously.”
“Obviously. These two want to cause trouble for you, not much I can do. What’s up?”
“Kids,” the old man grunted, as if that explained volumes. Latraub nodded as if it did. “Been buzzing the place at night, shit-faced, lobbing their beer cans at the house and yelling shit. You know what shit. I suppose it’s put me in a foul frame of mind.”
Latraub turned to the agents. “Been getting a lot of that from the university next county over. Guess they figure it’s safer to conduct their extracurricular horseshit out here in the sticks. Well, Ray, can’t have you pulling this kind of crap with federal agents. You know?”
“Overreaction,” Harwood nodded. It seemed to be what he thought his guests wanted to hear, but somehow it rang sincere, if somewhat inadequate.
Latraub looked to the feds. “Whaddya think?”
Scully glanced at Mulder, and, after a second, exhaled and snatched the keys from her partner.
“Let’s get that chicken,” she ordered.
Sheriff Latraub waved a drumstick. “Ray and his folks been here, wow, probably since we became a state. Seven, eight generations, I guess.”
The lawman had been chatty since they’d arrived at the packed diner, whether out of relief or fear Scully would change her mind, she didn’t know. Mulder nodded eagerly at the local history as he shoveled gizzards, slaw, and fries into his maw and Scully picked at a limp pile of scantily dressed iceberg leaves.
“And what you have to understand about the Harwoods is, they’re no right-wing militia types. Next door, in Southern Indiana, they’ve had their problems with the Klan on and off the last 100 years or so. Well, in the ’30s, Ray’s great-uncle helped drive those sheet-wearing mo-rons right out of the county. In the ‘60s, Ray’s cousin called out the state’s attorney when he found out some of the local assholes were hassling the Mexican vegetable-pickers we get through in the fall. Then chased the Springfield TV folks off when they came to talk about it for the six o’clock news. And Ray? Well, last fall, he caught some of the local toughs beatin’ crap outta some queer kid – sorry, homosexual – around behind the coffee shop. Well, I’ll just say those punks got a little lesson in social tolerance from ol’ Ray. That one wound up on CNN and the networks – biggest thing around here since the Great Martian Invasion of ’79. Without Ray, of course.
“What I’m sayin’ is, Ray’s no dumbass – him and his dad and his grandpa all went off to college, but they always came back to the land. And they’re pretty damned good at it – Ray’s people always got a bumper-load of corn off some pretty marginal ground, though Ray himself’s had a few iffy years lately.”
“Excuse me,” Mulder said, swallowing a cud of macerated cabbage. “The Great What of When?”
“And boom goes the dynamite,” Scully muttered.
“What?” the sheriff frowned. Then he grinned. “Oh, yeah, the Martians. Old piece of genu-wine regional horseshit. Back in 1879, some of the locals reported seein’ lights in the sky, creepy shadows in the fields. Idiot wrote a book about it in the ‘70s; every once in a while, some cable TV show comes around and does a piece on the UFOs. One of the local business guys once tried to get a campaign going – the ‘Roswell of Southern Illinois.’ Never took off, though. You enjoying that salad, Agent?,” Latraub inquired with mixed skepticism and amusement.
The sheriff nodded, shoved his plate of bones aside, and plucked the check from the wood-grained formica. “Prob’ly swamp gas, though the lack of a swamp around here poses a slight challenge. I’ll get this one, make up for Ray’s inhospitality.”
There wasn’t really much left to do there: Examination of the salvageable remains of Kendrick’s machine shed had yielded the standard accoutrement of the modern redneck homebrew meth lab – nothing to indicate the sort of genetic voodoo Mulder’s anonymous tipster had attempted to hang on Jason Kendrick’s ex-roommate, Ari Murad.
The Albanian post-grad had disappeared from the University of Illinois four weeks ago, leaving behind an empty off-campus apartment, $1,450 in stolen lab equipment, a poorly-hidden notebook filled with recipes for blending recombinant DNA and noroviruses, and a refrigerated petri dish teeming with what appeared to be the microscopic love brood of a starfish and a Great Plains Toad.
Mulder had regaled the Urbana P.D. with accounts of Murad’s famed great-granduncle, Ismail, a famed geneticist with interesting notions for ridding the then-communist republic of annoying Islamic and Christian influences. The Urbana P.D. collectively nodded and collected the university’s purloined paraphernalia, leaving the agent to track Murad’s cell phone history directly to esteemed alumnus and former keg-buddy Jason Kendrick. From the scorched evidence scattered amid the local corn stubble, it would appear Ari had won the Science Fair and Mulder would be forced to pursue a new avenue of investigation.
Scully rode silently as her partner considered just what that avenue might be. She averted a head-on collision with the dashboard as Mulder yanked their rental into a long-abandoned Mobil station.
“I got it,” he breathed.
“You will soon,” Scully threatened.
“The cows,” Mulder stated.
Scully leaned back, the urge to pistol-whip her partner subsiding. “I will assume, given our bucolic surroundings and the fact that over the past half hour, I’ve spotted more Holsteins than, frankly, I might ever have cared to have seen, that you mean these cows.”
“Don’t you notice anything strange about these cows?” Mulder gestured toward the pasture across the blacktop road. Scully stared at a half-dozen black-and-white bovines; a few stared back.
“They’re rather unexpressive,” she concluded.
“I mean their orientation,” Mulder sighed.
“Not that it’s any of your business, but precisely how do their sexual proclivities—“
“Their geographical orientation, Scully, jeez. Satellite images have proven cattle tend to align their bodies in a north-south direction. Same with wild deer. The theory is that some mammals, including bats and African mole rats, are influenced by the Earth’s magnetic fields. Makes sense – migrating birds do it, salmon do it…”
“Even educated fleas do it, yes, Mulder,” Scully snapped. “Your point?”
Mulder pointed to the intersecting county road. “That’s a north-south route, right?”
“And all but one of the 12, no, ah, 13 cows in that field is standing parallel with that road.”
“Hold on,” Mulder advised, wrenching the wheel and bumping back onto the road, in the direction from whence they’d come.
“I knew it was coming,” Scully murmured as fence posts and utility poles hurtled past. A half-mile later, Mulder braked at a stream where a trio of Swiss Browns was grazing. Facing north. He made two more stops before Scully sat up and peered out her window. Four more stops, and her face was pasted to the car window.
“If you haven’t noticed, we’ve passed County Road 1100. And every cow for at least 15 miles to the east or west of it’s been lined up in an east-west orientation. I’ll bet I drive another 20 miles, and we’ll see a buttload of reoriented cows.”
“I’ll accept your hypothesis, if it gets us reoriented toward a motel shower,” Scully said. “It’s intriguing, Mulder, but what does it mean?”
Her partner grinned triumphantly. “Not the slightest.”
“Closed,” Alice Falstaff half-shouted from New Books, a single shelf currently holding five volumes, a weekly record for the Plaindale Community Library. The Library Fund was as red as the Britannicas that held court over Reference, but a couple donors had come through around Christmas.
The young man at the locked door rapped again with a single knuckle.
Alice adjusted her bifocals and waved a hand irritably. “I said we’re closed. Tuesdays and Thursdays, 10 to 4.”
The man smiled amiably, reached into his jacket, and held his wallet to the glass. Alice squinted and edged forward, past the checkout counter and the fundraising thermometer for the proposed new book van. The idiot kept grinning, and the librarian growled inaudibly and glared at his ID. Then fumbled for the key.
Mulder replaced his FBI ID and stepped inside the faintly musty cool of the small-town library. “Sorry to bother you, ma’am, but I need some information about the area. You have any bound newspapers, microfilm, maybe back into the 1870s?”
Alice crossed her arms. “I have a meeting at the church in an hour. You can’t come back Thursday? Or perhaps,” she sighed loudly, “I could open up special for you tomorrow.”
“Well, my partner and I are probably heading out tomorrow, and I really need this information.” It was not really a lie, to the best of Scully’s knowledge. “Oh, and a history of the county would be great, too. I tried Googling first, but there were only some high school sports stats, a couple obits, and few vague references to the region during the 19th Century.”
Mulder’s reference to the unprinted page seemed only to further annoy the slight gray woman. “Do you have a warrant?”
“I’m not sure I actually need one for a public library,” the agent squeaked. Mulder glanced past Alice at the outsized cardboard thermometer. “Look, would fif–, er, $100 help you get your, uh, bookmobile?”
“Van,” Alice stated flatly. “A moment, please.” The librarian strode purposefully to the checkout counter, and as Levar Burton looked on from the wall above, lifted a huge embroidered purse from below. She rummaged, and an iPhone emerged. She stared down her nose at the keyboard display and delicately tapped out seven digits.
“Ada, Alice,” she said drily. “We have something of an emergency down here, so you and the others just start without me. But you tell Betty it’s chili next Saturday or I’m taking my business to the Lutherans. I don’t care. All right, then. Fill you in later.”
The librarian re-interred her smartphone and inspected Mulder. “See that ID again, and then we’ll go to the basement. Let me lock that hundred up.”
Scully had emerged fresh and rejuvenated from the Motel Six bathroom to find Mulder and the rental car gone. Assuming he had continued his Suessian inventory of North-Facing and West-Facing Bovines, she re-re-reviewed the Murad casefile, reconned the immediate motel perimeter for dinner possibilities (McNuggets, a microwave burrito, or a truck stop burger appeared the best bets), and settled in with the Barefoot Contessa, who was preparing canapés and frothy summer drinks for her Hamptons BFFs. Then stayed for a courtroom dispute between an obese stylist and her dissatisfied customer, the final 15 minutes of Two and Some-Odd Men, the 6 O’Clock Litany of Local Mayhem and International Despair on one of the Springfield stations, and a long wait at a Chinese restaurant with Jerry, George, and Elaine.
Scully was learning how to smoke a brisket with Bobby Flay when Mulder returned, a stack of yellowed volumes and a large white bag in hand. He dropped the bag on the nightstand and the books on the extra bed Scully always secured for such purposes.
“You dig in,” Mulder said. “I’ve got some research to do.”
Bobby Flay’s sardonic countenance disappeared with a flick of Scully’s wrist. She glanced at the bed.
“The History of Peterson County, Volume I?”
Mulder nodded, tugging a Big Mac free of the bag. “The author was very detail-oriented, not to mention averse to paragraph returns. Volume II covered the ‘20s and ‘30s, and the other five the more recent affairs of the Petersonians, ah, the Peterson Countians?”
“Ah, the Great Invasion of ’79,” Scully breathed.
“And some more recent developments.” He slapped three large red-bound tomes. “The Peterson County Herald-Guardian, 1934, 1967, and 2012. I need to stop at the high school tomorrow morning.”
Scully strayed to the nightstand, the aroma of Mulder’s burger making her light-headed. She reached into the bag. “And this has what to do with Ari Murad or Jason Kendrick?”
Mulder swiped a bead of ketchup from his chin. “Oh, absolutely nothing. I didn’t know what you wanted, and it looked like you were in one of your cute little diet phases at lunch.”
Scully stared disconsolately at the tub of lettuce, walnuts, and cranberries in her hand.
“Looksh yummy,” Mulder observed through a mouthful of beef patty, cheese, pickle, special sauce, and sesame seed bun.
“Try the Honey Mustard and the Ranch together on one nugget,” Mulder suggested. Scully pointedly jammed her composite chicken chunk in the Sweet-and-Sour. They were sharing the Exit 93 Mickey D’s with a table of raucous teens, a couple clearly crossing the Great Nothing between St. Louis and Chicago, a Sasquatchesque trucker, and a trio of older ladies who’d broken out the canasta deck over McCafes and apple pies. “So, anyway, in 1879, several UFOs were reported over Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Illinois. The first started April 5th in Omaha — more than a 100 people saw a spherical flying object roughly 12 feet long, with a steel-like body. A cigar-shaped craft appeared over Sioux City, Iowa, several nights later, and a Methodist minister who gave a detailed description of an ovoid UFO in the local paper. This continued for about a week more, then they left the area.”
“Smart move,” Scully muttered, gnawing on a nugget. A dispute had broken out among the canasta players, and the trucker rewrapped his burger for the road. “That was 18 years after the supposed local sightings. How do you explain that?”
“The accounts of the 1879 sighting described a smaller, more compact object, like an egg with ringed lights. The Peterson County witnesses included a local pastor, who had a conveniently theological theory about the UFO, and the mayor. But the sighting was isolated, as far as the records I can find online. That doesn’t track with the average event.”
“Yeah, the average ones. So, I repeat, what does this have to do with our case at hand? And what about those newspapers? Let me guess: 1934, 1967, and 2012. You’re studying up on our shotgun-toting buddy Ray’s family history. You having a change of heart about our harmless old man?
“Not really. I just find his pattern of behavior interesting.” Mulder reached for the penultimate nugget; Scully claimed it. “Here’s a fundamentally asocial man, lives like a hermit but by all accounts is rational, successful in his trade, and educated. Tries to stay out of the public spotlight, but stands up to a group of young bullies on behalf of what I’d imagine is a very unpopular cause. Just like his great-grand uncle and his cousin in their day.”
“I have to imagine that not every rural blue-collar working man is a cross-burning, gay-bashing, Jew-hating fascist,” Scully countered, swiping her chicken through ranch dressing. “Maybe inclusivity, Christian intolerance, is part of the family’s religious or cultural background, a racial memory of sorts.”
Mulder leaned in as the teen table erupted in bawdy laughter. “And the family, Scully. Don’t you find that odd? Most multi-generational farms pass from father to son to grandson, or at least between siblings. But from Ray’s great-grand uncle to his first cousin to Ray?”
“Again, the rural culture, Mulder. The drive to keep land in the family, but no offspring to inherit. The cousin and Ray may have been the only relatives interested.”
“A long line of asocial, corn-lovin’ bachelor farmers?”
“Genetics is a tricky thing,” Scully said, moving in for the last McNugget. “Who knows what emotional or social factors are woven into the chromosomes? I don’t know what you’re getting at, or why you particularly care. I don’t necessarily see anything anomalous here.”
“OK,” Mulder grinned. “Come back to the room, and I’ll show you an anomaly.”
“Mister, you need to work on your closing,” Scully advised.
Mulder cackled insincerely, alarming the canasta club. “Seriously, I want you to explain something.”
“Mulder, why is this so all-consuming? You think there’s some connection between the UFOs and Harwood?”
Her partner frowned. “Noooo. Not necessarily.”
“Then what’s the deal?”
Mulder played with an orphaned fry, then wiped his fingers on his slacks. “Dunno. Just bored, I guess. Two conundrums in the same town – you gotta admit that’s kinda cool.”
“Conundra,” Scully corrected. “I have to admit no such thing. Sorry you’re bored, Mulder.”
He shrugged, then grinned evilly. “I do have one idea. Involves a couple dozen packets of sweet-and-sour sauce and some Quantico-style interrogation role-playing.”
Scully looped her handbag over her shoulder. “C’mon, let’s look at this anomaly of yours.”
Mulder handled the yellowed pages of the Peterson County Herald-Guardian with reverence, nonetheless scattering newsprint crumbs across the bedspread. He tapped a high-contrast portrait of a seemingly sullen, hard-featured man strikingly similar to Ray Harwood.
“June 12, 1933,” Mulder began. “‘…Witnesses told county authorities local farmer Delbert Harwood personally faced down the hooded riders, armed only with a single-barrel shotgun. After angry words were exchanged, the group abruptly ended its drill and disbanded before the sheriff’s department arrived. When asked to comment on the encounter, Harwood told this reporter to, quote, “peddle your papers elsewhere.””
“So the locals aren’t exactly silver-tongued devils,” Scully murmured.
“Just hold on.” Mulder shoved the 1932 bound volume aside and retrieved another, flipping it open to a yellow sticky. “October 1967. ‘The complaint, which alleged physical assaults on several workers and price-gouging by local merchants reportedly confined to the Mexican pickers, was filed by Carl Harwood, a grain farmer who himself does not use migrant labor.’ Harwood would offer no comment on his complaint, other than to tell reporters to ‘go peddle their papers elsewhere.’”
Scully paused as Mulder opened the third volume. The newsprint was fresher and less fragrant, though the typography and stilted headlines hadn’t changed much in 40 years.
“This is the gay-bashing incident last October. ‘Peterson County Prosecutor Glen Faulkes indicated he had no plans to bring charges against Harwood, despite the 17-year-old assailant’s broken arm. Faulkes said Harwood acted in defense of the Peterson High School junior, who himself sustained two broken fingers and several minor contusions in the altercation. Peterson himself was silent regarding the incident – “Go peddle your crap somewhere else,” the area grain farmer told a Springfield Channel 55 WRSP news crew at the courthouse yesterday.’ The phraseology’s updated, but the cliché’s the same.”
Scully was silent for a moment. “Families, even whole communities, develop common idioms and catchphrases. You go to any Scully family reunion and you’ll invariably hear, ‘Dana, how’s that lunatic partner of yours?’”
“Yeah, OK, fine,” Mulder groused, slamming the bound volume shut. “You win.” He searched for the remote and flipped on the scuffed set bolted to the motel dresser. “Hey, Ghost Hunter’s Marathon on Syfy.”
“Yay,” Scully stated as Mulder wedged her pillow under his shoulders. “I win.” She snatched the remote from him and stated, “You know, I brought back some of those sweet and sour packs in my purse…”
Scully started with a grunt as the tentacle tightened around her ankle. Swearing off McNuggets, she wiped a bead of drool from her chin and sat up on the worn but spotless motel spread. On the set, a pair of geeks in night-vision goggles were rushing through the halls of a cluttered home that looked borrowed from Hoarders.
Scully glanced at the bedside clock: 12:35.
“Hey, Mulder,” she rasped, silencing the paranormal investigators with the remote. “We need to get on the road early tomorrow. Mulder?”
An exhaustive investigation revealed no Mulder, nor, for that matter, the rental car. The final deductive pieces fell into place with the hastily scrawled note her partner had left atop the TV: “Be back.”
“Of course,” Scully sighed, surveying the perhaps 237th such room she’d inhabited since Quantico and Mulder’s discarded suit on the worn carpet beside the bed. “And they say we can’t have it all.”
“Yeah, Mr. Harwood?” Mulder greeted cheerfully. “This is Agent Mulder. Remember me? Yep. Well, I’m sorry to interrupt your evening, but I have a few more questions.”
The agent watched the shadow behind the front room curtains, tethered by a twisted cord. Old-school landline, he observed, switching the iPhone to his other hand. Smart.
“Nah, it’s not about Jason Kendrick. Or this morning. Wanted to chat about your Great-Uncle Delbert and your cousin Carl. And some visitors you folks had, oh, about 130 years or so ago.”
The figure stopped pacing.
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist,” Mulder murmured. “You ever heard of the X-Files bureau of the FBI. We investigate what you might call anomalies, and I think we got the mother of anomalies right here in Peterson County. Tell you what: I’m probably about a half-hour away, but I remember where the place is. See you soon.”
Mulder ended the call quickly, before the old man could protest further, and grinned with the excitement of a boy with his dad’s pilfered Playboy.
Scully soon tired of diner-hopping with Guy and redecorating with the Income Property crew and following tiara-ed toddlers and ditzy Kardashians and moon-shining hill folk. In her agitated state, sleep was impossible, but Scully was suspended in the gray, restless limbo of Nowhere on a Tuesday night.
The Murad casefile took all of five minutes to re-review, and the Gideon bible, a Pizza Hut delivery flyer, and the fire procedures screwed to the motel door were about it for reading matter. Then Scully’s eye caught the tangle of aged newsprint and musty binding on the bed.
Lots of school chili suppers, bake sales, zoning and sewer meetings, endless football and basketball games written in florid battle metaphors. Scully revisited the oddly activist history of the Harwood Clan in an attempt to divine just what had sent her partner/partner into the rural night. She found herself viewing Ray Harwood in a different light, grudgingly admiring the stand he’d taken in what had to be a treacherously unpopular cause.
Then Scully spotted it, below the fold from the Harwood piece, in 24-point sans-serif bold. Something primal kicked in as she locked in on the headline, and her frustration with Mulder was forgotten.
Kendrick barn rejected by historical commission
Scully wasn’t surprised – the accompanying photo showed a gap-toothed, eczema-ravaged, round barn with a definite Pisa tilt. Abandoned, no doubt decades ago, in favor of the Morton building/farm shop in which the late Jason Kendrick had concocted his addictive product line. Forgotten off in the farthest reach of Nowhere, until the Kendricks saw an opportunity at a tax break. Forgotten, no doubt, again.
Scully reached for her jacket, pried on her heels, and began to jot a note for Mulder.
“Aaah, screw it,” she decided.
Mulder stealthily negotiated the embankment at the edge of the Harwood property, and followed a line of oaks to the backyard, where a single lawn chair kept watch on the cornfields beyond. The kitchen light was off, but he had a straight line of vision through to the living room, where the agents of NCIS’ Los Angeles branch were stalking a shady character in Venice Beach.
He advanced on the small but immaculate frame house, then stopped with a frown. He hadn’t remembered any TV in the background when he’d called…
“Think I was born yesterday, Agent?” Ray Harwood mused as Mulder felt cold metal between the scapulae.
“Actually,” Mulder sighed, “quite the opposite.”
Harwood placed the shotgun on the broad, ‘40s-era department store table as he took the captain’s chair opposite Mulder.
“My partner knows—” Mulder started uncertainly.
“Nothing,” Harwood completed. “You let her in on your little operation, she’d have been out of the shadows by now, storming the place. You kind of do what you feel like, don’t you? Professionally and personally. Don’t look so shocked, Agent Mulder. I could feel the old married vibe off the both of you this morning, when you and Kenny Latraub came back. Bet her life’s full of surprises, or full of something. You want some coffee?”
Mulder did not glance at the weapon on the table. “Sure. Thanks.”
Harwood nodded. “Not loaded, you know. Still want a cup?”
“Long as you have some brewed already. I’ve got a lot of questions.”
“Bet you do, bet you do. Black?”
Harwood reached into a cabinet above the huge old basin sink as Mulder scanned the home with satisfaction. Few adornments, no photos. A few bookcases stuffed with an eclectic assortment of non-fiction.
A minute later, the old farmer returned with a steaming china mug and a small, dusty old book with the legend “Farmer’s Pocket Companion” and the imprint of the John Deere Plow Company. The volume fanned momentarily as it fell to the table before Mulder. It was filled with tight sepia script.
“Read,” Harwood ordered. “Maybe you won’t feel the need to ask too many questions. I’ll just sit. Nothing much else to do.”
It was in the very epicenter of Nowhere, where asphalt gave way to gravel and gravel surrendered to dirt and corn stubble. The barn resembled a huge hunchbacked creature slumbering in the corner of the now-fallow field, the full, insistent moonlight defining its gray, damaged spine.
Scully advanced, cursing once again her choice of footwear as she traversed desiccated cobs and stover and stalks. She gripped her weapon as she glanced back at the battered sedan she’d commandeered from the motel manager and listened to the chirruping insects that owned this outpost of Nowhere.
She angled in from the side, careful to cast no shadow across the gaping maw of the barn. Then, with a sudden swift move, Scully disappeared into the maw.
Elam tossed the last shovelful of dirt onto the mound and pounded the soil with the back of the broad iron blade, hoping to silence the faint humming. It had droned like a plague of locusts before the farmer had interred it; now it was a low, regular rhythm unlike anything he’d ever heard in God’s Creation. Elam questioned, in fact, that this infernal machine was of His creation.
He slumped against the trunk of the thick red oak that shaded the expanse between field’s edge and the rear of his small frame house. Elam had no family – influenza had claimed his folks in ’56, and he’d stoically continued tilling the sod and tending to the animals that had sustained their spartan and isolated lives. He had few friends, and scarcely any visitors in the years since their deaths – the “grave” would be barely noticeable once the spring grass emerged.
Now to the other grave – the chore he’d been dreading. The flash that penetrated his thick feedbag curtains, the terrible clatter that had abruptly ended Elam’s slumber had been merely the prelude to a waking nightmare. If the ruined contraption he’d buried was of some other world, the creature that lay some five feet beyond clearly was of Hell. While he’d never been much religious after his folks had passed, Elam could feel there was something of the damned that had been brought almost literally to his doorstep, and thus had been reluctant to bring his neighbors or the sheriff into this affair.
Elam steeled himself and climbed back to his feet, retrieved the shovel, and bit into the hard ground.
And dropped the shovel as a keening wail broke the night. Then, with a jolt, he realized: He hadn’t so much heard the beastly cry as felt it. In his head. Elam stumbled over the shovel and was sent sprawling onto his belly, face-to-face with the abomination.
And screamed as a heavy gray lid rose and moonlight caught the aqueous surface of a single black eyeball. From the damage to the machine, Elam had assumed the creature was dead, but could not bring himself to confirm it.
Elam was paralyzed, his heart slamming against his ribs, as he tried to break contact with the alien eye. His calloused fingers trembled and searched in the darkness, finally encountering and tightening on the rough wooden handle. He used the shovel as a lever, and planting his boots uneasily, raised the implement above his head, unconsciously chanted a verse from Psalms, his ma’s favorite, as if to exorcise the demon that now lie on his farmstead.
Then it blinked.
No. It was fear – the black orb retreated into a thick gray fold as the creature faced its impending mortality, its violent end at the hands of a strange being in a strange place, Elam suspected, far from home. It cried out again, this time aloud and in Elam’s skull. His head filled with high, frantic jabber as the creature shifted and the eye contracted in pain and terror.
And another voice, clear and serene, his mother, broke through the cacophony. Your love, O LORD, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies.
By divine command men are bound to be kind to strangers, and what God commands in others he will exemplify in Himself…
Elam blinked; tears escaped as he glanced momentarily to the sea of stars above his fields.
Test me, O LORD, and try me, examine my heart and my mind; for your love is ever before me, and I walk continually in your truth…
Elam’s lank, calloused fingers trembled as he leaned closer. Mustering his strength, he touched its. . .hide. Seemingly every molecule of his brain suddenly jumped with new data, horrific and otherwordly visions, ideas that had no place in Elam’s time or universe.
And something else.
“God,” he whispered hoarsely, hurling the shovel away.
“God,” Mulder whispered, turning the page.
Scully advanced, palms dry and calm against the grip of her Glock. The light of the full moon leaked through slats and missing panels and the hayloft above. Long-abandoned tools laid here and there; a grain wagon had been collecting dust most likely since the ‘70s. Otherwise, Scully was alone.
She sighed and clicked on her mag lite. Scully played the beam around the interior of the structure. The historical society’s decision appeared justified: The barn had been repeatedly and haphazardly patched, probably after repeated storm damage. Peterson County was in the middle of Tornado Alley.
The agent laughed nervously at her own folly, and lowered both gun and flashlight. Shaking her head, she glanced down at the dirt floor.
And spotted a familiar swoosh, surrounded by a pattern of ridges and valleys in the shape of a size 11 Nike.
“Boom,” Scully muttered. The shoeprint turned out to have several companions. The parade of treadmarks ended in the center of the barn, circled back outside, and ended in the grass to the side of the barn. A search of the periphery revealed ATV ruts, and a trace on the ruts turned up, of all things, a Kawasaki ATV, parked discreetly in the shadows to the rear of the barn.
And that’s where the trail ended. Glock in hand, Scully carefully circumnavigated the barn, stopping only to listen to the muffled strains of Jay Z.
“What the —?” Scully whispered. The music was distinct, but it sounded almost subterranean. The agent turned to the scabbed side of the barn and what appeared to be a broad board leaning against it. Scully reached down and placed her hand on the board. And felt the music. In tone-deafening Dolby.
Tornado Alley, she reflected, feeling about the “board.” Scully discovered the handle, lifted the Glock, and flung the storm cellar hatch open…
Mulder looked up abruptly from the journal. “How?”
Harwood refilled his mug, this time from a squat bottle of amber liquid that had gathered grime on the kitchen counter. He shrugged.
“We just, I don’t know, connected. She knew what I was thinking, and I could see what she felt, her pain.”
Mulder’s eyes widened with Harwood’s use of the pronoun. The farmer smiled distantly. “Guess I preferred to think of her as a her. All these years, I don’t know if she was a she, and eventually, it didn’t seem to matter. Like the verse says, the scales fell from my eyes that moment out there when…”
“When you touched her,” Mulder whispered. “Right, Elam?”
Harwood slumped into the chair opposite the agent. “It was part of knowing her, joining with her. She just, I guessed, stopped things. They live a lot longer’n any of us, and I have no idea how long she’d traveled around out there before we, ah, met. They don’t think in those terms, you know?”
“And you two…?”
Harwood bolted his whiskey. “Not how you think. But it was, well, wondrous, I guess is the word. She showed me the world, and not just mine.”
Mulder tapped the journal against the table. “That’s why you left. Kept leaving.”
“Had to disappear every once in a while, reappear as Delbert, as Carl, as Ray. Otherwise, they’d get suspicious, they’d ask questions. They’d come.”
“And she went with you? Where?”
Harwood’s lip twitched. “She stayed here. We got a well behind the corn. Guess you’d call it hibernation. Like I said, minutes, hours, seconds — pretty much all the same to her.”
“And the episodes with the night riders, the migrant workers, the gay-bashers.”
The old farmer — far older than his lined face could convey — placed his mug carefully on the chipped wood and considered. “What she and I had, nobody would’ve understood. Not whites nor blacks nor Jews nor Mexicans nor straight nor gay. Funny, probably could’ve done more to fix race relations on this planet just by showing up at the diner some Friday night. And that’s what she gave me, more than 100 years I wasn’t entitled to. Black, white, Jew, Mexican, gay, Methodist — didn’t seem to amount to too much any more.”
Harwood perked. “Hah?”
“She gave you, what she and you had, you don’t know if she WAS a she.”
Harwood stared at Mulder, then glanced away into the darkness outside.
“What happened?” Mulder asked.
Meth has no single smell — like Flay, Legasse, Puck, every master chef has his or her own riff on methamphetamine, a distinctive palette based on trial-and-error or the materials at hand or unguarded in their neighborhood or community. In her years with the Bureau, Scully had smelled the sweet bouquet of ether, the acrid stench of a hundred incontinent cats, a mulligatawny of household chemicals blended lovingly with cold tabs or ammonia fertilizer.
Inching toward the bottom of the warped cellar steps, she detected none of the various parfums associated with the Heartland’s prime drug du jour. If anything, there was only an organic scent that reminded Scully somehow of high school biology lab. But without the not-so-subtle hint of chemical preservation. Frog sans formaldehyde.
Scully’s mind went first to the psychotropic thrills of toad-licking — the pursuit of hapless amphibians for a bufotoxin-induced high. Largely urban legend, though some claimed that with the popular preparation… Another culinary reference — Scully cursed bypassing a Big Mac.
Then she remembered the Urbana PD/FBI file on Kendrick and Murad. Jason Kendrick had come home for an advanced degree in commercial chemistry, inviting his roomie along to explore a future in biology. Fortunate for Ari Murad that he’d subleased the rattletrap barn rather than sharing Kendrick’s sleek machine shed. The shed was on a more-highly traveled road — Jason might have been concerned about a young Middle Easterner shuttling between his shed and the old farmstead here in Corn Country.
Either that or Kendrick might have been more than a bit creeped-out by the echinophibians or starfrogs or whatever Murad had managed to create in their shared digs. Scully felt a slight chill as she descended into the cellar, and it had nothing to do with the cool of the evening.
Boxes of supplies, bags of Doritos and Cheetos, cases of Dew lined the “foyer” of the Kendrick cavern. Jay Z gave way to Diddy as she moved through the dirt-walled corridor toward the light and the throbbing beat. She lingered in the shadows beyond the aura of a super strength battery-powered lamp. Scully could make out an open laptop flanked by a mi-fi device and a stack of legal pads. The laptop monitor illuminated sharply a bespectacled face with a Mediterranean nose and dark, focused eyes.
That is, semi-focused. Ari Murad stared blankly at the screen, wobbling slightly on a canvas camp chair and fumbling neon-tangerine cheese curls from a bag in his lap. Crumpled green cans littered the dust around him.
A few yards away, Scully could make out a blue child’s wading pool and a steady chirping. The fragrance of frog grew stronger as her eyes traveled to a large translucent Rubbermaid tub half-filled with sloshing water and ill-defined, sluggishly sloshing shapes. She swallowed her revulsion as she steeled herself, and lunged into the light.
“Ari Murad!” she shouted. “Place your hands where I can see them!!”
Murad turned slowly, a befuddled half-grin on his half-lit, fully lit features. “Shit, man,” he mumbled, and dived for a backpack resting against the pool.
“Don’t do that!!” Scully bellowed, feeling somewhat foolish. Her arms stiffened as she swung toward the moving student. Murad came up with what appeared to be a large caliber gun.
“Get outta here, bitch!” he slurred, waving the weapon.
“I’m FBI, Ari,” Scully murmured, trying to soften the mood of the room. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“Aw, fuck,” Murad moaned. “Jason’s gonna shit.”
The agent paused. “Ari, when did you last speak with your friend?”
“Couple days ago. He’s been busy with his latest batch– with the farm. The cows and shit.”
“And you’ve been down here how long?”
“Bout four days. Jason says I gotta keep it on the DL, you know, Arab dude kinda sticks out around these parts, right?” Murad grinned before leveling his piece.
Scully made her decision. It could either set him off or take the fight out of him. “Ari, your friend Jason? I’m afraid he’s gone. There was an explosion at the machine shed.”
Murad slumped against a dirt wall. “Oh, fuck. Jason, man. I said that meth shit was dangerous — you read about those labs goin’ up all the time. It’s so old-school. Jason’s dead, man. Fuck.”
“And what are you doing, Ari?” Scully inquired, gun still at arm’s length. “We found your ‘experiment.’ Molecular biology? Gene splicing?”
“Some cool shit, right?” Murad swelled, weapon waggling. “My Uncle Ismail — you prolly heard of him — he left some notes on neural regeneration, restoring lost nerves, even limbs. I started looking at echinoderms and amphibians — both have amazing regenerative abilities. If I could tap into that shit, it might be the answer to human neurodegenerative disease, that kinda thing.”
“I read Hirokawa’s paper on brittle stars,” Scully nodded.
“Yeah, yeah. Well, so I started screwing around with some echinoderm and amphibian chromosomal material, you know, half to identify promising genotypes, half just for the shit of it, and I managed to come up with a viable cross. Things bred like those things — you know, kids used to send away for ’em, they were really just brine shrimp. Usually died after a couple days, if they hatched at all.”
“Sea monkeys.” Scully began to perceive the conversation drifting. “And did you find it? A transferable regenerative trait?” She didn’t note that pioneering work already had been done in the field, with terrifying results.
“Nah. Outta my pay grade. But I did make a pretty cool discovery. Know what you get when you cross a starfish with a frog?”
“A very exhausted and irritable FBI agent with a cocked gun in your root cellar.”
Murad blinked, then cackled. “That’s pretty good. Naw, though. You get a high that makes meth seem like Advil. Transferring a certain echinoderm chain into the right Bufo chromosome produces an enzyme you can synthesize into a kick-ass psychotropic compound.”
Scully gaped at the student. “You’ve successfully produced not merely a cross-genera or cross-family but a cross-phylum hybrid, shattered the frontiers of modern genetic science, all so you capture the market on club drugs?”
“Yeah, right?” Murad grinned. “Jason was thinking old-school chemistry. Biotechnology — that’s where the next great psychopharmaceuticals are coming from.” The fugitive then grew pensive. “Jason. Fuck. Poor dumb shit.”
“Yeah,” Scully murmured. “Why don’t you slide your weapon over here before we have two tragedies on our hands?”
Murad struggled to his feet. “Nah, time you guys and DEA and probably ICE get done with me, I’ll probably be buried deeper’n bin Laden.” He leveled his gun and stepped into the light.
“Oh, shit,” he sighed, glancing at his “weapon.” Scully quickly stepped forward and yanked the glass bong from the narcotized student’s fingers, then shoved him to the dirt. After securing his wrists, she glanced curiosity at the Rubbermaid tub and the shadows twitching and crawling inside it. Scully lifted a corner of the plastic lid, then snapped it back into place as she felt half-digested McNuggets roil inside her.
“Pretty cool, huh?” Murad asked, struggling to roll onto his back.
“Shut up,” Scully requested.
“Time meant nothing to her,” Harwood murmured, still staring off into the blackness outside. “But place, home, well. Every once in a while, I could feel her thinking about it. Them. See, she’d been I guess what you’d call a scout, looking to see what she could scavenge various places. Buried her friend out there, under that big tree. Somewhere — probably further away than any human could even calculate — they had to be wondering what had happened. Because minutes, hours, seconds were all the same, it kept fresh in her brain, though she had me and me her.”
“When’d it happen?” Mulder inquired. “When’d they find her?”
Harwood grinned then, horribly, painfully. “They didn’t.”
Mulder’s chest tightened, and his fingers strayed toward his sidearm. “Where is she?”
Harwood stood, took his mug to the sink, rinsed and wiped it, and placed it gently in a cupboard above.
“Yeah,” he grunted. “She’s still here.”
Mulder planted his palms on the table, mouth dry. “Can I see her, Elam?”
“You want, sure. See… See, it was about a week ago when she, when she felt them. They were close. Not close like you and I think about, but close. Few days, and they’d be close enough to feel her, too. We been together a century, more, and I thought I’d felt everything, we’d felt everything. But this one was new, what I felt. She was excited and some things only she could tell you. One thing I could tell.”
“She was leaving.” Mulder slumped back.
“Minutes, seconds, hours. I’d lived two lifetimes with her — watched my own die of smallpox, war, drink, age. It was different for her. She’d been with them for centuries, maybe more. Me, a blink of an eye. I could feel her leaving already. And then I began to feel something, something I hadn’t felt for 134 years. Wonder if she saw it coming, or maybe if she just…”
“Where is she, Elam?”
Harwood turned toward Mulder. “Two lifetimes. Everything she’d shown me, everything we’d shared. The idea of having nobody who could…understand, well that was unbearable. The idea she’d leave me to live out my days alone here, well…”
“You said she was still here, Elam,” Mulder prodded. “Where is she?”
Harwood nodded, then disappeared into the living room beyond. He returned a moment later with a thickly bound pebbled leather volume. He flipped the volume open and spread it before Mulder. The kitchen was silent as the agent studied the solitary photo — yellowed, faded about the borders, simultaneously mundane and startling. The eye held Mulder until he remembered to breathe. He understood why the old farmer had been so quick on the draw when two suits had shown up in his drive.
“She’s out there,” Harwood informed him, hollowly, glancing at his empty shotgun. “The big tree. Took me a while to dig that grave. ‘Bout 134 years.”
Mulder studied the old man, who was now becoming older with every sweep of the red plastic clock above the kitchen sink. Harwood waited. Mulder’s chair squeaked on the linoleum.
“Can I leave?” he asked in the doorway.
“You can,” Harwood responded with a curious emphasis.
The manager’s Chevy died before it could bump into place outside Scully’s room. Mulder’s dusty rental slid in beside her; he nodded as they opened their doors in unison.
“Where’d you go?” he asked.
“Drive in the country,” Scully yawned. “We’re going to have to talk with Latraub and some DEA guys in the morning. You?”
“Same. Except for the DEA guys.” Mulder hesitated. “I’m beat.”
The pair trudged wordlessly to the door. Mulder fumbled with the key and admitted them to a box full of stale, chilled air.
“Hey, Scully,” he began, as if he’d come to a major decision.
“No,” she stated, seizing her partner by the shirtfront and shoving him onto the bed.
Mulder fell face-first onto the carpet as he attempted to respond to the insistent rapping. The naked agent bounced to his feet, glanced at the other naked agent lying atop the spread, still purring softly, and searched in the semi-darkness for his slacks. Mulder collided with the motel desk, swallowed a few choice observations, and snagged his khakis and shirt. The rapping continued as he hobbled to the door, circled back, threw the comforter over Scully’s bare rump, and again collided with the desk.
Mulder reeled back as the mid-morning sun exploded into the room. The small, dark figure bathed in the blinding light gradually took form and identity.
“My bound volumes,” Alice Falstaff stated. “You promised.”
Mulder nodded stupidly and limped to the second bed. Alice waited patiently, eyes straight ahead, as he gathered the periodicals and hauled them to the open station wagon at the curb. The librarian kicked up gravel as she pulled out, barely missing Latraub’s cruiser. The lawman waved as he pulled into the spot.
“Missed the party last night,” Latraub grinned, adjusting his Sam Browne. “Just got done with the DEA folks — probably heading here next.”
Mulder had no idea what the sheriff was talking about. Latraub didn’t appear to notice as he headed for the motel door.
“Busy night last night, between your partner’s little raid and the blackouts.”
“Blackouts?” Mulder grunted.
“Weirdest thing,” Latraub nodded. “Power went out for about seven minutes all over the county, ’bout 3 a.m. Even my cruiser went dead. Probably those aliens, huh? Come back for the chicken, right?”
And moved on when they didn’t find what they really came for. Mulder laughed lamely.
“Most feds we’ve had here since my grandma thought she saw Dillinger eating meatloaf at the Main Street Diner. Just another boring Tuesday in the sticks, huh?”
Before Mulder could react, the sheriff pushed past into the room. Scully, bent over the bedside table, yelped and sprinted into the bathroom as Latraub turned discreetly toward the wall.
“Was gonna wish you a happy Hump Day,” the lawman murmured. “But I see I’m a little late.”