Category Archives: Christmas

Permaceo Noctus

TITLE: Permaceo Noctus

AUTHOR: StarfleetOfficer1

RATING: PG13 for language

DISCLAIMER: No copyright infringement intended.

SUMMARY: Mulder and the Scully family get more than they bargained for when they volunteer to help at a homeless shelter on Christmas Eve.

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L’ENFANT PLAZA

WASHINGTON, D.C.

DECEMBER 24th, 2010

1800

“Uncle Mulder? What causes poverty?”

Matthew’s relatively innocent question caught Mulder off-guard as he untied the last sleeping bag and placed it on the camping mattress. He stood up from his squatting position and shook his head at his twelve-year-old companion.

“It varies,” he answered, and led the way back to the food court. They were on the upper level of the mall, walking past closed shops with their gates drawn and lights out. Sleeping bags lined the walkway, some cushioned by air mattresses and camping mattresses. The moving homeless shelter would find a new building every week, and this particular night required a bigger building than most churches could provide.

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“Some people get addicted to drugs or alcohol and spend all their money on those things, so they can’t pay rent. And they can’t hold down a job because the drugs and alcohol affect their performance,” Mulder continued, glancing down at Matt, who was paying rapt attention. “Sometimes people lose their jobs and can’t find new ones in time to pay their bills. Or they may have medical expenses that drain all their savings, and then lose their job on top of that. Sometimes people get a bad start, and their parents kick them out of the house when they’re young. They may never get on their feet after that.”

Matt nodded slowly, deep in thought.

“Then there are those who just can’t seem to deal with life. Some people’s parents never teach them how to manage money, how to go to work, how to try hard. They may grow up without parents at all, or they might grow up mostly on the streets, so it’s all they know. There are so many variations that it’s hard to pinpoint one reason,” Mulder finished.

“Well, there is one solution, I guess. Even if it’s short-term,” Matt said. “We help out.”

“That’s right,” Mulder agreed with a smile, and put his arm proudly around his nephew’s shoulders. “We’ve got plenty, so we’re volunteering what we’ve got — time and resources — to those who need a boost. We’re trying to help them get on their feet.”

“So that’s what the career center’s all about?” Matt asked. “They give help to people who never learned how to get a job and stuff like that?”

“They also give tutorials on how to find an apartment, and how to budget money. I want you to keep an eye out for a ‘new’ kind of homeless person.”

“Who’s that?” Matt asked, curious.

“Families. You’re going to see a lot of that here—whole families who have been foreclosed, who don’t have incomes because they’ve lost their jobs in this economy. Those people are usually the ones who use the career center. They know how to work and they may know how to save. But they need some advice as to how to rebuild their lives after everything fell apart.”

Matt was quiet for a moment. “What if our house burned down?” he finally asked.

Mulder remembered being his age, before his sister was taken. These thoughts were prevalent in his mind even then. Normal prepubescent kids thought about all the things that could go wrong and realized the multitude of things that could derail their lives.

Mulder squeezed Matt’s shoulders and then released him, and said, “You’d have a place to stay with your Aunt Dana and me. And your mom has insurance on the house and all the stuff inside, so it’d just be a little while before you got a huge check that would help you get started again.

This seemed to reassure the boy, because he nodded and stuck his hands in his pockets. “That’s good,” he said.

They arrived at the food court, which was bustling with volunteers. There were long rows of tables with food buckets available, a huge stack of plates, trays, and silverware, and servers ready to assist their homeless ‘customers’. Scully was preparing the tables, placing napkins at the center of each table as a finishing touch on a huge endeavor. Feeding over 200 people was no small task.

Tara, who was helping Scully, waved at her son and Mulder as they approached. “Are the sleeping bags all set up?”

“Everything’s good to go,” Mulder answered.

Just then, the mall rumbled. Matt looked around and asked, “What was that?”

Scully glanced at her watch. “There’s a huge Metro stop right below us and it’s on the hour. You’ve never felt that before?”

Matt pulled out his cell phone and checked the time, and while checking his emails, said, “Yeah, but I’ve never felt it rumble that much. Must’ve been the express.”

When Matt didn’t put the phone away, Mulder said, “You’re not gonna have time for that when they get here, Matt. If I were you, I’d go grab a granola bar because two hours from now you’ll be hungry.”

“You mean we won’t have time to eat?” Matt asked, shocked.

Tara laughed. “You’re barely going to have time to breathe. Once everyone’s served, we’ll eat the leftovers or eat what I brought. But not before then.”

Matt put his phone away despondently.

“Don’t worry, you won’t go hungry,” Scully reassured him. “Go get a snack now.”

He hurried away to the McDonald’s not far from where they stood, which was still open and manned with two teenagers. It was where the volunteers’ belongings were being kept. No food was being served, but the McDonald’s manager offered to keep it open for this event to volunteer his tables and chairs and the space behind the counter.

The Georgetown Moving Shelter representatives were manning the front doors of the mall, where about two hundred people stood in line outside awaiting entry. They would take their Moving Shelter ID’s that proved they were not offenders and were safe to admit, and then the individuals could enter the mall, grab a meal, watch a movie, visit the career center, or simply go to sleep. Tomorrow they would leave and go wherever they went for the day, and tomorrow night the shelter would have moved all their supplies to their next location. The location schedule was distributed at each of their evening locations and at the regional office, which was open all day for new members to register and obtain an ID.

The first wave of individuals were admitted when the representatives opened the mall doors and began counting. They were admitted in groups of twenty five every ten minutes, and went in order of arrival. As Matt obtained his granola bar, the first wave came through the front door. He stood for a moment in the McDonald’s, opening the wrapper and crunching down on the first bite, watching the twenty-five individuals enter the mall and present their IDs to the volunteers at the desk.

Numbers were entered in a laptop, which was secured to the folding table with a laptop locking cord. Matt saw one man eye that cord and it occurred to the twelve-year-old that he might want to steal it. It was worth a lot of money. He ate the next bite of his granola bar and watched, completely fascinated.

“Hey, dude, you better get over there if you’re serving,” a teenager behind the McDonald’s counter said, but Matt didn’t get the chance to answer him. Mulder’s voice cut through the crowd.

“Matt! C’mon!”

He pocketed the remaining half of the granola bar and ran over to stand next to Mulder, who handed him an apron and pointed to the tray next to his. “This isn’t Discovery Channel, it’s work. Start serving mashed potatoes, kiddo.”

Matt nodded, and tied the apron around his waist silently.

Soon there was a steady line of hungry homeless individuals seeking a warm meal and shelter for the night. At first hesitant as to what he should do, Matt soon got into a rhythm. A half hour into it, he was mimicking Mulder’s question as each person came through. “Mashed potatoes, Sir?” “Would you like mashed potatoes to go with that beef?” “Merry Christmas.”

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They heard another rumble, and this time Matt almost lost his footing and the table shook so violently that the tray almost slid off. Mulder grabbed it at the last second and shoved it back into place, pulling his hand away quickly and shaking it from the heat of the dish. “Are you okay?” he asked Matt.

Matt nodded, but looked worried. The homeless had frozen in place, as if bracing for impact. Many of the servers had as well, and it was Scully who said from not far away, “If that was the train, I’m starting to question the structural integrity—”

As she was speaking, Mulder’s eyes grew huge and he grabbed Matt and dove under the table in one swift motion. Scully stopped speaking and followed suit, although she couldn’t see what he was looking at. It seemed everyone else had a delayed reaction in comparison, because the screams only erupted a moment later.

One level below them where there were still shops, the floor had cracked down the center of the two story opening and begun to cave into the subway station below. The building shook violently and chunks of concrete flew in a plume of smoke as dust filled their nostrils.

Mulder was brought right back to that room in Pakistan that had collapsed around him, the dusty surroundings clogging his airway and making it impossible to see. The table came down on top of them, and Mulder shielded Matt with his body as best he could while attempting to shield his own head from the impact with his arms.

The marble floor beneath them cracked and crumbled into the center opening, but it didn’t cave completely. A tremendous roar filled the air, almost as a delayed sound effect. Mulder found himself screaming in pain from the sound alone, and that was before the smoke cleared enough for him to see the sight.

There in the opening of ground floor of the mall, only about a half a football field away from him, were two train cars at forty-five degree angles with each other. Sparks erupted from each car as chunks of concrete fell upon the wreckage. People cried out in anguish and fear. A baby cried. Someone screamed for help.

He recognized that voice. It was Scully’s. “Scully!” he screamed back, and tried to get up. The table on top of him fell away, and he dragged Matt up by his armpits, adrenaline ripping through his body. He was met with the sight of his five-foot-tall partner directly in front of him.

“Oh, Mulder, thank God…we thought…” she threw her arms around him and Matt simultaneously, and only seconds later Tara joined in.

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Matt stared at the wreckage in total shock, and Tara grabbed her boy and pulled him away, towards the almost untouched McDonald’s. The front entrance of the mall had been covered in debris that seemed to spew from the wreckage. The tables that had once held volunteers and the laptop that checked ID’s were now buried under enormous chunks of concrete and marble. Mangled doors could barely be seen where the mall entrance once was, and Mulder knew there were a lot of lucky bastards on the other side of that door who hadn’t been granted admittance yet.

The agents took only a moment to take in the sight and decide what had to be done. The escalators were impossible to navigate , and the elevators were not safe either. There was no way to get down there unless they were to attempt to get to the back stairwell. But there were people down there who needed help, who were trapped in that mangled train and wouldn’t receive help until it was too late.

The lights were flickering, but close to going out. Scully looked around her and saw that many of the homeless in the food court had been injured but just as many seemed to be okay. What she saw were no longer obligations or customers, but spare hands.

“Everyone listen up!” She screamed, and her commanding, high-pitched voice cut through most of the noise in the immediate vicinity. “If you aren’t injured, I need you to get to the McDonald’s! Gather in the McDonald’s if you’re not injured—you’re going to help us treat the people who are!”

People started to move, mostly the volunteers who took Scully’s command seriously and started gathering those who were otherwise standing still and awaiting instruction. Some of the homeless people were leading their friends into the McDonald’s as well. Others stayed behind with their injured friends.

Scully turned to Mulder. “We need supplies. Rope to rappel down there. Medical supplies. Flashlights. There’s a sporting goods store around the corner there—it should be untouched. Do you have your lock pick?”

He couldn’t help but smirk. “What do you think?” She nodded and he took off, stopping at the McDonald’s on his way to talk to Tara and Matt. “Matt, you have the best cell phone signal in this place. Can you call 911?”

Matt seemed dumbfounded for a moment, before he nodded and pulled his phone out. “What should I say?”

“Let me talk,” Mulder said after he had dialed.

“911 what is your emergency?”

“This is Special Agent Fox Mulder, ID 10131120. I’m in the L’Enfant Plaza Mall, upper level above the Metro Stop. There’s been a train collision. There are two train cars that came through the lower level roof of the mall and breached the shopping area. The main entrance to the mall is blocked off by rubble. We have about a hundred people in the mall right now for the Georgetown Moving Shelter, and I’m estimating about a quarter of them are injured and require immediate medical assistance. We haven’t seen any passengers emerge from the train.”

“I understand, Sir. I’m alerting the authorities right now. What is your status?”

“I’m uninjured. My partner and I are organizing relief efforts.” He began walking towards the sporting goods store. “What is your relief capability?”

“Until the proper authorities have assessed the structural stability of the station, I can’t tell you how soon we’ll be able to get to you. The rear entrance to the mall should be untouched by your description. That may be a way in. If you stay on the phone I’ll be able to get you updates in real time.”

He pulled his lock pick and began to work on the gate in front of the store while balancing the phone between his shoulder and ear. “Do you have any indication as to the cause? Any other calls that came in that would indicate a terrorist attack, a power grid malfunction, anything?”

Only two summers ago, two trains had collided on the Red Line because of a faulty sensor telling one train that the other was not on the track when, in fact, it was.

There was a pause. “I’m cross-checking right now,” the woman told him, and he successfully picked the lock and began working on the store’s glass door lock. “We’ve had three calls come in from Train 499, reporting a suspicious-looking man in a suit. I’ve got three separate descriptions here, all of them…not likely. There may have been lighting problems on the train before it crashed, Agent Mulder.”

“What were the descriptions?”

“The man is described in all three calls as wearing a DC Metro Rail Maintenance uniform, with white hair, and…depending on who gave the description, blue, green, or gray skin.”

Mulder’s upper lip twitched. “Why was he suspicious?”

“They describe the man as ‘pacing’ or ‘stumbling’ through the train cars. I don’t have any further details, but you and your partner may want to watch out for this man, if he survived the collision.”

“Thanks, I’ll pass that information on.”

“Agent Mulder, I’m reading a large electrical discharge on this line, I think we might—”

Her voice was replaced by a shriek that nearly broke Mulder’s eardrum. He let the phone clatter to the ground, and he winced in pain, finishing her sentence. “Lose the signal…” He picked the lock, and gained entrance to the store.

He picked up the phone from the ground and put it in his pocket, and then grabbed a backpack and began stuffing everything he thought they might need inside of it. He took plenty of batteries, duct tape, two large rolls of rope, as many flashlights and lanterns as possible, every first aid kit on the shelf, and an entire box of granola bars.

After lugging all the equipment back with him, he dropped it in the McDonald’s where Scully was organizing relief teams. She attempted to group the homeless with at least one volunteer as she told them how to organize the wounded—leaving the severely wounded where they were, assisting those who needed a bit of help, and instructing those who could to move under their own power into the McDonald’s.

Matt and Tara were huddled together against the ordering counter, where the two teenagers were fearfully watching the entire thing and awaiting instructions.

Scully turned the ‘floor’ over to her partner when she said, “I need five people to go stand by Agent Mulder. He’ll give you instructions on how to distribute supplies to people and make sure everyone has a flashlight and water when these lights go out.”

“I also need three able-bodied, strong adults who are going to go with me down there to the train to try to get people out of there, and another three to go with Agent Scully to the rubble by the door and start to help people there.”

Volunteers came in droves. It seemed among the homeless, willingness to help, or perhaps to just feel needed, was in abundance.

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L’ENFANT PLAZA

WASHINGTON, D.C.

DECEMBER 24th, 2010

1900

The organization was fast and efficient. Teams were ordered back to the sporting goods store to get bottles of water, blankets, and more miscellaneous supplies. People were dispatched with flashlights to make sure everyone had one. Helmets and harnesses were secured, and Mulder led a team of two homeless men and one shelter volunteer in the rappelling effort. Scully donned a helmet herself and convinced Tara to do the same and to allow Matt to join as they began hand-shoveling debris out of the way of the main entrance and digging out volunteers and homeless people.

Things moved so quickly that Mulder didn’t get the chance to take Scully aside and explain their potential security risk. It was because he hadn’t explained that part to anyone that when he landed on the ground level, unclipped his harness, and drew his gun, that the volunteer with him gave him a questioning look. “What are you doing?”

Mulder glanced at the wreckage. “I want you three to stand back. We don’t know how this happened, and aside from it not being stable, there might be someone in there who caused this. I need to determine we’re not in any immediate danger.”

“Do you have reason to believe we are?” the man asked, but Mulder didn’t answer him.

He climbed through a potted plant and around an overturned bench to get to steady ground where he believed he could stand and look inside one of the train cars. Balanced on a piece of marble and some wooden rod whose origin Mulder couldn’t place, he stood on his tip-toes and looked in the broken windows. “Can anyone hear me in there?”

There was no answer. There was, however, a shift in his vision and for just a second, he thought he saw…

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“No way,” he whispered involuntarily. He was taken back to that basement where he had been trapped on New Years’ Eve ten years ago. Or that mental hospital where the nurse had shut him into the room and smiled sweetly, her green/gray skin exposing her for what she really was.

“Agent Mulder? What do you need up there?” one of the homeless people called from below.

Mulder shook his head in amazement and found himself saying, “I think we’re going to need some salt.”

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L’ENFANT PLAZA

WASHINGTON, D.C.

DECEMBER 24th, 2010

1930

“Matty, give me a hand with this,” Tara said. She and Scully had tried to protect Matt from seeing too much gore. They had him rolling and pushing chunks of concrete off of the pile and away from the rubble. With the rest of the adults there also helping to dig people out, a twelve-year-old wasn’t desperately needed.

But as they got further into the pile, it was getting impossible for anyone nearby not to see the bodies and smell the stench.

Tara was gripping a large piece of plastic that might have been the folding table. Scully was on the other end of the pile tending to someone still trapped inside but alive. “Grab the other end there. That’s right,” she told her son. “Make sure you’ve got a good grip, both hands.”

They were wearing fleece gloves that came from the sporting goods store. They were already torn, but they were better than nothing.

“Pull out, not up. Okay? On three. One…two…three.”

The table came out of the wreckage and a few chunks of concrete fell down to fill its place. Matt’s eyes widened at what was revealed underneath. Almost unharmed and looking more like she was asleep than unconscious, was a little four- or five-year-old girl in a filthy pink snowsuit and knit cap.

He dropped to his knees next to her and began digging around her. Tara felt for a pulse and sighed in relief. “Dana!” she called.

Scully stood up from her squatting position next to a patient and walked over. Looking down, she immediately felt for a pulse and then lowered her head next to the girl’s mouth to hear her breathing. She nodded. “Pulse is strong, breath sounds good. So far no obvious injuries…the table may have protected her.”

“Like Mulder and me,” Matt said as he dug.

“Careful, Matt. Look at what might shift before you take anything away from the pile,” Scully warned.

He nodded.

She squatted next to him, one of her knees cracking at the movement. She smiled slightly when his head turned. “I’m fine, just getting old,” she joked.

She supported the little girl’s head and neck while Matt dug, and was prepared to pull her out by her armpits.

Matt and Tara were able to clear the debris on top of her and Scully quickly but carefully pulled her out and laid her down a few feet from the pile. She checked her pulse again and listened to her breathing. She then unzipped the snowsuit and began checking the little child’s body, looking for fractures or signs of internal damage. Underneath the snowsuit was a dirty once-white turtleneck that was slightly small for her, and under that was a T-shirt. Her underwear were clean, and so were her socks.

“She’s got some fresh bruises on her chest, and one on her forehead. No abrasions or broken bones,” Scully reported. “My guess is it’s a concussion and she’ll be fine. We need to figure out whose she is, though…”

“Is she homeless, or does she belong to one of the volunteers who just came in?” Matt asked.

Scully shook her head. “I don’t remember seeing her by the table…but then I don’t remember if there was a child over there or not. I honestly don’t know,” she said. Eye-witness testimony was notoriously incorrect, and Scully wasn’t about to guess as to whether she had seen the little girl by the table. It didn’t matter anyway. Either way, her parents were not available to claim her.

“Someone will have to stay with her,” Tara said. “Especially so they can give her water when she wakes up.”

“And keep her warm,” Scully said as she redressed the little girl. She adjusted the cap so it covered her small ears and then she snapped the top button on the snowsuit to give her the most warmth possible.

“I can keep an eye on her while I move the chunks of rocks and stuff,” Matt volunteered. “When she wakes up I’ll keep her company.”

Tara nodded. “That’s an excellent idea, Matt. I’ll carry her over there where it’s safer and you can look every time you walk by,” his mother told him, and he nodded in agreement.

“Agent Scully!” Someone called and waved her over. Scully gave Tara a departing smile and moved over to where the man was stooped over another person trapped underneath the pile.

As Tara carried the little girl over to a safer area, she reflected that this child was not much smaller than little Claire. Matt was probably seeing his sister in this child who was at best a volunteer’s unconscious little girl, possibly homeless, and at worst a new orphan.

As she put the child down in an alcove next to a water fountain, she noticed someone out of the corner of her eye and spun around, blocking the child and ready to defend herself. Who she saw, however, was Mulder coming over the railing.

She rushed over to help him clamber over the railing after he had climbed up the escalator and some rubble while belayed by a homeless man below. “Sorry, Tara, did I scare you?” he asked after both his feet were on the floor.

“I guess I’m a little jumpy,” she apologized. “What did you find down there?”

“No one inside the cars is moving. We need Scully down there to determine if they’re dead or just unconscious. I opened all the train car windows to vent them,” he said, but didn’t give her much detail.

She simply nodded and after he had unclipped himself they began to walk back toward the triage area.

“How many dead so far?” he asked.

Tara sighed. “Twelve…I think.”

“How’s Matt?”

“He’s working hard. He’s so brave…”

Mulder smiled and placed a comforting hand on Tara’s shoulder. “He’s a real trooper. If he gets tired, maybe he can work with Dana and do some first aid.”

“That’s a really good idea.”

“How are you doing?”

“I’m okay,” she said, and took a glove off to run her hand through her hair and get it away from her now-sweaty face. “I can’t believe this happened…”

Mulder nodded. “They’re going to eventually send Rescue in and then we’ll get the chance to rest. Thanks for helping out.”

She chuckled ironically. “I’d look like a fool sitting on the sidelines.”

They reached the triage area, where people were laying on blankets, coats, and mats and were organized according to severity of their injuries.

Scully looked up and saw Mulder, and held up one finger before turning back to a man’s hand, which she was carefully splinting.

Just then an argument that had previously been lost in the background noise of the rescue effort rose above the current sound level when a homeless man screamed, “YOU’RE A MOTHER-FUCKIN’ SHITHEAD, MAN!”

Mulder’s head turned just in time to catch the sight of one man tackle another to the dusty ground and begin wailing on him. He shook his head and muttered, “It was only a matter of time,” before he ran over to the two who were now rolling all over the dust and were in danger of going over the ledge.

“HEY!” He screamed, and grabbed one of the men. “HEY! STOP! Knock it off! Come on, knock it off! I mean it!” Another homeless man stepped in and pulled the other man away, and Mulder and he then stood to get the men even further from each other.

“He’s an asshole!” Mulder’s detainee declared, his expression one of intense hatred.

The other man simply spit blood and stood there with an angry expression on his face.

“What’s this about? You first,” Mulder added quickly, to make sure another shouting match didn’t ensue.

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“This asshole took my kid’s water bottle, man. He ain’t been helpin’. He been sittin’ on his ass, and ain’t nothin’ wrong with him. He ain’t hurt.”

Mulder turned to the other man. “Did you take this man’s water bottle?”

“I ain’t steal nothin’ wasn’t already mine,” the accused man promised.

Mulder shook his head. “I’ll get your kid another water bottle, okay?” he said to the man, and when he nodded he was about to release the man, but the accused man yelled, “Yeah, that’s right, ‘n if you come after me again, I gonna woop yo’ ass.” This resulted in Mulder having to tighten his grip on his detainee as he led him away from the loudmouth.

“Listen,” he told the man in a low tone, “I believe that other man is on drugs. You need to stay away from him. Okay?” Psychology told him that a calm tone and rational thought would deflect most people’s anger.

He released the man and he nodded, his expression still angry.

“There are more water bottles in that sporting goods store. Go get one for you and your kid. Can I trust you to do that?”

The homeless man shook his head. “Naw, man, ain’t nothin’ left in there. It’s been empty for a minute now.”

Mulder sighed. He looked around. “Go to the McDonald’s. If they’re out, then come find me and I’ll pick the lock on another restaurant so we can get more water.”

The man nodded and said, “I just tryin’ to defend my kid.”

“I understand. Just leave the law enforcement to us, okay?”

Again, the homeless man nodded and walked away. Mulder sighed and saw that the man who had detained the loudmouth was still holding him, awaiting Mulder’s return. He walked back over to the two and asked, “Is it true that you haven’t been helping?”

“Ain’t gonna do nothin’ if I don’t get paid,” the man slurred.

He knew it was irrational, especially since it seemed this man didn’t have use of all his faculties. But what he said really angered Mulder. He got close enough to smell the stench of alcohol and body odor, and said, “Look around, Buddy. You think any of us are getting paid?”

He shook his head before he got an answer, and turned to the man holding him. “Let him go.” He turned back to the detainee as he stumbled forward. “You sit down and shut up. If you don’t want to help, you don’t get to move around,” he ordered forcefully, and ‘helped’ the man sit down against the wall. “Stay there.” He walked away, taking a deep breath and trying to clear his head.

Scully intercepted him halfway back to the triage area. “What was that all about?”

“A bottle of water. How are we doing on supplies?”

“The sporting goods store is almost empty,” she said. “I’ve used everything I can get my hands on to fix people up…I even performed some minor surgery on one of our volunteers to extract a piece of glass from an artery. But I don’t want to use too much of what’s in those first aid kits, because once they’re gone, there’s probably not another sporting goods store in this mall.”

“At least not one we can get to,” Mulder stated. He glanced back at the pit where the trains were still. “I need to talk to you in private.”

She snorted. “Good luck. We’ve got about a hundred people in here, Mulder, and space is an issue.”

“We need to find a place to speak,” he reiterated. “Sooner rather than later.”

Seeing that he was serious, she nodded and looked around. “Let’s pick the lock on that Gymboree and go in the fitting room.” He smirked, and she rolled her eyes. “Oh, stop,” was all she said to him as she led the way to the children’s clothing store.

Once they were inside, Mulder pulled out Matt’s phone and his own. “There’s no reception anymore.”

“I know, it must be the train’s emergency broadcast that’s blocking it out.”

“That’s a possibility,” Mulder agreed. “But the other possibility is that someone sabotaged that train and that they’re jamming our signals.” The signature elevated eyebrow told Mulder that he was going to have to explain. “Just before I lost the signal, I got through to 911. It was over an hour ago now, and they still haven’t gotten personnel in here. Has anyone gone to the back entrance to see if it’s open?”

She shook her head. “It collapsed. The structural integrity of this mall is definitely questionable, Mulder. I’m a little leery of anyone rappelling down to the trains a second time…they may not be able to get back up, and I’m actually surprised you were able to.”

He sighed.

“But you didn’t tell me you got through to 911. What did they say?”

“They said there were three 911 calls on the train about a suspicious-looking man in a subway maintenance uniform. And there were some…strange…observations about his skin color.”

“What, was he Arabic?” Scully asked.

“No. I think he was a zombie.”

Mulder was always good at monotone comedy, but it didn’t appear to Scully that he was kidding. She stared at him, reflecting that even at a time like this, his mind never stopped thinking about the fantastic, and then formulated a response. “What in his skin color suggested that he may be among the living dead?” she managed to ask with just a slight twitch of her lip.

“Gray, green, and blue were the colors cited. And none of those fit on the normal skin color wheel. Now, provided the lighting in the train car was bad, and the man was drunk or ill, that would explain it. But that doesn’t explain what I saw.”

“You saw the zombie?”

“For just a second, yes.”

She shook her head. “Mulder, we haven’t tested the air quality down there. If you had just opened a window, you could have been breathing in fumes. And the lighting is terrible. And you’re high on adrenaline. And—”

“And I know exactly what I saw. He jumped up from the train car floor when everyone else was either unconscious or dead. And then he managed to get out of my sight and into the next train car, but we can’t reach it because it’s buried under the floor.”

“Doctor Scully!” a voice beckoned from outside the store. “We need you quick! There’s a guy with his head cut open real bad!”

She sighed, and stood up. “What did you see down there other than the zombie?”

“Unconscious or dead passengers. We can get them out, but it’s going to take some doing.”

She shook her head. “We have people we can definitely save up here—plenty of them. And the structural integrity of the building—”

“I agree, now that you bring up that point. No one goes back down. Especially not with a zombie down there. I’m pretty sure they don’t climb…”

Rolling her eyes, she exited the fitting room and rushed out to survey the situation. There was a homeless man across the food court, on the ground with a head abrasion. People were gathered around him but not getting too close.

She ran over, and Mulder followed closely behind. “Oh, God…I know that guy. That was the loudmouth guy that took some kid’s water bottle and started the fight.”

Scully looked behind for just a moment and frowned before she stopped in front of the man and stooped down, examining the damage. “The skull is fractured…torn open. Everybody get back!” She yelled. “Twenty feet at least! Jeremy,” she spoke to the volunteer closest to her, “Go find some tape or something and tape this area off.”

“You got it,” the man answered and ran away.

Scully turned back to Mulder. “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”

“It looks like an animal attack,” he commented in a low tone and squatted next to the man’s head. “I take it he’s dead?”

She just glanced at him, as if to say ‘what do you think?’ There was brain matter at the front of his scalp.

“Whatever was used to do this must have left a mess. But everyone’s walked all over the crime scene,” she said in annoyance.

Mulder looked around for the blood trail. “Right here. This way. I’ll follow it.”

“I’ll get Tara to guard this area while I treat the live patients. Be careful, Mulder. Take someone with you.”

He grabbed two spectators in the crowd who looked like they could handle backing him up and told them to follow him, and he drew his gun as he followed the blood trail.

Only moments later he came to a dead end, though. The blood trail seemed to end on the crevice of the drop that led to the train, and there was no body at the bottom.

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L’ENFANT PLAZA

WASHINGTON, D.C.

DECEMBER 24th, 2010

2100

“Here you go,” Matt said, sitting down cross-legged in one motion next to the little girl, who was now sitting up against the wall. He handed her a water bottle he had obtained from the Mexican restaurant next to the McDonald’s. Scully had picked the lock about a half hour before then, as the McDonald’s was out of water.

Christmas music was playing on a radio not far away. They had opened one radio from the sporting goods store in the hopes of getting local information on rescue efforts, but reception was so terrible that it was either Christmas music or some kind of Russian talk show. It was better than nothing.

“Where’s my mommy?” The girl asked Matt again.

“Well, like I said,” Matt explained slowly and patiently, “we don’t know who your mommy is. We need you to tell us her name and then we can see if we can find her.”

“Her name is Mommy,” the girl insisted, and drank some water. She frowned. “My head hurts.”

“I know. I told my Aunt Dana and she said there’s no children’s Tylenol. Sorry,” he said apologetically. “Maybe she should come over here…” he stood up and waved her over, and she held up a finger, indicating that it would be a few minutes.

He sat back down. “Other than your head hurting, how do you feel?”

“I’m tired,” she complained. “I’m hungry too.”

“Do you want some apples? We’ve got some apples in the McDonald’s. I can go get some.”

She nodded, and added, “And a toy?”

He laughed. “Sure, I don’t think that’ll be a problem.”

A moment later, he returned with a package of apples from behind the counter and a small toy, which he took out of the plastic baggie for her. It was a stuffed monkey whose arms wrapped around to grip something. He showed her how it worked, and then handed it to her. “What are ya gonna call him?” he asked playfully.

“George,” she said immediately. “Like Curious George.”

“That’s a good name,” Matt agreed. “Hey, my name is Matt by the way. What’s yours?”

She frowned, and then looked up at Matt as if afraid of him. “I’m not supposed to say my name to strangers.”

“But I’m not a stranger. I’m a kid, like you. A bigger kid, but I’m gonna take care of you. So you can tell me your name.”

She seemed to consider her options before she decided to trust him. She ate an apple and wrapped the monkey around her index finger, and then said, “My name’s Chelsea.”

“It’s very nice to meet you, Chelsea,” Matt said, and extended his hand.

Chelsea stared at it for a moment before she realized that she was supposed to shake it. She took his hand and shook it once, and then let go. Matt grinned. “So how old are you?”

“I’m four, how old are you?” she asked.

“I’m twelve,” Matt answered.

“You’re very big,” she decided.

He laughed. “I’ve got a little sister who’s six. She’s just a little bigger than you. You kinda look like her.”

She shrugged, and ate another apple. “Where’s my Mommy?” she asked.

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He frowned. This was the third time she had asked the same question. He answered again, patiently and in the same tone. Thankfully Scully arrived and squatted down, smiling at the preschooler. “Hey, there,” she greeted. “I’m a doctor. My name is Dana. What’s your name?”

“You can tell her too,” Matt said. “She’s my aunt. She’s nice—she’s not a stranger.”

“My name’s Chelsea,” the little girl said. “And this is Matt,” she introduced.

Scully grinned. “It’s nice to meet you, Chelsea,” she said. “Do you mind if I shine a light in your eyes for a second? I want to give you a checkup.”

“My head hurts.”

“That’s what Matt told me. I’m going to make sure it’s going to get better. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“Alright, now this won’t hurt but it might make you see some spots.” She shined the light in the girl’s eyes and made a funny face to make her look. Chelsea giggled in response. “Reactive but unequal. The right one is slightly bigger than the left one,” she said to Matt. “That means the concussion is more than just mild, but it’s not very dangerous.”

He nodded in acknowledgement. “She asked the same question a few times.”

“Sometimes preschoolers do that,” Scully told him. She then turned to Chelsea and explained, “I’m going to feel your head, okay? I want to see if there are any bumps.”

“Will it hurt?” Chelsea asked.

“It might hurt just a little bit, but you tell me if it does, and I’ll stop. Okay?”

“Okay,” she agreed.

Scully felt the girl’s head more thoroughly this time, and found a bump that was not there a few hours ago. The girl jumped and said, “Ouch!”

“I’m sorry,” the agent apologized and took her hands away. “I won’t touch that again.” She turned to Matt. “I think we found our culprit. Her head was probably hit in the front and the back during the crash. That could result in a relatively serious concussion for a young child. We want to keep an eye on her, keep her talking. Don’t let her go back to sleep.”

“She said she’s tired,” Matt said.

“Well, it shouldn’t be too much longer before we get Rescue in here. I want you to tell her a story, keep her up. Keep her talking. Just until we can get her in a CAT scan and make sure nothing’s been knocked around in there too badly. Okay?”

Matt nodded.

“Chelsea,” Scully said, and the girl made eye contact with her, “I want you to listen to Matt tell stories and I want you to stay awake. Okay? You’re probably tired, but you can’t sleep. It’s important that you don’t go to sleep until a doctor says it’s okay. Alright?”

She frowned, but nodded.

“Okay,” Scully patted her knee gently and stood up. “If you feel sick in your tummy, or you hurt anywhere else, you tell Matt, okay?”

She nodded again, and said, “Thank you, Doctor Dana.”

Scully smiled. The child was very cute, and was impossible not to smile at. “You’re very welcome, Chelsea. It was my pleasure. I’ll see you later.”

Chelsea turned to Matt and asked, “What stories are you gonna tell?”

Matt edged his way closer to the wall and leaned back, taking out a granola bar from his pocket and opening the wrapper. “Well, you know what tomorrow is?”

“Tomorrow’s Christmas,” Chelsea said.

“That’s right. I guess you’ve probably heard the story of Christmas, huh?”

“It’s a good story,” Chelsea said with a nod.

Matt laughed. “Yeah, it’s a really old story. Well, I’ll tell it like my Sunday School teacher told it. He’s pretty cool. So once upon a time, there was a mother named Mary, and she was going to get married to this guy named Joseph, but they weren’t married yet…”

Matt went on to tell the whole story in great detail, including Herod’s mandate that all the babies be killed, and the new family’s midnight journey away from Bethlehem, to Nazareth. He took a few liberties as well, adding some ninjas and a dragon for good measure.

He finished with, “And so the baby Jesus grew up with his parents and the next exciting thing didn’t happen until he was eleven and he ran away from home.”

“Wow,” she said. “I never heard anyone tell it like that before.”

“Who told it to you before?” Matt asked.

“My mommy. She told it to me when we was under the bridge. I liked under the bridge. But we had ta move because Mommy said there was mean people there.”

Matt was surprised. This little girl was homeless after all. Her mother and she had come here for a Christmas Eve dinner and possibly to get presents Christmas morning. The donations, he knew, were mostly destroyed. So now her only present was this little monkey he had taken from behind the McDonald’s counter. Tomorrow morning he would be home in his house, hopefully, if the rescue workers got there soon. There were presents under the tree already, and some that were unwrapped because Claire still believed in Santa Claus.

“What’s wrong, Matt? Why are your eyes wet?”

Matt looked down and used his dirty sweatshirt to dry his eyes. “I’m uh…I’m allergic to dust.”

“Does dust make you sad?”

He laughed, and looked up. “No…I mean…I’m just…” he stopped, and looked at this little girl. “I just wish we could all go home.”

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L’ENFANT PLAZA

WASHINGTON, D.C.

DECEMBER 24th, 2010

2200

Scully stepped back and stretched her back, sighing and closing her eyes. That was it. The rubble on the upper level had been cleared as much as was possible without causing a structural collapse. There were fifteen bodies plus the one murdered individual. She counted forty people in the triage area, only eight of which needed medical attention immediately. Most of the people in the triage area were now simply resting from exhaustion.

She had inquired about the McDonald’s teenage employees turning on some cooking equipment and making some food, but Mulder and a few others had said that was a bad idea. Without knowing the condition of the pipes in the building, turning on any appliance that used gas was a terrible risk. She agreed. So they ate non-perishable food, raiding the McDonald’s, the nearly empty sporting goods store, and the Mexican restaurant. She eventually picked the lock on the Subway and some of the homeless seemed to take great pleasure in getting behind the counter and making sandwiches, especially the kids.

Mulder wrapped his arm around her and pulled her close to him, and she leaned her head into his shoulder. “What are things like on your end?” she asked, her eyes still closed.

“I’m thinking if Rescue takes much longer we might want to chance it and rappel down there. There are no signs of life in those two cars but if one of us could climb on board and get to the back of the train, there might be live passengers further back who are just trapped.”

She pulled away. “I know, Mulder, but it’s too dangerous. I’ve got two volunteers who are engineers who said that this building could come down if we dig any further into that rubble or even try to touch the back entrance. You realize how dangerous it would be to trust that pile of rubble down there to support your weight while you climb in a train that’s supported by the floor it crashed through?”

He sighed, and nodded.

“Any cell reception?”

“No. Matt’s phone got one bar a second ago and I tried to dial out but it went right back to no service. My phone’s completely dead.”

“Have you tried a text message?” Scully asked hopefully.

He frowned, and then his eyes popped open in recognition. “A text message uses less….bandwidth, or whatever…it might get through!”

He clicked Matt’s phone on and was about to attempt a text message when they heard a noise above. The ceiling was crumbling, and people started to scream.

Mulder grabbed Scully with his free hand and ran away from the ceiling, diving into the same alcove where Matt and Chelsea sat, next to the water fountain. It was the best hope they had if the ceiling completely collapsed.

Dust flew through the opening and the screaming and crying escalated until a large chunk of the ceiling was grabbed by two prying metal bars, and pulled away. They heard another blessed noise. Helicopter blades.

The screaming and crying turned into cheers. People leapt up and hugged each other. They jumped for joy, and then stopped just in case the floor caved in.

Mulder and Scully stood and jogged over to meet the first rescue worker who was lowering himself down with a cable from the helicopter.

Once down, he didn’t even have time to introduce himself. Scully pointed to the triage area and said, “I’ve got eight critical patients who need to be airlifted out of here immediately!”

He nodded and radio’ed it in. Mulder stood up on a chair and waved his arms to quiet everyone down as he began to explain evacuation procedures.

The rescue had begun.

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MULDER AND SCULLY’S CAR

WASHINGTON, D.C.

DECEMBER 24th, 2010

2305

The last person was lifted out. The rescue operations were in full swing below. D.C. Police were taking over the murder investigation. Mulder and Scully could leave.

By that time they had installed temporary reinforcements on the front entrance and cleared out the rubble that blocked the door. They could see the outside for the first time since the crash.

Unlike most of the people who were trapped, the agents left by walking out the doors through which they came.

“When I signed up to volunteer helping those in need, I didn’t realize what I had agreed to,” Mulder joked as they walked toward their car. It seemed strange to him that they would go home by car only an hour after they had originally planned to go home. It was even stranger when they stepped into the clean Ford Taurus that had a full tank of gas and Scully’s unfinished Starbuck’s in the cupholder.

She stared at it as well, but didn’t say anything as they started the car and were serenaded with joyful Christmas music.

“It’s like two different worlds,” Mulder said finally. “Normally there’s something in between, isn’t there?”

“You mean a hospital visit?” Scully asked dryly, and earned a laugh from her partner.

“Hey, you’ve got to give me credit. I didn’t get hurt at all.”

“Aside from the cuts and bruises, you’re right,” she conceded. “But you did see a zombie.”

“I stand by my previous statement,” he defended himself adamantly. “And it’s probably still down there!”

She chuckled and shook her head. “Mulder, you never quit.”

He smiled at his partner and asked, “Would you ever really want me to?” When she didn’t answer, he continued, “And you don’t even know that the zombie wasn’t the one who caused the crash in the first place. He did have a maintenance uniform on, and in the absence of any indication of a terrorist attack, it’s only reasonable to conclude that it was a maintenance or technical issue.”

She sighed, and rested her head on her hand as her elbow sat upon the ridge of the car door. She closed her eyes.

“And the zombie obviously was the one who attacked that man, because the blood trail ended down in the rubble, but there was no body, not that we could find. Zombies apparently do climb, which means every movie we’ve seen is wrong…Scully? Are you listening to me?”

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TARA SCULLY’S HOUSE

GEORGETOWN, D.C.

DECEMBER 24th, 2010

2320

Matt had taken a shower and slipped into flannel pajama pants and a new sweatshirt. He was exhausted and had climbed into bed to go to sleep when his mother cracked the door and entered.

“Hey, Buddy? You asleep yet?”

“Just got in bed,” he answered.

She sat down on the edge of the bed and combed his hair back. “You doing okay?”

“I’m okay, I guess.”

“That was some pretty scary stuff we saw tonight.”

“I know. I’m not a baby, I can handle it.”

She smiled. He was just like his father in that respect—brave, but proud. “You did very well. I’m very proud of you, Matty.”

He smiled back at her. “I’m sorry your Christmas Eve kinda sucked. I know you wanted to teach me what it was like to spend time with homeless people, but I sorta got to anyway…”

She laughed. “Yes, I know. You got to spend more time with homeless people than you would have serving them dinner. So in that respect, it wasn’t such a bad night.”

“Well, that’s the idea, right, Mom? I mean, the story of Christmas Eve and how Jesus was born but all that bad stuff was happening all around him? Herod killing babies and Mary being just a teenager and them having to run to Nazareth and stuff? But since Jesus was born, it was a good night.”

With tears in her eyes and a smile on her face, she kissed Matt on the forehead and said, “You are such a blessing, Matthew.”

He closed his eyes and said, “But Mom…how can we enjoy tomorrow morning? That little girl’s mom is probably dead. We never found her. What will happen to her? How can we be happy with presents…how can we be happy at all, when we know there’s so much bad stuff out there that happens?”

Her smile turned sad, and she looked down. “There will always be people less fortunate than us. That’s why we try to do our part, and volunteer when we’ve got time, and give when we have spare cash. We do everything we can to live our lives and help others live theirs. But Matt…this is a hard lesson to learn…we can’t go through life being sad about all the bad things that are out there.”

“But—”

“Listen,” she said softly. “We cannot fix the world and make it perfect by denying ourselves everything we have. But we can make a difference one step at a time. One way to do that is to be as successful and happy as we can be, so we can take some of that happiness and success and give to others. By being sad and poor, we’re not helping anyone.”

He frowned.

“Another way to do that,” Tara continued, “is to never forget that sad feeling. To remember that sad feeling every time you feel greedy, or feel sorry for yourself. Because it will help you remember just how fortunate you are.”

He nodded finally, and closed his eyes.

“Go to sleep,” she kissed him again, and stood. “I love you.”

“I love you too, Mom.”

And that’s what Christmas is all about, Tara thought. Love.

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Spero Novus

sfoxmascover

Spero Novus

Author: Starfleetofficer1

Category: X-File/Christmas special

Rating: PG-13

Artwork: Truthwebothknow1

Summary: On Christmas Eve, Mulder and Scully find themselves in the middle of a hostage situation that will change their outlook on Christmas forever.

Spoilers: Seasons 1-7

Disclaimer: No copyright infringement intended.

Original web date:01/09/2009

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Spero Novus

GARDEN COURT NURSING HOME

GEORGETOWN, DC

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 24, 2008

0700

“Nothin’ to say, before I shoot this bullet through his eyes. Nothin’ to say? No last plea, no beggin’, no whimperin’, no nothin’? Well, then…I guess that’s all. That must be the last scene.”

Nathan’s hard eyes stared across the room at the trapped agent. He had seen his fair share of atrocities, victims, and heroes. And this fed was the hero type. He certainly didn’t expect to hear anything come out of the man’s mouth.

But as the agent made eye contact with the teenager, breaking his gaze from the barrel of the gun for just a moment, he cleared his throat. Then, with dust-filled lungs, he turned to the man behind the M9 and said, “You have…no hope.”

No one in the room, including Mulder’s would-be executioner, saw that coming. And, using that moment of hesitation, Nathan hurled himself forward and straight into the serial killer. The teenager completed the tackle just as the deafening sound of a gunshot echoed through the rubble-filled area, followed by dead silence.

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MULDER & SCULLY’S TOWNHOUSE

GEORGETOWN, DC

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 23, 2008

1600

“I don’t know, Mulder. It would pee all over the place and it would take forever to train. And neither of us has a work schedule that lets us come home in the middle of the afternoon to let it out.”

“But Aunt Dana, it’d be fun,” Matthew protested as he cut a shape out of the cookie dough. He gently placed the shape on the cookie board.

“This isn’t our puppy, Matt,” Tara chided gently. She loaded another batch of cookies in the oven and closed the door.

“Matt’s got a point, though,” Mulder said with a smirk in Matt’s direction. “It would be fun, Aunt Dana,” he grinned. Matt grinned back, and Scully rolled her eyes.

“Do you know how much work a puppy is, Mulder?” Scully demanded.

“About as much work as me,” Mulder said with a smile.

Another eye roll. Another cookie shape cut out. Another batch ready for the oven. And then they were done.

They began cleaning up the messy kitchen, still debating the puppy issue.

“It’s really what I want for Christmas,” Matt said with a suggestive grin in his mom’s direction.

Tara laughed, and said, “We’ve had this discussion, Mister, and I’m not going to have it again.”

Before Matt got the chance to reply, they heard the front door open, and Scully headed to the foyer. She smiled when she saw her mom holding Clara, who was fast asleep in her arms.

“The skating lesson did the trick,” Maggie said with a smile. “She’ll sleep tonight.”

Tara entered and smiled at the sight of her five-year-old sleeping peacefully and asked, “How did she do?”

“She did wonderfully—better than the other little ones in the class. She fell a few times but she got right back up.”

“She’s so close to the ice it doesn’t even hurt when she falls,” Matt said, rolling his eyes.

Mulder smirked. “Wasn’t too long ago that you were that size, Buddy.”

“I’ll just go up and put her down. We’ll wake her for dinner. Speaking of which, have you started it yet?”

“Just got the cookies in the oven. We’ll start dinner when they come out,” Scully said.

Maggie nodded, and headed upstairs with the sleeping preschooler. Tara followed to help Maggie get Clara out of her snowsuit and into some pajamas. As soon as his mother was out of earshot, Matt turned to Mulder and Scully. “I really think you should consider that puppy. It’s an investment for the future.”

Scully chuckled. “How’s that?” she asked, walking back into the kitchen. Mulder and Matt followed her.

“Well, see, the puppy will grow into a dog. And he’ll be big enough to protect the house, see? So you won’t need that security system you have. You can just use the dog.”

Mulder laughed. “We’re thinking about it, Matt, but we haven’t come to a decision yet. When we decide, you’ll be the first to know.”

“Good, because my book says animals are good for kids with ADHD, to add structure and responsibility, and you want me to be structured and responsible, so it would really benefit everyone,” he said, trying as hard as he could to keep a straight face.

Scully patted him on the shoulder. “We’ll keep that in mind. Speaking of which, don’t you have a level left on your math game for today? You can finish it before dinner—you’re excused to go play.”

“Okay,” Matt said with a smile, and took off the apron that protected his sweater and jeans from the baking materials. He tossed it on the counter, and took off for the foyer. He dug through his backpack and pulled out his Nintendo DS, and then plopped down on the couch.

Two months ago, the eleven-year-old had been diagnosed with ADHD. After the diagnosis, his grades improved dramatically. Mulder, Scully, Tara, and Maggie had all known he was smart. He just couldn’t find a way to concentrate in the more boring subjects at middle school. But the new plan was helping him considerably. He was playing educational video games geared toward pre-teens with ADHD, and learning what he couldn’t pay attention to in class. His new binder system eliminated his tendency to lose his homework, and with Tara and the teachers’ help, he was integrating himself into the sixth grade community much smoother than before.

Mulder and Scully had both signed on to help, as well. Mulder agreed to coach the kid on athletics, helping him develop a work-out plan that stimulated the cerebellum—a new and highly recommended treatment for people with ADHD. Scully was helping him with science, devoting weekends to taking him to museums where he could actually see what he was supposed to be learning about. The doctors had agreed that he didn’t need medication, just a new way of looking at school. And it was working beautifully.

Mulder had gotten him an early Christmas gift—a book geared toward children with ADHD. It was called A Bird’s-Eye View of Life with ADD and ADHD: Advice from Young Survivors, and Matt was breezing through it at a pace he only seemed to have when reading kids’ novels and comic books.

The diagnosis had gotten Mulder thinking—as a psychologist, he knew the signs of ADHD, and realized that throughout his life, he had mirrored them almost perfectly. Impulsivity, creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, inability to pay attention to certain things no matter how hard he tried, a proclivity towards high-risk behavior, hyper-focusing on certain tasks to an almost obsessive extent, an addictive personality…and alcoholism ran in the family, which was yet another common trait in genetically inherited ADHD.

He had shared this with Scully but they had both agreed that he didn’t need to do anything about it. It had pretty much taken care of itself. The X-files offered structure, and Scully was effectively his coach, keeping him on track and forcing him to send in those damn expense reports on time.

“Want to get started on dinner?” Scully asked, pulling Mulder from his train of thought.

“Sure,” he said, and pulled the chicken out of the refrigerator. Maggie and Tara joined in after a few minutes, and soon they had the cookies out of the oven and the chicken marinated and ready to go in.

“Mulder, you want to go finish that case report? I’ll join you in a few,” Scully said.

Mulder moaned. “Scully…”

“It’s due tomorrow, Mulder. Come on. Skinner wanted it three days ago. You’re just lucky you got an extension.”

“He gave me an extension because he was probably too hung over from a holiday party to read it,” Mulder muttered as he headed out of the kitchen.

“What was that?” Scully called.

“Nothing,” Mulder called back, but couldn’t help but smirk at the thought of Skinner drunk.

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GARDEN COURT NURSING HOME

GEORGETOWN, DC

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 23, 2008

1800

The light snow glinted off the street lamp outside the room’s window. An elderly woman rested on a bed, a rope puzzle next to her left hand. The ropes weren’t quite untangled—it was clear she had been working on it, but had grown tired and stopped.

A fifteen-year-old held her tray and walked in quietly. “Mrs. Taperman, it’s dinner time,” he said softly, trying not to disturb her.

“Nathan? Is it dinner already?”

Nathan smiled. “Yep,” he said, and attached the tray to the swinging table next to the bed, and then brought it closer to her. “You’ll have to finish your puzzle later.”

“When are you going to get a haircut, Nathan?”

The boy chuckled. “You know me, Mrs. Taperman. Probably never.”

She gave him a slight ‘humph,’ but the twinkle in her eye let him know that she was not only alert, but still had her sense of humor. The Alzheimer’s still wasn’t bad enough to take that from her.

“And coming out in public like that, your shirt tucked out and your pants down by your knees,” she continued to kid him, as she raised a shaky hand toward the spoon, and tried to grasp it.

Nathan let her struggle, knowing that Mrs. Taperman didn’t want help until she asked for it. It only took another shaky, uncertain motion towards the bowl of soup that she sighed, and said, “I think you’d better help.”

“Be glad to, Mrs. Taperman,” Nathan said, and took the spoon from her hand gently. He fed her the soup slowly, and glanced out the window.

“Why aren’t you with your friends?” She asked suddenly.

Nathan turned back to her, surprised at the question. “I uh…well…I dunno. I belong here.”

“You’re not earning any money and there’s no one here your age.”

“Well, there is that comatose kid on the fourth floor,” Nathan offered, knowing Mrs. Taperman caught the sarcasm in his voice.

“Don’t be smart with me, young man,” she told him with a smile. She glanced out the window for a moment, and then turned toward him again. “It’s a nice day outside,” she said.

He wasn’t surprised. In fact, he had learned to go with this kind of conversation long ago. “Warming up,” he said, although he knew it was a complete lie.

“Yes, it’ll be…were we eating dinner?”

“Yes we were, Mrs. Taperman. Are you full, or would you like more?”

“I’ll have more. Nathan, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he said, and forced a smile. This was the saddest part of his job. He watched them get worse. Phase in and out, unable to recall conversation that happened five minutes ago.

A strange man walked by the door just then, and Nathan glanced at him curiously. He had never seen that man before…and he was here every day.

“One sec, Mrs. Taperman. I’ll be right back.”

He stuck his head out the door, and called, “Hey, dude. You need help or something? This floor plan can be kind of confusing.”

The man turned, and stared at Nathan with such ice cold eyes that a shiver ran down the teenager’s spine. “No, don’t need any help. I’m visiting a relative. Thank you, though,” he said in a Louisiana Southern accent.

“Oh…okay. Well…Merry Christmas then.” Nathan watched as the odd man turned and continued walking. Shaking his head, and hoping security was on top of their game, he re-entered Mrs. Taperman’s room.

“Mrs. Taperman, would you like more soup?”

“Nathan, what are you still doing here? It’s almost Christmas. Why don’t you go home to your family?”

Nathan sighed. She was determined today. “I’m happy here, Mrs. Taperman. Let’s eat your soup, okay?”

She smiled at him, and nodded. “It’ll be my Christmas present to you.”

Nathan smiled back. “That’d be great,” he said, and sat down next to her once more, spoon-feeding the soup to her.

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MULDER & SCULLY’S TOWNHOUSE

GEORGETOWN, DC

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 23, 2008

2000

“Thanks for coming!” Scully called as Maggie, Tara, and the kids headed out the door.

“Bye, Aunt Dana, I love you,” Clara said, and offered a hug. “I love you too, Uncle Mulder.”

“Good, because I was starting to feel left out,” Mulder said, folding his arms in a mock indignant expression. Clara giggled, not fooled in the slightest, and Mulder’s expression broke into a smile as he dropped to one knee, allowing her to hug him.

Matt held his Nintendo DS in his gloved hand and his stylus in his other hand, while his glove was stuffed in his pocket. He looked away from the screen only when Tara tapped him on the shoulder. “Matt, say goodbye to Aunt Dana and Uncle Mulder.”

“Bye,” Matt said, his gaze barely leaving the DS for a second.

Mulder chuckled. “Beat that next level for me. I always had trouble with quadratics—maybe you can explain it to me when you’re done.”

“Quadratics are easy, it’s just the variable squared. It’s the cubics that are hard,” Matt said, furiously pressing the A button with his thumb, and then exclaiming, “Oh, damn.”

“Matt!” Tara scolded.

“What? I died.”

“Come on,” Tara sighed. “Let’s get out of your doorjamb before all the heat lets out. Put your other glove on, Matt, until we get the car warmed up.”

“We’ll see you tomorrow,” Maggie said with a smile.

“Bye,” Mulder and Scully said simultaneously, and finally closed the door.

Mulder watched them go from the window for a moment, still staring out as the cars pulled out of the driveway and disappeared from sight.

He didn’t know how much time had passed before he heard, “Mulder, you all right?”

He turned to see Scully leaning against the doorframe leading into the kitchen. “You’ve been standing there for the past ten minutes. I cleaned up the kitchen. Anything wrong?”

Shaking his head, he turned back to the driveway for just a second before he walked towards her. “I don’t know. I guess I still can’t believe it,” he stated.

Scully’s eyebrow rose, and she met his gaze. “What do you mean?”

“I don’t know,” he said, and embraced her gently. He rested his chin on top of her head, and they held each other in silence for a moment. Finally, he spoke. “Every holiday for the past couple of years, I think about what I have…and really don’t deserve.”

“Oh, Mulder, we’ve been over this!” Scully exclaimed, pulling out of the hug. “Why do you keep insisting that you don’t deserve this family? You deserve nothing less than a loving family!”

“I don’t know, maybe I just keep expecting something bad to happen. You must think I’m an idiot for not being able to just enjoy the holiday.”

“No, you’re not an idiot,” Scully said quietly, hugging him again. “You’re too used to tragedy, Mulder. And that in itself is a tragedy. But why don’t we try, just for a bit, to forget about that? To ignore the darkness and evil and…bad weather,” she said the last with a bit of a chuckle.

Mulder chuckled back.

“Let’s just focus on Christmas. On our beautiful tree, our beautiful home. Our family.”

He nodded, and closed his eyes. “Sounds like a plan,” he said. But for some reason, he wasn’t quite satisfied. He had so much to be thankful for. He couldn’t help but think about losing it all. And that was unsettling.

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GARDEN COURT NURSING HOME

GEORGETOWN, DC

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 23, 2008

2300

Brody Drexler walked into the maintenance closet and closed the door gently behind him. He turned on the lamp, and proceeded to rummage through the equipment. He began setting up the camera gear, opening the laptop lid to reveal a split screen view of various parts of the nursing home. He then set up the scanner, plugging everything in and getting it all secure. It had taken three days to move this equipment in, piece by piece, without anyone noticing. The maintenance closet was supposed to be under renovation, but the maintenance workers were off for Christmas. The residents wouldn’t like the noise of construction during their holiday.

So among the sawdust and uninstalled 2×4’s, Drexler was able to store a wealth of computer equipment that probably totaled close to the price of a car. Of course, with the Auto Bailout pending, the price of a car wasn’t much to compare with.

It took him an hour to set up all the equipment, integrate it with the security cameras, install color viewing on each of the signals, and transmit the signals back to the receiver on his laptop. Another hour was devoted to setting up the rest of the equipment, and readying the camera for its job.

He then took a bulletproof vest from behind the table saw stand and unclipped his visitor’s pass from his collar, re-clipping it to his belt before pulling the vest over his head. He secured the straps in place. Then he pulled a black case from behind a pile of wood, and set it on top of the table saw stand. He opened it, revealing several weapons. He slung a P90 automatic weapon over his shoulders, holstered two M9’s, and tucked a small .380 into the back of his pants.

Finally, he placed a helmet on top of his head and secured it with a chin strap. Atop the helmet was a standard helmet-cam, just like the ones the soldiers wore during tours of duty. He loaded his suit with extra ammo and then cocked the P90. “Show time,” he said with a grin, and pressed the ‘play’ button on a universal RCA remote control. He stuck the remote in his pocket and kicked the door of the maintenance closet open.

“All right, everyone listen up!” He screamed, and fired off a few shots. “Lights, camera, action, take one, we’re rolling, everyone on set!” He laughed joyfully at the terrified expressions on the old people’s faces as the staff tried to protect them, stepping in front of them and herding them back to their rooms.

“Now who’s the director, huh? I’m in charge, bitches! It’s my movie, and it’s rollin’ now!”

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MULDER & SCULLY’S TOWNHOUSE

GEORGETOWN, DC

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 24, 2008

0300

The phone rang, and Scully moaned and rolled over. She batted in Mulder’s general direction, and said, “Phone’s ringing.”

“Let it ring,” Mulder said, rolling over and pulling the covers over his head. He had just gotten to bed an hour ago, after two failed attempts at sleep.

“You suck,” Scully muttered, and picked up her receiver. “Hello?” She answered, not bothering to look at the CID but trying her hardest to sound professional.

“Scully, this is Skinner. We have a situation we need you and Mulder on.”

“Sir? It’s three in the morning. What is it?”

“A hostage situation. Of a very unusual nature. Listen, I need you both at the Garden Court Nursing Home as soon as possible.”

Skinner spoke with urgency and what Scully thought sounded like confusion. But it might just be because it was so damn early in the morning.

Mulder rolled over and propped himself up on his elbow, giving Scully an inquisitive glance.

“How bad is the hostage situation, Sir?” Scully asked, trying to keep the sleep out of her voice.

“It’s extremely complicated. There are ten identified hostage takers in the facility. I’ll brief you both when you get here.”

“Okay, Sir,” she said, curious as to what they were about to get themselves into at 3 in the morning. “We’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

She hung up the phone, and turned to Mulder. “Ten hostage takers have infiltrated a nursing home. It’s practically down the street from our house—Garden Court.”

“That place? Why do they need us?”

“Skinner didn’t say,” Scully said as she slid out of bed. “C’mon, let’s go. I just hope this is over by this afternoon so we can get some sleep before Christmas.”

Mulder groaned. He still needed to do his Christmas shopping. He had managed to collect gifts for Maggie, Tara, Clara, and Matt, but he had several gifts picked out for Scully. He just hadn’t gotten them yet. It had been on his list of things to do and he couldn’t believe he had let it go this long. But now here he was, Christmas Eve, with a case prohibiting him from going Christmas shopping.

Maybe this would be over by this afternoon. Then he could go pick up the gifts he had picked out. All but two of the stores had agreed to hold the gifts, but hadn’t guaranteed him that a mistake wouldn’t occur and his gift would be sold by accident.

Scully turned on the radio, and they listened to Hark the Herald Angels Sing as they got dressed hastily. They practically ran out the door, and into their car. Scully drove toward the nursing home, and sent up a silent prayer that this would be over sooner rather than later.

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GARDEN COURT NURSING HOME

GEORGETOWN, DC

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 24, 2008

0330

“So let me get this straight. They all look the same?”

“More than just the same, Agent Scully,” the tech said, pointing to the security monitor feeds of the building. “They’re all identical. Our tracking programs match their faces perfectly. They’re…well, whatever you call ten babies from the same mother. They’re that.”

“Decuplets,” Mulder said, and scratched the back of his head. They were looking at pictures of the culprits, ten identically mustachioed men with thinning brown hair and wild eyes. “So every resident is accounted for on these tapes?”

“All residents and all staff, as far as we know. We’ve got full video feed of what’s going on in there, and it doesn’t look good. These guys have positioned themselves in exactly the right places to avoid capture. If we storm the building, we’d trip their silent alarms and trigger a machine gun booby trap. That would give them enough time to take cover and use the oxygen tanks in the hostage areas to create an explosion,” Skinner said.

“Bomb suits?” Mulder asked.

“We don’t want to risk a firefight, Mulder. There are elderly patients in there,” Skinner told him flatly. “Even a well-executed operation still risks hitting one of them.”

“Why were we called, Sir? I mean, other than the fact that they’re decuplets…”

“Assistant Director Taperman is a friend of mine—as soon as this came in, he asked me to personally handle it. His mother is in this facility, and besides that, there is this,” he said, and indicated the computer screen as well.

The tech took his cue. “The decuplets are reciting some kind of script, like it’s from a movie. Our limited audio inside the building has given us this.” The tech began playing the tape.

“…And I have risen from the dead to show you all how to really make a movie. I am the star, and none of you…”

“This is the second one,” the tech said, and started another tape.

“…You people don’t know shit. I’m the star of this movie and you guys ain’t gonna screw this up this time—I’ve risen from the dead to show you…”

“They all go on like this,” the tech explained. “Some of them use proper English, some of them you can barely understand. But they all say the same thing, at about the same time during the situation. Ten minutes after it started—that’s when these were collected.”

“And it’s as if they were all actors on this film—improvising the script but not varying from the plot,” Mulder said.

“And they’re filming every second,” Skinner said. “Their helmet cams are actually streaming live video to a maintenance closet. They have a computer set up there that’s collecting the videos and storing them. We’ve intercepted their videos and they’ve caught us. But they don’t seem to mind.”

“Sir!” a woman called from behind. They turned to see an FBI agent approaching. “Sir, we’ve got a new video uploading.”

“I’m receiving it now,” the tech said, but the woman shoved a PDA in front of Skinner’s nose. “It’s already downloaded here,” she said.

Skinner wasted no time, and pressed ‘play’. The helmet had been taken off the man’s head and he was now addressing the camera.

“Hey, Feds, how ya doin’? All right, let’s make this short and sweet. My name’s Brody Drexler. I used to make movies, but some asshole cut my life short. I’m back now to show you all how it’s really done. For my next scene, I need two agents. Preferably one with medical training. Think you can do that for me? If not, this lady here,” he said, pulling an elderly, frantically sobbing woman into the camera’s view, “is gonna get a bullet through her pretty little skull. You all move, now, hear? I’ll look forward to the addition to my cast.”

He placed the helmet back on his head and ended the feed. Skinner tossed the PDA to the tech. “Go through that video and get a frame-by-frame of that last shot. When he puts the helmet back on his head, you have a view of the room.”

The tech nodded, said, “Yes, Sir,” and then handed the PDA back to the agent that had given it to Skinner in the first place. “I can do that from here,” he said, and pointed to his laptop.

“So we can assume that Brody Drexler is the leader. Look into the name Drexler,” Skinner said to the agent with the PDA. “Find out who he is, and whether he’s a decuplet or if this is some kind of a trick.”

“Yes, Sir,” she said, and jogged away.

Skinner turned to Scully, and before he could even say the words, Scully said, “I’ll go.”

“If she’s going, I’m the second agent,” Mulder stated.

“That makes the most sense,” Skinner said with a nod. “You’ve both got hostage crisis experience, and we don’t need you to negotiate, Mulder. We’ve got a negotiator over there already, setting up a game plan.” He indicated to the tent not too far away, where a young agent was pointing to a chalk board, and other agents were nodding in response.

Mulder snorted. “This isn’t the Academy, Sir, and we can’t afford to have someone green in there. Who picked that kid?”

“I did. He’s a highly skilled negotiator, and he’ll be guiding you through what to say. You’re not to deviate from the plan unless you have information he doesn’t, understood?” Skinner demanded.

Mulder rolled his eyes. “Sir, look, if I’m going in with Scully—”

“You’ll need to act like her partner and back her up. I need your attention on her location as much as possible. It’s very likely he’s planning on injuring one of the hostages as part of his movie, and using Scully as a doctor.”

“Or he’s already injured one of the hostages and it isn’t part of the movie, so he needs me to take that person off the scene,” Scully suggested.

“He would use one of the nursing home doctors for that,” Mulder said, and then turned to Skinner. “Okay. I won’t go off the script, unless I’ve got other information. But if that kid makes a mistake, don’t expect me to follow through with it.”

Skinner nodded. “Understandable. Go get suited up, Agents. I don’t know how long he’s going to give us.”

Mulder and Scully glanced at each other briefly before heading to the tent to grab gear. They were both thinking the same thing, and it was almost unnecessary when Scully said, “Mulder, I swear to God, if you come home for Christmas in a cast of any kind, I’m going to kick your ass.”

“I’ll be good, Scully,” he promised, but the smirk on his face told her he was in his usual adrenaline-fueled ‘impulsive’ mood.

“You better be. No heroics.”

“None necessary. I can probably talk this guy down. And all his friends will follow.”

It was amazing. In a few moments, Scully realized, Mulder had yet again compiled a mental profile of their suspect and was ready to disarm him.

“Besides, you know the notorious rule of law enforcement,” Mulder said with a grin.

“What?” Scully asked with dread. He was in ‘energetic’ mode now, and there was no stopping him.

“The number of suspects is inversely proportionate to the proximity of your backup. In this case, we’ve got a lot of suspects but we’ve got even more backup,” he said, waving his arms around at the crowd gathered outside the nursing home. “So we should be fine.”

“But Mulder, you’ve forgotten the notorious rule of the X-files.”

“Oh?” he asked, snapping his helmet chin strap and sticking the radio in his ear.

“The number of things that go wrong is inversely proportionate to the proximity of Mulder to the suspect,” she said with a smirk.

He shoved her gently in reply, and they headed toward the negotiator to be briefed.

“Here we go,” Scully said with a sigh.

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GARDEN COURT NURSING HOME

GEORGETOWN, DC

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 24, 2008

0345

“You, kid, go let the lady in,” Drexler said, and pointed his weapon at the teenager’s head.

Nathan got up slowly, keeping Drexler in his peripheral vision as he walked toward the door to the Alzheimer’s ward. Drexler had used the PA system to direct the two agents to where he wanted them, and keep them away from the areas he wanted to keep clear.

Nathan keyed in the code to open the door, a security measure in place to keep the wandering patients inside the ward. When the doors opened, Nathan gave the two agents a wary look, as if trying to gauge what their intentions were. Then he walked back to the group huddled together on the floor, and sat down silently.

“All righty, now we’re in show business!” Drexler exclaimed in his Louisiana southern accent. “Now what’re your names?”

“I’m Agent Dana Scully—I’m a medical doctor. And this is Agent Fox Mulder.”

“Fox…sounds southern to me. You from the south?”

Mulder shook his head. “Sorry, no.”

“Pity,” he said, and then perked up. “Okay! You, Agent Scully, you’re with me. We’re gonna walk on over to this next ward here, and you all sit tight—I’ll have one of my friends come check in on you every now and then. Agent Mulder, I need you here with these ones—your excitement’s comin’, trust me. You both are federal agents, are ya not?”

“We are. And Sir, I don’t think you realize how much trouble you’re in right now,” Scully said.

Drexler laughed. “Aren’t you a sharp little thing? You pegged me as crazy, haven’t you? Well, y’all better reconsider that position, ‘cause I ain’t crazy. I’m back from the dead, bitches! Ha ha! C’mon, you’re with me,” he gripped Scully’s arm and pulled her toward the exit. “Kid! Open the door!”

Nathan rose and opened the door once more, watching as Scully was led away. Mulder looked around when the door slid closed, trying to find places where Drexler might have hidden a camera other than the one recording the ‘movie’. He spotted the security camera, but not anything else. “Is everyone okay?” Mulder asked the hostages.

“Mr. Pederman might have to go to the bathroom soon,” a nurse offered. “He has a weak bladder but his diapers are in his room.”

“It might be okay to get up and get those diapers now. You should move now, before one of his accomplices comes to keep watch over this ward. Does anyone else need anything?”

“I’ll find Mrs. Gregory’s meds, just in case we’re here that long.”

“If anyone needs meds, we might be able to negotiate a break in Drexler’s film,” Mulder said. “He’d understand that actors need a break.”

“We’re not actors. We’re hostages,” another nurse stated, his voice shaky. “Are you going to get us out of here?”

“I’m doing everything I can to make that happen. But my partner and I need to coordinate, and we need more information on this guy. You’re just going to have to trust me, and stay calm.”

“Yeah, right,” the man said, and glanced at the patients. “I give it fifteen minutes before someone loses it.”

“Do whatever you can to keep everyone calm,” Mulder repeated, and then heard the radio in his ear crackle.

“Mulder, we’ve got information on this guy,” Skinner’s voice told him. “Brody Drexler was an independent film director in Louisiana until two years ago, during a trip to DC where he was murdered. The case was never solved, and the remains of the body were hard to identify—so it was probably a mistake. What it doesn’t explain is the decuplets thing. Mulder, Brody Drexler was an only child. This means either he’s pulling some kind of magic trick or this isn’t Brody Drexler.”

Most likely the latter, Mulder thought, but he wasn’t sure yet.

“We ran his identity through facial recognition and have minimal results, but they’re still significant. He’s been linked to four security camera heists around the country, all in nursing homes, all staging hostage situations. But never with nine identical accomplices. All hostage situations were unsuccessful and he always appears to escape somehow, but no one has figured out how he gets past the security and back up perimeter.

“As far as personal information, all we have thus far is the real Brody Drexler had no criminal record. No gambling debts that anyone knew of, no family, and was in good financial standing. No outstanding bills. Clear your throat if you’re getting this.”

Mulder cleared his throat.

“He has no history of violence, but obviously the men you’re dealing with here do have a proclivity towards violence. Watch Scully’s back, and make sure you keep each other updated. I’m giving her this same information. We have your location on infrared tracker out here. We’re ready to come if necessary. Use the codeword if you have to. The hostage negotiator—Jenkins—he says you’re doing great. No complaints so far. We’ll keep in touch. Skinner out.”

“Excuse me, Sir?” a woman said, her frail body in a geriatric chair.

“Yes, Ma’am?” Mulder asked her.

“You can’t be here.”

Mulder stared at her, and then glanced at the nurses. They didn’t seem to react to the woman’s words. “Why is that?”

“You weren’t invited,” she said bluntly, and then nodded toward the door. “You can leave, and come back in when you’re invited.”

Mulder smiled slightly, and was surprised when the teenager spoke. “Don’t mind her. Ms. Van Remp doesn’t quite understand what’s going on.”

“I understand that man wasn’t invited,” Ms. VanRemp said, an irritated look on her face.

“What’s your name?” Mulder asked the boy.

“Nathan. I’m a volunteer here. I’d like to help you—in whatever way you need me to.”

Mulder nodded. “You can help me by keeping them calm. I understand this is the Alzheimer’s unit—do you know of any disruptive patients my partner and I should know about?”

Nathan shook his head. “Naw, man, they’re all pretty good as long as they got the nurses close by. There are a few who will throw a fit but the nurses should be able to calm them down.”

Mulder nodded at the teenager’s answer, even though he knew that a nurse with a gun to her head would not be able to calm down a patient who decided to suddenly throw a fit. “You’re doing a great job remaining calm. Keep it up.”

Nathan snorted. “Yeah,” he said.

Mulder gave him a curious look.

The boy shook his head, and said, “I’ve seen this shit before. Never ends well. But nothin’ you can do.”

“You can do plenty, Nathan,” Mulder told him seriously. “You can listen for my cue. When I need your help, I’ll let you know. Stay alert. This will end well.”

“That’s what they all say. No offense, man. I know you’re a big-wig fed, but that doesn’t stop the crazies. I’ll still pay attention. You got my help if you need it.”

Mulder smiled, and gave him an approving nod. Then he stood by the door, waiting for someone to return.

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GARDEN COURT NURSING HOME

GEORGETOWN, DC

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 24, 2008

0415

Drexler had dropped Scully off at a doctor’s office in the nursing home, where an elderly man was bleeding profusely from a head wound. Most likely, he had been shoved into something. Scully was doing everything she could, but doubted he would survive.

The serial killer, who had done this before many times, Scully realized, stood by the door and watched, occasionally stepping forward and uttering the same words. He had disappeared for a short time after Scully started her attempt at controlling the bleeding, and then reappeared. Or at least, someone identical to Drexler had reappeared. And he did the same thing, walking forward, pointing the gun to her head, and yelling, “Save him or we’ll never get the code!” or some variant of that.

Scully managed to get the bleeding under control and was stitching the contusion while monitoring the man’s iffy vitals, when Drexler stepped forward and screamed his ‘code’ nonsense once more. She turned to him and said coolly, “You’re going to need to stop that. I can’t concentrate and save this man if you keep screaming in my face.”

The man took a step back, surprisingly enough, and stood holding the weapon in a fairly non-threatening, observant stance. Scully was shocked but tried not to show it. Instead, she got back to work on who the residents in this ward had mentioned was Mr. Valdor.

After a few more minutes, the man was stable, but unconscious.

“Did you save him?” Drexler—or whoever he was–stated.

“He’s stable for now but I can’t guarantee he’ll stay that way, much less that he’ll wake up and give you whatever code you need. What does the code open?”

“The door to the furnace,” the man told her. “He was down there when that maintenance worker opened the door. I shot the maintenance worker, knocked the old man out. I need that code.”

“Why do you need to get to the furnace room?” Scully asked, as non-confrontationally as she could.

“Why, honey, don’t you know?” His horrid breath nearly gagged Scully as he leaned in. “That’s where the bomb is. Damn maintenance worker changed the code at the last second, ‘fore I could see what it was. Now the bomb’s in there idlin’ like a car in a driveway on a hot summer day, and I need to get back in there to set it off.”

“Well, I doubt you’ll get much out of him,” Scully stated flatly, pleased that this man had leaned in to make his statement about a bomb perfectly clear to the units sitting outside, waiting to storm in if necessary. Booby-traps be damned.

“That may be true. But I’m pretty sure I can find someone else who might know just what that maintenance worker might’ve changed the code to. After all, security for these patients is a top priority in this here facility.”

With that, the man left. Scully glanced at her patient, for whom she could do nothing at the moment, and sighed.

“Scully, I got all that,” Skinner said on her radio. “See if you can find a maintenance worker who knows that code, and transmit it to us. We’ll go in and disarm the bomb.”

“Copy,” Scully said in a low voice, and approached the small group that had gathered outside the medical room. She quickly located the nurse and bypassed the patients. “Do you know where a maintenance worker might be?”

“Um…over in the uh…in the maintenance area, I guess…third floor,” the nervous woman said. She was shaking with fear. “Are they…are they gonna kill us?”

Scully placed her arm on the woman’s shoulder. “My partner and I are going to do everything we can to stop these men, and end this as soon as possible. But I need your help. Can you keep these patients calm while I head to the third floor?”

She nodded rapidly, and Scully realized that by the way her eyes were darting around, and the manner in which she was shaking, hugging herself to get warm, and stuttering led to the diagnosis of shock. She looked around for another nurse, perhaps down the hall or maybe even in one of these offices, but found none. “Where are all the medical staff that usually occupy these offices?”

“He’s locked them in the furnace area,” the nurse stuttered, and shook her head. “He did it just before that new guy, Joe, went to change the codes for the night. We always change the…the codes. So the Alzheimers patients don’t get help…from the other patients…you know, in their wandering. And Tom—the guy in there, the guy you saved, he was down there with the maintenance worker because he’s a wanderer. He was caught down there.”

Scully nodded. If Tom had Alzheimer’s and was at the wandering stage it was unlikely that he would remember the code, even if he did wake up. She looked at the patients around her, and did a quick assessment. “Do any of you have medical training?”

“I do!” an elderly man said, and stepped forward slowly. He clearly had arthritis in his hips, Scully judged by the way he shuffled. “I’m a retired paramedic. Thirty-five years on the job, after ten years of service in the US Navy. I’m the leader of the disaster plan group here at Garden Court—if it weren’t for this damned arthritis, I’d be running the place! What do you need?”

“What’s your name, Sir?” Scully asked.

“Jim Randall,” he said, and extended his hand to Scully. She shook it gently.

“Mr. Randall, I need you to help this nurse here—she’s in shock. She needs a warm blanket, a glass of ice water, and she needs to be closely monitored for any kind of heartbeat irregularities. Can you do that?”

Jim nodded. “Of course I can. We’ve got the disaster plan right over here…damn it, Pete, get me the disaster plan. It’s over there—my walker’s in my damn room, and all this commotion started, and I didn’t have a chance to get it.”

Jim’s friend, Pete, walked almost as slowly as Jim would have toward the receptionist’s desk at the doctor’s office area. He pulled a blue binder from the shelf and brought it over. “See, it’s here,” Jim said, and flipped to the page with the materials listed. “Everything we have, and its location.”

“Great. If you can start implementing this disaster plan, Mr. Randall, I’d greatly appreciate it. And Tom in there,” Scully indicated her patient, “Needs to be monitored in the same way. Heartbeat, blood pressure, and check his eyes for dilation. Can you do that?”

Jim nodded confidently. “Anything to serve my community.”

“I’ll try to find you a nurse to help. Does anyone here have a medical condition that requires assistance?”

Jim looked around, and then said, “Kate’s got a bit of a bladder problem.”

Kate, who was leaning on a walker, threw him a nasty look. “Oh, you’re a fool and a liar, Jim. Don’t listen to him. He’s making it up as he goes along. I’ll keep him in order.”

Scully wondered vaguely if these two were husband and wife, here for a doctor’s appointment. The group was small, and that was good—it meant less variability for Jim to handle. She nodded, and gave Jim an encouraging smile. “I’m sure you’ll handle this just fine, Mr. Randall. I’ll be back as soon as possible.”

He gave her a salute, and Scully walked off. She admired people like Jim Randall more than almost anyone else in the world. Instead of spending their lives working toward a glamorous retirement with a golf course nearby and a country club membership, he had spent his life serving his country and community. He had signed up to serve his community in his very old age, using his talents despite his physical limitations. And finally, during a crisis situation, he stepped up to help.

She headed toward the stairs, using guidance from the techs outside to watch for booby traps. Since there were none and infrared signatures were absent from the stairwell, she opened the door and mounted the stairs. Extending her weapon in front of her, she began to climb.

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GARDEN COURT NURSING HOME

GEORGETOWN, DC

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 24, 2008

0445

It had been a while since anyone entered the Alzheimer’s ward, but Mulder decided that it was worth it to wait. He had received Skinner’s notice that Scully was moving, and maintaining radio silence as long as she could. She was trying to find a maintenance worker who could give them the code to the furnace room, to disarm some kind of a bomb Drexler had put there.

Drexler burst in the door suddenly, and nearly everyone jumped. He pointed to the teenager, Nathan. “You! Boy! Get up!”

Nathan got up slowly, glaring at the man with a hardened, street-wise gaze. Mulder was ready to jump if necessary, hoping this kid wouldn’t be stupid enough to say something provocative.

“Do you know of any maintenance workers around here?”

Nathan shook his head.

“You don’t know any? You have no clue where they might be? Does anyone know where they might be?”

Mulder closed his eyes in annoyance when a nurse stood up. “Third floor,” she said. “It’s where the maintenance lounge is. They have their lockers there.”

“All right, Agent Mulder and Tom Thumb here are comin’ with me. C’mon, this ain’t part of the script but I like it. A boy and a fed, gettin’ ready to help me torture a maintenance worker for a code. Sounds beautiful!”

“It sounds like a good plot for a movie,” Mulder said sincerely as he led the way out the door, Drexler’s weapon pointed at his back. He needed some way to stall. Skinner had said that Scully was heading to the third floor to find a maintenance worker. If she got there first, she’d get to the bomb first.

“Don’t you talk smart with me, Fed.”

Mulder’s radio crackled, and a voice he didn’t recognize, but presumed to be the negotiator Jenkins, said, “Don’t antagonize him. Keep him calm. Be careful, Mulder—movies are his domain. He’s likely to get territorial.”

Mulder ignored Jenkins’ voice for now. “No, I’m serious. I’m a bit of a movie buff. I’ve actually seen some of your classics.”

Skinner, obviously taking his cue, began a search and supplied Mulder with information instantaneously.

“Oh yeah, like what?” Drexler stopped and pointed his weapon at Mulder’s head. Mulder didn’t turn.

“Skeleton in my Closet, 1998,” Skinner said in Mulder’s radio.

“Skeleton in my Closet. I saw it in ’98, right after it was made.”

Drexler’s eyebrow ascended, and he said, “Go on.”

“Good Times Never End, 2002,” Skinner provided.

“Good Times Never End. Didn’t catch it until early 2003,” Mulder said.

“What else?” Drexler asked.

“Peter’s Snowflake, 2005. A children’s movie.”

“My nephew loves Peter’s Snowflake. He turned six in 2005. I figured it’d be a nice birthday present to find a way to get him to that movie.”

“So you must…ah…you must travel in Louisiana a lot?” Drexler asked.

“Tell him you stopped by a few times but you catch most of his movies in DC’s Trademark 10 theatre.”

“I saw Skeleton in my Closet in Louisiana but I saw most of your movies in a local theatre. Trademark 10. You know it?”

“Naw, not from around this area. Have to keep movin’ around, y’know? When you rehearse as much as I do, people get suspicious.”

The radio crackled again, and Jenkins’ voice filled Mulder’s ear. “Try to find out about the plot. Where he’s going with the movie.”

“Have you rehearsed this movie before?” Mulder asked.

“’Bout six other times. Was in the news four times for it. Finally got it just right, but that damn maintenance worker put us off schedule. I was writin’ this script before someone decided to take my life, y’know. Now I’m here, back from the dead, ready to act it all out. Wanna know what it’s called?”

“Sure,” Mulder said.

“The End is Near,” he said, and laughed. “Kinda funny—ya have to admire the humor, these people bein’ so close to dead.”

“That isn’t funny,” Nathan stated harshly, and Mulder wanted to slap the kid.

Drexler shoved his weapon into Nathan’s head and demanded, “What do you mean? You don’t like my title, kid? Wanna learn just how near the end is?”

“Keep the kid under control, Mulder,” Jenkins ordered.

But Nathan seemed to have a mind of his own. “These people have lived out most of their lives. At least most of them have—some of them are kids or young adults who had some kinda trauma, and are comatose. But like…dude, you can’t make fun of the fact that these people are nearing their end, because every day of life to them is like a gift. Every day of life to you should be like a gift.”

Mulder had to admit, he was surprised to hear what came out of the kid’s mouth. For a teenager in sagging pants, skater’s shoes, a huge t-shirt and sweatshirt, and shaggy unkempt hair, he certainly was profound. Apparently, Drexler thought so too.

He took the gun from the kid’s head. “Why, son, I do believe you understand me. Every day of my new life is a gift. I was dead, but now I’m alive. I’ve been given this chance to finish my movie, don’t you understand? I’m takin’ it! Now let’s head up to that third floor!”

“Mulder, I’ve got more information on Drexler,” Skinner said in Mulder’s radio. “He was a college dropout—his original field of study was computer engineering. He left and started his own company in 1991. The company failed in 1994. He was trying to sell holographic technology, but he was too far ahead of the market.”

Mulder cleared his throat. Drexler glanced at him, but didn’t react.

“Drexler’s capable of constructing complex computer technology,” Skinner told him. “He’s probably used that skill to set up the booby traps in the building, and he might have used that skill to find a way to make the monitors show ten of him, instead of one. You’d never know the difference, if all the ‘Drexlers’ look the same.”

There was a pause, and Mulder realized they were at the landing to the third floor.

“Scully’s signature is still on that floor, Mulder. If you can stall him, do it now.”

“Drexler, do you have any children?”

Drexler turned, and shook his head absently. “No, don’t have no children to my name.”

“Hm. That’s weird, because Peter’s Snowflake was extremely observant of a child’s nature. Do you have any nieces or nephews?”

“You tryin’ to implicate me as a pedophile?” Drexler demanded, and shoved his gun under Mulder’s chin. “I ain’t got no baby fetish, you understand? I have a movie fetish. I love kids, just love ‘em. Can’t stand ‘em when they turn to teenagers, like your friend here.”

“What’s wrong with teenagers?” Nathan challenged.

“For that, boy, you get to go first,” Drexler said, and took Nathan by the arm and shoved him in front of him. He opened the door to the third floor and pushed Nathan forward, and Mulder brought up the rear. The agent tried to push past the other two to make sure Scully wasn’t in the area.

They rounded a corner and the sign for the maintenance lounge was in sight. But suddenly, Scully turned the corner at the other end of the hall, and they stared at each other for a moment before she broke into a dead run. Drexler ran after her, at top speed. Then he pressed two buttons on the remote attached to his belt. Mulder and Nathan were hot on his heels, Nathan looking like he was ready to take him down. Luckily, Mulder caught the kid’s shoulder and shook his head.

They rounded another corner and went down a maze-like hallway. Mulder nearly thought he was seeing double when a second Drexler jumped in front of Scully, and pointed his weapon at her head. She stopped dead in her tracks, and the Drexler closest to Mulder and Nathan fired his weapon. Scully dropped.

“No! Scully!” Mulder screamed, and lunged toward her. But Drexler was too fast. He caught Mulder by the neck and pulled a knife, holding it against the agent’s carotid artery.

“We got to find a maintenance worker,” he said, far too calmly for the occasion. “So you just quiet down there, boy, and we’ll get your partner some medical attention.”

“Fuck you!” Mulder yelled.

Nathan’s gaze rose from the fallen agent to a maintenance worker jogging down the hallway. The Latino man’s eyes grew wide when he saw both Drexlers, and started to run. But the second Drexler caught him in his tracks by pointing his weapon directly at the man’s skull, and saying not a word.

“Ah, there’s one now,” Drexler said, and released Mulder. He pointed his weapon at the agent as he approached the maintenance worker, and indicated that the man should cover the other half of the distance.

Shakily and clearly scared out of his mind, the poor man approached the serial killer and stuttered, “What…what do you want? I got kids, I’m a single dad, I’m trying to raise them by working two jobs—I got to put food on the table—”

“Didn’t your mama never tell you to shut your trap? If not, shut it now, and follow me. You happen to know what the codes to the furnace room were changed to tonight?”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever you need, man,” he said. His Mexican accent was getting thicker, which Mulder took as a sign that he was getting more and more nervous. However, he didn’t much care. All he could look at was Scully’s prone form across the hallway. He wasn’t getting anything from Skinner on his radio, and that worried him, too. Drexler forced them down the hall, and to the stairwell. They descended the stairs in utter silence all the way to the basement.

Finally, Drexler pointed at the door. “Okay, open it, son. And I’ll let you go.”

Mulder saw him look at the security camera, which was no doubt recording the ‘scene’ as part of the movie. He realized all too well what was going to happen next.

The second the door opened, Drexler extended his weapon and pulled the trigger. The maintenance worker dropped to the floor, instantly dead.

“You bastard! That man had a family! He had kids! He was their only source of food! How could you do that?!” Nathan screamed, and Mulder held him back from lunging at the serial killer.

Drexler looked at Nathan square in the eye, and said, “I got no need for big mouths. Take particular note of that, son, before yours becomes too big for your own good.”

With that, he backed into the furnace area, training his weapon on Mulder and Nathan the entire time. Mulder glanced at the doctors with bound hands gathered in the corner of the room, trying to stay away from the gunfire. Drexler set the bomb without even glancing at the medical staff, and looked into a camera that was set up near the door. “Now there won’t be doubt—I rule this place and I am the master of death!”

He looked at Mulder and Nathan, and then waved his gun, indicating they should come into the room.

“You won’t be able to stop me, Fed. I’m gonna blow this place and take everyone with me!” He said, his tone exaggerated. It was clear to Mulder and Nathan that this was some kind of a gruesome script. But neither one of them was in an acting mood.

“What’s the point in blowing yourself up? You just got a chance at a new life—why would you want to blow it all to hell?” Nathan asked, his brow lowered angrily. “You’re either stupid or pathetic.”

“You don’t understand, boy. I’m mastering death. Death couldn’t master me the first time, what in God’s name makes you think it’ll master me a second time?”

“Someone made an attempt on your life, Drexler. That doesn’t mean you died,” Mulder stated bluntly. “Your twisted head made that up, and now you’re about to take a nursing home filled with helpless elderly residents along with the staff and volunteers that keep this place running, just to make a fucking movie you never got to finish! What are you using, Drexler? Holographic technology? Is that why there are ten of you? There aren’t really, are there? They’re all holograms. And that means their bullets are holographic too—it’s a brilliant way to control a bunch of untrained civilians. But there’s one major problem with your plan. You’re up against the FBI, the ATF, and the bomb squad. They’ve got this place mapped, and they’re ready to storm in when they need to.”

“Ah, but Mr. G-man, you’re forgettin’ one very important detail. I know my computers. I blocked the signal from that little radio you’re wearin’ in your ear from transmitting anything but static to your boss-man out there. They have not a clue what just transpired with your pretty little partner, Dr. Scully. And because your radios don’t work, neither do you. Now…” he stepped aside, and left the doorway clear. “I suggest the two of you skiddaddle on outta here, if you want to save your partner and get out of the building.” He grinned. “This’ll make for one hell of a great movie.”

“You’re letting us go?” Nathan asked, skeptical.

“No, boy, you’ll never make it before the bomb blows. But good luck. Like I said, a great movie.”

“And how are you going to retrieve this movie, if your equipment’s about to blow up, Drexler?” Mulder challenged him.

Drexler laughed. “You think I’d stake all this on one little building? Naw, I got cameras and computers recording this everywhere. In fact, it’ll be up on Youtube in a couple of hours, when the soundtrack gets put in. See, after I go, I’m immortalized. My computer is gonna stick the soundtrack in pre-determined places, and this little improvised movie of mine will become immortalized forever. I will go down in history as Brody Drexler—the one writer, director, and producer who made a real movie. There will be tangible evidence of my story. And it’ll be accessible forever.”

Nathan snorted. “You don’t know what forever is,” he said.

Mulder glanced Drexler, and then at the bomb. “Let the medical staff go.”

Drexler rolled his eyes. “Fine,” he said, and paused the count-down on the bomb. “You’re the most difficult actors to work with.” He pulled a knife and cut the zip ties around the doctors’ hands, after which they looked to Mulder for instruction.

“Go!” Mulder yelled, and grabbed Nathan’s arm, yanking him out of the furnace room. They ran up the stairs, bypassing the elevator. When they reached the third floor, they knew the bomb had to be close to blowing. Mulder tried repeatedly to contact Scully, Skinner—anyone, even Jenkins. But it was to no avail.

They ran directly to the spot where Scully had dropped, but she wasn’t there. Instead, there was a small trail of blood droplets.

“This is good,” Nathan said encouragingly. “This means she didn’t lose too much blood to walk. She walked away, Mulder—this is good.”

Mulder nodded numbly, and said, “C’mon, we’ve got to try to find her.”

They jogged along the blood droplet trail until they heard a deafening roar, followed by a rumbling in the building. The sound of twisted metal and exploding fluorescent bulbs filled their ears, along with the screams of confused and terrified civilians. Mulder pushed Nathan into a corner as they were knocked to the ground by the force of the building shaking. The ceiling collapsed, and the hallway filled with thick, suffocating smoke.

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GARDEN COURT NURSING HOME

GEORGETOWN, DC

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 24, 2008

0530

“Get me Intel on the structural integrity of that building!” Skinner roared. “I want to know where my agents are—get me their infrared signatures back now! I want them traced and out of there! Rescue! Contact the nearest hospital and get ready to evacuate the residents and the staff! And get these damn reporters out of here!”

Skinner stormed away to find his tech, who seemed to have wandered off, when he nearly ran right into a woman. “Is it true? Brody Drexler’s in there?”

“Ma’am, you can’t be here—this is a command center. Please get back behind the yellow tape.”

“I’m Brody Drexler’s editor! And…we were engaged, before the accident.”

“Who told you this information about this man?” Skinner demanded.

“I got an email last week. It went to my spam box—I didn’t recognize the address. But it said “I’m back, baby, and you can see me in the old folk’s home in DC.” Then this happened. I knew it had to be Brody—I know his writing style. I’m his editor. Are you the man in charge?”

“I’m Assistant Director Skinner. I’ve got a very serious situation in here, so if you think you can help us, great. Otherwise, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

“Mr. Skinner, I know how his movie ends. I know what he’s planning on doing. He’s showed me this script before. He never got to do the film. Are your agents trapped in that building? If they are, I can get them out. I can convince Brody to stop this.”

“We’ll take whatever you can give us—you can speak to this agent over here,” he said, and led her to one of his agents. “But at this point, Ma’am, we’re not even sure Drexler’s alive. That bomb rocked the entire building, and it could be coming down any second. What’s your name?”

“Cynthia Michaels. Promise me you’ll try to get Brody out of that building,” she said, sounding quite desperate.

Skinner nodded. “We’re going to do everything we can do get everyone out.”

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GARDEN COURT NURSING HOME

GEORGETOWN, DC

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 24, 2008

0535

“Agent Scully? Agent Scully, you okay?”

She heard Lawrence’s voice before she saw him. Dust was everywhere, and the kind maintenance worker who had helped her off the hallway floor and into the maintenance lounge to treat her wound had ended up diving on top of her as the ceiling and floor simultaneously caved. They were left on an outcrop near the sink, so close to the gaping hole in the floor that she dare not shift.

But Lawrence had already climbed off of her and was rifling through the first aid cabinet.

She winced, and held her arm. “I’m okay,” she said. “You?”

“Not a scratch. You’re unlucky today, Agent Scully. A bullet wound and an explosion.”

“In my world we call that a Tuesday,” Scully deadpanned, and settled for leaning against the cabinet instead of trying to get up. The couch was now one floor beneath them, and so the floor looked like a pretty inviting place to sit.

Lawrence chuckled. “At least you’ve got a good sense of humor about it. Can’t go through life without a good sense of humor, you know?”

“Oh, I know,” she said sarcastically, and winced again. She glanced at the wound. It was a through-and-through, very close to being a graze. It hadn’t caught any bones, and by the way it felt, probably hadn’t severely damaged any muscle tissue. It was more like a 9 mm cylinder carved into her arm than it was a bullet hole, but it still hurt like hell. And it was now getting infected with all the dust floating through the air. She coughed. “You have to have one hell of a good sense of humor to work with my partner.”

“Oh yeah?” Lawrence chuckled. “Yeah, I had a buddy like that during the war.”

“You’re a veteran?” Scully asked.

“Afghanistan, two years. Glad I’m not there now—it’s one hell of a mess. Got a few friends in Iraq who said they’d gladly stay there four years straight instead of heading into Afghanistan.”

“Well, they’re two different battlefronts. Iraq’s a lot safer than it used to be.”

“Got that right. Okay, got some gauze, antiseptic, some tape…we’ll fix that up real fast.”

“I’m a doctor,” Scully said, and it sounded like quite an odd statement until she followed it up with, “I’m going to let you know if I see any signs of infection from now until we’re rescued. And then I’ll give you instructions on what to do.”

“Oh, sure. Got some field medic training myself, but it’s probably nowhere near as good as yours. I’m gonna edge my way over there to you. If you see any structural instability, or I see any, it’s extremely important that we let each other know. If that happens, we should freeze in place until we locate the weak point. Okay?”

Scully nodded. “Sure. Makes sense.”

He edged over to her, and in a few moments was bandaging her arm.

“So do you celebrate Christmas, Agent Scully?” Lawrence asked, and Scully knew he was trying to keep her talking while he attempted to seal with liquid bandaging what really needed a ton of stitches.

Scully nodded, and winced. “Yeah. Catholic.”

“I’m Presbyterian. But don’t throw me in that hole.”

She chuckled, and said, “I won’t be throwing much of anything with this arm for a while.”

“Well, at least you get a Christmas vacation out of it.”

With a smile, then a wince, she asked him, “Are you headed home to family when we get out of here?”

“No, don’t have any. Not anymore, anyway.”

Her smile faltered, and she looked away. “I’m sorry.”

“No, don’t be sorry, wasn’t your fault. I had just gotten home from Afghanistan, Christmas 2004. They were actually driving to pick me up at the airport. A semi hit a patch of ice and slid into their lane.” As he spoke, his voice caught once, but he quickly recovered. Taking a deep breath, he said, “But I’m doing okay. One day at a time, you know?”

She nodded slowly, and looked down. “I’ve lost some family too. I know how it feels—I’m sorry for your loss.”

He gave her a quick, artificial smile, and then focused on his work. After a moment, he said, “I think I’m gonna leave this place. Go back into the military. I’m still young enough. And there just isn’t enough excitement here. Things break, but it’s this—this right here, this kind of excitement. That’s what gets me going.”

“If it’s what you love, I think you should do it.”

He nodded. “There, that should be good,” he said, securing the bandage with some tape. “Now if we edge out of here, we can go look for your partner and that kid.”

“And try to get a radio working,” Scully added.

Slowly but surely, Lawrence helped Scully out of the room and they entered the equally dust-filled hallway. It was time to search.

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GARDEN COURT NURSING HOME

GEORGETOWN, DC

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 24, 2008

0545

“Mulder? Aw, shit. How am I gonna move this thing?” Nathan yelled, exasperated. A large cross beam from the ceiling had fallen to the floor, broken through the linoleum, and trapped Mulder’s upper body completely. There was no way one fifteen-year-old could move the beam, and Nathan wondered if the agent would have to be cut out of there. He hoped to God Drexler didn’t come back.

Torn between leaving Mulder and going to get help, the nearly unscathed Nathan paced the hallway, careful of structural instability. Just when he had decided to leave to get help, he heard a cough, and a gasp for air.

He bent down, leaning near Mulder and trying to clear the dust from the agent’s face.

“Mulder, can you hear me?”

Mulder nodded slightly, and winced. “Hard…hard to breathe.”

“I know. There’s a giant…thing…on top of you. I don’t know what this is—part of the building. But it’s too heavy for me to lift, man. What can I do? Should I go get help?”

“No…Drexler might be…there. You have no…weapon.” Mulder coughed. “Need to find…radio.”

“I don’t know where I’d find one of those. I mean, it looks like this hallway’s blocked off. There are no offices nearby. My best bet is trying to crawl through that pile over there.”

Mulder shook his head. “No. If we can’t get out…Drexler…” he coughed again. “Can’t get in. Rescue will have to…find us.”

Nathan nodded, and took a seat near Mulder’s head so the agent could see him.

“Sorry your Christmas…sucks,” Mulder said.

“Christmas never sucks for me,” Nathan stated simply, and then looked around. “Hope your partner’s okay.”

“Me too,” Mulder responded softly. Then he closed his eyes.

“Hey, dude, no. You can’t sleep. No way. I don’t know if you have a concussion or something—you have to stay awake.”

Mulder opened his eyes, and shot a glare at Nathan. “Didn’t hit my head.”

“How do you know?”

“Doesn’t hurt.”

“That could be the fact that it’s friggin’ freezing in here. Or that you didn’t hit it very hard. I dunno. But I’m not letting you sleep.”

“Then you’re going to have…to talk to me.”

“Fine,” Nathan said. There was a long pause. Mulder glanced at his teenaged companion inquisitively, and with the pressure on, Nathan came up with something. “Fifty nifty United States from thirteen original colonies, fifty nifty stars on the flag that billow so beautifully in the breeze,” he sang.

“Oh great,” Mulder muttered.

“Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut!”

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GARDEN COURT NURSING HOME

GEORGETOWN, DC

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 24, 2008

0600

“So at the end of the movie when the volunteer and the federal agent are in the furnace area with the bomb, he sets the bomb and lets them go find the other agent. He follows them and hides, and then waits until they’ve been talking a while if they’re not already dead. He barges in on them and tries to kill them. He realizes in the last second that he can only master death over those who are already dead inside, and he thinks the federal agent is dead inside, but not the volunteer. So he spares the volunteer and kills the federal agent. But if he’s jammed your infrared signals, you have no way of knowing where he is.”

“That’s what we’ll work on now,” Skinner said, giving Cynthia an approving nod. “You’ve been very helpful. Just wait here while I talk with my agents.”

He walked away before he could be bombarded with questions, and pulled three agents aside. “We need those infrared sensors soon—Drexler’s most likely alive and looking to kill Mulder or Scully. We don’t know if both Agents Mulder and Scully are together—that’s something we’ll need to determine. Have separate teams looking for the rest of the occupants. We want those people out of there as soon as we can. It sounds like he’s let the doctors go, but that wasn’t part of the script. We can’t take what Cynthia Michaels says as gospel truth because Drexler’s never gotten this far in the rehearsals—he’s always been stopped by the authorities, and he’s had to cancel his hologram programs before this point. We’re dealing with a serial killer here, folks. He’s tried this with other nursing homes and even if he hasn’t rehearsed this part, he’s extremely knowledgeable and knows what he’s doing! All right, get to work!”

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GARDEN COURT NURSING HOME

GEORGETOWN, DC

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 24, 2008

0615

“So why did you choose a nursing home?” Scully asked, sifting through rubble in an attempt to clear the hallway for their passage. One-handed, she was much less effective than the muscular and uninjured Lawrence.

“I wanted a place where I could see my results every day. I wanted to see the people I was working for. But now…I don’t know, it’s been great. But something’s missing. There’s something I got overseas that I’m not getting here. And I really don’t think it’s just the adrenaline.”

Scully listened and nodded, not really sure what to say.

“I guess it could be a variety of things, but I’ve been thinking, and I think it might be the fact that nothing changes here. I mean, we get new patients, but it’s like…the people I’m working for, the people I’m serving, they’re never gonna get better. There’s no real good outcome for these people. And it’s this time of year that I just really want to be somewhere where there’s a good outcome.”

“Where there’s hope,” Scully said, and kicked a piece of rubble out of the way. She leaned against the wall, exhausted.

“Exactly,” Lawrence stated. “In Afghanistan, in Iraq…there are some pretty shitty days, and there are days when we wonder why the hell we’re even bothering. In fact, there are a lot of those days. But it’s the days when we see some improvement, where we gain some ground—it’s happening all the time now in Iraq. Those are the days when we know why we’re doing it. We know we’re actually getting somewhere. We’re working toward a tangible goal, where we can see some results.”

“That’s always a good thing,” Scully said, and leaned her head against the wall.

“Hey, you doing okay?”

She opened her eyes and looked at him, feigning a smile. “Fine,” she said.

“My political points of view aren’t bothering you, are they?”

“No, I don’t mind,” she told him, and nodded toward the pile. “Think we can get through that hole yet?”

“Not yet. A few more pieces of rubble. I don’t want your arm getting snagged on something.”

It was secured in a sling they had made back at the maintenance worker’s lounge, but there was still a great possibility of re-injury in this kind of environment. Scully agreed with a nod.

“Tell you the truth, I wasn’t trying to give you a political speech,” Lawrence said, and chucked a piece of rubble away from the pile. “I could give a shit what you think about the war—what I was trying to say is I need somewhere to go that’s not like this. Where there’s some kind of real end to it, you know?”

“Then maybe the military is the right path for you,” Scully offered. “Or you could consider law enforcement. Or a ministry. There are plenty of options.” She was getting a little tired of this. She wasn’t a damn career counselor, and Mulder could be injured somewhere in this building. They needed to work faster!

“Yeah. I mean…you’re right. There are plenty of options. I just need to figure out what it’s all about. Here, I think we can go through now.”

He went through first, and then handed her his arm to support her as she climbed through next. They were at another large stretch of open area, and they clambered through it carefully in an attempt to find the hallway where Scully had been shot. She had a feeling she’d find Mulder there. And she prayed he was alive.

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GARDEN COURT NURSING HOME

GEORGETOWN, DC

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 24, 2008

0630

“So you said…Christmas…was always good for you. How can that be? Santa never…stiffed you?” Mulder asked, thanking whatever deity was looking down on them for stopping this kid from singing Fifty Nifty United States again.

“Christmas isn’t about Santa,” Nathan said with a snort, and shook his head. “Man, popular culture just destroys this holiday.”

“Yeah, just like…every other…holiday. You celebrate…the religious…part of it?”

“I only celebrate the religious part of it.”

Mulder nodded, and then gasped as a pain shot up his chest.

“What was that, man? You okay?”

With a wince, Mulder swallowed thickly and said, “Don’t know…chest hurts.”

“This damn thing is probably on top of your ribs.” Nathan stood up, and gripped the beam with all his might.

“No—don’t try. Hurt yourself.”

“I’m not gonna hurt myself. You sound like some parent or something.”

“Leave it. Sit back down,” Mulder said, and tried to control his breathing.

“You’re gonna kick if I don’t get this thing offa you.”

“Nice way…of putting it.”

“That doesn’t bother you?”

“Nothing…I can do…about it, Nathan.”

Nathan sat back down in the rubble, and rubbed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. “You’re like one of those stupid TV heroes, always sacrificing himself needlessly. C’mon, you got more to do than sit here under this damn beam and die. What about your partner? Your partner will kill me if I let you kick under here.”

“You better…learn to duck, then.”

The teenager rolled his eyes. “Fine. Have it your way. We’ll wait for help like sissies.”

“You seem…awfully calm…through all this. You said…something like this happ—happened before. When?”

“Only been in one hostage situation. I was six years old, and it was a bank heist. It lasted a couple of hours, then we were rescued. The hostage taker shot himself in the head. But in my neighborhood, shit happens all the time. Why do you think I come here? I take the bus in and volunteer. Get out of that hell-hole. People stealin’ shit from other people’s houses, people getting shot ‘cause they’ve got some kind of new sneakers or some other crap.”

Mulder nodded.

“I’m a foster kid. Been in eight houses, so I’m pretty lucky. Most kids have to move more than that in this piss-poor excuse for a system. But I’m getting out soon.”

“Like…your foster parents…right now?”

“I liked the last ones. The last ones were great. They put me in a good school. They were going to adopt me. Then his mother died and they got into some huge fight over some kind of inheritance thing. Got a divorce, lost the foster parenthood, and I got shipped off to the crackhead I live with now. Don’t much associate with him, though.”

“You’re…old enough to call…social services. Get yourself…moved.”

“I put in a request for a new home. Really nice place. Hard to get into. This lady runs a house with six kids at a time. Thirteen and older is her rule. She puts them in academic and sports programs that take them to Ivy League colleges. She’s hard core but she’s nice, according to this kid I know. And you have to really stay on top of your shit with her. She doesn’t fool around. No drugs, or you’re in therapy within a week. That kinda stuff.”

“What’s…the likelihood…you’ll be moved there?”

“Eh, you know. These things take time. Maybe not until I’m too old for it anyway. But my grades are decent and I don’t have a penny to my name so I should be able to get a scholarship to something or other.”

“What…do you want…to do with…your life?”

“I want to be a doctor.”

Mulder smiled. “My partner’s a doctor.”

Nathan nodded. “There’s something about that profession that really makes me want to do it. It’s not just the challenge, though I like a challenge. Can’t stand the boring shit some people think is worthwhile. I mean your job, that’s a cool job. Accountants? Psh.”

Mulder would have chuckled, if he didn’t think doing so would be the death of him. Instead, he continued to smile and nod.

“But yeah, I don’t know what it is. I come here for the same reason. I guess…you know what it is? It’s the meaning of Christmas.”

Mulder stared at the boy, totally confused. “Did I…miss something?”

“No, I’m weird like that. No, dude, it’s like this. What do you think the meaning of Christmas is?”

“Uh…” Mulder faltered. “I’m not Christian.”

“No, no, not the technical meaning, your meaning. If you celebrate it, why do you do it? Do you celebrate it?”

Mulder nodded. “I do. I guess…” he thought for a moment. “Family.”

Nathan smiled, and stared at his companion. “You got a family?”

“I do now,” he answered, and Nathan could see in his eyes that years of tragedy had built up until he finally got that family he had been looking for.

“But before, you didn’t have one. You were like me.”

“Sort of…” Mulder looked up at the ceiling. “Lost members…my sister. My father…then my mother. No other…family.” He decided long ago not to consider Spender family, regardless of what may or may not be a blood relation.

“You had it. You lost it. You have it back again. Story of Christmas, right there.”

Mulder stared at the boy, and thought about the theology behind that.

“There’s an old song. Kinda boring tune, but lyrics make a shitload of sense, man. O Holy Night—you know it, right?”

Mulder nodded.

Nathan thought for a moment, and then said, “Long lay the world, in sin and error pining. Till He appeared, and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices. For yonder breaks, a new and glorious morn.” He smiled. “The guy in the song even falls on his knees. You don’t have to be a Christian to get that message. We both know this world sucks. But now we have this new and glorious hope. Christmas…and life…is about hope.”

They both sat in silence for a moment, and Mulder looked away. He thought about that line. ‘The soul felt its worth.’ Mulder never felt worthy. Not until now. Not until he realized it wasn’t about worrying about the prospect of losing what he had already lost and regained. It was about rejoicing. It was about the new and spectacular days ahead. If they ever got out of here, that was.

The thought overwhelmed him, and he looked away, hiding the tears in his eyes. Christmas, he realized, really was about hope.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

GARDEN COURT NURSING HOME

GEORGETOWN, DC

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 24, 2008

0640

“You have them?” Skinner demanded, and the tech nodded rapidly. “Infrared’s back online. We’ve got Mulder and Scully’s tagged signatures. Mulder’s…moving slightly, Sir. Not much. He looks to be pretty still, on the ground. Scully’s signature’s moving pretty fast. We got another signature right near Mulder, and one a few meters away.”

“That must be the kid they’re with,” Skinner said. He had heard the boy’s voice on the radio just before it was blocked, so he knew the teenager was still with Mulder. “And just off there, that has to be Drexler. Okay, get these images to Rescue. Let’s get people in there now, before Drexler gets to them! Move!”

He turned to one of his agents. “Organize the rescue personnel for the residents and the staff. Get everyone evacuated through the safest place possible. I want blankets and warm drinks ready for these people, and transportation to the hospital standing by whatever exit they’re coming from. We want this to be a smooth transition.”

“Got it, Sir,” she said, and jogged off.

“Johnson! I want an update!” Skinner barked.

The bomb squad leader approached him. “Bomb pieces are mostly recovered, Sir. We’ll be moving the parts to Quantico within the hour. Detonation wasn’t anything fancy. We found the blast cap. It was a homemade compound.”

“Official assessment of the building?”

“The west part of the second and first floor aren’t safe for rescue personnel to enter until we get some reinforcements set up. Everything else should be okay as long as we watch our step. The building’s beyond repair. It’ll have to be knocked down.”

Skinner nodded. “Just work on getting that bomb recovered.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Davis, where’s Drexler?”

“He’s making his way towards Mulder and the kid, Sir.”

“Damn it.” Skinner got on the radio, on the new frequency, and said, “Be advised, suspect is in motion, towards our target.”

When the reply came in, Skinner exhaled, and stared at the building. A gust of cold air brushed against his body and he shivered. Calling Maggie Scully and giving her bad news on Christmas Eve was not his idea of a pleasant afternoon. He hoped to God this would turn out well.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

GARDEN COURT NURSING HOME

GEORGETOWN, DC

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 24, 2008

0650

“We just have this wall to break through. I can hear someone talking. Hey! Who’s over there!?” Lawrence yelled. There was a pause.

“Who are you?” A young voice demanded.

“Is Mulder back there?” Scully screamed. “Where is Mulder?”

“Mulder’s back here. Are you Scully?”

“I’m Scully—how is he? Is he injured? Can I talk with him?”

“He’s having trouble talking. There’s a large metal thing pinned to him. Can you knock this wall down from your end? This beam is blocking me.”

“We’ll start working on it. Give us ten minutes,” Lawrence called.

“I’ll try to help,” Nathan called back, and piece by piece, the wall was removed.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

GARDEN COURT NURSING HOME

GEORGETOWN, DC

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 24, 2008

0700

A small hole was dug in a pile behind Mulder, Lawrence, Nathan, and Scully. Drexler crawled through, scraped and bruised but otherwise unscathed. With the commotion going on across the hall, rubble being thrown in every direction and the wall being torn apart, no one noticed Drexler until he was right on top of Mulder with a 9 mm weapon.

“Well, well, well. We meet again, Mr. Mulder. And wouldn’t ya know it, you got to love German engineering. I bought these cameras in Frankfurt and they somehow survived the blast. Well, most of ‘em. And they’re still rollin’. I checked.”

Nathan spun, and froze when he saw Drexler. Mulder stared up at this man, and realized there was no way in hell he was getting out of here. Scully couldn’t dig fast enough, and Nathan wasn’t strong enough to tackle a large man like Drexler.

“Nothin’ to say, before I shoot this bullet through his eyes. Nothin’ to say? No last plea, no beggin’, no whimperin’, no nothin’? Well, then…I guess that’s all. That must be the last scene,” Drexler said to the camera.

Nathan’s hard eyes stared across the room at the trapped agent. Mulder looked back, and closed his eyes for a moment. This man standing over him, he realized in a severely displaced moment of profound thought, was the perfect embodiment of himself and every other person who was missing the point of Christmas. Who was missing the point of life. This man had been given his second chance. He had survived an attempt on his life and somehow been mistaken for dead. He could have started over again. He had gained his life back, something that he had nearly lost—and probably had figuratively lost, like so many others in the world.

But instead of using that opportunity to live again, to serve others, to make something of himself, he was squandering it away on an insane scheme where he was trying to make the world’s first ‘real’ movie. Well…if this was going to be his last moment on Earth, he might as well share his profound thought as well as he could, he thought.

Mulder cleared his throat. Then, with dust-filled lungs, he turned to the man behind the M9 and said, “You have…no hope.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Nathan hurl himself forward and straight into the serial killer. The teenager completed the tackle just as the deafening sound of a gunshot echoed through the rubble-filled area, followed by dead silence.

Disturbed smoke and dust rose and blocked Mulder’s vision. He coughed, the pain in his chest increasing. A few moments later, he saw two figures squeeze through a small hole in the pile of rubble at the other end of the hall. The smaller figure ran toward him, and he recognized her instantly.

His instant smile turned into a frown as he inspected her arm. “You okay, Scully?”

“I’m all right, Mulder,” she breathed, and checked his pulse. “Damn it. Lawrence! We need to move this thing!”

The large man behind her moved toward her and stepped over the two bodies on the floor, but before he could get any further, something grabbed his leg and he dropped. Drexler’s previously immobile form shoved a limp Nathan to the side as he trained his weapon on Lawrence. “Not so fast, Mr. Maintenance-Man,” he said. Scully had never wished for her gun more than she did at that moment.

But her prayers were answered by some miracle, and the FBI happened to burst in the door at that second. A quick assessment of the situation and a gunshot, and Drexler was down. An agent slapped handcuffs on him as the paramedics ran in, and Lawrence rose from the floor.

Just like that, Scully thought for a split second. The man who had caused this disaster, gone to all this trouble to create this movie thing, was down and captured. Just like that.

She turned her attention to Mulder, who had begun gasping for air. One paramedic put an oxygen mask over his face while another enlisted Lawrence to help him attempt to move the beam. But it wouldn’t budge. Two more paramedics flooded the room and began to help. All five men and women were eventually able to budge the beam enough for two FBI agents and an ATF agent to slide Mulder out as gently as possible.

He was placed on a stretcher and Scully ran by his side as they navigated the wreckage and exited. Lawrence was left behind, standing beside the beam and the remaining paramedics. He looked down, and saw a teenage boy with a gunshot wound to the chest.

“How is he?” he asked, through either morbid curiosity or some odd sympathy for this boy whom he’d never really met.

“I’m sorry, Sir. He’s gone,” the medic said.

Lawrence stood there, staring at the dead body and the FBI agents dragging the injured culprit from the room. “That agent that was trapped. What are his chances?” He asked.

“Hard to say,” The medic said as he helped his partner place the boy in a body bag. “Probably pretty good. His vitals weren’t too bad.”

“So he’ll make it.”

“Well, there’s a lot of reason to hope so,” one medic said as they carried the body out of the room. “C’mon, Sir, we need to check you out, outside.”

Lawrence lingered for just a moment before following. Maybe this was where he belonged, then. This field of medicine. Excitement, check. Occasional disappointment, check. Reason to keep working every day, check. Tangible results, check. Hope…hope he could save a boy like that teenager, hope he could save victims of crime, of war, of accidents…hope for the future of medicine and of humanity…check plus.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

MULDER AND SCULLY’S CAR

GEORGETOWN, DC

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 25, 2008

1000

Scully technically was not allowed to drive. And she knew she was going to face the third degree from her mother when they arrived in Maggie Scully’s driveway momentarily. But she didn’t want to bother Skinner with driving them on Christmas morning and she certainly wasn’t willing to stay cooped up away from family. So last night, when Mulder and she had both been released from the hospital, they collapsed into bed and didn’t wake up until late. They decided to surprise Maggie.

Last night she and Tara had visited the hospital, and were enormously relieved when Skinner explained to the women that Mulder and Scully’s injuries were not serious. Fifteen stitches in Scully’s left arm, and three broken ribs for Mulder, but other than that, they were very surprisingly unscathed. Mulder had to remain on oxygen until late in the evening, but a chest x-ray had shown no punctured lungs. It had been difficult to breathe because his chest was compressed, not because anything was punctured.

So with that wonderful news, Mulder and Scully’s family had headed back to Maggie’s house, where they waited for Santa with the kids and knew they’d see Dana and Fox sometime later on Christmas day. They had a feeling the two of them wanted a little space to themselves.

Now they drove to Maggie’s house, and Mulder was slightly quiet. Scully didn’t really mind—she was just happy to have him alive and well.

“Nathan was really onto something, Scully,” Mulder said quietly. Scully looked at him from the driver’s seat, but let him continue. He had taken the teenager’s death very hard at first, until a complete turnaround occurred. It was when the maintenance worker Lawrence had found Mulder’s room and informed Scully, rather abruptly, that he had decided to go into medicine, that Mulder’s mood improved. He watched Lawrence shake Scully’s hand and thank her, and then leave. When the man was gone, Mulder said, “This is just another piece.”

“Piece of what?” Scully had asked.

“How it works, Scully. In life and death, you have to inspire. That’s how we can transmit our hope. And you inspired that man.”

Now Mulder was finally going to explain what he was talking about, Scully thought thankfully. He had been talking about ‘hope’ and ‘Christmas’ and ‘intertwining theologies’ on and off, but had been mostly quiet since he was released from the hospital. “Drexler was wasting his entire life on this crazy idea, Scully,” Mulder said. “But Nathan’s point was everyone’s got their own little version of this insane plan. We’re all running around with this odd idea that how many presents our kids get and what size tree we have and how many lights we have outside actually matters. We’ve got this idea all year round, that the big promotion matters, that the mortgage matters, that the dog’s diarrhea matters.”

Scully chuckled. “Well, those things do matter, Mulder.”

“They do, but they can’t define us. We’ve all lost something, and regained it, Scully. That’s what this holiday is about. And if we waste our lives thinking that some insane idea is going to work, some idea that will probably lead to just another loss, then we’re setting ourselves up for never discovering hope.”

With a slow nod, Scully agreed and pulled into Maggie’s driveway. “So you’re saying that a teenage boy pointed this out to you?”

“A teenage boy who understood more about sacrifice and the meaning of life than most eighty-year-olds. Nathan was looking for a place where he could give hope to people. It’s why he volunteered at a nursing home. He wanted to give the one last ray of hope to these poor elderly people, because most of them don’t have any hope left.”

“They have hope if they believe their souls are eternal,” Scully offered.

Mulder nodded, considering that.

Scully turned the car off and reached over with her right arm to open the door.

“I’m not worried about the loss of it all anymore, Scully,” Mulder said, and smiled at her as she turned to look at him. “I think I learned something extremely valuable.”

“Hope?”

“Yes, but that’s not all. In my own strange, unconventional way, Scully, I think I’ve learned something tangential to hope.”

“What’s that?”

Mulder smiled, and took her right hand in his. “Faith.”

*END

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Oh Holy Night

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OH HOLY NIGHT

By: Traveler

Rating: PG13 for language

Summary: Mulder gets some unexpected help in a harrowing situation on this most

special of nights.

Disclaimer: 2 weeks exclusive to VS…

Author’s Notes: I don’t know where I get these story ideas…other than watching too

many movies about the subject from ISLAND IN THE SKY to AIRPLANE, I know very

little about flying a plane. So with the help of a neat worst case scenario archive I

found on the web and some special help from Phoebe this story became possible.

Don’t try this at home.

BUFFALO FIELD OFFICE

CHRISTMAS EVE

“Hey, Scully, it’s me,” Mulder tried to put forward his best “happy voice” but the

news he had to tell his partner wasn’t good.

He’d been in town for the past two days as a favor to his superior, he certainly owed

Skinner enough of them. Frank Bartinelli, the field office’s ASAC, was an old Marine

buddy of the Skinman and desperately needing help on a missing person’s case

involving one of his own agents. The department felt the case could be tied to

several others up and down the east coast also involving law enforcement personnel.

As it turned out, the missing agent, one Terrance Emerick, had gone missing of his

own hand. Using the information gained on the other cases he’d staged his own

disappearance in an attempt to get out of a gambling debt. Case closed.

“Mulder, please tell me you’re getting ready to board a plane,” came his partner’s

reply through his cell.

Mulder looked across the desk at the snow that blew furiously outside the ASAC’s

office window. “I’m ready, my luggage is ready, Frank is ready to take me to the

airport — there’s just one problem.”

“And that would be?” she questioned.

Mulder sighed, “They shut down the airport about half an hour ago, nothing’s going

out of here tonight.”

From the other side of the connection Scully could hear the disappointment in his

voice. They’d both been looking forward to a little holiday downtime. Now it

appeared he was stuck in Buffalo, just a little over 45 minutes away by air. “Oh,

Mulder, what’s going on up there? When I talked to you earlier, you said everything

had been wrapped up.”

“With a big red bow and a Ho, Ho, Ho,” he joked at her unconscious slip. “No,

seriously, Santa’s gonna need Rudolph if he’s gonna deliver any toys up here

tonight. Buffalo is in the throws of what Frank here says is classic lake effect snow

courtesy of Lake Erie. They’re talking 18 to 20 inches by morning. The visibility is

close to zero.” When he got no response from the other end of the line he

continued, “I’m sorry Scully, I know your mom wanted everyone to be together this

year.”

Scully knew what lake effect snow was. The waters of the Great Lakes were one of

the few places on the planet that it occurred. North winds coming across Lake Erie

would pick up moisture and depending on their direction dump it in the form of snow

anywhere from Cleveland to upstate New York. Evidently this time Buffalo was

ground zero. “I could say I should blame Skinner for this one,” came her eventual

reply. “But that wouldn’t be fair would it?”

“No, but don’t think I’ll let him get away without a serious guilt trip.” He looked

around the now empty office wondering where Frank had disappeared to. “Look,

maybe it will let up or if worse comes to worse, I’ll rent a car. It’s only about an 8

hour drive; I could still be there by morning…”

“Mulder, I want you here but I don’t want you driving in a blizzard. We’ll all be here

when you get here. Just be safe, please.”

For a moment he didn’t want to hang up, thinking that they could spend Christmas

Eve together over the phone. “Give my apologies to everyone and I’ll call you if

there’s any change,” he paused before disconnecting, wanting to reassure himself

that he wasn’t in the dog house.

“It’s not your fault, Mulder. Stay warm.”

He stared at the phone for a long moment before pocketing it and then moving to

stand near the window. What he saw outside at the moment put to rest any

assumption that there was any truth to global warming, or at least that’s how it

appeared. What had only started a couple hours ago had turned the world outside

into a white wilderness. Traffic crawled along in the street below him as the wind

swirled the heavy flakes. He reached out and put both palms on the cold glass in

front of him sending a chill all the way to his toes. Shit.

“Get your stuff!” Mulder startled at the sound of Frank’s voice behind him.

“What?” he asked almost in astonishment as he turned around. Frank was standing

in the doorway already in the process of wrapping himself in his overcoat. “Come

on, I got you a flight.”

Mulder hesitated as he glanced outside again, “In this?” he asked, pointing to the

nasty weather just beyond the window’s glass barrier.

“You want to be home for Christmas don’t you?” Frank asked as he tossed the other

agent his coat and finished the thought before Mulder could even acknowledge him.

“Your sleigh’s waiting,” he told him as he turned and headed down the hall.

It took several seconds before the agent moved, grabbing his brief case and the

handle of his rolling garment bag, while in the process of trying to wrangle into his

own coat. Frank was waiting by the elevator and grabbed the bag from him. “Put

that on,” he motioned to the coat that at the moment only covered the agent’s left

shoulder. “I can’t send you back to Scully with pneumonia.”

“Just how are you sending me back to Scully?” Mulder asked as he stepped into the

elevator behind the other agent and pulled on his coat.

“Friend of mine has a small plane. I just promised him some of my Bills seats for

next year to fly you home.”

“In this?” Mulder watched Frank break into a grin.

“Relax,” Frank patted Mulder’s shoulder. “He flies out of a little airport in Collins,

about an hour south of here. He said it’s as clear as a bell down there. You see,

that’s the funny thing about lake effect snow. It can be snowing like hell one minute

and then ten minutes down the road there isn’t a flake in the sky.”

Mulder wasn’t sure he believed the story but if that was the case then rather then tie

up someone else’s holiday he’d just get a car and drive back to D.C. “Frank, it’s

Christmas Eve for God’s sake. I don’t want to ruin someone else’s holiday, just get

me a rental and I’ll drive.”

The elevator doors opened into the parking garage and Frank motioned to the black

Lexus in the first spot as the car answered the remote with a beep. Five minutes

later he was edging the car out onto the crowded street. “Jack’s another Nam buddy

of mine, Mulder. He doesn’t have any family. Fact is I worry about him and you’ll be

keeping him company on an otherwise lonely night.”

It took almost an hour for Frank to fight his way through the weather-snarled Buffalo

traffic, but by the time they were leaving the city limits the snow had already

tapered to light flakes. “See, what’d I tell ya. All depends on which way the wind

blows who gets the snow.”

“I still say I could have rented a car,” Mulder nodded in acknowledgement of the now

clearing skies.

“Yeah, but I feel bad about dragging you out here for what turned out to be nothing

and this way you’ll be walking in the door in a couple hours instead of being behind

the wheel for eight,” Frank told him, fumbling through his coat pockets and pulling

out his cell phone. The other party answered almost immediately. “Hey man,”

Frank replied. “We’re about 30 minutes out, warm that bird up!”

Mulder sat back and watched the dark landscape pass by. Occasionally they would

pass a home brightly lit with Christmas lights. “Have you in the air in 15 minutes,”

the other agent told him as they passed a sign stating they were now in Collins, New

York.

As they passed through the center of town, the Christmas displays reminded Mulder

that he needed to make a call himself. Scully answered on the second ring, she

sounded a little out of breath. “Mulder, why did we buy so much stuff?”

“You okay?” he asked with concern.

“Oh, yes, I’m fine. I’m trying to pack up the car — by myself, thank you”

“Well then pack me some clothes, I’ll meet you at your mom’s,” he answered,

realizing she was just ragging on him. “Rudolph’s warming up his engines and I

should be in around 11.”

“Mulder? I thought Buffalo was shut down, where are you?”

Mulder looked out the window as Frank turned the car onto a side road and past a

sign proclaiming that they had arrived at Gowanda Airport. “Long story, and we’re

both short on time. Frank found me a twin engine sleigh and a little old driver. I’ll

be home for Christmas.”

“Just please tell me you’re not doing something stupid,” she asked knowing her

partner’s propensity of putting himself last.

“No, actually Frank’s preventing me from doing that, fortunately,” he replied as the

senior agent pulled the car up next to a white metal building and killed the engine.

“Well, thank him for me. And Mulder…”

“Yeah.”

“Please, be careful.”

“You know, I’m really trying to be.”

Frank was already pulling his bags from the trunk of the car and handing them off to

another man that Mulder assumed was his pilot friend. He clicked off the phone and

exited the car.

The plane was actually larger then Mulder had pictured. A twin engine Beechcraft

that was a little long on age but looked to be in good condition. The engines

hummed as Frank’s friend loaded his luggage into the cargo section, secured the

door and turned around.

“Mulder, this is Jack Pierce. Jack, this is Fox Mulder, a colleague of Walt Skinner’s,”

the Buffalo SAC made the introductions while Jack lit up a cigarette and then reached

out to shake Mulder’s hand.

“Don’t mind if I catch a quick fix do you?” the pilot asked motioning to the smoke

that luckily curled away from them in the breeze.

The agent motioned his approval and then made a quick assessment of man. Jack

looked worn. He was about Mulder’s height with stringy gray hair that tufted out

from under his Pittsburgh Steelers’ cap. He wore a leather bomber jacket dotted

with patches that had obviously seen better days. His hand when Mulder shook it

was roughly calloused indicating that Jack probably didn’t spend his days behind a

desk like his two war buddies.

Jack took one last drag on the cigarette and then flicked it away. “Well come on,” he

said, patting Mulder’s shoulder. “Let’s get the pretty Fed home to the missus.”

The agent gave the SAC a wary look as Frank and Jack broke into laughter and then

Frank gave his friend a rough hug. “Merry Christmas, man. Safe flight.”

“I’m holdin’ you to those football tickets, you know,” the pilot told his friend stepping

away and then turning to Mulder as he opened the cabin door. “Sit up front,” he

motioned. “Your legs are as long as mine.”

The agent tossed his overcoat onto one of the rear seats and climbed into the co-

pilot’s seat. Within a few minutes they were airborne, banking to the north and then

circling the field and heading southeast.

Mulder watched the earth pass by below them. Flying at a lower altitude the festive

colors of the holiday countryside were wonderfully visible. In a childish way he could

almost imagine it was the view Santa himself would see as he made his mythical

journey across the continent.

Finally the drone of the engines became too monotonous and he turned to study Jack

from the corner of his eye. “You know Skinner from Vietnam too?” he asked

breaking the silence.

Jack pinched the bridge of his nose, closing his eyes momentarily and then turned to

Mulder. “Not exactly,” he told the agent, wincing slightly as if he were in pain. “I

was a medivac pilot. He ever tell you the story ’bout leavin’ the country in a body

bag?”

Mulder remember the conversation in his office many years ago when Skinner had

talked him out of leaving the F.B.I., and nodded.

“Damn’dest thing. I’m loading up corpses from this whole platoon and all of a

sudden one of them groans. Nearly shit my pants right then,” he told the agent a

wry grin spreading across his face. “Called over a corpsman and sure enough, the

guy’s not dead. Anyway, my cargo went from being a load of stiffs that night to an

emergency flight to Saigon, with the only two guys we found alive, him and Frank.

They — ah looked me up after the war and we — ah kinda keep in touch.”

“That’s nice, to know that you’re still looking out for each other,” Mulder commented.

“Yeah, but I ain’t got much in common with these guys,” Jack admitted before he

wrapped his left arm around his abdomen. “Jesus,” he winced.

“You alright?” Mulder asked, suddenly concerned by the man’s distress.

“Damned pain in my gut again,” Jack told him fumbling under the seat and producing

a large bottle of Tums.

Mulder watched Jack dump four tablets into his palm and then toss them into his

mouth, chewing them rapidly. He recapped the bottle and dropped it on the floor,

before grabbing a paper cup from the plane’s console and washing the pills down

with its contents. “Lord, wonder how old that stuff was!” He grimaced and then

laughed. Mulder wasn’t so sure it was funny.

They sat in silence again until Mulder heard the radio crackle to life with a course

change that Jack acknowledged. “Sorry, they gotta get those big birds in there first.

Where did you say you were headed, Baltimore?”

“Yeah, hopefully.”

“You wouldn’t think it would be this busy so late on Christmas Eve, would you? Ah,

damn,” he winced again in anguish. “Got so the Tums don’t do me much good

either. We should still get in before midnight,” Jack informed him and then leaned

forward to examine the heavens from the cockpit windshield. “Clear as a bell down

here.”

Mulder followed his gaze to the moonlit sky ahead of them. It really was a pretty

night. It would be a lot prettier once he had his feet back on the ground and in Mrs.

Scully’s living room.

“You’re a vet, you’ve got the medical benefits, ever think about having that pain of

yours checked out?” Mulder didn’t want to sound like he was prying into Jack’s

business but he was looking pretty white to him at the moment.

“Yeah, I’ve thought about it. Afraid they’ll tell me I got cancer, you know what I

mean?” Jack asked, turning to look at Mulder. “And I really don’t want to go through

that hell.”

“Yes, I do know what you mean,” Mulder answered, meeting Jack’s eyes. “It could

also be something else. You look like you’re in a lot of discomfort, that’s got to be

hell too.”

Jack acknowledged Mulder’s comment and then turned back to study his

instruments. The plane buffeted a little as they passed over the eastern Appalachians

and out over the foothills of southeast Pennsylvania. Studying the darkened

countryside below Mulder realized that there was still plenty of open land even on

the crowded east coast.

“Ah, God!” Jack’s shriek of pain startled the agent. Suddenly the plane dipped

sharply to the left. Feeling like he was falling, Mulder’s first instinct was to grab onto

something, like the yoke in front of him. A quick glance to his left revealed that Jack

had let go of the pilot’s yoke and was practically doubled over with pain, causing the

plane to descend. The older man gasped for air. Mulder feared the man was

having a heart attack.

“Jack!” he exclaimed reaching out for the man.

“No!” the pilot gasped, “get us — us level!” he gasped again. “God, can’t breathe —

grab the yoke…” he told Mulder, reaching out a shaky hand to point at the yoke in

front of the agent.

Mulder put both hands on the yoke and looked desperately toward Jack, “What do I

do?”

Jack took a few more rapid breaths and then seemed to relax a little. “Turn easy to

your right and then pull back — slowly.”

Mulder did as Jack asked. He wasn’t sure who was shaking more at the moment,

Jack or himself. The plane rolled slowly back to level. “Pull back a little more,” the

pilot instructed as he watched the altimeter climb back to about thirty eight hundred

feet. “Press that little button on the right there, that’s your autopilot…”

With the plane flying on it’s own for the moment Mulder turned to look at Jack. The

man was as white as a sheet. A thin veil of perspiration covered his face, once again

contorting in pain. “What can I do?” he stammered.

“I — pain in — in my chest…” Jack managed to gasp out.

His actions seeming to confirm what Mulder had already suspected. “You’re not going

to be able to land this thing are you?” he asked absurdly. Jesus, what was he

thinking? The man could die up here.

Jack stared at the agent with glassy eyes, “I ain’t gonna be able — ah…”he gasped

out as pain erupted from his abdomen again up into his chest, taking his breath

away. He reached toward the agent next to him. The last thing he remembered was

grabbing Mulder’s hand and squeezing it hard.

As Jack’s hand when limp in his own, Mulder froze, “No! Come on Jack!” He tried

desperately to rouse the older man. Finding a thready pulse, he was at the moment

relieved that the man hadn’t died but he still could not waken him. “Jack,” he

grabbed the man’s chin, turning his face towards his own. “Jack, come on, man,” he

pleaded.

The pilot’s eyes flickered briefly and then his face scrunched in pain, “Radio…” he

whispered.

“What?” Mulder asked momentarily confused.

“Take — the radio, mayday…” Jack doubled over in pain again, wrapping his arms

around his abdomen and then his body went limp.

“Shit,” Mulder told himself as the realization hit him and he fumbled the headset

from Jack. “This is not happening!”

As Mulder dropped back into his seat he slipped the headset over his head and

adjusted the mike. He pressed the button on the yoke in front of him and began his

distress call, “Mayday! Mayday! This Agent Fox Mulder with the F.B.I.. My badge

number is JTT047101111 Requesting assistance!”

Silence. He pressed the button again, “Mayday! Mayday! Can anybody hear me out

there?”

“Washington Center, can you identify yourself?” came the reply.

“This is Agent Mulder with the F.B.I. I have an emergency situation.”

“Are you the pilot Mr. Mulder?”

“No, no, the pilot’s taken ill,” he told the voice glancing to the side to see that Jack

was still unconscious. “I need some help up here!” Mulder looked out into the dark

night sky beyond the plane’s windshield, at the moment it seemed like he was on the

edge of an abyss.

“Okay, okay. My name is Mark, I’m going to help you,” the flight controller’s steady

voice came back. “I want you to relax and listen to me carefully. Is the plane flying

level?”

“Yeah, yeah, it’s on auto pilot,” Mulder answered trying desperately to keep calm

himself.

“Alright, that’s good. Do you have any experience flying a plane Mr. Mulder? I need

you to help me identify your position.”

“Not exactly,” the agent snorted out. “I knew a guy in college, used to take me up

in an old B-25.”

“Lucky you,” Mark replied. “Got a bunch of guys here who would envy you.” The

controller tried to calm the shaken agent. “Now I want you to look for a number on

the control panel, should start with ‘N’…”

“Yeah, call number, hang on.” Mulder started to look around the plane’s instrument

panel when it hit him, the number on the plane’s fuselage, N22364, Scully’s

birthday, he’d noticed it when he and Frank had pulled up at the airport. “N22364,”

he answered.

Mark Newman, one of the many air traffic controllers in busy Washington Center had

been one of the unlucky guys to draw duty Christmas Eve. He studied his screen

until he found the small plane near the PA, Maryland border just outside P-40’s

restricted airspace. Wonderful. P-40 was the no-fly zone around the presidential

retreat, Camp David. Luckily the President wasn’t in residence at the present time.

He needed to keep this guy’s attention on flying the plane, the last thing he needed

on his tail was an F-18.

“Hey, Mark, you still with me?” Mulder’s voice came back in his ear.

“Yes, I’m still with you Mr. Mulder. I have your position. You still okay up there?” he

asked the agent. The small plane was cruising at round 38 hundred feet. There

wasn’t a whole lot of traffic at that low altitude right now. The guy practically had

the sky to himself.

“Oh yeah, feel like Santa Claus dancing across the night sky. You’re gonna get me

down from here aren’t you?” Mulder tried his best to make light of the situation but

in fact he was pretty damn nervous.

“Yes, Santa, I just want you to remain calm and do just what I tell you and we’ll get

you home for Christmas,” the controller told him. “Did you say your first name was

Fox? Can I call you that?”

Mulder wanted to correct him, like he did everyone else but at the moment the idea

seemed moot. “That’s fine,” he acknowledged.

“Can you tell me the condition of the pilot, Fox?” Mark asked him through the

headset.

Mulder looked over at the older man, reaching over to gently touch his neck. Jack

stirred and moaned a little but did not waken. “I don’t know if he had a heart attack

or he’s just got a bad case of indigestion. Pulse is a little thready, he’s fading in and

out,” Mulder confirmed.

“Alright, Fox, your flight plan indicated you were headed into BWI. You and I are

going to make a little course correction in a few minutes that will take you into

Martin State. You’re only about 70 minutes out. You with me?” A quick assessment

of the plane’s location had told him that getting the plane into Hagerstown would

require some tricky maneuvers, best to try for the closest straight in approach.

“I guess so,” Mulder stated after taking a big breath. Making a course correction

meant taking the plane off auto pilot. Evidently Mark wanted him to fly this thing.

Something he was going to have to do sooner or later anyway if he had any chance

of getting down in one piece.

“Good. I want you to look at the instrument panel in front of you. Do you know

what an altimeter is? It should be in the center of the control panel,” Mark told him

with a steady voice.

“Tells me my altitude,” Mulder replied as his eyes came to rest on the panel in front

of him. “Says three, seven, eight, five,” he finally told Mark.

“That’s right, you want to try and maintain that when we do this turn. Do you

understand?” Mark asked him. “I want you to find the airspeed indicator. It should

be on your left. The auto pilot should have your airspeed at about 120 knots. You

want to try and maintain that in the turn also. If you start to slow down use your

throttle, between the seats. Pushing it forward will increase your airspeed and make

the plane ascend. Pulling back will decrease it but it will also cause the plane to

descend. Listen to your engines. You might need to compensate with the yoke. It

works the same way. It’s very sensitive, Fox. Just an easy touch is all you need.

Are you following me?” Mark tried to explain the plane’s controls as best he could

without sounding too condescending.

Mulder glanced around the cockpit trying to familiarize himself with his surroundings.

A small gold plaque on the center of the instrument panel caught his eye. In the dim

light of the cockpit, it was hard to read but by tilting his head a little so the words

caught the light, the sentiment became clear, ‘God is my co-pilot’ was written across

it’s surface in figurative script. The agent studied it for a moment, somewhat

surprised given his first impression of the man beside him. He let out a shaky sigh.

It had been a long time since he’d put any faith in God. Maybe now was a good time

to reconsider. This was going to be the longest hour of his life. “Well, I hope you’re

with me tonight,” he finally said to himself.

A quick look at Jack told him the man was at least still breathing. “Okay, I’m with

you,” he told Mark.

“Your fuel gauges should be on the lower portion of the instrument panel. Just like

your car, you want to be sure you have enough gas to get you where you’re going,”

he told the agent, with a slightly lighter tone.

“Looks like I have a little over half a tank in both,” Mulder replied.

“Alright, here we go, this plane’s going to be a lot easier to fly than that B-25,” the

controller told him.

“I sure hope so,” Mulder acknowledged, remembering the bumpy rides over the

English countryside.

Mark’s supervisor had come to stand behind him in the control center. “First thing I

want you to do is locate the heading. It will be a dial with a little image of a plane in

the center. The nose of that little plane points in the direction your heading. Right

now your heading is about 170 degrees,” he heard Mark tell the agent.

“Okay,” was all Mulder could say.

“Now you need to turn off the auto pilot and then gently turn the yoke to the left so

the plane turns to the left. You want to come to a heading of 120 degrees. Once

you’re at that heading, I want you to descend to thirty five hundred feet. Do you

understand?” Flight conditions in the area of the small plane were almost ideal. As

long as Fox followed his directions this harrowing evening should turn out alright.

This guy had to have someone watching out for him.

Mulder reached out and turned off the autopilot. He flinched when the plane dipped

a little and he gave the yoke a hair touch to keep it at thirty seven hundred feet. “I

guess I’m flyin’ this thing now,” he told Mark. “I think I’m going to be a little busy

for a few minutes, get back to you.”

The agent studied the instrument panel once more, his eyes coming to rest on the

little plaque once again. “You with me?” he asked it and then turned his gaze to the

heading dial and gently turned the yoke to his left. The plane started to bank

immediately, climbing slightly. Mulder watched the compass numbers drop slowly

compensating a little by pulling back on the yoke until his airspeed started to drop.

Nervous sweat started to bead his forehead. His hands were clammy on the yoke.

He pushed forward a touch on the throttle hearing the engine come to life, until

finally the small plane leveled out at the 120 degree heading Mark had told him he

needed to achieve. He could feel himself trembling. He pushed the mic button,

“Okay Mark, I’m at 120 degrees and I haven’t wet my pants. What else did you need

me to do?”

Mark had watched the plane’s tiny image on his radar screen, “Well that’s good Fox,”

Mark joked. “Unfortunately those old Beech’s didn’t come with lavatories.” His

supervisor tapped him on the shoulder. “Get him down,” he told the controller.

“You did that just fine Fox. Now I want you to descend to thirty five hundred feet

and keep that same heading. It will take you right into Martin State,” he told the

agent. He would have a tail wind all the way. “You’re only about 50 minutes out

now. How’s your pilot?”

“He’s still breathing, which I guess is a good sign,” Mulder replied. “You better have

some emergency equipment there to meet us.”

“I already have them on alert; they’ve cleared any other traffic. You have the sky to

yourself, Fox,” Mark told him reassuringly.

The controller watched the image on his screen again as the altitude reading dropped

just below thirty five hundred feet. “You can turn on the autopilot again for a while,

Fox. Catch your breath.” Mark could hear the nervous tone in the agent’s voice

when he spoke. He had to keep him focused.

Mulder reached out and flicked on the autopilot once more, letting the plane fly itself

for a while. He breathed a sigh of relief. He was on his way home but they were still

three thousand feet in the air. That was a long way to fall.

His gaze then drifted out the right window to the starlit night sky. It was a beautiful

night but he suddenly felt very alone. As his eyes came back to rest on the

instrument panel the little gold plaque glimmered in the low light as if trying to tell

him that that wasn’t the case.

He admired Scully’s faith despite the things she had been through in their

partnership. There were times when he had questioned and even condemned her for

it, but in truth he realized it was what had gotten her through some of the most

trying times of her life. She too, over the years had beaten him up over his belief in

the unprovable but he also knew she believed in him. He bit his lower lip. Perhaps

the time had come for him to put a little faith in her beliefs.

“Fox?” Mark’s voice came back into his ear.

“Let me guess, there’s something else you want me to do?” he replied.

“Yes, we’re going to start your descent now so I want you to turn off the autopilot

again and descend to three thousand feet, then turn it back on. You copy?” Mark

asked.

“I copy,” Mulder replied. Hell, he thought to himself, might as well get this over

with. Jack was in no condition to be of any help, the only way they were going to

get down was if he did it himself. Even though his present circumstances were not

his fault, he’d never hear the end of this from his partner. He hoped she had no idea

what was happening. But then on the other hand, he could use a few extra prayers

right now. Once again he reached over and turned off the auto pilot. The small

plane buffeted a little as they hit some air, but he was able to compensate for it and

eased the plane to an altitude of just under three thousand feet before turning the

autopilot back on.

“You’re doing just fine, Fox,” Mark told him. “We’re going to do that one more time

and then I’m going to turn you over to Martin tower. I have a gentleman there

who’s been listening in on our frequency. He’s going to talk you in the rest of the

way. You okay with that?”

Did he have a choice? Mulder just wished he could stop shaking. “I’m okay,” he told

the controller.

“Fox, this is Rich Franklin at Martin tower,” the other man’s voice came through his

headset. “I understand you need a crash course in landing a plane?” Joking with

Mulder, Rich was trying to keep the urgency of the situation at a minimum. The

airport was located in a mostly industrial area just north of Baltimore on Chesapeake

Bay, away from tall buildings and residential neighborhoods. As long as the agent

kept his cool there was a good chance this whole event would end in a good way.

“I hope not,” came Mulder’s reply.

“Rich will get you down in one piece, Fox. Don’t worry,” Mark came back on the

frequency. “I want you to descend to twenty five hundred feet, just like before and

then Rich will take over from there, copy?”

Mulder put the plane through another descent and then leveled it off. His airspeed

had dropped a little to around 110 knots. “My airspeed dropped do I need to

increase it?” he asked. He was actually starting to get the feel of the controls and it

made him relax a little.

“No, you’re going to need to slow down for landing,” Mark replied. “Rich will talk you

through that. You’re going to be fine, Fox. You’ve done a great job so far. You

have a wonderful holiday.”

“I hope so, you have a Merry Christmas too,” Mulder acknowledge back. “And

Mark…”

“Yes, Fox?”

“Thank you.”

“You’re more than welcome, Fox,” Mark replied back. He left his radio on the same

frequency until he heard that Rich was in contact with the F.B.I. agent and then

slipped it off and started to get up.

“He make it?” Steve Tucker, the controller at the next station asked.

“Let you know in about fifteen minutes,” Mark replied as he stepped away.

“Fox, this is Rich,” the Martin State controller came through Mulder’s headset. “I

want to go over some instruction with you before we start your final descent. The

last thing you want to be doing when you’re attempting your landing is trying to talk

to me, you copy?”

“What do you mean ‘attempting’?” Mulder asked. That nervous feeling had returned

as he noticed the landscape below him had changed from rural to a more densely

populated area. If this plane went down with him and Jack in it that was one thing.

The last thing he wanted to do was end up in somebody’s living room.

“Sorry, Fox, poor choice of words,” Rich told him lightly. “You’re on a straight in

approach, just follow my instructions and you’ll do fine.”

“I’m going to remember you said that, Rich,” Mulder replied.

“Okay, now listen carefully,” Rich began. “To begin your descent I want you to pull

back on the throttle. We’re not going to worry about the flaps. We’re just going to

use the throttle to control your airspeed. As the plane slows the nose will drop but

you don’t want it to be more than four inches below the horizon. Now you can’t see

the horizon in the dark so you’re going to have to rely on the instruments. You don’t

want your airspeed to go below 70 knots or you’re going to lose your lift and stall.”

“And drop like a rock…” Mulder finished.

An experienced pilot could probably pull out of a stall, Rich thought to himself. Fox

wouldn’t have much of a chance. “Just watch your airspeed and that won’t happen,”

he told the agent. “And you want to stay on a heading of 120 degrees. Is that

clear?”

“Oh, yeah,” the agent acknowledged. “Throttle back, drop the nose and don’t stall

the plane.”

“It will all make sense when you start to execute,” the controlled told him. “What’s

your airspeed now?”

Mulder looked for the airspeed dial on the instrument panel, “The autopilot is still on,

I’m at about 110 knots.”

“I want you to keep your eyes focused forward. As you get closer to the field you’re

going to see our runway lights, just follow them in. You want to keep the nose

centered on those,” Rich instructed. “You want to be at about 100 feet when you’re

just above the runway. Your airspeed should be just about 70 knots. Are you still

following me?”

“How about I just put this thing down in the bay and then you come fish us out?”

Mulder asked, once again using humor to hide his fear. His heart rate was increasing

by the minute. He took a deep breath.

“Well, if you overshoot the runway, that’s where you’ll end up,” Rich told him. “At

100 feet I want you to pull back all the way on the throttle but don’t let the nose dip

too sharply. You want the rear wheels to touch the ground first. After the nose

wheel touches the ground, use the brakes, those are the upper pedals to slow your

groundspeed until you come to a stop. Don’t worry about where you stop, we’ll

come get you.” Rich checked his radar again. The plane was about fifteen minutes

out, time to get this show on the road. “Okay, Fox. You ready?” he asked the agent.

Mulder hesitated to reply for a moment. Closing his eyes and taking several deep

breaths. When he opened them again he once again sought out the little gold plaque

on the instrument panel. “God, I know we don’t talk, but I’ve got someone very

close who puts a lot of faith in you,” he whispered. “So, if you can hear me now, I

could really use your help here.”

The agent pressed the mic button, “What do I do first?”

“Good,” Rich replied. “First you need to switch off that autopilot. You’re going to fly

the plane from here on. Then I want you to look for a lever near the throttle, looks

like a little wheel. That’s you landing gear. I want you to lower the landing gear.

Now you’re going to feel some drag on the plane that might require you to increase

your airspeed a little. Do you follow me?”

As Mulder switched off the autopilot the little plane rocked slightly, he had to steady

it by turning the yoke slightly. The air was becoming a little more turbulent as he

neared the bay. He found the control for the landing gear and lowered it, feeling the

drag immediately and compensating for it. Maybe this wasn’t going to be as bad as

he thought. He glanced momentarily at Jack and wondered if he could do this with

his eyes closed. At the moment both their lives were in his hands.

“You’re doing fine, Fox. I need you to descend to 2 thousand feet,” Rich’s voice told

him. “Can you see the runway lights yet?”

Mulder peered into the darkness ahead of him. He had already been able to make

out streets and building below him. He was hoping he would see a big sign that said

“LAND HERE” but he hadn’t found it yet. Then on the horizon in front of him in a

dark open area the parallel lights of the landing strip began to become clear. “Yeah,

I got it,” he told Rich.

“You’re almost here then. You don’t need to talk to me from now on. I just want

you to concentrate on what we talked about before. Watch your airspeed and your

altimeter, trust the instruments. We have some light cross winds at the field so it

might be a little bumpy as you come in. Don’t let that frighten you. Orville and

Wilber knew what they were doing,” Rich concluded. “Good luck.”

“Thanks,” Mulder acknowledged, his voice betraying him by trembling a little.

As the runway lights grew closer, Mulder throttled back again and the plane began

its descent. Watching his airspeed as Rich had instructed he felt the plane rock

slightly again from the crosswinds. He used the yoke to straighten himself out.

He crossed the outer marker for the runway and started to bite his tongue. His

airspeed had now dropped to 90 knots. The plane rocked back and forth, he was

having a hard time getting the feel of the yoke to keep it steady with one hand.

Crossing the end of the runway he throttled back one more time, reducing his

airspeed to 80 knots and dropping the nose. He grabbed the yoke with both hands

and pulled back, the ground was right below him now, passing by at what seemed

like an alarming speed. He was coming in at a slight angle, one wing slightly higher

than the other and tried to steer it back level. Suddenly the right wheel hit the

ground and then he bounced up again. Turning the yoke to the left, trying to

compensate and level himself out both wheels hit the ground hard and then the nose

wheel dropped onto the pavement.

Jostled by the impact, he heard Jack moan beside him. He was on the ground but

moving too fast. Mulder pulled the throttle all the way back but the plane still rolled

along much too fast for his liking. “Brakes! Brakes!” Jack’s yelled from the seat

beside him, reaching out an arm to try and steady himself against the instrument

panel. Mulder looked down trying to find the pedals in the dark cockpit and then

working them as if he were sliding on ice the plane finally came to a stop. He

reached over to kill the engines and then dropped his head. It was over.

Sirens and flashing lights approached from his left. He looked over at Jack who was

resting wearily against the opposite door but appeared to be alright for the moment.

Mulder opened the cockpit door and dropped out onto the tarmac as the first

emergency vehicles pulled up. He doubled over resting his hands on his knees,

trying to catch his breath and steady himself.

“Sir? Sir, are you okay,” the EMT’s voice broke through the momentary haze in his

head and he stood up. Someone wrapped a heavy blanket around his shoulders.

“Yeah, I’m fine. The pilot, he needs your attention,” he told the young man stepping

around the plane to watch as the EMT’s pulled Jack from the plane and began

working on him.

“Agent Mulder?” The familiar voice came from behind him and he turned around.

“Rich Franklin,” the younger man said extending his hand to Mulder. He accepted

the man’s hand and shook it hard. It was a pleasure to see the face the belonged to

that patient voice.

“Hey, thanks, Rich,” Mulder told him pulling him into a gentle manly hug. “Thanks

for getting me back to planet earth.”

“He going to be okay?” Rich asked motioning towards the commotion over Jack.

“I — I don’t know,” Mulder replied as he stepped away from Rich and headed

towards the ambulance. “How is he?” he asked as he approached the vehicle.

One of the EMT’s, a young woman with “Erica” on the front of her jacket stepped

towards him. “We don’t think he’s had a heart attack. We suspect a gall bladder

attack or even a perforated ulcer. We’re getting ready to transport him now,” she

confirmed. “How about you? We can take you along with us.”

“No, I’m okay, just a little shook up,” the agent replied pulling his sleeve back to

check his watch. It was almost ten thirty. “There’s somewhere else I need to be right

now, like home,” he told her glancing around the field as if hoping his car would

mysteriously materialize. He stepped back over to Rich who had been waiting for

word on the pilot. “You don’t know where I can get a car do you?”

“Hey, man,” Rich said, patting Mulder on the arm. “You might have landed that

plane shaking like you are but there’s no way I’m letting you get behind the wheel of

a car. Let me see what I can do.” The controller turned away and headed for the

bank of emergency vehicles that were parked nearby. Mulder pulled the blanket

around himself. He was shaking but he’d thought it was from the cold.

A few moments later Rich returned with a sheriff’s officer. “This is Deputy Wagner,

he’ll take you home Agent Mulder.”

Great, Mulder thought to himself. That’s all he needed was to pull into Mrs. Scully’s

driveway with the emergency lights flashing. He looked at Officer Wagner. “I’d really

appreciate that,” he replied. “I just need a ride to my moth… He almost said

mother-in-law’s before he caught himself. “Actually you can drop me off right here

in Baltimore — but no emergency lights, okay?”

“No problem, Agent Mulder,” the young office acknowledged. “You have anything in

the plane you need to take with you?” he asked as they all turned to watch the

ambulance pull away.

“Get your things,” Rich told him. “We’ll take care of the plane.”

Mulder pulled his bag and coat from the plane. Exchanging his wool coat for the

blanket he slipped it on and slid his hands into his pockets to warm them while the

office put his bag in the trunk of the cruiser. As Wagner slammed the trunk Mulder

turned to Rich. “I don’t know what else to say besides thanks again,” he told the

man reaching out once again to shake his hand. “Do you know how I can get in

touch with Mark,” he asked, remembering the controller at Washington Center who

had answered his Mayday call.

“Talked to him before I came out. Let him know you were on the ground — in one

piece,” he said with a smile. His name’s Mark Newman,” he told Mulder handing him

a slip of paper with a phone number scrawled across it. “Have a Merry Christmas,”

he told the agent.”

“Merry Christmas to you too,” Mulder replied accepting Rich’s handshake once again.

“And leave the flying to the licensed pilots from now on, okay?” Rich joked.

Mulder waved and stepped away, smiling before he climbed into the cruiser’s front

seat. The officer started the car and Mulder took one last look at the Beech before

they pulled away. “Rough night?” the officer asked.

Mulder thought for a moment, maybe landing that plane was the easy part,

explaining it all to Scully was going to be the rough part. “Could be,” he replied.

They drove the thirty minute drive in relative silence. As they pulled into Mrs.

Scully’s drive the radio squawked and Wagner picked it up. Mulder watched him

listen to the voice on the other end. “That’s good to know,” he finally said. “He’s

still with me, I’ll let him know.”

“The pilot’s going to be alright, perforated ulcer, could have bled to death. He was

lucky he had someone with him tonight,” he told Mulder.

Mulder thought about the little gold plaque on the instrument panel for a moment.

“I think maybe we were both lucky we had someone with us tonight,” he replied

turning to the officer. “Thanks for the ride.” Wagner nodded in reply.

Tara was just finishing getting the kids ready for mass when headlights flicked across

the front room window indicating that a car had pulled in the driveway, “Dana, I

think Fox is here,” she called out. Scully had been in the kitchen helping her mom

with preparations for the next day’s Christmas dinner. She smiled at her mother,

“Maybe this is our Christmas miracle,” she joked, wiping her hands and then heading

into the living room. She opened the door before Mulder was even on the first step

of Maggie’s porch. “Mulder?” she asked as she came out to greet him. “We were

just about to leave for Mass, what’s going on?” she asked eyeing the cruiser in the

driveway.

Mulder pulled her into a tight hug. She could actually feel him trembling in her

arms. “I’m just glad to have my two feet on the ground,” he replied and then pulled

back. “You haven’t gone to Mass yet?” he asked.

Scully looked at her partner puzzled, “No, why?” Scully didn’t quite understand her

partner’s behavior but she could tell that something tonight had shaken him badly.

“I figured you’d have some time to relax while we were gone. I need some help with

‘assembly’ after the kids go to bed.”

“I think I’d like to go with you, if you don’t mind,” he searched his partner’s face for

her approval. “There’s someone else I need to thank.”

Realizing that she’d get the whole story when he was ready to tell it, Scully smiled at

him, “I think we’d all like that very much.”

1

Silent Night, Painful Sight

silent night

Silent Night, Painful Sight

Author: XSketch

RATING: R – for language and violent content

CLASSIFICATION: X, MSR, MT, ST, A

Field Notes: Inactive

Summary: Just another little trip to the forest, really –

cannibalism, thick snow…oh, and an evil Santa Claus. Just what Mulder and Scully really wanted at Christmas instead of spending time together at home!

Archive: Two weeks exclusive to Virtual Season 14, and then it’s yours as long as you let me know where and keep my name attached.

Field Notes: Active

Author’s Notes : Mucho kudos to Lisa and Vickie for the great, speedy beta, the constant pokes, the support and the ending – YOU ROCK!

clip_image001

———-

TEASER

———-

Wide, fearful eyes blink back the sting of ice particles. Chattering teeth bite back against searing, unending pain that will bring the body down if the small plates of enamel fail to keep up their task.

Brow sweats, lungs wheeze, heart thuds frantically with a maddening beat that may have the power to set it free from the confines of its chest cavity very soon, legs pump despite the constant flow of blood and deep, slippery snow underfoot.

Mind dwells on one, solo thought:

‘Why the hell did I leave my gun behind?’

As fresh powder is kicked into the air – spraying every which way – the tall, dark figure desperately forges ahead. He stumbles several times, and even drops to a knee at one point as the unbearable pain, cold and exhaustion tear at and overwhelm his senses, yet still he shakily regains his footing and rushes ever further onward, crashing through a low curtain of spindly tree branches.

Only to come to an unexpected halt at the fallen pine blocking his escape.

*Shit!*

Short shallow breaths fog the silent air as the figure contemplates all available options, but before he’s had chance to decide on a new route, the sound of chasing footfalls crunching the crisp snow echo in his ears and he knows jumping the log is the only realistic choice. Biting down on his lip even harder, he gathers what little strength he has left and makes a vaulting leap over the obstruction.

…Except, his foot slips, and there’s a loud thud followed by a bone-jarring, throbbing pain in his groin as both legs straddle either side of the tree trunk. Eyes begin to water profusely and there’s no fight left in him to ward off the inevitable cloak of unconsciousness, so he lets it claim him, certain that it will

shortly be followed by his death.

“Sculleeee…….”

As the prone figure of Special Agent Fox William Mulder slides to the ground, a large man pushes through the mesh of branches ten feet away – blood-red smearing his thick white beard – and then looks hungrily at his next meal.

XxXxXxXxX

———-

ACT ONE

———-

42 HOURS EARLIER

As a rule, it had become almost customary for just about anything and everything to go wrong – particularly in conjunction with special occasions or when plans had been made – so as a guy that had ignored pretty much all the rules in the book over the years, Mulder’d be damned if he was gonna let this one go by unbroken with a perfect average for yet another year.

No hospitals or bedside vigils. No family interruptions. No explosions or car crashes or gun shots. No cases.

He didn’t care what it took, even if that entailed tightly wrapping padding around every single thing in their duplex: this was gonna be *the* best Christmas that they’d spent together, if not ever – just him, Scully and the overweight turkey they’d managed to leave untouched over the Thanksgiving holiday and keep hidden at the bottom of their chest freezer.

“Excellent,” he smiled to himself, stepping back and proudly surveying the room as he finished putting up the last Christmas decoration. They’d both shared the task of finding and erecting the eight foot tree last week like excitable children (though Scully would deny that part), but work had gotten in the way of the rest of the regalia being tended to, so when his partner had been called to the Bureau for what they could only guess was an unseasonable audit assessment for their division, Mulder had promised to have the place finished by the time she got back.

“That’s it! I quit!”

Mulder sharply turned on his heel at the sound of the front door slamming shut and stared in worried bewilderment at his partner as she stormed into the room, threw both handbag and car keys onto the coffee table and then dejectedly dropped herself onto the couch.

“I don’t care what truths we haven’t uncovered or whatever – we can go ‘independent renegade’ for all I care!” she exclaimed, waving both hands in the air. “I’m not having them completely screwing with us one more day! I quit!”

A little disappointed that his efforts of the day had gone unnoticed (although he doubted she’d even realized he was actually in the room), Mulder sighed and moved to sit down beside her. By the sound of it, it had been the dreaded audit after all.

“‘Hi, honey!’ to you too,” he joked, leaning in to nudge against her arm. “What happened? Did they accuse us of spending too much on pencils?”

There was silence as Dana stared blankly at the space in front of her and mulled over this afternoon’s meeting with Deputy Director Wallace. Time and time again they’d had to put the job before their personal needs and lives, so much so that she’d stupidly let herself believe that this once – this one insignificant Christmas when everything was working out right for a change – they’d be given a restful respite.

Obviously an even higher power than believed possible was against them.

“Scully?”

“Our vacation time has officially been cut short,” she finally grumbled, wiping at her face with both hands.

Mulder let out an uncomfortable snort of laughter. “Wha-at?”

“The Bureau has decided our work is so invaluable that three days before Christmas they’re sending us on an ‘urgent’ case somewhere in the wintry wilderness of Colorado.” Her head turned and she watched the disbelief and anger vie for supremacy of his senses as his facial features contorted. “You’ve pulled some sneaky ones in the past, but I’m afraid you’ve been beat by this one.”

“Skinner–”

“Trust me, I’ve already had rather sharp words with him, but his hands are tied – the order has come direct from Deputy Director Wallace and there’s nothing he can do to out-rank her. I just wish–… Oh, what’s the point? Every time something happens we say ‘we won’t make plans next time’, but…” Reluctantly sealing their fates, Scully stood up. “I’m gonna go get changed – the thoughtful

DD kindly booked us on an 8PM flight.” Her hand lingered momentarily on his crest of hair. “…And you’d done such a beautiful job with the decorations…”

As their bedroom door clicked shut behind her, Mulder grabbed for his basketball and threw it across the room.

“*Dammit*!”

XxXxXxXxX

EN ROUTE TO WYNTACK, COLORADO

8:43AM

If he’d been pissed at just the thought of being sent on a case three days before Christmas, Mulder was certainly not far from downright outraged and ready to shoot someone in the ass by the time Scully had finished filling him in on why they had actually been sent to the tiny town out in the wilds of Colorado. Of course, he had to concede that he’d sent them on some pretty wild goose chases in the past, but he couldn’t see the motive behind one of the Powers That Be sending them to investigate an obvious case of cannibalism that had nothing

to do with them and could easily be handled just by the local law enforcement.

“It’s gotta be a trap.”

“Mulder, you think everything’s a trap unless you hand-picked the case.”

“So, you don’t find this at all suspicious?”

“Of course I do! But I live in fear of what your next injury will be enough as it is – if I dwell on this too much, it’ll drive me mad. Let’s just catch the perp and get back to D.C as soon as possible so that we can actually wake up Christmas morning in our own bed, okay?”

“I knew we should have gone to your mother’s again this year…

Thanksgiving at Skinner’s instead of in our own company no doubt doomed us…”

They’d reluctantly taken the pre-arranged late flight out to Denver International yesterday (noting also that it was just their luck that it wasn’t one of the hundreds that had been cancelled), and then stopped at a nearby hotel for the night, refusing to tackle the icy, treacherous roads in the pitch black – in broad daylight was proving difficult enough. Now, as their rental carefully made its way across

the white, unpopulated wasteland, Mulder couldn’t avoid the unsettling feeling in his gut that they should turn back.

Scully was experiencing the same sickening sensation, but as much as she’d come to trust it in the past, she knew they had no choice but to do their jobs.

“I still say it’s a trap,” Mulder grumbled, tightening his grasp on the steering wheel. “Who is this Deputy Director Wallace anyway?”

From the picture Dana had painted him yesterday, the stranger was nothing more than an insufferable bitch, but considering his partner’s mood since she’d returned from the FBI building, even a description of her mother would have had him conjuring up images of the Wicked Witch of The East in his head. “Was she transferred from somewhere else or promoted?” He diverted his gaze from the road momentarily to shoot a glance in her direction.

Letting out a deep sigh, Dana closed the folder she’d been looking through yet again for any clues that would explain their impromptu involvement with a two-week old cold case involving the discovery of a family of four by a hiker in the local woods, who had then reported his bloody find to the city cops in Denver instead of Wyntack’s lone sheriff. According to the pathologist’s report, the bodies had been bitten by what appeared to be human teeth marks, and the chests had been sliced open by a hunting knife, after which varying organs had

been ‘scooped out’ from each. By all accounts, the local FBI field office hadn’t been informed of the investigation, let alone involved, and the DPD held little hope that any suspects would be found as a light snow flurry had erased any footprints or evidence at the scene.

Basically, they were too busy with ‘more important’, easier-to-solve crimes that were actually covered by their jurisdiction, and the deceased didn’t have any other family, so……

None of this made sense, and her doubt about following orders seemed more and more founded as the mileage constantly clocked up.

“Scully?”

“I told you alread–”

*BANG!**BANG!*

The car suddenly lurched and fish-tailed violently for ten hundreds of a second before losing ground on a patch of ice and spinning completely out of control. Mulder used his lightning-fast reactions to tug at the steering wheel and try to right the vehicle’s forward motion, but the sideways incline of the mountainous region’s sparse road network and the below-freezing treacherous conditions made it impossible.

And he knew all was lost.

As he moved to shield his beloved partner from the inevitability of what would follow, the rental swerved one more time, hit a bank of snow and flipped once, twice, and then came to a halt…

On all four wheels.

XxXxXxXxX

FBI HEADQUARTERS

WASHINGTON, D.C

Walter Skinner sat down at his desk, ready to start his last day at work before a two-week holiday vacation, when he noticed the copy of the case file his two best agents had just been sent to investigate lying in the middle of the wooden surface.

‘No doubt they will come running to you to complain-‘

‘I’m their superior.’

‘Maybe, but you’re also an assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. You have a responsibility to the work which far exceeds your favoritism of two troublesome agents. They are employed to accept assignments, and that’s what they will do.’

‘Their ‘assignment’ is to the X-Files, investigating bizarre cases. This is for somebody at VCU, not them.’

‘We’ll see. Just be assured that if you insist on fighting me on this, you won’t have a job to let you run to their defense.’

He felt a shiver run up and down his spine as he recalled the encounter with the newly-appointed deputy director yesterday morning. Of course, Scully had come to him about it after her own meeting, but he was powerless – only able to wish that his two friends could be left alone to enjoy the festive season for a change.

Or was he?

As the conversation repeated itself once more in his memory and he toyed with the corner of the folder, Skinner realized that the best way to help his agents right now was to do some investigating of his own, from the safety of his office. He quickly stood back up and opened the office door.

“Kim?” he started in a hushed tone, leaning towards his assistant’s desk, where she sat sorting through some paperwork.

Her head snapped up at the sound. “Yes, sir?”

“I, um…I need you to find out as much information for me as you can about Deputy Director Deborah Wallace. Do you think you can do that? As discreetly as possible?”

The redhead hesitated for a moment. “Of course, sir. Is this to do with the case Agents Mulder and Scully have been sent on?”

“If I answer that you’ll be in possession of too much information. Let’s just call it a ‘background check’ for now, okay?”

She gave a nod and reached for the phone as Skinner smiled his appreciation and then disappeared back into his office.

XxXxXxXxX

From a perch high in the Wyntack Forest, two tired, aging eyes blinked against the sunlight as it reflected against the end of the figure’s high-powered binoculars, and then lips pulled back in a crooked grin to reveal blood-stained teeth as on the road a day’s trek away, a maroon sedan swerved and then flipped over several times.

Not wasting any time, the large figure quickly packed the binoculars

away and reached for the red suit neatly laid out on the crisp snow.

It was time for the show to begin.

XxXxXxXxX

“Mulder?”

He blinked several times, disorientated and mistaking the air-filled bag his face was snugly pressed against for his bed pillow at home, until the freezing chill of the air stabbing at his skin registered and dragged him back to reality…as well as the pain radiating from the left side of hairline.

“Mulder, are you okay?”

A groan to assure Scully he was at least alive, and then he lifted his head to check she was more than ‘fine’. “A little daunted by this moment of déjà vu and pissed that with fifty inches of snow on the ground, Lariat couldn’t provide us with a rental that actually had chains…Other than that, I’m fine,” He noticed her wince and shift uncomfortably in her seat. “How about you?”

Dana shifted yet again, knowing she couldn’t – and didn’t want to, anyway – lie. There was a razor sharp sting tearing down her arm whenever she moved, and she needed to check it but there was a sense of fear niggling at her.

Dreading the worst, Mulder quickly unbuckled his seatbelt and moved to examine her. And that was when he spotted the large shard of glass from the shattered window on her side of the vehicle protruding from the top of her left arm – blood seeping out in copious amounts, but thankfully slowed by the offending item acting as a plug. Panic rapidly shifted to something much greater as he struggled to think of the best thing to do to help his partner. “Shit, Scully…Why didn’t

you rouse me a lot sooner and tell me?”

“You were only out for ten seconds!” she unexpectedly snapped, gritting her teeth against a wave of nausea. It subsided after a moment, and she stared at the worried expression wrought on Mulder’s face. “I’m sorry. I’m…I’m sorry, Mulder. I–…I know I’ve been a little distant since I got back from the meeting yesterday, but I don’t know how to explain how I’ve been feeling or what’s been going through my head. I have the same suspicions as you about Wallace,

just as I have questions about the missing gaps in this report, but we’re in a Catch 22 situation – They know how much off our radar this invesyigation is and, with Christmas coming up, the inconvenience it will cause by sending us on it, but that we’re also walking a thin line and that if we refuse this assignment They have grounds to fire us.” Scully sighed, resigned, and tentatively leant in to rest

against the comforting, solid frame of his body. “And I know you worry about me, I’m–”

“Just tell me what to do,” he whispered against her hair, glancing once again at the slice cutting through her thick winter jacket and muscle.

She gave an accepting nod and sat up, swivelling in her seat as best she could so that he had better access to the injured arm. “I need you to pull it out at the right angle.”

“But if I pull it out–”

“It’ll do further damage whether it’s left or not. Just remove it at the angle it’s going in and get some snow to press against it – it’ll help to slow the bleeding and wash the wound at the same time.”

“But Scully–”

“Mulder, please.” She paused to wince against the excessive pain again. Over the years – thanks to frequent medical emergency hospital visits (or ‘The dreaded gurney treks’ as Mulder unaffectionately called them) – Scully had acquired a very high pain threshold, but this little injury, which paled in comparison to many she’d had before, was causing an unbelievable amount of discomfort that she couldn’t avoid. “If it’s left there, one wrong move and it’ll be buried all the way in.”

With a reluctant nod, Mulder took off his padded gloves – shivering slightly as the cold air bit at the newly-exposed skin – and leant in to pinch the end of the glass fragment between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. He gave her one last questioning look, and then in one swift move he pulled the shard out. Scully snatched in a breath and hissed as her right hand shot up to clutch at the wound, from where the where was beginning to flow a lot more freely.”Holy shit,” Mulder gasped, watching her and then diverting his attention to the two-inch length that had been buried in her arm.

“Mulder?…Snow?”

He looked back up at her, realized what she was saying, and quickly turned to open the driver’s side door and scoop up a ball of the white powder thickly blanketing the land.

At least, he would have, had the snow not been packed against the door and stopped him from opening it.

“Oh, for–” His voice trailed off as he awkwardly squeezed between the two front seats to get into the back of the car. An attempt at the left back door proved more promising and he managed to force it open far enough for one of them to escape should they need to. As soon as he had a handful of snow, Mulder quickly moved to sit beside his partner, who had removed both her jackets to expose the deep lesion, again. He wanted to comment on the large amount of red liquid bathing her arm, but thought better of it – knowing that upsetting her more right now was not a wise idea – and promptly placed the freezing ball against the injury, holding the pressure there as hard as possible for a silent moment. “You hold that,” he instructed, letting up on what was quickly becoming a slushy mess so that she could replace his hand with her free, slightly trembling, one. “I’m just gonna get the first-aid kit of the trunk – I won’t be a second, I promise.”

She didn’t respond.

“*Scully*?”

That got her attention, and her head snapped up to stare at him – teeth chattering as the frosty air entered through the back of the car and wrapped itself around her small, thinly clothed frame.”Stay with me, okay?” He gently kissed her forehead.

At her acknowledgement, Mulder hurriedly left the car via the back door, but slowed to assess the situation. All four tyres were deflated, and the vehicle had landed at an angle so that the nose was essentially buried in the snow. As he reached the trunk, he looked out at the road and shuddered at the harrowing sight of the erratic, out-of-control tracks burnt into the icy tarmac – his mind reflecting back to the last nightmarish time their car had been forced off the

road in snowy conditions, not long enough ago.

“H-how did they a-all blow-out?” Scully’s inquisitive voice suddenly asked from behind where he stood in thought.

“I don’t know – I’ll follow the tracks back to where it happened in a minute.” Mulder turned, wiped a hand across his face and then stared down at his partner with a raised brow. “And what are you doing out of the car? I said I’d be back! Go sit down – you’re badly injured!”

“So are you!”

“What?”

As always unwilling to let him win the debate when it came to what she should and shouldn’t do, Dana carefully took a step forward and reached up to touch the still lightly-bleeding cut on his forehead. The contact made him instantly yelp in surprise and recoil. But he lost his footing in the slippery powder, and before he had chance to right himself, Mulder fell hard onto his butt.

And, despite the pain tearing down her arm or even the direness of their current situation, Scully couldn’t hold back her burst of laughter.

“Ha-ha,” Mulder grumbled as he struggled to stand up. “Like I don’t get my ass kicked enough, now I have to have it hit by hard, compact snow?” He picked up a handful of the stuff and passed it to her to press against her arm – the last ball having already melted into the water that was now washing away some of the blood.

“S-sorry,” Scully sighed, still lightly snorting at the sight of him trying to get up.

He eyed her, smiled, and then turned to open the trunk.

Ten minutes later her arm had been cleaned and tightly wrapped, and she’d made sure he’d put a band aid on his own cut. They now followed the skid marks back along the road, and stopped when they reached the point of impact.

“What the hell?!” Mulder frowned, crouching down

“I-is that–”

He brushed away the light dusting of snow to expose the police-issue spike strip that had punctured all four tyres of their rental.

“Yep,” he sighed. “Either this was left here by accident, or for about the millionth time we’ve stumbled across more crooked cops.”

“But w-where does that l-l-leave us?” Scully asked, bending down beside her partner.

Mulder pulled out his cellphone, and sighed as ‘No signal’ flashed back at him. “With a nice little trip in the forest.” He slowly raised back up to his full height and glanced around at the open landscape and then at the dense tree line that flanked the other side of the road. “We got a choice – either we sit and wait in the car, or we hike it.” A pause and his focus fell once more on Dana. “Or

you stay in the car and I hike it.”

“Oh, no – don’t even think it! You’re not ditching me this time!”

“It’s gotta be at least three days trudge over that ridge…It’d be easier for you to stay in the car, and then I could send for help…”

Scully stubbornly rested both palms on her hips. “Mulder, if I stay in that car and it snows I’ll be buried alive. And what if something happens to you? Do I really need to give a not-so-brief recap of your medical track record? As always, we’re better together, and if we’re gonna get out of this, that’s how it’s got to be.”

There was a moment of silence as Mulder tenderly regarded his pint- sized but feisty partner. “You always seem to know best, even in the most hopeless of situations,” he sighed with a smile.

“Damn straight, and don’t you forget it!”

“We’ve got enough snacks in the back of the car to keep us fed for at least a day and a half, and I guess the snow will provide enough liquid to sustain us…”

“Is this where I have to teach you the ‘Yellow Snow’ rule again?” she teased, following him back to the car.

He wheeled on his heel – almost slipping over yet again. “Aren’t you just the wittiest little sprite today? What happened to the bad mood?”

“Seeing you fall on your butt kind of got rid of it.”

XxXxXxXxX

3:46pm EST

“Chief Chad Spector speaking.”

Skinner snatched up the handset of his phone and sat back in the seat behind his desk. After reading through the case file more thoroughly, he’d decided it might be worth contacting an old war buddy of his at the Denver police department to find out why they had given up so easily on the investigation of four murders.

“Hi, Chad, it’s Walter Skinner in D.C.” he sighed. It had been at least ten years since he’d last spoken with Spector, so he just hoped the man remembered who he was.

“Walt? No kidding? Hey, man, how’s it going in the life of an FBI assistant director?”

“Great, thanks, Chad. You?”

“Oh, you know – not as fun as the life of a big-shot g-man, but I can’t complain. So, what can I do you for? Drug bust? Stakeout? Hair piece?”

“Very funny,” Skinner shook his head “Look, I need some information on a case – four homicides in Wyntack Forest? I just wondered If you could fill me in on why it was so quickly filed as a cold case? A whole family’s killed and two weeks later you give up hope?”

At the other end of the line, Spector turned to his computer and typed in some information. “Hey, now! We’re not *that* incompetent here, Walt. We may not be New York or D.C, but we still have a pretty ‘together’ way of doing stuff.” A little humming to himself, and then, “Aha! See? We never cold-cased it – the case was closed, period.”

“Wha-at?”

“I haven’t got all the details here, but apparently the bad guy was caught and the investigation was closed. One man, one woman and their two young daughters found cannibalized in the woods by a hiker almost a month ago?”

“That’s the one, but…” Skinner frantically thumbed through the folder that was quickly in front of him again and then stared disbelievingly at the last page. “Two of my best agents have just been sent out there to…to investigate…” He stood and pulled his jacket from the back of his leather chair.

Spector snorted. “You’re kidding, right? What idiot did that? Wyntack isn’t the most friendliest of terrains at any time of the year, but it’s like minus ten out there, sixty inches deep and there are only about five houses in the whole place, miles apart! I wouldn’t be surprised if the sheriff’s moved here for the winter. If

you’ve got people going out there, I hope they’ve got a truck-load of supplies or gas to get ’em through!”

“This isn’t funny, Chad!” Walter exclaimed, wiping a sweaty palm down his face. “Who caught the guy?”

“Like I say, I haven’t got all the details here – I could go track ’em down, but it’s gonna take me at least a day.”

“That long?”

“We’re understaffed – it is Christmas Eve tomorrow unless you didn’t notice! Have you got a number there I can fax the details to when I find them?”

“No need – I’m gonna get the next flight out–”

“Whoa! Didn’t you hear me before? Haven’t you been watching the news lately?” Spector turned in his seat and looked out the window at the zero-visibility whiteout. “All the airports in the state are pretty battened up – I’d be surprised if your agents’ flight even took off – hundreds are being cancelled….It’s just not safe for a plane to try land or take off in this. Sit tight, let me dig out

this info, and if there’s any reason to think your agents are in danger, we can go from there, okay?”

Skinner wasn’t happy, but he was out of options for the time being and he needed as much help as possible – knowing their luck, Mulder and Scully needed as much help as possible. “Okay. The fax number’s 202-555-1704. You got that? I can’t tell you how much this means, Chad.”

“Hey, Walt, you need anything, you only have to ask! No need for begging…If it hadn’t been for you I wouldn’t have gotten through – let alone survived – ‘Nam. Just make sure it ain’t another decade before the next time!”

The assistant director bade his goodbye with a promise of speaking again tomorrow to end the call, and then – slipping on his jacket, left the office.

“Sir?” Kim suddenly started, standing up and taking a step toward her boss to be as circumspect as possible. “I found a little of what you asked me to ‘background check’, but I should be able to have some more by the end of the day.”

“Thanks heaps, Kim. I’m going out for a late lunch – I’ll be back in about an hour.”

“Yes, sir.”

XxXxXxXxX

After examining the area map, both Mulder and Scully had agreed that their only hope of survival was to hike the forty-six miles to Broomfield, which lay just over the ridge on the other side of the forest. They’d donned as many layers of clothing as possible, and packed as much of the food and accessories they’d had in their overnight bags into one easy-to-carry holdall. As if on cue, the clouds had then begun to close in, and they’d taken that as their own cue to get moving. Four hours later, as darkness loomed on the horizon to the east and an occasional snowflake fell from the sky, the two agents stopped to rest and scavenge any food the woods had to offer.

“D’ you ever think ‘this is it’?” Dana unexpectedly asked, resting back against a fallen tree and rubbing the bandage that covered her sore injury.

Mulder sharply looked up from the map and frowned at her. “Wha-at?” Of course he’d heard, but he didn’t like the implications…

“Do you ever wonder if this could be it – that your body can’t take anymore?”

Now he really was worried! He immediately rushed to her side to unwrap her arm and check the wound hadn’t become infected. When he was satisfied it was clean and okay, scared eyes lifted to stare at her. “Scully, honey, you’re scaring me…” He reached up to brush an errant strand of coppery hair from her face. “What’s brought this on?”

Her head jerked up, as if only just noticing his closeness.

“Explosions on Valentine’s Day, hanging from the rafters when we just go to see a basketball game, Egypt, and now this… We’ve almost lost each other so many times just this year…”

“Hey, hey, hey! We’ve only been out here a few hours, and you’re giving up all hope on my Indian Guide skills already? You wound me!” He cupped her frozen cheeks in his gloved hands. “Christmas Day we’re walking out of here…Frostbitten, tired, chapped lipped, hungry, and my ass as bruised as hell, but alive nevertheless – we might even be able to avoid the chapped lips by making out a lot.”

Dana rested against the welcome warmth of his palms and nodded, uncertain herself why she’d been so ready to give in…Until she saw the figure approaching from behind her partner.

“Mul-der?”

“Okay, so we won’t overdo the making out…”

“No – behind you!”

Both hands slowly lowered away from her face as he carefully pivoted to glance over his shoulder, and see the adult wolf that skulked several more steps toward them before stopping and just staring.

Scully fumbled for her holstered gun, but there were too many layers of clothing in the way, and her frenzied movements were only spooking the animal more, so Mulder quickly stilled her hand.

The wolf continued to watch them with nothing more than curiosity for five minutes before sharply turning and running away.

Leaving the two agents completely bewildered.

XxXxXxXxX

———-

ACT TWO

———-

LONE GUNMEN OFFICE

TACOMA PARK

“You sent them on a case right before Christmas? Man, I thought you were on their side!”

Both eyebrows sharply lifting, Walter Skinner looked down at the shortest of Mulder’s three friends in shock. Byers and Langly were nowhere to be seen, which didn’t help the assistant director’s unease, but now the false accusation…

“After all these years – after what happened this summer – you really believe that?” he retorted, not breaking eye contact with Frohike.

“Come on, Melvin! If it’d been up to me, they would’ve had the whole holiday season off! This Deputy Director Wallace…”

“Who?”

“Oh, don’t worry about that for now – I’ve got my assistant looking into it. I need you to find out if they did catch that plane and–”

Frohike turned to his computer and started typing in the necessary details.

“And track them down somehow…”

The tapping on the keys paused momentarily, but then continued without anything being said.

Langly chose that moment to enter the office. “Hey, Skinman! Skipping work to come hang with us? Cool! Any governmental secrets you wanna leak while you’re here?”

“Mulder and Scully may have been sent on a bogus case to endanger their lives by a newly-appointed deputy director at the FBI,” Skinner stated flatly, not looking away from the monitor as the details of yesterday’s scheduled flights came up.

Frohike glanced over at his friend and shrugged, before sighing,

“They went and they landed last night. According to their bank cards they booked into a hotel that end and left early this morning.”

“You don’t know where they are now?” When the elf-esque man shook his head, Skinner forged ahead, “*Can* you find them?”

“We could track them down via the GPS chips in their cellphones,” Langly piped up, nudging his friend aside and hacking into a system they’d had to use a number of times in the past to find their FBI buddies. “The only problem is, their phones have to be on or at least able to pick up a signal for us to track it, and at the moment…” A tense pause as he set the system to dial either of the two phone numbers. “Neither of them are connecting.”

A loud curse word erupted from Skinner as his fist slammed against one of the tabletops and he turned away

“Hey, man, calm down!” Frohike assured, moving to stand in front of the much taller man. “We’ve found them before, we’ll find them again – just trust us, okay?”

Walter considered this for a moment, knowing that these men, above anyone else, had never given up on Mulder or Scully and certainly wouldn’t now. Even if they did find them, though – from this far away – would they be able to get to the two agents in time if they were indeed in danger?

Awkward silence descended for a moment – only the sound of the whirring computers circulating the air around them.

“Scully came to me…begging me not to let them be sent on this case…but…” The assistant director stepped around Frohike and moved slowly toward the exit, his head lowering. “I had orders to follow – that’s my job. I know I’ve sent them on some pretty pointless investigations in the past that have only ended with them badly injured, but even I wouldn’t have sent them on this one if the

302 had come to me directly.”

“We know, dude, don’t take it so hard – it’s not your fault!” Langly piped up, diverting his gaze to the computer monitor to check the program was still redialling the two cell numbers.

“Yeah, I’m sorry, Walt. I didn’t mean what I said before,” Frohike added solemnly, patting Skinner’s back. “They get in so much trouble so often, we’re scared one of these times we won’t get to them in time.”

Skinner’s hand fell on the door latch and his head gave a shaky nod.

“I fear that every day.”

And with that he left.

“Jeez, man! What did you say to upset him that much? He looked like his favorite pet had just been run over!” Langly snapped, standing up and stepping towards his much shorter friend.

Melvin eyed him back and then stepped back towards the computer. “I said exactly what he would have said if the roles had been reversed. Now let’s find them.”

XxXxXxXxX

He dreams he’s running, as fast as possible, for his life. Running, struggling for breath, smacking into hordes of branches.

Running against the snow, not fast enough.

And then there’s pain ripping through his whole body, blood, and–

“Mulder?”

Her voice cuts through the haze, and the pain morphs into something much more piercing that instead envelopes him and seeps through his muscles straight to the bone.

Bitter, freezing cold air.

“M-Mulder?”

He shuddered back to awareness and tightened the circle of his arms around himself as both eyes tentatively open – blinking several times against the fresh snowflakes before focusing on Scully. They’re still resting against the fallen tree, but there’s now a dark blanket of nimbostratus clouds blocking out the sky above them, and the steadily increasing rate of falling snow lets him know enough time

has passed for the forecasted impending storm to find them. The last thing he remembers is the wolf leaving them alone, and then…. nothing. No wonder she looks so worried.

“What time is it?” he asked, yawning and scrubbing gloved hands at his damp, icy hair.

Scully folded back the cuff of her jacket to examine the watch hiding underneath and then puffed out a sigh as she looked back up at her partner. “Almost three o’clock, local time. You were snoring away for about half-hour, and I would have left you a little longer, but you started frantically kicking and mumbling something…I figured you’d rather be woken up than left in whatever nightmare you were having.”

“Thanks.” He gave her a weak smile and nod. “Are you okay? Did you get any rest?”

“No – I’ll take my turn a little l-later.” At his confused frown, she elaborated, “Somebody had to keep an eye out for wolves that weren’t as friendly.”

Mulder gave an appreciative huff of laughter and uneasily stood up, folding away the map that had been resting in his lap. He then paused, though, and dropped to his knees in front of her – both arms outstretching to embrace her tightly. He felt the shakes wracking her body fade slightly as she absorbed the heat their bodies shared, and wished he could whisk them away to a tropical isle within a blink of an eye.

“Come on, let’s get moving. The map says there should be a cave a little further up ahead. We can shelter and rest there for a while.”

“A cave? Won’t bears be hibernating in it?”

“We won’t disturb them. It’s our only option.”

After a thoughtful pause, Dana nodded her head against his chest, and then looked up to press a kiss against his pale, frozen lips – a kiss which he quickly returned, fuelled with passion that burned even hotter than the warmth their bodies could generate or share. The bitter air biting at them and exhaustion brought it to a much-too- soon end, though, and their icy foreheads rested together for a moment before they helped each other to their feet.

“This must be how the victims were forced into the woods,” Scully noted as they started forward.

“Most likely, but they probably didn’t have a map or compass and that’s how they became lost. What I don’t understand is if there are indeed a group of cannibals out here, what benefit would any source of law e-e-enforcement have protecting t-them, or even – more darkly – providing live meals for them? There’s no way they c-could survive out here in these mountains on just the occasional person, unless more people have b-been reported missing and there’s a cover-up.”

“The townsfolk ignored what was going on in the d-desert in ‘The Hills Have Eyes’.”

Mulder blinked and gave her a mock-shocked glare. “Scully! Your taste in m-movies just keeps surprising me! W-when did you get time t-t-to see that? And without me?”

“I was actually thinking m-more along the lines of the original – there were actually advantages to having an older brother who could sneak you in to an NC-17 flick.”

“Bill? Doing something generous and against the rules? That I do wish I’d seen.”

“He had his moments.”

As they forged ahead against the blistering breeze and snow, silence fell between them momentarily, but then Mulder had an idea. “Unless the local LEOs *are* the cannibals?”

“The only n-native officer is Sheriff Lynus D-Donner.” She quickly raised a hand to stop him interrupting. “And don’t even think about making that joke.”

Mulder gave an innocent shrug of his shoulders. “You mean the s-same Sheriff Donner – I have read the file, remember? – we were on our way to see when the tyres were blown out?”

“Well, y-yes, but… S-surely you’re not implying that one m-m-man on his own managed to k-kill that whole family?”

“One person could kill a whole army g-given the r-r-right tools and means, S-Scully.”

“But the crime-scene photos showed the bodies were all together and t-there w-w-were no signs of great struggle.”

“‘No signs’ that were probably covered by fresh snow.” Mulder came to a stop, wheezing against the frigid air filling his lungs. The weight of the backpack he was carrying was beginning to take its toll, and struggling to walk as quickly but carefully through the deep snow so as not to end up chest-deep in it was no easy stroll in the park. He coughed, wiped a hand down his face – wincing when he

accidentally brushed a finger over the cut on his forehead – and was about to continue onwards when he paused to glance over his shoulder to check she was okay. “Do you w-w-wanna t-take…take another break?”

Scully shook her head and took a deep, shuddering breath. “N-no… Let’s k-keep moving for as l-long as possible.”

From the pain tearing at her face, he wasn’t convinced, but he gave her an assuring smile and started moving ahead again.

XxXxXxXxX

FBI HEADQUARTERS

WASHINGTON, D.C.

5:09PM EST

Kim jumped out of her seat as Skinner walked through the door to the area outside his office with his head lowered and quickly moved to walk alongside him. “Sir?” Her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “Sir, I managed to get the information you were after…for that ‘background check’.”

His head snapped up and fixed on her. When she gave him a slight affirming nod he guided her into his office and immediately shut the door after them.

“‘Officially’ Deputy Director Wallace was transferred from the New York offices,” Kim started, keeping her voice as low as possible as she offered her boss a file folder – which he instantly accepted, “but I contacted a friend whose worked there for twenty years, and she said she’s never heard of a Deborah Wallace. She didn’t even recognize her from the file photo I e-mailed to her. So I did a

little more digging…” She became slightly antsy, shifting from one foot to the other. “Apparently whoever assigned her here is…Is from somewhere high up in the chain of command at the Pentagon.”

Walter Skinner sharply looked up from the pages in the open profile and frowned. He knew the Syndicate had never been restrictive when it came to the lengths they were happy to go to, to get at Mulder and Scully, but placing somebody in the FBI seemed like too elaborate a plan for such a brief, insignificant end.

Unless there was even worse trouble on the horizon…

He mulled it over, chewed on the gristle of the facts, and then spat it all out of his thoughts for the time being, knowing that it was enough to prove his fears that his two agents were at risk but that he also couldn’t go after Wallace to try have her exposed and removed from the Bureau – that was a level in this conspiracy he would never be able to battle. All he could do was focus on finding and rescuing

Mulder and Scully.

“That’s excellent work, Kim. Thanks so much for doing that,” he sighed, squeezing her shoulder affectionately with his left hand as the right one slipped the now-closed folder underneath his arm. “Why don’t you pack up and go enjoy Christmas? I’ll see you next week.”

“Agents Mulder and Scully are going to be okay, aren’t they, sir?”

“Of course.”

Kim gave a grateful smile and then turned to leave. “Merry Christmas, sir.”

“You too, Kim.”

As the door closed after her, Skinner reached for his cellphone, moved to pick up his briefcase from beside his large desk and then left the office via the double doors at the back of the room.

“It’s me. Have you managed to find them yet? Okay. I need you to get me a seat on the soonest flight out to Colorado.”

XxXxXxXxX

WYNTACK FOREST, COLORADO

SATURDAY, DECEMBER 23rd 2006

11:27PM

The figure huddled underneath a large blue spruce as the snowstorm reduced visibility on his trek down from the mountain to zero. This wasn’t the most convenient of developments in his plan, but it was far from about to hinder him too much. He’d almost literally grown up in these woods, and had used them for many hunting games over the years so he knew the area and how to survive in it rain or shine like the back of his hand. Plus the red suit he now wore was thickly

padded, so it kept him well-insulated.

No, no snowstorm would deny him these two fine, healthy catches.

Bare, frostbitten-but-steady fingers tore at some more of the red, raw meat pooled by his feet and bloodstained teeth hungrily bit into it – ripping as much of the flesh from the bone before discarding the inedible remains onto the nearby pile of fur, bone and cartilage that had – not twenty minutes ago – made up the body of a tall, proud, adult wolf.

The night would be long and this was his only meal for now, but he could relax with the knowledge that by tomorrow afternoon he’d have the finest cuisine for the taking that he’d had in over a month.

Thank God for people with grudges who could deliver!

XxXxXxXxX

———-

ACT THREE

———-

7:07AM

The storm had died out about two hours earlier, and as the sky began to slowly lighten and welcome the new day, Mulder watched the clouds begin to part from where he and his partner were huddled.

They’d just managed to reach the cave before the complete whiteout had set in – tired, weak, frozen to the core and leaning on each other as the fierce wind had fought back against them – but it had turned out that there were indeed three happily-snoring grizzlies hibernating within the depths of the shelter as Scully had feared, so they’d been forced to rest right at the entrance where they had

been protected from the cutting wind, but not from the bite of the chilly air or all of the snow.

Mulder glanced down at Scully, pressed a kiss against the crest of her icy hair and then pulled the hood of her jacket that had slipped down at some point during the night back up over her head. She shivered and snuggled even closer against him, but didn’t wake up.

“We will get out of this,” he vowed in a hushed whisper, holding her a moment longer before carefully slipping away from her and edging toward the cave’s exit. “I’ll b-b-be b-back, I p-promise – I’m just gonna g-go ahead a l-l-little and check the w-way is safe…”

He was about to turn away when one of her hands suddenly shot out and wrapped around his wrist. “N-No you d-d-don’t,” she stammered, shifting to sit up. “No w-wandering off o-o-on y-your own…Wherever y-you go…” Her eyes fluttered shut, no matter how hard she tried fighting it, and her voice began to trail off. “…I g-go…” And before she’d even had chance to fully wake up, she was asleep again.

Mulder smiled, leaned in once more to kiss her on the lips and then crawled out of the cave – leaving behind the backpack of supplies for her, just in case.

XxXxXxXxX

27th STREET

DENVER, COLORADO

8:32AM

*knock* *knock* *knock*

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m coming!”

*knock* *knock* *knock*

Chad Spector wiped frantically at his sleepy, gritty eyes and scowled at the front door as the loud knocking continued. He’d been up all night going through the case file Walter’d asked for and he’d finally managed to dig it out of the records department at work at about 9PM, so this early visitor on Christmas Eve was not about to get on his good side.

*knock* *knock* *knock*

“I said I’m coming, dammit!”

He tore open the door as hard as possible, only to reveal Walter Skinner – red-eyes peering out from beneath a baseball cap.

“Walt? How the hell’d you get here?”

Skinner shrugged. “I …I managed to get a late flight out to Colorado Springs and then drove the I-25 over night…I’m sorry if I got you up…”

Spector stared disbelievingly at his friend for a moment and then quickly moved out of the doorway so the older man could enter out of the cold. “Don’t be silly! Holy shit…You drove here? I don’t remember you being this crazy.”

“There’s a big chance my two agents are in danger,” Walter sighed, dragging his tired frame across the threshold and shuffling with his head lowered into the living room. “I needed to get out here as soon as possible.”

“Your agents?” Chad frowned, puzzled, as he quickly followed the FBI assistant director. “You came all this way to–”

“They’re friends. Were you able to find that case report?”

“Uh, yeah – I was gonna fax it to you when I was fully awake. I’ve been going over it all night. Apparently Sheriff Donner called in to say that he’d caught the killer and the case was closed.” Skinner opened his mouth to say something, but Chad quickly continued, “*But* no official report was forwarded on to us, which is standard procedure – especially if we’re involved in the investigation – and

from what I was able to find out by calling a few favors in, no suspect was ever sent our way to be tried. Normally red flags would have flown up everywhere in our system, but whoever was handling it either accidentally or purposely altered the info on the system network to say the case had been wrapped up completely. It was only when I looked at the hard copy, which we’re always sure to keep of every single case we’re involved with in our Records department, that

I spotted the gaping holes.” The Denver Police Department chief shrugged his shoulders and picked a cigar out of the wooden box on the coffee table in front of where Skinner sat. “And before you ask, no I couldn’t find out who that was.”

“That I *can* help out with,” Skinner piped up, pulling a folder out of his bag. “I was able to acquire a copy of the personnel file of who sent my agents out to investigate the murders. It says she was transferred to us from the New York field office, but after a lot more digging, it turns out she was actually assigned to us from your department by somebody at the Pentagon.”

“You’re kidding? What’s her name?”

“She’s posing as Deputy Director Deborah Angela Wallace in D.C, but her real name – at least the one she was using when she was parading as a cop – is Sally Morse-Elba.”

Chad stood in thought for several minutes, puffing on his cigar as he wracked his brain to try remember the name. “Sally…Sally…Sally! Yes, I remember her – she must have only been with us a couple months! Never thought to find out where she disappeared to; she left at the start of the month. But how could a cop get promoted straight to deputy director of the FBI? Why would she go to such lengths to dispose of the case, and then send your two agents out?”

“These two particular agents have pissed off a few figures in authority over the years by trying to expose conspiracies. Let’s just say there’ve been a lot of ploys used to try get rid of them, so nothing surprises me now.” Skinner wiped a hand down his face.

“What about the sheriff? Why would he so blatantly lie about something he knew would send up red flags?”

Chad gave a shrug of his shoulders and rested back in the comfy chair opposite his friend. “I tried calling him at his office in Wyntack, but the line just kept ringing. As I told you yesterday, though, he might have moved to Denver for the winter months. He must be in cahoots with your deputy director there – there’s no way he’d dare to

try pull the wool over our eyes otherwise.”

There was a moment of thoughtful silence, and then Skinner suddenly reached to pull out a second folder from his bag. “Maybe not,” he muttered, thumbing through the file. “What if…What if Sheriff Donner’s the murderer? It would explain his need to throw you guys off the trail as soon as possible.”

“A cannibalistic sheriff? That’s a bit of a leap, isn’t it?”

“Like I say, nothing surprises me now. Seriously, think about it, Chad. He could have been doing this for years! The only reason why you were involved this time is because the hiker that found the family came to you first.”

“You really believe–”

Skinner’s tired head nodded vigorously.

Spector got up from his seat and moved over to his computer, where he immediately typed in a request for Lynus Donner’s profile. After reading for approximately three minutes he suddenly stood up and quickly snatched up his coat. “Come on, Walt, we need to get to the PD!”

“What is it?” Skinner queried, standing up also.

“When he was a kid, Donner and his parents were in a car crash out by Wyntack Forest. They were found a week later by a search and rescue team; Lynus had eaten his folks to stay alive.”

“Shit!”

XxXxXxXxX

Mulder hadn’t realized he’d been walking for as long as he had until he stopped to catch his breath and thought to look at his watch.

8:42.

He’d only intended to venture away from Scully for about half-hour to survey the path ahead before returning to the cave, not almost two hours! She’d probably be awake by now and worried about where he’d gone…as well as fuming and ready to kick his ass for ditching her.

With a sigh, as the sun peeked out from above the mountain and an eagle passed overhead, Mulder turned on his heel to go back and face the music, but as he did something caught his attention out of the corner of his eye. He paused and then – curiosity getting the better of him as ever – made his way over to the red patch underneath one of the taller spruces.

When he was close enough to see the lifeless, empty eyes of the wolf that they’d encountered yesterday staring back at him from a mass of matted fur, muscle, bones and diluted blood, he knew exactly what had happened here. Instinctively his hand reached for his gun…but it wasn’t there. He must have left it behind back at the cave, but that meant–

Suddenly there was a sharp pain tearing up his leg from somewhere in his right calf, and Mulder looked down in time to see the large hunting knife sticking out from there before he dropped to the ground. There was movement from somewhere behind where he lay, but he was too busy frantically scrabbling to apply pressure to his leg to stop the blood flow to care who it was. There were another pair of hands pushing his away, though, and before any of what had

happened had had chance to sink into the agent’s muzzy brain, a head came into focus, the knife was ripped out of his leg, and – just when he didn’t think the pain could get any more excruciating – teeth chomped into his bleeding flesh.

A scream barely recognizable as his own voice shot out of Mulder’s chest, and he thought he may have blacked out for a minute, but the pain, the blood, the pull of something trying to rip his skin from his body…It all never ended.

Lynus Earl Donner smiled greedily as blood poured down his white beard and the pain-filled cries echoed against the trees in the morning air. If there was one thing he’d learnt over the years, fresh, living tissue was so much more of a delicacy than that in which the heart had stopped beating blood – life – to the muscles and organs.

*I’ll be back, I promise.*

His own vow replayed over and over in Mulder’s mind as he lay on the frozen ground, futilely struggling to break free from the stranger’s jaws.

*Christmas Day we’re walking out of here…Frostbitten, tired, chapped lipped, hungry, and my ass as sore as hell, but alive nevertheless.*

He’d promised her an end to this nightmare. He’d promised her life. He’d promised that this would not be the final time Death stared them in the face and claimed them or that they’d be separated forever.

It was time to prove all his promises to her actually meant something.

With the tiny bit of strength left in him, Fox Mulder kicked and rolled his way away from the cannibal and shakily got to his feet. He felt the other man lunge at him, but before he could be taken down again the FBI agent ran with all his might deeper into the woods – disorientated and desperately trying to bite back against the pain tearing his senses to shreds.

He ran and ran and ran, almost feeling the breath of his pursuer right against the back of his neck, but then he reached a fallen tree that was blocking his path of escape, and the only option was to jump it.

Which he did.

And failed to clear.

And all he knew then was darkness.

“Sculleeee…….”

As Mulder’s body shut itself down, the distant sound of rustling branches registered in his brain, and he knew Death had finally caught up with him. He thought he heard something akin to a gunshot…

And then there was nothing at all.

XxXxXxXxX

WASHINGTON, D.C.

The sudden beeping from the computer snapped Frohike back to attention and he quickly sat up, staring at the monitor in shock.

“Hey! Guys! I’ve managed to connect to Mulder’s phone!”

Both Byers and Langly rushed to his side and stared at the screen also.

“Finally!” Langly exclaimed, slapping his friend on the back and then nudging him out of the way so that he could have full access to the keyboard. “Now, if we can just locate their exact position…”

As the long-haired geek started tapping away, a shaky voice suddenly started over the speakers, “H-h-hello?”

Byers brightened when he recognized the voice and quickly reached for

the system microphone.

“Agent Scully? It’s John Byers. Are you okay?” Considering how weak and upset she sounded, it was probably a stupid question, but it was the first thing he’d managed to think to ask.

There was silence, the ever-so-faint sound of her shivering, and then, “I…Mulder’s b-b-bleeding…”

Langly sharply looked up from his work, but those two words made him even more determined to succeed with tracking their friends down.

“Don’t panic, Scully. Assistant Director Skinner is in Colorado, and we’re using the GPS in your phone to locate you, so don’t give up yet,” Byers gently assured, hoping he could calm the scared woman even a fraction.

“There’s a s-s-stinger on the r-road in…Make s-sure n-n-no one d-drives o-over it.” She paused, sniffed. “I-I-I need…I n-need

to–”

The line went dead.

“I’ve got them!” Langly smiled, taking a step back and pointing the flashing indicator on the screen.

“Let’s get those co-ordinates to Skinman immediately,” Frohike barked, wiping at his eyes and rushing for the telephone.

There was no need for questions from his two friends – they were all feeling the affects of the emotional charge.

XxXxXxXxX

DENVER POLICE HEADQUARTERS

CHEROKEE\STREET

Walter Skinner closed his cellphone and turned to face the group of twelve officers that Spector had managed to gather to help with the search.

“We’ve found them. Let’s go.”

The team moved into action at his order and quickly filed out of the room – leaving Chad and Walter alone.

“By the sounds of it, both of them are badly injured,” Skinner sighed, trying to compose himself as best as possible but failing to ward off the guilt that continued to consume him. “And there’s a concealed spike-strip on the road in to Wyntack…Do you have any choppers we can use?”

Chad gave a nod, knowing a lot was riding on his answer. “I could call one of our pilots in, but it’s gonna take him at least a couple hours to get here,” he explained, heading toward the exit.

“Please, can you call him? A foot search isn’t gonna get to them soon enough.”

“Sure thing, Walt. You go ahead with the guys and I’ll catch you up.”

The two stared at each other in companionable silence for a second and then went their separate ways.

XxXxXxXxX

6:39PM

Pain sifted through the darkness and tugged him in every direction.

In his head.

In his leg.

In his groin…

Fox Mulder had experienced a *lot* of pain and torture over the years, but he really didn’t believe that he’d ever experienced anything like the agonizing ache inflaming his squashed genitals, and he never wanted to again – hopefully that was something he could keep to himself and not let them use against him.

“…Joy to t-the f-f-fishes in t-the d-deep b-b-blue sea…J-joy to y-you and m-m-me.”

His eyelids slipped open as reality tried to break through the fog in his brain, and he realized he was resting in the cradle of her arms…

And there was something cold being gently rubbed against his testicles.

Not in an arousing way, but it was certainly helping to take the edge off the burn in his balls.

“You’re e-e-enjoying t-that far too m-much,” he whispered in a strained, quasi-falsetto.

Scully almost jumped out of her skin at the sound and she looked down at her partner, pulling him tighter against her as she rested back against the fallen pine tree that had caused him this extra injury.

“M-Mulder? You’re o-okay?”

“J-just as w-w-well we c-c-can’t think a-about having k-kids the old- fashioned w-way, ‘cos there’s n-n-no way I-I’ll b-be able to d-deliver n-now,” he pouted, letting his eyes close again. “That and m-my leg…it…I-it–”

“It’s o-okay,” she whispered, kissing the top of his head.

“How d-did you–…What h-h-ha-happened?”

“I w-woke up again after y-you l-left the c-c-cave,” Dana explained, withdrawing her hand from his pants and reaching for another ball of snow. “But I-I had that b-backpack to c-carry and f-f-fell behind, so I had to j-just f-f-follow your footp-prints in the sn-snow. Then I saw you and Donner–”

“D-Donner?”

“Mm, y-you were right – it w-was S-Sheriff Donner c-committing t-t-the m-murders after a-all. Anyway, I saw y-you b-both s-scrabbling up ahead after a-a-awhile, d-dropped the bag and r-r-ran to catch up. Sadly y-you h-had your procreation-damaging s-slip b-before I-I was able to s-s-shoot the guy.” Her hand delved back into his pants to cup and massage his swollen balls with the cold slush. She’d only just managed to get the bleeding from his leg under control, so she hoped upon hope that she could help him with this unbearable injury at least.

“H-he’s d-d-dead?” Mulder snatched in a breath as his testicles began to numb and the fog in his brain cleared a little.

Despite the lack of energy left in their bodies, there was no mistaking the fire of hatred and poison of disgust when she spat out, “H-he’s on the o-other side of t-this log.”

Mulder looked up at her, saw the icicles that had formed on her cheeks glisten in the moonlight, and gave her a loving, reassuring smile.

Her hand once again retreated to scoop up a fresh ball of frozen powder.

“I-is there s-something I should know a-a-about your knowledge and e-expertise at d-d-doing this?” he joked, eyeing the snow in her hand.

“W-well, y-you know,” she mused, expelling a huff of laughter when she saw him waggle his eyebrows, “I-I’ve always h-h-had this s-secret f-fantasy of ‘packing i-ice’ w-with y-y-you, so r-really I’m just t-taking advantage o-of you a-and your injury.”

“If only t-that was turning me on and n-n-not n-numbing my s-senses.”

“Will h-have to s-start c-calling y-y-you ‘Blue Balls’.” She began to chuckle, but then suddenly paused and looked up at the sky.

“S-Scully?”

“Shhh. Did y-you hear t-that?”

There was silence and he listened as hard as he could, but he guessed he must be more out of it than he’d thought as he couldn’t hear anything.

Scully could though, and she strained to hone in on the noise as it came nearer and nearer.

“It s-s-sounds l-like…” She paused, searched the horizon frantically for the source,

And then she saw it – its searchlight coming into view as it skimmed the tops of the trees.

“…H-helicopter blades… ”

“You m-mean we’re g-g-gonna be out o-of h-here for Christmas a-after all?” Mulder hummed as his eyes slipped shut once again – his body beginning succumb to the cold and pain and exhaustion. “N-not s-s-sure if I’ll…b-be up to coo-cooking the d-dinner…”

The searchlight stopped on them as the chopper hovered directly above. Scully quickly withdrew her hand from her partner’s groin and raised it to shield her eyes from the bright light and whirlpool of snow the rotors whipped up. If she’d had the energy, she probably would have sent up a silent ‘Thank you’ up to whatever deity had saved them this time, but everything left in her was focused on Mulder…

And getting the hell out of here as soon as possible.

XxXxXxXxX

———-

EPILOGUE

———-

‘Case File: #X14082273

Agent of record: Assistant Director Walter S. Skinner

Date: December 28th, 2006

Due to the injuries inflicted by Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully whilst on this investigation, I shall make my own report on this case.

Lynus Earl Donner was found dead wearing what appears to be an imitation Santa Claus outfit. His ID photo depicted him with a clean-shaven face, however his

corpse fashioned a thick white beard, giving the all-round impression that he was trying to portray himself as the mythological bringer of Christmas presents. To

date, no explanation has been found amongst his belongings sequestered from his office at the Wyntack Sheriff’s Station, but a full psychological evaluation

of his background from medical records etc. will be carried out in the new year. Personally, I wonder if the trauma incurred by his parents’ death triggered

something in Donner’s brain that made him regard every special holiday as a reason to feast and dress-up – I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d been dressed up as a turkey when he killed the Thompson family at Thanksgiving. Or, perhaps he had been psycologically okay, but – isolated out in the wilds alone – cabin

fever had begun to set in and his past caught him up, pushing him completely over the edge of reason. This is all hearsay, but I think that that’s all it will

ever be – only Lynus Donner knew the truth behind his reasons…Or, at least what he believed to be the truth.

Deputy Director Deborah Wallace has not been seen since her meeting with Agent Scully. A further check into the FBI’s payroll list revealed she is not even listed as an employee here anymore, deepening my suspicions that she was placed here for malicious purposes, and I highly recommend that an investigation should be opened to deal with this matter.

Agents Mulder and Scully are currently still receiving treatment at Georgetown Memorial Hospital for pneumonia, and hypothermia, as well as the external injuries they suffered. There was a fear that the lower half of Agent Mulder’s right leg would have to be removed due to the damage incurred and infection that had started to set in, but thankfully his surgery went successfully and his

leg was saved.

Both agents will hopefully be fit to return for work in three weeks.

Further details can be found in Chief Chad Spector of the Denver Police Department’s report into the oversight on their handling of the case.

Otherwise, FBI case number X14072273 is closed.’

XxXxXxXxX

The woman walked away from the building – each calculating step taking her nearer and nearer to her next assignment.

“Who are you working for?”

Deborah Wallace turned at the voice, finding herself coming face to face with Conrad Strughold but never flinching at all, even though she knew this impromptu encounter probably meant that her deception had been uncovered.

“I thought I was working for you,” she dryly retorted, brushing her hair back away from her face.

“You know we have more plans for Mulder – more we need to learn from him,” Strughold snapped. “Why would you put those plans in jeopardy by sending them on that case?”

Wallace quickly unholstered her concealed gun and pointed it at the shorter man. “Because someone offered me a bigger pay packet!”

*BANG!*

One shot.

One kill.

Unwavering eyes stared and watched nonchalantly as Deborah dropped to the ground – a gunshot wound in the center of her head.

“It obviously wasn’t big enough,” Strughold coolly noted, pulling both his hand and silencer-equipped gun out of his jacket pocket and giving them a quick wipe. “Otherwise you’d have been long gone by now.”

Before a crowd could gather, he re-pocketed the weapon and moved to the nearby parked black sedan.

ROLL CREDITS

“Mulder? Mulder, are you all right? Mulder, wake up!”

Sounds slowly made their way through the darkness – hollow, indistinguishable to begin with but eventually sharpening into something he could place as his head groggily turned to the side. What was happening? The searing pain in his calf and certain other places of his body he would give anything to save reminded him of what had happened and that he must be in hospital. Except…there was no familiar smell of disinfectant, no clinical sounds or groanings of people passing back and forth in the corridor, or–

“Mulder, if you don’t open your eyes this very minute I’m calling for an ambulance!”

Scully? That was Scully’s voice! But she was– Wait… Did she say ‘ambulance’?

Mulder’s hand shot out and grabbed at the closest appendage, which turned out to be Scully’s warm, bare wrist. He must have been out of it for ages if she was back to good health! She was so going to kick his ass for this one… He slowly blinked open his eyes, preparing for the glare of cold fluorescent lights he knew would blind him.

There was no blindness, though. No fight to focus as the familiar ceiling of their living room came into view above him. No need to long for the heat that had been deprived from him for the past three days. No–

Living room ceiling? Why was he on the floor of their living room and not in a somewhat lumpy, slightly raised bed at Northeast Georgetown?

“Scully?” he choked out, lifting a hand to eye-level so that he could examine it. “Scully, what’s going on?”

“That’s what I want to know, Mulder.” Dana sounded pissed and worried at the same time. Knowing how long she could hold a grudge, ditching her at the cave really hadn’t been the smartest move he’d ever made “I came home from the office early and found you sprawled on the floor with the ladder knocked over, half the bulbs from the tree smashed on the floor and… Well, you were clutching…your pants,” she concluded, pointing to his midsection.

“What about Donner? And Deputy Director Wallace?”

“Who?” Scully asked, confused.

“Donner! Sheriff Donner – the cannibal. Scully, surely you remember–” His voice trailed off as realization dawned that she really had no idea at all of what he was talking about. “Scully, what day is it?”

She raised an eyebrow, wondering if it was time to examine his scalp again for any extra bumps that may have come up in the last five minutes, but then dutifully checked her watch. If there was one thing she‘d learnt from experience, it was that Fox Mulder would not settle until his confused mind had been appeased, and right now she needed him as lucid as possible so that he could lift himself up off of the floor (it was times like this when she really wished she

wasn‘t almost a foot shorter than him). “December 23rd,” she intoned, rising to her feet, “and it’s time for me to call that ambulance,” Scully slipped out of his grasp as she took a step away, but his hand outstretched to grab her ankle, and as he regained contact with her soft, heated, unharmed flesh the sudden movement almost brought her toppling down on top of him. “Wait. No ambulance. I’m fine.”

“You aren’t fine. You’re talking about cannibals and sheriffs and deputy directors I’ve never heard of, and you have a knot on your head the size of a melon!” she argued, inspecting the back of his head from her vantage point above him. When his head shook in dismissal, she dropped back to the floor and grabbed his shoulders.

“Mulder, track my finger.” A detached, authoritative and clinical order was the only thing she knew would bring him back into focus if he really was as okay as he insisted, and he dutifully obeyed, watching as her left finger slowly waved back and forth in front of his eyes.

“Scully, I’m fine,” he groaned, hoping her standard failsafe would be as acceptable as she expected it to be when she delivered it to him.

“I guess it was just…just a bad dream. It was so real, though! I could literally feel the ice hanging from my nostrils! It was so detailed I even saw things from everybody else’s point of view, like I was watching it on television! Honestly, Scully, I thought I was a goner! What‘s worse, I was shit-scared *you* were done-for.” His head lowered and he shuddered, the memory of the cold and fear

shaking his frame to the very core. When he felt her gentle touch on his cheek, he lifted his head again and stared into her blue, concerned eyes. “Really, I’m fine.“ He started to get up from the littered floor, hoping a vertical stance would reassure her, but the ache in his groin tightened and both hands quickly clutched at the area right over his pants’ zipper. “Okay, maybe not *that* fine,” he

admitted, barely managing to gasp it out. “But no ambulance, and definitely no hospital!”

Forty-five minutes later Mulder was resting in their bed with an icepack on his lap and ibuprofen happily flowing through his bloodstream. Scully came up the stairs with two cups of mulled cider and settled in next to him.

“Sorry you had to clean up the mess,” he lamented, taking one of the cups and sipping the cider.

“Well, it wasn’t as bad as I initially feared. Only two casualties in ‘The Great Christmas Ornament Disaster of 2006’ — not including you. You’re lucky you don’t have glass embedded in your ass as well, just to add insult to injury.“

“…Like what I did do isn’t insult enough…“

She couldn‘t hide the slight chuckle that burst out at that. “You were doing a great job, right until, I guess, you tried to tie the ornaments to the ceiling fan. What were you thinking, Mulder?”

“That it was a cool place to hang the mistletoe?” he replied with an innocent look.

“Well, judging from the swelling, we won’t be playing ‘find the mistletoe’ for a couple of days,” she reminded him.

Mulder winced, shifted uncomfortably and decided it was time to change the subject to something a lot less painful and embarrassing as soon as possible if he was to retain any dignity. “I heard the phone ring while you were clearing up my sorry mess…Was it your mom?”

“No, it was Skinner. He was calling to ask if we might be interested in a case. I told him you’d had an accident and would be laid up till after Christmas. He said he’d find another set of agents and see us in the New Year.”

“Did he say what the case was about?” Mulder asked, slightly uneasy.

“Not really. Something happened in a place called Wyntack, Colorado.”Scully shrugged her shoulders and settled back against the headboard, not noticing how pale her partner’s face had suddenly become.

“Anyway, it’s not our bother, so let’s just forget about it. Now, are you going to tell me about this dream you had — the one that played out just like a television drama complete with credits at the end?”

“Yeah, sure, Scully. But first, uhhh, I have to make a quick call to Skinner. He’s gonna want to send more than two agents on that case. I’m sure of it.”

THE END

….Really, it is this time J

Judderman

Judderman

clip_image001

Glacier National Park

Montana

December 21, 1976

He was suspicious when they invited him. His roommate had been less than inclusive in the four months he’d been on campus. Not one ‘hey, come grab a beer with us’ or a ‘hey, wanna split a pizza at the Union’ in all that time. But for no apparent reason, he’d been included in the ‘Winter Break’ trip to Montana. He’d been suspicious, but the lonely part of him, the part that missed the companionship he’d enjoyed in high school had won out and he’d readily agreed.

It appeared that all was in order. The car ride from Southern Illinois to Montana had taken days, especially when they hit snow in Nebraska. But a warm front had melted the snow to slush and they’d managed to get to the National Park just before another big snowfall closed the passes in the mountains for the winter.

“So what if we get snowed in,” his roommate had laughed. “It’s not like we have anything to hurry back to anyway!” That much was certainly true — spring semester wouldn’t be starting until the middle of January. The four young men had all the time in the world.

He thought briefly of the call he’d made to his mother. How she’d tearfully encouraged him to have fun — not to worry about missing Christmas at home with her. He was a grown up now, he shouldn’t have to abide by the family traditions every year. Besides, she’d said, there would be other Christmases. He should enjoy himself while he was young. He knew a part of her largesse was because his father had died before reaching 50 and there had been many things the man had never found time for in his life. “Bring me back a pine cone,” his mother had told him. Since his father’s funeral, she couldn’t find it in herself to ever say ‘goodbye’.

“Hey, we’re gonna camp out tonight,” his roommate had said in the afternoon. He had just settled in with a good book and was reluctant to venture out into the bitter cold of the north woods.

“Camping, in this weather?” he’d replied, incredulous.

“Yea! It’s great! You build a big fire and you stay warm enough. Besides, we have other stuff to keep us warm.” The young man produced a pint bottle of peppermint schnapps from his coat pocket. “They drink this stuff in Sweden, or Norway or one of those places. Warms you right up!”

“I thought I heard it was bad to drink alcohol when you were cold,” he said thoughtfully.

His roommate rolled his eyes to the ceiling and shrugged. “Fine, you gonna be a pussy. Stay here and make sure to check the bed for bedbugs.”

As his roommate went about gathering the camping supplies, he licked his lips. What was the harm? As long as they kept a fire going — it was a National Park after all. They were safe — right?

“Let me get my gear,” he said finally, putting the book aside.

They hiked for about two hours through the knee-deep snow. The woods were beautiful — sparkling in the twilight of the winter sunset. Pinks and blues, grays and purples mingled with the brooding dark trunks of the leafless trees and the ever-present deep green firs. He marveled at the silence of the snowy woods.

Setting up camp went easily and they feasted on canned beans and a package of hot dogs. As the fire roared, the small flasks of schnapps were distributed, one per man and they settled back against their packs and swapped stories of other camping trips and college life in general.

He truly felt included for the first time since he’d come to the college. They joked with him, teased him and allowed him to tease them back. One of them had stowed two six-packs of beer in his rucksack and they distributed those as the schnapps ran low.

“I gotta take a leak,” he announced, somewhat slurring his words.

“Watch out for the Judderman,” his roommate said with a crooked and drunken grin.

“Judderman? Who the hell is Judderman?” he asked, trying to get his eyes to uncross so that he saw only one of his roommate and not two.

“He lives in the winter woods. Mean old asshole. Watch out. If he gets you — you never come back.”

“Yeah, sure,” he waved off his friend and staggered to his feet. “Save me one of those beers.”

He wandered down the same path they’d forged upon arrival. Spying a tall and sturdy tree, he wobbled off the path as he unzipped his jeans to take care of business. Closing his eyes in bliss, he soon zipped up to avoid the nip of the north wind. As he turned to head back to the campsite he saw something glittering just off to his left, away from the warmth of the fire. It looked like a person, standing beneath a low-limb tree. The figure appeared to be calling to him.

“You lost?” he called. No answer came to him but the figure waved to him, beckoning him over. “I gotta get back before they drink all the beer,” he said with a laugh, sure that it was his less than sober mind playing tricks on him.

The figure had something in its hand, gently waving it to and fro. It looked like a bottle. Thirst, and the desire to be shit-faced drunk, got the better of him and he wandered over to where the figure stood.

Little did he know as he followed the retreating figure that he would never see another Christmas with his mother.

Glacier National Park

Montana

December 20, 2006

“So you can see where it’s causing quite a stir among the locals,” Park Ranger Will Mason said with a frown. “I mean four young men found froze to death — we don’t recommend camping in the winter because of the snow and the possibility of getting lost but these kids hadn’t traveled more than a quarter of a mile from their campsite and there were no signs of animal attack.”

Scully stared down at the photos of the young men. They were frozen, it was obvious. What was unsettling was the look of abject terror on each face and the defensive posture of their hands. They were cowering — but from what? “Well, I appreciate the local medical examiner waiting for us to get out here so I can perform the autopsies, Ranger Mason.”

“Are you kidding? When Doc Barnard took one look at those boys — well it didn’t take any convincing to have him wait for someone with more experience with these kinds of cases,” Mason huffed.

“Ranger, this sounds like a missing persons case. What prompted you to call the FBI in the first place?” Scully asked, trying to warm her hands by blowing on them and holding them to the ceramic heater near the Ranger’s desk.

The Ranger looked sheepish. “This would appear to be a simple case of a camping trip gone bad, if it weren’t for what happened 30 years ago.” He went to a file cabinet and dug through it until he came up with an aged manila folder. “30 years ago a few kids from some college in Illinois came out here over Christmas break. They decided to go camping,” he said, rolling his eyes. “When they were found two days later — near dead of hypothermia, there were only three of the four. The other three told this story of a guy out in the woods that lured them away from their campsite. Said they’d been held captive and tortured, said their friend had been skinned alive before their very eyes. There was a big manhunt, the whole park was searched but no one ever found any sign of the kidnapper nor the missing boy.”

Scully had been reading through the file and looked up. “Ranger, it says here that quite a few beer bottles and other alcohol was littering the campsite back in ’76. Isn’t is possible the kids were just drunk and dreamt it all?”

“The head ranger back then thought of that, Agent Scully. But they found the missing boy’s coat and scarf — frozen stiff as a board — tied around an oak tree trunk. And when I saw the looks on those boys faces we just found — well, that story came back to me.”

Mulder took the photos and the file from Scully’s hands. “How did you come to call us specifically, Ranger — if you don’t mind my asking?”

Mason beamed. “Mel Bocks outta Minneapolis comes up this way about once a year — does a little fishing. I called him as soon as I saw the bodies and he gave me your number in DC. I guess we’re too ‘under populated’ to merit our own Regional Office here in Big Sky Country,” he ended on a sour note.

“Well, we appreciate the call. Um, on the phone you said something about cabins?”

“Yeah. A couple of them are rented out over Christmas this year, since it falls on Monday but nobody will be showing up till Saturday morning. This being Thursday — you got your pick. Won’t even charge you for it, since the same guy signs all our checks.”

“Isn’t there one not far from where the victims were camping?” Mulder asked.

“Sure thing. It’s right at the edge of the trail to the primitive campsite. Here’s the key,” he said, reaching into a shallow cabinet on the wall next to his desk. “The parking lot is a bit of a hike, though.”

“We’ll be fine,” Mulder assured him.

“Just let me know if you need anything. Oh, and here.” He went over to a closet and pulled out a set of walkie talkies. “Cell phones are useless up here. We tried to get a cell tower — but apparently you have to be big enough for a regional office of the FBI,” he said with a smirk, which he quickly covered. “Just keep it set to 8 on the dial. I have mine with me at all times. If you have any problems or just need to get hold of me, just holler.”

Cabin number 8

The next morning

“Yes, Dr. Rossen, I think that’s the best we can hope for,” Scully said into the phone as she watched Mulder busy doing — something.

“Yes, I would really appreciate it. And I’ll let you know if the Bureau labs turn up anything in the toxicological. But for now, I would say hypothermia should be the official cause of death.” She sat down on the sofa, only to have Mulder wave her off something she’d been sitting on. “You have a good Christmas, too, Doctor. Good bye.” She hung up the phone and stared at her partner. Slowly it dawned on her why he was scurrying about.

“You aren’t serious.” Scully stood with her fists on her hips watching her partner stuff granola bars and fire starters into his knapsack.

“Scully, how else do you propose we look for the cause of these murders?” he asked, not bothering to stop in his efforts to pack.

“I understand going out there. I even understand taking some provisions just in case. But I object — strenuously — to staying out there tonight! The weather report has a 30 percent chance of snow and the temperatures are expected to drop as soon as the front moves through. Drop from today’s high of 25 degrees, I might add.”

“Hence the need for the thermal blankets,” Mulder said, waving a silver color blanket at her with a dopey grin. “We have sleeping bags that are thermal lined and good to minus 20, plus we can build a fire — ”

“It’s illegal to use found wood in a National Park,” she interjected.

“Not if you have prior approval from the Ranger — and if you promise not to use more than you absolutely need,” he replied. “Scully, I really think whoever — or whatever — killed those kids is still out there.”

She frowned and then shook her head. “Mulder, I have a news flash for you. I’ve heard that very tale the Ranger spun for us today about the kid in ’76. I’ve even seen depictions of the ‘figure’ that lured the kid to his death. It was a very popular commercial for a brand of schnapps a few years back and it’s all over the internet! It’s _not_ real!”

“They depict St. Patrick’s day on Guinness commercials. Are you going to stand there and deny the existence of St. Patrick?”

“Mul-der,” she whined. “You know that comparison is absolutely preposterous! Almost as insane as going out in the middle of the forest in the dead of winter. I know you think those boys were murdered and I would like to find out what caused them to be frozen in such a state of panic, but that’s no reason for _us_ to die of hypothermia!”

“Scully, we’re fully equipped — sleeping bags, first aid kit, food, _walkie-talkies_,” he counted off on his fingers. “It’s the winter solstice. Haven’t you ever wanted to get back to your Druid roots and go build a big bonfire to ward off the darkness that comes in mid-winter?”

“My ‘Druid roots’ as you call them are far more content to sit by a roaring Yule log in the fireplace of a cozy and fully furnished townhouse in Georgetown, sipping my Great Aunt Bridget’s special Christmas wassail and trying to puzzle out the oddly shaped Christmas Present addressed to me under our Christmas tree. And I don’t think I have to mention how every other ‘trip to the forest’ has ended for us.”

“Oh ye of little faith,” he quipped.

“I have boundless faith, Mulder — and thanks to my Celtic heritage, a very long memory.” She donned all her winter outerwear and grabbed one of the walkie-talkies before heading for the door.

“So you’re going?” he asked, shouldering the pack.

“Oh, I’m going. But first I’m radioing the Ranger to have a medi-evac on stand-by — just in case,” she said with a sweet smile and held the door open for him.

The forest was beyond beautiful — it was breathtaking. A heavy rain had turned to ice before the last snowfall and every tree appeared to be of cut glass. The tiny branches tinkled as they walked beneath. The snow was only past Scully’s ankles, but it still made for some exercise. The trail was clearly marked and easy to follow by placards placed at eye level on the downwind side of large trees. They made good time, considering the amount of effort it required.

“I see the crime scene tape,” Mulder said, the words coming out as puffs of white in the frozen air. In just moments there were at the abandoned campsite.

Mulder dropped his pack in one of the two tents. Scully dug through her daypack and produced a camera. “I don’t know what we’ll find out here, Mulder — it’s been a day since the boys were found. Animals have probably been feasting — ”

“I found footsteps, Scully,” Mulder called out from the far side of the campsite. “They lead out that way.” He pointed a gloved hand toward a denser section of trees and scrub.

“I would suspect that is the way to the latrine,” she replied with a half-smile. “You are more than welcome to inspect that, if you want.”

He feigned a silent laugh and began to follow the footsteps. He did find the latrine, or what the boys had decided was ‘a really good tree with a windbreak’, but upon closer inspection, he found footprints leading beyond said tree.

Scully was busy cataloging the equipment and personal items left at the campsite. Although some smaller animal tracks could be seen, it appeared that larger animals had left the site alone. That thought intrigued her, since it was winter and though bears hibernated, deer and elk did not. She was concentrating so hard she startled when Mulder broke through the brush.

“Come with me. I want to show you something,” he panted excitedly.

Several yards beyond the ‘latrine’, Mulder pointed to the ground. “Look, Scully. Here are the tracks leading from, well, the tree. But look there,” he directed her line of sight to the snowy ground.

“Another set of tracks,” she said, stepping forward and crouching to examine them. “This person isn’t wearing boots. The bottoms appear — could they be wearing moccasins?”

“They’re obviously some kind of leggings,” Mulder agreed. “No heel, no discernable tread, but the impression in the snow is clear. This print was made by a fairly large individual.” He stood and walked a few paces. “And look, Scully — they meet here and then they walk off in that direction.” He pointed in a direction away from the camp.

“What’s in that direction?” she asked, standing and dusting the snow off her gloves.

“Let’s go find out,” he grinned at her.

“OK, but it’s getting late. We’ll check this out and then we have to start finding wood and make to fire, or we’re going to freeze to death out here tonight and I have no intentions of doing that.”

They followed the tracks, Mulder leading the way, to a group of pine trees. The tracks simply disappeared. Mulder searched the area and glanced back at Scully in confusion.

“Where did they go?” he asked, still scanning the area.

She bit her lip and slowly raised her eyes to the gray clouds above them.

“Very funny,” he growled, not the least bit amused. “I’m serious, Scully. There should be more tracks. These don’t even lead close enough to a tree to say they climbed up one of them.”

“What can I tell you, Mulder? Maybe the wind blew snow into the rest of the tracks. Whatever happened, we’re losing daylight,” she said pointing to where the sun had dropped below the horizon and any light was now just glowing clouds in the distance. “Let’s get back and you can build me a fire. We can investigate my Druid roots by zipping the sleeping bags together.”

His confused frown morphed into a lecherous grin. “Scully, are you telling me I just got lucky and it ‘snowed’ sleeping bags?”

“Last one there has to sleep next to the zipper,” she teased and spun on her heel to race him back to the campsite.

Three hours later, after dinner and some ‘tent exercises’, they lay snuggled together in the double sleeping bag. Scully let out a big yawn and shook her head. “I can’t believe how sleepy I am. And it’s only a little after 7.”

“Why do you think bears hibernate, Scully? There isn’t much left to do in winter after you eat and wrestle around in a sleeping bag for an hour or so,” he said with a sated sigh. “You realize this is the December solstice. The shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. And because of our latitude, we’d have to be in Alaska to have a shorter day than today. The sun rose well after 8 am and it set at almost 4:30. That’s just barely seven hours of sunlight. Makes for a long night,” he said, tickling her ear.

“I guess I can see why primitive humans felt such a need to bring any form of light into their world. Bonfires, Yule logs — ”

“Christmas trees,” Mulder chimed in. “It’s not just primitive humans, Scully. Look at what modern humans did to the Nevada desert — Las Vegas, the city that never sleeps.” He shifted to his back, pulling her head up to rest on his shoulder. “But it was more than just bonfires. Primitive man, at least as late as the period of the Druids throughout Europe, believe that the shortest day of the year allowed the spirits to roam free. They built bonfires to ward off the evil spirits and light the way for the good spirits to find them in the darkness.”

“The Holy Family finding their way to Bethlehem,” Scully murmured.

“Christianity can’t be accused of being overly original, Scully,” he said with a smile. “But I guess it only made sense that if people were already celebrating, why piss them off by telling them not to. Much better to coop their festivals, give new meanings to old traditions.”

“I prefer to think that we ‘adopted’ some of the old traditions in with the new meanings,” Scully said with a tired smile. “But that still doesn’t explain why I’m so sleepy.”

“Too sleepy to maybe test out that sleeping bag theory again? Best practice to conserve heat and all?” Mulder asked hopefully.

“Well, I don’t know if I’m _that_ sleepy,” she said coyly.

11:38 pm

The gray clouds had moved south without a single snowflake falling, revealing a sky of sparkling cut diamonds, with a new moon allowing all the stars to take over the stage of velvet black. Mulder stared out through the tent’s fly netting and watched the stars dance for several minutes before he tenderly kissed the top of his partner’s head and untangled himself from her embrace. She whimpered and he kissed her again. “Too much hot coffee building that fire,” he whispered in her ear and she smiled, drifting back to sleep.

It took a few minutes to pull on his pants, his thermal shirt and his boots in the tiny two-person tent, but he finally felt confident that his short trip out in the elements wouldn’t result in hypothermia. He grabbed one of the flashlights and quietly unzipped the tent flap, stepped out in the darkness and then turned to zip the flap closed to try and maintain some of the heat.

The air was bitter cold and crisp, biting at the lining of his nose and making him fight against a sneeze. He blinked several times in the twilight. Even without the moon’s illumination the snow brightened the otherwise dark night. He chose the path they’d found that afternoon and headed off to attend to pressing business.

The latrine/tree was easy to pick out and Mulder soon found relief. He was hurrying back to the tent when he saw it — a light in the darkness in the direction away from their camp. Then, on the wind, a sound came to him — a faint tinkling sound, distinguished from the ice on the tree branches. This sounded almost like laughter. He spun in the direction of the sound and saw the light again.

Mulder’s curiosity was one of his greatest assets, but as Scully reminded him time and again, it was also his greatest folly. She would have been proud of the way he actually hesitated before he plunged into the darkness, moving farther and farther away from their tent and the slowly dying embers of their fire. But his hesitation was soon lost in the wind as he heard the sound again and determined it was, indeed, laughter. Human laughter.

As he walked cautiously toward the sound he noticed that he didn’t feel the cold as much as he had before. A brief thought came to him, that he was moving and generating more heat. But he wasn’t running and the path was windblown and clear of snow and debris, so he really wasn’t exerting himself either. That thought was gone the moment he saw the cave.

How had they missed it before? It was right there, in the copse of trees they had looked at in the wan light of day. He walked slower now, the light in the cave was bright and it was hard to see into the interior. It was where the killer was, he was sure of it. Mulder reached instinctively for his weapon, cursing silently when he realized it was in the tent, next to his sleeping partner. With a heavy sigh, he started to turn around to go back to the camp to wake Scully and get his gun but something grabbed his arm.

The feeling of cold steel slicing the flesh on his upper arm caused him to spin around. It wasn’t steel, but the icy, inches-long fingernails of a man. He was tall, he towered over Mulder, easily reaching seven feet. His clothing appeared to be a gown or robe in glimmering shades of gray and white and iridescent silver. On his head was a crown that was made of ice.

“I’m dreaming,” Mulder assured himself, speaking out loud.

“Don’t be so sure of yourself,” the man replied with a smirk. “Come, join the party.”

“I don’t want to join the party,” Mulder said firmly. “I want to arrest you for the murder of four young men just two days ago.”

The man laughed loud and it sounded like a gunshot or the crack of thunder close to the ground. The laughter hurt Mulder’s ears. “I didn’t kill anyone! They died of exposure. I bring only pleasure. It’s not my fault if pain is the price to be paid later.”

“They were kids, they didn’t know what price you would exact,” Mulder sneered.

“Yes, but you seem to know and it isn’t bothering you. Come, it’s only for a night.” The man grabbed Mulder’s hand and tugged and suddenly it was impossible to resist. Mulder stumbled, but followed blindly. Each step he took he felt warmer, lighter. As they approached the cave, he could see the fire. It wasn’t actual flames, just a glow that came from the ground. He was reminded of the two times he’d witnessed a nuclear reactor up close. The heat from the glow warmed him all the way to his toes and he grew sleepy.

“Come, drink, join the party,” the man chuckled and pressed a cold glass in Mulder’s hands. Without thought, the agent brought the glass to his lips and drank deeply.

12:20 am

Scully startled awake from a dream she couldn’t remember. Sitting up, she saw that Mulder hadn’t come back from his trip to the latrine. She grabbed for her watch, safely resting in a pocket along one of the seams of the tent. It didn’t do her any good — she didn’t know when he’d left. She was certain he should have returned already. Pulling on her clothes and hiking boots, she gathered her weapon and Mulder’s and started out of the tent. It was then she noticed the Mulder hadn’t taken his coat or hat and gloves. She quickly stuffed them in her empty knapsack and left the tent in search of her partner.

It wasn’t hard to follow his tracks. She found the tree and noticed that he had wandered further into the forest. She called out his name several times, but only the wind and the icy branches of the trees greeted her. Picking up his track again, she followed it until she came to a spot where she picked up another set of prints — ones similar to the ones she and Mulder had found earlier in the day. And that’s when both sets of prints disappeared.

Panic gripped her. “Mulder!” she screamed, but again there was no reply. She fumbled for the walkie talkie on her belt. It took a while to raise the Ranger, but finally she heard his voice come back to her.

“I’m sorry to call so late, but my partner is missing,” she explained, trying to keep the hysterics out of her voice.

“Do you still have the GPS with you?” the Ranger asked.

She dug deep in her pocket, coming up with the device the Ranger had given Mulder. “Yes, I can give you my coordinates,” she told him quickly.

“I’ll get hold of the Sheriff and we’ll get a team up there within the hour, Agent Scully. You should go back to the camp till we get there. I don’t want to lose you, too.”

Torn between continuing the search for her partner, and knowing that she was vulnerable alone in the dark, she reluctantly agreed. “Yes, Ranger. I’ll be at the campsite. But please, hurry.”

She was walking back to the campsite when something brushed past her. She turned and startled to find a man standing next to her path. He was tall and lithe and was dressed in green robes. A string of red berries encircled his head. He tilted his head in a silent salute.

Scully started to grab for her weapon, but the man smiled and shook his head. “I mean you no harm,” he assured her. “I’ve come to be of assistance.”

“Do you live around here?” she asked guardedly. His robes, or whatever they were, appeared to shimmer in the darkness. His eyes were as black as the night.

“You could say that,” he replied easily and smiled at her, showing perfectly form dazzling white teeth. “I know where your friend is being held.”

“He’s been captured?” she asked frantically. “Who? Who did this? Is it the same one who killed those boys?”

The man before her looked off with a sorrowful expression. “I’m afraid I wasn’t strong enough to protect them. But tonight, well, tonight that’s not a problem. Come, we must hurry.”

They went back to where she’s lost the footprints in the snow. “But I can’t see where they went,” she said and as the words left her mouth her companion pointed in the distance. Suddenly, she could see a brightly lit cave some 100 yards ahead. “Oh my God,” she gasped.

“Shhh,” he quieted her. “I would prefer our entrance to be a surprise,” he said with a slight grin. “If you don’t mind, could you follow behind me?”

She licked her lips in thought, but finally nodded in agreement. She walked behind the tall green-robed stranger toward the cave where she knew Mulder was being held.

As they approached the cave the wind picked up and grew to a steady gale. Scully had to duck behind the man to keep on her feet. Her friend spread his arms, creating a bit of windbreak for her, but continued to move forward.

The two were within a few yards of the mouth of the cave when the very ice in the trees started to hail down upon them. Again, the man used his robe to protect Scully for the brunt of the onslaught. As they got within feet of the cave, the man called out.

“You can’t win tonight and you know it. Release him!”

Scully peeked around the man’s robes and saw another figure, equally tall but solidly built and dressed all in silver and gray. “He’s not of your concern. You have someone to play with. Let me have my fun.” The sound of the other man’s voice froze the blood in Scully’s veins. She tried to find Mulder in the cave, but the light was too bright.

“Mulder!” she called, but the moment she stepped behind the robes, the other gray man reached out to grab her. Her friend in green pulled her back behind him.

“You really don’t want it to come to this, brother,” the man in green intoned. “Release him. You’ve had your fun for one year.”

The laughter that echoes in the dark forest shook the very trees to their roots. “Ah, but ‘brother’, they have seen us. We can’t let them live now!”

“On the contrary. The children of Man no longer worship the woods. They don’t believe,” said Scully’s companion. “You have to let them go.” For the first time since their meeting, Scully detected a note of menace in the man’s voice. “Now, brother.”

The gray man narrowed his eyes. “They might not worship us, they might not believe — but I’m afraid he’s already drank of the cup. He’s mine — to do with as I please.” He stepped aside and revealed Mulder, standing along the wall, encased completely in ice.

“Mulder!” Scully screamed and ran to her partner. “Oh, god, Mulder! Mulder, can you hear me?” She pressed her ear to the ice above his heart and when she couldn’t determine a sound, she turned to her companion. “He’s dead,” she moaned, falling to her knees and throwing her arms around his frozen legs.

“No!” objected the green man. He shoved the gray man aside and stepped closer to Mulder. Touching the agent’s head, he closed his eyes. “He’s not dead. But you must find it in your heart to believe that you can cure him.”

“How?” Scully wailed, unable to even raise her eyes.

“Do you love him?” asked her friend.

“Yes, more than life itself,” she said unashamed.

“Then hold him,” he directed.

Scully swallowed, and slowly stood. Just wrapping her arms around his legs had leached all the warmth from her body. “Mulder, I should have brought the sleeping bags,” she quipped as she placed her arms around his concrete solid shoulders and hugged for all she was worth.

It was like standing in a glacier-fed waterfall, the cold was so intense it hurt. Her eyes watered and her mouth went dry. Her arms ached for release, but still she hung on. She moved closer so that every part of her touched some part of him. “Mulder, you saved me from a frozen death once. Let me do the same for you,” she pleaded.

When she awoke, there was a flashlight shining in her eyes. “Agent Scully? It’s me, Ranger Mason. You have to let go of your partner, Agent Scully. We’ve got a couple of stretchers, we’re gonna get the two of you to the hospital as quick as we can.”

“Mulder?” she croaked and looked down to see her partner, his cheeks wind chapped and red, his lips held a bluish tint, but alive and breathing in her arms.

“He’ll need to be in a warmer for a while, but I think we found you in time,” Ranger Mason assured her as he helped her to her feet and then onto one of the stretchers. Mulder was quickly placed on the other stretched and encased in thermal blankets.

“The men, where are the men?” Scully asked, searching faces of the crew with Ranger Mason.

“Men? Just my men, Agent Scully. Was there someone else out here?”

“Yes, there were two men, both very tall. One was wearing all green and the other all gray. The gray one, he’s the murderer. He captured those boys, he was going to kill Mulder but the green man stopped him.”

“She’s delirious, Will. We need to get them both to the hospital,” said one of the men hoisting her stretcher.

“We’ll talk about all this when you’ve had a chance to warm up, Agent Scully,” Mason said as if speaking to a child.

“No, I’m all right. I saw them, I saw them both. And the cave, there was a light . . .”

St. Patrick’s Hospital,

Missoula, MT

December 23, 2006

11:15 am

“He wore a green robe and there were red berries as a crown around his head,” Scully said emphatically. “And he wasn’t a bush or a tree!”

“Scully,” Mulder said casually, lying all so seductively in the bed next to her. “I’m telling you, that was the Holly King. According to the Druids, the Holly King ruled the December Solstice and the Oak King ruled the June Solstice. So it only stands to reason that the man who helped you save me was the Holly King.”

“Oh, and I suppose the gray guy was the Oak King,” she snorted.

“Well, would you rather call him the ‘Judderman’?” Mulder shot back.

“Regardless, Mulder, you almost died out there. What were you thinking, wandering off in the forest in the dead of night?” she asked, crossing her arms. Since they’d awoken, warm and safe, she’d avoided bringing up the subject for fear she would tear him a new orifice before their departure home. Of course, that was before he found out about her experiences and decided to tease her about her story.

“A little frostbite, Scully. I’ll be fine in a day or two. But you wandered out after me,” he pointed out.

“After calling for back up,” she retorted.

A knock on the door signaled the end of round one. “Come in,” Scully called.

Ranger Will Mason stood in the doorway, his hat in his hands. “Just came by to wish you folks a Merry Christmas and a safe trip home,” he said shyly.

“Ranger, please, come in,” Mulder greeted. “So what did the State Police find up there?”

“Well, Agent Mulder, it’s quite a puzzle. They found your tent and the sleeping bags, they found your supplies but we searched nearly a square mile of the area and never did turn up a cave. We even had dogs and sonograms out to see if we could find a hollow place that might be hidden by trees or rocks. We got nothing.”

Mulder hid his disappointment well. “That’s fine, Ranger. Thanks for making the effort.”

“Well, you two have a nice trip back. Come back next summer, it’s real pretty up here.”

“Thank you, Ranger. We’ll just have to do that,” Scully said amiably, to cover for her partner’s crestfallen expression.

The nurse came in just as Mason was leaving, bringing their release papers. “Mom said she’d pick us up at BWI and we’re grounded — at her house — until after Christmas. I think if we’re good, she might let us run over to the duplex and grab the packages under the tree.”

“I think I’m too sore to be anything but behaved,” Mulder admitted. “Guard the door, I’m changing out of this handkerchief of a gown.”

December 24, 2006

A day later, snuggled up by Maggie’s fireplace with a cup of Aunt Bridget’s recipe wassail, Mulder sighed and kissed the top of his partner’s head.

“Penny for your thoughts,” she mumbled into his chest.

“I was just thinking about the legends — the Holly King and the Oak King. The whole idea that the solstice is a turning point where one’s strength can wax or wan.”

“Heavy thoughts,” she sighed and snuggled in, hugging him tighter. “You know, Mulder, I still have to go along with Ranger Mason’s theory.”

“That was both got so cold that we fell asleep due to hypothermia and we dreamed the Judderman and the Holly King? C’mon, Scully, you aren’t gonna pull out the old ‘we dreamed the whole thing’ excuse again, are you?”

“Mulder, all I know is I woke up and we were back at the campsite with the Ranger and a squad of EMTs around us. You want to explain that one to me?”

“I just assumed it was part of the magic,” he said, sipping his wassail and stroking her hair.

“Well, magic, dream, who’s to say what was real and what was fantasy. All I know is,” she said rearing back to look at his face, “the next time, we stay in the cabin.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said with a wink. Tilting his head down, he kissed her lightly on the lips. “Happy Winter Solstice, Scully.”

“Merry Christmas, Mulder,” she replied and kissed him back.

The End.

An X-mas Carol

x-mas carol

An X-Mas Carol

AUTHOR: Elf X
CATEGORY: Holiday casefile
RATING: PG-13 for language, mild sexual content.
DISCLAIMER: With apologies to Chris Carter, Theodor Seuss Geisel, and David Shore,
for consulting Dr. House without an appointment
SUMMARY: A weeping Santa, an amnesiac agent, and a mysterious Man in Black give
Mulder and Scully an unusual Christmas mystery to unwrap.

clip_image002

Please suck down your wassail;

Repose for a while.

Let me share on this eve

A Christmas X-File.

It concerns a young lady

With a perpetual smile.

She made up in spirit

What she lacked in guile.

Leyla’s rose-colored view

Was deemed quite perturbing;

For an FBI agent,

It was awfully disturbing.

But her heart was alight

and her caseload was low.

So one Saturday morn,

to the mall she did go.

It was Christmas, you know;

Leyla had but one worry.

She was a gal on a mission:

Nurture Me Norm was her quarry.

Aunt Leyla thought gifts

Should be educational,

And this frabulous doll

Taught tykes to be more relational.

“I need affirmation!”

Norm loudly proclaimed

When his surrogate mommy

Pursed her lips and complained.

“Hug me tighter, but please

Not so tight it will bruise me,”

Norm implored — his warm eyes shrieked,

“Good shopper, please choose me!”

But Leyla had come

To the brink of despair;

For this marvelicious googog

Could be found nowhere.

She investigated Dillard’s

Prowled Toys R Us,

Ventured bravely to Wal-Mart,

Oh my, what a fuss!

She hopped onto Ebay

And hopped off again,

She e-mailed Norm’s maker

But he couldn’t say when.

Leyla was nearly nigh ready

To tear her blonde hair,

When her cell phone vibrated

And to the mall she repaired.

It seemed a good chum

At D. Suess’ outlet store

Had held back a Norm,

Just one and no more.

Leyla grabbed her warm poncho,

Fired up her red Focus

And sped down the beltway

To her retail friend’s locus.

D. Suess was packed

With frenzied folks and their brats.

Grabbing intuitive robots

And wry talking cats.

Old St. Nick held court

On a plush velvet throne, or

Maybe from his bloodshot eyes,

He was a Santa Claus loaner.

After squeals of delight

And perhaps too much hugging,

Leyla emerged from the stockroom.

Nurture Me Norm she was lugging.

She squeezed the grinning critter

To her comely young chest,

And made for the exit

Though the crowd did congest.

Leyla came within inches

Of escape with her doll,

Yhen stopped dead, and oh, my,

Her jaw did then loll.

She blinked her bright eyes.

It seemed beyond her belief.

She looked once again,

But found no relief.

Leyla dug in her purse

And dug out a clipping,

She took care to be careful;

It wouldn’t do, slipping.

And when she was absolutely,

Frabjolutely sure,

Leyla pushed through the patrons,

No caution for her.

Then she felt on her neck

No more than a splat

Her eyes started blurring,

On her ass she fell flat.

Her lungs began burning,

Her throat slammed shut.

Shoppers stared at her fishlike,

As if she were a nut.

Then a patron named Alex

(A nurse aide by day)

Yelled, “Call 911, you yutzes;

And get out of my way!”

Alex tended to Leyla,

Told the EMT crew

“Try a quick dose of epi

Or this woman is through.”

They stabilized Leyla,

And off they did speed

In an ambulance swift

As its sirens shrill screed.

And as Leyla gasped

For each breath she could snatch,

She grabbed the EMT’s clipboard

And on it she scratched.

Her eyes rolled over

That was that; it was it,

The EMT glanced at her note

And said, “Hey, what is this shit?”

Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital

Plainsboro, N.J.

In the land of New Jersey,

There dwelt a smart doc;

In being the smartest,

This doc had a lock.

He had just one foible,

This right scholarly doc.

His thrill beyond healing,

Was his colleagues to shock.

He shocked without blushing,

He shocked round the clock,

And when tired of shocking,

His patients he’d mock.

He mocked with abandon,

With moxie he’d mock,

He mocked with abandon,

With moxie he’d mock,

No one could be spared

When House came to knock.

Because of his manner,

They gave him three elves.

Three plucky young docs,

Right brainy themselves.

Now House had a foil;

A sharp adversary,

His presence around her,

Made Dana wary.

She might have side-stepped him,

If not for the flu.

His three elves were ailing,

This day she would rue.

“Why, Agent Scully,” House exclaimed, grinning wolfishly as he hobbled into the waiting area. Scully inhaled sharply and set her acrid hospital coffee down with a slosh. “I told you you can’t just come around and bother me at work.” The slovenly diagnostician perked. “Or are you here to return that stuff from the cavity search? I still don’t know how any of it got there.”

“Dr. House,” Scully breathed, as if she were announcing the triumphant return of the bubonic plague. “I wouldn’t think this case would challenge your sherlockian diagnostic skills.”

House blinked. His smile warmed and widened. “You know, given our kind of rocky start the last time, I wouldn’t have expected such a glowing appraisal of my abil—” The doctor stopped dead, rocking back on his cane. “Damn. I’d forgotten your rapier-like gift for sarcasm. How is Agent Mulder, anyway? If you’re visiting him, I heard the reattachment was successful, but he’ll have to wear a cup for a few months. Oh, and you might consider keeping your nails a little shorter.”

Scully held out both palms. They had consulted Dr. House several months ago on a case involving a homicidal pitbull. Scully had preferred the pitbull. “Enough.”

“Cuddy – you remember her, right? Too much eyeliner, bodacious rack? Well, since Larry, Curly, and Moe were inconsiderate enough to expose themselves to a virus, I traded five hours at the clinic for Tinkerbell down the hall. Little did I dream…”

“How is Agent Harrison?” Scully asked bluntly.

House grew somber. “I have some tragic news. She’s conscious, and she’s regained her powers of speech. Sorry. We could try removing the trachea, but beyond that…”

The remark was unnecessarily cruel, but Scully couldn’t refute its accuracy. Agent Harrison had been attached to the Bureau’s comptroller, assigned primarily to processing field travel vouchers. Her curiosity about the X-Files’ rather esoteric expenses had evolved into a full-blown fascination with all things Mulder, and Harrison could cite chapter and verse of every one of her partner’s frankly overblown exploits. Scully had been deeply relieved by Harrison’s recent transfer to the Newark field office (the result of a bit of luck in uncovering an inside ring of identity thieves), while Mulder’s reaction to his No. 1 fan’s departure had seemed somewhat more ambivalent.

In fact, Mulder had responded rapidly after a semi-coherent Harrison requested his presence in the Garden State, stopping only once for Cornnuts on the long drive north.

“Agent Harrison’s Washington physician was good enough to share her medical history with me,” Scully informed the unshaven doctor. “Nothing stood out. What do you think happened?”

“Well, Doctor Scully – and by the way, you’d be more persuasive if you put one of those stethoscope thingies around your neck – I’d normally say anaphylaxis. Sudden onset, classic presentation, immediate response to the epi. But we have three problems, Dr. Scully. One, the source of the anaphylactic shock – it’s the dead of December, the patient hadn’t had a bite or a drink in hours, and there was no sign of any insect bites. Two, there’s her nearly entire loss of short-term memory. Agent Harrison can’t remember anything about the events leading up to her ouchy. No head trauma, and her basic cognizance and long-term memory are hunky-dory.”

Scully waited. “Three?” she finally exhaled.

“No, that’s it – just like to hedge my bets. Your diagnosis, Dr. Scully?”

“Quit calling me Dr. Scully.”

“C’mon, I’m sure you’re hell with the dead folks. What’s your differential, Doc?”

The agent studied the doctor for a moment, then frowned. “Stroke? I assume you did a CAT scan?”

“Normal brain activity. Well, for her, I assume.”

“Well, could we be talking about two sets of symptoms that occurred simultaneously? Or the anaphylaxis brought on some anomalous neurological reaction.”

“It is soooo hot when you talk complete medical gibberish,” House gushed. “More likely, whatever caused the memory loss brought on the anaphylaxis. Agent Harrison had a simple, if extreme, allergic reaction. As you know, Dr. Scully, an allergy’s basically the body’s reaction to a hostile agent it’s not equipped to fight. Think Oprah and Tom Cruise. The agent was introduced into Agent Harrison’s system, probably with the innocent intent of impairing her memory. The anaphylactic shock was an unexpected cherry on the sundae.”

Scully dropped back into her chair. “You’re saying…?”

“Your buddy was roofied,” House stated. “Some kind of psychotropic drug, my guess. And this was no good-natured fraternity date-doping. No needle marks, no punctures, no pygmy dart ballistics. No sign she ingested anything foreign — she drove right to the department store from home when her friend called about this No-Neck Norm doll.”

“Nurture Me Norm,” Scully amended.

“Of course,” House gasped. “How did I miss that? It’s obvious – your friend is a mush-brained psycho-babbling progressive and a poopy gift-giver. We’ll start a green tea IV right away. As soon as we take some epidermal swabs.”

Scully perked. “You think it was administered transdermally?”

“Transdermally? Ah, doctor talk. The question is, do you think it was administered transdermally?”

“What do you mean?”

House arched his brow. “Psychotropic drugs, administered through the skin? Gee, I don’t know, sounds like, oh, maybe, Uncle Sam? ‘Cept the victim’s an FBI agent, so it must be a cousin or something. Would the CIA be a first cousin or a second cousin?”

“That’s ludicrous,” Scully murmured uncertainly.

House clasped his hands and batted his eyes. “Can I swab your buddy anyway? I assume you won’t let me.”

Scully stared at him for a moment, then pivoted and headed briskly for the elevator bank.

“Well, it wasn’t a no,” House muttered.

**

“Agent Mulder,” Leyla marveled, raising the bed to a 45 degree angle. “I can’t believe you came all the way to New Jersey. That’s so sweet. Hey, I saw where you caught The Centaur. That was incredible. I had a bet with the guys at the office that you’d be the one who’d snare–”

“Agent Harrison,” Mulder grinned patiently. “What happened?”

“You know, I was thinking about that.” Leyla’s brow furrowed. “Remember a few months ago, when you discovered that gang of memory-suckers? What if it was something like that – some sort of psychic brain-drain?”

“Well, that’s a theory. But perhaps there’s a more grounded explanation. This note you gave the EMT. ‘SANTA MODEL.’ Ring any bells, Christmas or otherwise?”

Leyla smiled apologetically. “I got in the car when Kristi called me, then I woke up here, with that funny doctor standing over me. Oh, no.”

“What?”

“Norm. Did somebody get Norm when I had my attack?”

“Norm. Who’s Norm?”

“Nurture Me Norm. The doll. For my niece. That’s what I went to the store for.”

Mulder shrugged. “I checked your effects. No Norm.”

Leyla’s face clouded. “I ran myself ragged trying to find one. Poor little Britney. Oh, Agent Mulder. You don’t think somebody stole him? It?”

“I’ll check into it,” her icon pledged. Most likely, the holiday spirit had overcome one of Leyla’s fellow shoppers after she went into respiratory arrest. He planned to check the department store security video, anyway – there was something a little off about the whole thing.

Besides, he needed all the supporters in the Bureaus he could get.

**

Mulder could no longer resist. “So how was your boyfriend?” he deadpanned as he opened the passenger door for Scully.

“How was your girlfriend?” Scully responded, nearly severing his fingers as she slammed the door.

D. Seuss Department Store

Princeton, N.J.

“Luckily, your friend was in a high-traffic area, near the toys and Santa,” the manager, a Mr. Horton, announced jovially as he pulled up the digital security feed from the previous day. “We got three cameras covering that zone. And heeeere’s Camera 5.”

Mulder and Scully leaned in toward the monitor as the high-contrast black-and-white footage began. The time readout in the corner was roughly three minutes before the 911 call had gone out on their fallen colleague. Shoppers milled and bumped as children ran in and out of the frame. A large fiberglass Santa smiled benevolently on a platform overlooking the mob.

“Did you take down that display yet?” Mulder asked.

“And all the Santa dolls, too, like you asked,” Horton nodded. “They don’t sell so well anyway – the kids want something that shoots fire out of its ass, and half the parents want some kind of boring ‘educational’ toy these days. What do you folks want with them, though?”

Mulder was absorbed in the security video, and Scully remained silent. Harrison’s delirious message in the ambulance was cryptic, to say the least, but they could identify only one possible “Santa model” at the scene of her collapse. Mulder had confiscated every Santa facsimile in the store, as well, in keeping with Harrison’s “clue.” Despite Dr. House’s diagnosis of foul play, Scully could find no X-File or even a rationale for FBI involvement here, but she’d learned to buckle in for Mulder’s little whitewater fishing expeditions.

“There she is,” Mulder murmured as a trim figure strode into the frame, hugging an extra-large D. Suess bag. Leyla was headed toward the exit when she stopped dead, her back to the camera. She opened her purse, foraged inside, and pulled something from its bowels. “Damn,” Mulder growled. “Can’t make it out. Wait. What’s she doing?”

Leyla had suddenly reached back to feel her neck. She returned to the object she’d pulled from her purse, then fell to her knees.

“Oh, my God,” Scully whispered as a crowd began to gather about the fallen woman. “He was right.”

“There’s the nurse guy,” Horton reported, tapping the grainy young man kneeling beside Leyla.

“Who’s that other guy?” Mulder asked.

“What other guy?” Horton squinted. “What’s he doing?”

As the alert nurse’s aide cajoled the mob into action, a middle-aged man in a camel hair’s overcoat dropped to a knee about two feet from Agent Harrison’s body. Mulder watched the man scoop something from the tile – a small, white rectangle – then stand and ease back into the throng.

“He stole something,” Scully frowned. “I think it was whatever was in her purse. Was he following her?”

“How about the other cameras?” Mulder asked Horton. “Can we get this guy’s face?”

“Betcha,” the manager responded enthusiastically. “We have a cam hidden in one of the cosmetic cases facing the Santaland display. Lemme punch it up.”

Mulder and Scully watched a new perspective on the drama they’d just observed. Leyla stopped dead again, searching her purse, touching her neck, falling to the floor. The nurse’s aide appeared on the scene, checking her vitals. And the man in the camel’s hair coat slipped onto the scene, feigned interest in Agent Harrison, and snatched the square that had fallen from Leyla’s hand when she seized. The pilferer pocketed the object and turned directly toward the cosmetic case camera.

“Shit, he’s moving too fast,” Mulder complained. “Mr. Horton, can you burn off every security video from the store for, say, a half-hour before and after Agent Harrison collapsed?”

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“Betcha.” Horton started to rise, then spotted a compact Asian woman in the office doorway. “Ms. Hu? Where’s the Santa? Ann, are you OK?”

Ms. Hu glanced warily at the two feds, then back at her boss. “Something weird’s going on. Scott started to take down Santa, then he practically fell off the ladder. He called me, and, well, I just can’t believe it.”

“What?” Horton asked A. Hu.

“It’s Santa,” she stammered. “He’s….crying.”

**

St. Nick beamed cheerfully at Mulder, his eyes all aglitter. Mulder clicked off his mag lite, and the flat, fiberglass eyes stopped aglittering.

“No hidden devices or reservoirs,” the agent mumbled. “You want to do a more detailed search, Dr. Scully?”

“Don’t call me Doct—” Scully started to flare, then glanced at Horton. “Ah, did your people check the ceiling sprinklers yet?”

“Everything checked out fine, no leaks — plumbing in the sub-ceiling, too,” the manager reported, resting an elbow on a rackfull of dismembered arms and legs. “What’s the big deal? There’s gotta be an explanation.”

“Oh, I’m sure he has one,” Scully breathed.

“I’d like to call the Vatican first, if you don’t mind,” Mulder murmured.

“Please. You can’t be suggesting–”

Mulder settled in. “The phenomenon of weeping statues has been documented for centuries. In most cases, witnesses maintain the ‘tears’ are similar to human blood, and the phenomenon sometimes is associated with miraculous healing, the appearance of oils, or the scent of roses.” He sniffed at Santa’s cheek as Horton gawked on. “Historically, weeping statues have been almost exclusively of the Virgin Mary, although an occurrence was reported in February 2003 in Chittagong, Bangladesh.

“Skeptics suggest propose the apparent weeping is in fact merely a psychological manifestation on the part of witnesses, Many maintain the ‘tears’ are actually condensation seeping from microscopic cracks on the surface of the statues. But the truly faithful defend accounts of weeping statues as a revelation or apparition.”

“But, Mulder,” Scully sputtered. “It’s…Santa.”

“And certainly, Santa has become an almost sacred symbol of the season, a sort of secular surrogate for the Christ. If miracles are designed as a reminder of divine love and intervention in a time of doubt and despair, then why not employ a revered and beloved modern icon?”

Scully studied Santa’s boots. Horton studied Mulder.

“It’s OK,” Mulder smiled. “Rhetorical question.”

**

D. Suess’s home office

Was highly displeased;

They told Horton to clam up

And say Hu was diseased.

They swabbed all their Santas,

For costly lab tests;

Dropped prices even lower,

And put the miracle to rest.

But D. Suess didn’t count on

Margaret Mary O’Ryan,

The savvy young shopper

Who saw Santa cryin’.

Maggie kept to herself

‘Til her weekly rap session

With Father Tataglia

At St. Andrew’s confession.

Father T. would’ve stayed mum

But the sexton outside

Overheard every word

And that night told his bride.

His spouse told a neighbor

Who read the Enquirer,

One anonymous tip later,

And the crap hit the wire.

At first, Santa’s tears

Were mere newspaper filling;

Then the six o’clock news

Gave it almost-top billing.

Next up, Headline News

Gave it top of the hour

Then a leading theologian

Offered thoughts to Matt Lauer.

Weeping Santa took off,

Like Tom Cruise and Suri;

On Geraldo, on Katie, on Blitzer.

What a flurry!

Then Diane Sawyer

On a special 20-20

Exposed crying Claus,

And sparked furor a-plenty.

Two groups led the battle

On two different sides:

The Equal Civil Rights Union and

Americans For Religious Oversight.

ECRU screamed all Santas

Must be pulled from the malls:

“D. Suess must desist

From deifying S. Claus.

This back-door approach

To all miracles mystic

Is an affront, an outrage

To all folks atheistic.”

AFRO joined in the clamor

With a quite different beef:

“A miraculous Santa

Goes against our belief.

D. Suess must give

This fat elf the boot,

We can’t have folks praying

To a beard and red suit.”

While this media circus

Played in all three rings

People flocked down to D. Suess

Of all crazy things.

They brought their sick oldsters

And said rosaries;

These armies of pilgrims

Fell onto their knees.

The D. Suess home office

Was quite agitated,

‘Til it discovered how much

Cash receipts elevated.

For although Megalomart

Might have bargains to die,

It couldn’t force

A fiberglass Santa to cry.

**

“You’re like Jessica Fletcher, Mulder,” Scully sighed, slipping her cell phone back into her purse. “Everywhere you go, chaos follows.”

“Maybe it’s just your super-negative vibes disrupting the karmic flow, Sister Downbeat,” Mulder suggested, shoveling fries into his maw and considering the best approach to his Jumbo Gyro. Scully’s hopes for the elegant dinner she’d been promised had rapidly vaporized.

“The PPPD’s been hit by with Freedom of Information requests from both ECRU and AFRO. ECRU’s claiming this is some scheme by the ‘religious right’ to institutionalize Santa, and AFRO thinks it’s a plot by leftist ‘secular humanists’ to invalidate genuine divine phenomena. Nancy Grace’s people called an hour ago to see if I’d go on tonight and talk about D. Suess’ ‘cynical consumerist fraud.’”

“Larry King called me,” Mulder beamed. “What do you think? The suit, or maybe a turtleneck? You know, kinda California casual crimefighter?”

“Forget it, Mark Fuhrman. Why don’t we focus instead on how Soggy St. Nick impacts our case. Oh, yeah, I forgot: We don’t actually have a case, do we?”

Mulder emerged from his funk over his vetoed celebrity career. “Maybe the weeping statue is connected to the attack on Leyla.”

“Attack? We don’t even–”

“Shhh, quiet, my little one. I took the liberty of examining Leyla’s personal effects, including her purse. She’s keeping a literal file cabinet in there – I found several dozen clippings of our past cases. You know, she’s kind of a student of my technique…”

Scully looked around. “Where’s our waitress? I can’t do a spit-take without water. Mulder, Agent Harrison is a highly excitable, overexuberant paranormal buff. And it’s you she’d like to buff.”

“Please,” Mulder sputtered, a pleased blush nonetheless coloring his features. “Just because Leyla’s a promising young agent looking for a mentor, you have to invalidate her interest in my investigations as some kind of sexual infatuation.”

“Calm down, Big Boy. And since when are they YOUR investigations?”

Having stumbled into treacherous territory, Mulder took a sip of his coke. “Anyway, I think something at D. Suess’s sparked something in Leyla’s memory, and she pulled out one of those clippings to verify her suspicions. Leyla’s discovery must have been an impulsive one, because she only lost her short-term memory, and all she’s been doing the last week or two are background checks. Whoever doped Leyla –”

“Allegedly doped.”

“— allegedly doped Leyla, jeez, may have been trying to keep her from reporting what she’d seen. What if it was Weeping Santa? Look at all the media the last day or so. This thing is a socio-religious hot potato. A fiberglass Santa manifesting divine tears could make a laughing stock of an already besieged spiritual community. Or maybe the spiritual community hopes Crying Santa might help validate its faith in miracles.”

“So what’ve we got here, Mulder? The Da Vinci Code meets Miracle on 34th Street? You think the archdiocese has been staking out plastic Santas? That the Vatican is doping federal agents who get too close to the divine truth that even obese elves get the blues?”

Mulder ripped gratuitously into his gyro. “Fine.”

“Sure.”

“Whatever.”

**

“Hey, Sweetcheeks!”

Brandi turned, sighed. The holidays always brought out the pricks. Take this one. Middle-aged, pricey haircut, nice suit – probably out Christmas-shopping for his suburban Stepford wife and his spoiled brats while eyeing the “merchandise” behind the counter. He’s already come up with four endearing nicknames for her. And he was a toucher.

“Yeah, hon.” Might as well give back as good as she got. Except it backfired, and the guy grinned like the Big Bad Wolf about to chow down on a Triple Pig Platter.

“Little more java, Babe? Not that I’m not already stimulated enough…” He actually wiggled his bushy brows. Brandi suppressed a shudder.

“Fresh pot brewing, sweetie. Be up in a minute.”

“Nice and hot. I’ll be waiting, Gorgeous.”

He leaned back and watched the two agents bicker across the dining room. The receiver in his right ear had picked up the whole ludicrous exchange. This Mulder was a real loon – the taxpayer’s dollars at work. After Fox – Fox, Jesus! — confiscated Sobbing Santa, he’d run a check on him. How this ticking time bomb of paranoia and neuroses had even passed the FBI exam was a mystery. No worries from this guy, although he wouldn’t have minded a few hours of Good Cop/Bad Cop with his hot little redheaded partner.

Sobbing Santa had been a godsend, no pun intended. Fox was sniffing entirely down the wrong sewage drain, and after the freak show died down at D. Suess, Project Oshi was back on. He’d neutralized Mulder’s fawning little Girl Scout fan, not that she was a serious threat, either.

He was contemplating the image of Agent Harrison in a scout uniform when Brandi materialized in her yellow nylon one. “Hot and fresh and all for you, Babe.”

He grinned broadly as she placed a hand on his gabardine shoulder and squeezed as she poured his “java.”

“Anything you want – anything – you just ask, hear?” she purred in a slightly nicotine-scarred Jersey accent. He nodded dumbly.

Brandi swayed away, forming her own wolfish grin. It’d probably be hours before the letch discovered the wad of gyro meat she’d shoved deeply into the pockets of the fancy camel’s hair coat he’d hung by the door…

**

Into Jersey had skulked

A most slithery fellow;

His wife called him Morris

But most called him yellow.

He’d survived through the years

Through an oily, quick wit

And had gained a high post

Through creative bullshit.

Morris worked for a group

Who tinkered with fate;

Whose job was to inveigle,

Deceive, obfuscate.

They worked out of Dreamland

Of UFO fame.

When strange things made the headlines

They quite often were to blame.

Morris Fletcher was the father

Of their most garish schemes

He breathed public deception,

Boiled plots in his dreams.

He’d come up with Osama

Over coffee one morn;

To cover his ass,

Y2K was born.

He made Tupac vanish,

Global warming? That was his.

He spiked Howard Dean’s tea,

To create a lunatic tizz.

Morris’ crème de la crème,

His pride and joy,

Was a cocktail he’d mixed up

To pull off the Dean ploy.

It had speeded Mel’s meltdown,

Revved a small Dixie Chick,

And made Tom Cruise go crazy

Like a mutated tick.

This cocktail he’d used

To clean Leyla’s brain;

No intention to kill her

Or cause her great pain.

But oh, well, Morris thought;

No harm and no foul.

Onto Part B of his mission,

Can’t throw in the towel.

Casefile of Morris Fletcher:

Once upon a time, there was a guy named Bob. He was an average guy, nothing special: Good parents, not great; fair grades, nothing exceptional; engineered for mediocrity and destined for pretty much bupkes.

But God or genetics or Vishnu or fate gave our Bob one quality that would drive his destiny eventually into the grill of a cosmic Peterbilt: An ego the size of Kirstie Alley before she discovered Jenny Craig. Bob wasn’t content to become the pretty good Wal-Mart night manager or the faceless desk jockey he seemed fated to become. He demanded significance — that can on the very back of the top shelf, out of reach of most all of us except for the Gandhis, the JFKs, and the Ryan Secrests.

Bob kept leaping for that top shelf, spraining his ego and bruising his spirit with each ill-fated lunge. He joined the military, with the intent of becoming either a Navy SEAL or a Green Beret, but washed out of both to toil in obscurity as a supply clerk at Fort Bragg. He applied to the FBI academy, but flunked the shrink test.

Then, twisted destiny and a few wild cells intervened. Bob sprouted a brain tumor, and discovered his true aptitude: A psychic ability for which any Scientology recruiter or Amway distributor would kill. Bob not only could sell ice to an eskimo, but talk said eskimo into signing over his igloo and letting Bob rub noses or any other sundry body part with his wife. In fact, Bob could have persuaded the president to sign over Alaska and become king of the eskimos himself, had he been able to grab the big man’s ear.

Of course, Bob didn’t use this new-found ability to talk Bill Gates into buying lunch for every homeless person on the Left Coast, or to bring Israel and Syria together over virgin margaritas, or even to cajole Angelina Jolie into a weekend of unspeakable sin. Bob’s power and ego may have been an XXL, but his vision was straight off the kid’s rack. Like many little men who’ve found a big stick in the bushes, Bob embraced martial arts and a quasi-samurai philosophy that enabled him to justify breaking bones with zen-like calm. He entered the growth field of professional assassination and adopted the highly imaginative sobriquet of “Pusher,” for his ability to push his hapless victims into suicidal destruction.

Of course, this was years ago, before Dr. Phil might have been able to salvage Bob’s soul and self-image. Instead, Bob ran like a bumper car into another of life’s careening losers — an FBI agent with the improbable name of Fox Mulder. Fox was a smart enough fellow — smart enough to outsmart himself into a permanent basement office at FBI headquarters and a lifetime of supernatural ramblings and paranoid ponderings. Fox and Bob wound up in the ring in what could only be characterized as a Celebrity Deathmatch for Dweebs.

Bob came out with a wounded ego and a little lead buddy for his tumor. A few years later, he came out of vegetation long enough to get whacked by his long-lost sister, who turned out to be a better Pusher than him. Beat by a girl — it seemed like an appropriate end for a little man with a fast line of empty patter. Fox beat the girl — a somewhat equally pathetic irony.

The story of Robert Modell and his psychically gifted sibling might have ended there. But that’s where I came in.

**

“I think our girl has promise,” the voice on the other end whispered loudly amid the clattering of dishes and silverware.

“Are you on a payphone?” Morris Fletcher asked incredulously, watching the shoppers pour out of the Princeton Parkway Mall.

“Relax, Morris — I’m at some Mex joint in the Village, and if I yelled ‘INS,’ I’d be the only guy here. I think we got a live one.”

Morris grinned despite himself as he settled back behind the wheel of the cheap black sedan Uncle Sam had requisitioned him. Janine Modell was a call girl who worked Times Square — like her cousin Bob, she dreamed big. What had red-flagged Morris and the rest of his Project Oshi team (actually, The Colonel had only been willing to kick loose the agent on the other end of the line and another guy now in Utah seeking a polygamist named Gary Modell) was Janine’s rate of business success. Janine was 5’3, 200 pounds, with a faint mustache and a large Norway-shaped birthmark on her neck. She also was, by all accounts, one of Manhattan’s most prosperous hookers, nearly impossible to book without a month’s notice.

“You give her the pitch?” Morris asked eagerly.

The line went silent. “Ah, I tried to.”

“What do you mean?” Then it hit Morris. “Yikes.”

“To say the least,” his agent muttered. “I made the approach, flashed my creds, and the next thing you know, I’m cuffed to the bed and my wallet was empty. I’m still having trouble walking. Hey, you think I can expense–?”

“Noooo. Put it down as surveillance equipment — I’ll square it. Sounds like a winner, but she may not be interested in a new profession. We’ll figure out an approach later. I want you to get on the next plane for Kishwaukee, Illinois. Insurance agent named Trey Modell, won Mutual Farms’ top sales award three years’ running. Oh, and you might get yourself tested.”

“Wha–?” But Morris had disconnected. The Man in Black sank into contemplation, then jumped as his cell phone shrilled.

“Yeah,” he snapped.

“Morris, it’s been two days since I’ve heard from you. The roofing guys are still here, and one knocked down the satellite dish, which I could care less but I know how much you love your Skinemax. And my mother’s psoriasis has taken a turn for the worse, like you give a crap. You still coming home Saturday, or did you forget Terry’s cosmetology school graduation ceremony.”

“Joanne, baby,” Morris cooed, once again pondering the implications of having his wife disappeared, or perhaps himself. “Just a few little complications here — a difficult client. I’ll be back in plenty of time for Terry’s beauty school graduation.”

“Cosmetology, Morris, cosmetology. You know Terry hates it when you call it beauty school.”

“I know he does,” Morris sighed. “Is you-know-who going to be there?”

“Zack is Terry’s significant life partner, and you’re just going to have to wrap your homophobic little brain around that. Dr. Grizzard said we have to affirm Terry’s alternative relationship choices, and it’s about time you started pitching in on the affirmation, mister.”

“Yes, dear.”

“And, Morris? Stay away from the sluts. You hear me?”

“Yes, dear. Look, could you call the dish peo–” But Morris once again was alone. He holstered his phone, rubbed his temples therapeutically, and headed back into the mall.

**

To answer his quandary,

Mulder called three elves in D.C.,

Three paranoid wise men

Melvin, Byers, Langley.

They knew all to know

About the Big Lie;

They knew each thumb buried

In every pie.

They were close to uncovering

With whom Oswald was involved.

Women were the sole mystery

These elves couldn’t solve.

Mulder found a sharp screenshot

Of the camel-haired man

And sent Langly a .jpg,

For this was his plan:

Langly’d writ his own software

For facial recognition

He could match any mug.

Regardless condition.

Ringo’d used his fine program

To prove Elvis alive

(He runs swordfishing tours

In Miami – no jive).

He’d seen Idi Amin

In Vegas on slots;

Hitler’s squeeze Eva Braun

Sipping cosmos on yachts;

So he plugged Mulder’s .jpg

Of this camel-haired man

Into his Mac

For a five-hour scan

He ran every database

From Reuters, FOX, CNN

UPI, AP

Matt Drudge, and then

He hacked into Quantico,

Langley, INTERPOL;

He searched every person,

Every face, every soul

Langly went for a pizza

And when he came back, this curious chap

Took one look at his Mac,

And said, “Dude, holy crap!”

Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital

“I told you to call back,” House sighed, tossing his Gameboy onto the desk. “Do I have to get a restraining order?”

“I didn’t feel like waiting until General Hospital was over,” Scully said, remembering at the last moment to unclench her teeth.

“Probably didn’t even send a gift for Luke and Laura’s wedding,” the diagnostician grunted, leaning back under a Vertigo poster and propping his feet on the dark wood next to his handheld toy. “Midazonitrascopolitan.”

“Excuse me?”

“Coming up with a snazzy name for the cocktail your friend Mary Sunshine took.” House frowned. “Too Sex in the City?”

“Scopolamine, I got. What’s the rest?”

“Midazolam and nitrazepam. Or pretty close synthetic versions. Same with the scopolamine. Sort of a forget-your-troubles-and-where-you-parked-your-car cocktail. The midazolam may have been what caused Agent Poppins to arrest, instead of anaphylaxis — it’s uncommon, but then again, whoever roofied her didn’t have her history. Probably just wanted to put her down quick and temporarily and wipe out a few memories. Not too tough in Sandy Duncan’s case.” House twirled his cane with a wolfish grin. “Sounds like my tax dollars once again at work.”

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Scully eased into the chair opposite the desk. “What do you mean by that?”

“I do keep up with the pharmaceutical trades — just for the horoscopes, of course — and I haven’t seen anything like this even close to market, or I’d’ve stocked up with the cocktail wienies and Quervo. I can’t imagine Merck or AstraZeneca talked the FDA into doing man on the street clinical trials. So that leaves somebody who’d develop a transdermal, instaneously acting benzodiazepene cocktail that helps get rid of pesky witnesses. Now, let me think, who, oh who, would do such a dastardly deed…”

Scully began to object again, then fell silent. It was exactly the kind of Bondian psychotropic monstrosity the intelligence guys would come up with. House waited patiently for a response. The pair’s reverie was broken as a handsome doctor started to enter the office, then skidded to a stop and stared at Scully. House raised his brows expectantly.

“Sorry, House,” the doctor offered drily. She recognized him as Dr. Wilson, who appeared to be House’s only and presumably long-suffering friend. “Forgot to check the schedule. How long have you booked my office?”

“Come back after Montel,” House suggested. “He’s doing ‘Adulterous oncologists who care too much.’ ”

“Ah. Lock up when you’re done. Oh, and flush the key, OK?”

“No sense of professional cameraderie,” House informed Scully as his friend retreated down the hall, head shaking. “Now, about those boundary issues of yours…”

Princeton Holiday Inn

“Ah, the Boys in the Black Choppers,” Mulder nodded as he checked the minibar. He filled Scully in on Langly’s astonishing findings. “And I think I might know how our covert friend delivered Leyla’s hotshot. To the laptop, Scully.”

She sighed and followed Mulder across the hotel carpet. He clicked open the media player on his Powerbook and opened an .mpg. Scully bent over his shoulder and watched as more grainy footage of D. Suess’ sales floor materialized. Leyla Harrison entered the frame, hugging Nurture Me Norm, then stopped dead.

“See, there’s the man in the camel’s hair coat,” Mulder noted, tapping the screen. “He was staring where Leyla’s now staring until she started staring.”

“Huh?”

“There! Look! He’s reaching into his coat and pulling out a…cell phone, right?”

Scully squinted. “It would appear so.”

“He’s looking at the phone, then up at Leyla, then down at the phone. Leyla’s digging in her purse. She takes out the clipping. Annnndd heeeere weeeeee goooo. Yeah. There it is.”

“There what is, Mulder?”

Mulder sighed in exasperation and ran the video back a few seconds. “Focus. Okay, okay, okaaaaay, and….NOW! See that? He pointed the cell phone at Leyla. And then Leyla swatted at the back of her neck. And there she goes down!”

“He shot her?” Scully asked incredulously. “He shot her with his cell phone?”

Mulder turned, grinning. “It would appear so. Camel Hair must have ‘Q’ on his staff along with his friendly neighborhood psychopharmacist. Gotta be CIA, NSA, one of our brother ‘A’s.”

Scully flopped onto the bed. “Great, that should make him easy to ID.”

“Actually, I may have a few thoughts in that direction. Scully, what would you say the temp is today?”

“I dunno, maybe 50, 55?”

Mulder typed a URL into Explorer and pulled up a page festooned with clouds and radiant suns. “Weather Channel.com says 53. It’s a very mild Christmas here in Joisey this year. Today’s actually the coldest day in the past week. But look how bundled up James Bond is. Camel’s hair topcoat, and I actually see gloves sticking out of his pocket. He’s not from around these parts, Scully. He’s from more hospitable climes.”

“All right,” she yawned behind him. “So we’ve got it down to, what, maybe 25 states? Heads Carolina, tails California.”

“Ho, ho, ho, my truncated Grinch. How about we try Nevada?”

“Nevada?”

“I had the mall management pull the parking lot videos for the time Leyla got laid out, and looked for out-of-state tags, government plates, rental cars. There were only a few out-of-state cars, mostly from surrounding states — it’s not exactly a destination mall. There were no government plates, outside of a couple cops probably hitting the food court Dunkin’ Donuts. But there were four rental cars. I fast-forwarded through the videos for all four, and who finally drove off in his rented Crown Victoria?”“Camel Hair.”

“Yup. I got his plate, called Coast Rent-a-Car, and suggested their client was a person of interest in a highly classified investigation. Irving Krutch. Phony name, I’m sure. His driver’s license lists Las Vegas, which got me thinking.”

“There’s trouble,” Scully sighed.

“Dreamland.”

“I’m about to go there if you don’t cut to the chase.”

“Dreamland. It’s what they call Area 51. Groom Lake. The Box. It’s a Nevada military installation where according to some wild-eyed conspiracy buffs–”

“Ah. Them.”

“– government scientists are working to reverse-engineer crashed UFOs, developing energy weapons, and possibly fine-tuning time travel technology. And home to a thousand nefarious government plots and the kind of guys who mix up psychotropic cocktails and gag cell phones. It seemed like a fit.”

“Obviously.”

“So I had Langly hack into the Nevada Secretary of State’s DMV records and run his facial recognition program. Irving Krutch is Morris Fletcher of Rachel, Nevada. A freelance ‘business consultant,’ husband of Joanne, father of Chris and Terry. And according to Langly’s research, an acquaintance of Ronald Reagan, Oliver North, Newt Gingrich, Fidel Castro, Kim Jong-il, Hugo Chavez, Sean Penn, the Amazing Yappi, and Donald Trump. And a point of interest: Rachel is located on Nevada Highway 375, known as the ‘Extraterrestrial Highway,’ within a gila monster’s throw of Area 51.”

“OK. So we’re probably dealing with a highly connected, deep cover intelligence agent who works deep within the bowels of the nation’s most secure military installation. Let’s saddle up and round this cayuse up.”

“Yeah, I know,” Mulder sighed, shutting down his browser. “You got any ideas?”

“Just one.”

Mulder jumped as something struck him between the shoulder blades. He glanced down at the object, which possessed two lacy black cups and a system of posterior hooks. Mulder turned and blinked at the woman on the bed.

“Well, I don’t get how this’ll help,” he shrugged, yanking at his belt, “but I guess I oughtta give you the benefit of the doubt.”

**

“Yeah, yeah,” Scully heard Mulder murmur enthusiastically. “No, just following up on a line of inquiry. Thanks for the help, especially at this hour.”

“Who was that?” Scully yawned.

“Your ‘idea’ actually did help. In my post-coital ardor—”

“When you rolled over and started snoring…”

“—I mentally reran the D. Seuss security videos. I realized what Leyla must have been looking at when Fletcher drugged her — what Fletcher must’ve been watching. Santa.”

“Weeping Santa?”

“Flesh-and-blood Santa. Something must’ve sparked Leyla’s memory – something to do with one of my cases. That’s why she pulled that clipping out of her purse – to verify her suspicions.”

“Which were?”

“You remember the Pusher case? Robert Modell? Linda Bowman?”

The sleep fled Scully’s eyes. She sat up under the covers. Mulder retrieved his laptop from the hotel desk and placed it on the bedspread before her. Scully studied the screen, then looked up, puzzled. “Modell?”

“Yeah. I pulled it up with Google – they had his mugshot on a paranormal blog – and dragged it into Photoshop. One beard and a red cap later and voila! – Psycho Santa. Modell’s eyes and forehead were his most prominent facial features. I think that’s what Leyla saw when she looked at Santa. Must’ve been a momentary shock for her. The clipping probably had a photo of Modell. Maybe even this one.”

“Mulder, Modell is dead.”

“But he has relatives scattered down the East Coast – remember when he escaped, we checked to see if he might be hiding with family? That’s why I called Horton just now — to find out who’s behind Santa’s beard.”

“No…”

Mulder nodded. “Leyla probably passed out in that ambulance before she could finish her note. She didn’t mean ‘Santa Model’ – she meant to tell us Santa was Modell. In her delirious state, Leyla didn’t realize she had the wrong Modell.”

**

On the west side of town,

Lived a fellow named Tony;

He lacked pluck and lived meager

On pizza and beef-a-roni.

He ate quite a bit

Of this kind of shit,

And developed a belly

That shook much like jelly.

But unlike that jelly-like

Fella we know as St. Nick, well,

Tony wasn’t really that jolly,

And his eyes didn’t twinkle.

But for four weeks a year Tony

Gained meaningful work

He toiled and he labored,

And for once did not shirk.

He forgot the dull pain

In his overworked knees

And said thank you to folks

And to folks said, “Yes, please.”

Tony had a great secret

That brought out his smile;

It warmed him each winter,

If only for awhile.

But he’d felt a chill now,

For his place of work was

Rapidly becoming a

Media circus.

Shoppers collapsing,

Santas that weep,

FBI agents prowling,

It plagued Tony’s sleep.

And worse yet for Tony,

He knew this man Mulder;

His worry about the agent

Was too much to shoulder.

So he trudged to the bus

In a cerulean funk;

And shared the ride home

With a giggling drunk.

The kids on his stoop

Arose such a clatter

He’d have kicked all their butts

Had he not been much fatter.

It was then Tony realized

Why they found him a hoot;

In his frazzlish state

He’d left on his red suit.

**

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“Hey, Tony.”

Tony Modell turned on the stair, sighing. “Yuh?”

He’d hoped to pass Veronica’s door silently, but at 276 pounds, stealth was not Tony’s long suit.

“Yeah,” she purred. “I made too much lasagna. You had dinner yet?”

Veronica had overcooked every evening since they’d broken up – if that’s how you wanted to put it – three months ago. The first few times, he’d come in, had a few bites more out of guilt than anything else, and fended off her advances – which wasn’t easy, as Veronica was a pole dancer and sometime model with a nimble repertoire of moves. Then he began to politely turn down the beautiful woman’s offers of salmon croquettes and spaghetti carbonara and beef stroganoff. He didn’t want to lead her on, and besides, despite her grandiose culinary choices, the food pretty much sucked. But the buffet and Veronica’s not-so-subtle flirtation continued.

“No, Ronnie – ate at the mall. Look–”

Veronica’s eyes clouded. “I know what you’re going to say…”

“No, I mean look. At me. I’m a fat, semi-employed shlub who dresses up like Santa every year to meet the rent. You’re like, well, like something out of Playboy or Maxim. What’s wrong with this picture, Ronnie?”

“I actually think the Santa thing’s kinda hot. Kinda like role-playing. Hey, you know what? I could go down to the Adult Boutique out by the airport and get an elf costume, like that guy in the movie? Oh, shit, what was the movie about the elf?”

“Elf?”

“Yeah. And you could wear your Santa costume, and I could be the realllly bad elf who forgot to feed the reindeer…”

“Good night, Veronica,” Tony mumbled, continuing up the stairs wearily.

“Oh, Tony,” the smitten stripper called. “Mr. Ianuzzi fixed that drip you told him about. Oh, and replaced your couch – the one you spilled the Cheetos on. Said he was real sorry about the cheap Scotchguarding job. Oh, and you know what? He hooked us all up with free satellite, like you suggested? Oh, and—”

Veronica’s voice faded as Tony reached the third floor of the slightly musty apartment building.

“Anthony?”

Tony turned warily toward the open door at the end of the hall. Mrs. Niemeyer, the tiny octogenarian who seemingly never left her cave, was extending a Corel plate heaped with cookies.

“Toll house,” she beamed toothlessly.

“Mrs. Niemeyer, I haven’t even finished the raisin pie or the red velvet cake.”

“C’mon, take. They’re my mother’s recipe. I stole it last week when I visited her at the high-rise – I knew you’d love ‘em.”

“Thanks,” Tony sighed, accepting the treat. He’d probably catch diabetes if this kept up.

“You know, I mentioned you to that niece of mine, Alberta. I think she’s interested…”

“Think that’s my phone, Mrs. Niemeyer,” Tony retreated. “Thanks for the cookies.”

It was like that episode of The Twilight Zone, the one with the creepy kid — also named Anthony, what a hoot — the one who had all the grownups kissing his ass so he wouldn’t wish them into the cornfield or convert them into a live-action jack-in-the-box. Except Veronica and Mr. Ianuzzi and Mrs. Niemeyer and the rest weren’t scared of him – they smothered him daily with unsolicited attention and affection.

He’d had it out with Niemeyer – told her she was a bitter old bag of bones who needed to lighten up. Told Veronica she oughtta dump the lowlifes she’d been dating. Suggested to Mr. Ianuzzi he could let up a little on the beer and tend to the tenants a little more. To Tony’s shock and awe, after a lifetime of being talked over, overlooked, and passed over, they’d listened.

He’d taken his newfound assertiveness on the road, with astonishing results. Tony suddenly found himself at the head of the line, the top of the list. With a soft-spoken word to the waitress, his portion became significantly larger than that of his fellow diners. Returns were never a problem, he no longer needed to clip coupons, and telemarketers vanished in an instant (though after one rather uncomfortable long-distant episode, Tony learned to be careful what he told them to do, especially with themselves, which was kind of tough in Jersey).

Then it hit him. Cousin Bob. Cousin Linda. The FBI had contacted him when Bob went off the rails, and again when Linda went a little loco in the kielbasa. It must be a family thing. Tony was thrilled. He wasn’t a homicidal psycho – he could make this work for him.

The world appeared to be an open oyster to Tony, but then he arrived at three revelations. One, people had to be willing to talk to him for him to talk them into anything. Tony could coax an extra topping or two from the Domino’s guy, but he couldn’t talk the president of the Craddock Marine Bank into bagging up a few hundred Benjamins for delivery to his doorstep. As a result, he was able only to skim nickels and dimes from his penny-ante peers.

Two, Tony’s circuits ran only one way. What he could talk folks into, he couldn’t appear to talk them out of. Thus, the voluptuous Veronica continued to pursue him, and Mrs. Niemeyer seemed bent on feeding him into a piano-case burial.

Three, Tony realized to his great chagrin that he was neither as cynical, opportunistic, or avaricious as he had imagined. His bounty of petty treats and treasures soon became meaningless. His brief and adventurous romp with Veronica offered no triumph, in fact had seemed unearned and unworthy. Tony felt guilty that Mrs. Niemeyer was blowing her Social Security money on flour and semi-sweet chips.

And then it came to him. His mission. The meaning of this shitty little gift from the Modell gene pool. A few Christmases earlier, Tony had parleyed his chief asset – a huge gut – into a seasonal gig at D. Suess, listening to greedy rug rats slobber over robot transformers and microchipped dolls with intuitive conversational skills. It was a fairly sweet gig – Anthony got to sit all day, and as it turned out, he was pretty good with the brats. D. Suess asked him back, and he’d been playing Old St. Nick every Thanksgivsmas since.

Then fate intervened, one day when Tony had been suffering a hangover, a bad case of overdue rent, and the theft of his parka at Denny’s. The juvenile litany of materialistic demands began immediately and crescendoed over the course of the day. Something in Tony’s head popped as a particularly shrill nine-year-old rhapsodized over the virtues of the GameRhombus X-300 Video Blastah. He glanced up at the boy’s mother, standing at the roped entrance – shabbily but cleanly dressed, a twinkle of hope mingled with economic anxiety in her eyes.

“Well, Jason,” Tony murmured basso-profundo, as calmly as he could. “That sounds like a cra–, um, a boatload of fun. But you know what might be even nicer.”

“I want a Blastah. You’re just sposed to take my order. I want a Blastah.”

“Noooo,” Tony ventured, mentally watching his Santa gig flush down the toilet. “I think you want your mommy to have a merry Christmas.”

Jason’s face reddened, and his pudgy jowls quivered. His eyes narrowed, and he opened his mouth. “I do?”

“Yeah. You do. Your mommy works her a–, works awful hard, doesn’t she?”

“Yeah,” Jason mumbled. “Dad took off last summer. She works nights at Gyro City.”

“I know the joint — the place. You know what would be a great surprise for your mommy? You clean your room every day. Make her some breakfast couple times a week. No more GameRhombus shi–, talk, OK, buddy?”

“Yeah,” Jason nodded slowly, then beamed as he climbed from Anthony’s leg. “Thanks, dude – I mean, Santa.”

“Forgeddaboudit.”

And thus began Tony’s quiet crusade to make his corner of the world a better place, one spoiled, foot-stamping money pit of a kid at a time. It was like a freaking Hallmark special.

“Well, here comes Santa.” The voice was cool, smooth, oozing with confident sarcasm. Tony flipped the light switch and slowly pulled the key from the door. The man on his new couch (and it was a beauty, with a recliner and cup and remote caddies) had authority written all over him – black suit, conservative but high-priced silk tie, fancy shoes that probably cost Tony’s entire Santa paycheck for the season. He was smiling in a way Anthony didn’t like, and his eyes reminded him of that TV show he’d seen as a kid – the one with the green bottomless guy who’d stolen all the brats’ presents.

“You better watch out, you better not cry,” Morris Fletcher murmured before Tony could protest his intrusion. “Better not call the cops; I’m telling you why. ‘Cause I could probably put your double-wide ass in Oz.”

“Who the–?”

“The good news, Tony, is that I come bearing a gift.” Morris glanced around the two-room apartment. “Nice place – Ted Kozinski do your decorating? I think we can do better. How would you like Nevada – warm weather, casinos…”

“We got Atlantic City.”

“And a permanent aroma of garbage scows in the air. I’m authorized to offer you a very lucrative position where you can utilize your talents and serve your country.”

“Jesus, this Iraq thing really has you guys desperate, don’t it?”

Morris chuckled. “Good one, Chubby. I think you know what I’m talking about.” The intruder pulled a digital recorder from his jacket pocket and depressed the Play button.

“…and while you’re at it, maybe you could bring home a couple of A’s next report card, and maybe crank down the hip-hop just a little bit…”

Morris silenced the recorder. “I’ve got about a gigabyte of your greatest hits, Tony Boy. How do you think the folks might feel about your little pediatric brainwashing scheme?”

“I ain’t brainwashing anybody,” Tony sputtered. “I just try to reason with these kids, get ‘em to step off a little. I’m helping their folks.”

Morris stood. “I doubt they’d see it that way, Anthony. Two words, bubby: Michael Jackson.”

“Hey, I never did anything bad to any of those kids.”

“Tell it to Nancy Grace, Big Boy. Point is, you have a talent we could put to use in the national security arena. Imagine if we could talk an entire cell of Shiite insurgents into eating their Russian guns? Get the Koreans to FedEx all their nukes to the Pentagon?”

“I’m not such a great speaker, mister. I was in this essay contest back in fifth grade—”

“Bullshit walks – right through the front gate of Riker’s Island. I’ve seen the Modell magic in action, and we want the franchise.” Morris waggled the recorder. “Unless you’d rather I play this little holiday classic for the local constabulary and Dateline. Hey, getting late. Why don’t you sleep on it, have your people get in touch with our people? Oh, forgot – you don’t have any people. Ta, Tony.”

Anthony stood, frozen to the worn carpet, as he heard Morris’ footfalls down the stairs. Then he dropped onto his new couch, which popped loudly in sympathy.

D. Seuss Department Store

“I wanna Tarantulaman Tarantulamobile an’ a Double Homicide II GameRhombus an’ a Tony Hawk skateboard.”

Tony peered around the sales floor, seeking his houseguest’s smarmy face. “Yeah, uh huh.”

“I don’t want the sucky Funstation 2 version of Double Homicide, neither. The GameRhombus version. Got that, Dude?”

“Sure, whatever,” Tony told the six-year-old listlessly.

“Oh, and a pair of Super Def Crosstrainers – Nuclear Red with silver trim.”

“Got it. Merry Christ—”

“Yeah, yeah.” The kid leapt from Santa’s lap and stalked past his father.

Santa turned to Digital Camera Elf, who was checking out two teens in Petite. “Yo, Neal – gonna grab a slice down at the Food Court.”

“Sure, whatever,” the politically correct 5’11” elf muttered.

He was waiting for Tony in the concourse outside D. Seuss. “Santa Baby,” Mulder grinned. “After all you’ve given to the community, I’d like to buy you some ‘za.”

“Shit,” Santa sighed. “Wonderful.”

“You don’t appear overly jolly, Tony.”

Anthony stopped before Successories. “What? Your buddy send you to put some more pressure on me?”

“Morris Fletcher?”

Tony frowned, reappraising Mulder. “I dunno. Blonde hair, nice suit, looked kinda like the guy in Spinal Tap.”

“What’s he pressuring you about, Tony? Your telepathic abilities?”

“What are you talking about?”

“C’mon, Tony. I played a fast couple rounds of Russian roulette with your Cousin Bob. Plus, I’ve been talking to your boss and some of your coworkers. You have an almost ‘magical’ way with kids – they come to you whining and demanding, leave like happy little Smurfs. The Soviets and CIA have been experimenting with mind control and remote viewing for decades.” The pair queued up before a counter lined with New York-style pies and calzones. “Did Fletcher give you some spiel about national security, service to your country?”

“Two sausage, one pepperoni,” Tony ordered. “You?”

“Eggplant calzone. So, Fletcher trying to recruit you? ‘Cause I’ve done some research on our friend, and he appears more interested in Machiavellian manipulation than in Mom and apple pie.”

They reached the register. “Two slices?” the pretty blonde cashier asked.

“Yeah – got a two-for-one coupon.”

“We got no twofers today.”

“Yeah, sure you do.” Tony pushed a D. Seuss sales flyer at the girl. She glanced at it and shrugged. “They never tell me shit here. Two-twenty-nine for the two.”

“Impressive,” Mulder said, depositing his tray at a table near the condiment station.

“Coulda had her flash her boobs,” Tony said.

“Little showy maybe, especially for Santa.”

“Yeah.” Tony turned to the couple at the next table. “Have a couple of those fries?”

The husband blinked, then smiled, extending his cup of fries. Tony grabbed a cluster and nodded as Mulder stared on. “Thanks, man. You probably better get back to your shopping now.”

The couple obediently rose, bussed their trays, and drifted off toward Sears.

“He threatened me – said he was gonna tell people I was messing with the kids,” Tony informed Mulder.

The agent hacked into his calzone. “Well, Tony, you kinda are.”

“Hey, all I’m doing is making Christmas a little nicer for a few folks, maybe save ‘em a few bucks and an ulcer or two. There a law against that?”

“You could just be the guy they write it for,” Mulder warned. “Perhaps you should contemplate a change in careers.”

“Shit,” Tony grunted, folding his slice and yanking his beard down. “Knew it was too good to last. So what do I do about this Fletcher guy?”

Mulder leaned forward, a smile forming. “I have an idea, but I need to know something. You got any family in the area?”

Garden State Gardens Hotels

Morris Fletcher muted the TV and tossed the last slice of pizza back into the box as he rose from the hotel bed to answer the knock.

The woman on the threshold was built somewhere along the line of a fire hydrant, with muscular legs sticking out of her housekeeper’s uniform and a downy mustache perched above her glistening purple lips. “Here’s them towels you ordered.”

”I didn’t call for any towels.” Morris started to close the door.

“They told me Room 312,” the hydrant persisted.

Morris sighed and pulled a buck from his pants. “OK, fine. Buy yourself something nice.” Like electrolysis, the MIB thought.

The housekeeper glanced at the TV screen, where two nurses were delivering an unusual brand of health care to a shirtless construction worker. She smiled slyly as Morris eased the door closed.

“Out-of-towner, huh? Kinda lonely, right?”

The door halted, although Morris didn’t quite know why. “Well,” he murmured.

“I’m goin’ off shift,” she said, pudgy fingers toying with the top button of her uniform. She did have striking brown eyes and strong calf development, Morris noted. “You maybe don’t want to be so lonely?”

With a lupine smile, Morris nudged the door open.

**

Morris snapped awake as the lights blazed on. His right foot connected with the pizza box, and the now-coagulated last slice skidded across the carpet. It stopped next to a black-pumped foot. Morris blinked the sand from his eyes and traced the leg wearing the pump to the attractive redhead above.

“Hey, Morris. How do you like the Princeton-Plainsboro Welcome Wagon?” Morris gaze moved from Scully to Mulder, who was straddling a chair next to the TV. Tony Modell was perched precariously on the hotel work desk. The “housekeeper” was slinging her purse over her shoulder.

“Thanks, Janine,” Tony called as the small woman turned the knob.

“Hey, no problem,” she nodded. “Tell Aunt Teresa I said hey, OK?”

“Betcha.”

“What’s the deal here?” Morris sputtered, retrieving his pants from the chair next to the bed. “What are you people doing here?”

“We traced your rental car and ran a check on your government credit card with all the local hotels,” Scully related.

“You know what I mean,” Morris growled. “What the hell are you people doing here? Modell, you’re already skating on thin ice. And you two – you have any idea who I work for?”

Mulder smiled. “How do you think your bosses at Dreamland will feel about your extracurricular activities?”

Morris’ eyes narrowed, then his teeth came out. “Fox, right? Fox, my bosses could make you and Kewpie Doll here vanish somewhere out in the Nebula Galaxy.”

Mulder turned toward the desk, where a laptop was open and Photoshop was up. Morris peered at himself on the screen. “Wonders of wireless DSL, Morris. I already e-mailed a couple sets of these lovely Christmas card .jpgs to some friends and acquaintances. You like, I could send a set back home for you.”

Morris snorted. “Hey, knock yourself out, Fox. Then maybe you can explain why a couple of FBI badges are blackmailing a fellow government agent.”

“You think Mrs. Fletcher will care?” Scully asked quietly.

The smirk vanished from Morris’s gray face, and he sat hard on the mattress.

“You see, I think Mr. Modell here would like to just be left alone,” Mulder said. “And I assume you’d just as soon your lovely bride Joanne didn’t know how you’ve been passing the time here. Your choice, Morris – what happens in Jersey can stay in Jersey, or not.”

Morris glanced again at the laptop monitor, then at the portly telepath.

“Merry Christmas, Modell,” he sighed.

“One more thing,” Mulder said.

D. Seuss Department Store

“So what are we doing here, Mulder?” Scully demanded, leaning against a clearance bin.

Mulder was on his hands and knees, pawing through the white velvet faux-snow framing D. Seuss’s Santa’s Wish Shop as the night crew set to work. “Don’t you want to find out what makes Santa cry?”

“Not our job, Mulder. We solved Agent Harrison’s assault in our customary manner – no arrests, and we wrote off a variety of fairly serious felonies and misdemeanors to satisfy your romanticized sense of personal justice. Let’s leave the miracles to Roma Downey.”

“Watching those store security videos, I noticed something strange,” Mulder continued.

“Besides Santa brainwashing children and Morris Fletcher shooting Agent Harrison with his cell phone?”

“There was an unusual level of romance.”

“Romance?”

“Yeah. I noticed several couples suddenly kissing on the sales floor, with no apparent provocation.”

“As strange as it may sound, maybe the provocation was love, Mulder.”

“You find Christmas shopping at the mall an aphrodisiac? No, these people were reacting to a seasonally conditioned stimulus. Ah.” Mulder straightened, displaying a small object.

Scully peered at a sprig with spatulate leaves and white berries. “Mistletoe?”

“Yeah – there are sprigs of it on the ceiling all over the store. Part of the Christmas décor. I think this one fell when Horton had his people check the sprinklers.”

Scully frowned. “I still don’t get the connection between this and the weeping Santa.”

Mulder grasped her shoulder, gently turning his partner. Twenty feet away, a middle-aged Latino woman reached into her apron and pulled out an odd-looking weapon. She searched the ceiling, locked in on her target, and pumped the Super-Squirter. She unleashed an arc of water.

“That’s Juana,” Mulder explained. “I talked to the custodial crew, and it seems she’s very conscientious. So much so that she waters the mistletoe every night.”

As Juana moved on, Scully crossed the floor and stared up at the sprig fastened to the light fixture. She blinked as a plump drop of water struck her brow. Her hand went to her face, then froze as the droplet trickled down her cheek.

**

So night came to Jersey

And all was at peace;

Tony returned to his hovel

With a wholly new lease;

For he’d found that when one door

Slams inevitability shut,

If you’re lucky, it doesn’t

Slam shut on your butt.

Mulder pulled a few strings

And a few favors, too;

And now Tony tends reindeer

At the Plainsboro zoo.

Morris Fletcher pulled the plug

On his search for Modells;

And pledged to avoid

Two-star highway hotels.

The Jerseyans found

Plastic Santas don’t cry,

And went back to their shopping

With a disillusioned sigh.

And in a small room

In her hospital bed;

Agent Leyla awoke

In time for her meds.

She looked round the room,

And into the hall,

And fished for her button

Her nurse for to call.

Then Leyla saw a sight

That filled her with cheer

For sitting in the corner

In her guestless guest chair

Was a grinning button-nosed

Fellow with bulging blue eyes

The object of her quest,

Her sought-after prize.

Some Santa unknown

In some strange kind of form,

Had delivered a brand-new,

Fresh Nurture Me Norm.

Norm’s sensors kicked in,

And with digital delight,

He declared, “Good karma to all,

And to all a good night.”

Star of the East

Star of the East

Author: Martin Ross

Category: Holiday

Rating: PG

Summary: An old friend calls Mulder on Christmas Eve

Spoilers: Closure, VS12: Dispensation, Nichtophobia

Disclaimer: Chris Carter offered up the gift of Mulder and Scully, and I

hope to spread further his cheer.

E-mail: fwidsvnt@ilfb.org>

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Mulder sipped his cold organic half-caff gingerbread latte as he scanned

the kirlian photos of the five Centaur murder victims — a Christmas

gift of sorts from Chuck Burks. The third victim had projected a far

darker aura than any of the others, and the agent pondered this in the

basement twilight of his office as the phone warbled.

“Mulder.”

“Yeah, it’s me.” Scully sounded cheerful but worn out. “We’re done at

the Galleria — going to head for the rink now. Found that DVD Frohike

was wanting, though the clerk looked at me like I was a candidate for

VICAP. Matty’s been an angel, but Clara set up a howl in the food court,

and Mom had to step in. She’s loving this grandmother thing.”

Mulder smiled at the domestic intrusion into his grim foray. “I’ll be

home by seven or so — got a possible lead on the Centaur case. You guys

have a good time.”

“What did you decide about the caroling?”

Mulder chuckled. “You know I’m no American Idol. And if I want

ritualistic chanting, I’ve got a whole shoebox of tapes from that

Louisiana case.”

Scully was silent for a moment. “Okay, Ebenezer, enjoy your pizza and

COPS, but be sure you’re not up when Santa arrives.”

“Little kinky, but I guess it beats last Christmas’ Grinch roleplay.”

“Merry Christmas Eve, Mulder.”

“Bye.”

The phone rang again almost as he cradled the handset. “Mulder.”

“Agent Mulder,” a pleasant voice murmured. It took Mulder a second to

place it, but when he did, his chair came forward with a plaintive squeal.

“Harold? That is you?”

An appreciative chuckle. “It is. How are you and Agent Scully?”

“Fine, fine. Yourself?”

Mulder’s mind spun. He hadn’t seen Harold Piller in nearly six years,

since he’d gone running into the night and the inky blackness of denial

about his son. Mulder, having reached the end of his quest to learn

about the fate of his lost Samantha, had offered Harold validation of

his theories and consolation about his own loss, but the ersatz missing

children’s “consultant” found only desolation in Mulder’s revelation.

Mulder since had come across his name a few times on Google, in the more

esoteric hinterlands of the media, but he’d never expected to see or

hear from the grief-ravaged man again.

“Wonderful,” Harold murmured warmly. “So much better. I just wanted to

wish you and your partner the best of the holidays, and thank you.”

“For what?” Mulder stammered.

“And I just wanted you to know. I found him.”

The agent’s grip tightened on the phone. “Who, Harold? Oh, God, wait.

You found HIM?”

“I knew I would, someday.”

“Where are you, Harold?” Mulder demanded breathlessly.

“That’s the other thing, Agent Mulder. I assume you’ve seen or read

about Therese Mangold?”

“Mangold? Terry Mangold? The 12-year-old from Queens, the one who

disappeared on the way to dance class? Is that who you’re looking for?”

“No, Agent Mulder. She won’t be found. But you might want to investigate

a man named Yuri Krasnyek. He lives in Brooklyn.”

Mulder’s head was buzzing. “But, Harold, if you know where this girl is,

dead or alive, you have to tell us. For her family’s sake.”

“She’s fine. It’s fine. Please pass my best wishes on to Agent Scully?”

“Harold, please…” But Mulder heard only a quiet whisper, and then what

sounded like a child’s laughter. A girl’s laughter. Then silence.

“Harold? HAROLD?”

His heart was beating as he dropped the phone onto its cradle. The girl.

What had Harold done? And his son. Had this Krasnyek somehow been

involved in the boy’s disappearance, as well?

Mulder snatched up the phone and punched away. He fidgeted as it rang

three times. “The Sprint cellular customer you are trying to reach, Dana

Scully, cannot be–”

He rang off in frustration, mind whirling. Either Harold or Therese —

perhaps both — were in jeopardy. If Harold had use a cell phone, it

would be easy enough to track the cell from which he’d called, but he

would be long-gone by the time Mulder negotiated the phone company

bureaucracy.

Christmas Eve — at best, he’d be able to muster up only skeleton

support either from the Bureau or local law enforcement This was a night

when only workaholics, lonely singles, and divorcees would be burning

the oil.

Something clicked, and Mulder yanked open his top drawer. He shuffled

through the clutter, and came up with a small, white, never-before-used

business card. It was a shot. Mulder entered the embossed number on the

card and waited with an impatient agnostic’s prayer for luck or kismet.

When the gravelly voice answered, Mulder remembered to exhale.

“John? It’s Fox Mulder.”

“Hey.” The NYPD detective’s tone lightened. “Good to hear from you?

How’re you and that partner of yours’?”

“Great, great. You?”

“Can’t complain. Hopin’ for a quiet night — Barbara and I’re heading to

her folks’ tomorrow.”

“Barbara?” The last time Mulder had encountered John, his personal life

was in shards. John had lost first his son under the most tragic of

circumstances, then his wife in the aftermath. A suspect in Ohio had put

Mulder onto the case — he’d hoped the resolution of Luke Doggett’s

murder would provide John some healing closure, but he never dreamed,

“John, I’ve got kind of a strange favor to ask of you. I mean, I realize

this is Christmas Eve and all, ”

“Agent Mulder,” John interrupted sternly. “After what you did for me —

for us? We’ll call it a Christmas gift exchange. What’s your pleasure?”

“It’s about Therese Mangold. I may have a lead, but it’s pretty iffy.”

Mulder could feel John tensing even over the line. His son’s fate had

driven an obsession with missing kids. “Iffy’s better than anything we

got so far.”

“You know a Yuri Krasnyek?”

“Krasnyek, Hey, yeah. Actually, I do. Jesus.”

“What?”

“Krasnyek’s Soviet Mob, operates out of Brooklyn. Enforcer type. His

people deal in drugs, prostitution, and trafficking.”

The icy tone in John’s voice told Mulder he wasn’t talking about heroin

or cocaine trafficking. He felt a chill in the meager light of his desk

lamp. “Jesus is right. What’s the chances Therese Mangold has to do

with, that?”

“She’s a pretty little girl,” John muttered grimly, “and these street

grabs are gettin’ more common and a lot bolder. Apparently, the client

base is growing — global economy, you know? And the Russians are

getting’ pretty good at it. God, I hate to say it, but if we’re talking

trafficking, I almost hope the girl’s dead. Might be more merciful.”

Mulder paused, then made a decision. “John, do you know a Harold Piller?

Works with the police internationally on missing children’s cases?”

“Piller.” John murmured, amused. “Actually, he offered us some help on

the Mangold case when she went missing. We shined him on with a pat on

the head.” He turned serious. “Wait a minute. This tip on Krasnyek — it

come from Piller?”

Mulder sighed and told John of his bizarre conversation with the

bereaved child-hunter.

“Guess maybe he might have more reason to trust you than us with this.

But he’s gotta know we’ll jump on anything halfway solid at this point.

This doesn’t make sense, unless he’s involved in some way he can’t come

to us. You said you heard a girl giggling in the background?”

Something hit Mulder at that second, but it was shadowy and indefinable.

“He said we’d never find her,” the agent supplied reluctantly. “I don’t

know, maybe he found out something about her home life he didn’t like,

and decided to rescue her from that, too.”

“Well, no use speculating. I’ll put out an APB on Piller and take a

couple cars over to Krasnyek’s place. I’ll keep you apprised.”

“Thanks, John. I really appreciate it.”

“So do we, Agent Mulder. So do we.”

Mulder returned to his kirlian photos, but the glowing corpses all

looked like Harold Piller or thick-featured Russian thugs. He leaned

back in his chair and closed his eyes.

“Fox?”

Mulder looked up from his Apollo 11 model. Samantha beamed down with the

interminable curiosity of an intelligent and hero-worshipping

five-year-old. It no longer annoyed Mulder, who’d come to embrace his

role as his sister’s protector and champion.

“What’s up, Sam?” he asked, setting the NASA logo on the carpet,

adhesive up.

“Ghost Story’s on in 10 minutes.” Samantha smiled shyly.

Fox sighed silently. The supernatural anthology was not his thing — he

preferred science or science fiction to this spooky idiocy, and he found

Sebastian Cabot hopelessly uncool. But he had put her onto the show,

expecting her to flee in terror, and, despite their mother’s weakening

objections, it was now Fox and Samantha’s “show.”

He nodded. “OK, lemme just put the stickers on and put the glue away,

and I’ll be right in. We got any Fritos left?”

“I’ll see,” Samantha promised excitedly, turning toward the kitchen.

“Sam?” Mulder called. She turned, eyes gleaming. “See if we got any

coward scream to go with “˜em?”

It was a corny joke — Samantha had asked for coward scream on her baked

potato when she was five, and Fox had never let her forget it. That

delighted her — she wanted to share everything with her brilliant,

funny brother — and she ran from the room giggling uncontrollably.

Fox began to stow the components of the space module in its cardboard

hangar, then looked up, alarmed. Samantha’s spastic fit of laughter had

escalated into a weird, almost alien drone.

Mulder snapped awake, heart thumping wildly. The phone shrieked at him.

“Mulder,” he croaked into the mouthpiece.

“Yeah, it’s John. You OK?”

“Fell asleep. Right after I talked to you, actually.” He glanced at the

wall clock. 8:45 p.m.

“Yeah. Well, we found your man Krasnyek.”

John’s tone, wary and uncertain, and word choice brought Mulder out of

his groggy state.

“I called in a favor and got a no-knock warrant for Krasnyek’s — he’s

too low-level to have his own muscle — and we went in. Smell hit us

right away. He was laying on his couch, eyes wide open, with an XL pizza

goin’ fuzzy on his coffee table. He mighta been gone two, three days.”

“Hit?”

“Nah, that’s the thing. No wounds, no marks. M.E. thinks heart attack. I

had to say from his expression, Krasnyek died of fright.”

Mulder pondered this news, then felt his heart sink as he realized the

implications. “So, no Therese.”

“Not now. Krasnyek’s basement has this kinda hidden room behind the

furnace, three or four locks on the outside.”

John pronounced the last word with special significance. “He’d kept her

there?”

The detective’s voice was sad and angry. “That apparently wasn’t all

he’d done. But we found her purse and schoolbooks, and signs other kids

mighta been in there.”

“You think she’s been transported, or is it possible Harold has her?”

“When we busted the locks, we had to push like hell to get the door

open,” John continued, as if he was compelled to recount the evening in

precise sequence. “A cot had been wedged up against the door, like maybe

Terry wanted to try to keep him from coming back. Like that would’ve

worked.”

Mulder nodded somberly, then jerked upright in his chair. “Wait. Wait a

minute.”

“Yeah. The room was locked from the outside and was solid concrete all

around, no windows. If the girl pushed that bed against the door, how’d

she get out?”

It hit Mulder like a mortar shell before John finished his sentence.

Shock followed realization, and, unexpectedly, a sense of supreme calm

followed that, although he now knew they’d never find Therese Mangold.

“John?” Mulder finally asked. “Did you ever catch up with Harold?”

The line buzzed quietly for a few seconds. “You sure it was Piller you

talked to earlier, not somebody maybe yanking your chain or trying to

tip you without tipping them? Cause we been keeping an eye on the Morgue

for any juvenile Jane Does fit Terry’s description, and I was talking to

one of the assistant M.E.s about Piller and the case. He had me come

down and look at a body. A John Doe, glocked twice in the back of the

head, dead at least three or four days. I’m sorry, Agent Mulder.”

Mulder’s calmness broke momentarily. Piller had made it as far as

Krasnyek with no police support but also with no backup. Krasnyek

removed what to him must seemed a minor annoyance, then returned home to

his newest catch. Whatever he found, or whatever found him had liberated

Therese Mangold before she disappeared into the impenetrable veil of

white slavery and a life in Hell.

Harold had talked of “walk-ins” — cosmic, possibly preternatural

entities that traveled in starlight and intervened in situations where

the impending fate of an innocent was too cruel, too monstrous for most

people to contemplate. Interdimensional meddlers, angels, watchers, gods

— who knew? But Mulder now realized Harold had found both Therese and

the young boy who had haunted his waking dreams for years. Harold had

found peace, freedom.

“No, John, I think I should be sorry for dragging you into this on

Christmas Eve.”

“Hey, it was a shot, and the guys are going over Krasnyek’s PC right

now. It’s full of contacts and pictures. This could help us break this

trafficking thing, at least the New York link in the chain, maybe save a

few kids along the way or a lot more in the future. Don’t you be sorry.

Though I don’t know what we’ll tell the Mangolds.”

The news of their daughter’s ultimate fate would be of no more

consolation to the grieving parents than it had been to Harold. It

offered merely a germ of hope to Mulder.

“You did good tonight,” John stressed. “Even if we didn’t find her, you

probably helped make the world a little less ugly tonight. That’s not

too shabby for Christmas, Agent Mulder. My best to Agent Scully, OK?”

“My best to Barbara,” Mulder replied. “Merry Christmas.”

**

“God rest ye merry gentlemen/let nothing you dismay, ”

It had been one of Captain Scully’s favorites — he’d hugged “Starbuck”

to his side as her mother accompanied their off-key singing on the

piano. Now, Margaret Scully’s eyes filled with tears as she joined

waveringly in with her surviving child, her widowed daughter-in-law,

and her cheerfully oblivious grandchildren.

Scully glanced over, and their eyes locked. But Maggie’s smile assured

her that her tears were those of happy remembrance and communion, and

she grasped her cold fingers. Tara captured her mother-in-law’s other

hand, and their voices rose above the throng assembled on The Mall under

the steeple of the Washington Monument.

Scully jumped as two strong hands clamped onto her wool-draped shoulders

and a male voice leant harmony to the trio of altos. Mulder kissed her

lightly on the cheek and wrapped Maggie into his embrace.

As the melody ended, Scully turned, cheeks pink, smile serene and

loving. “So you couldn’t resist a little ritualistic chanting after all?”

“Guess I caught a little of the Christmas spirit,” Mulder confessed.

“I’ll take some Zicam when we get home, maybe it’ll go away.”

His partner shook her head, squeezing him to her as the mob began to

sing low and reverently.

“Star of the East, oh Bethlehem star/Guiding us on to heaven afar/Sorrow

and grief and lull’d by the light/Thou hope of each mortal, in death’s

lonely night, ”

Mulder glanced up into the clear Washington sky, into the starlight, as

his voice fell silent. Tara whispered into Mattie’s ear, tickling her,

and the girl giggled, just as Samantha had earlier that night as she

came to welcome Harold and Terry…

end